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I have a strong desire to comprehend stuff

  1. Oct 15, 2007 #1
    I have a strong desire to comprehend stuff

    I claim that comprehending is a hierarchy and can usefully be thought of as a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is awareness that is followed by consciousness, which is awareness plus attention. Knowing follows consciousness and understanding is at the pinnacle of the pyramid.

    Two aspects of this comprehension idea deserve elaboration: consciousness and understanding.

    When I was a youngster, probably seven or eight, my father took me with him when he drove to a local farm to pick corn for use in the café the family managed. We drove for a significant amount of time down local dirt roads to a farm with a field of growing corn.

    We went into the fields with our bushel baskets and filled them with corn-on-the-cob. Dad showed me how to choose the corn to pick and how to snatch the cob from the stalk.

    On the drive home I was amazed to observe the numerous fields of corn we passed on the way back to town. I can distinctly remember thinking to myself, why did I not see these fields of corn while we were driving to the farm earlier?

    Today I have an answer to that question. I now say that on the way to the farm I was aware of corn-on-the-cob but on the way back home I was conscious of corn-on-the-cob. There was a very significant difference in my perceptions regarding corn-on-the-cob before and after the experience.

    We are aware of many things but conscious of only a small number of things. We were aware of Iraq before the war but now we are conscious of Iraq. There is a very important distinction between awareness and consciousness and it is important for us to recognize this difference.

    To be conscious of a matter signifies a focus of the intellect. Consciousness of a matter is the first step, which may lead to an understanding of the matter. Consciousness of a matter is a necessary condition for knowing and for understanding of that matter. Consciousness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for knowing and understanding to take place.

    When discussing a topic about which I am knowledgeable most people will, because they recognize the words I am using, treat the matter as old stuff. They recognize the words therefore they consider the matter as something they already know and do not consider as important. Because they are aware of the subject it is difficult to gain their attention when I attempt to go beyond the shallowness of their perception. The communication problem seems to be initially overcoming their awareness and reaching consciousness.

    Understanding is a long step beyond knowing. Understanding is the creation of meaning. Understanding represents a rare instance when intellection and emotion join hands and places me in an empathetic position with a domain of knowledge. When I understand I have connected the dots and have created a unity that includes myself. I have created something that is meaningful, which means that I have placed that domain of knowledge within my domain that I call my self. I understand because I have a very intimate connection with a model of reality that I have created. It is that eureka moment that happens rarely but is a moment of ecstasy. As Carl Sagan says “understanding is a kind of ecstasy”.

    When I read I almost always read non fiction. I have tried to read fiction and to learn from reading what is considered to be good literature. However, my effort to read good literature fails because I thing that learning by reading good literature is a very inefficient means for gaining knowledge and understanding.

    I claim that I can acquire more knowledge in one hour by reading non fiction than I can while reading good literature for ten hours. That is, I claim that learning by reading non fiction is ten times more efficient than learning by reading fiction, i.e. good literature.

    Do you agree that acquiring knowledge by reading non fiction is ten times as efficient as from reading fiction?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 16, 2007 #2
    Have you read Tolstoy, Dickens, Faulkner, Camus?
  4. Oct 16, 2007 #3


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    No, that makes no sense.
  5. Oct 16, 2007 #4
    I'd say that says more about you, than it does about what you are reading.
  6. Oct 17, 2007 #5


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    The type of knowledge to be gained from reading good fiction is utterly unrelated to the type of knowledge to be gained from a non-fiction book (such as a history book). You can get a list of facts from a history book and construct a story from them, but that story has no depth. You cannot gain philosophical or emotional knowledge through such a book like you can through a good fiction/literature book. The knowledge comes through the story - the story isn't just a biprouct or extraneous info.

    That said, true knowledge of history is more than just learning a list of facts as well. To really understand what historical events were based on or what issues historical people grappled with requires intense discussion. You may spend hours, days, or weeks to learn only a single concept - just like with reading a good work of fiction.
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2007
  7. Oct 17, 2007 #6
    I think that there is understanding to be had in everything.
    The history, purpose and logic of any object, person, concept, abstract and so forth in the world reach back to the beginning of its conception, of which happened because there were a large amount of other objects just like it with their own histories in the exact same manner.

    With this in mind, we can claim that a normal human being actually knows a lot less about everything around them, than they actually can state as facts about what they have around them.
    Even so many people still feel safe in their surroundings.

    Now with that out of the way - you say that the pyramid is like this: Consciousness - Awareness - Understanding.
    But what about the stuff that lies underneath all this to build the foundation that makes it possible? Namely the brain, or more compressed; knowledge.

    Defining one piece of information isn't easy, it's very hard to quantify and measure a unit of information.
    But for the topic of this discussion we can make it simple.
    One unit of information (to the brain/mind) is the collected whole of two or more pieces of associated previously perceived stimuli, processed and ordered by the brain into information.

    Now, you may think what the heck is this guy getting into in this thread, but please bear with me for another moment.
    I claim that knowledge and understanding is relative.
    It's relative to whatever it's being compared to.
    Example: If we define knowledge as associated processed stimuli, ordered and calculated meaningfully by the brain, wouldn't it mean that the more information the brain has(the more PROCESSED material), then the more knowledge it would have?
    If I wanted to learn programming on the computer, I would have to read the definitions, learn the syntax, learn the language, and in the end becoem fluent in it, or in other words /understand/ it.

    But this threshold that is defined between when you are a newbie and a guru, is not only blurred, but it is also defined by those people who created the programming language, and also those who use it regularly.
    This means that you are at the mercy of whoever measures your level of knowledge compared to theirs or someone elses.
    In other words they have created a pool of knowledge, of facts, that they define as the programming language itself, and you tap into this by reading some or all of it, and when you have understood every facet that they have, or even gained new insight, you will understand it.

    What you have basically done is draw logical conclusions from pieces of information that you have been given, that for example a variable is written with a $, and that a sub function ends with ().
    It's like a puzzle.

    Now, another point I'd like to make is that understanding can stem from two EMOTIONS;
    1. Understanding something that you knew about beforehand or
    2. Finding something new and unique that is true and complete to you.

    This "rare" instance you speak of of understanding something, I would actually claim has happened millions of time throughout any persons life.
    It can be as simple as understanding what another person is saying, or understand finally how to make a complex symphony.
    There are obviously degrees, and you may speak of the more difficult instances, but still, same thing.

    Now before I tie all this in with your literature example, I'd like to talk about one more thing, namely value.
    Value is important because it defines what you WANT to learn, and what you actually learn.
    As you say we are aware of many things, but conscious of few.
    Conscious implies cross checking perception with memories, and then applying /value./
    A value ties in with understanding, because when we understand something, we get an emotion too, that aha moment, which again makes it valuable to us and we we consciously use it in front of others later on.
    This is what leads to debates and conflict I think.

    Now before this goes on for way too long, I must tie it in with your literature example.
    You ask me if reading non-fiction is more efficient for knowledge and understanding than reading fiction.
    To that I simply answer, to me no, to you maybe?

    The answer to this question can be separated into two questions:
    1. What do you value when you search for knowledge?
    2. Do you have the proper brain and associations to gain the type of knowledge that you may not consider "effective" knowledge, but others do?

    To a child a simple childs story with a simple moral ending about how you shouldn't steal from others may be a groundbreaking discovery.
    To an adult not so much so. But has the child still not attained understanding and knowledge? I would claim he has.

    I guess my hierarchy of understanding would be the following:
    1. Consciousness
    2. Memory / Knowledge
    3. Value
    4. Awareness of values
    5. Awareness of knowledge
    6. Which then leads to understanding of values, knowledge and consciousness.

    Well, sorry for the long post, I hope I made my opinion on this explicit enough.
  8. Oct 17, 2007 #7

    I would be interested in what I have divulged about myself here. Could you elaborate?
  9. Oct 17, 2007 #8

    I was discussing with another responder about Othello and how interesting it might be if we took two high school seniors of equal ability and had one to read Othello and the other to use Google and to inform them that in two hours we would have an exam about jeaulousy and tragedy. Which would make a better grade?
  10. Oct 17, 2007 #9

    We have completely different ideas of what understanding is all about. You have 6 level hierarchy of understanding and I have a 4 level hierarchy of comprehension with understanding as one level. Basically we seem to place the concept of understanding in completely different categories. I suspect all we can do in such a case is shout at one another as we pass in the night. Just to add to the confusion I will add something more.

    I suspect many people go their complete life and never have an intellectual experience that culminates in the “ecstasy of understanding”. How can this be true? I think that our educational system is designed primarily for filling heads with knowledge and hasn’t time to waste on ‘understanding’.

    Understanding an intellectual matter must come in the adult years if it is to ever come to many of us. I think that it is very important for an adult to find something intellectual that will excite his or her curiosity and concern sufficiently so as to motivate the effort necessary to understand.

    Understanding does not come easily but it can be “a kind of ecstasy”.

    I think of understanding as being a creation of meaning by the thinker. As one attempts to understand something that person will construct through imagination a model--like a papier-mâché--of the meaning. Like an artist painting her understanding of something. As time goes by the model takes on what the person understands about that which is studied. The model is very subjective and you and I may study something for some time and we both have learned to understand it but if it were possible to project an image of our model they would be unidentifiable perhaps by the other. Knowledge has a universal quality but not understanding.

    Understanding is a tipping point, when water becomes ice, it is like a gestalt perception it may never happen no matter how hard we try. The unconscious is a major worker for understanding. Understanding is that rare occasion when there develops a conflation of emotion and intellection.

    I have concocted a metaphor set that might relay my comprehension of the difference between knowing and understanding.

    Awareness--faces in a crowd.

    Consciousness—smile, a handshake, and curiosity.

    Knowledge—long talks sharing desires and ambitions.

    Understanding—a best friend bringing constant April.
  11. Oct 17, 2007 #10
    Is the exam multiple-choice or essay?
  12. Oct 17, 2007 #11
    That raises an interesting question. Who could develop a fair exam under such a circumstance?
  13. Oct 17, 2007 #12


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    It depends on the question. I'm certain the one who read Othello would be able to provide a much more descriptive essay answer than the one who didn't - unless, of course, he's as good a storyteller as Shakespeare.

    [edit] Btw, getting a message about jealousy and tragedy isn't the only reason why people might read Othello....
    Last edited: Oct 17, 2007
  14. Oct 17, 2007 #13


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    I submit that you cannot test true comprehension of those concepts in a multiple choice question.
  15. Oct 17, 2007 #14


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    I would disagree with that assessment. On the way to the field, you were focused on the objective of the trip, excited about the endpoint, and likely just not paying any attention to your surroundings. Once your goal for the trip was fulfilled, it no longer occupied your thoughts, so you had more time to take a look at more of your surroundings and notice what you had not noticed on the way there. On the way there, you were focused on corn-on-the-cob. On the way home, you were focused on what was outside the window of the car. This is a very common experience, especially for children.
  16. Oct 18, 2007 #15

    Does this response mean that you do not recognize this step in comprehension that I call consciousness, i.e. awareness plus attention?
  17. Oct 18, 2007 #16
    Russ, I'll see your point and raise you one. A multiple choice test is less than useless in the sciences because they reward you for the right answer and completely ignore the right procedure (and, usually, the right unit of measure).
  18. Oct 18, 2007 #17

    Doc Al

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    That depends on how you craft the question and answers. I've written multiple choice exams (for physics) that really required you to know what you're doing. Though such questions don't replace the usual kinds of problems where you show your work step by step, you can really pinpoint areas of confusion with a multiple choice test.
  19. Oct 18, 2007 #18
    Just because you failed at something doesn't mean others would have the same experience. I'd say this shows not a small amount of egotism. You don't understand something, so you dismiss it as not valuable to anyone. It only really shows your limitations, and as such, an area you would benefit from working on, if you are truly interested in 'comprehending', rather than just slotting things into superficial categories that have more to do with your own developed prejudices.

    Of course, if you really have everything figured out, I'm sure you could write a best seller, which would benefit humanity, and make you millions.
  20. Oct 18, 2007 #19

    Those best sellers that make a million are written by those with big name recognition.
  21. Oct 18, 2007 #20
    And you don't get big name recognition by copping out so quickly.
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