What is it like to be a

Here’s a question for you. What’s the relationship between knowledge and understanding? What does epistemology have to say about understanding?

I’m thinking about the role of empathy and experience in understanding and, I think (but I’m not sure), in knowledge. If you experience something and thus come to understand it better than you did, is that knowledge?

I’m not a bit sure it is. If the understanding depends on experience, then it’s not sharable, and I think of knowledge as being generally sharable…but perhaps that’s a mistake.


  1. says

    Ah yes, qualia, that’s what I’m babbling about, isn’t it.

    I kind of wanted to talk about it in innocence (so to speak) of the authorities, at least to start with.

  2. shatterface says

    The Mary thought experiment seems clunky to me so how about this alternative?

    Would the ability to calculate pi to a million digits in my head give me knowledge that I wouldn’t have reading it off a monitor screen? I mean, I understand pi as a concept but is that the same as ‘knowing’ it so that I could reel it off indefinitely?

    Is Daniel Tammet’s ‘knowledge’ of pi an experience that would be as alien to me as his synesthesia?

  3. says

    Knowledge is what – well supported true belief, or something like that? I tend to think of understanding that comes more from within. Understanding seems to me to involve having a mental grasp of how various bits of knowledge fit together into a coherent whole. If so, I cannot transfer understanding the way I can transfer knowledge, but I can guide you towards understanding. In my teaching of mathematics, that is what I try to do. (But I may be deluded about any successes in that regard.) Heinlein’s verb grok comes to mind. If I recall correctly, that connotes an understanding so deep that you grasp it intuitively. It is the highest form of understanding there is. But it is not built on top of intuition, which is a bogus way of understanding; it is the other way around. (Does that make sense at all?)

  4. hjhornbeck says

    I’ve been boning up on my epistemology lately, so this question could not have been better timed!

    First off, defining terms. I’ll approach this from a Bayesian framework. I contend “knowledge” is “a theory with enough support to be effectively certain.” For instance: evolution, “the Earth is round,” I’m typing at the moment.

    Based on how you used “understanding,” I’d interpret that as “updating the certainty of a theory.” “Empathy” means “the ability to theorize about another person’s internal state with better than chance accuracy,” and “experience” to mean “low-level knowledge” (tied as closely as possible to the senses or your internal state).


    . If you experience something and thus come to understand it better than you did, is that knowledge?

    Only if it raises the certainty of a related theory to the effective certainty mark. I can guess there’s a cow in the field, but I’m not certain of it until I see or hear the thing.

    Crap, outta time, will have to come back later tonight!

  5. says

    “I can explain it to you, but I cannot understand it for you.” (T-Shirt)

    David Deutsch (in The Beginning of Infinity) describes knowledge transfer as an essentially creative process.

    One must “create” understanding (information and associations) in their own mind. The best we can do is present data to the potential understander, to make it as easy as possible for them to create their (very personalized) pattern of neurological connections to represent the thought in their mental context. But an even richer understanding comes from utilizing that thought in a variety of situations, and tuning it along the way.

    Also, I believe “qualia” is an illusion (much like free will).

  6. Kallan Greybe says

    Typically understanding will be contrasted with rule following. So for instance a robot could follow the rule “stop at the red lights” but something seems different about a person who can understand the rule. What that something is though is understandably tricky to pin down. A famous argument where this comes into play is Searle’s Chinese Room argument.

    Where it comes into questions of experience is at the level of concepts and whether possessing a concept means just knowing the rule for using that concept in our language or instead that elusive “understanding”. Experience then is thought to be when a particular concept is “active” in the mind.

    When it comes to qualia on the other hand the question is whether or not qualia can act at the conceptual level. The Mary argument is at base the claim that qualia in fact do act like concepts because the bare experience has a cognitive effect in Jackson’s original formulation. Things understandably get messy from there though.

  7. Pen says

    I’m completely ignorant of epistemological discourse but I think I might argue that empathy and experience are sharable so whatever role they play in understanding or knowledge must be too. Usually we call stuff that does the sharing art or literature. Certainly something is transferred, sometimes something emotionally very powerful or very detailed in terms of its imagery. The question is, how accurately is it transferred? Probably somewhat, if not exactly. It may even be that art, in the broadest sense, ‘sets’ people’s responses to the real world.

    How do they all relate? To me, knowledge is stuff and events, the objectively verifiable, material world if you like. Understanding is making sense of them. Empathy is becoming aware of the sense someone else has made of them. Possibly, there is also art, or discourse in general, which facilitates empathy by aligning the people in a given social group to a similar way of making sense of the stuff and events. Which is good because it leads to social cohesion and bad because sometimes the shared understandings are mistaken and have negative effects.

  8. says

    Well I’m no expert on the discourse of epistemology either. Literature and story-telling are crucial – they’re the place where suddenly people get to pretend they know exactly what other people are thinking.

    How sharable experience is is one of the things I’ve been thinking about. It is and it isn’t. One can tell a lot about it, and convey a lot – but that’s still not the same as experiencing it oneself.

  9. thephilosophicalprimate says

    I think that the limits of language are confusing this discussion. The usual response of philosophers to the limits of ordinary language is to introduce technical jargon, but I think that’s not always helpful.

    What you seem to be asking about seems is not just understanding in general, but understanding the experience of others — what it’s like to be, for example, a second-class citizen. And I think it’s spectacularly hard to achieve that kind of understanding of what someone’s life is like — “from the inside,” as it were — without some sort of direct transformative experience: Empathy and explanation and storytelling by themselves simply do not — and probably cannot — convey the same visceral grasp as personal experience does. That’s why I love Jane Elliott’s famous and inspiring classroom exercise about prejudice, which she invented and put into practice with her 3rd grade class after the MLK assassination.

    Mind you, I also think direct experience is not by itself sufficient. Plenty of people in the world experience bigotry directly in their lives, then turn around and afflict another identifiable grouping of people with the exact same treatment that they find both emotionally hurtful and concretely harmful. Self-reflection and empathy are also necessary — but without some analogous experience to internalize the information, they are not sufficient.

  10. Claire Ramsey says

    I’m not a philosopher and I dread to think how many years it’s been since I read Searle. But I’ve spent years not only trying to transmit knowledge and prod the youth of America into some kind of understanding but doing it on the actual topics of knowledge and understanding. In some models (I think ed psych but I could be wrong) they talk about different kinds of knowledge – declarative knowledge, procedural knowledge, conceptual knowledge and probably other kinds, I think some models include temporal knowledge, all of the time-related parts like sequence, and duration. Obviously declarative knowledge is just knowing what something is = that is a shoe and that other thing is a nectarine. Procedural knowledge is knowing procedures to accomplish something – it might be strategies for memorizing vocabulary or how to fix a carburetor. Conceptual knowledge is knowing the “why” of something – that’s the sky and it looks kind of blue and here’s why we see it that way even though it’s not really blue. I think both procedural and conceptual knowledges lead to a kind of understanding. All of this stuff unrolls inside an individual’s head, which is mostly what ed psych is interested in grasping.

    Then there’s another kind of understanding that is key for being a good teacher and, I’d argue, a good talker, citizen, person, writer, story teller. In other words it’s the kind of understanding that we develop – some more than others – so that we can be in the social world w/other people and do things with them, like have a conversation. In education circles there is a jargon term – “Pedagogical Content Knowledge” – I think this business is the basis of many other interactions in life, not just teaching & learning & explaining. It means knowing something so well from all angles that you can figure out (even predict) where another person (a learner in this case but it could be your interlocutor or your reader) stopped getting it and why, and figuring out another way to explain it so that it’s clear or figuring out what the background info or sequential info or whatever to add that the other person does not seem to be getting . . . and that is the stuff that takes empathy plus a big dose of knowing what you’re talking about.

    In the tortured arguments and/or explanations of the MRA and the atheist sexist pests, their seemingly intentional pretense that they know what X means drove me nuts because it’s an example of intentionally being anti-social and anti-understanding while pretending that they aren’t. I hate that shit. And I think that’s why. We’ve all run into people who pretend that the whole world is completely literal (in their way) and all of that other stuff doesn’t matter. Well, they are wrong. And they don’t know jack about how conversation works or how language operates in social interactions.

    Anyhow, like I said, I’m not a philosopher or an epistemologist or even a psychologist. I’m a sociolinguist who gets annoyed easily by those who mishandle language. Then I just want to start slapping them.

  11. says

    I hate the word “qualia”. It’s like wet cotton wool in my mouth.

    It is one of very few words that invokes a visceral reaction from me based on its tone alone (though its slippery interpretations don’t help).

    I have nothing more substantial to contribute to the discussion.

  12. Dave Ricks says

    Claire, you just wrote my favorite comment on this topic ever.  I told a related story on a Jean Kazez thread here.  My story means a lot to me personally, but your scope might be wider.

    Mary’s Room never showed me anything one way or another. But I can see how I’ve improved over the years at knowing how to slow down and talk with people.  So I think we can all find examples of this kind of knowledge from our personal experience, without a thought experiment.

    If we want to justify Pedagogical Content Knowledge as knowledge in terms of epistemology, Tom Clark suggested 4 rules or requirements of epistemology in the first comment here.  His requirement for public demonstration of subjective experience would apply.

  13. hjhornbeck says

    Damn, I have to follow Ramsey’s excellent comment? Ugh.

    If the understanding depends on experience, then it’s not sharable, and I think of knowledge as being generally sharable…but perhaps that’s a mistake.

    When dealing with epistemology, you want your core premises to be as minimal as possible. Positing other minds at that level is just bad mojo, as would any other existence claim. Instead, you have to bring those in after the fact, ie. you have to use your epistemology to prove:

    1. Minds similar to your own exist.
    2. Said minds receive similar inputs to your own.

    And then you’re done. Experience may be complex and highly personal, but it can also be quantized and bounded within a Bayesian framework. If the person you want to share knowledge with also adopts a Bayesian framework, and also receives similar types of experiences of reality, then you can establish a shared symbolic language and successfully share what you know.

    Mary’s Room falls flat, because Mary herself is denied access to a theory those who experience colour have: what the experience of colour is. I carry around a theory that wavelengths within a certain frequency band will stimulate me in a way we call “red.” The causal link has happen a very very very large number of times in the past, so much so that I accept the theory as effectively true.

    Without theories like those in place, Mary will always be denied those knowledge claims and thus cannot have full knowledge as the thought experiment claims. There is no mystery here, merely word games.

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