Understanding

Friday, October 09 2009 @ 03:37 AM PDT

Contributed by: matt

Imagine that you're a point on a line. The line stretches infinitely far in front of you, and infinitely far behind you. One day you get bored of hanging out where you are, and decide to see what the points up ahead are like.

It turns out that the other points in the line, while mostly the same, have subtle differences as you go along. They're not themselves particularly aware of the differences, but there are differences. You get curious about this and decide to try to figure out how points can be different. It turns out that none of the other points had even considered that there might be differences between them, but they're smart enough to realize that the fact that you noticed makes you somehow different.

Being now suddenly in the role of 'point who is different than other points', inspires you to search even harder for differences. Not only do you want to show the other points that the fact that you noticed isn't what makes you different, but rather the fact that all points are different from each other in the first place is what makes you different, but also because you secretly believe that you can't possibly be the first one to notice, and you'd like to find other points who have a similar experience.

And so you venture far up and down the line, searching for that which is different in the world of the line. You occasionally pass through your old neighborhood as you move further and further back and forth, balancing the desire to cover new ground against the desire to not lose your place in the line, because those points around where you used to stay are like family to you.

One day, as you make your way down the line, further than you've ever been before, you come to a place where your line intersects with another one. This is something completely blows your mind, but the nearby points have never known it to be any different. You tell them that the points where you're from have never even heard of such a thing, and they respond with a mixture of pity and derision.

They tell you all about the notion of a plane, and that many of them theorize that other intersections almost certainly exist. Even more amazing are the concepts of absolute direction versus relative direction. You hungrily absorb the vocabulary of navigation: left, right, straight, forward, backward, north, south, east, and west, and in doing so your world becomes a richer place.

After much study and consideration, you devise a plan. You'll continue to explore, but in order to not get lost, you decide to only take left turns, reasoning that if you want to come back home you can always turn around and take right turns. Emboldened by this theoretically sound procedure, you set out to see even more of the world.

Things progress wonderfully, right up until you find another intersection, except this time the lines aren't at square angles, so the nearby points teach you about angles and you teach them about cardinal directions, and eventually you have a full system of linear geometry with which to navigate.

At the next intersection you learn about arcs and circles and pi, and the one after that, ellipses. So far, though new information keeps coming in, you're able to keep up with updates to your geometrical system, and the additions feel incremental, until, of course, you get to an intersection where the other line goes up and down.

Now you're in trouble, because all of the information you've got from local points has been gathered and debated by them over time in order to describe their immediate surroundings. The nearby points here, however, are only aware of the two lines - a different plane than the one you know, but still only a plane. Your new planar geometry system will allow you to do basic navigation if apply artificial corrections and exceptions for particular cases, but it feels wrong. It feels as if there's a fundamental concept missing, and it's something you're very likely to struggle with for the rest of your existence.

Now, dropping the metaphor, the point, as it were. Actually, there are several.

The limit of our understanding is a function of the sum of our experiences. To invoke another analogy, picture a dog run - if you don't know what I mean, it's basically a cable strung between two posts with a leash attached to it on a pulley. The dog can go up to a leash length away from any point on the cable. Our experiences constitute the cable, and our intelligence, boldness, and creativity factor into the length of our leash.

I left the geometry metaphor the way I did because I believe it to be the normal set of circumstances for people. As a species, we tend to be brutally pragmatic, and if it's "good enough for government work" we'll usually use it as it is, even if it bothers us, because realistically, there are always many things competing for our attention.

Some people, on the other hand, insist on finding the correct solution and become frustrated with a perceived lack of interest or commitment from others, and so attempt to solve the problem by themselves.

Different things work for different people, but I do believe the ideal method for most people for most problems is somewhere in the middle.

Regardless, the message that I guess I'm attempting to get across is this:

When we do, see or hear something that is outside of our normal experience and we react in a positive way, it enriches us. It makes us more prone to learning more, seeing more, hearing more, sharing more, and understanding more. Things to which we react negatively cause the reverse to be true, even if the individual effect is small. The attitude you bring - the openness you offer - will make the difference between which of the two you encounter more often.

There are people and places and things and ideas in this world - in this universe - that will fundamentally change the way you understand things.

Find them.

For places, look for the most foreign - look where there are no McDonald's restaurants, and then look again at places where there are.

For things, find collections - ones that hold books, ones that hold music, ones that hold art, ones that hold artifacts. Go offline, go online, go where the information takes you.

For ideas, look for people talking, singing, expressing themselves - in person, in print, in a broadcast, on a street, on a soapbox, on a pulpit.

For people, find the most contentious protest, the loudest event, and find the person at the front of the parade or picket line who's not shouting; the one who's quietly stalwart in their convictions. Ask that person to tell you their story.

Find them.

It's worth the effort.

2 comments



http://chrestomathy.electrocentric.com/article.php?story=20091009043715686