I have been accused of a number of occasions of taking way too long to answer a simple question. Some say that I will go on about things that absolutely have no bearing on the subject, before I finally get to the answer to a simple question. I must say that more often than not I am guilty as charged, but there is an actual method to my madness.
There is a great difference between simply learning a thing and truly understanding. Learning can be defined as the ability to memorize a certain set of supposed facts. When we go to school we generally learn things. Teachers go through a well outlined curriculum and teach a certain subject by presenting certain data as fact, and then expect the students to memorize these facts. Being a good learner usually depends on your ability to memorize this data well and then apply this data in a very limited and focused manner.
Truly understanding anything on the other hand involves being able to correlate a whole bunch of data in order to come up with a more holistic conclusion. While being a good learner is always a positive trait, being able to truly understand depends on your ability to comprehend the underpinnings of this data. You could say that while learning is the act of memorization, understanding is the ability to discover and see clearly the beliefs and connections that created this data in the first place.
Whenever someone asks me a question, I want them to be able to understand what I’m saying. If I were to expound a bunch of data, which I believe to be facts, then I would be doing two things that I do not intend to do:
1. I would first and foremost take it for granted that my data is fact. While I do have a bit of an ego, it is even beyond my presumption to believe that I hold facts while the rest of the world is either wrong or agrees with me. I will let science, religion, and politics handle facts. Whatever I might state as specific data; my personal belief is that this data can never be ultimate truth and that truth is only a relative thing that can only be found through individual perspective.
2. The second thing that I would be doing that I do not want to is to have someone ‘learn’ a basic idea without really ‘understanding’ anything. I think that we can all agree, thanks to our experience in school, that something learnt is easily forgotten. When you learn a thing and you try to memorize the data relating to that certain thing, it is very likely that you will be forgetting this data and therefore what you have learnt within short order. Understanding a thing on the other hand is something that you might remember for the rest of your life. Since understanding involves correlating data from many different aspects and different angles in order to understand the underpinning beliefs. It is far more difficult to forget what you now know intellectually when you have so many new neural connections to that idea. Understanding also allows you to make your own judgments; it does this by first showing you the data, then demonstrating to you how this data interrelates into a belief system, and then you are free to discover your own beliefs in this area. Understanding demonstrates that all is hinged on belief, that this belief is relative; It is then up to you whether you wish to also believe what you now understand or to pursue your own beliefs in your own manner.
When somebody asks me a question, I want them to remember what I told them. I do not take it for granted that the person believes what I believe and it is always my personal belief that a person should be free to make up their own mind on any subject. If you ask me why neutrinos can move so quickly, then I will begin telling you about ‘Thales’ and his desire to characterize matter. Unless this person has the prior understanding of what physics is all about, then not telling this person about what physics is and what its core beliefs are, I would only be telling this person some data snippets that would never truly answer that person’s question.
Why is it so important that you understand something instead of just learning a thing? It is very important because it’s quite possible that the belief system that underscores this data is quite wrong. It is up to you to decide whether physics is right or wrong. Anyone who tries to tell you that physics is something beyond question is someone who is not to be trusted because they truly do not ‘understand’ what they are talking about. It is also possible that physics could be partly right and partly wrong, it could be that physics might be totally wrong to you personally; your subjective world is as important as any objective truth that is expounded by anyone else. Perhaps it is an egotistical desire of mine, I wish that everyone would understand so that they could begin to question what they have learnt.