Learning and Knowing

By Barry

To Tess (and all who are interested),


I really enjoyed reading your post ‘I think that’, and it fuels my reflection on many things about learning, and expressing one’s position. Most of my thoughts here are about learning and how it relates to knowing. (underlining is used for a related link provided at the end)


You've gained a useful habit or textual and cultural analysis as well as guarding against biases in your own thinking (what we might term metacognitive self-monitoring). So useful and essential in History and Philosophy, which are deeply sensitive to cultural bias.


Might it be that metacognitive self-monitoring has expanded to become a narrative for you? Something you do reflexively even when unwarranted?


I know I have a compulsion to research things to death (thanks to my frenemy, the internet). I hope my epitaph will not read “A live poorly lived--but so well researched!” (This is a real fear for me!)


You seem to be experiencing frustration with yourself (or consternation). Is this an example of ‘listen to your psyche, it’s trying to tell you something?’

Even so, I would argue that conscious monitoring of one’s words and thoughts is essential to being a critical thinker--and to just plain being a good person. Like my friend Larry Wayne says, “the ideas we don’t realize we have, have us.”


You said many profound things in your post, but with limited time I would like to just respond to a couple of ideas that also play into our August 24th discussion ‘The Truth is Not Out There.’


You wrote that you read people’s commentary online and you are reluctant to provide such immediate response. You also question if people have reflected much, and this leaves you wondering why is it that you feel undecided or need to ruminate before you arrive at conclusions.


The idea that people might assert an idea confidently while being poorly founded is something I’ve also observed strikingly in some debate videos.


When an evolutionist debates a creationist, the creationist can assert with supreme confidence that the Bible proves creationism. His air of certainty is persuasive to many audience members. When challenged, a scientist will honestly (and this is not a weakness!) acknowledge the line between theory and established fact, and that any theory is provisional until a better theory comes along. This makes the scientist appear to lack certainty and may serve much to his disadvantage (as a debater).


For me, intellectual honesty does engender healthy uncertainty. In the debate example above, scientists are the most honest folks around. For me, intellectual honesty is the hard way, and the better way. It comes with a burden: there is no unearned certainty.


My overall theme here is how we deal with our learning, including the challenge of honest learning and ‘knowing,’ metacognitive self-monitoring, and the basis for confidently making assertions.


Your studies and writing have dealt with epistemological issues. You know this stuff, but I am at least aware of philosophy’s renowned ‘problem of knowing.’ Meaning that it’s difficult to tease out what we mean by knowing something--and that is just part of the tangle! You’re still teaching people Tess, because you've got me engaged with this, too!


What I’m personally reflecting on is that learning involves different ways of knowing.


For me, the scientific method is built upon intellectual integrity, and it’s peer review process is a model of how to counter weaknesses in human thinking.


Just the act of practising intellectual integrity is a form of learning. All the mental work and habits we’ve been talking about (watching your thoughts and words, monitoring your level of certainty, considering the opposite point of view from your own) are in themselves ways of knowing--some of it self-knowledge, some about clarity of thought (both others’ and your own), and so on.


And it’s no cakewalk. Practising intellectual integrity can involve bruising! Anyone else had the same experience?


You also wrote that you are suspicious of strong opinions, as this may indicate that thinking has stopped. I am not particularly interested in people’s opinions, but I am always ready to listen to their arguments. Janet Bingley posted a great article on Facebook which discusses what it means to be ‘entitled’ to an opinion.


Open debate is what allows us to arrive at better understanding (eg, to achieve learning). The clash of ideas. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis. Dialectics. Have a reasoned debate and see which argument wins the day.


In the course of debating ideas, we probably need to assume a position which we hold with intellectual honesty (but not too fervently). Like trying on a suit to see how it fits. Or better, several suits.


In the course of dialectics, we will at times naturally find ourselves being ‘for’ or ‘against’ an idea. A mindful person will do metacognitive self-monitoring, and be ready to revise or abandon a position that is no longer tenable or responsible.


The problem is when we persist in an entrenched position. Perhaps because we are egocentric or sociocentric. Or one might say, because we are not using our minds. This was probably understood in our key quotation from Sent ts’an: “If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.” Put another way, when you get into a struggle of for and against, you have stopped using your mind effectively.


I want to end by sharing a favourite poem by Alexander Pope. Images evoke the challenges of learning. We often misquote a line as ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,’ when he actually wrote ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing.’ He seems to know a lot about the learner’s quest, and how difficult it really is. In its imagery there may also be hints that ‘certainty’ is indeed an illusion and that taking ‘strong positions’ is something the wise will do with great reluctance.


A little learning is a dangerous thing ;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.


Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,

In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts ;

While from the bounded level of our mind

Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,


But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise

New distant scenes of endless science rise !

So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,

Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky ;


The eternal snows appear already past,

And the first clouds and mountains seem the last ;

But those attained, we tremble to survey

The growing labours of the lengthened way ;


The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,

Hill peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise !


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