Tag Archive: learning

Einstein’s theory of objective knowledge

Was ist eigentlich „Denken“? Wenn beim Empfangen von Sinnes-Eindrücken Erinnerungsbilder auftauchen, so ist das noch nicht „Denken“. Wenn solche Bilder Serien bilden, deren jedes Glied ein anderes wachruft, so ist dies auch noch kein „Denken“. Wenn aber ein gewisses Bild in vielen solchen Reihen wiederkehrt, so wird es eben durch seine Wiederkehr zu einem ordnenden Element für solche Reihen, indem es an sich zusammenhangslose Reihen verknüpft. Ein solches Element wird zum Werkzeug, zum Begriff. Ich denke mir, dass der Uebergang vom freien Assoziieren oder „Träumen“ zum Denken characterisiert ist durch die mehr oder minder dominierende Rolle, die der „Begriff“ dabei spielt. Es ist an sich nicht nötig, dass ein Begriff mit einem sinnlich wahrnehmbaren und reproduzierbaren Zeichen (Wort) verknüft sei; ist er es aber so wird dadurch Denken mitteilbar. [6]

Repetition is not learning

There are few human skills where constant ‘practising’—that is, not only repetition but also more or less ‘mechanical’ repetition—is as important as in learning to play the piano. Yet we do not find anything new, such as a new fingering, through practising. Only after having discovered the new fingering by trial and error, that is, after comparing it with alternative solutions to the problem and rejecting less suitable solutions, can we begin to ‘practise’ it. Thus the function of mechanical repetition—of ‘practising’, or ‘learning by rote’—is not to discover something new, but to establish familiarity with something previously discovered. Its function is not to make us conscious of a new problem (as is the function of testing repeatedly some tentative solutions) but to eliminate as far as possible the element of consciousness from our performance. [42-3]

Education for the closed society

But in a static society that beginning of infinity never happens. Despite the fact that I have assumed nothing other than that people try to improve their lives, and that they cannot transmit their ideas perfectly, and that information subject to variation and selection evolves, I have entirely failed to imagine a static society in this story.

For a society to be static, something else must be happening as well. One thing my story did not take into account is that static societies have customs and laws – taboos – that prevent their memes from changing. They enforce the enactment of the existing memes, forbid the enactment of variants, and suppress criticism of the status quo. However, that alone could not suppress change. First, no enactment of a meme is completely identical to that of the previous generation. It is infeasible to specify every aspect of acceptable behaviour with perfect precision. Second, it is impossible to tell in ad­vance which small deviations from traditional behaviour would initiate further changes. Third, once a variant idea has begun to spread to even one more person – which means that people are preferring it – preventing it from being trans­mitted further is extremely difficult. Therefore no society could remain static solely by suppressing new ideas once they have been created.

That is why the enforcement of the status quo is only ever a secondary method of preventing change – a mopping-up operation. The primary method is always – and can only be – to disable the source of new ideas, namely human crea­tivity. So static societies always have traditions of bringing up children in ways that disable their creativity and critical faculties. That ensures that most of the new ideas that would have been capable of changing the society are never thought of in the first place.

How is this done? The details are variable and not relevant here, but the sort of thing that happens is that people growing up in such a society acquire a set of values for judging themselves and everyone else which amounts to ridding themselves of distinctive attributes and seeking only conformity with the society’s constitutive memes. They not only enact those memes: they see themselves as existing only in order to enact them. So, not only do such societies enforce qualities such as obedience, piety and devotion to duty, their members’ sense of their own selves is invested in the same standards. People know no others. So they feel pride and shame, and form all their aspirations and opinions, by the criterion of how thoroughly they subordinate themselves to the society’s memes. [381−2]

A static society involves – in a sense consists of – a relentless struggle to prevent knowledge from growing. [385]

Educated far beyond their capacity for analytical thought

Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought. [105]

The weakest part of your opinion

A person who derives all his instruction from teachers or books, even if he escape the besetting temptation of con­tenting himself with cram, is under no compulsion to hear both sides; accordingly it is far from a frequent accomplish­ment, even among thinkers, to know both sides; and the weakest part of what everybody says in defence of his opinion, is what he intends as a reply to antagonists. [ch. II, 57]

The necessity of explaining a truth

As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the in­crease: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested. The cessation, on one question after another, of serious controversy, is one of the necessary incidents of the consolidation of opinion; a consolidation as salutary in the case of true opinions, as it is dangerous and noxious when the opinions are erroneous. But though this gradual narrowing of the bounds of diversity of opinion is necessary in both senses of the term, being at once inevitable and indispensable, we are not therefore obliged to conclude that all its consequences must be beneficial. The loss of so important an aid to the intelligent and living apprehension of a truth, as is afforded by the necessity of explaining it to, or defending it against, opponents, though not sufficient to outweigh, is no trifling drawback from, the benefit of its universal recognition. Where this advan­tage can no longer be had, I confess I should like to see the teachers of mankind endeavouring to provide a substitute for it; some contrivance for making the difficulties of the question as present to the learner’s consciousness, as if they were pressed upon him by a dissentient champion, eager for his conversion. [ch. II, 56]

The end of education: to not stop thinking

We often hear the teachers of all creeds lamenting the difficulty of keeping up in the minds of believers a lively appre­hension of the truth which they nominally recognise, so that it may penetrate the feelings, and acquire a real mastery over the conduct. No such difficulty is complained of while the creed is still fighting for its existence: even the weaker combatants then know and feel what they are fighting for, and the difference between it and other doctrines; and in that period of every creed’s existence, not a few persons may be found, who have realised its fundamental principles in all the forms of thought, have weighed and considered them in all their important bearings, and have experienced the full effect on the character, which belief in that creed ought to produce in a mind thoroughly imbued with it. But when it has come to be a hereditary creed, and to be received passively, not actively—when the mind is no longer compelled, in the same degree as at first, to exercise its vital powers on the questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to forget all of the belief except the formularies, or to give it a dull and torpid assent, as if accepting it on trust dispensed with the necessity of realising it in consciousness, or testing it by personal experience; until it almost ceases to connect itself at all with the inner life of the human being. Then are seen the cases, so frequent in this age of the world as almost to form the majority, in which the creed remains as it were outside the mind, encrusting and petrifying it against all other influences addressed to the higher parts of our nature; manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living conviction to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart, except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant. [ch. II, 51-2]

Real understanding

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition; even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and con­sidered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavoured to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all impor­tant truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up. [ch. II, 47-8]

As important a service as a human being can render

To discover to the world something which deeply concerns it, and of which it was previously ignorant; to prove to it that it had been mistaken on some vital point of temporal or spiritual interest, is as important a service as a human being can render to his fellow-creatures […]. [ch. II, 36]

In our infinite ignorance we are all equal

I believe that it would be worth trying to learn something about the world even if in trying to do so we should merely learn that we do not know much. This state of learned ignorance might be a help in many of our troubles. It might be well for all of us to remember that, while differing widely in the various little bits we know, in our infinite ignorance we are all equal. [38]

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