Understanding vs. Knowing

Those who have knowledge, don’t predict.

Those who predict, don’t have knowledge

– Lao-Tzu


There’s a famous story about Albert Einstein. It may be apocryphal, but it’s nice.

He wanted to learn Tensor Calculus to develop his intuition about a theory he was working on.

So he went to John von Neumann, the prominent mathematician, and asked him to teach it to him.

After the lesson, Einstein said “It’s all well and good Herr von Neumann. I can’t see any problems with the technique, but I’m afraid I don’t quite understand it.”

John von Neumann smiled at Einstein. “Herr Einstein,” he said. “In mathematics you don’t understand things. You simply get used to them.”

Nice story – yes?

But there is an even more subtle level to which you can take it. You see, getting used to something is good. Understanding it is better. And finally, knowing it is best of all. Understanding something is different from knowing it.

In class, I always ask the students if they understood a difficult concept before moving on. When they say yes, I often ask them if they understand it 100% or 99%. Understanding something 100% is enormously closer to knowing it than 99% is. It’s only when the last shred of doubt about the correctness of a fact is removed that it paves the way to feeling its correctness.

When you say you understand something, you’re actually saying that it seamlessly gels with everything else you understand. That it doesn’t introduce any inconsistencies in your world view. That it’s compatible with your understanding of how the world works.

globe-jigsawIf you think of the world as an enormous jigsaw puzzle that you need to assemble, then understanding something is like knowing the place of a particular piece in relation to other pieces around it.

But knowing something is like the sense that the piece belongs in a particular location regardless of the locations of other pieces.

It’s like you realize that this piece goes exactly here, and that the rest of the pieces can arrange themselves around it to complete the picture. If they don’t fit, well that’s too bad because you can’t even conceive of the piece you know being anywhere other than where you know it belongs.

“This is the ground truth” you feel. “The one thing I know for sure. Everything else is simply a truth of convenience that we tack on to this indubitable fact.”

jigsaw pieceFocusing on the experiential aspect of life helps you connect with reality in that way. Mindfulness sittings train the mind to do precisely that, so you can learn to consciously disengage the discriminative mind when it’s getting in the way of feeling… of sensing what something really means… rather than just understanding things by telling yourself they’re compatible with your world view.




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