Ming the Mechanic:
Learning to Learn

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 Learning to Learn2007-08-16 21:57
picture by Flemming Funch

A post from Dave Pollard a while back. It is short, so I'll just quote the whole thing:
Nobel chemist and pioneer complexity expert Ilya Prigogine is cited by my friend Andrew Campbell as saying that nature has no secrets -- everything we want or need to know in the world is waiting to be discovered. That means it is waiting for us to be ready to learn it, which presupposes that we have:
  • Capacity to understand: That's not just a function of brain capacity, but also the ability to pay attention and to be open to new ideas and possibilities, and to imagine;
  • Need to understand: Either an urgent adaptive/survival need, or intellectual curiosity to discover; and
  • Tools to understand: The toolkit with which we were endowed by nature is comparatively poor (consider our relatively feeble eyesight, dim sense of smell, slow speed and inability to fly), but we have compensated for it with our ingenuity, especially at biomimicry -- inventing new tools that mimic the best nature provides.
We have a need to understand -- the challenges we face as a society have never been greater. And although our man-made tools are fragile and clumsy by nature's standards, they give us what we need.

What we are lacking, I think, is capacity. Despite (or perhaps because of) our large brains we are inattentive, prone to erroneous prejudgement, distrustful of our intuitions and our subconscious knowledge, and we suffer from dreadful and growing imaginative poverty. We are seemingly unable to grasp complex issues and concepts well -- we are so left-brain heavy that we over-analyze and over-simplify, and we are driven (I suspect because of our increasingly poor learning habits) to create mechanistic, complicated explanations for organic, complex phenomena. Then, when these explanations fail, we add further levels of complication, until we have thirteen-dimensional universes with vibrating strings.

We try to deduce when we should induce. We analyze when we should be synthesizing. We look for root causes when we should be looking for patterns. We try to impose order when we should let it emerge and study why it emerged as it did. We try to change and control our environments when we should change ourselves to adapt to them.

So what we should do now is build our capacity to understand -- capacity of attentiveness, openness, imagination, intuition, subconscious awareness, appreciation of complexity, ability to learn and intuit and induce and synthesize and see patterns and adapt and let come and let go. And then show others in our communities why this capacity is so important and help engender it in them, too.

Then we will be ready, together, to discover what nature has been waiting to show us and tell us. No grand unifying theory of everything -- just an understanding of how the world really works, and why our current way of living is unsustainable, unhealthy and unnatural. And what to do to make it better.
Very well said, Dave. Can't say it better, so I'll just say what it brings up for me.

Humans have an amazing opportunity, but maybe only within a brief window of time. We can think abstractly, so we can communicate, work together and develop technology. But we're also bad at thinking abstractly, and we fail to include our own shortcomings in the equation.

We have fantastic minds, but we don't have any organized body of knowledge about how they work and what we can do with them. To some degree in various self-help disciplines, but nothing that's integrated into the main things we do together. Science comes with no complementary understanding of the human mind, which is a major oversight, because science is mostly a mental activity. Groups of people perceive stuff and try to construct mental models that allow them to predict what they'll perceive in the future. That's somewhat of a ship without rudder if you don't at the same time have a concept of how you perceive, how you abstract the work into mental models, and how beliefs work.

How do we learn, how do we think, what's the sub-conscious, where does intuition come from? These ought to be very central subjects, but you don't see much more than scattered studies done on one isolated piece of the puzzle or another, which makes for interesting popular science stories about various kinds of experiments and studies. But it is somewhat overlooked that WE ourselves, and our minds are an integral and central component in what we make of the world.

I thought general semantics maybe could have caught on. It isn't everything, but it is at least a valiant attempt of including our mental processes in the practice of science, or politics, or anything else important we do as a society. It is rather dangerous to hand the controls of anything important to a human being who isn't aware that their thoughts are just over-simplified abstractions of reality. People who think that their two-dimensional cartoon mental pictures ARE reality have no business leading countries or operating heavy machinery.

And how do we learn? That ought to be a very central question, because that's largely what we do in life, and what's what we do together. We try to figure out the best ways of doing things, and how to maximize the good things we can do while we're here. Don't we? And yet learning is mostly about occupying kids for 12 or 17 years, having them read a lot of books, and hoping they somehow get something out of that. All due respect to the teachers of the world, but it would make sense if somebody actually put together and applied the very best ways we can find of actually learning.

We ought to be feeling the need already, yes. There are lots of things that aren't working well. We ought to be motivated to do better.

Do we have the tools and the capacity? Not well enough. I suppose we can say that the tools would be the external levers of learning, and capacity would be the internal. We both need to organize some things in the outside world so as to facilitate learning. And we need to organize our internal world so as to actually be learning. As to both, we're somewhat in the stone age. We learn stuff, but very haphazardly.

The challenge is how to effectively deal with complexity, when we mostly are using a part of our mind that is lousy at doing so.

It's the old story of a human being able to pay attention to just 5-7 things at the same time. You might understand a model of a problem or situation if it has 2-3 dimensions to it, but not more. If presented with anything that has more dimensions or variables, you'd tend to default to some favorite cartoon belief that simplifies things into just a few variables. We make as if we're dealing with big, important, complex scenarios, but we do it with those minds that can only think a handful of things at a time. There's a big disconnect.

I think we're actually a lot better wired than we readily think. Your sub-conscious mind deals with millions of variables quite well. Your intuition does great with complexity. You probably do have the equipment you need to operate at a much higher level. But it isn't necessarily going to work if you leave your 5-7 bit mind in charge.

Paying attention, being open, imagining, yes, I'm sure that's part of the puzzle. But those are things you can't put in a test tube and measure, so we have to make some kind of quantum leap over the need to do so. We need to learn how to perceive, how to learn, how to know, how to be conscious of what we know and what we don't know.

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17 Aug 2007 @ 04:28 by Merlin Silk @ : study tech
Indoctrinated as I was, the first thing that comes to mind when considering 'learning how to learn' are our friends who gave us the 'study tech'.

I have noticed over and over and increasingly more often that some virtue, a person or group is pushing the most, is that one thing this person or group is mostly missing. Makes sense under the law of attraction, doesn't it? The group that rolls the drums about how important ethics is, has the least. The country that sings about its freedom for all in all songs has very little of it - and so on.

When I mapped the article itself and your, Flemming's, thoughts about it against the claim of our friends to know how to study I noticed the same mechanism playing off. This study tech more or less claims that once you understand the exact meaning of each world you get the concept.

I never really bought into that just because of many observation to the contrary. It might give the 5-7 bit mind a better chance to do the analytical work but it will not bring us any closer to some real understanding.

For me it's very fascinating that the area that is usually considered the very domain of logic and the analytical mind - programming - can in fact not really be tackled with that part of the mind. When I had a complex system to debug, a system that I might not even have programmed (and we know that any other programmer than I does not know how to program - just look at that code!), then I only had a chance to find the problem when I just knew what it was, instead of trying to find logically where that 'semicolon error' was hiding.

This analytical part of learning probably has its place but is often totally mis-used. If used to try to understand the world we will just get lost in details and things will get so complex as to be useless.

One shining example is the world that Bill Robertson built with the later levels after excalibur (the levels that came after the top secret levels of the Cof$). Don't remember too much of all his rings, archives and games masters, but all the complexities turned into a trap of appearance of understanding without any real grasp.

I had to abandon this and now attempt to just know, which should be the end result of the process of understanding.  

17 Aug 2007 @ 11:50 by ming : Upside down
Yes, often people will preach exactly that they themselves have a problem with. Said more positively, we can often best teach that which we're in the process of learning ourselves. Because we're more aware of what we don't know, and what we then have learned, and how, so we can better share it.

And also interesting that what works about what we do, often is the opposite of what we say it is. Yes, what makes a good programmer do his work is really his wholistic, intuitive, creative qualities, rather than his analytical logical.

Definitions that are too precise make me suspicious, particularly when their authors are very sure and smug about having defined everything "exactly". Not that I don't like good definitions, but what I like is when they connect me with the deeper truth, that which can't be fully put into words, but you can point to it, and sometimes you catch a better glimpse than others. But if one thinks that the actual definition fully covers it, that's a little crazy.

I did learn a good deal from studying such disciplines that defined and explained everything to great detail. If nothing else, that this isn't at all what it is about. I'd give up volumes of precise definitions for just one glimpse of something unspeakably amazing.  

19 Aug 2007 @ 20:59 by David Fell @ : Loss our consciousness
The capacity that we are losing is our consciousness, because the lives we live means we use it less and less. Everything in our lives is made easy for us, which results in less need to. There is a price we have to pay to maintain a high level of consciousness but so often people find it easier to take the easy option.  

20 Aug 2007 @ 12:22 by ming : Consciousness
Now, imagine that our world instead was organized to stimulate that we really, really pay attention. Yes, as it is now, it is often easiest to just go along with the flow without really being very present or mindful. But we could imagine that it could be otherwise. One can always somehow find the effort by oneself to be more conscious, but it would be fabulous if there were more outside stimuli that would inspire it.  

5 Sep 2007 @ 19:53 by Bobby Pearce @ : Thinking
Men are from Fortran, women are from Cobol(damn, am I showing my age?). If A + B + C = D, then A + B + not C = not D, to a man, but to a woman A + B + not C = D (fitness). I just can't wrap my 5-7 bit mind around that.  

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13 Jul 2008 @ 13:18 by frank hutchines @ : learning,knowledge,consciousness.
intresting,and very enlightning.  

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Other stories in
2014-09-27 00:04: You must be an expert by now
2014-09-26 15:15: Brevity
2011-11-06 21:33: Counting what counts
2011-01-23 13:46: Authenticity
2010-08-23 01:31: Semantic Pauses
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2009-10-25 17:04: Opinions, perceptions and intuition
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2008-06-29 16:47: Complicated and Complex
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