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Is Experience the Only Path to True Understanding?

 
 
sozobe
 
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 05:27 pm
Here I go again.

I started to write a long lead-in, but I think I prefer to keep this as open-ended as possible.

Is experience the only path to true understanding?
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Type: Discussion • Score: 1 • Views: 8,455 • Replies: 86
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 05:32 pm
I think so in some cases.

As much as I tried to "think in someone's shoes" there have been times where actually being in their shoes made a world of a difference, a difference I did not see before.

But I still reject the type of thinking that goes: you have to have been in the military to criticize the military.

That way only a few guys would ever be able to criticize a president.
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Letty
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 05:37 pm
No, Sozobe. It isn't.
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Dux
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 05:38 pm
I don't believe that experience has to be necesary to truly undeerstand something. It's like for example, you don't have to be bit by a snake to truly understand how deadly they can be.

I guess it also matters how open minded you are to truly understand somethhing, cause sometimes not even experience helps! Cool Cool
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sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 05:39 pm
Right.

Part of why I want to keep this open-ended is because I go back and forth.

I used to HATE it before I became a parent and I would have conversations with friends with kids and I'd say something and they'd look at each other and roll their eyes and say, "You'll understand when you have kids." Thing is, now I have a kid, and a childless friend says something and E.G. and I look at each other and roll our eyes... As much as I thought I got it, (babysitting, friends with kids, a master's degree in early childhood education fer chrissakes), I didn't. Some of it, but not all of it, by far.

On the other hand, I feel like "Invisible Man" and numerous other novels and non-fiction works I've read about being black in America, plus many talks with people about their own experiences, plus this that and the other thing, have given me some understanding of black people. Am I fooling myself? At what point is "understanding" reached?
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cicerone imposter
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 05:43 pm
True understanding on any subject depends upon what we are trying to understand. Most technical areas require study and experience, but some only require experience. c.i.
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LibertyD
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 06:07 pm
I think that in *most* cases, to truely understand something, it must be experienced first-hand. It's possible, I think, to get close (maybe) to understanding something without having been there yourself (like through an analogy) but "being there" -- no matter how close you've been -- is completely different than simply trying to imagine it.

The personal example that comes to mind is the night I went from imagining what I would do if I were attacked by a stranger (like many women do) to actually being attacked. I reacted in so many different, conflicting (ultimately victorious Smile ) ways, and the experience was *nothing* like what I had imagined in the past. After that experience, I had to look at how I thought of it previously so that I could understand how my friends, co-workers, and family responded to my story. It was strange, for sure.

Anyway, now I have a much different response when talking to someone who has been through the same or similar experience -- I can be more sympathetic rather than "well you should have done this" or "studies show that if you ..." -- all the funky crap that people come up with who haven't been through the same thing.

I think that it must be kind of the same in different experiences, as well -- like blind vs. seeing or married vs. divorced or a victim of a terrorist attack vs. the rest of us who weren't there. We can empathise, but we can't actually understand the experience unless we've been there.
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sozobe
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 06:16 pm
Ah, empathy vs. understanding. Good distinction. (And I'm glad that you have emerged victorious from what must have been a terrible trauma.)
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Noddy24
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 06:17 pm
Empathy is a legitimate shortcut.

So is the ability to learn from vicarious experience presented in art.

A great deal of true learning can be accomplished through the ability to generalize from the lessons of experience.
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 06:29 pm
Attacks are a good example. I hear lots of heroic "I woulda done.." comments but being attacked (I have been held at gunpoint 5 times) is far different. Oddly enough even having experienced some experiences you can't predict some of them and how they will go. All the I woulda dones are bull. Each situation is vastly different and since hardly anyone is used to an attack the surreal element is huge.

Once two guys took my girlfriend, her cousin and I for a ride at gunpoint threatening to take us to the beach (which would have meant a long drive with teh bastards).

They started saying stuff like "she is hot" about my girlfriend and when I looked at them they'd hit me with the guns.

My girlfriend's cousin was driving and he was nervous and grinding the gears. They were yelling at him saying that he could drive fine and was faking it. They were scared and scared teenage theives are dangerous.

But I was perfectly calm. I had no doubt in my mind that they just wanted the car and did not intend to harm us.

A few minutes later they dropped us off, slapped us a few times while asking about the alarm on the car and left.

I have no idea why I was so certain that it would go well. Maybe I confuse shock with clam but it was odd. Because in another situation with much less danger (being robbed at gunpoint on a busy street in broad daylight near a college) I was much much more fearful.

Then again I have had little kids with knives scare me much worse than that.

Attacks are very relevant because the very perception of time changes in a way that can't be described well.

--------------

Different cultures are also another thing, it's hard to put something in perspective without experiencing them.

Quick example:

Living in Brazil will make most people more concious of butts. Brazilians are butt people (as opposed to breast people).

For years I thought they were weird but I changed too. I don't know any expats in Brazil who don't see the change a bit. They don't turn into butt people but they are more aware of butts and better understand why some peoples can simply not be interested in anyone with a horrible butt.

Likewise Brazilians are incapable of understanding why Americans are "obsessed with boobs".

Ok, a frivolous example but to understand why Brazlians claim to have the best looking women on earth (something I disagree with) you really have to sample their culture.
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fishin
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 06:32 pm
I was going to say that I think you can half get it but not fully but LibertyD's empathy comment is right on point IMO.

Even experiencing things doens't mean anyone gets the whole thing. As a male I don't have any way of knowing what it's like to give birth (although I can understand it in the clinical sense) but I also hear women comparing childbirth and they have some things in common and some things that are very different from each other.
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LibertyD
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 06:36 pm
Craven de Kere wrote:

Attacks are very relevant because the very perception of time changes in a way that can't be described well.


That was the weirdest part of the experience for me, too (a gun attack).


I love the Brazil example -- it's interesting to notice silly cultural differences like that, that are hard to understand as an outsider.
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 06:51 pm
Yeah the time issue is HUGE! There was a time when I was robbed once a week in Brazil (note that this is extremely atypical, my brother was there for years without being assaulted, for some reason I exuded gringoness and was always in the wrong place at the wrong time). No matter how often it happened the time thing amazed me.

The most acute "time thing" happened to me when I was riding a bus wearing a Corinthians jersey (footbal team) and realized there was a game going on at the stadium where I was getting off (the game was between SPFC, a rival and an team from Argentina or somesuch).

The whole damn bus was looking at me like I was stupid (which I was, people get killed at these games all the time) but I got off and started walking through the plaza.

They were waving their huge flags and banging their drums and time started to slow. I could see each person looking at me with mean looks.

But I got through and started walking down a dark street.

A friend called me on my cellphone and we started to chat, until I heard "look at the jacket!!"

I put my phone in my pocket immediately, without saying goodbye and a throng of São Paulinos (SPFC fans) started running across the street at me.

Time absolutely froze and by the time they got to me I had a buch of tricks ready. The mental clarity due to adrenaline is amazing. The blood rush to the brain different each time.

They swarmed me demanding my jacket and tearing at it. I started with my excuses "hey, I'm a foreigner and I have a jacket from each one of Brazil's great teams (lie but I tried nationalism a bit)". No deal.

They started kicking at me and such and that's when time went waay funny.

One guy kicked me from behind and his shoe flew off. It sailed into the street and he went rnning after it because cars started running over it. I saw the shoe as if in slow motion and it was hillarious to see the guy who was so macho and violent running after his shoe in the street in slow motion.

There were many people so they got my jacket off quickly and administered many nice wounds. But in the short time span time was so weird. I must have been thinking very fats because of all the strange thoughts I had (like how I was hoping they didn't notice that my pants had the same logo, or how I was only 20 feet from a walled complex that was my destination and that if I had walked a wee bit faster I'd not be getting my ass kicked...) but the mental clarity was such that it all seemed like calm slow thinking.

It was the weirdest thing. Especially the shoe. I'll remember that for a long time, it was so funny that I was laughing (which made the kicks a bit angrier).
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CodeBorg
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 07:12 pm
(I wrote this, and then caught the newest posts about attacks... Cool stories. Oh well, I'll toss this in anyways).

Understanding depends on the interpretation of what I am experiencing.


SMALL SAMPLE
When I experience bible-thumping Christians knocking on my door a couple times a week, I may interpret their behavior as representing all Christians. My direct experience and "understanding" of Christianity may not reflect the broader situations.

Same with racism, sexism, classism, ageism, etc.
Just because a person of one race really goes off, claims this or does that, doesn't mean I have experienced or understood that race now.
The isolated, narrow experience does not make a generalization true. I have to be careful and think about it.


INTENSITY
The intensity of experience may also give me false "knowledge".
If a BMW driver cuts me off and causes a severe life-and-death situation, my panic, fear, adrenaline, and razor-sharp senses at the moment of traumatic crisis will burn that experience into my brain. Every time I see a BMW from then on I may be severely conditioned to hate them, without looking at the actual mechanism and truths involved. It takes a broader experience with varied exposure to get a reasonable idea of what BMW drivers are actually like, and not see death everywhere I look. And it requires real thought. It takes time to recalibrate my understanding. Extreme experiences can change my ability to judge for a while.


RATIONAL EXPECTATIONS
Every person is an individual. I try to approach every individual with no expectations one way or another (much as I can). If my "understanding" slants my expectations based on broad generalizations, I would consider that bigotry.

At a funeral I can expect some people to behave a certain way, at a job interview another. That hunch comes from the situation and the activity, and logically has some reason behind it. I'll bring extra tissues to a funeral, but I won't demand that people cry.
Also, if I know someone is apt to behave a certain way, that expectation validly comes from that individual. I'll bring instruments to a musicians party, but I won't demand that we play music.

Setting individual expectations based on broad generalizations is always asking for trouble. It's tricky to be prepared for anything and not let an expectation create the very thing, as a self-fulfilling prophesy. (ie. If you treat children as stupid, they will be!) Keeping an open and reasonable mind takes work. I have to use the mind continuously for it to stay open.


I think experience helps understanding, but it's takes a much broader scope of information to understand fully and make reasonable judgements.
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Craven de Kere
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 07:16 pm
Code,

You bring up a verty important point about experience actually harming perspective.
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LibertyD
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 07:25 pm
Yes, CB, you make an important point. It's all personal, when it comes right down to it.

I also like Noddy's point that empathy is a valid response. It is really the only response that most of us can give to a given situation. God forbid that we all experience the same situations (assuming we're talking about traumatic ones) and so the best we can do, most of the time, is empathise. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as we don't expect our imagined reactions to be the only right ones.
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CodeBorg
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 07:35 pm
Re: Is Experience the Only Path to True Understanding?
sozobe wrote:
Is experience the only path to true understanding?

Einstein got many ideas and great understanding by conducting "thought experiments" in his head. Just visualizing how things would go, if various forces were applied.

Experience can take many forms ... personal, from books, through friends, asking around town, hiring an expert, observing side effects, indirect effects, remote ripple effects, old wives tales, ancient wisdom of the ages, ...

So many types of experience to consider! Each one is slanted and narrow. And we never actually understand anything for sure, as we are constantly adjusting our best guess.

The path to true understanding wanders and curves, gradually getting closer but never fully getting there.
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LibertyD
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 07:47 pm
Yeah, but that's empathy, not experience. I can imagine all I want about what would happen if I met Mel Gibson in a pair of boots, but until that actually happened, I wouldn't know how I would react.

We all can imagine the joy of finding a lost loved one, like the family of Elizabeth Smart, but until we've actually experienced finding a person who has gone through what none of us could possibly imagine, we can't really *understand* the experience. Just like her family will never truely understand her decision to keep quiet and not scream for help. It's not logical -- but it ended up being life saving for her.
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cicerone imposter
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 07:53 pm
Thinking about something, and actually experiencing the event usually ends up completely different than what we may have imagined how we would react. Impressions of the experience can be positive or negative, depending on who's doing the interpretation. c.i.
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CodeBorg
 
  1  
Reply Mon 30 Jun, 2003 08:15 pm
Every source of experience has this property
that it is slanted and untrue, a piecemeal interpretation,
and does not lead to full, true understanding.

Meeting Mel Gibson in person does nothing to add to your empathy. Until you actually sit down and daydream, you will have no understanding of what it's really like to daydream about Mel Gibson. Yet both experiences contribute *something* to ones understanding overall.

How one reacts to Mel Gibson in person will be different from anything you read in a book, or hear from friends. The first experience will be different from the second, and a whole slew of experiences still won't tell you what your next reaction will be, or what Mel Gibson is really like. Each thing -- a daydream, a calculated thought experiment, a magazine article, dedicated research, a real-life interview -- they are just independent tidbits of information. None of them will be accurate overall.

Any experience can be very rich with information, but the type and depth of "understanding" that someone extracts says a lot about who that person is -- their mood, agenda, interests, education, awareness, habits, focus.

The interpretation comes from the person, not the experience.
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