Thursday, March 11, 2010

To Learn

What does it mean to learn?  Is there good learning as well as bad learning?  What should we learn?  How should we learn?  There are many important questions that philosophers, educators, and a multitude of others have been asking for thousands of years.  Do I expect to come up with the ultimate answer?  No.  I just want a functional answer that a person can apply to their lives ni order to improve it.

So what does it mean to learn?  Many would say that to learn is to gain knowledge, which requires us to define knowledge.  When it comes to epistemology, I subscribe to foundherentism, which is a cross between foundationalism (there are basic beliefs that don't need to be justified) and coherentism (beliefs are justified only by other beliefs).  I believe that beliefs must be coherent, but also grounded in reality.  The only way a person can ground them is through the senses.  I know that the senses can be fooled, but they're all we have.

But knowledge is not everything.  Learning how to correctly swing a bat isn't really adding to your knowledge base (how is it justified true belief?), but it is still learning.  Now we get into muscle memory, which is not a good name for it.  The theory of muscle memory (more accurately call neuromuscular facilitation) is how we automate most of our general movements, such as walking, talking, and standing.  Once we have mastered these skills, we typically don't have to consciously think of them.  What we don't realize is that the signals for walking mostly don't get to the brain.  Once we send a signal to our muscles to walk, the neurons in our legs do most of the work.  Sending the signals completely to the brain and back would take too long.

One could say that our entire knowledge base is within our complete nervous system.  I for one woud not argue with that, though I still question how the knowledge exists/is saved. 

Knowledge is only the foundation of learning.  Our goal is for understanding, which is another difficult concept.  What does it mean to understand a concept?  To understand a situation?  To understand another person, or ourselves?  The last question on the list might be the easiest, and give us insights into answering the others.

I think I understand another person if I know how they will behave in a given situation.  I know the best way to ask them a question, give them advice, and comfort them.  On the dark side, I would also know the best way to manipulate them.  I understand myself if I know how my subconsciousness will react, the best way to give myself an incentive to do a difficult or boring task, or to take my mind off of something bad/sad.

What about understanding a situation?  I might understand a situation from the past if I can describe the cuases that led to it.  I might understand a what-if question of a possible situation if I can predict the likely outcome, such as a sporting event, within a small margin.  I might understand a current event if I knw both the causes and can describe the likely outcome.

And to understand a situation?  This is the most difficult, but I'm going to try to give a pragmatic answer.  After all, we're trying to create an applied philosophy.  For now, I'll say that I understand a concept, such as mathematics, the plot of a book, or the the game of soccer if I can correctly apply the formula in a novel situation, describe the plot in my own words, or predict how a play will come to pass just before it occurs.

So understanding, in my definition, comes from cause and effect.  I understand something if I know the cause (if applicable) and what effect it will have.  This is actually the definition of intelligence that Jeff Hawkins uses in his book, On Intelligence.

Back to our original question, what is learning?  What does it mean to learn?  With what we've discussed, I would have to define learning as building a knowledge base, coming to an understanding, and being able to apply what you are attempting to learn.

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