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Saturday May 7, 2005: How Do We Know?

        How do we know that we know? It’s a question that philosophers have wrestled with over the ages. They’ve applied logic and reason in their attempt to understand how we come to know the world and our place in reality. Scientists now study directly the workings of the human brain, hoping to understand how the brain signals its intent, how it sorts and interprets incoming data. They are learning a great deal, but it remains an attempt to understand human perception of reality from the outside looking in.

        Mystics, on the other hand, tend to be content with the experience of knowing and being -- It just is (‘it’ being reality or truth). There is no attempt to explain the process to others; the assumption is that only by personal experience can ultimate realization be fully appreciated.

        I wanted to dissect, to understand the process from the inside out. I wanted to find that pivotal point where one emotionally recognizes that one intellectually knows. The question first arose when I was taking genetic courses in college.

         I was warned that the first course in Genetics was an unusually tough course. Many students could not make it through the class and ended up either damaging their GPA or else dropping the class (and losing money); a sizable number of students ended up repeating the course further down the line. The first day of class, I was somewhat stunned by how openly students discussed this being the third or even fourth time they had tried to make headway; stunned because the first section covered was Mendelian genetics and seemed straight-forward. I was unprepared for how many classmates dropped out even before the first test. By the time our test papers on Mendelian genetics were returned, the number of students seemed to have dropped by one third (and this despite the test questions being almost identical to examples presented in class).

        The next section lost more students, though I’ll admit population genetics required a bit more effort. A different teacher covered this section and approached the subject with a different teaching style. There were formulas to learn and problems to work through before the logic sank in and became comfortable. The subject still didn’t seem that difficult, and I had no problem acing the test. Did I ‘know’ the formulas for population genetics? I had every confidence that I did. Given a problem and the available data – I felt one hundred per cent confident of reaching the right answer.

        I loved genetics. When the following semester I noticed a higher level class offered by the Mendelian genetic’s teacher, I signed right up. This little Japanese-American professor was such an incredible teacher that I began toying with the idea of changing my major to genetics. Animated in his lectures, the professor also used examples on the blackboard to reinforce important concepts.

        In the middle of one lecture, using a population genetic’s formula to illustrate his point, I suddenly had that strange experience of time stopping. The proverbial light went off. I suddenly understood the formula behind the numbers. In that moment, it suddenly seemed foolish to have wasted time memorizing formulas. As concepts crystalized, I realized one could have arrived at the correct answer following simple logic, without ever needing a formal math construct. This came as a surprise. I was very confident I had known the formula before. Now I also knew it, from a radically different perspective. A bit of reflection told me that before I knew the ‘how’ and now I knew the ‘why’ of the formula. What really caught my attention was not just that these were two different ways to know, but that somewhere there had to be a common moment of perception signaling a state of knowing.

        It is one thing to say we know that two plus two equals four because it matches with information already accepted in memory as being correct. We still have to search memory and find the correct match. What moment tells us we’ve found the match? What moment tells someone looking at a new formula that they have indeed found the truth? The usual explanation revolves around logic, but what is the pivotal emotional response and could it be so conjoined with the logic that we’ve failed to see it as a separate element of knowing?

        Then I had to consider how many ways we can experience knowing. I’ve been in mystic states of knowing and being, beyond time, space and thought. How do I recognize being in a state of knowing when there is no logic, no image or thought process involved? What makes me label this experience as knowing, when I use the same word to explain logic-driven insights? While I was at it, I decided to include intuition in the mix. Was there a common element that linked the moment of knowing the how’s and why’s of logic, the intuitive insight and the prolonged state of mystic being?

        Note that I was not interested in a process of how I knew. I was trying to cut away extraneous details from all these forms of knowing until I came to a single common unit of perception. Unless I could find that singular unit of perception then scientific logic and mystical insights would remain separate realities, and by now, I was convinced they were both facets of a singular reality.

To be continued.....

Posted on Saturday, May 7, 2005 at 07:45AM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | Comments2 Comments

Reader Comments (2)

Most mathematicians think in patterns and relationships, the numbers and formulas come later (a useful nototation for the ideas). Did you see the film about John Nash, A Beautiful Mind? It shows this idea really well.

It's cool you had the experience of seeing behind the formula. I remember when it happend to me. It was in a differential equations class and I just couldn't believe how cool it was that there could be an equation illustrating movement.

I am really enjoying your site and feel a kinship to your ways of looking at the world. I am a mother of two, a mechanical engineer, and a painter. Most of my life I considered myself a rational, secular humanist. And that is still part of me. It's just interesting as the years have past how my explorations of the Self, the nature of the world and spirituality have lead me to accept many ideas as useful to me (and therefore rational) that as a teenager or even in my 20's, I would have rejected out right.

May 31, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCindy
post script: almost all the great leaps in science come from intuition. The scientist lays the fertile ground of research and experimentation and then one day walking, in a dream or in the shower - it all falls together.

As to what lets someone know that they have found the "t"ruth - in science it is usefulness or repeatability. Most of the really big ideas have so many constraints as to not be applicable in the "real world" but as so useful none the less as a starting point for more practical applications.
May 31, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

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