The Rules We Learn By

About a year ago, I stumbled upon the idea of compiling a list of rules that might help people learn better. I had noticed that I was not always as successful in my own learning efforts as I would have liked, and so I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to become a more effective learner. I had also noticed that some of my students were better at learning than others, and I wanted to find out whether the former knew something special that the latter did not. I thought if I could discover the most important rules for learning, I would be able to become a more successful learner by following those rules; in addition, I would be able to teach my students the same rules and thereby help improve their chances of successful learning as well.

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Believing and Knowing

“The X-Files” is a popular television series that was originally aired from September 1993 to May 2002. It was produced by Chris Carter for the Fox Network. While I did catch an occasional episode or two when it was first aired, it’s only now — almost two decades after the series began — that I’ve started watching “X-Files” religiously, i.e., in a dedicated, deliberate fashion. At the time of this writing, I am somewhere in the middle of season 3.

In this post, I am concerned neither with the mythology of “X-Files” nor with any of its specific stories or characters. Rather, I want to explore the meaning of one of the two slogans that became iconic in American culture thanks to the series’ popularity—“The Truth is Out There” and “I Want to Believe.” I’d like to tackle the latter slogan first, leaving the former for another day.

Throughout the series, or at least in the episodes I’ve watched so far, one of the protagonists — FBI agent Fox Mulder (played by David Duchovny) — frequently expresses his desire/ambition to “believe.” He does so both verbally and through his actions. Mulder even has a poster hanging prominently in his office that depicts a hovering UFO or alien spaceship, with bold letters proclaiming “I Want to Believe.” The slogan appears to be intended by the creators of “X-Files” to serve as a quick description of what motivates this particular character to engage in a relentless, even obsessive, struggle to track down aliens, observe paranormal phenomena, and expose government conspiracies designed to cover up the first two — even at the cost of endangering his life.

The question I want to explore concerns the value of adopting “I Want to Believe” as one’s goal or purpose in life —  something akin to what Stephen Covey calls a “personal mission statement.” The slogan appears to suggest that believing is some sort of virtue that ought to be cultivated for its own sake, that it is something all of us (or at least the noblest and the most ambitious among us) should aim for. The assumption is that the vast majority of us don’t believe —  most of us are either inherently incapable of believing or we have recently lost the ability to believe; and this general lack of belief is precisely what makes Mulder a lone warrior, a “cry in the wilderness” type of prophetic figure, who insists on continuing to believe even when the evidence is either scanty or ambiguous. What makes him a hero is that he goes on believing in extreme possibilities despite all the pressures of a skeptical culture and despite all the eye-rolling of his partner Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). And yet, Mulder seems to be fully aware of the difficulties involved in maintaining a practical commitment to his beliefs, as there are powerful forces attempting to discredit his theories and findings. Given that he regularly comes up with hypotheses that are too fantastic from the viewpoint of his peers, Mulder needs all the support he can get in order to persevere in following his hunches. Since that support is hard to come by from other people, the poster in his office appears to function as a surrogate. Presumably, the poster is a constant reminder of what his life’s purpose is supposed to be, a reminder that he must take his own hypotheses seriously even if they appear silly or unscientific to everyone around him.

To keep one’s commitment to believe intact in the face of opposition and ridicule clearly represents an act of exceptional courage. Either that, or it is a sign of delusional schizophrenia. There is a fine line separating genius from madness, a line that is far too easy to cross. Because of the possibility that one may have lost one’s mind, to believe against the collective pressure of society is to take a tremendous risk. There is safety in believing what everyone else believes and denying what everyone else denies. More than safety, there is considerable wisdom in accepting what has become established as true after centuries or millennia of collective human experience; there is, after all, no need to reinvent the wheel. At the same time, there are occasions when it is worth going out on a limb — when it is worth believing and proclaiming a truth that is neither commonly acceptable nor currently provable — simply because one has an intuitive sense of having caught a glimpse of some aspect of truth. But then again, one’s own sense of confidence that one sees what others can’t or won’t see is no guarantee that one isn’t delusional. There is no dearth of highly confident individuals in mental asylums, folks who are absolutely convinced of the truth of whatever they happen to believe. While risking one’s position in society for the sake of one’s convictions is very often the cause of real human progress, a complete lack of doubt in one’s own private thoughts reveals a deficiency in self-awareness and cannot be a very healthy condition. Some form of objective, external confirmation of one’s hunches or visions is therefore necessary for gaining a relative assurance that one’s feet are firmly planted on this side of the genius-madness boundary.

Assuming that one hasn’t gone crazy, it is no doubt highly noble to maintain one’s commitment to believe what one personally knows to be true, especially when that commitment doesn’t provide any obvious, material advantage but is actually detrimental to one’s social status and approval ratings. In other words, believing what’s true is a virtuous act, especially when performed in the face of opposition or ridicule. But this raises the possibility that one can also believe what isn’t true—one may believe what’s actually false. Clearly, believing what’s false may or may not be a vice, but it cannot be a virtue. It follows that there is nothing noble or virtuous in believing as such.

In everyday English, believe means (1) to have confidence or trust in a person; (2) to give intellectual assent to, or accept the truth or accuracy of, a statement, doctrine, etc. The dictionary doesn’t say that in order to believe one must be justified in one’s convictions, or that one’s convictions must, in fact, be true. The concept of truth is not part of the concept of belief. All people—including delusional schizophrenics—do believe something. The really interesting issue therefore is not the fact of belief but the content of belief. It is a trivial point that people believe; the non-trivial question concerns what they believe, and whether or not what they believe is, in fact, true.

At first sight, the slogan “I Want to Believe” appears to be incomplete, for it lacks an object for the main verb. If the slogan is taken out of its narrative context and presented before a group of people unfamiliar with the television series, they would probably wonder about the missing object—“believe what?” Of course, this is not a problem for the audience of “The X-Files.” They are fully aware that, within the mythology of the series, the kinds of statements and reports that people find incredible concerns extraterrestrial aliens, paranormal phenomena, and government conspiracies, and that these are most likely the sort of things that Mulder “wants to believe.” Indeed, the “The X-Files” mythology never suggests that there has been any decline in the human ability to believe as such; rather, the decline is only in the human ability to believe certain kinds of statements and reports, and in their ability to give credence to certain kinds of interpretations of observed events or data. It is in the face of this very specific sort of incredulity that Fox Mulder wishes to believe otherwise.

I would like to emphasize that believing as such is not a virtue, partly because everyone believes something just by being human and partly because of the possibility of believing what’s false; and that only believing what’s true can properly be seen as virtuous, especially when a person goes on believing despite facing opposition and ridicule. People who are delusional—as well as those who are confused, mistaken, uninformed, misinformed, brainwashed, deceived, and so on—can be extremely certain and steadfast in their beliefs; they may be so convinced that they are willing to kill other people or sacrifice their own lives. Yet, no one thinks of their commitment to whatever they believe as particularly virtuous. It seems that people do not associate virtue with belief unless they are convinced that the belief in question is, in fact, true. This seems to suggest that humanity, in general, does not have a high regard for believing as such, but only for believing in a truth—especially an unpopular truth. For all practical purposes, what matters is judgments like these is people’s perception of whether something is true or false; they would respect a person’s commitment to what they take to be true and not what they take to be false. Leaving aside the epistemological question, it seems to me that this is indeed the right attitude.

Let’s return to the poster in Fox Mulder’s office that says “I Want to Believe.” What kind of believing does this slogan advocate? When the slogan is taken out of context, it seems to suggest believing as such, without any reference to the content of what is to be believed. But we have seen that the absent object in the sentence “I Want to Believe” is not really missing, for it is implied by the overall mythology of “The X-Files.” Apparently, the slogan refers to believing in the plausibility of particular kinds of scenarios — scenarios that are likely to be seen by the mainstream of society as having little or no probability of being real.

The wanting part is obvious, for Mulder approaches every perplexing situation with a strong bias towards the most fantastic and least probable hypothesis, and is visibly disappointed whenever a mundane explanation wins out (which is relatively rare). He is not open-minded, in the sense of someone who is receptive to all possibilities. For this reason, and as Scully keeps bringing it to his attention, Mulder demonstrates a tendency to pick and choose only that evidence which suits his pet hypothesis in any given case, revealing the depth of his commitment to believe. In real life, this tendency will be normally seen as a violation of the scientific spirit; within the narrative framework of “The X-Files,” however, it is depicted as Mulder’s extraordinary ability to identify the most relevant clues in a given case.

Every now and then, it appears that Mulder’s issue is not believing per se; rather, it is finding concrete evidence for what he already believes intuitively. In this respect, he is not all that different from most of us, including scientists. Yet, the fact remains that in real life intuition can both guide and misguide, depending on how it is interpreted.

At the same time, the poster in Mulder’s office proclaims believing to be the object of his heart’s desire, rather than confirming his beliefs. If he already believes, what’s the point of saying that he wants to believe? Or is the poster referring to the degree or intensity of his belief? It would seem that Mulder’s belief in extreme possibilities is rather fragile, always about to fall apart, and so he constantly needs reassurances in the form of concrete evidence; what he really wants to believe is that he has not invested his life in pursuit of something illusory. He constantly needs, from this perspective, external validation that he is not living a meaningless life.

At another level, however, what is not always clear is why Mulder wants to believe. Whether one has a hunch or one is in doubt, in either case it is worthwhile to inquire and investigate until one discovers the truth of the matter. But finding or figuring out what’s true is not the same thing as believing whatever one wants to believe. Isn’t finding out the truth better than proving one’s beliefs? Take, for instance, the issue of extraterrestrial aliens visiting the earth and abducting humans for experiments, a theme that “The X-Files” writers find particularly attractive. In fact, alien abduction is a pivotal theme for the entire series. Depending on the viewpoint of a given character and the specific narrative frame of a given episode, this scenario can be either true or false. But regardless of whether or not alien abduction turns out to be factual within a specific context, it seems to me that trying to cultivate a belief in its factuality would be a pretty useless enterprise. Whenever I see the poster, I want to give Mulder a piece of my mind: You should be aiming at knowing, Mr. Mulder, not believing.

What is intriguing is that he does know. The FBI agent is fully aware that extraterrestrial aliens have been abducting humans for experiments, and he knows this on the basis of his own countless experiences and encounters. At a personal level, he has no reason to doubt that alien abduction is a factual phenomenon. Since he knows that the scenario is true, what he clearly needs to do is to demonstrate its factuality before the wider public, thereby defeating the government conspiracy to keep this a secret. And this is precisely what motivates him in episode after episode of “The X-Files.” Given that Mulder knows, I am troubled by the poster in his office that says “I Want to Believe.” For if Mulder truly knows, I don’t understand why he still wants to believe.

In an earlier post on “Faith and Belief,” I quoted Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s observation that, in contemporary English usage, the word “belief” is frequently used in a way that implies its sharp contrast with respect to the word “knowledge.” Generally speaking, when people say “I believe” they’re indicating that (1) they are not completely sure, and/or that (2) there is legitimate room for disagreement. On the other hand, when people are completely sure that what they believe is true, so much so that no rational and informed person could possibly disagree, they would simply say it in a matter-of-fact fashion, without bothering to preface it with “I believe.” Thus, it makes a great deal of difference whether a person says “It is raining” or “I believe it is raining.” The former sentence implies, but usually does not include, the phrase “I know.”

In everyday English usage (as opposed to academic language), a tenacious belief does not attain the status of knowledge unless it happens to be true. A wrong belief, no matter how firmly or confidently held, can be seen as a mistake, a confusion, a misunderstanding, etc., but it is never seen as knowledge. In other words, knowledge is not simply a belief about which a person is completely sure. In addition to subjective certitude on the part of the believer, the belief itself must be objectively true for it to qualify as a piece of knowledge. (How do we know that a belief is true is besides the point.) Consider the following examples, slightly modified from Smith.

The above examples demonstrate the following features of beliefs: (1) beliefs can be true or false, (2) a person can be certain or uncertain about the truth of a given belief, and (3) a belief amounts to knowledge only when it fulfills two conditions, i.e., subjective certitude and objective truth. Out of the four statements, Smith contends that only the last one, “I know that Washington DC is the capital of the United States,” would qualify as knowledge.

These simple observations lead us to the following axiom: The more we know, the less we believe. Or, as knowledge expands, beliefs shrink.

What, then, is the value of the slogan “I Want to Believe” as a personal mission statement? Not a great deal, I would say. Since the word “believe” usually implies a feeling of uncertainty, and since even a strong feeling of confidence does not guarantee that a given belief is objectively true, it seems to me that knowing is a much higher goal to pursue than mere believing.

I would like to see Mulder’s poster proclaiming a different goal: “I want to know.”

Quarreling over Names and Shapes

People disagree!

Some of our disagreements are the result of our diverse tastes, values, preferences, and perspectives; these disagreements may be mitigated, tolerated, accepted, or celebrated, but they are unlikely to disappear. Other disagreements are the result of the limitations of our sense perception and/or shortcomings in our reasoning capacity; these disagreements are neither inevitable nor permanent, for these can be eliminated, to a lesser or greater degree, with the help of appropriate tools and methods.

In his Masnavi, the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi articulates the latter point by narrating two stories, “Quarreling over Names” and “Quarreling over Shapes.” The first story explains how the same reality can be described by means of a wide variety of names; the second story emphasizes how knowledge of a part of reality, no matter how accurate, does not easily translate into knowledge of the whole.

Here is Nicholson’s translation of the first story, “Quarreling over Names.”

Pass beyond (external) names and look at the (underlying) qualities,so that the qualities may show you the way to the essence.  

The opposition (among) people takes place because of names. Peace occurs when they go to the real meaning.  

The argument of four persons over grapes, which each one had understood by a different name;   

A man gave four persons a silver coin. The (first) one (who was a Persian) said, “I will give this for (buying) some angur.” 

Another one (who) was an Arab said, “No! I want ‘inab — not angur, O deceitful (man)!” 

The (third) one was a Turk and he said, “This (coin) is mine.  I don’t want ‘inab. I want uzum.”   

The (fourth) one, an Anatolian Greek, said, “Quit (all) this talk!  I want istafil.”  

In (their) disagreement, those individuals were (soon) in a fight — since they were uninformed of the hidden (meaning) of the names.  

They were striking at each other (with their) fists out of ignorance.  They were full of foolishness and (were) devoid of knowledge.  

This is a delightful, yet somewhat poignant, story. The narrative makes it clear that angur, ‘inab, umuz, and istafil are merely four different words in the Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Greek languages, all of which denote the same reality (grapes). Listening to Rumi’s poetic description of the conflict, we are tempted to laugh at the four characters in the story and their silly behavior. Our laughter is soon turned into serious introspection as we realize that the story is describing an important aspect of the human condition, a predicament that each of us faces by virtue of being human.

Our disagreements can sometimes lead to heated arguments that may escalate into fist-fights and even bombing campaigns. And yet, many of our disagreements are too shallow to warrant anything more than a smile. We disagree over words while ignoring that words are merely the vehicles for meanings. We routinely take our mental positions, our doctrines and our dogmas, with a seriousness they don’t deserve. We fight over superficial differences, such as words and phrases, while forgetting that there is a single reality underlying our varying interpretations. Just because that single reality is susceptible to a wide range of descriptions does not mean that our words and phrases are worth fighting over, or that our disagreements are permanent or essential.

Ruth Bebermyer says, in one of her poems, that “words are windows, or they are walls.” The purpose of language is communication, but our language often becomes the biggest obstacle that prevents us from communicating.  We’ve all experienced the situation in which words fail to carry the meanings that we wish them to convey, and when the more words we use the more convoluted the situation becomes. This happens, partly, because we tend to overestimate the power of language. Somehow, we have forgotten that experience is more basic, and therefore more important, than the words we use. Language is a great tool, but it has its limits. Our vocabulary, no matter how large, is no match for the range and richness of our actual experiences.   

So long as all parties in a given context understand what they are referring to, it makes absolutely no difference exactly which words they use to describe it; or, indeed, whether they speak at all. On the other hand, when our actual experience of reality is inadequate, or when we put too much trust in the ability of language to convey our meanings, then we easily fall into disagreements over such superficial matters as names and labels.

For Rumi, the conflict over interpretations can only be resolved when someone with a deeper insight helps us notice the shallowness of our disagreements and the true nature of reality. As soon as we see and taste the actual grapes, the conflict disappears. We realize that it doesn’t matter whether we call the object of our desire angur, ‘inab, umuz, istafil, or something else. This need for personal experience calls for a spiritual guide, someone who knows the different languages and can therefore appreciate the underlying cause of our predicament, someone who can see through the names and labels, someone who understands what all of these words are intended to signify.

Rumi’s second story is rather well-known, but is no less delightful or profound than the one about grapes.

The disagreeing over the qualities and shape of the elephant;

(An) elephant was in a dark building.

(Some) people from India had brought it for exhibition.

Many people kept going into that dark (place) in order to see it.

Each one was stroking it (with his) hands in the dark, since seeing it with the eyes was not possible.

In the case of one person, (whose) hand landed on the trunk, he said, “This being is like a drain pipe.”

For (another) one, (whose) hand reached its ear, to him it seemed like a kind of fan.

As for (another) person, (whose) hand was upon its leg, he said, “I perceived the shape of the elephant (to be) like a pillar.”

(And) in the case of (another) one, (who) placed (his) hand upon its back, he said, “Indeed, this elephant was like a throne.”

In the same way as this, any one who reached a part (of the elephant) used his understanding (in regard to) any (particular) place he perceived (by touch).

Their words were different and opposing because of the (different) viewing places.

One person gave it the nickname of (the bent letter) “dal,” this (other one), gave it the nickname (of the straight letter) “alif.”

If there had been a candle in the hand of each person, the disagreement would have gone out (completely) from their speech.

The eye of (physical) sense is like the palm of the hand, nothing more.

(And) the palm (of the hand) has no access the whole of (the elephant).

In this narrative, a number of individuals go inside a dark room where an imported animal is being kept, a creature they have never encountered before. The individuals are supposed to touch and feel the body of the animal, and thereby form some kind of image in their minds as to how the beast looks like. The story brings out a whole range of disagreements among those who have felt some part of the creature and, on the basis of this limited experience, feel perfectly confident to make judgments about the whole.

In the story of the grapes, the four men are able to resolve their disagreement when they are presented with a bowl of grapes. The actual experience of seeing and tasting the fruit makes them realize that all of them had exactly the same desire, and that their problem stemmed from the fact that they were expressing their desire in different words. The situation in the story of the elephant is slightly different. Here, a number of individuals are disagreeing over how this exotic creature looks like, based on their differing perceptions generated by their experience of touching and feeling different parts of the animal’s body. If the story of the grapes brings out the limitations of language, the story of the elephant is designed to emphasize the limitations of sense perception. While each individual is absolutely correct in describing a particular part of the creature, the epistemological shortcoming lies in their assumption that knowing a part of a given reality is identical with knowing the totality of that reality.

For Rumi, the disagreement could be resolved if each person was given a candle. While sense perception (exemplified by the faculty of touch) gives us accurate but limited information, it is possible to supplement that information by means of a source of insight (exemplified by the candle) into the nature of the whole of reality, so that we may come to perceive it in its fullness or totality.

The story of the elephant can be read as an allegory for the nature of science. While science can give us more or less accurate information about a given strip of reality, it would be a mistake to assume that this strategy of dividing reality into tiny fragments and studying it as isolated pieces can help us see how reality as a whole looks like. The individuals who judged the shape of the elephant based on what they knew about the shapes of its parts were using an analytical method. This is good and useful as far as it goes, but some form of illumination or enlightenment is needed if we are to employ a synthetic method in order appreciate the wholeness of reality as well.

The religious implications of this story are intriguing, to say the least.

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