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The Three Doors of Serendip

Making Sense of Understanding:
The Three Doors of Serendip

Door images from Woodstone


"Understanding" can be among the most satisfying experiences in life, as in:

  • "Oh, I get it"
  • "That's what you meant"
  • " Hmmm, there is something interesting there"
On the flip side, "understanding" can be a serious source of misunderstanding... and hence of frustration, anger, even conflict:
  • "I don't understand that"
  • "You don't understand me"
  • "I can't understand how they...."

Obvious when it happens, "understanding" is also mysterious. Everyone has had the experience of "understanding" something without knowing quite how, and without being able to explain it to others. And everyone has felt two kinds of frustration: "understanding" something without being able to convince others that it is so, and not being able to acquire "understandings" that seem so obvious to others.


  • What is "understanding"?
  • How can one have it without knowing how one got it?
  • How can one account for differences between different people in understanding the same thing?


A simple, and common, approach to such questions begins with the presumption that there is such a thing as "the truth" out there. From this beginning, "understanding" can be straightforwardly equated with "knowing the truth". And "not understanding" means something like "not yet having had the experiences that cause one to know the truth". The needed experiences may involve dealing with the world, or sitting in a classroom, or a sudden intuition, or an overpowering religious or spiritual insight. The latter are difficult, though, to explain to oneself, to say nothing of conveying persuasively to others, and the former are notoriously unreliable. So it makes sense that it is often hard to say where one's own understanding comes from, and that one can frequently have difficult persuading others to accept one's own understanding, and difficulty in accepting understandings of others.
The "knowing the truth out there" concept of understanding works in lots of situations (it wouldn't be common if it didn't), But it has some problems of its own (how do we know there is actually a "truth out there"?, why do there seem to be so many different ways of getting to it? how do they relate to one another?) . And it certainly doesn't provide much help in dealing with the frustrations and conflicts that arise from the existence of different understandings in different people.
The Three Doors of Serendip is an exploration of an alternate way to try and make sense of "understanding", one which roots understanding not in a "truth out there" but rather in the ongoing process of finding ways to make sense of one's own experiences (and those of others), in "getting less wrong" rather than being "right".
The Three Doors of Serendip is based on a game known variously as "The Monty Hall Dilemma", "Let's Make a Deal", and "The Three Door Problem" (see Resources). If you haven't heard of the game, the left door below ("Hands on" understanding) is a good place to start. If you have heard of it and know something about it, you may want to start with the middle door below ("Experimental" understanding). In any case, you'll eventually want to see what's behind all three doors. And don't worry about getting lost; the three doors are all connected to each other, one way or another. See if you can figure out how...
Come along, have some experiences, try and make sense of them, and let's see whether "The Three Doors of Serendip" provide an entry into a more satisfying understanding of understanding.


Hands on understanding
unconscious, intuitive

Experimental understanding
conscious, observational

Broader understanding
rational, generalizable, unified

| complete exhibit index |


Posted by Laura Cyckowski and Paul Grobstein on 3 Oct 2008.


narayanan sethurao's picture

Repetitive thoughts

How to break this LOOP.....and enter NEW ORBIT...?

Slartibartfarst's picture

Critical thinking?

Whatever happened to critical thinking?
Just thought I'd ask.

Richard L Stover's picture

Critical thinking

It seems to me that critical thinking is coordinating learned experiences, not from what is read or heard, but by analyzing -- co-relating actual events and situations that relate with the subject

Richard L Stover

Catherine D's picture

Nothing new .. . Always new

Nothing new... Well the food I eat each day is really "nothing new" but it is gives me the sustanance to meet, greet, and complete my new day. All life runs in cycles. We are here to experience ourselves, over and over. As I am not the me I was just a moment ago... And the ME I am right now is gone inthe next moment!

genesisbui's picture

Nothing new under the sun?

I am my mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, sister, brother, friend, teacher, and even stranger. All these elements make me who I am today. And I realize that as a person I will always be a collection of the stories of these people, and I a piece of there's. Interesting, huh?

Anonymous's picture

nothing new under the sun?

nothing new under the sun? its very interesting,its also proven alot as our anchesters knew more than we do,all we seem to do now is try endlessly to disprove what they did or saw and for that reason only i think some of us are moving backwards from really understanding anything

Anonymous's picture


"Every thought has already been thought. Every understanding has at one time been understood. There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes) Doesn't all this philosophy just make you feel dead?

Richard L Stover's picture

Repetitious thoughts

What I observe since my retirement is 95 percent every day routine and 5 percent involvement in forums, puzzles, and games, which probably means 95 percent of my thoughts are also repetitious and routine.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Nothing new under the sun?

Interesting issue. Thanks for raising it. Well worth thinking more about. See The Risks and Potentials of Thinking. If indeed "every thought has already been thought" then life wouldn't be much fun. As it is ....
Karel's picture

As the process of making

As the process of making sense of one’s experiences is an experience in itself which affects our sense making processes, it is somehow self-evident that there is no end to understanding. If that is valid at the level of an individual, what does this mean when we think about collective sense making processes? So we can never be quite sure about what it is we are trying to understand... Nothing new under the sun...?

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