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The Three Doors of Serendip: "Experimental Understanding"

The Three Doors of Serendip:
and Experimental Understanding



If you've gotten here through Door 1, you have an appreciation of the ability of your brain to develop understandings based on experience ("unconscious" understandings). And of "intuitive" understandings, feelings based on unconscious understandings that are conscious but that you can't explain. Both play a bigger role in your behavior than you might have thought. If you've gotten here through Door 2 you have an appreciation of experimental understandings. The kind you get from consciously thinking of strategies using them to make hypotheses and testing them through further observations.


What's the relation between "unconscious", "intuitive", and "experimental" understandings? What are the similarities and differences among them? "Experimental" understanding is sometimes referred to as "scientific" understanding, implying that it is somehow better. Is it? Always, or only in some cases? If ever, why?

To explore those questions, let's think a bit first about how to acheive unconscious and intuitive understandings. To acheive unconscious understandings, you don't need to think about what you're doing or what happens as a result. In fact, thinking about these things may make it harder to gain unconscious understandings. You may have gotten so frustrated playing the game that you never managed to win $40, whereas someone else who didn't think about it got there relatively quickly. Your unconscious can try things, keep track of what happens, and learn from that without you thinking about it at all (and may do better if you don't think about it). Your unconscious understandings depend on the experiences you've had and are only as good as these experiences.

Intuitive understandings result from unconscious understandings. If you won $40 without ever clicking the "I've got it" button you did so based entirely on an unconscious understanding. But you may have clicked the button because you had a conscious feeling that some ways of playing would do better than others without knowing why you thought that. That is an intuitive understanding. To the extent that intuitive understandings derive from unconscious understandings they too are only as good as the experiences that give rise to them.

Now let's think about what you need to gain "experimental" understanding (i.e., you came through Door 2, or are about to go there). First, you had to have at least some intuition about how best to play the game, at least one "strategy" in mind. Then, you had to have some alternative strategy in mind, so that you could design a new set of observations to compare the results of the two. Then, you had to have made enough observations to be certain they effectively compared the two. Perhaps, in addition, you thought about whether there could in principle be some OTHER strategy that might be better than either of the ones you tried. Hence, your "experimental' understanding depends on some prior understanding, and is only as good as your ability to conceive alternatives.

So what is the relationship between unconscious, intuitive, and experimental understandings? Which is better? Experimental understanding clearly depends on observations; they are empirical and that is why sometimes some people think they are "scientific" and better. But as you may have noticed, unconscious understandings are also empirical, i.e. they derive from experience. Because the source of intuitive understandings is hidden in the unconscious, many people think that intuitive understandings are fundamentally different from experimental understandings, and have their origins in some source of knowledge other than observations. While there is no way to disprove this, its worth noting that the intuitive understanding one develops in the Three Doors of Serendip actually seems to also depend on observations, to be empirical, and there is no particular reason to believe this is a set of intuitive understandings that is qualitatively different from any other. In short, it is at least an entertainable possibility that, despite our experience of their mystery, all understandings have an empirical foundation.

Not only is it the case that unconscious, intuitive, and experimental understandings all have a substantial empirical base, each of them may play a role in and influence the others. Experimental understandings necessarily start from prior understandings. One source of these may be understandings you got from classes, books, or other people. But another may be your own intuitions. So, intuitions can be further sharpened by being used as the grist for further experimental understandings. And experimental understandings may in turn lead to new intuitive understandings. Hence the way to think about understanding is not that intuitive and experimental are alternative forms of understanding between which one must choose, but rather than intuitive and experimental understandings can each valuably influence the other. There's a loop.

Given all this, is one kind of understanding better than another? It depends on the circumstances and what one is trying to accomplish. Acquiring experimental knowledge takes more time. If you need to do something quickly, you're probably better off using unconscious or intuitive knowledge. On the other hand, experimental knowledge is easier to share with other people and may not be as limited to a particular set of observations. Furthermore, the act of trying to conceive alternative strategies may lead to ideas that wouldn't have resulted from unconscious processes.


The bottom lines so far about understanding:

  • Unconscious and intuitive understandings are not only generally primary, but are preferable to experimental understandings under some circumstances.
  • The process of achieving experimental understanding is critically dependent on prior unconscious and intuitive understandings.
  • Experimental understanding IS an advance over intuitive understanding... under some particular circumstances and for some particular reasons.
Intuitive understandings may arise from unconscious experimentation. They may also arise from a host of other factors of which one is not aware. The important point is that, however they arise, they are "understandings", i.e. beliefs about what is "right", whose origins and rationale are opaque and hence whose validity is not challengeable. The most important things about the processes involved in achieving experimental understanding is that they start form the premise that something one believes to be "right" might in fact be "wrong". By making an "intuitive" understanding conscious, one not only makes it explicit and communicable to others, one also achieves the capability to consider it to be "wrong", by virtue of imagining alternative understandings. This initial stage of achieving "experimental" understanding is central to its advantages over "intuitive" understanding: by making the intuitive "conscious" one can achieve both skepticism and the creation of alternative possibilities.

    Making "intuitive" understanding explicit, and hence both communicatable and falsifiable has another great advantage. It makes it possible for efforts to achieve greater understanding to become social activities, rather than the solitary activities of individuals. One can share candidate understandings, and share efforts to evaluate them by making significant new observations. This is, in fact, the basis of the success of "science" as a method of advancing understanding. Multiple people can entertain multiple possible "understandings" and can base their own choices among them on observations made by other people. And since the "experimental" understandings have survived explict and conscious testing by observations, one knows at least what set of observations they represent and hence under what circumstances they can be trusted. And one knows that they too could become "wrong" given some future set of observations.

    Finally, experimental understandings depend strongly on and are particularly good in cases where one can be reasonably sure that one has thought of and tested all possible alternatives. Hence they are particularly useful, and may be more reliable than unconscious or intuitive understandings in relatively simple situations, i.e. ones with a small number of countable alternatives. In more complex cases, unconscious or intuitive judgements may be more reliable. As Williams James pointed out, there may or may not be enough regularity in our observations to account for our intuitions.

  • Just as unconscious and intuitive understandings contribute to experimental ones, so do experimental understandings influence unconscious and intuitive ones.
Just like your unconscious and intuitive understandings can be influenced by other people and by your own experiences so can they be influenced by the outcome of experimental investigations. The next time you play Three Doors or some other game like it, your approach will be diffferent.


Moving on...

Is that it? Understanding is rooted in experiences and may be unconscious or intuitive or experimental in the sense of having been deliberately tested by making additional observations (having additional experiences). But is there more to understanding understanding?

There must be for at least two reasons. One is the general problem that William James, among others, pointed out. Is there actually enough regularity in the experiences we have to account for our understandings? The world is actually pretty random when you look at it closely. It seemed to James and to Kant that there must be something that helps at least to call attention to vague patterns in the noise.

The other reason to think there is something more to understanding understanding is more directly related to experiences you may have had with this the Three Doors game. You now know either intuitively or experimentally that you have a better chance of winning if you switch than if you stay. But does that "make sense" to you? Are you comfortable with your current understanding or are you puzzled by it? If it doesn't make sense then there must be some additional feature of understanding, one not yet discussed. For that one, go on to Door 3, Broader 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.


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