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The Three Doors of Serendip: Implications

Making Sense of Understanding:
Implications of The Three Doors of Serendip

Door images from Woodstone

  • 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?


One way to answer these questions is that understanding is knowing the truth, that one can come to know truth in a variety of different ways, and that differences between people result from someone not having gotten to the truth. Serendip's Three Doors suggests quite different answers to these questions. Understanding is nothing more, and nothing less, than making sense of what has been experienced up to the present. It is never "knowing the truth" since it may change given additional observations. Moreover, there are at least three different kinds and routes to understanding, some conscious and others unconscious. Because of the latter one may well have understandings without knowing how reached them. Finally, it is not only different people who may have different understandings. One has within oneself several different kinds of understanding and these understandings may differ from one another.

If understanding is "knowing the truth", then one has a clear motivation and direction for better understanding: one is trying to get closer to Truth or Reality. There is though a problem here. If one knows where one is trying to get, what point is there in changing? And if one doesn't know, how does one know in what direction to go?

The Three Doors conception of understanding implies that one changes not in order to get it "right", but rather to get it less wrong. One is motivated to change by conflicts between existing understandings, either with other people or within oneself or both. And the direction of change is whatever direction reduces conflicts. Moving toward Truth or Reality suggests that there is an end state to be reached, one in which one has acheived a complete understanding. Getting it less wrong suggests instead that the process of acheiving understanding is one that will continue so long as there are alternate possible understandings. Given that new understandings invariably create new alternatives and questions, and that some unpredictable change is a fundamental aspect of both living things and the universe as a whole, the process of understanding is an unending one.

One test of the value of any understanding, including that of understanding itself, is the extent to which it helps to better understand other things where there are unresolved conflicts. One example of this is the area of education. Is it the business of education to provide people the accrued wisdom of the past or ought education help people develop their own unique capabilities and understandings? Perhaps education should focus on differences between understandings and how to create new understandings based on that. Another area where the less wrong understanding of understanding might be useful is in the mental health realm. Is mental health a particular desirable state of being or might it instead be thought of as an on-going process of creating new understandings out of existing conflicts? A third area where the idea of less wrong understandings may be useful is in the area of philosophy itself. Are there objective truths or is all understanding personal and subjective? Perhaps one shouldn't try to chose between these but instead think and rethink ways of being that reflect both.

Another area where this story of understanding may be helpful is in connection with thinking about the brain. It's interesting, for example, to see whether one can locate the various kinds of understandings and interactions between them in terms of models of the brain, particularly the bipartite brain model. A schematic suggesting how this might be conceived can be found here.

Disagreement and conflict are frequently thought of as failures of understanding on someone's part. Perhaps we could come to recognize disagreement and conflict, both with others and within ourselves, as the grist from which new understandings have always arisen and will always arise.


See the resources page for more materials and links relating to this exhibit.


Hands on understanding
unconscious, intuitive

Experimental understanding
conscious, observational

Broader understanding
rational, generalizable, unified

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


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