Before you can begin to understand anything, in depth, at a fundamental level, where you are so well-versed in the subject matter that you can begin to gain genuine insights, you have to pass through a scary and somewhat humiliating stage. There’s no way around it, either. It’s go through it, or not. To understand any subject in detail, first you must publicly confess that you don’t understand.
Too few people are willing to acknowledge their own informational shortcomings. They’d lose too much reputation or face. It would make them seem foolish, lacking in wisdom and dent their credibility. In short, people would lose faith and trust in them, if it were to be revealed that there is something they simply don’t understand. They’d be exposed and vulnerable.
They don’t want to expend the emotional energy and spend the time to push through feeling less than well-informed and yes, stupid, to dig deeper, on the path toward becoming smarter and better informed. It’s easier not to do that work. Your brain cells are left idle and undisturbed, in the fog of your own blissful, insouciant ignorance.
Instead of choosing to understand, at the expense of being seen to be somebody that doesn’t initially understand, the vast majority of people actively choose incomprehension instead. It’s easier. It takes less courage and far less work. Rather than actually learning and studying diligently, it feels like a reasonable alternative is just to fake it – pretend you are wise, well-informed and conversant with the subject matter, when you are nothing of the sort. You’re a fraud, but a well disguised one.
Alternatively, you can wear your ignorance like a badge of pride, bullying everybody else into agreeing that the thing you know nothing about isn’t worth knowing about, by anybody. You can wear your rank intellectual indolence and fear of feeling inadequate like some sort of ceremonially awarded accolade. Intimidate anybody that suggests the contrary. Make open hearted and open minded inquiry and insatiable curiosity the shameful characteristic, not ignorance and bluster.
This is how stupidity and injustice is perpetuated. Some cloak it in terms like “collective wisdom”, or “tradition”, or else claim that anybody that begs to differ is some kind of crank or conspiracy theorist. It’s far more comfortable to sling mud at people that are sincerely inquiring and thinking things through, than to do that work yourself.
Substitutes for understanding and deep insight abound. People resort to mysticism, baseless belief systems, superstition, blind faith, misplaced trust, myth, folklore, nonsense, taking things uncritically at face value, swallowing the lies, believing the official story or mere opinion. There is any number of ways of asserting you understand when you really don’t. In every case, the person resorting to pseudo-understanding insists that you dignify and respect their crazy, half-baked ideas as being equivalent to real understanding and of equal validity.
While somebody with genuine understanding has to accept the pseudo-understanding, as if it were solid, evidentially-backed fact (when it is nothing of the sort), the pseudo-understanders obstinately dismiss the inconvenient facts that don’t fit their pre-conceived prejudices. They pick and choose the information they accept. Everybody else has to swallow their pseudo-understanding wholesale.
Understanding separates the craftsman from the journeyman. You can observe this for yourself. There are people that use a tool without finesse, sympathy and understanding, who simply blunt or break it and ruin the work they’re making with that tool. When you want to drive a nail, every nearby tool becomes a hammer, doesn’t it? The same specialist tool in the hands of a true craftsman, however, results in the finest work and preservation of the cutting edges of the tool, so that the tool can serve for many years, in perfect condition.
Hand tools are not the only place where understanding aids creativity. Music theory, colour theory, technique, grammar and spelling all assist in making better creative works. Deep understanding of these things can add to the quality of the art immeasurably.
Mathematics is a touchstone of whether or not a person really wants to understand. Being good at maths is basically about having the confidence to say, “Show me again”, when you don’t at first get it. You might have to be shown again, multiple times, before you grasp the concept. That’s not shameful or any indication that you have inferior thinking machinery. It makes me cringe when I see people laughing off the fact that they were terrible at maths, as if understanding it doesn’t matter. What those people are really saying is that they lacked the courage to stick with it and ask inconvenient questions, until they understood it. That’s not honourable at all.
There are painters that never bother to understand how perspective works. As a consequence, their paintings always present bizarre perspectives. That might be aesthetically amusing, but if your purpose is to present perspective in your painting, then not understanding anything about it becomes a problem.
So many people use computers without knowing the first thing about how to programme a computer. As a result, they’re prone to being hoodwinked, cheated, victim-blamed, bamboozled and mislead, simply because they have no understanding of how to make a computer do what it does. How can you live in a technological age, where so many vital systems depend on the correct working of computers and have zero understanding of how to programme one? That seems reckless. Yet people take the shortcuts too readily, because that’s easiest. They simply use what they’re given, without asking if it could be better and without the means to make it so.
There are people that are enamoured with their gadgets and devices. They marvel at these pieces of design and laud them as the pinnacle of human achievement, but I hate them. I think the engineering in them is utterly immoral. As an engineer, the design of these gadgets is a huge insult to the profession and an utter sell out of the principles of good engineering design. They’re designed deliberately to be thrown away when the battery wears out. It’s planned obsolescence of the most egregious kind, leading to mountains of toxic waste.
Even when they work, the applications that run on them are designed to keep you distracted, divided and poor. The intention behind them is not to uplift humanity, but to milk it for profit. Any actual benefit is incidental, not the main concern. As a political statement, mobile devices are the embodiment of enslavement and manipulation, masquerading as freedom and choice. Of course, if you have no understanding of the politics embodied in design, you’ll miss that important subtlety completely. People make lucrative careers of this kind of blind ignorance.
Our general understanding of politics is pretty rudimentary, too, as a population. We’re not meant to understand it in depth. Instead, we believe we need a State and privileged, ruling elite that enforces its arbitrary diktats with violence, in order for civilisation to be maintained. Is any of this really true? Does anybody care to understand the available, viable alternatives? Does the State even do what it promises? Does civilisation actually come from being ruled, or from some other well spring? None of these assertions is proven, but neither are they ever questioned. We just accept them as fundamental, unchallengeable truths, without understanding why or what we’re sacrificing, in so doing.
When somebody suggests something to the contrary, they are shouted down, attacked, belittled and told that they are mentally defective. In the most extreme cases, where they make their argument lucidly and unassailably, the State simply kills them, calling such murders “legal”. Who actually carries out those murders of political dissidents? It is people that have no understanding of the system they so fervently uphold.
If you don’t really want to understand what you uphold, it’s easier to be obedient to the hierarchy and illegitimate rulers. There is much more comfort and apparent safety in slavishly following instructions, never blowing any whistles on those that are taking the rest of us for a royal ride. Where does that lead? It leads to millions of young men standing in muddy trenches on foreign territory, hurling steel at each other’s bodies at high speed, for abstract reasons like “pride”, “honour” and “glory”, spilling their blood for dubious gains and causes.
You’ve heard the folk wisdom: Don’t rock the boat. Don’t upset any apple carts. Instead, be a willing cog in a machine you don’t fully grasp or care to fathom.
Anybody that takes time to fully understand how money is created and issued and how the economy works eventually comes to realise what a colossal fraud the whole enterprise is. It continues not because it is the only way things can work, or because it’s the best way, or because the practice is not a wholly fraudulent enterprise, rotten to the core. Instead, it continues because people refuse to understand it. They don’t understand what they uphold, or why. Thus, it continues.
This refusal to understand, to avoid looking temporarily naive and foolish, while you gain an understanding, is why so much dogma and propaganda goes unchallenged and becomes ingrained. It’s never questioned, because questioning would reveal that people don’t understand it. Show me again. We don’t understand our society and its corruption for the same reasons many of us are happy to eschew an understanding of mathematics. We lack the confidence to be seen as uninformed, while we ask the searching questions. Show me again, again.
A refusal to understand is why judges can make bone-headed rulings to compel corporations to unlock the meagre security on their mobile phones, so that the FBI can have a back door into everybody’s business. If they understood what they were asking for and unleashing, there is no way that the justification given, to apprehend a single criminal, would be adequate to cover the widespread and irreversible damage cracking the security on phones would cause.
Refusing to understand, in depth, is why so many people follow lunatic, fact-phobic, scientifically illiterate leaders. It’s why we let them make binding decisions that impact all our lives, with foolhardiness. It’s why people like Donald Trump and his ilk even get a public hearing. When the majority refuses to understand, it’s very easy to hijack and subvert democracy. If we don’t understand the consequences of the pronouncements of such prospective leaders and don’t care to understand them, then we’ll simply have to live through their stated policies, if that’s even possible. Some people won’t.
Above all, refusing to understand means you don’t have to come up with any ideas that might change things for the better, or fight the battles to bring them to fruition. You’re off the hook. If society goes to hell, it’s somebody else’s fault. You don’t have to be the one everybody else attacks for upsetting the apple cart and overturning conventional, orthodox wisdom. You can, instead, cruise along, fitting in and becoming indistinguishable from everybody else that has no understanding. The problem is, if our collective actions are plunging us headlong toward extinction and nobody is courageous enough to challenge our entrenched, doom-bound behaviour, we’ll all perish, but everybody will be able to feel exonerated. Life will cease, but we’ll all feel it wasn’t our fault. But it is our fault. Our collective behaviour, unchallenged and unmodified, is what will kill us all.
Pretending to understand, when you really don’t, is intellectually dishonest. You are fraudulently presenting yourself as something you are not. When you have no idea, acting like you have is nothing less than a lie.
Of course, one way to smoke out somebody that really doesn’t understand something, or has the most superficial and cursory understanding of it, at best, is to ask them to explain it to you, in a way that makes it understandable. Usually, they change the subject, or ridicule you for your silly question.
In reality, as I found out when I was a child, even professors have a muddled and rudimentary grasp of their subject matter. My physics teacher failed utterly to explain why iron is magnetic, but aluminium is not. In the realm of electromagnetic phenomena, you basically encounter a religious order, with proscribed sacred texts and very little useful insight, of the sort Tesla possessed, for example. Nobody has yet satisfactorily explained to me what consciousness is, where it resides, how it works, why it stops functioning at the end of your life and where it goes, if anywhere. There are lots of theories and beliefs, of course, but little hard, tangible, repeatable evidence.
Assuming you really don’t want to understand, as can be ascertained from your daily behaviour, a good way to stay ignorant is to never try to see things from anybody else’s perspective and always seek only information that supports your prejudice, never examining anything that might challenge it. It’s easier, lazier and safer that way and harder for anybody to call you out for the ignoramus you actually are.
On the other hand, if you do decide to try to understand, don’t expect recognition or praise for your daring act. Instead, expect to be attacked, derided, denied and denigrated for knowing something others don’t. After all, you’re making everybody else look bad. They’ll want you to shut up and go away. Your understanding is an inconvenient contrast to their chosen ignorance.
In the final analysis, you really have to decide, with courage, whether you want to understand or not. It’s no small decision. Either you can spend your life in deep enquiry, trying to unearth insights and truths, or you can go along with the comfortable majority. Outsider or insider? What will it be?
You may be wholly unwilling to think deeply, if you were honest.