Philosophy Tuesday

I love knowledge. Knowledge is awesome. I love figuring things out. The why of things fascinates me.

Unfortunately, in many ways and in many instances, we don’t actually know what we think we know.*

And knowing often makes absolutely no difference.

Dustin (of Smarter Every Day) made a great video on riding a backwards bicycle – a bicycle where the handlebars worked in reverse to what we’re familiar with. Turn left, the wheel goes right. Turn right, the wheel goes left.

So what happens when he tries to ride it? He cannot. He falls off. Repeatedly. No matter how much he thinks about it, no matter how much he tries to just make his hands do the opposite thing, no matter how much he even understands about the physics, the mechanics, the principles, of the bike, no matter what tricks he tries, it makes no difference. He falls off. So does everyone else.

And then, he realizes something even deeper: he never “knew” how to ride a bike.

He could ride a bike, clearly. But it wasn’t due to knowing. There was something more intrinsic going on there. He uses the word “understand” to designate that next level down of knowing, but I prefer the terms “get” or “grok”. Understand for me denotes an explainable comprehension, taking what we know and understanding how those knowing bits fit together, link together, or influence each other. I can understand that using the pedals causes the wheels to turn which generate gyroscopic forces that keep me upright. Understandable. Doesn’t help my balance one bit, though.

Getting or groking is a level of immediate being and acting that is beyond our ken.

It happens to me all the time in my martial arts training. I may know about a concept, and I may understand the principle, , and I can even be told “how” to do the move in whatever language** and analogies the instructor may come up with***, but nine times out of ten I’m still unable to perform what is being instructed. I have to use use that knowledge and use my understanding as a lighthouse to guide me until there’s a moment where something goes clunk and I suddenly am not only doing it, but it becomes automatic. It becomes the (first principle type of) foundation from which the movement comes from, and also a foundation where all my movements (in martial arts or not) are affected.

That we have these levels of knowing/understanding/groking is fascinating, and not that hard to understand in the realm of physical activity. We would be hard pressed to describe how we are balancing right now — we just do it. We weren’t born with it, we clearly had to learn it in order to be able to walk. Yet we do it.

The even more amazing thing is that the same holds quite true about who we are and how we operate in our daily lives.

More next week…


* – And, the humour here is that even though I KNOW this fact, even there it makes no difference, I still not only try to know/understand everything as though it will make a difference, but I will also be sad and indignant when I realize it! Then I laugh about it… we are such funny creatures, aren’t we?

** – As someone who has both taught kung fu and moreover written a book on it, it is almost comically difficult to translate body motion and body feeling into words that communicate something. You can describe the angle and position of the body, but that’s not very helpful for the reasons being discussed…

*** – …thusly analogy is often quite helpful. Because of its abstract nature, it forces us to go beyond our usual understanding and just grasp out at the poeticness of the analogy, trying to capture that feeling or embody that spirit. If we can let that “knowing” desire go, it’s surprisingly often quite fruitful, letting us experience and grok the new thing.

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