Friday, October 15, 2010

The Illusion of Understanding (by guest blogger G. Randolph Mayes)

Every teacher knows that magic moment when the light snaps on in a student’s head and bitter confusion gives way to the warm glow of understanding. We live for those moments. Subsequent moments can be slightly less magical, however. There is, for example, the moment we begin to grade said student’s exam, and realize that we’ve been had yet again by the faux glow of illusory understanding.

The reliability and significance of our sense of understanding (SOU) has been the subject of research in recent years. I indicated in the previous post that philosophers of science generally agree that there is a tight connection between explanation and understanding. Specifically, they agree that the basic function of explanation is to increase our understanding of the world. But this agreement is predicated on an objective sense of the term ‘understanding,’ typically referring to a more unified belief system or a more complete grasp of causal relations. There is no similar consensus concerning how our subjective SOU relates to ‘real’ understanding, or indeed whether it is of any philosophical interest at all.

One leading thinker who has argued for the relevance of the SOU to the theory of explanation is the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik. Gopnik is a leading proponent of the view that the developing brains of children employ learning mechanisms that closely mirror the process of scientific inquiry. As the owner of this blog has aptly put it, Gopnik believes that children are invested with ‘a drive to explain,’ a drive she compares to the drive for sex.

For Gopnik, the SOU is functionally similar to an orgasm. It is a rewarding experience that occurs in conjunction with an activity that tends to enhance our reproductive fitness. So just as a full theory of reproductive behavior will show how orgasm contributes or our reproductive success, a full theory of explanatory cognition will show how the SOU contributes to our explanatory success.

Part of the reason Gopnik compares the SOU to the experience of orgasm is that they can both be detached from their respective biological purposes. Genital and theoretical masturbation are both pleasurable yet non (re)productive human activities. Gopnik thinks that just as no one would consider the high proportion of non reproductive orgasms as evidence that orgasm is unrelated to reproduction, no one should take a high frequency of illusory SOU’s as evidence that the SOU is unrelated to real understanding.

But the analogy between orgasm and the SOU has its limits. The SOU can not really be detached from acts of theorizing as easily as orgasm can be detached from acts of reproduction. One might achieve a free floating SOU as a result of meditation, mortification or drug use, but this will be relatively unusual in comparison to the ease and frequency with which orgasms can be achieved without reproductive sex. For the most part SOU’s come about as a result of unprotected intercourse with the world. If illusory SOU’s are common, and this can not be explained by reference to their detachability, it is reasonable to remain skeptical about the importance of the SOU in producing real understanding.

One such skeptic is the philosopher of science J. D. Trout. Trout does not deny that our SOU may sometimes result from real understanding, but he thinks it is the exception rather than the rule. Moreover, Trout thinks that illusory SOU’s are typically the result of two well-established cognitive biases: overconfidence and hindsight. (Overconfidence bias is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood that our judgments are correct. Hindsight bias is the tendency to believe that past events were more predictable than they really were.) Far from being a reliable indicator of real understanding, Trout holds that the SOU mostly reinforces a positive illusion we have about our own explanatory abilities. (This view also finds support in the empirical research of Frank Keil who has documented an ‘illusion of explanatory depth’)

Is it true that illusory SOU’s are more common than veridical ones? I’m not sure about this. I‘m inclined to think most of our daily explanatory episodes occur below the radar of philosophers of science. Consider explanations that occur simply as the result of the limits of memory. My dog is whining and it occurs to me that I haven’t fed her. The mail hasn’t been delivered, and then I recall it is a holiday. I see a ticket on my windshield and I remember that I didn’t feed the meter. I have an dull afternoon headache and realize I’ve only had three cups of coffee. These kinds of explanatory episodes occur multiple times every day. The resulting SOU’s are powerful and only rarely misleading.

But when choosing between competing hypotheses or evaluating explanations supplied by others Trout is surely correct that the intensity of an SOU has little to do with our degree of understanding. We experience very powerful SOU’s from just-so stories and folk explanations that have virtually no predictive value. Often a strong SOU is simply the result of the fact that it allays our fears or settles cognitive dissonance in an emotionally satisfying way.

In the end, I’m not sure that Trout and Gopnik have a serious disagreement. For one thing, Gopnik’s focus in on the value of the SOU for the developing mind of a child. It may be that the the unreflective minds of infants are uncorrupted by overconfidence, hindsight, or the need to believe. It may also be that a pre-linguistic child’s SOU is particularly well-calibrated for the kind of learning it is required to do.

Trout does not argue that the SOU is completely unreliable, and Gopnik only needs it to be reliable enough to have conferred a selective advantage on those whose beliefs are reinforced by it. There are different ways that this can happen. As Trout himself points out, the SOU may contribute to fitness simply by reinforcing the drive to explain. But even if our SOU is only a little better than chance at selecting the best available hypothesis at any given time, it could still be tremendously valuable as part of an iterated process that remains sensitive to negative feedback. As I indicated in the previous post, our mistake may be to think of the SOU as something that justifies us in believing our hypotheses. It may simply help us to generate or select hypotheses that are slightly more likely to be true than their competitors.


Unknown said...

Is this the study of truthiness?

Talita Raquel Romero said...

Hello. I enjoyed your post and had the pleasure of reading the special edition of "Minds and Machines" of 1998 about explanations and Trout article for the journal Philosophy of Science, 2002.
I also enjoyed other posts you've written. But other than this post, I did not know the references you cited. I would ask that where possible, puts up the references at the end of the posts. Help a lot!
Congratulations on your blog!

Talia Raquel (Brazilian student of philosophy and science teaching).

Note: Sorry for English, I'm improving.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Talia!