Tag Archive | Meta-Understanding

The Output of Leaning

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is the output of Learning?”

“On one level, the output of Learning is Growth.

Growth is incremental change.

Growth is both change and non-change.
Change in that it involves the movement from one state to another.
Non-change in that it involves the creation of persistent structures.

On a pragmatic level, the output of Learning is the creation of persistent structures.
Persistent behavioral-structures – Habits.
Persistent mental-structures – Insights. 

Insights are the essence of Understanding, and the building-blocks of Knowledge.”

On Models and Reductionism

Belief formation process:
– We hear something.
– We believe it to be true.
– We MAY think about it and vet it, determining whether it is, in fact, true or false.

(Annie Duke,
Thinking in Bets)


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“When you hear something about someone, you’re essentially building a simplified mental model of that person. This is an instance of reductionism.”

“Are all models reductionistic?”

“All models are approximations. We can think of models in terms of fidelity. Based on how well they approximate, they can range from high to low fidelity. Low-fidelity models are reductionistic – too much information is lost.

Forming a model of someone based on hearsay is highly reductionistic. The model is nothing more than a caricature. Yet it’s a tendency we all have.”

“To me it’s fascinating how certain we are of our caricature models.”

“I’ve identified two mechanisms at work here: reification and synecdoche.

Reification: mistaking the model for reality.

Synecdoche: identifying the whole with one of its parts.

Whatever you know of the person is just a tiny piece of the whole.”

“How do you counter this tendency?”

“I’m working on building a model specifically to counter this. I call it Wholeness. The model is meant to evoke the whole of something, even though I do not see it. To remind me of the limits of my knowledge, and the limits of our models.”

On Elegance

Good design leans towards simplicity not complexity. (Mark Rosewater)


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is elegance?”

“To understand something is to construct a mental model of it. Different people will build different models, based on their experiences and what elements they focus on.”

“What is your model?”

“It’s a practical model. 

For me, Elegance is conceptually connected with Beauty and Simplicity, and is reached through a process of Subtraction. 

My model of elegance

Elegance is achieved when there is nothing left to take away.

Deconstructing Meaning

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“There was a period in my life – in college – when I was learning words from the dictionary. I was memorizing words. I didn’t really understand them. I was merely explaining words using other words.”

Remembering things from the past is a beautiful opportunity to celebrate how far you’ve come.

“I know. But I keep forgetting it. Thank you for reminding me. 

I have come a long way since then. Now Understanding is one of the guiding values of my life.”

“When did that come about?”

“The moment I started to understand what it means. 

I told you last time about my love of language and meaning [<link; medium length]. Every aspect of our model of reality has a history.

At some point – late in my life, almost 10 years ago – I asked myself a question that profoundly changed me:

What is understanding?
What does it mean to understand?

I later called the seemingly paradoxical process of understanding understanding meta-understanding

That question has stayed with me since, and will probably remain an open process [<link; medium] forever. Guided by that question, I’ve been continually refining my model of understanding, with some wonderful practical benefits.

In contrast to that episode from the past, now one of my favorite pastimes is deconstructing meaning.

Take the concept of ‘werewolf’ for instance. 

Werewolf is a system of meaning. Visually it looks something like this:

The ‘werewolf’ system of meaning

Implicit to the concept is the model of conditional transformation – which is essentially an algorithm

IF the moon is full THEN transform into a wolf-monster

You can think of the elements of a system of meaning as building-blocks. The ‘universe of meaning’ is a collection of all the building-blocks we collectively have access to for constructing meaning.

What we call ‘imagination’ is the process of combining building-blocks of meaning in novel ways. Imagination is limited by the available building-blocks, and one’s capacity to restructure (that is, break and create) patterns – what Edward de Bono called lateral thinking.

I’ve come to regard lateral thinking as one of the most important skills one can have.”

Lover of Meaning

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“I love Meaning.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m fascinated by language. 

Language is the tool of tools, the most powerful technology we possess. It makes collective learning and all other technologies possible. 

Language is our interface with reality, which profoundly shapes perception. It’s also a social-interface, which creates a shared-reality.

Language encodes reality. Our model of reality – what I call subjective reality – is to a large extent linguistic.

Language shapes reality, it profoundly influences behavior. In a profound sense, human history was shaped by ideas.

In a sense, language is like water to the fish. And just like water to the fish, for most of my life, it was invisible. I was blind to its magic and beauty. It took me a while to discover it, and when I finally did, it became the central focus of my life.

When we think of language, we normally think of words and symbols. The implicit metaphoric-model is words as containers for meaning. I found that model limiting, so I’ve come to use a different model: words as labels, which point to something beyond themselves. I call that something the Universe of Meaning. Words differ from language to language, but they reference the same universe of meaning, which, on a fundamental level, is modeled after our shared collective experience. 

My interest in language is purely practical. I use language as a tool for exploring and shaping the universe of meaning, with the ultimate end of bettering myself and understanding reality, and for the pure joy of creating.”

“What are your most important tools in this process?”

“Questions and models, principles, and metaphors.

Learning Combo: Anki + The Feynman Technique

If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it. (Richard Feynman)


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is the Feynman technique?”

“It’s a beautiful technique created by Scott H. Young [<link], which was inspired by the great physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman was extraordinary in his ability to explain the most complex concepts in simple terms. 

I want to become a great explainer like Feynman.

There’s a quote I love by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

I’d say this applies to understanding as well. The essence of understanding lies in simplicity.

“What does the technique look like?”

“The essence of the technique is learning as if by teaching someone who doesn’t know anything about it. The beauty of it is that you don’t actually need someone to teach it to – thought the feedback in such a case might be useful. 

The goal is to simplify as much as possible, both the language and the explanation.
The language by rephrasing in your own words, using as few words as possible, and eliminating jargon.
The explanation by capturing the essence of the concept using analogies and images.

This is an iterative process. 

The technique aligns with an important principle of Learning: Testing (your understanding). When trying to explain something, you’ll often discover that what you took to be understanding was nothing but pseudo-understanding.”

“How do you practice the technique?”

“To retain what you learn requires Repetition. This is another important principle of Learning. The optimal frequency of repeating what you’ve learned is called  Spaced-Repetition. One way to make use of this is by using a flashcard system [<link].”

“Which one do you use?”

“I use an open-source software called Anki [<link]. 

I practice the Feynman Technique by combining it with Anki.

I create flashcards using Anki, and whenever I review them, I test my understanding using the Feynman Technique. So every review is an iteration of the process.”

Essential Connections

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What are essential connections?”

“One aspect of learning is the accumulation of information. There’s too much information out there, so we need to be selective. That is, focus only on the most important – essential – bits.” 

“So, using the 80/20 (Pareto) model, we need to focus on the 20 percent.”

“Yes.

I like to think of information by using the network model. A network is a structure made up of two components: nodes and connections. In the early stages of ‘learning literacy’, we tend to think of information only as the nodes. Learning how to learn brings about an important realization:

Both the nodes and the connections encode information. 

Moreover, the most important information is encoded in the connections. That’s what we call ‘understanding’.

Not all connections are created equal. Some are weaker, some are stronger. Some are more meaningful than others. We can look at connections too through the 80/20 filter. I call the 20 percent most meaningful ones essential connections.”

Multi-Modellarity

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

To understand something, is to form a mental model of it, which means to represent it in terms of other models. The more relevant models you use, the deeper your understanding.”

“Can you give an example?”

“Let’s take the Pareto principle for instance, also known as the 80/20 rule. 

The Wikipedia definition reads:

The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

The definition describes it in terms of the Cause/Effect model. But we can use other models to describe it.

For instance, using the Input/Output model: 20% of the inputs are responsible for 80% of the outputs.”

“Is the distribution really that precise?”

“It’s an approximation. However the actual values are not important. The essence of the idea can be expressed using the higher-order model of Leverage: a small number of inputs are responsible for a large number of outputs.”

Painting with Meaning 2: Beautifying Representations

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“An important aspect of the Art of (Playful) Living is beautifying representations.”

“So it has to do with meaning.”

“Yes. 

Let’s take ‘art’ as an example. To understand what it means is to form a mental representation of it – a model. The representation is 
partly implicit (implicit-model) – you recognize something as ‘art’ at a glance, without really knowing why –, 
partly explicit (explicit-model) – a more or less systematic explanation of why some things can be labelled ‘art’ while others cannot.”

“The word ‘art’ has become kind of a verbal-empty [<link; short length]. The linguistic pattern ‘The Art of x’ is ubiquitous.”

“One way to go about it is theoretical-understanding, clarifying the representation you and others have of it.
What do you/they mean by ‘art’?
Why is x ‘art’?
You can fill books on the subject without really getting anywhere.

Another way to go about it is practical-understanding, by which I mean in this case the intentional aesthetic process of beautifying representations. You’re creating meaning, you’re making them more meaningful for you, thus beautifying the landscape of your inner-world. I like to think of it as creating inner works of art.”

“How do you do that?”

“This is a personal introspective integrative process. In essence, you do it by connecting it with the things that are most meaningful to you.

I like to do it in writing, mind-mapping style. Like this:

On Models and Meaning

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is the fundamental unit of thought?”

“I’m thinking it has to do with language, because language fundamentally shapes our mental universe.

Is it the word?”

“Let’s take the word Love. The form is different in all the languages of the world, but the substance is the same.

The word is but a container for meaning.

Meaning transcends formal language.

Meaning is the universal language of thought, which is rooted in our shared human experiences.”

“So the fundamental unit of thought is the fundamental unit of meaning.”

“Yes.”

“What is the fundamental unit of meaning?”

The model.

To think in models is to speak the meta-language of thought. 

This has profound practical application in navigating and sculpting the universe of meaning. And I’ve only begun my exploration.”