The Distinction Between Comprehension and Understanding (The Problem of Abduction)

Comprehension is meta-understanding, which innately disrupts paradigm even more effectively than it does ignorance.
It is not simplicity, but rather the reduction of complicatedness, which is indeed the true scientific virtue. Never accept the ‘simple’ – the pining, explaining, and debunking of the fake skeptic. Abduction is a square peg of philosophy we keep trying to hammer into the round hole of science, because it affords us comfort in avoiding the painful ‘blue balls’ of skepticism or dissonance.

As is common inside many of the threads which I initiate on Twitter, followers will understandingly ask me to re-express my concept in simpler terms. The typical petitioning tweet might involve some variation on sayings loosely attributed to Einstein or Feynman pertaining to simplicity, of the ilk ‘You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity’ or ‘If you cannot express it in simple form, you do not truly understand it.’1 However, the most common version of this type of response by far is, ‘Explain it to me like I was five years old.’ Many people as it turns out, refuse the hard work of cognition, opting instead for having things explained to them. My regular readers are well aware of my Wittgenstein aversion to ‘explainers’ (science ‘enthusiasts’ and ‘critical thinkers’). Herein, I will do my best to describe an important principle in this regard, but not explain to you what you should think.

Only describe, don’t explain.

~ Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

Typically I have no problem with such a request to simplify my work and will comply with my best effort – save for the circumstance in which the problem or principle cannot be simplified any further, and the petitioner simply does not realize this. Only parables and analogies can be drawn against a concept already residing at its least-complicated state (see ‘Bridgman Point’ below). The ethical crux which burdens my soul involves the busting of paradigms and fiat understanding in the first place, thus this process of simplification can often involve tasks which run anathema to the very point I am trying to make. It is akin to asking a socialist to frame their favored economics in terms of how ‘profit and loss is accounted and distributed back to capital’, or using an x/y graph to explain a principle which functions along one or more n-axes. Such conundrum in communication serves to elucidate the thesis of this article, the distinction between comprehension and mere understanding.

Unfortunately, Richard Feynman was wrong about the utility of simplicity and beauty as regards truth.2 Elliott Sober, PhD, the Hans Reichenbach Professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, contends in his 2015 book Ockham’s Razors: A User’s Manual, that Ockham’s Razor is a ‘decision heuristic, providing us with an intuitive guide useful in the comparison of two or more differing hypotheses’. Further contending that, all contributing influences being equal, of two contending alternatives it is scientific to prefer the ‘simpler’ one. Dr. Sober cites that the simpler alternative, even though it might ultimately be found wrong, nonetheless resides ‘closer to the truth’ as compared to competing ideas.3

The moon as Swiss cheese is a better explanation than the moon as the face of a man or exiled god, for instance. Santa Claus cannot possibly make all those toys by Christmas each year, however an army of elves could. The crowd roars in approval. Given a sufficient level of ignorance, each of these would qualify as ‘scientific’ explanations. One may note that in the end, such deliberation amounts to nothing more than a recycling of previously understood parable and analogy, and not a processes of actual discovery. Unfortunately, such notions of knowledge development fail to work in a research lab, or a strategic advisory firm. Conditions in which perdocence can prove to be a disadvantage, in that academic training can also simply serve to provide a greater number of familiar parables from which to sustain (Lindy effect) a specific paradigm of understanding. My most successful strategy projects, and a groundbreaking discovery by my physics research team, both involved a rejection of abductive familiarity – in favor of comprehension.

A smattering of everything, and a knowledge of nothing.

~ Charles Dickens

The Problem of Abduction – He who collects the most parables, wins

This Sober principle, regarding that notion which resides ‘closer to the truth’, is called an ‘abduction’, or abductive reasoning. It constitutes a defacto explaining (Wittgenstein) that, the complexity of the problem presented before us is of such a convoluted or unreliable nature of evidence, that the alternative (again, now a Witgenstein ‘explanation’ in this context) which makes the most sense to me, relative to my current state of understanding, is indeed the truth. One does not have to conduct science nor even develop a qualified hypothesis, as a mere notion can be accepted as consensus science, solely based upon the spin-perception that it is ‘simple’ (see Einfach Mechanism in The Tower of Wrong: The Art of Professional Lying).

That which does not compel me to a process of comprehension, nor threaten me with novelty, is indeed the ‘correcter’ alternative. It becomes my parable. ‘Eyewitness testimony is unreliable’, ‘The Law of Large Numbers’, ‘apophenia’, ‘pareidolia’, ‘Dunning-Kruger’, etc. – all these valid anecdotes, can also be abused as the building blocks of cultivated ignorance. Especially when applied as a parable in order to artificially defend whatever truth we brought with us to the argument in the first place. Such constitutes nothing more than a stage magician’s act. Instead of heeding the cautionary, we guzzle greedily at the trough of intoxicating explanation. He who collects the most parables therefore, wins. He wins because he can dazzle the crowd with multiple and simple ‘understandings’, and yet need not reveal the salience or lack thereof behind them.

He who collects the most parables, wins.

Such an argument resides at the core of today’s ‘Occam’s Razor’: “Sure, a ‘God-standard’ of understanding might well prove me wrong at a later time (after all, I am but a mere and humble servant), but until such time comes I am able to craft from parable, and with no research whatsoever, a ‘simpler’ idea which is correcter than thou (i.e. my thoughts are the God-standard), quod erat demonstrandum.” The issue is not that this process is always destined to fail. String, Quantum, and M-Theory physicists are in a constant battle for the Feynman simplicity trophy, and this process is generally regarded as cutting-edge science. At one time I devoured such books in my quest for understanding the nature of our reality. Despite all such casuistry however, the issue remains, that abductive understanding is not science. A turd by any other name we may choose to give it, and not an ethical process of inquiry.

Abduction is a Wittgenstein state of explaining, and should never be conflated with the descriptive process of logical derivation and inference.

Abduction, constituting a form of rationalization and not inference nor rationality, does however adhere to the scientific principle of parsimony. It functions as one discipline of skepticism as well. However, its is this failure to distinguish between that which is ‘simple’ versus that which has been ‘reduced’, which renders such a rationalization weak in comparison to the processes of induction and especially, deduction. The former residing as a state of mind (explaining – not to be confused with elegance or ‘explanatory power’ of an alternative), and not actually even a form of ‘reasoning’. While the latter and midmost constitute processes (action/method) of reasoning, inference, and skepticism. See The Map of Inference for more detail.

The tyranny of abductive ‘reasoning’ resides in this: inside difficult to research or embargoed study, a simple explanation is not simply posited for mere consideration, but rather it is default-enforced as ‘science’ on the part of malicious agency which seeks artificial consensus on their preferred religious choices. The chance of being even-more-incorrect with our abductive explaining increases greatly inside this circumstance, because evidence is constantly dismissed one datum at a time, in favor of ‘simplicity’ (debunking) – and therefore little research is ever actually conducted. Thus, Elliott Sober is wrong, in that doctrine of this ilk is most likely, all things being equal, ‘less closer to the truth’ and not ‘closer to the truth’ from a scientific basis. If such a conclusion ends up being correct under a God-standard, it is only so by means of either obviousness or luck (both notorious exploits of pseudo-skepticism).

Epoché – or the suspension of disposition, is the discipline of ethical skepticism which disarms such sleight-of-hand abuse by means of abductive rationalization.

It is this very habit of seeking expedient force-to-simple understanding, in lieu of rigorous comprehension, which renders one vulnerable to the corrupted philosophy of abductive reasoning.

Aside from possibly a null hypothesis, abduction or ‘Occam’s Razor’ is an invalid assumption we add to the mix in order to keep the narrative intact. Nothing else. The only reason abduction appears to be simple, is that it conforms with a narrative understanding – making it merely less painful. It exploits the fact that our minds eschew the discomfort of comprehension. This is why philosophy considers proof of abductive reasoning to be elusive.4

Abduction is a false notion, a square peg of philosophy we keep trying to hammer into the round hole of science. Because it affords us comfort in avoiding the painful ‘blue balls’ of skepticism or dissonance.

All things being equal, in development always choose to forgo state in favor of process. Hence the crux of the entire argument of ethical skepticism. Unfortunately most issues, those which concern the average person, involve a greater rigor in skepticism than mere abduction (explaining) and paradigm (familiarity) can deliver. They demand inductive or deductive inference. They demand a rigorous process called comprehension.

It is understandable why one might choose to explain how to climb a tree to a fish, by citing ‘it’s akin to swimming vertically, slapping your tail fin at each successive branch as you thrust upward’. The fish will understand, but not really comprehend how a tree is actually climbed. A problem arises, when fish are allowed to craft policy that impacts lemurs and capuchins. Here Wittgenstein comprehension is of paramount importance, yet the fish remains comfortably unaware of his cognitive shortfall.

The Rules of Comprehension

As the reader may have guessed, the problem of abduction is that it involves a state of mind which does not incorporate the ethic nor effort entailed in comprehension, rather only application of one’s current parable collection – coupled with the irresistible desire for an understandable (comfortable) explanation. Science as it turns out, especially inside challenging subjects which demand skepticism, is the very process of dissent and change, and not a state of re-expressed and reapplied ‘understanding’ (parable and paradigm). Dogmatism is rarely a viable ‘decision heuristic’, no matter how cleverly the philosopher may spin, conceal, or name its derivation process. The sleight-of-hand woven into this is important to comprehend, and not merely understand – because an entire host of sycophants abuse these notions in order to squelch the progression of human thought and impair our awareness of the world around us. They call themselves ‘skeptics‘, however nothing could be further from the truth.

Mere understanding is the condition wherein one simplifies a problem or its explanation, until such point as it can be expressed only as a concept with which the recipient is previously familiar.

Such a state often resides below the Bridgman Point (defined for the reader below). This process allows one to merely assume what is being said, rather than develop a true comprehension of it. Comprehension is the organic process of deriving a new personal understanding – a more accurate process which might even allow one to contribute novel thought themself. In this regard, comprehension is meta-understanding and does not result from the simple process of instruction. Accordingly, the perdocent fails to grasp the role of comprehension, while the autodidact applies its tenets skillfully.

Simplicity is a product, a ware which is sold, and not a differentiating trait of knowledge.

Without venturing into the weaknesses of simplicity employed as a decision heuristic, as promoted by Dr. Elliott Sober (please see The Real Ockham’s Razor), let me just point out that simplicity itself, is often employed as a deception. The most common preparatory phrase I have heard, upon being propositioned by a huckster is ‘You see it’s simple.’ It helps to have been in business, and cut numerous contracts, specifications, and vendor bid reviews – and further to have been held accountable for the results of such work, in order to comprehend how simplicity is often sold as a ware. What the winner don’t know, the gambler understands.

It is not simplicity, but rather the reduction of complicatedness, which is indeed the true scientific virtue.

Comprehension is meta-understanding, which innately disrupts paradigm even more effectively than it does ignorance.

While I appreciate the efforts on the part of my followers therefore, to understand what I have attempted to communicate in a mere 280 character Tweet, my objection in some cases centers around what I call The Rules of Comprehension:

The Rules of Comprehension

  1. It is not beauty, familiarity, and simplicity, but rather elegance which relates truth.
  2. Elegance is ‘efficiency in explanatory reach’, but is neither necessarily simple nor detectable as ‘beauty’.
  3. Simplicity as a familiar state, is not the same thing as the more useful process of reduction to straightforwardness.
  4. Complicatedness is not the same thing as the comparatively preferential state of complexity.
  5. Effective reduction of a problem involves filtering out the non-critical and irrelevant, so as to bring a problem and/or its resolution to straightforwardness (even though it may appear at the time, complex).
  6. Comprehension is an innately disruptive and potentially uncomfortable process of
    • winnowing out the complicated,
    • reducing the complexity of the problem to straightforwardness,
    • identifying and prosecuting the critical path of questions/issues necessary in deriving inference, and
    • assessing the elegance of that derived inference – and not necessarily its comfort in familiarity.

Under this philosophy of ‘function over form’, always therefore prefer

elegance over beauty
the straightforward over the simple
the complex over the complicated
description over explanation
comprehension over mere understanding
.

~ The Ethical Skeptic

I am asking my readers to winnow out their familiar preconceived notions and comprehend, not merely understand, what I am saying. Comprehension should result in the introduction of more, not fewer, unanswered questions. Knowledge does not always, and in fact rarely, converges to simplicity and ease of portability. After all, such is the nature of our reality – an unbounded concatenation of possibility. One must remain tolerant of the discomfort of uncertainty, and learn to surf its frothing and tempestuous fabric. Such I suspect, is an asset we can and do ‘take with us’ when we leave this Earth.

It is important to comprehend, that as a skill comprehension is more important than mere understanding.

I will leave you now with a re-posting of a principle of philosophy I call the Bridgman Point.

Bridgman Point – the point at which a principle can no longer be dumbed-down any further, without sacrifice of its coherency, accuracy, salience or context.

This is the point below which, the reader must step up, and undertake the hard work and responsibility of comprehension. This is the point at which, one risks betraying or losing the ephemeral principle they have freshly crafted. It does not matter whether or not the principle has been apprehended before, and certainly there is a role for instructing one with truth. However it is the visceral process of apperception, crafting, and communication – philosophical comprehension, which serves to transform the mind and soul of its participant. This is the way.

We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

~ President John F. Kennedy, Commencement Address at Yale University, June 11 1962

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

~ Albert Einstein

Never accept the ‘simple’ – the pining, explaining, and debunking of the fake skeptic. Such poseurs exploit the knowledge that by spoon-feeding you (explaining) that which is immediately abductive, they become a ‘God-standard’ in correctness. True skepticism at its heart detests such pretense in epistemology. It is hungry, it is foolish. True skepticism is the fascinating path of comprehension, a journey from inside which I earnestly beckon my readers, ‘come and see’.

The Ethical Skeptic, “The Distinction Between Comprehension and Understanding (The Problem of Abduction)”; The Ethical Skeptic, WordPress, 6 Jan 2022; Web, https://theethicalskeptic.com/?p=59781