The Theory of Relative Understanding

Caution. Ideas under construction. Participation encouraged.

There is a lot we don’t know.

Basically there is a lot going on behind our backs. We have tried through science to unlock the mysteries of the universe yet we are not nearly as close to “all-knowing” as some of us think we are.

We have tried through liberal arts to understand human nature yet, like in science, we have made many erroneous assumptions and don’t know nearly as much as we think we do.

Our ability to understand the world around us is limited in several ways and we tend to pretend that such limits don’t exist. Somewhere along the line of evolution our species developed the notion that we have special access to truth; that we are superior to others. And so too, many individual members of our species believe that they special access to truth; that they are superior to other members of our species. I think that this superiority notion has actually caused us to overlook significant truths, or at least possibilities, about how the world works. When you think you know it all, you tend to be closed to learning new things.

In fact we’re not all that smart. As a species our understanding of the world is extremely limited by where we sit (our place in time and our position in space) and by our ability to see (our senses and related tools). Same with individuals: my understanding of anything around me, anything, is governed by where I sit and how well I see.

This is not an attempt to say what is true. I’m not trying to bring you “a new truth.” Rather, this is an attempt to change how we define truth, change how we think about what’s true and and what isn’t, and inspire us to act on new truths discerned in new ways.

This is my theory of relative understanding, a 53 year old amateur philosopher’s attempt to explain how things might work. It is a hypothesis. It is unproven. It is a small boat of an idea set forth onto the vast ocean of the internet to see if anyone comes aboard.

Short Version

What you see depends on where you sit and how well you see. Understanding is always relative and never absolute.

Medium Version

relative-understanding-video-graphic-overview-of-the-hypothesisMy understanding of anything else is directly proportional to how close it is to me in space and time, how big it is relative to me, how fast it lives relative to me, and how I experience it.

By “how close it is” I mean the physical distance between me and the thing I am trying to understand. As I sit writing this I have a better chance of understanding something in this room than something in France than something on another planet or in another galaxy.

And “how close it is” also refers to the amount of time that has passed between me and the thing I am trying to understand. I have a better chance of understanding something current than something that happened a week ago or a year ago or a century ago or a light year ago.

I have a better chance of understanding things here and now than I do things that are many miles or many years away. And my chance of understanding something decreases in proportion to its spatial and chronological distance from me.

By “how big it is” I mean, “how much space does it occupy,” it’s volume, relative to my volume. I have a better chance of understanding something closer to my own size than something that is microscopic or astronomic. I am existing at the same time and place as a molecule on my fingernail and as the galaxy around me but these things are harder for me to understand than the table before me because they are so small and so large relative to me. The table I work on is “at human scale.”

For more about relative physical distance, amount of time, and volume, see Understanding is Relative to Proximity and Scale.

By “How fast it lives” refers to how much space something takes up, yet it also refers to “how much time it occupies.” I’m talking about a thing’s duration; the amount of time between when a thing is born and when it dies, relative to how long I live. Every thing has a “rate of time” which is proportional to it’s lifespan and to its physical size. It’s very hard for me to understand what life is like for a tiny thing (like a molecule) that exists for just a millionth of the time that I exist, or for an enormous thing (like a galaxy) that exists for a million times longer than me. I believe that from the perspective of the molecule or the mountain, time passes at the same rate as it does for me. Both the molecule and the mountain have rich full lives with birth and growth and decline and death and lots of drama in between, just like me. Although for the molecule and the mountain these things happen at a different pace than they do for me.

For more about relative duration and the rate of time, see The Pace of Time is Variable and Time Does not have a Single Direction, and other posts in the Time Category.

I have a better chance of understanding things that are relatively the same size as me than I do things that are really big and exist for a long time or things that are really small and exist for a short time. And my chance of understanding something decreases in proportion to it’s physical and chronological size relative to me.

By “how I experience it” I am thinking of my ability to sense information that a thing sends (heat, sound, reflected light, etc.). Like most humans, I can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch but if something emits data that cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched, I might not even know that it exists. I am sometimes able to understand a thing that I can’t directly see, hear, smell, taste and touch because someone has developed technology that converts otherwise undetectable data into something I can see, hear, smell, taste or touch (usually see or hear), such as a radio wave from a distant star represented on a screen. However, my understanding decreases with how far I am removed from directly sensing something myself.

One factor of sensing ability is match; that is, the extent to which there s a match between what the thing puts out and what I’m able to detect. Another factor is amount. If a thing emits lots of data over menu years I have a much better chance of understanding it than if it emits just a few seconds of data. If I can collect lots of data I have a better chance of understanding than if I collect minimal amounts of data.

And “how I experience it” here also represents my analytical ability; my knowledge, my prior experience, my ability to analyze and draw useful conclusions from the information I receive. My analytical ability results from on-board knowledge gained through prior experience and learning, and it also results from my ability to access and apply knowledge of other thinkers. I can apply and build on the findings of scientific experiments conducted by others, apply algebraic equations proven by others, and read historical accounts of past events.

My likely understanding of something else varies in proportion to the extent that I can see, hear, smell, taste, and/or touch it multiplied by the extent to which I can make sense of that information.

For more about ability to sense and analytic ability, see Understanding is Relative to Ability.


Long Version

The rest of this website.

Algebraic Equation


The extent to which one thing can understand another is directly proportional to how far apart they are from one another (Proximity), how different they are in scale (ΔScale), and the ability of one thing to experience the other (Ability).

One’s increased Ability can make up for one’s decreased Proximity and/or ΔScale, and visa versa, hence Understanding is actually a combination of these two factors: Ability and Proximity + ΔScale. However, Understanding increases as the value for Proximity + ΔScale decreases, representing an inverse relationship. Understanding is actually proportional to 1 / Proximity + ΔScale. This is why Proximity + ΔScale is a denominator to Ability rather than multiplied by Ability.

Here’s a more detailed version of the same equation.


U represents understanding. The higher the value of U, the better the understanding.

One’s understanding of another is directly proportional to:

a. The physical distance between them

b. The chronological distance between them

c. The difference in their volumes

d. The difference in their durations (or rates of time)

e. The ability to sense the other

f. The ability to analyze what one senses

All measured in Home Units, that is, units of measurement at a scale appropriate to the entity that seeks to understand the other. See Home Units.

The Equation’s Results are Relative, not Absolute

The above equation is a rough approximation of how six factors might be mathematically combined to arrive at a number which is useful for comparing relative understanding. The equation is not intended to derive an absolute value for understanding; something that can be universally transferred.

Imagine that deer and turtle are on one side of a river and hawk and bug are on the other side. On one side of the river, deer and frog are a mile away from each other and similarly on the other side of the river, hawk and bug are a mile away from each other.

I might apply the equation to see how deer’s understanding of hawk compares to deer’s understanding of bug. I apply the equation twice, plugging in all the factors for deer to hawk and plugging in all the factors from deer to bug and I arrive at a two values, one higher than the other, and this tells me that deer understands hawk relatively better than bug, and by how much.

Or I might apply the equation to see how deer’s understanding of hawk compares to frog’s understanding of bug. I apply the equation twice, plugging in all the factors for deer to bug and plugging in all the factors from frog to bug and I arrive at a two values, one higher than the other, and this tells me that frog understands bug relatively better than deer understands bug, and by how much.

In any given case the values of several factors in the equation may not be known. Actually, that is perfectly fine for relative comparison purposes IF we at least know that the unknown values are similar for two or more things under scrutiny. The equation still tells us about relative understanding.

Application of the Theory

I have tried to write a theory that applies to both the sciences and the humanities.

In the world of science the theory is intended to account for why there is so much we don’t know and why “laws of nature” are later disproved altogether or found not to apply as widely as once thought. The theory provides perfectly justifiable reasons for not being able to prove everything, find every right answer, and why there are so many “mysteries of the universe.”

The theory is also intended to disrupt conventional thinking about the nature of time (that it ticks away at a constant pace in a single direction for all things). The theory is also intended to disrupt conventional thinking about what is alive and what is dead. I don’t think there is a difference; it’s just that relative to where I sit and how I see, some things seem alive and some things seem dead.

The theory is not intended to discredit the scientific method, just that there are limits on what science can reveal to us no matter how rigorously applied. Scientific “facts” most likely to endure are those based on the minimum amount of presumption. The theory tries to provide a way to reveal and even quantify presumptions.

In the world of humanities the theory is intended to level the playing field among human beings. It is to say that no one of us is smarter than all of us. Not one among us has any more direct access to universal truth than anyone else, because there is no universal truth, and what’s true for me is just as valid as what’s true for you.

The theory invites us to solve problems in new ways; not by finding a single right answer but by finding solutions that accommodate multiple truths. Not only that, the theory attempts to put human beings in their rightful place in the universe, no more special or more universally intelligent than any other beings. We just appear more intelligent than other species or things, relative to ourselves of course.

And I have tried to write a theory that applies to ALL things: human relationships with other humans, human relationships with other species, and human relationships with all other things on our planet and in the universe that we seek to understand. And the theory is not all about me or us understanding other things. Other things like animals and plants and rocks have the capacity to understand also. This theory applies to them too, and how they understand “their” worlds.

The primary way in which I am hoping the theory gets applied is that before making decisions that have impacts on other humans and on other animals and on the natural world, we pause to recognize the relative understanding of the impacts of our decisions. I’m hoping that we make fewer decisions based on dangerous presumptions.

Where the potential impact of an activity is high and the relative understanding on which it is based is low, do nothing! The universe will get along fine without our arrogant tinkering.

Check out The Rule of Relative Impact.

6 responses

  1. I mean to say that this is wrong is an understatement and what it proposes is essentially what is wrong with the world today, where everyone lives in their own little bubble based on things that are “true for them”. You have extremists and flat earthers and climate deniers all saying they’re right and you are essentially agreeing with them, so in essence your theory would lead to stagnation and no improvement and perpetuate the problems that exist. You are essentially saying that Homosexuality being a sin is true for some (when it’s not) and that those who think it’s not a sin are also right. The reality is that it’s not a sin or a moral issue but those who think it is inflict great harm on those who are gay, and you’re essentially saying that’s ok because nothing is worth more than anything else.

    It would honestly take a whole deal of time to pick this entire thing apart, but to say it’s wrong would be the short end. I mean the math alone is just…no.

  2. I know you are trying to communicate a deeply held view of life and the world. But your use of language is so imprecise that virtually none of your specific assertions stand up to even the most simple of inspections.

    “By “how close it is” I mean the physical distance between me and the thing I am trying to understand. As I sit writing this I have a better chance of understanding something in this room than something in France than something on another planet or in another galaxy.”

    Taken on its face, absolutely nobody could take such an assertion seriously. Among many, many, many objections, here is just one. Your friend in France calls you up and says there is a new fruit drink you should try, tastes like orange and raspberry but with herbal twist, maybe some tarragon or local basil, and is a bit fizzy—you realize immediately you’ve never had just that kind of drink, but can immediately conjure up sensations of pouring a glass and tasting how refreshing it is. Continuing the conversation, you mention your plasma screen computer monitor just went out and nothing you do seems to make it turn on again (I’m assuming you’re not a dummy and you’ve checked the usual connections, etc).

    Then he asks you specifically *what* happened. Ha. No chance. You don’t know at all. You (as well as I) know precisely nothing of importance about plasma screen monitors past the on-button and the power cord. Maybe a component burned out, maybe some moisture got in, maybe the software has a bug, maybe, maybe, maybe, but it’s probably something you’ve never even heard of. You know about the object in France. But in its current state you know *nothing* about what’s right in front of you.

    What was that, again, about proximity to an object?

    What you’ll probably do here, to object, is say something about what “really” understanding what the fruit drink “really” is, and we don’t “really” know it any better than we know the monitor, or you’ll play some other word game.

    But hopefully I’m underestimating you. You might do the intelligent thing and develop your theory a bit further, for instance investigating component complexity and how that effects understanding. Hopefully you could work it into something a bit more sensical than “I apply the equation twice, plugging in all the factors for deer to hawk and plugging in all the factors from deer to bug and I arrive at a two values, one higher than the other, and this tells me that deer understands hawk relatively better than bug, and by how much.” Huh. Is that so.

    You’ll never clarify your own thoughts, certainly never convince others, without precise language and careful attention to the content of your assertions. Sorry but few of your specific assertions hold any water. What you’ve done is woven a kind of impressionistic tapestry of your inner life, with false or useless statement spiraling after false or useless statement, that build into a kind of sense of your feelings on the meaning of life and our place in the universe.

    Look. You seem to really, really like multiple truths (oh sorry *no* truths) and stuff like “no person or species is superior to any other, that the pace of time is variable, and that all things are living” or something. Just accept that these are spiritual beliefs, your private revelations straight to you from the universe (which doesn’t exist… or isn’t that true? Whoops I mean not true? Wait. I’m lost.). It’s ultimately dishonest trying to justify your spiritual insights by pretending they’re the result of some kind of reasoning, or that a theory can be built on them. Because it isn’t being true. I mean not true. Wait, I mean isn’t being not true. Wait. Crap.

    And drop the algebra. It’s corny. You clearly don’t know any math.

    • Golocyte,

      Thank you so much for carefully reading through the theory and for your comments. I get so many shallow and uninformed comments. It’s very refreshing and helpful to receive comments from someone who actually read through this stuff and took the time to write detailed feedback.

      Indeed, my language is imprecise. I have a clear vision of the theory in my head but find it very difficult to convey. I’m trying with words and with video and with algebra but obviously I have a long way to go.

      I would welcome your additional comments and suggestions for improvement.

      Thanks again for taking the time and making the effort.

      – Craig

  3. Mathematics is a construct. Mathematics is representational only and trivializes reality.
    The senses are the basis for all representation of our reality. Our personal experiences based upon our senses are open to interpretation. We learn to construct a view of our reality based upon our senses and interpret reality based upon our learning. Finally, we project a construct of reality to be able to maximize our ability to manipulate events we experience to ensure our survival.

  4. An interesting theory, and one that seems to make sense. I certainly cannot immediately find a hole in it, although I would wonder if you need “how big it is” – the use of “how close it is” could also be taken to mean how similar something is to yourself, which I feel is at the heart of the “how big it is” element of the theory.

    Very much looking forward to finding out more – and if you’d like a platform to share your theory, I’d welcome a guest post on my blog! 🙂

    • Really? Because this seems like nonsense. As Glocyte mentioned it barely holds any water. There is no “relative” truths, he’s trying to say that one’s belief is just as good as any other and this is simply not so.

      The algebra I will agree is useless, it doesn’t prove anything.

      But we know for a fact that there is no such thing as mind, we have mapped any sort of attribute it has to the brain. In the example of the plasma TV just because I don’t know how it works doesn’t mean there isn’t an “objective” understanding of how to use it.

      Even the short version is flat out wrong. What you see does not depend on where you sit or how well you see. Understanding is not relative, it’s incomplete until further evidence comes in.

      It’s like with the myths or stories of old for how the world worked, they were models and protypes before we learned what ACTUALLY caused this stuff. Volcanoes are plate tectonics not angry gods, humorism was disproven and demonic possession was shown to be epilepsy. These are not relative, but the result of testing and exhaustive work. We know more today than most humans in the past ever did and we don’t need anyone saying stuff like “it’s all relative” because that opens the way for dangerous folks who try to pass their snake oil as medicine or like our modern times with the coronavirus and people denying it’s real (including the president).

      So no, it’s not relative. Incomplete and sometimes unknown yes but not relative. Chemistry is essentially proof against your flimsy theory.

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