To understand something, anything, two things need to happen. I need to be able to detect some sort of data coming from the thing and I need to be able to analyze that data.
In terms of detection, most humans have five senses. We can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. Basically all information that reaches our brain must come through one of these five channels. In order for me to detect something, it must emit or reflect data that I can detect in one of these ways or that can be translated into one of these senses by a machine. For instance, I cannot see infrared rays from different stars but I can use a machine to translate such data into something that I can see on a screen.
If something does not emit or reflect any light, sound, vibration, taste or smell; or any data that I can translate into light, sound, vibration, taste, or smell, I can not know of it’s existence. Does this mean that if I cannot see, hear, feel, taste or smell a thing that it does not exist? No! It just means that I can’t see, hear, feel, taste or smell it.
How would we know if things in the universe, indeed things right here on earth, are “talking behind our backs” if we can’t sense them? We have no idea what’s going on apart from what we can detect with our five senses. Of course it’s hard to imagine modes of data other than what can be seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. It’s terribly hard to imagine because those are the only senses we know! But that doesn’t mean that all things in the universe limit themselves to emitting or reflecting information that we can sense. Would’t it be terribly arrogant to assume that just because we humans cannot sense something that it doesn’t exist? Yes.
And many things emit or reflect data that we can only partially detect. Some sounds that creatures emit are outside our range of hearing and have only recently been detected with the use of machines. A bat, for instance, reflects light that I can see but also emits sonar which I can’t see (although it can be detected with a machine). So it’s not just that we know something is there or it isn’t, rather, my Theory of Relative Understanding holds that the better match between what something emits or reflects and my ability to detect such things, the better my chance of understanding it.
This is why we humans have the best chance of understanding humans. The correlation between the format of messages we send are in almost perfect sync with the format of messages we are able to receive. It’s like this with all species. This is one reason why creatures within a species understand each other better than creatures of different species.
The other thing that needs to happen is analysis. Once I see that shape or hear that sound I need to be able to make sense of it. Basically, I have to be able to compare it to something else I know; something else that I have seen or heard or learned about in the past. All understanding is “relative” to something else. I have to have something to compare to and that’s how I make judgements. The more knowledgeable I have of comparisons, the greater my analytic ability. The greater access I have to the knowledge of other people – the results of past experiments or observations – the greater my chances of analyzing a thing; that is, putting it in context.
If I am a fashion expert, I might see a scarf and understand that it was designed by Anne Tourmaine of Paris. If I am humble philosopher I might see a scarf and understand that, “Oh, that’s a scarf.” Analytic ability depends on my knowledge and my experience. You might even call it wisdom.
If I see something that is completely different from anything I have ever seen or heard about before, than I will not be able to understand it at all. I maybe able to defect it perfectly but without any context, without any analytic ability, my understanding of it is zero.
Understanding requires a combination of two types of ability: detection and analysis. And not only that, one’s level of understanding of another is directly relative to how much it can detect and analyze the other.