Understanding is relative to proximity and scale

Caution. Ideas under construction. Participation encouraged.

We understand best those things that are closest to us and those things that are in scale with us.

The first part of my Theory of Relative Understanding is that understanding is relative to proximity in space and time, and it’s relative to proximity in scale. In other words, how much you can understand depends on where you sit and how well you can see.

Humans best understand things that are nearby and similarly-sized, things we can see with the naked eye and interact with. These things — the plants, animals, and people right around us – we have been studying for thousands of years and we know quite a lot about.

relative-understanding-video-graphic-proximity-and-scale1-e1422887310150Things physically far away from us — something across town or in a different part of the country or on a different continent or on a different planet — are harder and harder to understand the farther away they are; as a general rule. We have a better chance of understanding something close at hand than a world away. I’m simply naming that physical proximity is a factor in our ability to understand something.

Things chronologically close are also easier to understand. Things happening in the present are easier to understand than things that happened long time ago or have yet to happen. As a general rule we have a better chance of understanding recent history than ancient history and a better chance of forecasting the near future than the distant future. Our actual ability to understand tapers off in either direction.

Things at a different scale from us are also harder to understand even if close to us in space and time. Things requiring a microscope are generally harder to understand than things seen with the naked eye. Not many of us understand microbiology. As one goes smaller and smaller — micro-organisms, cells, organelles, molecules, atoms — fewer and fewer people understand these things. Same when we study things larger and larger, like the ocean, the earth, the sun, the galaxy. The farther we stray from our own human scale the fewer and fewer people understand what’s going on.

There are limits to what we can understand. Imagine I am looking into the large end of a “funnel of knowledge” pointed out at whatever I am trying to understand. The large end of the funnel is towards me and the small end is away from me. The farther away from me that something is and the difference in size from me that something is, the smaller the other end of the funnel; the small amount of data I can gather. How much data I can actually collect about a thing depends on its proximity and size relative to me.

Another analogy. Imagine I am standing inside a circle painted on the ground. Let’s say it’s about six feet in diameter. The circle represents “data available to me.” Right next to me is someone else standing in another circle. And actually I’m in a large group of people and we are all standing in our circles and all circles are touching each other. Now there is some data that we are missing, the data in the spaces outside the lines of our touching circles, the spaces in between our circles, but not much. As a group we are able to capture almost all of the data but some is in those spaces between our circles.

Now imagine that each one of these circles is actually an upright tube. I am standing in a tube that is right next to someone else’s tube. And imagine that these tubes are really tall. My tube represents my ability to collect data; to detect things through sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch and to analyze such things. We want to collect data not just on the ground but data up in the air and even out into space. We want to capture data not just immediately close to us, at ground level, but from far away also. Imagine the tubes are really, really tall.

At ground level, there is not too much data that is not within anyone’s tube. At a hundred feet up or even a thousand feet up, the tubes are still pretty much touching and not too much data is getting missed. But imagine what our little tubes look like from space. Little spikes radiating out from a round earth, like the spikes that radiate out from a Sea Urchin. As one gets father and farther away there is more and more space between the tubes. As my tube extends out really, really far from the earth, it seems alone in a vast amour of empty space.

As I try to understand things farther and farther away from here and now, as I try to understand things at vastly different scales, I completely miss ever increasingly vast amounts of data. My understanding becomes more and more limited.


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