Understanding-1-2-3

Epistemic Status: Seems worth sharing

Assumes Knowledge Of: System 1 and System 2 from Thinking, Fast and Slow

While in San Francisco this past week, I found myself in many complex and rapid conversations, with new ideas and concepts flying by the second. I hadn’t experienced this since least February’s AI Safety Unconference. It is wonderful to be pushed to one’s limits, but it means one must often rely on System-1 rather than System-2, or one will be left behind and lost. I now realize this is what happened to me in foreign language classes – I was using System-2 to listen and talk, and that doesn’t work at all if others don’t wait for you.

This meant that often I’d grasp what was being said in an intuitive sense using System-1, or agree or disagree in that fashion, without the time to unpack it. This can lead to great understanding, but also lead to waking up the next day having no idea what happened, or thinking about it in detail and realizing you didn’t understand it after all. So when people asked if I understood things, I instinctively started saying things like “I understand-1 but not 2.” I also did this for beliefs and agreements.

I debated explaining it but decided not to, as a test to see if others would intuit the meaning, most seemed to (or ignored the numbers, or came up with something equivalent in context); one person explicitly asked, and said he’d use it. I think this may be a valuable clarification tool, as it’s very different to understand-1 versus understand-2, or agree-1 versus agree-2, and seems better than saying something like “I kind of agree” or “I think I agree but I’m not sure,” which are both longer and less precise ways people often say the same thing.

My system-1 also added understand-3. Understand-3 means “I understand this well enough to teach it.” By extension, believe-3 or agree-3 means “I believe this, know how to convince others, and think others should be convinced.” To truly understand something, one must be able to explain, teach or defend it, which also means you and others can build solidly upon it. Writing has helped me turn much understanding-2 (and understanding-1) into understanding-3.

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3 Responses to Understanding-1-2-3

  1. benquo says:

    I think I find it hard to say that I understand if I don’t understand-3 – I think what you’re calling understand-1 I call, finding something facially plausible, and what you’re calling understand-2 I call having an account of it. Cf. The “I Already Get It” Slide.

  2. mquander says:

    In discussions like this I just obnoxiously slow down everything by asking questions until I understand-3 every step, because understanding-1 seems kind of boring and not how I endorse spending my time with other smart people that know valuable things.

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