”Belief, a psychological state in which an individual holds a proposition or premise to be true”
I was pondering this morning about the difference between Learning, Believing and Knowing. The differences may seem obvious but I’d like to explore whether the following is true:
- Does learning lead to knowing or merely to believing?
- What constitutes knowing something?
- If a fact requires experience to confirm it, what if we have no experience of the subject of the fact?
We say things like “you learn something new every day!” but how much of the stuff that is absorbed into our brains on a daily basis is actually learning? Since I started using Twitter a couple of years ago I feel that I have learned very much from many people on many subjects. Similarly, as I read blogs, articles and books and talk to people I feel I am learning more and more. But what do we mean when we say we are learning? Do we mean that we are acquiring new facts (or believe we are) or are we merely merging what we are being told and what we have seen and read into our own opinions and views of what we know?
Does Peru exist?
This seems a silly question but I am using it to make an important distinction between knowledge and belief. Of course the answer to this should be a unanimous “yes”. But why am I so sure that Peru exists? I have never been there. I can’t remember talking to anyone who says they have been there. The reason I know it exists is that there is overwhelming evidence to its existence that I have observed. I have seen pictures (claiming to be) taken in Peru. I have seen video footage (supposedly) shot in Peru. I’ve seen (what I’m told is) Peru on satellite images of the Earth. It is a “fact”. Right?
“A fact (derived from the Latin factum, see below) is something that has really occurred or is actually the case. The usual test for a statement of fact is verifiability, that is whether it can be proven to correspond to experience.”
Hang on, so I can only verify that Peru’s existence is a fact if it has proven to correspond to experience? Well I have no experience of Peru, other than the pictures, video, etc. that I’ve seen, so until I’ve actually got on a plane and gone to Peru can I be absolutely 100% sure it exists? If I’m really pushed may my confidence level only be 99.9999999%? I’m relying on other people’s proof and experience for me to be so sure that Peru exists. Rather like we rely on scientific understanding of the world to establish facts that would be impossible for us individually to verify (like gravity) and reject information that is not established as fact (like the existence of a higher being, intelligent design, etc.).
I don’t remember the instant when I first heard there was a country called Peru. Let’s assume as a child I heard someone mention it and I asked my parents “What’s Peru?”, to which my Dad answered “It’s a country in South America”. Now, my question here is: at the point my Dad told me of Peru’s existence as a country in South America, did I learn that Peru exists or did I simply begin to believe that Peru exists? I was a child so I was also told of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy’s existence. What made Peru’s existence more real to me?
Do I know anything?
To give a current, grown up example, I follow a gentleman on Twitter called Bob Marshall (@flowchainsensei) who, among his other achievements, created the Marshall Model of Organisational Evolution. In Bob’s words:
“Simply put, the Model explains how the effectiveness of any knowledge-work organisation is a direct function of the kind of mindset shared collectively by all the folks working in the organisation – managers, executives and employees, all.
effectiveness = f(mindset)”
Since I first learned of the Marshall Model’s existence (I observed it personally, and so can you with the link above, so can verify as a fact that the Marshall Model exists), I have read more about it, interacted with Bob on Twitter and blog posts and from all this have gleaned a genuine interest in organisational effectiveness (thanks Bob, if you’re reading this).
What’s also interesting to me though is how I have embraced the rightshifting concept to a point that I tell others about it. I now know not only about its existence but also what it tells us about organisations. Or do I? Bob came up with the model and so obviously believes, knows it to be a true reflection of organisational effectiveness. But when I read more and talked to Bob about it, did I learn more about the model or do I merely start believing more in the model? Do I now know that effectivness is a function of mindset, do I merely believe it or have I simply learned that someone else believes or knows it?
I have always felt in my career that there are certain types of organisation when it comes to culture and how they get things done, and certainly prosper more readily in, to use Bob’s model, the more rightshifted organisations. So is there a chance that when I saw the Marshall Model my cognitive bias leaned me towards the principles and helped me embrace it as observable and true? Or do I actually have evidence that the model is true and thus I have learned the model’s effects as fact?
My cognitive bias also leaned me towards Agile because the values and principles align with me as a human being. One might call this “mindset“. I coach Agile principles and practices and have observed certain behaviours causing certain results, some repeatedly. But all of my experiences and what I constitute as knowledge is all based on my own view of the work and the world. Without continued learning on everything I think I know about, even things I consider myself an “expert” in, I cannot be sure that I actually know enough, or will ever. For all I know, everyone else I encounter might think I’m a complete duffer when it comes to product development even though I think I’m quite good at it!
Learn to learn
We all use our knowledge every day in our work and our personal lives. I do think though that it’s very important to acknowledge that much of what we think we know may actually just be things we believe and have never actually verified them to be fact.
This is one of the many reasons why learning is the key word from the three used in the title of this post. We cannot know, even believe in something until we have learned about it. I learned about God as a child and started to believe in Him. I learned about Santa Claus and believed in Him too. But I never really knew that either existed. I certainly thought I knew (presents arrived on Christmas Day), but I didn’t. Unless we recognise that we must learn how to learn, then continue to learn daily, infinitely, we cannot purport to truly know anything.
What do you think you know?
(Definitions are courtesy of Wikipedia.)