Thursday, October 22, 2015

Learning by Observation

Sir Issac Newton
Long before any of us understand language, learn to read, or attend school, we have learned a great deal about the world by drawing conclusions from our direct observations. No matter how much knowledge we absorb, we continue to draw new conclusions from our direct experience.

In 1686, Sir Issac Newton published four rules of scientific reasoning in his Principia Mathematica. These rules are essentially how we interpret and generalize from experience whether or not we are conscious of the process. Rather than use Newton's terminology, I am going to interpret these in my own words.

Find the Simplest Explanation

We don't like complexity.  As soon as we find an explanation that appears true and a reasonable explanation, we are content with that answer and stop looking for another explanation.

The Causes are Always the Same

Once we decide that a result is caused by an event, we assume that every time we see that result, it was caused by the same event.

If it is True in our Experience, it is a Universal Truth

Each situation we encounter is new, but we need to decide how to approach it based on our previous experience. If we have seen an event trigger a result in the past, we expect it to trigger the same result this time and every subsequent time.

We are Right Until Proven Otherwise

Once we believe we understand how something works, we are confident that understanding is correct until we see an incident that directly contradicts our conclusions.

These four rules of reasoning are an essential part of our human nature and the reason we are able to learn so much, so quickly. They are also the fundamental underpinning of science. But they also explain why we are so prone to jumping to incorrect conclusions and why it can be so difficult to change our minds once we make a conclusion.

As a child, our understanding of the world is simple and naive. As we have greater experience, our understanding gains nuance as we try to understand the increasing complex interactions we have with others. Our ability to learn from conversation with others, reading, and watching video allows us to expand our understanding beyond our own personal experiences.

At each step, we need to fit the new knowledge into our existing model of how the world works. And at every stage of life, we think we understand things better than we actually do.

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From the Specific to the General and Back Again
Reverse Mentoring
The Age of Creativity