Another Way (of Learning)
In this chapter, the man who created quantum physics explains the way of thinking of the man who created the theory of relativity. With some help from a prominent linguist and Aristotle, we are extending his explanation to another way of learning.
As described in the previous chapter, humans and other animals can be trained with reinforcement to recognize regularities known to others. Regularities learned this way should be regularly reinforced. Furthermore, it’s impossible to learn to understand a new regularity this way, because understanding requires the “animal-like method of trial and error, with accidental success,” discovered by Thorndike but understood as the primary method of science only by Pavlov 35 years later. It is another way.
Another way of learning is the way of discovery of regularities anew. Some would even claim that we are rather inventing or creating than discovering new regularities because those regularities don’t exist in the reality given to us in our sensations before we indeed create them in our minds and prove by trial and error that they objectively work. According to Max Planck, babies and true scientists practice another way of learning in its most pure form.
Indeed it’s impossible to discover anything new in modern science without the existing knowledge accumulated in the relevant field but such knowledge is a supportive foundation but not the cutting edge of the process of scientific discovery. Let Albert Einstein explain to us how another way of learning works.
Einstein described such a process as a “combinatory play” with “visual and motor” “physical entities” that continues until “the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.”
Only after the establishment of a new regularity through the play of rearranging images “conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously,” according to Einstein.
Interestingly, unambiguous definitions of Aristotelian logic were too always preceded by metaphors which, according to Aristotle, allowed people to understand unknown things through their resemblance with things which they understood. Furthermore, metaphor, according to Aristotle, “makes people see things” by presenting them “as in a state of activity.”
So what’s the connection between Einstein’s sensory-motor way of thinking and Aristotelian view on metaphors if usually, we think of metaphor as something purely linguistic?
However, from the modern theory of conceptual metaphor, introduced by George Lakoff, we learn that “the metaphor is not just a matter of language, but of thought and reason. The language is secondary. The mapping is primary.” Conceptual metaphor, according to Lakoff, is the ontological mapping of one concept to another.
In its turn, an object, a building block of the objective world around us is just “a synthesis of different sensory impressions achieved with the help of the unifying concept of a thing,” as Max Planck put it. In other words, it means that a thing itself is a concept. If so then Einstein’s play with “physical entities” is nothing else but an exercise of mapping of a new emerging concept to existing nonverbal concepts.
The reason why Einstein was playing with “physical things” in his mind is also very well explained by Max Planck. The task of science, according to him, is to introduce “order and regularity into the wealth of heterogeneous experiences conveyed by the various fields of the sense world.”
The “sense world” of Plank consists of “the impressions we receive in life from the outside world directly through our sense organs, the eyes, ears, etc.” Therefore, the “sense world” supplies science with “absolutely the most certain” facts about the outside world.
“Under closer examination, this task (of introducing order and regularity) proves to be fully consistent with the task which we are habitually performing in our lives ever since our earliest infancy, in order to find our way and place in our environment,” Planck continues re-establishing the connection between the scientific way of thinking of people like Albert Einstein and the conventional empiricism of all people.
Objects surrounding us in the ‘real’ world of our sensations are nothing but concepts unifying different sensations. Conceptual metaphors i.e. regularities in relations between these concepts are established with another way of learning. Such regularities are the laws of Nature, which true scientists, babies, and curious people alike are seeking to invent (discover) all their lives.
- Max Plank, The Meaning and Limits of Exact Science
- Jacques S. Hadamard, Albert Einstein’s testimonial for An Essay on the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field
- Aristotle, Rhetoric
- George Lakoff, The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor
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Next Chapter: The Reality of Thought