Someone tells you something, to which you respond, "I understand". But do we really understand or do we just think we understand?

Disclaimer: by no means am I expert on this matter. A lot has been written about this, and I haven't read any of it. This is just my (possibly naive) take on it.

Poorly articulated

When someone tells you something, anything at all, you might think you have grasped what they are saying. One of the problems here is that we may feel something and yet not be able to articulate it well. There are many examples of this – take morality for example. A lot of people have a deep sense of what is right or wrong, even those that have not been influenced by western culture (such as some tribes). The strange thing is, as shown by scenarios such as the trolley problem, people are often unable to articulate why something is morally permissible in one situation but not in another. There's a lot that can be said on this, but instead I would refer you to God Delusion by Richard Dawkins for a much better description than I could provide.

Coming back to the point, you, yourself, may have found yourself in this situation: you're trying to explain something to someone but you're just not finding the right words to express what you want to say. The other person, however, seemingly understands what you're saying even though you don't think you've made much sense in what you have said. But let's say that in this scenario you doubt that the other person has actually understood what you mean. From the point of view of the other person, they think they have understood (it's not important here whether they actually have) what you are saying. The problem here is that they can only go off what you have said and their own thoughts and experiences. The problem here is that instead of understanding, they perceive that they have understood.

But what if something was articulated well?

For sake of argument, let's now briefly assume that someone else articulated something well.

The problem here is actually the same as if something was articulated poorly. Since we likely do not have exactly the same experiences and memories (and created the same kinds of neural connections) as the other person, we could interpret something differently. The strange thing is, what if we all interpret things differently (even slightly)? Critics may argue that this is nonsense, citing people that come to the same conclusion as a counterexample. However, that's not to say that we haven't understood things differently. We can come to the same conclusions if, for example, we have been conditioned by society to think a particular way. For a contrived example, take what most people would do if they see a burning building. Most people, I suspect, would tell you that you should first get yourself into a safe position and then call 999 (or your country's equivalent for contacting the fire brigade). It's considered to be the 'right thing to do' (which I am not doubting in the slightest).

The underlying premise is that since we are all coming at things from different angles, what if we can never actually understand something exactly the way another person has intended but can only understand it in a way that aligns with our own experiences?

I'm not arguing for perceiving over understanding or visa versa. I just thought this was an interesting thing to think about. Perhaps it's unfair to look at things in such absolute terms: it may be the case that we understand in some cases and perceive that we understood in others.

Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash