Sunday, 11 March 2007

13. How do we learn?

Being human, we ought to know more and more. Certain biological drives, if harnessed, will encourage inventiveness and effort. These are the ones which we share with other animals; the drive to sexual reproduction, the drive to satisfy hunger, the drive for warmth and shelter. The pursuit of these is undoubtedly a powerful background force in the evolution of ingenious solutions by humans. It also leads to a great deal of competition.

Almost all human societies develop inequality. Sometimes this is within games, art, and knowledge, sometimes it is in material or symbolic goods (things which bring status and respect). The important thing is that competition, the desire to rise and the fear of falling, is the spur which drives many to attempt and perform difficult and often unpleasant things. This spur is not confined to modern western societies. One of the major sources of creative and inventive energy is the desire to win the admiration or envy of people we want to impress.

On the other hand, equally important is the pleasure of working successfully with people. Thus, with unique linguistic and co-operative tools, humans are above all social animals. Almost all significant advances in human culture involve mutual, co-operative, effort. A single person can achieve little.

Why do we give?

One way of understanding this is to think of the pleasure we get not only from receiving, but also giving, presents. The idea of a gift is that we offer it freely to another. Yet in practice it often means this means that the receiver must then return the compliment. In the wider sense, a gift is not just a present but can be many things done to please or impress another.

Whatever the gift it has several elements. There is the external, 'material' element, anything from food to a poem, from a victorious battle to a new theory in mathematics. Then behind this there is the 'spirit' of the gift, that is the social and symbolic relationship it represents. To give something and have it received, the way of giving and receiving, and the appreciation expressed in the counter-gift, all express a social relation. They allow the individual to show respect, express his or her personality, win esteem.

The pursuit of knowledge can be seen as a giant gift-giving network. What is presented to others in the network is more than mere material things. A scientist may discover a new fact or theory that she presents to her colleagues. Part of the scientist's spirit is invested in the theory. Furthermore, the gift tends to set up the obligation to reciprocate. Hence each scientific discovery is cumulative, not merely because it opens up diverse new understandings, but because it puts an obligation on others to give something back.

The gift should not be too precise, calculating or 'rational'. If scientists are constantly thinking of what would 'pay off' quickly, the kind of fundamental science which requires real risks and long-term effort would never be undertaken. Most significant science is fairly crazy, following hunches for years, struggling for very small rewards and forgoing short-cuts and short-term gains. For whom does the scientist do this? For others, a small group of friends and colleagues, teachers and pupils, a society which will honour his name, for posterity or God, but always as a gift to the other.

What puzzles us?

Humans, like a number of higher animals, have a great deal of curiosity, love of pattern-making, ingenuity and playfulness. If this is encouraged, or just allowed to flourish over time, it will lead to experiments, creative solutions to problems, avoiding obstacles and lead to rational attempts to overcome difficulties.

The processes of wonder, surprise and admiration are obvious in the case of a young child. I remember filming you Lily in Australia when you were very young as you tried out foods, fitted shapes together and explored your world. I could see a very powerful survival instinct at work in your desire, from a few days old, to understand how things work and are connected. Just to look is to start asking those 'why' questions for which children are famous.

In order to answer these questions, the child uses all sorts of methods; comparison, deduction (working from general laws to particular cases), induction (working from particular cases to general laws) and experimental testing. Every child has to be a pretty good scientist in order to survive. Yet this sense of curiosity and wonder is very often dampened in later life, either by external pressures or by an inner feeling that the answers are already known.

A child, a painter, a poet, a scientist, all are filled with wonder and surprise and try to explore and solve puzzles. The only difference between a child and a modern scientist is that as science becomes more effective it develops other tools and methods for this purpose. The child uses its natural intelligence; the musician the accumulated heritage of music in his own society; and the natural scientist uses mathematical and other methods in pursuit of understanding. Science also tends to be cumulative, knowledge can be tested, and questions are open and never finally settled. These three characteristics combine to give the potential for the development of reliable knowledge.

How does technology help?

What is special about human beings is that, more than other animals, they can transfer what they learn from their individual brains to the external world. They can store and transmit ideas through an elaborate cultural system. This makes knowledge grow quickly. This essential skill of human beings, their ‘culture’ can be either immaterial (language, songs, myths, traditions) or material (writing, physical tools, rituals and ways of working). Part of this vast realm, which is most dramatically changing your life, is the effect of technology.

One way in which technology alters our world is through the storage and expansion of ideas. New ideas become embedded in tools, which then, in turn, help us to think better. It is a triangular movement.

There is an increase in theoretical understanding, reliable knowledge about the world. This first point of the triangle is vital. The repeatable and dependable information about how the world works is almost always obtained through disinterested research. This is then sometimes embedded in improved or new physical artefacts or tools, the second point on the triangle. These artefacts, if they are useful and in demand and relatively easy to produce are disseminated in huge quantities. This multiplication of objects and their mass dissemination is the third point of the triangle. This then changes the conditions of life and may well feed back into the possibilities of further theoretical exploration.

This triangular movement has occurred in many spheres of life. The speed of moving round this triangle and its repetition lie behind much of what we describe as human development.

It is a general principle that as each piece of reliable knowledge is added it leads to the possibility of doing dozens of new things. Just as adding a wheel to a ‘meccano’ or other construction set transforms the potentials of all the previous pieces, so it is with many technologies, including wheels, printing, clocks, glass, photography and computing.

Unless something gets in the way of this process, reliable knowledge about the world and effective action to improve life should expand ever faster. This has been the story of the vast growth of the last three hundred years. Human understanding and control of nature have grown amazingly.

What did glass do?

Glass has changed the world. That it has done so appears to be the result of a giant accident, the fortuitous side product of other developments. The history of glass shows the way in which many of the increases in human knowledge through technology are the result of the unintended consequences of something else. It also shows that once the process of putting increased knowledge into artefacts becomes a conscious aim, it can lead to very rapid and impressive developments. It is an excellent illustration of the triangle of knowledge, leading through new artefacts and back to further knowledge by way of the multiplication of new tools. It also illustrates the meccano effect because glass itself has not just been one added resource for humans, but allowed changes in so many other technologies.

It began to be obvious to Islamic scholars from the ninth century, and to western European thinkers from the twelfth, that glass was more than just a marvellous substance for holding cool liquid and enhancing its beauty. It let in light but not cold. It could be manipulated to alter vision.

The idea of examining microscopic objects through glass and of bending and testing the properties of light was present from at least the ninth century. As the knowledge about the nature of light and of the chemistry of glass improved, so the tools of glass also improved. The most dramatic impact of this occurred at the end of the sixteenth century.

There is still a mystery about how people happened on the idea that by placing two suitably shaped pieces of glass near to each other it would be possible to see faraway things, or very tiny objects. Both the telescope and the microscope seem to have been developed in the Netherlands around the start of the seventeenth century and were obviously related to the making of spectacle lenses.

Without the telescope Galileo could not have developed and proved his fundamental theories. Without the microscope, the world of bacteria would never have been discovered. The developments had other side-effects, on optics, on the discovery of the vacuum, which was only made possible with a large glass flask within which a vacuum could be created and observed.

Because glass is an inert substance which is not corroded easily, and it is possible to see through, it became essential to the progress of chemistry using glass retorts, flasks, thermometers and barometers. Nowadays almost all scientific disciplines depend on glass, not to mention almost all transport systems, electricity, watches, televisions and much of what makes our civilization work. Our lives have been transformed. Look around you and you will see how glass is everywhere.

At a more fundamental level it is arguable that without glass the philosophical and emotional bases of both the Renaissance and modern scientific thought would not have been established. Sight is humankind's strongest sense. By providing new tools with which to see an invisible world of tiny creatures, or to contemplate distant stars invisible to the naked eye, glass not only made possible particular scientific discoveries, but led to a growing confidence in a world of deeper truths to be discovered.

It became clear that, with this key, people could unlock secret treasures of knowledge, see below and above the surface of things, destabilize conventional views. The obvious was no longer necessarily true. The hidden connections and buried forces could be penetrated.

It is also clear that the spread and improvement of glass technologies through Europe from the fourteenth century had profound effects on mathematics and geometry, and hence on perspective and art. So glass is a perfect example of the movement round a triangle. There is some new knowledge, then some new artefacts, and finally the mass dissemination of these artefacts which can lead back into further new knowledge.

Does technology always help?

Good glass-making techniques, including the blowing of glass, were known in China and Japan almost as early as in the west. Yet in those two countries there was little use for the substance. The major drink was hot water or boiled tea. For drinking tea, the excellent pottery and porcelain manufacture provided a perfect set of containers, from the humblest beaker to the most precious tea-bowl. Thus there was little market for glass containers which were much more fragile. In Europe glass was particularly developed in order to satisfy the demand for wine goblets.

Glass making was developed in the cold northern part of Europe for letting in light but not wind. Some of the earlier glass could only be afforded by rich religious institutions and this was often partly decorative, stained to the amazing colours we can still see in Chartres Cathedral or King's College Chapel in Cambridge. The use of glass for ordinary windows spread rapidly in the sixteenth century, particularly in the wealthier houses of northern countries.

In China and Japan, however, window glass was not developed because it was not desirable. In Japan, the frequent earthquakes would have shattered the glass. The buildings made of bamboo and wood would not have been suited to glass windows. There was the presence of an excellent and much cheaper alternative, mulberry paper, which could be made into movable walls. All these combined to make window glass unattractive. Furthermore, here and elsewhere, glass making requires kilns fired to a very high temperature where the glass is kept continuously molten. It is very fuel intensive so can only be made in areas of thin population and thick forests. China and Japan seldom met these conditions.

Another use of glass is most directly linked to the tools of thought, that is its use for spectacles. It is one of the ironies of life that just as many reach the peak of knowledge, in the mid forties and fifties, they find it impossible to continue reading. They have to hold a book at such a distance away from their eyes that they cannot distinguish the characters. This was a serious drawback up to the fifteenth century, especially for bureaucracies and institutions where the most skilled in literacy and accounting could no longer read. It became an even more serious disability after the printing revolution made books for scholarship or private enjoyment widely available.

It is exactly around the time of the printing revolution that the making of spectacles developed rapidly. The increase in knowledge arising from this development was enormous, lengthening the intellectual life of some of the best trained minds.

What makes people creative?

The rapid development of knowledge and artefacts needs an exact balance between what we can call ‘boundedness’ and ‘leakiness’. At the extreme, if a system has no bounds, then nothing will have time to grow before it is swept away by the next thought or invention. It is like a flat surface, swept by rapid winds or tides, or a bare mountainside with no crevice for plants to grow in, no ledge for the poppy.

Yet at the other extreme, if the ledges turn into impassable barriers, there is the opposite difficulty, of involution or stasis. Change and improvement have many foes and there are always more reasons for not doing things than for doing them. If almost complete control can be maintained within a bounded unit, as happened in China or Japan for long periods, then few new things can happen.

New ideas, coupled with the threat of being outflanked and outmoded make people inventive. However, ideas must come in at a constant, controlled, rate. This happened in Japan over the century from 1868. It is happening in rather different ways in China today. If they pour in too fast, as with market capitalism in Russia at the end of the twentieth century, they can overwhelm a civilization. From the ninth to the nineteenth century Europe combined bounded political and cultural entities within a highly inter-connected land mass. So ideas and artefacts could rapidly drift from place to place.

The interconnections between a number of independent centres of innovation are very important. Because of the difficulties of achieving major break-throughs, it is unlikely that they will often occur within a bounded unit all by themselves. There is too little data available, very highly trained and able thinkers are few, and people are blinkered. Thus major break-throughs tend to occur when scientists communicate with each other at a distance.

The major scientific discoveries from the twelfth century to the present were the results of wide European contacts. The ease of such networking in Europe was made much greater by a common religion (Christianity), common language (Latin) and many common traditions. There was a fraternity of scholars and inventors. Good ideas travelled very fast. The impact of printing as a way of moving ideas rapidly across Europe is obviously also crucial.

A major motive in the search for increasingly reliable knowledge is curiosity. The European experience increased the number of puzzles which faced people. Huge amounts of new information poured into Europe from the fifteenth century from long distance travel, the discovery of America and voyages to India, the Pacific and East Asia. The new knowledge challenged current ideas. For a long time the bracing effects of the mixing of cultural traditions in the relatively small area of the Mediterranean, in particular between Islamic societies and the Christian civilization which borrowed from it, also clearly stimulated new thought.

The outcome is the world we now live in where I am writing this letter to you on a device that was unimaginable to me only twenty years ago, the laptop computer.

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