Understanding comes from actions, not words

When I was young my grandfather told me he could talk to the bees. He would lean over the hive and in a real breathy voice say, “Hello, bees.” The hive would buzz real loud back at him. So one day when he wasn’t around I squatted down in front of the hive and said right into the entrance, in a real breathy voice, “Hello, bees.” One came out and stung me on the lip. I guess it didn’t understand me. 

One time my wife and I took a class on parenting. No, it was not court-mandated. OK, I admit my wife mandated it, but I went. It was a good thing, too, because I learned just how hard it is to understand another person. We were taught that, when our children spoke to us, we should listen to what they had to say. What? They’re children! What do they know?

But I tried it anyway. I listened to what they said and tried to say back to them what I heard. The first thing I learned was that I didn’t really understand anything they had to say. I soon discovered they didn’t understand anything I was trying to say either. It just seemed so much more efficient to tell them what to do because “I said and I’m Dad.” They didn’t understand that. I think it’s because they hadn’t been taught to listen and then try to repeat what they thought I said.

I bring all this up to illustrate how difficult it can be to understand anything, let alone another person. Science is about trying to understand the material world, and it can’t even talk. I believe I understand the material world, though, when I can see what it does in controlled circumstances. If it doesn’t do what I thought it would, I didn’t understand. The bees didn’t talk to me, so I misunderstood something. 

This is also a reliable way of determining whether I understand another person or not. I can only “understand” a person in one way: by what they do. People can say anything, but words are only a symbol of the behavior, and they are ephemeral symbols at that.

So how can I know if someone is a scientist or not? Do Al Gore or Bill Nye do the things that scientists do? Hard to say, because most people have no idea what a scientist actually does. But I’ll tell you a little secret: Neither of them have published any original research.

There are questions that beg answers. How can I tell if someone is a careful thinker? How can I tell if someone is lying? How can I tell if someone is reliable? I must see what they do.

It doesn’t matter a lot “why” people, or the material world, do the things that they do. The material world and people always have reasons for what they do.  Most of the time we never know what the chain of events that caused the reasons were.

Because so much of science, and people’s behavior, consists of interwoven thinking and causes, it is difficult to know where to begin to tease it all apart. How can we talk about neurotransmitters if we do not know some chemistry? How can we know chemistry if we do not understand some physical laws? How can a physicist understand biology if they don’t have a life? And how can a person understand science if they don’t understand the origins of reason, logic and materialistic thinking?

How can I understand who understands this column and who doesn’t? I guess you’ll have to try and tell me what you think I said, so I can verify that you didn’t understand anything I was trying to say. Then I can repeat to you what I thought you were trying to say that wasn’t what I was trying to say. Understand?

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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