Exploring Information Vs. Understanding

I am a child of the internet, and as such, I’ve also learned to think on the internet. School aided me, but mostly I learned from youtube videos, forums, and blogs. There are great advantages to this, and I am grateful to the internet for all that I have learned and all that I have access to. However, as I have focused on continuing my education, I have stumbled across a huge chasm in my intellectual life: understanding the difference between information and understanding. This chasm is exacerbated by online life. While attaining greater understanding on the internet is possible, it is more likely that we just get swamped with information, and then mistake that morass of information as greater understanding. The hard work of understanding is therefore perceived as a threat rather than an invitation.

In their classic work How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren explore the difference between reading for greater information vs. reading for greater understanding.

Of reading for information, they write,

The first sense is the one in which we speak of ourselves as reading newspapers, magazines, or anything else that, according to our skill and talents, is at once thoroughly intelligible to us. Such things may increase our store of information, but they cannot improve our understanding, for our understanding was equal to them when we started. Otherwise, we would have felt the shock of puzzlement and perplexity that comes from getting in over our depth – that is, if we were both alert and honest.

It is obvious to me that most people read – myself included, online and offline – for greater information. Not only that, the world around us seems built to only offer us information and not understanding. Our partisan news sites, our forums, our google search algorithms – these all cater to what we already believe we understand. They only give us information to cake onto our pre-existing worldviews. This is the echo chamber phenomenon – we swim through oceans of information that only affirm our worldview, and as a consequence we mistake ourselves for enlightened, understanding beings.

It might also be that those uncomfortable stimuli that trigger the beginning of understanding – the “shock and puzzlement that suggest we are out of our depth” – become all the more threatening to us.

On the other hand, there is understanding.

The second sense is the one in which a person tries to read something that at first he does not completely understand [….] Here by “learning” is meant understanding more, not remembering more information that has the same degree of intelligibility as other information you already possess.

The authors go on to give an example:

A person who knows some of the facts of American history and understands them in a certain light can readily acquire by reading, in the first sense, more such facts and understand them in the same light. But suppose he is reading a history that seeks not merely to give him some more facts, but also to throw a new and perhaps more revealing light on all the facts he knows. Suppose there is greater understanding available here than he possessed before he started to read. If he can manage to acquire that greater understanding, he is reading in the second sense. He has indeed elevated himself by his activity, though indirectly, of course, the elevation was made possible by the writer who had something to teach him.

In these fraught times, I now believe that we are morally obligated not simply to decry injustice and evil, but also to examine how we think. If we believe that greater information is greater knowledge, than we are part of the problem that creates such a polarized, divided world.

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