Epistemic Status: Seems worth sharing

Assumes Knowledge Of: System 1 and System 2 from Thinking, Fast and Slow

While in San Francisco this past week, I found myself in many complex and rapid conversations, with new ideas and concepts flying by the second. I hadn’t experienced this since least February’s AI Safety Unconference. It is wonderful to be pushed to one’s limits, but it means one must often rely on System-1 rather than System-2, or one will be left behind and lost. I now realize this is what happened to me in foreign language classes – I was using System-2 to listen and talk, and that doesn’t work at all if others don’t wait for you.

This meant that often I’d grasp what was being said in an intuitive sense using System-1, or agree or disagree in that fashion, without the time to unpack it. This can lead to great understanding, but also lead to waking up the next day having no idea what happened, or thinking about it in detail and realizing you didn’t understand it after all. So when people asked if I understood things, I instinctively started saying things like “I understand-1 but not 2.” I also did this for beliefs and agreements.

I debated explaining it but decided not to, as a test to see if others would intuit the meaning, most seemed to (or ignored the numbers, or came up with something equivalent in context); one person explicitly asked, and said he’d use it. I think this may be a valuable clarification tool, as it’s very different to understand-1 versus understand-2, or agree-1 versus agree-2, and seems better than saying something like “I kind of agree” or “I think I agree but I’m not sure,” which are both longer and less precise ways people often say the same thing.

My system-1 also added understand-3. Understand-3 means “I understand this well enough to teach it.” By extension, believe-3 or agree-3 means “I believe this, know how to convince others, and think others should be convinced.” To truly understand something, one must be able to explain, teach or defend it, which also means you and others can build solidly upon it. Writing has helped me turn much understanding-2 (and understanding-1) into understanding-3.

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I think I find it hard to say that I understand if I don’t understand-3 – I think what you’re calling understand-1 I call, finding something facially plausible, and what you’re calling understand-2 I call having an account of it. Cf. The “I Already Get It” Slide.

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I like this concept, and think this is better jargon than System 1 and System 2 (since the three levels of understanding are in a sequence that makes obvious sense and you can rederive if you forget which order they go in). But it still feels a bit unclear to me. You say that Understand-1 is more clear/specific than "I kinda understand", but if that's the case, then I only understand-1 what you're talking about here.

"I kinda understand" sometimes means understand-1 but not 2, it sometimes means 2 but not 3 (multiple people have replied in ways that imply 2 doesn't count for them only 3 does). It sometimes means you sorta have understand-2 but not fully, or even a partial understand-1. So basically there's 2 dimensions - whether it's 1-2-3, and how well it is the one it is, and the kinda can apply to either or both. By saying whether it's an intuitive or analytical (or teachable) understanding (with a kinda if it's in the kinda range) you can draw that distinction.

It'd be nice to have an objective measure of how deeply you understand any given idea. That seems like a hard problem though. For example, in the comments to this post Wei says "I thought I had taken the idea of uploads seriously, but apparently not and neither had anyone else". I've also had many times when I thought I'd grasped an idea well enough to explain it to others, but then years later suddenly found a deeper way to understand the same idea. For some ideas, like "correlation isn't causation", I've lost count of how many levels there are.

What sort of techniques do people use to ascend understanding?

Writing sounds like a good method, but do others exist?

I think writing and teaching work because it forces you to express the idea in your own way.

It's easy to think you know something because you can quote others on the topic.

I find that trying to relate the concept to something else I level 2 - 3 understand is sometimes useful.

I'm starting to learn rationality, and I'd like to level 3 understand it, and if anyone has some tips on how to do this I would very much appreciate it.

Writing and teaching are good. Applying the understanding at your edge is good - e.g. if you think you've understood something about chess, test your understanding by playing games with people slightly better than you, that sort of thing.