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How do we understand, comprehend?

How do we understand, comprehend?

We go to school, we learn, and we understand. Or do we understand first and then learn? We do not know how to learn, but we learn to learn. Only after we understand, we understand. How do we understand since we have to understand beforehand?

The answer looks difficult, but as we shall see, it is stupidly simple.

What is traditionally taken as an understanding?

Understanding is a cognitive process related to an abstract or physical object, such as a person, situation, or message whereby one is able to use concepts to model that object. Understanding is a relation between the knower and an object of understanding. Understanding implies abilities and dispositions with respect to an object of knowledge that are sufficient to support intelligent behavior.[1]

Further research on understanding and its definitions supports Wikipedia’s conclusion that understanding and knowledge are both words without unified definitions (Ibid.). The primary reference in the field, Carl Bereiter (Bereiter 2002), repeats circularities from the above Wikipedia reference. The concise recapitulation goes like this: to understand, one has to have specific knowledge gained from the education, but then the education can happen only to those who understand. It occurs within our minds, but the relationship between the mind and the cognitive process that makes understanding and learning possible stays open.

Yet again, lateral thinking brings the reference to a philosopher who ultimately destroyed the reducibility of complex systems, Roger Penrose.


The situation is quite different once we allow understanding to be a non-algorithmic quality. (Penrose 1994, 149)

Understanding is memetic, or it is not understanding.

How does this conclusion come from Penrose, who is ignorant of memetics?

If understanding comes from memetic activity, it is non-algorithmic. That means it is fallible, or, as Alan Turing already concluded, “if a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent” (Turing 1947 in Penrose, Ibid., 129). Memetic activity is fallible because it is neither objective nor subjective. Still, at the same time, it is objective (as memes are real entities like tables and neural correlates) and subjective since memes only live by the fuel of a particular subject’s mental activity.

Non-algorithmic is intersubjective

Non-algorithmic in Penrose conceptipon comes as intersubjective through memetics. Understanding is local and local only. Universal understanding and, thus universal knowledge as well is impossible. It happens in the decoherence moment of a meme entering the memetic field. Even if memes could be objectivized (which they cannot be in principle), they would not open access to universal understanding and knowledge. The understanding is non-computable. Penrose goes even further into the domain of mathematics into the core of supposed computability:

The argument given in this chapter would seem to provide a clear-cut case, demonstrating that human mathematical understanding cannot be reduced to (knowable) computational mechanisms, where such mechanisms can include any combination of top-down, bottom-up, or random procedures. (ibid., 201)

Such a conclusion not only solidifies the syntax as an emergence of memes but also places mathematics in the field of memetics. Numbers are material memes that are linked to strategic memes. 1/3 can be materially expressed as 0,3333…, with the same strategic meme behind as much as a strategic meme of blue can be expressed in many colors. The particular strategic/material meme duality can then be expressed in unlimited variations of mathematical artifacts.

Yet such a memetic topology explains nothing about the understanding. There is no understanding if there is no memetic field in which a quantum duality of strategic/material collapses. This also resolves the chicken-and-egg problem of understanding versus knowledge. It is a chicken and egg problem until we understand that two agents are present and nod only one, a human (brain). All traditional theories about knowledge and understanding are circular because the second agent, meme, resolves the circularity. That agent is objective despite being quantum-like. It is the memetic objective agency that uplifts free-floating human mental ability, ingenuity, learning capacity, and understanding into explainable and trackable subjective reality.

The objectivity of memes is the sword that solves the Gordian knot of knowledge and understanding with a straightforward cut.


Abbe Terrasson remarks with great justice that, if we estimate the size of a work, not from the number of its pages, but from the time which we require to make ourselves master of it, it may be said of many a book that it would be much shorter, if it were not so short. On the other hand, as regards the comprehensibility of a system of speculative cognition, connected under a single principle, we may say with equal justice: many a book would have been much clearer, if it had not been intended to be so very clear. (Kant 2003, 10)

Not only did Kant discredit the »how-to-do« and KISS ideology of the past half a century, but also implicitly opened the issue of comprehension. Dan Bristow made a step closer to our aim in a commentary branded as a critique of pure memage:

…a well-crafted meme will jostle but should ultimately balance correlatively with its wider contextualization… (Bristow 2019, 116)

To comprehend means that a meme or a cluster of memes placed themselves comfortably into the memetic field. The balance that Bristow mentions is when »aha« happens, and »aha« happens when entering memes are embedded into the context; that is a memetic field. What Kant told us is that it takes time to comprehend something complex, meaning that a boring memetic field accepts simple clusters of memes easily but, in the end, does not enrich itself significantly. Fast memes are like fast food. They are embedded easily, but that does not mean they go easy. They only do not add as much value as memetic clusters that »strive« to enter a rich memetic field.



Bereiter, Carl. 2002. Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age. Mahwah, N.J: Routledge.

Bristow, Dan. 2019. ‘The Work of Art(Iculation) in the Age of Memic Rhythmicality: Memes between Form, Content, and Structure.’ In, 117–35. Earth, Milky Way: punctum books.

Kant, Immanuel. 2003. The Critique of Pure Reason. Project Guttenberg.

Penrose, Roger. 1994. Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness. Reprint edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




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