I have spent some time thinking about and examining the experience of understanding. In general we are all able to relate to one another through conversation, whether spoken or written, and as you read these words you are most likely having the experience of understanding them. But why is this? What is the nature of this experience? Aren’t the words that I type merely a mishmash of lines and curly symbols on a page? At what point do they become meaningful and what is the cause of their meaning?
In this post, we’ll briefly explore some answers to these questions.
Let’s begin with a helpful quote from Bryan Magee which hones in on the problem.
If I listen to a sentence or a tune, the actual sensory input at any given instant can consist of no more than part of a single note, or pause, or consonant, or vowel sound. For me to hear the sentence as a sentence, or the tune as a tune, I need at each point in it to retain in my mind’s ear all the sounds that have gone before, and to link them with one another and with my current aural input into something that I then apprehend as a whole.
Magee, B., Confessions of a Philosopher
(London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997), p259
In the 21st century Western world we’re inclined to see cognition as a process carried out by our brains, which are often believed to be like machines or computers that process information and control our thoughts and actions. That’s one possibility I’d invite you to consider. Do you really feel as though there is a computer in your head powering your understanding, or does your understanding feel more organic and free-flowing than that?
Another possibility, and this is where I believe the truth of the matter rests, is that our experiences are brought about by God. God is behind every sensation, thought, and emotion that we experience. He is animating all of the processes that we experience as part of our aliveness; everything from our hearts beating, to our blinking, to our thinking – to our understanding.
So the reason why we experience the sensations associated with understanding a sentence or a tune, is because God is giving us those experiences.
On close examination, what constitutes understanding is actually a series of subtle impressions in awareness, that can be best described as sensations of tension and resolution. Tension is caused, I believe, when God makes us feel a degree of isolation, and resolution is a sense of greater connectedness with God’s essence, which is love. Isolation and divine love are the two extremes of human experience, and the process of cognition is a subtle back-and-forth interplay between the two.
But understanding also relates to objects, events, and ideas, rather than being merely bodily sensations. If this is true then it must be the case that God, who I believe is omniscient, is able to remember things. When I remember to pick up my keys before I leave the house, God has prompted that memory to arise in my awareness, so I believe it must be the case that God sees and comprehends the big picture, including all past events, and is able to produce in us thoughts and feelings that are related to the past.
We must remember, though, that really the past and future do not exist. In reality there is only an eternal now, which I believe contains the fullness of God. This moment, and God, are ultimately one and the same, and they constitute all that exists in reality. Therefore it makes sense that God is in control of all our bodily processes, including the sensations and thoughts associated with the experience of understanding.
If you’re interested in further exploring the idea that God is in control of all things, I have written a book on the subject entitled Ultimate Truth: God Beyond Religion. You can find out about the book and watch a book trailer here. Thank you for reading!