Understanding is a word which is used to mean many different things. Its most commonly used meaning is ‘that which makes sense to you’. So if I say a tree, or a tiger on the tree, and it makes some sense – you are capable of making some meaning in your mind, some kind of representation. Something is evoked in your mind – some concepts and relationships with those concepts. This is the simplest form of understanding. Understanding, in this sense, simply means ‘making sense’ – having some content in your mind, which enlightens you – which is not opaque. If I speak a sentence which is ungrammatical and which does not make sense to you, you will say I don’t understand i.e. you cannot make any coherent meaning out of that sentence. So the simplest meaning of understanding is having some meaning in our minds.
This is just the beginning. The higher order or higher level of understanding is also used for making a comprehensive picture, taking into consideration all facts and knowledge and principles. It is something that emerges from the totality of my ability to make sense of the word. I am not using understanding in the second sense here; for this analysis. I am using the word understanding in the first sense.
A third sense of understanding is – something which we have, something which we possess in our minds. This has an ‘achievement sense’. Another way in which we use understanding is reflected in the sentence ‘I am trying to understand’ – a process sense or task sense. The word learning is also used in these two senses – ‘I am trying to learn’ and ‘I have learnt A-B-C’. So there is a task/process sense and an achievement sense. So that is how I use understanding here. I have taken time on this because this is useful for us to make sense of the textbooks etc.
Now we can progress to information. Often people say that a child mugs up a statement and doesn’t know many of the concepts in that statement; and the relationship with those concepts is not clear. For example, if someone says, “Leaves make food in the sunlight through photosynthesis” – imagine a child who hears thus; and suppose you say to the child, ‘How do leaves make food?’ and the child can repeat the above sentence – Does the child have information? I would say no. The child doesn’t have information – unless and until the child understands all these concepts and what relationship between these concepts has been claimed. So, mugging up a string of words which is a sentence, is not information. Information is only the meaning you make out of that sentence.
Now, no book can ever make any sense out of the statements written in it. Sense-making and meaning can reside only in the human mind. So books cannot have understanding. You might find this to be silly and technical. Yes, this is technical. But to my mind, it is not silly yet. It will become silly in a few minutes but at this moment, it is not.
So, books don’t have information. Books have a representation of information. And that representation becomes information only through the interaction of the human mind. If books are alone in the world, and there is no human mind to read them, they are simply paper with some marks made on them. Those marks can become information only when they interact with the human mind. So information can never reside anywhere but in the human mind. There is no other place, unless and until you imagine a god’s mind.
Another thing we should note is that something being ‘understood’ is only one of the conditions that make something ‘information’. If I don’t believe in a statement then that is not information for me. ‘Leaves make food through photosynthesis in sunlight’ – even if I understand the meaning but I don’t believe in it, this is not information for me. I reject it; therefore it is not information. So, for something to become information, I have to have meaning, and I have to believe in it. And if this happens to be false, then again this is misinformation and not information.
So for something to be information, it has to pass three tests. There are four tests actually, but the fourth I am taking as a general condition – that there has to be a human mind. Now, that human mind, one, has to make sense; two, has to believe in it; and three, that belief has to be true. If it is not true, it is not information. If it is not understood, it is not information. If it is not believed, it is not information.
But this belief and understanding is a characteristic of the mind – not of a book or a page. Therefore, understanding is created in the mind only.
Now we ask, ‘Is it knowledge?’ Suppose something is true and I believe in it, and I make sense of it; is it knowledge? Well, there is a huge debate on this. The view that I am going to present to you about knowledge is considered by many people as traditional, old-fashioned, obsolete, narrow and biased. But I don’t think these charges are correct. I think information can become knowledge only if I have a reasonable ground to believe in that information. Believe if I have a warrant to believe – or if that sounds too legalistic and scary, then let’s say – if I have a justification to believe. So information becomes knowledge only when I have a justification for that information.
So let us represent the leaves statement made earlier by L1. Let us say I understand this statement. Now, if I believe this, it could be for various reasons. I can believe it because Hardy is my good friend for about 25 years, and Hardy said this. Is it a good-enough justification? It could be, in certain cases. And people call it testimony. If my experience of 25 years tells me that most of the things Hardy has been saying are reliable, then I am justified in believing that statement. So the statement could be said to be ‘justified’ in this sense. But then, do you see that it is justified only on the basis of another belief – the belief that Hardy usually is a reliable chap. And what is the justification for that?
Therefore, L1 has to be justified with several other kinds of beliefs. Let’s call them L2, L3, L4 and so on. Now, this structure I am making is important to understand the nature of knowledge. What we are saying is that when a particular belief is embedded in a web of other beliefs, is connected with them logically and makes sense, and is justified (i.e. logically justified) within that web, only then does it become knowledge. Only then is it useful for me to make sense of the word and to make my decisions and to make my judgments.
But then, these relationships can never be represented in the textbook. You can write these sentences, but the relationships between these sentences – we don’t have a notation and perhaps we will never have a notation to represent these relationships in the textbook.