Explanations are not always possible.

I asked Google how to get from NPL to Richmond and it assumed I meant Richmond Virginia instead of Richmond upon Thames which is 5 kilometres away.

I asked Google how to get from NPL to Richmond and it assumed I meant Richmond, Virginia, USA instead of Richmond upon Thames which is 5 kilometres away. 

I have spent a fair amount of time in my life trying to explain things to people. But I think now – in all but the most basic of cases – explanations are impossible.

The reason I feel this is because I think that giving an explanation is like giving directions. And most people will acknowledge that unless you know where someone is ‘starting from’, it is impossible to give general directions to a given ‘destination’.

But while we accept that every set of directions should start with the question: “Where are you now?“, people are reluctant to acknowledge that logically every explanation should start with the question: “What do you know now?”.

Instead there seems to be a widespread belief that explanations can exist ‘by themselves’.

Of course we can draw maps and then explain how to navigate the map. And if someone can follow this, then they can learn the route to a particular ‘destination’. Or someone might already be familiar with the ‘landscape’. In these cases explanations are possible.

But many people find maps difficult. However:

  • Getting someone to drive you to a destination does not in general teach you the route.
  • And programming a ‘sat-nav’ to take someone to a particular location will also – in general – fail to teach them the route. They may have ‘arrived’ but they will be ‘lost’.
  • Travelling by tube to a location teaches them nothing about where they are!

Similarly, by sophistry, or by entertaining imagery, it is possible to give people the illusion that they understand something. But unless they can link this new state of insight to their previous understanding, they will still be ‘lost’.

I thought I would illustrate the general idea with a picture of a route on a Google map. But when I tried to generate a route from Teddington to nearby Richmond (upon Thames), Google assumed that the word ‘Richmond’ referred to the much more populous Richmond, Virginia!

And the impossibility of explanations is clear in this video of Dave Allen ‘explaining’ how to tell the time. It features the classic lines:

“There are three hands on a clock. The first hand is the hour hand, the second hand is the minute hand, and the third hand is the second hand.”




One Response to “Explanations are not always possible.”

  1. H Stiles (@HStiles1) Says:

    You are dead right. Gaining knowledge in a new area is like navigating around a big city like London you do not know. You have ideas about certain spots where you come out of a station & become familiar with the local landmarks, the cafe/take-away etc, the church on the corner… then you go to a new part of town where you create a new bubble of spatial awareness. If you are adventurous you start to travel more widely & walk or ride the bus so that you start to join the bits up & create a mental map. Learning has to be like that – plodding along a well-travelled road where you have a map, then branching out. If you are lucky enough to be a scientist maybe you discover unknown bits of the map for yourself!

    Brilliant Dave Allen – thanks for sharing – I was laughing aloud!

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