The Stages of Learning


For any student at any age or place, at school, home or life, seeking the truth for itself or any other purpose, they must go through the same four stages of knowledge, however different the forms it takes: perceiving reality, recreating reality, conceiving reality, and changing reality.

The above stages can take place separately/simultaneously, consciously/unconsciously, consecutively/inconsecutively. Unfortunately, in reality, those "ideal" learning stages do not necessarily follow an order, thus resulting in wrong, incomplete, or hybrid knowledge, as knowledge doesn't exist in nature always in a pure form; it's usually mixed with other elements.


I. Perceiving Reality

This cannot be done without physical contact with the outside world: 

  • Verbal perception: reading and listening.
  • Sensual perception: sensing, observing, exploring ...
  • Interactive perception: asking, arguing, examining ... which includes both verbal and sensual perception while interacting with the knowledge source.

As perceiving the world requires using our animal senses, the primitive brain can negatively affect our thoughts at such stage. Perceiving reality "only" can be deceptive, as it triggers hormones that may make us falsely believe we have just learned something new or worthy to feel happy/angry about, while it's neither; accordingly, such self-satisfied knowledge prematurely ends there.

Social and physical instincts can interfere with intellectual pleasures, making it difficult to know whether the excitement we get from them is purely mental. A final well-deserved pure knowledge is one to be enjoyed for itself by ourselves, not for any other human or thing, as in meditation, reading, inventing ... It has a direct, immediate enlightening effect, shedding light on things we didn't know before. It's the deepest, most consistent and rewarding type of knowledge that wisdom-lovers can find.

However, senses can be useful in learning at its early stages. Sometimes a friend's touch, a pleasant melody, or a vivid picture wakes us up to reality faster than all verbal forms of knowledge can do. This is because sensations are more memorable than thoughts, and concrete knowledge is easier to retain than abstract one. However, the more sensations we perceive the more challenging to remember them, as they lack the advantage of coherence, order, flexibility, and lightness that abstract knowledge has.

We are still partly animals, getting excited about meaningless things that might be important to animals only because they need instinct for guidance as they don't have our higher brain skills. So, until we evolve into more superior life forms, nothing is wrong with addressing that animal part of us. If children or less intelligent people respond faster to audio-visual methods of learning, we should keep using such methods. If people gifted in arts or possessing social skills can benefit from their gift, we should support them and nurture their talent, to use it as a medium for making themselves and others happy.

Eventually, verbal or non-verbal, all new stimuli in the sensory paths should lead to the excitement of the mind. It's our mind that deserves most of our time, love and devotion, while we are here, having this unique experience of life. Consciousness is what distinguishes animate from inanimate beings, a human from a rock; the latter has no ability to enjoy or suffer. The level of consciousness is the rank every being has in the hierarchy of evolution. Humans who satisfy themselves with their animal needs and pleasures, at the expense of using, and enjoying intellectual activities are actually inferior to animals when they do so. An animal in the jungle devising a scheme to escape from a predator, is superior to a human indulging in sex, food ... and other pleasures of the flesh: the speed of evolution (or the evolution quotient) of the animal is higher than the human at that specific moment. Whole human civilizations fell to materialism and decadence, regressing to backward stages of evolution, and falling to division and weakness after former glory.


II. Re-creating Reality

This includes all forms of imagination:

  • The past: evoking memories, known models, past examples/experiences ...
  • The future: possible future scenarios/applications, predictions, plans, wishes/ambitions/daydreams ...
  • The unavailable: distant places, objects and people.
  • The non-existent: fiction, possible or not.
  • The uncertain: uncertainties, contradictions, impossibilities, absurdities ...  This is an open-ended category, since the virtual world is always bigger than the physical one; it has the extra freedom of breaking rules.

Re-creating reality can also lead to false, incomplete knowledge. Memory bias is the most obvious example of distorted overdue knowledge, as we can never "re-play" a memory exactly as it happened." Thankfully recording technologies help decrease mistakes at such stage.

Another is example is laughter which belongs to the sub-category of contradictions. Laughter cannot be funny merely by perceiving a joke through our ears only, otherwise animals would laugh as much as humans: it takes some intelligence to realize a contradiction. (Animals laugh and become depressed too, but much less than humans do: they can't store so much thoughts in their simple brains, to be happy or depressed about afterwards; their emotional responses are mainly to the immediate surroundings.) Laughing is not the deepest intellectual pleasure because we are only teased by a temporary unusual thought, until it's understood, then the pleasure of teasing is gone and the pleasure of understanding starts. (We are literally laughing at our ignorance!) We may like to prolong our laughing sessions by receiving a series of endless witty contradictions, but once we stop to understand each, our intellectual happiness takes a different form. Nevertheless, we can always find endless funny thoughts, because we will never understand everything. 

The pleasures of mystery, mythology, religion and the unknown, all belong to the second category too. We enjoy the first reaction to incomplete knowledge, that is, teasing, without fully being able to understand. What happens then is, we like to be teased and enjoy foreplay with knowledge, without reaching climax. We should always move "up" from one intellectual pleasure to the other, whenever we can, in the hierarchy of pleasures, to continue evolving and achieving ultimate happiness. Even understanding as such to become enlightened is not the ultimate pleasure (3rd category, or stratum); we should use that light to see and change our world (4th category). It's not enough to understand and see the world differently; we should make it a different world, unless we have no means to do so.

However, we can always enjoy laughter, mysticism, brain-teasing, brain-storming, open-ended questions ... and all forms of incomplete knowledge, because in the end the fact remains that some facts are still difficult for our minds to understand now, and there will always be new facts in the future that we will not understand immediately. (Mother Knowledge always needs Father Time: we will not know everything, except when we are eternal, taking ALL the time we need to learn.) This doesn't mean we should stop research or our quest for knowledge now because we are ignorant and our life is short: this would be the mindset of an absolutist, not a relativist. Contrarily, we should move on with research, only putting in mind that Mother Knowledge feeds us in portions, lest we choke; and we cannot face the Light of Truth suddenly, else we go blind.


III. Conceiving Reality

This is the level of understanding we achieve, through analysis, argument, supposition, and reaching conclusions (facts, theories, hypotheses; beliefs, principles, opinions). Memorization is a subcategory of the above, that should take place at the last stage of understanding, for confirmation. However, memorization can be used first, only for memorizing basic laws/rules that one may use repeatedly as a tool for understanding.

Analyzing reality, however good we are at it, doesn't mean we understand the reality. A powerful computer doesn't mean it has a good content. Being a good analyst, logician or philosopher doesn't mean you are well-learned. You can be no different from a child playing a mind-game that requires certain skills, to make the game more fun and worth wasting time on. It doesn't guarantee coming from or going to the right learning stage: imagining what the abstracts refer to, or where to apply them.

However, logic is vital tool for knowledge, and life. Unfortunately, scientific thinking methods are disrespected and ignored, and the ABC's of logic daily violated in many belief systems, society structures and even education institutes.

Many beliefs kill the desire of asking in their followers, taking ancestors' legacy for granted without questioning its value or even existence. A healthy argument thus has no place, and those who use it can suffer alienation if not excommunication, to say the least.

Fallacies are committed inadvertently, but also intentionally for the sake of intellectual victory or self-interest, not for truth's sake. The animal in us hates rules and prefers anarchy, even when rules help us understand the world and enjoy life more.

In many societies, logic courses receive the least funding and space in curricula, while arts and sports take the lion's share, as well as those working in them, risen to fame and stardom as misplaced role models, even while they often sacrifice common sense together with their followers.


IV. Changing Reality

No understanding is complete without reality test. In this stage all the previous forms of knowledge are applied to change our world. This covers almost all of our actions, which are but the embodiment of our thoughts. This involves changing ourselves, others, and environment.

Another example of incomplete knowledge is untimely changing reality, which should only take place eventually to crown all the previous learning stages. Many people rush to thoughtless actions, even if they do it out of noble intentions to make the world a better place, or because of interactive skills they have, social or physical, enabling them to change their environment and people. Because of its mobile nature, this stage almost, always overlaps with other learning stages resulting in early premature excitement. Sympathy, fame, reward and success are few examples. Such are the least purely intellectual of pleasures, yet the most vitally needed for our survival. In other words, they consummate our love for wisdom (while the love can still be there, only its consummation depends on the tools and freedoms we may, or may not have). 

We can all make the world a better place. There is no such a point of zero-freedom in any one's life, even that of the handicapped or prisoners. We can always change our fate by starting with ourselves and our small environment, if this is our portion of life and that's all we have. Many masterpieces of art have been created with one or two colors only, because there is an infinite number of shades within any color, as much as there is an infinite number of colors in any palette. Each of us can be a painter of their own life, if they want to. We wake up everyday asking ourselves, "What do we want to see today?" but not everyone can see, for "he that hath an eye, let him see what the Truth saith!"

The outcome of any learning process should be having a smaller version of the outside world to carry along with us wherever we go. No wonder wise men in all ages could find in solitude and silence what others couldn't see or realize with their physical eye!


Intellectual Pleasure         |         Reading Techniques         |         Books for Autodidacts