Situational Understanding

Situational Awareness (SA)

SA is almost immediate understanding and problem solving – ‘almost’, because there’s a lot of processing involved behind the scenes, on our unconscious machinery. It is, of course, to us, „apparently immediate“. Situation understanding as intuition is always meaningful; it is always filled with meaning. This is in stark contrast to those that define intuition as „immediate knowledge“. The word knowledge does not begin to convey the meaning that’s involved in an intuitive realization.

Where does that meaning come from? Shortly, from the explosion of connotations.We never think about a „triangle“ in isolation. What does a „mental“ triangle look like? Does it look like a triangle in your brain? Does it look like a triangular pattern of neuron firings? No, it doesn’t. It’s just a regular type of neuron firing. So how can we have an abstract visualization of something like a triangle (or an atom, an kangaroo, or a skyscraper)? The answer is that we activate a concept in our brain; but that activation is not the key to meaning; the key is what it does. We activate the concept triangle, and a host of connotations explodes, each with another concept and its own associated connotations: pointy things, the number three, polygons, line segments, closed figures, geometry, Pythagoras, angles, pyramids, the triumvirate, and so forth.

These awakened, associated, concepts, are what create meaning. Not the word. Not the definition. Words and definitions are meaningless — that’s why mathematics is hard.

The whole problem with the symbolic school of cognitive science and Artificial Intelligence has been to place their faith on clear definitions; words (symbols) and definitions (procedural knowledge). Clear definitions are great in a proper context, but hey, that’s not the way our minds work.

Whenever we think and reason, intuition is the guiding force. If reason is the captain of the mental ship, then intuition is the singing mermaid, who attracts us towards a certain information-processing trajectory (and not others). For very experienced people, that trajectory usually is a great one to follow; for they know where the bad mermaids usually are singing, and instantly avoid them. For the rest of us, we’ll just go along for the ride, and see whether or not the pathway is a dead-end.

Reasoning is drawing and following the ‚right distinctions‘, making a difference, where a difference has to be made. Abstractions!

“A difference is a very peculiar and obscure concept. It is certainly not a thing or an event. This piece of paper is different from the wood of this lectern. There are many differences between them—of color, texture, shape, etc. But if we start to ask about the localization of those differences, we get into trouble. Obviously the difference between the paper and the wood is not in the paper; it is obviously not in the wood; it is obviously not in the space between them, and it is obviously not in the time between them. (Difference which occurs across time is what we call „change.“)

A difference, then, is an abstract matter.

In the hard sciences, effects are, in general, caused by rather concrete conditions or events—impacts, forces, and so forth. But when you enter the world of communication, organization, etc., you leave behind that whole world in which effects are brought about by forces and impacts and energy exchange. You enter a world in which „effects“—and I am not sure one should still use the same word— are brought about by differences. That is, they are brought about by the sort of „thing“ that gets onto the map from the territory. This is difference.

Difference travels from the wood and paper into my retina. It then gets picked up and worked on by this fancy piece of computing machinery in my head.”

Source: Gregory Bateson, Steps to an ecology of mind, p. 458f

► Who asks about the ‘nature’ of ‘something’ we call ‘difference’? Bateson asks, using language. Doing so he presupposes our tacit understanding of the concept ‘difference’, isn’t it? Otherwise we could not understand his question, put in ordinary language. So there exists some basic understanding of the concept ‘difference’ in each one of us, and this can’t be otherwise, because all mental processes are grounded in the duality of ‘similarities’ and ‘differences’, the ongoing process of emerging ‘gestalten’ (different ‘wholes’ and their defining ‘parts’), of the difference of a meaningful ‘gestalt’ emerging from an apparently meaningless background (‘noise’) . Our minds function by way of producing such basic polarities.

A difference, then, is not an abstract matter, but a matter of abstraction: producing differences is the essence of the process of mental mapping, mental mapping of the ‘world’, with ‘world’ as the spontaneous appearing of what could be called ‘phenomenal territory’. Differences in the phenomenal world don’t “travel from the wood and paper into my retina”, because in the ‘trinity of observation’ (observer, observing, the observed) the actuality of observing, and the actuality of the observer and the observed are only ‘different’ aspects of an unbroken whole: spontaneous movements in consciousness. Conscious differences are more or less ‘well abstracted aspects’, abstracted from this phenomenal ‘holomovement’ – and stored in memory. They make for re-cgnition, for conceptual handling of the world. Concepts are ‘units of functioning’, which in their totality constitute the phenomenal world, with the whole phenomenal world seen as spontaneous movements in consciousness. Not in ‘my’ consciousness, but in CONSCIOUSNESS.

Bateson definitely got an inkling of an ‘unbroken mind’, a mind functioning ecologically; but he tried to define that ‘objectively’ (mind is ‘complex matter’) and subjectively (‘art, dreams, religion’). So he remained within the typical framework of a ‘scientist’!

But one can’t understand the ‘higher’ (consciousness) from the viewpoint of the ‘lower’ (‘body-centered-mind’).

So there is a simple rule: to solve problems go as high up stream as possible.

„Recently we had a large mud slide come down in our back yard. The shifting mud diverted a mountain stream into our back yard. We spent a couple of days attempting to
divert the stream so that it would not wash away our driveway (we were successful). – An important lesson was learned during this event about solutions. Initially we attempted to create a sandbag dike across our driveway and were marginally successful. Then we discovered that if we headed further upstream a small amount of work would create a much greater result. A few shovels full of dirt and some rocks placed higher along the hillside shifted the flow much more effectively than any effort we were extending lower down.
This experience has led me to create a simple rule: to solve problems go as high up stream as possible.“

See also:

On the difference between a problem and a paradox

Go where the heart of the problem lies

Divergente und konvergente Probleme

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