The Fiction of Knowledge
I just finished a fantastic book, "Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari. Many of the best ideas I come across related to dog training and behavior come from outside the field. This book exposed me to the idea that much of what we believe is not factual, but is rather a story or narrative that we use to encapsulate a concept or theory. We use these stories because either we do not understand the concept completely enough to describe it accurately, or because the concept is so complex that it is impossible to internalize the nearly infinite complexity in our finite human minds. The narrative we use is a fiction that (hopefully) contains elements of the truth that allows us to understand phenomena and make predictions about the future. No matter how well the narrative matches up with reality, it is important to remember that it is at best, only an approximation of that reality. This means that no matter how well you think you understand something, that understanding is a fiction that can (and should!) be improved, modified and sometimes completely re-vamped. This is an interesting and useful way to look at most of what we believe on a wide variety of topics.
Understanding dog behavior is most certainly a narrative process. Unless your understanding begins with describing precisely which neurons are firing in the dogs brain (and in what order, in response to every possible stimuli...) you are operating on a narrative - a useful fiction that describes and provides insights into truths, but not the actual truth itself. Developing and relying on narratives is the superpower of the human species. It allows us to have a greater understanding of the world than any other animal, and to make useful predictions about the future. All super powers, however, have limitations. Our kryptonite is confusing these stories that encapsulate and describe truths with truth itself. Failing to understand that your beliefs are fiction - useful, descriptive, and powerful though they may be - prevents us from improving our story, and gaining better understanding and knowledge.
One of the many paradoxes you discover as a dog trainer is that although people are paying you for your knowledge and experience (your story), there is a resistance you encounter whenever you try to deliver those things to your clients. Over time, I’ve come to understand this as a normal reaction to challenging someone’s existing beliefs. Even when we know our current understanding of a topic is incomplete or flawed, we are protective of that understanding in a way that slows learning. This defense mechanism exists to protect us from “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”, which is certainly a reasonable strategy. Gaining knowledge (developing a narrative) is difficult, resource-intensive and time consuming. Even when we recognize that out existing knowledge (story) is incomplete or imperfect, it is certainly better than how we existed before we gained that flawed knowledge.
Developing a narrative (learning) is both a constructive and destructive process. In the beginning, learning is mostly constructive - you’re trying to figure something out that you don’t understand, so you are building a story that you can rely on. As your understanding grows, you will begin to notice contradictions, flaws and potential improvements that could give you a better, more useful, predictive and accurate story. In order to integrate these things, other, less useful or precise ideas must be abandoned or destroyed. If you are not willing to examine your story and throw away the parts that no longer work, you will instead be forced to throw away potential new ideas and observations, even if they have benefits. It’s extremely difficult for us to carry two or more competing or conflicting narratives, so when new information comes in that doesn’t work within the framework of our story, our choices are to integrate that information into the story or to discard it.
When new information arrives that challenges your assumptions, you should welcome it and the opportunity for growth that it presents. Sometimes, you have to re-examine your story, and discard parts that no longer match how reality manifests itself. This can be painful, and is never easy, but it is necessary if you want to progress past the flawed beginning of your learning journey. This is the key to advanced learning, and is represented in the story of the phoenix - you must burn off the old and weak ideas so that the new and powerful understandings can be born from it’s ashes. Understanding your knowledge in this manner allows you to learn effectively without limit, even from people with stories you mostly disagree with, or from “novices” whose story may not be as complex as yours, but still hold essential truths you’re missing out on.
The way to improve your narrative of the “dog behavior story” is to willingly expose it to different ideas. It doesn’t mean you must abandon your hard-won knowledge every time you come across a new technique, idea or theory, but it does require you to honestly evaluate the new idea on it’s own merits, rather than immediately comparing it to what you already think you know. A way of thinking about this is to imagine closing the book containing the story you currently hold and placing it on a shelf. Put it aside and engage with the new idea. Don’t hurry to evaluate it or fit it into what you think you know, simply try it on and play with it for a bit and see what happens. Once you feel you understand the new idea on it’s own merits, only then should you evaluate it against your existing story and integrate it by whatever means is most effective. Occasionally there will be no value in the new idea. Sometimes, you will be able to simply add it to what you know. Other times you will have to re-evaluate your knowledge and challenge some of your existing assumptions. Occasionally, you will be forced to throw out large parts of what you thought you understood. Those moments can be difficult and traumatic, and certainly are not enjoyable, but looking back, the moments when my narrative shifted in large jumps have been the best, and most rewarding parts of my education.
Knowledge is a process - a story. All stories follow a discernible path, otherwise they would not be good stories! The only way to stay on the path of increasing knowledge is to accept that the path has no end, and that it is easy to step off the path. One way to know you're off the path is that it has come to an end - you feel like what you know is “right” and anything that contradicts it is inherently “wrong”. The only way to move forward in those moments is to be willing to go back, sometimes far back, and get back to where you are sure that where you are is on the right path. Always move forward, be aware you’re likely to misstep, and be willing to go back when necessary. Staying on the path is hard, but it’s the only way to get better. You can’t stay still, and you can’t refuse to accept when evidence points to the fact that you’re on the wrong path, and need to go back and take a different route.