Grokking Our Disagreements

I finally got around to reading Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel Starship Troopers.

When I was growing up, I read two or three science fiction novels a week. How I missed Starship Troopers, I don’t know.

And one of my brothers worked on the 1997 movie. His work appears in a lot of the scenes. Let’s just say that if not for him, the giant alien bugs would still be attacking earth.

So I’ve seen the movie at least a dozen times. Now that I’m reading the book, Heinlein impresses me even more.

That got me thinking about some of the ideas in Heinlein’s other books. The ideas were only incidental to the stories, so I didn’t give them much thought when I was a kid.1 In retrospect, however, they seem pretty profound.

One of his ideas can help us understand and transcend our disagreements.

The upper limit of knowledge

Heinlein’s most famous book is Stranger in a Strange Land, published in 1961. The story is set in the United States, presumably the 21st century. The world seems like what people in 1961 expected the future to be: essentially, it’s just the 1950s plus space travel and a few new gadgets.

The “stranger” is a man who was raised from infancy by Martians on Mars. He was born in space during the first manned mission to Mars. He is biologically human but he knows only Martian concepts and culture. As one character says, he is “more Martian than man.”2

When he comes to earth for the first time, he tries to understand the people around him. He calls it “grokking” them.

The other characters eventually figure out what “grok” means. To grok something is to understand it intimately and completely, inside and out, both as a matter of logic and as a matter of feeling:

“‘Grok’ means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed …”3

So we might say that grokking is the upper limit of knowledge. If we grok something fully, then we understand it as much as it can be understood.

The lower limit of knowledge

Heinlein also demonstrated the lower limit of knowledge. I’m not sure that he did it on purpose, but it’s there in the book.

His example shows how sane, rational people can look at the same facts and disagree completely about what they mean.

In Heinlein’s story, some people get special training for the job of “Fair Witness.” They have perfect and complete memory of anything they experience. In theory, they report exactly what they witness, without making assumptions or adding interpretation.

As Ambrose Bierce joked about realism, a Fair Witness’s job is to report events “as they are seen by toads.” For example:

“Jubal called out, ‘That house on the hilltop—can you see what color they’ve painted it?’ Anne looked, then answered, ‘It’s white on this side.’ Jubal went on to Jill, ‘You see? It doesn’t occur to Anne to infer that the other side is white, too. All the King’s horses couldn’t force her to commit herself unless she went there and looked — and even then she wouldn’t assume that it stayed white after she left.'”4

I call it “the lower limit” of knowledge because it you went much lower than what Anne says, you wouldn’t be making a statement: you’d just be saying “white!” You wouldn’t be asserting anything that could be true or false.

Notice some things about Anne:

  • She’s calm and clear-headed.
  • She’s not emotionally agitated.
  • She’s not trying to make a point.
  • She’s not trying to win an argument.
  • She has special training as a Fair Witness to report only what she sees, without assumptions or interpretation.

In spite of all that, she still makes assumptions and interprets what she sees:

  • She assumes that what she sees is a house.
  • She assumes that houses have sides.
  • She assumes that her vision is working properly.
  • She assumes that the light shining on the house isn’t making it seem white when it really isn’t.
  • She interprets her pattern of visual sensations as being the white side of a house.

Just like the rest of us when we look at the Ames room, Anne interprets what she sees. She relies on countless unconscious beliefs, assumptions, ideas, and previous experiences. If the situation matches the mental patterns she applies, then she perceives it correctly. If it doesn’t match her mental patterns, then she perceives it incorrectly.

And if two honest people apply different mental patterns to the same situation, then they’ll disagree about it — especially if they’re not “fair witnesses,” which almost nobody is. But if they’re sane and sensible, they can still figure out how to live together peacefully.


  1. Nor did I give much thought to the books’ kinky sexual ideas, which went completely over my head. I was a late bloomer.
  2. Stranger in a Strange Land, p. 7. Heinlein seemed to have a bad case of “blank-slate-ism.” At the time he was writing (1960), the blank-slate view of human nature was still defensible.
  3. Ibid, p. 241.
  4. Ibid, p. 112.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Human Relations, Life, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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