You can comprehend a topic/concept without having to believe in its “truth” or “possibility”.  Indeed, prior judgement as to truth or possibility is only valid from full comprehension; and details of comprehension can be used to argue falsity and impossibility.

This distinction, when attempting to share with others, between their expecting to be asked to “believe” what you present as distinguished from only asking them to comprehend – may be very critical.

  •     Whether others can comprehend this distinction, or are willing to apply it, is a matter for empirical discovery.

Comprehension is a relationship, not a state of truth or validity. On person (or group) claims to comprehend a topic/concept and offers to share that comprehension with others.

  •     Comprehension is a relationship between a semiotic structure (sem) designed to represent the “meaning” of the topic/concept. The “meaning” to be reflected in the behavior of the persons claiming comprehension in association with the use of the term/phrase for the topic/concept.
  •     “Meaning” is not an observable. Possessing “meaning” is evidenced by prescriptive behavior.
  •     When many people comprehend the same topic/concept they all reflect it in their mutually consistent behaviors.
  •     So-called full comprehension is an asymptotic concept in that new subtle behaviors may appear.  The lack of comprehension is what is most often observed: behavior counter to what is expected for comprehension.

Comprehension relates to details of the structure/process of a topic/concept. A proper formulation of a topic/concept should include operations to test a persons’ comprehension.

  •     Accurate reproduction from memory of the sems associated with the topic is not sufficient evidence for comprehension. Example, people can memorize the sound of text read and speak such without even knowing the language of the text or the meaining of what they speak.
  •     That two persons “agree” that they share comprehension of a topic is not sufficient evidence for fuller comprehension (that may yet exist in the sems, ignored or misunderstood by both persons).
  •     Automated probes, such as multiple choice questions (MPQ), can be developed to assess the probability of a persons comprehension.
  •         MPQs have been abused in school settings; which doesn’t distract from their utility when applied properly.
  •     Formative Evaluation (in education) involves testing comprehension during learning to serve as feedback for continued learning. Formative evaluation should NEVER be used as part of a Summative Evaluation of adequate (full) comprehension – unfortunately a major crime in school practice.
  •     Quality sem representations for topics should include formative evaluation measures organized to seaf learning, accounting for individual differences.

Comprehension is seldom experienced consciously. When one knows they passed the tests for comprehension then will conceptually know they “comprehend”.  Comprehension, in this sense, is a scientific concept.

I restrict the term “understanding” to reference the emotional feeling one has in association to a topic/concept.

  •     Strong feelings of understanding are possible when comprehension is very poor or grossly distorted (from intended usage).
  •     A person may claim that their unique use of a term is what they intend to use that term for and that they, by definition, comprehend the term and simultaneously understand it.  This may be proper when a serious effort is being made to better comprehend a reality and a novel view is proposed. However, a new concept might better call for a new term and then explicate relationships between the new term and the conventional term (avoided).
  •     This can be dangerous when a limited “meaning” is ascribed to a term as some absolute truth.


One might wish to distinguish between comprehension of the inner structure/process of a topic/concept and its consequences or implications for the whole of knowledge/reality.
What was presented above refers primarily to the “inner” aspects of a topic, although the boundaries are not sharp.
 EXAMPLE:  What is a car?

  •         The physical structure of a car and the processes by which it works involves comprehension by mechanics and car designers.
  •         Drivers of cars can have very low comprehension of the inner mechanical nature of cars yet be excellent drivers.
  •         The role of cars in transportation systems, road and city design, fuels (drilling, refining, distribution), pollution and climate change, death and injury due to accidents, finance and insurance, psychology of car ownership, etc. are all structures/processes external to the mechanical/driving nature of cars.
  •         A person could have considerable comprehension of the impact of cars without knowing how they worked or knowing how to drive them.

There are things we use or study which we yet don’t fully comprehend.
What is actually happening on Planet Earth at this time of our Crisis-of-Crises and our concurrent almost miraculous opportunity for significant emergence (beyond Civilization) is our exemplar of limited comprehension.

  •         The distribution of testable comprehension of many components and subsystems of “our world” is not known – but we know that a great many persons have no or distorted comprehension of evidentially testable realities.
  •         At play are sem-systems claiming to refer to testable realities but are actually propaganda to move persons to support programs that benefit the architects of the propaganda.  These sem-systems would not stand up to testing, but the politics of our systems prohibit such testing.

Our “Structure of Knowledge” changes as we learn to comprehend more.

There may be “things” beyond adequate comprehension at this time.

We should strive for greater comprehension; yet, learn to work/function/behave in better ways even in the face of limited comprehension and uncertainty.


Author: nuet

01/24/1935. BS-physics RPI 1956; MS-physics UofChicago 1958; PhD-physics Yale 1965; PhD-Edu Psy Uof MInnesota 1970. Auroral Research Byrd Station, Antarctica 11/1960-02/1962. MINNEMAST curriculum dev 1964-68. Woodstock. faculty Pima Community College, Tucson 1974-1997. Transdisciplinary scientist, philosopher, educator, futurist, activist. PC user since 1982. "Wife". daughter, 2 grandsons. 5 dogs & 7 cats. Lacks mental imagery in all sensory domains.