New Concepts, Old Templates

Posted in Knowledge at 9:46 am by Haider

(To read a summary of this post click here)

We are constantly exposed to new ideas that can expand our thinking and shed new light on the knowledge we possess. However, rather than understand these ideas for what they are, we often associate them with what we already know, and assume that they are identical. This limits our ability to acquire new knowledge and distorts the new information we come across.

Natural Learning

Although this is an obstacle we must overcome, it occurs very naturally that we are not even aware of it. In order for us to respond effectively to our experiences, we register the experience, as well as any views on the actions that produced positive outcomes and the actions that produced negative outcomes, including any additional observations that we may make use of in the future.

All these ideas are stored in our knowledge-base. To learn from our experiences, we must be able to retrieve this information from our knowledge-base whenever we encounter a similar situation. Learning isn’t simply about storing data in our brains, but about making sense of past, present and future experiences. To do that, we need to apply what we learn to the situations we face. 

We should not attempt to acquire the same ideas whenever we encounter a situation we have already lived through. We should be prepared to call on our knowledge to handle the situation effectively.

Creating Templates

When we register ideas in our knowledge-base, we store them as templates that represent all possible occurrences of such a concept. For example, my son has learned what a ball is, and whenever he sees a ball he says: “ball” (or aby - “I want,” in Arabic - but that’s another issue). However, not only does he refer to a ball as a ball, but any round object, to him, is a “ball”. Therefore, all round objects fit in the template of: ball.

My son, and all humans for that matter, hold templates to understand all instances that match the template. In my son’s case, the template is roundness.

However, there is a difference between a ball and a wheel, and between a circle and an oval. These objects, and the concepts we associate with them, are not identical. But when we limit ourselves to a single template that represents a range of different concepts, we limit our knowledge and our potential to acquire more knowledge.

Knowledge Can Limit Learning

When we incorrectly apply old templates to new concepts, we limit our learning. This is when our knowledge works against us, and the more we think we know, the less we will learn!

This doesn’t mean that we should dismiss what we already know in order to see new ideas for what they are. If we abandon our current templates, we may end up acquiring the same concepts again! And all we would have done is to repeat the same learning process but without retaining the information we have acquired.

Making Distinctions

The solution isn’t to abandon templates, but to generate new templates and sub-templates. Under the template of “roundness” my son will soon realise that there are “spheres” and “circles”, “perfect circles” and “ovals.” He will associate all these to objects that don’t exhibit roundness, such as “squares”, “triangles”, etc. and recognize that they all fall under the template “shapes”. 

This is extremely important for the concepts we come across today that carry many different meanings that we lump together under a single template, while overlooking the distinctions between those meanings. If we fail to recognize the differences, then we have both limited our knowledge and misrepresented these ideas.

For example, concepts such as “religion”, “secularism”, “liberalism”, “democracy”, “Islam”, “justice”, “selfishness”, etc. all carry a range of meanings that we need to recognize and to define (i.e. limit) each meaning according to the similarities and differences between all the meanings.

By making effective use of templates to categorize ideas together and making as many possible distinctions between ideas according to their differences, we can learn a great deal more from the ideas we come across and the experiences we live through. Making distinctions doesn’t omit the similarities. We can’t say: “Each case is unique that we cannot draw parallels.” This is another case of limiting our knowledge, because we become blind to the similarities.

Both similarities and differences need to be taken into account to make sense of the world around us.

Summary of "New Concepts, Old Templates"

We are constantly exposed to new ideas, but may fail to understand them correctly, because we associate them to the ideas we already know.

It is natural for us to use “templates” to group concepts together, and applying the template to all objects that exhibit this concept. My son, for example, refers to all round objects as “ball”. It is part of learning to be able to identify all balls, regardless of size and colour, as such.

The problem is when he cannot distinguish between ball and wheel, circle and oval because he only recognizes the common “roundness” they share.

If we cannot think beyond our existing templates, our knowledge will limit our learning!

We shouldn’t abandon our templates, but be willing to create new ones, as well as sub-templates, so that we can recognize the differences between concepts and the objects that exhibit these concepts.

This is especially important for ideas that carry many meanings, such as “religion”, “justice”, “selfishness”, etc.

We must be able to identify the similarities and differences, so that we do not limit our learning and misunderstand the ideas we are exposed to.


  1. Computerchi said,

    April 29, 2008 at 9:57 am

    This post is the same as all of your other posts. :-)

    It is amazing that the very thing that helps our cognition, is also responsible for our ignorance. Learning new things sometimes means unlearning old things. I found that problem solving happens when I realise the difference between two ideas that I used to lump as one.

  2. Haji Razali said,

    May 16, 2008 at 2:02 am

    Salam Bro Haider and Computerchi,

    I like Computerchi’s comment presiding his conclusive remarks.

    Assalamu Alaikum Haider,
    [I happened to browse this topic after solat Subuh and I like it]

    I’m still trying to grasp what your Thoughts are in relation to this topic.
    I’m also trying to figure out who you are in terms of your profession [ a Journalist, University Lecturer, Lawyer, I haven’t got the clue yet]. But that is beside the point.

    OK. Let me explore the learning process and the elements that you had brought out in this blog.

    1. You are putting a hypothetical condition that a template is storage of any learning behavior that took place or acquired that is the Knowledge-Based.
    Initially most individual will go through the same pattern of the learning process: constant repetitions and through trial-error regimes. The Conceptual development stage is most critical and many studies proven that many of us fall to the process termed as misconceptions. This may occur during the formal and informal learning process.
    Learning by its definition is a wide and complicated process which entailed its own theories and approaches. To cut it short that it is vitally important of the individual learner to acquire correct concepts to be registered into the Templates [as your term of reference].
    So we can presume that the templates may contained some contaminated files or errors which are not compatible to the system or platform or according to the configurations that you/society may set forth.

    2. Respectively, you proposed not to change the old templates but to generate them into a new one as to accommodate into the new environment. Putting into another word that we have to modify our perceptions to suit the new ideas such as religion, justice, selfishness and etc.
    My reflection is that this presupposition is a bid worrisome [to me]. If we are applying this approach to an academic subject as in politics, economics, science, etc is exceptionally true and a MUST.

    To apply it in Religion [Islam] one has to be very cautious. I am not well converse in this disciple but for the sake of discussion I would base my reservation on the premises that Islamic Religion is termed as a Divine Knowledge. For this there are knowledge which are transmitted [revealed] as direct or very precise and knowledge [Ayats] which are not easily understood by human [as Allah put in the surah]. And Allah [SWT] has clearly stated that “some of the people” will use these ambiguousness as a way of their arguments/rejections.[Sorry it doesn’t literally translated in this manner, I ‘m merely put it as my own understanding of the actual translation].

    So this somehow has to be addressed to your idea of the utilizatation of the HumanTemplates per se.

    Wabillah HiTawfiq wal Hidayah.

  3. Haider said,

    May 16, 2008 at 6:14 pm

    Salaam Haji Razali,

    First of all, I’m a computer engineer :)

    Secondly, to recap what the message of the post is: We sometimes group different concepts together in a single mental template, even though there are differences between these concepts. A circle and an oval are both round, but they have different properties. In order to expand our knowledge, we must be able to make these distinctions. I am not addressing the issue of whether the concepts are true or false. In fact, I’m assuming that the concepts have some truth to them.

    But there some concepts, such as “religion,” that represent a huge range of ideas, that we cannot simply talk about one aspect of this concept and ignore the rest. “Religion” could mean irrational belief for some, but rational conviction to others. Why the differences in opinion? It could be that the two are looking at different aspects or understandings of the concept: “religion.” I, for example, would agree that there are irrational religions (or understandings of religion), but wouldn’t say that religion, as such, promotes irrationality.

    As for Islam being divine knowledge, the issue is very broad, and I would need to address it separately. For now, I would say that the aspects that we should believe in, according to Islam, are all accessible to the human intellect. However, most Islamic scholars try to undermine the validity of reason and human intellect, and try to explain Islam as something that cannot be understood (but we have to follow regardless). The very concept of an Ayah (a sign) is that it’s a sign to human beings. God doesn’t need signs to prove His existence to Himself!

    The ambiguity that you mentioned doesn’t mean that the verses, or signs, cannot be understood by us, but that we need to possess sufficient knowledge in order to understand them correctly. I will, hopefully, deal with this issue in my near-future writings on Understanding Islam.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  4. Haji Razali said,

    May 16, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    Dear Haider,

    Thank you for clarifying your thoughts and to elaborate the essence of your thesis. Keep on writing and I am looking forward on the topic of Understanding Islam. I presume there will be some conjectures and misleading views that we as Muslim uphold in our understanding of Islam.


  5. Haider said,

    May 17, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    The “conjectures and misleading views” are the main reason why we need to discuss how Islam is to be understood, so this will feature prominently in the discussion :)

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