Learning Levels: Hard Learning, Soft Learning
& LearningN

Two tier goal: first, to distinguish between hard learning and soft learning:
then to review Gregory Bateson’s meta levels of learning: learning0, learning1, learning2

2011 12 16 Hard learning is recorded in the wiring, in the genes. Never mind what the wetware’s software thinks it’s learned.


Learning0: learning already learned in the wiring: how to grow brown hair, blue eyes … The example I’ve long loved was shown on PBS by David Attenborough: the insect finds a suitable nest site, a little cave amid the sand. She cleans the interior, she cleans the entrance. If, while she’s cleaning the interior, some mean observer places a pebble in the entrance, she finishes cleaning the interior, inspects the entrance, finds the obstruction, then returns inside and cleans the nest site all over again. She’ll never learn that she’s already done it! She’s executing a program, she’s not aware that she’s executing a program.

Learning1: You learn that to get to the store you leave your house, turn right at the sidewalk, check for traffic on Lakeview Avenue, cross Lakeview Avenue saftely, log east, continue south till you get to the intersection with the traffic light: and there, there are several stores just east of the light: soda fountain, barber, deli … That’s learning accomplished by the individual. It disperses with injury, with death. The next generation is born needing to be told where the store is, what it’s name is, what it’s phone number is.

Learning2: Learning to learn. Learning2 is accomplished on occasion by geniuses (of any species) … by an ecology … by the gods … Bateson illustrates with the story of a porpoise whose trainers rewarded her with fish from some behavior learned by Learning1 — leaping through a hoop, bouncing a ball — then stopped. The porpoise became agitated, then resentful, then very agitated. When the trainers let her back into the pool she exhibited behaviors never taught her, including some behaviors never before recorded by humans observing cetacians. That porpoise was a Leonardo!
Human typically tell themselves that they’re learning to learn; actually it’s typically just Learning1, failing to be recognized, falling to self-flattery.

2000 10 14

You see the toddler near the stove. “No, no. Hot, hot.” If the kid backs off, that’s soft learning. Much of the mind’s computing for it is done in the fore-brain.

You’re talking on the phone. The kid is left to his own devices. He burns his hand off. He never goes near the stove again, won’t even come into the kitchen. That’s hard learning. The fore-brain isn’t needed in the computations.

Some things simply cannot be taught;
they can only be learned.

Robert Anton Wilson

Hard learning may well be fatal. Fatal or not, it may still be effective. Monitor the biosphere: if the same error kills enough species, over time you’ll see fewer new species with that error. Nature is not stupid, however “unconscious.”

Experience teaches effectually, but brutally.
Frederic Bastiat

If we crash but some few survive, maybe those few will avoid overpopulation, surplus food, environmental degradation, kleptocracy … in future. If not, but there’s a biosphere left, other species will evolve. Maybe there will be some other monitor noticing the degree to which they learn the lesson.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write,
but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.


A mature edition of pkTools would have a piece on “Learning” first and add specialty pieces like Learning Levels second; here the subdivision came first. Now I’ll add a Scrapbook on Learning, the actual Learning piece is yet to be composed.


Toddler Near the Stove:
I was sixty-three and a half before I discovered a wonderful antecedent to my own example. See Relations Between Parents and Children by Clara Dixon Davidson [from Liberty #235, pp.3-4]. You’ll find it at a site for Benjamin R. Tucker.

Thinking Tools