What is learning?
So many levels one can answer this on.
At one level, learning involves having a system that can respond to external stimuli, and training it in some way to respond “appropriately” – however one chooses to define the word appropriate.
Human beings have many levels of systems.
Many of them come largely pre-configured by the processes of evolution (at both the biological and the cultural levels), and can only be trained within certain limits, like heart rate or respiration.
Following the same theme, but at a different level, we learn how to control our bodies, which involves two major classes of learning.
One class of learning involves refining our mental representation of the reality within which we exist, and our own existence within that, including what we think of as limits to our abilities.
This can apply as much to learning to suck our thumb within the womb, as to learning language and forming a representation in language of our existence as something more than a physical body.
This theme, of modeling, can fold back upon itself, forming ever more abstract models of models. There does not appear to be any logical end to such a sequence, it appears to be potentially infinite.
Within any such model, there is an aspect of learning that involves populating the model with distinctions relating to the sorts of actors present in the model and sorts of actions they are likely to take in any particular context, and the sorts of consequence that are probable over various ranges of time and space as a result.
So learning can rapidly become very complex.
And in any such complexity, we must all use heuristic “hacks” – rules of thumb that work in practice – rather than trying to work anything out from first principles consistently.
An aspect of learning is therefor being willing to re-examine any of the heuristics we rely upon (at any and all levels), if there is sufficient evidence to do so.
Another aspect of learning is exploration of the novel, going beyond the boundaries of the known or the agreed or the expected or the believed. If one pursues this consistently then one can end up a very long way from any accepted cultural understanding.
So learning is, to me, mostly fun.
Learning can also be unsettling, dangerous, isolating, liberating, hard work, and any other sort of experience one cares to name.
Learning involves creating new tools, both physical and intellectual, and becoming proficient in their use.
To me, learning, being willing and able to move from a known place from our past into some new “space of possibility”, is the thing that most separates us from other animals, the degrees and levels to which we do it seem greater than any other species.