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With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
Common across human history is our longing to better understand the world we live in, and how it works. But how much can we actually know about the world?
In his book, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, Physicist Marcelo Gleiser traces our progress of modern science in the pursuit to the most fundamental questions on existence, the origin of the universe, and the limits of knowledge.
What we know of the world is limited by what we can see and what we can describe, but our tools have evolved over the years to reveal ever more pleats into our fabric of knowledge. Gleiser celebrates this persistent struggle to understand our place in the world and travels our history from ancient knowledge to our current understanding.
While science is not the only way to see and describe the world we live in, it is a response to the questions on who we are, where we are, and how we got here. “Science speaks directly to our humanity, to our quest for light, ever more light.”
To move forward, science needs to fail, which runs counter to our human desire for certainty. “We are surrounded by horizons, by incompleteness.” Rather than give up, we struggle along a scale of progress. What makes us human is this journey to understand more about the mysteries of the world and explain them with reason. This is the core of our nature.
While the pursuit is never ending, the curious journey offers insight not just into the natural world, but insight into ourselves.
“What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only
very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.”
— Albert Einstein
We tend to think that what we see is all there is — that there is nothing we cannot see. We know it isn’t true when we stop and think, yet we still get lulled into a trap of omniscience.
Science is thus limited, offering only part of the story — the part we can see and measure. The other part remains beyond our immediate reach.
“What we see of the world,” Gleiser begins, “is only a sliver of what’s out there.”
There is much that is invisible to the eye, even when we augment our sensorial perception with telescopes, microscopes, and other tools of exploration. Like our senses, every instrument has a range. Because much of Nature remains hidden from us, our view of the world is based only on the fraction of reality that we can measure and analyze. Science, as our narrative describing what we see and what we conjecture exists in the natural world, is thus necessarily limited, telling only part of the story. … We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery. This view is neither antiscientific nor defeatist. … Quite the contrary, it is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.
While we may broadly understand the map of what we call reality, we fail to understand its terrain. Reality, Gleiser argues, “is an ever-shifting mosaic of ideas.”
The incompleteness of knowledge and the limits of our scientific worldview only add to the richness of our search for meaning, as they align science with our human fallibility and aspirations.
What we call reality is a (necessarily) limited synthesis. It is certainly our reality, as it must be, but it is not the entire reality itself:
My perception of the world around me, as cognitive neuroscience teaches us, is synthesized within different regions of my brain. What I call reality results from the integrated sum of countless stimuli collected through my five senses, brought from the outside into my head via my nervous system. Cognition, the awareness of being here now, is a fabrication of a vast set of chemicals flowing through myriad synaptic connections between my neurons. … We have little understanding as to how exactly this neuronal choreography engenders us with a sense of being. We go on with our everyday activities convinced that we can separate ourselves from our surroundings and construct an objective view of reality.
The brain is a great filtering tool, deaf and blind to vast amounts of information around us that offer no evolutionary advantage. Part of it we can see and simply ignore. Other parts, like dust particles and bacteria, go unseen because of limitations of our sensory tools.
As the Fox said to the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s fable, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” There is no better example than oxygen.
Science has increased our view. Our measurement tools and instruments can see bacteria and radiation, subatomic particles and more. However precise these tools have become, their view is still limited.
There is no such thing as an exact measurement. Every measurement must be stated within its precision and quoted together with “error bars” estimating the magnitude of errors. High-precision measurements are simply measurements with small error bars or high confidence levels; there are no perfect, zero-error measurements.
Technology limits how deeply experiments can probe into physical reality. That is to say, machines determine what we can measure and thus what scientists can learn about the Universe and ourselves. Being human inventions, machines depend on our creativity and available resources. When successful, they measure with ever-higher accuracy and on occasion may also reveal the unexpected.
“All models are wrong, some are useful.”
— George Box
What we know about the world is only what we can detect and measure — even if we improve our “detecting and measuring” as time goes along. And thus we make our conclusions of reality on what we can currently “see.”
We see much more than Galileo, but we can’t see it all. And this restriction is not limited to measurements: speculative theories and models that extrapolate into unknown realms of physical reality must also rely on current knowledge. When there is no data to guide intuition, scientists impose a “compatibility” criterion: any new theory attempting to extrapolate beyond tested ground should, in the proper limit, reproduce current knowledge.
If large portions of the world remain unseen or inaccessible to us, we must consider the meaning of the word “reality” with great care. We must consider whether there is such a thing as an “ultimate reality” out there — the final substrate of all there is — and, if so, whether we can ever hope to grasp it in its totality.
We thus must ask whether grasping reality’s most fundamental nature is just a matter of pushing the limits of science or whether we are being quite naive about what science can and can’t do.
Here is another way of thinking about this: if someone perceives the world through her senses only (as most people do), and another amplifies her perception through the use of instrumentation, who can legitimately claim to have a truer sense of reality? One “sees” microscopic bacteria, faraway galaxies, and subatomic particles, while the other is completely blind to such entities. Clearly they “see” different things and—if they take what they see literally—will conclude that the world, or at least the nature of physical reality, is very different.
Asking who is right misses the point, although surely the person using tools can see further into the nature of things. Indeed, to see more clearly what makes up the world and, in the process to make more sense of it and ourselves is the main motivation to push the boundaries of knowledge. … What we call “real” is contingent on how deeply we are able to probe reality. Even if there is such thing as the true or ultimate nature of reality, all we have is what we can know of it.
Our perception of what is real evolves with the instruments we use to probe Nature. Gradually, some of what was unknown becomes known. For this reason, what we call “reality” is always changing. … The version of reality we might call “true” at one time will not remain true at another. … Given that our instruments will always evolve, tomorrow’s reality will necessarily include entitles not known to exist today. … More to the point, as long as technology advances—and there is no reason to suppose that it will ever stop advancing for as long as we are around—we cannot foresee an end to this quest. The ultimate truth is elusive, a phantom.
Gleiser makes his point with a beautiful metaphor. The Island of Knowledge.
Consider, then, the sum total of our accumulated knowledge as constituting an island, which I call the “Island of Knowledge.” … A vast ocean surrounds the Island of Knowledge, the unexplored ocean of the unknown, hiding countless tantalizing mysteries.
The Island of Knowledge grows as we learn more about the world and ourselves. And as the island grows, so too “do the shores of our ignorance—the boundary between the known and unknown.”
Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination—whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyways—but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.
As we move forward we must remember that despite our quest, the shores of our ignorance grow as the Island of Knowledge grows. And while we will struggle with the fact that not all questions will have answers, we will continue to progress. “It is also good to remember,” Gleiser writes, “that science only covers part of the Island.”
Richard Feynman has pointed out before that science can only answer the subset of question that go, roughly, “If I do this, what will happen?” Answers to questions like Why do the rules operate that way? and Should I do it? are not really questions of scientific nature — they are moral, human questions, if they are knowable at all.
There are many ways of understanding and knowing that should, ideally, feed each other. “We are,” Gleiser concludes, “multidimensional creatures and search for answers in many, complementary ways. Each serves a purpose and we need them all.”
The Island of Knowledge is a wide-ranging tour through scientific history from planetary motions to modern scientific theories and how they affect our ideas on what is knowable.“As the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance.” Click To Tweet
Inspired by a reader’s question to me, I thought I’d ask our followers on Facebook and Twitter for an answer to the question: What books would you recommend someone read to improve their general knowledge of the world.
I must say the number and quality of the responses overwhelmed me. The box Amazon just delivered reminds me that I ordered 9 books off this list.
Here is the list of what 55,000 of the smartest readers on the internet came up with, and what a list it is!
International strategist Peter Zeihan examines how the hard rules of geography are eroding the American commitment to free trade; how much of the planet is aging into a mass retirement that will enervate markets and capital supplies; and how, against all odds, it is the ever-ravenous American economy that-alone among the developed nations-is rapidly approaching energy independence. Combined, these factors are doing nothing less than overturning the global system and ushering in a new (dis)order.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
“I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a fun, engaging look at early human history…you’ll have a hard time putting it down.”— Bill Gates
William McNeill’s widely acclaimed one-volume history emphasizes the four Old World civilizations of the Middle East, India, China, and Europe, paying particular attention to their interaction across time as well as the impact on historical scholarship in light of the most recent archaeological discoveries. The engaging and informative narrative touches on all aspects of civilization, including geography, communication, and technological and artistic developments, and provides extensive coverage of the modern era.
Here’s your chance to brush up on all those subjects you slept through in school, reacquaint yourself with all the facts you once knew (then promptly forgot), catch up on major developments in the world today, and become the Renaissance man or woman you always knew you could be!
Taking as territory everything from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization, Bryson seeks to understand how we got from there being nothing at all to there being us. To that end, he has attached himself to a host of the world’s most advanced (and often obsessed) archaeologists, anthropologists, and mathematicians, travelling to their offices, laboratories, and field camps. He has read (or tried to read) their books, pestered them with questions, apprenticed himself to their powerful minds. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the record of this quest, and it is a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only Bill Bryson can render it. Science has never been more involving or entertaining.
Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most.
One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the story of the rise and fall, birth and death of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buend; a family. Inventive, amusing, magnetic, sad, and alive with unforgettable men and women — brimming with truth, compassion, and a lyrical magic that strikes the soul — this novel is a masterpiece in the art of fiction.
Discovered in the attic in which she spent the last years of her life, Anne Frank’s remarkable diary has since become a world classic—a powerful reminder of the horrors of war and an eloquent testament to the human spirit. In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, they and another family lived cloistered in the “Secret Annex” of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death. In her diary Anne Frank recorded vivid impressions of her experiences during this period. By turns thoughtful, moving, and amusing, her account offers a fascinating commentary on human courage and frailty and a compelling self-portrait of a sensitive and spirited young woman whose promise was tragically cut short.
Neil MacGregor has blazed an unusual path to international renown. As director of the British Museum, he organized an exhibit that aimed to tell the history of humanity through the stories of one hundred objects made, used, venerated, or discarded by man. The exhibit and its accompanying BBC radio series broke broadcasting records and MacGregor’s book became a bestselling sensation on both sides of the Atlantic and a huge Christmas hit, with more than 100,000 copies in print in the United States alone.
23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism uses twenty-three short essays (a few great examples: “There Is No Such Thing as a Free Market,” “The Washing Machine Has Changed the World More than the Internet Has”) to equip readers with an understanding of how global capitalism works, and doesn’t, while offering a vision of how we can shape capitalism to humane ends, instead of becoming slaves of the market.
A good book may have the power to change the way we see the world, but a great book actually becomes part of our daily consciousness, pervading our thinking to the point that we take it for granted, and we forget how provocative and challenging its ideas once were—and still are. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that kind of book. When it was first published in 1962, it was a landmark event in the history and philosophy of science. Fifty years later, it still has many lessons to teach.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (a.d. 121–180) succeeded his adoptive father as emperor of Rome in a.d. 161—and Meditations remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written. With a profound understanding of human behavior, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others. Consequently, the Meditations have become required reading for statesmen and philosophers alike, while generations of ordinary readers have responded to the straightforward intimacy of his style. In Gregory Hays’s new translation—the first in a generation—Marcus’s thoughts speak with a new immediacy: never before have they been so directly and powerfully presented.
… broadly focuses on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the most well-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men. As Napoleon’s army invades, Tolstoy brilliantly follows characters from diverse backgrounds—peasants and nobility, civilians and soldiers—as they struggle with the problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. And as the novel progresses, these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the most moving—and human—figures in world literature.
One of the supreme masterpieces of world literature, Crime and Punishment catapulted Dostoyevsky to the forefront of Russian writers and into the ranks of the world’s greatest novelists. Drawing upon experiences from his own prison days, the author recounts in feverish, compelling tones the story of Raskolnikov, an impoverished student tormented by his own nihilism, and the struggle between good and evil. Believing that he is above the law, and convinced that humanitarian ends justify vile means, he brutally murders an old woman — a pawnbroker whom he regards as “stupid, ailing, greedy…good for nothing.” Overwhelmed afterwards by feelings of guilt and terror, Raskolnikov confesses to the crime and goes to prison. There he realizes that happiness and redemption can only be achieved through suffering. Infused with forceful religious, social, and philosophical elements, the novel was an immediate success. This extraordinary, unforgettable work is reprinted here in the authoritative Constance Garnett translation.
The Prince shocked Europe on publication with its advocacy of ruthless tactics for gaining absolute power and its abandonment of conventional morality. Niccoló Machiavelli drew on his own experience of office under the turbulent Florentine republic, rejecting traditional values of political theory and recognizing the complicated, transient nature of political life. Concerned not with lofty ideal but with a regime that would last, The Prince has become the bible of realpolitik, and it still retains its power to alarm and to instruct. In this edition, Machiavelli’s tough-minded and pragmatic Italian is preserved in George Bull’s clear, unambiguous translation.
For more than two thousand years, Sun-tzu’s The Art of War has provided leaders with essential advice on battlefield tactics and management strategies. An elemental part of Chinese culture, it has also become a touchstone for the Western struggle for survival and success, whether in battle, in business, or in relationships. Now, in this crisp, accessible new translation, eminent scholar John Minford brings this seminal work to life for today’s readers. Capturing the literary quality of the work, Minford presents the core text in two formats: first, the unadorned ancient words of wisdom ascribed to Sun-tzu; then, the same text with extensive running commentary from the canon of traditional Chinese commentators. A lively, learned introduction and other valuable apparatus round out this authoritative volume.
Just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension, and rumors or riots intensify when someone tries to repress them, many things in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil. What Taleb has identified and calls “antifragile” is that category of things that not only gain from chaos but need it in order to survive and flourish.
Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 1974 and the culmination of a life’s work, The Denial of Death is Ernest Becker’s brilliant and impassioned answer to the “why” of human existence. In bold contrast to the predominant Freudian school of thought, Becker tackles the problem of the vital lie — man’s refusal to acknowledge his own mortality. In doing so, he sheds new light on the nature of humanity and issues a call to life and its living that still resonates more than twenty years after its writing.
(Robert) Wright asserts that, ever since the primordial ooze, life has followed a basic pattern. Organisms and human societies alike have grown more complex by mastering the challenges of internal cooperation. Wright’s narrative ranges from fossilized bacteria to vampire bats, from stone-age villages to the World Trade Organization, uncovering such surprises as the benefits of barbarian hordes and the useful stability of feudalism. Here is history endowed with moral significance–a way of looking at our biological and cultural evolution that suggests, refreshingly, that human morality has improved over time, and that our instinct to discover meaning may itself serve a higher purpose. Insightful, witty, profound, Nonzero offers breathtaking implications for what we believe and how we adapt to technology’s ongoing transformation of the world.
The great secret of our time is that there are still uncharted frontiers to explore and new inventions to create. In Zero to One, legendary entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel shows how we can find singular ways to create those new things.
In this pathbreaking work, now with a new introduction, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky show that, contrary to the usual image of the news media as cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and defense of justice, in their actual practice they defend the economic, social, and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate domestic society, the state, and the global order.
[O]ne of the most talked-about climate change books of recent years, for reasons easy to understand: It tells the controversial story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific knowledge over four decades. The same individuals who claim the science of global warming is “not settled” have also denied the truth about studies linking smoking to lung cancer, coal smoke to acid rain, and CFCs to the ozone hole. “Doubt is our product,” wrote one tobacco executive. These “experts” supplied it.
From the U.S. military in Iraq to infrastructure development in Indonesia, from Peace Corps volunteers in Africa to jackals in Venezuela, Perkins exposes a conspiracy of corruption that has fueled instability and anti-Americanism around the globe, with consequences reflected in our daily headlines. Having raised the alarm, Perkins passionately addresses how Americans can work to create a more peaceful and stable world for future generations.
Americans have lost touch with their history, and in Lies My Teacher Told Me Professor James Loewen shows why. After surveying eighteen leading high school American history texts, he has concluded that not one does a decent job of making history interesting or memorable. Marred by an embarrassing combination of blind patriotism, mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies, these books omit almost all the ambiguity, passion, conflict, and drama from our past.
The remarkable best-seller — a long-lost, 300-year-old book of wisdom on how to live successfully yet responsibly in a society governed by self-interest — as acute as Machiavelli yet as humanistic and scrupulously moral as Marcus Aurelius.
Amoral, cunning, ruthless, and instructive, The 48 Laws of Power is the definitive manual for anyone interested in gaining, observing, or defending against ultimate control.
Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, 3rd Edition
My most gifted book.
In addition to the basic rules of negotiation, $1000 a Minute tells readers when to apply them. The book is reorganized to tell: What to do at the start of the job search, how to “dodge” the salary issue during the job search, what to prepare before a job interview, when to enter into negotiations, and what order to ask for things. Special training is provided in how NOT to jeapordize the offer you have and still negotiate for the offer you want.
In this unique exploration of the role of risk in our society, Peter Bernstein argues that the notion of bringing risk under control is one of the central ideas that distinguishes modern times from the distant past. Against the Gods chronicles the remarkable intellectual adventure that liberated humanity from oracles and soothsayers by means of the powerful tools of risk management that are available to us today.
By piecing the lives of selected individuals into a grand mosaic, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Daniel J. Boorstin explores the development of artistic innovation over 3,000 years. A hugely ambitious chronicle of the arts that Boorstin delivers with the scope that made his Discoverers a national bestseller.
As John Casti wrote, “Finally, a book that really does explain consciousness.” This groundbreaking work by Denmark’s leading science writer draws on psychology, evolutionary biology, information theory, and other disciplines to argue its revolutionary point: that consciousness represents only an infinitesimal fraction of our ability to process information. Although we are unaware of it, our brains sift through and discard billions of pieces of data in order to allow us to understand the world around us. In fact, most of what we call thought is actually the unconscious discarding of information. What our consciousness rejects constitutes the most valuable part of ourselves, the “Me” that the “I” draws on for most of our actions–fluent speech, riding a bicycle, anything involving expertise. No wonder that, in this age of information, so many of us feel empty and dissatisfied. As engaging as it is insightful, this important book encourages us to rely more on what our instincts and our senses tell us so that we can better appreciate the richness of human life.
First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads—driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity. A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America. At once a naturalistic epic, captivity narrative, road novel, and transcendental gospel, Steinbeck’s powerful landmark novel is perhaps the most American of American Classics.
A contemporary classic, Please Kill Me is the definitive oral history of the most nihilistic of all pop movements. Iggy Pop, Richard Hell, the Ramones, and scores of other punk figures lend their voices to this decisive account of that explosive era. This 20th anniversary edition features new photos and an afterword by the authors.
One of the most acclaimed books of our time, winner of both the Pulitzer and the Francis Parkman prizes, The Power Broker tells the hidden story behind the shaping (and mis-shaping) of twentieth-century New York (city and state) and makes public what few have known: that Robert Moses was, for almost half a century, the single most powerful man of our time in New York, the shaper not only of the city’s politics but of its physical structure and the problems of urban decline that plague us today.
“All stories are love stories,” begins Eureka Street, Robert McLiam Wilson’s big-hearted and achingly funny novel. Set in Belfast during the Troubles, Eureka Street takes us into the lives and families of Chuckie Lurgan and Jake Jackson, a Protestant and a Catholic—unlikely pals and staunch allies in an uneasy time. When a new work of graffiti begins to show up throughout the city—“OTG”—the locals are stumped. The harder they try to decipher it, the more it reflects the passions and paranoias that govern and divide them. Chuckie and Jake are as mystified as everyone else. In the meantime, they try to carve out lives for themselves in the battlefield they call home. Chuckie falls in love with an American who is living in Belfast to escape the violence in her own land; the best Jake can do is to get into a hilarious and remorseless war of insults with a beautiful but spitfire Republican whose Irish name, properly pronounced, sounds to him like someone choking. The real love story in Eureka Street involves Belfast—the city’s soul and spirit, and its will to survive the worst it can do to itself.
Larry Darrell is a young American in search of the absolute. The progress of his spiritual odyssey involves him with some of Maugham’s most brilliant characters – his fiancée Isabel whose choice between love and wealth have lifelong repercussions, and Elliott Templeton, her uncle, a classic expatriate American snob. Maugham himself wanders in and out of the story, to observe his characters struggling with their fates.
For several years of his turbulent life, Seneca was the guiding hand of the Roman Empire. His inspired reasoning derived mainly from the Stoic principles, which had originally been developed some centuries earlier in Athens. This selection of Seneca’s letters shows him upholding the austere ethical ideals of Stoicism—the wisdom of the self-possessed person immune to overmastering emotions and life’s setbacks—while valuing friendship and the courage of ordinary men, and criticizing the harsh treatment of slaves and the cruelties in the gladiatorial arena. The humanity and wit revealed in Seneca’s interpretation of Stoicism is a moving and inspiring declaration of the dignity of the individual mind.
The fascinating, untold tale of Samuel Zemurray, the self-made banana mogul who went from penniless roadside banana peddler to kingmaker and capitalist revolutionary When Samuel Zemurray arrived in America in 1891, he was tall, gangly, and penniless. When he died in the grandest house in New Orleans sixty-nine years later, he was among the richest, most powerful men in the world. Working his way up from a roadside fruit peddler to conquering the United Fruit Company, Zemurray became a symbol of the best and worst of the United States: proof that America is the land of opportunity, but also a classic example of the corporate pirate who treats foreign nations as the backdrop for his adventures. Zemurray lived one of the great untold stories of the last hundred years. Starting with nothing but a cart of freckled bananas, he built a sprawling empire of banana cowboys, mercenary soldiers, Honduran peasants, CIA agents, and American statesmen. From hustling on the docks of New Orleans to overthrowing Central American governments and precipitating the bloody thirty-six-year Guatemalan civil war, the Banana Man lived a monumental and sometimes dastardly life. Rich Cohen’s brilliant historical profile The Fish That Ate the Whale unveils Zemurray as a hidden power broker, driven by an indomitable will to succeed.
In a book of unprecedented scope–now available in a larger format—Iain McGilchrist presents a fascinating exploration of the differences between the brain’s left and right hemispheres, and how those differences have affected society, history, and culture. McGilchrist draws on a vast body of recent research in neuroscience and psychology to reveal that the difference is profound: the left hemisphere is detail oriented, while the right has greater breadth, flexibility, and generosity. McGilchrist then takes the reader on a journey through the history of Western culture, illustrating the tension between these two worlds as revealed in the thought and belief of thinkers and artists from Aeschylus to Magritte.
Things Fall Apart tells two intertwining stories, both centering on Okonkwo, a “strong man” of an Ibo village in Nigeria. The first, a powerful fable of the immemorial conflict between the individual and society, traces Okonkwo’s fall from grace with the tribal world. The second, as modern as the first is ancient, concerns the clash of cultures and the destruction of Okonkwo’s world with the arrival of aggressive European missionaries. These perfectly harmonized twin dramas are informed by an awareness capable of encompassing at once the life of nature, human history, and the mysterious compulsions of the soul.
Ngugi describes this book as ‘a summary of some of the issues in which I have been passionately involved for the last twenty years of my practice in fiction, theatre, criticism and in teaching of literature’.
Over 6.4 billion people participate in a $36.5 trillion global economy, designed and overseen by no one. How did this marvel of self-organized complexity evolve? How is wealth created within this system? And how can wealth be increased for the benefit of individuals, businesses, and society? In The Origin of Wealth, Eric D. Beinhocker argues that modern science provides a radical perspective on these age-old questions, with far-reaching implications. According to Beinhocker, wealth creation is the product of a simple but profoundly powerful evolutionary formula: differentiate, select, and amplify. In this view, the economy is a “complex adaptive system” in which physical technologies, social technologies, and business designs continuously interact to create novel products, new ideas, and increasing wealth. Taking readers on an entertaining journey through economic history, from the Stone Age to modern economy, Beinhocker explores how “complexity economics” provides provocative insights on issues ranging from creating adaptive organizations to the evolutionary workings of stock markets to new perspectives on government policies. A landmark book that shatters conventional economic theory, The Origin of Wealth will rewire our thinking about how we came to be here—and where we are going.
The Company of Strangers shows us the remarkable strangeness, and fragility, of our everyday lives. This completely revised and updated edition includes a new chapter analyzing how the rise and fall of social trust explain the unsustainable boom in the global economy over the past decade and the financial crisis that succeeded it. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, history, psychology, and literature, Paul Seabright explores how our evolved ability of abstract reasoning has allowed institutions like money, markets, cities, and the banking system to provide the foundations of social trust that we need in our everyday lives. Even the simple acts of buying food and clothing depend on an astonishing web of interaction that spans the globe. How did humans develop the ability to trust total strangers with providing our most basic needs?
When first published, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media made history with its radical view of the effects of electronic communications upon man and life in the twentieth century. This edition of McLuhan’s best-known book both enhances its accessibility to a general audience and provides the full critical apparatus necessary for scholars. In Terrence Gordon’s own words, “McLuhan is in full flight already in the introduction, challenging us to plunge with him into what he calls ‘the creative process of knowing.'” Much to the chagrin of his contemporary critics McLuhan’s preference was for a prose style that explored rather than explained. Probes, or aphorisms, were an indispensable tool with which he sought to prompt and prod the reader into an “understanding of how media operates” and to provoke reflection. In the 1960s McLuhan s theories aroused both wrath and admiration. It is intriguing to speculate what he might have to say 40 years later on subjects to which he devoted whole chapters such as Television, The Telephone, Weapons, Housing and Money. Today few would dispute that mass media have indeed decentralized modern living and turned the world into a global village.
Lorimer’s Letters From A Self-Made Merchant To His Son is a timeless collection of Gilded Age aphorisms from a rich man – a prosperous pork-packer in Chicago to his son, Pierrepont, whom he ‘affectionately’ calls ‘Piggy.’ The writing is subtle and brilliant.
David Quammen’s book, The Song of the Dodo, is a brilliant, stirring work, breathtaking in its scope, far-reaching in its message — a crucial book in precarious times, which radically alters the way in which we understand the natural world and our place in that world. It’s also a book full of entertainment and wonders. In The Song of the Dodo, we follow Quammen’s keen intellect through the ideas, theories, and experiments of prominent naturalists of the last two centuries. We trail after him as he travels the world, tracking the subject of island biogeography, which encompasses nothing less than the study of the origin and extinction of all species. Why is this island idea so important? Because islands are where species most commonly go extinct — and because, as Quammen points out, we live in an age when all of Earth’s landscapes are being chopped into island-like fragments by human activity. Through his eyes, we glimpse the nature of evolution and extinction, and in so doing come to understand the monumental diversity of our planet, and the importance of preserving its wild landscapes, animals, and plants. We also meet some fascinating human characters. By the book’s end we are wiser, and more deeply concerned, but Quammen leaves us with a message of excitement and hope.
In this “artful, informative, and delightful” (William H. McNeill, New York Review of Books) book, Jared Diamond convincingly argues that geographical and environmental factors shaped the modern world. Societies that had had a head start in food production advanced beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, and then developed religion –as well as nasty germs and potent weapons of war –and adventured on sea and land to conquer and decimate preliterate cultures. A major advance in our understanding of human societies, Guns, Germs, and Steel chronicles the way that the modern world came to be and stunningly dismantles racially based theories of human history. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, the Rhone-Poulenc Prize, and the Commonwealth club of California’s Gold Medal.
Henry Kissinger offers in World Order a deep meditation on the roots of international harmony and global disorder. Drawing on his experience as one of the foremost statesmen of the modern era—advising presidents, traveling the world, observing and shaping the central foreign policy events of recent decades—Kissinger now reveals his analysis of the ultimate challenge for the twenty-first century: how to build a shared international order in a world of divergent historical perspectives, violent conflict, proliferating technology, and ideological extremism.
For centuries, the world of Islam was in the forefront of human achievement — the foremost military and economic power in the world, the leader in the arts and sciences of civilization. Christian Europe was seen as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn or to fear. And then everything changed. The West won victory after victory, first on the battlefield and then in the marketplace. In this elegantly written volume, Bernard Lewis, a renowned authority an Islamic affairs, examines the anguished reaction of the Islamic world as it tried to make sense of how it had been overtaken, overshadowed, and dominated by the West. In a fascinating portrait of a culture in turmoil, Lewis shows how the Middle East turned its attention to understanding European weaponry, industry, government, education, and culture. He also describes how some Middle Easterners fastened blame on a series of scapegoats, while others asked not “Who did this to us?” but rather “Where did we go wrong?”
In the international bestseller, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, the renowned psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The impact of overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning our next vacation―each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems shape our judgments and decisions. Engaging the reader in a lively conversation about how we think, Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how we can tap into the benefits of slow thinking. He offers practical and enlightening insights into how choices are made in both our business and our personal lives―and how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble. Winner of the National Academy of Sciences Best Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and selected by The New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best books of 2011, Thinking, Fast and Slow is destined to be a classic.
When Elizabeth Bennet first meets eligible bachelor Fitzwilliam Darcy, she thinks him arrogant and conceited; he is indifferent to her good looks and lively mind. When she later discovers that Darcy has involved himself in the troubled relationship between his friend Bingley and her beloved sister Jane, she is determined to dislike him more than ever. In the sparkling comedy of manners that follows, Jane Austen shows the folly of judging by first impressions and superbly evokes the friendships,gossip and snobberies of provincial middle-class life.
In Living Within Limits, Hardin focuses on the neglected problem of overpopulation, making a forceful case for dramatically changing the way we live in and manage our world. Our world itself, he writes, is in the dilemma of the lifeboat: it can only hold a certain number of people before it sinks–not everyone can be saved. The old idea of progress and limitless growth misses the point that the earth (and each part of it) has a limited carrying capacity; sentimentality should not cloud our ability to take necessary steps to limit population. But Hardin refutes the notion that goodwill and voluntary restraints will be enough. Instead, nations where population is growing must suffer the consequences alone. Too often, he writes, we operate on the faulty principle of shared costs matched with private profits. In Hardin’s famous essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” he showed how a village common pasture suffers from overgrazing because each villager puts as many cattle on it as possible–since the costs of grazing are shared by everyone, but the profits go to the individual. The metaphor applies to global ecology, he argues, making a powerful case for closed borders and an end to immigration from poor nations to rich ones. “The production of human beings is the result of very localized human actions; corrective action must be local….Globalizing the ‘population problem’ would only ensure that it would never be solved.” Hardin does not shrink from the startling implications of his argument, as he criticizes the shipment of food to overpopulated regions and asserts that coercion in population control is inevitable. But he also proposes a free flow of information across boundaries, to allow each state to help itself.
At the root of human conflict is our fundamental misunderstanding of who we are. The illusion that we are isolated beings, unconnected to the rest of the universe, has led us to view the “outside” world with hostility, and has fueled our misuse of technology and our violent and hostile subjugation of the natural world. In The Book, philosopher Alan Watts provides us with a much-needed answer to the problem of personal identity, distilling and adapting the ancient Hindu philosophy of Vedanta to help us understand that the self is in fact the root and ground of the universe. In this mind-opening and revelatory work, Watts has crafted a primer on what it means to be human—and a manual of initiation into the central mystery of existence.
Accessible, riveting, and eloquently written, The Cave and the Light provides a stunning new perspective on the Western world, certain to open eyes and stir debate.
Dale Carnegie’s time-tested advice has carried millions upon millions of readers for more than seventy-five years up the ladder of success in their business and personal lives. Now the first and best book of its kind has been rebooted to tame the complexities of modern times and will teach you how to communicate with diplomacy and tact, capitalize on a solid network, make people like you, project your message widely and clearly, be a more effective leader, increase your ability to get things done, and optimize the power of digital tools.
Learn or Die examines the process of learning from an individual and an organizational standpoint. From an individual perspective, the book discusses the cognitive, emotional, motivational, attitudinal, and behavioral factors that promote better learning. Organizationally, Learn or Die focuses on the kinds of structures, culture, leadership, employee learning behaviors, and human resource policies that are necessary to create an environment that enables critical and innovative thinking, learning conversations, and collaboration. The volume also provides strategies to mitigate the reality that humans can be reflexive, lazy thinkers who seek confirmation of what they believe to be true and affirmation of their self-image. Exemplar learning organizations discussed include the secretive Bridgewater Associates, LP; Intuit, Inc.; United Parcel Service (UPS); W. L. Gore & Associates; and IDEO.
As America descends deeper into polarization and paralysis, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has done the seemingly impossible—challenged conventional thinking about morality, politics, and religion in a way that speaks to everyone on the political spectrum. Drawing on his twenty five years of groundbreaking research on moral psychology, he shows how moral judgments arise not from reason but from gut feelings. He shows why liberals, conservatives, and libertarians have such different intuitions about right and wrong, and he shows why each side is actually right about many of its central concerns. In this subtle yet accessible book, Haidt gives you the key to understanding the miracle of human cooperation, as well as the curse of our eternal divisions and conflicts. If you’re ready to trade in anger for understanding, read The Righteous Mind.
The Future of the Mind brings a topic that once belonged solely to the province of science fiction into a startling new reality. This scientific tour de force unveils the astonishing research being done in top laboratories around the world—all based on the latest advancements in neuroscience and physics—including recent experiments in telepathy, mind control, avatars, telekinesis, and recording memories and dreams. The Future of the Mind is an extraordinary, mind-boggling exploration of the frontiers of neuroscience. Dr. Kaku looks toward the day when we may achieve the ability to upload the human brain to a computer, neuron for neuron; project thoughts and emotions around the world on a brain-net; take a “smart pill” to enhance cognition; send our consciousness across the universe; and push the very limits of immortality.
With their accessible compendium of philosophy and social progress, the Durants take us on a journey through history, exploring the possibilities and limitations of humanity over time. Juxtaposing the great lives, ideas, and accomplishments with cycles of war and conquest, the Durants reveal the towering themes of history and give meaning to our own.
Darrell Huff runs the gamut of every popularly used type of statistic, probes such things as the sample study, the tabulation method, the interview technique, or the way the results are derived from the figures, and points up the countless number of dodges which are used to full rather than to inform.
1984 was George Orwell’s chilling prophecy about the future. And while 1984 has come and gone, Orwell’s narrative is timelier than ever. 1984 presents a startling and haunting vision of the world, so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the power of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions—a legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.
Acclaimed by readers and critics around the globe, A Splendid Exchange is a sweeping narrative history of world trade—from Mesopotamia in 3000 B.C. to the firestorm over globalization today—that brilliantly explores trade’s colorful and contentious past and provides new insights into its future.
Translated into 100 languages, winner of the National Book Award, and named one of the 100 Most Influential Books since World War II by the Times Literary Supplement, Anarchy, State and Utopia remains one of the most theoretically trenchant and philosophically rich defenses of economic liberalism to date, as well as a foundational text in classical libertarian thought. With a new introduction by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, this revised edition will introduce Nozick and his work to a new generation of readers.
Since it appeared in 1971, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice has become a classic. The author has now revised the original edition to clear up a number of difficulties he and others have found in the original book. Rawls aims to express an essential part of the common core of the democratic tradition–justice as fairness–and to provide an alternative to utilitarianism, which had dominated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political thought since the nineteenth century. Rawls substitutes the ideal of the social contract as a more satisfactory account of the basic rights and liberties of citizens as free and equal persons. “Each person,” writes Rawls, “possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.” Advancing the ideas of Rousseau, Kant, Emerson, and Lincoln, Rawls’s theory is as powerful today as it was when first published.
Kautilya: The Arthashastra, published in 2000 by Penguin Classics is the English edition of the classic treatise on classical economics and political science by the ancient Indian philosopher Kautilya. The text of this great book includes 15 books, each addressing one topic pertaining to the state and its economy. The books include topics like the law, the king, foreign policy, discipline, capturing a fortress, and the duties of the government rulers. Kautilya explains in detail the duties and virtues of an ideal king. The descriptions include a break up of what the ideal king should do during the course of the day and how the king should behave in typical situations. The Arthashashtra also includes detailed strategies like gift, bribery, illusion, and strength to deal with the neighbouring countries. The other important sections of the book include maintenance of law and order in the state, forests and wildlife, and economic ideas. The book discusses how the Mauryans protected forest wealth, including trees and animals. The importance of maintaining law and order for smooth functioning of the state is also given importance.
Douglas Hofstadter’s book is concerned directly with the nature of “maps” or links between formal systems. However, according to Hofstadter, the formal system that underlies all mental activity transcends the system that supports it. If life can grow out of the formal chemical substrate of the cell, if consciousness can emerge out of a formal system of firing neurons, then so too will computers attain human intelligence. Gödel, Escher, Bach is a wonderful exploration of fascinating ideas at the heart of cognitive science: meaning, reduction, recursion, and much more.
This classic survey of crowd psychology offers an illuminating and entertaining look at three grand-scale swindles. Originally published in England in 1841, its remarkable tales of human folly reveal that the hysteria of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the junk-bonds frenzy of the 1980s were far from uniquely twentieth-century phenomena. The first of the financial scandals discussed, “The Mississippi Scheme,” concerns a disastrous eighteenth-century plan for the commercial exploitation of the Mississippi valley, where investors were lured by Louisiana’s repute as a region of gold and silver mountains. During the same era, thousands of English investors were ruined by “The South-Sea Bubble,” a stock exchange based on British trade with the islands of the South Seas and South America. The third episode involves Holland’s seventeenth-century “Tulipomania,” when people went into debt collecting tulip bulbs — until a sudden depreciation in the bulbs’ value rendered them worthless (except as flowers). Fired by greed and fed by naiveté, these historic investment strategies gone awry retain an irrefutable relevance for modern times. Extraordinary Popular Delusions is essential and enthralling reading for investors as well as students of history, psychology, and human nature.
Thinking Strategically is a crash course in outmaneuvering any rival. This entertaining guide builds on scores of case studies taken from business, sports, the movies, politics, and gambling. It outlines the basics of good strategy making and then shows how you can apply them in any area of your life.
New research suggests that the superior achievements of famous thinkers may have been more the result of mental conditioning than genetic superiority. Now you can learn to condition your mind in the same way and improve your performance in virtually all aspects of mental ability, including memory, quickness, IQ, and learning capacity.
At the PEN America Literary Gala & Free Expression Awards, J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, received the 2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award. Embedded in her acceptance speech is some timeless wisdom on tolerance and acceptance:
Intolerance of alternative viewpoints is spreading to places that make me, a moderate and a liberal, most uncomfortable. Only last year, we saw an online petition to ban Donald Trump from entry to the U.K. It garnered half a million signatures.
Just a moment.
I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted. But he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot. His freedom guarantees mine. Unless we take that absolute position without caveats or apologies, we have set foot upon a road with only one destination. If my offended feelings can justify a travel ban on Donald Trump, I have no moral ground on which to argue that those offended by feminism or the fight for transgender rights or universal suffrage should not oppress campaigners for those causes. If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the grounds that they have offended you, you have crossed the line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture and kill on exactly the same justification.
Too often we look at the world through our own eyes and fail to acknowledge the eyes of others. In so doing we often lose touch with reality.
The quick reaction our brains have to people who disagree with us is often that they are idiots. They shouldn’t be allowed to talk or have a platform. They should lose.
This reminds me of Kathryn Schulz’s insightful view on what we do when someone disagrees with us.
As a result we dismiss the views of others, failing to even consider that our view of the world might be wrong.
It’s easy to be dismissive and intolerant of others. It’s easy to say they’re idiots and wish they didn’t have the same rights you have. It’s harder to map that to the very freedoms we enjoy and relate it to the world we want to live in.
Legendary scientist Richard Feynman was famous for his penetrating insight and clarity of thought. Famous for not only the work he did to garner a Nobel Prize, but also for the lucidity of explanations of ordinary things such as why trains stay on the tracks as they go around a curve, how we look for new laws of science, how rubber bands work, and the beauty of the natural world.
Feynman knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. And was often prone to telling the emperor they had no clothes as this illuminating example from James Gleick’s book Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman shows.
Educating his children gave him pause as to how the elements of teaching should be employed. By the time his son Carl was four, Feynman was “actively lobbying against a first-grade science book proposed for California schools.”
It began with pictures of a mechanical wind-up dog, a real dog, and a motorcycle, and for each the same question: “What makes it move?” The proposed answer—“ Energy makes it move”— enraged him.
That was tautology, he argued—empty definition. Feynman, having made a career of understanding the deep abstractions of energy, said it would be better to begin a science course by taking apart a toy dog, revealing the cleverness of the gears and ratchets. To tell a first-grader that “energy makes it move” would be no more helpful, he said, than saying “God makes it move” or “moveability makes it move.”
Feynman proposed a simple test for whether one is teaching ideas or mere definitions: “Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language. Without using the word energy, tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion.”
The other standard explanations were equally horrible: gravity makes it fall, or friction makes it wear out. You didn’t get a pass on learning because you were a first-grader and Feynman’s explanations not only captured the attention of his audience—from Nobel winners to first-graders—but also offered true knowledge. “Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off.” That is knowledge. “To simply say, ‘It is because of friction,’ is sad, because it’s not science.”
Choosing Textbooks for Grade Schools
In 1964 Feynman made the rare decision to serve on a public commission for choosing mathematics textbooks for California’s grade schools. As Gleick describes it:
Traditionally this commissionership was a sinecure that brought various small perquisites under the table from textbook publishers. Few commissioners— as Feynman discovered— read many textbooks, but he determined to read them all, and had scores of them delivered to his house.
This was the era of new math in children’s textbooks: introducing high-level concepts, such as set theory and non decimal number systems into grade school.
Feynman was skeptical of this approach but rather than simply let it go, he popped the balloon.
He argued to his fellow commissioners that sets, as presented in the reformers’ textbooks, were an example of the most insidious pedantry: new definitions for the sake of definition, a perfect case of introducing words without introducing ideas.
A proposed primer instructed first-graders: “Find out if the set of the lollipops is equal in number to the set of the girls.”
To Feynman this was a disease. It confused without adding precision to the normal sentence: “Find out if there are just enough lollipops for the girls.”
According to Feynman, specialized language should wait until it is needed. (In case you’re wondering, he argued the peculiar language of set theory is rarely, if ever, needed —only in understanding different degrees of infinity—which certainly wasn’t necessary at a grade-school level.)
Feynman convincingly argued this was knowledge of words without actual knowledge. He wrote:
It is an example of the use of words, new definitions of new words, but in this particular case a most extreme example because no facts whatever are given…. It will perhaps surprise most people who have studied this textbook to discover that the symbol ∪ or ∩ representing union and intersection of sets … all the elaborate notation for sets that is given in these books, almost never appear in any writings in theoretical physics, in engineering, business, arithmetic, computer design, or other places where mathematics is being used.
The point became philosophical.
It was crucial, he argued, to distinguish clear language from precise language. The textbooks placed a new emphasis on precise language: distinguishing “number” from “numeral,” for example, and separating the symbol from the real object in the modern critical fashion— pupil for schoolchildren, it seemed to Feynman. He objected to a book that tried to teach a distinction between a ball and a picture of a ball— the book insisting on such language as “color the picture of the ball red.”
“I doubt that any child would make an error in this particular direction,” Feynman said, adding:
As a matter of fact, it is impossible to be precise … whereas before there was no difficulty. The picture of a ball includes a circle and includes a background. Should we color the entire square area in which the ball image appears all red? … Precision has only been pedantically increased in one particular corner when there was originally no doubt and no difficulty in the idea.
In the real world absolute precision can never be reached and the search for degrees of precision that are not possible (but are desirable) causes a lot of folly.
Feynman has his own ideas for teaching children mathematics.
Process vs. Outcome
Feynman proposed that first-graders learn to add and subtract more or less the way he worked out complicated integrals— free to select any method that seems suitable for the problem at hand.A modern-sounding notion was, The answer isn’t what matters, so long as you use the right method. To Feynman no educational philosophy could have been more wrong. The answer is all that does matter, he said. He listed some of the techniques available to a child making the transition from being able to count to being able to add. A child can combine two groups into one and simply count the combined group: to add 5 ducks and 3 ducks, one counts 8 ducks. The child can use fingers or count mentally: 6, 7, 8. One can memorize the standard combinations. Larger numbers can be handled by making piles— one groups pennies into fives, for example— and counting the piles. One can mark numbers on a line and count off the spaces— a method that becomes useful, Feynman noted, in understanding measurement and fractions. One can write larger numbers in columns and carry sums larger than 10.
To Feynman the standard texts were flawed. The problem
was considered a third-grade problem because it involved the concept of carrying. However, Feynman pointed out most first-graders could easily solve this problem by counting 30, 31, 32.
He proposed that kids be given simple algebra problems (2 times what plus 3 is 7) and be encouraged to solve them through the scientific method, which is tantamount to trial and error. This, he argued, is what real scientists do.
“We must,” Feynman said, “remove the rigidity of thought.” He continued “We must leave freedom for the mind to wander about in trying to solve the problems…. The successful user of mathematics is practically an inventor of new ways of obtaining answers in given situations. Even if the ways are well known, it is usually much easier for him to invent his own way— a new way or an old way— than it is to try to find it by looking it up.”
It was better in the end to have a bag of tricks at your disposal that could be used to solve problems than one orthodox method. Indeed, part of Feynman’s genius was his ability to solve problems that were baffling others because they were using the standard method to try and solve them. He would come along and approach the problem with a different tool, which often led to simple and beautiful solutions.
If you give some thought to how Farnam Street helps you, one of the ways is by adding to your bag of tricks so that you can pull them out when you need them to solve problems. We call these tricks mental models and they work kinda like lego — interconnecting and reinforcing one another. The more pieces you have, the more things you can build.
Complement this post with Feynman’s excellent advice on how to learn anything.
“The life of wisdom must be a life of contemplation combined with action.”
Life is full of problems. We can moan about them or we can solve them. Scott Peck argues in The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth that discipline is the toolbox for solving problems.
Peck’s argument is based on the notion that most of us want to avoid problems – they are painful and often lead us to confront our humanity. They are frustrating. There are false starts. We lack consistent frameworks for improvement. They cause us to feel sad and lonely; things we’d rather avoid. The mental pain and strain often rivals physical pain. Yet Peck argues it is in this “whole process of meeting and solving problems that life has meaning.”
Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually. When we desire to encourage the growth of the human spirit, we challenge and encourage the human capacity to solve problems, just as in school we deliberately set problems for our children to solve. It is through the pain of confronting and resolving problems that we learn.
As Benjamin Franklin said, “Those things that hurt, instruct.”
This is why some of us come to welcome problems. Most of us, however, fear them.
Fearing the pain involved, almost all of us, to a greater or lesser degree, attempt to avoid problems. We procrastinate, hoping that they will go away. We ignore them, forget them, pretend they do not exist. We even take drugs to assist us in ignoring them, so that by deadening ourselves to the pain we can forget the problems that cause the pain. We attempt to skirt around problems rather than meet them head on. We attempt to get out of them rather than suffer through them.
Ultimately however the suffering from avoiding reality is more painful than reality itself. You can see where this goes right? Now we want to avoid the pseudo-reality that we created to avoid the reality. And so it builds, layer on layer.
Avoiding problems avoids the growth opportunity. Most of the time problems don’t go away, rather they grow.
This inclination to ignore problems is once again a simple manifestation of an unwillingness to delay gratification. Confronting problems is, as I have said, painful. To willingly confront a problem early, before we are forced to confront it by circumstances, means to put aside something pleasant or less painful for something more painful. It is choosing to suffer now in the hope of future gratification rather than choosing to continue present gratification in the hope that future suffering will not be necessary.
What are these tools, these techniques of suffering, these means of experiencing the pain of problems constructively that I call discipline? There are four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing.
Easy to learn and yet hard to employ. These are the tools to confront problems and thus pain.
Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with. It is the only decent way to live.
The extent to which we will go to avoid responsibility should come as no surprise. Accepting responsibility is emotionally uncomfortable. We often feel, incorrectly, that we can solve a problem by saying “That’s not my problem.” Other times we hope that someone else will just solve it for us.
I can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me. It is not really my personal problem.”
There are extremes of responsibility.
The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person with a character disorder not enough. When neurotics are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that the world is at fault.
Just remember …
Whenever we seek to avoid the responsibility for our own behavior, we do so by attempting to give that responsibility to some other individual, organization, or entity.
This sounds a lot like Joseph Tussman’s wise advice. Most of us have problems confronting reality because it does not line up with how we want the world to work. The rise of a political figure that we don’t support baffles us because in our mind the world shouldn’t work that way.
What Peck outlines below is a version of the map and terrority problem.
Superficially, this should be obvious. For truth is reality. That which is false is unreal. The more clearly we see the reality of the world, the better equipped we are to deal with the world. The less clearly we see the reality of the world— the more our minds are befuddled by falsehood, misperceptions and illusions—the less able we will be to determine correct courses of action and make wise decisions. Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.
While this is obvious, it is something that most people to a greater or lesser degree choose to ignore. They ignore it because our route to reality is not easy. First of all, we are not born with maps; we have to make them, and the making requires effort. The more effort we make to appreciate and perceive reality, the larger and more accurate our maps will be. But many do not want to make this effort. Some stop making it by the end of adolescence. Their maps are small and sketchy, their views of the world narrow and misleading. By the end of middle age most people have given up the effort. They feel certain that their maps are complete and their Weltanschauung is correct (indeed, even sacrosanct), and they are no longer interested in new information. … Only a relative and fortunate few continue until the moment of death exploring the mystery of reality, ever enlarging and refining and redefining their understanding of the world and what is true.
This biggest problem isn’t that our maps are inaccurate but rather that we fail, especially as we age, to revise them. The world is always changing. As Heraclitus said, No man can step in the same river twice.
The world itself is constantly changing. Glaciers come, glaciers go. Cultures come, cultures go. There is too little technology, there is too much technology. Even more dramatically, the vantage point from which we view the world is constantly and quite rapidly changing.
When we’ve worked so hard over so many years to create a map that we believe represents the world, we tend to ignore information that would suggest we need to redraw our map. We become defensive. Often we don’t even passively ignore this information. We go further. We denounce it or crusade against it. We feel that people who listen to it are idiots and we are the only ones who see the truth. Rather than change our map, we often try to (mentally) destroy the new reality and those that subscribe to it.
Pride and ego come into play.
Truth or reality is avoided when it is painful. We can revise our maps only when we have the discipline to overcome that pain. To have such discipline, we must be totally dedicated to truth. That is to say that we must always hold truth, as best we can determine it, to be more important, more vital to our self-interest, than our comfort. Conversely, we must always consider our personal discomfort relatively unimportant and, indeed, even welcome it in the service of the search for truth.
Openness to Challenge
What does a life of total dedication to the truth mean? It means, first of all, a life of continuous and never-ending stringent self-examination. We know the world only through our relationship to it. Therefore, to know the world, we must not only examine it but we must simultaneously examine the examiner.
The only way we can ensure our map is correct and accurate is to expose it to the criticism of others. There might be a better answer than the one you have. We need an outside view, otherwise we live in a closed system. The tendency to avoid being challenged is a characteristic of human nature.
The Four Tools of Discipline. Click To Tweet
Balancing is the discipline that gives us flexibility. Extraordinary flexibility is required for successful living in all spheres of activity.
To function successfully in our complex world it is necessary for us to possess the capacity not only to express our anger but also not to express it. Moreover, we must possess the capacity to express our anger in different ways. At times, for instance, it is necessary to express it only after much deliberation and self-evaluation. At other times it is more to our benefit to express it immediately and spontaneously. Sometimes it is best to express it coldly and calmly; at other times loudly and hotly. We therefore not only need to know how to deal with our anger in different ways at different times but also how most appropriately to match the right time with the right style of expression. To handle our anger with full adequacy and competence, an elaborate, flexible response system is required. It is no wonder, then, that to learn to handle our anger is a complex task which usually cannot be completed before adulthood, or even mid-life, and which often is never completed.
Balancing is a discipline precisely because the act of giving something up is painful.
The Road Less Traveled is a fascinating exploration of what it means to be human and to struggle to get better.
On this episode of The Knowledge Project, I talk reading and so much more with Ryan Holiday.
On this episode you’ll learn how he reads, what it means to be a Stoic, the two sides of Seneca, dealing with over-work, what he learned from working with Robert Greene and his system for taking notes.
Marcus Aurelius Meditations
Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Stoics in Book 7)
Robert Greene The 48 Laws of Power
James Romm Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero
Pierre Hadot The Inner Citadel
Robert Caro The Years of Lyndon Johnson
A complete transcript is available for members.