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Tag Archives: Philosophy

The Most Respectful Interpretation

Consider this situation: You email a colleague with a question expecting a prompt response, but hours or days later you’ve yet to hear from them. Perhaps you can’t move forward on your project without their input so you find yourself blocked. How do you imagine you feel in this situation?

For many of us, situations like this result in feelings of anger, frustration, or annoyance. Maybe we take it personally and conclude that our colleague is lazy or that they don’t value our time or our work. Perhaps we send off a terse reminder asking for an update.

If we’re feeling particularly revengeful, we alert the person’s manager or mention our grievance to another colleague looking for validation that the offending colleague is in fact lazy and disrespectful – a form of confirmation bias.

Perhaps this colleague has been slow to respond to communications in the past, thus we extrapolate that to all of their communications, a case of the fundamental attribution error.

Of course, it’s natural to feel anger and frustration when faced with these situations. But is anger the appropriate response?

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote about The Virtue Concerned with Anger. He begins Book IV with a description of good temper:

The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised.

Aristotle tells us that anger has a time and place and that when applied to the right people and for the right reason, is justified and even praiseworthy. But we have to use anger judiciously:

For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that reason dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.

In Aristotle’s description of good temper, he encourages us to err in the direction of “making allowances”. But how can we do this in practice?

Let’s return to our example.

We take our colleague’s lack of response personally and assume they are lazy or disrespectful, but it is important for us to recognize that we are assuming. We often instinctively chose to assume the worst of people, because it slips easily into mind. But what if instead we chose to assume the best?

In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown describes how she learned to assume that people are doing the best they can and shares a concept introduced to her by Dr. Jean Kantambu Latting, a professor at University of Houston. Brown writes:

Whenever someone would bring up a conflict with a colleague, she would ask, ‘What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?’

By pausing to reflect on our anger we can recognize that we are making a negative assumption and challenge ourselves to invert the situation and consider the opposite: “What is the most generous assumption I can make?”

Perhaps our colleague has been given a higher priority project, or they don’t understand that we’re blocked without their input. Maybe they are dealing with some personal challenges outside of the office, or they need input from somebody else to reply to our message and thus they’re blocked as well. Perhaps they’ve decided to reduce their email frequency in order to focus on important work.

When we pause to look at the situation from another angle, not only do we entertain some explanations that frame our colleagues in a more positive light, but we put ourselves into their shoes; the very definition of empathy.

We’ve all had competing priorities, distractions from personal issues outside of work, miscommunications regarding the urgent need of our response, etc. Do we think others judged us fairly or unfairly in those moments?

The point is not to make excuses or avoid addressing problems with our colleagues, but that if we recognize we are making negative assumptions by default, we might need to challenge ourselves to consider more generous alternatives. This may alter the way we approach our colleague to address the situation. It takes effort and a commitment to think about people differently.

Someone who knew this best was the late, great author David Foster Wallace.

***

In his beautiful commencement speech to the Kenyon graduating class of 2005, Wallace reminds the students that the old cliché of liberal arts education teaching you to think is truer than they might want to believe. He warns that one of the biggest challenges the graduates will face in life is to challenge their self-centered view of the world – a view that we all have by default.

Using some of life’s more mundane and annoying activities like shopping and commuting, Wallace writes:

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

The recognition that we are inherently self-centered and that this affects the way in which we interpret the world seems so obvious when pointed out, but how often do we stop to consider it? This is our hard-wired default setting, so it’s quite a challenge to become willing to think differently.

As an example, Wallace describes a situation where he is disgusted by the gas guzzling Hummer in front of him in traffic. The idea of these cars offends him and he starts making assumptions about the drivers: they’re wasteful, inconsiderate of the planet, and inconsiderate of future generations.

Look, if I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

But then he challenges himself to consider alternative interpretations, something often described as making the Most Respectful Interpretation (MRI). Wallace decides to consider more respectful interpretations of the other drivers – maybe they have a legitimate need to be driving a large SUV or to be rushing through traffic.

In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.

A big part of learning to think is recognizing our default reactions and responses to situations — the so-called “System 1” thinking espoused by Daniel Kahneman. Learning to be “good-tempered” and “well-adjusted” requires us to try to be more self-aware, situationally aware, and to acknowledge our self-centered nature; to put the brakes on and use System 2 instead.

So the next time you find yourself annoyed with your colleagues, angry at other drivers on the road, or judgmental about people standing in line at the store, use it as an opportunity to challenge your negative assumptions and try to interpret the situation in a more respectful and generous way. You might eventually realize that the broccoli tastes good.

The 16 Best Books of 2016

Rewarding reads on love, life, knowledge, history, the future, and tools for thinking. Out of all the books I read this year, here is a list of what I found most worth reading in 2016.

1. The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution
These lectures, which were originally called Six Psychological Lectures, were first privately printed in the 1940s. Of the first run of 150 copies, none were sold. The essays were published once again after Ouspensky’s death, and unlike last time became a hit. While the book is about psychology, it’s different than what we think of as psychology — “for thousands of years psychology existed under the name philosophy.” Consider this a study in what man may become — by working simultaneously on knowledge and inner unity.

2. The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning
Imagine the sum of our knowledge as an Island in a vast and endless ocean. This is the Island of Knowledge. The coastline represents the boundary between the known and unknown. As we grow our understanding of the world, the Island grows and with it so does the shores of our ignorance. “We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge,” Gleiser writes, “but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.” The book is a fascinating and wide-ranging tour through scientific history. (Dig Deeper into this amazing read here.)

3. When Breath Becomes Air
It’s been a while since I’ve cried reading a book. This beautifully written memoir, by a young neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer, attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? If you read this and you’re not feeling something you’re probably a robot.

4. The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age
The book, which argues “the information revolution will destroy the monopoly power of the nation-state as surely as the Gunpowder Revolution destroyed the Church’s monopoly,” is making the rounds in Silicon Valley and being passed around like candy. Even if its forecasts are controversial, the book is a good read and it’s full of interesting and detailed arguments. I have underlines on nearly every page. “Information societies,” the authors write, “promise to dramatically reduce the returns to violence … When the payoff for organizing violence at a large scale tumbles, the payoff from violence at a smaller scale is likely to jump. Violence will become more random and localized.” The Sovereign Individual, who, for the first time “can educate and motivate himself,” will be “almost entirely free to invest their own work and realize the full benefits of their own productivity.” An unleashing of human potential which will, the authors argue, shift the greatest source of wealth to ideas rather than physical capital — “anyone who thinks clearly will potentially be rich.” Interestingly, in this potential transition, the effects are “likely to be centered among those of the middle talent in currently rich countries. They particularly may come to feel that information technology poses a threat to their way of life.” The book predicts the death of politics, “weakened by the challenge from technology, the state will treat increasingly autonomous individuals, its former citizens, with the same range of ruthlessness and diplomacy it has heretofore displayed in its dealings with other governments.” As technology reshapes the world, it also “antiquates laws, reshapes morals, and alters preconceptions. This book explains how.”

5. To Kill a Mockingbird
I know, I know. Hear me out. Someone I respect mentioned that he thought Atticus Finch was the perfect blend of human characteristics. Tough and skilled, yet humble and understanding. He’s frequently rated as a “most admired” hero in fiction, yet he’s a lawyer competing with Jedis, Detectives, Spies, and Superheroes. Isn’t that kind of interesting? Since it had been at least 15 years since I’d read TKM, I wanted to go back and remember what made Atticus so admired. His courage, his humility, his understanding of people. I forgot just how perceptive Finch was when it came to what we’d call “group social dynamics” — he forgives the individual members of the mob that show up to hurt Tom Robinson simply because he understands that mob psychology is capable of overwhelming otherwise good people. How many of us would be able to do that? Atticus Finch is certainly a fictional, and perhaps “unattainably” moral hero. But I will point out that not only do real life “Finch’s” exist, but that even if we don’t “arrive” at a Finchian level of heroic integrity and calm temperament, it’s certainly a goal worth pursuing. Wise words from the book Rules for a Knight sums it up best: “To head north, a knight may use the North Star to guide him, but he will not arrive at the North Star. A knight’s duty is to proceed in that direction.” (Here are some of the lessons I took away from the book.)

6. Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World
If you’re not familiar with Lee Kuan Yew, he’s the “Father of Modern Singapore,” the man who took a small, poor island just north of the equator in Southeast Asia with GDP per capita of ~$500 in 1965 and turned it into a modern powerhouse with GDP per capita of over $70,000 as of 2014, with some of the lowest rates of corruption and highest rates of economic freedom in the world. Finding out how he did it is worth anyone’s time. This book is a short introduction to his style of thinking: A series of excerpts of his thoughts on modern China, the modern U.S., Islamic Terrorism, economics, and a few other things. It’s a wonderful little collection. (We’ve actually posted about it before.) Consider this an appetizer (a delicious one) for the main course: From Third World to First, Yew’s full account of the rise of Singapore. (Dig deeper here.)

7. An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments
Perfect summer reading for adults and kids alike. One friend of mine has created a family game where they all try to spot the reasoning flaws of others. The person with the most points at the end of the week gets to pick where they go for dinner. I have a suspicion his kids will turn out to be politicians or lawyers.

8. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
Dan Dennett is one of the most well known cognitive scientists on the planet . This book is a collection of 77 short essays on different “thinking tools,” basically thought experiments Dennett uses to slice through tough problems, including some tools for thinking about computing, thinking about meaning, and thinking about consciousness. Like Richard Feynman’s great books, this one acts as a window into a brilliant mind and how it handles interesting and difficult problems. If you only walk away with a few new mental tools, it’s well worth the time spent. (You can learn a lot more about Dennett here, here, and here.)

9. The Seven Sins of Memory (How the Mind Forgets and Remembers)
I found this in the bibliography of Judith Rich Harris’ No Two Alike. Schacter is a psychology professor at Harvard who runs the Schacter Memory Lab. The book explores the seven “issues” we tend to find with regard to our memory: Absent-mindedness, transience, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. The fallibility of memory is so fascinating: We rely on it so heavily and trust it so deeply, yet as Schacter shows, it’s extremely faulty. It’s not just about forgetting where you left your keys. Modern criminologists know that eyewitness testimony is deeply flawed. Some of our deepest and most hard-won memories — the things we know are true — are frequently wrong or distorted. Learning to calibrate our confidence in our own memory is not at all easy. Very interesting topic to explore. (We did a three part series on this book. Introduction and parts One, Two, and Three).

10. Talk Lean: Shorter Meetings. Quicker Results. Better Relations
This book is full of useful tips on listening better, being candid and courteous, and learning what derails meetings, conversations, and relationships with people at work. Don’t worry. It’s not about leaving things unsaid that might be displeasing for other people. In fact, leaving things unsaid is often more detrimental to the relationship than airing them out. Rather, it’s about finding a way to say them so people will hear them and not feel defensive. If you want to get right to the point and not alienate people, this book will help you. I know because this is something, personally, I struggle with at times.

11. The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World
I recently had a fascinating multi-hour dinner with the author, Pedro Domingos, on where knowledge comes from. Historically, at least, the answer has been evolution, experience, and culture. Now, however, there is a new source of knowledge: Machine learning. The book offers an accessible overview of the different ways of machine learning and the search for a master, unifying, theory. The book also covers how machine learning works and gives Pedro’s thoughts on where we’re headed. (Dig deeper in this podcast.)

12. Why Don’t We Learn from History?
This is a short (~120pp) book by the military historian and strategist B.H. Liddell Hart, a man who not only wrote military history but surely influenced it, especially in Germany in the World War period. He wrote this short synthesis at the end of his life and didn’t have a chance to finish it, but the result is still fascinating. Hart takes a “negative” view of history; in other words, What went wrong? How can we avoid it? The result of that study, as he writes in the introduction, is that “History teaches us personal philosophy.” Those who learn vicariously as well as directly have a big leg up. Something to take to heart. I plan to read more of his works.

13. A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington
What a great book idea by Adrienne Harrison. There are a zillion biographies of GW out there, with Chernow’s getting a lot of praise recently. But Harrison narrows in on Washington’s self-didactic nature. Why did he read so much? How did he educate himself? Any self-motivated learner is probably going to enjoy this.

14. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
One of the best books I’ve come across in a long time. Sapiens is a work of “Big History” — in the style of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel — that seeks to understand humanity in a deep way. Many of Professor Harari’s solutions will be uncomfortable for some to read, there is no attempt at political correctness, but his diagnosis of human history is undeniably interesting and at least partially correct. He draws on many fields to arrive at his conclusions; a grand method of synthesis that will be familiar to long-time Farnam Street readers. The book is almost impossible to summarize given the multitude of ideas presented. But then again, most great books are. (Dig deeper into this amazing read here, here, and here.)

15. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living — A refreshing signal in world of noise that should be read and immediately re-read. There is so much goodness in here that scarcely will you find more than a page or two in my copy without a mark, bent page, or highlight. The entire book offers texture to thoughts you knew you had but didn’t know how to express.

16. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living
The way most of us search for and attempt to hold onto fleeting moments of happiness ends up ensuring that we’re miserable. A great practical book on developing mindfulness, which is so important in many aspects of your life, including satisfaction. Might be the best self-help book I’ve read.

 

 

Epistemology: How do you Know that you Know what you Know?

The role of perception in knowledge

It is hard to imagine a world that exists outside of what we can perceive. In the effort to get through each day without crashing our cars or some other calamity, we make assumptions about the objects in our physical world. Their continuity, their behaviour.

Some of these assumptions are based on our own experience, some on the knowledge imparted by others of their experience, and some on inferences of logic.

Experience, however, comes through the lens of perception. How things look, how they feel, how they sound.

Our understanding of, and interaction with, the world comes through particular constructs of the human body – eyes, ears, fingers, etc. Most people intuitively understand the subjectivity of some of our perceptions.

Colors look ‘different’ to people who are color blind. Our feeling of temperature is impacted by immediate contrast – People stepping outside the doors of an airport will have a different impression of the temperature if they have just come from Moose Jaw or Cancun.

Even more substantial understandings come to us through the lens of our senses. We can see the shape of a tree, or we could close our eyes and infer the shape through touch, but in either case, or even combining the two, we are relying on our senses to impart an understanding of the physical world.

The question of what objectively ‘is’, is something that has long been one of the subjects of philosophy. Philosophers from Descartes to Kant have tried to describe our existence in such a way as to arrive at understanding of the physical world in which things can be conclusively known.

Descartes introduces the idea in his Meditations: “Surely whatever I had admitted until now as most true I received either from the senses or through the senses. However, I have noticed that the senses are sometimes deceptive; and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once.”

Descartes famously employed systematic doubt, questioning all knowledge conveyed by his experience in the world until the only knowledge he couldn’t doubt was the fact that he could doubt.

Therefore I suppose that everything I see is false. I believe that none of what my deceitful memory represents ever existed. I have no sense whatever. Body, shape, extension, movement, and place are all chimeras. What then will be true? … Thus, after everything has been most carefully weighed, it must finally be established that this pronouncement “I am, I exist” is necessarily true every time I utter it or conceive it in my mind. (Descartes, Meditations)

Descartes confirmed we have a self. Unfortunately this self could be the one we see in the mirror each morning or a brain in a vat. If the only thing we cannot doubt is that we can doubt, essentially that guarantees us having only the mechanism to doubt. No body. We could therefore be isolated brains, being manipulated by things unknown, our entire world a mirage.

How then can we hope to claim knowledge about the physical world?

For Locke, our understanding of the world comes from our experience of it. It is this experience that provides knowledge. He says, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding:

Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: – How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store with the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety Whence has it all the materials or reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself.

He wrote that there were two types of qualities, ones that existed innately in an object or series of objects, such as size, number, or motion, and those that are wholly dependent on our perception of them, such as color or smell.

The particular bulk, number, figure, and motion of the parts of fire or snow are really in them, whether one’s senses perceive them or no: and therefore they may be called real qualities, because they really exist in those bodies. But light, heat, whiteness, or coldness are not more really in them than sickness or pain is in manna. (Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding)

Experience then, as long as we have an understanding of the limitations of our perception, will confer certain truths about the physical world we inhabit. For example, through experience we can claim knowledge of how many crows are perched on a telephone wire, but not how many of them have ‘black’’ as an intrinsic property of their feathers.

Quite in opposition to this was George Berkeley (pronounced Bar-clay), for whom ‘to be’ was ‘to be perceived’. Berkeley wrote in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge:

Besides all that endless variety of ideas or objects of knowledge, there is likewise something which knows or perceives them and exercised divers operations, as willing, imagining, remembering, about them. This perceiving … does not denote any one of my ideas, but a thing entirely distinct from them, wherein they exist or, which is the same thing, whereby they are perceived – for the existence of an idea consists in being perceived.

Because our knowledge of the world comes from our perception of it, it is impossible to conclusively know the existence of anything independent of our perception. Berkeley, wrote:

Hence, as it is impossible for me to see or feel anything without an actual sensation of that thing, so it is impossible for me to conceive in my thoughts any sensible thing or object distinct from the sensation or perception of it.

This line of inquiry ultimately results in the entire physical world being called into question, as Berkeley observed:

If we have any knowledge at all of external things, it must be by reason, inferring their existence from what is immediately perceived by sense. {However} it is granted on all hands (and what happens in dreams, frenzies, and the like, puts it beyond dispute) that it is possible we might be affected with all the ideas we have now, though no bodies existed without resembling them.

If we can not know things outside of perception, and our perceptions are entirely unreliable, where does that leave us? It certainly isn’t useful to imagine your existence as the sum total of your knowledge, or that our experiences are inherently mistrustful.

What these philosophies can be useful for understanding though, is that often what we consider knowledge is more of a general social agreement on a somewhat consistent comprehension of the things before us. For example, we appreciate that the color green can be perceived differently by various people, but we organize our language based on a general understanding of the color green without worrying about the particular experience of green that any individual may have.

For David Hume, there definitely was a physical world, our perception of which was ultimately responsible for all of our ideas, no matter how complex or abstract. He wrote in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

When we analyze our thoughts or ideas, however compounded or sublime, we always find that they resolve themselves into such simple ideas as were copied from a precedent feeling or sentiment. Even those ideas, which, at first view, seem the most wide of this origin, are found, upon a nearer scrutiny, to be derived from it.

Furthermore, since all of our perceptions of the physical world are coming from the same physical world, and the nature of perceiving works more or less the same in each person, we can achieve a consistency in our understanding.

So although it may not be possible to know things with the same certainty as knowing oneself, or to be able to really describe the construct of the world outside of our perception of it, at least we can get along with each other because of a general consistency of experience.

However, this experience still admits to a certain fragility. There is no guarantee that past experiences will be consistent with future ones. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume observes:

Being determined by custom to transfer the past to the future, in all our inferences; where the past has been entirely regular and uniform, we expect the event with the greatest assurance and leave no room for any contrary supposition. But where different effects have been found to follow from causes, which are to appearance exactly similar, all these various effects must occur to the mind in transferring the past to the future, and enter into our consideration, when we determine the probability of the event.

To simultaneously understand all effects when considering an event in the future is not necessarily a limitation, thanks to our amazingly sophisticated brains. Immanuel Kant thought that the way we process the information provided by our senses was an important component of knowledge. Kant wrote in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics:

The difference between truth and dreaming is not ascertained by the nature of the representations which are referred to objects (for they are the same in both cases), but by their connection according to those rules which determine the coherence of the representation in the concept of an object, and by ascertaining whether they can subsist together in experience or not.

Kant did not support the view that the existence of objects was called into question because of the subjectivity of the perceptions by which we must experience them, but neither that all knowledge of the physical world comes from experience. Kant argued:

Experience teaches us what exists and how it exists, but never that it must necessarily exist so and not otherwise. Experience therefore can never teach us the nature of things in themselves.

Knowledge then, is made up of things we infer, things we experience, and the way our brain processes both. The great metaphysical question of ‘Why it is all this way?’ may always be out of our reach.

Understanding some of this metaphysical uncertainty in knowledge does not mean that we have to give up on knowing anything. It simply points to a certain subjectivity, an allowance for different conceptions of the world. And hopefully it offers a set of tools with which to evaluate or build claims of knowledge.

The Island of Knowledge: Science and the Meaning of Life

“As the Island of Knowledge grows, so 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.”

***

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.”

However…

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 quest must go on. The quest is what makes us matter: to search for more answers, knowing that the significant ones will often generate surprising new questions.”

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.

What Books Would You Recommend Someone Read to Improve their General Knowledge of the World?

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!

The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder

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

How to Read a Book
This book impacted us so much we created an entire course, The Art of Reading, around it.

A World History

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.

The intelligent man’s guide to science

An Incomplete Education: 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn’t

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!

A Short History of Nearly Everything

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

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

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.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

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.

A History of the World in 100 Objects

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

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.

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

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.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

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.

War and Peace

… 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.

Crime and Punishment

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

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.

The Art of War: The Essential Translation of the Classic Book of Life

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.

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

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.

The Denial of Death

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.

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

(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.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

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.

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media

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.

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

[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.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

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.

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

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 Art of Worldly Wisdom

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.

The 48 Laws of Power

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.

Negotiating Your Salary: How To Make $1000 a Minute

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.

Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

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.

The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination

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.

The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size

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.

The Grapes of Wrath

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.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk

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.

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

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.

Eureka Street: A Novel of Ireland Like No Other

“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.

The Razor’s Edge

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.

IDEAS: A HISTORY, From Wittgenstein to the World Wide Web, Two Volumes in Slipcase

Letters From A Stoic

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 Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King

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.

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

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

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.

Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature

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’.

The Origin of Wealth: The Radical Remaking of Economics and What it Means for Business and Society

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: A Natural History of Economic Life

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?

Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

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.

Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, Expanded Third Edition

Letters From A Self-made Merchant To His Son

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.

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction

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.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

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.

World Order

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.

What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East

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?”

Thinking, Fast and Slow

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.

Pride and Prejudice

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.

Living within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos

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.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

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.

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

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.

How to Win Friends and Influence People

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: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization

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.

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

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: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the 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.

The Lessons of History

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.

How To Lie With Statistics

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

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.

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World

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.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia

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.

A Theory of Justice

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.

The Arthashastra

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.

Godel, Esher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

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.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

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: The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life

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.

The Einstein Factor: A Proven New Method for Increasing Your Intelligence

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.

J.K. Rowling On People’s Intolerance of Alternative Viewpoints

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.