I spent 5.5 years at Oakville High School Before I graduated. Until 6th grade, I was an excellent student. From 6th to 8th grade, I just got by. 1st Semester of Freshman year I did very well, and from there, it was all down hill. If I remember correctly, my GPA after almost 6 years at Oakville High School was just below 2.0, maybe even 1.6.
It makes for a good joke at cocktail parties, but it's certainly nothing to be proud of. That said, I was always a reader and an early adopter of America Online. I read dozens of pseudo-scientific books on UFOs and Aliens and Ancient Religions, and the Christian Bible (that I now affectionately call the Chribble), as well as plenty of fiction. Books like Encyclopedia Brown when I was younger and anything by author Stephen King as I got older.
It wasn't long before I found complete freedom in my early teens. Freedom to pretty much do whatever I wanted and without fear of immediate consequences. Of course, this was a freedom that I continue to pay for today. My brain physically took shape and was wired as it is during this time. I am who I am today because of all that came before; genetics, environment, peers, and a complete immersion in irresponsibility.
Now I have three kids, and became the father of a 6 year old stepson at age 22. Now I'm 36. Since a university education (besides the 12 hours I put in a few years ago) at this point would be selfish and detrimental to my family, I've taken in a passion for data-driven, secular parenting, and self-education. (As well as running a full-time IT Consulting business since 2002.)
So, back to the books. If I had to sum up what I think I know about the world and the universe now, it is the following:
- If there is a God, it's nothing like that which originated with the literally illiterate shepherds of the middle east 4000-6000 years ago. (Which includes Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, and a few others.) Based on current knowledge, this kind of God simply does not exist. That's not to say that some other God does not exist, there just isn't any evidence of one as of yet. The compilation of these texts have a very human history, including all of the baggage that comes with it.
- Almost everyone is ignorant, including the most educated. We are just ignorant of different things at different times. (I think the cartoonist of Calvin & Hobbes said something similar.)
- Everyone believes what they believe for a reason. It mainly has to do with socioeconomic status (environment) and genetics at birth. You can group almost everyone in this way. People in St. Louis generally like the Cardinals, America, and the Christian God. People in London generally like Manchester United, England, and the Christian God, if any God at all. People born in Iran like theocracy, Iran, and the Islamic version of the Christian God, minus the "prophet" Jesus. Etc. Another example, children born in abject poverty hear 30 million less words by the time they enter kindergarten than their upper-middle class peers. The consequence is that it literally leads to physical differences in the wiring and performance on the brains ability to learn. (For a good example of this, watch Jodie Foster's 'Nell')
- The gap between what is now at the edges of empirical human knowledge and what the vast majority of humans are aware of is enormous. I am not sure of the consequences of this fact, if any, but it feels like it isn't good, especially in a "post fact" era of illusion and spectacle; better known as the aggregate of 21st Century America. When a quality government depends so much on an educated electorate, our prospects seem dire.
- The demarcation between science and pseudoscience is not only that it is testable, but that it is falsifiable. If it is not conceivable falsifiable, then it is not science...and most likely, not real.
- Superstition, creativity, and imagination are essential to progress and science. Without them, there is nothing to test and falsify.
"What About You Mr. Smarty Pants?"
It's impossible to know everything, especially when it comes to history. As Nassim Taleb says in his book, trying to know the whole of history is like trying to build an exact ice cube from the puddle it has left behind. You just can't do it. The same applies to current events that are happening in real time. While you can point to certain facts, you can never paint the whole complex and random picture.
It's quite possible that our brains are not even evolved enough to know everything, or even come close. As my son Kurtis said when he was 5, "But I do know everything. At least I know everything that I know." (That blew my mind of course.)
And when it comes to current scientific knowledge and the nature of reality, I am only at the level of someone who understands the logic and evidence as presented, yet don't have the faintest clue of the mathematics and discipline knowledge necessary to be an expert. I am only an aspiring polymath and will likely never actually reach polymathic realiziation. I'm too far behind and lack the time and resources.
So What Do You Suggest?
That said, if you would like to start a similar journey as mine, I would suggest a very simple start.
- Get a notebook and a nice pen...and perhaps a Kindle.
- Read all books by Steven Levitt and Malcolm Gladwell for an introduction to modern era knowledge.
- As you read, write down conecpts and names and source material you would like to learn more about. Somewhere along the line of these two authors, I came accross the name Nassim Taleb. So that's where I went from there. You may be taken on a different path.
- My Bible, the only book (besides the Chribble) I have read more than three times is Nassim Taleb's 'The Black Swan Theory.' This book took me in dozens of directions and I can't wait to get time to read it again. Regardless of where Levitt and Gladwell take you, I see this as required material. Every time I read it, the better I understand it.
- Follow your own path from Levitt, Gladwell, and Taleb, but I would recommend learning the philosophy and science of Karl Popper (very difficult), Neil Shubin's 'Your Inner Fish', Richard Dawkins 'Magic of Reality', Micheal Shermer's 'The Believing Brain', Hank Davis's 'Caveman Logic', and all books by Robert Wright and Bart Ehrmann.
- Finally, electronic resources like www.coursera.org, www.khanacademy.org, and MIT's OpenCourseWare
In The End
As you learn, the following poem will begin to make a lot of sense to you...and to date, is the most essential of all knowledge in my opinion. 'The Enigma We Answer By Living' by Alison Hawthorne Deming.
Have a happy journey and let me know where your explorations take you.