Books That Show Us Reality–The Power of the Red Pill

We live in strange times. 

Science is under attack by the faithful.  Most people prefer fiction over fact.  We know more about the nature of reality than ever before, yet few people want to look reality in the eye.  Everyone claims they want to know the truth, but do they?

It’s like in the movie The Matrix, when Neo is offered the red and blue pill.  Morpheus tells Neo the red pill will show him the truth and the blue pill will return him to forgetfulness.  On this planet, most people take the blue pill.

What if you wanted to take the red pill? 

Naturally, a red pill to reveal the truth does not exist.  But there are read pills, called books, that do.


Up until the middle of the 20th century, an exemplary education involved the knowledge of the great books of the western world.  For the last fifty years we have been rejecting the great books kind of education, but we haven’t substitute a new canon.  A well educated person no longer has to know Greek, Latin and French, or the defining books of the classical world.  Science started in the 17th century, got up to speed in the 19th, and launched into orbit in the 20th. 

Yet few inhabitants of planet Earth embrace scientific thinking.  Fear of oblivion push many into the opium of religion, and most of the rest hide out in escapists fantasies and games.  Science is the only path to the truth, but few follow it.

What we need is a new set of great books, a new canon, whose content will define a well educated person.

I want to create a new definition of education.  Let’s start with a cockroach.  When you go into your kitchen in the middle of the night and turn on the light and see a cockroach run for his life, think about what it knows.  Think about what reality is to a cockroach.  The poor little fella knows nothing of physics, biology, history, mathematics, literature, or even language.  He has no tools to describe or analyze reality.  He’s a tiny little machine with sensors that help him search out food.  He also has a sensor that tells him to run for cover when the light goes on.  He doesn’t know your foot is about to squash his little body.  His awareness of reality is without thoughts.  His potential for education is nil.

Now, lets step up to a border collie.  Her awareness of reality is far richer than the poor cockroach.  We’re not sure if dogs think or have a language, although recently scientists claim that dogs can learn a couple hundred words, but they don’t perceive words like we do.  Our border collie is well adapted to education and can be trained to do all kinds of work and tricks.  She is even eager to learn.  But alas, she knows no more of physics, biology, history, mathematics, literature than our friend the cockroach.

We all approach reality like the blind men caressing separate parts of an elephant and speculating about the whole animal.  Some creatures can perceive more of reality than others.  Educated humans with all our senses are able to see the elephant complete in many dimensions,  even all its component molecule and atoms, and even trace its origin in its evolutionary past.  We see a lot of reality, but far from all – and nothing blocks us from seeing further.

Cosmologists see the largest aspects of reality.  Particle physicists see the smallest parts of reality.  Yet neither see the ultimate largest or smallest.  Our universe is probably one of an infinity of universes, so there is no end to big, and probably there is no end to small either.

Science has turned on the light, and scurrying humans can see it all, from immensely tiny particles to the furthest reaches of the universe, from the Big Bang until now.  Yet most people choose to hide in the cracks of darkness.

On a recent PBS show NOVA, “Earth From Space” they showed a map of the US with a squiggly ling running from New York to Los Angeles to represent the size of the electromagnetic spectrum.  The scientist interviewed explained the visual part of the spectrum we use to see would be about the size of a dime.  We have built new senses to see all of reality, we are way beyond biology.  We are now cyborgs.  But for the average human, there is little knowledge of our true capabilities.


My definition of education is learning to see as much of reality as possible.  Unfortunately, most homo sapiens hide from reality, lost in their fantasies of religion, desires, fictional diversions, games, routines, habits, impulses, etc.  We are closer to the cockroach when we spend so much time pursuing food and sex.  We are like the border collie when we learn to work and earn a living.  But we are the most human when we’re examining the scope of existence.

Now to the great books.  Books are a tool like the telescope, microscope, or interplanetary robot, they let us see further.  If we read the right book, we’ll add details to our personal model of reality. We never see reality directly, but model it in our minds.  Tragically, humans are prone to delusions and fantasies that distort their models of reality.  Think of the wretched conspiracy theorist who builds highly distorted views of reality, or the faithful who shape reality by ancient Bible stories that pander to their fear of oblivion by promising eternal life.

Yes, it’s easier to take the blue pill and forget.  Taking the red pill requires a lot of study and work.

A great education is developing an internal model of reality that closely mimics our external reality.  A great education is learning about all the models of reality that failed.  Plato’s model of reality is abysmally wrong, yet we still study Plato.  Science is a long history of getting it wrong, but it’s cumulative history is a collection of good working models.  The theory of evolution is one of the most successful models of reality ever imagined.  Evolution is now the key tool for understanding how reality works.  Evolution explains change, and reality is constantly changing.

It’s time to get to the nitty gritty of this essay. 

What books are the red pill for showing the truth about reality?  My knowledge and experience is limited, so I can only make a crude guess.  What I’d like to see a collective development of a canon of great science books.   The Scientific Canon needs a small set of introductory books that will illuminate the uninitiated into the world of science.  Then it will need a more extensive list of books for further study.

Coming up with a list of introductory books will be hard.  It won’t be like religion, with The Bible or Quran, where one book will do, science will take many.  And where do we start?  At the beginning with The Big Bang and cosmology, the science of the very big?  But to understand cosmology requires understanding particle physics, which is the study of the very small.  Science really doesn’t make sense without understanding evolution.  It really helps to grasp how unintelligent design, in a random chaotic system, can produce order even when the second law of thermodynamics exists.  Entropy is such a backasswards slippery concept to mentally wrestle.

Developing the Scientific Canon will be hard.  Obviously our school systems are failing at the job, even when they have a captured audience and powerful textbooks.  Can anyone list twelve books that will give the average person a basic grasp of science?  Even with a longer list, like Harold Bloom’s Western Canon list, how well verse in science can a reader become without knowing mathematics?  Is a scientific understanding beyond most people?

Here are some books I’ve been very impressed with, but I can’t claim are the best volumes for the introductory list.








A Universe from Nothing











JWH – 2/15/13

10 thoughts on “Books That Show Us Reality–The Power of the Red Pill”

  1. I think part of why so many people reject truth is because their lies give them comfort. At least if they can avoid reality and not be forced by it to see how ridiculous their beliefs really are. Science provides many beautiful and satisfying truths, but also many sad and lonely ones too. Someone would do a great thing if they could weave through that Canon of Science stories that show those beautiful truths without creating something that would devolve into yet another religion/dogma. They would be the next Confucius.

    1. I’m reading The World Until Yesterday, the new book by Jared Diamond, and I’m on the chapter about religion. Diamond is comparing the lives of traditional people versus the lives of people living in modern societies, and his definition and explanation of religions is very powerful. Religion fulfills many needs besides the spiritual, and is comforting on so many different levels. Science isn’t very comforting. The comforts of religion are so successful that religion can succeed without any validity.

      Science can be comforting in some ways. Science can actually heal in some circumstances. Science allows us to communicate over great distances, although we can pray to science. Science can explain things, but doesn’t offer retribution or justice.

      But you’re right Greg, if someone could show how science could comfort people in the way religion can, they might be seen as a new Confucius.

  2. Jim,

    Having followed your blog for, maybe, half a year, I’ve found its appeal stems from often being on the same line of thought as my own – maybe too much so.

    Once, I shared a beach house with a couple of great friends from college, that never ending party that used to be possible for the young, employed and single. One evening my buddies were giving each other a ration of crap about how, “You were supposed to do this’ … ’Yeah, well you were supposed to get that’…” Then somebody’s date nailed ‘em with a remark, “How long have you two been married?”

    I’m getting to that point with “Auxiliary Memory”. Your interests and train of thought are so conversational and so close to brilliant – because they parallel mine! But then, like a friend who must be regarded with fond dismay, you veer off, entangle yourself in the extraneous until I want to hose you off and suggest, “Jim, you are so full of shit.”

    That being said, this is your best post ever; good tight writing, well considered, well informed and well intended.

    I’ll think it over.

    1. Billy, when I’m full of shit, please tell me. I need that kind of feedback. As I’ve often said, blogging is piano practice for writing, so I need to know when I’m hitting sour notes.

      And that’s the thing about the web, we find other people like ourselves. Normally in day-to-day life we don’t get to talk about the things we really think about. If I talked about what I wrote about to my friends at work they’d think I was nuts, and tedious. No one wants to listen to someone say a thousand word monologue. But blogging lets me let things out, and it lets me process casual thoughts into more coherent ones. Sometimes my processing doesn’t work. Call me on it.

      So Billy, do you blog? Your sign in doesn’t list one.

      And that’s a funny thing about blogging. I never know when I write something if it’s something people will like. When I do, I think it’s like what you said, we’re both on the same page at the same moment. How often does that happen?

      Thanks for the encouragement though, I really appreciate that. I wrote this essay twice and threw most of the first version out. I’ve also written on this subject before. I keep coming back to scientific thinking because I can never put what I’m thinking into the right words. Reality is there for us to grasp, we’ve just got to find the words that will give us the insight.

  3. Your post has set alarm bells in my head. I’ve heard them before and ignored them…then heard them again……it made me question the value of a lot we teach as ‘education.’ As for science, as indeed IT or any other subject it has to evolve, but we don’t move fast enough to keep up with the needs of the student, let alone the world. Geography or history for instance, in a multicultural society…..It would be had to create a definitive volume …a bible for History as it is to create a useful and valid framework for science. A great list of books though but Oooh a bit deep for a Sunday

    1. I often think about how we introduce children to the general knowledge we assume to be the basic facts of life. I’ve wondered if they could develop an educational system that parallels the history of mankind. So in the early grades kids would study cosmology, anthropology and the emergence of civilization, along with language, math, myths, religions, philosophy of primitive people. Then as they grow older they grow with the development of humans and the knowledge we’ve acquired over the centuries. So by the 3rd grade they learn about the Egyptians and Babylonians, then the Jews and Greeks in the 4th grade, then Romans and early Christians in the 5th, etc. Work in the Chinese, Indians, the Americas where they fit into the time line, which sad to say, I don’t know about those civilizations.

      1. As teachers we are not allowed to question the value of what we teach. Even more of a challenge in a global world of commerce. Do we need to encourage children to be inspired and enquire. (mind you we’ve been through that age too) Is the ‘what’ as important as the ‘how?’

        1. I was talking with a retired professor today about this problem of teaching science. He believes kids might learn better by readiong biographies of famous scientists so they can follow the whole process of invention. That made me think we should teach students to reinvent all the great inventions, like the light bulb or radio or telephone. Or get them to prove something in their own way. If you asked kids, or even adults to prove that the Earth orbits the Sun can they do it? We know the Earth orbits the Sun because we’ve seen animations and models, but could we prove it? And there might be many ways to prove the motion of the Earth other than how Kepler and Copernicus did it.


  4. Jim:
    A wonderful subject matter, presented in a clear and intelligent way! I wish I could have said it so understandably.

    I’ve often considered that reading the thoughts and experiences, (even purely fictional ones), gives us a form of ‘artificial experience’ which can shape our subsequent thoughts and decisions.

    Most of us know of books that have changed us in some permanent ways.

    With that in mind, I’ve always fantasized about writing ‘THE book,’ which would take the reader through a detailed description of an ‘enlightenment’ experience which would give the reader a lingering taste of that (consciousness expanding?) experience.

    It wouldn’t give the reader the intellectual knowledge – as all of the books on your list – so much as it would provide a motivated viewpoint that would tend to have the reader acquire such knowledge with relish.

    I suppose ‘The Red Pill’ might be a good title . . . HA!

    Thanks for your efforts.

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