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?
- 100 All-Time Greatest Popular Science Books (nicely divides them by various fields of science)
- The Great Pop-Sci Book Project
- Best Science Books of 2012
- Best Science Books of 2011
Here are some books I’ve been very impressed with, but I can’t claim are the best volumes for the introductory list.
JWH – 2/15/13