Written: June 13, 2015
As this review will prove, I don’t like to color inside the lines. In school, my teachers didn’t like my essays. While they certainly proved that I could think and analyze, I’d often drift away from the subject, using it merely as a springboard to think about other, what I considered, more important matters. Certainly, the teacher has important lessons, and there are holes and gaps in my education where I was either daydreaming or doing my own thing, but at the same time, if you always do things the teacher’s way, you lose the ability to think for yourself and outside the box. There is a balance. But for this review, the book was so stimulating yet often disgressive and opaque that it just made me think of other things. But isn’t that the point of the book?
I think most people don’t like to be meta. That is, they don’t like to think about what they are doing or thinking all the time. Perhaps along with Jews (as I have read from a Jew, particularly Gilbert Gottfried), I love to be meta, to overthink and overanalyze everything. I’ve mentioned in the past how this is a cultural adaptation of oppressed cultures. As a meta thinker, you are also a philosopher, because invariably you ask yourself, why am I here anyway, and what is meaningful, and what is the meaning of meaning for that matter and what is thought, and how do I think? I just watched a movie called The Zero Theorem directed by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame associated with the Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life which I loved as a kid. In the movie, there’s a great bit where someone tells the main character, who is waiting for a phone call to tell him the meaning of life, he missed the meaning of life his entire life. By waiting for the call, he missed the call, get it? It’s a great point.
I did mushrooms once, and I was confronted with the idea that I had to choose between my incessant pursuit of the truth and what is real and all with living my life and finding love and all. But in my mind, those who can’t find love or enjoy life and get out of it what we are all meant to get out of it, the fulfillment of things we desire and overcoming the obstacles and threats, we find solace in looking outside the box, thinking and being meta, and escaping life. But like music or art or sports, it really should be a distraction, a circuit breaker. You can’t pursue love and your dreams 24/7. The incessant letdowns and frustrations would drive you nuts. You need temporary relief and distractions, and philosophy is a great distraction, one of the greatest, because it reframes everything. Unfortunately, however, at least the philosophy we have so far tends to diminish the weight and gravity of our ordinary old lives pursuing food, sex, love, relationships, and rest. It is both its strength and weakness. But perhaps at some point in the future, philosophy will reconcile it all, but I also think perhaps it’s a red herring. Philosophizing gives you incremental wisdom that can be applied to life to make it more meaningful and enjoyable, but the pursuit of the ultimate truth and perspective and answer is misleading and like traveling on a sphere, you wind up where you started.
My current philosophy, spurred by my last book, is that we can live contradictory lives just fine, compatibly. We can live a meaningful life raising a family and falling in love and concurrently believe there is nothing else in the universe and we all wind up bits and pieces of stellar ash tray detritus. I can have my cake and eat it too, because why else would I buy a cake? I can be immortal and die as this individual who has a name (or multiple names in my case). I can believe in God and not. In the end, the evil bastards win and destroy the universe, and in the end, they fail. What does it matter now? We live in the ambiguous zone of ignorance and uncertainty, but our primate brains don’t like ambiguity and uncertainty. That’s why we like to climb mountains. We want to know for sure whether the other side of the mountain is a desert wasteland or it’s greener on the other side. But what if it is both a desert wasteland AND greener? I think the truth may not be as great as we might imagine. It may be a huge letdown. I’m not saying don’t climb that mountain, but I am saying, don’t risk your life to get to the top, because in all probability, beyond that mental mountain is another larger mountain that is ultimately impossible to climb given your existing mental capacity. Think of it this way. Reality is Mount Everest. We are not humans, we are ants. Ants can’t climb Mount Everest.
This great book is philosophical and written by a philosopher. It is toolkit of thinking methods not always rational and Euclidean. It fits in nicely with my ongoing discovery of the world of ambiguity, Hermeneutics, super-science (I just made that up, reality beyond science), super-logic, anti-fragile, a perspective or paradigm that cannot be explained or described using science and logic, that relies rather on feeling, intuition, customs, culture, our physical being, etc. Now, you’re thinking, what does this mean regressing to hogwash superstitions and mythology? No, as this book clearly points out, there are good tools to expand understanding and bad tools that lead you nowhere. It means, science and logic alone cannot explain everything, and much of how we think anyway is not logical.
I like to use the example of someone saying in an encouraging manner, “You’ll be just fine.” How the hell do they know? I used to be a cynic and I believed that when people talked in that ambiguous, hopeful manner, they were being insincere and deceitful and it meant nothing and wasn’t scientifically or logically supported, so it basically was a worthless thing to say. But in the context of humanity and relationships, it means everything when someone says that to you. Consciously, you know they can’t tell the future, but that’s not the point. The point is, when they say it, unconsciously, you feel better, your confidence grows, and that in and of itself actually has a positive impact on the outcome. When I trained for a marathon, I noticed that when I was feeling pessimistic about my ability to finish the marathon, I felt worse, and my injuries took longer to heal. Current perspective impacts future performance. The mere act of feeling confident about some future event based on very little evidence actually helped me feel better, heal faster, and eventually helped me finish that marathon (along with 2.4 grams of ibuprofen). So if you were to interpret the meaning of the words, “You’ll be just fine,” you have to go beyond the literal and take into consideration the context, social context, and traditions of both speaker and listener.
Another powerful example is when I was in South Africa, after hanging out with this one lady for a few days, she told me, “you are a good man.” Now, obviously, she didn’t know me, but I’ll never forget that, because although it is a statement about the present, it has an everlasting impact on my future. Although, I may never see her again, I feel obligated to validate her claim and not make her a liar. I can only imagine that in her culture, you say things like that, and it does have a powerful impact on people, so although she may not know for certain if someone is good or bad, simply saying that to him obligates him to be a good man. It’s not a mind game but rather just one of those traditions that helps facilitate constructive social interaction and harmony. Unfortunately, in America, we seem to have a new tradition of the opposite and calling someone an idiot is ubiquitous in our culture lending itself to an anti-social culture of idiocy.
And so, I believe this is related to life itself and all reality. We can interpret everything literally, and it makes no sense. It’s not logical. Stuff like, there is life after death, a god exists that is both omnipotent and allows for evil, we have freewill despite the fact that we are the product of our genes and environmental experiences, etc. But just like the phrase, “You’ll be just fine” and “You’re a good man,” we need context to understand that there is meaning and it does make sense but so long as you don’t take it too literally. And it only makes sense in a social context, taking into account our humanness and our genetic propensities, biases, and traditions. Nobody knows for sure that things will be just fine or that I’m a good man, and nobody knows for sure if there is life after death, greater purpose and meaning to our lives, or that a good, loving god exists, but that’s not the point. The point is, by saying and believing these things, it makes us feel better and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Present perspective impacts future performance. In the end, things may not be fine and we may wind up being an evil jerk, but this is a less probable outcome. But does it even matter? What matters is that what we believed, in most cases, led to a better outcome.
All our lives, at least mine, we are taught that logical, linear, scientifically backed thinking is the best way to go, and much of our schooling supports that. We look down upon art class and even literature as sort of non-rigorous, wishy-washy endeavors that do not enhance or empower your mental capacities, they only pay lip service to your emotions or something. With the Information Age and emphasis on creativity and with robots and intelligent machines taking over non-creative mental jobs, creativity and imagination, things machines cannot currently do, will be prized more. During the Industrial Age, it was all about obedience and closed-minded thinking and rule-following. What this book encourages is thinking that makes you creative, and that means being a lot more imaginative and figurative. It emphasizes thinking using metaphors, analogies, allegories, what the book calls intuition pumps, mental tools that expand your mind. And it turns out, art and literature classes exercise your intuition pumps, in addition, I would note controversially, activities and drugs that alter your mental state. Anything that interrupts your normal mode of thinking and again controversially, including trauma. Quantum physics reveals that nature on a micro and macro-scale, scales beyond our direct human senses, is counterintuitive, and why shouldn’t it be? Our human senses and brains are designed for our particular scale. When babies view a ball rolling down an incline and then it just disappears and reappears at the bottom, they are startled. We are born with an intuition of Newtonian physics. But inside atoms, things pop in and out of different parts of space and time. But if we were born with micro-intuition and were not at all bothered by things popping in and out of space and time, we would not be able to function as well in our current scale.
As we depart further and further from our scale, we will probably encounter even more bizarre and confounding phenomena, and then at one point, we will simply no longer be able to conceive of or truly understand things well beyond our scale. This is disturbing, because we are driven by our curiosity to understand obscure and ambiguous things in order to fully determine the extent of their threat or benefit. The only solace we have is scale protection. Things that are really, really big or really, really small, can’t hurt us unless we split atoms and stuff. We are insulated by time and a rather large volume of space. Think of a chicken. When we eat it, the chicken is no longer, but the atoms inside the chicken are just fine. They either enter our cells or get pooped out and get recycled into the Earth. For all we know, our universe is part of a creature that is being devoured by another creature, but we can’t tell the difference because like the atom inside the chicken, we are not impacted.
What is also disturbing to realize is that most everything you know is wrong. We have a huge set of knowledge passed on by our culture that used the wrong tools and came up with the wrong answers. Our knowledge works not because it is right, but because it is just good enough to work. It is quite possible our concept of self, time, space, reality, humanity, consciousness, existence, life, death, god, and everything is wrong. For instance, when we think of our minds, many use the homunculus paradigm. We imagine some small person inside our brain gathering all the information up and coming up with a decision. But then what is inside that small person’s mind? We think of ourselves as a single entity, because we have a single set of consistent beliefs, memories, and thoughts, but when our heart rate is elevated, we think and feel differently. We also think and feel differently under intoxication, depending on the circumstances, or under stress. We say stuff like, boy, I’m an asshole when I drive. But why aren’t you that asshole when you’re hanging out with friends? Why are you different at work? Maybe there isn’t even a self but rather a collage of different modes, not personalities, but behavioral and thought modes that are tailored to the circumstances and your physiological state. We all like to think of ourselves as good people, but I can guarantee you that under the wrong circumstances, we all can be coerced into being bad people. Look at the Germans during World War II and then look at Americans now with our military murdering countless innocent people simply because they were in combat zones or lived near targets. So we are not good people. We are people capable of good and evil depending on the circumstances. And rather than individual selves, perhaps we are also an amalgam of all the people who have influenced our lives all the way through history both genetically and culturally.
Creative thinking, I hope, is not only imaginative exercising and distraction. While we may never find the ultimate truth, because perhaps there is none, only one perspective to another, I believe that just like exercising your muscles, it enables you to think more powerfully and effect greater positive change. If I work out more, I can lift more, and some day I might be able to lift someone out of a burning house or car or something. If I work my mind out more, I will be able to better spot the lies or mistakes of others or suggest something innovative and solve a problem or create an invention that will vastly improve people’s lives. The point is not getting to a destination so much as the exercise as much as we are driven to an endpoint.
The book is not very well organized and at times seems digressive. I read somewhere that when you are in a noisy environment, it forces you to pay more attention to what you are doing. I just noticed this in a loud restaurant, when you’re making an effort trying to listen to someone, you focus more on what they are saying and are less likely to interrupt them with your own thoughts or to think of something else while they are talking. Perhaps all the noise in this book forces you to think more intensely. I’ll repeat this again and again in this book club though. Every important non-fiction book should have an expurgated version in a highly organized manner written by a very talented layperson writer not to exceed 150 pages. The problem is, this book is extremely important, but few people will get through it because it can be disorganized and thick sometimes. In the end, what is better? A few people get a lot out of it, or a lot of people get a lot out of it but not as much as a few people? I wish I could list out all the intuition pumps for you in a simple list, but I can’t, because they are not listed out anywhere in the book and each chapter does not cover an intuition pump. As far as I can tell, the intuition pumps are just like analogies, metaphors, and other figurative literary devices, hyperbole, irony, sarcasm, villains, heroes, comedy, tragedy, antithesis, anthropomorphism, Socratic method, dichotomy, juxtaposition, rhyme, understatement, symbolism, repetition, reduction ad absurdum, riddle, paradox, zen koans, poetry, fable, etc. In fact, the koan is a great example. It proves that our existing language and thought modes are incapable of understanding many things, but it brings us to the realization of our limitations and the apparent paradoxes of our lives, somewhat liberating us from the shackles we do create with some of our cultural and biological parameters. Speaking of analogies, reading is like eating. You need diversity to create an enriched mind, but you also need fiber. What is fiber? Quick reading. Insubstantial books that are easily forgotten and leave little lingering sentiment or thought. The problem with modern education which actually discourages reading is that you don’t get fun reading. Everything you get is really important shit that makes you think a lot. If this is all you read, you get mental constipation. When you get mental constipation, you are less likely to accept new ideas and thoughts or enjoy reading new books, so you just have a few old thoughts getting toxic inside your head. It is sad to say that most people suffer mental constipation. There is nothing wrong with reading simplistic, fun, action-packed novels so long as you balance it with the deeper, thicker stuff.
One thing this book has me thinking about is how we experience the world differently consciously and unconsciously, analytically and intuitively, using our frontal lobes versus our other lobes. Unconsciously, we experience the world like most animals. We are drawn to attractive things that may benefit us and recoil from unattractive things that may harm us. But consciously, we surround ourselves with labels and generalizations. When we’re at the grocery store, we can quickly scan an aisle and easily determine if there is anything there we want. Just imagine a robot doing the same thing. It would have to scan each item individually and read every single label to determine the contents. If I were marketing food, I’d create something completely out of the ordinary to get your attention. Fact is, we like to label and generalize, because it makes life easier to manage. But when things happen like Bruce Jenner turning into Caitlyn Jenner, a lot of people get annoyed, because it forces them to pause and rearrange their labels. The problem is not with labeling itself but rather managing our labels and assigning more time to look beyond labels for things we think are more important to us.
I’ve made a conscious effort to challenge myself both physically and intellectually throughout my life, and that means constantly confronting things I don’t get both physically and intellectually, putting myself in an uncomfortable situation both physically and intellectually. That is the only way to grow and become stronger both physically and intellectually. Unfortunately, it seems to me, most people don’t. People will do anything to avoid breaking a sweat physically or intellectually. They become lazy bodies and lazy minds, and a lazy mind over-relies on static, entrenched over-generalizations. Whenever they encounter something or someone confronting them with new or differing information, they react aggressively to restore the simplistic order in their minds. Just as their bodies might react violently against working out by immediately getting sore, stiff, and perhaps even straining a tendon or spraining a ligament. Just as your bodies will resist working out initially, just like a kid throwing a tantrum when it finds discomfort, you have to work past that initial resistance. Intellectually, you have to work past the apparent contradictions and differing opinions and accept the fact that you may be incorrect or over-simplifying things. So when people, especially online, violently argue against you, don’t take it personally. Just imagine their minds are like kids throwing a tantrum trying desperately to restore their simple order in their simple minds. Instead of succumbing to their tantrums, you have to either ignore them or rise above them. It none-the-less astonishes me how really intelligent people tend not to realize this when applied to working out or even socializing and dating. Certainly, if you are smart, you focus on your strengths and tend to downplay the importance of being physically toned and being very popular, but unlike muscle heads and social butterflies, you have an advantage. You know that if you apply yourself more physically or socially, you can overcome the initial discomfort and eventually excel. Being smart, in my book, means applying the information you learn, especially social information, and using it to enhance your life, your social life, your body, and everything else about you. What’s the point of intelligence when all you get out of it is more intelligence? It’s like the muscle-heads who go to the gym and make their bodies outlandishly huge. At a certain point, it’s not healthy, and the lack of flexibility also means for many things in life, they’re at a physical disadvantage. They’re not weightlifting for their health and to enhance their lives outside the gym, they’ve decided that life only exists within the gym. Nerd heads also remind me of a great quote about New England soil being highly cultivated yet utterly sterile. When I encounter a big head, I keep asking myself, if you’re so smart, why can’t you use your brilliant mind to figure out how to get dates and become socially gifted so you can make a lot of friends and have a lot of influence over others and do some really socially good things? Why use that massive brain engine to hole yourself up in your house and hide behind your books? Even worse, these people tend to want to excel in their careers and wind up in positions of great influence and power and wealth. Instead of using power and wealth to benefit others, just like their brains, they misuse it and just hoard it for the sake of hoarding it, using their intelligence only to create unfair rules to secure and enhance their power, prestige, and wealth.