Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes

The title is unfortunate and misleading.  This book does not explore nonsense.  It explores ambiguity, contradiction, confusion, chaos, complexity, and puzzles and encourages us to savor them like fine wines or cognacs, relishing their nuances and subtly, allow them to coat and then modify existing beliefs, instead of slamming them down and coming to a simplistic, premature, belief-affirming conclusion.  Although, simplistic, in order to distinguish differences, I believe people are drawn either to dogmatic, simplistic beliefs and mono-culture along with mono-stimuli where analysis is their tool for always coming up with one simple answer and outcome (Apollonians).  The others are drawn to flexible, complex beliefs and multi-culture along with multi-stimuli where emotions and intuition are their tools which lead to multiple answers and outcomes (Dionysian).  There is growing research that perhaps our gut bacteria is involved.  I’m having a hard time finding the study, but it showed a strong correlation between healthy gut bacteria and more open-minded political beliefs and vice versa.  In fact, a related study suggests that people in Third World countries that suffer a lot diseases and have unhealthy gut bacteria are drawn to more authoritarian political beliefs.  You know these people.  They like routine and don’t like to experiment.  You go to a restaurant and the first thing they want on the menu is something they already know like burgers, spaghetti, or steak.  They drink the same brand of beer every single time.  Bartenders love them.  Bartenders hate me, because I never want the same drink twice.  When I open a restaurant menu, I go straight for the item I’ve never had before.  This book reinforces this message when it asserts that bilingual people and people who have lived in two different cultures are more creative and open to diversity.  They have to be.  It’s a survival mechanism, and likewise, their gut bacteria must be open to challenge and new foods. 

 Amazon likes to pair books up when you pick one based on common themes.  Its computers are still stupid, so the pairing up is predictable and asinine.  This book should be paired up with my previous read, Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned, another great book with a stupid title.  Both books argue that the future requires a more flexible, open, creative mind.  Both books discuss education.  This book has a wonderful piece about how stress, fear, and anxiety close the mind up.  So why do we have grades, tests, performance measures, and the threat of failure when we know now that they close the mind up and make us hate learning?  The answer is really simple.  Schools are not there to inspire us to learn but rather to inspire us to be obedient, conformist workers.  This worked well for the Agrarian and Industrial Eras, but as this book and others like it argue, it will fail us miserably in the Information Age.  The only reason we have not changed is that the rest of the world is far behind us in figuring this out, and existing institutions that profit from the old system are loath to change and risk losing their wealth and power.

 It is funny to have read a book called Self-Help by Samuel Smiles, written at the early stages of the Industrial Age and then to have read this book written at the early stages of the Information Age.  Self-Help argues that to succeed in the Industrial Age, one must be self-reliant, work hard, and single-minded obsessive about one’s goals, even to the point of near madness.  Like this book, it was mostly anecdotes about people who became successful using this model.  Contrast that to this book which argues that to succeed, you have to think outside the box, be imaginative, creative, open to diversity, and be comfortable with the unknown and ambiguous.  One book wants you to be closed-mindedly industrious while the other wants you to be open-minded exploratory.  Optimistically, the Industrial Age culture was slow to catch on because information spread slowly whereas today, I hope, the Information Age culture will catch on like wildfire, and it will all be powered by profit.  Simply put, workers and owners with an open, creative, flexible mind will make more money than workers and owners stuck in the past Industrial Age model.  Since the Information Age accelerates the dissemination and adoption of information, it shouldn’t be too long before everything in this book and Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned will become mainstream knowledge, and hopefully, we will then change our school curriculums accordingly.  I am an eternal optimist.

 The overarching problem with the Industrial Age mentality is that it is unnatural.  Humans have always been more intuitive and emotional than analytical.  We have always embraced diversity and multi-culture.  Our genes are proof of this.  We reproduced with Neanderthals and Denisovans and probably countless other primates we have yet to identify.  We are capable of eating nearly everything in nature by cooking it, and this has been our survival weapon.  We are naturally exploratory, creative, and imaginative.  You actually have to work hard to make a human closed-minded, xenophobic, defensive, and goal-oriented.  You achieve this through a constant regiment of fear, threat, intimidation, criticism, judgment, punishment, correction, and division.  In fact, it takes 12 years of this to make a supposedly acceptably functional adult in society.  You don’t have to do a single thing to create an open-minded, creative, passionate human being except provide information, examples, support, and encouragement.  While it takes effort to make us conform to the Industrial Age, preparing for the Information Age should be almost effortless, because it is almost identical to our natural state of existence. 


Our ancestors before the Agrarian Age lived in a world of immense uncertainty, chaos, ambiguity, and puzzle, but in order to adapt to this, we learned to enjoy it.  An important concept I love to repeat is Error Management Theory.  We have outsized desires for the things that are rare and take for granted what is abundant.  In other words, we crave sugar and privacy, because they have always been rare to us, but if you allowed us to engorge ourselves in sugar and privacy, we become sedentary, obese, lonely creatures.  Likewise, since we had an abundance of chaos and ambiguity, we also have an outsized craving for order and predictability.  However, if we engorge ourselves with order and predictability, we become mentally stifled, bigoted, xenophobic, and boring.  It is almost like this book is saying, it’s okay to be hungry and desire privacy, but we should relish these states instead of trying to avoid them at all costs.  Likewise, it is okay to be in a state of confusion and ambiguity.  We should not try to avoid them at all costs by constructing an overly simplistic world view and culture that rejects anything that is different, unexplainable, unpredictable, and foreign. 

 The biggest problem with the Industrial Age mentality and culture is that it is also fundamentally immoral and violent.  One way to immediately destroy diversity and differentness is to persecute and wipe it out through oppression, dispossession, and outright murder.  Throughout the glory days of the Industrial Age, we have also witnessed history’s most vile and evil acts.  Tens of millions of people were murdered because they either were of the wrong religion, ethnicity, or nationality, or they held the wrong political beliefs.  How can people be so stupid?  When I read the Self-Help book by Smiles, it sounded like Smiles was a good person.  He was expounding the virtues of hard work and obsessive single-minded, goal-oriented determination and discipline.  And the proof was in the pudding.  People who were obedient, conformist, and goal-oriented and were simple minded and kept to themselves thrived in the Industrial Age.  Example after example after example.  How could you argue with that?  But if you look at the holistic view, you would see the cracks.  If everyone was like this, it would be easy to control them all and make them support any kind of evil, autocratic, destructive policy.  I also like to keep bringing up my Rommel example.  Rommel was the epitome of the Industrial Age culture.  He minded his own business and was obsessively single-minded and committed to winning battles.  He was also highly caring about his own soldiers but also POW’s.  Now you say, isn’t this a good thing?  He sounds like a great man.  But you forget that if he succeeded, the Nazis would have conquered the world and spread their disease of evil and destruction.  You forget that he aided and abetted evil and refused to see it and do anything about it.  In fact, if he had simply quit his job and run away, he would have done far more to destroy the Nazis than any Allied general at the time.  In other words, if you adopt the Industrial Age mentality and culture of being obedient, conforming, and what I would term micro-moral (only being moral to those immediately around you), you can be used as a weapon by evil to commit evil acts.  You have a moral obligation to question authority, to question everything, to make the connections between your actions and the consequences that go far beyond your neighborhood or circle of friends. 

 Our existing education system is specifically designed to make us obedient conformists, to reject the strange, unusual, chaotic, ambiguous, undefined, unknown, foreign, and different.  You may think that only rural red states have suffered the disease of our education system, but there is just as much dogmatic, xenophobic thinking on the left as the right.  Instead of viewing minorities as something hostile, strange, and dangerous like the right, the left views them as weak, victims, and disadvantages in need of coddling, special care, and constant state supervision.  The result is not empowerment but more likely imprisonment, because whenever you over-supervise someone, you inevitably catch them doing something wrong, while the folks you don’t supervise often get away with all their mistakes.  Over policing a bad neighborhood does not make it safer by catching all the bad guys.  It makes it less safe, because the good guys are constantly being monitored and caught with minor infractions further impoverishing them.  The answer is simply accepting them as being different and foreign and treating them equally.  They don’t need special care, attention, or state supervision.  They need you step back and allow them to explore, try and fail, comingle, and be free. 

 I sometimes feel very alone in my observations of the world and its changing qualities, especially living in a city like Reno which is dominated by closed-minded, xenophobes both on the right and left.  But I am a product of my culture and environment, and that environment, through books, goes beyond the borders of little old Reno.  The only reason I’m discovering these great new ideas, is because they are being circulated.  I’m merely connecting the dots, and I’m spreading these ideas to help ultimately get to critical mass where major change can happen.  It is frustrating to watch Obama drone bomb and kill innocent people, especially when most of them are Muslim.  It is frustrating to watch all the Facebook posts about cops killing unarmed people, especially when most of them are black.  It is frustrating to read about the growing gap in income, and how most Americans still believe in the lies from both the left and the right, and how they don’t realize the powerful have divided and conquered them.  It is frustrating to work in a place that sting clings to the ideas of bureaucracy, hierarchy, performance appraisals, supervisory intimidation, punishment, and office politics.  It is frustrating to see the slow progress, but like this book says, it is okay to exist in a state of frustration, limbo, half-progress, and uncertainty.  It is in fact natural, and it is also motivation for me to continue seeking out mind-opening ideas and sharing them.  If the world was perfect, I’d be sitting back and bored after all.  If we do live in a virtual reality, I imagine it wouldn’t be everything we every desired and wanted but rather a state of constant confusion, ambiguity, ignorance, chaos, and insecurity, and struggling and dealing with this would be the reason to play the game and live.  People wonder how an all-powerful god can concurrently exist in a world of evil, and the answer is perhaps that it is necessary.  We created and defined it, and without it, life would not be all good or natural but rather pointless.

At the end, the book implies that holding two contradictory ideas in your head concurrently is a sign of mental flexibility and creativity.  On an intelligence scale of 1 to 100, I would argue, while we are exponentially more intelligent than amoeba, we would rate hardly a 1 on that scale.  In other words, most everything we know is probably wrong or incomplete.  If you were a dog looking at a pyramid from afar, you would see a triangle, and you would be right to say it is a triangle.  If you were a dog in a plane looking directly down, you would see a square, and again, you would be right to say a square.  A pyramid is both a triangle and square, based on your point of view.  Likewise, perhaps it is okay to then assert that god does and does not exist, that there is and is not life after death, that we do and do not exist, that time does and does not exist, that the universe does and doesn’t end, and we should be okay with and not okay with that, and as a result we should keep investigating instead of claiming we know everything when obviously we don’t. 


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