Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Its been a while since I posted something and it is definitely not because of a lack of interesting things to write about. The pace of my life is increasing and exciting things are happening all the time! In the midst of all this it is becoming increasingly difficult to find time to indulge my oldest passion, reading books.

I heard about this book while reading about Christopher Mc Candless a.k.a Super Tramp on whose life and death, the movie Into the Wild is based. The book describes the author’s experience with staying in the woods, relatively insulated from civilization and people, fending for himself and living by the barest means possible. It was a book which deeply resonated with me.

Living in the wild with little separating us from the elements which shaped and sculpted us. Without all the ceremony, pomp and wasteful superficiality of society. Time that would have been wasted on going through the tedium of the every day life of an average guy devoted to study of books, nature and self.

The whole book actually poses just a very simple question. What is it that you really want from this life? Are all the things that you are doing right now really helping you achieve those aims? Aren’t we a little too distracted by the toys and trinkets that society dangles in our faces to realize that the price being paid for them is the pursuit of a deeper and more self-contained contentment? Do we attach enough value to self-cultivation and independent thought?

There is one whole chapter dedicated to Solitude and I simply adored it! When we are among friends or in a crowd we tend to think and act in a particular way. But, those same guys when left alone tend to become altogether different people. I have always thought that one must not restrict oneself to only one mode of thinking.

On the whole I found the book to be highly stimulating and thought-provoking. Also, the language of the book creates a strong impression of scholarship and erudition. This is not at all surprising considering the deep and varied reading of the author.

Of course, I did not completely agree with all the things in the book. But, I could see that the truth of the writing depended on the person reading it.

I am someone who believes that we as a species and as members of a terrifyingly lonely system of life in this vast universe have a duty to dream big and work towards a greater destiny than simple self-satisfaction and inward reflection. We need to work as a team for a future that will thank us for our efforts. I started getting these ideas after reading more books on popular science, especially those by Carl Sagan. What is the approach that most makes sense? Feel free to share your thoughts here!

The Demon Haunted World: Science as a candle in the dark by Carl Sagan

I just finished watching Here Be Dragons by Brian Dunning which is an introductory video to critical thinking. Most of the concepts and tools which were described in the video were familiar to me. This was because of the book by Carl Sagan I had read a long time ago. I remember seeing a dusty copy of the book in the the public library and being a little put-off then by its cheesy title and uninspiring cover. I must say those were the criteria I used in those days to judge the quality of a book.

I still took the book because of my trust in the ability of Carl Sagan to be interesting and engaging. I was not much of a fan of science or skepticism then. But, the book managed to sow the first seeds of doubt in my mind. I still remember feverishly going through the book as it tore apart one false idea after another. After finishing it in a hurry, I put it down and went into one of my trademark crazy-walking-in-big-circles episodes as I tried to make sense of it all.

It was such a strange feeling. Like living for long in a cold, dark, damp, wet room and then suddenly sensing a strong fresh wind starting to shake the doors and windows and the sunlight poring in through the cracks and holes. It was such a sense of relief and I started to feel, for the first time that I could answer some of the questions that were so deeply bugging me.

I was deeply religious though highly skeptical of some of the stories when I was younger. Part of the reason for my religious character was my ambition. I wanted to achieve great things and I didn’t want to piss off anything that might ruin my chances. God was one among several such things.

I was also plagued by doubts about everything. I was of an extremely curious and questioning disposition and all the contradictory information piling in from all sides deeply confused and troubled me. Is evolution true? Are aliens for real? Why is that different people have different opinions about Homeopathy? When I get sick should I take English medicines? What about their side-effects? When I go and search on google I just end up getting more confused. My family and relatives were not of much help. Even my uncle who is a doctor was rather vague about homeopathy and natural medicine. Most of the explanations for why things are the way they are seemed to me to be half-baked and incoherent. Though I was interested in technology and engineering and liked reading, I didn’t know where to go to access reliable information about questions pertaining to everyday life.

The book opened my mind to the idea that maybe we have much more control over our lives than we think we have. That not every guy who says he knows how some thing works is correct. That there are some things that have been proved beyond reasonable doubt and others that have been thoroughly debunked. It did these things not by merely stating them. It backed them up with evidence, logic and references that I was able to verify. For the first time, I realized that the education that I was put through had cheated me and that the society had failed at giving me the tools I needed to protect myself from frauds. I knew a lot of trivia. But nobody had bothered to sit down and explain to me the art of critical thinking.

I was asked to always keep an open mind and give credence to all view points and be “tolerant”. Never mind the mental dissonance that sets in and the indecision that it leads to. Never mind that quacks are going to exploit you and you might probably place your own life in danger. Never mind all that because we really don’t know the truth…. science claims to be perfect, but it can’t explain everything…. there are things unknown to science… that the ancients knew and exploited. We must never say we know anything for certain…. everything is subjective… truth is a personal opinion… why do you have to choose one over the other? why can’t both/all versions be right? all religions point to the same God… never mind that their followers are at each others necks and that their teachings are contradictory… they are similar at a “higher” level… all medical systems are equally correct… they just represent different approaches to health…. never mind that some of them lack a scientific basis… never give notice to the notion that there might be a best approximation to the truth… all are equally valid… you just have to look hard enough to see it…  modern science is not for real… all the wisdom and knowledge is contained in the vedas… you just have to be clever enough to interpret it…. similar claims about the bible and etc. etc… i was just getting fucking sick of all this fucking bullshit.

This book… it pulled me out of a really deep hole that I was sinking into. I have a streak of extremism inside me and am prone to recklessness and quick action.  The book made me seek out better sources and ask deeper questions. I became a bigger fan of Sagan after reading the book. It a must read for anyone who is not familiar with skepticism and critical thinking. The video that was mentioned in the beginning is also a very good one and conveys the key ideas in a short span of 40 mins.