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.

Totto-chan: Girl at the window

I had a month long vacation after college and I got to read this amazing book. Its only around 130 pages long and I finished it within a couple of hours. It was one of the most pleasant books that I have read in some while. Its about a little girl who is expelled from a school because of her “misbehaviour” and about her time at a new school run by a professor trying out a new style of teaching kids.

It moved me so much because it brought back memories of my own childhood. I think everyone should try and sit down and spend some time remembering how it felt like to be a child. Only people who still can feel what they felt as a child can understand and help them. Either that or they should never have stopped being a child. That incredible itch for knowing and understanding things, that innocence, lack of worries these are all things that adults should never let go off.

Maybe, if we play with kids and observe them, we can regain some of the things that nature blessed us with. We can once again discover happiness and freedom and the thirst for knowledge. Instead of flocking to spiritual “gurus” and seeking “food for the soul”, we can discover how to be a human merely by observing a child.

All I can remember of my childhood is a desire to “know everything” and do awesome stuff. I never had a clear idea of what constituted awesome. I was also incredibly naughty and almost impossible to control. Once I got home from school I would sneak out of the back-door, take my cycle and set-off on exploratory missions. My nasty sense of direction and almost complete lack of memory meant that I would very soon get lost. But, it never bothered me that I might not be able to find my way back. Daddy would get back home in the night and then set out on his bike looking for me. Eventually he would find me happily cycling along and ask me to follow him back. My childhood was such great fun for me that I almost failed to notice what a big pain I was for my parents.

But, luckily for them, I eventually outgrew my obvious rebelliousness. I am really thankful that they didn’t try to exercise total discipline on me. Part of the reason for that was they themselves grew up as free-birds and they understood the value of letting children learn from their mistakes and encouraging them to be brave and fearless. After all, I don’t think obedient people did a whole lot of amazing stuff.

Another thing that I felt was that education was for the most part failing tragically in the case of most people. Most think that being able to speak a couple of languages and knowing the capital of all states and other such trivial stuff is what education is about. I don’t think that is right. Modern teaching material is like a skeleton. It’s just a collection of facts and figures. What a person needs to do is fill in the gaps and see it for the living, breathing majestic being that accumulated knowledge is.

This line in the book struck me deeply and I feel it is something that all of us should keep in mind.

Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears, but not hearing music; having minds,
but not perceiving truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on
fire. These are the things to fear, Kobayashi

That sense of meaning and beauty is something that is inherent in every child. When it is abused and destroyed by schools, they try to satisfy it with the spiritual crap dished out by religious institutions. Scientific education, appreciation of art, music, literature and human feelings like love, affection and attachment to things should be encouraged in every child. After all we are bringing up a human being, not a robot. Humans have failings and thats part of their beauty. I don’t know whether this is a sure-fire formula for success in our modern world. But, that could be a problem with our world, not with our children.