Monday, February 23, 2015

an important book which everyone on earth should know about

More and more, I wish everyone on earth knew about the basic findings in an extremely important book form a Harvard psychology professor:

How important is this book? Lately, I often quote Thomas Jefferson, who said we could preserve government of the people only as long as everyone gets free public education which does full justice to three key books -- Locke, Principia by Newton, and something by Francis Bacon. I begin to think that Valliant's book, or some adaptation of it, is just as important for just as many people.

Some folks would immediately say: 'Hey, what about the Bible? That Jefferson rat.."
I am very disturbed by most of the recent unfair denigration of Jefferson, by fiolks who don't seem to understand the basic messages of free speech and dialogue, promoted not only by Locke but by John Stuart Mills, the Quakers and others. If we lose those messages, our democracy and our culture are very much at risk... and in fact, they ARE at risk at this moment. But in fact, Quakers and Jefferson were not dirty rats; they simply felt that governments should not be the curators of the Bible or the Torah or the Koran; government religion quickly becomes corrupt religion, and that is not good for the soul.  

But why add Valliant to the canon of four great classics?

Valliant shows how the success and failure of intelligent people depends, above all, on how they respond to shocks or disappointments.  (What would he say about people who never experienced shock or disappointment or frustration in their entire lives? I don't know.)

There are "good" defense mechanisms, which lead you to better things, and "bad" defense mechanisms, which can literally kill you. There is a whole lot of data (and stories) behind this.
The worst ones are denial and revenge, as best I remember; the best are making lemonade out of lemons, looking for a silver lining in the clouds... and waiting (not giving up) until you are ready to act.

That sounds simple... but I see so much neurotic denial all around us, driving all kinds of behavior and rigidity and lack of growth, to the point where it threatens our very survival as a species. The most obvious example lately is with climate change, where people seem to be true believers in the ancient idea that problems go away of you forcibly put your head in the sand and convince others to do likewise. Nature is not impressed by such mooning by humans. Life is not like a high school debate where winning arguments .. saves your life?  But there are many, many other situations now where people's respect for reality seems very weak, and people believe whatever sounds like what they wish were true. I often wondered: how could organisms exist for more than a few centuries like that in the wild?  I do know some answers to that puzzling question (published in the journal Neural Networks, for example) -- but part of it is that humans now have more power than before, and were not evolved to be able to use such power wisely. I have had to put more and more new technologies on hold over the past few years, as the human penchant for collective suicide becomes ever more visible.

Of course, trying to find reality is not a trivial exercise for us humans. There are some aspects I have only come to understand this past month... for example, in my previous blog post on "where is mind" and in a new paper in Press in Russian and English, now posted at -- soon to be open access at that journal. There are also two new things coming on the physics side...

Best of luck,


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