Problem: A key rational defense of religion has always been that it provides guidance that is lacking from secular sources. We know that isn’t true, but it feels true to many people because they don’t find the secular material compelling for one reason or another.
My story: For a long time I’ve wanted to add whatever I could to the efforts of everyone who is working to correct this particular defect in reality. After being introduced to Sam’s books I discovered his many YouTube appearances and consequently Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, et al. After reading many of their books I decided I wanted to write a (true) genesis story as a children’s book for my own kids, and anyone else that finds it compelling.
A secular genesis story: I wrote a book with three short stories titled Earth, Life, and Us based on astrophysics, evolutionary biology, and human history. It’s called “From Nothing Until Now: An Origin Story” and it’s available here if you want to take a look: https://www.amazon.com/Nothing-Until-Now-Origin-Story-ebook/dp/B018BGKNZG/ If you’d like a free copy, I think my KDP Select option is available, so reply here and I will reply back with a few days the book will be free to download.
A secular bible: For my next project I wanted to write a book my kids could lean on when they’re a bit older, kind of a handbook for life, full of things they don’t teach in (most U.S.) schools, like critical thinking. I kept coming back to the enlightenment (thanks to Christopher Hitchens) and I’m also a big fan of the Deus Ex series and conspiracy theories (for entertainment purposes only) so I decided to call it…well take a look. I’ve attached a copy of the cover (yes, I’m jumping the gun here since the book’s not finished, but I need to keep myself motivated) and drafts of the first couple of chapters of the book below.
I’d really love any feedback you might offer as I don’t currently have any alpha readers. I figured if I was going to post it anywhere on the internet, here had potential to be the best place.
This is the first chapter:
(a reality distortion field)
On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel there is a fresco depicting God and man with arms outstretched toward each other, fingers almost but not quite touching. It is seen by many as a metaphor for God bringing humanity to life, but it can also be seen as humanity reaching out to become God’s equal because it is a defining quality of life that we work to achieve something greater than ourselves.
Today, we have the privilege of inheriting the achievements of all the people who came before us. Our collective great-great (etc.) grandparents went from caves to huts to houses and then decided they wanted to visit the moon. After we designed a computer to get our spacecraft to the moon, we designed a more powerful computer into a wristwatch calculator. Modern smartwatches respond to spoken commands because someone like you—millions of someones—imagined things that never were and figured out how to warp them into reality.
Money is not power. Knowledge is not power. They are resources, just like determination, confidence, hard work, handshakes, and smiles. Power is the skill of using your available resources to maximum effect. Power is getting that job you want, raising an amazing child, getting a bad law changed, or moving one step closer to a lifelong dream. Power is the ability to love your life.
This handbook aims to provide tools and techniques that will help you evaluate, confront, and conquer all challenges you deem worthy. Each section builds on the previous, so it will be helpful to read them in order at least once prior to using the handbook as a reference guide:
Take the first step toward getting more out of life by seeing that you have the power to.
Open the black box and examine the inner workings of your primary resource.
Condition your control and mastery of the machine.
Build a better baseline.
Focus on what’s important.
Become expert in things you value.
Design goals, build plans, and leverage success.
Each time you encounter an idea, do a quick mental exercise to see if it tracks for you. Take a moment to get excited every time something clicks and you see how it fits together with your experience because that means you get it, so you’ll have it in your toolbox. Taking notes is highly recommended and practice, practice, practice, because understanding is not yet achievement.
Make a list of things you’d like to accomplish. Big things and small things. Things that will bring joy or relief to you and the people you care about. Check this list frequently and update it whenever you accomplish goals or think of new ones.
(a virtual skyhook)
There is a story about a young seahorse who swims past an old clam. The clam says, “How’s the water?” The seahorse gives him a strange look and asks, “What’s water?” We tend to tune out things that are constant, sometimes to the point that we don’t even notice they exist; and when we do notice them, we tend not to look too closely.
To solve any problem you must first identify it and describe it. Many problems we fail to identify or describe are things that are constant, that we’ve tuned out. Here, we will take a quick tour of a familiar organization whose primary mission is to shape reality for the benefit of a single individual. It’s comprised of a hidden network of agents working in groups to interpret moment-to-moment conditions and initiate appropriate action. The chief executive of this organization is you.
Your brain, left to its own devices, would act out every mood, craving, and thought that popped out of nowhere. You’re the one that keeps it from doing that all the time. You’re the responsible one, working to keep your business on track. Your employees (thoughts and feelings) hold a lot of meetings, occasionally burst into your office to tell you something (hopefully, but not always) important, and are generally pretty good at their jobs.
When you take that point of view you are no longer one with the machine, you are driving it. Try asking your employees a question:
Do you like pie (yes or no) ?
Did you experience the answer popping into your head without much conscious thought? It’s like you shouted a question from your office and some employee in the hallway shouted an answer back. Let’s try it again:
Do you like the color yellow (yes or no) ?
If you don’t have a strong preference, you may have noticed a number of your employees giving you mostly, but not exclusively the same answer, perhaps even with varying explanations as to why. Then, you made the final decision, like a boss.
The brain is your primary tool. It is responsible for everything you understand and how well you understand it. It contains the triggers for every mood, every motivation, and every idea you have, so it’s worth taking a moment to build a simple model for how it generates thoughts and feelings. Your brain is amazing at finding patterns and connecting dots, and this is the core of what a thought is. Everything you experience is processed to assign meaning by linking it to prior experiences and learned concepts:
You experience something, filtered through your senses and mind.
Your experience is assigned an understanding based on similarities to prior experiences and known concepts.
Details absent from your perception are assumed based on your understanding, associated concepts and prior experience.
These three steps hide astonishing complexity because we can perceive our thoughts. This means the process feeds back into itself, generating consequential thoughts in succession so rapidly it may sometimes seem like the final thought just popped into your mind, offering you little insight into how it was formed.
Even talented employees will not always understand or share their CEO’s values and goals. Consider your bad habits along with your good ones, and all the times you are triggered into action without making a conscious decision. Packaging processes into black boxes like that is how your brain does things fast. It is how a musician plays every note and how an athlete moves each muscle. It is also how your thoughts and feelings can hijack your organization for purposes that may not align with your own.
Your goal as chief executive of your mind is to understand:
When to trust your employees: Consciously grant permission to act without your further review.
When to ask questions: Ask them for more details, associations, potential consequences, or to double-check something.
How to mentor them: Build better habits of mind. This includes reigning in employees with improper levels of autonomy.
The effort you spend investing in these skills will pay off more than anything else you could invest in because the results will reflect in every decision you make. Add that up a million and more times over and it’s easy to see enormous value in every little improvement.
Perception, links, and assumptions describe more than just how a thought forms. If you imagine your mind as a network of ideas, these three properties can be used to define the shape and boundaries of an idea, a literal mind map that scales from the level of a grand concept all the way down to individual neurons.
If you were to visualize a particular idea you have about religion or politics and compare it to the same concept in the mind of another person you would see the ideological differences in the way things are linked and the links that don’t exist or even can’t exist because they represent ideas that haven’t yet been introduced to that brain. This divergence in Thought Process between individuals can be dramatic in even the most mundane circumstances. Consider an example of two strangers at a bus stop. John has just arrived and sees Mary reading on a bench with a dog stretched out by her feet:
John asks Mary, “Excuse me, does your dog bite?”
Mary replies without looking up, “No.”
John leans down to pet the dog and is shocked when it snaps at him. “I thought you said your dog didn’t bite,” he says.
Mary glances up and says, “That’s not my dog.”
John perceived the dog at Mary’s feet, linked it to the idea of petting, assumed it was her dog, and thought something like, “I’d like to pet her dog.” This thought became feedback which generated a rapid series of consequential thoughts (e.g. “I wonder if her dog bites,” and “I should ask her.”) leading him to ask Mary if her dog bites.
Mary, focused on what she is reading, had filtered the dog out of her perception. She linked John’s question to the fact that she does indeed have a dog (who doesn’t bite) and was distracted enough to accept the way her brain interpreted the question without considering how unlikely it would be for a stranger to ask it.
Every disagreement, from mere misunderstandings to genuine disputes where each party has unique concerns, can be traced back to a divergence at some point in the Thought Process: Different perceptions linking to different experiences, compounding divergence with each consequential thought. Considering the perceptions and experiences of others can guide you to make important connections, forge relationships, and make them count. We are strongest when we have support.
Our perceptions are strongly linked to habits. You’re more likely to notice the things you tend to look for. People notice time more often when they’re on a schedule. Those from different professions and neighborhoods, cultures and beliefs, all have perceptions that have been uniquely shaped over their lifetimes. As divergence in an initial perception can cause a dramatic divergence in Thought Process (like we saw with John and Mary) it is remarkable that we have enough similarities between us to communicate effectively as often as we do.
We simplify ideas for children because we recognize they may not be able to connect the dots (link them) properly, or they may not yet have some dots they would need to connect. Many of the ideas we associate with our perceptions are complex, and therefore built on more primitive precursor ideas (e.g. money). Even precursors might be built from prior precursors, and so forth, potentially tracing back to ideas that originally formed in your brain earlier than you can remember.
Small changes anywhere in that chain of dependencies can magnify divergence in Thought Process. Considering the Thought Processes of people we communicate with is critical to effective communication (e.g. with children) because a person can only understand an idea if they can link it to their experience in a way that gives it the correct basic shape. When a basic shape can be discovered (i.e. the gist) this can become the most powerful and direct route to effective communication.
Assumptions are incredibly useful things. They enable us to generate speculation, conclusions, and actions even though we almost never have complete information. This can be critical in situations where there is no time for consideration and it can be habitual in cases where the assumption carries little risk. Passive assumptions, ones we are not fully aware we are making, are riskier because you haven’t had the opportunity to evaluate any potential risks. If you identify assumptions, you can choose which to accept and which require further inspection.
A final note on feedback: Every thought you are conscious of thinking is generated from a precursor, and you will not always be conscious of what it is. We may only become conscious toward the end of a series of subconscious thoughts and feelings being fed back into our Thought Process, but we are the executives in charge of feedback, and that includes deciding when it stops. We get to decide when to accept a thought at face value, and when to ask follow-up questions. Remind yourself to take charge, because the better you get at this job, the more powerful you will become.
That’s all I have in printable form right now. I’m continuing to write the remaining sections. Perhaps ironically (as I seem to be at cross-purposes with him), I will be repackaging and hopefully adding value to some really good advice from Scott Adams (from his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life) as part of the Happiness section.
Right now I’m working on Focus, which is shaping up to be something like, but more than, mindfulness lite. I really like the executive/employee model for training the skyhook of conscious volition to be more present (which I think is a prerequisite for critical thinking).
Please let me know what you think, especially if you might recommend any changes. I have a thick skin and am keen to get the most from my efforts, so I appreciate any good ideas you’re willing to share. If there is any interest, I will post back here with updates and some more chapters when I have some.
If you’re playing the cover art optical illusion / symbology game, here’s the complete set of (intended) answers:
Illuminati All Seeing Eye
Star of David
...and if you view the white parts as non-objects (the fundamentalist interpretation of the cover) it's actually a vision for rebooting the Pac Man franchise: Just a bunch of meaningless line segments and 3 Pac Men converging on a power pellet made of letters) :-)
If you notice any additional symbology, that will be interesting and I’d love for you to point it out.