On Reading

May 9, 2020

Yesterday while making coffee, I was asked by a colleague if my habit of reading made me feel like if I knew more than others. Because of the question being unexpected and my inherent doubt of my intellectual capabilities, my half decent response was that I was not sure. But I did try to explain how studying science, particularly physics has allowed me to develop a framework of thought where instead of grasping any argument at its face value, I try to question its underlying fundamentals. I’ll elaborate this later, but since that little talk, I’ve had the chance to think more about and this is how it goes for me

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Its not about how much you know, but how much you don’t know

The best example that comes to my mind is of designing an autonomous vehicle. For most of us, driving is an easy thing. And because we can do this without much effort, or more precisely intuitively, it seems like a very easy thing that we know a lot about.

But now try and design an autonomous system on the basis of what you think you know. You’re going to need a mathematically formalised method for distance estimation or when the vehicle should apply brakes. Then there’s the big question of morality. In case of an inevitable accident, who does the vehicle choose to save? And my favourite, the debate between which technology you choose to use to drive the car? Radars or cameras? How are our eyes superior to any radar technology (if they are at all) and how can we emulate that behaviour into cameras if we choose to? And now that you’ve barely scratched the surface of this problem, you would realise most of us don’t know nearly anything needed to make an informed decision.

So as we see, we just went from something we thought we knew a lot about to knowing almost nothing about how that thing fundamentally works. And that’s how reading is supposed to work. The best piece of literature isn’t the one that answers all the questions (if there any exists at all). A good book, or a piece of content, while should help you understand things more fundamentally and easily, should also leave you wondering about something you didn’t think you didn’t know. Or as some famous thinker (I cannot remember the name of) said, its not about how much you know, but about knowing how much you don’t know. The true joy of reading is not in being able to answer all the questions, but the ability to ask better questions. And in inspiring us to imagine how much more hidden beauty of the things around us we would be able to see if we could discover answers to those questions.

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Questioning the fundamentals

One of the best things I have observed in attempting to understand science and reason is the ability you acquire to question fundamentals. I still find it entertaining to imagine how the subatomic particles at the smallest of scales that we cannot see, are bound to the existence of this universe that our imagination cannot hope to encompass. How whether you’re a student of biology or chemistry or any legitimate branch of science, everything owes its existence to the basic laws of particle physics. Or as Richard Feynman beautifully put it

…the things that make the wind, make the waves. The motion of water is like the motion of air is like the motion of sand. Things have common features…

But then the question is, is this framework of thought only applicable to science? And the answer is no. Because the ability to think one way or another transcends into everything we can think of.

For example, if someone lectures you on the importance of some particular flavour of nationalism, you could spend as much time as you want without ever agreeing or being able to understand their view and vice versa. But a better approach could be to go into the roots of nationalism. What fundamental premise are we going to base our arguments upon? What common ground do we have or what are the fundamental principles we can build our thoughts upon? What is the legitimacy of this concept as per the ideas of enlightenment? Or if we choose to follow religion, what arguments religion makes for or against? Why did we get a surge of organised, somewhat enforced nationalism in middle ages? And this ability to transcend lessons learned from one place to another brings me to my final point.

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Reading beyond one’s area of expertise

As demonstrated in the example above, the knowledge you acquire should enable you to question everything with same rigour with the tools of thought transferrable across multiple domains. This is the reason why business executives learn their lessons from military strategists. Why Sun Tzu’s Art of War is revered just as well in board rooms and team sports as it is in military schools. Studying things beyond your area of expertise gives you a perspective of the world you cannot have by focusing on a single area of specialisation. It provides you with new tools to assess the quality of ideas and help improve them in ways that sometimes are totally unexpected. It helps you see patterns across a spectrum of problems, and soon enough you start formalising those patterns. And then it becomes what the legendary hedge funder Ray Dalio calls Another One of Those.

But beyond seeing patterns, the breadth of knowledge improves one’s capabilities in every domain they’re associated to. As Walter Isaacson says about Leonardo DaVinci, if DaVinci did not spend as much time on painting, he might not have been able to make the scientific discoveries and experiments he did, and vice versa. Benjamin Franklin was a writer, politician, and a scientist among other things. Albert Einstein attributed the brilliancy of his ideas to him getting lost while playing violin. Or as the Wharton Profession Adam Grant explains in his book Originals, while most Nobel Laureates are similar to their colleagues in terms of their academic qualifications, they’re much likely to have interests in some kind of performing arts, and that somehow improves their ability to make a difference in their fields of specialisation.

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Happy reading, exploring, and finding out how much is still left to find out!

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