Monday, November 28, 2005

Learning how to Learn - by Owen

Figuring out how things work is tricky. For simple things, not so hard. But for complicated things can be tough.

This is for many reasons, including a very important one: our school system is not (and never was) designed to teach this. If, somehow, we decide to make it part of the curriculum, then we're going to have to teach all the teachers how to do it first. Contrary to popular philosophies of education, you really do need to know what you are talking about to teach something...

Another reason it is tough is that a lot of us have been brainwashed into a very silly way of looking at the world. We have been taught an idea pulled straight out of some greek philosophers ass (he must have asked his donkey all his important questions). The idea is this: Truth is universal and transcendent. And: here's the catch. By sitting around and thinking hard enough, we can 'discover' this truth! No need for experiements. Thought alone will reveal the truth.

Now, few of us have heard this idea stated like this. But it is one of the central ideas that has carried imaginative philosophers in western (and many easterners share similar nonsensical ideas, and surely northerners too, maybe southerners... heck, people the whole world over!).

Because of this, the "great" thinkers in our Universities and Churches have created philosophies that are fundamentally divorced from empirical study. They are untouchable, because they do not require empirical observations! Observations are unnecessary, because the truth is transcendant. Of course! The trouble is, many of their fundamental ideas are turning out to be wrong...

Getting over problem number one means choosing to learn how to learn, even though you didn't learn it in school.

Getting over number two means giving up on the idea that you can somehow secretly "know" what's true and what's false. As it turns out, no one in the whole world can do this. We know this the same way we know the world is round. By exploring it! Researchers have studied and studied and studied people, looking really really really really really hard for anyone with a secret access to truth. And, no dice.

Nope, we require empirical observations, and sometimes a serious collaborative effort, to create useful knowledge. That is, we need to carefully observe the workings of the world, and sometimes we have to team up with others to compensate for the mistakes we commonly make on our own.

Luckily, the nutters who believe in transcendent truth have not represented the whole spectrum of human thinking. Because many thinkers recognized the imporotance of empirical study, research and knowledge have progressed over the centuries. In fact, no serious discipline of study has failed to incorporate empirical observations, in one way or another, into its system of knowledge. And all the great discoveries of the previous few centuries, the breakthroughs that have created life saving medicines, telephones and airplanes, all of these have come from empirical studies.

Thanks to these empiricists, who have come to be known as Scientists, human knowledge is rapidly advancing. We are learning about genetics, and neurology, about cancer and heart disease, about aerodynamics and atomic physics, and even about the way human brains create knowledge in the first place!

Yes, these are amazing times for the pursuit of knowledge.

We can finally leave age old superstitions behind, because we can actually discover and demonstrate the ways in which they mislead their adherents.

We can finally get past many of the stumbling blocks of religion and philosophy, and get on with creating belief systems that are actually grounded in reality instead of fantasy. This should help stop religious wars, and help progressive policy makers to shake ideological politicians and lobby groups out of their foolish ways...

Yes, exciting times...

And it all starts with each and every one of us doing everything we can to shake of the chains of superstition, to leave behind the burden of false beliefs, and to free up all that wasted time and effort:

Just think of all the good hearted people trying to:
- create world peace by meditating on crystals
- help poor people by kicking them off welfare
- fix the health care system by selling it off to pirates
- bring about social justice by throwing bricks through windows

Why, all that time and effort could actually be doing something useful!


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