Reading Los Tónicos De La Voluntad by Santiago Ramón y Cajal
|Started:||January 08, 2019 (Ongoing)|
I've been meaning to read this book for a long time. I don't think I've ever read anything from him, so it'll be a good start to see if I want to dig deeper.
This book talks about rules and tips on how to do investigation. Which I'm sure I can apply to learning and reasoning in general. I always evaluate my conclusions and put my knowledge to the test objectively, but I'm sure there are many things I don't do properly. So I'm looking forward to improve my approach.
Started working on it.
I've read the introduction and I've already got some valuable lessons.
The first one is not directly related with the book, and that is that I prefer reading on a digital format 100%. It's been a long time since I read a physical book, not a PDF or eBook. And I'm already seeing the problems. The most relevant of which is not having the ability to highlight excerpts. Of course I can always use markers on the book, but the use I give to highlights is to review the parts that got my attention, ignoring everything else. And that is not really possible with that approach. So I've been manually copying excerpts to Evernote.
The other thing I learned, related with the book, is Cajal's view on scientific prowess and intelectual capacity. He's of the opinion that individuals have mostly the same potential, with some exceptions. And scientific results are derived from rigorous methodology and discipline. For the most part I agree with him, and it's refreshing to read. Specially with the old Spanish speech used in the book that I'm enjoying a lot.
Where I don't agree with him is on his disdain of purely philosophical practice. He explains how the lack of practical implications leads to a waste of time. I agree that staying in the realm of the mind makes it difficult to extract significant achievements. But considering that our brains are the main instrument we use for our daily practice, I consider them essential as well.
While reading the book I'm finding many ideas I was already familiar with that I believe to be true. But I started wondering about something. When I'm reading a text and the author is aligned with my opinion, do I really agree with him or I'm automatically agreeing because I already had that preconception? It's difficult to tell, since it goes all the way to how our opinions were formed in the first place. And if we just agree or disagree based on opinions we already had, we're not getting anywhere. I try to be as impartial as possible and judge things for what they are, but sometimes it's more difficult than it seems and I get wrapped up in an infinite loop of evaluation.
I could do an entire blog post about this, but I'll just say that I don't think anybody has solid opinions, since most of them are based on experience and that's usually not a great way (not enough data, too dependent on the context, etc.). I actually wrote a blog post that is similar to this, so I guess the conclusion is that we work with heuristics, which is fine. And we change opinions often, which is also fine. But there must be some underlying principle that I'm not grasping.
Anyways, one of the ideas I found interesting that I already agreed with is the power of ignorance. Cajal also exposes how focusing on one problem at a time and actively ignoring everything else can be benefitial. Perhaps he goes too far by saying that some books are useless, to which I'd never agree. Art is never useless, since the value is in the eye of the beholder.
The second chapter focused on common problems that are found by novice scientists: admiring predecessors too much, believing in topics left for study running out, deeming only practical discoveries as relevant and not being "smart enough".
On chapter 3 he outlines some important moral qualities for a scientist to have: independence of judgement, perseverance in study, passion for glory, patriotism and enjoyment of scientific originality.
Independence of judgement and perseverance in study are great. I feel like the second one in particular is even more relevant today. He explains how long-term attention is something valuable for investigation. Here's one quote from the book:
All great works come from patience and perseverance, combined with prolongued attention in months or years focused on a single goal.
Passion for glory talks about how scientists see society and the repercussions of their actions, and what they expect from them.
Patriotism is something I don't agree much with, since he gives too much importance to his physical location. I consider myself a "citizen of the world", and don't see myself constrained to any one culture. Of course I guess this is to be expected given the context when this was written (Spain 1897). Today we have the Internet and everything is more global. I'm not even using my native language to communicate most of my work.
He finally goes into enjoyment of scientific originality. He talks about the pure joy of knowledge and discovery. I can see myself identified with this, because I'm always chasing abstract concepts without any particular goal other than getting new insights. And I feel a constant struggle between chasing "useful" knowledge, that has some practical applications, or just "food for thought".
Chapter 4 delves into which sources of knowledge the novice scientist must pursue.
The first thing he introduces is the necesity to have a good grasp on general knowledge in disciplines related with the subject chosen for practice. But not going too deep, he also notes how important it is to specialize in something specific. This reminds me to the concept of T-shaped skills, where a person has a solid base in a wide range of skills but is a lot of expertise in one or two areas.
He continues by talking about the necessity to learn other languages, which is interesting and I didn't see it coming. I was already aware of this, I noted in the previous entry of the journal how I'm not using my native tongue for my work. But it's interesting to see it coming from a place I didn't expect.
After underlining the importance of being aware of the state of the art before delving into science practice, so that mistakes that others made can be avoided, he talks about the source of all truth: nature. This is something quite obvious if you think about it, but I like how he presents it by saying that all learning resources we'll get (mostly books at the time) are nothing short of a reflection of the author. That's why it's so difficult to obtain knowledge without practical experience. This is particularly relevant if you are reading this without reading the book. I am transmitting the knowledge from his words, but the way I am presenting and explaining it may be completely off the mark.
He finally concludes the chapter talking about the importance of having the correct skills to perform tests and how luck only presents to the ones who are looking. He acknowledges the importance of chance in scientific discovery, but it's true that luck is only useful to those who can interpret the results.