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What you're supposed to study in a complex & seemingly unmanageable world

  1. Aug 18, 2012 #1
    I'm looking for career advice. My concerns are dealing with the complexity of today's world. Should you study physics or engineering (or something else) to be less dependent from others?

    It seems to me that the age of rapid development in various areas such as science & engineering as well as the associated information overflow are threatening more and more the ability of humans to control their own lives fully. Thus you are more and more dependent from others which will increasingly limit your freedom. Be it the standardisation of units or the democratization of nations, you are getting more and more dependent and influenced from other's thoughts, ideas, propaganda, world view, scientific view and so on. Sure, it has advantages such as more prosperity and faster development, but likewise it has its side effects.

    Nowadays some of us are getting burnouts due to the feel of loosing control or being not be able to understand every aspect of today's theories and concepts or the intuition that somehow everything is explored or you need to be an "veteran from the old days" who is working in such a field for many decades.

    Why I think that way? Because the scientific publications be it the academic college books or scientific journals are so cryptic for me that I think that I won't reach such an intellectual level because knowledge is mostly compressed into mathematical formulas over the decades and in my opinion you can't experience any observation of an scientific principle which is abstracted to an mathematical formula. So you are sometimes left alone with this "mathematical abstracted observation" or idea from an other person, although you're wondering how this person came to that idea.

    An other significant example is the intuition that someone in the 50s is more likely to repair an appliance such as an TV without calling an electrician or an other professional.

    My aim is to live more independently from others as well as other systems such as computers etc.
    I know that's almost not possible, but I am looking for the best solution to reach such an independence and power.

    I am scared of that complexity and dependence from others.

    Of course I care about salaries and power (e.g. knowledge that helps you manage many areas of your live for example repairing or building an appliance with almost no or less help from others), anyone needs a mix of it.

    However, I don't want to hear such phrases like: "do what you like without looking to the salaries" or something like that because it's not realistic or not appropriate for me to think that way.

    So, I think that physics would be a great idea to becoming an less dependent human being rather than engineering because it's more specialized and standardised than other subjects. But, my belief system could be incorrect, so I am asking for your experience and your view of things to get myself more sophisticated.

    Thanks in advance!

    Notice that my current views represent my intuition or instinct, respectively.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 21, 2012 #2
    Sure. Also one of the books that I like is Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock" that was written in the 1970 that talks about this.

    The other thing is that's useful is to study ancient history so that you can find things that don't change. Human biology has been roughly the same for the last few thousand years.

    Why do you think that? There are some situations when "do something random" is the best strategy.

    If you study physics, you will likely have to go to a university which involves paying for money, and paying for stuff usually makes you more dependent. That's not necessarily a bad thing.

    Also it's useful to study history because you figure out why things are the way that they are. You were born after the fall of the Soviet Union and it's likely that you have only vague memories of the dot-com boom. There are *reasons* why are you getting the advice that you are getting, and by studying history (even very recent history) you can figure out why things are the way that they are.
  4. Aug 21, 2012 #3


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    Hey a.oe and welcome to the forums.

    With regard to physics being better than an engineer to becoming dependent, I'm not sure I can agree necessarily on that.

    Becoming independent is synonymous in many ways with being able to continuously learn and most importantly "practice" many things.

    It's not just science or more academicly oriented activities either: all things like cooking for yourself, growing your own food, fixing things (like cars, bad cables, holes in the wall) and so on all contribute to being independent.

    But the thing is that there is always a trade-off: in modern society we have a thing whereby you get people that become "specialists" in their own unique area and when you have lots of different specialists, then each specialist can concentrate on doing that one particular thing (hopefully as well as they can).

    This leads to a very powerful phenomenon where the joys of modern society are a reality where you can fill up your car, grab a great cake, fresh coffee, newspaper, draw out some cash from the ATM, and grab some groceries all the space of under one hour.

    The reason that this happens is that you have all these people doing things in a specific way that is collaborative.

    When you try and do everything yourself (and when everyone else does as well), then things are a lot less productive in the sense that it usually takes a lot longer to get them all done.

    So you have a real dilemma as to where you should lie in-between: on the one end you have total independence (which is pretty much a theoretical construct as opposed to one that actually exists) and on the other hand you have total dependence (which is also again a theoretical construct).

    You and society collectively, have to decide where they want to be in the spectrum. There are many ways of doing it with many configurations, but ultimately it's going to depend on how the system reacts.

    The only way that we have our modern society that we have is due to the specialist nature where the deli store worries about meats and the petrol station worries about fuel.

    If you make something too much a dependency it can be just as bad if not worse than having too much independence and there is no right or wrong answer, just relativity in the results and the advantages and disadvantages.

    The big downside of the kind of system we have today is that when the system breaks down socially with its government, its currency, its banking and other such systems then it can get really bad especially when you have to adjust: In this case, it's better to be independent.

    But if things are structured well and things are going well, it's a lot better to have a lack of independence where you get the cakes from the cake shop and you let someone else worry about how the electrical signals balance the invisible checkbook.

    My advice to you though is that it's a lot better to be dependent to other people rather than trying to be completely as independent as possible yourself: you will never be totally independent and modern society shows the benefits where everyone is helping everyone out. It's a very valuable lesson to learn if there ever was a lesson.
  5. Aug 21, 2012 #4
    Thank you twofish-quant for your post and your recommendations!
    Probably, I should read something about the concepts of psychology to improve my belief system or just observe myself and others to understand the "why" (which I actually do already).

    Yeah, I would agree with you to get informed about ancient history and history in general. However, I believe that no science, no theory, no concept can fully describe every aspect, behaviour, reaction and so on to you. It's like you know some characteristics of the properties of an object or thing, but you can't answer every aspect of it, because if you belief in the concept of infinity (which can also be considered as too much for the lifespan of human beings), it would be not possible. We can use such observed properties from (scientific) research of objects/things for the sake of our wealth. As an example: humans are able too create cars and other engineering products to make their lives easier. But they don't know exactly why such an object or thing has such properties, they just know that something works the way it works. Thus, even when the engineering stuff works, it's no guarantee for the absolute.

    So, what I experience is that you have no absolute things. Even so called atheists belief that no god exists for example. The Drake equation is based on belief, mathematics is based on belief, everything you perceive is based on belief or intuition, your ideas based on observations (which based likewise on beliefs -- remember your eyes and the influence of other's for example). Think of that! You use mathematics which is based on axioms (which are basically belief systems or simply a concept that agrees with your intuition).

    So, what is actually a "belief" or an "intuition"? I don't want to fully discuss that now, because my time is unfortunately limited. And even I would discuss that, I would not come to an end, I guess. Why? Because I would dive into a seemingly endless "why?" loop.

    Thus, everything is based on trust and belief systems.

    An atheist would say, I belief or I trust that science is 100% correct, while an theist would belief that the existence of god is 100% correct.

    And the agnostic dude is not sure what to belief. I am not sure if something like "the absolute" exists, but I got to belief in something otherwise I would become crazy...

    The world/universe appears really complex to me, and it gets even more complex by the time, due to the generation of new questions, due to there is probably no absolute thing...

    When I would study philosophy or history for example, I would likely get no job, because I am dependant on others' claims. Instead, I would become a pathetic taxi driver (in most cases).
    It's actually intuitive: The majority "decide" what is useful to them and what not. For instance, when I would get a college degree in engineering, I would build thinks like an iPhone, or a plane, which is likely more useful to people's claims/needs than any philosophical theory or idea. And as you can guess, I tend to be realistic and pragmatic.

    My conclusion is you have to belief, and you don't have to belief something because the majority ("the 99%") beliefs that this is true and the other thing is not true according to their opinions. Even if you are the only human who thinks that way, you shouldn't get blinded from the "majority" thing. And to include history, look at Max Planck, he was told that everything was explored, and as we experienced/perceived with our given and our self created tools, today, we know that it wasn't. Even it happened to me, when I was told from others ("the majority") that I can't bring off certain things, but finally I did it somehow.

    I think there is somehow an inner voice in you which is directing or focussing your beliefs to an certain field, area, aspect or whatever. But I would not accept to take something for guaranteed when probably no absolute thing exists (or it might exist but we probably can't experience it yet). Furthermore, language as a communicating tool, limits you to express all your thoughts that you thought so far.

    Actually, I really want to know everything for the sake to get absolute control/power of my life. But I guess, that I can't.

    So, I think the best solution to become more independent is to become rich, because nearly everyone has somehow a psychological dependence on money, because it's seemingly promising you that you can buy everything that you desire. But even you have everything or assume that everyone has everything what then, and everything works 100% fine (this would be absolution)?

    Or, you got to somehow trick the system which you live in, to let it work for you -- but that requires knowledge (= power).

    Or is there an other solution?

    So, to become rich you need to become an engineer or something. Physicist are don't earn much money like their colleagues -- the engineers. And I think the knowledge that an engineer gets is really enough to use the nature for yourself in an appropriate way.
    You have a lot of MBAs nowadays, and someone told me, that they're not so required than engineers. Furthermore, MBAs likely won't receive enough power over nature -- imagine such a guy would beached like Crusoe, what then?

    Notice that everything I wrote is based on my intuition and belief system which is, however, not my absolute belief, because I think that humans are dynamic beings (which means that you can't describe them with limited theories, models and concepts (even if I do it myself, because my brain would otherwise explode), if you consider/belief that infinity/the absolute can't be reached). And dependence is for some degree normal (like I have the desire to become powerful and wealthy).

    I come to a point: I can't approach to everything I want, I had to belief in something to move forward (e.g. the absolute is not reachable just approachable), and I should do something which makes me happy. But as I mentioned I need to find something for that goal, and there is no absolute happiness, so I got to find something that is appropriate for me.
    Anthony Robbins and his NLP techniques may help.

    twofish-quant, I think you're a physicist, tell me something about your subject/job? What can you do with such a knowledge? And if you're not, what can you do with the knowledge from your other subject/job?

    Unfortunately, I am living not in America, which is the best place to become well educated (IMO). So, I got to decide what to study, because the post-educational system in my country is not flexible enough. America would be cool, due to the first 4 semesters in college are truly extracurricular studies, so you have no specialisation at first like in other countries (for example mine). And the college books are relatively easy to understand when you compare it with those from my country (in most cases: dull, boring, not intuitive enough etc.).

    I have really no idea what to study, and how should I shape my life with my decisions, because I have no constant opinion. I know that I can't do nothing, so I try to partly generate my decisions with the opinions of others. I want to know what it's like to be in that position and so on. Hopefully, you can help me with that. Because humans tend to generalize (like me), therefore you need to get sophisticated in some degree to get appropriate decisions.

    Thanks in advance! Next time, I stop with that philosophical stuff, because its not helping me really.
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2012
  6. Aug 21, 2012 #5
    chiro, you're right. I realized that dependence for some degree is appropriate (after some philosophical excursions).

    Can you tell me something about your career and how you manage your life with that?
  7. Aug 21, 2012 #6


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    I'm training to be a statistician (soon enough) and I will be doing a Masters next year.

    I'm not sure what you mean about managing life, but I just do what I need to do one step at a time: I don't really have any special things I do.

    I'm lucky that I live in a country where I have access to education (at a good price), clean water, a good health care system, and a high standard of living. I try to remind myself of that a lot especially when I see what is happening all over the world.

    With regard to dependence I don't think about it too much. Again like I said before, the system we have allows to do incredible things that no old aristocracy ever allowed when most of the people were enslaved through illiteracy, inability to pursue their own endeavors, and denied most of the things we in some countries, take for granted today.

    The only thing that holds it all together though is that people are willing to work with one another and that boils down to some sort of trust and willingness to co-operate. If this is lost then the environment will be a lot worse than the independent person, but it will be a lot better if when things are going worse around you, you at least have some sense of community where you still have people that operate with other like minded people in the way before the whole collapse.

    One thought I have for you regarding dependence: one way of thinking about this kind of thing is to imagine that you are someone who has to deal with a lot of people on a regular basis and think about how a lot of professionalism is learned.

    A part of being professional is not about being called "a professional" but more-so in how you deal with people.

    Being a professional means that you deal with people in a way that avoids really bad outcomes for both you and the client. It means for example, being anal about getting paid now instead of using credit or an I.O.U. It also means being as direct as possible to avoid some really nasty surprises when both you or a client end up getting into a nasty confrontation somewhere during your business together.

    These are the kinds of things that you might want to think about: basically the above is a systematic approach to dealing with people in any situation and if you want to become semi-independent and always work with people that have respect for what you do, then this is the way to do it.

    Think of all the times that say a business-person uses a credit system for purchases that never get paid back, or the number of times that someone at the end of a transaction wants to take the other guy to court or a tribunal.

    Some might say it's pessimistic, but I say it's optimistic because it means that you don't have to worry about stuff that you shouldn't need to.

    So ironically with regard to being independent, the lessons learned come from dealing with lots of people in lots of situations.
  8. Aug 21, 2012 #7
    a.oe, here is my career advice.

    Find something you like and become an expert at it. There are usually many more opportunities for people who excel at whatever it is they choose to do. You'll be much more likely to become excellent at something if you enjoy it and are passionate about it. Don't do something because you think it will be the next "big thing". That is a good way to become mediocre. Find something you like and do your best.

    Also, take the initiative whenever possible to uncover opportunities.
  9. Aug 22, 2012 #8
    Instead of the dilemma independent vs dependent, perhaps a more useful way to see things is your degree of "resilience". What I mean by that is that it doesn't matter if you are dependent on many other people for your resources (i.e material goods of any kind), but that a single individual's inability to provide you with a resource will not affect you significantly. If for example you like coffee and there is only one coffee shop that provides you with what you like, then if said shop closes, your ability to get coffee goes down with it. But if there are other coffee shops and you don't mind going to them, then you get what you want regardless. Since it is very unlikely for all shops in town to close simultaneously, you will always have some supply in coffee. Therefore the only way that making your own coffee will benefit you is if such a low probability event happens (i.e all coffee shops close). Why waste your time for such an unlikely event? It seems independence here is completely useless.

    Another more serious example is the separation of powers in politics into the legislature, the executive and the judiciary (and let me add the military, the industry and the press). This is a far more resilient system than having all powers exercised by a single person or a group of persons (imagine one-party rule). If one of the branches becomes compromised in some way and decides against the interests of the people, a healthy system will not allow it to proceed (a law for example can be declared unconstitutional by a judiciary system)

    The thing that I really like about modern society is that it allows for a lot of this kind of resilience. People are more mobile and connected than ever and no one has absolute control over the needs of others. This is what I believe all people should strive for.
  10. Aug 22, 2012 #9
    This thread would be nice for listing study subjects that no matter how the world changes, the knowledge gained is never obsolete.

    Mathematics is one example. Whatever happens to the world, 1+1 = 2 and everything that spans from it.

    Physics is another one. Physics will be relevant until the end of the universe, unless something crazy happens, like physical constants changing over time. But if that happens, it seems improbable for us to survive it anyway.

    Chemistry, Biology are also in my list, pretty much all of the natural sciences. Although human biology has a shot in changing within a century or so if science advances enough.

    The past can't change, therefore history can be included. History *can* change (i.e different interpretations of archaeological evidence) but for a great many things, historians seem to agree.

    Philosophy can also be included for the same reason I include mathematics. It can also answer a lot of questions science can't, like what we *ought* to do in life for a good living, or an independent vs dependent vs resilient dilemma.

    So the question here isn't really what to study in a complex world, It's more like, how much time do you have to study any of these subjects!
  11. Aug 22, 2012 #10
    Sure. Find something you could get down with. I like the sound of secular humanism. I don't identify myself as one though... :-)

    But...humanity does not change. At least, it doesn't seem to change all that much. Zombie apocalypse? Watch The Walking Dead and you'll see how humans behave. No zombie apocalypse? Why not take a look at Breaking Bad or Mad Men.

    Or Ultimate Spider-Man. Or Batman. Or Shakespeare. Or Camus and Stoppard.

    This brings us back to history, or should I say, any work involving the study of humans to some degree. You'll find that it's quite hard to figure out what's the truth and what's not, or how much truth (if any) there is. Curiously, a lot of living with people involves doing just that. I can't even begin to wrap my head around the amount of confusing and absurd things I find people do. But hey, that's sort of what you see in books.

    I may also be autistic to some extent (the counselor mentioned Asperger's but I never went any further with the sessions or to see a psychiatrist about it - waste of my money, I'm fine) which may explain part of my own world view.

    Then there is also this line which I find pretty damned cool: "I believe if he had read a different book by a different writer at just the right time in his life, he’d have been a different man."

    So keep reading things. Keep doing things. Eventually you'll figure something out. Or you won't. At least you're doing something.

    My view is that it doesn't matter too much and I like that the world is chaotic and I like that there is no control. I'm willing to bet that if I could take absolute control, then someone else could and if they could, then it means more people could. If that becomes a reality, then bad things start happening. (good things too, I suppose)

    In "Ros and Guil are Dead", there's this part where they talk about seeing a pink unicorn running about. Now, that man can't believe his eyes and he's debating whether he should tell his friend about it. Before he gets a chance, somebody says he saw one too. Then somebody else goes: "Was that the pink horse with a horn on its head?" and so forth until this "illusion" thins itself to become a reality. Cool, huh? :D

    Maybe. Or not. Does it matter?

    So apply to study there. It helps if you had good grades and did some other things outside of class. Don't worry to much about it and apply to 5-15 schools, depending on how much money you have and how strong your application looks like to you, and you'll get an answer soon enough. I'm doing just that. Took a gap year for it. It may or may not work but I'll worry about that later. Also: go to your country's US embassy's website and see if they have this "EducationUSA" thing. You'll find more help there, hopefully.

    Not enough time. You'll die before you get to the point where you know everything that there is to know and are thus "in control", most probably. You can always fake an illusion of control. Or assess risk. Some people make money doing that, I hear. (don't know the details but Chiro and Twofish would know more - one is studying statistics, the other works in finance)

    As for me, I decided to go with the "do something random" strategy. I'm studying math, sciences, philosophy, literature, history...whatever I find interesting and I'll take things from there. Maybe I'll come out with a degree in physics. Or one in computational biology. Or one in statistics and comparative literature. You never know...and that's totally cool!
  12. Aug 22, 2012 #11
    You can study whatever you want however have in mind that degree doesn't equal skills. And in order to survive you need skills which allows you to put a food on your table every day.

    Now engineering is good because it's interesting topic, higher degree and practical skillset.

    But if you aren't interested in engineering there is no point in doing it because you can earn as much (or even more in my country) with professions that require less money and time.

    Plumber is good job - if you aren't interested in it, it doesn't matter since if you aren't interested in engineering or sth different (which is marketable) then it doesn't matter what you do to earn your living. 1 year course and you get nice salary, skillset which is useful all around the world (and it can't be outsourced while most engineering can).

    After 1 year course you have a job and then you can go to university and study whatever you want. And it's better because you feel safe - you can take risks, change your courses, do whatever you want (and not what is needed to get a job like most students need to do) because you already have a job. That means you have much more possibilities than any other student and it may turn out for you well.
  13. Aug 23, 2012 #12
    Hmm, you have listed several issues nested in a rather complicated way, I won't say something about all here, but let me say something about one particular thing you wrote, namely that about dependence of others, because I'm not sure your views here are fully clear.

    I actually think it's the opposite of what you said, I think today is probably the most independent world we've ever had. It is clear if you look at things from a broader perspective, like backing up a 100 years. Back then there were no social security nets, if you got sick you were totally dependent on your family and friends to feed you and when you got old you were totally dependent on your children to keep you alive etc. Today, vastly improved social security nets allow for a lot more independence, more than probably ever before in history.

    Are you sure dependence on others is really your problem?

    You mention burnouts, but I think a large reason for those problems is not dependence but rather the fact that you are so easily replaceable, that for everything you do there always a bunch of people who could perform it just as well and just replace you. Again actually opposite of independence, because if you were special and not replaceable then other people would depend on you and you might feel a lot more connected to the world. Anyway, just some food for thought.
  14. Aug 23, 2012 #13


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    Philosophy that answers questions is called religion, philosophy as a whole is about asking questions and discussing alleged answers, but in no way it gives answers.
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