On Being Certain (2008)


41uzxb1krfl-_ac_us160_Click here for 8 pages of quotes from this terrific book. on-being-certain-quotes

This book is a good antidote to the know-it-all, imperative, pontificating folk who say, “I know what I know! Don’t confuse me with the facts.”

It’s a deep book about epistemology, the “feeling of knowing,” and how the brain works. I’m not savvy enough to grapple with Burton’s claims but I found them so compelling I lifted my favorite quotes for your reading enjoyment. I am almost certain you’re going to enjoy this book.



Science, Chance, and Providence (1978) by Donald MacKay



My degMacKay.Providenceree from the University of Washington (BA, ’81) is in history with a special focus on the history of science. While attending the UW I was also employed as a youth pastor in a semi-fundamentalist church in Seattle. Consequently, the conflicts between science and faith, reason and revelation were topics of both great interest and great consternation. In the midst of my studies I discovered the wonderful little Intervar
sity Press book called, A Clockwork Image by theistic scientist Donald MacKay. During those years of cognitive dissonance, I found that book of tremendous help.

Later, when in graduate theological school at Regent College, (MCS, ’85) I found another delightful title by MacKay in the school library called, Science, Chance, and Providence. It was a small and densely written book which I never finished reading. I told myself to buy a copy someday and plow through it. This was the early ‘80s before the days of Amazon or Google but in the late 1990s I tracked down a copy on line for the astonishing price of $100. I wanted it badly, but not for $100 (especially for a book of only 64 pages). Recently I tried another Amazon search and to my delight found a copy for less than $5. So now, after decades of waiting, I am happy to summarize Science, Chance, and Providence for my (and your) reading pleasure, thus saving you $5 (or $100, depending on what decade you live in).

Click the link below to get my 9 page summary of this book.


The Will To Believe (1896) by William James


essays in pragmatismThis essay is not about why having religious beliefs is good; it’s about why having religious beliefs isn’t bad. That, and some cool dating advice.

It’s one of seven essays in the book, Essays in Pragmatism by William James (The Hafner Library of Classics, 1948).

In our day of resurgent atheism it’s rare to come across a philosopher who argues for the legitimacy of religious belief. As one who aspires to be a person of faith I was delighted to read The Will To Believe by American philosopher William James. Too bad it’s 119 years old.

This dandy 21 page lecture—he calls it a sermon—given in 1896 to the Philosophical Clubs at Yale and Brown Universities inspires me. His outline includes ten sections which he didn’t name. For convenience sake I’ve given each section a descriptive title.

Click here for a 6 page summary. The Will To Believe


Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves by James Hollis (Gotham Books, 2007).


hollisSuicide bombers. Self sabotaging behaviors. Madmen shooting innocent people. Addictions. Marriage destroying actions. These and a hundred other puzzling behaviors prompted me to read this book. While not providing a definitive “once and for all” solution to the problem of evil, I found it somewhat helpful and am happy to summarize it. As always, summaries are brief and of necessity leave out important information. I’ve gleaned what I consider the salient points. To get the full message I recommend you read the book. It’s hard going at times, hence this road map.

Click here for free 9 page summary.Why Good People Do Bad Things (.pdf)

A Francis Bacon Quote Translated for Texting-Obsessed Students

francisbaconA number of librarians, teachers, and professors read this blog and today’s post is for them. Especially if they work with unmotivated students. I stumbled across a fascinating quote by sixteenth century philosopher Francis Bacon this morning. His ideas are very relevant but his prose is so dense it’s easy to blip over. I found him so inspiring I translated him for modern texting-obsessed students. Purists beware: I’ve taken a few liberties with Bacon’s words.




Ideas from Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
summarized by Erik Johnson


Studying serves three purposes, dude: it trains our minds to focus, which as you know from playing video games, is cool. Studying gives us something to say besides quoting movies, Arrested Development, or Jimmy Fallon. It also helps us handle relationships, buy cars, job hunt, or negotiate family conflicts. While it’s true that some naturally bright people occasionally make good decisions, we can’t rely on luck. People who study do better than hodors, orks, or jackasses.


Spending all day with your nose in a book and never socializing freaks out your parents, offends your friends, and shrinks your world. And reading just to sound smarter than the Kardashians is stupid. But real learning improves our self image, gives us confidence, and trains us to make better decisions. Yeah, some people learn by experience. But we benefit from the experience of others. On the other hand, books aren’t enough. We also need the school of hard knocks.


Some people mock books. Some people admire books from afar. But wise people read and learn from them. Some people argue with everything they read. Some people believe everything they read. Some people read simply to steal quotes. But smart people grapple with, evaluate, and sift what they read.


“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Some books are for reference: skim them. Some books are for fun: read ‘em and forget ‘em. But some books deserve to be studied. I mean really studied! Read ‘em slowly and let the ideas sink in.


Sometimes people summarize books, lifting quotes here and there. That isn’t the best way to get what an author’s talking about. Distilled books are like watered down drinks. (Author’s note: “ouch!”)


Reading adds to our storehouse of information. Talking increases our ability to have a decent conversation. And writing paragraphs longer than texts, tweets, or a Facebook status sharpens our brains. Writing whole sentences forces us to organize our thoughts and think clearly. If you never write I hope you know how to think on your feet. If you never talk I hope your wit kicks in at just the right time. And if you never read I hope you can pretend to sound smarter than you really are.


History, poetry, math, science, ethics, logic, law, philosophy. If you’re ignorant on some subject you can always find a book that helps. Just like exercise is good for the body, reading is good for the brain. Studying forces us to focus, stay on topic, and return again and again to puzzling ideas, problems, and issues. Read until you get it. Put down your phone and pick up a book!

The Bacon original essay, “Of Studies”

Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. [Studies permeate and shape manners.] Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman


Thinking Fast and Slow cover

Those interested in recent developments in cognitive science, behavioral economics, and books by Nobel Prize winners will appreciate this book summary. I’ve boiled down a nearly 500 page book to sixteen pages! It was hard going since I’m a novice in these fields but I want to think clearly and that’s the theme of this book. Kahneman identifies over 40 biases we bring to our decisions that will trip us up if we’re not aware of them. (7/4/17 NOTE: Alert reader Luc found an error regarding the Peak End heuristic. It’s now been corrected. Thank you, Luc).

Click here for a free summary of Thinking Fast and Slow Book Summary

Free Book: The Quantum Couple: Marriage Myths Compared to Science Facts


Quantum Couple.coverThe Quantum Couple Click link for free ebook.

In 2008 I began to list ways science and marriage overlap. I planned to write a 60,000 word humor book entitled, The Quantum Couple: Marriage Myths Compared to Science Facts. My purpose was to help pre-married (and married?) couples view their marriage as a laboratory and themselves as scientists.

After 7400 words I pooped out. My enthusiasm for this project has waned and I have neither the time or inclination to finish. Instead of trashing the manuscript however I thought I’d make available what I’ve done and show this unfinished ebook the light of day.

From the back cover:

About the author

Erik Johnson is a marriage counselor and mediator specializing in family conflict resolution. He practices in Bellingham, Washington. His hobbies include writing, cartooning, and helping couples understand that a failure to grasp anti-matter and dark matter doesn’t really matter. But getting along with one’s partner does.

He invites couples to put on their white lab coats, fire up their energy particle accelerators (everyone has a super collider, right?), and enter the wild and wooly world of quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, and human relationships!

Research marriage bonds! See marriage is a laboratory! Split the atom!

Or at least pick up your socks.