Introduction

Anxieties are running high. There are demonstrations in cities across the Western world protesting about climate change, racism, inequality, political correctness, new deals for society, and also counter-demonstrations protesting high energy prices, law and order, freedom, and nationalism. Where is all this leading? While it is unwise for anyone to predict the future, we can be certain that new issues will arise and none of them will be solved through the current mode of political discourse. 

This book, How to Understand Everything, explains a new approach to making sense of what is going on. 

The quest to understand everything might sound overblown, and the first questions likely to pop into your head are, who is this author Tom Beakbane, and why should I spend time reading this book?

I have a particular perspective because of my interests and my job, which is branding and marketing communications. Think about it like this. Imagine you are at an Olympic soccer final between your national team and the worthy adversary, Brazil. The entire crowd is transfixed on where the ball is and the movements of each of the players. The noise is thunderous, and the mood of the crowd ebbs and flows following the momentum of the game. I happen to be at the same match, but my mind is wandering. I’m thinking about the logos on the jerseys and musing about the amount paid by the various companies to reach a deal. I am visualizing the business meetings and the backslapping that was undoubtedly involved. I’m also looking at the products the players and coaches are using and trying to figure out where they were manufactured and the technologies that make them possible. 

Personally, I prefer playing sports rather than watching them, and my mind is occupied with everything other than the outcome of the game. This is because I likely suffer from mild ADD and ADHD that, thankfully, when I was at school was never diagnosed and my teachers viewed me as just an inattentive and on occasion mischievous pupil. From an early age, rather than studying schoolwork, I liked observing people making things. For example, when bricklayers came to our house I would shyly watch them for hours. I’d watch my father build yachts and steam engines. As I grew up I found making things myself deeply satisfying, and so I made ties, suits, parachutes, rockets, model aeroplanes, an amplifier, clay pots, an aluminum chess set, a beehouse, a kayak, soy sauce, and malted barley. When I was a university student, I was a competent-enough cook so that one summer I made good money working as a sous-chef in a restaurant in Juan Les Pins on the Côte d’Azur. I also tried, and failed, to make money as a street artist in Paris. Another summer I worked as a machinist in an engineering facility in Philadelphia. As I enjoy making things and appreciate different technologies, I often learn the details about how my business clients run their enterprises. That means I like spending time with business owners, touring their facilities and asking questions about their operations. The result is that when I see a can of Labatt’s beer or Schweppes tonic water, or a Toyota car, or a Duracell battery, or a Gillette razor, or a Lindor chocolate, or a carabiner, or an intravenous drip, or hundreds of other products, I not only see the product but also I can picture how the components were sourced, how they were manufactured, and how they were shipped. 

Because I studied biochemistry and neurophysiology at university, I often think about what is going on in the minds of the soccer fans, half of whom will end up happy at the final whistle, and the other half unhappy. I ask myself, why is that? How are everyone’s eyes tracking the ball so perfectly? Why does everyone’s mood change in the half-second it takes for the kick to go this side or that of the crossbar? What exactly is happening in our brain? 

And so, if we met in a bar after the match and you commented on the winning goal, I wouldn’t know much about it. I might be daydreaming about the mechanisms at work in my own brain and how this developed from the chance collision between a sperm and an egg. You would probably sidle off and find someone more engaging to talk to. 

During the COVID-19 lockdown I observed what was happening in the public arena and became irritated that the media focused on the ball being kicked around with little insight about what was happening at deeper levels of psychology and human interactions. The implications are worrying. To my mind, if people are paying attention only to who is winning the game, inevitably half the supporters will end up disappointed because of circumstances such as shortsighted politicians, the power of online communication, and academic theories that are disconnected from reality, and there will be consequences that are a complete surprise – possibly catastrophic. 

This book will describe a way of looking at the world known as consilience that has become possible because different domains of human knowledge have grown together. Consilience requires that you see beyond the labels we attach to things. It doesn’t matter whether some people are called Americans and others British, or that we label anxiety about society as climate change or that we brand some things as “scientific” and other things as “religious.” I am going to ask you to join me on a multidisciplinary adventure that, if you stick with me, could well change how you think about everything.

Where did the idea for consilience come from? It came from the same fellow who invented the word scientist: William Whewell. He was an intellectual giant, a polymath, a poet, and mathematician of the first order. He coined the word consilience in 1840, but the word has since been largely forgotten because his ideas were not as appealing and easy to grasp as ideas of other thinkers.

This book explains that consilience has become possible through the insights and hard work of numerous intellectuals in many different disciplines. I mention many of them by name, but there are also many ideas I appreciate deeply and integrate into my narrative, without acknowledging their source. 

I have spent tens of thousands of hours reading books, listening to podcasts, glancing through scientific journals, and meeting inspiring individuals. I am not a scientist, a researcher, or an intellectual; however, I have always made a point of trying to understand the utility of ideas and how complex things work. My situation is somewhat different to the people who have been working on the frontlines of research in that I feel no loyalty to a particular discipline, and so I can pick and choose ideas as necessary without conforming to the normal codes of academic decorum. 

Also I have been running my own business since age 29 and don’t have a boss, which means I am not stifled by the need to be politically correct. I speak the truth as I see it. In this book I will be stating some uncomfortable insights about human behavior, and so please be prepared for perspectives that are not self-affirming. 

Come and join me on an intellectual journey. Afterward, you’ll better understand the things we probably both care about: our wellbeing, our countries, our families, and future generations. You’ll be able to discuss current issues with greater confidence and, if you wish, join those who are working toward changing the game.