An Odyssean Dilemma

A few weeks ago, I came across Dominic Cummings’ essay(1) on an ‘Odyssean’ Education. Immediately, I got impressed. Then I got even more impressed and shocked. I’ll explain you why.

First, what’s an ‘Odyssean’ Education?

Dominic Cummings explains that the Nobel-winning physicist Murray Gell Mann, in his book “The quark and the Jaguar” published in 1995, argues for a scientific and political need for an ‘Odyssean’ philosophy that can synthesise a) maths and the natural sciences, b) the social sciences, and c) the humanities and arts, into necessarily crude, trans-disciplinary, integrative thinking about complex systems.

‘[There is] the distinction (made famous by Nietzsche) between “Apollonians”, who favor logic, the analytical approach, and a dispassionate weighing of the evidence, and “Dionysians”’, who lean more toward intuition, synthesis, and passion… But some of us seem to belong to another category: the “Odysseans”, who combine the two predilections in their quest for connections among ideas… We need to celebrate the contribution of those who dare take what I call “a crude look at the whole”…

Building on this idea Cummings thinks that we need an ‘Odyssean’ education focused on humans’ biggest and most important problems and explaining connections between them, so that a substantial fraction of teenagers, students and adults might understand something of our biggest intellectual and practical problems, and be trained to take effective action. An Odyssean curriculum would give students (and politicians) some mathematical foundations and a map to navigate such complex subjects without requiring a deep specialist understanding of each element.

Cummings suggests an approach based on seven broad fields and some big goals:

  1. Maths and complexity. Solve the Millennium Problems, better prediction of complex networks.
  2. Energy and space. Ubiquitous cheap energy and opening space for science and commerce.
  3. Physics and computation. Exploration beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, better materials and computers, digital fabrication, and quantum computation.
  4. Biological engineering. Understanding the biological basis of personality and cognition, personalised medicine, and computational and synthetic biology.
  5. Mind and machine. Quantitative models of the mind and machine intelligence applications.
  6. The scientific method, education, training and decisions. Michael Nielsen’s vision of decentralised coordination of expertise and data-driven intelligence; more ambitious and scientifically tested personalised education; training and tools that measurably improve decisions (e.g. Agent Based Models).
  7. Political economy, philosophy, and avoiding catastrophes. Replacements for failed economic ideas and traditional political philosophies; and new institutions.

The essay includes an end-note with an Odyssean Reading List.

You may read Cumming’s own explanation here.

Why I got impressed

If it’s not the first time you land on this blog, I am sure you understand why I got impressed. The idea that we live in a world that it is too complex for each of us, individually, to understand; that a side effect of “progress” is an increasing complexity; and that the only way we can deal with such complexity is through our “collective” intelligence, is but the bread and butter of my own philosophy, and Mind the Post’s all-pervasive, underlying idea.

In Cummings’ words:

A growing fraction of the world has made a partial transition from a) small, relatively simple, hierarchical, primitive, zero-sum hunter-gatherer tribes based on superstition (almost total ignorance of complex systems), shared aims, personal exchange and widespread violence, to b) large, relatively complex, decentralised, technological, nonzero-sum market-based cultures based on science (increasingly accurate predictions and control in some fields), diverse aims, impersonal exchange, trade, private property, and (roughly) equal protection under the law. Humans have made transitions from numerology to mathematics, from astrology to astronomy, from alchemy to chemistry, from witchcraft to neuroscience, from tallies to quantum computation. However, while our ancestor chiefs understood bows, horses, and agriculture, our contemporary chiefs (and those in the media responsible for scrutiny of decisions) generally do not understand their equivalents, and are often less experienced in managing complex organisations than their predecessors.

The education of the majority even in rich countries is between awful and mediocre.

Generally, [decision-makers] are badly (or narrowly) educated and trained (even elite universities offer courses that are thought to prepare future political decision-makers but are clearly inadequate and in some ways damaging).

Most politicians, officials, and advisers operate with fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science (few MPs can answer even simple probability questions yet most are confident in their judgement), and little experience in well-managed complex organisations

The consequences are increasingly dangerous as markets, science and technology disrupt all
existing institutions and traditions, and enhance the dangerous potential of our evolved nature to
inflict huge physical destruction and to manipulate the feelings and ideas of many people

If you go have a look to Cummings’ Reading List and compare it with my own list of references, quotes and posts you will easily recognise common ground… Well, yes, maybe you have to be a bit Odyssean to realise it, but I am sure you are if you are reading this.

And here comes the plot twist.

Why did I get even more impressed and shocked?

Dominic Cummings became Campaign Director of Vote Leave upon the creation of the organisation in October 2015. He is credited with having created the official slogan “Take back control,” and with being the leading strategist of the campaign. In January 2016, before the referendum, The Economist described his arguments for euro-scepticism as “optimistic”. And in July 2017, Cummings stated that leaving the EU could go wrong and could end badly for Britain:

In some possible branches of the future leaving will be an error.

Dominic Cummings, BBC News

During the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analyticadata scandal, Cummings had to answer some questions and deny allegations of links between his Vote Leave campaign and Cambridge Analytica.

I will be very clear. I do not consider myself qualified to discuss the details of this story, or the reasons and implications behind Cummings’ position ans the sheer complexity of Brexit. But my questions are:

  • How could Cummings end up involved in such an inanity like Brexit? Is his Odyssean curriculum the cause?. Does it make sense? I mean, could we agree to disagree using a similar intellectual scaffolding?
  • Should we conclude that, all in all, a narrow-minded education is better than the enlightening Odyssean journey Cummings proposes? Is knowledge more dangerous than ignorance?
  • Is there a Cummings’ monster hiding inside me and I do not know it because IT has not had the opportunity to show up yet? Should I be worried?

I have no answers for these questions. That’s the reason I am in shock!


(1) Cummings, Dominic. “Some thoughts on education and political priorities.” Unpublished briefing note for the UK Govt, Department of Education (2013).

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons, Arnold Böcklin – Odysseus and Polyphemus


  1. Very interesting…

    I suppose, one of the problems of the Odyssean journey is that you can find some things you’d rather not.

    I should have a look at your references

  2. Hi Paco,
    Interesting post. Perhaps what’s behind your lasts questions is that using the same mindset and intellectual tools you don’t necessarily reach to the same conclusions. Don’t forget the emotional part of all of us…

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