Category Archives: philosophy

What to remember, what to forget?

Humans are creatures with a gigantic memory. The evolution of the written word made it possible to store things outside our brains, and hence more safely for very long periods of time. This gradual accumulation has resulted in a memory too large for any single human to remember or grasp. Only collectively do we know a lot.

Sooner or later, the question of what is important and worth passing on, and what can be neglected or lost in the sands of time would have cropped up. This is because even external storage of memory is not costless. Different civilizations came up with different answers to this question. Indians seemed to have thought that lessons from history are more important than history itself, and thus have left us with very little solid historical data, which is why the huge controversies surrounding the ‘construction’ of ancient India. Europeans were more meticulous, and have always had a good tradition of storing away bits of information from life thousands of years ago.

But why is it important to remember? Goethe took a shot at this question, and said

He who cannot draw on 3000 years is living hand to mouth.

which is simply another way of stating what Newton said:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The biggest advantage humans have over other living creatures is our capacity to build cultures, and it is on the basis of this culture that we can ‘move ahead’ without (literally!) reinventing the wheel every generation. This is why we have schools, so that we can remember something, and social institutions, so that something else can do the remembering for us.

But this memory can as easily be a disadvantage in many ways: First, not everyone who draws on 3000 years can rise above it to think for themselves. Knowing too much may kill creativity and the capacity to face a changing world. Second, remembering everything may preclude the possibility of forgiveness and healing. This is what is happening in India and America after 2002 and 2001 respectively. The intention is to ‘never forget what happened’ and the very memory breeds anger and hatred.

Thus, some people try and make a case that forgetfulness is as important to humanity as is remembrance. Thus, even when one is saddened by the news that Muslims in Gujarat are voting for Modi in the name of restoring normalcy,  one understands why it is happening. Shiv Vishwanathan believes that people are forgetting what happened due to Modi simply because all of today’s stories are written in the language of economics, which fails to capture the evil Modi represents. In fact, he is made to look like someone who has made Gujarat great if one only looks at the economy side of things. Same with the Bhopal gas tragedy. ‘Victims’ were converted to ‘patients’ and then to ‘vagrants’, simply by changing the language in which memory was constructed.

While this interpretation is undoubtedly true, one must also understand that even if the language changes, the want for people to restore normalcy to their lives will never go away, and that bearing a burden as heavy as the Gujarat riots maybe too much for most.

This brings us to today’s time. Semiconductor and magnetic memories have become so accessible and cheap that I believe that the 21st century will be a watershed for humanity: It is the time from which we forget practically nothing. Forever. The principle of important vs. unimportant memories simply no longer has any relevance. People are clicking photos using their phones and their cameras; recording voices and songs; recording every small detail of their lives on Facebook and blogs. It is no longer sufficient to experience something beautiful (or trivial for that matter), but to capture/record it from every angle and tweet about it, paste it on your wall and upload to Flickr or Picasa. The 21st century is the veritable historian’s nightmare: with nothing forgotten, he has to sift through immense data to try and make any sense of the world he will inherit from us. Undoubtedly, the day is not far when writing history will need the assistance of machines.

The demons of memory will haunt us now more than ever before in history. The issue is that it is not experience that makes us wise, but what we learn from experience. This requires a certain distance from what we experience, a kind of ‘greying out’ or ‘blurring out’ which is no longer possible as our entire lives are recorded in HD quality video. We have become ‘knowledge brokers’, but to rise above mere knowledge and pass onto posterity real lessons of history might no longer be possible.

Does everything really matter? If yes, does it matter to everyone around us, to the rest of the world? Just like Calvin says:

I’ll bet future civilizations find out more about us than we’d like them to know.

Metaphysics of Cooking

Before looking at cooking itself, one must look at the ultimate aim of cooking — eating. Eating is one of those rare things that is both spiritual and material at the same time. A well fed person is at peace with himself and the universe, overflowing with ‘the milk of human kindness’, so to speak. He is suddenly very generous and jovial, and feels a strange oneness with the universe. This lasts, of course, until he begins to feel hungry again. A perfect meal is a close approximation to the ideal state of moksha.

If moksha can be attained, if only for a brief while, by eating, then obviously cooking is the path leading toward it. It is very easy to take cooking for granted, since it happens so often all around you in all shapes, colors, smells and tastes. On a gross material plane, cooking implies both the knowledge of storing food and the creation and control of fire. The former is common to many living beings, but the latter seems to be unique to humans alone. Therefore, the very fact that we can cook puts us at a very advanced level of cultural development. Cooking at any level of sophistication implies the knowledge of what is ‘cookable’, and at what time of the year, and how to cook it — some foods are actually poisonous unless cooked properly. Thus, purely from a materialist perspective, cooking is dependent on the knowledge of plants, animals, seasons and how to access, control, harvest or adjust to them. This, as should be obvious, represents a huge body of knowledge passed on almost unconsciously from generation to generation.

But then, cooking has not purely been about survival. It is only a minority of low-lives that eat (and therefore cook) to live. Even more so than eating, cooking is a celebration, an act of creation, and an expectation. Cooking not only creates food, but also an atmosphere, emotions and modes of thinking, and in turn is influenced by them. A depressed person can only produce depressing food in the long run. Spices used reflect the personality of the society as a whole. It is not a coincidence that spicy food and emotional Indians go together. A person that I know, who has lived for quite some time in the US, mentioned once that ‘Indians kill the taste of meat by adding spices to it’, meaning that we never really taste the meat itself, but mostly how it is flavored. It is only a boring utilitarian view that can say that what is meant to be tasted is the meat itself. This is the view that can produce something like a rare steak. Fortunately, Indians will never be partial to this view, and my food will be ‘killed’ by spices for as long as I live.

What assumptions does one cook under? what view of the person who eats what is cooked is taken? Cooking, though mostly performed by a single person, is rarely meant for that person alone. However, the preparation must be appealing at first to the cook itself, and it is assumed that the persons who are being cooked for will find it similarly appealing. You do not go asking for everyone’s opinion during cooking, but only afterward. Thus, there is always assumed a continuity, a oneness between the cook and the eaters. It is expected there will be minor differences, but never major ones. One of the best ways to insult or show displeasure toward the cook (for any reason) is to complain loudly and/or refuse to eat, like all our movies and serials show us. The breaking of a social or emotional bond is thus best symbolized by the drama at the dinner table. Similarly, it is because we assume a continuity that we only ask strangers as to their culinary preferences before the preparation of a meal.

Cooking and consumption of its products remind us that the social universe is dominated by non-textual, non-lingual signs. Displeasure, happiness, amity, love, irritation can be so easily communicated without even saying a single word or writing elaborate theses or love letters. Food, again, is not just the mixing of specified ingredients, but also the physical manifestation of a specific mental and spiritual disposition. This is the reason why you can only do that much by following a recipe book. The ‘extra’ that every cook hopes for does not reside in any recipe read or listened to.

Both cooking and eating normally begin with prayers, which reminds us repeatedly of what assumptions go into cooking — thank the farmer, the rains, the earth, all which take the form of God in prayer. In this sense, cooking is also an acknowledgement of our dependence, mostly on things over which we have no control, and thus for whose suitable working we must be thankful. Cooking can also be an instrument of domination, and is particularly useful over those who go soft-headed after a great meal. It is only those who do not realize the power of cooking who can condemn it as a symbol of subjugation, just like they condemn motherhood or anything that applies to a certain gender, normally female.

Cooking, performed in an appropriate amount, is therefore as much a pleasure as is eating, and the possibility of creating not just something that tastes good, but also influencing individual behavior and by implication the mood of those around those individuals also puts a certain responsibility and a duty on the cook. Those who eat implicitly assume that those who cook will not poison their stomachs or their minds.

The greatest appreciation of a cook’s work does not lie in enthusiastic applause, but in a contented silence which seems to say ‘Everything is perfect. I am at peace. I am in heaven’. That cooks around the world can bring about this state of mind, rather than body, on a regular basis is something remarkable, and a true hallmark of a civilized people, regardless of their being rich, poor, urban, rural or tribal.

Philosophy and the Common Person

In a recent sermon at Church, the priest was discussing the concept of resurrection, which is supposed to be one of the central bases of Christian faith. There was apparently a debate between our own church-goers as to the validity of resurrection and therefore he called up a set of people, divided into two groups, each trying to argue why resurrection is valid or not. Thankfully, it was a short debate, since neither group had the philosophical skills nor the oratorial skills to interest me. Obviously, nothing came out of this debate other than a huge waste of time – Something debated for two thousand years is unlikely to settled by six minutes of incoherent arguments.

One wonders why this particular issue is controversial, and not the issue of whether beer or whisky is served in heaven. Each one of us has the same insight into either problem, and atleast the latter is more relatable and one can argue from experience why beer or whisky is more divine. While debating such trivialities is definitely good intellectual exercise to keep the gray matter in shape, but can hardly be the carrier of any message of use to the people attending Church.

Each of us lives in two worlds, the imagined world of possibilities and potentialities and the lived world. Depending on one’s inclinations and imagination, one is as real as the other. Heaven, Rebirth, Resurrection, all these belong to the former, and beer and whisky to the latter. Priests, Philosophers and miscellaneous IISc junta normally spend most of their time in the former, whereas those engaged in productive work predominantly reside in the lived world of rude shopkeepers, interminable queues and overcrowded buses. One set tries to find dynamical patterns in the Monsoon, whereas the other gets drenched and muddy due to it.

This being the case, it is hardly surprising that people tend to nod off when the priest talks about the Nicean council and eschatology, and observation of ritual is an excuse to socialise than to learn something useful. Philosophy is useful, in that it gives us a broad understanding of and the limits of the way of life that we pursue. However, its methods to try and reach useful conclusions are normally not interesting to anyone. It may make for dazzling sermons, but poor party gossip. What really matters is what understanding one gains from it, and its applicability in everyday life.

The issue is that Philosophy tries to reach at general, immutable principles guiding the universe and human nature. However, everyday life is exactly the opposite — particular (to an individual, community,…) and contingent. Therefore, while the question of resurrection and the implied final judgement may dissuade most believers from performing blatantly ‘sinful’ acts, it cannot tell them whether it is ethical to bargain with a street vendor or travel ticketless in a bus. One just cannot be debating the ethical merit of one’s position when  action is required right now, right here.

It is therefore not surprising when we see the popularity of new age gurus rising. These people are giving their followers exactly what they are looking for — guidance about their teenage child, workplace feud or love interest. The traditional stress on ritual and metaphysics almost pushes people toward Sri Sri and their ilk. What we need is a philosophy for life in this world, not for after death in another world.

Moral stories in the age of computers

All of us have been brought up listening of reading some or the other kind of moral stories –  Panchatantra, Aesop’s fables, Bible stories and so on. They are part of our standard training while learning to live in the world. All moral stories are motivated by some ultimate aim of human life, though these are never explicit or overshadowed by talking animals and trees. Our morals do not develop in a vacuum – they are shaped strongly by our socio-cultural and geographical locations, and moral stories are among the more effective means towards our ‘shaping’. Not only that, like everything else in the world, they evolve, though not necessarily in the Darwinian sense of the word. Aristotle and Plato may have condoned slavery, but not Adam Smith and his ilk. Even then, considering that Aesop’s fables and the Bible provide relevant advice even to this day, there seem to be some things that are eternal, like numbers.

From where do we derive our ethical codes? The most abundant source is of course our own history. When viewed from a certain lens (which comes from a certain metaphysical position about man and his relationship with other humans and the rest of the universe), history can give us all the lessons we need. Which is why it is said that people who forget history are condemned to repeat it – not that we have progressed linearly from being barbarians to civilized people, it is just that we are animals with an enormous memory, most of it outside our heads and in books, and preservation or changing of such a legacy necessarily requires engagement with it. Therefore, ethics and epistemology have always gone hand in hand.

Our times are unique from any other in history simply due to the predominance of science in determining what we know – Ancient Greeks or Indians would do physics and metaphysics simultaneously without necessarily putting one or the other on a pedestal. Scientific method and mystical revelation were both valid ways at getting to the truth. Nowadays, of course, the second would hardly be considered a valid method for getting at anything at all, let alone the truth. Hard to say whether this is good or bad – evolution does not seem to have a sense of morality.

The Newtonian and Darwinian revolutions have had important implications for the modes of moral story telling: First, they remove the notion of an ultimate purpose from our vocabulary. Newton’s ideal particles and forces acting on them removed any ideas of the purpose of the universe, and the correspondence between particle<->force of Newton and Darwin’s phenotype<->natural selection is straightforward. Thus, biology or life itself lost any notion of ultimate purpose. Economists extended it to humans, and we get a human<->pain/pleasure kind of model of ourselves (pain/pleasure is now cost/benefit, of course). All in all, there are some kind of ‘particles’ and some ‘forces’ acting on them, and these explain everything from movement of planets to why we fall in love.

Secondly, history is partially or wholly out of the picture – at any given instant, given a ‘particle’ and a ‘force’ acting on it, we can predict what will happen in the next instant, without any appeal to its history (or so is the claim). Biology and Economics use history, but only to the extent to claim that their subject matter consists of random events in history, which therefore cannot be subsumed into physics.

If life has no ultimate purpose, or to put it in Aristotle’s language, no final cause, and is completely driven by the efficient cause of cost/benefit calculations, then why do we need morals? And how can one justify moral stories any longer?

The person of today no longer sees himself as a person whose position in life is set by historical forces or karma, depending on your inclination, but as an active agent who shapes history. Thus, while the past may be important, the future is much more so. He wants to hear stories about the future, not about the past.

This is exactly where computers come in. If we accept a particle<->force model for ourselves, then we can always construct a future scenario based on certain values for both particles and forces. We can take a peek into the future and include that into our cost-benefit calculations (using discount rates and Net Present Value etc etc.,). Be it climate, the economy or the environment, what everyone wants to know are projections, not into the past, but the future. The computation of fairytales about the future may be difficult, but not impossible, what with all the supercomputers everybody seems to be in a race to build.

The notion of a final cause is somewhat peculiar – it is the only one which is explained in terms of its effect. If I have a watch and ask why it is ticking, I can give a straightforward efficient cause saying because of the gear mechanisms. On the other hand, If I ask why are the gear mechanisms working the way they do, I can only answer by saying to make the clock tick – by its own effect. Thus, if we see the future a computer simulates and change our behavior, we have our final cause back again – we can say to increase future benefit, we change our present way of life. The effect determines the cause.

Corporations, Countries, Communities are faced with the inevitable choice of using a computer to dictate their moral stance. However, one can always question the conception of a human being (or other life for that matter) as doing cost benefit calculations as their ultimate goal. If we need a more textured model of a human, writing an algorithm for it remains an impossibility to this day.

For example, one can argue that the ultimate pupose of life is to live in harmony with nature or that we should ‘manage’ nature sustainably. The former does not need (indeed, does not have at present) a computer model, whereas the other does. One is within the reach of every person, the latter is only accessible to a technological high-priesthood. Which should we choose? at a future time, which one will we be forced to choose?

Therefore, in this post-Darwinian world, can we imagine an ultimate purpose for ourselves that will enable us to act on our own, or will we be guided by supercomputers simulating caricatures of ourselves? Time will tell.

The Subject-Object distinction

A basic ontological position that is taken up in the quest for knowledge is that of  Subject and Object. The Subject is the Observer, the Object the Observed, and there has to be a definite distinction between both. Once this is setup, the observer uses some means of acquiring knowledge about the observed, be it meditation, divine revelation or the new-fangled thing called the scientific method. The knowledge acquired about the Object, through a means that is independent of the Subject is thus ‘objective knowledge’. This kind of knowledge is supposed to reflect reality as it truly is, without contamination by the biases of the observer.

It is easy to see why the scientific method of repeated observation and experimentation is the preferred mode knowledge acquisition – God apparently reveals to people of every religion that theirs is the true religion or that theirs is the superior religion, and obviously not everyone can be right, i.e, there is some ‘contamination’. Of course, the previous statement implicity assumes that there is actually a single reality, but without that assumption, one falls into the critical theory mire, which to me is the worse of the two alternatives. Thus, the scientific method, atleast in theory, can be relied upon to produce subject independent knowledge about some object.

The crucial thing, again, is the fact that we must be able to provide a clear separation between the observer and the observed for this to work. Without this separation, the scientific method is as good as divine revelation. There are quite a few objects that are amenable to this separation – the solar system, atoms, molecules, plants, animals, ice-cream, among other things. However, there are certain objects that do not allow such a distinction (Of course, you cannot call it an object anymore, but Im retaining the nomenclature and discarding the ontological connotation).

For example, the stock market – If someone gives you ‘objective knowledge’ that there is a good chance of the stock market crashing and you pass on that information and you and your friends selling all your holdings triggering a crash, there is absolutely no way of telling whether the crash would have happened if you did not know that it would happen. Another example would be the ‘study of the Self’ – If you figure out through psychoanalysis or meditation or something else that ‘humans are essentially xyz’, and you begin to see yourself acting (or trying to act) in that manner, it is difficult to gauge whether behavior follows the statement or vice versa. This is not to say that humans are not xyz, but whether they are only xyz. If someone subscribes to the Freudian prescription of  the mating instinct dominating our actions or the Christian one that Man is incomplete without God’s grace, and tries to interpret his everyday action through such a framework, then he is likely to see that everything ‘fits’. But it is evident that there is no way that this is objective knowledge.

The previous paragraphs can be considered as a very short summary J. Krishnamurti’s line of thinking – that there exist situations where the subject-object distinction does not hold and thus statments about objectivity or subjectivity make no sense. The critical theorists in addressing the same issue come to the conclusion that everything is subjective – made famous by the statment ‘ Death of the Author’, but the issue to me cannot be interpreted from the subject-object perspective – the negation of objectivity need not only be subjectivity but also lack of both.

Take the example of a drama – one may imagine that there is a clear distinction here between the observer and the observed. But if one takes another look, the drama is written and produced keeping the audience in mind, for otherwise there is no point in it being performed, and thus the audience is also part of the play – the observer is also the observed. The drama, as it unfolds, is a dialogue between the performers and the audience and can thus be interpreted only as a whole. A ‘flop’ is one which fails to bring about this unity, with the dramatist complaining about how backward his audiences are. The drama is simply not situated within the correct context, which alienates the audience from the drama.

Similar questions arise in other places as well – can historical records and religious texts be interpreted by an observer who is not also the observed ? In India, the interpretation of history is a huge controversy. But neither the Hindutva glorification of the spiritual nor the Marxist focus on the material can do justice, since neither ‘lives’ the history – it is an exercise in textual interpretation. The only true history can come from someone who actually lives it. Similarly, atheists/rationalists tearing apart religious texts serves little more than angering others.

Another interesting place to look at is music. It is well known that most classical music is also religious music – some of the finest music has been in the praise of God (regardless of definition). Is is possible to appreciate Handel or Tyagaraja without sharing the intense experience of divinity (again, regardless of how you define divinity) that lead to the actual creation of the music ? Bland technical music criticism leads to a ‘fossilization’ of the music just as textual criticism of religion only shows a religion that is ‘dead’ – both lead to unnatural and normally harmful ideas of  ‘purity’ which do not allow any evolution of the object under scrutiny. A true purist will try and maintain continuity rather than stasis – not hinder evolution, but participate in deciding its direction.

This question is more important now than ever, given that natural scientists and engineers are called to take on the burden of examining and interpreting phenomena that are complex beyond comparison to the objects of study which they initially started off with, which decided their methodology. Unless we evolve new ways to understand reality, all we will be doing is tuning zillions of parameters, looking for an Objective Model of the World.

On ends and means, rights and duties

A quite generic model of a human is one who has certain ends that he wants to pursue (gaadi-bungalow, moksha, etc.,), and is looking for means to achieve these ends. Given this, your preferred ends are finally governed by your ethical, moral and metaphysical outlook, and the normal means are politics, economics and religion. For example, if national service is what interests you, you might want to look at politics (replace national with self, and still the same means holds. Politics is such an adaptive thing!). If you wish a comfortable life, you look to the market to sell your goods/services/labor to make money. A normal person will have many such ends, and we end up doing politics, economics and religion. Now, if we are to accept the axiom that each person must be free to pursue any end that she so wishes, the as societal beings, we must come up with a way to ensure that this axiom holds, atleast theoretically.

And thus we come to the concept of a State. Whether it materialized due a ‘social contract’ or as a necessity in a Hobbsean society, the main function of a State is to ensure the above axiom holds. Thus, the State has powers of coercion over its citizens, which is willingly given to it by the citizens themselves (who are given a fancy name: ‘polity’) to ensure that each can lead a fulfilling life. Why this is necessary has been written about before.

There cannot be a common set of ends for all, since each person is unique (not everyone wants the same brand/color of motor vehicles!). There are, in any sufficiently organized society, limited number of means, and they are normally classified as those that do not harm others, and those that do. Since we want each person to acheive whatever he wants to, provided he does not hurt anyone, each person is assumed to have a set of ‘rights’. There are some negative rights (‘right against something’, ‘something’ can be being cheated, murdered, discriminated, etc.,) and positive rights (‘right to something’, ‘something’ can be a good education, employment, etc.,). There have been arguments as to whether the State much only ensure negative or positive or both kind of rights, but that is a different story altogether. Get this if you want to dive into this stuff.

The Indian State is no different, and certain rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. Violation of these can be referred directly to the Supreme Court, without going through any lower courts. We also have certain duties, but these are not enforcable and citizens are ‘morally obligated’ to perform them. This is not the case with other countries, with Switzerland having compulsory military service for all male citizens.

In all political activity seen nowadays, the main cry is to demand for certain rights, whereas duties are never mentioned. Bangalore demands a positive right to water, but Bangaloreans have absolutely no interest even in a basic duty such as voting. The reason for this is a conception of humans as ‘possessive individualists‘, which simply says that people have to make money from their (god-given, or acquired?) skills, and owe nothing to society. Whether it be Dalit, Brahmin, tribal or industrialist, the political scene is full with clamor for rights, new rights, and redressal for their violation. Everybody wants good food at the mess, but nobody (including myself!) wants anything to do with how it runs. It should simply run itself, somehow.

Another approach is to say our duty is to pay tax and obey laws, the rest is the duty of the State. This has worked well in the Scandinavian countries, but in a country as vast and heterogenous as India, this amounts almost to escapism – no State of reasonable size can ever perform the duties of a billion people. The gradual withdrawal from society to ‘attain realization’ amounts to saying moksha can be pursued without the fulfillment of dharma. It is in this sense that modern economics and liberalism have been a liberating force: they have given theoretical justification for people to be liberated from the ‘shackles’ of dharma. Religions were the traditional body of authority which dictated the duties of an individual, but no longer wield the same influence as before.

Asceticism or the theory of karma cannot justify the non-performance of dharma. Renunciation, as taught by Buddha, Mahavira or Sankara, which involves a complete removal of oneself from society to attain moksha has found rebuttals by the actions of reformers like Basavanna, Rammohun Roy, Gokhale, Vivekananda and Gandhi. Even Buddhism requires of enlightened individuals to alleviate suffering by removal of ignorance, which is what Buddhism considers the root of suffering. While this purely mental view of human suffering may not be correct, but it is aleast something. The new age philosophers/activists, especially Gandhi, believed that only through active participation in civic duty can one harmonise artha, kama, dharma and moksha. Gandhi himself, though a continuous seeker of moksha (which he called Truth as well), used the instrument of politics to achieve this end. Of course, his idea of politics which was to uplift the underprivileged, unlike present day netas.

And thus from Gandhi comes the most clarifying present day articulation of what one’s dharma should be in this day and age:

I will give you a talisman. ‘Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and most helpless person whom you have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore him the control over his life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and starving millions?’ Then you will find your doubts and self melting away.