Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Minimalist and Maximalist thinking

This is yet another post in my informal series contrasting between the East and the West, in their ways of thinking. Within the context of India, this informal series tries to clarify my understanding of the oft-cited chasm between (Westernized) India and (indigenous) Bharat.

Before I start, some usual disclaimers:
  1. None of my writings are meant to "invalidate" or "illegitimize" either the West or the East. Sure, there will be scholarly and objective criticisms about some world view being applied to solve some problem. But this does not mean that I reject one world view in favour of another. 
  2. All these posts are of a scholarly intent (including those where I appear to rant) -- the idea behind these posts is to provoke thought and gain better understanding. These posts do not represent any form of cultural or political activism or agenda. 
As noted in my previous posts, Western thought is largely reductionist in its approach, and is built upon the concept of a particle as the building block of physical reality. In contrast, Eastern thought (thought processes that are found outside of formal education systems in the East) is holistic in its approach, viewing "systems" as fundamental building blocks. 

This is not to say that the West does not recognize systems, or that the East does not recognize particles. The contrast is in the way the respective epistemological foundations are built -- that is, in our approach towards organization of knowledge and thought. 

Which is why for example, where the West thinks in terms of truth, falsity and the law of excluded middle, the East thinks in terms of systemic fitness (incorrectly interpreted in the West as "fuzzy" notions of truth).

Reductionist thinking is "minimalist" in its approach. It seeks to reduce a complex observation to its bare essentials, and is exemplified by the notion of Occam's razor. Foundations of such thought processes may be found in Plato's philosophy of Essentialism. Although, there are lot of debates around essentialism, the core idea that every entity can be characterized by discovering its latent "true nature" (or -ness), still drives most reductionist approaches to thought. 

As stated before, it is not that essentialist thinking does not exist in the East. The concept of "Tattva" comes close. But by and large, this concept has not been the primary driver for the way the Eastern mind has tried to approach problems and gain understanding. 

Minimalism has a number of interesting properties. A minimalist framework is "exclusive" by design. Here, everything is by default rejected, unless they can be accepted (or entailed by a logical chain) by the ground truths. 

Minimalism is closely related to the "closed-word assumption (CWA)" which can be defined as "ignorance as falsity." Hence, what we do not know to be true, is considered false by default (unless, of course, it can be refuted). 

It is important to note that minimalism is not the same as the CWA. In scientific inquiry for example, an assertion that cannot be proven to be true, is considered an open conjecture. An assertion is considered false only if it can be proven to be false. 

But here, I'm talking about the general, social approach towards thought that is practised by lay persons -- that is driven by minimalism, but which generally fails to acknowledge and respect nuances like the above. This ends up reducing minimalism to closed-world reasoning. 

Minimalist thinking is also called as "least fixed-points" thinking. The ground truths or the "axioms" on which thought progresses need to be minimalist to begin with. If we have to describe a universe of discourse, a minimalist axiomatic framework needs to have a set of axioms that are as less in number as possible, and are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive to describe the universe of discourse. 

A natural consequence of this when applied to human reasoning is that the "self" is considered the axiomatic basis for all cognition. As Maslow's hierarchy posits, the ultimate goal for man is "self actualization." 

The minimalist world view, begins from the self and its primitive, immediate needs (primary narcissism), and expands to reach out to the universe. 

Holistic thinking on the other hand, is "maximalist" in its approach. It considers a "system" as the building block of thought. A system is characterized by "dynamics." Holistic thinking considers the universe to be built from an fundamental "dynamic" (vibration, consciousness, etc.) and entities as merely end points or extremal states of the dynamics. 

Thus, the Yin and Yang or the Purusha and Prakriti are not disparate entities that are interacting to form the universe. They are merely extremal end points of the fundamental "consciousness" (Brahman) that is the universe. 

In maximalist thought, an individual's self is considered to be just a part of the whole and not as an axiomatic basis from which we look outside into the universe. 
Anything that has a self is an "aware" and "conscious" part of the whole. But consciousness can have different levels of "fitness" or "awareness," which describes the extent to which the self considers itself as part of the whole. A completely non-conscious entity would consider itself (if it can consider itself) completely separated from the whole, while a being at a higher level of "fitness" of consciousness sees itself to be closer -- or even the same -- as the whole. 

While the ultimate aim of the self in minimalist thought is self-actualization, the ultimate aim of the self in maximalist thought is moksha -- or self-awareness and liberation from all forms of ignorance and a state of oneness of the self with the universe. 

One might argue and it might indeed be the case that self-actualization and moksha are one and the same. A person who has reached moksha would likely be observable as a self-actualizing being. The two ideals may indeed be the same -- just that it is approached from different directions, or the paradigmatic perspectives are vastly different.

While minimalist thought seeks solutions to problems (which can be shown to be theoretically the same as "deciding" on an assertion -- or establishing its truth or falsity), maximalist thought seeks to establish harmony among the several variables that form the collective.

Solving a problem and establishing harmony have different characteristics. The former is a "convergent" and reductive process. We need to converge to the one solution that decides our question one way or the other. Establishing harmony on the other hand, is a divergent process. Given a system of variables and interactions, there could be several ways in which harmony can be established -- each with their own "fitness" levels. 

The tool for the minimalist thinker is cogitation, while the tool for the maximalist thinker is meditation.
Cogitation pertains to adopting principles of logical reasoning, and applying them in a systematic fashion starting from the axioms, till a solution is reached. Meditation pertains to letting go of all thought and emotions and become a dispassionate observer, in order to see the holistic big picture emerging from the disparate interactions. 

A minimalist thought process may be considered to be a "linear" chain connecting axioms to conclusions (although the process itself need not be linear). On the other hand, a maximalist intervention into a system usually involves several independent and concurrent entailments happening in different parts of the system, so that they collectively result in a better state of harmony. 

It is sometimes incorrectly stated that the Eastern reasoning is "circular" since it does not follow a single linear chain of entailments. This is a misnomer, and also, "circular reasoning" means something very different. Circular reasoning means to "beg the question" or try to use the assertion itself as an axiom, resulting in a non-wellfounded (but consistent) entailment. 

Holistic or maximalist thinking is not circular -- it is perhaps better characterized as "concurrent". It comprises of following several entailment chains concurrently, looking for an emergent state of harmony.

"The wisdom of crowds" is a practical example of maximalist thought and emergent harmony (or insight, in this case).

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The psychology of good governance

One of the primary challenges of governance is to contend with the concept of "ownership" of resources in a population. The challenge becomes acute when resources are scarce. But even when resources are not scarce, managing ownership is always a challenging task.

Ownership has several dimensions to it. It is not just about privileges over something. Ownership is just as much about responsibility, accountability and even identity. The concept becomes even more complex when having to manage issues of joint ownership or public ownership. Not all elements of ownership provide the same levels of rational incentives to its members, because of which, managing joint ownership is replete with complications like the Prisoners' dilemma, Tragedy of the commons, Conflicts of interest (Bach or Stravinsky), NIMBY, etc.

The concept of ownership is pretty unique to the human species. Management of ownership is what makes human societies "civilized" compared to the jungle.

The jungle does not understand the concept of ownership. While some animals are "territorial" by nature, this is still not the same as claiming ownership. Ownership is much more involved and deep in terms of commitment, than the territoriality of say, wild cats. Ownership is driven by consciously explicated, codified laws, while instincts are not.

Managing ownership is critical towards creating compassionate and just systems. A democratic republic for example, is owned by every citizen, who enjoys fundamental rights and are expected to perform fundamental duties. Ownership itself goes beyond rights and duties -- and is inculcated in the form of a national identity and having citizens identify themselves with the republic as patriots.

Managing ownership is indeed very critical to bring a society out of anarchy or the jungle law.

However, ownership has a dark side to it too, which can make it even more insidious and even more brutal than the jungle.

The concept of ownership is central to notions of slavery and bonded, indentured and forced labour. Ownership concerns have also been central to the several bloody conquests, oppression and exploitation that have been the bane of the history of humanity.

When people, communities or entire nations become objects of ownership and are treated like the property of a private, vested interest, "civilization" becomes far worse than the jungle.

I'm reminded of this story from the Readers' Digest that I'd read several years ago. A group of hikers get lost in the jungles (before the days of the GPS) and are wandering around for several days, surviving in the wild. After a few days of hiking, they come across a fence on which they see a board saying:
"Warning! Private property! Trespassers will be shot! Survivors will be shot again!" (Image Source: Google)
Seeing this, they exclaim, "Ah! Civilization, at last!!"

The dark side of ownership that was in vogue at that time, is also what prompted Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, to say, "I think it would be a good idea!"


As always, I'm interested in how to distinguish between the benign "civilized" form of ownership and its darker variety? What is a model that can explain the formation of these kinds of approaches to ownership?

So, here is my theory, rooted in cognitive psychology. 

One of the primary challenges of life, is survival. And survival is all about staying alive in an uncertain environment and facing an uncertain future. 

Life has evolved two broad strategies for tackling the survival problem in animals, and encodes either or both of them as instincts. 

The two basic survival instincts are: the territorial instinct and the herding instinct

The "territorial" instinct tries to establish one's dominance or will over what one considers their "territory." This way, uncertainty from the territory is much lesser as compared against the rest of the world. The territory is one's dominion or backyard, where one can afford to relax and let down their guards. 

In contrast, the "herding" instinct tries to find safety in numbers. The herding instinct makes the animal to want to "belong" to a herd and be accepted by the herd. The herd as a whole is much more powerful and assertive than its individual members, thus reducing survival crises to some extent. 

Usually, stronger animals like tigers and other wild cats are territorial, while weaker animals like deer and cattle are characterized by their herding instinct. However, this distinction is not sharp. Elephants for example, which are not weak, tend to favour herding over territoriality.

Now, my theory of civilized versus oppressive forms of ownership has to do with the above survival instincts. 

When territorial creatures are taught the concept of ownership, they tend to form systems of oppressive ownership; while when creatures who are driven by the herding instinct are taught about ownership, they tend to create benign or civilized forms of ownership systems. 

It is easy to see why I assert the above. 

Territoriality is all about exclusivity and dominance. When exclusivity and dominance is codified into law, it legitimises a number of oppressive and exploitative practices, in the name of security or integrity or some such reason. 

Herding is all about belonging and co-habitation. Herding by itself does not recognize or respect personal boundaries or property. However, if the concept of ownership and property is introduced into a herd in such a way that the core principles of the herd are not compromised, then the herd would implement ownership in a way that is inclusive, respectful (of one's privacy and property) as well as fair. Fairness is an important element of herd dynamics. If a herd is unfair to its members, they tend to break away, thus weakening the herd. In contrast, for the territorial mind, might is right.

In the territorial world, ownership is seen as a natural expression of the individual instinct for territoriality. For this reason, ownership is considered sacrosanct and almost regarded as a fundamental rights. Who owns what, is of course decided by their "fitness" to own something.

In the herding world, ownership by individuals is seen as defying of the collective will by the individual, and is treated with disdain. However, if the herd is educated about the need for private space and property, ownership is seen as a "weak right" accorded by the collective towards the individual, which can be rescinded for collective good anytime.

So my contention is that, a system of law that is codified by a population driven by the herding instinct is likely to be more fair, compassionate, humane and civilized; while a system of law codified by a population driven by territoriality is likely to be oppressive, exploitative, dogmatic and belligerent.

Principles of natural governance, if you will.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Ideas and identities

For a long time now, I have resisted any effort to bring research on topics like language, culture and history into my lab. It is not that I think that these topics are unimportant. But it is because I think that as a society, we do not have the skill to extract ideas from identity for scholarly perusal.

Topics like language, culture, history etc. are teeming with issues and controversies regarding social and cultural identities. Identity driven politics is an intense element that we endure daily.

A research lab is by definition, a battleground. It is a battleground for ideas, where ideas clash and transform and evolve.

But when identities masquerade as ideas, it spells nothing but trouble.

A clash of ideas is invigorating, dispassionate and impersonal. We end up energised and enthusiastic after a successful clash of ideas.

A clash of identities is disspiriting, passionate and deeply personal. We end up feeling battered and bruised after a clash of identities.

Much of the issues in academic environments (including the recent JNU controversy) are because of our collective inability to separate ideas from identity.

A clash of ideas makes no noise and is hardly apparent to anyone other than those involved in the clash. A clash of identities on the other hand, spills over to the streets, gets paraded on news hour, along with a whole lot of other dispiriting elements.

Ideas do not have boundaries, while identities do. Cultures that are supposedly enemies of one another, watch each other so much with trepidation, that they end up exchanging and adopting ideas from one another.

One of the worst things one can do to subjugate others is to impose our idea of their identity on them. And that is what happens quite routinely, in studies of language, culture and history. Sure, there objective elements of language, culture and history; but these things are also deeply personal. Oh, and let us not even talk about religion.

The origin of language and culture is the human mind. The language that we speak is created by us in our minds. We only borrow linguistic constructs like vocabulary, metaphors, etc. from whatever we interact with, to help in reducing the effort in building our language.

Similarly, culture is an emergent characteristic of our values and the way we interact with others when driven by our values. We borrow cultural constructs from the environment, but it is we who create our culture.

If an alien virus were to infect the human race such that, the human mind were to stop functioning and stop interpreting our world, language and culture would cease to exist.

The same is true with history and religion. We all have our personal history and a personal sense of spirituality. The objective elements of history and religion we study are driven by clash of identities to result in some dominant idea.

None of the above arguments imply that we should stop studying subjects like language, culture, history and religion. If anything, these subjects require a lot more discipline than the study of the impersonal physical world or the elegant mathematical world. A discipline that requires one to separate ideas from identities and allow the ideas to clash in a way that is elucidating and empowering, rather than passionate and disspiriting.

Sure, all of us like to believe that we have such a discipline. But allow me to be sceptical of such over confidence.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Invalidation and disqualification

In several of my earlier writings and posts on social media, I have talked about how south India is notorious for its high rates of depression (much of which goes unreported due to social stigma). It is comparable to that of Scandinavian countries, which has the highest depression rates in Europe.

However, there is an important difference. Depression is primarily driven by physical causes in Scandinavia (specifically, lack of adequate sunlight in winters). In south India, it is primarily due to social causes.

For this reason, much of the cases of depression in south India -- severe, as they may be -- are not "clinical" cases.

However, perhaps due to a lack of adequate literature, or perhaps due to the fact that "Science" is still predominantly characterized and driven by the West, most "mainstream" therapists treat these cases as clinical and prescribe medicines -- usually hormone supplements or mood stabilizers.

But then, the patients would not really be suffering from hormonal imbalances, and these supplements often result in side effects like nausea, drowsiness, etc. During my student days (in the 1990s), I have even been subject to Ketamine injections to treat depressive symptoms. While they give instant relief, they usually end up making us feeling much worse over time. They do not address the primary source of depression -- which is social in nature, which is exacerbated by the drug side effects. Not only are social factors driving the patient to a depressed state, the effects of the drug make them even more vulnerable to these social dynamics that made them depressed in the first place!

So what are these invisible social dynamics that are proving so deadly?

For several years, I've searched hard to characterize this. I've trained my focus on distorted notions of "humility" that pervades our culture, which sometimes includes elements of submissiveness and slavery. Submissiveness and "surrender" are often celebrated and venerated as virtues in the name of humility and devotion.

However, while submissiveness and slavery are closely related, submissiveness or a "divine" form of surrender is also an integral element of any deep spiritual quest. It is quite easy to trace the roots of submissiveness in our culture to spirituality rather than slavery.

I have now come to believe that interpreting humility as submissiveness and glorifying it, is not really the source of rampant depression in our society.

There is I believe, something even more insidious than submissiveness.

This is the characteristic of invalidation and disqualification, which are again distorted notions of humility, but much more harmful than submissiveness.

Invalidation is the process of illegitimizing someone as a person. It is different from skepticism, disagreement or rejection. Invalidation does not reject a person's ideas or their values or their worldview. It is a judgement on the person and rejects the person itself.

Persons subject to repeated spells of invalidation ends up "disqualifying" themselves psychologically. They end up believing that they are illegitimate as a person and they don't deserve to exist. Routine life becomes an intensely painful experience for them, as they are continuously fighting a deep-rooted battle to retain their sense of an integral self. This deep-rooted battle is not visible outside, but it nevertheless has its impact on the person's persona and social life.

An invalidating environment is self-perpetuating, in that, a people who invalidate others are often struggling to validate their own selves. Hence, a self-disqualifying person would receive little or no support from others in an invalidating environment. Worse, they would probably be subject to even more judgement and invalidation due to their sub par social skills.

Invalidation does not need any kind of physical or sexual abuse. It does not leave behind any physical scars or hormonal imbalances. A sense of self-disqualification can set in by repeated exposure to invalidating stimuli. If a child is brought up hearing "No", "Don't", etc. or is lectured and chided at every step at home or at school or in the outside world in general, they end up disqualifying themselves. Similarly, if children are repeatedly ridiculed for their emotions, are ignored when they express an emotional need, or are told with the best of intent to "cheer up and be strong" or urged to be not so "selfish" and  "think about others" when they need emotional support, they end up disqualifying themselves.

Even worse, invalidation is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. When children are repeatedly invalidated, they end up treating the invalidating behaviour as normal and start acting in a manner that elicits such a behaviour. Hence, the more the elders and teachers worry and fuss about their children's inability (to perform well in school, for example) the more their children will act in a manner that will elicit such a worry.

And finally, self-disqualification is an intensely distorted form of humility. Self-disqualification is even more intense than self-deprecation, which is again treated as a virtue. Self-deprecation is superficial, while self-disqualification operates at much deeper levels. Self-disqualification is often masked in layers of denial or defense by rationalizing it away as being humble, or even promoted and advocated as a virtue.

After long years of suffering and even longer years of searching, I think I've finally got a handle on what is the source of depression that has brought much suffering to our society.

Monday, March 28, 2016

How the twain shall meet -- III: Dharma and Game Theory

Continuing in my series of posts about how I see synergy between Eastern and Western thought, I would like to connect one of the most beautiful mathematics of the 20th century with some of the foundations of Indian thought.

As mentioned in previous posts, if there is one concept that can encapsulate the cultural paradigm of India and parts of China, East and South-East Asia, it is the concept of "Dharma". The term is used in so many different contexts, giving it several different translations like "righteousness", "religion", "duty", "ethics" etc. all of which fail to capture its essence.

Dharma represents a state of "sustainability" or "invariance". (Here is a paper describing dharma as sustainability or a state of "equilibrium" and here is yet another paper defining Dharma as sustainability). As described by Robert Lingat in his book "The Classical Law of India" Dharma is defined as "what is firm and durable, what sustains and maintains.."

In current day approaches to systems theory, such definitions point to concepts like invariance, optimality, equilibrium and stability. The concept of Dharma is applied to human (and animal) societies, but it is derived from an even more fundamental concept called Rta, which is the postulated fundamental element of invariance across all matter and physical phenomena.

In the Western world, an important milestone in the 20th century is the emergence of the mathematics of rational choice and correlated rational choice. This pertains to modeling the dynamics of systems of rational, autonomous agents (like humans or animals) that operating in a situated environment. This field of study is popularly called Game Theory.

While Game Theory had its beginnings in the analysis of parlour games, it quickly grew in scope to encompass the analysis of any form of situated, correlated rational choice across disparate autonomous agents. Some key results like the "Nash equilibrium" are now the stuff of popular artistic imagination.

Game Theory quickly expanded beyond questions concerning situated rational choice, with the introduction of "iterated" and "evolutionary" games. In these games, agents interact with one another over several iterations, giving them the luxury of "memory". Hence, if one player betrayed another player in one iteration, future actions by the other player would likely change in order to account for the betrayal. A strategy for an iterated game needs to keep this in mind before committing an action.

Evolutionary games bring in yet another dimension by introducing the notion of "generations". In evolutionary games, over time, players may change their beliefs about other players or the system in general, and in turn, their strategies. Evolutionary games are characteristic of not just human societies, but of life in general. The dynamics of genetic coding and crossover to create offspring, are often driven by evolutionary prospects.

Hence, animals that live in cold climates tend to evolve furs and other mechanisms to protect from the cold, while animals living in topical climates tend to evolve higher sensitivity towards predators and other creatures.

In evolutionary games, occasionally there are strategic configurations that are not only very robust in their environments, but are also robust against other contending strategies. Such strategic configurations have no incentive to evolve further, as from a strategic standpoint, they are infallible.

Such configurations are called "Evolutionarily Stable Strategies" or ESS for short. They represent strategic configurations that cannot be easily "invaded" and dominated by a new (also called "mutant") incumbent strategy that was initially rare.

For instance, a business idea that is an ESS tends to prevail not only across economic or social upheavals, but also prevails when confronted with other, contending business ideas that may be more powerful. The ESS is also called the evolutionary "best response" function to the specifics of the game. In other words, regardless of how others evolve, an ESS provides the best strategic response to the challenges posed by others' choices. And when others adopt ESS, the ESS is still the best strategic prospect.

The above description of an ESS is precisely the notion of Dharma! A dharmic act is one that is robust and that which prevails across upheavals. Its significance does not get eroded when confronted with other, more powerful thoughts. And when faced with uncertainty, following the path of Dharma gives one the best strategic prospects.

While the concept of Dharma and that of ESS, is profound, there is no simple way by which we can arrive at an ESS, given any system. An ESS may be discovered after centuries of evolution, and what appears like an ESS, may give way when some fundamentals of the underlying system changes.

A well known book called "The Evolution of Cooperation" by Robert Axelrod shows how a strategy called "Tit for Tat" (or reflecting cooperation for cooperation and non-cooperation for non-cooperation) is an ESS for an evolutionary version of the Iterated Prisoners' Dilemma (IPD) game. However, later results have shown that when the game is played with imperfect information (which is a more realistic possibility), "Tit for Tat" collapses from its evolutionarily stable position.

The quest for Dharma hence is potentially unbounded in terms of depth and sophistication. The need to evolve better and more robust strategies is a never ending quest. However, as part of the quest, we may encounter ideas and worldviews that are stable enough to cater to several generations.

This has been the story of dharmic cultures over time. Dharmic cultures have explored several models and directions in their quest for social dharma. These included organizing the society (the varna system), organizing a person's life (Brahmacharya to Sanyasa), organizing spiritual quests (the marga system), etc. Many of the advocated practices were "local minima" or stable strategies for those times, but which collapsed with changing conditions.

The above kind of thinking and quest was already about 2500 years old (and in a state of disarray) at the time of the Buddha (who rejected several of the memes around that time to forge a new direction in the quest for Dharma). And such thinking still continues to persist and thrive in about a sixth of the world's population.

Modern mathematics like Game Theory, Synergetics, Optimization and Prospect Theory are some of the best possible tools for the Western mind to understand and interpret Eastern thought..

Saturday, March 19, 2016

How the twain shall meet -- II: Truth and fitness

Staying on the topic of (the false dilemma between) East vs West, here is another common misconception: "Understanding Eastern (dharmic) thought needs one to suspend the use of logic."

Even in my previous post, one of the comments asked whether I'm implying that we need axioms without logic to understand Eastern thought. I'm not sure that means though, but I guess it means something like the above stated belief.

Suspending the use of logic means speaking nonsense or committing a logical fallacy. For instance, if I argued that, "All fish swim, I too swim, therefore I am a fish." Now that is an example of suspension of logic.

Speaking about emotions or proposing a model comprising of abstract, intangible elements (like chakras for example) or even proposing the existence of something that cannot be proved by logic, does not make something illogical.

Science is full of models built on intangible axioms. Newtonian physics for example, is built upon the absolute and objective nature of time, which is questioned and relaxed in Einsteinian physics. While Einsteinian physics itself is based on the postulated absolute nature of the speed of light.

Whether East or West, our worldviews are based on certain axiomatic assumptions and postulates and computing logical implications from the same.

The only difference perhaps is in the way logical systems and proof methods that have been prevalent in the East in contrast to the West.

To elaborate on this, we need to contend with yet another common misconception about "truth" in the Eastern mind. Apparently in the East, truth is subjective, relative and non-crisp, while Western thought is based on the crisp "law of excluded middle" -- that is, something cannot be true and false at the same time. Apparently in Eastern thought (Buddhism is the target for such assertions), truth has "shades of gray" and it is possible for something to be true and false at the same time.

The above misconception only serves to reiterate an exotic and quaint image of Eastern thought, something that which can only be understood if we suspend logic. (It can also serve to reiterate the utility of probability and fuzzy sets when building models under uncertainty -- but that is science!)

The unfortunate fallout of such a flawed view is that several important results from the East gets clubbed into a bucket called "alternative, pseudo-scientific drivel." Ayurveda for example, was the mainstream system of medicine in India for at least 2500 years before current-day Western medicine became mainstream some 150 years ago, and dumped Auyrveda into the trash can called "alternative medicine."

Firstly, "qualified" truth is not uncommon in Western thought either. A variety of  "modal" logics exist, which contend with qualifiers over truth like "necessarily true", "possibly true", "ought to be true", and so on. Modal logics are useful when we are dealing with composite objects rather than atomic elements. For instance, if someone were to be visiting India, it is "necessarily true" that they cannot bring some banned substances (like satellite phones) with them. However, it is "possibly true" that they cannot consume alcohol in India -- it depends on where they are going to be in India. The need for such qualifiers are because of the fact that "India" is not an atomic element of interest. It is a composite object, which has several components with differing values for a given proposition.

It becomes easier to understand Eastern thought, once we understand composites. In Eastern thought, logical systems were not built from assertions over atomic objects, but from assertions over systems. Eastern thought is based on recognizing systems at every level, whether it is in the outside physical world or in our inner psychological or spiritual worlds.

A system is more than a composite object -- it not only comprises of several components, these components also actively interact with one another. To make matters even more complex, these components may be autonomous, each pursuing their own intentions and goals. Hence components need not just interact with one another, they may also interfere and conflict with one another.

Given this, the kind of logics that are required are also different.

In the Western worldview, the notion of "problem-solving" is fundamentally seen as a function -- or a transformation or mapping from a problem to a solution. The "truth" about problem solving is hence a binary question: is a given mapping valid or invalid? This kind of scrutiny is primarily applicable when we are dealing with atomic objects. For instance, is it valid or invalid to bucket 1729 as a prime number? It has a crisp true/false answer.

However, when dealing with systems, scrutinizing a solution in the form of a crisp true or false question, is inadequate. Systemic problems often have several solutions with different levels of "fitness." A solution to a problem is situated in a systemic context and comes with its own resource requirements and cost, and has its own set of side effects or impact on the system. For instance, can we reduce air pollution in a city by imposing an odd-even rule (that is, only odd numbered vehicles can drive on odd days and vice versa)? This question does not have a crisp true/false answer. Air pollution needs to be minimized yes -- but this question is not posed in an isolated, water-tight compartment. We need to reduce air pollution and yet keep the city alive and cater to the livelihood of its citizens. So the odd-even rule may be a "qualified" solution -- it has its own set of side effects, implications and costs. There could be several other solutions with different levels of fitness.

This is the nature of "shades of gray" of truth in Eastern thought -- it is not illogical. It is just a logical assertion about a property on a system, keeping in mind its impact on the rest of the system.

One might argue that every such assertion resulting in qualified truth can be theoretically rephrased to convert it to a crisp assertion by providing for all the impact and cost into the question itself. This is possible, provided we make a this small, limiting assumption called the "closed world assumption."

For example, we can ask, "Is the odd-even rule the best solution to reduce air pollution, taking into account its impact on people's livelihood and its costs of implementation?" This can be answered in a crisp fashion, only if we assume that people's livelihood and costs of implementation are the only dimensions to this problem that matter. But if we were to pose this question in an open-world scenario (that is, there could be other systemic dimensions that could matter, which we are not aware of), then a crisp answer is inadequate.

The above are characteristic of the nature of debates and dilemma in Eastern dharmic thought.

Dharma is a characteristic of sustainability or stability of a system. In modern parlance -- it is a property of optimality. Anyone who is familiar with optimization would realize that, optimality exists at different levels with different scores of fitness. Indeed, a "local optima" can sometimes make things worse as it appears to be a stable configuration, but is not really so. Also, our understanding of what is optimal may change in open-worlds, when confronted with new pertinent information about the system.

Which is why for instance, it is said that even thieves have their own dharma, but it is a social adharma to encourage thieving. Substitute dharma with "sustainable" and the above sentence makes sense. There can be "sustainable" methods of thieving, but encouraging thieving may make a society unsustainable.

Once we understand this way of reasoning, it is easy to see why Eastern thought is wary of providing crisp and confident answers about any large question. This is different from saying that Eastern thought requires suspension of logic, or that in the Eastern mind truth is subjective and relative or has several shades of gray.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

How the twain shall meet - I: The false dilemma

Quite regularly, on the "mainstream" media and social media, some spiritual guru makes news -- often for all the wrong reasons. This news is followed by a coterie of skeptics heaping mud on the "self-styled godmen" and often silently wondering how the heck did these people get so rich, when they don't feature on stock markets, business news or politics.

Indeed, there are several spiritual movements and spiritual heads in India that are extremely rich. India hosts the world's richest deity -- some of its spiritual gurus have their own air fields, islands, and so on. The skeptics often see these as evidence of foul play and often conjure elaborate theories.

No doubt, there are unscrupulous elements in the "spirituality industry" who often use their organizations as a front for something else.

However, there are ample examples of spiritual movements in India which enjoy a vast global following, with ample donations and volunteer services. Many of these movements are so large that they have a complete ecosystem under their umbrella -- supporting not just individuals, but also businesses and organizations like hospitals and universities. Surely, there must be something to such "pseudo-science" if it can garner such a huge following?

How do these "pseudo-scientific" movements gather so much momentum and support from so many people across the world? For the "mainstream" it appears baffling that there could be so many irrational and gullible people all over the world.

However, we only need to adjust our vantage point and question our axioms a little, in order to see what really is happening.

Rudyard Kipling once said, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."

Sadly, it is this "Western" kind of thinking that still runs our "mainstream" institutions the world over, because of which, this false dilemma refuses to budge.

It is also like this video by Mark Gungor who has a theory about "male and female brains" -- where the "male" brain supposedly organizes the world into neat little boxes and thinks only inside a box; while in the female brain on the other hand, everything is connected to everything else, and is run with an energy called emotion.

Somebody should tell Mr. Gungor that his theory is a "male" theory, which classifies brain types into neat little boxes called "male brain" and "female brain", while a "female" theory would not see such water-tight distinctions in the first place!

The Western model of thinking, which largely drives our institutional lives today has its roots in ancient Greece, where philosophers looked at the physical world outside of us and tried to build models to understand its phenomena. They invented a lot of underpinnings that govern Western thought today -- mechanics, physics, geometry, meta-physics, and so on.

Such a thought process was driven by a process of articulation -- or breaking up a complex system into smaller parts for the purposes of understanding. It was also instrumental in discovering several other important elements that form the underpinnings of our intellectual lives today like objectivity, stoicism, critical thinking and so on.

In contrast, the East had a much stronger focus on exploring the world within ourselves. These thought processes took root in lands that were rich with biodiversity, with several life forms often interacting and competing with one another. There was a strong impetus to understand what life is all about and how can different forms of life coexist peacefully.

Exploration into the inner world revealed early on to the Eastern philosophers that our intellectual selves are only a small, conscious part of who we are, and for most of our lives, we are driven by our emotional selves. This thought process also needed another important skill -- harmonization.Our emotional selves are not monolithic entities. They are in turn, driven by several autonomous cognitive enters (called "chakras" in Eastern thought), which often interfere with one another. The problem of harmonizing between different life forms in the outside world, manifested itself as the problem of harmonizing the different chakras in the inside world.

Also, unlike physical objects in the night sky, it is very difficult for us to be dispassionate observers of emotions. We are hard wired to catch emotions from elsewhere, and our own emotions can grip our minds so that we "become" our emotions. We are our emotions and when we observe ourselves, the observer is not completely disjoint from the observed.

So just like critical thinking became the ideal cornerstone of Western thought, Eastern thought developed a cornerstone called stithaprajna (often known as "mindfulness" in the West). It refers to a state of mind where we observe ourselves and our emotions without judgment and without letting them become us.

Just like the Western world developed several laws of physics over the centuries, the Eastern world developed several theories of the mind addressing elements like consciousness, self, identity, awareness, etc.

Just like the Western world likes to believe that everything is ultimately physics, the Eastern world believes that everything is ultimately mind. Processes and phenomena that posed challenges in the world outside, also existed in the world within. This lead to modeling the universe itself as a life form, comprising of several autonomous elements. The sense of self for the universe became the universal soul (Paramatma) of which our own souls (Atma) or sense of self were mere elements.

One of the early discoveries of the Eastern thought is the discovery of invariants that determine life and ecological processes. This is called "dharma". Dharma manifests as homeostasis in the biological realm, and the notion of "sustainability" comes closest to the concept of dharma in the ecological realm.

Translation of the concept of dharma by the Western mind as either "religion" or "ethics" or "righteousness" or "discipline" or "duty" has rendered a great disservice towards understanding this important concept. Dharma is far more fundamental -- it is the essence of life, of habitability of Earth and of sustainability of a complex ecosystem.

The concept of dharma is so fundamental to Eastern thought, it drove collective thought in a large part of the world that now comprises of the region involving Pakistan to South and South-east Asia. Dharmic cultures are what are equated with "religions" in today's narrative. What is today called the "Hindu religion" denotes a vast array of dharmic subcultures, including Buddhism, which the Western world encountered independently in other countries and seeks to distinguish from Hinduism (which itself does not mean one thing).

At a fundamental level, the East never really saw themselves as different from the West -- all of us are humans, driven by the same algebra of emotions and driven by dharma. But for the West, in order to understand something complex, they needed to articulate and break down the universe into neat little boxes, thus creating a huge chasm between the East and the West.

The East tried to reach out to the West using the epistemological tools at their disposal. This instantly made them into quaint and exotic mystics in the eyes of the West. The West in turn used its tools (meant for understanding physics), to understand the mind. And ended up boxing psychology and humanities into a category called "soft sciences" or in the words of Dr. Sheldon Cooper of the Big Bang Theory -- the "doofus of the sciences."

It is hence difficult for them to understand how these scientific doofus are able to "command" a huge following all over the world and create such big "empires" including high profile followers who are known to be scientifically minded. As long as they try to understand this phenomena using the mental model that is used to understand physics, they will remain perplexed and suspicious.

In contrast, the East is increasingly exposed to the Western way of thinking -- so much so that several folks take pride in treating their cultural moorings with contempt by trying to understand it from a framework that is inadequate. However, it is not before long that many of them get driven towards genuinely understanding Eastern thought looking past the labels, stereotypes and one's own paralyzing sense of contempt.