Friday, May 13, 2016

Characterizing the GII

India is a very diverse country with hundreds of languages, sub cultures and a wide economic disparity. However, if there is one thing that is common across most, if not all of India -- across different cultures and different economic and social strata, it is what I would call the "Great Indian Insecurity (GII)".

This is a dull and omniscient latent element of cognition that is common across the length and breadth of this country. No one seems to be immune from this. A select few -- a couple of former businessmen who ran airlines come to mind -- who felt falsely secure in our country, are learning the GII the hard way.

Be it a day-wage labourer, the CEO of a company, a bureaucrat in the ministry or a minister in the cabinet, the GII affects everyone without discrimination, and largely runs their lives and decisions.

Not too long ago, in living memory, there was no GII -- there was rampant desperation and collective trauma! That we have largely (but not fully) replaced the desperation with insecurity, is an ode to the silent success of the India story. It is too premature to celebrate however, as GII is still a major problem.

Less than a century ago, most of the country lived in a state of silent and not-so-silent desperation, while a very tiny part of the population lived in a state of blissful entitlement, completely unconcerned with the desperation. This disparity has been slowly smoothening out over the decades, where a skewed distribution of burning trauma is replaced with a much more even distribution of the dull GII across the entire population.

The GII at the core of social cognition, gives specific characteristics for Indian thought as a whole. For instance, Indians are much more prone to hoarding and stashing away wealth, than their Western counterparts. Even those who claim to be very liberal, have very conservative views (that favour stability and status quo, over risk taking and exploring) when it comes to several social issues and family matters.

The GII makes Indian thought inimical to any kind of exploratory activity. It also makes the Indian mind extremely fearful of failure.

Elements of administration and culture that once led to the state of desperation have been largely dismantled. However, this dismantling is not complete, and many of their echoes still remain keeping the GII alive.

For instance, failure -- be it in business or medical treatment or in an engineering feat, is treated as a crime. If you run a business with limited liability, you better not relax -- because you're still held personally liable, not just to the money your business borrows, but to the way you conduct yourself in the public eye. If you're a doctor, pray hard that none of your treatment ever ends up becoming fatal. Even if you can establish that your decision was a honest mistake, by the time you do that, you'd be ruined beyond redemption anyway. And if you're an engineer who builds large structures, pray really hard that what you have built will never collapse, even in an earthquake or in a storm. Because, there will be calls for the "guilty" to be punished regardless of what caused the failure.

Our education system instills the GII in young minds and keeps it alive throughout, so that people grow up internalizing insecurity. For instance, much of our education system is based on rewarding compliance and obedience as success and punishing originality or deviant behaviour as failure.

Here, I am not even talking about deviant individuality, by deviant I mean, away from the norm. Having your own opinion on things and pursuing your own goals are considered "crimes" that need to be punished.

There is a mistaken belief that learning is facilitated by struggle, pain and competition. Well, a process of learning involves struggle, pain and competition. But it is not the same as saying that we need to inflict struggle, pain and competition in order to induce learning. We seem to have inverted the implication!

There is no denying the fact that learning is not an easy experience. It is necessarily painful in different ways. It require us to train ourselves, examine our beliefs, think in ways we have never thought before and feel emotions that we never knew existed within us.

All of the above will be endowed naturally, for someone who is on the path of learning. They don't need to be inflicted by the environment. A mind that is seeking will show outward signs of pain. But inflicting the visible pain on someone will not likely induce a seeking mind within them.

The GII is also actively infused into peoples' minds at home and in the society at large. And most of the society is completely unaware of the GII or the way it drives them, or the way they are embedding it into others' minds using well-meaning rhetoric.

And of course, I'm pretty sure that our policy makers are mostly unaware of how their approach to policy-making is controlled by the GII. The term "to regulate" (for example, taxi aggregators need to be regulated) almost always means "to control", "to limit", to restrict" etc. Regulation is as much, if not more, about empowerment and enablement. But in the minds of our policy-makers and general public, the term "regulation" almost always means "to control and restrict".

The GII is so deeply ingrained in our society, we cannot fight it head on. Try speaking about privacy and you'll be accused of trying to hide something. Try speaking about human rights, and you'll be accused of shielding criminals. If we try to fight the GII head on, we are going to fail miserably and end up leading miserable lives or dying a miserable death.

The GII is not a beast -- it is a disease. It has no face. If we fight any specific person or entity who is inflicting the GII on others, the GII will be silently infecting us. For it is not the person or entity, who is the problem -- it is the ideas or the way of thinking that they have been infected with. That is the disease and it is highly contagious. 

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.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Are predators really needed in nature?

There is an argument about why predators like the tiger and the leopard are really needed in the jungle. If not for the predators, apparently, the meek (non-predators) would multiply so much and consume so much of the vegetation that the ecological balance of the jungle would be upset.

The above argument is often syncretically extended to human societies and applied to human relationships, business, governance and so on. Predatory strategies abound in all these places, where the "meek" are destroyed or consumed by the "strong" (euphemism for predators) not just to feed the predator's sense of entitlement, but also purportedly, to keep some kind of social balance.

It is easy to see the flaw in this argument. There are several forests that are home to deers and other "meek" creatures, with no predators to feed on them (for instance, the Jayamangali deer sanctuary near Tumkur). These forests have not exactly dwindled due to the deers. Deer population has not exactly grown in an unfettered fashion because of the vegetation and absence of predators.

Evolutionary forces are at work that regulates the deer population despite having no predators to feed on them.

The above justification for the existence of predators gives too little credit for the sophistication of evolutionary survival strategies. Evolution often plays out in very nuanced ways and has its own mechanisms to estimate the survivability of offspring in the given context.

Populations usually grow in an unfettered fashion when they are suddenly released from a stressful situation (for example, the baby boom following the second world war). But in a steady state with no external threat, the population also tends to stabilize to an optimal reproduction rate.

The justification for predators assumes that the meek (non-predators) are also stupid. As long as there are resources, the meek will keep growing until they choke to death. It goes without saying that it is a preposterous assumption. The meek do not feed on others -- but this does not mean that they are stupid enough to not be able to regulate themselves. They may well be intelligent enough to estimate the demand for resources by the population and live accordingly.

In fact, I would like to argue that predators are just a local optima in the evolutionary game over the ages. They are going to be overshadowed as the evolutionary system jiggles its way out of the local optima. Predators get instant payoffs by feeding on others. However, predators also easily become the object of distrust and non-cooperation by others. The predators need to be strong all the time. The moment they lose their strength, they stand to be overpowered by the ample number of enemies they would have created. Predators are usually lonely and territorial, thus reducing their robustness towards facing unanticipated changes in the environment.

Predatory strategies are hence unlikely to be evolutionarily stable strategies (ESS). The great predators from the dinosaurs like the T-Rex or Velociraptor were the first to be extinct. None of the predatory dinosaurs seem to have evolved into the birds of today and retained the same level of predatory abilities. The predatory abilities of birds today are vastly diminished compared to their ancestors -- the dinosaurs.

Similarly, the most ferocious of the wild animals are also usually the most endangered ones. Lions and tigers are endangered, while pigeons, deers and rabbits are not.

Finally, to argue that predators have a "purpose" for existence, is to accept that life on earth is a result of "intelligent design" rather than evolution. Predators just evolved from the dynamics of the past. There is no reason to believe that this evolutionary quirk is stable or sustainable.

So, it is quite likely that the (sophisticated) meek shall indeed inherit the earth.