Wednesday, September 28, 2016

On declarative social orders

EDIT: Some Related Literature about the interpretation of dharma as sustainability:

Dharma, Brahma, Rasa 
Dharma as Universal Principle of Equilibrium 

Over the last few months, I have been increasingly posting about the concept of dharma and other notions that are found in South Asian thought. Not surprisingly, I've promptly earned the label of a "Hindu Nationalist" (whatever that means) from some section of my reading population. One even went to the extent of hoping that I would "allow" others express themselves, given that I am now a Hindu Nationalist.

Not surprisingly, I've often choked on the overload of irony in such situations.

Firstly, a brief look at my posts over the years would make it apparent that if there is one thing that I fundamentally value, it is liberty. A liberal society is any collective that designs its norms and laws based on the legitimacy and integrity of the individual.

And the reason why I find the concept of dharma so fascinating is that, it perhaps holds the key towards building sustainable, liberal societies. Let me try and explain why I think it is so.

Sure, because of the current political circumstances, it is likely that dharmic thought has got a louder voice in Indian public discourse, because of which I was able to better understand this concept. But my interest in dharmic thought has got nothing to do with my political preferences, and it is also unfortunate that I need to give this disclaimer to talk about what is essentially an interesting notion about systems.

Much of our current misconceptions about dharma, stems from South Asian worldview being classified into the box called "religion" in the more powerful Western worldview, which is disseminated all over the world. As noted by Maria Wirth in her blog post about becoming a Hindu, she says that she did not "convert" to Hinduism, but liberated herself from the system of conversions between religions. If religion is defined as a belief system, Hinduism and dharmic thought in general, are certainly not religions; and if religion is defined as a quest for understanding the universe, then both Hinduism and Science are religions.

I used to say that my research interests are about semantics and systems. But after understanding dharma, I've raised my research interests one notch meta -- I'm now interested in the philosophical notions of meaning and being. As noted in an earlier post, we think of systems as a composite entity only when we examine them from the "particle" worldview of the West. Here, the building blocks of the universe are static particles, on top of which, dynamics are imposed, typically by the algebra of energy.

Eastern thought on the other hand, is based on a theory of "Being." The entire universe is said to be built from "beings" -- which are basically entities that can have different states. A being is an atomic encapsulation of particle and dynamics. When several beings come together, their affinities and disaffinities (as defined by their dynamics) result in the emergence of a larger being with its own set of dynamics. The entire universe is of course a being -- the Being -- the biggest possible being. This composition however, is not linear, but circular. The biggest possible being -- the Being -- is the essence of all beings.

The core element of Hinduism based in the Vedas basically posits a universal Being called Brahman, which forms the essence of all beings; and consciousness as a graded function of the awareness of this universal essence in oneself. The ultimate state of consciousness is when we discover the essence of the universe within ourselves.

The society that created and operated along the above line of reasoning, tended to think in terms of beings, which loosely maps to "systems" when viewing it through the Western lens.

A characteristic concern of all systems is optimization. When viewing the world through the Western lens, we first learn about particles and energy, then about systems and finally about optimization. But when viewed through the theory of Beings, optimization is a most basic, characteristic property of being.

All systems found in nature are perennially executing a process of optimization all the time. If we excite an electron with some energy, it will soon shed the energy to settle down into a low energy "stable" state. "Noble" gases are so optimal that they don't react to anything. A fight for survival by an animal, is fundamentally an optimization process. Rationality is a process of optimization. Even spiritual quests are about understanding something that lies beyond our epistemological capabilities, in as clear a way as possible within the framework of our epistemics -- an optimization process. Management is about optimization, as is governance and administration. Even evolution is a process of strategic optimization -- evolution tries to make the next generation more "fit" than the previous generation, in other words, it strategically primes the next generation to survive better than the previous generation.

Optimization can be driven by several objectives like efficiency, throughput, cost, etc. But nature by far, favours one optimization objective over all else -- robustness. Robustness is the property of a system (being) to survive or sustain itself, across disparate, unforeseen circumstances and contexts.

For instance, nature prefers legs over wheels for its animals for their locomotion. Wheels may be more efficient and may need lesser energy to move, but legs are more robust and can sustain the animal across different kinds of terrain.

In essence, that is the concept of dharma -- sustainability or robust optimality.

Dharma is a declarative or a "what-is" notion. It tells about the property called sustainability of a system. It is not an imperative notion -- it does not tell us what to do or "how-to" lead our lives. It is for this reason, all the usual stereotypes about Hinduism like patriarchy or arranged marriages or whatever else, are all fundamentally incorrect. Dharmic thought does not impose any kind of imperatives on how one should lead one's life. Understanding dharmic thought is basically about understanding systems. And the concept of dharma, or sustainable robustness, is an important tool to understand how systems function. It gives us a handle using which we can build models and theories over very complex systems.

Dharma is also not a moral concept. In fact, morality is a dharmic concept. Morality refers to a system of hermeneutics that is conducive for sustenance of life -- dharma in other words. Morality is typically applicable only to human societies, while dharma is applicable to all systems, including non-living systems. Noble gases are in a state of dharma -- sustainable robustness. But there is nothing moral about being neon gas!

Dharma is also not a delusion (a deeply embedded thought pattern in our minds.) In fact, delusion is a form of dharma. A delusion is a thought pattern that our mind thinks is very important to our survivability and hence embeds it deeply in our minds. Be it paranoid delusion or delusions of superiority -- they are all embedded in our minds in response to circumstances that have challenged our (or our parents' survival). Delusion is hence, a form of dharma.

Of course, in order to explain the concept of dharma, several philosophers provide several examples and even codified rules applicable for specific contexts to uphold dharma -- or to make the system robust and sustainable. But these examples and codified rules are not the essence of dharma in itself. When someone says being a vegetarian is dharma, it simply means that (in some context) being a vegetarian makes them and the system there more sustainable and robust, compared to a meat-eating lifestyle.

There is a saying called "Ahimsa paramodharmah" (non-violence is a prime dharma) and also a notion of "dharma-yuddh" (dharmic war). They are not contradicting one another. The first one simply says that non-violence is a fundamental element of building sustainable societies, while the latter is the concept of war that is waged in order to bring sustainability back to a system.


When we study systems theory today, we are usually taught about eigenvectors or invariants in a system and how complex systems can be understood by locating their eigenvectors. (The term eigenvector is a German term which literally means "self vector" -- it represents a state of the system that can be called the "self" of the system.) Eigenvectors are usually an advanced mathematical concept and anyone who has not studied advanced mathematics or engineering would have been unlikely to have encountered this concept.

But imagine a civilization who use eigenvectors as the fundamental building blocks from which the entire universe is understood. Imagine a civilization where one of the first things children are taught, is the concept of eigenvectors. If we can imagine how such a civilization would pan out, we have started to make some progress in understanding South Asian worldview.

So, nope. I'm not apologetic about my fascination with the concept of dharma and I'm not a Hindu Nationalist (whatever that means).

Gosh, I'm sounding like the protagonist of "My name is Khan" movie!

Monday, September 26, 2016

A tale of two business leaders

Some observations of two self-made business leaders who hailed from middle or lower middle-class, in the part of the south-Indian culture where I grew up, and built businesses worth billions.

One of them built his business in the software industry, while the other built his business in the spirituality industry.

Both of them took their business into the stratosphere, by exporting their services, as the domestic market was (and still is) way too small for paid services.

Other than building a vastly successful business, both of them are well respected as humans. They are both seen as motivational figures and role models by vast sections of the population.

The software leader built his business by creating several millionaires. His business comprised of people who are well schooled and independent. His personal wealth is more than, but not a whole lot more than that of his employees. In terms of disparity between the most-paid and the least-paid of employees doing software, his business is among those having the least disparity.

The spiritual leader built his business by creating a huge fan base of devotees who offer donations and raise money by the billions. While the software leader drives his own car, the spiritual guru owns and often rides in his personal helicopter. While the software leader is often criticized (objectively, on issues, but sometimes personally, as well) by the very people who became millionaires because of him, the spiritual guru is treated like a deity and literally worshipped by his devotees.

Naturally, among the Western-educated population in India, the software leader is considered more credible and moral than the spiritual guru. Except that the spiritual guru elicits the same kind of reverence in the Western world, where the software leader is just another Indian "code coolie." Of course, the intense reverence that the spiritual guru elicits is also balanced by intense loathe that he also elicits from some other sections of the population.

However, as I see it, both of them have not only understood a systemic need inherent in India, but have also successfully addressed it. The software leader has addressed the need to create opportunities for our growing population of graduates, who were getting increasingly desperate.

The spiritual guru has addressed an emotional need of spiritual strength that is needed across the population, with the biggest beneficiary being the poorest class in the society. He has not only addressed the spiritual needs of the poor, but he has also addressed their economic needs by cross subsidizing his earnings from his exports to help give a source of livelihood for the poor. It is only natural that he is treated as a deity, a saviour and a messiah by a large section of the population that is poor.

While the software leader earns respect from his employees by treating them as peers and driving his own car, the spiritual guru earns respect from his devotees by using his helicopter to give darshan (make himself available in person) to several of them, who crave for his personal presence.

In a country that does not have large amounts of poverty and desperation, the software leader's lifestyle is a natural moral compass. But addressing a society with large amounts of poverty and desperation is a different ball game. Such societies tend to be people-oriented. They want leaders, not ideas. They are not impressed by well designed policies, but with decisive actions bringing concrete results to address their desperation.

The software leader may face criticism from his peers, given the flat organizational structure he built. But he also gets to have a personal life of his own, pursuing his desires and getting his space away from his peers. In contrast, the spiritual guru may be "enjoying" adulation and deification from his devotees; but he has paid a great personal price for "enjoying" this life. He cannot afford to have his own personal life or a family, and cannot afford to entertain any idea that may go against what is generally believed to be true, by the population of his devotees. In effect, while the devotees worship him, they also implicitly control what he can say in public.

The software leader's style is well understood by the West. So much so that, his business is now more or less swallowed up by foreign investors, and he is no longer the "leader" of the business that he built. In contrast, the spiritual guru still gets to run his business and so far, no Western investor or NGO has still figured out his secret sauce to take over his business.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Homeostasis and Evolution

Life as we know it, is an interplay between two abstract forces: homeostasis and evolution.

Homeostasis refers to the tendency of life to preserve itself and its integrity. The term is usually used in the context of the biological being, but in its essence, it refers to a more abstract property of a system to preserve itself, by staying in a region of stability. Even physical systems like atoms and molecules exhibit this property in their tendency to settle down at low energy "stable" configurations.

However, regardless of how efficiently homeostasis preserves life, life is finite and is bounded by physical constraints that limit how long a creature can live. Also, a stable region that homeostasis strives to preserve may be "optimal" but not the "optimum". A stable region is one that minimizes the cost of existence and maximizes utility. A region may be stable in its neighbourhood, but there may well be other, even better stable regions, with even lesser costs and even greater utility.

For this reason, life never stays at a stable region. While one generation preserves itself in a stable region by the force of homeostasis, there is another force at work, namely evolution, which keeps foraging for even better ways for life to exist, and striving to overcome whatever major challenges the current form of homeostasis is facing.

The process of evolution hence strategically disposes the offspring in ways that can help it escape from, or provide it with innate defenses towards the major threats faced by its immediate generational ancestors. It is for this reason that we often see instances where parents would have taken immense measures to protect their offsprings from some form of danger, only to realize later on that the children were innately aware of such a danger. (The story of Gautama Buddha comes to mind here.)

Homeostasis and evolution can be projected from individual life forms to the collective society formed by the individuals.

What we call as culture is essentially the force of homeostasis operating in the collective. Our culture is often imbibed onto us in several ways -- at home, at school, at work and even on the media and at public places. Cultural forces work to subtly orient our thinking and hence our actions towards a region that is considered stable for the population.

Yet, while culture is at work towards preserving what we have, evolution is also at work towards strategically orienting the next generation to handle the major challenges and opportunities faced by the present generation. This is why the "generation gap" is real. Major social changes happen not because a society changes its mind, but because it is replaced by a new generation that has a different mind.

Often times strategies that give desirable outcomes in the system of homeostasis, often give vastly different outcomes in the system of evolution.

Let me give an example.

A common axiom that is often used to bring up children glorifies reward/punishment and operand conditioning. It is sometimes generalized as the belief: "adversity builds character." And this belief can be tested by creating pedagogic experiments and measuring outcomes. It is often indeed the case that adversity builds character. It is easy to see why. Adversity tries to push a system out of its stable region. The forces of homeostasis kick in and utilizes all resources that it can muster to bring the system back into its stable region. In this process, it builds its "character" and the students realize the "stuff" that they are made of.

However, homeostasis is not the only force that drives life. When we factor the other force -- evolution -- into the above equation, we see that the story is more complicated. When homeostasis is busy building character to counter the adversity, it is also priming itself to tell the next generation to avoid or be wary of this kind of adversity. The next generation is not likely to face this adversity and build their character. Instead, they would be innately programmed to either avoid this adversity, or be so fearful of this adversity that they perhaps break down psychologically when faced with the same adversity.

It is quite disappointing that even among the most erudite thought leaders that we often see on public media, there does not seem to be enough appreciation, or even awareness about this silent force called evolution that is shaping our lives. We seem to consider social responses as a memoryless snapshot of the present.

More than once, I have encountered this lament by cinematic figureheads about "rising intolerance" among the Indian audience. They lament on how even one of the most tolerant of cultures -- dharmic thought, loosely categorized as Hinduism -- is becoming intolerant in recent times. The usual example that is given is to show how Hinduism was lampooned in the movies of 1970s and it was well accepted by the audience, while the same thing today would offend a lot of Hindus. Here is one such talk show where the speaker is making this lament and asking the Hindus to not become like "them" (referring to other religions in the neighbourhood, that implement adverse blasphemy and apostasy laws).

But we can see the flaw in his reasoning by considering the way evolutionary forces work.

Hinduism that was subject to lampooning and criticism, accepted and assimilated it as part of its dynamics of homeostasis. But concurrently (and subconsciously) it was also communicating to the next generation to be wary of or not tolerate, these kinds of invalidation of its core beliefs, which are anyway not admitted by other religions towards their beliefs. The very openness that made them tolerant in one generation, primed the next generation to become intolerant towards the same stimuli.

There is an important lesson in there for all of us. Adversity may build character -- but only for this generation, and how the next generation may react to that adversity is very unpredictable. Dissent may strengthen democracy -- but only for this generation. How the next generation will handle dissent that was graciously debated by the previous generation, will be very hard to predict.

When it comes to managing evolutionary dynamics, the "law of attraction" may be more pertinent. The strategic orientation of the next generation will be based on what the previous generation predominantly thinks about. If we want the next generation to be more tolerant, it would make more sense to celebrate and uphold commendable practices, rather than lament, lampoon and criticize unacceptable practices.

Undesirable social practices are best combated by making them irrelevant across generations by strengthening the desirable practices, rather than fighting them head on. It is somewhat like making a tall building short, by building even taller buildings in its vicinity. If we want Hinduism or any other culture to become or preserve its tolerant nature, focus more on its positives (including its tolerant nature), rather than lament on why it is not accepting invalidation like it used to.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

System, Being and Consciousness

One of the current hot topics among researchers of artificial intelligence (AI) is about consciousness. Consciousness has been an object of interest for philosophers from several centuries. It is only in recent times that scientific curiosity into consciousness is gathering momentum.

The reason for this new found interest is rapid advances in "autonomous" machines, which can be programmed to act rationally and take decisions "on their own". Rationality is fundamentally driven by two elements: self-interest and utility maximization. All living beings are rational. But there are several nuances as well.

Utility maximization is an optimization problem at its core, and depends on how much information the autonomous agent has about the situation, how much it can afford to compute, and so on.

And autonomy is not all about rationality. Humans and other animals which are known to behave autonomously, exhibit several other characteristics in addition to being driven (just) by self-interest. At the very least, several animals acknowledge the presence of others and their self-interests in their own processes of utility maximization.

Including others' interests into one's own calculations opens up a vast area of ethics and morality. Such questions are now becoming mainstream in AI research, as we make advances in autonomous behaviour.

A commonly cited moral dilemma in AI is a variant of the trolley problem. Suppose you are sitting in an autonomous, self-driving car which is taking you to work. The car suddenly encounters a pregnant lady crossing the street right in front of a bridge. The car has two choices: hit the lady (which would be fatal) and save the occupant of the car, or swerve to avoid the lady, but fall into the ditch, almost definitely killing the occupant. What choice should it (be programmed to) favour?

Similarly there was this incident in the US recently when an autonomous robot was sent to kill a gunman who was shooting down cops. While there was justification about not risking the lives of officers in this operation, there were also other camps which noted that a human entering the house would have carried some hope to have convinced the gunman to surrender, while the robot was only optimizing to kill.

The human could have made a "conscious connection" with the assailant and may potentially have computed an optimal solution at a completely different epistemological level, that was not even accessible to the robot.

The debate about consciousness had begun along with initial advances in AI back in the 1970s. In response to the debates then, Roger Penrose had written this book called The Emperor's New Mind where he asserted that consciousness was beyond the capabilities of what a computer can do -- even theoretically.

AI research hit a plateau around that time, due to the fact that much of its logic and reasoning were modeled as closed-world operations (ignorance as falsity), which limited their expressive abilities. However, by the 1990s, AI came back with a new lease of life with advances in the theory of agency -- or autonomous agents working in an open-world environment.

The expressiveness of intelligent agents was so much richer than the previous form of AI, that many researchers refuse to believe Penrose's claim and contend that computation can indeed create behaviours that may be termed consciousness. This claim is also called the "strong AI" claim.

Another skeptical attack against computational consciousness and strong AI is John Searle's Chinese Room Argument. Imagine a person sitting in a room which has a single window through which others ask questions in Chinese. The person in the room cannot speak or read Chinese. But the person has access to a vast library and a set of rules that define how to manipulate any given sequence of symbols written in Chinese. The person can hence provide answers to all questions that are asked. Would we call this person "conscious" in terms of being able to converse in Chinese?

Searle's argument basically says that a computer, no matter how "intelligently" it may appear to behave, is only manipulating symbols according to rules. It is not really "aware" of the meaning of what it is doing.

Despite the above skepticism, computational consciousness is a hot area of research. Penrose for example, received a number of criticisms for his first book -- especially criticisms that alleged that he has left the path of science and was speaking like the "Eastern mystics". In response to such criticisms, Penrose came back with another book called Shadows of the mind, where he distanced himself from the "Eastern mystics" and basically asserted that mind is a result of quantum mechanical effects, whose mathematical expressiveness is richer than the set of computable numbers (basically, everything that computers can do)

In this post, I'd like to shift focus on the much maligned "Eastern mystics" and their view of consciousness and why speaking to Eastern mystics does not automatically make one unscientific.

I've argued in earlier posts that Eastern hermeneutics are based on the "system" as a fundamental building block of the universe -- in contrast to the "particle" that forms the basis of Western thought.

Conventionally (in Western thought) a "system" is seen as a composite entity, comprising of several parts and interactions between them. Hence, the assertion that a "system" is a foundational element seems to make no sense, at first glance. It seems to simply beg the question -- if everything is made of systems, what are systems themselves made of?

This is where it is important to understand Eastern hermeneutics.

The building block of the universe in Eastern thought is obviously not called a "system" -- but is called a "being" (in Sanskrit, Asthita -- or that which has dynamics). A "being" is something that can exist in different states. The dynamics of a being is an integral, autonomous, inseparable characteristic of being..

Hence, a "system" is not built from particles and interactions, but by  beings autonomously coming together (driven by their dynamics) to form bigger beings.

The dynamics of a being, gives it certain characteristics, which enable it to combine with other beings to form bigger and richer beings -- or even annihilate and subdue one another. Viruses (which are basically protein molecules) for instance, have certain dynamics which make them combine with elements in another being's body to form either an infection or a routine metabolism of the larger being. Drugs for instance are beings (proteins) which can dock to viruses, thus subduing their dynamics. Different atoms in a chemical soup for instance, are beings that have different affinities and disaffinities towards one another, which makes them eventually coagulate into one or more complex compounds.

In the theory of beings, structure and dynamics are inseparable. They are encapsulated as a single abstraction, collectively forming the being.

In such a theory, "consciousness" is basically a graded function of the "awareness" possessed by the being. The more aware a being is, the more conscious it is. And of course, the limit to awareness is the universal consciousness or the universal self. The universe itself is a being -- the largest possible and most expressive being that can ever be.

Note that the theory of beings does not directly answer whether consciousness is computationally tractable. This is because computable numbers are not "beings" per se. They do not possess innate dynamics. But when computation is "embodied" in a machine, it is a "being" in the sense of possessing dynamics. However, such a being is not built from the algebra of being composition -- that is, bigger beings being formed by the autonomous composition of smaller beings.

When a larger being is composed by the autonomous composition of smaller beings, the autonomy displayed by the larger being is a function of the autonomy possessed by its constituent beings. As humans, our autonomous behaviour for instance, is a (very complex) function of the autonomy possessed by the billions of cells that we are made of.

This property is not true for a robot that is designed with a top-down teleological objective and is embodied with a software that encodes behaviours for rational choice.

In the "Eastern mystics" view, there are no "machines" in nature -- only "societies". Machines are top-down constructs, built by a creator for a teleological objective. In contrast, societies are bottom-up phenomena, where several autonomous beings come together to result in a complex and rich ensemble.

To come back to the original question of whether machines can be made truly conscious or whether consciousness is tractable -- maybe we should first start by defining a mathematics of beings and autonomous composition of beings. And build machines (which would be more like societies) based on such mathematics.

Maybe then, we might be able to build truly conscious machines someday..

Friday, August 12, 2016

On interpretations of "self actualization"

In management lessons, we are taught about "Maslow's hierarchy" that details the different layers of human endeavours. Human needs are layered in this model into five layers: physiological needs, security needs, social needs, esteem needs and finally self actualization.

Self actualization is said to be the highest endeavor where the person is concerned with personal growth and with fulfilling one's potential. Self actualized people are less interested in social acceptance or esteem and are more focused towards unleashing their potential.

The theory as a whole is profound and very pertinent. The notion of self actualization as the ultimate endeavour is also a profound thought.

However, the nuances lie in what constitutes "self actualization" and it is here, where I have some issues about how it is interpreted.

Self actualization is often interpreted in a crude sense as the dominance of one's self over the environment. Such an interpretation for instance, glorifies the ego and venerates "strong" leaders who build large empires (of either the social or the capitalist variety) and "commands" a huge following.

Some of my experiences with folks who swear by Ayn Rand and her theory of the "virtues of selfishness" belong to that category (not saying that Ayn Rand herself interpreted self-actualization that way).

At the core of such an interpretation is the paradigm of territoriality, where "liberation" is equated with dominance and ownership. Hence liberation of the self happens only when one's self no longer needs to be driven by other's diktats and instead itself dominates and marks its environment as its property.

In contrast, if one were to read the works of Ramana Maharshi, Adi Shankaracharya and other Indian philosophers, their notion of "liberation" is when the Atman (Self) resonates with the Brahman (Universal self), and discovers that the "seed" that forms the entire universe lies within itself (tat tvam asi).

The self in this model, does not impose itself on the world, but discovers itself and develops itself so that it can resonate with the universal self.

That there is such a thing called universal self or global consciousness is central to this model. Something, which AI theories like superintelligence is coming to terms with. Conjecturing the existence of an entity that is unverified, by itself does not make it fallacious -- string theory and dark matter theory adopt such methods too.

Self-actualized people in this model do not necessarily "do" anything -- but act in a way as though things are done "through" them.

At the core of this latter theory is the paradigm of "harmony". Self-actualization happens only when the self is able to resonate or harmonize with the universal self. It is facilitated not necessarily by accumulation of wealth and/or overcoming the other lower needs in the Maslow hierarchy, but by an inner exploration and obviates the importance of the lower level needs.

This paradigm also has no notion of dominance or ownership. The liberated self does not "realize its true potential" by manifesting itself in the outside world, but "realizes the seeds of the universe within itself". Both look similar, but there are subtle differences. Realizing one's true potential does not need a notion of harmony. One could realize one's strength and resilience in tough times. This is not the same as self actualization of the latter variety. To realize the seeds of the universe within oneself, one needs to think not about oneself, but of the essence of the entire universe. The self needs to explore beyond itself in order to find the essence of the entirety within itself.

For the purposes of argument, let me call the former model as "selfish actualization" and the latter one as "self actualization".

Another recurrent meme, especially among artificial intelligence (AI) researchers is the concept of self-aware robots and machines. And for some reason, there is a popular belief that a self-aware computer program would start dominating or taking over the world. The self aware computer program called VIKI in the movie "I, Robot" is an example.

This is something which I again find strange to accept. Self awareness is an important element for developing a compassionate, empathetic and wise worldview. Why then, would self aware robots want to take over the world when they may as well turn out to be wise and compassionate?

The problem here again is with "selfish actualization" masquerading as "self actualization" driving the thought process. The problem is with the paradigm that assumes that every self necessarily tries to impose and dominate over the world, and that peace in the world exists only in the form of an emergent equilibrium between disparate dominating selves.

Similarly, a lot of what is taught today in business schools and what is practiced by businesses is "selfish actualization" rather than self actualization. Businesses are taught to "capture" a market, rather than "participate" in it. Amazon wants to upstage Flipkart as part of its India strategy, Uber wants to upstage Ola, Starbucks wants to have no place for Cafe Coffee Day (and Cafe Coffee Day ensures that Starbucks face lots of hurdles in entering India), and so on.. Businesses today want to dominate and "own" the market, rather than participate and blend into the market adding to its flavour.

So, all I am saying... is give "harmony" a chance.. in our paradigms.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

The algebra of harmony

Recently, we were visiting Malaysia and in our hotel room, we found this magazine talking about local cultural events. One specific entry caught my eye -- the "Mek Bungo" dance. Here is a portrayal of the dance:
The apparently "storyless" dance feature
As one might see, the dance is about a girl and a boy who fall in love. And that's it.

This apparently "storyless" dance feature was familiar to me at a deep level, and it took me back to my childhood, when we were taught something unique in our homes -- celebrating harmony.

We were taught to see systems comprising of multiple, interacting elements, regardless of what abstraction level we were addressing. Be it the human body or societies or the climate or atoms -- they are all systems comprising of multiple interacting elements.

Systems are characterized by states of stability or "harmony" where some aspect(s) of the system is (are) optimal. In traditional Indian thought, such stable states are called "dharma". Dharmic thought sees systems everywhere. Even static objects like a stone for example, are seen as systems that are in an extreme state of apparent inactivity. Ayurveda for example, views our body to be a state of "harmony" or a stable interference pattern, formed by several interacting forces. There are several interference patterns that are stable (primarily three) -- these are called doshas. Illness is seen as disharmony, which needs to be rectified by bringing back the body into its natural state of harmony.

In my high school, I used to have a chronic case of sinusitis. It frequently led to infections and high fever. Several medical interventions gave me only symptomatic relief. It was finally, a course of Ayurvedic treatment that helped me out of chronic sinusitis. The doctor who treated me explained this to me: Allopathy (Western medicine) treats the disease, while Ayurveda treats the patient. His argument was that my stressful lifestyle (because of school and exam worries) had led to a state of systemic imbalance, which manifest as several chronic illnesses, including sinusitis, fibromyalgia, etc. His treatment addressed these imbalances rather than treating the chronic sinus itself (also, primary treatment was not required as there was no infection).

As humans, all we had to do to lead a life, was to realize systems that we are part of, or that affect us -- systems within and systems outside of us and systems that subsume us. We need to then work towards bringing the system to a state of harmony (dharma). In order to keep harmonizing more and more complex systems, we will need to evolve ourselves physically, emotionally, intellectually, philosophically and spiritually. Finally, we liberate ourselves from this task of harmonization to attain a state of detachment (moksha).

This is exemplified by a quote by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagwad Gita. Krishna first explains to Arjuna why the war was necessary to bring the system back to a state of dharma (which is why the Mahabharata war is called a dharam-yudh), but then goes on to suggest the following to Arjuna to do after the war (verse 66):

सर्वधर्मान परित्यज्य मामेकं शारणं व्रज ।
अहं त्वाम सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुचः

"Abdicate all dharma and repose in me, I will wash away your sins and bring you to moksha"

The notion of dharma has been variously translated as religion, ethics, duty, etc. which in turn, gives the above statement several weird meanings. Think of the above getting translated as, "Abdicate all ethics and come to me.." or "Abdicate all religion and come to me.." (like as though, I am the only true religion). Interpreting dharma as harmonization of a system, gives it a much clearer interpretation.

A system may have several states of harmony or stability. Each state of harmony is a state of local optimality. Think of a mountain range like the Himalayas. Each hill top or a plateau or a mountain peak constitutes a state of optimality -- we cannot go any higher from there in any direction. Not all peaks are at the same height, and each state of optimality results in different characteristics of the system.

Hence, upholding harmony is not a simple task at all. When we bring the system to a low state of harmony -- it appears stable, but it may soon get saturated. Establishing harmony at a higher level of fitness requires one to deeply understand the system and its dynamics, as well as face the wrath of forces in the system that want to settle down at a state of harmony that has a lower level of fitness (and may be prone to saturation or is no longer tenable).

When I was suffering from a chronic illness, my body had settled down to a lower level of harmony -- a lower peak if you will. I was intellectually optimal with my schools and exams, but was emotionally sub-optimal. In order to perform well, I had to subdue all questions in my mind that were not in the exam syllabus. As a 14 year old, I had lots of questions that pained me -- including questions about the world in general, and questions about the changes happening in my own body. All these were irrelevant to the board exams and entrance exams coming up and had to be stifled. I was also nutritionally sub-optimal with my daily diet insufficient to keep me working at the desired level of intellect.

My doctor, in addition to offering medicines -- basically diet supplements -- also helped me address these systemic issues within me. Such efforts encountered internal resistance, as trying to find a greater level of harmony required me to give up on what was currently working. This process was hence gradual and deliberate, requiring me to recognize myself and work towards a better state. (Unfortunately, this doctor died in a freak road accident after a few months, and I've not found anyone else since then, who was so clear in his concepts.)

Another element of upholding harmony is to recognize and celebrate it explicitly. By celebrating the harmony we seek, we turn greater attention from ourselves or from the collective to the desired harmony, rather than fret on the current state of disharmony. Larger attention towards a possible harmonious state can help manifest such a state by making it replace the current configuration (especially in an evolutionary setting -- it is always better to convey to the next generation, the desired harmonious state, rather than elucidate them on the details of the current state of disharmony).

This is what characterized several art forms in such a paradigm. Art was pure expression, with no explicit message. Celebrating love, nature, happiness, seasons, rains, relationships, and just about anything. 

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).