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).

Thursday, July 07, 2016

An ode to Indian dads

Recently, I came across this book written in the 1950s, called The Art of Loving, by Erich Fromm. It is a wonderfully written book -- has several very profound insights and develops a theory of love based not just on biological instincts, but also on the philosophy of life and our spiritual roots. I would highly recommend this to anyone wishing to embark on a journey of self discovery.

Perhaps, I'll write a detailed book review on this sometime later, but this post is about some parts of the book that I strongly disagree with. It also brings to the fore, the intense dissonance I see between the Eastern and the Western world-view (at least the facet of the Western world-view that is prominent in this part of the world), which continues to pull us in different directions even today.

As part of a comprehensive theory of love, Fromm distinguishes between "motherly" and "fatherly" love. Motherly love is defined as something that is unconditional and accepting of us and all our faults and shortcomings. Motherly love need not be earned and it flows freely. Motherly love is hence the characteristic of "home".

Fatherly love on the other hand -- according to Fromm -- is demanding of one's resources towards bettering oneself. Fatherly love is not unconditional. One has to earn the father's love through "discipline" and "obedience." While motherly love is characteristic of "home", apparently, fatherly love is what makes societies function.

Fromm also notes that many societies were driven by motherly love or "matriarchy" in the past, but most societies are now patriarchal. He goes on to also note how most "Gods" are male -- but also notes exceptions like "Shakti" or "Kali" in Hindu society that are female. That is about all he has to say about the concept of love in Eastern thought -- apart from occasional references to Buddhism and Taoism.

Given the setting of 1950s Europe, when this book was written, I can understand the world-view that he proposes, concerning "motherly" and "fatherly" love. And I would like to present an alternate perspective of "fatherly love" in Indian society, from my own experience.

What Fromm says in his book, was pretty much what was adopted in the school where I studied, where "teacherly care" was seen as an extension of the "fatherly" form of love. So, we were subject to judgement, punishment, humiliation, invalidation, and so on, "for our own good." I've written earlier about what school did to me, and how it has left me with some deep rooted scars.

And even today, as a teacher, I keep having arguments when someone gets a bit too enthusiastic about passing judgements and administering punishments on students "for their own good." I believe now that any society that places a premium on punishments is a mediocre society at best, and we cannot expect any great insights from such societies any time soon.


One of the reasons for the extent to which I was scarred, was the fundamental, ideological differences between what we learned at school and what we learned at home. 

School taught us to think of the world as an adversary and defined our strength of character in terms of how well we can face adversity. 

Home taught us to think of the world as an intricately complex and sublime system, of which, we are but a minuscule -- nevertheless important -- part. Home taught us that life is all about discovering ourselves and offering ourselves to this great big collage, to make it even more better. Home also taught us that our biggest adversary is within us, it is our ignorance of ourselves -- and the ultimate objective of life is to find where we fit in this collage, and experience unbridled joy and fulfilment.

While school told us that fatherly love was about discipline and obedience, home told us that fatherly love was about insight and inspiration

Unlike what we realized from school or from what Fromm says, we never had to earn our father's love. It was always there -- except in a slightly different form from that of the motherly love. While motherly love accepted us as we were -- with all our faults and shortcomings -- fatherly love took the extra effort to help us understand and overcome, or at least manage, our faults and shortcomings. 

I still believe that my dad is an unsung genius, and several of his insights have been far more profound than the stuff we often see from "thought leaders" in the outside world. 

Here are some more things I learned from my dad:

He taught me how not to be short-sighted in my approach to life. He distinguished between three kinds of questions that people ask: "How to live?", "What is life?" and "What is everything?" 

The first is just an imperative question and is just looking for a set of thumb rules. The second is a declarative question -- it does not seek "rules" and answers -- it wants to understand the larger picture. But even this is "self centric" putting ourselves in the centre, and asking about ourselves. The third question is much more profound -- it seeks an understanding of not just ourselves, but of the larger scheme of things. It is only when we ask the third question that we can meaningfully contribute to this sublime collage.

While school taught me "time is money", my dad taught me that time is more valuable than money and it does not make sense to invest time just to earn money. Money has to be a byproduct of something deeper for which we have invested our time. 

While school taught me that "knowledge is power" my dad taught me that "wisdom is empowering" -- because it balances power with responsibility.

School made a virtue of obedience, while dad made a virtue of curiosity, open mind and critical thinking. 

School wanted me to "burn the midnight oil" and prepare for exams by fighting sleep. Dad taught me to not just study for exams, but understand the deeper significance of what I was learning. Using dad's technique, I had to "burn the midnight oil" not in order to keep myself from sleeping, but because I could not sleep due to the hundreds of ideas running in my mind after understanding the significance of what I was learning. 

While school criminalized us when we didn't follow their rules, and resorted to humiliating punishments, dad taught us the law of karma and how our actions come back to haunt us, no matter how small it may seem. Dad also taught us that if we are not accountable for our actions, it keeps haunting not just us, but subsequent generations as well.

In fact, the only grouse (if I may call it that) against my dad is that he has instilled in me a deep sense of duty and devotion towards a higher purpose, so much so that my therapist once asked me, "Why do you have to take so much burden on your head? Learn to live for yourself."

In India, we don't need superficial constructs like "father's day" and "mother's day" for us to think of our parents. Our whole lives is a manifestation and extension of their ideals.


The general world-view of Indian society outside of India and among a section of population in India, is that it is a very patriarchal society. 

If the above is what patriarchy means, then I'll say, more power to such "patriarchy"..

And no, I do not agree that Indian society is patriarchal. Having understood the Eastern concept of dharma and the law of karma, Indian thought is anything but patriarchal. The subsection of Indian society that is indeed patriarchal (primarily due to historical reasons, not ideological reasons) are also so powerful and visible in the public eye, that collectively we suffer from the majority illusion when we talk about patriarchy in India. 

I'll venture to assert that what I have exposited above is the norm, not the exception of Indian society.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The psychology of good governance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is easy to see why I assert the above. 

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

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

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

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

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

Principles of natural governance, if you will.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Ideas and identities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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