04 August, 2017

Dharma and Fairness

It is common knowledge that almost all social upheavals around the world have been a fight for fairness. Or were they really about fairness?

To answer this of course, we need to define what is fairness. Unfortunately, this is where things start going out of hand. In my class on negotiation theory we study at least six definitions of fairness -- many of them contradicting one another!

Consider this example. Suppose some people agree to meet up for something. And they all agree that they will meet in the house of one of the persons. It is clearly unfair, right? Everybody else, except the guy at whose house the meeting is to be held, needs to commute in traffic, while the lone guy gets to relax at his house waiting for others to arrive.

However, when we were students pursuing our theses, we routinely went to meet our professors at their house to discuss our research on holidays and it never occurred to us that it was unfair. No, it was not because there was a "hierarchy" with professors bullying students (I studied in post unification Germany which was very keen to attract students, and the professors were not only inspiring, but also "chilled out" -- if that's the right word).

The reason we found the setup fair was that as students we had a singular goal -- to make progress towards our thesis. And commuting several miles for a meeting was just a small cost towards the benefit of making progress on our theses. While the professor had several students and had several goals to pursue -- not just research goals, but also administrative and financial goals to keep the department and lab running. The intrinsic cost that he would have to pay to commute through traffic for meeting his students would be much higher.

The thing here to note is that utility and cost have subjective elements, even though there is a price tag associated with the object. If a kg of tomatoes cost Rs. 100/- (Ha!) and I buy tomatoes by paying Rs. 100/- what it means is not that the value of a kg of tomatoes is Rs. 100/-. What it means is, for the buyer, a kg of tomatoes is more valuable than Rs. 100/- while for the seller, Rs. 100/- is more valuable than a kg of tomatoes.

Hence, a system of fairness based on objective valuation may not actually be considered fair.

Here is another example connotation of fairness -- the property of Pareto optimality. A system comprising of multiple rational agents is said to be in a state of Pareto optimality, if no agent can change what they are doing, to get a better utility, without hurting the utility of some other agent.

A queue for example, is in a state of Pareto optimality. People standing in a queue can choose to either remain in the queue, or cut the queue and go straight to the counter to get for themselves a better payoff (lesser waiting time). However, while they get a better payoff, all others in front of them in the queue would be worse off by this action of theirs.

Pareto optimality, is hence seen as yet another example of fairness.

However, consider this example. A society that practices slavery is also in a state of Pareto optimality. And if Pareto optimality were to be the measure of fairness, then slaves seeking freedom, or workers seeking better and more human working conditions, would hurt the prospects for their masters or for the management, making it unfair.

So when is Pareto optimality fair and when is it unfair?

Consider yet another example -- a game called the "Battle of the sexes".

A couple wish to go on a date and they have between them two options -- a musical concert or a cricket match. The boy likes to go to the musical concert, while the girl likes to go to the cricket match (of course!). If they both decide to go to the musical concert, then the boy would have "won" the battle -- not only are they going on a date, they are going to his preferred choice. If instead they choose to go to the cricket match, the girl would have "won" the battle. They of course, have a third choice -- to call off the date and go on to the concert or the cricket match separately. In which case, they are both equal -- but they are not on a date, which is what had started the whole exercise.

The above is an example of a choice between a system state that is "equally poor" or "unequally rich", where the poorest in the unequally rich state is richer than the richest in the equally poor state.

So in this case, do we favour equality over collective wealth, or collective wealth over equality? (The answer is not that simple -- what if unequally rich state, the richest was orders and orders of magnitude more richer than the poorest?)

I can give several more examples of fairness, all of which have a "Yes but.." exception, where the very definition of fairness can be used to create a system that is blatantly and visibly unfair.

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You guessed it right if you are thinking that fairness cannot be defined only in terms of payoffs of the players involved. There is more to the definition of fairness than just the self-interest functions of the players. 

And that is the element of sustainability -- that dharma thing again! 

Look back at all the social upheavals of history. Were they really about fairness, or were they about sustainability? 

Slavery -- or the trading of our liberty for some concrete benefit -- has existed for millenia and it was also rationalized away by weird logic. A weak person for instance, had two choices -- struggle for survival or become a slave of a stronger person and make the other guy stronger, so that he can take care of both of them. Trading of one's freedom for a life of safety was seen as a most rational thing to do. 

Except, beyond a certain point the configuration becomes unsustainable. 

We trade our freedom for safety or convenience all the time. Be it using Gmail and telling google all about ourselves, or passing through an X-ray scanner in airport security and answering embarrassing questions about the contents of our bags to airport security. 

As long as the extent to which we give up our liberty is bounded (by place, time and type of liberty) it is still fine. But when this trade becomes unbounded, we get into systemic stability issues. 

Which is what is the core issue concerning privacy in the digital age. The question of privacy is not about fairness per se. The argument for fairness can be countered by several examples where we voluntarily give up our personal information. 

The core issue is of sustainability of basic human values and dignity in a system where every information about them can be recorded in high-fidelity forever. 

*~*~*~*~*~*

So, let me say this again. Unless we develop a comprehensive "Theory of Being" we cannot hope to find real solutions to the digitally connected world of the 21st century. We will just keep harping on fairness rhetoric without gaining any fundamental insight about what is the real problem.

24 July, 2017

The limits of Syncretism

In the study of human societies like religion, politics, culture, etc. a commonly occurring tool of inquiry is Syncretism. It refers to the process of computing equivalences between disparate belief systems and hermeneutics to look for underlying unity and promote dialogue across hermeneutics.

No doubt, the intention of Syncretic studies is noble, but as always, the devil lies in the details. Some time ago, I had written a post on the limits of "informed consent" -- which is seen as the cornerstone of liberal, consensual relationships. The incident that started me to think about the limits of informed consent, was a study I'd come across about "productivity enhancement" that required a 360-degree collection of "Big data" from employees. Stuff like what time they get up, what time they come to work, how much time they spend at the water cooler, what sites they visit, what is their emotional state, what is the state of their marital relationship, etc. were all collected and given to a "Big data analytics" engine to give actionable insights.

The primary defense the authors had about the use of such intrusive data about the employees' personal lives, was the axiom of "informed consent". The employees were told what data would be collected and they consented to it.

The only problem in this argument is that the employees likely had no recourse but to give their consent -- or else, face the wrath of upper management and possibly end up losing their jobs. Informed consent, in a state of power asymmetry is just a fait accompli.

The same thing is true of Syncretism. Let us assume two hermeneutic systems A and B wanting to understand one another. Syncretic interpretations are directed relationships. There can be a Syncretic explanation of concepts of B in terms of A, as well as concepts of A in terms of B.

In an egalitarian world with similar levels of strength from both sides, we would probably see equal numbers of interpretations in either directions.

However, the literature pertaining to interpreting culture, religion, arts, etc in the English-speaking world is hopelessly one-sided. It represents the interpretation of other cultures and hermeneutics from a European (later American) hermeneutic framework.

Hence, we see a non-existent religion called "Hinduism" that is boxed in as the predominant belief-system in India and it is neatly separated from other similar "-isms" like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc. Even concepts of this "Hinduism" like dharma, atma, prana, vidhi, etc are all mapped to mostly Biblical concepts (since "Hinduism" was considered a "religion") to find some kind of a subgraph isomorphism.

With a good enough interpretation, several "Indology experts" have emerged who use the Syncretic interpretation to suggest political, social and cultural interventions into what they see as social evils or superstition.

It also helped that Indian society was reeling from different forms of collective trauma when the Western explorers set out to study and interpret the culture. Reactions to trauma often take extreme forms ("sati" and "jouhar" for instance, were not social practices characteristic of "Hinduism" representing some sick notions of male dominance; but were traumatic counter-reactions against invaders who were killing men and enslaving the women.)

The power asymmetry that still exists between India and the Western world, have ensured that the Syncretic narrative about Indian thought is fast becoming the "mainstream" with the actual thought getting sidelined and faces a real danger of becoming extinct with the emergence of the generation of the English educated, digital natives whose primary source of worldview is Wikipedia.

Syncretic interpretation of Indian culture, which forms the basis on which children in the West are taught about India and "India experts" base their political advice, is wildly way off target. And what is worse, is that even in India, especially since Indian (dharmic) thought is not studied in the formal education system, and many students are growing up speaking and thinking in English (because of the greater opportunity it provides), the only source of material for them to understand Indian thought is the Western syncretic interpretation of it.

I've extensively written about the misinterpretation of dharma as either religion, law, ethics, norms, duty, etc. when it actually defines an abstract, conceptual notion of sustainability -- or the universal principle of equilibrium. Indian thought postulates the existence of dharma (which can be independently verified in various ways), and there is no question of "belief" in dharma. Dharma, like gravity, exists regardless of whether we believe in it.

Imagine a mind that has concepts like "ethics", "law", "religion", "duty", etc. but no concept for the universal principle of sustainability, interpreting the term "dharma" based on the different contexts it appears in. The actual meaning of dharma gets hopelessly distorted when equated with any or all of these concepts.

Similarly, the term "Atman" or "Atma" is interpreted as "Soul" -- a primarily Biblical concept. Atma is is the essence of "being" or the "beingness" that manifests dharma (among other things). Atma is not limited to humans and animals -- it is there in every object. In fact, there is no difference between "living" and "non-living" beings -- they are all basically beings. The fact that Atma is characteristic of even non-living objects is interpreted to mean that "Hinduism" is somewhat like "Animism". All we can say in response is -- sigh.

In dharmic hermeneutics, the entire universe is a Being that is made up of beings. The primary contention was on the relationship between the universal Being (Brahman) and its constituent beings (Atmans). It is somewhat analogous to (but not identical to or syncretically similar to) Cantor's paradox -- that tries to establish the set of all sets as a set and ends up in an existential dilemma.

Hence, there are theories that are based on non-separation (Advaita) between the Atman and Brahman (which again, is not the same as or syncretically equivalent to monoism of Western philosophy) and theories that posit a graded relationship between beings (Atmans) and the Being (Brahman).

As I see it, there is a pressing need for reviving dharmic hermeneutics (not just preserving it as a dead relic in a museum).

*~*~*~*~*~*

Existence is basically defined by three fundamental processes: creation, sustenance and death/transformation. Different cultures have emphasized these fundamental processes with different levels of importance.

Western culture as we know it today, has its roots in Europe and West Asia, both of which were characterized by scarcity. The cultures are forged by war and struggle, over several centuries. Survival was not a given. As the saying goes: "A man said to the universe: Sir I exist! However, replied the universe, The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation."

In such cultures, creation and transformation are central elements. The emergence of modern science and technology are all founded upon the fundamental process of creation and building of "stuff".

In contrast, Indian thought was largely founded in a place that was resource rich and benign. The world is seen as a nurturing mother, rather than an adversary in such cultures. The primary objective of this culture was to "sustain" what nature has already given us. Cultural practices evolved that promoted humans to blend into the environment and become a part of the ecological process of sustenance, rather than view nature as a resource. There was also no concept of a "food chain" with predators on top. The entire ecosystem was seen as a system of being, whose dharma (sustenance) was a function of the interaction among its various constituent beings -- be they predators or non-predators.

As I see it, with an increasingly connected world, sustenance is one of the most important characteristic that is largely ignored. We think of sustainability only when it comes to big issues like climate change that makes us feel good, virtuous and erudite, to talk about. We do not acknowledge the importance of treating sustainability as a first-order concept in every aspect of our lives -- be it business, family or governance.

Hence, my promotion of dharmic hermeneutics is by no means a promotion of "Hindu" "religion". Dharmic thought has nothing to do with holy cows or vegetarianism or the myriad rituals, festivals and practices that are associated with "Hinduism". Yes, these practices manifested in a culture that was based on dharmic thought, but the concept of dharma itself is more fundamental and universal.

09 July, 2017

Dharma and Ownership

The Western model of social organization is fundamentally hinged on the concept of "ownership." Despite the several reformations and changes that have characterized Western history, the fundamental driving force for social organization is still based around ownership management.

In the early days, ownership wrested with the kings who basically owned their kingdoms (including its subjects). Changes in the societal structure brought about by the Renaissance, Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment in general, have seriously challenged the way ownership is managed in societies -- not the concept of ownership itself. Hence, democracy is defined as a government that is (owned) "by the people, for the people and of the people". Several other anti-imperial movements like communism, socialism, etc have all primarily challenged the way ownership was organized -- not the concept of ownership itself.

Social organization around an algebra of ownership has specific characteristics. Ownership entails privileges and rights. It also entails responsibilities and liabilities. And more fundamentally, it entails a sense of identity. When we own a home, we enjoy rights over it and get to set the rules within our homes. It also entails responsibilities and liabilities. If while constructing our house we damage our neighbour's property, then we are liable for it since we are the owners of the house. But more fundamentally, at a cognitive level, our home is an extension of ourselves, an expression of our identity and we not only take pride in what we own, but also interpret any assault on our property as an assault on our selves.

In contrast to all the above, Indian worldview traditionally was centered around the concept of "dharma". The term dharma has no accurate translation in English -- not because it is a confused notion, but because the Western world has not thought of this notion or developed it enough to give it a central element of importance in their worldview. The essence of dharma appears in the form of several "conservation laws" in physics and biology -- be it inertia, elasticity, conservation of electrostatic charge, conservation of angular momentum, homeostasis, etc. But these disparate conservation laws have not been studied for the underlying abstract property of sustainability that permeates all creation.

Dharma is loosely translated as "sustainability". It is a systemic configuration, or a state of being, that is robust and impervious to routine challenges. However, the term "sustainability" is not completely accurate either. A dead planet is trivially sustainable and robust. Dharma is a state of sustainability that does not violate properties of liveness or "prana". Dharma and prana go hand in hand. If dharma is a state of sustainability, prana is the capability of the system (or being) in that sustainable state.

Societies that were organized around the concept of dharma, have very different characteristics as compared to societies organized around the algebra of ownership. The dilemma between individual liberty and collective will is not really an issue of contention. The Western world falsely believes that Eastern societies are "collectivist" in nature (they usually give the example of Japan in this regard). But Indian societies are nowhere as collectivist as Japan and neither are they as individualist as the US or Europe. The primary element of contention is not a clash of rights between the individual and the collective will -- but a contention into what is sustainable and what is not.

The dharmic worldview also does not view the Earth or nature as a resource that humanity owns. It views the Earth as a larger system of being, which seeks its own dharma.

Recently, (perhaps unwittingly) a professor from Norway tweeted the essence of dharmic thought, in response to the flurry of tweets around the Icelandic volcano explosion in 2010 that had grounded flights across Europe: "Save the planet! The planet must be saying, 'Save yourselves, idiots! I'm going to be fine!'"

Volcanic eruptions, climate change, tsunamis, earthquakes, are all examples of the planet seeking its own state of dharma -- in response to the system of forces acting upon it.

When a culture of ownership interacts with a culture of dharma, there is bound to be large-scale misunderstandings. The reason why in Indian culture people "poke their nose into other peoples' affairs" is not really because Indians lack an understanding of personal boundaries (just look at the norms in daily lives that respect personal boundaries), but more likely because it has its roots in cultural practices centered around preserving dharma.

Also, a culture centered around dharma is innately more objective than a culture centered around ownership. The virtues of objectivity have been recognized in the Western world only after scientific advancements. However, a culture that puts dharma at the center of inquiry, rather anybody's privileges or rights naturally drives the stream of inquiry towards the system of being rather than towards the individual preferences of any of the subjects involved.

It is ironical that in today's popular discourse in the Indian public mind (in universities, on media, etc.) we greatly lack a sense of objectivity and get into personal affronts all too often.

Ownership in a dharmic worldview is a rather sloppy entity. To explain this, let me take the example of a private expressway built in Bangalore recently (the NICE road). The owners of the road had a tough time when they announced the toll for using their road. They were met with a lot of opposition from commuters that the toll will make it impossible for them to use the road. The commuters didn't understand when the NICE management simply asked them to then not use their road if they can't afford the toll. And today, the toll on this road is tightly controlled by the government.

Generally it is interpreted as a "mob mentality" that is preventing the owners of the infrastructure to be rational about their costs and set the toll accordingly. But what the owners of the infrastructure need to also understand is that their ownership is not a naturally granted privilege. The road is meant to serve a particular purpose and help in enabling a larger system (the city) become sustainable. Just asking commuters to not use the road if they can't afford it, will adversely affect the larger system of being. Costs have to be rationalized -- not just for the owners, but for the larger system of being in which the ownership operates. 

03 March, 2017

Theory of Being -- IV: Prana and Entropy

This is the fourth in the series called Theory of Being. A clearer understanding of this post is possible when the reader has read through the earlier posts in this series.

To summarize the main elements, we started by noting that the universe as we know it can be broadly divided into two realms -- the energy realm and the information realm. Everything in the physical universe can be reduced to energy, and everything in the conceptual realm is fundamentally built from information.

We also started to develop a new theory of the universe, inspired by the dharmic worldview. Here, the building block of the universe is an entity called "Being". A being is a template that can host energy and information. The "state" of being is the information content in being. Beings tend to settle down into "stable" or "sustainable" states, which is called its dharma. These are states that correspond to robust optimality given its operational neighbourhood (called its Vidhi).

Beings can compose with one another to form bigger beings, with the entire universe itself forming the ultimate Being.

*~*~*~*~*~*

The tendency of beings to settle down into stable states is treated as axiomatic, as it is based on ample empirical evidence -- be it in the quantum dynamics of sub-atomic particles, or the elasticity of solids, or the dynamics of fluids or the phenomenon of homeostasis in living beings.

The philosophy of dharma that characterizes Eastern thought is built on the concept of sustainability of beings. This in in contrast to "particles" and "mechanics" that forms central elements of Newtonian worldview, that can be traced all the way to ancient Hellenic Greece.

It is not that Western thought has not recognized stable states or Eastern thought has not recognized mechanics. For instance, the relatively recent discipline of Game Theory, also dubbed as "A Beautiful Math" is predominantly based on understanding equilibria and stable states. Game Theory is applied as much to biological and social phenomena as much to physical phenomena.

The question we are now posing is to understand the way in which mechanics feature in the hermeneutics of dharma.

Even though stability and sustainability form the fundamental building blocks of the dharmic worldview, there is another important concept that we need to consider. This is the concept of Prana.

Prana is variously translated as "force", "energy", "life", etc. Of course, none of them capture its essence exactly. The closest working definition of Prana that we will be using to develop our theory is Prana as "vitality".

Prana is basically the fundamental element of vitality in the universe. It is what makes beings seek different levels of dharma or stable states.  A being with low levels of prana settles down in a "lower" state of dharma and a being with high levels of prana can reach "higher" states of dharma.

So how do we understand, and perhaps quantify this "lower" and "higher" states of dharma?

"Lower" and "higher" states of dharma can be distinguished by their "information content" or entropy.

Consider a society of beings each of whom are trying to maximize their survivability. (Note that, a society of such beings is also a being which is trying to maximize its sustainability.)

Each being has some needs for its survival, which requires it to build connections with its environment, made up of other beings. Let us say that we have one such society with low levels of "Prana". The beings do not have much vitality and have just enough resources to build just one connection. The beings are focused solely on their survival and do not have the wherewithal to process complex notions like social fairness and such. The beings just connect with one another so that they can get to everybody else, as quickly as possible. So in what kind of a stable state, does such a society end up?

Some truly awesome research efforts have shown that, the resultant "dharma" for such a society, looks somewhat like this:

Star graph: Image source: Wikipedia

A "star" network is an emergent stable property (or an "equilibrium" in Game Theory parlance) resulting from individual beings exercising their Prana to maximize their sustainability.

As we can see, a star network is optimal in the sense that, anyone can reach anyone else in the network, in a maximum of 2 hops. Given very little Prana of just making one connection, this is the class of network with the shortest separation, that can be built. No one imposed a star graph on this society -- it emerged as a stable property from individual beings seeking to sustain themselves! This network now becomes a "being" of the "star" variety. We are already talking evolution here!

So how does the "star being" fare with respect to its sustainability? For one, it is quite efficient, since anyone can reach anyone else in a maximum of two hops. The "star being" is also robust against random failures. If every node is equally likely to fail, and there are n nodes in the network, then, for (n-1) possible failures, the rest of the network (and the "star being") continues to function. It is only one critical failure (of the central node) that can kill the "star being".

However, the "star being" is also innately vulnerable because the central node is heavily loaded in comparison with all the other nodes. It has to manage (n-1) connections, while every other node manages just one connection. The heavy load on the central node makes it most vulnerable to burnout and collapse, which would in turn, bring down the entire "star being".

The star network also has very low information content or "entropy". If we have to describe a star network over a given set of n nodes, all we need to specify is which node is the central node. The rest of the network can be reconstructed just by knowing who is the central being.

We can make this society reach a higher level of dharma by infusing more "Prana" into the constituent beings. We can do this either by empowering them with more resources (by providing enough energy to make more connections), or by empowering them with richer information constructs like "fairness".

Let us take the second case to understand the concept of Prana. As we can see, Prana is not just energy. Increasing awareness also increases Prana. The vitality of a being towards sustaining itself is based not just on its energy, but also on its awareness.

When beings are aware of the network that they are part of, and understand concepts like fairness, they would be able to see that the star network that they created is not very sustainable. The network is its own adversary -- by overloading the central node and by giving it an unfair amount of load.

So how would a collection of beings operate towards sustainability, when they are empowered with the concept of fairness? They form what is called as a "scale-free network" or a "hub and spoke model" as shown below: 
Scale-free network. Image source: Wikipedia
A scale-free network has several "hubs" with different levels of "centrality". No node in the network is so overloaded that it has to manage all communications between all nodes. But a few nodes are slightly more central and manage more load than others. Failure of these nodes, do damage the network, but none of them will damage the network to such an extent that the failure of the central node in a star network does, where the entire network gets totally broken.

The "scale-free being" is more sustainable than the "star being" even though it is less efficient. In the "star being" anyone could communicate with anyone else in a maximum of just two hops, which is not the case here. But the "star being" was also inherently unsustainable, as the very nature of the being made it vulnerable for a fatal internal failure (of the central node).

The "scale-free being" also has more information content, or "entropy" as compared to the "star being". In order to describe the network we need much more information than just specifying who is the central node.

So basically, increase in Prana increases the information content of the stable state that the being settles down in -- a "higher" form of dharma, if you will.

Prana is not just about "living" beings -- in fact, there is no difference between living and non-living beings in dharmic thought. Prana is the "cosmic energy" that permeates everything in the universe.

The concept of annealing shows how infusion of Prana (heat energy) in metals can make them change their stable state, and change the characteristic nature of the metallic compound. Although annealing has its roots in metallurgy, the process itself is generic and is applicable in various other domains.

Now think of a computer that is fresh off the factory and just has the inbuilt firmware. When we switch it on, it settles down to a state where it can perform a very basic set of operations. Its Prana is very low. Now, add more Prana to this computer in the form of an operating system like Linux (ok, even Windows or Mac 😋), and suddenly it settles down in a state with much higher information content, and capable of doing much more things!

Dharma (the teleology of sustainability) and Prana (the teleology of vitality) form the basic building blocks of the universe!

09 December, 2016

Theory of Being -- III: Being and Sustainability

This is the third post in the series about a "Being" theory of reality. For earlier posts in this series, click on the label "Theory of Being" in the sidebar.

Thus far, we have seen how reality can be divided into (at least) two realms -- the energy realm and the information realm. Energy realm is what constitutes physical reality, for which we have different interfaces in the form of sense organs. The information realm consists of concepts, the reality of which are perceived through the mind -- or cognition.

In that sense, I view cognition as our "sixth sense" or our ability for "Extra-sensory perception" -- it perceives objects that our sense organs may not be able to perceive.

Based on the above, let me try and formulate a theory of reality combining the two realms.

Existence 

To begin with, I would like to assert that: Existence is formed by the interaction between energy and information

An object is said to "exist" if it represents an active interaction between energy and information. This is easy to see for living beings like humans. We "exist" as long as our body (matter/energy) is in an active interaction with our "soul" (information). The moment their interplay ceases, we cease to exist (as a living being).

In the following theory, I would like to generalize this model to all objects -- not just "living" objects.

The Being 

Energy in its purest form has no characteristic. It can become light, heat, matter, force or whatever else in the physical world, when it acquires (or gets into an interaction with) an element from the information realm.

The building block of existence, representing different kinds of interplay between energy and information, is called a Being. A Being is a chunk of energy that has acquired a concept (information object). This interplay between energy and concept gives the being its own set of characteristic properties.

For example, a hydrogen atom is a chunk of energy that has acquired the concept of a hydrogen atom from the information realm to give it its specific set of characteristics as that of a hydrogen atom. Note that this "acquisition" need not be a form of creation or "intelligent design" (a creator bringing together a chunk of energy and a concept, and weaving a being out of it).  It is usually the result of a physical causal phenomena (except in cases of singularities like black holes).

Beings affect one another by the causal laws of physics. However, every being also has a teleological objective that it strives to achieve -- this is the objective "to be" or to "preserve itself" or to "sustain itself."

As an aside, this teleological objective bas been noticed in different cultures in different ways. In Sanskrit, the term भव (bhava) or "being" is the root of भाव (bhaava) or disposition, and the self-preserving nature of being is called स्वभाव (svabhaava) or self-disposition. In Arabic, the saying  كون, في كون (kwn, fi kwn) expresses the nature of reality as: "Be, and it is". In French, the saying "Que sera, sera" expresses this as "What will be, will be."

The tendency of things "to be" is seen even in physics, in different ways.

Newton's laws of physics for example, concern two basic properties -- inertia and motion. The first and the third law are primarily about inertia (or the tendency of an object to preserve its state), and the second law is about motion.

Physics, following the time of Newton, has largely focused on mechanics rather than inertia (perhaps because, what is so interesting about "just being"?) But what we are interested in here, is the "just being" part and the algebra of the "inherent laziness" of existence.

This tendency for self-preservation is also seen in the quantum world. Sub-atomic particles are known to absorb energy in discrete units called quanta, giving them a discrete state space in which they can exist. And not all such discrete states are equally stable. The sub-atomic particles tend to settle back into stable states once the source of energy is removed.

Hence, when an electron absorbs a quantum of energy, it goes into an "excited state" -- usually an orbital in a higher orbit, away from the nucleus. But if the source of energy is removed, the electron emits the absorbed energy and reverts back to its original orbit or its "ground state."

Why does the electron come back to its ground state? While physics has sound explanations for how this happens, the best answer thus far for why this happens seems to be that, "because, we have observed it to be so."

Even when we consider the behaviour of compounds or matter, this tendency of self-preservation appears in the form of elasticity. Materials, when subject to stress, tend to return to their original dimensions.

It is not that beings always succeed in returning to their original state. An electron can be excited enough to escape away from the atom, making the atom into an ion. An ionized atom is extremely sensitive towards ionized atoms with the opposite charge, in an effort to bring it back to its self-preserving state of being.

The state where a being settles down in order to self-preserve is called its धर्म or "dharma".

Dharma is not an inherent characteristic of being (स्वभाव is the inherent characteristic). It is the state that is maximally suited for self-preservation given the environmental factors in which the being is operating.

The environment in which a being seeks its dharma is called its विधि (Vidhi), which is sometimes incorrectly translated as "fate." Fate is something that the being has no control over, and towards which, it is helpless. Vidhi on the other hand, refers to the schema or the layout defining the environment in which the being operates. Vidhi imposes constraints, but not absolute determinism.

The same being may settle down in different stable states depending on the environment in which it operates. For instance, atoms operating in an environment of high stress (like in volcanoes or deep inside the earth), tend to form ionic bonds with one another, to result in stable, crystalline structures. On the other hand, atoms operating in chemically rich environments tend to form covalent bonds, that are stable against corrosions from other chemicals.

It requires enormous temperature and pressure to break the ionic bond of Sodium and Chlorine in a grain of salt. But this bond can be easily broken by putting the salt crystal into water. Covalent bonds on the other hand (like many organic compounds) are not easily soluble in water and cannot be broken down in a wide array of chemically rich environments. But, they can be broken by subjecting them to stress, like high pressure or temperature.

To use the parlance of Game Theory, dharma is the best response function of a being, given the environment in which it operates. When two beings operate in an environment (thus forming the Vidhi for one another), the mutual best response function results in a state of Nash equilibrium, something which finds application in physics, in the form of quantum game theory.

While dharma drives beings to settle down to their self-dispositions in a neutral environment with no stressful interactions, almost all beings change their dharma, or the stable state that they settle into, in highly stressful environments.

And I'm not at all talking about humans here.

Chemical reactions can be induced in most collections of different stable molecules, just by subjecting them to high temperatures and pressure. When Vidhi changes, the teleological force of dharma pushes the being to adapt suitably to maintain the property of self-preservation.

Living Beings

Finally, there are a class of beings called "living beings" that take sustainability and self-preservation to a whole new level. Living beings are basically complex beings called "genes" that have acquired a specific concept from the information realm, that enables them to pursue self-preservation of their complex nature, by a process called evolution. Here they interact with other gene ensembles to look for ways (fitness) that can help sustain them for as long as possible.

"The greatest show on earth" as evolution is sometimes called, is basically the principle of dharma operating across generations.

Living beings are primarily driven by two forms of dharma -- homeostasis, that strives to preserve the being in its present form; and evolution, that strives to preserve the being across generations.

Let me end this post on this note, and invite my readers to "just be" with these thoughts, while we return again to look into how beings bridge between energy and information. And how, awareness and consciousness represent different stages of bridging between energy and information.

01 December, 2016

Theory of Being -- II: Information Objects

This is the second post in the series where I'm trying to develop a theory of reality based on a concept of "Being". Click on the label "Theory of Being" on the right, to see all other posts in this series.

In the previous post, we had seen about uncertainties that lie at the heart of quantum mechanics, which gives it several possible interpretations. We had also seen a specific interpretation from David Bohm about a "non-local" hidden variable as a means of explaining quantum entanglement.

The "standard" interpretation of the quantum wave function that is widely adopted, is called the Copenhagen Interpretation. This states that the quantum wave function does not represent the objective state of reality, but rather, represents the observer's knowledge about the objective state of reality. When we do a measurement, it is not objective reality that collapses, but the uncertainty in the observer's knowledge.

This interpretation is consistent with the conventional, deterministic model of the universe, which is what Einstein ascribes to when he said, "God does not play dice."

In the conventional Newtonian worldview, the universe is inherently deterministic, where, if we know the states of every particle in the universe, we can determine how they will evolve in the future and work backwards into how they were in the past.

In other words, in the Western model, the universe is considered to be a machine -- a system of interacting parts that are completely indifferent and deterministic. The machine is just there -- it has no will of its own, and no purpose towards which it is working. The state of the machine at any point in time is simply a function of what happened in the past.

It is important to note the mechanistic worldview that forms the predominant hermeneutic framework for doing most part of physics. We will use the notion of a Machine, to form the underlying backdrop for contrasting it with Being.

It is not that Western worldview was always so mechanistic. Debates on Causality versus Teleology, have characterized Western philosophy since several centuries. Causality is the principle of cause and effect. As a philosophical theory, Causality states that the state of reality we see today is a result of what happened in the past. In contrast, Teleology is a theory of "purpose" or "goal". In a teleological worldview, the state of the world today can be explained by its teleological intentions -- where it intends to go.

The scientific worldview has largely favoured causality over teleology in constructing its models. Teleology conventionally requires us to imagine an entity that provides a goal for the universe, or to an anthropomorphic model for all objects -- like intentions, goals, desires, etc. Such kinds of elements appear too primitive, reminiscent of old tribal societies, and are usually rejected by modern (20th century) science.

But what if we can show that a teleological theory does not necessarily require an anthropomorphic interpretation of all objects? What if we can build a teleological theory without having to use explanations like, "Storms are an expression of anger by the Gods"? What if we can show that there exists an innate notion of goal or purpose for every physical system as an element of physics, rather than as a divine decree or as a divinely ordained moral code?

Hold on to this thought as well, as this debate on causality and teleology is very important for us in developing this theory of Being.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Scientists like Stephen Hawking have have criticized the overtly mechanized model of the Western scientific worldview.

If God does not "play dice" and the quantum wave function is simply the uncertainty of our observation, then there is some "hidden variable" that is causing this uncertainty. The question we will then have to ask is, what is this hidden variable and where is it coming from?

Unfortunately for Einstein, John Stewart Bell proves in his theorem that there cannot exist any localized hidden variable. No known element of physics (any form of energy) can cause the uncertainty of the quantum wave function while observation.

But the operative word in Bell's theorem is "localized" hidden-variable. Bell's theorem can still admit "non-local" hidden variables -- in other words, some form of non-physical entity that is not constrained by physical space-time, and can be in several places (and time) simultaneously. Hmm.. interesting, right?

And Bohm's theory that comes close to the concept of Being (to be developed in subsequent posts), is based on the non-local property of the hidden variable.

In contrast to Einstein, Hawking boldly rejects the mechanistic axiom of the Western scientific worldview and states, "God not only plays dice, but sometimes keeps the dice where we cannot find them." (The second part of his quote has to do with the loss of information in black holes, which is very interesting, but not directly relevant to us at the moment.) It is interesting for a scientist to be saying that our universe is basically a game played by the Gods.

His words have been interpreted by "believers" many of whom argue that Hawking has "proved" the existence of God -- even though no one seems to be bothered about what it means to prove that God "exists" when God is defined as the creator of existence. Existence is a very bounded notion and has a clear opposite notion of non-existence. The creator is supposed to be unbounded, yet we want the creator to "exist" within the boundaries of existence!

Anyway, despite this foray of a physics pioneer into the realm of religion, Professor Hawking has kept his scientific reputation intact.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Let us now look at yet another philosophical debate in the Western world -- about mind versus matter. The mind-matter dichotomy is used to distinguish between the reality of perception and the reality of cognition.

Matter constitutes physical reality, and elements of matter are known to be real (known to exist), because we have several sense organs to perceive them. I know for example that there is a cat next door, because I can hear it, I see it and recognize it to belong to a class of other similar objects labeled "Cat."

There are however, some objects that seem to exist purely in the mind. Consider the concept of a Prime Number. Prime Numbers have very specific properties, that we can "show" (by way of proof) to others -- as long as those others can think and communicate like us. For instance, a child and a dog may act in a similar fashion when we throw a ball at them. This shows that they can both perceive the ball and can communicate this perception to us. However, try explaining the concept of a Prime Number to both of them to see who can fetch us a Prime Number.. The dog would likely fail to recognize this object of the mind, where the child mostly succeeds.

But let us not laugh at the dog just yet. Dogs are known to perceive and communicate objects of the mind like our intent and emotional state, which even our closest cousins -- chimpanzees -- cannot.

Do these objects of the mind really exist or are they simply a figment of our imagination? Do we imagine Prime Numbers, or are they really there? The predominant philosophical framework today in the Western world, called Analytic Philosophy (developed by Moore and Russell, and considered to mark the philosophical foundations of modern scientific pursuit), considers objects of the mind to be as real (called as "simpliciter") as physical objects. Prime Numbers do exist, and several minds have found them independently. They existed even in the time of dinosaurs when there were no minds that could see them. They exist on Earth as well as on Mars or anywhere in the universe.

In other words, objects of the mind, which we will call Information Objects or Concepts, exist on their own in a realm of the universe that is not constrained by the laws of physics (energy). Hence, the concept of a Prime Number that Euclid discovered is the very same Information Object that was addressed by Riemann or Ramanujan or Goldbach at different points in time.

To clarify it further, Information Objects has the property of non-locality in physical space-time! They are not constrained to exist at a specific place at a specific time -- they exist everywhere at all times!

While Information Objects always exist, physical objects are "affected" by them in specific ways.

Sub-atomic particles are known to be indistinguishable from one another. Unlike macro elements of matter like say zinc and carbon, every electron looks like every other electron. An electron from Zinc may get shared into a carbon atom, but it won't be treated like a foreign body in the carbon atom.

However, there is a way by which electrons can be distinguished -- by their information content like orbits, orbital and spin, that influence how they operate. All electrons having a certain value for their spin (say -1/2) basically have the same Information Object affecting them, and basically have exactly the same affect due to this information object. This affect may of course, be suppressed, blended with or compounded by other Information Objects that are acting the electron.

When we recognize Information Objects as first-class entities of the universe (in a non-physical realm), we can think of developing a theory of reality that includes the interplay between physical (energy) objects and information objects. For instance, the non-local hidden variable that can explain quantum entanglement, can be an Information Object rather than a physical object. When two sub-atomic particles collide and fly away in opposite directions in the speed of light, they can be seen as being attached to the same Information Object that has the exact same affect on both particles, thus giving this spooky action at a distance.

Let me stop this post on this note.

End notes: We are now ready to imagine a universe comprising of two realms -- the Energy realm and the Information realm. The former is predominantly characterized by causality driven by physical conservation laws that we know very well.

But, what drives the Information realm? Are there any laws that determine how the realm of information affects the realm of energy? We may be in too premature a stage to talk about laws, but at least, are there patterns in the ways by which information affects energy?

I would like to contend that there are indeed definite patterns in the interaction between these two realms. Optimization seems to be an important driver of the Information realm, giving information dynamics, a teleological characteristic. Causality and teleology, far from being an either-or dichotomy, seems to be intricately intertwined in the way our universe operates. 

27 November, 2016

Theory of Being -- I: Glimpses of Being

Our current day understanding of physics leaves several knowledge gaps. In my previous posts, I have argued that ancient Indian thought based on the concept of  धर्म or dharma (sustainability) and भव or bhava (Being) can help address some of the open questions in physics. This post is the first in a series, that tries to make this case a little more coherently. In this post, I'll be addressing some open questions in physics and how some theories to explain these phenomena, have touched upon the notion of "Being".

Before I begin this series, some notes about the vantage point is necessary.

There are some scholars who say that interpreting dharmic thought through the lens of Western universalism (making the Western way of thinking as the fundamental framework through which we interpret other frameworks), does a lot of disservice. It only results in "digestion" of dharmic thought into the Western worldview, thus losing its essence, and reducing it to superficial symbolics.

The above is a very valid argument and I completely agree with it.

However, this post still falls in the realm of Western universalism and, I would argue that this is necessary too. For one, the interpretation that I am attempting to make here addresses some of the core elements of the Western physical worldview. Thus far, dharmic thought in the West has been mostly relegated to the category of "religion" which in turn is defined as a framework of interpretation of the world based on "belief" and "faith" and is considered to have nothing to do with the faculty of science. By this interpretation, I wish to refute such assumptions. Second, it would be difficult to write something about the dharmic worldview using the dharmic worldview as the hermeneutic framework, for my audience who are largely unaware of this worldview. So the Western universalism becomes an imperative here.

Once I have developed the theory of Being (inspired by the dharmic worldview) to a sufficient level of clarity, I can attempt to interpret the Western worldview through this lens. Trying to do that now would make my writing appear meaningless.

I am also in a dilemma whether to use terminology like dharma while developing this theory of Being.  Using such terms in a specific sense to build this theory, risks distorting their original full meaning. However, not using these terms tends to dissociate the inspiration from ancient Indian thought, that is very critical to this theory. Many seminal physicists like David Bohm and Erwin Schrodinger, were inspired by dharmic thought in formulating their theories. However, the world in general, is not aware of this attribution, and continues to associate and propagate meaningless quaint stereotypes with ancient Indian thought.

Hence, I'll resolve the above dilemma, by simply stating it, rather than taking either stance.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Current day physics is based on a particular way of thinking about the world that has its roots in ancient Greece. Around this time, there were several other major and much older civilizations like ancient India, ancient Messopotamia, ancient Egypt, etc. each with their own hermeneutics for interpreting the universe. By the time of Aristotle, ancient Indian thought was already 2000 years old. However, historical events with their twists and turns have resulted in the predominant current day scientific worldview to be largely rooted in the hermeneutics of ancient Greece.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Newtonian physics was the predominant framework for understanding the physical universe.It is based on two fundamental building blocks for the universe -- Particle and Energy. The Particle is the building block of all matter, while Energy is the building block of all forms of force, dynamics and transformations.

The underlying framework in which Newtonian physics interpreted the universe also has two more elements from classical Greek philosophy: logic and Essentialism.

Logic refers to a way of reasoning about truthful implications in a precise fashion. An assertion in logic is either true or false, but never anything in between. This is called the law of excluded middle.

Essentialism posits that everything in the universe is characterized by an abstract "essence" or "-ness". Given an object X belonging to category C, if we remove any element of the essence of X, then X ceases to belong to category C. However, we can remove any number of non-essence properties from X and X continues to belong to C. For instance, if we see a tiger whose tail is missing, we do not fail to recognize it as a tiger -- because the tail does not constitute the "tigerness" of a tiger. 

A method of inquiry driven by Essentialism and logic creates a theory that has a specific characteristic -- articulation. This involves understanding a complex entity by reducing it to its bare essentials and performing logical implications based on these essentials.

As a result, early 20th century Western thought (including physics) was replete with dichotomies of several kinds. Dichotomies are a characteristic outcome of a method of inquiry driven by Essentialism and logic.

Whenever there is a dichotomy, there is an open question -- what brought about this dichotomy? Much of the great theoretical advances in science involve discovery of an underlying characteristic or phenomena that bridges a dichotomy.

Some of the greatest theoretical advances in physics of the 20th century too involved breaking some of these dichotomies and establishing an underlying unity.

One such seminal achievement is by the theory of relativity that unifies matter and energy, epitomized by Einstein's famous equation E = mc2. Where we once had a dichotomy between particle and energy, we now know that both are simply energy.

Similarly, another important outcome from quantum mechanics is the realization that for a complete theory of reality, we need to address the entanglement between the subject and object. This entanglement seriously impedes the fundamental dichotomy that is critical for scientific observation -- separation of the observer from the observed. Such results points at fundamental uncertainties in the way we can observe the universe and subsequently in the way we build our models of reality, prompting Werner Heisenberg to famously state:
“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."
The entanglement between the observer and the observed results in quantum mechanics being formulated on a probabilistic model of the universe. Quantum elements are said to be in a "superposition" of several possible states, represented by a probability distribution (also called the quantum wave function). The act of observation is said to result in a "decoherence" or a "collapse" of the wave function onto a single state that the observer sees.

This probabilistic basis for a physical theory disturbed many physicists. Einstein, for instance, was unconvinced by the validity of a theory of the universe built over a probabilistic basis and said, "God does not play dice."

Einstein was not the only physicist who was dissatisfied with the concept of quantum superposition. Indeed, there are several "interpretations" to the quantum superposition theory as to what it really means. For instance, in the "many worlds" interpretation, a quantum element is said to exist in all its quantum states simultaneously. When subject to an observation, the quantum particle undergoes "decoherence" or a collapse of the wave function into a single state that is observed. However, at the same time (according to this interpretation), the universe splits into several parallel unobservable universes each of which contains all the other possible observations of this decoherence.

Einstein was quite dissatisfied by the concept of quantum superposition and decoherence and with his collaborators Podolsky and Rosen, formulated a thought experiment, called the EPR paradox. We will come back to this paradox in a while, after characterizing the underlying dichotomy that is causing this confusion.

*~*~*~*~*~*

While 20th century advancements in physics resulted in a grand unification of matter and energy, another major dichotomy remains today -- the question of energy versus information.

The second half of the 20th century witnessed great advances in information technology and suddenly "information" became a first-class entity of interest. Information came to be treated as any physical entity in our social universe -- it is created, it is traded, it is consumed, it is secured, it is preserved, etc. 

However, it is increasingly clear that information is fundamentally different from matter. While matter has mass and occupies space, the same is not true for information. A 100GB disk that is full of data, weighs no more than a 100GB disk that is empty. 

We know that all physical processes can be reduced to the dynamics of energy. Energy dynamics has specific properties -- most importantly, the property of conservation. Energy (or matter) exchange is a zero-sum game. We can only convert one form of energy (matter) to another, but cannot create or destroy energy (matter). But information is not subject to the laws of conservation. If I give someone a piece of information, we both have the piece of information. Which is the reason why we can copy a piece of someone else's software for our use, but we cannot copy someone else's car for our use. Similarly, we may never know if our emails are being stolen (that is, copied and read by someone else), but we will definitely know if our car is stolen. Also, unlike matter, a piece of information can be in two places at the same time.

So, there seems to be yet another fundamental dichotomy in our physical universe. This prompted Joe Tucci, chairman of  EMC2 to say: "Everything in this world is either energy or information."

The question of understanding what is information has definitely bothered physicists, who have have long sought to find a physical basis for explaining  information. There are several theories for what is information -- none of them fundamental enough to unify the dichotomy between energy and information. 

However, there is one concept that appears in a rather unsettling manner when we are studying about either energy or information. This is the concept of entropy

The concept of entropy was first proposed by Boltzmann, in the context of thermodynamic processes to represent dissipation or loss of energy contributing to an overall state of "disorder". When developing a theory of information, Claude Shannon developed a theory representing the amount of information in a system as being proportional to the level of uncertainty or "disorder" in the system. When Shannon explained his theory to von Neumann, the latter suggested that he call this as information entropy, saying
"You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, nobody knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage."
One of the reasons why "nobody knows what entropy really is" is that, the concept of entropy is characteristically different from the way in which physics largely thinks. Entropy is an emergent characteristic of a system or an ensemble, rather than an attribute of a particle or an interaction. It is not possible to narrow down entropy to any one particle or interaction in the system. The hermeneutics of articulation is not expressive enough to sufficiently explain the concept of entropy.

So there are two notable takeaways from the above. The concept of entropy which seems to have parallels in the study of energy and in the study of information has the following characteristics: the concept pertains to a system or an ensemble as a whole, rather than any specific particle or interaction; and second, entropy is not constrained by binary existentialism. That is, it is meaningless to ask a true or false question as to whether a given system has entropy or not -- we should instead be asking what is the level of entropy of a system.

Both of these takeaways are important for us to build this theory of Being, in order to connect Energy and Information.

Coming back to quantum mechanics and the EPR paradox, let us look at the debates around this in some more detail. The characteristic feature of the quantum wave function is that it applies as much to ensembles of quantum particles as much as it does to individual particles. This prompted Einstein and his colleagues to formulate the EPR thought experiment.

Suppose two quantum particles collide and fly off in opposite directions at the speed of light. The "system" represented by these two particles is now in a superposition of several quantum states at the same time. When we observe one of the particle, the wave function collapses onto a single state -- causing the other particle which is moving away at twice the speed of light relative to the first, to also collapse its wave function and obtain a deterministic state. If the ensemble were to be in multiple states at the same time, then the first particle needs to somehow communicate with the second particle at twice the speed of light -- which is physically impossible.

While EPR was proposed as a thought experiment, this quantum entanglement has been empirically verified to actually happen. At the core of the quantum entanglement problem lies the problem of understanding information. Either, information can travel faster than the speed of light, without any material carrier, to instantly affect different elements in different parts of the universe, or, there is something about the nature of information that does not need any communication at all (in this case, at least).

One of the most interesting theories (for us) to explain quantum entanglement, was given by the Berkeley physicist David Bohm based on a concept of "non-local" affect or holomovement. To explain this, consider an analogy. Suppose in a room, there is a fish tank containing a single fish. There are two cameras that are focused on the fish. These cameras capture images of the fish and transmit it onto two screens in a lobby. We are observing the two screens in the lobby and it appears that there are two fish moving around in their tanks. After a while, we notice that whenever one fish turns in some direction, the other fish also turns in some other direction. They seem to be coordinating their movements by somehow "instantly communicating" with one another.

But the creator of this system knows that there is no instant communication between the two fish in the lobby. In fact, there is no "two fish in the lobby" -- they are just images of a single fish that exists somewhere else that we cannot see.

This in essence, is the idea of Bohm's non-locality theory. What appears to us as individual particles in different parts of the universe, are basically projections of a single "Being" existing in some higher dimension. The coordinated action by these disparate particles are basically a result of the underlying Being changing its state, rather than an interaction by communication.

There are several observations by Bohm that support such a "Being" basis to understanding the universe. For instance, when electrons are in a state of plasma, Bohm notes that
"...they stopped behaving like individuals and started behaving as if they were part of a larger and interconnected whole. He later remarked that he frequently had the impression that the sea of electrons was in some sense alive."
At the heart of this problem of quantum non-locality and entanglement, lies the question of understanding information and unifying it with matter/energy. And I have reasons to believe that the theory of Being and sustainability, may hold answers to both these questions. Being theory can help bridge the dichotomy between mind and matter (which operate respectively in the realms of information and energy) and perhaps usher in a new era of science that is much more in harmony with the universe.