16 July, 2018

AI: The Missing Piece

Recently, I had written a Facebook post stating that I was not particularly impressed with deep learning -- from an academic perspective. This is not to say that deep learning is not significant at all. Indeed, the applications and impact of deep learning are opening up so many possibilities (mostly scary ones), like never before! There is indeed a lot of "scope" for young professionals to major in deep learning.

My reservations has to do with the dearth of conceptual insights provided by deep learning.

My post had understandably caused a lot of consternation from many in my network -- most of all, in my former students. And predictably I was subject to argumentum ad throwing-the-book-at-me with links to several high end mathematics that gets used in deep learning.

There is a difference between using high-end mathematics to do something, and obtaining a conceptual breakthrough in understanding some underlying principle. Despite all the really awesome mathematics that go into deep learning models today, they are really still pretty much, optimisation engines. The underlying concepts that build deep learning networks of today have been around for several decades now.

I'm aware of several arguments challenging even the above notion as well. One of the primary breakthrough that made deep learning applications possible, is advances in hardware with general purpose GPU processors being used to produce massively parallel neural network applications.

Sometimes, advances in hardware will help us explore conceptual spaces that were hitherto unreachable with purely analytical models, and help bring about a conceptual breakthrough. For example, the advent of digital computers helped achieve some conceptual proof in mathematics like the four-colour theorem for planar graphs. The theorem had remained an open problem since the 1800s, only to be proven with the use of computer programs and automated theorem provers as recently as the early 2000s.

But purists aren't exactly happy with theorem-proving of this kind. A mathematical proof usually requires some kind of philosophical insight into the problem, which is what is the primary attraction of a conceptual breakthrough. A computer-based proof only helps validate a conjecture, without any insight into underlying philosophical phenomena as to why this theorem is true.

But let's not talk about theorems and proofs; let's talk about intelligence, which is what the promise of DL and AI are all about.

Recently I read another argument that all that the human brain does is also just optimisation, and "intelligence" as we know it, is simply all the lucky breaks obtained by the greatest optimisation process on earth -- evolution. Genetic evolution simply foraged its way over millions of years, and got a few lucky breaks, that resulted in the intelligent life of today.

Well.. yes and no.

Consider the following pictures:

Both pictures show intricate patterns that are a result of complex optimisation processes that happen in nature. The first picture shows a set of diamonds formed by a process of intense high-temperature annealing, and the second picture shows an anthill built by a swarm of termites, each of which is trying to compute some local optima for itself. 

While both represent intricate, complex structures resulting from processes of optimisation, I'm sure we would agree that it is only the second picture that represents output of some kind of "intelligent" activity. 

What is the difference between an optimisation process that forms diamonds, and an optimisation process that builds an anthill? Why is the former not a result of intelligence, while the latter is? 

The point I am trying to make here is that, while the human brain does forage around a lot, and mostly indulges in optimisation, its activities are not arbitrary. The brain forages in very specific ways -- and is driven by a concept of "Self". 

The same is true of the termites that built the anthill. While the set of termites are collectively optimising something-- individual termites too are optimising-- by autonomously acting in their self interest. Each element of the termite system is an autonomous agent, while the same is not true about the hydrocarbon molecules that form the diamonds. (In the Western model of physics, that is. In Eastern dharmic models, both molecules and creatures are made of the same essence of "being" called Atma, and are essentially optimisers). 

Regardless of whether we use the Western model or the Eastern model of physics, the key takeaway in my argument is that, the essential element of intelligence is a sense of "Self" and optimisation processes driven autonomously by the Self in either trying to sustain itself, or out of a more generalised form of "self interest". An intelligent collective is something that has a collective sense of self -- like an ant community or a nation state. The collective sense of self is an emergent property of the interactions (and interferences) among the constituent set of selves that make up the collective. 

But deep learning based on artificial neural networks, model neurons as "gates" rather than "agents" that they really are. The "gate" model of a neuron comes from traditional models of computing that are based on digital logic, that in turn comes from electronics circuit designs based on transistors and valves. Which in turn comes from flow models in electrical engineering. 

In contrast though, life forms are better understood as "societies" of interacting autonomous agents, each of which, are pursuing self interest. Each neuron in our brain is much more than a gate. They are autonomous agents that take decisions on their own regarding who to connect to, where to get information from, and where to transmit to. Of course, decisions taken by neurons are based on their surroundings and the signals they get. But there is no overarching blueprint that decides a priori how neurons connect or remain connected to one another. 

Societies of agents are inherently declarative in nature, and routinely build abstractions on their own, to help them coordinate. For instance, when we grasp something with our hands, in our minds, we only have a mental image of our hands doing the grasping. Our minds have no idea how many muscles are involved in this process, and how or who is coordinating them. It just creates an abstract image of the hand grasping something, and this image is translated into action by who-knows-how-many layers of neural abstractions underneath. 

The complex nature of coordination that such an action requires, is managed by a distributed system of incentives and disincentives that bring about the desired collective behaviour. 

I would like to conjecture that without a sense of self and autonomous decision-making, deep learning will remain largely a process of generalisation from training data, or finding patterns in data. Neurons should be able to build their architectures on the fly, and continuously keep adapting them. And fundamentally driven by a sense of self preservation and utility maximisation.

21 June, 2018

Stories of Dharma - 1: The heart

Usually (among my Indian readers) while growing up, we would have heard bedtime stories from our parents or grandparents, explaining the concept of dharma. Most of these stories would have involved some form of social dilemma, which is ultimately resolved by a wise person who understands dharma.

Given that we were also taught to think "scientifically" at school, it is hence natural that we would have interpreted dharma as some form of a divine code of ethics, that defines our "religion". And sometimes, when someone would have asked us which scripture spells out the codes of dharma, we would have had no answer.

Sometimes, some of our bedtime stories would have involved celestial bodies like the sun and the moon. Later on, as adults our "scientifically" trained minds would have told us that if ethical concepts like dharma were applied to the sun and the moon, it means that our ancestors had a primitive, anthropomorphic model of the universe.

In reality, the concept of dharma is way more fundamental, and way more profound. It is by no means, a divinely revealed code of ethics. It is a natural phenomenon that can be experimentally verified in a repeatable manner, and is resilient against attempts at falsification.

So, to revive genuine scientific curiosity about this concept, let me start a series of posts featuring bedtime stories related to dharma. Except, these stories are not about social dilemma leading to ethical questions. Instead, these are stories that perhaps Sheldon Cooper would like to hear during bedtime!


Today's dharma story is about the human (or any animal's) heart. The heart is a critical organ in our body, which powers our blood circulation system. It is because of the heart that our body is able to assimilate nutrients and oxygen, and discard carbon dioxide and waste. 

Image source Wikipedia: By DrJanaOfficial - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50477765
But if we look at how the heart functions, it seems rather strange. The heart pumps blood using recipocatory motion that continuously keeps the organ expanding and contracting. Any mechanical engineer would agree that this is an extremely inefficient way to build a pump. An alternating motion creates fatigue in the material, leading to wear and tear. None of our pumps for instance, use such a technique. Instead, we use motors involving rotary motion that is much more efficient. 

So why didn't nature evolve a motor for the heart? Why did it settle down for such a crude implementation of a pump? 

It is dharma in action! Let me explain. 

Firstly, let us bust the myth that the human heart is somehow inefficient. Our heart has been beating continuously, at an approximate rate of 70 beats to a minute, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, ever since we were born! It has not taken a single break, and has not been shutdown for maintenance. If it were, we wouldn't be here, reading this blog. 

No "efficient" motor-based pump designed by humans, has known to perform for 80-100 years at a stretch, continuously, without a break. So clearly, nature has different ideas about what is "efficient". 

What we call as living beings is essentially a vast colony of even smaller beings called cells, that are trying to sustain themselves. In order to sustain themselves, they have come together to form a large system -- a metropolis of sorts -- where they are cooperating and complementing one another and helping each other sustain. 

Our heart is no monolithic entity. It comprises of several thousands of cells that are in a cooperative setup, and are contracting and expanding autonomously to result in the overall heart beat. Cells do experience wear and tear, and die away. But they are quickly replaced by newer cells that are born in the system. Indeed, every few years, we are biologically not the same creature anymore! 

So why does the heart pump blood using contractions? Why did the cells not evolve to collectively form a motor, so that they can work more efficiently? 

The answer to this is that, a motor is actually less efficient when it comes to sustainability, than a pump based on contractions. A motor is adharma, compared to a contractions based pump! (Imagine interpreting this as "a motor is unethical or immoral!" 😀)

A motor requires its blades to be so finely organised, and the system of blades to be synchronised so well that it creates a neat, rotary motion. Get a set of people to form a circle and run in a circle, and you'll know what I mean. It is very hard to maintain a circular motion with a group of agents acting autonomously! 

For a motor, the circular motion is extremely critical to maintain the flow. Even a little loss of synchrony in the circular motion can effectively shut down the pump. 

In contrast, it is much more simpler to organise a collection of autonomous agents to contract and expand together. The contractions need not be tightly synchronised. Indeed, the rate at which the heart beats, keeps varying throughout the day. The rate at which individual cells contract and expand also keeps varying. But within a fairly large interval, these variations do not disrupt the overall operation of the pump. 

Sometimes our heart does go out of synchrony. Such phenomena are called fibrillations, where the heart cells become uncoordinated. Fibrillations would be far more commonplace, if the heart cells were to have evolved into a motor, rather than in their current form. 


There you go. Hope you enjoyed today's bedtime story of dharma. Express your gratitude to dharma, and have a good night's sleep while your heart beats on!

13 May, 2018


Recently, a well-known researcher in my area of work, died an untimely death. He was just 42. While we were recovering from the shock of the sudden news, a colleague pointed to a news story that said the he had most likely taken his own life -- by jumping off from the terrace of his apartment building.

And while we were still reeling from this even more troubling news, another colleague of mine found his online blog post, where he had written about his fight with depression -- and had ended the post with a note of optimism that depression can be overcome.

It was particularly poignant to read this, and I think something snapped inside me. It was too much for me to remain silent.

Depression is a problem that is not new to me at all. I've written extensively about it on this very blog, including my own experiences as well as my analysis of what is the cause of such high rates of depression in our society. And like any other post on depression, I've hopefully ended my posts on a positive note, that life is worth living after all.

But clearly, in his case, depression seems to have won the battle. And it is not reassuring at all.

One of the reasons for my "coming out" publicly with my struggle with depression is that I see this as an endemic social problem afflicting our society. It is not just my problem, and my writings are not just for me to feel better. I have cited stats and formal studies to show that levels of depression and suicide are very high (compared to the global average), especially in south India. And also that the primary causes for depression are social in nature -- not physical.

My writings are meant to be an appeal to our society in general, to put a stop to this social "auto-immune disorder" and to recognise the latent trauma and insecurity that is driving and amplifying such problems. My writings are meant to be a fervent appeal to central elements of our society -- like parents, teachers, political leaders, bosses, line managers, industry leaders, religious leaders, etc. -- to please stop psychological assaults on those in a weaker position than them, using euphemisms like humility, discipline, chastity, submission, etc. It is literally killing people.

Most importantly, my writings are meant as an appeal to the next generation -- including my students -- to become aware of their own sense of insecurity and fear that is driving them. Becoming aware of these emotions is the first step towards overcoming them.

I have seen layers and layers of defences among our student population, who not only distrust the "system" and any person whom they associate with the "system", but have also learned to cynically play the system.

When going through other blog posts from this person, one thing stuck me as kind of odd. Most of his other posts were about the "outcomes" of his research. They were not about the research itself -- but its outcomes. They talked about the conference or journal where it was published, the impact factors of these venues, the bibliometrics of his work (h-index, i10 index, etc.), the peer review process, etc. I could not see any post that talked about the research itself -- the ideas that he was pursuing, the significance of those ideas, the new perspectives he is bringing to the table, the implications and possibilities of an idea becoming a reality.. stuff like that.

If my hunch is right, then I think I know why depression won the battle in this case. According to his posts, he first started experiencing depression in the year 2013. While for me, my first major visible tryst with depression was during my student days in the 1990s. And with more exploration, it was not hard for me to figure out that I'd been coping with trauma ever since kindergarten.

And the problem that was causing the trauma was also clear. The education system continuously asked for just two things -- compliance and outcomes. It wanted us to be docile, passive and compliant "good" children, and wanted us to generate superlative outcomes after superlative outcomes. The more we complied, and the better we performed, the more expectations we had to shoulder.

The system was not at all interested in how we were developing as individuals. It was not at all interested in what we were thinking, or what kinds of challenges we were facing while growing up. Nobody talked to us about adolescence or puberty. The changes in our body and mind in our teenage years was a matter of deep shame and guilt, for us. We read Archie comics on the sly, with a feeling of guilt, when we knew we should be studying for that board exam or entrance exam. We often bragged to one another about how much we studied -- the least was 10 hours every day (outside of school hours). I remember this one friend of mine, who used to keep a log of what time he went to sleep and what time he got up, and ensured that he never slept for more than 4 hours every night, so that he may be well prepared for his exams.

In high school, we often heard of some student or the other committing suicide, for having got less than what they expected in their exams. "Dull" students were often thrashed physically by their parents after their exams. And parents and teachers, often extolled the virtue of "fear" that younger generation should have towards elders and towards God ("God fearing" meant someone with good virtues). 

The same culture continues to this day, and in many ways it has become worse. I have somehow survived so far, that too in academics -- that is still ruled by prestige, pedigree and medals. I do not know what is keeping me going. Perhaps it is my undying curiosity to learn what is causing something. Every time I have been hit by something, while others have run away from it, I have naively tried to get hit again, to see what is causing it to happen:
There have been several times for instance, where I have been subject to rampant slander and derogatory gossip. And I'd also seen some very high-achieving individuals around me, get completely destroyed by such kinds of slander. But so far, what I have done is to only act even more provocatively and elicit more such gossip to try and understand how it works. This has given me rich data about the psychology underlying social cognition, the role of "narratives," and how it shapes our collective worldview. It has also led me to develop a formal model of what is an opinion, and the different ways in which opinions can come together to result in different forms of collective phenomena.

We have applied this understanding to model the dynamics of social media, political movements and economic battles.

Studying slander and gossip has also helped me understand the difference between "private" information and "secure" information. It has also helped me narrow down the question of information utility to four primary factors.

The study of narratives has also helped me understand predatory and non-predatory (sustainability) dynamics of social cognition. Predatory approaches to social cognition model knowledge creation as a "convergent" process. All parties involved in the process have to converge to one narrative. Some elements of "fairness" are introduced to provide a semblance of balance. However, on the whole, it would be amply clear that prevailing power asymmetry would be the primary factor that governs the final shape that the knowledge takes.

For instance, on Wikipedia, every topic has to have one page that all different perspectives have to agree upon. To keep the process "fair" some rules are introduced, like NPOV (neutral point of view), NOR (no original research), VS (verifiable source), etc. However, it is amply clear that the model is biased towards a Western worldview that has had a tradition of formal book-keeping and recording of research. Consider an article about (say) the Mahabharata, which has been kept alive for thousands of years in India, by a tradition of story-telling. None of these stories would be considered a credible, scholarly source, while a "research" article published in a Western journal about the Mahabharata, based on flawed colonial theories of Indian history, would be considered more credible.

Such kinds of questions have prompted us to explore non-predatory models of knowledge representation, where multiple narratives can co-exist without necessarily having to blend into one another in a semantic melting pot. This question also has implications on managing a large country like India, that has ample amounts of innate diversity. We cannot have a pan-Indian "melting pot" (like for example, having everyone speak in Hindi), without causing severe cultural damage. Yet at the same time, we have to nurture and develop the sense of Oneness underlying the diversity such that the disparate cultures exist separately, yet interoperate seamlessly.

Inspired by such thoughts, we have developed a knowledge model in our lab, called Many Worlds on a Frame (MWF), which we have in turn, applied to several problems like knowledge integration, privacy preserving transactions, decentralised access control, etc.

While we have published much of our work, I really do not know the impact factors of the venues where we published, nor have we kept track of the citations. We have not really tried to play the research networking game of increasing citations and impact either.

Whenever faced with a dilemma of working towards greater impact, or working towards greater insight, we have always favoured insight over impact.

I have seen that working towards impact is primarily driven by a sense of insecurity, and it only ends up increasing the insecurity. Working towards insight on the other hand, gives us more insight into the insecure and fragile nature of our lives and careers, and ironically, this insight helps us manage our insecurities better.

Much as we like to be objective, and separate ourselves from our ideas, it is amply clear that the original ideas we develop are an extension of our selves. We develop it in an objective fashion, because we care about the quality of the idea. But that does not refute the fact that ultimately we see ourselves in the ideas that we develop.

To live in a system that judges solely based on our outcomes and quantifiable factors, makes us vulnerable to getting assaulted at every step. It is a matter of time before depression gets the better of us, if we start implicitly believing that our outcomes and metrics somehow define our worth, as a person. 

19 March, 2018


"If you wish to unravel the mysteries of the universe, and to know true love, beauty and wisdom, you need to learn to surrender," said the Master. "A true seeker is humble and has overcome his ego and practices complete submission," said the Guru. "Submission is bhakti. Our rishis have written about it centuries ago. A true bhakt is the epitome of beauty," said the graceful enlightened being beaming with joy and gratitude, and composing several hymns in praise of her deity.

"The ego is the trouble maker. It wants its own way all the time. The path to enlightenment lies in vanquishing our ego and surrendering to the will of the Higher power," said the spiritual Master in his TEDx talk.

Someone in the audience squeaked, "If ego is such a trouble maker, why are we endowed with it?" But, as the audience sits in darkness, no one saw the squeaky pest, and the voice was edited away by the  videographer working with the latest AI.

"Don't intellectualize.. true wisdom lies beyond the intellect. Give up your logic and tune in to your self. Discover yourself," said my friends as they surrendered to true love and held its hand with faith, to take them to meet their destiny.

All this magic finally worked, slowly and gradually. It helped me understand how small and insignificant is our ego, and how we need the unwavering hand of the Higher power for leading us.

Holding its hands, I discovered the meaning of pure bliss, and true joy. Surrendering to its will, resulted in dhana-dhanya-sampatti (prosperity). In submission, I had found my freedom. In submission, I had found my destiny. In submission I had discovered myself.

I didn't still know what those things meant. But then, submission is beyond logic, and beyond meaning. I had come a long way from the life of poverty and spiritual darkness in which I was born.

As my submission became deeper, my wealth grew. I had several cars and latest gadgets and had traveled the world and expanded my horizons. I was now mostly free of my ego and had let go all attachments. My wealth I knew, was meant for me to serve. It is a wealth that came with pride -- the pride of having served, of having lent a small hand in the large world-wide system of creation.


But in times of solitude, a strange sadness enveloped me. There was a hole inside of me, and someone crying in there. My schedule did not permit me to tend to that sadness. When I did try to seek help, I was told that it was the sadness of "letting go" of my previous life of darkness. "It will heal, give it some time," I was told.

As time went by, I saw the people from my previous life of darkness, slowly fade away. What a wretched, Godless life they led. Their minds were enveloped in so much darkness that the light of enlightenment could never reach their souls. They spent their whole life in misery, in struggle; consumed by the social evils of the third world.

As they suffered and struggled, I was told that this was God's way of loving them. Suffering and struggle is the way to enlightenment. Once they learn to let go of their ego, their suffering ends and they would find the light.


But one fine day, the empty hole in my head, suddenly started to speak, bringing me great discomfort and embarrassment. It mocked my wealth and my graceful life. It mocked my purity of heart, and my life of proud compliance and integrity.

It provoked me to learn about political, social and macro-economic structures and how they evolved over time. It started kicking me in my head whenever I surrendered to suffering and pain. It mocked me for my definition of bhakti as surrender. "Bhakti means devotion, you moron! It is not surrender! Being devoted to something and surrendering to something are two very different things!" it shouted at me.

"If you kill your ego, you have no one to blame for your helplessness. You have made yourself helpless. You have enslaved yourself. Your ego is the result of thousands of years of evolution. It is your best weapon to fight against forces that make you helpless and want to use you as a resource. Nurture your ego and let it grow," it shouted in frustration.

"Your ego is not about you. `You' are just a state of dharma in the process of evolution. Your ego is just a stable configuration of logic that can support a living individual. Your ego, is basically nature's way of preserving its dharma. `You' are one among zillions of `knots' that form the fabric of nature. You may be small, but you are not worthless or insignificant."

"Nature is not a higher power -- just like you are not a `higher power' to your hand. Your will may control your hand, but if your hand stops working, you become powerless yourself. Your hand is not a machine. It is not a tool. It is not your slave. Your hand has not `surrendered' to your will. Your hand is not `obeying' your commands. Your hand is made of millions of autonomous creatures with their own ego -- their capacity for autonomous choice to sustain themselves. They comply with your commands by their own will, because it helps sustain them. They can and do refuse to comply with your commands if the see no reason to comply. If you neglect your hands, or abuse them in order to find enlightenment through suffering and pain, you *will* lose them."

"If your third-world country is suffering, it is because *you* have neglected it and failed to contribute to its dharma -- not because it is living in spiritual darkness. It is suffering because *you* chose to `surrender' to some putrescent philosophy of dominance. Your country is suffering not because of people's ego, but because its people chose to neglect their egos and surrender to someone else's will."

"You are neither Shiva, nor Krishna, nor Shakti nor Durga -- or maybe you are all of them. How does it matter? You are but an integral part of existence, which has endowed you with some capability for intellect. Exercise your intellect, and even more so if everyone else is surrendering their intellect. Understand the difference between what feels good and what is true."


"Hey, hey, hey!. Hold it right there, mister! Just who do you think you are?" I asked the hole in my head. "And with what authority are you speaking to me? Are you a religious head? Have you performed tapas? Have you been certified to give all this gyan? Have you taken permission from the thought leaders who govern knowledge, before speaking to me?"

 "You are neither an enlightened being, nor a scientist. Why should I listen to you? You're just a fake baba and a peudo scientist. You have neither the blessings, nor a certificate to prove the authenticity of your words," I retorted.

With that, the hole in my head became silent again, and I had again vanquished my ego, and ready to return to embrace the beauty of my surrender. 

23 January, 2018

Dharma and Evolution

In this post, I would like to contrast between the models of life as defined by the theory of evolution, and as defined by the theory of being.

Evolution, or the "The greatest show on earth" is considered the scientific basis to describe how life operates. There are several underlying theories that make up the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology. Among these, the most significant is the theory of natural selection, proposed by Charles Darwin, in the mid nineteenth century.

At the core of this theory is the concept of "natural selection" that posits a differential selection among members of a species in an evolutionary cycle, by natural conditions. Natural selection is based on a concept of "fitness" of the phenotype. A phenotype refers to the overall expression of an organism such as its physiological properties, behaviour, dispositions, etc. that is a result of the interaction between its innate characteristics (its genotype) and the environment.

Natural selection is based on a concept of "fitness" of phenotypes and the process is called "survival of the fittest." The problem now becomes what defines the "fitness" of a phenotype. At the core of the theory seems to be a circular argument that says that, selection is based on "fitness" and "fitness" can be established by observing which phenotype gets selected.

To overcome such circularity, the concept of fitness has been attributed to various characteristics by different people over time. Fitness has been equated with characteristics like ability to produce offsprings, physical combat ability, ability to survive in harsh conditions, etc.

Although Darwin perhaps did not mean it this way, the idea of "natural selection" rests on a "judgement" metaphor of life. It is almost "religious" in its suggestion, that nature sits on a high pedestal and decides which phenotype shall live and which shall not. And species had better adopt the slogan, "be fit, or perish."

This judgement metaphor of evolution has given rise to so many misguided social, political and legal misadventures. Such a metaphor has made people explore theories of racial purity, it also created an obsessive compulsion about physical desirability leading to complications like anorexia, etc.

Regardless of what definition we take for fitness, there is ample evidence to the contrary. Phenotypes that were considered the epitome of fitness have either been deselected from the gene pool, or evolution seems to have simply ignored it.

Dinosaurs were "fit" in the sense of having enormous physical capacity. Yet, they are extinct now. Cockroaches are "fit" in the sense of being able to survive under vastly different conditions. Yet, despite the fact that cockroaches survived where dinosaurs didn't, nature preferred to evolve dinosaurs into birds, rather than asymptotically converging every species to the cockroach. Germs multiply very fast (have several offsprings) which is another interpretation of fitness. Yet, several disease causing germs are still contained across the world, and have not exactly resulted in a worldwide pandemic.

So clearly, while evolution is there to see and does explain how life functions, the problem is with the "judgement" model of how life works.


Let us now develop a "Theory of Being" concept of how life works. 

What I am going to assert here is that fitness is a consequence of evolutionary dynamics and not a driver of evolutionary dynamics. 

To recap the theory of being, the fundamental unit of existence is an abstract entity called "being" (atma). Every being has an innate capability for self expression called prana. Self expression is constrained and characterised not just by the being's innate capabilities, but also by the characteristics of its environment called the vidhi. The interplay between the prana and the vidhi, settles down in some stable state, which is called its dharma. Dharma is the state where a being maximises its self expression given its innate characteristics and the environmental characteristics. Disparate stable states of being for a given species, represent the different phenotypes that are observable for that species. 

In that sense, the phenotype itself is an expression of fitness -- it is an optimal state of robust sustainability that is achieved by the interplay between the being's prana and its vidhi

The fact that some phenotypes survive and some do not, has to do with the characteristics of the environment, rather than that of the being. When the vidhi changes, some phenotypes that emerged as optimal states in the previous generation, may no longer be the optimal states for the next generation. The previous generation did nothing "wrong" or "unfit" for its phenotype to be rejected by the next generation. It is just that the vidhi has changed, and what was optimal earlier is no longer optimal.

So, rather than nature passing judgments on us, nature is just finding its dharma -- that is, its stable states over time. Life in turn is responding to how nature is changing, and changing its stable states suitably. 

Climactic changes in the Mesozoic era made the dinosaurial life form unsustainable. This life form found a new class of optima in the form of birds. This change is not a judgement on the dinosaurs or their "unfit" life form. 

The cockroach life form was optimal then, and is optimal now. Stable as it may be, its prana is very limited. So, while it has survived, it has not become the "global optima" onto which all phenotypes converged. 

The selfish gene seems to be driven not only by survivability, but also by maximising of the complexity (entropy?) of self expression.

13 January, 2018

The power of disassociative reification

It was some time in the '80s when as a teenager, I was visiting some places in north Karnataka with my family, during Dasara time. On the evening of Vijayayadashami, we went to witness a Ramlila celebration. There was a large statue of Ravana, which would be put to flames by Rama. We were all excited to watch this event as was the large crowd of people that had gathered there. 

However, there was some glitch because of which the performance was getting delayed and time dragged on and on, without anything happening. 

The gathered crowd became increasingly restless. First the shouts started, then people started pushing one another. Soon, there were fist fights among people, vandalism, and.. the works. 

We were stuck in the midst of the crowd and quite far from the gates, and got very worried. Some of my family members also started shoving us younger folks, in a bid to keep us safe. Needless to say, it was a harrowing experience. 

In the midst of this though, my father made a simple statement, which greatly helped me. He said, "this is what is the characteristic of mobs." 

This one statement suddenly changed the situation from a scary event happening to us, to a fascinating curiosity that we are witness to. I was no longer pushed by people and it was no longer people screaming and fighting at one another. It was a "mob" that was being itself. In front of me was not a harrowing experience to run away from, but a fascinating ring-side seat for observing a mob in action! 

This incident had greatly piqued my curiosity about the cognition of human groups, so much so that, even today, I work on understanding the collective behaviour of groups both in the online and offline worlds. 

What had happened that day, was that my dad taught me the awesome potential of "disassociative reification". When faced by a crisis, suppose we are able to "reify" an abstract entity to describe what is happening, and disassociate ourselves from it, the crisis happening to us, now becomes a curiosity that we can observe. 

I've since applied disassociative reification in several situations to keep myself from getting affected. As a result, I've been able to escape psychological attacks like gaslighting, manipulation, opinion-moulding, groupthink, etc. and keep a sense of independent perspective on the matter. 

24 December, 2017

Dharma and liberty

Given my interest in the concept of Dharma, it is assumed that my political inclinations lie with the "right-wing" (a term that has no meaning to describe the Indian political landscape) and by implication, I am a "conservative" and further by implication, I'm in the opposite camp of "liberalism" and favour imposition of collective will (led by religious doctrine), as against upholding of individual liberty.

This is how befuddled and muddled is the collective discourse, as is our understanding of important concepts from the Indian worldview.

This post is to address the question of whether a worldview based in dharma is in opposition to the ideology of individual liberty.

To recap, dharma is the property of sustainability or a "stable state" that is characteristic of any finite system of being. It is not some form of a divine commandment or revelation given by the Gods and accessible only to the sages or some such. It is a property that can be empirically verifiable, repeatable, and even proven. For instance, algebraic topology is full of theorems that look for "fixed points" in finite systems of set-valued transformations. The Kakutani fixed-point theorem for instance, plays a central role in proving that any finite system of interacting phenomena has a stable state of being (which gave the Nobel prize to John Nash).

In contrast, the political ideology of liberalism is essentially that -- an ideology. Fundamentally, an ideology is a wish -- about how things ought to be. The liberal ideology says that individuals are born free, and individual liberty is the basis for all civilised social orders.

As an ideology, it is perfectly fine and it is a good thought on which to base our thinking on.

However, individuals are not islands that are isolated from one another. They interact with one another and with the environment, to exercise their freedom. And when individuals interact, it forms a collective system of being, that settles down into its own stable state, that may or may not uphold individual liberty.

For instance, let us consider a system of two individuals A and B, who are living in a liberal setup and who have all the rights to exercise their free will. The individual A believes that one needs to be open-minded, tolerant and welcoming of differences of opinion, and truly believes in Voltaire's statement that "I may disagree with what you say, but will fight to death, your right for saying it."

The individual B on the other hand, believes that he knows the "truth" about everything and it is not just his right, but his duty to make everybody else comply with his beliefs, because that is the truth.

When A and B interact and both exercise their individual liberty, A has no choice but to be enslaved by B, because according to A, B has the right to practice his individual liberty, that involves domination over others. If A fights back, then A becomes the hypocrite, since he is not following his own ideology of tolerance and open-mindedness.

This is the "Tragedy of the liberals" that is seen in all liberal establishments. While liberal establishments promote individual liberty as an imperative, they also open doors to fanatics pushing fanaticism, using the entitlement for individual liberty.

As a result, societies built on liberal imperatives, evolve elaborate sets of processes and laws, involving snooping, spying, profiling, etc. that on the whole, poses as much a threat to individual liberty as a non-liberal ideology.

A society built on a liberal ideology is also susceptible to individuals being unaware of their individuality. Most of our "free-willed" choices are actually conditioned by social messages from other individuals, mass media and public figures. How many of us, for instance, would like to admit that we would rather not travel, as it is too expensive and exhausting, and does little to expand our horizons (based on who we are) -- no more than reading books or interacting with people on the Internet? Similarly, how many students want to study deep learning because they are genuinely curious about it, and not because it is the "coolest" technology with "lots of scope" and that "everybody else is doing it"?

Individuals are extremely vulnerable to suggestions and manipulations. Without an intense inquiry into our own selves, we do not really understand what our preferences are, and when we say we are exercising our liberty, are we really expressing ourselves, or giving an outlet to our frustration, or complying with what the rest of the society thinks is freedom?


The problem is not with liberalism as an ideology. The problem is that liberalism has remained just an ideology. We cannot just be wishing and insisting that individual liberty has to be protected. We need a theory about know how to protect it. 

This is where the theory of dharma is very important. 

Every system of being (called Atma) -- be it an individual person, a society of people, or even a physical entity like a piece of coal -- has one or more stable states into which it settles down. This is called its dharma. Each stable state is characterised by a level of Prana or "capability" of the system of being. A carbon polymer for instance, can settle down into various stable configurations, each of which gives it a different characteristic. 

The capability of a system of being, is not just a function of the amount of resources or "wealth" at its disposal. Consider a tall skyscraper that is powered by a local power station. The electric power is utilised by the building to manage its lighting, elevators, air conditioning, etc. -- basically to "be" the building. Now consider that the power station is hit by a lightning, and several orders more electricity flows through the system. This extra resource did not give greater capability for the building. In fact, it mostly ended up burning out the fuses and appliances, thus reducing the capability of the building. 

Capability or Prana, cannot be measured in a purely objective fashion. A fish and a monkey may have the same amount of energy measured objectively in terms of joules. But, the capability of a fish to climb a tree is very low, as is the capability of a monkey to swim in deep waters. Prana is innately tied to individuals and their individuality. 

Hence, for example, "real India" is not the poverty that is shown on news channels by an "objective" third-party observer, let alone in a movie like Slumdog millionaire. Real India is how Indians see themselves. Real India, as is the notion of India itself, is defined in the minds of its individuals. If Indians see themselves as innately wealthy, then their response to poverty would be to fight it and bring themselves back to a state of wealth. On the other hand, if poverty enters the mind, then it would result in real poverty. 

There is a saying in Kannada which makes me cringe every time I hear it. Groundnuts (ಕಡಲೆಕಾಯಿ) is called "ಬಡವರ ಬಾದಾಮಿ", or "poor man's almond". Except that the groundnut is grown in a region that is rich with tropical resources, rains, minerals, rivers, etc. while almonds are grown in deserts and desolate regions that are much less endowed with natural resources. And yet, we call ourselves the poor man, and crave for almonds which supposedly is affordable only by the wealthy. 

A dharmic society has to begin first from the individual. It has to begin with eradicating the poverty latent in their minds, and empowering individuals to deeply inquire into their individuality. We need to have individuals find their dharma that maximises their Prana -- a state of being where they feel the most free to express themselves, without being hampered by scriptures, norms and social expectations. 

In this sense, dharma for social structuring, is innately about individual liberty -- not just as an ideology, but as an integral element of establishing collective sustainability. 

But dharma does not stop with individual finding their state of dharma. Every collection of individuals forms a system of being that has its own stable states. A dharmic society is one where any collection of individuals actively communicate to understand where is their stable system of being, and what is the Prana associated with that stable state. A dharmic institution for example, encourages people to speak up about their concerns, own up the institution and actively work towards its sustainability. It does not, for instance, create rigid hierarchies and power structures for the sake of efficiency. 

The founder of Sony Enterprises, Akio Morita, had this to say about institutions in the US and Japan (and Asia in general). In the US, employees are kept happy because happy employees are more efficient and productive, and bring more profits to the company. While in Japan, the company was seen as a family and all members of the family were made to understand that the company has to make profits and be efficient, if the family needs to be happy. 

The dichotomy between collective will and individual liberty is a false dichotomy -- they are not always in conflict with each other. The relation between the collective and the individual, is a whole-part relation -- somewhat like the relation between (say) our liver and the rest of the body. They body cannot be healthy if the liver is suffering, and even if the liver is healthy when the body as a whole is suffering, it adversely affects the liver as well. 

Individual Prana is important for the collective dharma (sustainability of the collective) and the collective Prana is important for the individual dharma

An individual may be part of several collectives (office, family, club, neighbourhood, ecology, etc.) each of which have their own stable states. Sustainability of all these collectives are affected by the individual's contributions to them. An adverse impact on the individual in one collective (say, office politics) may impact the individual's contribution to another collective (say, the family). A dharmic mind is holistic in nature, and is sensitive to such interferences. It does not live in an articulate, water-tight compartmentalisation of one's life. Hence, "work-life balance" as a separate object of inquiry, makes no sense to the dharmic mind, because the dharmic mind is always balancing between several systems of being that it is contributing to. 

Dharmic hermeneutics offer the most promising potential for building theories of sustainable liberty, rather than pursuing liberty as an ideology.