05 October, 2017

A Being perspective of the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the largest epic poem ever written some time in the 8th or 9th century BCE, comprising over 100,000 shlokas (couplets). It narrates the story of the Kuru empire of ancient Hastinapura, spanning over several generations, and interweaving several other stories within it.

The main feature of the Mahabharata is the Kurukshetra war that lasted over 18 days, involving several kingdoms of ancient India, bringing forth great bloodshed and destruction. The epic narrates events leading up to the war, as well as the aftermath of the war.

The epic has captured the imagination of Indians for almost 3000 years now, and even today several authors continue to analyze and provide commentaries about the intricacies of the story.

Here is one such perspective, based on my understanding of cognition and the theory of Being.

At the face of it, the Mahabharata war is a war between cousins -- the Pandavas on the one side, fighting the Kauravas. Events that lead to the war are many, and span over several years. War was seen as inevitable after Pandavas, led by Krishna had explored and exhausted all possible options to seek justice in a peaceful manner. The war was touted as "dharma-yuddha" -- or a war that was meant to prevent the system from collapsing from within, due to its own unsustainable (adharma) activities. The dharma yuddha hence potentially prevented a much larger catastrophe.

Rivalry between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, is seen as the primary factor resulting in this war. A rivalry that was exacerbated by a "weak" father Dritharashtra, and an "evil" uncle Shakuni.

However, I prefer to see it very differently, as terms like "weak" and "evil" have no meaning in the theory of being.

In order to understand my perspective, we need to refresh some basic definitions for atma (being), dharma (sustainability), vidhi (schema), and prana (capability). Atma is the fundamental unit in which the physical world is built. It represents an abstract notion of "being" that has many stable states called its dharma, where it would settle down, depending on its environment (vidhi). Once a being has reached a stable state with respect to its environment, the system of beings in mutual equilibrium forms a composite being that is in its stable state with respect to its environment.

A being also has a certain level of prana (capability). Prana refers to the complexity of the being's self expression, and may be viewed in terms of the information entropy of its expressions. A being with a high level of prana is capable of very rich expressions in some form (rich musical ability, rich athletic ability, rich philosophical ability, etc.)

Within an environment, a being reaches a stable state that maximizes its prana. Each stable state (or local optima) allows for a certain extent of expressive complexity. If a being is capable of more complex expressions than what the stable state allows, it strives to find a better stable state -- the so-called "global optima" for the being.

Hence for instance, in the Mahabharata, the being called Karna who had been endowed with superlative abilities of a warrior was raised by a charioteer, he could not stay as a charioteer. His prana pushed him to find a dharma that suits his prana.

When we look at things from the perspective of dharma and prana, we have no need for vocabulary like "weak", "evil", etc. When an atma (being) is stuck in a stable state where the expression of its prana is highly curtailed, it leads to frustration and helplessness, and release of its latent energy in self-destructive ways, which in turn leads to other negative repercussions.

This in a nutshell is the story of the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is the story of two system of beings -- the Kuru system of being and the Gandhar system of being, both of which had very different experiences with their dharma and prana.

In the Kuru system of being, there was relatively more peace and freedom for people to explore and express themselves to the best of their abilities. So much so that people were generally unaware of the interplay between their prana and their dharma.

Among them was the prince Dritharashtra, who was born blind. Dritharashtra was a highly capable warrior and endowed with a lot of prana. He had trained himself in several martial and administrative abilities, despite his debilitating blindness.

However, Dritharashtra was constantly frustrated. His prana pushed him to aspire for much higher goals, while his blindness cruelly pulled him back. None of the others around him understood the intensity of frustration that he was constantly going through.

Dritharashtra understood several aspects of administration and governance, and was much more able than his brother Pandu. However, in their "wisdom" the Kuru advisers advised the queen against making Dritharashtra as the king, citing his blindness. This frustrated Dritharashtra even more leading to his latent prana releasing itself in self-destructive ways, which was widely interpreted as his "weakness".

No one in the Kuru empire thought of creating an formalized abstract administrative process and system, where Dritharashtra can still express his capabilities despite his blindness, and which could be gainfully used for effective administration. Instead, they only saw the throne as an entitlement for one who is capable -- and being stuck in a disability was seen as a lack of capability.

In contrast to the Kuru empire, the empire of Gandhar, situated in the desolate region of present day Khandahar in Afghanistan, lived in a place with constant challenges and threats to survival. Their life was a constant struggle and they had to keep themselves fighting fit, just to survive.

When Bhisma from the Kuru empire came with a proposal for the marriage of Dritharashtra with the Gandhar princess, the king and his son were aghast at the thought of marrying the princess to a blind prince. But having struggled for everything all through their lives, they saw the practical benefit of being aligned with a much stronger kingdom, and agreed for the marriage.

The Gandhar princess Gandhari on her part, was equally aghast at this arrangement. Not only did she have the frustration of being used as an object of trade to buy peace, she also had to spend the rest of her life with a blind king. But having been no stranger to adversity, struggles and defiance, she took a drastic decision to blindfold herself and lead the rest of her life in blindness. This decision is interpreted by different people in different ways. But for her, it was a complex expression of her prana struggling to break out of its surrounding constraints -- it was a mix of expressions involving protest, defiance, empathy and acceptance.

No one in Kuru understood the complex nature of the frustrated prana and the different ways that it finds to express itself. Instead, they continued on with very simplistic models of dharmic practices, making both Dritharashtra and Gandhari's brother Shakuni (who had accompanied his sister to live in Hastinapura), feel even more frustrated and helpless.

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The second part of the story is with the next generation.

When we interact with others, we are simultaneously communicating in two dimensions -- abstractions and expressions. Abstractions represent the ideas that we are processing in our minds, while the expressions represent the emotions that we are feeling.

Cognitively, we are hard-wired to catch and imbibe others' emotions even without our knowledge. This is called emotional contagion. This is even more so with children. Children are far too ill-equipped to process our ideas, but have native abilities to imbibe and internalize our expressions.

Which is why, when we bring up our children, it is very important to be mindful of how we are feeling, in addition to what we are telling them.

From this perspective, the Kauravas have the saddest story ever. Right from the day they were born, they were subject to the intense feeling of frustration and victimhood by their father and uncle. These emotional states were so deeply ingrained in their minds that they practically became embodiments of those emotions!

They never got to learn who they were as individuals. They never got to experience happiness that characterizes our fundamental nature. All their happy moments were entailed on a bedrock of frustration and victimhood.

It is only when Krishna realized this, that it became clear to him that war was the only option. There is no way to reason about peace with a person who does not have an innate understanding of peace. There is no way to appeal to a person's happiness when they do not innately understand happiness.

It is somewhat like trying to reason with a suicide bomber or threaten them with punishments. When our hermeneutics -- or the basic framework of reasoning -- does not know the existence of essential elements like peace, trust, empathy, etc. it tries to interpret everything within its own bounded framework of victimhood or frustration, and ends up with wildly inaccurate conclusions.

And when such minds with damaged hermeneutics occupy a position of power, there is no way one can bring peace or uphold dharma without battling them.

This is just the same problem we face today with terrorism or religious extremism that seeks to rule the world according to a rigid belief system that is based on segregation, discrimination and hatred of the "other".

21 September, 2017

Imbibing the Theory of Being

Over the last few posts, I have been writing down my thoughts on the "Theory of Being" in my attempt to re-create the way of thinking that characterized ancient Indian thought. With my familiarity with modern day scientific thought that has its roots in ancient Greece and with the emerging theory of systems and rational games, coupled with the kind of upbringing we had in our homes, where dharmic way of thinking was practiced, I believe it gives me a unique perspective to re-create the underlying worldview of dharmic thought process.

Let me start with examples to provide evidence for the fact that the dharmic way of thinking is indeed different in characteristic than the Western model that we learnt in school.

It is common to encounter debates in educational circles, about whether students should be encouraged to "pursue their dreams" or have "realistic ambitions". I even saw a Quora answer by a famous physicist about how students should be taught to be realistic with their ambitions, and provided several examples of people whose lives have fallen apart in their pursuit of their dreams.

It started me to think why we (at least me), never had this dilemma. In fact, I did not really have a separate "dream" that was separated and compartmentalized from the reality around me.

The reason was not hard to see. In our homes, we were imbibed with a meme that we should always "uphold our dharma". While the concept of dharma has been distorted to give this meme several weird interpretations like we have to uphold our religion, uphold our ethics, etc. our culture has internalized this meme over several millenia. People are implicitly taught to strive for sustainability in every pursuit.

The moment we add "..in a sustainable way" to our advice, the dilemma is resolved. We can advice our students to "pursue their dreams in a sustainable way" or even "be realistic in a sustainable way" (i.e. don't get bogged down and depressed by reality to the extent that it threatens your sustainability).

Both of these pieces of advice are much more stable (sustainable?) than the earlier sets of advice "pursue your dreams" or "be realistic".

This is the most significant potential I find with the theory of being.

Imbibing the Theory of Being, into our modern day theoretical physics helps us understand a very complex system by reducing it down to its sustainable states and the transitions between them. "Strange Attractors" from chaos theory, anyone?

Imbibing the Theory of Being into engineering and architecture helps us analyze and design large systems by focusing on their stable states. It also helps in understanding the growth of cities, the complex interplay between its different subsystems, and strategies to manage such complex systems.

Imbibing the Theory of Being into education, humanities and social sciences helps us understand both humans and societies in terms of their stable states, rather than their ideologies. In fact, a staunch ideological stance like fanaticism, indicates a stable cognitive state -- a local minima -- which only gets reinforced by our vociferous disapproval of it. We stop looking at social problems through the lens of ideology and morality, and stop blaming, attitude, apathy, greed, etc. for our problems. Instead, we will start looking at greed, apathy, etc. as stable systemic states that a person's or community's mind is stuck in, and is getting reinforced by self-fulfilling prophecies.

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So, here is a quick recap of the essential elements of the Being theory of the universe. 

There is only one kind of element that the universe is made of -- called "being" (Atma).Beings compose to become bigger beings, with the entire universe as the ultimate Being (Paramatma). 

Beings can be in different states (of being). Not all states are equally stable. A being in an unstable state tends to settle down to a stable state. The stable states of being are called its dharma. 

The dharma of a being is not a property of the being alone -- but also of the environment (vidhi) in which it operates. A being's dharma is the best response function that maximizes its sustainability, given the characteristics of its vidhi. 

As humans, we have our dharma, and the social system in which we operate has its own states of dharma. The system as a whole, tends to settle down in its stable state, which in turn requires us to find our own stable state, given the state that the system has settled down in. 

Hence, for instance, given the state of our roads, lack of driving sense, lack of public transport, dogs, etc. commuting by car to work is my best response function -- even though it costs me a lot. My ideal commute would be by a multi-modal public transport, to which I can walk on well paved footpaths and am reasonably assured of my safety from stray dogs, rogue drivers and other such factors. But then, the vidhi has settled down in some stable state that is not conducive to this ideal. 

At every stable state that a being settles into, it has a given capability (prana). Every being tries to settle down in a stable state where its prana is maximized. Given two stable states with different levels of prana, beings prefer the one with higher prana. This is for instance, the reason why IIT grads emigrated to "settle down" in the US rather than looking for a job in India. Settling down in India (used to) have a much lower level of prana (capability) than settling down in the US. 

This is true not just of "living" beings -- but of all beings. If we excite molecules of a crystal with energy, they change the overall shape of the crystal. This is the new stable state with the higher level of prana that the beings are endowed with. 

While I've used prana (capability) in the sense of "energy" there is a subtle, but important difference between energy (urja) and capability (prana). Consider a tall building and its operations. Every day it consumes several megawatts of electricity to be the building that it is (for its lighting, elevators, air conditioning, pumps, etc.) This electricity is part of the larger system and interactions that gives the building its capability. Now suppose that the building is one day stuck with lightning, and even more electricity flow through its cables burning away all the appliances connected to it. What just happened, was that the building obtained a lot of "energy" (urja) but lost its "capability" (prana). The system of the building has now settled down to a lower state of dharma with lesser capability (where we cannot use the lights, the elevators, etc.).

What makes a being move from a lower state of dharma to a higher state of dharma? This happens when the being is endowed with more prana, so that the current state of dharma is no longer the best stable state, given the state of the prana. 

This process of taking a being from a lower stable state to a higher stable state is called pranayama. The idea of pranayama is holistic upliftment of being to help find a new stable state. Empowerment of only some parts of being will not improve the overall capability. Hence for instance, running into wealth without an improvement in our education about how wealth works, is not likely to increase our capability. 

Pranayama hence, starts with internal capacity building -- be it for an individual, a family, an organization or a country. We can "shoot for the stars" only after we have built an internal capability to sustainably shoot for the stars. 

It is hence, no surprise that mega achievements in aviation and space technology have all but disappeared. No country is interested in putting a man on the moon anymore. No one seems to be too keen on building supersonic passenger jets. No one even seems to be keen on building space colonies that was widely expected to happen after the International Space Station was built. None of these achievements were a result of the increased capability of humanity as a whole. These stellar achievements were made at a time when large parts of the world were fighting one another or were literally starving to death. 

If we wish to build a sustainable world, we need to increase overall capability. This not just means financial and material capability of humans, but also their educational and spiritual capability. Pranayama for the world includes increasing the prana of the world that we are endowed with -- its forests and its diverse set of flora and fauna. 

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.

*~*~*~*~*

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.