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.


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

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

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

The Being 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Beings

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

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

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

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

01 December, 2016

Theory of Being -- II: Information Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me stop this post on this note.

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

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

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

27 November, 2016

Theory of Being -- I: Glimpses of Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

28 September, 2016

On declarative social orders

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

Dharma, Brahma, Rasa 
Dharma as Universal Principle of Equilibrium 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

22 September, 2016

Homeostasis and Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me give an example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 August, 2016

System, Being and Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is where it is important to understand Eastern hermeneutics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 August, 2016

On interpretations of "self actualization"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

06 August, 2016

The algebra of harmony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 July, 2016

Minimalist and Maximalist thinking

This is yet another post in my informal series contrasting between the East and the West, in their ways of thinking. Within the context of India, this informal series tries to clarify my understanding of the oft-cited chasm between (Westernized) India and (indigenous) Bharat.

Before I start, some usual disclaimers:
  1. None of my writings are meant to "invalidate" or "illegitimize" either the West or the East. Sure, there will be scholarly and objective criticisms about some world view being applied to solve some problem. But this does not mean that I reject one world view in favour of another. 
  2. All these posts are of a scholarly intent (including those where I appear to rant) -- the idea behind these posts is to provoke thought and gain better understanding. These posts do not represent any form of cultural or political activism or agenda. 
As noted in my previous posts, Western thought is largely reductionist in its approach, and is built upon the concept of a particle as the building block of physical reality. In contrast, Eastern thought (thought processes that are found outside of formal education systems in the East) is holistic in its approach, viewing "systems" as fundamental building blocks. 

This is not to say that the West does not recognize systems, or that the East does not recognize particles. The contrast is in the way the respective epistemological foundations are built -- that is, in our approach towards organization of knowledge and thought. 

Which is why for example, where the West thinks in terms of truth, falsity and the law of excluded middle, the East thinks in terms of systemic fitness (incorrectly interpreted in the West as "fuzzy" notions of truth).

Reductionist thinking is "minimalist" in its approach. It seeks to reduce a complex observation to its bare essentials, and is exemplified by the notion of Occam's razor. Foundations of such thought processes may be found in Plato's philosophy of Essentialism. Although, there are lot of debates around essentialism, the core idea that every entity can be characterized by discovering its latent "true nature" (or -ness), still drives most reductionist approaches to thought. 

As stated before, it is not that essentialist thinking does not exist in the East. The concept of "Tattva" comes close. But by and large, this concept has not been the primary driver for the way the Eastern mind has tried to approach problems and gain understanding. 

Minimalism has a number of interesting properties. A minimalist framework is "exclusive" by design. Here, everything is by default rejected, unless they can be accepted (or entailed by a logical chain) by the ground truths. 

Minimalism is closely related to the "closed-word assumption (CWA)" which can be defined as "ignorance as falsity." Hence, what we do not know to be true, is considered false by default (unless, of course, it can be refuted). 

It is important to note that minimalism is not the same as the CWA. In scientific inquiry for example, an assertion that cannot be proven to be true, is considered an open conjecture. An assertion is considered false only if it can be proven to be false. 

But here, I'm talking about the general, social approach towards thought that is practised by lay persons -- that is driven by minimalism, but which generally fails to acknowledge and respect nuances like the above. This ends up reducing minimalism to closed-world reasoning. 

Minimalist thinking is also called as "least fixed-points" thinking. The ground truths or the "axioms" on which thought progresses need to be minimalist to begin with. If we have to describe a universe of discourse, a minimalist axiomatic framework needs to have a set of axioms that are as less in number as possible, and are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive to describe the universe of discourse. 

A natural consequence of this when applied to human reasoning is that the "self" is considered the axiomatic basis for all cognition. As Maslow's hierarchy posits, the ultimate goal for man is "self actualization." 

The minimalist world view, begins from the self and its primitive, immediate needs (primary narcissism), and expands to reach out to the universe. 

Holistic thinking on the other hand, is "maximalist" in its approach. It considers a "system" as the building block of thought. A system is characterized by "dynamics." Holistic thinking considers the universe to be built from an fundamental "dynamic" (vibration, consciousness, etc.) and entities as merely end points or extremal states of the dynamics. 

Thus, the Yin and Yang or the Purusha and Prakriti are not disparate entities that are interacting to form the universe. They are merely extremal end points of the fundamental "consciousness" (Brahman) that is the universe. 

In maximalist thought, an individual's self is considered to be just a part of the whole and not as an axiomatic basis from which we look outside into the universe. 
Anything that has a self is an "aware" and "conscious" part of the whole. But consciousness can have different levels of "fitness" or "awareness," which describes the extent to which the self considers itself as part of the whole. A completely non-conscious entity would consider itself (if it can consider itself) completely separated from the whole, while a being at a higher level of "fitness" of consciousness sees itself to be closer -- or even the same -- as the whole. 

While the ultimate aim of the self in minimalist thought is self-actualization, the ultimate aim of the self in maximalist thought is moksha -- or self-awareness and liberation from all forms of ignorance and a state of oneness of the self with the universe. 

One might argue and it might indeed be the case that self-actualization and moksha are one and the same. A person who has reached moksha would likely be observable as a self-actualizing being. The two ideals may indeed be the same -- just that it is approached from different directions, or the paradigmatic perspectives are vastly different.

While minimalist thought seeks solutions to problems (which can be shown to be theoretically the same as "deciding" on an assertion -- or establishing its truth or falsity), maximalist thought seeks to establish harmony among the several variables that form the collective.

Solving a problem and establishing harmony have different characteristics. The former is a "convergent" and reductive process. We need to converge to the one solution that decides our question one way or the other. Establishing harmony on the other hand, is a divergent process. Given a system of variables and interactions, there could be several ways in which harmony can be established -- each with their own "fitness" levels. 

The tool for the minimalist thinker is cogitation, while the tool for the maximalist thinker is meditation.
Cogitation pertains to adopting principles of logical reasoning, and applying them in a systematic fashion starting from the axioms, till a solution is reached. Meditation pertains to letting go of all thought and emotions and become a dispassionate observer, in order to see the holistic big picture emerging from the disparate interactions. 

A minimalist thought process may be considered to be a "linear" chain connecting axioms to conclusions (although the process itself need not be linear). On the other hand, a maximalist intervention into a system usually involves several independent and concurrent entailments happening in different parts of the system, so that they collectively result in a better state of harmony. 

It is sometimes incorrectly stated that the Eastern reasoning is "circular" since it does not follow a single linear chain of entailments. This is a misnomer, and also, "circular reasoning" means something very different. Circular reasoning means to "beg the question" or try to use the assertion itself as an axiom, resulting in a non-wellfounded (but consistent) entailment. 

Holistic or maximalist thinking is not circular -- it is perhaps better characterized as "concurrent". It comprises of following several entailment chains concurrently, looking for an emergent state of harmony.

"The wisdom of crowds" is a practical example of maximalist thought and emergent harmony (or insight, in this case).

28 June, 2016

The psychology of good governance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is easy to see why I assert the above. 

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

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

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

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

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

Principles of natural governance, if you will.