19 March, 2016

How the twain shall meet -- II: Truth and fitness

Staying on the topic of (the false dilemma between) East vs West, here is another common misconception: "Understanding Eastern (dharmic) thought needs one to suspend the use of logic."

Even in my previous post, one of the comments asked whether I'm implying that we need axioms without logic to understand Eastern thought. I'm not sure that means though, but I guess it means something like the above stated belief.

Suspending the use of logic means speaking nonsense or committing a logical fallacy. For instance, if I argued that, "All fish swim, I too swim, therefore I am a fish." Now that is an example of suspension of logic.

Speaking about emotions or proposing a model comprising of abstract, intangible elements (like chakras for example) or even proposing the existence of something that cannot be proved by logic, does not make something illogical.

Science is full of models built on intangible axioms. Newtonian physics for example, is built upon the absolute and objective nature of time, which is questioned and relaxed in Einsteinian physics. While Einsteinian physics itself is based on the postulated absolute nature of the speed of light.

Whether East or West, our worldviews are based on certain axiomatic assumptions and postulates and computing logical implications from the same.

The only difference perhaps is in the way logical systems and proof methods that have been prevalent in the East in contrast to the West.

To elaborate on this, we need to contend with yet another common misconception about "truth" in the Eastern mind. Apparently in the East, truth is subjective, relative and non-crisp, while Western thought is based on the crisp "law of excluded middle" -- that is, something cannot be true and false at the same time. Apparently in Eastern thought (Buddhism is the target for such assertions), truth has "shades of gray" and it is possible for something to be true and false at the same time.

The above misconception only serves to reiterate an exotic and quaint image of Eastern thought, something that which can only be understood if we suspend logic. (It can also serve to reiterate the utility of probability and fuzzy sets when building models under uncertainty -- but that is science!)

The unfortunate fallout of such a flawed view is that several important results from the East gets clubbed into a bucket called "alternative, pseudo-scientific drivel." Ayurveda for example, was the mainstream system of medicine in India for at least 2500 years before current-day Western medicine became mainstream some 150 years ago, and dumped Auyrveda into the trash can called "alternative medicine."

Firstly, "qualified" truth is not uncommon in Western thought either. A variety of  "modal" logics exist, which contend with qualifiers over truth like "necessarily true", "possibly true", "ought to be true", and so on. Modal logics are useful when we are dealing with composite objects rather than atomic elements. For instance, if someone were to be visiting India, it is "necessarily true" that they cannot bring some banned substances (like satellite phones) with them. However, it is "possibly true" that they cannot consume alcohol in India -- it depends on where they are going to be in India. The need for such qualifiers are because of the fact that "India" is not an atomic element of interest. It is a composite object, which has several components with differing values for a given proposition.

It becomes easier to understand Eastern thought, once we understand composites. In Eastern thought, logical systems were not built from assertions over atomic objects, but from assertions over systems. Eastern thought is based on recognizing systems at every level, whether it is in the outside physical world or in our inner psychological or spiritual worlds.

A system is more than a composite object -- it not only comprises of several components, these components also actively interact with one another. To make matters even more complex, these components may be autonomous, each pursuing their own intentions and goals. Hence components need not just interact with one another, they may also interfere and conflict with one another.

Given this, the kind of logics that are required are also different.

In the Western worldview, the notion of "problem-solving" is fundamentally seen as a function -- or a transformation or mapping from a problem to a solution. The "truth" about problem solving is hence a binary question: is a given mapping valid or invalid? This kind of scrutiny is primarily applicable when we are dealing with atomic objects. For instance, is it valid or invalid to bucket 1729 as a prime number? It has a crisp true/false answer.

However, when dealing with systems, scrutinizing a solution in the form of a crisp true or false question, is inadequate. Systemic problems often have several solutions with different levels of "fitness." A solution to a problem is situated in a systemic context and comes with its own resource requirements and cost, and has its own set of side effects or impact on the system. For instance, can we reduce air pollution in a city by imposing an odd-even rule (that is, only odd numbered vehicles can drive on odd days and vice versa)? This question does not have a crisp true/false answer. Air pollution needs to be minimized yes -- but this question is not posed in an isolated, water-tight compartment. We need to reduce air pollution and yet keep the city alive and cater to the livelihood of its citizens. So the odd-even rule may be a "qualified" solution -- it has its own set of side effects, implications and costs. There could be several other solutions with different levels of fitness.

This is the nature of "shades of gray" of truth in Eastern thought -- it is not illogical. It is just a logical assertion about a property on a system, keeping in mind its impact on the rest of the system.

One might argue that every such assertion resulting in qualified truth can be theoretically rephrased to convert it to a crisp assertion by providing for all the impact and cost into the question itself. This is possible, provided we make a this small, limiting assumption called the "closed world assumption."

For example, we can ask, "Is the odd-even rule the best solution to reduce air pollution, taking into account its impact on people's livelihood and its costs of implementation?" This can be answered in a crisp fashion, only if we assume that people's livelihood and costs of implementation are the only dimensions to this problem that matter. But if we were to pose this question in an open-world scenario (that is, there could be other systemic dimensions that could matter, which we are not aware of), then a crisp answer is inadequate.

The above are characteristic of the nature of debates and dilemma in Eastern dharmic thought.

Dharma is a characteristic of sustainability or stability of a system. In modern parlance -- it is a property of optimality. Anyone who is familiar with optimization would realize that, optimality exists at different levels with different scores of fitness. Indeed, a "local optima" can sometimes make things worse as it appears to be a stable configuration, but is not really so. Also, our understanding of what is optimal may change in open-worlds, when confronted with new pertinent information about the system.

Which is why for instance, it is said that even thieves have their own dharma, but it is a social adharma to encourage thieving. Substitute dharma with "sustainable" and the above sentence makes sense. There can be "sustainable" methods of thieving, but encouraging thieving may make a society unsustainable.

Once we understand this way of reasoning, it is easy to see why Eastern thought is wary of providing crisp and confident answers about any large question. This is different from saying that Eastern thought requires suspension of logic, or that in the Eastern mind truth is subjective and relative or has several shades of gray.

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