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).

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