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.

13 March, 2016

How the twain shall meet - I: The false dilemma

Quite regularly, on the "mainstream" media and social media, some spiritual guru makes news -- often for all the wrong reasons. This news is followed by a coterie of skeptics heaping mud on the "self-styled godmen" and often silently wondering how the heck did these people get so rich, when they don't feature on stock markets, business news or politics.

Indeed, there are several spiritual movements and spiritual heads in India that are extremely rich. India hosts the world's richest deity -- some of its spiritual gurus have their own air fields, islands, and so on. The skeptics often see these as evidence of foul play and often conjure elaborate theories.

No doubt, there are unscrupulous elements in the "spirituality industry" who often use their organizations as a front for something else.

However, there are ample examples of spiritual movements in India which enjoy a vast global following, with ample donations and volunteer services. Many of these movements are so large that they have a complete ecosystem under their umbrella -- supporting not just individuals, but also businesses and organizations like hospitals and universities. Surely, there must be something to such "pseudo-science" if it can garner such a huge following?

How do these "pseudo-scientific" movements gather so much momentum and support from so many people across the world? For the "mainstream" it appears baffling that there could be so many irrational and gullible people all over the world.

However, we only need to adjust our vantage point and question our axioms a little, in order to see what really is happening.

Rudyard Kipling once said, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet."

Sadly, it is this "Western" kind of thinking that still runs our "mainstream" institutions the world over, because of which, this false dilemma refuses to budge.

It is also like this video by Mark Gungor who has a theory about "male and female brains" -- where the "male" brain supposedly organizes the world into neat little boxes and thinks only inside a box; while in the female brain on the other hand, everything is connected to everything else, and is run with an energy called emotion.

Somebody should tell Mr. Gungor that his theory is a "male" theory, which classifies brain types into neat little boxes called "male brain" and "female brain", while a "female" theory would not see such water-tight distinctions in the first place!

The Western model of thinking, which largely drives our institutional lives today has its roots in ancient Greece, where philosophers looked at the physical world outside of us and tried to build models to understand its phenomena. They invented a lot of underpinnings that govern Western thought today -- mechanics, physics, geometry, meta-physics, and so on.

Such a thought process was driven by a process of articulation -- or breaking up a complex system into smaller parts for the purposes of understanding. It was also instrumental in discovering several other important elements that form the underpinnings of our intellectual lives today like objectivity, stoicism, critical thinking and so on.

In contrast, the East had a much stronger focus on exploring the world within ourselves. These thought processes took root in lands that were rich with biodiversity, with several life forms often interacting and competing with one another. There was a strong impetus to understand what life is all about and how can different forms of life coexist peacefully.

Exploration into the inner world revealed early on to the Eastern philosophers that our intellectual selves are only a small, conscious part of who we are, and for most of our lives, we are driven by our emotional selves. This thought process also needed another important skill -- harmonization.Our emotional selves are not monolithic entities. They are in turn, driven by several autonomous cognitive centers (called "chakras" in Eastern thought), which often interfere with one another. The problem of harmonizing between different life forms in the outside world, manifested itself as the problem of harmonizing the different chakras in the inside world.

Also, unlike physical objects in the night sky, it is very difficult for us to be dispassionate observers of emotions. We are hard wired to catch emotions from elsewhere, and our own emotions can grip our minds so that we "become" our emotions. We are our emotions and when we observe ourselves, the observer is not completely disjoint from the observed.

So just like critical thinking became the ideal cornerstone of Western thought, Eastern thought developed a cornerstone called stithaprajna (often known as "mindfulness" in the West). It refers to a state of mind where we observe ourselves and our emotions without judgment and without letting them become us.

Just like the Western world developed several laws of physics over the centuries, the Eastern world developed several theories of the mind addressing elements like consciousness, self, identity, awareness, etc.

Just like the Western world likes to believe that everything is ultimately physics, the Eastern world believes that everything is ultimately mind. Processes and phenomena that posed challenges in the world outside, also existed in the world within. This lead to modeling the universe itself as a life form, comprising of several autonomous elements. The sense of self for the universe became the universal soul (Paramatma) of which our own souls (Atma) or sense of self were mere elements.

One of the early discoveries of the Eastern thought is the discovery of invariants that determine life and ecological processes. This is called "dharma". Dharma manifests as homeostasis in the biological realm, and the notion of "sustainability" comes closest to the concept of dharma in the ecological realm.

Translation of the concept of dharma by the Western mind as either "religion" or "ethics" or "righteousness" or "discipline" or "duty" has rendered a great disservice towards understanding this important concept. Dharma is far more fundamental -- it is the essence of life, of habitability of Earth and of sustainability of a complex ecosystem.

The concept of dharma is so fundamental to Eastern thought, it drove collective thought in a large part of the world that now comprises of the region involving Pakistan to South and South-east Asia. Dharmic cultures are what are equated with "religions" in today's narrative. What is today called the "Hindu religion" denotes a vast array of dharmic subcultures, including Buddhism, which the Western world encountered independently in other countries and seeks to distinguish from Hinduism (which itself does not mean one thing).

At a fundamental level, the East never really saw themselves as different from the West -- all of us are humans, driven by the same algebra of emotions and driven by dharma. But for the West, in order to understand something complex, they needed to articulate and break down the universe into neat little boxes, thus creating a huge chasm between the East and the West.

The East tried to reach out to the West using the epistemological tools at their disposal. This instantly made them into quaint and exotic mystics in the eyes of the West. The West in turn used its tools (meant for understanding physics), to understand the mind. And ended up boxing psychology and humanities into a category called "soft sciences" or in the words of Dr. Sheldon Cooper of the Big Bang Theory -- the "doofus of the sciences."

It is hence difficult for them to understand how these scientific doofus are able to "command" a huge following all over the world and create such big "empires" including high profile followers who are known to be scientifically minded. As long as they try to understand this phenomena using the mental model that is used to understand physics, they will remain perplexed and suspicious.

In contrast, the East is increasingly exposed to the Western way of thinking -- so much so that several folks take pride in treating their cultural moorings with contempt by trying to understand it from a framework that is inadequate. However, it is not before long that many of them get driven towards genuinely understanding Eastern thought looking past the labels, stereotypes and one's own paralyzing sense of contempt.