24 July, 2017

The limits of Syncretism

In the study of human societies like religion, politics, culture, etc. a commonly occurring tool of inquiry is Syncretism. It refers to the process of computing equivalences between disparate belief systems and hermeneutics to look for underlying unity and promote dialogue across hermeneutics.

No doubt, the intention of Syncretic studies is noble, but as always, the devil lies in the details. Some time ago, I had written a post on the limits of "informed consent" -- which is seen as the cornerstone of liberal, consensual relationships. The incident that started me to think about the limits of informed consent, was a study I'd come across about "productivity enhancement" that required a 360-degree collection of "Big data" from employees. Stuff like what time they get up, what time they come to work, how much time they spend at the water cooler, what sites they visit, what is their emotional state, what is the state of their marital relationship, etc. were all collected and given to a "Big data analytics" engine to give actionable insights.

The primary defense the authors had about the use of such intrusive data about the employees' personal lives, was the axiom of "informed consent". The employees were told what data would be collected and they consented to it.

The only problem in this argument is that the employees likely had no recourse but to give their consent -- or else, face the wrath of upper management and possibly end up losing their jobs. Informed consent, in a state of power asymmetry is just a fait accompli.

The same thing is true of Syncretism. Let us assume two hermeneutic systems A and B wanting to understand one another. Syncretic interpretations are directed relationships. There can be a Syncretic explanation of concepts of B in terms of A, as well as concepts of A in terms of B.

In an egalitarian world with similar levels of strength from both sides, we would probably see equal numbers of interpretations in either directions.

However, the literature pertaining to interpreting culture, religion, arts, etc in the English-speaking world is hopelessly one-sided. It represents the interpretation of other cultures and hermeneutics from a European (later American) hermeneutic framework.

Hence, we see a non-existent religion called "Hinduism" that is boxed in as the predominant belief-system in India and it is neatly separated from other similar "-isms" like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc. Even concepts of this "Hinduism" like dharma, atma, prana, vidhi, etc are all mapped to mostly Biblical concepts (since "Hinduism" was considered a "religion") to find some kind of a subgraph isomorphism.

With a good enough interpretation, several "Indology experts" have emerged who use the Syncretic interpretation to suggest political, social and cultural interventions into what they see as social evils or superstition.

It also helped that Indian society was reeling from different forms of collective trauma when the Western explorers set out to study and interpret the culture. Reactions to trauma often take extreme forms ("sati" and "jouhar" for instance, were not social practices characteristic of "Hinduism" representing some sick notions of male dominance; but were traumatic counter-reactions against invaders who were killing men and enslaving the women.)

The power asymmetry that still exists between India and the Western world, have ensured that the Syncretic narrative about Indian thought is fast becoming the "mainstream" with the actual thought getting sidelined and faces a real danger of becoming extinct with the emergence of the generation of the English educated, digital natives whose primary source of worldview is Wikipedia.

Syncretic interpretation of Indian culture, which forms the basis on which children in the West are taught about India and "India experts" base their political advice, is wildly way off target. And what is worse, is that even in India, especially since Indian (dharmic) thought is not studied in the formal education system, and many students are growing up speaking and thinking in English (because of the greater opportunity it provides), the only source of material for them to understand Indian thought is the Western syncretic interpretation of it.

I've extensively written about the misinterpretation of dharma as either religion, law, ethics, norms, duty, etc. when it actually defines an abstract, conceptual notion of sustainability -- or the universal principle of equilibrium. Indian thought postulates the existence of dharma (which can be independently verified in various ways), and there is no question of "belief" in dharma. Dharma, like gravity, exists regardless of whether we believe in it.

Imagine a mind that has concepts like "ethics", "law", "religion", "duty", etc. but no concept for the universal principle of sustainability, interpreting the term "dharma" based on the different contexts it appears in. The actual meaning of dharma gets hopelessly distorted when equated with any or all of these concepts.

Similarly, the term "Atman" or "Atma" is interpreted as "Soul" -- a primarily Biblical concept. Atma is is the essence of "being" or the "beingness" that manifests dharma (among other things). Atma is not limited to humans and animals -- it is there in every object. In fact, there is no difference between "living" and "non-living" beings -- they are all basically beings. The fact that Atma is characteristic of even non-living objects is interpreted to mean that "Hinduism" is somewhat like "Animism". All we can say in response is -- sigh.

In dharmic hermeneutics, the entire universe is a Being that is made up of beings. The primary contention was on the relationship between the universal Being (Brahman) and its constituent beings (Atmans). It is somewhat analogous to (but not identical to or syncretically similar to) Cantor's paradox -- that tries to establish the set of all sets as a set and ends up in an existential dilemma.

Hence, there are theories that are based on non-separation (Advaita) between the Atman and Brahman (which again, is not the same as or syncretically equivalent to monoism of Western philosophy) and theories that posit a graded relationship between beings (Atmans) and the Being (Brahman).

As I see it, there is a pressing need for reviving dharmic hermeneutics (not just preserving it as a dead relic in a museum).

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Existence is basically defined by three fundamental processes: creation, sustenance and death/transformation. Different cultures have emphasized these fundamental processes with different levels of importance.

Western culture as we know it today, has its roots in Europe and West Asia, both of which were characterized by scarcity. The cultures are forged by war and struggle, over several centuries. Survival was not a given. As the saying goes: "A man said to the universe: Sir I exist! However, replied the universe, The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation."

In such cultures, creation and transformation are central elements. The emergence of modern science and technology are all founded upon the fundamental process of creation and building of "stuff".

In contrast, Indian thought was largely founded in a place that was resource rich and benign. The world is seen as a nurturing mother, rather than an adversary in such cultures. The primary objective of this culture was to "sustain" what nature has already given us. Cultural practices evolved that promoted humans to blend into the environment and become a part of the ecological process of sustenance, rather than view nature as a resource. There was also no concept of a "food chain" with predators on top. The entire ecosystem was seen as a system of being, whose dharma (sustenance) was a function of the interaction among its various constituent beings -- be they predators or non-predators.

As I see it, with an increasingly connected world, sustenance is one of the most important characteristic that is largely ignored. We think of sustainability only when it comes to big issues like climate change that makes us feel good, virtuous and erudite, to talk about. We do not acknowledge the importance of treating sustainability as a first-order concept in every aspect of our lives -- be it business, family or governance.

Hence, my promotion of dharmic hermeneutics is by no means a promotion of "Hindu" "religion". Dharmic thought has nothing to do with holy cows or vegetarianism or the myriad rituals, festivals and practices that are associated with "Hinduism". Yes, these practices manifested in a culture that was based on dharmic thought, but the concept of dharma itself is more fundamental and universal.

09 July, 2017

Dharma and Ownership

The Western model of social organization is fundamentally hinged on the concept of "ownership." Despite the several reformations and changes that have characterized Western history, the fundamental driving force for social organization is still based around ownership management.

In the early days, ownership wrested with the kings who basically owned their kingdoms (including its subjects). Changes in the societal structure brought about by the Renaissance, Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment in general, have seriously challenged the way ownership is managed in societies -- not the concept of ownership itself. Hence, democracy is defined as a government that is (owned) "by the people, for the people and of the people". Several other anti-imperial movements like communism, socialism, etc have all primarily challenged the way ownership was organized -- not the concept of ownership itself.

Social organization around an algebra of ownership has specific characteristics. Ownership entails privileges and rights. It also entails responsibilities and liabilities. And more fundamentally, it entails a sense of identity. When we own a home, we enjoy rights over it and get to set the rules within our homes. It also entails responsibilities and liabilities. If while constructing our house we damage our neighbour's property, then we are liable for it since we are the owners of the house. But more fundamentally, at a cognitive level, our home is an extension of ourselves, an expression of our identity and we not only take pride in what we own, but also interpret any assault on our property as an assault on our selves.

In contrast to all the above, Indian worldview traditionally was centered around the concept of "dharma". The term dharma has no accurate translation in English -- not because it is a confused notion, but because the Western world has not thought of this notion or developed it enough to give it a central element of importance in their worldview. The essence of dharma appears in the form of several "conservation laws" in physics and biology -- be it inertia, elasticity, conservation of electrostatic charge, conservation of angular momentum, homeostasis, etc. But these disparate conservation laws have not been studied for the underlying abstract property of sustainability that permeates all creation.

Dharma is loosely translated as "sustainability". It is a systemic configuration, or a state of being, that is robust and impervious to routine challenges. However, the term "sustainability" is not completely accurate either. A dead planet is trivially sustainable and robust. Dharma is a state of sustainability that does not violate properties of liveness or "prana". Dharma and prana go hand in hand. If dharma is a state of sustainability, prana is the capability of the system (or being) in that sustainable state.

Societies that were organized around the concept of dharma, have very different characteristics as compared to societies organized around the algebra of ownership. The dilemma between individual liberty and collective will is not really an issue of contention. The Western world falsely believes that Eastern societies are "collectivist" in nature (they usually give the example of Japan in this regard). But Indian societies are nowhere as collectivist as Japan and neither are they as individualist as the US or Europe. The primary element of contention is not a clash of rights between the individual and the collective will -- but a contention into what is sustainable and what is not.

The dharmic worldview also does not view the Earth or nature as a resource that humanity owns. It views the Earth as a larger system of being, which seeks its own dharma.

Recently, (perhaps unwittingly) a professor from Norway tweeted the essence of dharmic thought, in response to the flurry of tweets around the Icelandic volcano explosion in 2010 that had grounded flights across Europe: "Save the planet! The planet must be saying, 'Save yourselves, idiots! I'm going to be fine!'"

Volcanic eruptions, climate change, tsunamis, earthquakes, are all examples of the planet seeking its own state of dharma -- in response to the system of forces acting upon it.

When a culture of ownership interacts with a culture of dharma, there is bound to be large-scale misunderstandings. The reason why in Indian culture people "poke their nose into other peoples' affairs" is not really because Indians lack an understanding of personal boundaries (just look at the norms in daily lives that respect personal boundaries), but more likely because it has its roots in cultural practices centered around preserving dharma.

Also, a culture centered around dharma is innately more objective than a culture centered around ownership. The virtues of objectivity have been recognized in the Western world only after scientific advancements. However, a culture that puts dharma at the center of inquiry, rather anybody's privileges or rights naturally drives the stream of inquiry towards the system of being rather than towards the individual preferences of any of the subjects involved.

It is ironical that in today's popular discourse in the Indian public mind (in universities, on media, etc.) we greatly lack a sense of objectivity and get into personal affronts all too often.

Ownership in a dharmic worldview is a rather sloppy entity. To explain this, let me take the example of a private expressway built in Bangalore recently (the NICE road). The owners of the road had a tough time when they announced the toll for using their road. They were met with a lot of opposition from commuters that the toll will make it impossible for them to use the road. The commuters didn't understand when the NICE management simply asked them to then not use their road if they can't afford the toll. And today, the toll on this road is tightly controlled by the government.

Generally it is interpreted as a "mob mentality" that is preventing the owners of the infrastructure to be rational about their costs and set the toll accordingly. But what the owners of the infrastructure need to also understand is that their ownership is not a naturally granted privilege. The road is meant to serve a particular purpose and help in enabling a larger system (the city) become sustainable. Just asking commuters to not use the road if they can't afford it, will adversely affect the larger system of being. Costs have to be rationalized -- not just for the owners, but for the larger system of being in which the ownership operates. 

24 April, 2017

Theories, not Ideologies

The problem with political discourse today is that a specific framework of reasoning (originating from the West, of course) is imposed upon all forms of social and political organizations around the world.

Politics is divided into "left" and "right" ideological extremes and are respectively called "liberal" and "conservative".

For one, both extremes are just ideologies -- they are neither theories nor strategies.

The "liberal" ideology argues that individual liberty is the cornerstone for good social organization, but has no strategic model towards sustainable individual liberty. Hence, if an individual says that his free-willed choice is to dominate and subjugate others, or to submit oneself to the will of others, liberals do not have a good ideological counter-response.

The "conservative" ideology (of the Western world) argues that some "God" has commanded how society ought to be organized and any deviation from that shall be a punishable offence. Some form of scriptural basis is seen as a timeless solution to social organization.

This framework is now imposed upon other cultures which have had vastly different ways of thinking.

Rather than attempting to breakdown the world using a flawed hermeneutic framework, the Western world would do well to invest in some deep introspection and recognize the need for systemic theories for governance.

Most theory of systems in the Western model of thinking, equate systems to machines.

A machine is an artificial construct -- it is a tool built for a specific purpose. The overarching purpose for the machine forms the converging factor for all design decisions.

A society on the other hand, is not a machine. There is no overarching purpose for a society and there is no naturally endowed command hierarchy. The task of managing a society is to manage a potentially divergent system in a way that it is sustainable.

It is such a wonder that the importance of the concept of "sustainability" is not given the central role that it requires, in the Western hermeneutics about social organization. Every issue is argued using an ideological lens -- not a systemic lens.

For instance, there is no liberal ideological argument if a close, adult friend decides by one's own free will and informed consent, that they would submit to the will of someone else and live like a slave. After all, "it is their life" and we have "no right" to dictate to others how they ought to live their lives.

However, if this friend were to be endowed with a reasoning framework based around systems and sustainability, it would be easier to reason with them with an argument that what they are doing is "adharma" (unsustainable) for the system as a whole.

In the 1990s when we graduated from college, the conventional wisdom was that, we have to emigrate to the US. No questions to be asked. The usual arguments given were how India was corrupt, how life is much better in the US and how Ayn Rand says that being selfish is virtuous.

The only argument I had was to agree with the conclusions, so much so that we need to extend this argument and advocate to the entire 1.2 billion people of India to emigrate to the US! Because after all, it is a better country and selfishness is a virtue.

Unless we are endowed with a capability to reason about systems as a whole, it is not possible to create sound strategic models for managing such individual dilemma that have systemic impact -- it will just be an ideological battle of what is a virtue and what is moral. Never what is sustainable.

The so-called "conservative ideology" in India is basically trying to re-establish the hermeneutics of dharma, where systems and sustainability form the core elements of reasoning. The "conservative" dharmic ideology is basically about sustainable liberalism.

The usual argument we hear is that our society has evolved away from this ideology for a reason.

Well no, firstly, sustainability is not an ideology -- it is a natural basis for a theoretical framework whose theories are open to debate and argumentation. And secondly, the society has not evolved away from dharmic hermeneutics. This way of thinking was upended due to external aggression, and it has survived (sustained?) centuries of aggression. Indian society has not changed from within -- change has been imposed upon it.

03 March, 2017

Theory of Being -- IV: Prana and Entropy

This is the fourth in the series called Theory of Being. A clearer understanding of this post is possible when the reader has read through the earlier posts in this series.

To summarize the main elements, we started by noting that the universe as we know it can be broadly divided into two realms -- the energy realm and the information realm. Everything in the physical universe can be reduced to energy, and everything in the conceptual realm is fundamentally built from information.

We also started to develop a new theory of the universe, inspired by the dharmic worldview. Here, the building block of the universe is an entity called "Being". A being is a template that can host energy and information. The "state" of being is the information content in being. Beings tend to settle down into "stable" or "sustainable" states, which is called its dharma. These are states that correspond to robust optimality given its operational neighbourhood (called its Vidhi).

Beings can compose with one another to form bigger beings, with the entire universe itself forming the ultimate Being.

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The tendency of beings to settle down into stable states is treated as axiomatic, as it is based on ample empirical evidence -- be it in the quantum dynamics of sub-atomic particles, or the elasticity of solids, or the dynamics of fluids or the phenomenon of homeostasis in living beings.

The philosophy of dharma that characterizes Eastern thought is built on the concept of sustainability of beings. This in in contrast to "particles" and "mechanics" that forms central elements of Newtonian worldview, that can be traced all the way to ancient Hellenic Greece.

It is not that Western thought has not recognized stable states or Eastern thought has not recognized mechanics. For instance, the relatively recent discipline of Game Theory, also dubbed as "A Beautiful Math" is predominantly based on understanding equilibria and stable states. Game Theory is applied as much to biological and social phenomena as much to physical phenomena.

The question we are now posing is to understand the way in which mechanics feature in the hermeneutics of dharma.

Even though stability and sustainability form the fundamental building blocks of the dharmic worldview, there is another important concept that we need to consider. This is the concept of Prana.

Prana is variously translated as "force", "energy", "life", etc. Of course, none of them capture its essence exactly. The closest working definition of Prana that we will be using to develop our theory is Prana as "vitality".

Prana is basically the fundamental element of vitality in the universe. It is what makes beings seek different levels of dharma or stable states.  A being with low levels of prana settles down in a "lower" state of dharma and a being with high levels of prana can reach "higher" states of dharma.

So how do we understand, and perhaps quantify this "lower" and "higher" states of dharma?

"Lower" and "higher" states of dharma can be distinguished by their "information content" or entropy.

Consider a society of beings each of whom are trying to maximize their survivability. (Note that, a society of such beings is also a being which is trying to maximize its sustainability.)

Each being has some needs for its survival, which requires it to build connections with its environment, made up of other beings. Let us say that we have one such society with low levels of "Prana". The beings do not have much vitality and have just enough resources to build just one connection. The beings are focused solely on their survival and do not have the wherewithal to process complex notions like social fairness and such. The beings just connect with one another so that they can get to everybody else, as quickly as possible. So in what kind of a stable state, does such a society end up?

Some truly awesome research efforts have shown that, the resultant "dharma" for such a society, looks somewhat like this:

Star graph: Image source: Wikipedia

A "star" network is an emergent stable property (or an "equilibrium" in Game Theory parlance) resulting from individual beings exercising their Prana to maximize their sustainability.

As we can see, a star network is optimal in the sense that, anyone can reach anyone else in the network, in a maximum of 2 hops. Given very little Prana of just making one connection, this is the class of network with the shortest separation, that can be built. No one imposed a star graph on this society -- it emerged as a stable property from individual beings seeking to sustain themselves! This network now becomes a "being" of the "star" variety. We are already talking evolution here!

So how does the "star being" fare with respect to its sustainability? For one, it is quite efficient, since anyone can reach anyone else in a maximum of two hops. The "star being" is also robust against random failures. If every node is equally likely to fail, and there are n nodes in the network, then, for (n-1) possible failures, the rest of the network (and the "star being") continues to function. It is only one critical failure (of the central node) that can kill the "star being".

However, the "star being" is also innately vulnerable because the central node is heavily loaded in comparison with all the other nodes. It has to manage (n-1) connections, while every other node manages just one connection. The heavy load on the central node makes it most vulnerable to burnout and collapse, which would in turn, bring down the entire "star being".

The star network also has very low information content or "entropy". If we have to describe a star network over a given set of n nodes, all we need to specify is which node is the central node. The rest of the network can be reconstructed just by knowing who is the central being.

We can make this society reach a higher level of dharma by infusing more "Prana" into the constituent beings. We can do this either by empowering them with more resources (by providing enough energy to make more connections), or by empowering them with richer information constructs like "fairness".

Let us take the second case to understand the concept of Prana. As we can see, Prana is not just energy. Increasing awareness also increases Prana. The vitality of a being towards sustaining itself is based not just on its energy, but also on its awareness.

When beings are aware of the network that they are part of, and understand concepts like fairness, they would be able to see that the star network that they created is not very sustainable. The network is its own adversary -- by overloading the central node and by giving it an unfair amount of load.

So how would a collection of beings operate towards sustainability, when they are empowered with the concept of fairness? They form what is called as a "scale-free network" or a "hub and spoke model" as shown below: 
Scale-free network. Image source: Wikipedia
A scale-free network has several "hubs" with different levels of "centrality". No node in the network is so overloaded that it has to manage all communications between all nodes. But a few nodes are slightly more central and manage more load than others. Failure of these nodes, do damage the network, but none of them will damage the network to such an extent that the failure of the central node in a star network does, where the entire network gets totally broken.

The "scale-free being" is more sustainable than the "star being" even though it is less efficient. In the "star being" anyone could communicate with anyone else in a maximum of just two hops, which is not the case here. But the "star being" was also inherently unsustainable, as the very nature of the being made it vulnerable for a fatal internal failure (of the central node).

The "scale-free being" also has more information content, or "entropy" as compared to the "star being". In order to describe the network we need much more information than just specifying who is the central node.

So basically, increase in Prana increases the information content of the stable state that the being settles down in -- a "higher" form of dharma, if you will.

Prana is not just about "living" beings -- in fact, there is no difference between living and non-living beings in dharmic thought. Prana is the "cosmic energy" that permeates everything in the universe.

The concept of annealing shows how infusion of Prana (heat energy) in metals can make them change their stable state, and change the characteristic nature of the metallic compound. Although annealing has its roots in metallurgy, the process itself is generic and is applicable in various other domains.

Now think of a computer that is fresh off the factory and just has the inbuilt firmware. When we switch it on, it settles down to a state where it can perform a very basic set of operations. Its Prana is very low. Now, add more Prana to this computer in the form of an operating system like Linux (ok, even Windows or Mac 😋), and suddenly it settles down in a state with much higher information content, and capable of doing much more things!

Dharma (the teleology of sustainability) and Prana (the teleology of vitality) form the basic building blocks of the universe!