The Complete Philosophy of Religion … in one teeny-weeny post.

This is primarily an attempt to structure all the ideas related to religion, in my head, and I will, therefore, take the privilege of considerable license with regards to brevity and/or intelligibility. Most of the ideas outlined below constitute the mainstream of philosophical thought pertaining to religion and I have tried to prevent my own agnostic sensibilities from coloring the discourse.

Arguments for the Existence of God

1. Ontological : Conception of God — “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived”  — Since a being which exists is greater than that which is only in our imagination. The concept of God must exist!  God’s existence is uniquely necessary.

Criticisms — “A most perfect island” . Anselm says that the element in the idea of God which is lacking in the notion of the most perfect island is “necessary existence”. An island is part of the contingent world, a dependent reality, which can without contradiction be thought not to exist – hence the ontological argument doesn’t apply.

Descartes treats existence as a property or predicate, the presence or lack of which is open to inquiry. His argument says that existence is a defining feature of God’s existence (God’s essence). Existence is an essential attribute of a perfect being.

Kant’s criticisms of Descartes run on two levels —

a.) To posit a triangle and yet to reject its three angles is self-contradictory; but there is no contradiction in rejecting the triangle together with the three angles. The same holds true for the concept of an absolutely necessary being.

b.) Existence is not a predicate. It does not add anything to the concept of thing. Russell has shown that although “exists” is grammatically a predicate, logically it performs a different function — “Cows exist” means “There are x’s such that “x is a cow” is true.” Cows exist does not attribute a quality to a cow, but asserts that there are objects in the world to which the description cow applies. Hence existence cannot be a defining predicate of God, and the question of anything in reality corresponding to God remains unanswered. The Ontological proof fails.

2. First Cause and Cosmological  Arguments : Aquinas.  Everything has a cause, blah blah … fails because of Infinite Regress.

Some contemporary reinterpretations of Aquinas say ” If fact A is made intelligible by fact B, and so on, at the back of the complex there must be a reality which is self-explanatory, whose existence constitutes the ultimate explanation of the whole. If no such reality exists, the universe is a mere unintelligible fact” .   …. Two problems, who said the universe has to be intelligible!! Second, it depends on a certain understanding of causality. For ex. if causal laws state statistical probabilities, or if as Hume suggested, causal connections are mere observed sequences or Kant’s projections of the structure of the human mind, the argument fails.

3. Design or Teleological Argument : Analogy of a complex watch and the world. Some intelligent creator must have engineered it. A contemporary jackass makes this argument ” The Ozone gas layer is a mighty proof of the Creator’s forethought. Could anyone possibly attribute this device to a chance evolutionary process?”  Hahahahaa …. he inverts causality! Life evolved because .. there was ozone. (which is wrong, since primitive life existed in environments far different from today)   Hume attacks this by saying that the universe consists of a finite number of particles in random motion. In unlimited time these go through every combination that is possible. If one of these combinations constitutes a stable order, this will be realized and we will find the orderly cosmos.

4. Moral Argument.  —  The claim that anyone seriously committed to respect moral values as exercising a sovereign claim upon his life must thereby implicitly believe in the reality of a transhuman source and basis for these values. Kant argues that both immortality and existence of God are postulates of the moral life. To recognize moral claims as taking precedence over all other interests is, implicitly, to believe in a reality of some kind, other than the natural world, that is superior to oneself and entitled to our obedience.

This is not a proof of God’s existence, but a move towards some transcendental reality. It can be questioned on the basis of there existing perfectly naturalistic explanations for morality, as psychology increasingly shows.

Arguments against God’s Existence :

Durkheim’s Sociological Theory of Religion — Gods are imaginary beings unconsciously fabricated by society as instruments whereby society exercises control over the thoughts and behavior of the individual. Attributes of a deity — a symbol for society and communal interests over the individual, necessary for survival. Australian aborogines — tribe or clan was a psychic organism, where individuals were not yet fully separated from the group mind. In advanced societies this primitive unity has enjoyed a partial revival in times of war, nationalism taking religion’s place.

God as people’s final succor and security — the way in which the individual is carried and supported in all aspects of life by society. The Human Animal has created God in order to preserve its own social existence.

How do you account for the fact that “god loves all human beings” being a teaching, if religion is supposed to develop from tribal instincts? It also does not account for moral prophets who seem to go against the society’s collective impulse and seem to be inspired by divinity.

Freudian Theory of Religion —  religious beliefs are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most insistent wishes of mankind. It is a mental defense against the threatening aspects of nature. The human imagination transforms these forces into mysterious personal powers. The solution adopted in the Judaic-Christian tradition is to project upon the universe the buried memory of our father as the great protecting power. The face that smiled at us in the cradle, now magnified to infinity, smiles down upon us from the heaven. Thus religion is the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity, which may be left behind when at last people learn to face the world, relying no longer on illusions but upon scientifically authenticated knowledge. Faith is a psychological crutch.

The final argument against God is Science. Evidence is the final arbiter of knowledge. There are no miracles. There is no verifiable proof of God.

The Problem of Evil — Why is there so much suffering?  The common defense is that moral evil is related to human freedom and responsibility. To be a person is to be a finite center of freedom, with the choice to act wrongly. But there is no contradiction involved in saying that God might have made people who would be genuinely free but who could at the same time be guaranteed always to act rightly.

If all our thoughts and actions are divinely predestined, then however free and responsible we may seem to ourselves to be, we are not free in the sight of God and must be like puppets. Such freedom would be comparable to patients acting out of posthypnotic suggestions. It is suggested that God could have created such beings – but there is no point in doing so if God wanted to create sons and daughters rather than puppets.

Augustinian Theodicy (attempts to solve the theological problem of evil) : Evil always consists of the malfunctioning of something that is in itself good. For ex. blindness. As God originally created the universe, it was in perfect harmony, with a graded hierarchy of higher and lower beings which were good. Angels and men had free will and then they turned from God. At the end of history, on judgement day, many will enter into eternal life and the others into eternal torment. Evil stems from culpable misuse of creaturely freedom in a tragic act.

But how can finitely perfect beings turn to evil? How is evil self-created? Why did some of the angels not turn away and remained steadfast? Did they receive less of God’s grace? Scientifically, we know that humans evolved from lower life forms and were not angelic beings in paradise who suddenly fell into evil. The idea of eternal hell, which is affirmed to be the fate of a large portion of the human race, serves no constructive purpose. It does not solve the problem of evil, but builds the sinfulness of the damned and the evil of their pains and sufferings, into the permanent structure of the universe.

Irenaean Theodicy : It identifies two stages in the creation of the human race. The first was the creation of humans as intelligent animals endowed with capacity for immense moral and spiritual development. They were not perfect pre-fallen Adam and Eve, but immature creatures. In the second stage, they are gradually being transformed through their own free responses into “children of God”. Human goodness has to come about through the making of responsible and free choices – and that kind of development is intrinsically more valuable than a goodness created by God. The human situation is one of tension between the natural selfishness that arises from the instincts for survival, and calls of both morality and religion to transcend our failings.  The World has so much suffering because it is necessary for genuine development of humanity. Only a world like ours provides an effective environment for the purpose of God.  Is it worth it?  The answer must be in a future good enough to justify all that has happened in the past.

Process Theodicy : God acts non-coercively, by persuasion and lure, and the exercise of God’s power is limited by the structure of reality, basic laws of the universe.  Universe is an uncreated process, which includes the deity.  The ultimate reality is creativity continually producing new unities of experience out of the manifold of the previous moment. Each wave of actual occasions, constituting a new moment in the universe’s life, involves an element of creativity or self-causation. God’s power over each occasion, and in directing outcomes is necessarily limited, and the reality of evil in the world is the measure of the extent to which his will is thwarted. Evil is a lack of harmony in the universe, and the divine impetus is to continually maximize harmony. The good that was created in the course of the world process could not have come about without the possibility of the evil which is intertwined with it. God’s goodness is vindicated in that the risk-taking venture in the evolution of the universe has produced enough good to outweigh all the evil in the process. ?? (is this valid?)

There is a moral elitism here – majority of humanity lives in hunger and suffers and is it worth it that some good is created on the way? Some great people are born? some finer possibilities of human existence have been realized at this cost?

Revelation and Faith — Two distinct views about revelation —  The Propositional View : The content of revelation is a body of truths expressed in statements or propositions. Revelation is the communication of some truth by God to a rational creature through extraordinary means.  Faith is the obedient acceptance of these divinely revealed truths. It conveys the notion of an intellectual assent to the content of the revelation. Natural theology is all the theological truth that can be worked out by the unaided human intellect. Revealed theology was held to consist of those truths that are not accessible to human reason. The most popular way of bridging the gap between revelation and the lack of evidence, is by an effort of will. Faith is distinguished by the entertainment of a probable proposition by the fact that the latter can be a completely theoretic affair. Faith is a “yes” of self-commitment, it does not turn probabilities into certainties; only a sufficient increase in the weight of evidence could do that. But it is a volitional response which takes us out of the theoretic attitude.

Voluntarist accounts of Faith — Pascal’s wager (or as Denny Crane once pointed out — if God exists and you believe in him, you are blessed. While if you are an atheist, you are screwed.  If there is no God, everyone is screwed. Hence, believe in God. Higher expected utility! )

Tennant distinguishes between belief and faith — Belief is more or less constrained by fact or actuality that already is or will be independently of any striving of ours, and which convinces us.  Faith reaches beyond the actual to the ideally possible, which in the first instance it creates, like a mathematician posits his entities, and then by practical activity may realize or bring into actuality. Faith always involves risks, but it is only by such risks that human knowledge is extended.

This bracketing of religious faith and scientific “faith” is highly questionable. Scientific faith is significant only as a preliminary to experimental verification. There is no objective verification for religious faith.

Tillich’s conception of faith is one of ultimate concern. Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or non-being, not in the sense of our physical existence but in the sense of – the reality, the structure and meaning of our existence. Ultimate concern is unconditional and total and infinite. There is no respite from it, no place to flee. God is already present to us as the ground of our being, and yet at the same time he transcends us. To know God is to overcome the estrangement from the Ground of our being. To be ultimately concerned about God is to express our true relationship to Being.

(Or you could read and try to decipher Heidegger’s Being and Time.)

Non-Propositional View of Faith -The content of revelation is not revealing a body of truths about God, but God coming into the orbit of human experience. Theological propositions are not revealed, but represent human attempts to understand the significance of revelatory events. But why does God not reveal himself in an unambiguous way?

The process of becoming aware of God, if it is not to destroy the frail autonomy of the human personality, must involve the individual’s own freely responding assent and insight. Therefore, God does not become known to us as a reality of the same order of ourselves, for then the Infinite being would swallow our finite self. Instead, God has created space-time as a sphere in which we may exist in relative independence and within this sphere, God is self-discovered in ways that would allow us the fateful freedom to recognize or fail to recognize his presence. Divine activity always leaves room for the uncompelled activity of faith.

P.S. Maybe I will need one more blog-post for this. Until then, cheerio.

Kierkegaard’s Knights

I was reading Hubert Dreyfus’ essay on the roots of existentialism and this just hit a nerve. I had to share it.

To illustrate what is at stake in having an identity, Kierkegaard draws on the chivalric romances. The example, on which he says “everything turns,” is the case of “A young lad [who] falls in love with a princess, [so that] the whole content of his life lies in this love” But Kierkegaard adds in a footnote, that “any other interest whatever in which an individual concentrates the whole of life’s reality” would do as well Kierkegaard had been looking for just this sort of unconditional commitment. When he was 22 years old he wrote in his journal: “What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know . . . The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, . . . for which I can live and die” (Kierkegaard 1951: 15).

As he put it in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, “Truth is subjectivity”  “

The lad who loves the princess relates himself to himself by way of this relation to the princess. Thanks to it, he knows who he is and what is relevant and important in his world. Any such unconditional commitment to some specific individual, cause, or vocation, whereby a person gets an identity and a sense of reality, would do to make the point Kierkegaard is trying to make. In such a case, a person becomes an individual defined by his or her relation to the object of his or her unconditional commitment. The lad is the lover of the princess, MLK Jr. is the one who will bring justice to the American blacks, Steve Jobs identifies himself with Apple Computer, etc. According to Kierkegaard, if and only if you let yourself be drawn into a defining commitment, can you achieve that which, while you were in despair, looked  impossible, viz., that the two sets of factors reinforce each other, so that the more you manifest one the more you manifest the other. By responding to the call of such an unconditional commitment and thereby getting an identity, a person becomes what Kierkegaard, following the Bible, calls “a new creation” – A Knight of Faith.

P.S. I almost grasped my self, a few months back. It has floated away like a butterfly now and I am looking for it/her again. I know it in my bones, it has to be some special girl. Nothing else matters.

Post-Modern Zarathustra

Nietzsche speaks in proverbs and unconnected metaphors. Try and keep up, if you can. — 

1. Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his blood. Write with blood and you will find that blood is spirit. 

2. It is no easy task to understand unfamiliar blood; I hate the reading idlers!

3. He who knows the reader, does nothing more for the reader. Another century of readers and the spirit itself will stink.

4. Every one being allowed to learn to read ruins, in the long run, not only writing but also thinking.

5. He who writes in blood and proverbs does not want to be read but learnt by heart.

6. In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak, but for that route you must have long legs. Proverbs should be peaks, and those spoken to should be big and tall.

7. I want to have goblins about me, for I am courageous. The courage which scares away ghosts, creates for itself goblins – it wants to laugh.

8. You look aloft when you long for exaltation; and I look downward because I am exalted. Who among you can at the same time laugh and be exalted ?

9. You tell me, “Life is hard to bear.” But for what purpose should you have your pride in the morning and your resignation in the evening?

10. It is true that we love life; but not because we are wont to live but because we are wont to love.

11. There is always some madness in love. But there is always, also, some method in madness.

12. To see these light, foolish, pretty, lively little sprites flit about -that moves Zarathustra to tears and songs.

13. I should only believe in a God that knows how to dance.

14. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity – through him all things fall.

15. Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay. Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity. Now I am light, now do I fly; now do I see myself under myself. Now there dances a God in me —-

Thus Spake Zarathustra.

A detailed discussion in the next post … cheers!




Le Mot Juste

I have been trying to find the right word, the right expression, the “le mot juste” , for everything I feel.  Wittgenstein famously argued that private language is impossible. So what is this notion of exactly capturing your thoughts and emotions in language ?

I think everyone will agree that experience is entirely subjective. Even though humans are more alike than different, every individual brings his own subtle hue to the palette of emotions. So when experiences are different for every person, is there hope for actual “communication” between two people ? Can someone truly understand what another person feels ? We may get close, but is utter comprehension possible ?

A private language is a language whose signs are intelligible only to the speaker of the language. And they do not exist. So even in the hypothetical universe where they thrived, my private language (for the sake of argument, call it Desiree!) can not be faithfully translated in English, or for that matter, even French. So when I feel a particular potpourri of affection, desire and angst, I am sure nobody can ever know that is what I feel. There is a limit to language and that limit is the impossibility of a logical framework of syntactical rules ever capturing the irrational neural electricity of thought. Godel’s incompleteness theorem which states that some truths will always escape any logical set of axioms – only reinforces my belief. Some truths will remain inutterable.

Wittgenstein mystically advised  — “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen.”  (Whereof you cannot speak, thereof you must be silent.)     … and here I am blogging about it. Silly me!

So, in the absence of my private language, understanding is pretty much impossible. I just can’t find the right word. It’s like Milan Kundera’s “litost” which only he can ever comprehend. No one can understand me. I am alone.     (a real existential crisis here!)

Nevertheless, some people may get pretty close to comprehending the “le mot juste” — the essence of what I mean. They just have to listen. And keep trying.


Crime and Punishment

A lot of murky water has flown under the proverbial bridge, since last I blogged.

India hanged a terrorist.

Ajmal Kasab, one of the 9 Islamic jihadists who wreaked havoc in Mumbai on 26th-29th November, 2008 – and the sole survivor was executed after his mercy petition was denied by the President.  The terror strike had claimed 166 lives. The man was clearly guilty, there were photo-grabs of him sauntering around a railway station with an AK-47. He was given a fair, lengthy trial and a right to appeal to  the highest court of the land. And then he was killed.

People have hailed it as “justice being done”. Wounds of the past have miraculously healed as the man breathed his last gasps. Pakistani parties have, reflexively, denounced the execution. One terrorist outfit has warned of the “inspirational sacrifice” of Kasab and retribution against Indians in the future. Some mainstream Pakistani parties have also ratcheted up demands for a tit-for-tat execution of one Indian languishing in Pakistani jail.

Lots of grand-standing and self-congratulation. I have been left feeling weirdly uneasy about all this.

The first impulse is, well “Kill the fucker!” I am generally against the death penalty – but some crimes deserve it. Or, do they?

The young Kasab was brainwashed, an illiterate, poor lad whose family was promised money, for his sacrifice. It does not reduce his guilt. But it does make him human.

There is this argument that a modern state should be against the death penalty – which is a state-sponsored violation of life’s sanctity. There is the other argument where Kasab could have been a symbol to the world, that our prison system would “reform” him and thus send a message of peace. This argument is bollocks, I think. The only message that hardcore terrorists understand is – fear, un-breachable defence and security. That message, India can never muster up the will for.

A second argument for his death was the closure it might provide to the grieving families. They will get to see the perpetrator dead. But again, I feel that for the crimes he committed – death is not the answer. I hesitate to write this – for fear of sounding sadistic – but isn’t death a relief, an escape for this terrorist. He destroyed hundreds of lives. He deserves something infinitely more painful than a few minutes of asphyxiation. Comeuppance should be harsh. Imprisonment for life, maybe solitary confinement – should have been a far harder pill for him to swallow. What colder vengeance for the families, than the thought that the criminal languishes in a dark, dinghy cell — forever ? Such a daily diet of schadenfreude would have gone a long way in healing wounds!

But, as usual, no one listens to me. And the poor guy is dead.  And free.

Ideas on Modernity – Nietzsche, Marcuse and Post-Modernism.

This essay encapsulates my understanding of the historical evolution of modernity. As always, my philosophical hero – Nietzsche dominates, but I do find some time for Herbert Marcuse and Post-Modernism.

(at the person who corrected my inexcusable ignorance of Marcuse — gratitude and hi! 🙂  ..  )

Romanticism has lamented the loss of meaning in the modern world and to fill this void they turned to nature, religion and tradition.  But even after accepting the spiritual wasteland in which the modern man walks alone, I maintain that neither proximity to nature nor religion can provide the free man with peace, joy or certainty. The barbarism of all ages possessed more happiness than we do – let us not deceive ourselves on this point! – but our impulse towards knowledge is too widely developed to allow us to value happiness without knowledge, or the happiness of a strong and fixed delusion: it is painful to us even to imagine such a state of things! Our restless pursuit of discoveries has become for us as attractive and as indispensable as the hapless love of a lover. Knowledge within us has developed into a passion, which does not shrink from any sacrifice and fears nothing but its own extinction. It may be that mankind will perish eventually from this passion for knowledge! But will that daunt us ? I don’t think so.

For Nietzsche there was another reason why man could no longer rely on custom and tradition. Tradition oppresses- it appeals to a higher authority, an authority that is obeyed not because “it commands what is useful to us but merely because it commands” . The free man cannot therefore depend upon it. He is an individual, defying custom and norms of received morality. It is his will to depend on nothing but himself. Since the free man of the modern age cannot find solace either in religion or tradition, there are just two options before him;

a) he may abandon the search for an ultimate meaning; and

b) he may create meaning by his own will and action.
In exploring these alternatives Nietzsche did not merely reject the Enlightenment and its Romantic alternative, he questioned the entire tradition of western rationalist thought, beginning with Plato.

For Nietzsche all schools of thought had one thing in common: they had firm belief in themselves and their knowledge. They believed that they had arrived at the truth.  In the Athenian world of ancient Greek city-states Plato claimed that reason could give man access to the ultimate reality – the world of forms. In recent times, the Enlightenment claimed that the application of scientific method has yielded the truth about the world. Each in its own way thus claims that it has discovered the truth about the external world that exists independently of us. Further, that this truth has been arrived at impersonally and objectively; i.e., in terms of qualities that inhere in the objects themselves.

Men have, lived in this state of “theoretical innocence” for centuries believing that they possess the right method for discovering the nature of ultimate reality, and for determining what is good and valuable. Working under the influence of these childish presuppositions they have failed to realize that the external world is in itself devoid of all meanings and values.

Whatever has value in the present enlightenment world “has it not in itself by its nature”. Rather a value was “given to it, bestowed upon it, it was we who gave and bestowed! We ourselves have created the world which is of any account to man”.

In making this argument and suggesting that man is a “creator, a continuous poet of life”, Nietzsche was not undermining the significance of cognition. For Nietzsche knowledge remains a supreme value, but if pure knowledge as revealed by reason or experiments is the only end then we would have to follow whatever direction these faculties take us in. We have to be prepared, for instance, to follow the path that experimental reason leads us towards, be that of nuclear energy or genetic engineering. However, this would be complete “madness”. Knowledge has to be mediated by values that we regard to be worth affirming, values by which we may wish to construct the world.

The role of the artist is therefore of the utmost importance.

For it is the work of an artist that creates and unravels for us alternative worlds. While men of science aim to discover what is already there, the artist gives shape to a world, expressing human ideals. For this reason Nietzsche maintained that poetry and myths were a valuable source of knowledge for us. In Nietzsche’s works the artist was not just the ‘other’ of the modern rational scientist. He was, first and foremost, a creator; and as a creator he embodied the ability to transcend the boundaries of the social and what is designated as the rational. The artist as such stood alone, challenging the moralism implicit in western philosophical traditions. Thus it was through Nietzsche and the Romanticists that some of the basic tenets of the Enlightenment came to be questioned in a fundamental way. In particular the view that the present was the most advanced and civilized era in the history of humankind became subject to scrutiny.

These themes were revived in the second half of the 20th century by the New Left, most notably in the writings of Herbert Marcuse. In his book, One Dimensional Man, Marcuse characterized the post-enlightenment industrial society as “irrational” and “repressive”. Despite the apparent progress and increase in productivity, this society, in his view, was “destructive of the free development of
human needs and faculties”.

To many it may appear that political freedom is protected in this society and there has been an expansion in the liberties enjoyed by men. Today there is more to choose from: many different newspapers, radio stations, TV channels and a whole gamut of commodities in the market – from different varieties of potato chips to motor cars and washing machines. Yet, men have no real capacity to make choices of their own. Men’s needs are constantly shaped and manipulated by the media industry that furthers the interests of a few. It moulds and constructs images that determine the choices we make at home, in the market place and in social interactions. In a world where “false” needs are fashioned by the media there is no effective intellectual freedom or liberation of man. Men act and participate as “pre-conditioned receptacles of long standing”. Indeed through their actions they reinforce the instruments of socio-economic control and their oppression. According to Marcuse, the modern industrialized world constituted a “more progressive stage of alienation”. Its seeming progress, “the means of mass transportation and communication, the commodities of lodging, food and clothing, the irresistible output of the entertainment and information industry carry with them prescribed attitudes and habits, certain intellectual and emotional reactions which bind the consumers more or less pleasantly to the producers, and through the latter, to the whole. The products indoctrinate and manipulate; they promote a false consciousness which is immune against its falsehood.

And as these beneficial products become available to more individuals in more social classes, the indoctrination they carry ceases to be publicity; it becomes a way of life. It is a good way of life, it militates against qualitative change. Thus emerges a pattern of one-dimensional thought and behaviour. More importantly, as men and women share in the same images and ideas there is less and less the possibility of challenging the present and seeking alternatives to it. In a world where images, presentation and appearance count more than even the content, these theorists felt there could be no real freedom, or for that matter, the possibility of “communicative rationality” asserting itself in the “life-world”.

For Marcuse as well as for other members of the Frankfurt School the Enlightenment had transformed what was once liberating reason, engaged in the fight against religious dogma and superstition, into a repressive orthodoxy. It had done this by visualizing reason as an instrument of control; and, as a tool for gaining mastery over the world rather than critical reflection and reconstruction. Instrumental reason that was concerned primarily with efficiency, economy and utility could not be expected to liberate man or construct a better world.

Postmodernism, taking its cue from Nietzsche, problematizes not just science but also philosophy and religion.

Each of these intellectual engagements, in its view, seeks foundations; that is, they look for absolute and unconditional basis of reality and claim to arrive at the truth. The only difference being that while religion locates the absolute in the world beyond, science points to the laws of nature as constituting the foundations of the world and philosophy places its faith in the capacity of reason to unearth that absolute truth. What remains unaltered is that each of them looks for, and seeks to discover the truth that is already there. Against this worldview, postmodernism asks us to abandon the search for foundations and universal truth.

Like Nietzsche, the postmodernist thinkers assert that knowledge does not involve discovering a meaning that is already there, pre-contained in the text. For the postmodernists, the task of every inquiry is, and must be, to deconstruct the text: to read it in a way that allows new meanings to emerge from it. Nietzsche had argued that the history of the west, from the time of Plato onwards, reveals a “tyranny of the mind”.

Plato claimed that philosophers armed with the power of reason would penetrate the world of appearances and arrive at the truth. He therefore banished the poets from the Republic. In recent times, the Enlightenment bestows the same faith in systematic observation and experience. Both are convinced that they possess the absolute truth and the perfect method to arrive at it. Countless people have, over the years, sacrificed themselves to these convictions. Believing that they knew best they imposed their ways upon others.

The idea that we know the truth, that we and we alone have access to it, has been a source of fanaticism in the world. Postmodernists add to this Nietzschean sentiment to say that it has also been the source of totalitarianism. To protect freedom that the modern man so deeply cherishes we must therefore abandon this search for absolute truth. And realize instead that others also believe that they know the truth and are acting in accordance with it.

Intellectual arrogance must therefore give way to a sense of deeper humility: that is, to a framework wherein meta-narratives give way to particular histories of people living in a specific time and place, and space is created for the co-presence of multiple projects and knowledge systems.

the Argumentative lover

Shall we have an argument,

you and I ?

Is that what you want ?

well’s let have it then..

the proposition i am defending –

“arguments are impossible in love.”

real, proper arguments –

where jibes are hurled,

diatribes exchanged,

sarcasm, mockery, excoriations galore –

like getting Hitch-slapped!

all love can muster,

is a pale imitation,

when you propound, and i permit.

even when flying in the face of reason,

forgiveness ever is love.

It means taking morbid delight,

in irrationality,

quirkiness which, though confounds,

yet is found cute!

isn’t that how it always is?

ego- debating fuel,

is all adulterated,

with an alien Being in You, in love.

what argument can you have,

with yourself-but-much-more-precious!

what casuistry will you resort to,

when confronted with you ?


The only disagreement permitted, is of degree. Not kind.

For …..

when wounds of the heart,

make plaintive appeals.

when cold shivers,

evoke memories of company’s warmth.

when I do not grieve,

why you hurt me so much ?

but instead,  am terribly vexed,

by what took you sooo long ?

…..  what fatuous, specious disagreements, I wonder, shall we have ?

Whereof you cannot Speak, thereof you must be Silent.

Subtle pauses beguile me,

isn’t conversation supposed to flow ?

a rivulet of ideas,

bending and swirling,

should ever a stream be slow ?

a slow stream, tranquil waters,

conversational cul-de-sacs,

what are they – if not death ?

a calling from the past,

spirits from stale conversations,

clawing for a gasp.

a recrudescence of feelings felt,

a rehash of images seen.

a relapse in time.



but silences can be revealing, no ?

silent signals, twinkling eyes,

awkward moments, mournful sighs.

art is found in silences,

hesitation is a technique!

a moment too soon and all is lost.

a pregnant pause, so precious.


words are images,

and all language a performance,

Wittgenstein said.

To paint a lovely picture, sometimes the ink has to dry!




I have been called arrogant, patronizing, condescending and labelled with various similar epithets in connection to my last post. It is quite rewarding – this recognition of your foibles. After all, if not for this subliminal (or sometimes quite overt) posturing in my posts, would they be interesting ?

But now some would clamour and say — Well, your posts are not interesting anyways. So you might as well eat the humble pie, abandon all your pretensions, get off that “fucking pedestal” from which you seem to radiate such banality-couched-as-wisdom . I would reply to these detractors with .. wait, I wouldn’t deign to reply to these detractors. Arrogant already, see!

Let me begin with a short recapitulation of events that have captured attention .. and some which have not.

India is on the “reforms path” again. Manmohan Singh has announced FDI in retail and aviation, disinvestment of public sector entities, significant deregulation of fuel prices over the last 2 days. While the timing puts a question-mark on the process (deflecting attention from the surfeit of corruption scams), most of these are much-needed steps. While proper regulation and delicate balancing of public interests is needed with all these measures, the industry and “big economy” needed such a fillip.

ECB (European Central Bank) has come to the rescue of crisis-torn European states with its renewed and conditional entry into the government-bonds market. Spain, Italy can breathe a sigh of relief. But that sigh, will remain a painful one, because they now have to contend with fiscal reorganization under ECB rules. ECB is now financing governments, something which goes against its philosophy — but is the need of the hour. The euro might be saved yet growth prospects in the near future look grim.

Libya has had a violent week. And the US is rushing its military assets in that region after the assassination of the US ambassador over Quran-desecration, via a youtube video! This incident gives further ammunition to Pentagon hawks to assert more military control in the Middle-East.

Syria continues to burn. The new UN peace envoy Brahimi has very few viable ideas to bring the conflict to an end. The world continues to watch.The saber-rattling by Israel against Iran has become too boring to comment on. Just move on, guys.

Japan bought the Diayou islands, completely heedless of the violent keyboard-thumping by gazillions of Chinese micro-bloggers. The islands are a bone of contention between China and Japan. Japan is looking to re-assert itself in the international waters. The US watches in anticipation. Sustained diplomatic hostilities between China and Japan will mean a more militarized Japan and the likelihood of the US-Japan-South Korea coming together in a more explicit arrangement to curtail China’s growing clout.

On to more important matters, I am still single. Surprising, right ? Given that I continue to share such pearls on my blog. Girls, do your homework. Find me.

Addition and Subtraction  Some people try to identify their real self through a process of addition, some by subtraction.

I look in the mirror, marvel at my face — then realize that this is not me. At some point in my early childhood, I convinced myself that my face was me. Imagine a world without mirrors. What horror, if a grown-up adult in this fantasy world, were shown his face in a newly invented mirror, and then told — This is You ! He must have such a refined, long-pondered over understanding of himself. An abstract idea of his various eccentricities, his strengths and weaknesses, his existential crisis and its resolution. How petty the notion that your visage determines you ? How delusional ?

So some people go through this long, systematic stripping-away of delusions, until they either come to grasp their essence — the core of their being. Or find themselves close to nothingness, turn into raving lunatics and live a contented life ever after.

Au contraire, some people just keep piling on accoutrements to their self, seldom satisfied with what they are. They keep adding to their self. I am a writer. I am also a connoisseur of music and wine. I am an idealist who wants to change the world. I am also a philosopher. I am more. Always more. The threat, in this case, lies in losing a sense of perspective about what you really want or who you are. And this drive to be more, this eternal avarice, might just be a cover for that goading fear that “you are mediocre. you are less.”

Personally, I don’t know if I fall into this neat categorization. I keep flitting sides. I am a fence-sitter, I think. The view is great, though!

On Love

I feel that I am terribly inexperienced. I think my definitions of love have ranged from “cognitive empathy” to just an excess of respect. What I am mortally afraid of, is this process that I cannot quite seem to control … I call it — “ The Construction “. So what happens when you meet someone, prepare to fall in love, you begin this transcendental mental computation — where you Construct. You imagine this person, build on his/her strengths, blatantly ignore anything that annoys you, heedless of all sage warnings from your closest friends, you build this image. Such a captivating image.

Reality seldom fails to disappoint.

You either deny reality and delude yourself further or you proceed with caution. With disastrous consequences in either case. Caution means you are always too late. “Early birds catch the worm”, you are left lurching in the wind. And reckless abandon in pursuit of  “Constructed Love” means a fatal denouement on the first winding of the path.

What does a young boy do ?  I fear that my amygdala plays tricks with me. I hope that this profound respect that I have, this “right feeling”, is not just a mirage. Just infatuation running around in circles, making faces at my ego, teasing, mocking and forever out-of-reach for my intellect. If only I could grasp this state-of-mind, where dreams take a whole, new meaning — leaving you far too vulnerable, I would understand myself so much better. The feeling is its own reward though, excitement, anticipation, dread (sometimes!) all intertwined and misunderstood. I love the human brain.

But what do I mean by love ? I don’t know yet.

Knowledge and Fear

What do we mean when we say we want knowledge ? Nothing more than this : something unfamiliar is traced back to something familiar. We are used to the familiar, we no longer marvel at it, it is commonplace. It makes us feel at home. And isn’t our thirst for knowledge precisely this need for the familiar, the will to uncover among everything strange, unusual and doubtful something which no longer unsettles us ? Is it not the instinct of fear that bids us to know ? And isn’t the rejoicing of someone who has attained knowledge, the rejoicing from a new-found sense of security ?

People think that the familiar is known. What error!  The familiar is what we are used to, and it is often the most difficult to know, the most difficult to view as a problem, as something “outside us”. The great success of science, in contrast to the efforts of understanding consciousness, rests on the fact that they take something strange as their object.

Things closer to us are harder to see. Consider, as an example, the problem of “Being” ? What is the meaning of being ? I am. Understanding the question itself, grasping that it is not merely a linguistic question, is difficult. Our understanding of our own existence is so implicit, so ontologically close to us, it is hard to even question it or begin to understand it. Martin Heidegger claims that all our understanding of being rests on Time. Time is the horizon of our being. What exists ? Something that is here, and remains here in the next moment. This temporal substantiality is the only way we recognize our existence. But more on “Being and Time” later.

On how I writ

I must confess I do not want to be understood when I write. Not always. Everyone wants to select audiences when one talks or writes, and in selecting audiences, one makes “others”, those who are kept at a distance. All subtle laws of style do that, in music, art, writing, they create a simultaneous barrier, which only the targeted audience can climb.  And let me say this, I let neither my ignorance or impatience come in the way of understanding for my audience (however small). I try to approach philosophical issues, with brevity and levity (which I cannot manage most of the time).

I try to approach deep problems like I approach cold showers : fast in, fast out.  Those who say that  this is not the way are the enemies of water, the enemies of cold water. It is the great cold, that makes me fast! Does something stay unrecognized only because it has been touched in flight ? Does one absolutely have to sit on a problem, mull over it, chew your fingernails, twiddle thumbs, ponder, deliberate, and then realize something ? Some truths might be shy or ticklish, which have to be caught unawares, like in flight ! And my brevity has an added value — I say things briefly, so that I am heard even more briefly. As an amoral being, I would like to avoid corrupting innocence. It will be a funny sight indeed if some innocent gets inspired by something I write. Hence the brevity.

Also, things are worse with my ignorance. I am deeply ashamed about it, I spend precious minutes regretting it. Then I spend more minutes ashamed of my shame. I know too little. But then I wonder, it would be even worse, if I knew too much. Imagine the heights of my arrogance and the depths of my pity for the rest of humanity. That would have led to such condescending prose! There is no formula for how much knowledge makes for a good writer. I want to have a taste for independence, for quick coming and going, for wandering, for adventures which only the swiftest are capable of. The soul of my writing would rather live free with less knowledge than be stuffed and bound. Like a good dancer, who wants suppleness and nourishment and not fat from his food.

And what I want, foremost with my writing, is to be a good dancer.


Turbid Peregrinations

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” — Ludwig  Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus .

A note about the title of this post would be illuminating. I came across the unusually alluring phrase “the turbid peregrinations” in “Shame” by Salman Rushdie. It has stuck to me ever since. Rushdie was describing, in his inimitable style, the haphazard wanderings of a lunatic’s mind. And that vagabond-like quality to the insane mind, constantly flitting through images, unusual thoughts, unrealistic fantasies — that feeling of chaos, is what I mean to capture in this post.

Hence, the two guidelines for reading it are as mentioned below —

1. The purpose of this post is a transcendental one. It has little to do with reality, objects, people or events. Just thought.

2. There are two parts to the post — the part that you are reading. And the part that I have not written. The more essential part is the latter. But it is an ineffable, unspeakable thing. Thereof, I am silent.

On Action-at-a-Distance and Women :

When he stand amidst the cacophony, the noise of his ideas, his projects — he yearns for the stately, beautiful and happy seclusion of those silent, magical creatures – Women.

He believes that just their company shall reward him with calm, an end to this droning anxiety of existence.

He forgets that on that most-sought chateau of female company — that fantastical , idyllic place — there is still so much small, petty noise.

He resigns himself to the conclusion that the phenomenon of Action-at-a-Distance, so deftly orchestrated by Women, sadly needs Distance !

The animal with a good conscience :  The vulgar element in everything that Times of India (as a microcosm of our society) offers us does not escape me. Yet it has stopped offending me. Why is this ? Well, animals have their own rights — and we aim to be refined animals. Bad taste has its rights as well. I would rather say that Bad Taste has a superior right – since it answers to a great need, provides guaranteed satisfaction (like pornography) and is a universal language – an unconditionally intelligible mask for all the depravity that lurks within us. Good Taste, on the other hand, is searching, deliberate, not sure how it is to be interpreted and seldom popular. What is popular is the mask. For animals with a good conscience. So let bad taste go unpunished and let us revel in the feeling of elitist superiority.

A conversation :

A :– I do not want to write. I am annoyed and ashamed that I am typing this out right now. Doing this is repugnant — to look for approval through the lens of verbosity.

B :– But then why do you write ?

A :– I say this in confidence, I have found no other way of getting rid of my thoughts!

B :– But why do you want to get rid of your thoughts ?

A :– Why ? Why, indeed ? Because I have to! It is quite like nature’s call.

B :– Disgusting!

A (sighs) :– I know.

Religious Wars : The greatest progress of the masses till now has been the rise of communalism and religious wars, for it proves that the masses have begun treating concepts with respect. When does a religious war start ? When the finer concepts of two sects have refined common reason so that even the mob becomes subtle! It takes trifles seriously, and considers it possible that the “ultimate salvation of the soul” rests upon slight variations in concepts !

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.  — Noam Chomsky.

Ideas that are furiously sleeping, or dormant, can have terrifying implications for humans. They can make you green or colourless. (depending on whether you feel envy or just hopelessly scared)

One such idea is the prospect of being alone. While the rest of humanity revels in hedonistic delights, you are alone. Just you, your plans and your work. What if it all comes to naught ? And you are not good enough ? How would you resign yourself to a life of mediocrity, of pale insignificance, in light of the grandiose dreams of your idle moments ? How would you confront yourself – that harshest of critics ? These dormant fears, can make anyone colourless. And they make me green as I look at the millions around me, stolid in their indifference and insignificance. Such calmness, such sangfroid, in the face of such a dire state of affairs. Ignorance and its bliss!

And to drown out those fears, I plunge myself into the thoughts of others.  “Being and Time”, “Critique of Pure Reason”, the Tractatus, the “Idea of Justice”, and “Immortality”. And it is not nearly enough. What I crave is the future, the prospect of intimacy, and an end to eternal ennui.

Where is my last cigarette ?

How to train your Dragon(s) ?

This is a cry for help — not one of those “desperate, spine-tingling” shrieks from horror flicks, but a “soft, sad cry “, one which is directed at all those dead philosophers who pondered over this insoluble problem — How do you train your dragons ?

Now, I have a wonderful Weyr / Clan / Rage (insert-appropriate-collection-of-dragon-epithet) of 26 dragons. They are in the third year of their long training regime — a long way from maturity, and as you would expect, are wilful , as fickle as a human-youngling who is in love with Justin Beiber , curious and unfortunately — well indoctrinated in antiquated Dragon-religions. They refuse to listen to reason, are implacable and sometimes threaten to burn me to cinders (call their parents and tell them about my heretical tendencies).

Lareb , Saqib , Samiya, Rida, Rabiya, Aqib, Hurum, Adeeba , Sharia, Farzan, Sameer, Usman, Kehkashan, Mehak, Fatima, Nida, Wasil, Samir, Iqra, Faizan, Danish, Zaid, Md. Zaid, Kaif, Junaid and Masnoon.   An awe-inspiring, august gathering indeed!

My personal belief in rationality, free thinking finds itself woefully inadequate when I face these young hatchlings — so steeped in ancient wisdom that they think they are turning me ! They have told me, with unbelievably straight faces, that I am a Hindu and there is an invisible demon hovering over my head ! They are wrong about the location by a few inches — I confess to the demons within. Obviously, they have the Q’uran to protect them, while I, miserably devoid of monotheistic faith and terribly skeptical about my own — am lurching in the wind, waiting for hell — they told me. And the justifications are elegant and beautiful — Mom has told them. Mother Dragons are always right, you see! Ghosts, Genies, Djinns and a variety of supernatural entities fog their minds and whet their appetite for more superstition. I intend to change that.

My dragons will be scientific warriors of the Light.  They will be thinkers, philosophers and critics of social dogmas and prejudices. They will wax eloquent on abstract notions of justice, morality — they will question ideas and institutions of power and inequality. They will be the Nietzsches, Chomskys, the Foucaults, the Russells of the future. No Sauron, no Dark Lord, no Nazgul shall threaten their existence. They shall be free. And that is my Fellowship!

(I am no reluctant Frodo, or awkward Harry. But I am in need of Gandalf .)

Now the questions that I need to address are these —

1. How do I ensure that the thinking process, the scientific method, is inculcated in every child ?

I have two good ideas.

The first one is to divide them into groups — each powerfully titled with champion Dragons of antiquity — Nietzsche, Russell, Chomsky/Foucault/Gandhi etc. The younglings  are introduced to ideas from each and they understand and discuss these ideas with each other. The objective for each group is to explain to the others the thoughts of their Thinker-Dragon-Godfather (Nietzsche, Russell etc.) I have planned a series of age-appropriate ideas from each of these thinkers to be introduced in due course with activities that illustrate their value.

This can beget a lot of discussion, critical thinking in class over time. But I have a concern. The hatchlings are young and malleable. And as it so happens in a group scenario (as Nietzsche would point out), the individual gets lost and group identities begin to dominate. I do not want young dragons steeped in the mannerisms of yonder — identifying with the past, moulding themselves to it. I do not want hero-worship. It is heresy to free thinking. (Even typing it in my blog is heretical ..just kidding!) The group-dynamics have their virtues and vices. I have to be careful.

The second idea tackles the more serious problem of dogmatic, religious thinking clouding the perceptions of my dragons. How do you bestow scientific temper to these kids ? Without getting Mummy Dragon so enraged that the Fellowship falls of a cliff on Mount Doom ! Till now, I have taken the meek-cowardly-and-subtle approach of not sharing my flagrant opinions with the class. The easy and dangerous path is to proclaim to the class that — “Believe not. In religion, does Master Yoda/Ashish”. But that would enrage these volatile beings so much that existence itself would be threatened.

The other way is to provide a simple method : which I discovered after long hours of rigorous research, which entailed talking to my long-time co-conspirator Tanmai or “Le Coq” ,as he is affectionately called .. then laughing about lots of offensive things with him and finally posting it here for approval from my conspiratorial blog-readers! Here is his idea —

Tanmai : What if you ask them to forget thinking for itself. Focus only on Math, Language and Scientific Technique.

Hypotheses, Test, Verify, Loop.

The key point is not curiosity and questioning everything, but how to think about things when they have an answer. It is a little more subtle. That way everyone doesn’t just start asking useless questions. 

They’ll ask, or rather think, only about questions that can be tested. Which will serve them well, till they can guard themselves against indoctrination.

Finding out reasons, testing out theories and only testable theories, seems like a good plan. I look forward to seeing the results of these two ideas in action.

The next question —

2. What about the idea that I am imposing my sets of values/aspirations on impressionable dragons? How appropriate is that ?

There is no right answer, as it always is, with all the right questions. But since I have the onus of training these dragons, I shall do what I see fit. As Russell once said ” I will not die for my beliefs. Because I might be wrong. ” Free thinking gives you leeway, you are un-dogmatic about your own dogmas. I do not think any of this will be perfect. And I give myself the flexibility to change tack when things begin going haywire. The philosophy of education has, and will always be, open to debate. But I have more pressing matters rather than be mired in self-doubt. I have dragons to train.

Two years later, they shall unleash Chaos on the World !

A deep thought on Best Educational Practices by Jack Handey

“Children need encouragement. If a kid gets an answer right, tell him it was a lucky guess. That way he develops a good, lucky feeling.”


The deafening silence of the Crowd.

Sometimes, and this is one of those times, I feel most alone in a crowd. There is this cheerful cacophony, this noise and bustle about everyone here — and there is this silence, the seven solitudes that Nietzsche talks about, the deafening silence of “not belonging”.

I am going to sound pretentious and snobbish, but I do not care. I am dismayed at the quality of conversation that I am forced to indulge in. Where is the spark, the intensity of a discussion, the reasoned, deliberate and gradual laying-bare of a problem and deciphering the complexity of its solution ? Intent is not enough. Emotion, surely isn’t. But that is all that people seem to be relying on here.

And there are certain things that just piss me off. Double standards and hypocrisy is one of those things. When an organization professes to adhere to strict notions of punctuality and expects everyone to follow it, when it makes a brouhaha over someone being a minute late, it is in no position to  let its own standards sag. The bus was 45 minutes late the other day. No one gave a damn. Today I was forced to miss a lecture because I was a minute late. It is all too easy to apologize and take responsibility for the entire team in public — it even feels good, in a morbid way, when you take the moral high-ground and pretend to “take responsibility for thoughts, words and deeds” . But it is quite a different feeling altogether when you get a talking to from several staff members on the need to be professional and on-time. I don’t know how an organization with such a strong sense of values can fail to notice and correct such cancerous tendencies. Hypocrisy manifests itself in numerous ways. You are asked to voice your opinions in a free environment and then you are fed subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle derision and condescension, in return.

Some people are not comfortable with living in mock/fake simulated poverty. The reasons can be numerous — personal, to psychological or otherwise. But just the fact that they are here to work against educational inequality as fellows shows that one thing that they do not lack is concern. They have empathy, if not anything else. Why would you question that sense of empathy in public, by treating them as second-class fellows, if they are not in cahoots with the whims of some naive idealist who came up with this idea, in the first place ? Does everyone here need to have a shared set of beliefs ? Is it 1984 yet ?

Something else bugs me. How are so many people here having transformative experiences everyday ? Is it just that their “comprehension” of a transformative experience is screwed up or have they seriously never contemplated on the kinds of mundane issues that are being discussed here ? Any middle-class upbringing will provide you with a very strong set of ideas on Seva, Excellence, Perseverance, Inequality (which is a daily sight anywhere in India) et al.. Were these fellows so clueless before ? If so, why were they selected ? Has something really novel happened here ? I do not think so. What has happened here is that people have been given a stage to speak about what they feel in usual situations, and as it often happens in a large group, everyone is out to prove that he/she has the most profound insights on a daily basis. There is so much duplicity, so much hypocrisy, it makes me nauseous. But maybe the problem is that the fellows have not had a middle-class upbringing. Elitism abounds in the fellowship cohort. I don’t mind a “certain kind of elitism”, I am guilty of it — the kind that sometimes wrongly scoffs at proletarian tastes, aspires for the higher, cultured pleasures , but there is also this accented – “Oh-I’ve just come back and I’m so cool” elitism that disdains the broken English that some of the other fellows use (well, I’m guilty of that too). For that crowd, the metamorphosis from “unaware”-to-“really connected to the roots” makes sense. But it is still sickening that these people are the vanguard of a movement that aims to end educational inequity.

But sometimes this place still springs a pleasant surprise. Discovering the few pearls among this maddening crowd is almost like an adventure. The other day, we were discussing the validity of deriving motivation from emotions. In the context of the Israel-Palestine crisis, we were discussing personal reactions to this video …  , where a young girl laments her predicament. This video can get you pretty riled up, emotional and make you feel like you want to do anything to solve the problem. But if you watch this video again and again, to remember that feeling, relive that painful feeling, that tightness in your chest as the girl talks about her clothes, aren’t you exploiting her situation for an emotional high that does not do anything to solve the problem. Feeling and doing need to be detached. The logical solution of a complex problem needs a mind unsoiled by emotions. Let them drive you and you run the risk of careening off a cliff of despair, if the initial effort doesn’t pay off. Logic and rationality is the only refuge of the idealist.  (I agree with you, jackass – other readers can ignore this parenthesis)

Sadly, TFI seems to miss this point entirely.

A final point. Is experience essential for intelligent expression ? When I see Orwell write about his experiences as an anarchist in the mud-stained battlefields of Catalonia, I see the value of experience, when I read Fisk comment on the insanity of Western foreign policy and duplicity as he writes from Beirut, I can again appreciate the wisdom of an immersive writing experience. But what would happen, if people stop commenting and criticising people and events and people-in-events, that they have not personally experienced ? How stifling would that be ? Where would Einstein’s gedanken experiments go, when would Kafka’s Metamorphosis see the light of day, who would listen to Dostoevsky’s Underground man and his travails ? So let us be open to people voicing opinions, even if we sometimes risk the naivete that comes with a person who has not experienced the things he is talking about. In the ceaseless blather, may lie the one aphorism, the one idea that really changes the world.

I have not given up hope on finding interesting people yet. And my personal goals seem even more important to me now. TFI has been a tiresome expedition where the organization desperately tries to paddle me away from the shore, while gale-force winds of my omnipotent self, my omniscient consciousness (hyperbole, how I love you ! ) keep buffeting me back to the same place, again and again.

And amidst all this pandemonium, this melange of voices, this shrieking smorgasbord of “reflections”,  I am resigned to my personal silence.

The silence of the crowd, the solitude of “Not Belonging”.

Teach For India — 10 days and beyond.

As I write about this last week in Pune, I cannot but be struck by a profound sense of affirmation and validation (even gratification) at the thoughts and choices that have brought me here and now. I have a constant, ego-burnishing realization that “I have thought” and it is this warm, mellow sunshine of my own self that I am basking in right now. And yet, on some level, I feel deeply alone here. All by myself.

I have met several interesting people (a few worth taking the extra mile for), otherwise this is a motley congregation of idealistic (sometimes to a fault .. and rising to naivete) but some profoundly nice people. The staff is very committed. The sense of humility and respect that people share is unrivalled. The joy here,  the pleasure of working together for a mission, is hard to miss. At the same time there are some powerful critiques that can be made.

People here seem to be thinking from their hearts, or the “gut” as Stephen Colbert puts it. We had very random exercises designed to make us “feel” part of the mission, or to inculcate “core values”, the “right mindsets” and to experience the “sense of possibility” — non-vicariously, for a change. Everyone “reflects” all the time, sometimes we are forced to — so much so that we would make mirrors self-conscious. We also “push ourselves” and the line between pushing and shoving is hazy. The jargon, the exclusivist language, very insidiously designed to make us feel “all special” is a very blatant, yet effective attempt to transform a bunch of nice, ordinary people into a coterie of zealots. Insidious, is a harsh word, considering the mission is well-meaning and noble (by any definition of morality). But the same doctrine would serve, with very little tinkering, as the bible for some popular religious cult. That is where the problem lies. Fellows seem to be getting indoctrinated — they have begun speaking the same language, making the same jokes. This leads me to think that all of the first 10 days were indeed transformative for a lot of people. That is sad. If fellows, our so-called “leaders of tomorrow” have not figured such issues out by the time they are adults, I shudder at the ignorant morass in which the rest of the youth wallows in. A lot of people here are for the right reasons and the wrong justifications. Will we remove educational inequity by following this model ? I highly doubt that. The big picture seems lost in the feel-good mist of moralizing and grandstanding. I do not find too many ambitious people here. Changing one life, doing good, transforming life paths for a class, is all good. But is it enough ? The top management seems to have their heads in the right place. The complexity is understood, though no one really knows what to do about it.

Something else that struck me was the uniqely caring, healthy environment in which things happen. Perhaps it has a lot to do with the fact that the organization is run and managed primarily by educated, professional women. Corporate India should take some cues from the management here. All this is not to suggest that I have not had fun. If hedonism was a legitimate way of life, TFI is “Hedonism with a heart”. I have done things here the past few days that I would not have envisioned myself even attempting a few weeks back. I could come up with a short summary —

1. Go into a poorer section of the city and try to find some kid and “connect” to him. I found it really strange because here was a veritable army of fellows descending upon that section of town out of the blue … and looking, prowling for kids. It was hard to convince alarmed adults about “what the hell was happening”. I found that a Namaste and a smile go a long way in breaking the ice. Also I lured a bunch of 7-8 kids into “connecting” with me, by showing them some basic melodies on the harmonica — thus literally playing the role of the “Pied Piper of Pune” . It was fun.

2. Go into another part of town, with a mission to serve the people and the constraint that I could not speak. It was weird and I became acutely cognizant of the powers of non-verbal communication and gestures. ( We really should write that paper on alternate forms of language communication, Tanmai ) I swept poor homes, cleaned a few dishes, gave an injured old man a massage (back-rub) .. and all without speaking, much to the delight and surprise of the community people. It was an exhilarating experience. The conquering of your self, your inhibitions gives you an incredible rush.  I was quite pleased with myself and was reminded of Gandhi’s insistence on physical labour and service of others. That guy sure had things figured out.

3. We have had countless chants and songs and games here, both during and after sessions. It is almost routine and I don’t bat an eyelid when asked to do ridiculously silly things in public. Group or herd psychology assuages all doubts. I guess that is why Nietzsche abhorred the Herd so much —  lacking any individual will and living by group instincts, the democratic will to render everyone equal in mediocrity.I reel with constant reminders of that Nietzschean epiphany here !

In recapitulation, I would just say that although I feel even more committed to the Mission than before, coming here has made me realize the number of ways you should not go about doing it. The people you should not have in the team, the mentality you should not promote, the institutionalized idealism you should fight against and the spark that you should seek to preserve.

As Gandalf once said, ” It has begun. The great battle of this age is upon us. ”  We are still engaged in skirmishes. The battle is yet to begin.

Philosophy of the Mind — a delectable Hors d’oeuvre.

An explaination is in order for the prolonged hiatus from blog-posting. More pressing concerns (like getting my Computer Science degree, having a life ?) have been weighing me down for the last few weeks. I had been a proud member of the “Athesist Community” – a very vibrant, socially active, freewheeling bunch of young students, for far too long. It is with remorse and sadness that I bid goodbye to those halcyon days. … This shall help the confused readers understand my predicament a little better.

On to more engaging (or soporific) matters — The Mind.

The primary questions that we want to address can be enumerated as  :

a.) The nature of the mind and its relation to the brain

b.) The ability to make choices or “free” will.

I shall be more concerned with the first of the two in this post. There are two basic positions on this — Dualism and Materialism. For the Dualist, the mind and the brain are two starkly different entities. The materialist, on the other hand, posits that the mind is simply processes of matter. They are one and the same thing.

There are refinements to the materialist position. The older view stated that the mind is nothing but the brain, while the newer doctrine of “Externalism” propounds that a brain becomes a mind only if it is related to something else. That something else has several candidates — a stable social setting, the external world etc. There are other points of difference as well. I shall enumerate them below —

Identity theory of materialism : Every mental state and every mental event of a given kind is identical to some brain state or brain event of a given kind. Each mental event can be reduced to a brain event.

Functionalism : The mind is implemented in or realized by the brain, but is not strictly, identical to the brain. The mind is certain functions of a complex system (the brain).

So the dualist and identity materialists agree on one point — the mind is a thing (an immaterial one for the dualists, a material one for others). Functionalists opine that the mind is just a system of functions.

There are important implications for those who stand by any of these philosophical schools of thought. Immortality is not possible for materialists, since the body perishes along with the brain. The dualists can live in hope, that the mind is utterly different and may live on. (yeah, right!) There are implications for the existence of free will as well. Free will means that you have choices and nothing forces you to pick one. If you are a materialist, there are sufficient causes for everything that happens in the mind. And this cause-and-effect mode of operation implies that there are no “real choices” — there is only one choice, which was caused. For the dualists, there is more than one way in which the mind works. The mind could work in a way akin to how premises and arguments work. If there is a premise, and a logical conclusion follows from them, it does not mean that the premise “caused” the conclusion. If you were not rational, even if the premises implied the same conclusion, you would not have reached it. Hence a dualist mind can work in ways different from just cause-and-effect. It is the only hope for free will.

Of course, there are objections to this statement as well. I think that instead of free will being ruled out by causality, it may be just a different kind of causality. A choice’s being free may be quite compatible with the choice being caused (in the right way).

This should be enough to whet the appetite of my insatiable readers, for we shall continue this rollicking, absolutely nerve-tingling (spine-chilling ?) and sordid sojourn into the philosophy of the mind in future posts. Have fun.

I shall leave you with a deep thought on immortality —

“I hope that after I die, people will say of me : “That guy sure owed me a lot of money.” “  — Jack Handey

Gibran-ic Conundrums.

I have been reading Kahlil Gibran . There are two standard reactions to this statement —

a.) Are you in love/wasting away/ or what is wrong ?

b.) The American reaction — “Who is Kahlil Gibran ? ”

The answer to the first question is “Not yet/Seriously, no/ Why do things have to be wrong if I read Gibran ?” . And I do not reply to Americans, as a matter of personal-mental-hygiene. (see postscript)

So I have had the pleasure of being exposed to some of Gibran’s terse verses and meandering prose. All very insightful. The problem seems to be that, in spite of thinking that I am such a reflective, introspective, smart, <insert-appropriate-eulogic-adjective> young lad, I seem to have no clue as to what Gibran means. And that happens quite a few times. It is almost unnerving. I feel that it is because of my lack of “experiential wisdom”, “not-having-lived-life-enough-phenomenon”. Some things must be felt before they can be understood.

And so, it is with trepidation and in spite of almost-violent-demonstrations by several factions of my mind (who insist that this tyranny towards our beloved Ego shall not go un-protested), that I invite readers and interested clever people to help me interpret Gibran. I shall provide some brief passages which have troubled me, and give my anaemic interpretations of the same. Help, O Wise readers !

This is from the book — Sand and Foam.

Once I saw the face of a woman, and I beheld all her children not yet born. And a woman looked upon my face and she knew all my forefathers, dead before she was born.

Does he mean that a woman understands a man and his past while a man can predict the future ? Female intuition and the emotional intelligence that women have, help them understand a man and how he came into his present condition (his past, his evolution) very well, whereas a man, with his rational judgement, can sense what direction the woman’s future will take. I know he sounds sexist. And is this related to the mysterious concept of love, in which case, I am clueless. On second thoughts, it is definitely, love. Got you, Gibran !

Another one : ” Give me silence and I will outdare the night. ” How does the night dare you ? Is the silence of the mind more powerful than the silence of the night ?  (pertinent query –What about the silence of the lambs ? No one can out-dare Anthony Hopkins.)  So here Gibran seems to be craving for mental peace and solitude, I think. The pensive silence, which is the progenitor of great achievement and profound understanding. I cannot go any further with the rhetoric.

The next one is beautiful.

Remembrance is a form of meeting. Forgetfulness is a form of freedom. ”   I understand this well. Thanks to Milan Kundera and his book of “laughter and forgetting”.

The prose passage below seems very apposite to our routine lives, with our inadequate relationships and our miserable friends —

On my way to the Holy City I met another pilgrim and I asked him “Is this indeed the way to the Holy City ?” And he said, “Follow me and we will reach the Holy City in a day and a night. “

And I followed him for many days, yet we did not reach the Holy City. And what was to my surprise he became angry with me because he had misled me.” 

I have only lived a short life, but I see this happening all the time. People blame others for imitating them, following in their stead. Any thoughts.

I shall end with a rather profound passage —

My house says to me, ” Do not leave me, for here dwells your past.” And the road says to me, “Come and follow me, for I am your future. ”

And I say to both, ” I have no past, nor have I a future. If I stay here, there is a going in my staying; and if I go there is a staying in my going. Only Love and Death change all things. ” 

Clearly there is a conflict between the desire to cling to the past in comfort, nostalgia, out of the fear of the unknown, while at the same time, there is a thrill to the idea of novel experiences, newer pleasures in the future. How will this conflict be resolved ? Gibran denies both. The present matters. And he says that whatever choice he takes — his staying is also a going (into the past) and his going is also a staying (I don’t know how) . And Love crops up again. What is this business of love, that changes everything ? I can tentatively guess that it brings about a calmness, a feeling that you are beyond reproach, above judgement — other than in the eyes of your lover. The past, the future and their querulous demands cease to matter. Just this moment. Entwined and in love.

Is there any other interpretation ?  I am curious.

The readers who can help me navigate these choppy Gibran-ic waters shall earn my ever-lasting gratitude. This gratitude, unfortunately, is an ineffable thing — it does not buy you the nice holiday you have been looking forward to.

Have fun.

P.S. To any American readers who stumbled upon this : There is nothing personal to the jibe above. I just lose a little bit of respect for Americans when I see Thomas Friedman writing op-eds every week, and Bill O’ Reilly, of the “tide comes in, tide goes out” fame and Rick Santorum, especially. Chomsky-fans, Colbert-watchers and all intelligent people can blissfully ignore me !