The Fear of Philosophy

I have been contemplating this colossal edifice for some time now. Though philosophy, philosophical discourse or philosophical debate does fascinate me; I find far more intriguing the sense of fear I feel among most of the people I have come into contact with whenever this topic is broached. I am fascinated by how people treat this branch of knowledge.

Many a time, I have had this thought that philosophy is inextricably linked to science, technology and life in a way that I can't even begin imagine. But I feel I have a faint glimmer of a grasp on this relationship. It stems from my first understanding that life depends on technology. Now, before you disagree with it, remember that even the clothes you wear come under the purvey of technology. Without technology we wouldn't be any different from the animals we so romantically consider ourselves superior to.

Technology in turn depends heavily on science. Rather, I'd go so far as to say that without science there'd be no technology. For in order to be able to manipulate the elements of our environment and use them to fabricate various devices (technological innovation or invention), we'd require considerable knowledge about the elements of our environment; a collection of facts if you will. Now, facts are collected first by searching for and then analysing phenomena that occur in our environment. Ergo, I feel I can safely categorize science as a search and analysis tool.

But a search in an arbitrary manner would end up being sub-optimal to the extreme. Ergo, this search and analysis tool requires directions of where and how to search for whatever is being sought. But this presumes that one already knows what one is looking for. This is the purvey of philosophy. Philosophy analyses the environment, and conveys to science the location (in the field of knowledge) where the solution being sought is most likely to be found. Ergo, science depends on philosophy.

In order to facilitate philosophy's search for a place where that which is sought is most likely to be found, one has to be able to determine that something ought to be sought. That can only be determined via the sense of some kind of shortcoming. Life's shortcomings alert us to the absence of something that would reduce the difficulty of some aspect of our life (perhaps one of our daily chores). This shortcoming would alert us to the presence of a problem that ought to be solved. Ergo, life tells philosophy that something ought to be sought: philosophy depends on life.

Assuming the accuracy of the above mentioned relationships, one can come to the conclusion that philosophy is a very important link in the cycle that facilitates the growth of our knowledge of our environment. Assuming the accuracy of the preceding statement, why do some people still fear philosophy? Philosophy does alert us to the absence of absolutes. Some people acknowledge and accept this absence, some people do not accept it, yet others refuse even to acknowledge it. The two latter categories tend to live in a varying measures of fear. But I have seen that people fear philosophy irrespective of their attitude towards the absence of absolutes.

I have invested quite a lot of my time in the study of philosophy and I find that there are five kinds of philosophies. I make no claims as to the exhaustiveness of, or the mutual exclusivity of the elements in the following list.

  1. Philosophy of science.

  2. Philosophy of society.

  3. Philosophy of space (or matter or the tangible universe).

  4. Philosophy of mind (or soul or god or spirits or the intangible universe).

  5. Philosophy of time.
I have differentiated the various philosophies into these five categories on the basis of the concepts dealt with within their domains. E.g. the philosophy of science conducts discourse on the concepts of (among other things) optimization of process, efficiency (or economy) of operation, and so on. Philosophy of society mostly conducts discourse on the concepts pertaining to the functioning of a society.

The formation of a social structure by say the division of society into various strata could be seen as the result of a mild influence of concepts falling under the purvey of the philosophy of science onto the concepts falling under the purvey of the philosophy of society. This could be ascribed the natural tendency of man to attempt to bring order to chaos. But when this tendency gives way to obsession, and the philosophy of science is imposed on the philosophy of society, cruel social doctrines and inhumane practises come into being. The most apt examples I can think of are ethnic purges, experiments in eugenics and our own caste system (which I consider a failed experiment in eugenics).

These phenomena notwithstanding, the use of concepts from one kind of philosophy to obfuscate the nuances of concepts or even whole concepts of any other kind of philosophy is not inconceivable. Ergo, it is my hypothesis that the fear of philosophy stems from the fear of the absence of absolutes among those who find cause for fear in this absence. And those who accept and acknowledge said absence, do fear philosophy because they realize that there is ample opportunity for the employ of insidious tendencies within philosophical discourse.


The Return to Darkness.

This happens to be the latest album recorded by the Indian Metal band Demonic Resurrection. When I heard the songs for the first time I remember saying to myself that this is not the same as their earlier creations, there was something that conveyed the suggestion of perfection in them. Then in the early days of 2010, I received the package from Sahil (the lead singer), it contained a Tshirt, a CD, sticker and other merchandise. I immediately popped the disk into my drive and sat back.

The first track of this album, their intro which I figured they'd use whenever they'd take the stage on one of their concerts, sets the stage and prepares you for what lies ahead. Every track of this album gleams with genius. Then it dawned on me that these tracks seem to continue from each other. No, this is not a euphemism for “they all sound essentially the same”. They are as different from each other as can be. What I meant to imply is that these tracks when stitched together cause a subtle narrative to emerge. Its kinda like conveying an image without drawing one. It seems to me like they have actually used the mood of each song to depict a different stage in a journey. There is little suggestion of a saga in the lyrics of the songs, its subliminal, and that is what I absolutely relished about these tracks.

In a conversation after one of their concerts, Daniel (the lead guitarist) told me that this was their intention all along. They wanted to tell a story, and they did. But what I consider a stroke of genius is that the first song, the instrumental, conveys a feeling of foreboding and is akin to the kind of premonition one gets before something momentous begins. All the succeeding songs have endings that don't tie things up, they leave some things unsaid, they are like cliffhangers that leave the listener wondering “what next?”. They have done it with such subtlety that the revelation just adds to the pleasure brought on by their musical creativity.

The last song, Omega I, ties things up sweetly, and the way in which they wrap up the song with a kind of homage to what is in my opinion one of their best songs (Beyond the Darkness) is amazing. In an interesting way, this adds a feeling of finality to a song that suggests the end of a journey or a saga. This album, after all things are considered is a quantum leap from their previous ones. They seem to have mastered the art of album making with this one, and have (inadvertently or otherwise) set the bar pretty high for their next albums.

I still feel unable to express my appreciation for this album. Its not just one thing about it, I guess that is why I am writing this post. It is a great album on so many levels. The musical creations themselves are orgasmic, I haven't any other word to describe them by. The ordering of the tracks in the album is what I have been ranting about since my first word. The way the mood of each song suggests a stage in a journey takes your breath away. Then there is this aspect, the lyrics and even title of the tracks they seemingly skip on the surface of this emergent narrative like a stone skipping over water, only, unlike the stone, the lyrics never sink into the narrative. On one level, you can enjoy these songs as individual entities, but when you become aware of this narrative that emerges out of the continuity between the songs in this album, you get thrown into a maelstrom of pleasure at a level you never before knew existed.

I could fill a couple of paragraphs with my interpretation of the story which is told in this album but I feel that would be a major spoiler. I suggest getting the album and basking the the brilliance of its creation. I don't care if I am being redundant but I'd like to say that this is the most complete album I have had the privilege of listening to. The ordering of the tracks, the way the mood changes from track to track, the way they have been crafted, this is a band that has arrived, and I feel we can safely look forward to more works of musical genius from them.

I am not going to talk about the individual tracks, for if I do, I might end up sounding like a schoolgirl admiring the object of her affection.



This is one of my thought experiments. I have been toying with this idea for the past couple of years.

This universe and everything within it, are yours to protect, yours to care for, to have feelings for, yours to love. But, each and every sentient entity in this world is NOT yours to own or yours to take. And, when one talks of the non-sentient, the concept of ownership is an ill-defined one. One can "own" a sentient being, if that being gives one that permission, that authority, that right. And that right is that sentient being's to take away from one.

Just because one loves another, it does not give one the right to expect much less even demand love in return. Similarly, when one gives one's all to another, firstly one cannot expect the other to accept the gift of one's all and secondly, one has no right to expect or demand the other's all. In other words, one cannot impose a quid pro quo.

This thought experiment follows from the philosophies of Khalil Gibran, from his book "The Prophet". He says about children:

"Your children are not your children... They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself... Thought they are with you they do not belong to you..."

One soul cannot "own" another. This is not a very well defined concept because we have barely skimmed the surface of the concept of "being". During my explorations of the concepts associated with Embodied Cognitive Science, I came across a particular problem known as the Frame of Reference problem. Basically the problem stems from the fact that it is not possible for a person (the designer/programmer) to understand and see the world as a robot would see it. In other words, it is not possible for a person to comprehend or even imagine the perspective of a robot that s/he created.

This concept can be extended out of Embodied Cognitive Science and into Sociology or whatever the study of people in general can be called. It is not entirely possible for one person to see the world exactly as another person would see it. Ergo, when one cannot see the world in the exact way that another does, how can one hope to control another in such a way as to facilitate the other's meaningful operation in the world? Ergo, one cannot own the other, no matter what relation exists between them, no matter how long they have been related.

In your care, your love, your feelings, the only degree of control one has over the other is that one can decide whether or not to care for, feel for or love the other, and whether or not and how much of one's all to give to the other.

Wanting control over or ownership of another being is a natural thing. It is a natural tendency of the human psyche to want to be in control of situations and others. Fantasies are harmless as long as they remain fantasies. Fantasies of control over and ownership of other beings is a natural craving. But it is not fundamentally acceptable to act those fantasies out.

I have titled this Non-Possessionism and not Anti-Possessionism because in order to oppose something you have to first acknowledge its existence.


Well... C'est la vie

Here I sit. In my lab. Knowing not what to do. They say that when a research scholar defines for himself the exact niche in which he wants to work, he feels this unprecedented sense of upliftment and belonging. It is made out to be almost like a miniature nirvana. I have known the general area in which I would like to work for some time now (since about 2004). That is almost six years. When I mentioned it in its entirety to my professor, he told me that to work that entire field to perfection would take something life fifty years. Okay, I set myself the task of narrowing down my perspective. And I don't really know where that got me.

Initially, when I took my first few steps down this road, I dreamt of inventing AI, artificial intelligence, the thing that will either enable us humans as a species to reach heights beyond our wildest dreams or lead to our extinction (that depends on which brand of science fiction you read and choose to believe in). I believe in the latter but don't completely dismiss the former. I still do dream of inventing AI. Don't ask me why, but I am not really bothered by the gravity of the latter of the two possible eventualities that I mentioned in the preceding sentence.

Well, anyhow, I started marching down this path with steadfast resolve. My aim was not just to write a gazillion lines of code and somehow hope that it would behave intelligently. I know that is what AI has come to mean in the last couple of years and to say I disagree with that approach would be an extremely polite transcription of my thoughts about that philosophy. My aim was to study and try to understand how the human brain (and of course the brains of other animals) works, not at the cellular level, but at the functional level. When my professor came to know of my intentions, he introduced me to the works of several other pioneers in the field of cognitive neurology. Among them were Dr. V. Ramachandran, Prof. Rodney Brooks, Dr. Oliver Sacks, etc.

I became acutely interested not in the work but in the philosophy behind the work of Prof. Rodney Brooks. He had founded and pioneered a field called Embodied Cognitive Science. I was completely taken up by the entire concept of embodiment. Based on that I built a whole theoretical framework to guide my research work. My professor then told me that if I wanted to do this sincerely in its entirety, it would take about fifty years. Then I set about narrowing it down to one single atomic sub-topic which I could research for my dissertation.

It was while I was engaged in this narrowing down, I stumbled across a concept known as the two stream hypothesis. This gave me a further idea about the construction that goes on in the human brain. That is how when we see parts of an object we see it as the sum of the parts and not the parts individually. i.e. how we construct a version of reality in our heads for ourselves.

This to me was like being Alexander the Great, it was that exhilarating. I kept surging forward from revelation to revelation. I was discovering my own little universe and it was not all that little after all. That is when I drew this diagram which hangs on the wall of my lab, right above my desk, in which the two stream hypothesis sits sweetly inside one of the stages of the framework I created. It bifurcated that stage into two separate categories. One for object classification, and the other for sensorimotor control.

There are several existing structures that fulfil the requirements of an object classification architecture. I created one of my own to add to that assortment. And so far, to me it does not pose any problems. But sensorimotor control, that proves to be a different matter altogether. I am pretty sure that once I have that figured out, the rest will practically be a cakewalk.

So that is what I have chosen as the topic for my dissertation. This is where it gets hairy. Its kinda like I have spent all this time digging a tunnel and surging forward with unrelenting force and I suddenly find myself in a medium I do not identify. Digging furiously straight ahead and now I am in a place that causes me to lose my sense of direction. It is as if you had seen a light at the end of the tunnel and raced toward it with speed that matched your enthusiasm, but instead of finding your destination, at the end of the tunnel, you find a junction and another set of tunnels to choose from.

Loss of direction is a really crippling thing. Once you have a sense of direction, you can work. You can do something or the other and go ahead... progress. But when you don't have a sense of direction, you are left completely helpless, as if all alone in the vast empty expanse that is space. All alone, marooned. That is what you feel.

I have always been cursed with this obsession to find my own direction. Something that I can call my own and in the absence of such a sense of direction all the other inadequacies of life seem to get amplified. Just when you feel that life cannot possibly get any worse and that you have reached the ultimate low point of your entire existence which in itself seems to pale in significance compared to almost anyone you come across. You start to slip and slide along the slippery slopes that form the rim of the edge that leads to the oh so familiar depths of depression.

You are in this area which seems somewhat like a junction of the sewer system of some large place. The gaping mouths of the pipes which surround you spherically are the different paths you can take. But the tragedy of the whole deal is that you do not know which one you can take. Then as you are wildly flitting about, seemingly aimlessly, staring deep into the yawning mouths of each pipe as you contemplate it and try to figure out whether you could possibly succeed in your quest by going down it, you see a faint glimmer in one. But, you thought you saw a light at the end of the tunnel that led you to this place.

At first you seem inclined to believe that it is just your eyes playing tricks on you. Maybe all that wishful thinking has resulted in your seeing light at the far end of the tunnel. You move on to the next tunnel, the next gaping maw, you see nothing. You look back at this one and you again see that barely discernible flicker of a suggestion that this path might lead you to somewhere, somewhere past this impasse. You repeat this several times, contemplating several different paths, each one of them as dark as the abyss that stared back at you. You begin to feel paranoid that this should come prancing into your eyesight just when you are about to descend into the depths of despair, when you are teetering on the edge of self loathing and depression.

Finally, after much deliberation that seems to have taken an eternity in itself, you take a leap (much rather a dive) of faith into that tunnel at the end of which there seemed to be a faint suggestion of light.

And the journey begins all over again.


The Best Day of My Life

The day didn't start like any other day. I awoke at half past six in the morning, about four hours earlier than my usual wake up time. I had to meet Prof. Navjyoti Singh and we were to go to a temple nearby. To me he looks a lot like a wide-eyed Albert Einstein. We had to meet and go to a place nearby called Nanakramguda. We met at the mess, we being Prof. Navjyoti, two of my colleagues, a wise man who was visiting us- Ravindra Sharma (affectionately known as guruji) and myself. We set off after breakfast.

Prof. Navjyoti and guruji went together on my colleague's bike and me and my two colleagues were to get there, the three of us on my bike, Thumpy. Thumpy is more than capable of carrying three people but the problem was that all 3 of us were fairly big built so I had to make two trips to take both of them there. Once all of us were there, we proceeded to enter the temple. I usually do not enter temples, this time I don't know why I felt compelled to enter. And we had a chat with the head priest. He told us that the temple we were standing in now was the new one, they had to change it cos the old one had gone into disrepair. And the new structure was approximately 400 years old. We got blessings and we put on our footwear and walked into the temple garden adjacent to the well. There we sat, lit up and talked about society and the caste system and the problem of untouchability.

The place was serene, and full of greenery. Here and there through the trees we could see the glass and chrome of these really tall buildings that housed multi-national corporations- software companies. The contrast was bordering on irony. Here we had this sanctuary of serenity, spirituality and sanity amid this hustle and bustle of “modernity”. This was the first time I had been to a temple that my family was not connected to. Even the famous Tirupati temple had on its board of trustees a member of my extended family. All these factors, my being an outsider to this temple, it being more than 400 years old, my being there with two men of great wisdom and the contrast between this temple and its surroundings, made it feel really surreal to me.

When the clock struck 10, we decided we had to leave as Prof. Navjyoti had a class to take and I had a class to prepare for. At half past eleven, I headed off for my class. A friend of mine, Devansh was to make a presentation on Searle's Chinese Room Experiment, an experiment in artificial intelligence. The presentation was under the auspices of my professor and research guide Prof. Bipin Indurkhya.

The night before, I had a conversation with Devansh about the presentation and suggested a minor change that would enable him to get his point across slightly more lucidly. That did help to a certain extent, but a point after that again let the class descend into a non-terminating loop of question and answers, to me the questions that prevented the loop from terminating seemed naïve. For some reason I glanced back from my position in the front row of the class and I saw that the director of our university Prof. Rajeev Sangal had also come to listen to what Devansh had to say. I would like to think I had a premonition of what was to come.

Seeing that the class had entered a non-terminating loop, Prof. Bipin came forward and pointed out a few lacunae in our arguments and our understanding of certain things. He split the class into two groups- the Dualists (those who believe that the mind and body are two separate things , and some of them believe that the mind can never be understood), and the Monists (those who believe that the mind and body are indistinguishable and inseparable from each other, I belonged to this group). During his talk, Prof. Rajeev said he wanted to bring a point up, he took Prof. Bipin's place at the chalkboard and started speaking about the gap that sometimes exists between theory and observation.

We observe phenomena, and based on our observations, we formulate a theory. But if we ever encounter an observation that does not fit into our theory, he said that if we choose to ignore the observation for the sake of maintaining our theory we would be acting unscientifically. To elucidate, Prof. Sangal talked about seeing the external world and understanding it and that external data comes from our senses and that data is used to observe the world. At this point, Prof. Bipin countered by saying that there is no seeing and that there is not external world, it is all a representation within our own minds, furthermore it is not the sense organs that perceive the world but it is our brain that does all the perceiving.

This argument sparked of a scientific-philosophical debate of a magnitude that dwarfed my premonition like a planet dwarfs a person. I was watching two philosophies collide. Prof. Bipin is a monist, and Prof. Rajeev's talk was leaning towards dualism. I had become unaware of every other person in that class. Even their attire, Prof. Rajeev in a traditional kurta and trousers and Prof. Bipin in his usual shirt and shorts had an effect on my perception of this debate

Prof. Rajeev then talked about a hypothetical robot that can feel pain. And then he asked that when the robot's limb was pricked or subjected to some other stimulus, and the robot felt pain, which part of the robot felt it? This added a whole new dimension to the philosophical argument.For some reason, I felt that this was in invalid question.

Imagine watching a tennis match between Roger Federer and Bjorn Borg (the two greatest tennis players in my opinion). Only they were not human sized, they were super giants of astronomical size with unlimited reserves of energy and stamina, and instead of a ball, they were hitting at each other the 10 dimensional multi-verse. That was what this debate was like.

It was a clash between what seemed to be the sum of the classical theories in AI and the radical new theories championed by Cognitive Science. The class started at half past 11 and was to end at 1 but it overshot that time by half an hour and only that much because the professors said that the time is up. We wanted it to continue. We were hungry, some of us were tired, but we wanted to continue listening to this debate.

Were were talking about robots and computers, programs and circuits, but the real issue on the table was whether it is possible to understand what it means to be human. Whether it is possible to understand the human condition. Whether we are justified in approximating the function of the human brain to that of a highly complex computer. This was a debate on whether it was possible to understand the nature of the ultimate truth about ourselves.

I left the class shell-shocked. I had just been witness to a once in a lifetime event and I was reeling from the effect. I headed to lunch, where I met Prof. Navjyoti. I told him that he should have been part of the debate, as he is a professor of philosophy. The next class, after lunch was creative writing, I usually enjoy this class but today, because of the magnitude of the events that I had been through, was unable to involve myself in the class.

In the evening I only remember taking bath because my mind was wandering. I had had only 2.5 hours of sleep the previous night, I was not fatigued but I was totally mentally preoccupied. I was completely unaware of what I did till dinner time. This was the first time I had a lapse in memory without having to take marijuana.

After dinner, there was yet another meeting with guruji, I was waiting for 2030 when the meeting would begin. The first people there were Prof. Rajeev and his daughter Sapna, a good friend of mine. While I was trying to recount to her the events that transpired in the class today, Prof. Rajeev asked me what I liked about the class. I remember saying that I liked the philosophical nature of the debate and also that it showed us how people argue in academic circles regarding theories and philosophies.

Prof. Navjyoti, Prof. Sangal, guruji, two other professors, and five or six of us research scholars were part of the discussion that evening. It was mostly about society and how modernization is not always good and how traditionalism is not always bad. We talked about a few cases where certain tribal societies had been ruined because of modernization and how how traditionalism had helped keep the society intact, safe and vibrant. And how certain traditions are in place only to make sure that all members of a society have a sense of belonging and involvement.

An evening spent in the company of wise learned men, in conversation about the matters affecting today's society and life in general. We also talked a little about how the resources afforded us by modernity (technology, knowledge, etc.) could be used to make a better society.

The conversation on sociology, and the philosophical debate earlier that day and the visit to the temple at the start of the day, all three of those events are sure to leave lasting events in my mind. Each of these events enabled me to understand each other event in a way I have never seen them before.

The meeting began at 2030 and ended close to 2300. However towards the end of the meeting my sleep deprivation caught up with me and I dozed off for a while. But all in all that day the 28th of October, 2009, yesterday, was the best day of my life so far.