Friday, June 29, 2012

I was sitting at a Psychiatry consultant's place, waiting for him to get free. Azaan was audible in the air. A middle aged patient came out with his mother. The woman wanted to say her prayers, and decided to do so while sitting on a chair, so the two of them sat beside me in the lawn. 

"Hello" 
I turned and saw him smiling at me. "Hi" I smiled back.
"Let's introduce each other using fictitious names." He said, beaming and excited.
"Umm, okay." I said, a little taken by surprise.
"I am Toori."
"I am Jamal."
"Jamal." He mulled over my fictitious name.
"So what did Dr. H say about you?"
"*laughter* I have no idea. I wasn't even listening. My mother would know."
"Do you think there is anything wrong with you?"
"Well, Jamal, I think there is a little something wrong with everybody." I was all too glad to hear him say that, and nodded in agreement.
"Except for one person who is impeccable." He continued.
"And who is that?"
"He is, She is... umm... the Universe... ummm"
"God?" I suggested.
"Well, yeah, you can call him God."
"Do you think you or anyone can communicate with him?"
"I don't know. I have a friend in New Jersey who says he tells him Punjabi jokes! *laughter*"
"Do you believe him?"
"Well, I believe whatever people tell me."
"So what do you do when different people tell you conflicting things?"
"Umm, yeah, that is a problem." he smiled helplessly.
I asked him if he was married and had children. He was and he had.
Then he raised his hand towards me, "Can I?"
"I am sorry?"
"Can I shake your hand?"
"Oh, of course." I stood up and shook hands with him. "It was nice to meet you."
His mother was done with her prayer by then. She flashed me an embarrassed smile and I watched them go away, amused and reflective.

[The conversation happened in English.] 

Monday, June 25, 2012

My selection of some quotes from Under A Glass Bell by Ana├»s Nin:

* ... an irrepressible smile such as rises sometimes to people's lips in the face of great catastrophes which are beyond their grasp, the smile which comes at times on certain women's faces while they are saying they regret the harm they have done.

* On her breast grew flowers of dust and no wind came from the earth to disturb them.

* She wanted to be where she could not see herself. She wanted to be where everything did not happen twice. She walked, following the deep caverns of diminishing light. She touched ice and was bruised.

* This fatigue I feel when I am not with you is so enormous that it is like what God must have felt at the beginning of the world, seeing all the world uncreated, formless, and calling to be created.

* ... a shipwreck of broken moods, lost fragments of irretrievable worlds.

* Everyone who is hurt takes a long voyage.
You travel as far as you can from the place of the hurt.
Sarah traveled far from gold hair to black hair as man of old traveled into virgin forests to heal a wound, as they traveled to foreign lands to forget a face.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

I recently happened to read Stephen Hawking's The Grand Design. It is a fascinating book, and I like how it makes the difficult ideas and theories of modern physics accessible to the general public. Even though the book claims right in the start that 'philosophy is dead', a lot of philosophical reasoning has been employed through out the book (at times, in a sloppy manner). I would be charitable and assume that the remark does not imply a wholesale condemnation of philosophy on Hawking's part, but rather that it expresses his perception that modern philosophers are not taking the advancements of modern physics into account, which to a certain extent is true.

The book highlights several important ideas, some of which I'd point out here, using excerpts from the book.

* Model-Dependent Realism: 'the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observation.'
'there is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality'
'According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. If there are two models that both agree with observation..., then one cannot say that one is more real than another. One can use whichever model is more convenient in the situation under consideration.'
'[There is one possible model that the world was created not too far in the past,] favoured by those who maintain that the account given in Genesis is literally true even though the world contains fossil and other evidence that makes it look much older.... One can also have a different model, in which time continues back 13.7 billion years to the big bang.... The second model can explain the fossil and radioactive records and the fact that we receive light from galaxies millions of light-years from us, and so this model - the big bang theory - is more useful than the first one. Still, neither model can be said to be more real than the other.' [my underlining]

* Scientific Determinism: 'given the state of the universe at one time, a complete set of laws fully determines both the future and the past.'
'According to quantum physics, no matter how much information we obtain or how powerful our computing abilities, the outcomes of physical processes cannot be predicted with certainty because they are not determined with certainty. Instead, given the initial state of a system, nature determines its future state through a process that is fundamentally uncertain.... Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various features and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty.'

* Effective Theory of Free Will: 'While conceding that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of nature, it also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible in practice to predict.... Because it is so impractical to use the underlying physical laws to predict human behavior,... we use the effective theory that people have free will.'

* Fundamental Randomness in Nature: 'Our use of probabilistic terms to describe the outcomes of events in everyday life is ... a reflection not of the intrinsic nature of the process but only of our ignorance of certain aspects of it. Probabilities in quantum theories are different. They reflect a fundamental randomness in nature.'

* Alternative Histories: 'the universe does not just have a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously in what is called a quantum superposition.'
'... rather than following a single path, particles take every path, and they take them all simultaneously! That sounds like science fiction, but it isn't. Feynman formulated a mathematical expression - the Feynman sum over histories - that reflects this idea and reproduces all the laws of quantum physics.'
'Quantum physics tells us that no matter how thorough our observation of the present, the (unobserved) past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities. The universe, according to quantum physics, has no single past, or history.'

* Empty Space Does Not Exist: 'It is not obvious, but it turns out that with regards to that principle [Heisenberg uncertainty principle], the value of a field and its rate of change play the same role as the position and velocity of a particle. That is, the more accurately one is determined, the less accurately the other can be. An important consequence of that is that there is no such thing as empty space. That is because empty space means that both the value of a field and its rate of change are exactly zero.... Since the uncertainty principle does not allow the values of both the field and the rate of change to be exact, space is never empty. It can have a state of minimum energy, called the vacuum, but that state is subject to what are called quantum jitters, or vacuum fluctuations - particles and fields, quivering in and out of existence.'

* No-Boundary Condition: [Once we add the effects of quantum theory to the theory of relativity, it is predicted that in certain extreme situations, time can behavior like another dimension of space.] 'In the early universe - when the universe was small enough to be governed by both general relativity and quantum theory - there were effectively four dimensions of space and none of time.... Suppose the beginning of the universe was like the South Pole of the earth... To ask what happened before the beginning of the universe would become a meaningless question, because there is nothing south of South Pole. In this picture, space-time has no boundary... This idea that histories should be closed surfaces without boundary is called the no-boundary condition.

* Multiple Universes: 'M-theory has eleven space-time dimensions.... the extra dimensions are curled up into what is called the internal space.... In M-theory those extra spaces cannot be curled up in just any way. The mathematics of the theory restricts the manner in which the dimensions of the internal space can be curled. The exact shape of the internal space determines both the values of the physical constants... In other words, it determines the apparent laws of nature.'

'The laws of M-theory therefore allow for different universes with different apparent laws, depending on how the internal space is curled. M-theory has solutions that allow for many different internal spaces, perhaps as many as 10^500, which means it allows for 10^500 different universes, each with its own laws.'

* Spontaneous Creation: 'According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law.'
'Quantum fluctuations lead to the creation of tiny universes out of nothing. A few of these reach a critical size, then expand in an inflationary manner, forming galaxies, stars and, in at least one case, beings like us.'
'On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes.'
'Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.'

I will post my thoughts about these ideas separately in another blogpost.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

"Joseph K.’s first mistake is to accept that there’s a case against him at all."

Maria Luisa Antonaya's insightful remark on Franz Kafka's The Trial.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

There aren't a lot of differences in the picture of science presented by Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, provided that we view Popper's philosophy with the refinements proposed by Imre Lakatos, and that we row back on Kuhn's concepts of incommensurability and theory-ladeness of data.

However, there remains a very important difference of spirit between these two philosophies, a difference that is reflective of two opposing philosophical attitudes towards science.

This difference is explained very well by Bruce in a blogpost on Wheat and Tares:

"... unlike Popper, Kuhn latches on to the non-teleological (i.e. non-purposeful) nature of evolution as his main thesis....

[Kuhn] suggests that scientific progress is a non-teleological process, just like organic evolution. That is to say, the growth of scientific knowledge (which Kuhn does believe in) is not a growth towards some underlying reality, but merely a growth of solved problems that we humans found interesting.

This, then, is the primary difference between Kuhn and Popper – and it’s a huge difference in my opinion: Kuhn is a Positivist and Popper is a Scientific Realist. Popper believes that there is an underlying reality that we can grow closer to whereas Kuhn does not believe this is necessary to explain scientific progress."


I do not know how justifiably one can call Kuhn a Positivist, but apart from that, the difference between Kuhn and Popper is articulated very well. For Popper the progress of science is a progress in direction of reality, such that each successive theory (or to use Kuhn's better term 'paradigm shift') brings us closer to truth. But for Kuhn, the progress of science has no direction. Each paradigm shift bears no relation to our proximity to truth; we might as well be moving away from it.

In Popper vs Kuhn, I am with Popper.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Me and Qasim Aziz discuss the movie Into the Wild, beginning with how, for some reason, the protagonist reminds him of me.

*spoiler alert* 



Me: What do you think it is about the protagonist that reminds you of me? 

Qasim: I know its weird. You are a responsible guy but I think for some odd reason I always think about you when I watch that movie. Two things. Firstly, both of you are intelligent young reflective people (from middle class) but somehow victims of social alienation. Secondly, his journey for self-discovery via radical means. I know you never display such romantic notions about nature but still it reminds me of you. Finally, I can't think of any rational justification for this comparison. More of an intuitive thing. 

Me: Thanks. I am still flattered by the comparison :) McCandless was indeed on a journey of self-discovery, but he was also on a journey of healing. The particular wounds he had necessitated this delving into the wild as the only means of cure. We witnessed him purge his soul; and even though we may never undertake this radical journey ourselves, nor it may work for us, but watching him go through it helps us imagine purging our own souls and feeling existentially refreshed, at least for the duration of the movie. 

Qasim: Agreed, but don't you think he realizes eventually that all along he made a mistake in leaving his family and community? The realization comes too late I guess. Hence his dying remark that 'Happiness is real when shared'. He ignored the value of dependency. 

Me: Yes, he does realize that in the end. Only in the wilderness and isolation where names are of no significance does he come to realize the importance of 'calling each thing by its right name.' But it is also true that without this journey, he would never have realized this at all. 

Qasim: Like a tragic hero from Greek mythology :)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

* The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn't work, don't buy it.

* So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they're busy doing things they think are important. This is because they're chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.

* The culture doesn't encourage you to think about such things until you're about to die. We're so wrapped up with egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new car, fixing the radiator when it breaks -- we're involved in trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don't get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?

Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie

Monday, June 18, 2012

Me: I had a dream. I was in the building of my junior school. And I knew I wasn't allowed there, but I needed to go to the wash-room. I pleaded a peon, who took me to one, and told me to be quick. After being done, I was trying to get my trouser up, button up and belt up, but for some unknown reason, it was taking an awful amount of time and I was fumbling and trying to hurry, but time was running out, and I started to panic. That's what I remember of it. Yalom would interpret it as classic death anxiety. That I am fumbling and trying to hurry to live my life as my time runs out. I have had dreams of similar theme before. Trying to complete an unending exam as time runs out. Trying to get ready for engagement/wedding as time runs out. But on a conscious level, I feel no death anxiety. My defence mechanisms keep me very shielded, I suppose. Yet apparently it is there beneath the surface.

Aati: Hmm. Sounds very plausible, but I have a question. Would you interpret it as death anxiety too, if you'd never been familiar with Yalom? I'm asking because you may personally have interpretations lying deeper that differ from Yalom's -- your choice of words seemed to accept this while simultaneously alienating yourself from it. And secondly, because there is another similar interpretation that is rather less symbolic and which correlates with a feeling you have consciously expressed to me before. 

Me: I can't think of it at the moment.

Aati: Alright. Well, have you heard the phrase 'jump through hoops'? It came to my mind here in that in this situation and possibly the other ones you mentioned, your anxiety seems to be caused by a schedule you seem to be falling behind in. This is very similar to death anxiety, except you've said before your life feels stuck. People have give you time slots, things you 'need' to do, goals you need to achieve before that time is up -- yet another similarity with death anxiety -- but it's not a race against your mortality. It is a race to jump through those hoops, to come up to your own expectations and theirs, to obey and please. It's a feeling you have articulated yourself, which is probably the biggest reason why it may not be death anxiety.

Me: Fits with my life, definitely. It's possible that both interpretations may be simultaneously correct.

Aati: True, yes, that makes sense too.

Me: One thing to note is that I was in junior school, and I was not allowed there. Must have some significance.

Aati: It must, yes. But what? Hmmm. Hurried maturity?

Me: It may be about the irreversible passage of time and my reluctance to accept the consuming responsibilities of being 'the man of the house'.

Aati: True. You're no longer allowed back in that state.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Following is an excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri's short story Sexy, from the book Interpreter of Maladies. It is not a continuous excerpt (for the sake of brevity), but narrative continuity and comprehension have been preserved. 
* Rohin is a seven year old child.

Rohin fastened the zipper to the top, and then Miranda stood up and twirled. Rohin put down the almanac. “You’re sexy,” he declared.
“What did you say?”
“You’re sexy.”
Miranda sat down again. Though she knew it meant nothing, her heart skipped a beat. Rohin probably referred to all women as sexy. He’d probably heard the word on television, or seen it on the cover of a magazine. She remembered the day in the Mapparium standing across the bridge from Dev. At the time she thought she knew what his words meant. At the time they made sense.
Miranda folded her arms across her chest and looked Rohin in the eyes. “Tell me something.”
He was silent.
“What does it mean?”
“What?”
“That word. ‘Sexy.’ What does it mean?”
He looked down, suddenly shy. “I can’t tell you.”
“Why not?”
“It’s a secret.” He pressed his lips together, so hard that a bit of them went white.
“Tell me the secret. I want to know.”
[...]
He cupped his hands around his mouth, and then he whispered, “It means loving someone you don’t know.”
[...]
“That’s what my father did,” Rohin continued. “He sat next to someone he didn’t know, someone sexy, and now he loves her instead of my mother.”

He took off his shoes and placed them side by side on the floor. Then he peeled back the comforter and crawled into Miranda’s bed with the almanac. A minute later the book dropped from his hands, and he closed his eyes. Miranda watched him sleep, [...] she imagined the quarrels Rohin had overheard in his house in Montreal. “Is she pretty?” his mother would have asked his father, wearing the same bathrobe she’d worn for weeks, her own pretty face turning spiteful. “Is she sexy?” His father would deny it at first, try to change the subject. “Tell me,” Rohin’s mother would shriek, “tell me if she’s sexy.” In the end his father would admit that she was, and his mother would cry and cry, in a bed surrounded by a tangle of clothes, her eyes puffing up like bullfrogs. “How could you,” she’d ask sobbing, “how could you love a woman you don’t even know?”

A favorite movie scene from Wit, dedicated to the Stumbling Mystic. Vivian, terminally-ill, recalls a meeting with her professor, Dr. Ashford, who discusses the meaning and punctuation of John Dunne's Holy Sonnet 'Death be not proud'.



E.M. Ashford: Do you think that the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail? The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with Death calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life death and eternal life. In the edition you choose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation. 
And Death, Capital D, shall be no more, semi-colon. Death, Capital D comma, thou shalt die, exclamation mark! 
If you go in for this sort of thing I suggest you take up Shakespeare. 
Gardner's edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript of 1610, not for sentimental reasons I assure you, but because Helen Gardner is a scholar. 
It reads, "And death shall be no more" comma "death, thou shalt die." Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting. 
Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause. 
In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn't you say? Life, death, soul, God, past present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma. 
This is from my reply to Meera Ghani's comments on the Veil and Muslim Feminists post. I thought it better to highlight this point as a separate post.

'Feminism indeed is about a woman's right to choose (choose being the operative word). Its about the woman being able to employ her own agency.'

Okay, consider the following scenarios:

* a woman chooses to stay with her abusive, alcoholic husband because she is afraid of the challenges of a single life
* a woman chooses to become a prostitute to pay her college tuition fees
* a woman chooses to have a hymenoplasty to 'restore' her virginity before her up-coming marriage with a religious husband

In all 3 cases the 3 women make these choices without being coerced. They are making a choice by their own free will and by exerting their own sense of agency. Therefore, by your definition, all 3 of these choices are Feminist choices. 

However, if these choices are to be labelled Feminist, as you must by your own definition, then I am afraid that [Choice] Feminism has degenerated to a point where it undermines itself, and leads to the awkward conclusion that any act, no matter how degrading, can be feminist provided a woman somewhere chooses it by her own free will.

People have forgotten that Feminism was once about the ideal of a gender egalitarian society, for which freedom is a necessary but insufficient condition.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Even the most logically constructed arguments do not exist in vacuo, even though philosophers like to pretend so at times. 

Arguments and contradictions exist within a larger framework from which they derive their relevance. 

The subtext of a logically valid argument can nonetheless manage to undermine the argument.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

There are voices in the blogosphere and twitterverse which actively support women's right to wear some form of veil (burqa, hijab, chador, headscarf etc). Some of these voices self-identify as Muslim Feminists. The general argument seems to be that when women choose to cover themselves by their own volition then such a choice is to be respected. I acknowledge that people have a right to dress as they wish (like all rights, the right to dress is not absolute; for instance, exhibitionism is a criminal sexual offence in most places), and if women wish to wear veil, so be it. I see no reason and feel no desire to dispute this. However, what I find problematic is whether the choice to wear a veil can be defended as a feminist choice, and whether Islam can support veil without being patriarchal. (I define veil as an article of clothing that is intended to cover some part of the head or face.) I am also not talking about the piece of clothing per se, but rather the institution of veil, its prescription for reasons of modesty or for reasons of faith as God’s command.

I have a lot of questions in my mind, so I shall direct them to the prototype of a Muslim Feminist that has formed in my head over time. It may or may not correspond to specific individuals who identify themselves with that title.

1. I think almost all Muslim Feminists maintain that the veil is not compulsory in Islam. However, doesn’t Islam encourage veil as way of being modest? If your answer is Yes, then why is it so that a woman's modesty is so much tied up with how much she covers herself? To associate veil with modesty, is that not in essence patriarchal? And if your answer is No, how do you explain the contradiction it poses given the well-documented endorsement of veil both in theology and practice in Muslim societies throughout history since Islam's origin?

2. Do you think that feminism is reducible to mere choice? That whatever women choose for themselves is to be respected, that whatever women choose for themselves is to be declared by default as a feminist act? Can a woman not choose for herself something that is characteristically un-feminist? And if feminism is not equivalent to 'whatever women choose for themselves' (as I believe is the case), then what is it equivalent to, and how does that apply to veil? By what definition of feminism (apart from feminism = choice) can veil be justified as a feminist act?

3. A lot of Muslim women who veil do so because they believe that God commands them to, and not directly because men and society want them to. In fact, often such women wear veil while the society around them doesn’t want them to. However, one can say that they are not submitting to the patriarchal society directly, but they are submitting to a God that was a product of a patriarchal society, because apparently the God they believe in is a patriarchal God. Can a feminist be justified in choosing to submit to a patriarchal God?

4. I imagine many feminist critics of veil see it as a product and an adaptation of a patriarchal culture. They may say that the very fact that some women feel the need to cover themselves up to feel modest while men feel no such need is an evidence of its patriarchal nature. [Here we may note that within a patriarchal society, wearing veil can actually provide women with a great deal of social mobility that would otherwise be denied to them.] How would you respond to that? Don’t you think that in a truly egalitarian society, women would not feel the need for veil and veil would not exist?

5. Another objection against veil is regarding what it suggests about men in general. Many perceive veil to be accusing men that their gazes are inherently sexualizing, and that women are justified in protecting themselves from that sexualizing gaze. What would you say about that? Is there something gender discriminatory in the audience that is targeted by the veil? 

6. The symbolism of veil is very heterogeneous at the moment. I don't think you'll deny that veil has been used in the past and is often used even today as a means of oppression of women. However, unlike the past, there are a significant number of Muslim women who now hail their veil as a means of liberation. So veil is not just a piece of clothing. It is highly loaded with meaning. In a society where veil is simultaneously a means of oppression as well as liberation, what can be done to relieve the oppression of women who are psycho-socially forced to veil when we are at the same time actively constructing and supporting the narrative of veil being a free choice?

7. By wearing the veil, isn't a woman inadvertently admitting that she is a sex object? Like a stripper who chooses to objectify her body sexually by displaying, do these women choose to objectify their bodies by covering them up obsessively? Are not covering-up and revealing two diametrically opposite ways of acknowledging the same thing?

Many of the questions above only feign to be questions; they are statements of criticism and hence reveal my bias. However, I have chosen to phrase them as questions because I am also open to possible answers and would be glad to hear what people have to say in response as an opportunity to understand the other side better.

Related Posts:
* ... in many instances, smarter people are more vulnerable to these thinking errors. Although we assume that intelligence is a buffer against bias—that’s why those with higher S.A.T. scores think they are less prone to these universal thinking mistakes—it can actually be a subtle curse.

* Perhaps our most dangerous bias is that we naturally assume that everyone else is more susceptible to thinking errors, a tendency known as the “bias blind spot.” ... And here’s the upsetting punch line: intelligence seems to make things worse. The scientists gave the students four measures of “cognitive sophistication.” As they report in the paper, all four of the measures showed positive correlations, “indicating that more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.” This trend held for many of the specific biases, indicating that smarter people (at least as measured by S.A.T. scores) and those more likely to engage in deliberation were slightly more vulnerable to common mental mistakes.

* ... the driving forces behind biases—the root causes of our irrationality—are largely unconscious, which means they remain invisible to self-analysis and impermeable to intelligence. In fact, introspection can actually compound the error, blinding us to those primal processes responsible for many of our everyday failings. We spin eloquent stories, but these stories miss the point. The more we attempt to know ourselves, the less we actually understand.

excerpts from the article Why Smart People Are Stupid at The New Yorker

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