Monday, October 20, 2014

My Favourite Things

This isn't about my favourite things, but about the song from an old Broadway Musical The Sound of Music. It has a nice enough melody but since the song is a light-hearted waltz, the melody is sort of wasted in potential, potential you realize when you listen two musical geniuses do their own take on it.

Here's the original:




Here's the take by the Isaignani Illayaraja:




It isn't really a copy in the tradition of Preetam, but is inspired. I find this take vastly better than the original. (I found the link between Illayaraja's version and the original here, years ago).

Recently I started listening to Jazz and stumbled upon another version of My Favorite Things, by John Coltrane:




This version really does full justice to what the original could have been. The melody is ever present throughout the piece either in full or in pieces or just surreptitiously lurking behind the flight's of fancies by the soloists. It's like a tight rope walker doing ever impossible feats but always returning back to the rope. A true musical masterpiece.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Revisiting Ridicule

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post about giving up ridicule. Since that time, a lot of events have transpired and I feel that I need to revisit some of the reasons that I used for giving up ridicule.

The trigger for that post was the elevatorgate incident. As I mentioned in the post, the incredible amount of invective that incident resulted in put me off. But today I feel that the reason it put it off has more to do with the fact that I didn't have the understanding of privilege, intersectionality and feminism that I have today. I was projecting some of the feminist criticism to myself and that was the primary source of the uncomfortable feeling. Of course, that was something I've realized a while ago. The trigger for this post is the recent events involving a few atheist celebrities.

The first celebrity is Dawkins. It was Dawkins' fallacy of relative privation ("Dear Muslima") that set the tone for many atheists on which women's issues are important and which aren't, and as a consequence set the tone for which concerns of women can be ridiculed. At the time he made that comment, and for a while after that, I chalked down Dawkins' comments to just a mistake on his part. But ever since then, he on and off kept belittling women's concerns and recently crossed a line that is beyond "just a mistake" and squarely in the territory of victim blaming.

In past few years, a few serious allegations have been levelled against Michael Shermer. A scientist said that he made a grab for her breasts. Another person, who at the time wished to remain anonymous, contacted PZ Myers and asked him to publish a post accusing Shermer of rape. The person has now come forward publicly in this piece by Mark Oppenheimer. Just after Oppenheimer's piece was published Dawkins started asking questions about being drunk and getting raped. It is highly probable that Dawkins is standing up for his friend Michael Shermer by throwing the accuser under the bus, albeit in a dishonest and roundabout way.

The second celebrity is Sam Harris. He made a sexist joke, and then when a few women adopted a really aggressive critical posture contrary to their estrogen vibes and questioned his sexism, he wrote a defensive explanation which still remained sexist. These posts explain why - Sam Harris, The Criticism of Bad Ideas, and Sexist Appeals To Biology, On Sam Harris’s Reply to Feminist Critics, Sam Harris’s “#EstrogenVibe” Remark Wasn’t The Journalist’s Fault, Is Sam Harris Sexist?

At this point, Dawkins jumped in and threw around words like "Thought police", "witch of the week" to stand up for his friend Sam Harris.

Here is where the third celebrity, Jerry Coyne, stepped in and stood up for his buddies Dawkins and Harris.

So what do you do when celebrities like Dawkins who command an audience of millions set the tone for how to approach the topic of sexism, misogyny and rape? Every time he uses ridicule, his followers take a cue from him and start ridiculing women who talk about sexism, misogyny and rape. The followers can't simply be brushed away as trolls. Ignoring trolls doesn't work(1, 2). Given that they cannot be ignored, should women find a saintly reserve of restraint and patiently explain things to them? That would be asking too much of them. If people are a product of genetic make-up and the environment, the environment here is particularly toxic and demanding patience and civility amidst the toxicity is demanding behaviour that borders on the superhuman. Here ridicule can serve as a shorthand in lieu of a lengthy explanation, or as a perfectly valid emotional response to toxicity.

A few years ago, I would have doubted that such ridicule works. But now I think a robust case can be made that it works. Feminism and social justice have made wide inroads into a number of areas almost always accompanied by bitterness, bitterness that could have been avoided had people in positions of power recognized their mistakes and corrected them. But if history is any guide, when a status quo is challenged, it rarely gets changed willingly. "If only you said it more politely or civilly, I would have changed" is usually a rationalization marshaled for the explicit purpose of maintaining the status-quo. It might well be an unconscious rationalization or something someone sincerely believes in. Whichever it is, the end result doesn't look good. Some of the biggest changes in society, be it anti-colonial struggles, anti-casteist, anti-racist, and women's rights movements have happened not because people sat down and calmly and patiently explained things over and over again to their oppressors and the status-quoists. They happened because people knew they were entitled to certain rights and that acquiring those rights, right now, was far more important than hurt feelings and the tonal quality of intellectual discourse.

We've seen the same in the past few years. For years women have been hinting that things aren't right, and for years they were ignored. It's only when women said "fuck it, it's time to stop being nice" and started demanding change did people start listening, and more importantly change. This change has been happening in a number of fields - sci-fi & fantasy, comics, gaming, the tech industry, and of course in atheism. And all of that involved hurt feelings and extreme bitterness. The conclusion I draw from these events is that there is simply no way around bitterness when trying to bring about change.

Another thing that I noticed was that I didn't factor in the role of comedy on social issues. Comedy is a form of ridicule and so the question became why wasn't I against comedy? Sure, I was against comedy that was justified bigotry, but I enjoy comedy like this. It is then I came across the idea of punching down vs punching up. If comedy punches down on an oppressed group, it is banal comedy. It is just pandering to the status-quo. People might think a comedian is being edgy in saying shocking things, but they are shocking not because people agree that saying such things is fundamentally wrong, but because people don't say them out of fear that someone will call them out. So seeing someone else say them is vicarious pleasure.

In contrast, there is comedy that punches up. It too says shocking things, but this time they are shocking because they make fun of things you believe in. A feminist joke would be offensive and distasteful to someone who grew up absorbing the background radiation of patriarchy. They may think the comedian is resorting to ridicule and nastiness to say something that should have been said nicely, in which case they would have given it some thought. But as we saw above, that isn't quite likely.

So there are quite a few things I got wrong in my previous article on ridicule. To sum up:
  • Naturalism also means that when someone is faced with a toxic environment, expecting them to remain civil and nice is a determinedly unnaturalistic position.
  • Challenging the status-quo almost always involves nastiness. There is too much historical evidence to keep believing that change is possible without nastiness.
  • While ridicule may cause people to double back and hold their positions more strongly, I didn't consider the fact that ridicule pushes boundaries of discourse. Something that people didn't even think of discussing before, is now fair game. As long as people said things nicely, it was easy to ignore them (unconsciously). But when they get angry and put their foot down, it is not so easy to ignore them. Funnily enough I was aware of this at a personal level. In a family, sometimes people get taken for granted and their concerns are brushed away until one fine day they let it rip and things change from then on. I see no reason why this can't apply to groups of people.
  • Also, saying things nicely doesn't seem to have a good track record in changing beliefs. For example, Sam Harris did not change his beliefs even when people explained nicely and patiently why he was wrong.
  • And finally preserving scope for changed beliefs isn't as important as pushing the boundaries of discourse.
Does this mean I will now take up ridicule again? I don't know. I may well not because when I had fun ridiculing before, I was kind of punching down. I still see that as wrong. In some cases, I may. For example, elsewhere I did respond to the sexist atheist celebrity dudebros with ridicule (Couldn't resist the self-referentiality there).

Thursday, March 1, 2012

You Never Go Full Profound


As far as I’m concerned, that man has found enlightenment. Or Moksha. Or Brahman. Or Salvation. Thanks to technology, the moment of enlightenment has been nicely captured.

Had this man used the right verbiage, had a flair for oration, an intuition for analogy, and been born in a different age or been in different circumstance in today’s world, he’d be amongst the most revered spiritual gurus.

The man no doubt had a profound experience. Every day millions of people have such experiences. But having been indoctrinated by religion, they don’t realize the importance of such experiences. They think only wise people with years of practice can attain enlightenment. What a travesty.

Some people do have the proper experiences as decreed by religion. And they go full profound. They will start a cult/religion or join one and will begin pitching Moksha. Or Brahman. Or Salvation. In order to explain their experience, they will use the most inane analogies (like the venerable snake and rope from the Brahman lore) and convoluted logic to drive home their sales pitch - I had a profound experience. You shall have it too by surrendering your critical faculties and listening to my drivel. That is the goal of your life.

Enlightening experiences are everywhere. Religion only spoils them for you by robbing them of their beauty -What? You find bacteria as enlightening? Tch. Tch. If you only you gave up that gross material realm and entered the subliminal spiritual realm. You poor soul. Imagine all such experiences that religion has been robbing humanity of for millenia.

That is why you never go full profound. You just stay at profound and give others the chance to find profoundness in whatever way they like.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hitch

Christoper Hitchens has passed away. I’ve never seen anyone who is so well read and can quote and reference what they read with the ease of reciting the alphabet.

He has died, but his free flowing words will continue to take up residence in the brains of millions, so will his stinging debates.

He will be remembered for a long, long time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Giving Up Ridicule

One of the things I care about a lot is to see a naturalistic worldview gain more ground over religious worldviews. For a long time, I’ve been having doubts on whether ridicule is effective in that endeavor. The first time I had doubts was when I started reading the naturalism.org website. I quite easily accepted that we are fully caused beings and are a product of our genetic makeup and the environment we grew up in. But I found it hard to accept the conclusions that follow from the premises:

The New Atheism has been roundly criticized by some supernaturalists and naturalists for its contempt of faith-based religion, see here for a recent example. Whether or not these charges have merit, it’s worth mentioning that naturalism, at least as advanced by the Center for Naturalism, tends to militate against such attitudes. Although we make a strong, unapologetic and rational case for sticking with science as the basis for belief, by our lights contempt for those who don’t is fundamentally unwarranted. Anti-naturalists and naturalists, equally, end up with their worldviews as a function of the vagaries of genetics and life experience. Some individuals are more inclined than others to want certainty, others are more open to new experience, and we are all heavily influenced by the beliefs and mores of our culture and peers. Understanding the contingency of our worldview – that we could have grown up to be the theist, not the naturalist – makes it more difficult to feel contempt for our ideological adversaries.

So I pushed it to the back of my mind. Ridicule was way too much fun to give up.

The doubts came back with full force when I started reading up on the elevator-gate incident. I was surprised at the amount of nastiness it generated. How can people who live by science, reason, and logic fail so badly in understanding a contrary viewpoint and as a result talk past, and ridicule each other? In retrospect it shouldn’t have been that surprising.

Ridicule works very well within the in-group, with people who already share some of beliefs. But it doesn’t work so well when you want to get others to see your point of view. It puts them on the defensive, and may even drive them to hold onto to the contrary view even more strongly. The aggressive tone of some of the discussions in elevator-gate is no different than what I use on this blog and elsewhere.

I still tried to convince myself that ridicule does work, citing the influence of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens. It is undeniable that their approach worked. Atheism has gained a lot of visibility because of that. But the question is does ridicule cause someone to abandon their beliefs? I feel the answer is no most of the time. People like Dawkins and Hitchens tapped into an audience who were already skeptical of religious worldviews. So their approach worked in that respect. But I don't think it will work when you want to make religious people understand why their beliefs are wrong.

Apart from tapping into the anger at religious worldviews, there is another way by which ridicule works. It can create an environment where people don't feel comfortable in professing to some beliefs. When applied to religion, that seems like a good goal to achieve. But changed beliefs are better than suppressed beliefs, which have a tendency to prop up when the conditions are more favorable to them. So using that as a reason to stick to ridicule is also ruled out.

In conclusion, I’ve decided to give up ridicule. This doesn’t mean I will give up on criticizing religion, superstition and pseudoscience because it will be offensive to someone. No matter how delicately I put something, there will always be people who will find it offensive and feel that I am ridiculing them. But what I am giving up is the criticism that has a deliberate intent to ridicule beliefs and the vindictive arguments that are meant to get even. I don’t know how successful I will be in giving up those things. I’m hoping that this post will serve as a shaming device when I do resort to ridicule, no matter how repulsive a belief I come across and have to criticize it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sanatana Dogma

A Sanatana Dogmatist is someone who holds any of the following beliefs:

1. Belief that their belief is not based on faith, but based on the Ultimate Truth.

Sanatana Dogmatists are quick to laugh at Christianity or Islam because those are faith based. But the dogmatists are oblivious to the irony of having a belief that the Vedas have been revealed to humans and hence are perfect and infallible. They just know that it is true. In short it is a faith based belief.

2. Belief that atheism too is accepted in their Sanatana Dogma.

The dogmatists are ignorant of naturalism (both methodological and metaphysical) which underlies today’s atheism. Naturalism doesn’t invoke the supernatural to explain things. Sanatana Dogma does. But the dogmatists in their fervor of supremacy have to make everything inclusive in their dogma. Even if it results in contradictions.

3. Belief that morality has an objective existence and that it is eternal.

Morality depends on the existence of human minds. The Universe by itself doesn’t care about morality. For example, you can’t impose any morality on the Sun. It just can’t give a damn.

But these dogmatists not only claim that morality exists independently of humans, but also that it has been existing eternally. They also perform the intellectually dishonest feat of conflating properties of the Universe like gravity and electromagnetism with their dogma. When you press them for details as to where in their dogmatic revelations will one find these properties of the Universe, they either peddle pseudoscience or weasel their way by saying only enlightened people can know it. And who is considered as enlightened? Somebody who gives up reason and give themselves into dogma. It’s a circle jerk of circular reasoning.

4. Belief that the Varna system is good.

This belief entails high grade weaseling. Apparently human capabilities and behavior can be neatly pigeon holed into four types. And even more apparently such pigeon holing isn’t determined by birth but by how one behaves. So what are the rules of behavior? That which are set in their dogmatic revelations. For example, a Brahmin plying a rickshaw is a bad thing, as the dogmatic revelations are ignorant of the concept of dignity of labor.

The dogma is also ignorant of technological revolution which makes many of the requisite behaviors irrelevant in today’s world. An example is the rote memorization of dogmatic revelations by the those of the purest varna. When the eternal dogma was “revealed”, the people of that time did not have a cheap and reliable means of storing and transmitting information. So they resorted to rote memorization aided by some neat techniques. But such memorization is not needed today. Hence we also do not need a varna to keep doing such pointless tasks. But dogma by definition involves beliefs that are unrealistic and unreasonable. So a Sanatana Dogmatist will insist that such a varna is needed.

But what about the dogmatist’s sacred chant “Oh, Varna is based on quality, not by birth”? What qualities a person has depends to a great extent on their surroundings. So someone born to parents of low varna, will likely remain there unless they are exposed to a different surrounding. The dogmatists bemoan that anyone can acquire qualities to acquire high varna status, but they provide no means for people to acquire those qualities. To use some present day societies as an example, all the children there get the same education regardless of their social standing. Did the dogmatists do something like that in the past? No. Technology too levels the playing field. One can acquire a good range of skills via the Internet without going through a formal education system.

5. Belief in Karma.

The dogmatists believe that what you are today is determined by your past deeds. So if you born into a lofty varna, pat yourself for the good deeds you did in your previous life. If you born into a lowly varna, it is because you did bad deeds in your previous life. Righteously suffer for it and your karma score will go up. Likewise natural disasters happen when there is too much bad karma around. These dogmatists are so arrogant and dripping in vanity that they think their actions have any effect on things like earthquakes. Also, karma is another faith based belief that dogmatists have despite the proclamations that their dogma is not based on cheap faith that Christianity and Islam rely on.

6. Belief in a decaying world.

Dogmatists think that we are living in the age of bad karma. The age where for the first time people dared to proclaim something like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, gender equality and respect for a person’s private life. They think that the world is being attacked by corrupting ideas.

So what is the nature of those corrupting ideas? As we saw in point 4, ideas like dignity of labor are corrupting. How dare someone suggest that performing lowly physical work has dignity? And how dare they suggest that one do their own work - clean their houses, toilets, surroundings by themselves. The eternal dogma dictates that people with neatly demarcated pigeon holed capacities exist. So it is the duty of the people belong to the lowest varna to do tasks like physical labor and cleaning dirt. The highest varna's duty is to not do such tasks.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Primitive Science Of The Vedas - Garbha Upanishad

The source that I use for this article is this translation by Subhash Kak. Kak is well respected in the Hindu apologist circles, so I think I’m using the “right interpretation” of the original text. The Garbha Upanishad has some valid observations about the human body. I’m not contesting that. What I’m interested in is the things it gets wrong. To see why, read the introduction for the primitive science series.

The source doesn’t have verse numbers for me to refer to, but the text is small in size and it is easy to see which part I’m referring to. I’ll put the what the text says in italics followed by my comments on it in normal typeface.

Matter is made up of five elements. I don’t think I need to explain how primitive this is. A glance at the periodic table should suffice.

Heart is the source of fire, which can be interpreted as to mean that the heart generates body heat. The people who wrote the text must have known that the heart pumps blood and hence may have concluded that heat is generated in the heart and carried to other parts of the body by blood. Today we know that heat is also generated in other organs of the body like in the brain, liver and in the muscles. Our skin also plays an important role in maintaining body heat. For example, when the outside temperature is hot, the skin sweats the evaporation of which cools the body. More on body heat here.

Males are born if father's seed is strong. Females are born if mother's seed is strong. If strengths are equal, intersexuals are born. Thanks to science, today we know the actual processes involved in sex determination. It is the male who primarily decides the sex of the offspring. Females have XX chromosome pair and males have XY chromosome pair. If the male contributes X chromosome to the embryo, the baby will be a female. And if the male contributes Y chromosome, the baby will be male.

If [at the time of impregnation] the parents are agitated, the child will be blind, crippled, hunch-backed or stunted. Such things are congenital disorders which occur due to a number of reasons. They have little to do with the how agitated the parents are at the time of sex.

If the vital air moves around, the seed enters in two parts, resulting in twins. Again through science we know that there are two cases for twins - fraternal twins are born when two eggs are fertilized by two different sperm cells and identical twins are born when a fertilized embryo splits into two. There is no “vital air” which splits the seed.

In the ninth month, the baby is reminded of previous birth. Also the baby is born into grief. It has to accept the path of Samkya Yoga to achieve liberation. This is mere speculation. There is zero evidence for past births.

Inside the womb, the baby knows about previous births. Once the baby comes out, maya engulfs the baby. The text views the baby coming out of the vagina as breaking of some sort of a barrier. From the time of fertilization, the baby is always tied to the natural world that Vedic followers love to deride as being merely material. The barrier of maya is imaginary. An interesting thing to note is the barrier exists in a different sense. It is where the baby acquires its bacterial microbiome which will play a vital role throughout the baby’s life.

If you read through the whole text, you will see that the Vedic seers haven't even expressed the possibility that what they say can be wrong. Since they are "enlightened souls", whatever they say has to be true. Such arrogance is truly the domain of religion. Contrast this with science, which doesn't make such absolutist statements. When something is true according to science, the implicit assumption is that it remains true only as long as evidence supports it. Should new evidence which contradicts it turn up, science humbly accepts that it was wrong and updates its knowledge. So much for the "scientific nature" of the Vedas.

The Primitive Science of The Vedas - Introduction

Ask the average Hindu about why they think the Vedic scriptures need to revered and they will tell you that the scriptures are scientific and have all the knowledge that there ever is. But ask them specific questions on science - like why is the human genome littered with viral DNA or even a simple question like why is the Sun hot and where in the Vedic scriptures does one find answers for these, they will tell you that the answers are there, but one just needs to be "enlightened" to know them.

But what these people don’t realize is that they are deeply immersed in the maya of slavish adherence to authority and hence can’t know the real truth - that the Vedic literature contains primitive science. Sure, they were scientific at the time of their writing. But unlike Sanatana Dharma, science makes no arrogant claims that it is eternal or infallible. It constantly updates itself in light of new evidence and leads us to a more accurate picture of the Universe. So Vedic knowledge, stuck in a black hole of reification and reverence, is horribly out dated.

And yet Vedic apologists perform such feats of intellectual masturbation to paint scientific legitimacy on Vedic scriptures, that it would be hard not to laugh at if it were not for the sad fact that many people actually believe such nonsense. The main reason for such gullibility is ignorance about science. These people have no qualms in beatifically pontificating about how the true goal in life is the attaining of knowledge while at the same time willfully choosing not to make any effort to learn about science which is the best tool we have to know about the Universe.

For example, they point to some verse which says that the Earth attracts bodies to itself and jump up in joy proclaiming that the Vedas knew about gravity. But the Vedas before which they prostate themselves cannot tell anything beyond the observation that something attracts bodies to Earth. They can’t tell how strength of the force varies based on mass of the bodies and distance between them, and how the force causes the planets to go around the Sun and how gravity is just a manifestation of the warping of space-time by mass. And yet such primitive sources of knowledge are deemed “eternal”.

The blame doesn’t entirely lie with the Vedic apologists. Science as it is taught today does very little to endear itself to its learners. And the science presented by mainstream media isn’t any better. For example, to the average person the word evolution conjures up the image of man coming from monkeys, but not the beautiful dance of nature that transformed a replicator molecule to the wide variety of life we see today.

And hence this series, where I will show how primitive the science of Vedas is while at the same time presenting the current state of the art in that field of science. I will also show that even the metaphysics of the Vedic scriptures is primitive as it is ignorant of the latest developments in science.

It is not my intention to belittle the achievements of ancient Indians. They did some really great stuff. But my intent is to show how stupid it is to show some outdated science in ancient texts and use it to make broad sweeping claims like Vedic scriptures knew everything about everything or about how scientific they are.

Debunking of this sort is important because over the past few decades, Hindu apologists have succeeded in their propaganda of Vedic authority by muddling modern day science with the Vedas. This has led to India remaining the land of superstitions, where in the year 2011, the Chief Minister of one state thinks black magic will kill him. Any criticism of Hinduism is countered with “our scriptures are scientific and hence are perfect. Which also means Hinduism is the perfect way of life”.

Finally, I have to thank the various Hindu apologists for translating ancient texts to English so that they are accessible to more people. Though their intention was to show the beauty of the scriptures, it also serves the opposite purpose - to show how primitive the knowledge in them is. Somebody once said of the Bible that a person who has read it completely cannot help but be repulsed by it. Religious texts when fully understood by a person who hasn’t been brainwashed into being servile to authority figures, makes it easy for them to see religions for what they really are - ignorance masquerading as knowledge.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Realize Bacteria, Not Brahman

Brahman is an abstract entity that is supposed to be the ultimate reality whereas the world that we see is just an illusion, maya. Of course today we know enough about the brain to explain the states of brain which result in dissolution of the self and those states were interpreted to mean Brahman. Just like a junkie would rave on about his high, the people who experience the oneness also rave on about it. But the sad difference is that whereas the junkie realizes that his high is brought on by consuming certain classes of chemical compounds, the Vedic person is ignorant of neuroscience and blindly insists that realizing Brahman should be the goal of life for everyone.

The human brain has a great capacity to feel awe and wonder. There are many ways to tap into that capacity. The Vedas are one crude way of doing it as they only go after a small subset of experiences based on the primitive understanding of nature of that time. Limiting oneself to the knowledge of the Vedas is being like the proverbial frog in the well. Science has taught us so much about nature that one can pick any branch of science and find immense beauty in it.

One such source of beauty are bacteria, the closest a living thing can get to being called as omnipresent. Instead of wasting time on trying to realize a fictional entity, it is far better to realize bacteria which profoundly impact human life in ways that the people who concocted Brahman could never even have imagined. I can’t do complete justice in showing how awe inducing bacteria are. So I’m going to link to a few articles which do just that:

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rama's Killing of Vaali

Ramayana is a work of fiction and I have no problem with people who admire it as a piece of literature. But I do have a problem with people who flaunt it as some sort of moral authority when all it has is primitive ethics.

Take the killing of Vaali for example. Here was this guy who was fighting Sugreeva in a fair manner, a.k.a face to face and Rama shoots him in the back and kills him.

Now hindu apologists will say that Vaali is an animal and Rama is a kshatriya and according to dharma, kshatriyas have the right to kill an animal in whatever manner they think is necessary. That may well have been how morals worked in time of Rama. But we no longer live in that primitive age. Moral philosophy has evolved a lot in the intervening years with the help of science.

Respecting Life

Today we know that humans are not that different than animals. Life on Earth is beautifully interconnected in a way that the authors of Ramayana couldn’t even have dreamt of. They didn’t know about how microbes shape life. While they were chasing an imaginary entity called Brahman, they were blissfully unaware of the omnipresent bacteria. Bacteria are also omnipotent in the sense that they are capable of living off of a variety of energy sources. In fact plants can digest sunlight and animals can digest food because they entered into a symbiotic relationship with bacteria a few billion years ago.

And then there are the viruses. They have managed to embed themselves quite extensively in our genome and some of the traits we posses were given to us by viruses.

There are still a lot of things we don’t understand about life like why there is sentience and consciousness. But we do know that consciousness isn’t the sole privilege of humans. Our cousins from the hominid family - chimps, gorillas and orangutans are self aware and are also quite intelligent. So are elephants, dolphins and some birds.

When to comes to ethics, the question we have to ask is, where do we draw the line between killing a life form and letting it live? Traditionally speaking, the answer is easy. The line is between humans and non-humans as humans obviously are special in that we are intelligent and and animals are stupid. Scriptural moralities like the ones based on Ramayana are based on such arguments.

To be human is to recognize humanity in whatever form it exists. Many animals share the same characteristics as we do. They feel love and pain. They know about sacrifice. They care for each other. Science has taught us that much. So in order to call ourselves human and civilized, it is just not enough that we apply our morals to humans, but also to animals who are capable of displaying some human characteristics.

Dharma of the Ramayana fails in this respect. It does not understand life on Earth. But this transgression is minor when compared to the case where a human like intelligence is involved.

Respecting Intelligence

Today, when the hope of creating artificial intelligence in the future is very much alive, we understand the importance of intelligence well. It is the main aspect that separates us from other animals. So if we find another life form that is just as intelligent as us, feels the same emotions, it is only logical that we extend our morality to it.

The vanaras of the Ramayana satisfy that requirement. They were intelligent and most importantly they were able to use language, a distinctly human feature. In real life if such an intelligence exists, it will be the biggest thing since... well... anything. And yet Ramayana thinks just because vanaras were like monkeys, humans are justified in killing them. It fails to recognize intelligence and glosses over it.

This line of reasoning will seem stupid, given that Ramayana is work of fiction and it was written a long time ago. But if people are hell bent on using it as a moral guide in today’s world, it is only fair that it be judged against current moral standards. According to those standards, the killing of Vaali can be described as thus:
Rama knew full well that vanaras were intelligent and conscious beings like us. Yet he killed Vaali like a coward and justified it by calling Vaali an animal, someone who is inferior to humans. Rama also practised what could be called a form of racism. He discriminated against vanaras, just because they looked different than humans.
It is sad that millions of people consider a morally primitive book like the Ramayana as a definitive guide on morality.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Astrology - Does it really work?

This is an article that I wrote during my early days of skepticism.

Introduction

From the early days of civilization, humans have tried to make sense of the world around them. We have studied the skies and observed that planets and stars follow a predictable path. In fact, Astronomy was one the earliest sciences we had developed. Astrology was an offshoot of Astronomy of the old days. It was an attempt at mapping the predictability of paths of celestial
objects to predictability of life.

The objective of this article is to see how relevant Astrology is in today’s world. We have to ask ourselves “Does Astrology really work?”. It is an important question as a lot of people take decisions based on Astrology and this effects their lives as well as others lives. We will take a look at some of the basic tenets of Astrology and see how valid they are.

The Constellations

As observed from the Earth, the Sun traces on orbit around the Earth in the sky during the course of an year. This orbit is called the Ecliptic. The Moon and the other planets appear on or nearby to the ecliptic. It is nearly a circle and can be divided into twelve 30°arcs, making a total of 360°. Each part is named after a constellation that appears against the ecliptic. In Astrology, these twelve parts of the ecliptic are the basis for the Zodiac. Astrology claims that the fate of an individual can be told from the position of the Sun on the ecliptic at the time of the individual’s birth.

Apart from the Zodiac, Astrology also considers the Nakshatras. They are the stars in the constellations of the Zodiac over which the Moon passes by at the beginning of the day. On an average the Moon completes a revolution around the Earth every 27 days. As such there are 27 Nakshatras. Like the Zodiac, the Nakshatra at the time of a person’s birth is supposed to have an impact on his/her life.

Though Astrology states that life can be predicted based on the Zodiac and the Nakshatras, it doesn’t explain how the Sun’s or Moon’s position in the Sky actually affects life. The Sun has an obvious influence on Earth; it is the energy source for many processes and most life forms derive energy from the Sun. But Astrology doesn’t explain in what way the position of Sun determines an individuals life. It merely states what will happen. Many astrologers use terms like “cosmic energy” and “quantum disturbances” to explain Astrology, but the explanations are vague and are not quantifiable. A statement like “The Earth is big” may seem obvious, but it is vague. It doesn’t quantify “big” – big as compared to what? Is it bigger than the Moon? the Sun? Jupiter? If it is big, by what factor?

Astrology considers only those constellations which can be seen on the ecliptic. It ignores the other constellations. When seen from outside the Earth and outside of the plane of the ecliptic, the Earth itself passes through numerous constellations which are not on the ecliptic. If the combination of planet-constellation can have an effect on life, it is reasonable to assume that the Earth will have an greater or an equal effect, if not less. That Astrology does not consider this possibility suggests that at the time Astrology was being developed, Earth was thought to be stationary and all the other objects were moving around the Earth.

Planetary Influences

Astrology lists the following celestial objects, the Navagrahas, as having an influence on day-to-day life:

Astrological Name Astronomical Name
Surya Sun
Chandra Moon
Mangala Mars
Budha Mercury
Brihaspati Jupiter
Shukra Venus
Shani Saturn
Rahu North lunar node
Ketu South lunar node

Of the given nine Grahas, Rahu and Ketu are not celestial objects. They were believed to be demons who “ate” the Sun and the Moon causing Solar and Lunar eclipses. Today we know that eclipses happen at the lunar nodes. A lunar node is the point at which the Moon’s orbit crosses the ecliptic. For an eclipse to occur, the Sun, Earth and the Moon should lie in the same plane which can happen only when the Moon’s orbit intersects with the ecliptic. The rest of the Grahas are visible to the naked eye. As such astrology does not consider other objects of the Solar system which are not visible except with the aid of a telescope:
  • the remaining planets – Uranus and Neptune. Uranus’ mass is around 14 times that of the Earth and Neptune’s is around 17 times.
  • the sizeable moons of Jupiter and Saturn. For example, Jupiter' moons – Io, Ganymede and Callisto and Saturn’s moon Titan are larger than the Earth’s moon.
Name % of Moon’s Diameter % of Moon’s Mass
Io 105 120
Ganymede 150 200
Callisto 140 150
Titan 150 180
  • the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Four of the asteroids – Ceres, 4 Vesta, 2 Pallas, and 10 Hygiea have diameters more than 400 km. Ceres, the largest asteroid, has a diameter of about 950 km and can be considered a dwarf planet (Moon’s diameter is around 3474 km).
  • the Kuiper belt which includes Pluto and extends outward from the orbit of Neptune for a distance of about 25 AU (1 Astronomical Unit = distance of Earth from the Sun = 149.60 × 106 km).
  • the comets which orbit the Sun outside the Kuiper Belt.

Originally Grahas were considered as deities who influence human life. Currently many astrologers try to explain the planetary influences in terms of “energy waves” which affects the human body. Again, as seen in the previous section, the explanations are vague. For example, they don’t explain effects of phenomenon like Sun spots. The Sun spot activity increases and decreases roughly following a eleven year cycle. When it is at the maximum, the Sun releases bursts of high energy radiation strong enough to disrupt radio communications on Earth. No where in Astrology is this phenomenon mentioned.

Astrology also ignores the the omnipresent force of Earth’s magnetism. It plays a vital role in deflecting charged particles emitted by the Sun away from the Earth. And the Earth’s magnetic field is not constant. There are local variations and during high Sun spot activity periods, it is severely deformed due to the increased flux of charged particles. Note that magnetic fields only deflect electric charges. They have no effect on electromagnetic waves.

Magnetosphere
Image Source: Wikimedia
Even if we were to ignore these phenomenon and still assert that energy of other planets and stars influence us, it is trivial to show that, in terms of the four fundamental forces of Nature – strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetism and gravity, objects on Earth itself can have more effect on energy fields than far away planets and stars. The strong and weak nuclear forces make sense only within an atom’s nucleus. Gravity decreases as the square of distance between objects. So if an object is brought very close to a human body, its gravity will outweigh the gravity of other celestial bodies. Like gravity, magnetic and electric fields also decrease as the square of distance. If there is any other kind of force which effects us as profoundly as Astrology claims that celestial objects effect us, it would be trivial to detect and measure such a force. So far, outside of the four fundamental forces, nothing else has been found.

Also, not enough importance is given to the Sun in Astrology. It accounts for 99.8% of the mass of the Solar system, produces about 3.83 × 1026 joules of energy per second (in comparison the Nagasaki atomic bomb produced a total energy of about 8.78 × 1013 joules), radiates in a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum and ejects high energy charged particles. It has a much greater influence on Earth than any other object in the Solar system and when compared to it, the effects of other stars are minuscule. Even if we consider a billion stars as a whole, the effect of them is still small when compared to the Sun. The other stars are too far away to have a sizable effect.

Human Psychology

In 1948 a psychologist named Bertram R. Forer conducted an experiment with his students. He gave the students a questionnaire and said that based on the answers given, he will do a personality analysis for each student individually. After the students got their personality analysis, Forer asked them to rate how accurate the analysis was. On an average, the students rated it as being 85% accurate.

In reality what Forer did was, he gave all the students identical copies of the same analysis. The analysis itself was vague and described only general positive personal traits. This experiment shows that humans tend to believe persons in authoritative positions (the students trusted their professor to do an accurate analysis) and believe in good/encouraging things said about them. If a person were intially told that Astrology works by a trustworthy person, and if Astrology predicts some general matters about his/her life, the person may end up in believing that Astrology does work.

Also, humans tend to remember good things and try to forget bad experiences. So even if Astrology predicts a set events and only a few of them come true, the predictions about the events which did not come true are ignored. Only the events which came true will be remembered and it will bolster the belief that Astrology works. Note that Astrology never makes specific predictions. For example, it cannot say what a person will be doing on particular date and time, say, 10 years into the future. It can only make general predictions like “You are going through a rough patch. But after 6 months time, you will come across fortune”. The person may come out of the rough situation before 6 months. In that case, Astrology has failed. Something has happened before it was supposed to happen. But the person will only remember that Astrology predicted that his/her situation will get better and not the fact that the situation got better before the time as predicted by Astrology.

There is also another way in which Astrology may seem like it works. A person may subconsciously take decisions in such a manner that events predicted by Astrology come true. In fact, in double blind tests (the astrologer doesn’t know about the person whose fate is being predicted and the person doesn’t know what the astrologer has predicted), Astrology performs the same as guessing (accuracy rate of around 50%). But, as seen earlier, even if a few predictions come true, a person may believe that Astrology works.

A very important consequence of living life strictly according to Astrology is that it makes a person’s life easy to predict. For example, many people are named according to their birth Nakshatra. If Astrology deems that a person will succeed as an musician, then that person will persue a career in music. Important occasions in life – like starting a business are planned on days certified by Astrology as being good. Spouses are chosen based on horoscopes. Just by knowing a person’s date and time of birth, one can predict his/her name, occupation, spouse’s name and any other event which the person has performed based on Astrology.

Finally, one aspect which tremendously helps Astrology is that humans are credulous by nature. This is a trait which has some evolutionary advantages. If a person who is living in the wild, sees a yellow patch with black stripes in some distance with an unclear shape, the best survival strategy for that person is to assume that the yellow patch is a tiger, and run away from it. But if the person were to go near the yellow patch to investigate whether it really is a tiger or not, he may get killed if it is indeed a tiger. In the first case, where the person chooses to run away, there is no penalty for making a wrong decision where the yellow patch isn’t a tiger. But in the second case there can be a penalty – death. This kind of a selection pressure has caused Nature to make the human mind infer patterns even when there is little data. Sometimes, it is better to take a decision even if there is insufficient data, than to wait for more data. But there are cases where this process can be bad – where making the wrong decision has a penalty for all cases.

It is tempting to see a pattern between paths of celestial objects and life. The celestial objects must exist for a reason and that reason is to govern our lives. But there is no evidence that celestial objects influence human life in the way that Astrology says they do. The effects are not observable and cannot be verified. Even if the celestial objects influence life, Astrology uses insufficient data as we have seen in the previous sections. Either way, acting on insufficient/wrong data can be dangerous. For example, it may make a person choose a bad career option or create a false hope where there is none. Unlike the tiger case seen earlier, making the wrong decision here can have a penalty.

Conclusion

Astrology was based on our understanding of Nature around 2000-3000 years ago. Compared to today, that understanding was lacking in many areas. The best evidence for this is that Astrology does not consider celestial objects which are not visible to the naked eyes. Much of the apparent efficacy of Astrology can be explained in terms of human psychology. Under close scrutiny Astrology fails.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Remembering Alan Turing

This article is about how a society treated a war hero, someone who also had a deep impact on multiple scientific fields.

During the World War II, Turing, a British citizen, was largely responsible for breaking the German Enigma encryption system. Though he did not have the glorious position of a General who leads his army to victory by using clever strategies, Turing's contributions to the war effort were no less. The Germans believed that Enigma was unbreakable and used it to encrypt sensitive communications. The work of Turing and his team gave the allied forces an edge as they were able to decrypt those communications and know in advance what the enemy was up to.

His other important contributions were in fields of mathematics, computer science and philosophy. So important were his works on computer science that he is usually referred to as the father of computer science.

But he was also gay. He lived in a time when there was no respect for a person's right to a private life and when society loved to play moral police. So when it was found that he was homosexual, he was charged guilty of that "crime" and was ordered to take hormones to kill that "abominable" instinct. After taking the medications for a while, Turing decided to kill himself. He injected cyanide into an apple and ate it. So it happened that society, prompted by religious morals, managed to kill one of the brightest humans to have ever walked on this Earth.

Of course, over the years the British society's attitude to homosexuals has changed a lot and their government even apologized for the way Turing was treated. But not all present day societies are that open minded and his story should serve as a warning of how misguided morals disrupt progress; progress meaning a better understanding of our Universe. It shows what people who think that they have the right to dictate another person's private life are capable of. They can drive a brilliant man to kill himself. Turing by no means was academically unproductive at the time of his death. Think of what more could he have contributed to humanity's knowledge had he lived a full life.

While most of Turing’s works are too esoteric for me to understand, his philosophical treatise on whether Turing Machines can mimic human intelligence is pretty accessible.

Turing on Artificial Intelligence

This is a brief summary of the 1950 paper by Turing titled “Computing machinery and intelligence”. The paper makes a strong argument for artificial intelligence, an uncomfortable notion which undermines the uniqueness of being human.

If the general public have heard of Turing, it is through his thought experiment which is known today as the Turing Test. Given a machine and a human and an observer, where the observer can communicate with the machine and the human only by typing on a keyboard, can the observer find out who is human and who is the machine? If she cannot, the machine can be considered to be as intelligent as the human and effectively there is no difference between the machine and the human.

The machine Turing refers to is the Universal Turing Machine. It is a digital computer and is universal in the sense that it can simulate other digital computers. That rids us of worrying about the specifics of how a particular computer is designed. As long as we know that it can simulate any other computer, we know that our machine is not missing any capability. The requirement that communication happen only by typing is to separate intelligence from other physical attributes which can bias the observer.

Turing then talks about various objections that can be raised against such a thinking machine. I’m going to talk about only the theological and mathematical objections. Theological, because the majority population subscribes to it. Mathematical, because if there are any logical contradictions in the thought experiment, it can never be realized.

The idea of a thinking machine is scandalous to theology, which views man as god’s special child who has an immortal soul that is the seat of intelligence. Even in eastern theologies which lack a personal god and and the idea of a man as child of god, subscribe to the idea of humans as the most exalted life form. For example, Karma hypothesis presupposes that superiority. Only a human can attain moksha, not other “lower” life forms.

Turing gives three arguments to counter the theological objection - humans are not that different from other animals, different religions have different ideas of a soul and finally, saying that machines can’t have a soul places restrictions on the omnipotence of god (Who are we to say that an all powerful god cannot endow souls to machines?). Today, it is even more easier to throw out the theological objection given that the ideas of god and soul themselves have no basis in reality.

The mathematical objection is a lot more interesting. It comes from Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which in Turing’s words, shows that in any sufficiently powerful logical system, statements can be formulated which can neither be proved nor disproved within the system, unless possibly the system itself is inconsistent.

Turing argues that this objection becomes baseless if the human mind itself is not free from inconsistencies. Neuroscience is providing a lot of evidence in that direction.

Turing’s paper can be said to have kick started the AI field. He showed that it is theoretically possible to build a machine which can think like a human. Though at this moment it is difficult to say if we can build such a machine. But there is a good chance that we will. Computers are getting more powerful and are beating humans in tasks (like chess) that were once thought the domain of human intelligence. They are also becoming good at pattern recognition, another field where humans excel. It will be interesting to see if they can display the full range of human intelligence and more importantly if they will have consciousness like us.