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.


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.

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.


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.