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Death

Mortality; death – something that conscious living beings have feared since consciousness evolved, presumably. Humans have built up entire cultural phenomena like religion to address this primal fear. We made up stories to make our-selves feel good. We thought of earthly life as a game of rewards and punishments. We get points for certain behavior and get punished for certain others. And we would be rewarded in the after-life based on how well we performed. It is a nice little story. It is simple enough that we can intuitively grasp it, because much of earthly social life revolve around this similar principle of reciprocity. You do bad to people and it has a social cost; you do good and it has a social reward. But all bets are off when you are dead. Nobody knows what is beyond death. And it is immensely terrifying. It seems unfair that you live a good life and still you may get an early death. Without a story, a narrative that satisfies our need for “fairness”, “justification”, “reason”, we were hopelessly lost. For better or worse, religion evolved to satisfy this desire, among many other things.

But in spite of all our stories, our fears remained. Millions of years of evolution has endowed us with a fear of death so strong that no story is going to help us. It helps us survive. It is a healthy fear. It has helped us survive the awe inspiring journey from a single celled organism to the highly complex organism that we are today. Humanity had been such a ludicrous dummy that we thought few imaginary stories about God, Heaven and Hell is going to relieve our fear. You are up against evolution goddammit.

I fear death just like any ordinary man. Or at least I think I do or should. Because as far as I can tell, I have not felt it yet. Maybe I will feel it closer to when my time comes. Only time will tell. When my symptoms started, I did not take it very seriously, just like any of us do. It was just a headache. I could feel that my muscle was in trouble. So it must be a muscle sprain, I thought. Then it did not go away. For weeks..and for almost a month. When the first MRI images came, even my untrained eye could see that I was in trouble, a big one. There was a massive tumor or inflammation or something that is pushing into my brain. I could not tell what. This was the first time I felt uneasiness, not fear yet. I had to wait for the biopsy results to be sure of the diagnosis. It felt like ages, getting the tests done and waiting for the results. In my mind, I had prepared for anything. I had just partially finished Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Emperor of all Maladies” the year before. It is a brilliant book about the history of cancer. So the mechanisms and the history of cancer was fresh in my mind. I knew what a “metastasis”, a “sarcoma” or a “Glioblastoma” meant. Kavi drove me to the UCLA records room as soon as we knew that my results were available. I walked out alone and quickly got hold of the paper while she waited in the driveway. As I read the dreaded results it was clear to me that this is probably one of the worst outcomes. It said carcinoma, high chance of metastasis and lung cancer, all the words I feared. I didn’t know the details, but I knew enough to realize that my I am at a fork in my life. No, it did not terrify me, I did not feel overwhelmed or hopeless. Parts of it came later, for surprising reasons. In a way reading that book, seeing the MRI and more importantly practicing philosophy had prepared me for this result. I was disappointed, but there was no shock or fear or hopelessness. I started walking towards the car trying to act cool, while thinking how am I going to tell this to my wife. As I approached the car I asked her to move to the passenger seat. I started driving and told her that it is cancer as prosaically as possible. We discussed how bad the news is and how this is going to be our “new normal”. Our new normal was going to be totally abnormal, bizarre and erratic.

That was the day I knew I was going to die sooner than I expected. As we learned more and more about my disease it became painfully clear that “sooner” is going to be a lot more soon that I hoped first. These events obviously made me think about death and what it means. Would I die painlessly? Would I be in full charge of my mental faculties towards the end? Where could I get physician-assisted suicide option in the world if things got too bad? These were the kind of questions that popped into my head. It was not the first time I was thinking about the moral, legal, medical, metaphysical and scientific aspects of death. When you start learning about science, medicine, public policy, religion etc it is inevitable that you have to deeply think about death too. And think, I did. But now these questions had an intense sense of intimacy and primal urgency that was lacking before.

Science tells us, we are a bunch of particles(atoms and molecules) clumped together in a particular way, interacting in complex ways, consuming and expending energy, giving rise to what we call ‘life’, and then withering away at a certain stage. The same particles that constitute a baby doesn’t constitute him/her at an adult stage. As it turns out our entire cells get replaced every 7 years, some cells earlier than others. So we start out with a set of particles, then we get new particles through food and respiration, and we get rid of them by defecating, sweating, cutting nails and hairs etc. I imagine our bodies to be like Heraclitus’s river. Heraclitus of Ephesus was a pre-socratic Greek philosopher. He posited the philosophy of change. Nothing remained the same, everything is constantly shifting, changing, morphing, and becoming something that it was not before. He famously said “We never step into the same river twice“. The river is in a state of flux. The river never remains the same, and so do we. But we are no river. The individual particles that make us up changes all the time, yet we live. Yet, we keep our identity throughout our life. So where is the “I” located? This confuses people. Even without the scientific knowledge of how our bodies work, we intuitively think that there is a soul, that is the “real me”, and we call the body “my” body. This is called dualism, the belief that “I” exist separate from the body. With the scientific knowledge of atoms and molecules, it is even more compelling to think that there is a soul. If the atoms and molecules that make us up changes every 7 years, there must be an immaterial soul that makes me “me”, separate from the physical stuff that makes up my body. Otherwise it makes no sense. Who am “I”? Where do “I” reside?

But the fact is, you do not have to posit fancy stuff like soul that needs new physics and a bunch of assumptions to explain life and identity, when we can explain it with existing physics and chemistry and with less assumptions. The answer lies in the information architecture. It is all about the flow of information. Take a rock for instance. It is a very simple thing. A rock is just a random arrangement of similar and a very small variety of atoms. A rock doesn’t consume energy, does not have a heredity mechanism to make offspring rocks. It is homogenous. If you take any two cross sections of a rock and compare, you will not find many differences. In other words, the information architecture of a rock is very simple. If you want to duplicate a  particular rock, all you need to do is, get hold of enough molecules to make up that particular kind of rock, connect all those molecules together in the lab to make a similar small rock. If you want to make an identical rock, you need the exact number of molecules as the original and you also need the exact positions of each molecule in 3-D space. That is the information architecture of a simple rock. There are no other processes involved. The molecules are just connected, that is it. There is no energy intake or out-take. There is no chemical reactions. The information architecture is very simple. In other words, you do not feel the need to posit a “soul” to the rock. Life is a lot more complicated, a whole lot more.

Take for instance the simplest bacterium in the living world, Mycoplasma genitaliumIts genome was completely sequenced in 1995. Researchers have tried to model this entire organism in a computer. And it is fascinating to learn that even modeling a section of its functions took a lot of computing power. Read about it here. But at the end of the day, an individual bacterium lives, because of the various processes that let it stay physically coherent, continue its functions uninterrupted for the time it stays alive. As long as it replaces its lost molecules by an intake of similar molecules, before the information flow disintegrates, it stays alive. Same is true with you, but on a vastly larger scale. Imagine that you are in a desert and you are dying of thirst, your cells are dying rapidly – there will be a point of no-return after which delivering any quantity of water to your cells is not going to keep you alive. Because a lot of cells required to keep you alive disintegrated, when it did not get the raw materials in time. And getting raw materials after that fact, is not going to repair the cells. In principle, life is as simple as that. Your entire body functions as long as, every cell in the body gets the raw materials it needs to function, before it has a chance to disintegrate. If we have technology to either stop or freeze the disintegration and deliver the raw materials by other means before disintegration to a significant part of the affected body part, we are stoping death, temporarily. Imagine a bleeding patient after an accident. When the surgeons transfuse the patient with new blood, what they are doing is giving a chance for the body to function with little disruption in its information flow. Blood is part of the information. The specific molecules in the blood is the information. The fundamental chemical capabilities of the constituent parts of the blood is the information. And you need enough of those molecules for the information that keeps you alive to persist. Water in place of blood won’t suffice. And you don’t need a soul to explain it. There is no other mystery there, in the big picture.

In case of humans, life is nothing but the information architecture that starts from the inhalation of oxygen, to all the innumerable processes that takes the oxygen to every cells in the body, to the processes that collect the waste from the cells, to the final process of exhalation. In principle, if you know the number and type of particles that constitutes our body, and the inter-connections between them, and have the technology to put them together, you can create a human body with life within it. Life is just an emergent property like consciousness which manifests itself only when matter is put together in certain particularly complex ways. It is only our ignorance of the myriad details because of the obvious complexity that is stoping us from replicating it in a laboratory. But we have started the journey. For instance, we have started making synthetic tissues in labs.

To view life and death this way is very liberating, at least to me. There is beauty, mystery and awe in the reality of nature. If you really try to understand it, you will realize you are just part of nature, in a deep fundamental way. There is no need to be scared of death. All that happens in death is that your consciousness will cease to exist. There is no pain or any experience after that. All the molecules that once made you up, will be recycled and reused till the end of the universe. Thats it. End of Story. One chance at life; thats all we get. That is the fuel for me to live and experience life with the attention it deserves. For most people who have not really thought about it, this scientific reductionist approach to life and death seems to create extreme displeasure and uneasiness. As if it takes away their reason to live a good moral life. But, it need not necessarily take away what is important to us emotionally about both life and death. To understand something deeply and how it is in reality doesn’t have to mean that we always have to think in those terms. Reality works in different levels. In each level there are emergent properties. For instance, you might think color is fundamental to nature, but it is not. It is an emergent property of the differences in the wavelengths of light. If you were to miniaturize yourself to less than the size of the wavelength of visible light, you would not be able to see colors. Because color is an emergent property of the universe that manifests itself only at a different scale level. The size of the eye that is capable of seeing colors should be comparable in size to the wavelengths of visible light. Understanding that reality, does not take away the beauty of color from our subjective experience. In many ways it only enhances it. Our reality and our experiences operate in many layers of levels above the fundamental reality of nature. Too bad that, most of us are stuck with religious myths and stories, and we spend most of our time appeasing imaginary Gods, with prayers and what-not, that we have no time to fully understand and appreciate the nature and beauty of reality that surrounds us.

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Philosophy · Religion

Is there an objective morality?

Is there an objective morality? Let us first tackle the most popular answer. Yes there is objective morality and it is granted by God. This is absurd for many reasons. Let us get this notion out of the way fast, so that we can discuss the issue of morality like adults.

There are two distinct possibilities.

  • God is Omnipotent(All-powerful, he can do anything) and hence change moral laws at his will.

All the major religions think that God is omnipotent(all powerful). So that means God can change moral laws arbitrarily. Something is good because God decided that it is good. He has full power(omnipotence) to decide what is good and what is bad. So if God decided that raping children is good, then it is good.

If that is the case, then I make a choice – I do not want to accept that authority. What if I don’t agree with God’s laws? What if he makes “Child rape” good? In fact I already do not agree with most moral choices given to us by God through his alleged prophets. Why should I accept that dictator? It is a personal choice. I reject such a God and his wisdom, just like I would in the case of a human dictator. If you fail to see how I can do that, think of God like an all-powerful Alien, that might take you out of your myopic vision. Even if such an Alien is extremely good, why should I be compelled to follow him? Would’t you rather want your freedom of choice? Wouldn’t you want to follow or not follow a person(however powerful) based on your reason? I am glad that I don’t have to make that choice and go against a far more powerful being than me, because there is no evidence that such a being exists.

  • God is not Omnipotent, and hence cannot arbitrate on the moral laws.

Now, if you think that a just or a good God cannot or will never decide that raping a child is a moral thing to do, then that means that –

  • He is not omnipotent – if he is omnipotent, obviously he can change moral laws to his liking. He is restricted by something, so by definition he is no omnipotent.
  • And, he follows a moral law(natural law) that is above and beyond him – if he is restricted by a moral law which makes him incapable of “making child rape a good thing”, obviously there is a natural moral law he also follows.

If God is not omnipotent, he obviously follow a natural law above him, and then God doesn’t matter. He is just a messenger of the superior “nature”. And he is not even a good messenger. Because he has completely failed to give a coherent and universal moral law that all of us can follow. Either he is as ignorant as us about objective natural moral laws(if it exists) or he is inefficient and ineffective in conveying it to us. Any case, we don’t need him, we can find that natural law by ourselves.

Why is there no objective morality?

So, why is there no objective morality? Because there is no evidence for it. Objective morality needs external guarantor. Since there is no evidence for God, or any other supreme being who else could fit that bill? Reality itself could be a guarantor, like in the case of physical laws. In which case, there could be an objective morality that is guaranteed by reality, but we have to find it by the tools available to us, by that I mean science, reason and rationality. But there is a difference between physical laws guaranteed by reality and  moral laws that is supposedly guaranteed by reality. Physical laws is independent of our subjective feelings, but as far as we can say moral laws are not. Physical laws are unchanging. Moral laws are not. Consider this hypothetical. A man is coming at you with a knife. You genuinely fear for your life. You shoot the man dead with the gun in your hand. Any modern court of law will acquit you on the grounds that you acted in self defense. And any sensible person would not say that you did anything wrong. But what if the person did not intent to harm you? What difference does it make if we know or don’t know the hypothetical fact that the person actually did not intent to harm you? If there is objective morality, then it would be wrong to shoot that person in any case. So your subjective state of mind plays a big role in deciding the moral worth of your actions.

One could say there is an objective morality somewhere in the universe, like mathematical truths. And our job is to find them. It might look like algorithms with lot of “if….then…else..” conditions. And for every possible combination of subjective conscious experiences and choices, there is a corresponding moral law. We just have to discover it. We just have to figure it all out. One could say that right now we are in the process of discovering it. So for example it might look something like this. Or infinite variations of this – ” If a man tries to kill you, you are morally right to kill him. Or if a man appears to be trying to kill you, but you know he is pranking you, it would be morally wrong to kill him. But if you didn’t know he was going to only prank you, you are justified in killing him

I am not convinced by that argument. It is easy to see this is just language game. What is “right” or “wrong” as far as the non-conscious universe is concerned? And how are these rules coded into the fabric of the universe? Unlike mathematics, I don’t see how this is possible in the case of moral laws. Mathematical truths and relationships dictate how the universe evolves and how the constituent elements interact. Our universe is a mathematical universe. Can the same be said about moral laws? I highly doubt it. Our morality is dictated by how we evolved. I also think that our evolved moral preferences further drives evolution. If there is an objective morality, how could the universe know it before we have evolved to be the way we are at this point in time? Let us consider another hypothetical. Let us say in not so far future we have technology to create highly sophisticated bionic arm, which not only entirely replicates a normal human arm, but far surpasses its capabilities in terms of power, touch sensitivity or any attribute that you can think of. It is not entirely implausible. Wouldn’t it me immoral to deny bionic arms to people who need them? How could have the universe known of this in advance to have an objective moral code built into its fabric to account for this? When we manipulate reality with technology, we change what it means to be human. We change what is morally right or wrong, continuously. Great sci-fi movies always address these kind of questions. That is why I love that genre. They ask such profound existential questions which in turn compels us to look inward, to within ourselves, to question what it means to be human. Would it be immoral to kill an Artificially Intelligent conscious silicon based machine? Is it machine or is it life? Do you think there is an objective moral law somewhere which addresses such unforeseen circumstances for the entirety of future existence of the universe? I highly doubt it.

So I am left with the only possibility that there is no objective morality. But does that mean morality is entirely relative? Is every man for himself? In a strict philosophical sense, I think, yes. I think we are free to make up independent moral laws for ourselves. But we are evolved beings who share common history. We have similar biology, preferences, instincts, intuitions etc. And moreover we are social beings with an intense need for conformity, which can be a good or bad thing. So we tend to converge on similar set of universal moral code. Of course, different cultures evolved differently and there will be lot of differences between them. But there are also many similarities across cultures based on our similar biological evolutionary path.

Our moral intuitions are shaped by evolution. Take my favorite example of incest. Why do we humans have universal repulsive reaction to incestual relationships? Is it objectively wrong to engage in incest? Do you think an adult brother/sister should be put in jail for having consensual sex? I don’t think there is anything objectively wrong in that. Whether I personally do it or recommend doing it is immaterial. I don’t think government and law should involve in such private matters. But what if the said brother/sister decided to have a child? I think that is wrong and law should prohibit and penalize such behavior. You might ask, “If there is no objective morality, how can you say it is wrong? The simple reason being, reality dictates what I consider good and bad. It is a choice I make based on reality. The genetic health of an offspring is dependent on the diversity of the genetic pool. There is scientific evidence which shows that chances of birth defects are very high if  genetic diversity of the parents are low. A brother and a sister has very similar DNAs and hence if they had offsprings, they most probably will have birth defects. Many scientific studies done on inbred population shows this unquestionably. So it would be immoral to have a child if parents are close relatives, but neither me nor the society should care less what adult individuals do in their bedrooms. To understand why we feel disgusted about incest, you should understand how evolution works. Since incest leads to birth defects, such offsprings would not live long enough to have their own offsprings. Which means, the genes that led to such behavior did not proliferate in the gene pool of our species. The individuals that have genes that coded for “disgust”, “anger”, etc for incest did not engage in incest(or in other words, they did not had sexual feelings towards their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins etc.). And they disproportionately lived long enough to procreate. Their genes proliferated in the gene pool. Over the course of thousands of years, we ended up wth a majority population that felt disgust, anger and other negative emotions towards incest. But now, in 21st century, we have technology to stop birth and a better understanding of reality. We do not have to feel disgusted towards adults making personal decisions about sexual choices as long as that doesn’t hurt a third human being. Even if we feel disgust, we do not have to make laws to punish people just based on such feelings. We should be better than that. The same goes for all our moral intuitions.

People often have this doubt – If morality is relative, what is stoping people from doing really bad things? Did you notice something? You perfectly understood that question. You exactly knew what “bad things” I am referring to, as if by magic. There seems to be a broad consensus of what constitutes “good” and “bad”. That is exactly what will stop people from doing bad things, even if morality is relative. We are evolved beings who share common history. Our moral intuitions are shaped by evolution, both biological and cultural. Our moral intuitions based on culture diverges more than our intuitions based on biology – because of two reasons – we have similar biology and different cultures(which evolves much much faster than biological evolution). Even then, broadly speaking, people in different parts of the world wants more or less the same things from life – happiness, healthy long life, comfort etc. You probably could agree with an average person’s(picked from any part of the world) description of what constitutes a good life. Or at least you wouldn’t find much to disagree with. I am sure you won’t find an average person’s description of good life to be – working in coal mine for 12 hrs, 6 days a week and dying of cancer in his 30’s by inhaling the fumes. It is not surprising. If everything is relative and we are all very different, then we should expect extremely divergent views about good life. What it means that there is hope for consensus. In fact that is the only hope we have in any sphere of life – it is a pre-requisite for the survival of our species and this planet.

Rational Options for moral laws

Now that the popular stupid notion of God and his moral laws are out of the way, let us discuss the viable, reasonable third option – There is no ultimate objective morality, and we, individual humans and the society at large, have to find tentative morality that works for all of us – one that keeps changing with the zeitgeist. We do not have to accept anybody’s word for it. Not of messiahs, prophets, Godmen, philosophers or of scientists. We don’t have to believe in things for which there is no evidence like God, for us to accept this form of morality. Which means all of us, irrespective of our culture, religion, nationality etc can have the same rational basis for discussing morality. No longer is there a need for christian, islamic or western morality. When we accept our responsibility to find and refine moral laws, with constant debate and clear thinking based on logic, reason and scientific facts, we, humanity as a whole can have a common basis for morality.

Consensus based on similar goals

Consensus is what we all should aspire for in the field of morality. If we can agree on what is good or bad, that is good enough. It does not need to be “objectively” good or bad. Consider this – I think humans should be given preference to other animals. It is not because humans are objectively better than animals. It is a choice – simply because, I am human. And I care about me and my creed. And I want to use other animals for my benefit. For example, I want to test medicines on rats before human trials. It is not objectively wrong to test medicines on humans before animal trials, it is relatively wrong, because I have agreed to the choice that human welfare is superior to animal welfare. Anyone can disagree with that choice. And that is the point. But when you disagree, you should also own the responsibility to offer an alternate morality with which our society can make important choices. After all, we have to test our medicines, we have to provide nutrition to billions of people etc. If you show up at the hospital next time you are ill, but hold the view that animals and humans are equal, then it is a little hypocritical, won’t you agree? There are many such moral choices you have implicitly accepted when you interact with the society, whether you consciously know it or not. Self righteous vegans who think eating animals is immoral show up at hospitals for their next illness without any qualms. Same goes for an average garden variety religious person who reject the philosophy of science which would obviously destroy their beloved beliefs, but have no shame in accepting every material benefit that philosophy enables.

Once we accept that there is no objective morality, the next common question is then who is to say that a suicide bomber killing innocent people is bad. They say, the bomber is as right as the people condemning him. My answer is there is no need for an external guaranteer or arbitrator to tell that the bomber is wrong. It is enough that I deicide it is bad. If you agree with me, you can stand beside me. If you don’t then we can have a debate why you think it is good. We can try to convince each other why our individual positions are right. As long as we do it based on reason, logic and facts and not on unsupported claims, it is a legitimate way to derive moral consensus. As this happens all over the society a consensus will emerge eventually. Sometimes the consensus will disproportionately tip to one direction or other and we can judge the moral quality of a society based on that.

But there is a pre-requisite for consensus. We need to have same goals. The goal of a suicide bomber is to kill infidels and get his seat reserved in heaven. There is no talk of morality with that person. Same thing can be said of different aspects of a believer’s life. When a religious person think that cutting part of his child’s genitals based on religious scriptures is a good thing, his goal there is to follow his religion no matter what. We are not traversing in the same world of reason and logic. When a religious person think that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry, he is again having a different goal. We will be talking around in circles, if we talk morality with such people. Our goals are different.

Bringing back Objective Morality

We can talk about objective morality only in terms of goals. What is a common goal that we all can agree on? I think human well being can be a good goal. Imagine a game of chess. Once we decide the rules of the game and our goal, which is to win, then we can talk about objectively good and bad ways to achieve that goal. If you don’t think our goal should be to win, then obviously there is no point in having the discussion on anything else about chess. Take the case of health. Once we agree what being healthy means, and decide our goal to be as healthy as possible, then we can discuss objectively good or bad ways to achieve good health. Here also you can see the futility of discussing the ways to achieve health, if we do not share the same goal or have difficulty in coming to a common understanding of what health means. What do you say to a person who says that having a healthy body is not his goal? Same is the case with morality. If you agree that human well being is what we all seek, our goal, then we can discuss the good and bad ways to achieve that. Now we could have different concepts of human well being. A psychopath may have different concept of well being than a Jain monk. Nobody said it is going to be easy.

For me, human well being captures almost everything. Not just the immediate superficial things related to our well being. But it also captures our deeper connections to nature, environment and our relationships with fellow humans and animals. If we destroy nature by dumping tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and causes global warming, it is obviously not good for human well being. If we destroy our social relations with bad moral behavior, it will not be conducive to the well being of anybody involved. If we exploit our natural resources which results in irreversible damage to our ecosystem, it is not going to result in human well being. If we abuse our livestock and other animals, there will be ways in which it ultimately affect our well being. We are part of this big ecosystem that includes the animals, humans, rivers , lakes, the earth, the solar system and ultimately the entire universe. That guarantees that our well being will be compromised if we mess with any part of this system without enough knowledge and moral thought.

It is easy to see why we cannot have debate or discussions with people who have radically different views about human well being. In my view they do not matter. If they had the similar views as us, they wouldn’t be suicide bombers or psychopaths. But I hope, there are billions of us, who on closer introspection would agree that human well being is a good goal. I also believe that most of us is implicitly operating on that belief. The issue is that most of us do not rely on reason, logic and science to derive moral laws that will help us achieve that goal. But instead we rely on religious myths and many such other confusions.

So, if we agree on the goal of human well being, it is easy to see there will be objective moral laws to achieve it. This is not absolute moral objectivity. But these are the moral laws we can arrive at by using reason, logic and science. Science will supply the facts; reason and logic(philosophy) will mould it. And the entire humanity can equally partake in that venture.

Some Caveats

Once we accept this framework, then we move on to making choices. The cracks in the framework appear pretty soon. Consider the Trolley problem. There is a runaway trolley coming at a bunch of workers in a track. You are standing at a bridge and have access to a lever which will divert the trolley to another path. The problem is that there is one worker at that path too. You have a choice to turn the lever or not. You have the choice to kill just one worker or a bunch of workers. What would you do? Consider another conundrum at a hospital. There are three men in the ICU who needs a heart, a kidney, and a lung respectively to survive. And in the lobby there is man with perfectly healthy heart, kidney and lungs who came to consult a doctor for a minor health issue. Should you kill that man and take his organs to save three people? It is clear that if we just value human well being, we should always try to benefit as many number of people with our moral choices as possible. So bad luck to the one worker on the track and the unsuspecting healthy person at the hospital. Isn’t it? But as you feel rightly there is something wrong with that kind of reasoning. So we need some checks and balances on our moral framework. To cut a long story short, individual human rights are part of such checks and balances. There are some things we just don’t do, some categorical imperatives, if we were to borrow Kant’s term. We, in a modern society, value an individual above everything else. We do not use an individual for the benefit of society. Again these checks and balances are a choice we make. It is not objective. You have every right to disagree with it. They are there to provide a secular, rational basis for justice in our moral laws.

In case it is not clear, we are responsible for making the moral laws. We make the framework. We make the checks and balances. We tune it based on new information(facts from science). It is our responsibility. Outsourcing it to God and some religious texts from iron age is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous. The story of the major political/economic philosophies of the world like utilitarianism, libertarianism, capitalism, democracy, communism etc.  are just the expression of broader moral philosophy. Political philosophy is nothing but the application and moulding of moral laws for the better organization of our society. If you have to understand the world, you have to think long and hard about these ideas.

 

 

 

 

Philosophy · Politics

What is the right thing to do?

This is probably the most important question we face in our day to day lives. The answer to this question or specifically, the inability to agree on the criteria on which answers can be derived; is the root of all the problems in the world. Moral philosophy is devoted to answering this question and it is inextricably linked to politics. In principle, the answers we get from practicing moral philosophy should inform the political process we use to organize our society. It is obvious that this is an issue that affects all of us. For that reason, it is unforgivable if you choose to stay out of politics for any reason. You cannot stay out of politics; you are soaked in it. If you don’t choose for yourself, somebody else will.

Consider the issue of food choices. A major political party in India, called Bharathiya Janatha Party(BJP), according to its extreme right-wing Hindu ideology, decided to ban eating cow meat in certain parts of the country. The underlying question of course is, is it right to eat cow meat/beef? How would we answer this question? There are many accompanying questions. What is the criteria with which a society decides what is right? What are the things that the society is willing to sacrifice while choosing one criterion over another one? Is it important that the various sections of the society agree on the criteria?

It is immediately clear that the criteria each one of us uses to access questions like this is based on our morality and it is different for different sections of the society. In the case of eating beef, a section believes that cow is a sacred animal and should not be killed. Another section believes the above idea, but are smart enough to frame the question in constitutional and legal terms, realizing that a modern secular society should/could/does not inhibit the food choices of all its members, based on any particular religious belief of one section. And yet another section believes in fundamental rights of humans and tries to look at this question in terms of food choices, freedom, individuality, effect of cow slaughter to economy and environment etc. using reason and logic. Different sections have different values, derived from different sources and we end up fighting. This repeats for every issue, but we never discuss the validity of the criteria we use for the basis of our belief/value system. I don’t think we have any hope for a constructive dialogue unless we address this underlying problem.

It is very difficult to talk about morality and untangle the mess that we are in without first addressing and giving a picture of the political reality of the world. There are two major parts to human morality, from my perspective.

  • There is an overall moral zeitgeist which forms the basis of our legal/political system.
  • Individual morality based on religious beliefs, non-belief or some other criteria.

We have different political values in different parts of the world, which is of course based on the the zeitgeist of the overall values in that society. I am going to refer to that as political morality – It constitutes the laws and public policy of a nation state, and any political system of any particular part of the world reflects the conglomerate of the morality of its individual members. Then there is individual morality, that is sometimes at odds with and at other times in agreement with the prevailing political morality. The moral values that have given rise to the current political system has been evolving over millennia. The constant conflict between the individual morality of the members of a society and the resulting reformations is what is driving the evolution of the political morality. Let us take the broad western society(US, Europe, Australia etc.) for example – The political systems accept individual liberty and freedoms as fundamental rights and in separation of church and state, but there are people in these societies who think they can use their private beliefs to form a public policy(for issues like abortion) that curtails rights of individuals. On the other hand there are people living in religious undemocratic states like Pakistan or Afghanistan, but who believes in western values like individuality. India for example, is a fundamentally undemocratic and fascist society living under a modern democratic constitution. In other words, the individual morality of vast number of Indians is undemocratic – based on medieval religious superstitions, casteism etc, but they find themselves living under a  modern political morality, one that is based on 18th century European Enlightenment. This dichotomy of Indian experience is painful to watch, “educated” people struggling to reconcile ideas from their modern constitution that forms the basis of their laws with the intolerant ideas that was formed thousands of years ago in their religious traditions. They find their medieval selfs to be living in a society ruled by modern moral laws. But that is for another post.

I would like to again differentiate between two types of individual morality – private morality and public morality – just for clarity. This is how I define it. Private morality is something that you choose to believe and that you choose to invoke when it affects only you. You may or may not have evidence for such beliefs. You have no moral right or need to convince somebody else, when you don’t have evidence. For example you may choose to go to a holy place of your favorite religion every year. But there is no evidence for the truth of your belief, so should public funding be utilized for that? In a different case you may have rational reasons for such beliefs, but it only affects you, so we don’t care. For example, your food choices, who you choose to love or hate etc. Public morality on the other hand is what we are really concerned about in a society. This includes everything that you do, which affects another individual. This is where the importance of the criteria that you use to form your values becomes paramount. If you and I can agree on a criteria, then we can hope to form a consensus, which will reflect in our votes and in effect in the public policy. In my opinion the criteria for our public morality should be based on facts, evidence, reason and logic. Because those are the only things that are available to all of us equally and independently to assess values or claims.  Our private beliefs are just opinions; it has no value to another human being. I should not be denied my right to eat beef because your religion says so. But I could be denied tiger meat because tiger is an endangered species. One is your belief and another one is based on reason, logic and evidence. Let me make one thing absolutely clear, this is not how it is, obviously; this is how I wish it is.

Let me give you a visceral example of the difference between these two types of morality. If you masturbate in the privacy of your room, or choose not to, it falls under private morality. The rest of the society doesn’t care. But if you choose to do it in the street, then suddenly the moral worth of the same act has to be evaluated with a different criteria. I am not saying that masturbating in a public street is right or wrong. That is a different question and I will try to address it in another post. All I am saying is that when other people are involved, in this case because the society is involuntarily thrust into experiencing something that could be argued by some as repulsive, we should have different considerations to evaluate the moral worth of the act and whether we should allow that in a society or not. Although similar arguments can be made about kissing in a public street, one could easily see why masturbating and kissing are not equivalent and again we need different arguments and considerations for both. Simply stated, we need discussions based on logic, reason and evidence to resolve our differences on public morality. Just stating that it is wrong as per my religion to masturbate or kiss in public is not sufficient enough reason to ban such acts. The criteria should be something that we all can agree upon. And there are no discussions needed on private morality. We should be completely free to choose and act based on our private morality, as long as it is restricted within the private sphere. Thus, the important distinction between private and public morality in my view is this – The society has no say in your private morality and you don’t have to justify your moral or value system when acting within that sphere. But you have the moral and political obligation to justify your value system and criteria, for your opinions on public morality.

Every choice you make has moral underpinnings. All the important and consequential choices we face in our daily lives falls under public morality. Precisely because they don’t involve just you. It involves your spouse, your parents, the larger society, and most importantly – your children. How should I raise my children? Should I vaccinate my children? Should I choose modern medicine or a natural healer for a member of my family? Should I restrict the food choices of my loved ones based on my private beliefs? Should I choose what my loved ones should wear based on my private religious beliefs? Should I indoctrinate my children – or in other words is it right to tell my children religious stories AS IF they are true? It must be noted that we as a society could not care less, if you don’t vaccinate(as long as you don’t get out of your room), or if you didn’t eat meat on Saturdays or if you go to a homeopath or if you believe in the Sky dictator. We care only if you choose to involve another person in your actions or cause potential harm to another person including your child as a result of your public morality based on unsubstantiated beliefs. So as a society, we would ask why are you not letting your kid eat meat on Saturdays, even if in the large scheme of things that is an inconsequential matter.

If you do not understand the history of the ideas that led to the current political morality of your nation state, and if you have not thought about the underlying principles of your own individual morality, you are hopelessly ill-equipped to interact with the society in any meaningful manner that brings positive change. So we are compelled to ask some very consequential questions. How do we know what is the right thing to do? Is there an objective morality? If there is an objective morality who is the authority that grants it? Is it God? Is it a religious leader? Is it tradition? Is it the political system? Or is morality relative? Do we decide our own individual morality? Or is it about consensus? I will try to address them in another post.

Science

Do you know to control for your “Air”?

There is a story(probably apocryphal) about a simple physics experiment that Galileo conducted from the leaning tower of Pisa. He dropped two spheres of different masses from the tower to show that, objects of differing masses fell to the ground at the same rate, thus disproving Aristotle’s Theory of Gravity. Aristotle thought heavier objects fell faster than lighter objects. Aristotle lived around 350 BC and Galileo around 1550. You should be rightly surprised that nobody in the intervening years tried to test Aristotle’s theory, not even Aristotle himself. That is how people thought in those days. They thought pure thought and contemplation will give us knowledge. Galileo is rightly called father of Modern Science for his contributions. Among many things he was one of the first scientist to use experiments to test theories.

Now, Galileo knew two heavy objects of different masses would fall at the same rate. He would have also known that a feather would also fall at the same rate as a heavy ball, if there was no air resistance; but he could not have conducted that experiment during his time. Take  a look at the same experiment conducted at Ohio in a vacuum chamber, this time with feather and a heavy ball.

There is an unexplainable beauty in seeing something that is so non-intuitive; in having your prejudices and preconceived notions trashed by experimental results. If you ask any random person to predict this experiment, there is a high chance that they would say that the ball would fall before the feather. And it will, if you do the experiment in your room. Most probably they would also extend that logic to heavier objects and would predict that heavy things would fall first. I am sure most of us would’t have remembered what we have learned in school. I wouldn’t have, until a few years ago. Even if we remember that, I think, we would have forgotten the fact that it is only because of the air resistance here on Earth, that the ball would fall first. This is the problem with human perception and intuition. Our intuition is shaped by evolutionary pressures and limits of our perception. If we base our beliefs on our subjective experiences alone we are bound to fail.

On a side note – Omi, I hope you will remember this experiment we did with papers, balls and water bottle the other day. Doing experiments with you is always a lot of fun. I also hope you will do this and more with your little brother when he is old enough.

See what happens when the Apollo 11 astronauts conducted this experiment on the surface of the Moon.

Scientists could predict that if we remove air resistance, two objects will fall at the same rate, even if one of the object is extremely light. You could predict such a thing based on the theories we have. They knew before hand, what to remove – (Air) – from their experiments, to test the theory. That is how science works. A theory will explain what will happen in reality. In this case, the theory is “All objects will fall under Gravity at the same rate irrespective of their masses“. Then, we know, that the theory implies any external forces has to be removed during experiments, for us to get accurate results. For example, it implies, if we drop two balls with same mass, but if gently give one of the ball a small push, that ball would fall first. It also implies, air resistance would become a factor for extremely light objects like a paper or a feather. We can predict what would happen in experiments, once we have a theory. We can also sort out what the variables are, what external factors have to be removed to accurately test a theory etc. The point is we have to know all this, to get closer to reality. Only science helps humans to achieve this paramount goal. If we do not know, we will end up doing a variety of things, which superficially looks like creation of knowledge, but in reality, we are just fooling ourself.

Theories are models of reality. And only careful experiments can validate our theories. Our subjective experience have to be constantly put to the acid test of experimentation and observation and we have to learn to not trust our subjective experiences alone. It is hard to do for an average individual, because all we have is our subjective experiences. If Galileo’s experiment on the Leaning tower of Pisa showed that objects did in fact fall fast or slow depending on their masses, Aristotle would have proven right. And our understanding of reality would have been different, because it would have been in fact different. To completely test the theory of falling masses and to have high confidence in the reliability of that theory, we needed to do the experiment in a vacuum chamber. And it was done multiple times. And each time our confidence in the entire set of theories and ideas that let us predict the results of such an experiment grows. In other words, we acquire knowledge. This kind of knowledge creation is not happening reliably in other methods and systems of thought.

The point I want you to take away from reading this post is that, ancient systems of knowledge did not and still do not have a clue what their “Air” is. In other words, they don’t know, what is contaminating their results – Wrong theory or explanation, the cognitive biases of the practitioners, methodological errors and biases in conducting their experiments, ignorance about the variables affecting the results etc. Science calls it controls. Controls are the variables that you try to remove from your experiments or keep constant so that you change only the variables that you want to test, so the impact of variable factors that you are trying to test can be better understood. The tragedy is that, these ancient systems don’t even know what their control is, or it exists, or that you have to control it; let alone device methodologies to account for errors stemming from not properly controlling variables. It is true for an acupuncturist or a natural healer or an Ayurvedic practitioner or any other pseudo-scientific garbage. How would they correct for their biases if they do not even know what to look for? Or if they do not even know that they have to look for it?  It is really that bad. They had not evolved, unlike science to seek for such issues. Because of this reason, most of the human endeavor in history in acquiring knowledge had been on a painfully slow path. But even “educated” people think there is truth to these systems just because of their longevity. Even worse, many think these systems are as legitimate as science. They say things like, “these systems have been around for so long, so there must be something to it.” This is a common logical fallacy called Appeal to Antiquity. The truth of an idea or claim has nothing to do with how long such ideas have survived.

A friend told me recently, “These ancient systems have been experimenting and observing for thousands of years before modern science. So there must be some truth to them.” It is a profound misunderstanding of how knowledge can be derived from nature, that lets otherwise intelligent and smart people to hold such views. To be fair, there is “some truth” to all human systems, but it entirely by serendipity, not by design. That is where science is different from everything else. Viewing from their naive viewpoint, science and these other systems seems comparable. One of my motive in writing this blog is to debunk such basic confusions.

To answer my friend’s question, yes, these systems were being used for millennia, but it is not self-correcting in the way science is. Most of the “knowledge” these systems claim to possess had been systematically diverged from reality, because they did not account for the biases in their methods. And they have dogmatic beliefs, which they are unwilling to question or change. Let us take the example of Ayurveda. It has been around for millennia. But consider this, if you go to an “Ayurvedic College”, the core books which contain the philosophy of Ayurveda are millennia old. They do teach anatomy books, but they are product of modern science, not Ayurveda. “Charaka Samhitha”, one of the foundational books of Ayurveda, was written before 200 CE. Around the time of Christ. Do you know any modern Medical College, which teaches its students books written before 20th century? These people are stuck in a time warp. They are not much different from a religion. In fact, they are exactly like religion. They have a belief system based on dogma. They are not willing to change those beliefs based on experimentation and observations. All the treatments of Ayurveda is based on the “Tridosha Theory” – Theory that all health issues are caused by fundamental imbalance of three bodily humors/fluids. But there has not been tests to falsify this theory in the Ayurvedic Community. Because of course they deem it to be true and self evident because it is handed over to them from God(from vedas which are apurusheya(not of man), basically divine knowledge) to the Sages of ancient India. Science has falsified it of course, by advancing medical science, not particularly setting out to falsify Ayurveda. Ayurveda, Homeopathy, Acupuncture etc are automatically falsified by the advancement of scientific knowledge. But the adherents deny this just like any religion would do, citing the naive argument that “science doesn’t know everything”. When your treatment is based on a false premise, what are the chances that such treatment would work? Having said that, unlike Homeopathy it is reasonable to think that many treatments of Ayurveda does actually work. But there is no way for us to know, until systematic clinical trials are conducted for each one of them. There is not effort within the community to conduct massive trials. When they do, it is riddled with methodological errors and biases. You must understand this entire community is ignorant of science and how it is done. Use of scientific language fools most people. They do not know how to conduct a proper experiment, unlike a modern evidence-based doctor, working in academic settings. The gap in the quality of thinking and knowledge these two community possess is unfathomable. So as a layman, it is wise not to trust these systems and in turn focus our efforts to understand evidence based practices(science based) and improve and debug problems in that area. At least we know, for all the issues that plagues modern medicine, it works.

From my experience, it is almost impossible to change such fundamental beliefs of people. The main reason being, their total ignorance of science. Our culture has pathetically failed to build a system that truly educates its members. So it is incumbent upon individuals like us who are convinced by my arguments or are already on-board with these ideas, whose consciousness has been raised to these grave issues, to motivate, cajole and inspire people of all ages so that they recognize this and take corrective action. It is never late to take up reading. It is never late to learn. But it is better if you do it early in your life. The ideas in your head and its closeness to reality affects the decisions you make in your life. If you have a real comprehension of reality early in your life, your decisions would be wiser – you might choose better school and college, you might choose your friends wisely, you might choose a field of study and vocation that excites you etc. So I want you, Omi and Yuvi, to start learning and thinking about the philosophy of science/scientific method, general philosophy, politics, ethics and morality etc as early in your life as possible. I hope my writings would give you enough pointers for your thoughts and explorations. Good luck.

Science

Understanding Physics – Part 2 – A Story of Unification

Another way to make sense of the story of physics is in terms of unification. The grand goal of physicists of all ages, apart from explaining distinct phenomena, was to have a unifying theory that explained everything. Unification means, different theories that explains different aspects of the nature of reality, can be combined together mathematically, in a mutually coherent way.

Think in these terms. What we are trying to understand by doing physics is how everything in this universe interacts with each other. If we can explain that, we can explain everything. If you know how fundamental particles interact with each other, you can predict how bigger things interact with each other, in principle. Because bigger things are made up of fundamental particles. What does this mean? It means that physics is primarily, the study of the fundamental forces of nature. Because, if we can explain the forces, we can explain all the interactions. If we can explain all the interaction we can explain the chain of causality. Chain of causality is,  in principle, everything.

So the goal of unification in physics, is to develop a unified theory that explains the structure of matter and predicts its interactions/motions by a single force law. The unification of forces is the idea that it’s possible to view all of nature’s fundamental forces as manifestations of one single, all-encompassing force.

It turns out that, there are 4 fundamental forces in nature.

  • The Strong Force – Strongest force, Very Short Range(Strength decreases drastically as distance increases), Holds the Nucleus together in an atom.
  • The Weak Force – Not Strong, Shorter Range than Strong force, Responsible for radioactivity. The Sun wouldn’t be able to release energy without this force.
  • Electromagnetic Force – Stronger than the Weak Force, But infinite range because photons are the force carrying particles of electromagnetism. Photons being massless can travel infinite distance. So in theory there should be electromagnetic interaction between Earth and the Sun. But the electromagnetic forces of macro bodies cancels out and so large bodies are effectively neutral. It doesn’t cancel out perfectly. There is a non-zero electromagnetic interaction between your body and the sun, but it is negligible, because the strength of the force obeys the inverse square law.
  • Gravity – The weakest among the fundamental forces. In fact it is so weak that our puny muscles can lift our body against the enormous gravity of Earth. It is a 100,000 Trillion Trillion Trillion times weaker than the Strong Force. If we were bigger we would have need bigger muscles, because massive objects feel more gravity. Infinite range, but depended on mass and distance. So there is a non-zero gravitational attraction between our body and the Andromeda Galaxy, but it is negligible, both because of the distance involved and the mass of your body. A fascinating fact about our solar system is that Jupiter actually does not orbit the Sun. Jupiter is so massive that the Sun and Jupiter orbits around each other, specifically around the center of gravity, which is a point just above the surface of the sun. In contrast, the center of gravity between Earth and Sun is closer to Sun’s center. The sun wobbles on account of the gravity of all the other bodies in the solar system.

Physicists say, there are no other fundamental forces, at least ones that could affect the day to day interactions at human scales. They say, we know enough to rule out the existence of other forces that might affect us in our daily life. There may be exotic forces or particles that remains to be discovered. But everything that concerns us at the scales and energy regimes that we interact, can be explained by these four fundamental forces. What that means is that any magical ideas that you may have about prayers, cures, telepathy, spoon bending, mind control, psychics etc, and how they work, must be explained by these fundamental forces of nature. You cannot escape by the lazy and lame reasoning that “science doesn’t know everything”. In fact if you hear that as a defense, know that, that person is not half as smart as he thinks he is.

Listen to this brilliant lecture by Caltech Physicist Sean Carrol.

If a theory can explain all these forces within a single frame work, we would have explained REALITY. That would be literally everything. Such a theory, in principle, could explain the working of human body, our consciousness, our brain activity, other body mechanisms in terms of its fundamental components. We could derive the explanation for anything in this universe from such a theory. That is the holy grail of physics.

We started this section with the hopes of understanding physics in terms of unification. How does the fundamental forces fit into the picture of unification? Let me give you an idea of the current state of unification in physics and then we will try to go through the story. The first three fundamental forces, the strong, weak and electromagnetic forces are explained by Quantum Mechanical theories, even though a perfect unification of these forces have not been achieved. So Quantum Mechanics is in effect, at present, the explanation of the first three fundamental forces. The forth fundamental force, Gravity is not yet explained by a Quantum Mechanical theory. Gravity is not yet unified with the other forces. What it means is that we do not have a quantum mechanical explanation for how gravity works. The best theory we have for Gravity is Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and it is a Classical Theory. Since, between these two theories, they explain all the four fundamental forces of nature, General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are the only basic theories we have/need now to explain reality. The Holy Grain of physics is to unify Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity with Quantum Mechanics to create something called Theory of Everything(ToE).

The Story of Unification

The first unification – Motion – Newton

Before Galileo, people believed the earth was static and at the center of the universe and all the heavenly bodies moved around it. People also thought things moved differently here on earth and in the sky. Galileo conducted many ingenious experiments to understand motion here on earth and was successful in dispelling century-old myths about motion. And then Kepler came along and described his laws of planetary motion. In the 17th century Newton published his famous, world-changing laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation. With these laws he could describe the motion of every object in the universe. For the first time in the history of the world, we had precise laws to calculate and predict the motion of objects anywhere in the universe. Newton’s laws could be used to predict the how a rock will roll down a ledge as well as how the moon will orbit the earth. This was the first unification. Motion is similar everywhere in the universe and it can be predicted. Newton realized that the same gravitational force that describes an apple falling from a tree also describes the moon’s orbit around Earth.

Second Unification – Electromagnetism – Maxwell

Scientists had long known about electricity and magnetism. They knew moving charge created magnetic field. But the converse was not demonstrated until the great experimental physicist Michael Faraday showed that moving magnetic field could create electric charge. Based on Faraday’s work, magnetic and electric forces were unified by the theoretical physics James Clark Maxwell, which is described by the Maxwell’s Equations. This came to be known as the second great unification in physics. Electric and Magnetic forces were unified. Maxwell’s equations described the electromagnetic field, and it was found that the speed of the electromagnetic wave derived from Maxwell’s equations are exactly same as the speed of light derived from observations. So it was concluded that light is an electromagnetic wave and the speed is constant. This will be significant at the later part of the story.

There is an aside to this story. A story that illustrates how science is done and why is it different from every other human endeavors. Faraday had envisioned an all-permeating electric and magnetic field that stretched across the universe, when doing his experiments. When Maxwell formulated the theory of electromagnetism, he had realized that a change in magnetic field created a change in electric field which in turn created a change in magnetic field and a change in electric field……so on and on. And this will propagate at the speed of light. That was the only requirement. The amplitude and wavelength of the electromagnetic waves can be different, so long as it travelled at the speed of light. That was the only restriction imposed by Maxwell’s Equations. What it meant was that there could be different types of electromagnetic waves hidden to our eyes. Thus they came up with the possibility of an infinite electromagnetic spectrum based on infinite differences in wavelength and frequency of the electromagnetic wave. This was a prediction based on solid scientific theories and observations. The different parts of electromagnetic spectrum like microwaves, radio waves, x-rays etc. was of course later discovered and they form the core of our modern life. We must take a moment here to reflect on the robustness of this endeavor. All this has to fit together. No part of this story can contradict each other. Reality does not work that way. There was no guarantee that Maxwell’s equations will lead to the discovery of X-rays and Microwaves. Reality could have been different. But luckily for us Maxwell was right. Electromagnetic Spectrum was real. And that validates every theory and idea that led to that discovery. That is what makes science legitimate. It is an intellectual house of cards where if you take out significant parts, the entire structure would fall. Either all the major stories(Big Bang, Evolution, Germ Theory etc.) are true or nothing is true. There is no intermediate. You can’t pick and choose between scientific discoveries. It is all connected and has to fit into a coherent picture. If you have weird ideas about how the world works, you are most probably wrong, if does not agree with known science.

Third Unification – Spacetime/Gravity – Einstein

To understand the Genius of Einstein and the significance of this unification, you have to understand the conundrum Einstein faced. It stems from from two known truths about reality. Two ideas that have stood the test of observations and experiments.

  • One is a principle called Galilean Invariance or the Principle of Relativity – “Laws of Physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference“. Inertial Reference frame is defined as a frame of reference in which a body remains at rest or moves with constant linear velocity unless acted upon by forces. Principle of relativity says there is no experiment that you can do to distinguish between whether you are at rest or in constant motion. Imagine tossing a coin in a train moving at constant speed. The parabolic curve that the coin would trace in the train would be exactly determined by Newton’s laws of motion as it would be if the experiment was conducted at the train station. There is no experiment that can tell you, if you are moving at constant velocity or at rest. This was the cornerstone of Newtonian Physics. Newton assumed that space and time is absolute/static. Space and time was imagined to be an arena where reality plays out. So any point in space or time is considered similar. There is no preferential reference frame(inertial reference frame). The consequence is that irrespective of the position of the observer in the universe, two observers can agree on another event happening in the universe. For example, two observers, one in earth and another one in Pluto, would agree on the time interval between two events happening anywhere in the universe.
  • Second is the constancy of the speed of light as described by Maxwell and demonstrated by numerous experiments.

The problem is that these two are inconsistent with each other. But somehow they have to be consistent, because remember – “Reality is consistent“. So if something seems inconsistent and we have absolute confidence in the independent validity of the two ideas in question, then there must be something else wrong with the picture. Maybe we have to question some of our other assumptions. Figuring this out or even asking such a question was Einstein’s genius.

To illustrate what is inconsistent here, imagine you are in a car moving at 50 mph. And you are throwing a  ball at 10 mph out the window in the direction of movement. You would say the ball is moving at 60 mph, after adding both the velocities. An observer at the road outside the car would measure the ball moving at 60 mph. The picture is good. Everything checks out. The Principle of Relativity works out.

Now imagine what will happen if we bring the speed of light(c) into this? Imagine instead of throwing a ball, now you are flashing a beam of light. From the car you would measure, the speed of that beam of light as the speed of light and then would add the speed of the car to get the final speed of the beam of light(c1). c1 = Speed of light(c) + 50 mph. An outside observer would measure the beam of light as traveling at the speed of light(c). This is inconsistent. Speed of light is depended on the strength of the magnetic and electric fields as per Maxwell’s equations. What this inconsistency means is that, your measurement of the strength of electric and magnetic fields from inside the car is different from the measurement of the outside observer. That cannot happen. That means that the Principle of Relativity is wrong. Or that Speed of Light is not constant. But we know both are right. But something’s gotta give if we need consistency. Science and intellectually honest people seeks consistency unlike religion. Check out here how Einstein reasoned through this conundrum.

Speed is distance(space) by time. So Einstein reasoned, if the two observers has to agree on the speed of light, to be consistent with the Principle of Relativity; the two observers must disagree on the measurement of distance and time. This is the key insight that led Einstein to the development of his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. He realized that space and time was not static as everybody before him assumed. Space and time is relative. No two observers can agree on the simultaneity of events, anymore. Depending on where we are in space and how fast we are traveling, the two observers will measure length of time passed between events and distances between spacial locations to be different. The only thing the two observers agree on will the the Speed of Light, which is a universal constant. If you remember, in Newtonian Physics, no inertial reference frame is special. The origin, (x1,y1,z1) does not matter. But with Special Theory of Relativity, there is a preferred inertial reference frame because Space and time is relative. If you want to transform your measurements in your frame of reference to another observer’s frame of reference, you have to use something called “Lorentz Transformation“. In school, I am sure you would have wondered, just like I have, why the hell am I learning these kind of stuff? What does this have to do with “my life”. I have to take a moment to lament again about our education system here. How are we supposed to appreciate the importance of what we are learning, if we are unaware of its connections with real world. No Physics teacher or Match teacher in my entire schooling has told me that Lorentz Transformation is used to solve Relativity’s frames of reference problems. I had no clue what each of those where or how they were connected. Same goes for Newton’s laws of motion and Calculus. I hope, Omi and Yuvi, your experience would be much different than of my generation. I hope your Mom will finally take up a physics text book and prepare herself to guide you. Because guidance, you will need. I have no high hopes for the primary education system.

Special Theory of Relativity leads to fascinating real world phenomena like time dilation and length contraction. Time really ticks slowly if you are moving compared to a person at rest, and lengths really do contract in the direction of motion. This is the real thing. Our Global Positioning Systems(GPS) won’t work if we do not factor in the time dilation of Special relativity into the algorithms. The distances GPS measured will be off by miles within minutes of operation if we ignore Relativity. Think about it. That fact should give you a pause for a moment. Try and really soak in what this means. This is the description of the world we are living in and how many of us understands this? Or even know that humanity know these stuff? I urge you to read about these fascinating aspects of our reality. It is a shame that the profundity of these insights were lost on us when we first encountered these ideas in our early education.

Thus Einstein unified Principle of Relativity with the Speed of light. He unified space and time. In Special Theory of Relativity, space and time were no longer absolute, but it is still the static arena where reality played out. Everything changed with the addition of Gravity into the equation. Newton’s Laws of Motion and Gravitation was accepted for more than 200 years, but it was known that there were inadequacies. Observations on the orbit of Mercury around the Sun, made it clear that Newtonian Physics did not really explain the observations. Moreover, Newton did not give us an explanation for Gravity, what he did was describing the laws of motion. Einstein was obsessed with explaining Gravity and combining it with his Special Theory of Relativity.

Einstein was bothered that his Special Theory of Relativity did not take into account acceleration. It only considered motion under rest and under uniform motion. But Einstein could not reason why acceleration should be different. Consider this thought experiment. Imagine you are in a spaceship accelerating up at 9.8 m/s2. You are accelerating. Now if you drop a ball to the floor it will follow the parabolic curve described by Newton’s Laws. Now imagine you are back at earth and doing the same experiment.  If you drop a ball to the floor it will follow the parabolic curve described by Newton’s Laws exactly the same way as in the accelerating spaceship. Einstein realized that there is no difference between accelerating upward at 9.8 m/sand being in Earth’s Gravity. He described this as “happiest thought of my life“. Einstein realized that Gravity, is not a force at all, it is indistinguishable from, and in fact is the same thing as acceleration. He called this the Equivalence Principle.

He further developed this idea which he published in 1915 as the General Theory of Relativity. With some ingenious thought experiments and well reasoned arguments, Einstein concluded that Gravity is in fact, nothing more than curved space-time. Space-time is no longer the static arena where reality played out, it is a dynamic entity. Massive objects can curve space-time, and curved space-time can affect massive objects. There is a feedback loop which ultimately affects every massive structure in our universe. As it turned out time dilation was no longer affected just by velocity, but also by Gravity. Time slows down at highly massive objects like a black hole, just as it would for an astronaut traveling near light speed. This is not science fiction. This is real folks. These aspects of nature is a million times more fascinating and mind blowing than the stupid stories of religions, precisely because they are true.

Thus Einstein achieved the third unification, space-time and gravity.

Brian Greene explains General Relativity in this entertaining video in the Colbert Show.

Also, check this out.

Forth Unification – Electromagnetism/Weak Force(Electroweak force)

I only vaguely understand this. It is Quantum Mechanics, no wonder. Electromagnetism and the Weak Force apparently merge into something called Electroweak Force at a certain energy level. Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam, and Steven Weinberg were awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to the unification of the weak and electromagnetic interaction between elementary particles.

Grand Unification – GUT – Grant Unified Theory – Aspires to unify Electro Weak force with Strong force. Not Achieved

Physicists hope to unify the strong, weak, and electromagnetic interactions under a Grand Unified Theory (GUT). This has not yet been achieved.

The second(electromagnetic force) and forth(electromagnetic – weak force) unifications and GUT (electroweak – strong force) represents the whole field of Quantum Mechanics(QM). All the forces involved in those unifications can be described by Quantum Mechanics, even though a perfect unification among those forces are not achieved yet.

Thus QM primarily becomes the study of the first three fundamental forces. It must be noted that QM is a branch of physics that deals with the micro world. The name of the theory is Quantum Field Theory(QFT). It is the most successful and complete theory of nature which in turn includes Quantum Electrodynamics, Quantum Chromodynamics etc. And then there is the Standard Model of Particle Physics which serves as a model for the elementary particles.  As far as I understand, the Standard Model is a framework to describe all interactions of subatomic particles, except those due to gravity. And QFT is the underlying theory that provides the mathematical framework for the Standard Model. When you start learning about Quantum Mechanics you will hear these terms thrown around, and it is incredibly confusing. I haven’t quite wrapped my head around this mess yet. But the take away is this – Quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that deals with the micro world and the first three fundamental forces that dominates at that scale.

ToE -Theory of everything

The holy grail of physics. Scientists hope to unify General Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics under this umbrella. There are many contenders for a ToE, the most prominent one being String Theory. Multiverse Theories, parallel universes and all kinds of theoretical possibilities reside in this area. Most of these are predictions of these exotic theories. It must be noted that this is the frontier of physics and it is all theoretical at this phase. We don’t have observations or experiments to validate any of these ideas. They don’t even know how to set up experiments to test them. Lack of proper understanding of where science stands and how it works, ignorance of the differences in confidence level among theories and ignorance of the theories themselves are the source of many popular confusions about our reality. Many people hear multiverse hypothesis and think that they are in the same level as religious stories. Both seems preposterous, so they keep them both at the same pedestal in terms of validity. Some goes even further to de-legitimize science as “just another story”, based on the improbability of these exotic ideas in physics. That kind of reasoning is entirely misguided. These ideas, however exotic, improbable or counter-intuitive are well motivated. They are not created from vacuum.

Conclusion

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is the best theory of Gravity we have. Gravity is the predominant force that affects the universe at large scales. So Relativity rules action at larger scales. The evolution of stellar structures, galaxy clusters and how they all interact with each other is explained by General Theory of Relativity.

Quantum Mechanics is the best theory of fundamental particles that make up our universe, including you and me. So QM rules action at the smallest of the scales. This is the fundamental theory of reality. Even General Theory of Relativity is an approximation of a Quantum Theory of Gravity waiting to be discovered. As I have alluded before, we still do not have a theory of Quantum Gravity. Once we have it, the entire fundamental reality would be described by Quantum Mechanics. The phenomena within a star or planet is described by theories of Quantum Mechanics. How a star works?, How elements were formed?, What happens inside a star when its energy runs out? – these kind of questions are answered by Quantum Mechanics. This is the theory that fuels the computer and IT revolution. We need it to build latest transistors, integrated circuits, MRI machines etc.

Above two theories, in principle, explains everything in this universe. But what about the rest of the variety of scientific theories and domains we use in everyday life. Where do they fit in? Newton’s laws, Thermodynamics, Classical Mechanics etc. These are approximate theories which works at the human scales. There are precise Quantum Theories for these approximate theories. But if we invoke those Quantum Theories to explain phenomena at human scales every time, it will soon get too complex, time consuming and tedious. So we use Classical Theories to build a car, a multi-storey building, a train track or a chemical plant. Approximate theories are good enough for most purposes.

PS: This post may contain errors. Any feedback to correct factual errors would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Science

Understanding Physics – Part 1

 

I am not a physicist or an expert at anything. My goal in writing posts like this is that, it may motivate the reader, be it my kids or anybody else, to go and explore and learn on their own. I am struggling with this issue – how to condense information to a manageable size/scope/content while giving you an overview of the state of affairs, just enough for you to understand, but also enough to motivate you to learn. If you pay attention, I hope you can comprehend an overall picture of what we know about physics from this post and the next one. I know that is a tall claim. But let me see if I am up for that challenge I set for myself. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Understanding physics will help you in clearing many of the basic confusions we all have. Ask yourself, do you really know or even care what energy is, what matter is, what atoms are made up of and many such basic fundamental questions. We are all concerned about the big questions, what makes us happy? how do I live my life? etc, but you forget that the fundamental reality as explained by physics plays a big part in answering the big questions. So ignore the fundamentals at your own peril. You are not condemned to ignorance. This is not rocket science. There is effort required for sure, but it is worth it.

There are so many theories and hypotheses in physics that is feels like a maze to an average person. It is often confusing and the staggering amount of  information within just this single branch of science makes our head hurts. But it is possible to make sense of it. To have any real comprehension one has to be a physicist. But for us laymen, acquiring at least an overall idea about what we know about our physical reality is very important. I will try to illustrate the landscape of physics here. It is the big picture. One has to go and explore the theories and its history if he/she aspires any comprehension.

Physics tells us that there is an underlying physical reality. Everything is matter and energy in its various forms. There is no evidence for non-physical entities. Non-physical entities, by definition cannot interact with matter and hence, even if they are part of the overall reality, it does not matter. So everything that concerns us primarily at its foundational level has to deal with physics and physical laws. Every idea, belief or opinion if to be taken seriously with any respect, have to meet this strict requirement – they should not contradict with known established physical laws.

Physics is the simplest among the major sciences. Precisely because it deals with the basic fundamental blocks of our universe. It deals with how physical matter moves and interacts with each other. It can then be used to predict physical events. Physics is deterministic in that sense. That is, if we know the initial conditions of a closed system, and we know the physical laws pertaining to that system, we can accurately predict future physical states of that system.

Two Stories

To make sense of how we come to know what we know about our universe, we have to follow the story of physics. There are two stories here. And they are interconnected. The first one is the history of physics. It tells us about the major figures in the history like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton and Einstein and their discoveries. It is also the history of the changes in our society as we go forward in time. You will learn how religion affected science, how new philosophies and scientific observations propelled science, how science changed our society, how wars affected science so on and on. As you follow that story, you will learn the nature of physical reality that we have found out. That story – the answers we found – is embedded within the history of science. That is the story that takes us from the Big Bang to the end of the universe and to the frontiers of physics. These are two distinct stories. First is the story of how we come to know what we know – the story of major historical figures. And the second story is about what we know.

  • First Story – History of Science as a human activity.
  • Second Story – Story of reality, history of universe, current universe, possible future.
    • Big Bang to End of Universe(Heat Death, Big Crunch  etc.),
    • or from another perspective —— Newtonian Physics –> General Theory of Relativity –> Quantum Mechanics –> Theory of Everything(A theory for Quantum Gravity like String Theory) and what these theories explain and predict. These are the theories that let us explain the story alluded to in the previous bullet point.

You will get an understanding of the first story by reading autobiographies, history books, and philosophy of science. It is the second story that we mostly learn at school. The theories, the technology and its excesses. But the human element is lost when you do that. Yes, we do learn about major figures in school, but it is mostly dull information. We do not learn the process of science. We do not learn how these great many people did science, how they got the insights they had. Science is ultimately a human activity, one that is subject to change. We need to know how science has evolved to properly appreciate the power of what science can do. And learning these intertwined stories is extremely important. So next time you are in a library, pick up a book from your favorite scientist. Read Carl Sagan, or Neil Tyson or Einstein and learn what they have to say about how they view science. Or watch documentaries. The point is to read and watch as many informational stuff as possible to develop a web of interconnecting knowledge. Build a context for new information to stick. That is the only way to efficiently retain information that you are consuming.

The second story contains two stories within it. The first one is the story of the universe and the sequence of events we have constructed. The story of the universe from Big Bang to the End. The story of our Sun’s formation and the formation of Solar System is a story within the Big Bang story. The story of the Evolution of Life is an similar example from biology. The second is not so much a story, it is the actual theories that made it possible for us to tell the story of Big Bang.

So we have to learn multiple aspects. It helps to delineate these different aspects in our mind so as to not get confused.  It is impossible to learn any one of these aspects independently of each other, and you don’t have to. You will learn little bit about General theory of relativity as you read a biography of Einstein. But then you have to go and read an academic text book to actually comprehend Relativity. Having this in mind will help you prepare you for the landscape you are going to encounter, I hope.

Current State of Physics

We have two enormously successful theories which represents the entirety of human knowledge. Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity(Classical Physics) and Quantum Mechanics. Everything that is happening in this universe can be explained by these two theories…everything. Every upper lever emergent phenomena in this universe can be reduced to these lower level fundamental theories. That is the beauty of it.

Physics can be broadly divided into two major categories/branches

  • Classical Physics
    • Classical Mechanics/Newtonian Physics
    • Classical Thermodynamics
    • Classical Electrodynamics
    • Special and General Theory of Relativity
  • Quantum Physics
    • Quantum Electro Dynamics(QED)
    • Quantum Chromo Dynamics
    • Standard Model of Particle Physics

Classical Mechanics

Classical Physics deals with the universe at large, macro scales. From the scales of molecules and compounds to large scale structures like Galaxy clusters. We have a number of theories to describe the classical world.

The story of physics is a fascinating one. It starts with man’s quest to understand the universe. Ancient civilizations started the journey, but they didn’t make any significant progress. We were stuck in religious and magical thinking for a very long time, irrespective of culture. In those times, humans really thought truths can be found by pure thought. The culture and practice of experimentation and observation, testing a theory – the scientific process, was unknown to humans. So we languished in ignorance for a  very long time. Things started changing with Galileo. But the greatest turning point was Issac Newton. As the apocryphal story goes, Newton discovers Gravity as an Apple fell over his head. Newton didn’t so much discover gravity as he discovered the laws of gravity. Ancient Indians and Greeks had hypotheses for gravity. What Newton did was something else. On a dare, he practically went into hiding, and developed an entire new branch of mathematics(calculus) to develop the laws of gravity. Calculus helped him to predict how bodies changed position over time. With complicated calculations and observations using Newton’s laws, we could now predict where the earth would be at a future time, given the initial conditions. He made assumptions like space is static and time is constant for all observers in the universe. We can send a spaceship to the moon, with just Newton’s laws. That is how powerful they are. But it was not complete.

Then Einstein came along and revolutionized our understanding of space, time and gravity. Einstein’s relativity effectively replaced Newton’s laws. General theory of Relativity deals with the world at macro scales. General Relativity is the theory of Gravity. It is the theory that we use to deploy our GPS system, send probes to Mars and Jupiter etc.

The only problem is that the equations of General Relativity breaks down at the quantum level. We cannot use General Theory of Relativity(Theory of Gravity at large scales) to explain gravity at the quantum scales. The ongoing effort of the physics community is to have a Quantum Theory of Gravity. To combine General Theory of Relativity with Quantum Mechanics.

Quantum Mechanics

Quantum Mechanics deals with the physics at micro scale, at the scale of sub-atomic particles. This is the theory that drives much of the modern world. The computer revolution is the direct result of our understanding of the quantum world. We should be ashamed if we don’t have even a pedestrian understanding of Quantum Mechanics. This is something that have changed our lives profoundly. And yet, we remain ignorant about it.

All the phenomena explained by classical physics are emergent properties of the underlying quantum reality. The underlying reality is the reality of sub-atomic particles. The micro world of neutrons, protons, electrons and quarks. The behavior of the macro world is absolutely an emergent property of the different ways in which sub-atomic particles interact with each other. For example, when we touch a wall with our hands, we are not actually touching the walls in any physical sense. The electromagnetic repulsion of the atoms at the surface of our hands and the walls is what our brains interpret as the subjective feeling of “touch”. Now we can study such phenomena at two levels. At the macro level of lets say, we can study how much force is needed to move a table. That field of study falls under Classical Physics. But the underlying reality is that, it is the electromagnetic forces between all the atoms and sub-atomic particles within your muscles and the rest of your body, interacting in complex ways which produces the force needed to push the table. That micro-reality, is the fundamental reality of the universe, which is explained by the theories in Quantum Physics. It must be noted that all the theories of Classical Physics is an approximation(valid only at large scales) of the theories of Quantum Mechanics.

Everything that we see in the world, everything that human beings can perceive, are emergent properties of the fundamental physical entities, the sub atomic particles. The most successful and correct theory of reality within Quantum Physics is the Quantum Electro Dynamics(QED) Theory. You can watch intro videos to QED here and here. If you have time and are seeking deeper comprehension, you should absolutely check this one out.

Philosophy

Respect for beliefs

 

There is a common cultural meme in our society that goes like this, “I have my belief, you have yours. Let us just agree to disagree and respect each other’s beliefs”. This is astounding nonsense. Why? Because people use this as a justification for their actions, by often obscuring and camouflaging the link between their actions and their specific beliefs. We should not let people get away from their responsibility so easily. Individuals need inherent respect, provided you do not have apriori knowledge about that individual. But as your knowledge about a person increases, you might chose to respect/disrespect that particular person based on a sliding scale of your values. But you are actually basing your respect on the ideas and beliefs he hold in his head and his actions, not the person itself. Going back to my favorite example, do you think we should respect Saddam Hussein? On the other hand do you think Saddam Hussein has absolutely no redeemable quality? He might have been extremely caring and good to his pets, if he ever had one, for all we know. Now, Saddam is an extreme example, he might be an individual so far off the scale that a few redeemable values might not work in his favor. He would still be a person worthy of our absolute disrespect. Most people we encounter in our daily life are not like that. They are average individuals with different proportions of good and bad beliefs. So they deserve basic respect. But do we need to act respectfully to their beliefs? Ideas and beliefs absolutely don’t demand inherent respect. Each idea and belief should be respected or disrespected based on its own meritsIt is possible to have a polite conversation with people, giving the basic respect an individual deserves, while at the same time giving their beliefs and ideas only the amount of respect the ideas deserves.

People generally have this tendency to collate their identity to the beliefs they hold. Because of this an average person is immediately hurt, if their beliefs are challenged. Religious beliefs are particularly prone to such feelings. This feeling is legitimized by others in a thoughtless society. What we don’t realize is that our identity is fluid. The ideas and beliefs in your head keeps changing. And so does our identity and personality. So when somebody challenges your ideas, you don’t have to get offended. It is the just a particular idea or ideas that you hold, that people are challenging, not the whole “you”. You should use that opportunity to learn something about the world and yourselves. A lot can be learned by colliding your beliefs with contrary beliefs in the marketplace of beliefs and ideas. Be sure to use reason and logic though.

Many of our conversations with others often end up in disagreements. But we have this innate urge to convince others. That comes from our evolutionary past. We have this evolutionary urge to form consensus, which is the basis of human co-operation. That is how society evolved, by forming consensus, and by the inability to form consensus. If you think about it, you would see the value of having deeper conversations with people you care about. Especially with people you disagree with. Because of our ignorance about our past and how societies evolved and our own role in shaping it in the present, we take everything for granted. We no longer have time for deep conversations. We do not spend time convincing others. We are happy in our cocoon and we are happy to leave others in their cocoons. And part of the problem is this stupid meme – “You should not hurt other people’s feelings”. So we refrain from even talking about difficult topics. In order for us to move forward efficiently we have to debunk this stupid notion of respecting people’s beliefs. I have to reiterate, your beliefs, if stupid, vile, ignorant or have no bearing on reality does not deserve any automatic respect from another thinking person. You have the responsibility to justify your beliefs. You have that responsibility to yourself and to the society in demonstrating why a thinking rational person should spend their valuable time even listening to you, let alone respect your specific beliefs.

Is there no way to decouple the belief from the person, in case of an average individual? I think there is. On a pragmatic level, when we are talking to people, it serves us to lend the respect people deserves. Face-to-face, you have the opportunity to decouple the individual and his beliefs. You have time and benefits of your voice, tone etc. to clarify your thoughts without being too tedious. On social media, this project is tedious and time consuming. If you do not go out of your way to pay your respects in social media, people may misconstrue that as disrespect to them, as I have learned from my bitter experiences. It is a challenge which I have found hard to overcome, especially with less informed and less thoughtful people. And in a society like Indian Society where the dialectic method is non-existent there are a lot of them. If you are in conversation with a matured individual, this is not much of a problem. But in any case, it is prudent to make this point clear in your conversations. Then we can have a free and rational conversation about ideas, without risking our relationships. I have tried this in my personal relationships and with virtually anybody I talk to. It would be a success or failure depending on the time and commitment both parties have, as I have learned.

Another facet of this dangerous meme is that it is making us dishonest and two-faced individuals. Our culture has made us to believe that respecting people’s belief is a virtue. We are not supposed to express what we feel really because, shudder to think, what if we hurt other people’s feelings. We are so used to treating people like they are this fragile, delicate beings who may disintegrate at the slightest of a differing opinion, that they themselves have started thinking of themselves that way. This is the origin of one of my pet peeves; offense. Don’t do X in case you offend Y. Get over it people. Grow up. Learn to attack offensive opinions, with rational thought and logic. Whining that people should not offend you is not going to help. Banning offensive art, literature and opinions are counter productive as much as it is unethical. You have free speech, yet you have no right to be not offended. Feeling offensive is a purely mental state. The law or the society cannot guarantee that you will not be offended. We all feel offended at some point or another. I feel offended by the intellectual child abuse of children in religious households. Children are too young to understand or critically appraise evidence for religious claims. It is immoral to teach your children ideas and beliefs for which there is no evidence, logic or rationality. But I don’t run around asking government to ban religious teachings in private homes. If you feel offended use your freedoms to talk about it, to educate people, to have rational conversations to people to change minds, to convince them or get convinced. That is all we can hope to do.

Talking honestly to people about beliefs without the fear of offending or without giving them pseudo-respect is also a way to build effective relationships. I say, contrary to popular belief, we are not giving another individual the respect they deserve, when we think they will be offended, or when we think that they cannot possibly understand your point of view. It is extremely condescending. Who are you to judge what the other person can or cannot understand? Or what they would find offensive? How will you find out if you don’t try? And when you find out, you can try and convince them why they are wrong. Granted, some people are intellectually incapable of deep thought. It would be a herculean task to bring some people up to speed, up to the level you want the conversation to be. But we do not even try. We do it all the time with our parents, at least in Indian households. Our parents and us live separate lives, at least intellectually. We conveniently call it generation gap and sweep it under the rug to escape from having difficult conversations. I have actively tried to change this in my life. I speak to my Mom and Kavi on difficult issues all the time. My Mom ended up crying most of the time, because she couldn’t take it. She was not trained ever in her life, to think like a philosopher, to think outside of her own existential bubble. Every conversation about Indian society(my favorite topic with her), in her mind, was about her. In a way it is true. It is about her. It is about me too. But that is the point of having such conversations. It will reveal your own biases. It makes you a better thinker. You would get questions that makes you think about the motives underlying your own actions. It will make you a more thoughtful and hence more productive individual. In time, my mom has learned, I believe. She has learned to engage in deeper conversations more and more. And then she would say something extremely stupid and I wonder about the wasted time.. 🙂

Philosophy

Belief

 

If You Don’t Stand for Something, You’ll Fall for Anything – Unknown

Human beings cannot operate consciously without beliefs. We depend on our beliefs for virtually everything apart from our automated bodily functions. Our beliefs are what drives us. It is what motivates us. It is what helps us lead the good life. It is what makes us achieve our dreams and aspirations. Our beliefs are at the core of what makes us human. It is not a trivial matter. But most of us spend so little quality time in pondering about what we believe, why we believe what we do and the moral, economic, social and other personal implications of our beliefs. I believe, it will take only a little persuasion from my part, to make you ruminate on this very existential affair concerning all of us profoundly.

Beliefs matter because beliefs have consequences. Specific beliefs have specific consequences. Tons of specific religious and cultural beliefs make people do both good and bad things to themselves and to other people. For example, certain specific cultural beliefs make people perform the inhuman act of female genital mutilation. While specific religious ideas make people do many vile things, they also motivate people to do amazing things. Just imagine the difference between a suicide bomber and religious charity organizations. So, it is the specific ideas that is behind the specific beliefs that matter. Bad ideas needs to be questioned no matter how we feel about the source. And people should be held responsible for their beliefs. There is no merit in the statement that, it is the people that is the problem, not the religious teachings/source. They ask, would you blame science if a terrorist uses scientific ideas to inflict harm? But there is a crucial difference between the two which apologists conveniently forget. Religious scriptures are commandments. Scientific findings are facts. Science makes recommendations and predictions based on observations. It doesn’t tell you what to do or what you should do. It informs you, it educates you on facts. Then you can use your ethical and moral intuitions to arrive at a course of action, based on those facts. If you have a twisted morality you could use the facts provided by science and use it to do harm. How is science implicated in that? Religion also claim to provide a set of facts and rules of behavior. If a person follows that to do harm, religion should be absolutely implicated in that. The reason being, the “facts” of religion are questionable and hence the rules of conduct derived from those are also questionable. In case of science, even if the findings of science are questionable in any specific case, you cannot implicate science for harm done using that information because science doesn’t command you how to process that information. We all do it with our own personal moral codes and ethics.

Religious apologists say people choose to interpret religious teachings in any way they want. So religious teachings are not the problem, specific individuals are the problem. That makes no sense just like almost all claims by apologists. Every individual parses information based on the ideas and beliefs in their head. You cannot think with a blank state. You use a set of beliefs you have, that are raw materials to an algorithm that your brain uses to analyze new information. For a religious person, that is usually made up of other ideas, mostly religious. Basically, each one of us is using existing ideas in our heads to analyze new ideas. And religion is just a set of ideas, which can be good or bad. So the apologists cannot exonerate religious teachings for their role in atrocities committed based on them. A radical Islamic terrorist certainly got his vile ideas from Islamic teachings, which you, the moderate Muslim have conveniently learned to ignore.

Also there is the fact is that there is no independent authority to adjudicate on the merits of any particular interpretation. We are all in the business of interpretation. Once believers accept the authority of religious scriptures, it could be argued that a metaphorical interpretation based on individual values is the most valid one.  On the other hand, it could be just as easily be argued that the most literal interpretation is the most valid one. And that makes a suicide bomber just as legitimate as a devout non-violent believer. As far as I am concerned, both the interpreter and the source are two sides of the same coin. And it is not exclusive to religion. The source can be religious, philosophical, political or even specific interpretation of a scientific fact. So it makes sense to question any idea, independent of the source.

What should we expect from ourself and from other people in terms of beliefs? The primary requirement is that, we should aspire our beliefs to be as close to reality as possible. If not, you are living in a fantasy land, and you have no right to an audience. We are all trying to manipulate reality to live better lives. That is the essence of our existence. We are eating nutritious food, because in reality nutritious food makes our body healthy. If we are living in a universe where we have evolved to derive nutrition from rocks, we would be eating rocks.  But we don’t. Reality dictates how we should act. So, if we do not aspire to find what is reality, meaning if we do not aspire our beliefs to be as close to reality as possible, what the hell are we doing? How do we make moral choices if we do not base it on reality? Why is it immoral to kill a person? Because in reality killing a person is harming him, it is taking away his right to life. But if the reality is that there is an heaven where eternal life is possible, isn’t it moral to kill a baby as soon as it is born so that it can live eternal life, free of sin in heaven? You could even argue that it would be immoral to let a baby live and accumulate sins. If your beliefs are not based on reality and you cannot justify it, how are we supposed to move forward? What are we trying to achieve here? That is the reason why it is important to question beliefs. That is the reason why we should implore people to give rational and logical arguments based on evidence for their specific beliefs.

Consider the case of Mother Theresa of Calcutta. She believed in the core tenets on Christianity. She believed that accepting Jesus as your lord and savior and repenting for your sins is the only way to save a person’s soul. Her entire “humanitarian” work in Calcutta is based on these kind of beliefs. She and her Missionaries of Charity organization had accepted millions of dollars in donation from all over the world, even from dictators. But what do they have to show for it? Did they build any state-of-the-art hospitals? Did they build any educational institutions? Nada. Nothing. We all believe in this fantasy that Mother Theresa cared for the poor and picked them up from streets and gave them medical assistance. But it was all a lie. She was “a friend of poverty, not of the poor”, as Christopher Hitchens put it. In reality, she was a religious zealot who took pleasure in the suffering on the poor. Her attitude came from deep religious dogma, from the notion that poverty is a beautiful thing, which has biblical roots. The unlucky lot who found their way into Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity were denied medical help, was unwittingly used as tools to glorify God by glorifying their sufferings. Gross medical negligence, lack of concerns for the needs of the poor, dubious use of tremendous resources, questionable motives are all characteristics of Mother Theresa and her charity organizations. This is what dogmatic beliefs do. They blind you from the consequential questions like what is the rational thing to do?, what is the right thing to do?, what is the most kind and compassionate way? etc. I for one, long believed Mother Theresa to be a hero. And I am not a believer. Her faith was inconsequential for me as long as she did what she claimed to do. But it was all a propaganda. And I sincerely believed it. And that bubble burst one day. It was shocking and painful. But a valuable lesson learnt.

Scientific beliefs versus everything else

Religious apologists and magical thinkers(believers in miracles, magical cures, new-age spiritualists, spiritual-but not religious types and other pseudo-scientific believers) say that science is just another belief system like religion. What they are trying to construct is called a false equivalency. If X is just like Y, then Y is as legitimate as X. But they are utterly wrong.

Yes, scientific beliefs are beliefs, technically. But they are justified beliefs, hence should be called knowledge. The justification part is crucial and makes all the difference in the world. Because they are based on evidence that you and I can independently verify, in principle. As I have explained in my previous posts, scientific method allows us to get as close to the truth as possible, through disciplined use of logic and reason. And it is universal to all conscious beings. We all can agree on it because it is objective. It is not based on your subjective feelings or your specific beliefs. Scientific knowledge is true, whether you believe in it or not. The Earth is round and it orbits around the sun, irrespective of your subjective experiences or beliefs. But other type of beliefs are not like that. Religious and other magical beliefs are subjective, not falsifiable, not based on evidence, not a product of logic and reason and hence not justified beliefs. We can’t be sure if a specific treatment works unless several high quality clinical trials are conducted to address that specific question. We know soul can’t possibly exist based on what we reliably know from science, and if you believe in soul, it is not adequately justified. The same argument can be made to debunk many of the popular claims of the anti-science brigades.

If you hold non-scientific beliefs about nature/reality in your brain, you are not being effective in dealing with reality. I am not saying all non-scientific beliefs are false. But we have no way of knowing which is true and which is false. We can’t even figure out that Earth is always moving, or the real cause of sunsets and sunrises, if we just depend on our subjective senses. And we think we can trust a random actor to find treatments and cure for our diseases, spiritual gurus have solutions for how you should live your life etc. Our subjective senses are not trustworthy. Just look at the variety of optical and visual illusions and hallucinations that our brain is capable of producing. Add to that our variety of cognitive biases and logical fallacies in our thinking. Read about it herehere and here. An average human being is hopelessly unequipped to acquire knowledge if left to his own devices. Of course he can procure some low hanging fruits. But in a world so full of complexity, we have no better friend than good science to acquire knowledge. Science should be the foundation on which we make important choices related to the ethical, moral, financial, educational, social, career, medical and other existential aspects of our life.

We, human beings have no other common ground for talking about affairs that affect all of us. Our pioneer nation builders have realized this. That is why they fought to make modern democracies secular and for separation of religion and state. That is why public policy should be based on science, not on personal beliefs of a majority or a minority. That is why in personal and public life, you should use reason, logic, evidence and science to make your case and not your subjective beliefs. That is why you have no right to teach your children, the subjective beliefs you hold. Existence of god, story of the resurrection of Jesus, intelligent design and many such beliefs are just that – beliefs. They are not justified and hence immoral to teach minors. It is intellectual child abuse, when you tell them these stories as if they are true. You are not only abusing their intellect but also crippling them intellectually for life. You are not teaching them how to think logically, rationally and skeptically.

You can teach your children values, without telling them lies. You can even tell them religious stories to make your point. But you are not justified in making them believe they are true events in the history of the universe. Your children will thank you in the future if you break this chain that has plagued humanity since we started living as a tribe. Values are distinct and independent of religious myths. Our values should be based on reality, not on imaginary characters and events. Just because you believe in certain things, you do not have the right to pass it on to your children. The reason is political as well as moral. Political reason being, children are not your property. You are the care taker. The state has the authority to arrest and detain you, if you do not give proper medical care for your child. It is part of the social contract we have with the state. The same would be the case if you deny education to your child. And it could be argued that telling lies, that is teaching them ideas about reality for which you have no evidence, is tantamount to denying them true education. At the very least it is a perversion of education. I should reiterate here that I am talking about claims about reality, not values. We all can all agree or disagree about specific values we want our children to learn and embrace and parents should have the right to do that. But parents should have no political or moral right to teach children about nature of reality for which human scientific endeavor have no evidence for. I am not saying we should not talk about different possibilities and stories in popular religious imaginations to our children. Of course not. But do not indoctrinate them. Do not tell them that these stories are absolutely true. Now, obviously we cannot have laws to address this for a variety of reasons. But there should be a cultural shift along these lines. I hope at least people reading this blog will think about it.

Science

Complexity

I wanted to elucidate an alternate perspective on how to make sense of the world. It is in terms of complexity. There is no qualitative difference in terms of content between the approach I illustrated in my previous post and this one. It is just a different way of looking at the world.

You can divide reality in terms of increasing complexity.

Physics –> Chemistry –> Biology –> Culture/Civilization

Out base physical reality of sub atomic particle, atoms, and molecules gives rise to chemistry. Everything in chemistry can be derived from physical laws, precisely from the laws of Quantum Mechanics. That is why scientists were able to accurately predict the entire periodic table of elements long before many of the elements were discovered. With physical stuff interacting chemically, we get life – biology. Given enough time, with the natural process of evolution, the complexity of biological world increases. From simple single celled organisms life has evolved into a very sophisticated and diverse portfolio of specialized problem solving machines, in other words, animals including us. Evolution even created consciousness and general intelligence. It created at least one species capable of self reflection and high intelligence. Complexity increases further. It gives rise to social structures in the animal world. Imagine the contrast between the non-existent social behavior of a bacterial colony to the social hierarchy in ants. And between ant societies and human societies. Among intelligent beings, it gives rise to civilizations. And then, civilizations grew in complexity as they progressed. Again, imagine the difference between the barter system of the Mesopotamians versus our own modern economy.

As you can imagine, as we go up the complexity ladder, we have less and less sure answers. The enormous data handling requirement, the complexity and enormity of the permutations and combinations of interacting elements make it extremely hard to figure out right answers to our questions, as we go up the chain of complexity. We are much more confident of our physical laws than lets say if a drug works or not. We can confidently say what happens inside a star or say amazingly accurate facts about the atmosphere of Venus, without even going there, but we fail miserably against a common cold. That is the reason why we can confidently say things like Jesus did not walk on water, he did not come back from dead or that soul does not exist or Homeopathy does not work, but we are less sure if an Ayurvedic treatment worked or not. The confidence and completeness with which we know certain fundamentals makes it easy to dismiss certain claims out of hand. But the fact remains that, scientific answers, though incomplete, often incorrect and subject to frequent changes in highly complex paradigms like health and human body, they are still the best answers we have. If you are holding these facts against science and are running to a Homeopath, Acupuncturist or any other “Natural” healer for your health needs, you have absolutely no clue how the world works. Or how we got here.

And then, there is the difference between merely complicated and real complexity. Complicated systems have many moving parts, but they behave in a predictable pattern. Complex systems on the other hand has as many or more moving parts, but the interactions are not entirely predictable. The electrical grid or the internet is extremely complicated. But they are not complex in the same level as a human body, for instance. Making a modern jet is a complicated process, but we are amazingly good at that. Again, we struggle with finding cures for complex diseases like cancer. Part of it has to do with our ignorance. We are ignorant of the causal logical connections of most of the interactions in a complex system, like human body. And you want me to believe that natural healers and other ancient systems who has no clue about all this seemingly insurmountable problems have cure for my cancer? Or that some fad diet that quacks like David Wolfe cooked up in his dream would cure it? Vitamin therapy? Sugar free diet? There is no dearth of “cures” for cancer and other life threatening diseases in our society. These people claim to know what modern science doesn’t know, with all its philosophical and technological tools and human resources(the smartest among us, mind you) at its disposal. Another curious fact is that, there are no charlatans selling magic carpet for your transportation needs in this world. But there are Homeopaths and Natural healers in this world. Think about it. We know more about transportation and how and why a vehicle operates. Also it is not hard to see that magic carpet could not do what it claims to do. But that is not the case with health claims. Your ignorance is the only thing that is making you the victim. Again think in terms of complexity. These quacks don’t understand complexity, have simple explanations like “human body cures itself”, “mind cures body”, “Chemicals are what is killing you and natural diet will make you better”. Is there any evidence for their extraordinary claims? Have the claimants demonstrated their trustworthiness in any measurable way? None whatsoever. I agree there are instances of placebo effect where “mind” have cured body and vaccines are in a way helping the body cure itself. But these claims are overstated and are not universal. Cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s etc. are not going to be cured by magical human-mind connections. Maybe anxiety and minor depression will be. If you are a person with such beliefs, I can only look at you in horror. For the horrendous waste of your intellectual potential.

Our social relations and organizations too have become highly complex. Social norms, attitudes and rules were naturally evolved as human civilization progressed. If you think about it, rules and norms are nothing but tools to manage complexity. Political theorists from ages have been trying to tackle this problem. Then the cliched paradigm shift in political philosophy happened during the Enlightenment era. That is when we started using science and its findings as the basis of our political philosophy. Political Science as a new branch of social sciences was born. A “science of man” project was proposed by David Hume to understand the nature of man, his desires etc. Enlightenment philosophers thought, if we could understand nature and reality as how it is, we could form a basis for our rights and freedoms. They started organizing our society based on the needs of man, not based on what was written in the Bible. Church’s authority was severely diminished in 18th century Europe and human understanding and knowledge flourished for the first time in the history of the world. All the modern political ideas that have made a positive difference to your life could be traced back to this period in history. This modern political philosophies then made their way into the entire world. If you want to understand the complex ways of a modern political system, questions like –  how did we came to have democracy? what is the difference between rights and freedoms? on what basis nation states are formed? what is a social contract and why is it significant? why do we have the laws that we have? why can’t you ban things that you do not agree with in a republic? – you have to follow this story. Every aspect of our life that we care about is touched by this story. Still we are politically illiterate as much as we are scientifically illiterate. Understand the basics and then you can make sense of the complexity.

You have to get comfortable with complexity. It is a trivial price to pay for being an intelligent conscious being living in the 21st century. What it means is that you have to be comfortable with uncertainty, not having all the answers and having to learn constantly if you want to stay relevant and effective. What is also means is that you have to take responsibility in consuming information, and in sharing more so. You have to educate yourself. There is no shortcut. You cannot blame authorities for all your woes. We are all in this together. We are all dealing with this problem. Authorities haven’t figured a way to solve it. Yes, it is true that authorities, be it government agencies, non-profits, media or corporates, should be responsible. We should be able to trust them. But the reality is that many of them are not. So it is incumbent upon you to be well informed. You have to learn who you can trust and who is taking advantage of you. Much of it starts with a solid scientific outlook. And garnish it with some critical thinking skills. The point is, take responsibility for your own education. If you were a peasant living in medieval times, you didn’t have to do that to the extent that is required of you now. But then, you won’t be reading this in your comfort of your air conditioned home sipping your favorite drink.

As you can see, once we get past the basic sciences physics, chemistry and biology and start talking about the emergent phenomenas at higher levels – society, consciousness, civilization, diseases, wellbeing, happiness, ethics, morality etc, it gets complicated really fast. There are lot of noises and opinions and thinking through this muddy water is extremely frustrating for an average individual. But I hope, thinking of the world in terms of complexity will help you to ground your thoughts and opinions. You can rely on lower level fundamental facts, and accept that you have no right to change them. Then you can freely debate and make upper level moral and political choices and other choices concerning our medical treatments, employment, education etc. It will get confusing very fast as all of us have experienced, if we don’t know what the lower level fundamental facts are. It is the source of most of our confusion and frustration. And we end up “debating” the facts, as if we have any say in the matter.

I did not set out to write this post as another defense for science. As I write, elements of that defense creeps into my thoughts unconsciously. So be it. It is so important I am not going to fight against it. Why should you be concerned about scientific answers to your questions?  Why am I so passionate about it? Granted, many findings of science are mind blowing and exhilarating. But that is not the reason. I am interested in it because of the exact same reason you are interested in religion, quack treatments or fad diets. Because you think there there is value in it. It is deeply personal. It is spiritual, for lack of better word. I care about me. I care about my well being. I care about my loved ones. I care about who I am and how I should behave. I care about this planet. I care about the bigger questions of existence. In order to effectively manipulate reality, be it subjective feelings or physical interventions that makes your life better, you need to understand reality. Plain and simple. And science is the best tool we have for it. You think religion and its teachings provide you with that. I disagree. By the law of contradiction, only one of it is true. And there is some inherent value in truth. One of us is living a lie. I will let you figure out who.

Please check out what some prominent physicists have to say about philosophy of science here, including concepts like complexity and entropy.

Here is what the renowned astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson have to say about Science.

History · Science

How did we get here?

 

To live a fulfilling life, a person need to feel belonging. We all feel we belong to our community, our country and indeed this planet. We feel it very strongly, we naturally feel we belong somewhere because we were born there. But most of us are ignorant of our history. Most of us, if pressed, could not coherently answer questions like how did we get here? why is the world the way it is? what is my place in this world?

Our story, the story of humanity has many parts. These are stories that painstaking scientific research has pieced together over centuries. These are the best explanations we have about us. Obviously this constitutes the entirety of our scientific understanding, that no one person can explain. What I intent to do is give you a roadmap as to how to approach this problem. The solution is to split the story apart to different streams so that it makes sense. I just want to give introductions and my understandings about these stories with the hope that it will motivate you to go and learn more about these stories on your own. I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed by the staggering complexity of intertwined events that shaped our history. It is extremely hard not to feel that way. But there is a way to make sense of all this if we compartmentalize each story, while being aware of the connections between various stories.

Now, I call them stories. That does not mean these are stories like, religious myths or fiction. These are scientific stories. They are the best explanations we have for everything. But I call them stories, because sometimes the details of the story change depending on new scientific understanding. That does not make the story illegitimate or untrustworthy. I hope by now you know the nature and strength of scientific research and its limitations. What it means is that our scientific explanations or stories about the big picture is generally closer to truth, but there are fuzzy details which keeps changing. Usually a falsification of a small detail is not enough to entirely derail a theory. So we can trust the big picture, and that is the whole point.

To understand how we got here, you will have to understand three different stories. I intent to write future blog posts for several aspects of the third story. The first two stories are pure scientific explanations, for which there are ample resources. My or any individual’s opinion on it doesn’t matter. Like Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “You are entitled to your opinion, but not your own facts.” The third story on the other hand is a mix of scientific answers and human choices. We all should have opinions on it and I will express mine. But I will try to give a little intro to all the stories here.

  • The story of our universe.
  • The story of life
  • The story of humanity

The story of our universe is the story of Classical Physics and Quantum Mechanics. It starts with ancient Indians and Mesopotamians, the early Arab scientists and the Greeks but kicks to high gear from Galileo to Newton to Einstein to Quantum Mechanics. It is a fascinating story. It is the story of the biggest picture – how our universe was created, how it works, how it evolved, how stars and galaxies were formed, how planets were formed etc. It is also about the inner working of matter and energy. Story about the particles that make up you and me. It is about the mind bending nature of the ultimate physical reality. It is also about the geological processes that helped make our planet habitable. It is also about the interaction between different planets and other celestial bodies within our solar system and how that created conditions for us to exist. As you follow that story, you will understand a great deal about the physical stuff that make up the universe and everything that is inside it.

The next story is the story of life. This is basically the Theory of Evolution. An evolutionary biologist named Theodosius Dobzhansky said in a 1973 essay, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”. We do not yet have a scientific theory for the origin of life. But we do know how all the flora and fauna that we see around us evolved into its current form. This is something that deeply concerns all of us. It is our personal story. It is the story of our ancestors. Think about the amazing fact that, if you go far enough back in your ancestral tree, one of your great great…….great grandfather was a fish.

The last story that concerns us is the most complex one. And one that we all should deeply care about. This is the story of our culture. This is the story of human migration. A story of human imagination. It is the story of the history of ideas that shaped our cultures. It is about our triumphs and failures. It is about art. It is about technology. It is about science. It is about the history of religion. It is about our moral and ethical values. It is about architecture. It is about medicine. It is stories within other stories, within other stories, within other stories…….. Like a Russian nesting doll. It is not only nested, it is intertwined too. Religion affects politics, politics affects religion, scientific understanding bludgeons traditional religious explanations, religious pushback affect science, political theories change economy, new economical realities bring new political ideas, medical advances raises new moral questions, moral values affect medical research. This is unending.

Remember that everything is connected. The story of biological evolution is playing out as we explore the story of human migration across continents. We are not the exact same species who started off from Africa 100,000 years ago. The story of our planet formation is playing out alongside the evolution of life over millions of years. Our culture is evolving as we understand more and more about our universe as well. New ideas are proposed. We make moral progress. Sometimes we stumble. And then we get back on feet. Some political ideas stick. Some die a natural death. But all of this shaped the world around you. How do you imagine you would live a fulfilling and productive life unless at least you attempt to make sense of all this. I tell my mom this all the time. She had spend her lifetime being an Ayurvedic practitioner. But that should not be a criteria for defending it. To her credit she doesn’t do that. But many of us do. Do you want to die, living a lie? Don’t you want to know as many true things as possible? If you want to affect reality, you have to understand reality. As a part of that process, you may have to abandon some wrong ideas or beliefs that you have aways had. Don’t be afraid of letting them go. Be free. Act like you are worthy of that exquisite organ inside your head, the most complex thing in the entire universe. Your brain.

You owe it to yourself and to your children to understand these stories as much as possible. Sending them to a school is not enough. I often tell Kavi, somehow we have to make sure these kids survive their formal education, without killing their natural curiosity. We have to make sure that in spite of school these kids turn out okay. We teach kids “facts” in schools. We give them unlimited supply of information. We do not teach them how to process that information. Or how to critically collect knowledge. We do not teach them the process of science. We do not teach them how to think. Critical thinking skills are severely lacking in the general population. Talk to a random friend and you would be painfully aware of this fact.

Without context, all the information intake ultimately goes to vacuum. Because we don’t know the context. An average teacher or a parent doesn’t know. I remember my schooling days, I did not know why I was learning what I was learning. Why did I have to learn calculus? What the hell has it has to do with my life. So what if the French revolution happened? Do I care? Why should I? No wonder the magic of Einstein’s theory of relativity was lost on almost all of us when we had first heard it in school. We didn’t have the necessary mindset, attitude or knowledge to appreciate the value of information we were getting. I had accidentally discovered this. It is the fact that if you have an overall idea of what we are trying to learn, and the interconnections, it is less overwhelming to learn. It wouldn’t feel like you are hopelessly lost anymore. Granted it requires some effort. But anything worth doing requires some effort. I didn’t set out wanting to learn as much as possible. But I wish there was someone in my life who had put some effort in making me a self-motivated learner. You could be that person for your child.