Common Sense 1

October 29, 2015

Common Sense

Freedom to Write

October 13, 2015

So many writers are returning their awards these days that soon we will be able to buy Sahitya Akademi prizes from the street vendors under India Gate. Most of the people I know don’t care; they don’t read much and when they do, they’re apt to crack open Chetan Bhagat rather than Satchitandan.  I do care; literature is at the heart of intellectual culture. When we say freedom of speech, we really mean freedom to write.  

In India, the written text still matters; writers haven’t been completely eclipsed by TV and video. Yes, commercial interests can be worse than big brother; Huxley is a greater prophet than Orwell. The state threatens our freedoms, but the market makes them irrelevant. Which brings me to my rant: we need to question our conception of freedom. It’s not enough to quote Tagore, break down the walls that constrain our minds, laugh at a couple of villagers who still believe in demons who swallow the moon and relax while being smug in our superiority.  

Sure, we live in a neo-colonial state with Victorian ideas about morality and propriety; in contrast, even the most ordinary of liberal values appear liberating. Yes, it’s OK in 2015 for a woman to walk in public while her bra strap is showing. When our streets, theaters and newspapers are threatened by thugs who want to dictate how we dress, whom we marry and what we eat, rebellion is easy: kissing a lover in public gets the TV channels at our doorstep.  

The thinker and the novelist have it easy: all it takes is basic decency, some familiarity with the rules of argument and a commitment to rationality and you’re set.  

But but but…. is that enough? 

A part of me says that this liberal view of freedom is even more constraining than the traditionalist’s bullying, replacing iron chains with silken ones.  The liberal conception of free speech (in India, if not elsewhere) reeks too much of “inculcating scientific temper to uplift the masses.”

We pay too much homage to rationality. That homage comes in two forms, corresponding to two deities: the god of instrumental rationality and the god of theoretical rationality. People in power, whether conservative or liberal, secular or religious, love instrumental rationality. It’s the force behind development, it’s the technical underpinning of market capitalism as well as state socialism. When we say technology, what we really mean is the use of instrumental rationality for domination. Mines, Dams, Bombs and Planes on the hardware side and Laws, Stock Markets and Hedge Funds on the software side. It unites Modi and Nehru, both of whom recite the mantras of instrumental rationality. Its monuments are their temples. I am not sure if any writer has returned his or her Sahitya Akademi Award because a new dam was built, but it’s equally clear that instrumental rationality has killed orders of magnitude more beings than all RSS shakhas put together. 

Fortunately, I think sensitive people the world over understand that instrumental rationality has run its course, that it doesn’t matter whether it comes in the form of a Tesla or Terminator, it’s not what we need. Theoretical rationality is another matter. String theory doesn’t get you a job but it doesn’t destroy the planet either.  Plus, it’s deep, profound and fun. 

I was a fervent believer in theoretical rationality. Even now, I have a soft spot for it. It’s no longer the unalloyed truth, but it’s still deep, profound and fun. However, it’s exceptionally important today to recognize that theoretical rationality isn’t the whole truth.


Let’s start by looking at its defence. After the relentless carnage of the last five hundred years, we have become clever at separating science from technology. Quantum physics: good. Atom Bomb: bad.

Who thinks that’s a plausible defence? Not me. Think about the two extremes:

  1. Theoretical and practical rationality are closely related and can only be kept separated for propagandist purposes. The same scientists work on the bomb and the equation. 
  2. The two are quite different, in which case theoretical rationality is so woefully incomplete and toothless that we can’t take it seriously as a guide. 

In either case, we would be well advised to take the claims of theoretical rationality with a rock of salt.

I am not done yet, for this is an essay about writers, not scientists.

 If scientists are the keepers of knowledge, writers are the custodians of the imagination. Yet, litterateurs have voluntarily accepted greater limits on their imagination than any tyrant could ever impose. For one, we restrict themselves to the human world. Our novels and short stories abound with exquisite human characters but the nonhuman world doesn’t appear except as a backdrop. Rocks and trees and turtles aren’t characters in our plays. They’re in the domain of science. 

What about science fiction and fantasy? Don’t they teem with non-human agents? Yes, but the dominant mode of science fiction writing is so instrumental that the characters aren’t ever explored in depth. Second, the “other” in these forms of writing is alien, not like us. Literature without intimacy isn’t a vehicle for empathy. The greatest modern literary genre – the novel – is profound in its deep exploration of subjectivity. How can we adapt it toward the depiction of beings, of things even, that have been constructed as devoid of subjecthood?

It’s not enough that we expand our list of subjects to include non-humans, though that’s a welcome move. We can’t stop there, for our very notion of subjectivity is suspect; it’s a construction that goes hand in hand with the notion of objectivity. Together, they are the bedrock of the division between the human and the nonhuman, between the social and the natural. For objects to disappear, subjects will have to vanish as well. 

Scientific rationality can’t bridge that divide, only imagination can. String Theory can’t make the universe come alive. In fact, one of the monumentally negative outcomes of theoretical rationality has been a universe that has no meaning, no significance; it’s a universe in which human beings crawl in loneliness and despair as the only creatures that are also beings. We send probes out into the stars asking if we are alone. Meanwhile, billions of other beings are being tortured on our planet. Shouldn’t we at least be open to the possibility that the death of meaning is a product of our (lack of) imagination rather than an intrinsic property of the cosmos? Who better than the philosophers and the poets to bring back that sense of wonder and openness?

Which is why it’s tragic that writers have sequestered themselves from their imaginative responsibilities. Especially Indian writers, who have inherited a long tradition of intimacy between the social and the natural, of being that hasn’t been fragmented into man and beast. But first, we have to take responsibility; there’s no freedom without it. It’s because writers take responsibility for human experience that they receive the freedom to create new fictional human worlds.  It’s only by taking responsibility for a wider universe will they receive the freedom to create more than human worlds. 






Assassinating Gandhi’s Character

October 2, 2015

Today is Gandhi Jayanti, and as usual, there’s no shortage of people who people who are trying to take him down. Sex is the easiest route to do so, since the man spent so much time thinking and writing about his lack of involvement with it. There’s been a long tradition of people trying to show that Gandhi had inappropriate contact with women.

For example:

It turns out, it was an Australian actor. The ripped muscles should have given it away, but at least the photo was not a fake. It was a real life masquerade. This morning, I got a photo in several channels:

That photo came with a tagline: “jan jagaran laana hai to share zaroor karein,” i.e., if you want to awaken the people, do share. As in tell the whole world that the man was a fake. You can well imagine who in today’s dispensation would want the world to awaken to Gandhi’s sins.

Except that the fake is a really bad one. One look at the woman on the left and it’s clear that she is dressed as no one would have been in Gandhi’s lifetime. This is no masquerade; it’s a fake. Here’s the original:

Perhaps the single most famous picture of Gandhi and Nehru in one frame. Except that in the doctored version, the first prime minister of India has been photoshopped out of the picture and replaced by a smiling damsel. How Freudian! There’s nothing the right wingers wouldn’t like more than to write the Nehru dynasty out of India’s history, and even better if you can throw some mud on Gandhi while doing so. I don’t know why anyone cares about whom a leader sleeps with and where, but that’s the world we live in.

Saffron friends: you can do better; at least pick a lesser known photo.

The First Few Jayaries

October 2, 2015

I have been working on a re-interpretation/re-narration of the Mahabharata called “Jayary.” Here are the first few episodes in that series. If you like what you see, do subscribe!

Jayary: The First Few Episodes

Economics as Informatics

September 10, 2015

The dismal science, aka economics, remains one of the great ponzi schemes of all times.  Let me remind you what a ponzi scheme is: cigar chewing salesman gets you to buy snake oil with the promise of major returns. In order to make good on his promise to you, he finds two other dupes to invest in snake oil and he uses those investments to pay you off, and then goes looking for four other suckers to invest in the first three. The best ponzi scheme is one where the head snake oil vendor lets the investors in on the secret and tells them that the only way they can recoup their investment is by getting others to take on the risk. 

Isn’t that how economics works. Lets see:

  1. IMF/World Bank gets Manmohan Singh to sign off on neoliberal policies
  2. FM/PM recruits chief ministers
  3. Chief ministers recruit businessman
  4. Businessmen sell dreams to the aam aadmi.
  5. Aam aadmi takes the fall for all the above 

The only way economics succeeds is by getting the next generation of dupes to buy into the latest theory of how the world should be run by a shadowy cabal. In other words:

Pointy heads in the service of fat wallets

Be that as it may, it looks like a new group of pointy heads is on the march, as data and software begin to eat into economics. Surprise surprise, Silicon Valley economics is gaining ground over Kennedy School economics. 


Metaphorical Power

September 4, 2015

Freud is never mentioned in my intellectual community; of course, his ideas about repression and unconscious desires have been transformed into universal metaphors, but he’s no longer an influence in the circles I frequent. Part of the problem is that he and his followers thought of themselves as scientists and the science turned out to be less than satisfactory. Even the name, psychoanalysis, tells us that the bearded doctor was marketing an analytical tool. Unfortunately, tools become obsolete rather quickly and we have mostly forgotten Freud’s toolkit. That’s a pity, because I think Freud pioneered a modern approach to meaning making, of understanding one’s world that wasn’t tied (overtly, anyway) to a religious tradition. After all, we are semantic creatures and we need to make sense of the world, not just analyze it. 

To a large extent, the psychoanalytic worldview has been replaced by a cognitive one, which in turn is being replaced by a neuroscientific worldview. The first cognitive revolution started in the fifties with Chomsky using ideas from formal grammar to model natural language syntax. From that revolution came the idea that:

  1. The mind is a computer
  2. The mind is isolated

The first cognitive revolution remains the dominant model of the mind; for example, Steven Pinker, in his “How the Mind Works” declares that the mind is a computer. Increasingly we see scientists replace mind by brain, so that:

  1. The brain is a computer
  2. The brain is isolated

That these assumptions are flawed is an understatement; I think they are not even wrong. The second cognitive revolution, which is still struggling to get underway, questions both assumptions at many levels, but it still struggles with a tacit focus on individual, isolated minds rather than fully fleshed people.  This post begins an exploration of cognitive synthesis, of how we can make meaning of the human world within a cognitive framework. 

A couple of decades ago, George Lakoff and his collaborators initiated a major shift in linguistics when they started paying attention to non-literal uses of language such as metaphors. Out of that was born conceptual metaphor theory, which claims that thinking is mostly metaphorical, i.e., the direct opposite of the logical, computational mind of the first cognitive revolution. In the Lakoffian world, we understand bravery as a form of lion-heartedness. Fair enough, but I never understood why one chooses to call someone lion-hearted instead of calling them bear-hearted. What prompts the actual use of the metaphor and it’s success in conveying meaning? Where does it’s power come from? 

One obvious answer: metaphorical power reflects real power

I have been thinking about the infiltration of capitalism in all human affairs. Once upon a time, we were artists. Now, there’s a creative class. Activists became social entrepreneurs. These are metaphorical shifts that reflect the power of capital to shape our language and the way we understand the world. At some point, metaphor turns into fact, as social change turns into and we start testing the effectiveness of social policies using double blind randomized field trials. 

I am getting ahead of myself; let me get back to metaphors. Capital when used as  a suffix is a metaphor generator, with social capital and natural capital being two widespread use cases. Take a look at the graph below, from a google Ngram search for “natural capital” and “social capital”:


The two terms have almost no provenance until about 1989 or so, when they take off rapidly. Not surprising at all, considering that the Berlin wall has come down, the Soviet Union is collapsing and as Fukuyama famously said, “we are at the end of history.” That might well be true, but the end of history looks awfully like the beginning of a new lexicon. One graph does not a theory make, but it does point towards an interesting line of research. I bet you anything that hard power (money) influences soft power (metaphor) that in turn get’s institutionalized (via marketing) into hard power. 

Pointing versus Pushing

August 30, 2015

Every corporeal being is bound to classify the world into two extremely basic categories:

  1. That which can be grabbed (or grabbed by)
  2. That which cannot be reached.

More generally, for each sense, we classify the world into

  • That which is immediately available to that sense.
  • That which needs to be indexed into, in order to be available for that sense.

Indexing can take various forms, from body-muscle preparedness to eye-saccades to visual navigation. For every sense, we can make the following classification:

  1. An ”actual” object (or object part) of that sense into which we have indexed, and which is available for further elaboration or manipulation. For example, having indexed into Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, we can move closer to discern whether Mona Lisa is smiling or not.
  2. A ”potential” object (or object part) of that sense that will be made available to us with an appropriate amount of effort on our part.

Note that these are phenomenological distinctions; I am not talking about subconscious or unconscious representations in V1 or some other brain area. In our experience of the world, there is a basic division between those things that are immediately available using vision, hearing, touch etc and those that require effort. What is available transparently to one sense might require effort from another – consider the shape of a soccer ball from vision and touch. In any case, the sensory world can be divided into those entities with whom we are in direct contact, and those with whom contact requires effort.  We can think of the spatial world in terms of a figure-ground analogy: one the one hand, as Kant pointed out, space is a basic category, it is presupposed in our understanding of anything else. On the other hand, we process detailed spatial information (where objects are, how to catch this baseball etc). The first can be seen as the structuring aspect of space, while the second as consisting of detailed perceptual or encyclopedic information.

We can call this the pointing body versus the pushing body. The pointing body allows us to index into locations (there), objects (that!) and so on. The pushing body helps us interact with those entities that we have pointed to, but these seem to be two very distinct modes of bodily being.

Cognitive Regularities 1

August 30, 2015

My work on the cognitive foundations of mind is guided by the underlying intuition that the study of the mind is at a stage similar to chemistry in the late nineteenth century – on the one hand large amounts of new data are being collected that point to underlying principles, and on the other hand conceptual problems are being raised about the relationship between the mind and other natural entities. As we know now, chemistry was incompatible with nineteenth century physics; it took the quantum mechanical revolution to bring chemistry and mechanics into one theoretical structure. I believe the same is true of the study of the mind now.
A tremendous amount of new data is being generated from neuroscience and cognitive science experiments as well related social science disciplines like economics. One can think of the new data as the counterparts of chemical reactions; we are getting a sense for what happens when two mental entities interact with each other. However, at the same time, conceptual problems (such as that of intentionality and consciousness) are being raised about how to reconcile these phenomena with what we know of the physical world. I believe that regularity theory is a good lens through which we can view these new developments in the mind sciences; these notes are a first attempt to summarise past work and lay out a research agenda.

To push the analogy between chemistry and the mind sciences further, while we are not ready for the full fledged ‘quantum mechanics of the mind’, I do think we are ready for the Plank and Bohr model of the mind sciences, i.e., a halfway stage that integrates both the experimental and the conceptual problems into one framework. These notes are an introduction to a regularities approach to cognition with the intent of grounding knowledge itself in cognition, in the spirit of the classical Indian pramana theorists.

Understanding Regularities 1: Some examples

August 30, 2015

One problem with the regularities framework is that, like other frameworks, it is an interlocking set of conceptual intuitions and hypotheses that do not lead to an easy definition. It is almost OK to say that regularities are not definable but we know one when we see one. I don’t quite agree with that conclusion, but let us first see if we can agree about some phenomena being regularities, so that we can at least say that we know one when we see one. Here are a few examples of what I would call regularities:

  1. The size of an animal predicts the pitch of it’s voice. Mice squeak and lions roar and not vice versa
  2. Clouds are puffy while water is runny.
  3. More controversially, the size of an animal predicts how smart it is. A bacterium can never be as smart as a dophin.

These three examples are all related to each other though not in any obvious way. The underlying mechanisms for mice squeaking, clouds puffing and dolphins thinking are all different. Even the evolutionary histories are different. However, at a thermodynamic level, we can see that all of them have to do with how energy and information flow through the respective systems. Physicists talk about “universality” i.e., that the macroscopic properties of a system can often be independent of it’s microscopic origins. The regularity approach takes this one step further, that the regularities of a system are not only independent of the underlying mechanism or causal features, they are the real thing. Especially when it comes to biological processes we can hypothesize that it is regularities and their graspability that is being selected for in natural selection, not the underlying mechanism. I see this as a biologically grounded version of the hardware/software distinction well known in AI and cognitive science. Just as an earlier generation of theorists argued that the same software can be instantiated in different hardware, we can argue that the same regularity can be instantiated via different mechanisms while remaining the same.


August 30, 2015

There are at least three kind of arbitrary relations in the mind sciences:

  • Between concepts/language and the world
  • Between the mind and the body
  • Between form and substance (which might include the above)

For example, we feel that there is no relation between the concept CUP and cups in the world. The concept CUP has neither shape nor size nor mass, while real world cups do. Similarly, concepts interact with each other logically – we can say “can you give me either the red or the blue cup?” while objects only interact with each other causally. Cups that fall on a hard floor break while the concept CUP does not break down when you say FLOOR.

The same goes for temporal arbitrariness. Consider the statement “Socrates died in 399 B.C.E.” Having once existed and died, Socrates is long gone but the statement regarding his death will now be true, independent of the rest of the history of the universe. Even if human beings become extinct as a species, Socrates would still have died in 399 B.C.E and the statement regarding his death would still be true. For these reasons, it seems possible to isolate an entity called a proposition that lives outside space and time and comes into relation (or is perhaps even contained within) with the human mind. To the extent that the human mind is a container for these kinds of entities, it is also primarily an abstract entity, whose foundational rules are abstract.

Consider the statement “dogs are animals”. The truth of this statement seems to have nothing to do with the actual character of dogs. You might have never seen one. Indeed, the statement would equally well apply to “grifmors are ringbats” as long as grifmors were known to be ringbats. The point is this: Conceptual structures are connected to the rest of the world, but only at the boundary. As long as the boundary conditions are known to be valid (Socrates dying in 399, dogs being animals etc) the rest of the conceptual structure is insulated from the universe. It is this encapsulation that leads to claims about modularity etc. We can see this boundary + interior reasoning explicitly in the minimalist program.

For similar reasons, we also feel that concepts are not like brain or body structures. Neurons interact using electrical impulses, while concepts do not. In fact, since concepts do not have any extension, they do not have any physical substance at all. What are they made of? According to Plato and Descartes, the essence of concepts is not a physical substance but a soul like substance, whose essence is reason. There is then an arbitrary relation between the body-like and soul-like substances, as well as their properties and states (the debate about the precise mental character of concepts, say, whether concepts are mental states or mental properties is ignored for now).

Both Gibsonians and Embodied Cognitivists have tried to dislodge this deep dualism, which comes from observations about the arbitrariness of the concept-body-world relation. I think they underestimate the strength of this position and therefore do not do enough to refute it thoroughly. For example, consider the CONTAINER schema often used by Lakoff and other cognitive linguists as an example of an imagistic element in human cognition. We could ask three questions of Lakoff about the nature of these schema:

  1. Isn’t an image schema already an abstraction? Our experience of the world conjoins the wind blowing in our eyes, the smell of the jasmine flower and the green of the leaves. Where in all of this is container-hood? It seems as if our pre-conceptual experience actually does not have such a thing as containers.
  2. Suppose, somehow we do experience rooms as things that make us act in certain ways (for example, making sure that we move towards the door when we want to leave the room, since the walls are inpenetrable. Even then the experience of not-being-able-to-leave-the-room is not the same as the abstract relation A-contained-in-B. Where does the latter come from?
  3. In any case, the feeling of not-being-able-to-leave-the-room is a conceptual judgment. What is pre-conceptual about it? If anything it shows that bodily perception/experience is infused with conception rather than being the basis of post-perceptual conceptualization.

I agree with the embodied cognitivists that we shouldnt separate mind from the body; but in actually ‘fleshing’ that out, they are themselves as guilty of making the same mistakes (for example about preconceptual experience) as their modular opponents. A cognitive science that is truly non-arbitrary in its leanings will no more be body centric as it is form centric.