Archive for December, 2005

Being and Ontology

December 30, 2005

First, a provisional definition of ontology, gleaned from the Oxford English dictionary and the website “ontology a resource guide”. Not that these sources are definitive, but they do seem to represent mainstream thinking about the subject.

(A) Ontology is the theory of objects and their ties. The unfolding of ontology provides criteria for distinguishing various types of objects (concrete and abstract, existent and non-existent, real and ideal, independent and dependent) and their ties (relations, dependences and predication).
(B) • noun Philosophy: the branch of metaphysics
concerned with the nature of being.

The good news is that ontologies are ambitious because they try to capture all of Being (One might ask, “what is Being?” For our purposes, we can assume “Being = Everything there is”). Therefore, ontologies are one way to grapple with Being as such, not just some domains of particular Beings. The bad news is that ontologies presuppose a distant observer who sees all of Being, a removed God’s eye view of the world. In this picture, Being is the ultimate object of knowledge, and the most basic act of knowing would be to catalogue all there is. Since Being is the ultimate object, its basic property is existence. One can see that this objective conception of Being is reductive, for it reduces appearance, presence, essence etc to one dimension: existence. For example, it reduces the color red to being a property of objects, saying nothing about the way redness appears to a person experiencing red.
More speculatively, we can also see how this conception of ontology leads to one very influential understanding of the goals of science, especially in theoretical physics. A physicist is a person who has internalized two conceptual goals:
(a)The intuition that all of existence is an object available for contemplation to the human mind.
(b)This existence is knowable through reason and is deeply constrained and/or regulated by rational laws, laws that can be discovered by the process of mathematical thinking and experimentation – though a hard core theoretical physicist would dispense with the experimentation part and say that all of existence is fully determined by a certain set of rational principles.

Indeed, this also explains why physicists have replaced sages and mystics in our secular pantheon of realized beings – for they do represent the profoundest modern effort to capture all of existence in one unified scheme. I would go further and say that contemplatively gifted young people go into mathematics and physics because it is their best source for opening up to religious impulses in a culturally respectable way. We can explore how to open up this ontological, objective conception of Being, but for the moment notice that this conception is riddled with paradox and contradiction, related to the role of the observer who knows Being.
(a)Is this observer just another object among others (which is the normal picture), in which case a part of Being conceiving all of Being. If the observer is finite and Being is infinite, then it is really puzzling as to how the finite can conceive the infinite. If both the observer and Being are finite (as most modern science assumes) then we are truly left with an incredibly reduced conception of Being from which there may be no escape.
(b)The observer is not part of this objective conception of Being – a hypothesis that crops up repeatedly in discussions of subjectivity and consciousness (including Descartes’, who excluded the human soul from his catalog of machines). If indeed this is the case, then our conception of Being is limited, since it does not include the observer, and somehow the notion of an incomplete Being just seems unsatisfactory.


December 29, 2005

Paradoxes have been used since the beginning of systematic philosophy (Zeno‘s paradox, for example) to signal problems where earlier generations might have seen none. The mark of an authentic paradox is the presence of two or more sources of intuition that seem obviously true on the one hand and collectively incompatible on the other. A careful look at paradoxes often prompts developments in science or mathematics – Zeno’s paradox was addressed by the development of infinite series and the notions of limits and convergence.

More recently, I have been looking at paradoxes that arise from vagueness, such as the sorities paradox. Many terms in natural languages are vague, such as TALL. When is a person tall? A tall Pygmy is probably a short Swede, so clearly tallness depends on the context. But context by itself is not enough to remove vagueness, because we can well imagine that there are people who are borderline cases of tall, whether in the Republic of Congo or Sweden. Of course, one could stipulate a criterion for tallness, such as being “one standard deviation higher than the average for the human population under study”. While this drastic measure might solve the problem by fiat, it certainly doesnt do anything to remove our original intuition that tallness is vague. Interestingly enough while TALL is vague, TALLER is not – its pretty easy to figure out when someone is taller than another person. Its these vagaries of language and concepts that drive cognitive scientists and philosophers of language out of their minds.

Not that vagueness and paradox are purely analytic puzzles; they are deeply embedded in our existential attitudes as well. To give a prominent example – it is most obvious to us that we exist, for to doubt our own existence is to use the very thing that’s the object of doubt. At the same time we also know that we are impermanent, fated to die, ceasing to be. How did that ever happen? How can this rock solid sense of existence fade away into non-existence? Indian thinkers have famously solved this problem by postulating future lives, while Christians believe in an afterlife. In psychology and philosophy, afterlives and future lives have often been seen as responses to the fear of death. Perhaps so, but the problem is not just one of fear and self-preservation, it is also an epistemological and metaphysical problem – how does being transform into non-being? It’s this profound existential-epistemological perplexity that drives the Vedic seer to say (in the Nasadiya Sukta):

At first was neither Being nor Nonbeing.
There was not air nor yet sky beyond.
What was its wrapping? Where? In whose protection?
Was Water there, unfathomable and deep?

Similarly, its fruitful to read the Buddha’s teaching about the nature of suffering as a quest to solve an existential paradox: the Buddhist path meanders along the grounds of a knowing that bridges being and non-being. Much better, in my opinion, than the watered down psychological palliatives that are being taught in the name of “modern” Buddhism.

From the unreal to the real.

December 27, 2005

Can the Real ever be understood directly, or are we human beings fated to a limited understanding, enfolding the Real in partial perspectives? The ancients, whether Indian or Greek, thought that the Real could be understood, even experienced directly. They always admitted the possibility of full and complete enlightenment. On the other hand, the world (Logos or Samsara) may have seemed to some ancients as being irredeemably fallen.

We modern people invert this scheme on its head. In our worldview, the individual human/finite-being is central, whether in science or in literature or philosophy. Kant, for example, made explicit the modern idea that noumena, things as they truly are, are beyond the scope of the human intellect. We are confined to our prison. A biologist might add that this prison walls are determined by our genes and just as a dog cannot understand the Riemann Hypothesis, human beings cannot understand certain things because of the limits of our cognitive capacities. Colin McGinn has argued that consciousness is one of those things, a phenomenon that we are too stupid to understand, even in principle.

Is it possible that both the ancients and the moderns are right in their own sphere? Perhaps the ancients made the mistake of dichotomizing the finite and the infinite and the moderns made the mistake of identifying ourselves with the finite. It is in this dialectic between the finite/human and the Real that I see a contribution by modern inquiry, which is why I never felt comfortable with any traditional religious stream, howsoever profound.

More Thoughts on the Subject-Object Relationship

December 26, 2005

I was walking across the Charles river in Cambridge on Massachusetts avenue. It is a beautiful walk, the bridge is about half a mile long, with a panoramic view of Boston and Cambridge. While I was walking across, I found myself looking at some of the boats in the river. When I was doing that, I noticed the railing on the bridge because it was blocking my view of some of the boats. There was something intriguing about the shift of focus, that I decided to treat the railing as an “object” while walking. The rest of the walk (on the bridge) must have lasted about three minutes.

What I noticed was that if while in some sense the railing was one object, it definitely was experienced as many different objects depending on what I was doing. When I let my gaze rest on the portion of the railing immediately to my right there was no sense of it being an
object at all -it was just a flow of regularly shaped bars. It was such a hypnotic feeling that I was completely absorbed, losing any sense of subjectivity. In the next phase, I lifted my eyes a little to look at the railing at a distance of five or ten feet in front of me. Then the railing took on a different character. It was more of a solid object with a defined shape and I had some sense of being in a stable relationship with it as an object. While this railing-2 had more of a object like character to it, it was still a dynamic entity since it was coming into focus and receding behind me at a relatively rapid rate. In the third phase I looked all the way across to the end of the bridge and tried to take in the entire bridge at the same time. In this phase, railing-3 looked like a ladder with a rather rigid, object like character. I could actually feel my eye muscles contract to “objectify” the entire railing. At the same time there was a perceivable shift in my character as a subject was well – it felt like a classic case of “detached observation” that scientists are supposed to perform.

At this point, I suspended my observations and started thinking about the experiences. The question came to my mind -which one was the “real” railing? What did these three have to do with each other? I felt that treating the three experiences as being that of the same object was
not doing them justice. Only the last of the three felt like a clear object with me as a subject. After these thoughts, I started staring at the railing immediately next to me once again. When I established a flowing visual state my attention was captured by a piece of paper flying off the bridge. It was a powerful experience to watch that paper float down just after having connected with the railing. There was something intense about engaging with the floating itself than on the object that was floating (I am pretty sure that was able to focus more on the motion only because I was primed by the experience of staring at the railing). The paper lost its objecthood -it felt more like “just floating” than “piece of paper floating”.

When I started thinking about these events, I realized that apart from experiencing the world using different sensory modalities, it might be useful to look at the same object when you are still or moving. I feel that the subject-object dichotomy is greatly reduced while moving.

A Simple Experiential Experiment

December 26, 2005

Here is an exercise, suggested by my friend Piet Hut, followed by my report about the exercise. Feel free to perform it yourself and leave comments!

The Exercise. Take a collection of objects in front of you. Become fully aware of your role as subject, observing/watching these objects. Then, reverse the subject and object roles, and let those objects watch you. Spend a few minutes doing this. What happens? What do you register? How do you feel while registering?

Note: You may find the idea of an object watching you nonsensical or strange. Interpret these intructions in whichever way you feel comfortable.

After doing this once, or a few times, you may try the following variation. Instead of a collection of things in front of you, do the same experiment with an thing behind you, preferably a large
thing, such as the wall behind you. In what way does it make a difference working with an object that is present but not within your field of vision? Finally, you can try yet another variation. Let all objects around you look at you, simultaneously. Let everything be included,
the ground below you, the ceiling and/or sky above you, everything.

My Response.
EXPT 1. The wall was at my back while I was in the shower – I felt doing the exercise was a good use of my time. Of course, the wall was a lot closer than walls usually are in living rooms and offices -it made an appreciable difference. The presence of the wall was quite direct -even though I could not see it, it was there. There was an experimental confound because the shower was on and coming from the same direction, so the report really incorporates the wall and the water. I noticed some interesting differences from the visual presence of the wall. First the wall was felt in the body -at the nape of my neck and all over my back. The bodily presence doesnt usually manifest when seeing -though when I turned around and looked at the wall after I had felt it in my body, the wall maintained its presence in my front and in my face; I guess I ignore that presence in normal life. In any case, this observation made me think that visual presence often washes out other kinds of presence for me – I am such a visual animal. Secondly, when the wall was to my back, it was not a wall, just an inchoate presence that (conceptually) I know as being the visual wall. Its felt quality was more like an energy that got stronger
as I approached it and it started repelling me me when I got too close. Third, there was a clear distinction between the wall as such and its feeling in the body, I felt the wall both out there and on my body. In vision (it seems to me) we identify the object and its percept, my experience with the wall suggested that the proprioceptive senses might be different than vision in that regard. Third, the subject-object reversal was easy. In fact, the entire time, I felt that the wall was in a two way interaction with me -it was as much the subject as the object. Maybe the visual sense has a greater “objectifying” function than the other senses?

EXPT 2. Taking in the entire environment was a very interesting experiment, not because it was new – I have done meditative practices that advocates exactly that – but because I never did it with the intention of verbal description. I have to say that I found the task of verbal description mutually exclusive with the task of taking in the entire environment. Any time I described a portion of the environment, the rest of the environment would vanish – for sure, I knew it was there and I could come back and describe portions that I had missed earlier, but
the felt experience of opening out to everything was diminished whenever I tried to describe a subset of the experience. However, when I stopped trying to describe the world and just speak (internally to myself) freely, I could just incorporate the speaking as part of the taking in of the
entire field of experience. When I did so, the linguistic component did not serve a descriptive purpose. I cannot remember what I said -since I made no attempt to concentrate on the words.

Thoughts on Science and Contemplation (a.k.a Religion)

December 26, 2005

There are several ways in which one could approach the dialogue between science and contemplative traditions (meditation, yoga etc). I can think of three strategies myself:

  1. Use scientific methods to study contemplative traditions. In this camp we can club a variety of methods, such as the traditional (reductive) strategies that seek to explain contemplative traditions via psychological, anthropological or sociological means; attempts to map out the neurophysiological basis of yoga as well as recent attempts to get Buddhist yogis and neuroimaging people to collaborate with each other.
  2. The second approach is to say that the contemplative traditions have a knowledge of different worlds or states of reality that modern science does not know about and then to exhort science to expand in those directions. In this category one would include re-evaluating the limits of mental imagery after looking at the ability of certain Tibetan monks to visualize Mandalas, as well as radical breaks from conventional scientific beliefs such as acknowledging the separate reality of dream practices and clairvoyance etc.

Both of these approaches are in the best sense of the term cosmological, in the sense that they attempt to assimilate the other side to their own cosmos, whether it be the Buddhist one or the scientific one. While I find these attempts important as well as interesting, I believe that they will never have a genuine impact on the other, at least not in the sense of a permanent change in the composition of the other, as desired by most people engaging in this dialogue. This is the problem of fruits, not roots, i.e., in these strategies, people are taking well developed techniques and ideas from one tradition and applying them to the other in the hope that it will change the other. This method is valid, but ultimately, I think it tilts the scales in the favour of the dominant mode of thinking that has the most powerful tools, which at this time is the scientific cosmology. Instead, I believe in a dialogue that starts at the roots, at the way of being that lies behind the two traditions.

Let me start by outlining some of the fundamental aspects of the scientific way of being. I believe that the fundamental existential motivation for science is to know the world as it is. However, this desire to know the world has been fleshed out over the centuries using the following norms (which are not exhaustive or even necessarily compatible with each other):

  1. Objectivity
  2. Universality
  3. Abstraction and Idealization
  4. Empiricism

Some of these constraints are more crucial than the others. Indeed when studying the mind, some of these assumptions can be quite devastating. For example, if we want to study consciousness, which is by definition concrete and subjective, we run into constraints 1 and 3. I think that these assumptions are extra, and that underlying them is a quest for essence. The essence dimension captures what something really IS, which by its very nature is the truth and outside of time, in the way that scientific knowledge is meant to be, except that it does not have to objective (in the sense of being out there, independent of our minds) or abstract. Some contemplative traditions – Chan, Dzogchen and Advaita come to mind – have excelled in sticking to the essence without any additional assumptions, which is why they are able to see the essence of being a human or the essence of morals without sacrificing the concreteness or the subjectivity that comes from studying yourself from a first person perspective. At the same time, these traditions do not have a history of mathematical modeling, controlled experimentation, peer review all of which make modern science universal and at its best, culture neutral.

In my opinion, what we need is a new “essential inquiry” that borrows from the best of the scientific method, its theoretical, experimental and communicative tools and combine that with the existential and metaphysical subtlety of the contemplative traditions, giving rise to a new method that does not need the four additional assumptions that scientific inquiry has imposed on our understanding of reality.

Experience and knowledge

December 23, 2005

The relationship between “experience” and “knowledge” is one that crops up repeatedly, in conjunction with the issue of the relationship between “practice” and “principle”. On this issue, I find quite different opinions in the (mostly western) Buddhist community and the classical Indian, both Hindu and Buddhist sources. I find the emphasis on technical practice in modern Buddhism similar to the emphasis on technicality in other domains, say, science and philosophy.

While this emphasis is correct in many respects, because our beliefs about our world are rather mistaken, it seems to me that technical practice of any kind evolves quickly into its own world, one that on top of having the drawbacks of “conventional Samsara” is also disconnected from existential concerns and lived reality. I noticed this very clearly when I got exposed to abstract mathematics, which I thought was an entry into the absolute (I was but a naive child), but now is very much its own world with problems that are mostly technique driven.

It is this aspect of modern technology that is rightly criticized (say, by Gandhi) as being abstract and far from experience. On the other hand, I see the criticism as being misplaced, i.e., the problem is not abstraction, but the disconnect from existential concerns. If by abstraction, we mean, a form of insight that takes us away from common sense, then abstraction is essential, since common sense is hardly authentic experience. In fact, the notion of “authentic experience” is an abstract notion. For these reasons, I find the unthinking emphasis on practice and experience doubly troubling for their disconnect from principle and their unconscious reification of a technical world. At the same time without a genuine practice, it is hard to get a grip on the relevant issues.

A Buddhist theory of metaphor?

December 20, 2005

The ability to metaphorically project meaning from one sphere of experience to another is a very powerful tool that we human beings have. If it were merely a weak tool allowing us to make simple analogies but did not give us a real purchase on things we find important, it would not matter so much. But it has a very strong functional use.

As cognitive science slowly moves from symbolic to embodied approaches, we still don’t understand the basic problem that metaphors are solving in some way. Where is it that concepts get the structure allowing them to map between more abstract things and less abstract things? We can even start by asking something much more basic: How is it that concepts are able to refer to the world at all? How is it that when I say “cup,” I mean cup? The utterance “cup,” is just a sound. How is it that a sound ever gets to a thing? Experientially a sound has an auditory dimension, and maybe it has a meaning dimension, but an object “cup” doesn’t have any of these. This cup before me is green; it has a handle; it has shape; it has sides; it has location. The word “cup” doesn’t have any of these. So how is it that something with geometric specificity gets labeled by something which has absolutely no geometric capacity at all?

The same kind of problem exists with the myriad abstract concepts which make up our world of psychology and social relationships. So much of our conceptual world has no shape or size or any physical structure, but somehow we are able to use physical language metaphorically to great effect. The deep question has to do with understanding the underlying structures allowing us to take these very different kinds of things and put them together. I think this capacity lies at the very heart of cognition. The chief factor of our intelligence has to do with taking things that are very different from each other and putting them together. For example, the auditory system receives an input which is very different from a visual system. And yet when we perceive the world we map it into this coherent whole with both auditory and visual characteristics. This is the binding problem. How is it that an object, when we see it, has color, shape, size, all of them in the same location, even though the inputs into the system are very different things? Color is not like shape at all.

Another big problem with concepts is that they turn out to be very hard to define. What, for example, really is a “cup”? Is it just something that contains other things? No, because what is contained? Fluids? Yes, but not exclusively. Is a cup something that has a handle? Not necessarily. If I took the handle off this cup, you would still say it’s a cup. Is a cup something that has a handle and is of a certain size, but allows you to be able to drink? Maybe. But if you made a cup big enough for a person who was a giant, 20 feet tall, that would still be a cup for them, while for a child you’d need a cup much smaller. You can go through any concept you want, and it turns out that you just cannot nail it down precisely. Precise, mathematical specificity is something scientists want, but is of little interest to human beings in their normal discourse.

Now is the time to bring in the Buddhist perspective. Nagarguna and other Buddhist philosophers have put forward a deconstructive and interdependent analysis of concepts. They have said all along that concepts cannot be seen as independent and isolated, and thus they cannot be fully characterized. Concepts are useful to us precisely because they interact with other concepts. They’re fluid, metaphorical, and projectible, not something independent of their functional, human, or organismic perspective. This is a perspective that I think even an evolutionary biologist would accept. It also gives us a useful possible hypothesis, which is that concepts are empty. This is a term that can be applied not only in the classic Buddhist sense, but also perhaps as a contribution to a possible modern theory of concepts that formalizes what emptiness means in the realm of cognitive science.

To put it another way, the central capacity we have, which is manifested as metaphors when we use language, is the ability to take two very different domains and map them onto each other. It is the structure of mappings itself that we need to concentrate on, not the various domains. The best way to understand concepts, in other words, is not to individually understand concepts of law, concepts of physics, concepts of chemistry, concepts of emotion, and then study what they are all about. Rather it is our ability to link these concepts together that is important. I believe there can actually be a formalizable, scientific theory of those mappings, by which I mean specifying a relationship between two very different domains. For example, we can map the relationships between words and objects, or between concepts of psychology and concepts of physics. This ability to map into each other two very different things is, I think, at the heart of the cognitive enterprise. Furthermore, emptiness, in a precise technical sense, is a fundamental insight into the nature of these mappings, of concepts in one domain to concepts in another domain.

Doniger’s demons.

December 18, 2005

Almost a lifetime ago, when it looked like the BJP was going to romp home in the 2004 elections and their NRI supporters were crying themselves hoarse about the perfidy of Muslims and other minorities as well as defending the deeds of the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat, there was another little battle being fought, a battle that occupied the mind of yours truly and other Indian academic types.

That battle was about some NRI Hindus finding the behavior of certain American academics, such as Wendy Doniger and Jeffrey Kripal, insulting (perhaps heretical – if one could use that term in a Hindu religious context, but I believe that one can’t). WD, JK and other Western scholars of Hinduism have written books about the sexual life of certain Hindu gods (Ganesha, for example) and religious figures (such as Ramakrishna), sometimes using psychoanalytic techniques to analyze the unconscious impulses behind these myths as well as the human beings who believe them. At the same time, you had Indian and non-Indian academics concerned about academic freedom and letting scholars conduct their research on Hinduism and other religions as and how they chose to.

Much ink has been spilt on this topic (in Rajiv Malhotra‘s many articles, for example), with Hindu activists claiming a conspiracy on the part of Christian fundamentalists and their academic assistants and academics protesting their innocence. I dont want to revisit these old debates, especially since my sympathies are evenly divided. I am definitely on the academic’s side in that one should be able to say what one wants about Jesus or Krishna without fear of attack. I mean, if someone wants to immerse a cross in piss and call it art, that’s their problem, and in an intensely competitive academic marketplace where (like anywhere else) sex sells, its no surprise that sex turns up frequently in the study of Hindu texts. In any case, Indians need to have many more frank discussions about sexuality, not because of the Donigers and Kripals but because of HIV. If we are going to be the country with largest population of HIV-positive people, we need to do something about our sexual practices don’t we? Everybody knows that abstinence ain’t gonna work.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that Western academics tend to find in Hindu texts and practices (and Buddhist as well, but less so) whatever their latest pre-modern, modern and post-modern theoretical fads predispose them towards, whether they be Freudian theory or deconstruction. Compound that with unbelievable statement’s like the one made by Edward Rothstein in the NY Times (in his article defending Wendy Doniger), where he says the Hindu’s complaints “echoes the complaints of many Western groups that have not developed traditions of critical scholarship”. Hello! What about three thousand years of Philosophy, Literature, Theology in the Indian subcontinent? Nothing like good old liberal misinformed supercilious paternalism.

Ultimately, these debates are about the validity of non-European forms of epistemology. As any good cognitive scientist will tell you (or should do so even if they dont), the way we perceive truth is through metaphors and myths, so I wouldn’t discount the misappropriation of myths. Basically, the substantive critique of modern religious studies, is that the scientific myth does not have a monopoly on truth. Academic students of religion are as much prone to scientization as they have been brought up in a modern secular society. Now if you compound this mistake with the fact that you get tenure at Chicago or wherever by writing thick tomes filled with psychological and hermeneutic analyses, and you dont get tenure if you explain the source material on its own terms, whatever that might be, then you are perpetuating the modern myth making technology, while discounting the “natives” myths as being invalid or somehow inferior. Which is why, I do think this debate is ultimately about the politics of epistemology and truth, even if it is conducted without regard for either knowledge or reality.

Constructing reality

December 16, 2005

I was lying in bed a few nights ago, unable to sleep when I had a flash of insight. I was thinking of the reality of the waking world and why it has such a powerful hold on our lives. We usually subordinate other forms of our experience to this world – for example, we tend to explain dreams as experiences that take place within the brain of an individual who in reality is sleeping in the real world. In this scheme, the world of the dream derives its reality from its grounding the awake world, so that, for example, dream experiences do not have real objects of their own unlike awake experiences.

At the same time, we embody the assumption that awake experiences have the magical ability to touch reality. This assumption is prior to our perception of the external world or to organized forms of reality making (like science). Scientific theories derive their force from the belief that they makes contact with reality, an assumption that if you look closely, comes from an unconscious assumption that science, unlike dreams or works of fiction is fundamentally grounded in the awake world. After all, works of fiction and dreams have all the properties of theories – coherence, unity etc, but these attributes alone do not guarantee reality making, for that is granted by the trust in the theory being grounded in the real. The thing is that coherence etc, while good principles are not really explorations of reality per se – they assume this reality.

What does that mean, for the relationship between scientific inquiry and reality? It means that competing narratives, whether scientific or otherwise, have no purchase on the reality that they derive their legitimacy from. To give an example, the question “why is there anything?” cannot really be answered by science. For science assumes that there is something, and it only spins a new narrative about how to articulate the form of the real.