Archive for August, 2006

IS and OUGHT revisited.

August 30, 2006

In the last few posts I have talked about the relationship between reason and emotion. What’s interesting is how the discovery of how things are, i.e., the domain of IS and the discovery of how we ought to act, the domain of OUGHT are both seen as properly discovered by reason and reason alone. In this picture, the introduction of emotions

(a) Prevents us from seeing reality clearly and,

(b) Even if see could reality clearly, we might act rashly and commit a wrong under the spell of emotion.

For example, everyday we read in the papers about husbands who murder their wives after having discovered them in bed (or just suspected her of doing so!) with another man. According to modern day jurispudence, as well as lay ethical intuitions in the west, murdering your spouse is not the right response to adultery (though not so in Turkey, how dare you apply to the EU with such primitive ethical stances: shame shame. What would we do without the tremendous wisdom of the western world and its generosity in sharing its insights).

What does this mean? For one, it means that the domains of IS and OUGHT are not that different. Secondly, if I am right, we will not understand the true source of either one of the two domains unless we expand our focus of knowledge to include emotion and other supposedly substandard sources of knowing.

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Reason and Emotions III: Thinking and Believing

August 24, 2006

Normally, we tend to think of beliefs as psychological states with dubious epistemic properties. Beliefs are conceptualized as unregulated conceptual structures, for the most part hypothetical and often fanciful or deluded. Thinking and reasoning on the other hand are seen as rational activities regulated by rules and governed by norms. Computational theories of the mind have focused on rule governed behaviour, ultimately trying to reduce them to rules of logic.

Beliefs are far more fuzzy. When I say, “I Believe in God” what exactly do I mean? It seems that its the very imprecision of beliefs that allows us to share them, even if we do not have the same understanding of a given belief such as “I Believe in God”. Furthermore, beliefs have emotional components. For example, I can hate a belief (and I can hate you for having that belief), but it seems strange to hate a logical rule or to hate someone for using a rule. As I had mentioned in my previous post on reason and emotion, its precisely the separation of logic from emotion that makes it attractive to many of us. But what if thinking was more like believing?

Note that we acquire our beliefs mostly through verbal testimony. Not surprisingly, Western philosophers, from Plato onwards, have mostly refused to recognize language as a genuine source of knowledge. Indian philosophers on the other hand (apart from the Buddhists) have always acknowledged sabda pramana. At best, western philosophers say that language is a source of true belief. As a consequence, western philosophy (and now cognitive science) has modeled the knowledge of language as the knowledge of the meaning of sentences. Is that enough? Indian thinkers would disagree. When you tell me that the earth goes around the sun, not only do I understand that you mean “the earth goes around the sun” but also that I come to know that the earth actually goes around the sun. Otherwise, how else do we explain the fact that we get most of our knowledge of the material world from physics textbooks, since most of us do not do the experiments directly?

So why not expand our conception of thinking to include believing? Sure, beliefs are more likely to be false than strict modes of reasoning are, but so what? We should accept that knowledge is fallible. I would rather have the freedom to think and believe what I want and to arrive at unexpected conclusions than to be strictly bound within rules, rules that give me a false certainty. We are all going to die anyway, right?

Sacred Games

August 19, 2006

I just finished reading Vikram Chandra’s latest, Sacred Games. It took me all of four days, which for a nine hundred page novel, isnt bad. It is a gripping read, with all the trappings of a Bollywood Masala movie, with heroes, villians, beautiful women and international gurus writ large and a delicious terror plot (delicious for its conscious subversion of current religious affiliations of such acts, not because the terror is described in a cynical or sly manner) that threatens India if not the world. I read in the Bangalore Metro section of today’s Hindu that Vikram Chandra comes from a filmi family, so the Bollywood connection is understandable. The apocalyptic vein that runs through the book is perhaps more Hollywood than Bollywood, but then again, the Mahabharata was apocalyptic in its portrayal of utter and complete destruction. Talking of which, the book is Mahabharata-ish, for example, in its insistence on stories within stories with each subplot playing a role in tying up all the loose ends. If I read Sacred Games again, I might find all these sub-texts postmodern rather than Mahabharata like, but for now I am happy. Is it a good book? Absolutely. Is it a good story? Yes. Is it literature? Frankly my dear, I dont give a damn.

PS: If you want a real review, take a look here.

What’s wrong with this picture?

August 18, 2006


The New York Times reports: “Antiwar demonstrators pushed Buddhist monks from the stage of a peace rally Thursday in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where the government and Tamil rebels are fighting. The monks are against talks with the rebels.” Hmmmmmmmmmmm, I thought Buddhism was a religion of peace.

Reason and Emotions II

August 14, 2006

Lets continue this line of inquiry into the separation of reason and emotion. Intuitively speaking, whats the difference between rational inquiry and inquiry tainted by emotion? Most people would say something like “If you take a statement like 2+2 = 4, the truth of that statement does not depend on your current state of mind, on whether you believe in God or not etc. “

Furthermore, even the process of verification of a statement like 2+2=4 does not depend on your emotional state. Therefore, a rabid racist is willing to trust the arithmetic of a black store owner, even if he thinks that black men shouldn’t be owning stores in the first case. Surely this is a good thing, right?

Actually, I am not sure. The previous example reminds us that calculative forms of reasoning are like the other great equalizer – you guessed it right- money. The same racist person is also willing to take money from black people, for money is money is money. I would argue that money is an externalization of reason. So what? Well, for one, it becomes as hard to protest against unequal distributions of reasoning power as it does to protest unequal distributions of wealth. Didnt you know that all poor people are lazy? Why should I give any of my hard earned money to such lazy buggers?

Replace poor by stupid and you get the basic objection to reservations (affirmative action to those of you who dont know the Indian lingo) in higher education. Why should beings who are superior at rational thought (and accidentally of higher caste backgrounds) have to give way to stupid people of lower castes?

I think we have to take the idea that reason has an emotive shadow (and the same goes for money) in order to address these issues of reservation, caste, merit etc in a fair and just manner. And, I believe that the fair observer will agree that the emotional shadow, far from being the background, is actually part of the very thing itself. In other words, emotion is constitutive of reason.

Reflections on Emotion and Reason, part I

August 13, 2006

I was reading a transcript of Arindam Chakrabarti’s excellent lecture on the phenomenology of fun and boredom, in which he talks, briefly, about the truth and falsehood of emotions. Suppose you are really, really bored, in fact so bored that the entire world seems without colour. There are two possibilities:

(1) The world is actually boring. You could be stuck in a Delhi Public School classroom (as I was for many years) with oppressive teachers who have no conception of learning and who accuse their students of being overimaginative.

(2) The world is not boring, but you feel it to be so. You could be watching a really good movie, say Sholay, but all you can do is pick it apart for its various faults. Normally, this feeling is what we term depression, where nothing can ever be good enough for us.

So how is this feeling of boredom connected to notions of reason and truth? The connecting factor is that of evaluative judgement: In both cases of boredom, we evaluate the world to be a certain way, and if you believed in Nyaya epistemology, the evaluation would be true if it matches the actual state of the world. In this cognitive approach to truth (cognitive because each case of true knowledge consists of a cognition that either matches or does not match the object being cognized), which, by the way, is a hallmark of the Nyaya epistemology, boredom 1 is true and boredom 2 is false.

Now that one thinks about it, how is any judgement of boredom different, in principle, from the classical example in Indian philosophy, of a rope being seen as a rope (true) or a rope being seen as a snake (false). I am not a Nyaya scholar by any means, but it would seem to me that according to the Nyaya point of view, where epistemology rests on true and false cognitions, an affective judgment is as likely to be knowledge as a rational judgement. So why make this false dichotomy between emotion and reason? Furthermore, according to the way I read the Naiyayika’s, truth or falsehood is related to action. Therefore, the traditional western conception of truth being an abstract relation between propositions and states of the world is also called into question.

It seems to me that Nyaya philosophy, which is about two thousand years old, and supposedly from a mystical, non rational culture, has insights into the relationship between emotion and reason that are compatible with the latest developments in cognitive science, i.e., embodied cognitive science. Strange isn’t it? Not really.

Back in Business

August 13, 2006

Many things have changed since the last time I posted – I moved back to the old country (India, and given how much it has changed while I have been away, I should really say, “I moved to a new country”), I have a new job (my first faculty position!) and I have a new daughter (Leela, my firstborn!!). Now that the dust has settled somewhat and I am getting my bearings in all three new situations, its time to start posting once again.