Archive for November, 2006

Two Kinds of Empiricism

November 18, 2006

A caricature (but in my opinion true in essence) of modern western scientific practice goes as follows. The scientist starts with sensory concepts, i.e., concepts that are entirely determined by their referents. The referents in turn, can be measured directly using an appropriate experimental apparatus. For example, the concept “frequency of light” would be used to denote the vibrational patterns of light as measured by an appropriate optical device. Sensory concepts are unproblematic as far as the scientist is concerned since they denote facts and as we know, facts are basic. There is nothing more certain in science than facts. There is no sense in which a fact can be doubted – a fact is a fact is a fact – which is reflected in the typical scientific response to a postmodern critique of scientific inquiry is to say that the speed of light is the speed of light independent of which culture you come from and what you think about light etc. And since real science (as opposed to pseudosciences like psychoanalysis) starts with facts, its foundation is secure. Facts are not the only entities in scientific epistemology; we also have theories. However, theories are built upon facts since a good theory explains old facts and predicts new facts.

From this fact based epistemological perspective, certain things are either outside the provenance of science or just nonsensical, depending on whom you ask. Values and morals for example, cannot be derived from facts, like the existence of the (ex-)planet Pluto was determined by looking at the orbit of Neptune. Hence we have the famous fact/value and is/ought distinctions. Metaphysics and religion are two other well known examples of domains outside the province of facts and therefore, both were rejected by logical positivists as nonsensical. The concept of God in particular (in the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is an especially interesting example of a concept that is not scientific by this yardstick. Since there are no facts that demonstrate the existence of God (indeed, what kind of God would he be if we were just one fact among many?) the only tactic that a rational defender of religion would say is that either:

(1) Religion lies in the domain of faith, values and morals which are independent of science, or
(2) God is transcendental, i.e., he is the necessary condition for there to be any facts whatsoever.

Stephen J. Gould’s “The Two Magisteria” is an example of the first defense while the well known literary critic, Terry Eagleton, has written this defense of the second hypothesis.

Unfortunately, Indian contemplative and spiritual traditions seem to be outside this empirical/transcendental distinction all together. Take for example, Buddhism, which like most other Indian traditions, starts with the insight that Samsara (the world) is Dukkha (suffering) and that liberation, Moksha or Nirvana, is beyond Dukkha. Is Dukkha a fact? No, of what is it a fact of the matter? It is certainly not a measurable fact about the world. Similarly, is Nirvana a value or moral state? No, for its not a goal to be achieved, as any achievement would itself be in Samsara. Is Nirvana a transcendental entity, like God? No, since Nirvana is not a necessary condition for the world to be what it is. Nirvana may be constitutive of the world (or if you are an Advaitin, Brahman is the only Real), but its not what creates the world as the world. Certainly the knowledge of Brahman or Buddha Nature is not knowledge of something as scientific theories would demand but they are not entities that one takes on faith as somehow lying outside this world.

One response to this conundrum is to say that the Indian traditions are primitive and incoherent. There is no shortage of people who have taken this stand, or its complementary opposite, which is that the Indian traditions talk about knowledge and beings that are outside current scientific inquiry though still part of introspective empirical inquiry, via practices of meditation, yoga etc. I am not one of them.

Instead, what we need to do is to take the Indian insights seriously. What does it mean to experience the world as Dukkha? It means that the incompleteness of the world and precarious nature of facts itself is given in experience. In other words, experience, far from being grounded in facts, destabilizes the very facts that it discloses. So we have a very subtle form of empiricism here – not only are we aware of facts that can be measured by our instruments, we are simultaneously aware of the impermanence of facts (where impermanence is being used in the technical Buddhist sense of that term). Experience, therefore, is an open inquiry into a world which doesn’t have a ground floor of any kind – facts, values etc. In this kind of Indian empiricism, we cannot do science the way it is done now since the solidity of facts is not a given, but rather a provisional hypothesis that itself is guaranteed to be false in the long run.

If we were to do science starting from the Indian traditions, we cannot start with facts and proceed to build theories based on them. We will have to be open to the facts themselves being dislocated as our inquiry proceeds, and in the limit (Moksha?) be open to knowledge that emerges when all facts have been dropped. I believe that the second kind of empiricism, of open inquiry without an ontological commitment to facts, has dramatic consequences for any project that seeks to reconceptualize the Indian traditions in the context of current problems and debates in the natural and social sciences.

The Good Dr. Google

November 14, 2006

The November 11th issue of the British Medical Journal published a very interesting study: The authors report that out of 26 carefully chosen cases from the New England Journal of Medicine, a Google search using the symptoms was successful in making the right diagnosis in 15 cases. Makes me think that its only a matter of time before a new BPO industry comes into being- medical diagnosis.

Lets call this fairy tale “One day in the life of Dr. Mahesh T. Google”. Once upon a time, John Doe of Topeka, Kansas went to the local Acme Medical HMO complaining of a headache, blurry vision and a sharp pain in his spleen. Unfortunately for John, just that very month Acme had cut back on its roster of doctors by 25 percent because of increasing insurance costs. If it were not for the courage and quick thinking of Agnes Munchausen, an administrative assistant at Acme Medical, John would have been in a whole lot of trouble. The intrepid Agnes, realizing the gravity of the situation, immediately sent an email with Johns symptoms to Dr. Mahesh.

You might be wondering about Dr. Mahesh. Who is this superman of medicine? Does he fly around the world with a big syringe etched on his cape. No, no, none of that for Dr. Mahesh. He was a typical small town lad, a poster boy for the new India. From the time he was a child, Mahesh was a romantic, preferring to think big to thinking small. And since this is a good fairy tale, his dreams came true. After getting his BSc in agroforestry from Ghanshyam Das college in Jamnagar, Mahesh went chasing his passions, eventually landing in Mumbai, not in Bollywood, but in that other Indian knowledge industry: Information Technology. In Mumbai, nee Bombay, Mahesh found his calling; he became one of the hundred thousand doctor.googles working for Ulhas. B. Karmachandani Inc, the leading provider of medical diagnoses in the world. Within six months of working for Ulhas.B, Mahesh had learnt how to use Google to diagnose symptoms within one minute or less with an accuracy of 95 percent, better than the best doctor in the US of A.

Anyway, back to our story. As soon as Dr. Mahesh saw Agnes’s email, he went to work. In less than a minute, he had diagnosed John’s ailment and in five minutes he had sent an email to Agnes with a quick report. Agnes forwarded Dr Mahesh’s report to her boss, the (real) Dr. Thomas. P. Milford the third. Dr Tom, as he was known affectionately to his patients, ushered John Doe into his office, sat him down and told him the bad news and the good news. The bad news was that John had ZXY syndrome. The good news was that Roche had just put out a new drug, zxyicitin, into the market just for people like John.

Upon hearing the good news, John was ecstatic. A years worth of zxyicitin cost 200,000 dollars but insurance would cover all but 20,000 of it, so while John would have to take out a new mortgage on his house, he wouldn’t have to sell it. He thanked Dr Tom profusely, took his prescription downstairs, got it filled and started popping the pills immediately. John knew he would have to tell his son, John Jr to take out a loan for college or join ROTC, but secretly John Sr was happy. John Jr was getting a bit troublesome, and ROTC would do him good. This year, in his state of the union address, the president had promised the US would invade 16 new countries. There was plenty of fun to go around for all the young men and women in the country.

Meanwhile, back in Mumbai nee Bombay, Dr. Mahesh had diagnosed one hundred and four more cases in thirty four states of the American Union. After a particularly tough one, he got up, went to the bathroom and drank a cup of coffee. On the way back to his cubicle, he passed the administrative assistants office. This morning, the admin was Priya, a particularly attractive girl. Priya looked at Dr. Mahesh and said “I heard you saved hundred and three lives today” (Actually Priya hadn’t heard, she knew since Ulhas B. Karmachandani’s employees were monitored on a 24/7 basis. Priya knew exactly how many patients had been treated by each Dr. Mahesh looked at Priya, gave a shy smile and said, “yes, it has been a good day” and kept walking. If he was not mistaken, he could hear Priya’s soft voice whispering “my hero” over and over again. Dr. Mahesh was happy.

All’s well that ends well.

PS: 15/26 is certainly better than what the average doctor in a rural health clinic in India would be able to do. I wonder if the govt of India should put a networked computer in every health clinic in the country and train community health workers to search on google and diagnose diseases. Might well be cheaper, more efficient and safer than trusting our farmer’s health to disgruntled MBBS’s.


November 12, 2006

The New York Times’ Sunday Week in Review this week has an article asking whether Iraqi’s are hankering for a strongman once again, to replace Saddam (who, if they execute as the intend to right now, they would have gotten rid of for ever). According to the article,

It is something ordinary Iraqis say with growing intensity, even as they agree on little else. Let there be a strongman, they say, not a relentless killer like Saddam Hussein but somebody who will take the hammer to the insurgents and the death squads and the kidnappers and the criminal gangs who have banished all pretense of civility from their lives.”

How many times have I seen this form of liberal nonsense, bordering on racism? The reasoning goes as follows:

(1) We came to your country and freed you of a dictator. Ok, we might even agree that the invasion itself was criminal, but we did get rid of your dictator and put a democratic government in its place.

(2) You guys screwed it up by rebelling against our occupying force and killing each other in droves.

(3) As the Hindi saying goes, Laaton ke bhooth baaton ko nehin sunte hain, i.e., Those who are used to kicks don’t listen to words.

(4) We are getting angry and tired of managing this mess.

(5) Therefore the solution to Iraq’s problems is to bring back an authoritarian regime. Only a strong man, a caudillo (to use a term from another continent with a long history of American intervention) will make these people sit up and take notice.

I used to think that this was racism, pure and simple, but I wonder if this is also a class sentiment. After all liberal western norms are primarily middle class, bourgeois values. And those norms are ready to turn to the right when their really core values of order and stability are threatened. I remember my grandfather, who was no white liberal, once telling me that he liked the emergency regime (from 1975-77) because it made the trains run on time. I think he voted for the Congress his entire life.

PS: The same Week in Review has an article on Daniel Ortega, “The Marxist Turned Caudillo”. When he was a Marxist, the US started a civil war that ultimately ousted him from power, but now that he is a Caudillo, he is more than welcome to become El Presidente (despite some ritual murmurs of disapproval from that Caudillo to the north, GWB).

Midterm Corrections

November 9, 2006

Not my usual topic, but the impossible has actually happened: Democrats have seized control of the House and are likely to take control of the Senate. Donald Rumsfeld has resigned. Nancy Pelosi is going to be the first female speaker of the House. Rick Santorum, the infamous Senator from Pennsylvania is out, and most likely, so is George Allen, the Senator from Virginia (who also became infamous for using a racial epithet against an Indian-American campaign worker for his opponent, Jim Webb).

We can only hope that this means better news for the American occupation of Iraq, better enforcement of environmental laws and an overall investigation of the various criminal acts of the Bush regime. I know there are people who think that the Democrats and the Republicans are the two wings of the American Corporate Party and while I might agree with them on many occasions, I still think that this is wonderful news, just as the Congress led UPA alliance victory was wonderful news two and half years ago.

The Morality of Nation States

November 6, 2006

On Saturday, I gave a talk at a Bangalore NGO, Environmental Support Group, at the invitation of my friends Leo and Bhargavi. The talk was about “concepts of nature”, which is to say, the implicit presuppositions that we carry in our heads when we try to understand nature. While I wanted to talk about various concepts of nature, and then conclude with my cognitive scientist take on these concepts as a whole, I ended up concentrating mostly on the post-enlightenment European concept of nature, which has deeply influenced both the natural and social sciences. I am not trying to make a carefully argued point here, but the main claim I am making is the following: modern science models nature as pure form superimposed on matter. What do I mean by that?

Suppose you are standing in front of the Taj Mahal. Of course, you cannot insert the Taj into your head, but the claim is that at least you can insert the shape of the Taj Mahal into your head. The shape of the Taj Mahal is its form. Similarly, the laws of quantum mechanics are the best understanding we have of the form of nature itself. In other words, the knower/perceiver knows and perceives by representing the form of the objects being studied.

Man, among all living beings, is the king of forms. Therefore, while science displaced us from the centre of the cosmos at the material level, it also reinserted us back with a vengeance by giving us (where us = men of European descent for the most part) the power to represent anything and everything. No wonder that the physicist is often seen looking for the one equation that underlies everything, i.e., the form of God. And the man who discerns that form to end all forms would be no less than God himself, right? I am using the term man consciously, since women have traditionally been excluded from the formal heaven, from Plato onwards.

You, careful reader, might be wondering why this guy is talking about Plato and the form of God at an environmental NGO. The reason is simple: the purely formal approach is not just a feature of the natural sciences, but also of the humanities and the social sciences and is enshrined in that most wonderful formal system, the law. The system of checks and balances that we call the law is the formal antidote to the rapaciousness enabled by technology, which, if you will can be called the formal poison. Technology and progress makes us pollute and the law makes us check pollution. The law is the formal representation of justice and morality.

Unfortunately, the other great formal system, the nation state, has never agreed to be bound by those checks and balances, certainly not in its international affairs and mostly not in its internal affairs either. My friend, Ashwin Mahesh, who co-runs India Together, thinks that morality is a rather dangerous concept to foist on the nation state. After all, doesn’t Bush justify his actions as being driven by his moral concern for the Iraqi people and the rest of the world? Whose morality should be imposed on the state? I agree that Ash has a point here, but I don’t think that morality is quite that loose a concept. In fact, I think that our moral intuitions are remarkably convergent, which is why Bush & Co had to lie through their teeth in order to justify their seemingly moral actions, which makes their acts utterly immoral. Furthermore, the outrage that many feel about this travesty is very much a case of moral outrage. I believe that bringing the nation state into the moral domain is not only wise, it is necessary.

Ash, Leo (and I, now that I have written this) are having a debate on this topic via email. I am gonna try cajoling them into continuing this discussion on my blog.

PS: The New York Times book review this week (November 12th) has a review of a book called Ethical Realism. As the title suggests, the book’s main tack is to use ethical arguments to bolster traditional realist theories of International Relations (Foreign Policy realists are traditionally known for advocating policies purely based on national self interest). Among many other things, the book advocates the US should support good governance over spreading democracy (i.e., putting bread on the table over doing good). Ethical principles can be useful even when the object of study is a seemingly technical matter such as good governance.

Nationalisms Revisited

November 1, 2006

In an earlier post, I talked about language based politics in Karnataka. Today is the day to talk about Kannada chauvinism since it is the anniversary of the formation of the state of Karnataka as a linguistically demarcated territory. Like all official holidays, both at the centre and the state level, many stores are closed and the streets are empty because people dont know what kind of trouble is in store for them. While Independence day and Republic day have been hijacked by terrorism related security concerns (that is to say, security threats to VIP’s), regional holidays drive people indoors because there is the fear of mob violence (by Kannada chauvinist goons in this case). What a contrast with Deepavali or Id or Holi when everybody is outside and having fun. Tells you something about the atmosphere around nationalist politics doesn’t it?

While I was walking outside a few minutes ago, I noticed that all the non-Kannadiga businesses such as private banks, cafe chains etc had “Karnataka Rajyotsava” posters stuck prominently on their front doors. It struck me that the Rajyotsava posters were like a modern version of the old South Indian practice of hanging frightening faces painted on pumpkin shells in order to ward of evil spirits (i.e., goons). My suspicion was confirmed when I went to the Cafe Coffee Day on Sampige road and the entrance to the cafe was partially blocked by a framed “Karnataka Mahotsava” poster leaning against the back of a chair. The poster was garlanded with flowers and had a brass plate in front for offerings. Soon after I went inside and ordered a coffee, they cranked up the music level to a deafening level and started playing Kannada renditions of old Abba songs. As I was leaving, I asked the staff why the music was so loud. One of the servers told me that normally they play Hindi or English songs (which, believe me, is loud enough as it is) but today some customers had asked for this particular album to be played loudly and since it was Karnataka Mahotsava he was afraid that if he didnt play it loud enough these customers would create trouble.

If you want to know the future of language and ethnic nationalism in India, look no further than Abba songs remixed with Punjabi beats and set to Kannada lyrics. Not that these chauvinists realize (or would admit it in case they were so self aware), but the very definition of local pride is being determined by globalized, commodified and generic corporate culture and entertainment. Ironic isnt it?