Archive for November, 2011

Knowledge via Synthesis

November 20, 2011

Analysis is for control freaks: they want to divide the world into constituent bits and make sure that each bit does exactly what we want it to do. It is also meant to end in a final resolution to a problem; having divided a problem into its most atomic constituents, the analyst wants to end with a final theory with no room for error or uncertainty. Analysis is a closed form solution for a closed world.

The synthesist is inherently a softer person; he is happy with enough knowledge to take the next step, probe the world and then loop back to correct if necessary. It is inherently organic, uncertain knowledge. As embodied, finite beings, synthesis is a better way of knowing than the God’s eye view that forms the tacit (and Monotheistic) view of modern science.


New Physics or New Metaphysics?

November 13, 2011
On Growth and Form, 1992 Dover reprint

Image via Wikipedia

Does the study of living systems require a new physics? Not if new physics requires the discovery of yet to be known particles or forces or strange quantum mechanical effects. Organisms are not different from other types of matter as far as their atomic properties are concerned. However, the term organism itself points to where we will be needing new physics. Organism is related to organization; in other words, what we need to be looking for are laws of organization that are relatively new.

There is nothing new about the search for laws of organization. D’Arcy Thompson was looking for them more than a hundred years ago. More recently Stuart Kauffman and others have also called for laws of organization. I think we need to go one step further: we need to think about organization as a distinct entity from substances, whether they be atoms, quarks or strings. In Aristotle’s physics there were four causes: the material, the formal, the efficient and the final. Organization is a combination of the material and the formal cause and much of what is new in cognitive science – like embodied cognition– is coming from emerging intuitions about organization and organisms. What we are groping towards is a synthetic mode of knowledge (is it a science?) that is neither so particular that it only applies to certain carbon based life-forms and not so abstract that it is reducible to atoms. Neither embodied cognition (too particular) nor current physics (too universal) fits the bill but we are getting there, I think.

The Anthropic Subject and the Anthropic Object

November 9, 2011

As I wrote in another post, we like to think of ourselves as living in a post-anthropic era where human beings are not special beings at all.  This belief is half right. We are certainly aware that human beings are one object among many; we are no longer the centre of the objective universe. But as Descartes points out, the de-centering of the human being in the objective world is accompanied by the radical centering of the individual consciousness in the subjective world. That is to say, if we take objective criteria to be the only criteria of knowledge, then the only subjectivity that we can accept is our own. Forget anthropocentrism, we are forced to accept a radical subjectivity centred around myself.

In a world of infinite objects, I am the only subject.

A complementary phenomenon happened in classical Indian philosophy and contemplation where the self was decentred leading to a very different critique of anthropocentrism. Descartes maxim of extreme subjectivity says “I think therefore I am.” The Buddha removes the ‘I’ in both halves of that phrase. Neither knowledge nor existence is predicated on me. This earlier attack on  anthropocentrism doesn’t reveal us as one object in an infinite array of objects, but rather as one subject in an infinite array of subjects.

It’s no surprise that in this discovery of an infinite array of subjectivity, the contemplative traditions lost interest in exploring the objective sphere, just as modern science kept consciousness at bay for centuries.

In a world of infinite subjects, the world is the only object.

The contemplative traditions -as much as science- were victims of their own success; the more they explored subjectivity the less interesting and unimportant the world of objects became.  Each side reveals the blind spots of the other. It is now time to bring the two together in a new anthropocentrism and then start the de-centering process all over again, except that this time we need to liberate both the subject and the object.

The New Anthropocentrism

November 8, 2011

The end of anthropocentrism is one of the signature achievements of science; starting with Copernicus, we have progressively shifted the center of the universe away from human beings. As of now, we are just yet another species in yet another planet in yet another solar system in yet another galaxy (not yet another universe, though that might happen too). Human beings are no more than one object among an infinite array of non-human objects. We can think of the human location as an unexceptionable position in two nested hierarchies:

  1. Me → Earth → Solar System → Galaxy → Universe.
  2. Strings → Particles → Atoms → Cells → Me.


Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in...


When it comes to subjectivity, the same logic leads us in the exactly the opposite direction. As Descartes pointed out a while ago, the push towards objectivity is mirrored by a push towards certainty which leads us inexorably towards cogito ergo sum. In other words, the totally objective universe is mirrored and represented in my completely isolated and subjective consciousness. There is a dialectical relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. The more we dethrone anthropocentrism in the name of objectivity, the more we introduce subjectivity through the back door via consciousness and first person experience.


Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the "F...


I think it is time to reintroduce a common-sense anthropocentrism. For one, it is obvious that I view the world through my eyes, not someone else’s.  The best we can obtain in terms of objectivity is positional objectivity; i.e., the maximally objective position from where I am. Secondly, our embodied knowledge systems – as opposed to the abstract Cartesian one – are designed to know the world here and now.  From this perspectives, there is a genuine sense in which we can reverse the arrows in 1 and 2 above to read:

  1. Universe → Galaxy → Solar System → Earth → Me.
  2. Me → Cells → Atoms → Particles → Strings.
The Self is the pre-eminent locus at the heart of the embodied universe.
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C3 vs D3

November 6, 2011

Learning should be Continuous, Contextual and Creative. Instead it is Discrete, Disconnected and Dull.

I don’t see how our educational institutions (see the picture above) can ever hope to bridge this gap. Is it time to tear down the entire superstructure of education and create a new edifice? Certainly in a country like India which doesn’t have a history of a reasonably functional education in the modern era, I see no reason to continue along the current path. It is not as if we have to tear down Harvard’s and MIT’s. Just as the mobile revolution made landlines irrelevant, can technology be used to make the current educational ladder irrelevant? Apart from certification and social signalling does a degree from an Indian school or university count for anything at all?


November 6, 2011

In theoretical physicsM-theory is a candidate theory of everything. It is a theory that no one seems to know much about and has been called a piece of 21st century science that accidentally landed in the twentieth century. This site is not about the M-theory of physics. Instead, it is about various other M’s that should be central to 21st century science, are more mundane and yet- in my opinion – are about matters at least as interesting as the physicists’ M-theory. Potential M-theories for the twentieth century are:

  1. Theories of Mind (also see here).
  2. Theoretical Metaphysics.
  3. Theories of Mathematics.
  4. Theories of Morals.
  5. Theories of Meaning.

What binds these M-theories together is a common concern with the everyday world, or what I have called samsara elsewhere.  Of these five, only mathematics might be about esoteric realities rather than the world of experience, but I will try to convince you that mathematical experience is a part of samsara. In these pages, you will find speculations about the links between the various M-theories and to use these M-theories to understand samsara itself.

The Shape of Thought 1

November 4, 2011

There are two seemingly contradictory views about the mind:

  1. Mental processes are fundamentally independent of their physical instantiation. For example, there is a traditional view that reasoning and logic are essential features of the mind. Now consider the argument that says that from A → B and B → C we can always conclude that A → C. This argument seems independent of the laws of physics; in some other alternate universe where gravity points upwards we might reasonable expect that the previous argument holds.
  2. Mental processes are completely determined by the laws of nature. We are biological beings and so everything about us including our capacity for reasoning is ultimately determined by physics. Even the rules of logic such as “If A → B and B → C then A → C” are ultimately consequences of the kinds of creatures we are.

The debate doesn’t go away even if we accept that the mind must be naturalized in some manner or the other. A subtle version of the above paradox arises in the “brain-in-a-vat” versus “the embodied mind” debate. Does the brain in a vat have the same mental capacities as a fully embodied being? Even if the mind is a natural entity, is it entirely in the brain or is it intrinsically tied to bodily capacities? Both intuitions seem to have validity; disabled people demonstrably have the same capacities as we do, but on the other hand it seems obvious that our minds evolved to respond to the pressures of surviving in the physical world.

These paradoxes arise from the fact that 1 and 2 are two completely different intuitions about mental phenomena. I believe that both are partial truths. We are part of nature and nature is undivided so there must a naturalistic theory of logic. On the other hand, what we mean by nature itself might have to change in order for us to incorporate logic into physics. Like cups and tables, thoughts and reasons also have a shape, but we need to rethink what we mean by “shape.” This is normal for science; we now think of gravity as well as mechanical impulses as forces, but one involves physical contact while the other operates at a distance. Action at a distance was a major problem for physicists who insisted that forces have to involve physical contact. Similarly, if we agree that the concept of shape need not be restricted to what we see with our eyes we will have a better idea of how to calculate the shape of thought. There are regularities that bind all these shapes together into a complex; our goal is to understand these regularities and the complex that emerges from them.

The Organities

November 3, 2011

According to the cognoscenti biology is the science of the 21st century just as physics was the science of the 20th. Within biology itself, neuroscience is rising fast and becoming the go-to science. Donors, funding agencies and newspapers seem to agree. Even science fiction movies have shifted from space exploration, i.e., Star Wars and Star Trek to  the Matrix and Inception a.k.a “its all in your head.” Another way to put it is that we are slowly shifting from outer space to inner space.

However, our conceptual categories are still stuck in physics. Biology as practiced by biologists is an uber materialistic science in the sense that most biologists view matter in 17th century terms – A pushes B, B pushes C and the whole thing hums like a gigantic clock in the palace of Versailles. This hyper mechanical mode of description is inadequate for understanding the life world of any creature. Thinkers like Uexkull and Goldstein have resisted the mechanical approach to biology, but the smart money is against them.

I think that any purely scientific approach to living systems is bound to fail: either by succeeding in removing any trace of the organism from life or by running into conceptual problems like the hard problem of consciousness. What we need is a hybrid discipline, one that studies living beings but as much with the tools of the humanities as the tools of the natural sciences. Let us call the marriage of the sciences and the humanities the “organities.”  Of the various natural sciences, aspects of cognitive science  such as embodied cognition are probably closest to the organities. While it is increasingly the case that humanities people are embracing the language of biology and cognition, the opposite also needs to happen; without a genuine two-way collaboration progress will stall sooner rather than later.

Acquisitions and mergers in the education world

November 3, 2011

As IT makes further inroads into the world of education, I predict that the education world will start resembling the newspaper and publishing world. Many independent vendors (i.e., schools and colleges) will go out of business, some large institutions will start acquiring other large and small institutions and all of them will be threatened by the yet-to-be Amazon of the education world.

The Sinking Ship

November 2, 2011

I just read a wonderful piece on the state of education in Tamil Nadu. A retired bureaucrat, Mr. T.K Chandrashekaran, filed an RTI application to find out whether government school teachers send their kids to government schools or private schools. The results are shocking, if predictable:

Out of a reported total of 47,030 primary and middle school teachers in Government schools, 36,322 teachers (77%) were reported to have school going children of their own. Of these 36,322 teachers,

  • 27% (9,757 teachers) sent their children to Government Schools and
  • 73% (26,565 teachers) sent their children to Private Schools.

The statistics for high school teachers are even worse:

Out of a reported total of 50,782 high school and higher secondary school teachers in Government schools, 32,595 teachers (64%) were reported to have school going children of their own. Of these 32,595 teachers,

  • 13% (4,281 teachers) sent their children to Government schools and
  • 87% (28,314 teachers) sent their children to Private Schools.

In other words, government teachers, who are in the best position to assess the quality of their own educational facilities, are voting with their feet. Public education in India is sinking and like the proverbial rats, school teachers are deserting in droves. My own feeling is that the situation is even worse than you might think.

First consider that Tamil Nadu is one of the best educated states in India where the govt schools are surely better than govt schools in poorer states and also provide a free mid-day meal to their students. Then ask why high school teachers are even more likely to send their kids to private school than their middle school counterparts. My guesses: the rate of private school enrollment will be higher for TN teachers than teachers in poorer states and is higher for high school teachers than middle school teachers for the same reason: educational choice is about aspirations and the more capabilities you have to fulfill their aspirations for their children (as TN people do vis-a-vis poorer states and high school teachers do vis-a-vis middle school teachers) the more likely you are to send your child to private school. In other words, private schools are clearly seen as being better tied to aspirations than govt schools.

Perhaps it is the education in English, teacher attendance rates or smart uniforms, but unless we can make govt schools aspirational destination the public education system is doomed.