Archive for the ‘All’ Category

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.



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.

What is the role of Indian Philosophy in the Cognitive Sciences?

August 30, 2015

Since I am going to the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute, I thought I should share an essay I wrote a while ago.
Q: What is the role of Indian Philosophy in the Cognitive Sciences?

The stated goal of our enterprise is to create an intellectual milieu where Indian philosophical ideas and theories play an influential role in the development of the cognitive sciences. Therefore, we need to make Indian philosophical ideas available in a form attractive to the average cognitive scientist, a task easier said than done. As we all know, the typical cognitive scientist, while paying lip service to Hume and Kant, really doesn’t care that much about Western philosophy, so why should he care about Indian philosophy? In fact, if developments in what have been called “experimental philosophy” and “neuro-philosophy” are to be taken at face value, it is philosophers who should take cognitive science and psychological experimentation seriously, not the other way around. The working cognitive scientist seems to have concluded that as the science has matured, it is the philosopher’s job to systematize and popularize the field but not to add anything of substance.

In this bleak scenario how can one motivate a cognitive scientist to study Indian philosophy and learn some of its fundamental concepts and intuitions? A typical response might be to say:

  1. That cognitive science has created its current edifice on the backs of many generations of western philosophizing about the mind.
  2. These metaphysical intuitions and theories play an enormous role in determining what hypotheses are considered, what experiments are done and what conclusions and interpretations are drawn from the data.
  3. Not only do these metaphysical presuppositions play a role in “purely” scientific theorizing about the mind, they also guide our technological metaphors, such as robots, intelligent computers etc. Ideas about artificial intelligence which have been enormously influential in cognitive science, as well as captured the popular  imagination, also embody these metaphysical presuppositions, physicalism being the most important one.


Even if one agrees with these claims (and certainly many cognitive scientists will do so) I believe that a rational reconstruction of the metaphysical presuppositions of cognitive science will not change the field all that much – the bookshelves of every university bookstore in the west is full of critiques of cognitive science and consciousness studies as well as alternative approaches drawing inspiration from various sources, ranging from Quantum Mechanics to Buddhism.  So far, these critiques have hardly made a dent on mainstream cognitive science, which, if anything, is heading towards ever more reductive neural and biological explanations.

I believe that the problem lies not in the overt philosophical commitments of cognitive scientists, but rather in the tacit and unconscious ways in which these commitments are embodied and enacted in the day to day practice of cognitive science. The cognitive scientist who agrees that reductionism is a problem will still automatically look for brain areas in which cognitive functions are localized. Perhaps that makes his paper more acceptable to the journal to which he plans to submit his findings (which itself shows how physicalist metaphysics has utterly penetrated the intellectual economy of cognitive science), or more likely, he does not know what other kind of explanation and exploration of the mind is even possible. The availability of ever more powerful imaging, physiological and genetic technologies for probing the mind make it “natural” for the cognitive scientist to pursue the reductive route to success. This deep co-dependence between physicalist and mentalist metaphors for the mind, mathematical and mechanical technologies and “viable” theories of the mind and consciousness needs to be researched carefully, but for our purposes, it is enough to note that:

  1. Cognitive Science (and modern science in general) has developed in close contact with the development of sophisticated mechanical and mathematical techniques that have provided scientists with the most productive metaphors for the mind.
  2. This vicious circle has to be broken if one is to move out of blindly reductive approaches to cognition.
  3. Breaking this circle will require a rethinking of the nature of machines as well as mathematics and logic, where mechanical and logical systems are seen as open, embedded, embodied systems rather than as isolated, syntactic and abstract systems. Furthermore, this rethinking will have to be fleshed out (both figuratively and literally) as research programs so that future generations of students and researchers will learn how to do mathematics/logic/cognitive science differently.
  4. Indian philosophy will play a crucial role not because its ideas are interesting (which they are) but because we think that its various philosophical lineages embody different but equally critical and rational traditions of exploring the mind.


For better or worse, if the archetypal image in modern western cognitive science is that of a computer, then the archetypal image of an ancient Indian cognitive science is the Yogi. One need not buy into orientalist notions of the exotic other to realize that there might be a underlying truth here. The yogi metaphor incorporates a subject-centric perspective on the mind while the computer metaphor simply does not. The ultimate (and emotionally satisfying) irony would be the demonstration that the real yogi is the Indian logician watching smoke billow from his lookout at the base of the mountain rather than the hippie meditator smoking dope at the top of it, but lets not get ahead of our story for the moment.

I would like to end this brief note with a nested series of strategies for a cognitive science research agenda grounded in Indian philosophy, where we begin by noting that:

  1. The soteriological background of Indian philosophy is post-embodied rather than dis-embodied, i.e., pure consciousness or freedom is conceived at the boundary of our embodied existence rather than as a spirit like substance, unrelated to the body that coexists and interacts with the body in some unknown and perhaps unknowable manner.  Therefore, the bugbear of dualism and the concomitant physicalist, reductionist response does not even arise. As a consequence, every major problem in cognitive science, from the nature of subjectivity to the possibility of conscious computers will be cast differently in a Indian approach to cognitive science. Furthermore, seeing our existence as constitutively embodied doesn’t commit us to materialist explanations of the mind, for our current conceptions of matter presuppose the very dualist metaphysics that we are trying to combat in this Indian approach. The possibility of post-embodiment (pure consciousness, moksa, nirvana), admitted by all Indian schools, acts as a counterweight to radical physicalism and reductions of the mind to the body or the body to matter.
  2. Furthermore, as dualism is discarded, we also start taking the subject of knowledge and consciousness as an embodied being more seriously. Instead of asking the question “what is consciousness” we ask “what is it for one to be conscious”. Knowledge is mediated by cognitions, which play an important epistemological role, without overly psychologizing knowledge. Furthermore, cognitions are neutral with respect to the subject-object divide (as I understand them anyway), in that they can be grasped by a subject and point towards an object with equal ease. Note that from a mathematical point of view, the subject is no more mysterious an explanatory construct than the object. In one case arrows go from the cognition to the object, and in the other the arrows go from the subject to the cognition. While my treatment of the mathematical aspects here is all too brief, I want to stress that avenues for further research can be opened up by formulating Indian philosophical notions in terms of appropriate mathematical concepts. One could go so far as to speculate that understanding the role of mathematics in cognitive science based on Indian philosophy will have important implications not only for Indian philosophy but also mathematics itself. The same goes for technology. While Indian philosophers did not use either of the two in their work, there is no doubt that any research effort now will have to engage with both of them, to the benefit of Indian philosophers, mathematicians and technologists.
  3. Finally, we need to engage with the issue of how Indian philosophy will transform the practice of cognitive science. Indian philosophy based cognitive science should break the codependence of cognitive science with syntactic symbolic metaphors as well as mechanical technologies. Not that technology should be shunned, but rather that certain unreflective uses of technology to reduce the mind to matter or the mind to syntactic computation should be set aside and the fundamental problems reconsidered. Here’s where we should start fleshing out concrete problems such as:
  • The problem of learning concepts from examples (by children primarily, but adults as well. Perhaps Dignaga has something to say about concept learning that the Chomsky’s and Fodor’s and Hempel’s have missed.
  • The possibility of analytic entailments that are still empirical (in arthapatti) can help us understand how we humans know that a cup in our hands is no longer on the table from which we picked it up. More generally, it gives us ways to understand knowledge that is both analytic, and innate in some sense, and yet deeply empirical and embedded in the world. Here Indian philosophy can say something important about the nature-nurture debate.  As in the case of mind-body dualism which is rejected in the Indian framework, nature and nurture are not opposing quantities either. Knowledge can be part of our nature and yet be utterly grounded in experience. I am interested in finding out how the basically empiricist attitude of Indian philosophy avoids the rationalist-empiricist divide in modern western philosophy and cognitive science, which I believe, closely parallels and influences the physicalist-dualist divide.

To conclude I would like to say that cognitive science is perhaps the only scientific discipline in which one can think of concrete, systematic and possibly revolutionary interventions based on an understanding of Indian philosophical concepts. Unlike the physicist who sees Vedanta at work in Quantum Mechanics but has no way in which to flesh out his intuition (right or not) in the mathematical language that physicists respect, I can see how Indian philosophy can work its way into the details of cognitive science. Whether that happens or not will be mixture of luck, hard work and creativity, but it is definitely worth a shot.


Science for school: The Gyanome Project

June 21, 2013

I have been busy creating several knowledge communities over the past year or so. You might ask what a knowledge community is  but that will remain undefined for now. Fortunately, you know a knowledge community when you see it.

Gyanome, also here, is a community that brings science and math (for now) via scientists and mathematicians to school teachers and students.  In other words, take the standard curriculum – in India that would be the NCERT syllabus – and get well known scientists to teach the essential concepts. Gyanome is a hybrid project; scientists are busy and spread across the earth, so we are creating online resources paired with classroom interaction. 

Apart from our content creation, we have also started having conversations with young Indian scientists about hot scientific topics, in order to give children and teachers good role models. Here is the first conversation I had with Abhiram, a young physicist. We will be doing more in the future. 

Praja Factory

May 1, 2013

While we teach children physics and poetry, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the goal of education is to create citizens who will create a just and flourishing society. For that, not only do we need to teach subjects such as mathematics, we need to teach the art of citizenship itself. I have been working for a few months on a citizenship learning platform called Praja Factory, whose goal is to teach us how to be citizens in the full sense of that term. The site is still in its infancy, but I would love it if:

  1. You give me feedback and/or suggest new topics for the site. 
  2. Register.
  3. Ask and answer questions.
  4. Better if you have an hour or so a week to volunteer and contribute.
  5. Even Better if you are working in a school or a community and want to get children in the school or community involved in this project.

Mind your Brain

April 2, 2013

Obama is about to announce the brain initiative any minute now. I happen to think it is a colossal mistake, but an instructive one. First, it prompts an analysis of Obama: more than his drone war and budget debacles, this brain project is my wake up call that for all his eloquence, he utterly lacks imagination: the only thing he can actually get excited about (like his election campaign) are numbers, measurables and deliverables with no feeling for ideas. Very much a prisoner of the Harvard-MIT best and brightest syndrome.

If you are interested in an extended analysis, read on:

I think of this initiative as the culmination of “iScience,” science as product development, which has a clear recipe:

  1. Assert a metaphysical goal such as: this project will help us understand consciousness, make us all happier, make our military better and build a 21st century economy.
  2. Immediately transform that goal with the greatest reductionist efficiency imaginable into a set of modular, measurable goals with clear deliverables.
  3. Hire a lot of smart people who will do as they are told, pay them a lot of money and give them lot of fancy gadgets to follow the script. Even better if they can keep writing papers about solving the brain.
  4. Show the world how you are sticking to a Brain 2020 timeline or some such vapid goal and have lots of press conferences where even more fancy gadgets and smart people showcase their latest sci-fi stuff.
  5. Torture a lot of animals in the name of science.

Now this is a good recipe for building iphones and Boeing 787’s, because that’s how global supply chains are structured now. But I think it is a terrible way to do science or any engagement with ideas and imagination.

The worst part of the brain initiative for me is not that it’s impractical or outlandish but that it is boring, a view of human inquiry that’s reached an imaginative dead end. If the project “works” then we will all be living in the matrix. But I don’t think it will, for the project for all its technical wizardry is not addressing the key questions – it is really about searching for the lost jewels where the light is shining rather than where it they were lost.

Learnhow versus Learnthat

March 5, 2013

I was at Mapunity earlier today with Ashwin Mahesh and E. S Ramamurthy of the Sikshana FoundationI wish I have Ramamurthy’s energy when I am 75. 

Ramamurthy mentioned something to us which I find interesting: in *one* month, he is able to teach a kid who’s reading at 4th standard level to read at the 7th standard level. One hour a day every day for 30 days. Which makes me think three things:

  1. Should we separate skill acquisition from concept acquisition in schools? After all, when we learn driving, we don’t learn whether we should take the car for vacations or the route to work. It might be useful to separate out the *what* and the *how* of education. 
  2. Do we really need 12 years of schooling that mixes factual, skill-based and conceptual knowledge and does a bad job of all three? It seems that we can impart the basic, universal skills (broadly the 3R’s) in a very short period of time if the person is ready. Why not create an education system that identifies when a person is ready – we will need good data and integration of developmental psychology into the assessment of children- and imparts the skills at that time. Let’s say that takes a total of 3 years. The rest of schooling can be continuous and lifelong rather than an enforced confinement for 12 years. 
  3. Can we imagine skilling schools that are more like driving schools and less like our current teaching schools? These schools will be optimized to “learning how” rather than “learning what” and can be used for lifelong skill learning, from the 3R’s to coding and 3D printing and all kinds of 21st century skills?

The Un-Book Shelf

September 26, 2012

Five of the worst books ever written that are displayed prominently in Indian bookstores:

5. Arindam Chaudhuri‘s “Count your chickens before they hatch.” In a crowded field of snake oil salesmen, AC has a prominent position. Really prominent, as in full page ads in major newspapers.

4. Dale Carnegie‘s “How to win friends and influence people.”

3. Any number of “X for Y” books where X is a prominent religious text, Y is a way of being a snake oil salesman. For example: “Bhagavad Gita for Marketing.” Or, “Business according to the Bible.”

2. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Fortunately, we are one of the few countries in the world where his ideas haven’t gained political power ever, but people are still trying.

1. Kahlil Gibran‘s “The Prophet.” The worst book ever written. What makes me sad is that Tagore’s own translation of Geetanjali reads like the prophet on occasion. My Bengali friends assure me that the great man doesn’t read like KG in the original Bangla.

See the pattern?

The Un-Book Shelf

September 26, 2012

Five of the worst books ever written that are displayed prominently in Indian bookstores:
5. Arindam Chaudhuri‘s “Count your chickens before they hatch.” In a crowded field of snake oil salesmen, AC has a prominent position. Really prominent, as in full page ads in major newspapers.

4. Dale Carnegie‘s “How to win friends and influence people.”

3. Any number of “X for Y” books where X is a prominent religious text, Y is a way of being a snake oil salesman. For example: “Bhagavad Gita for Marketing.” Or, “Business according to the Bible.”

2. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Fortunately, we are one of the few countries in the world where his ideas haven’t gained political power ever, but people are still trying.

1. Kahlil Gibran‘s “The Prophet.” The worst book ever written. What makes me sad is that Tagore’s own translation of Geetanjali reads like the prophet on occasion. My Bengali friends assure me that the great man doesn’t read like KG in the original Bangla.

See the pattern?

Where’s the public in public administration?

August 26, 2012

I was talking to a few lawyer friends of mine yesterday night. They told me how the government is beginning to tax “below market price” share transfers. There is a good intention behind this policy. As it so turns out, the bleeding edge of corruption is not suitcases full of cash. Instead politicians – Andhra ones are particularly ‘entrepreneurial’ here – are asking for stock options in companies. Why get a bribe when you can own the damn company?

Unfortunately, this govt policy is hurting genuine investment. Why would Sequoia invest in a startup if it cannot get stock for worries that the options will be taxed? In other words, the govt is trying to solve an enforcement problem through policy. What we need is for the CBI or other investigating agencies to scrutinize stock transfers, to prove that so and so politician wasn’t bringing any value to a company in return for stock options – no IP, no investment, no value addition except for the political connection itself. Transactions in such situations should be tracked and pursued as criminal cases.

Unfortunately, our investigating agencies are simply not capable of conducting such investigations. Forget the political interference that prevents the CBI or even worse, the local police from prosecuting a case; they don’t have the understanding of evidence gathering, technical analyses and legal representation that go into a prosecution. Look at what Preet Bharara has done in the Raj Rajratnam case. That’s what we need in India.

Starting with the IAS and IPS, we need a much more professional governance cadre. To my IAS and IPS friends: it is not enough to have BTech degrees from the IIT’s. There is a genuine expertise to public administration. Data driven policy making, analytic techniques, evidence gathering along with fairness, equity and justice; these are skills and values that will both make the services more professional and bring more legitimacy to your work and make the work itself more challenging and enjoyable. I hope we can do something to make the country better governed.