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.


The Mirror Self

August 30, 2015

In a talk, I mentioned that it is impossible to point to oneself; one always points to another person. There is an objection to this argument, namely, that one can point to oneself in a mirror. There are ways to respond to that critique that are mainly of a biological nature, to do with the relatively late evolutionary history of self-recognition in mirrors. However, there is a more fundamental metaphysical question: who does one see when one sees a reflection in a mirror? In some ways, a mirror is a special kind of visual illusion. Here, there can be two lines of argument:(a) That visual illusions -and mirror images in particular- teach us a lot about the workings of normal perception. This is the dominant line in philosophy as well as in cognitive science.(b) The heterodox Gibsonian view, and the view consistent with my “action potential” theory of mind is the exact opposite, that illusions do not tell us much about the normal operations of the mind. If so, mirror images are no more problematic than mirages.
I could make (b) stronger by doing a little bit of ordinary language philosophy and say that the verb ‘see’ is being used in particularly slippery ways when we say
(i) I see a bird (flying in the air above me).
(ii) I can see myself (in a mirror).
Cant resist punning; I can already see a future paper called “What we say about what we see, or why we shouldn’t take reflections at face value.”  Recent work in cognitive science suggests that babies learn to move their bodies and make facial gestures by imitating others. Therefore, the ‘original face’ is not my own, but my mother’s. Therefore, the mirror image, is only contingently ones own face, i.e., it could be someone else’s, it just happens to be my own. There is no logical necessity that I see myself in a mirror. Therefore, I know that I have a face and I have eyes (potentially, if not actually, in the Aristotlean sense) because I have a more primal bodily sympathy/empathy with others.

To the extent that I empathize with the person I see in the mirror, I see my face. The self-image is not the self. The same goes for self-percept, self-concept etc. A Buddhist style of argumentation might say that there is nothing more to the self than self-images, self-percepts and self-concepts. If that is correct, then the mirror-image self is as much of a self as the self from the inside out. However, if there is more to the self than the self-image, we could argue that the self is more than its images and reflections.There is an interesting see-saw battle between the reductionist who wants to get rid of the self all together and the holist, who says that there is more to the self than its images.

A heavy use of the mirror self as an intuition pump leads toward an internalization of reflection, from mirrors in the world to our own capacity to hold thoughts, with the ultimate aim of reducing the self itself to a series of images. I, on the other hand, am trying to externalise thoughts and images, saying that these are projections, in between the world and the self, but are neither one, nor the other. To conclude:

(a) We can expand the line of inquiry initiated above to perceptions as a whole, and not just reflections. The reductionist -the Buddhist, for example- argues that perceptual objects are nothing more than an agglomeration of experiences, which in turn are nothing more than images, sounds etc. In other words, if the self is nothing more than the sum of reflections, by symmetry, the objects of the self should also should be nothing more than a sum of perceptions. This is what I should have said earlier, when I said that mirrors and mirages have the same function; if mirrors can be used to understand the self, mirages can be used to understand perception. To the extent that the self and its objects are not images stitched together, we can neither reduce the self to a sum of reflections, nor can we reduce an object to a sum of views.
(b) Introduce the idea of a-thing-from-its-own-side as a refinement of what I was calling the self from the inside out. Is the self “a-thing-from-its-own-side,” which, for example, is that from which we point, rather than what we point at. Like the snake trying to eat its own tail, it might be possible for the pointer to be the pointed, but one has to be very hungry before consuming oneself.

Consciousness Unexplained

August 30, 2015

Academic work, like any other human activity, is dependent on constant practice.  Writing routines are hard to re-establish once they are broken. If you go away to a conference for a week, the momentum that has been built up before that period disappears and is replaced by its opposite, i.e., an aversion to putting thoughts to paper. You could say that this is a psychological law of inertia, i.e., you are likely to keep doing things the way you did in the past few days and so if your routine gets upended for some external reason, its going to percolate into your life even when the intrusion disappears. I guess that explains why privacy is important for any kind of creative work because constant intrusions can upset your inertial state even when the offending person goes away (as opposed to self driven interactions with peers, where you are no longer in the work frame, so its not seen in your subconscious as an intrusion at all).
Anyway, this psychological law of inertial is not what this post is about. I have been thinking about what is called the “hard problem of consciousness”. By the hard problem, philosophers and cognitive scientists mean at least two different things:

(a) Why is it that there is anything like the qualitative aspect of an experience such as the enticing red of a local New England apple picked in September that burst with flavour when bitten and

(b) The uniquely subjective, “first person” character consciousness where supposedly you cannot tell whether I am having the experience of a red apple or a blue mango even if we are seeing the same object.

What seems really strange is that the subjective first person character of an experience of biting into an apple can be studied and even understood from an objective scientific point of view. Indeed, if I was running a apple orchard, I could test my apples for some combination of chemicals that increase their perceived taste and hybridize tastier varieties even if I didn’t have a taste bud on my tongue.

In other words, objective quantities can be reliable signatures of subjective experiences.  Modern economies depend (in fact, enforce) on our signatures on dotted lines standing for our commitment to various actions. Here is where the problem of consciousness really comes in: On the one hand, these signatures stand for our presence, but on the other hand they are not really us. Nobody would confuse you for your signature on a cheque, but in some sense, that signature is also you, as far as the domain of commerce is concerned. So, is the cheque part of you or not?

We seem to have varying intuitions when it come to collapsing the distinction between signatures and the things that the signatures represent. Turing, in his famous Turing test for intelligence argued that the signature is the thing itself when it comes to intelligence. According to the Turing test, a computer that cannot be distinguished from a human being as far as verbal behaviour is concerned is as intelligent as a human being, i.e., the signature of intelligence is the same as intelligence itself.

The same puzzle can be seen in our intuitions about the relationship between minds and our brains: if brain activities are reliable signatures of our mental states, then are they the same as our mental states? Or, to take another example: our facial gestures are reliable indicators of our emotional state, so should we identify facial gestures with their emotions? One can see the real quandary that arises in this case: while my feeling of joy doesn’t seem to be the same as my smile, the smile is surely part of the feeling of joy, its not just an abstract indicator of my joy.

Here is the heart of the problem of consciousness then: while objective facts, behaviours, chemical states etc are reliable indicators of our experiences, they are no more than signatures of our experience. To know a signature is to know enough about the object as far as current norms of scientific inquiry (i.e., inquiry based on the criteria of prediction and explanation) is concerned. If I know the path that the moon took last month when it revolved around the earth (the signature in this case) then I know as much as I need to in order to predict the future behaviour of the moon.

But predictive, explanatory knowledge is not enough for understanding experience. To take the emotion example again, while I can predict that you are angry by reading your facial gestures (and flee if needed), I don’t know what anger feels like to you. A real science of consciousness will not emerge until we can go beyond the current norms of scientific inquiry, which value prediction and explanation over understanding.

What would such a science look like? For one, it will have to start from something besides objective measurements (which are signatures of the things being measured after all). At the very least, we would have to record subjective and objective measurements simultaneously. In the emotion case, one would have to record both objective measurements (like the extent to which your eyebrows are raised and your lips pursed) and subjective measurements (reports of how angry or sad you feel). A real science of consciousness will take subjective and objective data as its starting point. Once it does that, both aspects of the hard problem of consciousness become amenable to investigation. Instead of asking “how come there is such a thing as the taste of an apple in a world of objective facts?” we will investigate the relationship between the objective and the subjective aspects of being an apple simultaneously. To conclude, its only our metaphysical bias towards “objectivity” that keeps us from doing scientific investigations of consciousness.


August 28, 2015

Until about 2000, perhaps even 2005, the term genius was used for artists, scientists and philosophers. I think of Andrew Wiles staring at sheets of paper in his Princeton office as he contemplated Fermat’s last theorem. Or Miyazaki spiriting us away into a magical kingdom. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were smart, talented and very very rich but they weren’t geniuses. 

Not anymore. There’s absolutely nothing that entrepreneurs can’t become if they set their minds to it. They can be creative, they can be wise, they can fix the climate and end poverty and at the end of it all count their billions in their Palo Alto garages. Like so many other words before them, creativity and wisdom have succumbed to the charms of commodification and have become creativity 2.0 and wisdom 2.0. 

While rumors of startupman have been circulating since 1998, he was first spotted on earth in 2011, after the recession had receded a tiny bit and money was flowing through Sandy Hill once again. Startup man is the universal being of our times. He is scrappy and tough. Complex engineering problems are a piece of cake for him. Most importantly, he can raise money from old white men like a hill in Boston was named after him.

Startupman’s gifts don’t stop at engineering and business; he can write novels and organize expeditions to Mars. He can meditate to end world hunger while playing the guitar. I am waiting for the startupman app. Rumor has it that Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon are all working on one, but I bet you there’s a kid in a basement somewhere who’s going to beat them to it.   


Two Dimensions of Data: Newsletter #25

January 26, 2015

What was that old saw: in God we trust, everyone else bring data? Data and information are the bedrock of modern society. Money, numbers, bits; however you count the beads, it’s data everywhere. 

Yet, there’s no real understanding of data among scientists and scholars, let alone the general public. Even the experts view information from within their specialization – let’s say machine learning or information visualization – than an understanding of the science as a whole. Imagine a world in which people learned numerical simulations for space travel without learning classical mechanics. Physics is a great science because it’s basic concepts – not it’s foundations, but the concepts that all physicists need to know in order to apply their methods to problems in the world – are drilled into physicists from mechanics 101 onward. 

There are two sciences of information: computer science and statistics; both are backed by mathematical theory, but go well beyond mathematics in their real world applicability. Still, there’s a tendency to identify these subjects with their (current) mathematical foundations, i.e., the theory of computation and probability theory. A physicist would find that strange; physics is mathematical, but no physicist would confuse the foundations of physics with the foundations of mathematics. 

Until our understanding of information makes that transition, we won’t have a robust science of form. I believe that transition will require a deeper unification of computing and statistics than is on offer today and in order to do so, we will have to look at the two disciplines from a bird’s eye view first and then narrow down on important questions for unification. It’s a topic that’s beginning to concern me more and more, so I am going to use these newsletters to talk about my ideas every so often. Bear with me if you think I am going all technical. 

Let’s first note that computing and statistics bite different chunks of the information universe. Computing helps us engineer information systems – desktop, laptop and mobile computers and computer networks being the most important. Computing (and once again, let me emphasize that I care more about computer engineering than computer science) integrates information vertically, i.e., it’s about engineering information systems from logic gates all the way to iPhone apps. 

Statistics on the other hand helps us with experimentation, getting data from the world. The integration is horizontal; statisticians care about experimental designs and survey techniques; as the data is brought in for analysis, statisticians also care about techniques for crunching and visualizing the numbers.

Computing and statistics have stayed away from each other for most of their history, starting with training and ending with their typical applications. Statisticians learn continuous mathematics and most of the important applications of statistics have been in unsexy fields such as agricultural genetics and psychology. Computer scientists learn discrete mathematics and from the beginning the science and engineering has been very sexy – from it’s involvement in code breaking to the foundations of mathematics. 

The proliferation of data is the main reason the two fields are beginning to come together. In particular, we need the vertical engineering of computing systems to be driven by the horizontal flow of data. Incidentally, this is exactly what my PhD supervisor, Whitman Richards, was advocating several decades ago. He got the germ of that idea from David Marr’s work on Vision. The marriage of the vertical and the horizontal is not only interesting as engineering, it’s arguably the best way to understanding the relationship between the mind and the brain as well. Machine learning is at the forefront of the marriage of vertical information and horizontal information. I believe that merger will expand to more and more fields in the future. To be continued

Alien Minds: Newsletter #24

January 12, 2015

This week, I am going to talk about something I have puzzled about ever since I was a child but never really taken seriously: the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. SETI, like AI, is one of those elusive, almost dream like goals whose goalposts keep changing. What would count as a truly alien intelligence? When can we say we have discovered (or more likely, stumbled upon) an alien civilization?

I remember Carl Sagan talking about the Golden Record in the Voyager spacecraft, which was his view of the top ten hits of human existence. It has the usual suspects, starting with Mozart and going on to other peaks of civilization as conceived by white male nerds in 1977. OK, that was probably a little unfair, but in retrospect, Sagan’s idea of intelligence and civilization looks rather parochial to me. We are still saddled with a view of aliens as green eyed monsters who play the world of warcraft at a cosmic scale.

The search for intelligence remains the most anthropomorphic of quests; which means that asking whether robots will ever be intelligent is a little bit like asking whether planes fly or not. There’s no principled answer to that question: most of us intuitively think that planes fly, but that’s about it as far as science goes.

Certainly, planes don’t fly in the way birds and insects do and their capacity to fly isn’t based on a genetic endowment of the kind birds and insects have. On the other hand, both mechanical and biological flight are grounded in the principles of fluid dynamics. We can’t build aircraft without understanding how air flows around wings, though it goes without saying that a bird doesn’t understand the principles of aerodynamics in anything like the way an aerospace engineer does. These are different regimes of knowledge. 

In other words, flight is a believable abstraction; we are able to separate out the ability to be in the air for extended periods of time from its biological or mechanical implementation. It doesn’t depend on having feathers or landing gear. Flying doesn’t mean flying like a bird anymore. 

SETI is quite different. We are still focused on finding traces of advanced civilizations, i.e., beings who are like us, but better. I think that’s a major problem in AI as well. Take the Turing test for example: the goal is to create a machine whose answers to questions can’t be distinguished from a human’s answers to the same questions. How much more anthropomorphic can you get? 

SETI and AI pose a metaphysical quandary: on the one hand, we want to understand alien or robotic intelligence on it’s own terms (where the term “alien” encompasses terrestrial intelligence that’s very different from ours – gut bacteria, redwood trees etc) but the only tools and intuitions we have are our own minds and our cultural presuppositions about intelligence. 

Strangely, I think we should explore SETI for the same reason we sit down on a cushion and meditate, i.e., to explore ourselves but also to set aside and ultimately reject self-indulgent and parochial impressions of ourselves. It’s really a religious quest as much as a scientific one. Seen this way, it doesn’t surprise me that the techno-religious cults that have sprung up in the last fifty years (such as the “singularity”) and their manifestation in art (“The Matrix”) are all to do with AI and SETI. As religions go, these alien dreams are shallow spiritual systems, but they have unerringly identified a new direction for contemplation. 

The exploration of Mind and minds – our minds, the minds of other species, the minds of aliens, the minds of robots – and ultimately, the search for the origins of order and organization, is exactly the kind of exploration that brings science together with religion. It’s a search that would be as familiar to the Zen masters of China as the astronomer in her observatory. It is for that reason, not the preserve of scientists alone. Or in some crazy inversion of priorities, to be located in an imagined past of Vedic astronautics.

The adventure of the mind is a new adventure, pointing toward the future, not the past. It’s like Siva’s marriage procession, with room for gods and humans, beasts and demons. Inner space and outer space are deeply intertwined after all. 

In Doubt we Trust. Newsletter #23.

January 4, 2015

Fundamentalism is one of those modern predicaments that often come clothed in ancient garb. Religious fundamentalists like to tout their faithfulness to a pure version of their tradition. In practice, fundamentalism is more about exclusion rather than purity; co-religionists are often targeted for their impure faith – perhaps they sing and dance or celebrate a festival that they shouldn’t. As for those who are outside the cicle, they are fair game. There’s no room for doubt or accommodation; certainty is the hallmark of the fundamentalist. When seen this way, there’s no shortage of scientific fundamentalists either. People like Richard Dawkins are as vehement in their atheism as any Taliban preacher. 

It’s easy to see that certainty is incompatible with humility; without humility, there’s no going forward. Let me be clear, I am not talking about humility as an emotion – some of the most fundamentalist people I know are humble in their external attitude and fanatics in their faith. Humility is an orientation that recognizes one’s humanity and the incompleteness of one’s knowledge. That’s the attitude of the seeker, who is full of doubt, even if she comes to that doubt with great faith. If certainty is the standard of the fundamentalist, doubt is the engine of the seeker. 

I like doubt because certainty is boring. Humility is not just a negative attribute, i.e., the lack of arrogance or omniscience; it is also a positive energy that propels one forward to ask new questions. Let’s put it another way: there are two ways of being: the answer way and the question way. The answer way wants certainty, though it will settle for closure when it can’t get certainty. Consider science, both as it is taught and how it advances: it does so by stacking one answer on top of another. Papers get published because they settled a doubt or verified a hypothesis. There’s no journal of questions. Engineers are more modest. There are no final answers, but products have to ship and customers have to be served and until then there’s a temporary freeze on development. That’s what I mean by the termclosure, you close off all options until further notice. 

The question way has much less prestige. There are no patents for questions. There are no named professorships at Harvard for questions. In fact, it is often dangerous, as children learn quickly after asking awkward questions at home or school. On the other hand, a good question is like an arrow pointed at the uncovered belly of the dragon (I just saw the last episode of the Hobbit); it can bring the whole edifice down and usher a revolution in thought. To the questioner, an answer is just a question’s way of asking another question. A hypothesis might well be verified, but verification is important only to the extent to which it is the key to another door. 

The answer way makes a concession to the fundamentalist. It says, “I am ready to believe, but only when I see it.” Like the fundamentalist, the answerer wants certainty; he is just willing to test his faith a little more. Trust but verify. The question way makes no such concession. There’s always grass to be gathered and a fire to be lit. 

Mindfulness: The Monk in the Machine. Newsletter #21.

December 21, 2014

This week’s newsletter continues last week’s discussion of tradition. 

Some years ago, when I was a graduate student, I mentioned to a maverick cognitive scientist that I was beginning to look at Indian philosophy as a way of breaking through some of the conceptual puzzles in cognitive science. I had Bimal Matilal’s book on perception in my hand, which I handed over to him. He handed it back to me after a minute and said: “but this is too analytic; isn’t Indian philosophy more about sitting by the river side and watch the river go by?”

Eastern men in robes have had a long run of making history in the west. It probably started with Vivekananda, Suzuki and Dharmapala in the late nineteenth century, succeeded by Gandhi and Tagore and a few decades later, the various gurus from Chogyam Trungpa to Osho. The combination of eastern mysticism and western science has proven itself a surefire bestseller.

Unfortunately,mysticism always lives in counter-culture, not in the mainstream. In fact, bringing meditation to the mainstream has required an explicit disavowal of anything mystical, or for that matter, anything to do with the Indian sources that it came from. Consider the immense success of mindfulness. Just take a look at the graph below, a google n-gram of the use of the term “mindfulness” between 1950 and 2008. Do you see a trend? 

If graphs aren’t your thing, you might be better persuaded by the recent popularity of mindfulness on network tv or the increasing number of celebrities and rich people attributing their success and sanity to mindfulness. Here’s a quick check of its effectiveness. Take any daily life activity – let’s call it X – and prepend ‘mindful’ in front of it, making it mindful X. In other words:

  1. Mindful eating
  2. Mindful work
  3. Mindful learning
  4. Mindful %$*

Doesn’t it sound so much better when it’s mindful? If you eat all the time you’re a pig but if you eat mindfully, you are a babe. Like yoga before it, mindfulness has traversed the hype cycle from niche to buzzword to suburban staple.  I don’t have a problem with that; may you be happy in your endeavors. If the meditation cushion is a stairmaster for the mind, more power to cushions. I start having problems when mindfulness becomes a theory of change. For example:

Before: Workers don’t have rights so they fight to unionize. 

After: Workers don’t have rights so they enroll in mindfulness classes. 

The first is an effective way of changing the world. The second, not so much. You might be thinking, what about that Buddha, didn’t he change the world through meditation? Well, the Buddha did change the world for the better. He did meditate. But did he change the world through meditation? What is meditation anyway? 

We think of meditation as one thing. Like science. But there are thousands of meditative practices, just as there are thousands of scientific techniques. Some of these practices are broadly of the kind we would term mindfulness. Others are quite different – prayer, analytic reading of texts, tantric visualizations and so on.

We wouldn’t take a scientist seriously if all she knew was matrix multiplication. Why is meditation any different? It’s a little bit like teaching people multiplication tables and assuming that they will be able to model the motion of planets. It doesn’t work that way. 

So my real problem with mindfulness is that it is immensely reductive and in being so, it lends itself easily to appropriation by powers that are anything but mindful. We don’t need any more drugs that blind us to the disasters unfolding everywhere. Especially not those that give the illusion of making the world a better place. Let’s meditate by all means, but let’s also inquire into the human condition, think critically and engage with others. In other words, do all the things that the Buddha did when he wasn’t meditating. 

As for those of us who are interested in the value of Indian texts and sources, the success of mindfulness is a cautionary tale: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Think of science as google, a universal index of what’s valuable. Just as google can make your website very popular and then destroy your business model when its algorithms change or it makes its own version of your product, an over-reliance on science to validate your tradition can lead to trouble. 

The Use and Abuse of Tradition: Newsletter #20

December 13, 2014

I am not much of a traditionalist. As far as I am concerned, the future is more important than the past. At the same time, human beings are shaped by history and geography; our past both constrains us and sets us free. As a result, I find myself caught between traditionalists and modernizers.

A few days ago, I posted a note on Sanskrit learning on Facebook and it attracted much more attention than I expected it to receive; clearly, Sanskrit has immense emotional resonance both to its votaries and to its detractors. Let’s set aside the political impulses behind Sanskritization in India (or Biblical learning in the US or Hebrew in Israel) and look at what thoughtful proponents might say on each side.

To the traditionalist, Sanskrit is the source of much wisdom, wisdom that’s been systematically denigrated and marginalized. The traditionalist would deploy scholarly resources toward the translation of Sanskrit texts and toward building a new community of scholars engaging with Sanskrit texts in the original as well as in translation. In other words, what European scholars did with Greek texts many centuries ago and continue to this day. In this view, Adi Shankara deserves as much attention as Aristotle. I agree with this view.

To the modernizer, Sanskrit is an elite language, forbidden to most inhabitants of the subcontinent by virtue of caste and gender. It is the language of a deeply unequal system. To the extent it has interesting ideas, the ideas are so far removed from modern concerns that there isn’t much in the way of practical wisdom to be gained from studying these texts. I agree with this view as well.

It does seem like a contradiction doesn’t it? Let me explain why it isn’t.

Creativity and tradition

To the extent that tradition is to be preserved rather than built upon, it’s dead. In other words, when someone says that all of us should learn the Vedas – setting aside the fact that such a practice would explicitly contravene the tradition itself – I hear someone clutching at straws.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume all modern scientific knowledge is contained in the Vedas. So what? How does that help us do science better? In fact, consider that Newton’s Principia contains a very large portion of modern scientific knowledge; yet no one is asking all school children to read the Principia. Instead, we teach them classical mechanics and the calculus. A living tradition has ways of translating texts into theories.

In fact, the core of the fundamentalists condition is a tragedy. They are tacitly aware that their tradition (independent of the religion or ethnicity involved) has lost its bearings, that it can no longer offer a credible response to the human condition and yet, as creatures of history, they know we can’t get out of the well into which we have fallen without using the tradition itself as a ladder.

Where there’s tragedy, there’s also hope. A deep tradition has the resources to spur creative responses even as it abandons some of the cherished assumptions of the past. That’s what scientists do when they set aside theories of matter; that’s what Carnatic and Hindustani musicians have done to keep their musical traditions alive. In other words, let’s treat our traditions as artists do, as creative resources. We build our castles on top of foundations dug by others. Even radical change needs a launching pad. A Picasso needs a Rembrandt; a Gandhi needs a Ramakrishna.

So my counsel to the Sanskrit traditionalists is this: inhabit the premises of this ancient house and see which beams need to be strengthened, which walls need to be torn down and which rooms need to be repainted. Be merciless in that vision. My counsel to the modernizers is this: do not think yourself outside this history. 

The Right Abstraction: Newsletter #19

December 6, 2014


I have been fascinated with abstraction for as long as I can remember. The disciplines I am drawn to instinctively – mathematics, physics, philosophy, programming, literature, design, cognition, religion; to name a few – are all disciplines that truck in abstractions. 

Good abstractions make life easier for all of us and greatly enhance human culture. Writing is a good example: we abstract away particulars such as handwriting and font size or physical location and label them under one heading: “this is so and so’s article.” There’s a sense in which all copies of Shakespeare’s Hamlet are the same or close enough to being so. 

As you can see, abstraction is tied to identity – if I were to think of one thing that defines the process of abstraction, it’s the ability to categorize two different things as the same. Some abstractions are natural, such as personal identity: after all, without abstraction, how would you experience yourself as the same person over a twenty year period while your hair is falling out and your teeth are decaying? Other abstractions are human created, such as desktop UIs that help you copy and paste files. 

Desktop user interfaces tell us that abstraction isn’t opposed to concreteness; in fact, some of the best abstractions make entities tangible to us, just as the mouse and the keyboard makes files on a computer available to us. Tangible abstractions are all around us; words on a screen being the best example. Tangibility is one of two principles I consider paramount while designing good abstractions; the other is representation. The principles can be summarized in two short slogans:

  1. No abstraction without representation. 
  2. Make things tangible. 

When we represent something in language, art or law, we make it explicit; we give it rights and responsibilities; in a nutshell, we take it seriously. That’s why representative democracy for all it’s faults is better than the people’s republics. Sovereignty – another abstraction – has no meaning if it isn’t translated into institutions such as parliaments that represent that abstraction. Abstraction without representation is toothless. For example, I cringe whenever someone talks about balancing the needs of development and the environment. Economic growth is very well represented. Corporations are in the business of turning abstract theories of growth into real profits. The environment isn’t represented at all. While there are laws, implementation is poor and no one who speaks for nature.  Until we create institutions that represent the non-human world, we can’t talk about balancing environmental needs with economic needs. 

Representations are even better when they come with a tangible interface, an API in the computer programming sense of that term. The lexicon is an interesting abstraction, but dictionaries make the lexicon tangible. You might be surprised to know that standardized spellings are very recent; as late as the eighteenth century, people would spell a word in different ways in one article or book. The lexicon represents words. Dictionaries make the lexicon tangible. Abstractions such as computer mice and keyboards make computing tangible. Voting makes democracy tangible.

Tangibility works as a great UI for abstraction when the interface behaves the way you expect it to do so, even as it invites you into a space that’s different from anything you have experienced before. For example, Leibniz’s dy/dx notation makes calculus tangible, because it helps you manipulate infinitesimals the way you manipulate regular numbers even as it takes us far away from the world of bare multiplication and division. 

These two principles aren’t a historical curiosity; as software leaves the world of the screen and enters the world of gestural interfaces and physical objects, we will need an entirely new framework for understanding abstractions, including new representations and new interfaces. The dominant abstractions of the last two thousand years are all 2D abstractions, i.e., abstractions made tangible on paper and screen. As software and hardware intermingle – itself a new abstraction – we are faced with the task of building 3D abstractions. The world will assimilate software as software eats the world.