Category Archives: Philosophy

Philosophy is never too far from physics. It is in their overlap that I expect breakthroughs.

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Death and Grief

Some recent events have prompted me to revisit this uncomfortable topic — why do we grieve when someone dies?

Most religions tell us that the departed, if they were good in life, end up in a better place. So grieving doesn’t make sense. If the departed were bad, we wouldn’t grieve any way.

Even if you are not religious, and do not believe in an eternal soul, death cannot be a bad thing for the dead, for they feel nothing, because they do not exist, which is the definition of death.

One reason for grieving may be that you will miss the departed, and that is painful. Let’s examine this possible reason with the help of a thought experiment. (Or rather, Prof Shelly Kagan in his lectures on the Philosophy of Death examined it that way.) Let’s say you have a close friend who is going on a space mission to the nearest star. He will not return in the next hundred years, and there is no chance at all that you will be able to see him again. Let’s also say that because of the nature of the mission, it will be impossible to communicate with your friend after lift off. You will sorely miss your friend. To all intents and purposes, your friend is as good as dead to you. Or is he? Let’s say thirty seconds after lift off, something goes terribly wrong and the spaceship explodes and your friend dies. To you, is it the same as the friend continuing his space mission? If your missing him was the only reason, it should be. I think it is pretty obvious that death is worse than a permanent farewell. Why? What is the extra badness that death adds to the equation?

That brings us to the next common reason for the badness of death. Your friend dying in a spaceship explosion is worse than him leaving forever because he will be missing out on all the great things he could have done if he were alive. If somebody dies at the age of 70, it is bad because he could have lived for another 20 years; he is missing out on 20 years of life. If he dies at the age of 50, it is worse because he is missing out on 40 years. Dying at the age of ten or one would be horrible because they would be missing out on their whole life. Continuing that logic, not being born at all should be really really bad. How about not even being conceived? Shouldn’t that be worse still? But we don’t feel any grief for the trillions of potential lives (from all the unfertilized eggs and lost sperms) that never got started. I think there is a logical inconsistency in this “missing-out-on-life” reason for the badness of death. It cannot be the real reason, or we would be grieving for all the potential lives that never happened.

Another possible reason is that we know that the departed may have gone through a lot of pain and fear. I thought of it and worried about it during my own personal grieving. But I have to say that there was something beyond that concern, way beyond, in my grief. Now I think I know what it is. You see, when someone (anyone) dies, a bit of you dies with him. If that person was a large part of your life (like your parent, or your spouse), it is a large bit of you that dies, for all the memories you created in him, all the projections of your soul in his consciousness, are also gone with him. The space you occupy in this universe becomes that much smaller. Your grief is not for the departed. Your grief is for yourself because what is departed really is a bit of yourself.

This is probably what Hemingway meant when he penned the title, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” going by the epigraph of the book where he quoted John Donne:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Photo by SIRHENRYB.is ****the dreamer**** cc

Internal and External Successes

Success can be internal or external. External success is easily measured in terms of money and material possessions. The internal one is measured in terms of less palpable yardsticks, like happiness, peace of mind etc. External success is related to extrovert qualities, like articulation, and depends on what others think of you. The internal one, on the other hand, depends on what you think of yourself. It is made up of things like duty, honor etc. Confusing one with the other leads to misconceptions like identifying money with happiness, for instance. You need one for the other, but they are definitely not the same.

The height of extroversion are the social medial networks like Facebook. Paradoxically, they are also an introvert’s desperate attempt at being an extrovert, but that’s another story. I think people’s success in life shines more through Facebook than anything else these days. It even leads to something similar to Facebook envy, as BBC recently reported. The report said something about people feeling left out because they see their friends having a grand time all the time. They then feel as though life is passing them by.

There is a flip side to this Facebook-evny phenomenon. You can try to generate as much envy as possible by posting your photos in fabulous locations, having wall-to-wall fun. If that doesn’t project an aura of external success, what does?

I should admit — I’m guilty of this Facebook bragging. I once posted a photo of mine with the Eiffel Tower in the background, and I even remember asking my daughter to be sure to catch the tower in the background. I guess in today’s day and age, you do need a bit of external success as well. The internal one by itself doesn’t quite cut it.

How to be Successful in Life?

When I talked about the dimensions of success, I used the word dimension with an ulterior motive. I want to define success for you in a formal way. You see, an entity that has many dimensions is a space, similar to the three dimensional space we live in. When we have such a complex multi-dimensional space to define success in, we have to apply some good techniques from physics to do it right. Don’t worry, i am here to help.

Success is hard to define, but the lack of success seems obvious — no money, no family, no friends, no education, no wisdom, no health, no wealth etc. That situation is one dark point in this multi-dimensional success-space. Your station in life is another point in the success-space. How far away from the dark point your station is is truly the measure of your success in life. The distance from this zero point of failure is the so-called Cartesian distance. If you have special likes or dislikes for one particular dimension of success (like money, for instance), you can assign an appropriate weight to that dimension, which effectively makes the distance what they call a chi^2 distance. Of course, it would be impossible to assign precise numerical values to all these abstract dimensions and distances. But this mode of thinking should give you a tool to analyze and understand successes and failures. It will tell you, for instance, why Bangladeshis score higher in happiness index than Americans. They just happen to have a different set of dimensions that they consider important.

The trick in achieving success in life lies in identifying the dimensions that are important to you personally. Don’t let yourself get influenced by others (unless, of course, pleasing others is one of your preferred dimensions). Once your own personal directions are identified, channel all your efforts along those dimensions. Just be sure that your dimensions are right for you both in terms of your deepest desires and your abilities. Choose wisely!

Dimensions of Success

Money is only one dimension along which success can be defined. There are many others, such as sports, music, art, acting, politics, professions and even more abstract things like articulation, soft skills, philanthropy, wisdom, knowledge etc. Excellence in any one of them can be thought of us success. Success is easy to spot — look at any one of the celebrities and ask yourself why you know them. The answer is usually one of the dimensions of success — and fame its byproduct.

Excellence in any field can translate to money, which is what Eddie Felson in the Color of Money tells the younger pool player. This transformability often leads us to mistake money for the measure success, which, by the way, is the theme of the afore-mentioned movie. Towards the end of the movie, when Felson realizes that there is more to life than money, he says, “I just want your best game.” Ability to hang with the best game anybody can dish out in any field is excellence; and it has to be reckoned as success. This excellence is probably what the ancient Greeks called arete.

Then, we have other dimensions of life, which, if lived well, lead to gratification and I suppose, spell success in life. Being a good son or daughter and taking care of your parents, for instance, is a worthy goal that my Asian and Indian friends will appreciate. Being a good spouse or a good parent is another worthy dimension of success that most of us would like to achieve, at least in principle. Excellence along these dimensions may lead to personal satisfaction, but no monetary glory. I wonder whether the lack of money makes these successes less impressive.

Success without money came to some other excellent souls as well. Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Karl Marx etc. had wretchedly poor existences, but were posthumously recognized as peaks of excellence in their own ways. Again, it looks as thought their success is somewhat less worthy because of its lack of financial rewards. Or is it the money-centric worldview of our era (or of my garden state of Singapore) that is talking? When we ask our kids to score A’s, are we asking them to be excellent in academics for its own sake and pleasure? Or are we hoping, secretly and hypocritically, that they will make oodles of money for themselves later in life? I’m afraid it is the latter.

Definition of Success

We all want to be successful in life. What does success mean to us? Because success is goal in life, when it is not achieved, we get disappointed. We are then, to be blunt, unsuccessful. But the word success can hold anything within. So if you we don’t know what success is, disappointment is inevitable. We really do need to define it.

Let’s go through a few common definitions of success and see if we can draw any conclusions from it. By the end of this series of posts, I hope to give you a good definition that will make you successful in life. What more can you ask of a blog?

We life in a material world, and the most popular definition of success is in terms of the things you own, or your ability to own them, which basically translates to money. So we use money as a proxy to success, which is why questions like, “If you are so smart, how come you are poor?” make sense. Being smart by itself, or acquiring knowledge for its own sake does not success make. However, this definition of success has problems. For one thing, money is the kind of thing you can keep accumulating, which means you can be more and more successful until you become the richest person on earth. Secondly, by this definition of success, someone like Mother Theresa would have to be disappointed with her life. And someone like Madoff would be considered to have lived a good life (if he hadn’t been caught, that is). In other words, the intrinsic goodness (a concept again hard to define) takes a backseat to pure accumulation of the green stuff. This phenomenon and the associated excesses, of course, are something we do see everywhere in the world around us.

We are not going to address the ethical question about money being the definition of success. We just need to understand that it leads to unachievable goals to almost everyone. By this money-based definition of success, almost everyone ends up being unsuccessful and disappointed with the way their life has turned out, because they always feel that they could have earned more, which of course they could have.

One way of avoiding disappointment is to set a ceiling, a limit to how much you want to accumulate. Let’s say you set a “modest” limit of one million dollars on your monetary goal. Given that it is only three or four percent of those in a rich country like Singapore that make the cut, it is a fairly respectable, yet achievable, goal for most of the readers of this blog. Now the trouble with this redefinition is that it ends up becoming a moving target. By the time you reach anywhere near the target, your lifestyle would have changed so as to make it look too modest. But if you can stick with it, a capped financial target seems like sensible definition of success.

Man as Chinese Room

In the previous posts in this series, we discussed how devastating Searle’s Chinese Room argument was to the premise that our brains are digital computers. He argued, quite convincingly, that mere symbol manipulation could not lead to the rich understanding that we seem to enjoy. However, I refused to be convinced, and found the so-called systems response more convincing. It was the counter-argument saying that it was the whole Chinese Room that understood the language, not merely the operator or symbol pusher in the room. Searle laughed it off, but had a serious response as well. He said, “Let me be the whole Chinese Room. Let me memorize all the symbols and the symbol manipulation rules so that I can provide Chinese responses to questions. I still don’t understand Chinese.”

Now, that raises an interesting question — if you know enough Chinese symbols, and Chinese rules to manipulate them, don’t you actually know Chinese? Of course you can imagine someone being able to handle a language correctly without understanding a word of it, but I think that is stretching the imagination a bit too far. I am reminded of the blind sight experiment where people could see without knowing it, without being consciously aware of what it was that they were seeing. Searle’s response points in the same direction — being able to speak Chinese without understanding it. What the Chinese Room is lacking is the conscious awareness of what it is doing.

To delve a bit deeper into this debate, we have to get a bit formal about Syntax and Semantics. Language has both syntax and semantics. For example, a statement like “Please read my blog posts” has the syntax originating from the grammar of the English language, symbols that are words (syntactical placeholders), letters and punctuation. On top of all that syntax, it has a content — my desire and request that you read my posts, and my background belief that you know what the symbols and the content mean. That is the semantics, the meaning of the statement.

A computer, according to Searle, can only deal with symbols and, based on symbolic manipulation, come up with syntactically correct responses. It doesn’t understand the semantic content as we do. It is incapable of complying with my request because of its lack of understanding. It is in this sense that the Chinese Room doesn’t understand Chinese. At least, that is Searle’s claim. Since computers are like Chinese Rooms, they cannot understand semantics either. But our brains can, and therefore the brain cannot be a mere computer.

When put that way, I think most people would side with Searle. But what if the computer could actually comply with the requests and commands that form the semantic content of statements? I guess even then we would probably not consider a computer fully capable of semantic comprehension, which is why if a computer actually complied with my request to read my posts, I might not find it intellectually satisfying. What we are demanding, of course, is consciousness. What more can we ask of a computer to convince us that it is conscious?

I don’t have a good answer to that. But I think you have to apply uniform standards in ascribing consciousness to entities external to you — if you believe in the existence of other minds in humans, you have to ask yourself what standards you apply in arriving at that conclusion, and ensure that you apply the same standards to computers as well. You cannot build cyclical conditions into your standards — like others have human bodies, nervous systems and an anatomy like you do so that that they have minds as well, which is what Searle did.

In my opinion, it is best to be open-minded about such questions, and important not to answer them from a position of insufficient logic.

Minds as Machine Intelligence

Prof. Searle is perhaps most famous for his proof that computing machines (or computation as defined by Alan Turing) can never be intelligent. His proof uses what is called the Chinese Room argument, which shows that mere symbol manipulation (which is what Turning’s definition of computation is, according to Searle) cannot lead to understanding and intelligence. Ergo our brains and minds could not be mere computers.

The argument goes like this — assume Searle is locked up in a room where he gets inputs corresponding to questions in Chinese. He has a set of rules to manipulate the input symbols and pick out an output symbol, much as a computer does. So he comes up with Chinese responses that fool outside judges into believing that they are communicating with a real Chinese speaker. Assume that this can be done. Now, here is the punch line — Searle doesn’t know a word of Chinese. He doesn’t know what the symbols mean. So mere rule-based symbol manipulation is not enough to guarantee intelligence, consciousness, understanding etc. Passing the Turing Test is not enough to guarantee intelligence.

One of the counter-arguements that I found most interesting is what Searle calls the systems argument. It is not Searle in the Chinese room that understands Chinese; it is the whole system including the ruleset that does. Searle laughs it off saying, “What, the room understands Chinese?!” I think the systems argument merits more that that derisive dismissal. I have two supporting arguments in favor of the systems response.

The first one is the point I made in the previous post in this series. In Problem of Other Minds, we saw that Searle’s answer to the question whether others have minds was essentially by behavior and analogy. Others behave as though they have minds (in that they cry out when we hit their thumb with a hammer) and their internal mechanisms for pain (nerves, brain, neuronal firings etc) are similar to ours. In the case of the Chinese room, it certainly behaves as though it understands Chinese, but it doesn’t have any analogs in terms of the parts or mechanisms like a Chinese speaker. Is it this break in analogy that is preventing Searle from assigning intelligence to it, despite its intelligent behavior?

The second argument takes the form of another thought experiment — I think it is called the Chinese Nation argument. Let’s say we can delegate the work of each neuron in Searle’s brain to a non-English speaking person. So when Searle hears a question in English, it is actually being handled by trillions of non-English speaking computational elements, which generate the same response as his brain would. Now, where is the English language understanding in this Chinese Nation of non-English speaking people acting as neurons? I think one would have to say that it is the whole “nation” that understands English. Or would Searle laugh it off saying, “What, the nation understands English?!”

Well, if the Chinese nation could understand English, I guess the Chinese room could understand Chinese as well. Computing with mere symbol manipulation (which is what the people in the nation are doing) can and does lead to intelligence and understanding. So our brains could really be computers, and minds software manipulating symbols. Ergo Searle is wrong.

Look, I used Prof. Searle’s arguments and my counter arguments in this series as a sort of dialog for dramatic effect. The fact of the matter is, Prof. Searle is a world-renowned philosopher with impressive credentials while I am a sporadic blogger — a drive-by philosopher at best. I guess I am apologizing here to Prof. Searle and his students if they find my posts and comments offensive. It was not intended; only an interesting read was intended.

Problem of Other Minds

How do you know other people have minds as you do? This may sound like a silly question, but if you allow yourself to think about it, you will realize that you have no logical reason to believe in the existence of other minds, which is why it is an unsolved problem in philosophy – the Problem of Other Minds. To illustrate – I was working on that Ikea project the other day, and was hammering in that weird two-headed nail-screw-stub thingie. I missed it completely and hit my thumb. I felt the excruciating pain, meaning my mind felt it and I cried out. I know I have a mind because I felt the pain. Now, let’s say I see another bozo hitting his thumb and crying out. I feel no pain; my mind feels nothing (except a bit of empathy on a good day). What positive logical basis do I have to think that the behavior (crying) is caused by pain felt by a mind?

Mind you, I am not suggesting that others do not have minds or consciousness — not yet, at least. I am merely pointing out that there is no logical basis to believe that they do. Logic certainly is not the only basis for belief. Faith is another. Intuition, analogy, mass delusion, indoctrination, peer pressure, instinct etc. are all basis for beliefs both true and false. I believe that others have minds; otherwise I wouldn’t bother writing these blog posts. But I am keenly aware that I have no logical justification for this particular belief.

The thing about this problem of other minds is that it is profoundly asymmetric. If I believe that you don’t have a mind, it is not an issue for you — you know that I am wrong the moment you hear it because you know that you have a mind (assuming, of course, that you do). But I do have a serious issue — there is no way for me to attack my belief in the non-existence of your mind. You could tell me, of course, but then I would think, “Yeah, that is exactly what a mindless robot would be programmed to say!”

I was listening to a series of lectures on the philosophy of mind by Prof. John Searle. He “solves” the problem of other minds by analogy. We know that we have the same anatomical and neurophysical wirings in addition to analogous behavior. So we can “convince” ourselves that we all have minds. It is a good argument as far as it goes. What bothers me about it is its complement — what it implies about minds in things that are wired differently, like snakes and lizards and fish and slugs and ants and bacteria and viruses. And, of course, machines.

Could machines have minds? The answer to this is rather trivial — of course they can. We are biological machines, and we have minds (assuming, again, that you guys do). Could computers have minds? Or, more pointedly, could our brains be computers, and minds be software running on it? That is fodder for the next post.

Brains and Computers

We have a perfect parallel between brains and computers. We can easily think of the brain as the hardware and mind or consciousness as the software or the operating system. We would be wrong, according to many philosophers, but I still think of it that way. Let me outline the compelling similarities (according to me) before getting into the philosophical difficulties involved.

A lot of what we know of the workings of the brain comes from lesion studies. We know, for instances, that features like color vision, face and object recognition, motion detection, language production and understanding are all controlled by specialized areas of the brain. We know this by studying people who have suffered localized brain damage. These functional features of the brain are remarkably similar to computer hardware units specialized in graphics, sound, video capture etc.

The similarity is even more striking when we consider that the brain can compensate for the damage to a specialized area by what looks like software simulation. For instance, the patient who lost the ability to detect motion (a condition normal people would have a hard time appreciating or identifying with) could still infer that an object was in motion by comparing successive snapshots of it in her mind. The patient with no ability to tell faces apart could, at times, deduce that the person walking toward him at a pre-arranged spot at the right time was probably his wife. Such instances give us the following attractive picture of the brain.
Brain → Computer hardware
Consciousness → Operating System
Mental functions → Programs
It looks like a logical and compelling picture to me.

This seductive picture, however, is far too simplistic at best; or utterly wrong at worst. The basic, philosophical problem with it is that the brain itself is a representation drawn on the canvas of consciousness and the mind (which are again cognitive constructs). This abysmal infinite regression is impossible to crawl out of. But even when we ignore this philosophical hurdle, and ask ourselves whether brains could be computers, we have big problems. What exactly are we asking? Could our brains be computer hardware and minds be software running on them? Before asking such questions, we have to ask parallel questions: Could computers have consciousness and intelligence? Could they have minds? If they had minds, how would we know?

Even more fundamentally, how do you know whether other people have minds? This is the so-called Problem of Other Minds, which we will discuss in the next post before proceeding to consider computing and consciousness.

Pride and Pretention

What has been of intense personal satisfaction for me was my “discovery” related to GRBs and radio sources alluded to earlier. Strangely, it is also the origin of most of things that I’m not proud of. You see, when you feel that you have found the purpose of your life, it is great. When you feel that you have achieved the purpose, it is greater still. But then comes the question — now what? Life in some sense ends with the perceived attainment of the professed goals. A life without goals is a clearly a life without much motivation. It is a journey past its destination. As many before me have discovered, it is the journey toward an unknown destination that drives us. The journey’s end, the arrival, is troublesome, because it is death. With the honest conviction of this attainment of the goals then comes the disturbing feeling that life is over. Now there are only rituals left to perform. As a deep-seated, ingrained notion, this conviction of mine has led to personality traits that I regret. It has led to a level of detachment in everyday situations where detachment was perhaps not warranted, and a certain recklessness in choices where a more mature consideration was perhaps indicated.

The recklessness led to many strange career choices. In fact, I feel as though I lived many different lives in my time. In most roles I attempted, I managed to move near the top of the field. As an undergrad, I got into the most prestigious university in India. As a scientist later on, I worked with the best at that Mecca of physics, CERN. As a writer, I had the rare privilege of invited book commissions and regular column requests. During my short foray into quantitative finance, I am quite happy with my sojourn in banking, despite my ethical misgivings about it. Even as a blogger and a hobby programmer, I had quite a bit success. Now, as the hour to bow out draws near, I feel as though I have been an actor who had the good fortune of landing several successful roles. As though the successes belonged to the characters, and my own contribution was a modicum of acting talent. I guess that detachment comes of trying too many things. Or is it just the grumbling restlessness in my soul?