Tag Archives: Filosofie

Richard Feynman — Hoeveel kan ons weet?

Ons moet ons oë oopmaak, sien ons die wêreld, ons onderskei patrone. Ons teoretiseer, formalisering; ons gebruik en rasionaliteit en wiskunde te verstaan ​​en om alles te beskryf. Hoeveel kan ons regtig weet, alhoewel?

Om te illustreer wat ek bedoel, laat my gebruik 'n analogie. Ek wens ek het die verbeelding met dit te kom, maar dit was Richard Feynman wat gedoen. Hy was, deur die manier, prettige genoeg om te vergelyk fisika met seks.

Lees verder

Man as Chinese Kamer

In die vorige poste in hierdie reeks, ons bespreek hoe verwoestend Searle se Chinese kamer argument was die veronderstelling dat ons brein is digitale rekenaars. Hy het aangevoer, baie oortuigend, dat blote simbool manipulasie kon nie lei tot die ryk begrip wat ons lyk om te geniet. Egter, Ek het geweier om te oortuig wees, en gevind dat die sogenaamde stelsels reaksie meer oortuigend. Dit was die teenargument te sê dat dit die hele Chinese kamer wat die taal verstaan, nie net die operateur of simbool pusher in die kamer. Searle lag dit af, maar het 'n ernstige reaksie asook. Hy het gesê, "Laat my die hele Chinese Kamer. Laat my al die simbole en die simbool manipulasie reëls onthou sodat ek kan Chinese antwoorde op vrae. Ek het nog nie verstaan ​​Chinese. "

Nou, dat 'n interessante vraag - as jy weet genoeg Chinese simbole, en Chinese reëls om hulle te manipuleer, het jy nie eintlik Chinese weet? Natuurlik kan jy dink iemand in staat is om 'n taal te korrek te hanteer sonder om 'n woord van dit, maar ek dink dit is wat strek van die verbeelding 'n bietjie te ver. Ek herinner aan die blind oë eksperiment waar mense kan sien sonder om te weet dit, sonder om bewus van wat dit was wat hulle sien. Searle se reaksie punte in dieselfde rigting - in staat is om Chinese te praat sonder om dit te verstaan. Wat die Chinese Kamer ontbreek is die bewusmaking van wat dit doen.

'N bietjie dieper delf in hierdie debat, ons het 'n bietjie formele oor sintaksis en semantiek te kry. Taal het beide sintaksis en semantiek. Byvoorbeeld, 'n stelling soos "Lees my blog" het die sintaksis oorsprong van die taal van die Engelse taal, simbole wat woorde (sintaktiese plekhouers), briewe en punktuasie. Op die top van alles wat sintaksis, dit het 'n inhoud - my begeerte en versoek dat jy my poste lees, en my agtergrond oortuiging dat jy weet wat die simbole en die inhoud beteken. Dit is die semantiek, die betekenis van die stelling.

'N rekenaar, volgens Searle, kan net met simbole en, gebaseer op simboliese manipulasie, kom met sintakties korrekte antwoorde. Dit maak nie die semantiese inhoud verstaan ​​as ons doen. Dit is nie in staat om te voldoen aan my versoek as gevolg van sy gebrek aan begrip. Dit is in hierdie sin dat die Chinese Kamer nie verstaan ​​Chinese. Ten minste, dit is Searle se eis. Sedert rekenaars is soos Chinese kamers, hulle kan nie die semantiek of verstaan. Maar ons brein kan, en dus die brein kan nie 'n blote rekenaar.

Wanneer sit op die manier, Ek dink die meeste mense sal die kant van Searle. Maar wat as die rekenaar kon eintlik aan die versoeke en opdragte wat die semantiese inhoud van verklarings vorm? Ek dink selfs dan sou ons waarskynlik nie oorweeg om 'n rekenaar ten volle in staat om van semantiese begrip, wat is hoekom as 'n rekenaar eintlik voldoen aan my versoek my poste te lees, Ek kan dit nie intellektueel bevredigend vind. Wat ons vra,, natuurlik, is bewussyn. Wat meer kan ons vra van 'n rekenaar om ons te oortuig dat dit bewus?

Ek het nie 'n goeie antwoord op wat nie. Maar ek dink jy het eenvormige standaarde in toeskryf bewussyn entiteite buite om aansoek te doen - as jy glo in die bestaan ​​van ander gedagtes in die mens, jy het om jouself te vra wat jy in standaarde aankoms by daardie gevolgtrekking van toepassing, en maak seker dat jy dieselfde standaarde van toepassing op rekenaars sowel. Jy kan nie sikliese voorwaardes bou in jou standaarde - soos ander menslike liggame, senuweestelsels en 'n anatomie soos jy doen sodat dat hulle gedagtes asook, en dit is wat Searle het.

In my opinie, dit is die beste te wees oop oor sulke vrae, en belangrik om nie hulle te beantwoord vanuit 'n posisie van onvoldoende logika.

Gedagtes as masjien Intelligensie

Prof. Searle is miskien die meeste bekend vir sy bewys dat die berekening van masjiene (of berekening soos gedefinieer deur Alan Turing) kan nooit intelligent wees. Sy bewys gebruik wat die Chinese Kamer argument genoem, wat toon dat blote simbool manipulasie (en dit is wat Turning se definisie van berekening is, volgens Searle) kan lei tot begrip en intelligensie. Ergo ons brein en verstand kan nie net rekenaars.

Die argument gaan soos hierdie - neem Searle is opgesluit in 'n kamer waar hy kry insette wat ooreenstem met die vrae in Chinese. Hy het 'n stel reëls die insette simbole te manipuleer en te kies uit 'n uitset simbool, soveel as 'n rekenaar nie. So hy kom met Chinese antwoorde wat gek buite regters om te glo dat hulle kommunikeer met 'n ware Chinese spreker. Aanvaar dat dit gedoen kan word. Nou, hier is die punch line - Searle nie 'n woord van die Chinese weet. Hy weet nie wat die simbole beteken. So blote reël-gebaseerde simbool manipulasie is nie genoeg intelligensie om te verseker, bewussyn, begrip ens. Verby die Turing-toets is nie genoeg intelligensie om te verseker.

Een van die toonbank-arguements wat ek gevind het die meeste interessant is, is wat Searle noem die stelsels argument. Dit is nie Searle in die Chinese kamer wat verstaan ​​Chinese; dit is die hele stelsel insluitende die ruleset wat nie. Searle lag dit af en sê, "Wat, die kamer verstaan ​​Chinese?!"Ek dink die stelsels argument meriete meer dat spottend ontslag. Ek het twee ondersteunende argumente ten gunste van die stelsels reaksie.

Die eerste een is die punt wat ek gemaak het in die vorige post in hierdie reeks. In Probleem van Ander Minds, het ons gesien dat Searle se antwoord op die vraag of ander het gemoedere was in wese deur gedrag en analogie. Ander optree asof hulle gedagtes (dat hulle uitroep wanneer ons getref hul duim met 'n hamer) en hul interne meganismes vir pyn (senuwees, brein, neuronale firings ens) is soortgelyk aan ons s'n. In die geval van die Chinese kamer, dit is beslis optree asof dit verstaan ​​Chinese, maar dit het nie enige analoë in terme van die dele of meganismes soos 'n Chinese spreker. Is dit die onderbreking in analogie wat verhoed Searle van die toeken van intelligensie om dit te, ten spyte van sy intelligente gedrag?

Die tweede argument neem die vorm van 'n ander gedagte-eksperiment - ek dink dit is die Chinese Nasie argument genoem. Kom ons sê ons kan die werk van elke neuron in Searle se brein delegeer aan 'n nie-Engelssprekende persoon. So wanneer Searle hoor 'n vraag in Engels, dit is eintlik hanteer word deur triljoene nie-Engelssprekende computational elemente, wat dieselfde reaksie as sy brein genereer sou. Nou, Waar is die Engelse taal begrip in hierdie Chinese Nasie van nie-Engelssprekende mense wat optree as neurone? Ek dink 'n mens sou hê om te sê dat dit die hele "nasie" wat Engels verstaan. Of sou Searle lag dit af en sê, "Wat, die nasie Engels verstaan?!"

Wel, indien die Chinese nasie Engels kon verstaan, Ek dink die Chinese kamer kon verstaan ​​Chinese sowel. Rekenaar met blote simbool manipulasie (en dit is wat die mense in die land doen) kan en lei tot intelligensie en begrip. So ons brein kan werklik rekenaars, en gedagtes sagteware manipuleer simbole. Ergo Searle is verkeerd.

Kyk, Ek gebruik Prof. Searle se argumente en my teenargumente in hierdie reeks as 'n soort van dialoog vir dramatiese effek. Die feit van die saak is, Prof. Searle is 'n wêreld-bekende filosoof met 'n indrukwekkende geloofsbriewe terwyl ek 'n sporadiese blogger - 'n drive-by filosoof op sy beste. Ek dink ek hier verskoning vra aan prof. Searle en sy studente as hulle vind my poste en kommentaar offensief. Dit is nie bedoel om; net 'n interessante lees bedoel was.

Probleem van Ander Minds

Hoe weet jy ander mense het verstand soos jy doen? Dit mag klink soos 'n dom vraag, maar as jy jouself toelaat om te dink oor dit, jy sal besef dat jy geen logiese rede om te glo in die bestaan ​​van ander gedagtes, wat is die rede waarom dit is 'n onopgeloste probleem in filosofie – Die probleem van die Ander Minds. Om te illustreer – Ek was besig om op die Ikea projekteer die ander dag, en is gehamer in die vreemde tweekoppige spyker-skroef-stomp thingie. Ek het dit gemis heeltemal en druk my duim. Ek het gevoel die helse pyn, beteken my gedagtes voel dit en ek uitgeroep. Ek weet ek het 'n gedagte, want ek voel die pyn. Nou, Kom ons sê ek sien 'n ander Bozo slaan sy duim en uitroep. Ek voel geen pyn; my gedagtes voel niks (behalwe 'n bietjie van empatie op 'n goeie dag). Watter positiewe logiese basis het ek om te dink dat die gedrag (huil) word veroorsaak deur pyn gevoel deur 'n gedagte?

Mind you, Ek wil nie sê dat die ander nie gedagtes of bewussyn - nog nie, ten minste. Ek is maar net daarop te wys dat daar geen logiese basis om te glo dat hulle dit doen. Logika is beslis nie die enigste basis vir geloof. Geloof is 'n ander. Intuïsie, analogie, massa dwaling, indoktrinasie, groepsdruk, instink ens. is almal grondslag vir oortuigings beide waar en vals. Ek glo dat ander het gemoedere; anders sou ek nie hierdie blog pla skryf. Maar ek is terdeë bewus dat ek geen logiese regverdiging vir hierdie spesifieke geloof.

Die ding oor hierdie probleem van ander gedagtes is dat dit diep asimmetriese. As ek glo dat jy nie 'n gedagte het, dit is nie 'n probleem vir jou - jy weet dat ek verkeerd is die oomblik wat jy dit hoor, want jy weet dat jy 'n gedagte (veronderstelling, natuurlik, wat jy doen). Maar ek het 'n ernstige probleem - daar is geen manier vir my om my geloof aan te val in die nie-bestaan ​​van jou gedagtes. Jy kon my vertel, natuurlik, maar dan sou ek dink, "Ja, Dit is presies wat 'n sinnelose robot sou geprogrammeer word om te sê!"

Ek was te luister na 'n reeks lesings oor die filosofie van die gees deur prof. John Searle. Hy "los" van die probleem van ander gedagtes deur analogie. Ons weet dat ons dieselfde anatomiese en neurophysical aansluiting bykomend tot analoog gedrag. Sodat ons kan "oortuig" onsself dat ons almal verstand. Dit is 'n goeie argument so ver as wat dit gaan. Wat my pla oor dit is sy komplement - wat dit impliseer oor gedagtes in dinge wat verskillend bedraad is, soos slange en akkedisse en vis en slakke en miere en bakterieë en virusse. En, natuurlik, masjiene.

Kon masjiene het gemoedere? Die antwoord hierop is eerder triviale - natuurlik hulle kan. Ons is biologiese masjiene, en ons het gedagtes (veronderstelling, weer, dat julle ouens doen). Kon rekenaars gedagtes? Of, meer opvallend, kon ons brein wees rekenaars, en gedagtes wees sagteware op dit? Dit is voer vir die volgende pos.

Brein en Rekenaars

Ons het 'n perfekte parallel tussen die brein en die rekenaars. Ons kan maklik dink van die brein as die hardeware en gees of bewussyn as die sagteware of die bedryfstelsel. Ons sou verkeerd wees, volgens baie filosowe, maar ek dink nog steeds dit dat die pad. Laat my uiteensetting van die dwingende ooreenkomste (volgens my) voor om in die filosofiese probleme wat.

Baie van wat ons weet van die werking van die brein kom van letsel studies. Ons weet, vir gevalle, dat die funksies soos kleur visie, gesig en voorwerp erkenning, bewegingsdetectie, taal produksie en begrip is almal beheer deur gespesialiseerde areas van die brein. Ons weet dit deur die bestudering van mense wat gely het gelokaliseerde breinskade. Hierdie funksionele eienskappe van die brein is merkwaardig soortgelyk aan rekenaar hardeware eenhede gespesialiseerde in grafiese, klink, video-opname ens.

Die ooreenkoms is selfs meer opvallend wanneer ons van mening dat die brein kan vergoed vir die skade aan 'n gespesialiseerde gebied deur wat lyk soos sagteware simulasie. Byvoorbeeld, die pasiënt wat die vermoë beweging op te spoor verloor ('n toestand normale mense sou 'n harde tyd te waardeer of die identifisering met) kon nog aflei dat 'n voorwerp in beweging deur dit te vergelyk opeenvolgende foto's van dit in haar gedagtes. Die pasiënt met geen vermoë om te vertel gesigte uitmekaar kon, by tye, aflei dat die persoon loop in die rigting van hom op 'n pre-gereël plek op die regte tyd was waarskynlik sy vrou. Sulke gevalle gee ons die volgende aantreklike beeld van die brein.
Brain → Rekenaar hardeware
Bewussyn → Bedryfstelsel
Geestelike funksies → Programme
Dit lyk soos 'n logiese en dwingende prentjie vir my.

Hierdie verleidelike prentjie, egter, is baie simplistiese op sy beste; of heeltemal verkeerd op die ergste. Die basiese, filosofiese probleem met dit is dat die brein self is 'n voorstelling gemaak op die doek van bewussyn en die gees (wat weer kognitiewe konstrukte). Dit onpeilbaar oneindige regressie is onmoontlik om te kruip uit. Maar selfs wanneer ons ignoreer hierdie filosofiese hekkie, en vra onsself of brein kan wees rekenaars, ons het groot probleme. Wat presies is ons vra? Kon ons brein wees rekenaar hardeware en gedagtes wees sagteware op hulle? Voor te vra sulke vrae, ons het parallel om vrae te vra: Kon rekenaars bewussyn en intelligensie? Kon hulle gedagtes? As hulle het gemoedere, hoe sou ons weet?

Selfs meer fundamenteel, hoe weet jy of ander mense het verstand? Dit is die sogenaamde Probleem van Ander Minds, wat ons in die volgende pos sal bespreek voordat rekenaar en bewussyn te oorweeg.

Sien en glo

Wanneer ons ons oë oop te maak en te kyk na 'n ding, sien ons dat damn ding. Wat kan meer duidelik wees as dat, reg? Kom ons sê jy is op soek na jou hond. Wat jy sien is regtig jou hond, omdat, As jy wil, jy kan uit te reik en raak dit. Dit blaf, en jy kan die inslag hoor. As dit stink 'n bietjie, jy kan dit ruik. Al hierdie ekstra perseptuele leidrade bevestig jou geloof dat dit wat jy sien is jou hond. Direk. Geen vrae gevra.

Natuurlik, my werk op hierdie blog is om vrae te vra, en gooi twyfel. Eerste van alles, sien en raak blyk te wees 'n bietjie anders te hoor en ruik. Jy hoef nie streng hoor jou hond blaf, jy hoor sy geluid. Net, jy direk ruik dit nie, jy ruik die reuk, die chemiese roete die hond het in die lug gelaat. Ruik en hoor is drie plek persepsies — die hond genereer klank / reuk, die klank / reuk reis na jou, jy sien die klank / reuk.

Maar sien (of raak) is 'n twee plek ding — die hond is daar, en jy hier waarneem dit direk. Hoekom is dit? Hoekom voel ons dat wanneer ons sien of raak iets, ons voel dit direk? Hierdie geloof in die perseptuele waarheid van wat ons sien is naïef realisme genoem. Ons weet natuurlik dat aangesien behels lig (so ook raak, maar in 'n baie meer ingewikkeld manier), wat ons sien is die lig weerkaats 'n voorwerp en so aan. Dit is, in die feit dat, geen verskil van iets hoor. Maar hierdie kennis van die meganisme van sien nie verander ons natuurlike, gesonde verstand beskouing dat wat ons sien is wat daar buite. Sien is glo.

Geëkstrapoleer uit die naïewe weergawe is die wetenskaplike realisme, wat beweer dat ons wetenskaplike konsepte is ook real, Tog kan ons nie direk kan waarneem nie. So atome real. Elektrone is real. Kwarke is real. Die meeste van ons beter wetenskaplikes daar is skepties oor hierdie extraploation aan ons idee van wat is 'n ware. Einstein, waarskynlik die beste van hulle, vermoed dat selfs ruimte en tyd nie werklik kan wees. Feynman en Gell-Mann, na die ontwikkeling van teorieë oor elektrone en kwarke, het hul siening dat elektrone en kwarke kan wees wiskundige boustene eerder as werklike entiteite.

What I am inviting you to do here is to go beyond the skepticism of Feynman and Gell-Mann, and delve into Einstein’s words — space and time are modes by which we think, not conditions in which we live. The sense of space is so real to us that we think of everything else as interactions taking place in the arena of space (and time). But space itself is the experience corresponding to the electrical signals generated by the light hitting your retina. It is a perceptual construct, much like the tonality of the sound you hear when air pressure waves hit your ear drums. Our adoption of naive realism results in our complete trust in the three dimensional space view. And since the world is created (in our brain as perceptual constructs) based on light, its speed becomes an all important constant in our world. And since speed mixes space and time, a better description is found in a four dimensional Minkowski geometry. But all these descriptions are based on perceptual experiences and therefore unreal in some sense.

I know the description above is highly circular — I talked about space being a mental construct created by light traveling through, get this, space. And when I speak of its speed, naturally, I’m talking about distance in space divided by time, and positing as the basis for the space-time mixing. This circularity makes my description less than clear and convincing. But the difficulty goes deeper than that. You see, all we have is this cognitive construct of space and time. We can describe objects and events only in terms of these constructs even when we know that they are only cognitive representations of sensory signals. Our language doesn’t go beyond that. Well, it does, but then we will be talking the language, for instance, of Advaita, calling the constructs Maya and the causes behind them Brahman, which stays unknowable. Or, we will be using some other parallel descriptions. These descriptions may be profound, wise and accurate. But ultimately, they are also useless.

But if philosophy is your thing, the discussions of cognitive constructs and unknown causations are not at all useless. Philosophy of physics happens to be my thing, and so I ask myself — what if I assume the unknown physical causes exist in a world similar to our perceptual construct? I could then propagate the causes through the process of perception and figure out what the construct should look like. I know, it sounds a bit complex, but it is something that we do all the time. We know, for instance, that the stars that we see in the night sky are not really there — we are seeing them the way they were a few (or a few million or billion) years ago because the light from them takes a long time to reach us. Physicists also know that the perceived motion of celestial objects also need to be corrected for these light-travel-time effects.

In fact, Einstein used the light travel time effects as the basis for deriving his special theory of relativity. He then stipulated that space and time behave the way we perceive them, derived using the said light-travel-time effects. This, of course, is based on his deep understanding that space and time are “the modes by which we think,” but also based on the assumption that the the causes behind the modes also are similar to the modes themselves. This depth of thinking is lost on the lesser scientists that came after him. The distinction between the modes of thinking and their causation is also lost, so that space and time have become entities that obey strange rules. Like bent spoons.

Photo by General Press1

Deferred Satisfaction

The mother was getting annoyed that her teenaged son was wasting time watching TV.
“Son, don’t waste your time watching TV. You should be studying,” she advised.
“Why?” quipped the son, as teenagers usually do.
“Well, if you study hard, you will get good grades.”
“Yeah, so?”
“Then, you can get into a good school.”
“Why should I?”
“That way, you can hope to get a good job.”
“Why? What do I want with a good job?”
“Well, you can make a lot of money that way.”
“Why do I want money?”
“If you have enough money, you can sit back and relax. Watch TV whenever you want to.”
“Well, I’m doing it right now!”

What the mother is advocating, of course, is the wise principle of deferred satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if you have to do something slightly unpleasant now, as long as you get rewarded for it later in life. This principle is so much a part of our moral fabric that we take it for granted, never questioning its wisdom. Because of our trust in it, we obediently take bitter medicines when we fall sick, knowing that we will feel better later on. We silently submit ourselves to jabs, root-canals, colonoscopies and other atrocities done to our persons because we have learned to tolerate unpleasantnesses in anticipation of future rewards. We even work like a dog at jobs so loathesome that they really have to pay us a pretty penny to stick it out.

Before I discredit myself, let me make it very clear that I do believe in the wisdom of deferred satisfaction. I just want to take a closer look because my belief, or the belief of seven billion people for that matter, is still no proof of the logical rightness of any principle.

The way we lead our lives these days is based on what they call hedonism. I know that the word has a negative connotation, but that is not the sense in which I am using it here. Hedonism is the principle that any decision we take in life is based on how much pain and pleasure it is going to create. If there is an excess of pleasure over pain, then it is the right decision. Although we are not considering it, the case where the recipients of the pain and pleasure are distinct individuals, nobility or selfishness is involved in the decision. So the aim of a good life is to maximize this excess of pleasure over pain. Viewed in this context, the principle of delayed satisfaction makes sense — it is one good strategy to maximize the excess.

But we have to be careful about how much to delay the satisfaction. Clearly, if we wait for too long, all the satisfaction credit we accumulate will go wasted because we may die before we have a chance to draw upon it. This realization may be behind the mantra “live in the present moment.”

Where hedonism falls short is in the fact that it fails to consider the quality of the pleasure. That is where it gets its bad connotation from. For instance, a ponzi scheme master like Madoff probably made the right decisions because they enjoyed long periods of luxurious opulence at the cost of a relatively short durations of pain in prison.

What is needed, perhaps, is another measure of the rightness of our choices. I think it is in the intrinsic quality of the choice itself. We do something because we know that it is good.

I am, of course, touching upon the vast branch of philosophy they call ethics. It is not possible to summarize it in a couple of blog posts. Nor am I qualified enough to do so. Michael Sandel, on the other hand, is eminently qualified, and you should check out his online course Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? if interested. I just want to share my thought that there is something like the intrinsic quality of a way of life, or of choices and decisions. We all know it because it comes before our intellectual analysis. We do the right thing not so much because it gives us an excess of pleasure over pain, but we know what the right thing is and have an innate need to do it.

That, at least, is the theory. But, of late, I’m beginning to wonder whether the whole right-wrong, good-evil distinction is an elaborate ruse to keep some simple-minded folks in check, while the smarter ones keep enjoying totally hedonistic (using it with all the pejorative connotation now) pleasures of life. Why should I be good while the rest of them seem to be reveling in wall-to-wall fun? Is it my decaying internal quality talking, or am I just getting a bit smarter? I think what is confusing me, and probably you as well, is the small distance between pleasure and happiness. Doing the right thing results in happiness. Eating a good lunch results in pleasure. When Richard Feynman wrote about The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he was probably talking about happiness. When I read that book, what I’m experiencing is probably closer to mere pleasure. Watching TV is probably pleasure. Writing this post, on the other hand, is probably closer to happiness. At least, I hope so.

To come back my little story above, what could the mother say to her TV-watching son to impress upon him the wisdom of deferred satisfaction? Well, just about the only thing I can think of is the argument from hedonism saying that if the son wastes his time now watching TV, there is a very real possibility that he may not be able to afford a TV later on in life. Perhaps intrinsically good parents won’t let their children grow up into a TV-less adulthood. I suspect I would, because I believe in the intrinsic goodness of taking responsibility for one’s actions and consequences. Does that make me a bad parent? Is it the right thing to do? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

My Life, My Way

After almost eight years in banking, I have finally called it quits. Over the last three of those years, I had been telling people that I was leaving. And I think people had stopped taking me seriously. My wife certainly did, and it came as a major shock to her. But despite her studied opposition, I managed to pull it off. In fact, it is not just banking that I left, I have actually retired. Most of my friends greeted the news of my retirement with a mixture of envy and disbelief. The power to surprise — it is nice to still have that power.

Why is it a surprise really? Why would anyone think that it is insane to walk away from a career like mine? Insanity is in doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Millions of people do the same insanely crummy stuff over and over, everyone of them wanting nothing more than to stop doing it, even planning on it only to postpone their plans for one silly reason or another. I guess the force of habit in doing the crummy stuff is greater than the fear of change. There is a gulf between what people say their plans are and what they end up doing, which is the theme of that disturbing movie Revolutionary Road. This gulf is extremely narrow in my case. I set out with a bunch of small targets — to help a few people, to make a modest fortune, to provide reasonable comfort and security to those near. I have achieved them, and now it is time to stop. The trouble with all such targets is that once you get close to them, they look mundane, and nothing is ever enough for most people. Not for me though — I have always been reckless enough to stick to my plans.

One of the early instances of such a reckless action came during my undergraduate years at IIT Madras. I was pretty smart academically, especially in physics. But I wasn’t too good in remembering details like the names of theorems. Once, this eccentric professor of mine at IIT asked me the name of a particular theorem relating the line integral of the electric field around a point and the charge contained within. I think the answer was Green’s theorem, while its 3-D equivalent (surface integral) is called Gauss’s theorem or something. (Sorry, my Wikipedia and Google searches didn’t bring up anything definitive on that.) I answered Gauss’s theorem. The professor looked at me for a long moment with contempt in his eyes and said (in Tamil) something like I needed to get a beating with his slippers. I still remember standing there in my Khakki workshop attire and listening to him, with my face burning with shame and impotent anger. And, although physics was my favorite subject (my first love, in fact, as I keep saying, mostly to annoy my wife), I didn’t go back to any of his lectures after that. I guess even at that young age, I had this disturbing level of recklessness in me. I now know why. It’s is the ingrained conviction that nothing really matters. Nothing ever did, as Meursault the Stranger points out in his last bout of eloquence.

I left banking for a variety of reasons; remuneration wasn’t one of them, but recklessness perhaps was. I had some philosophical misgivings about the rightness of what I was doing at a bank. I suffered from a troubled conscience. Philosophical reasons are strange beasts — they lead to concrete actions, often disturbing ones. Albert Camus (in his collection The Myth of Sisyphus) warned of it while talking about the absurdity of life. Robert Pirsig in his epilog to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance also talked about when such musings became psychiatrically dangerous. Michael Sandel is another wise man who, in his famous lectures on Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? pointed out that philosophy could often color your perspective permanently — you cannot unlearn it to go back, you cannot unthink a thought to become normal again.

Philosophy and recklessness aside, the other primary reason for leaving the job was boredom. The job got so colossally boring. Looking out my window at the traffic 13 floors below was infinitely more rewarding than looking at the work on my three computer screens. And so I spent half my time staring out the window. Of course, my performance dwindled as a result. I guess scuttling the performance is the only way to realistically make oneself leave a high-paying job. There are times when you have have to burn the bridges behind you. Looking back at it now, I cannot really understand why I was so bored. I was a quantitative developer and the job involved developing reports and tools. Coding is what I do for fun at home. That and writing, of course. May be the boredom came from the fact that there was no serious intellectual content in it. There was none in the tasks, nor in the company of the throngs of ambitious colleagues. Walking into the workplace every morning, looking at all the highly paid people walking around with impressive demeanors of doing something important, I used to feel almost sad. How important could their bean-counting ever be?

Then again, how important could this blogging be? We get back to Meursault’s tirade – rien n’avait d’importance. Perhaps I was wrong to have thrown it away, as all of them keep telling me. Perhaps those important-looking colleagues were really important, and I was the one in the wrong to have retired. That also matters little; that also has little importance, as Meursault and my alter ego would see it.

What next is the question that keeps coming up. I am tempted to give the same tongue-in-cheek answer as Larry Darrell in The Razor’s Edge — Loaf! My kind of loafing would involve a lot of thinking, a lot of studying, and hard work. There is so much to know, and so little time left to learn.

Photo by kenteegardin

Everything and Nothing

I once attended a spiritual self-help kind of course. Toward the end of the course, there was this exercise where the teacher would ask the question, “What are you?” Whatever answer the participant came up with, the teacher would tear it apart. For instance, if I said, “I work for a bank as a quantitative finance professional,” she would say, “Yeah, that’s what you do, but what are you?” If I said, “I am Manoj,” she would say, “Yeah, that’s only your name, what are you?” You get the idea. To the extent that it is a hard question to answer, the teacher always gets the upper hand.

Not in my case though. Luckily for me, I was the last one to answer the question, and I had the benefit of seeing how this exercise evolved. Since I had time, I decided to cook up something substantial. So when my turn came, here was my response that pretty much floored the teacher. I said, “I am a little droplet of consciousness so tiny that I’m nothing, yet part of something so big that I’m everything.” As I surmised, she couldn’t very well say, “Yeah, sure, but what are you?” In fact, she could’ve said, “That’s just some serious bullshit, man, what the heck are you?” which is probably what I would’ve done. But my teacher, being the kind and gentle soul she is, decided to thank me gravely and move on.

Now I want to pick up on that theme and point out that there is more to that response than something impressive that I made up that day to sound really cool in front of a bunch of spiritualites. The tininess part is easy. Our station in this universe is so mindbogglingly tiny that a sense of proportion is the one thing we cannot afford to have, if we are to keep our sanity — as Douglas Adams puts it in one of his books. What goes for the physical near-nothingness of our existence in terms of space also applies to the temporal dimension. We exist for a mere fleeing instant when put in the context of any geological or cosmological timescale. So when I called myself a “little” droplet, I was being kind, if anything.

But being part of something so vast — ah, that is the interesting bit. Physically, there is not an atom in my body that wasn’t part of a star somewhere sometime ago. We are all made up of stardust, from the ashes of dead stars. (Interesting they say from dust to dust and from ashes to ashes, isn’t it?) So, those sappy scenes in sentimental flicks, where the dad points to the star and says, “Your mother is up there sweetheart, watching over you,” have a bit of scientific truth to them. All the particles in my body will end up in a star (a red giant, in our case); the only stretch is that it will take another four and half billion years. But it does mean that the dust will live forever and end up practically everywhere through some supernova explosion, if our current understanding of how it all works is correct (which it is not, in my opinion, but that is another story). This eternal existence of a the purely physical kind is what Schopenhauer tried to draw consolation from, I believe, but it really is no consolation, if you ask me. Nonetheless, we are all part of something much bigger, spatially and temporally – in a purely physical sense.

At a deeper level, my being part of everything comes from the fact that we are both the inside and the outside of things. I know it sounds like I smoked something I wouldn’t like my children to smoke. Let me explain; this will take a few words. You see, when we look at a star, we of course see a star. But what we mean by “see a star” is just that there are some neurons in our brain firing in a particular pattern. We assume that there is a star out there causing some photons to fall on our retina and create neuronal firing, which results in a cognitive model of what we call night sky and stars. We further assume that what we see (night sky and star) is a faithful representation of what is out there. But why should it be? Think of how we hear stuff. When we listen to music, we hear tonality, loudness etc, but these are only cognitive models for the frequency and amplitude of the pressure waves in the air, as we understand sound right now. Frequency and amplitude are very different beasts compared to tonality and loudness — the former are physical causes, the latter are perceptual experiences. Take away the brain, there is no experience, ergo there is no sound — which is the gist of the overused cocktail conundrum of the falling tree in a deserted forest. If you force yourself to think along these lines for a while, you will have to admit that whatever is “out there” as you perceive it is only in your brain as cognitive constructs. Hence my hazy statement about we are both the inside and the outside of things. So, from the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, we can argue that we are everything — the whole universe and our knowledge of it is all are patterns in our brain. There is nothing else.

Want to go even deeper? Well, the brain itself is part of the reality (which is a cognitive construct) created by the brain. So are the air pressure waves, photons, retina, cognitive neuroscience etc. All convenient models in our brains. That, of course, is an infinite regression, from which there is no escape. It is a logical abyss where we can find no rational foothold to anchor our thoughts and crawl out, which naturally leads to what we call the infinite, the unknowable, the absolute, the eternal — Brahman.

I was, of course, thinking of Brahman ( and the notion that we are all part of that major oneness) when I cooked up that everything-and-nothing response. But it is all the same, isn’t it, whichever way you look at it? Well, may be not; may be it is just that I see it that way. If the only tool you have is a hammer, all the problems in the world look like nails to you. May be I’m just hammering in the metaphysical nails whenever and wherever I get a chance. To me, all schools of thought seem to converge to similar notions. Reminds of that French girl I was trying impress long time ago. I said to her, rather optimistically, “You know, you and I think alike, that’s what I like about you.” She replied, “Well, there is only one way to think, if you think at all. So no big deal!” Needless to say I didn’t get anywhere with her.