Tag Archives: Falsafah

Richard Feynman — Berapa Banyak Boleh Kita Tahu?

Kami membuka mata kita, kita melihat dunia, kita membezakan corak. Kami berteori, merasmikan; kita gunakan dan rasional dan matematik untuk memahami dan menerangkan segala-galanya. Berapa banyak yang boleh kita benar-benar tahu, walaupun?

Untuk menggambarkan apa yang saya maksudkan, biarlah saya menggunakan analogi. Saya mahu saya mempunyai imaginasi untuk datang dengan ia, tetapi ia adalah Richard Feynman yang melakukan. Beliau adalah, dengan cara itu, cukup aneh untuk membandingkan fizik dengan seks.

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Manusia sebagai Bilik Cina

Dalam jawatan sebelumnya dalam siri ini, kami membincangkan bagaimana dahsyat Bilik Cina hujah Searle adalah untuk premis bahawa otak kita adalah komputer digital. Beliau berhujah, agak meyakinkan, bahawa manipulasi simbol semata-mata tidak boleh membawa kepada pemahaman yang kaya yang kita seolah-olah menikmati. Walau bagaimanapun, Saya enggan turut yakin, dan mendapati apa yang dipanggil sistem tindak balas lebih meyakinkan. Ia balas hujah dengan menyatakan ia adalah Bilik seluruh China yang memahami bahasa, bukan sekadar pengendali atau simbol penolak di dalam bilik. Searle ketawa ia kira, tetapi mempunyai tindak balas yang serius dan juga. Beliau berkata,, "Biar saya Bilik Cina keseluruhan. Biar saya menghafal semua simbol-simbol dan kaedah-kaedah manipulasi simbol supaya saya boleh memberikan jawapan kepada soalan-soalan Cina. Saya masih tidak memahami bahasa Cina. "

Sekarang, yang menimbulkan satu persoalan yang menarik - jika anda tahu simbol cukup Cina, dan peraturan Cina untuk memanipulasi mereka, anda tidak benar-benar tahu Cina? Sudah tentu anda boleh bayangkan seseorang dapat mengendalikan bahasa yang betul tanpa memahami kata-kata yang ia, tetapi saya berfikir bahawa adalah regangan imaginasi agak terlalu jauh. Saya ingat dengan penglihatan buta eksperimen di mana orang ramai boleh melihat tanpa mengetahui ia, tanpa sedar terhadap apa yang ia adalah bahawa mereka telah melihat. Tempat sambutan Searle dalam arah yang sama - mampu bercakap Cina tanpa memahami ia. Apa Bilik Cina kurang ialah kesedaran sedar apa yang ia lakukan.

Untuk menyelidiki agak jauh ke dalam perdebatan ini, kita perlu mendapatkan sedikit formal tentang Syntax dan Semantik. Bahasa mempunyai kedua-dua sintaks dan semantik. Contohnya, kenyataan seperti "Sila baca posting blog saya" mempunyai sintaks yang berasal dari tatabahasa bahasa Inggeris, simbol yang ada perkataan (Pemegang tempat sintaksis), huruf dan tanda baca. Di atas semua sintaks yang, ia mempunyai kandungan - keinginan saya dan permintaan supaya meneliti catatan saya, dan kepercayaan latar belakang saya bahawa anda tahu apa simbol-simbol dan kandungan yang bermakna. Itulah semantik, maksud sebenar kenyataan yang.

Komputer, mengikut Searle, hanya boleh berurusan dengan simbol dan, berdasarkan manipulasi simbolik, menyediakan tindak balas sintaksis betul. Ia tidak memahami kandungan semantik seperti yang kita lakukan. Ia tidak mampu mematuhi permintaan saya kerana kekurangan persefahaman. Ia adalah dalam hal ini bahawa Bilik Cina tidak memahami bahasa Cina. Sekurang-kurangnya, iaitu tuntutan Searle ini. Sejak komputer adalah seperti Bilik Cina, mereka tidak dapat memahami semantik sama ada. Tetapi otak kita boleh, dan oleh itu otak tidak boleh menjadi komputer semata-mata.

Apabila meletakkan cara yang, Saya rasa kebanyakan orang akan menyebelahi Searle. Tetapi bagaimana jika komputer sebenarnya boleh mematuhi permintaan dan arahan yang membentuk kandungan semantik penyata? Saya rasa walaupun kita mungkin tidak menganggap komputer sepenuhnya mampu kefahaman semantik, itulah sebabnya jika komputer sebenarnya dipatuhi permintaan saya untuk membaca catatan saya, Saya mungkin tidak merasa intelektual memuaskan. Apa yang kita mahukan, sudah tentu, adalah kesedaran. Apa lagi yang boleh kita meminta kepada komputer untuk meyakinkan kita bahawa ia adalah sedar?

Saya tidak mempunyai jawapan yang baik kepada yang. Tetapi saya fikir anda perlu memohon standard seragam dalam menganggap kesedaran kepada entiti luar untuk anda - jika anda percaya pada kewujudan minda lain pada manusia, anda perlu tanya diri anda apa piawaian anda memohon dalam membuat kesimpulan bahawa, dan memastikan bahawa anda memohon standard yang sama dengan komputer dan juga. Anda tidak boleh membina keadaan kitaran ke dalam standard anda - seperti orang lain mempunyai badan manusia, sistem saraf dan anatomi seperti yang anda lakukan supaya mereka mempunyai fikiran dan juga, iaitu apa Searle lakukan.

Pada pendapat saya, adalah lebih baik untuk menjadi berfikiran terbuka tentang soalan-soalan, dan penting untuk tidak menjawab mereka dari kedudukan yang logik tidak mencukupi.

Minda sebagai Mesin Perisikan

Prof. Searle adalah mungkin yang paling terkenal dengan bukti bahawa mesin pengiraan (atau pengiraan seperti yang ditakrifkan oleh Alan Turing) tidak boleh menjadi pintar. Bukti beliau menggunakan apa yang dipanggil hujah Bilik Cina, yang menunjukkan bahawa semata-mata manipulasi simbol (iaitu apa definisi Turning ini pengiraan adalah, mengikut Searle) tidak boleh membawa kepada pemahaman dan kecerdasan. Berkisar otak dan fikiran kita tidak boleh menjadi komputer semata-mata.

Hujah pergi seperti ini - menganggap Searle dikunci di sebuah bilik di mana dia mendapat input yang sepadan dengan soalan Bahasa Cina. Beliau mempunyai satu set peraturan untuk memanipulasi simbol-simbol input dan memilih simbol output, sebanyak komputer tidak. Jadi dia datang dengan jawapan Cina yang bodoh hakim luar untuk mempercayai bahawa mereka berkomunikasi dengan penceramah Cina sebenar. Menganggap bahawa ini boleh dilakukan. Sekarang, di sini adalah garis menumbuk - Searle tidak tahu satu perkataan Cina. Dia tidak tahu apa simbol-simbol bermakna. Oleh itu semata-mata berasaskan peraturan manipulasi simbol tidak cukup untuk menjamin kecerdasan, kesedaran, memahami dan lain-lain. Lulus Ujian Turing tidak cukup untuk menjamin kecerdasan.

Salah satu balas arguements yang saya dapati paling menarik ialah apa Searle panggilan hujah sistem. Ia tidak Searle di ruang Cina yang memahami Cina; ia adalah keseluruhan sistem termasuk set peraturan yang melaksanakan. Searle ketawa ia kira berkata, "Apa, yang bilik memahami Cina?!"Saya rasa merit hujah bahawa sistem yang lebih bahawa pemecatan bersifat olok-olok. Saya mempunyai dua hujah sokongan memihak kepada tindak balas sistem.

Yang pertama adalah titik saya dibuat dalam pos sebelumnya dalam siri ini. Dalam Masalah Minda Lain-lain, kita melihat bahawa jawapan Searle kepada soalan sama ada orang lain mempunyai fikiran pada dasarnya oleh tingkah laku dan analogi. Lain berkelakuan seolah-olah mereka mempunyai fikiran (dalam bahawa mereka berteriak apabila kita mencapai ibu jari mereka dengan tukul besi) dan mekanisme dalaman mereka untuk sakit (saraf, otak, firings neuron dan lain-lain) adalah serupa dengan kita. Dalam kes di dalam bilik Cina, ia pasti berkelakuan seolah-olah ia memahami Cina, tetapi ia tidak mempunyai analog dari segi bahagian-bahagian atau mekanisme seperti penceramah Cina. Adakah rehat ini dalam analogi yang menghalang Searle daripada memberikan kecerdasan kepadanya, walaupun tingkah laku pintar yang?

Hujah kedua adalah dalam bentuk lain eksperimen fikiran - Saya fikir ia dipanggil hujah Negara Cina. Katakan kita boleh mewakilkan kerja setiap neuron dalam otak Searle ini kepada seseorang yang bukan bertutur dalam bahasa Inggeris. Oleh itu, apabila Searle mendengar soalan dalam Bahasa Inggeris, ia sebenarnya dikendalikan oleh trilion bukan berbahasa Inggeris elemen pengkomputeran, yang menghasilkan tindak balas yang sama seperti otaknya akan. Sekarang, di mana adalah pemahaman bahasa Inggeris di Negara ini Cina bukan berbahasa Inggeris orang yang bertindak sebagai neuron? Saya rasa satu perlu mengatakan bahawa ia adalah "negara" keseluruhan yang memahami Bahasa Inggeris. Atau akan Searle ketawa berkata, "Apa, yang nation memahami bahasa Inggeris?!"

Baik, jika negara China boleh memahami Bahasa Inggeris, Saya rasa di dalam bilik China boleh memahami bahasa Cina dan juga. Pengkomputeran dengan semata-mata manipulasi simbol (yang adalah apa yang rakyat di negara ini lakukan) boleh dan tidak membawa kepada kecerdasan dan pemahaman. Jadi otak kita benar-benar boleh menjadi komputer, dan minda perisian memanipulasi simbol-simbol. Ergo Searle adalah salah.

Lihatlah, Saya digunakan Prof. Searle hujah dan hujah balas saya dalam siri ini sebagai satu bentuk dialog untuk kesan dramatik. Fakta perkara ini ialah, Prof. Searle adalah seorang ahli falsafah yang terkenal di dunia dengan kelayakan yang mengagumkan semasa saya seorang blogger sekali-sekala - memandu-oleh ahli falsafah yang terbaik. Saya rasa saya meminta maaf di sini untuk Prof. Searle dan murid-muridnya jika mereka mendapati siaran dan ulasan menyakitkan hati saya. Ia tidak bertujuan; hanya satu bacaan yang menarik bertujuan.

Masalah Minda Lain-lain

Bagaimana anda tahu orang lain mempunyai minda seperti yang anda lakukan? Ini mungkin kedengaran seperti soalan bodoh, tetapi jika anda membenarkan diri anda untuk berfikir mengenainya, anda akan menyedari bahawa anda tidak mempunyai alasan logik untuk percaya kepada kewujudan minda lain, itulah sebabnya ia adalah satu masalah yang tidak dapat diselesaikan dalam falsafah – Masalah Minda lain. Untuk menggambarkan – Saya telah bekerja pada projek yang Ikea hari lain, dan yg terantuk dalam yang pelik berkepala dua kuku-skru-puntung thingie. Saya terlepas sepenuhnya dan memukul ibu jari saya. Saya merasakan kesakitan yang amat sangat, bermaksud fikiran saya merasakan ia dan saya berseru. Saya tahu saya mempunyai fikiran yang kerana saya merasakan kesakitan. Sekarang, katakan saya melihat Bozo lain memukul ibu jarinya dan berteriak. Saya merasa sakit; fikiran saya merasakan apa-apa (kecuali sedikit empati pada hari yang baik). Apa asas logik positif yang perlu saya berfikir bahawa tingkah laku (menangis) disebabkan oleh kesakitan dirasai oleh fikiran yang?

Minda anda, Saya tidak mencadangkan bahawa orang lain tidak mempunyai fikiran atau kesedaran - belum, sekurang-kurangnya. Saya hanya menunjukkan bahawa tidak ada asas logik untuk percaya bahawa mereka. Logik pasti bukan satu-satunya asas bagi kepercayaan. Iman adalah satu lagi. Gerak hati, analogi, khayalan massa, indoktrinasi, tekanan rakan sebaya, naluri dan lain-lain. adalah asas untuk semua kepercayaan kedua-dua benar dan palsu. Saya percaya bahawa orang lain mempunyai minda; jika tidak, saya tidak akan mengganggu menulis posting blog ini. Tetapi saya sedar bahawa saya tidak mempunyai justifikasi logik untuk kepercayaan ini tertentu.

Perkara tentang masalah ini daripada minda yang lain adalah bahawa ia adalah mendalam simetri. Jika saya percaya bahawa anda tidak mempunyai fikiran yang, ia bukan satu isu untuk anda - anda tahu bahawa saya salah masa ini anda mendengarnya kerana anda tahu bahawa anda mempunyai fikiran yang (dengan andaian, sudah tentu, yang anda lakukan). Tetapi saya mempunyai satu isu yang serius - tidak ada cara bagi saya untuk menyerang kepercayaan saya dalam ketidakwujudan fikiran anda. Anda boleh beritahu saya, sudah tentu, tetapi kemudian saya akan berfikir, "Yeah, itulah apa robot tidak wajar akan diprogramkan untuk mengatakan!"

Saya mendengar satu siri ceramah mengenai falsafah fikiran dengan Prof. John Searle. Beliau "menyelesaikan" masalah minda lain dengan analogi. Kita tahu bahawa kita mempunyai yang sama pendawaian anatomi dan neurofizikal sebagai tambahan kepada tingkah laku analogi. Oleh itu, kita boleh "meyakinkan" diri kita bahawa kita semua mempunyai fikiran. Ia adalah hujah yang baik sejauh ia pergi. Apa yang merunsingkan saya mengenainya adalah pelengkapnya - apa yang ia membayangkan tentang fikiran dalam perkara-perkara yang berbeza berwayar, seperti ular dan cicak dan ikan dan slug dan semut dan bakteria dan virus. Dan, sudah tentu, mesin.

Bolehkah mesin mempunyai minda? Jawapan kepada ini agak remeh - sudah tentu mereka boleh. Kami adalah mesin biologi, dan kita mempunyai minda (dengan andaian, lagi, yang kamu lakukan). Bolehkah komputer mempunyai minda? Atau, lebih tajam, otak kita boleh menjadi komputer, dan minda menjadi perisian yang berjalan di atasnya? Itulah makanan untuk jawatan seterusnya.

Otak dan Komputer

Kami mempunyai selari yang sempurna di antara otak dan komputer. Kita boleh berfikir otak sebagai perkakasan dan fikiran atau kesedaran seperti perisian atau sistem operasi. Kami adalah salah, menurut ramai ahli falsafah, tetapi saya masih memikirkan cara yang. Biar saya menggariskan persamaan yang menarik (menurut saya) sebelum masuk ke dalam kesukaran falsafah yang terlibat.

Banyak daripada apa yang kita tahu daripada cara kerja otak yang datang dari kajian lesi. Kita tahu, untuk contoh, yang mempunyai penglihatan warna seperti, muka dan objek pengiktirafan, pengesanan gerakan, pengeluaran bahasa dan pemahaman semuanya dikawal oleh kawasan khusus otak. Kita tahu ini dengan mengkaji orang yang telah mengalami kerosakan otak setempat. Ciri-ciri fungsi otak adalah amat serupa dengan unit perkakasan komputer khusus dalam grafik, bunyi, video penangkapan dan lain-lain.

Persamaan adalah lebih menarik apabila kita menganggap bahawa otak boleh memberikan pampasan bagi kerosakan kepada kawasan yang khusus dengan apa yang kelihatan seperti simulasi perisian. Sebagai contoh, pesakit yang kehilangan keupayaan untuk mengesan gerakan (keadaan orang biasa akan mempunyai masa yang sukar untuk menghargai atau mengenal pasti dengan) masih boleh membuat kesimpulan bahawa objek adalah dalam gerakan dengan membandingkan gambar berturut-turut dalam fikirannya. Pesakit tanpa keupayaan untuk memberitahu menghadapi selain boleh, pada masa-masa, simpulkan bahawa orang yang berjalan ke arah dia di tempat yang telah disusun pada masa yang tepat mungkin isterinya. Keadaan seperti ini memberikan kami gambar menarik berikut otak.
Otak → Perkakasan komputer
Kesedaran → Sistem Operasi
Fungsi mental → Program
Ia kelihatan seperti gambar yang logik dan menarik kepada saya.

Gambar menggoda, Walau bagaimanapun, adalah terlalu simplistik yang terbaik; atau sama sekali salah paling teruk. Asas, masalah falsafah dengan itu adalah bahawa otak itu sendiri adalah perwakilan yang dikeluarkan atas kanvas kesedaran dan minda (yang membina lagi kognitif). Ini regresi tak terhingga yg berkeras adalah mustahil untuk merangkak keluar dari. Tetapi apabila kita mengabaikan halangan falsafah ini, dan bertanya sendiri sama ada otak boleh menjadi komputer, kita mempunyai masalah besar. Apa sebenarnya yang kita meminta? Otak kita boleh menjadi perkakasan komputer dan minda menjadi perisian yang berjalan pada mereka? Sebelum bertanya soalan-soalan, kita harus bertanya soalan selari: Bolehkah komputer mempunyai kesedaran dan kecerdasan? Bolehkah mereka mempunyai fikiran? Jika mereka mempunyai fikiran, bagaimana kita akan tahu?

Malah lebih asas, bagaimana anda tahu sama ada orang lain mempunyai minda? Masalah ini adalah apa yang dikenali sebagai Minda Lain-lain, yang akan kita bincangkan dalam post yang akan datang sebelum meneruskan untuk mempertimbangkan pengkomputeran dan kesedaran.

Melihat dan Percaya

Apabila kita membuka mata kita dan lihat beberapa perkara, kita lihat bahawa perkara sialan. Apakah yang boleh menjadi lebih jelas daripada itu, betul? Katakan anda sedang mencari anjing anda. Apa yang anda lihat adalah benar-benar anjing anda, kerana, jika anda mahu, anda boleh menjangkau dan menyentuh. Ia menyalak, dan anda boleh mendengar pakan. Jika ia berbau agak, anda boleh bau ia. Semua petunjuk persepsi tambahan menyokong kepercayaan anda bahawa apa yang anda lihat adalah anjing anda. Secara langsung. Niat saya.

Sudah tentu, tugas saya di blog ini adalah untuk bertanya soalan, dan keraguan cast. Pertama sekali, melihat dan menyentuh seolah-olah menjadi agak berbeza daripada mendengar dan berbau. Anda tidak ketat mendengar kulit anjing anda, anda mendengar bunyi yang. Begitu juga, anda tidak bau secara langsung, anda bau bau, jejak kimia anjing itu telah meninggalkan di udara. Pendengaran dan berbau tiga persepsi tempat — anjing menjana bunyi / bau, bunyi / bau bergerak kepada anda, anda melihat bunyi / bau.

Tetapi melihat (atau menyentuh) adalah satu perkara yang dua tempat — anjing itu ada, dan anda di sini perceiving secara langsung. Mengapa bahawa? Mengapa kita merasakan bahawa apabila kita melihat atau menyentuh sesuatu, kita rasakan secara langsung? Kepercayaan dalam kebenaran persepsi daripada apa yang kita lihat dipanggil realisme naif. Kita tentu tahu yang melihat yang melibatkan cahaya (begitu juga menyentuh, tetapi dengan cara yang lebih rumit), apa yang kita lihat adalah cahaya yang terpantul dari objek dan sebagainya. Ia adalah, sebenarnya, tidak berbeza daripada sesuatu yang mendengar. Tetapi pengetahuan ini mekanisme yang melihat tidak mengubah semula jadi, pandangan akal bahawa apa yang kita lihat ialah apa yang di luar sana. Melihat adalah mempercayai.

Diekstrapolasi daripada versi yang naif adalah realisme saintifik, yang menegaskan bahawa konsep-konsep sains kita juga sebenar, walaupun kita mungkin tidak melihat mereka secara langsung. Jadi atom adalah nyata. Elektron adalah nyata. Kuark adalah nyata. Kebanyakan saintis kita yang lebih baik di luar sana telah tidak percaya extraploation ini kepada tanggapan kami apa yang nyata. Einstein, mungkin yang terbaik daripada mereka, disyaki bahawa walaupun ruang dan masa tidak mungkin menjadi nyata. Feynman dan Gell-Mann, selepas membangunkan teori pada elektron dan kuark, menyatakan pandangan mereka bahawa elektron dan kuark mungkin konstruk matematik dan bukannya entiti sebenar.

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.