In the last post we examined life from the perspective of evolutionary biology. Now let’s move on to philosophy. There is an important philosophical difference between the perspectives on life in the East and the West. These views form the backdrop to the rules of life, which shape everything from our familial and societal patterns to our hopes and prayers. How these rules (which depend on where you come from) do it is not merely interesting, but necessary to appreciate in today’s world of global interactions. In one of his lectures, Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan made a remark that the basic stance vis-a-vis life (and death) in the West is that life is a good thing to have; it is a gift. Our job is to fill it with as much happiness, accomplishments and glory as possible.
The Eastern view is just the opposite – the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism is that life is suffering. Hinduism, which gave birth to Buddhism, says things like this world and the cycle of life are very difficult (Iha Samsare Bahu Dustare in Bhaja Govindam, for instance). Our job is to ensure that we don’t get too attached to the illusory things that life has to offer, including happiness. When we pray for our dead, we pray that they be relieved of the cycle of life and death. Deliverance is non-existence.
Of course, I am vastly oversimplifying. (Let me rephrase that — this oversimplified version is all I know. I am very ignorant, but I plan to do something about it very soon.) Viewed in the light of these divergent stances against the conundrum of life, we see why westerners place such a premium on personal happiness and glory, while their eastern counterparts tend to be fatalistic and harp on the virtues of self sacrifice and lack of ambition (or its first cousin, greed).
To an ambitious westerner, any chance at an incremental increase in personal happiness (through a divorce and remarriage, for instance) is too good an opportunity to pass up. On the other side of the globe, to one brought up in the Hindu way of life, happiness is just another illusory manifestation not to be tempted by. Those caught in between these two sets of rules of life may find it all very confusing and ultimately frustrating. That too is a macro level pattern regimented by the micro level rules of the game.
We started this series with chess and then moved on to the socio-political topology of a typical corporate landscape. Both could be understood, in some vague and generous sense, in terms of a simple set of rules. If I managed to convince you of that satement, it is thanks to my writing prowess, rather than the logical cohesion of my argument. I am about to extend that shaky logic to the game of life; and you should be wary. But I can at least promise you a good read.
Okay, with that reservation stated and out of the way, let’s approach the problem systematically. My thesis in this series of posts is that the macro-level patterns of a dynamic system (like a chess game, corporate office, or life itself) can be sort of predicted or understood in terms of the rules of engagement in it. In chess, we saw that general pattern of any game (viz. structured beginning, messy mid-game, clean endgame with a win, lose or draw) is what the rules prescribe. In this last post, we are going to deal with life. In a trivial analogy to chess, we can describe the pattern like this: we are all born somewhere and some point in time, we make our play for a few years, and we bow out with varying amount of grace, regardless of how high we soar and how low we sink during our years. But this pattern, though more rigorously followed than our chess pattern, is a bit too trivial. What are the salient features or patterns of human life that we are trying to understand? Human life is so complex with so many aspects of existence and dimensions of interactions among them that we can only hope to understand a limited projection of a couple of its patterns. Let’s choose the pattern of family units first.
The basic set of rules in human life comes from evolutionary biology. As a famous man put it, nothing in biology (or life itself, I would think) makes sense except in the light of evolution. On the other hand, everything from gender politics to nuclear family units makes perfect sense as the expressions of the genetic commands encoded in our DNA, although we may be stretching the hypothesis to fit the facts (which is always possible to do) when we view it that way. Let’s look at the patterns of gender relations in family units, with the preamble that I am a total believer in gender equality, at least, my own brand of it.
Evolutionary biology tells us that the instruction encoded in our genes is very simple — just live a little longer, which is at the root of our instincts for self preservation and reproduction. In the end, this instruction expresses itself as a man’s hidden antipathy toward monogamy and a woman’s overt defense of its virtues. Although this oft-repeated argument can be seen as a feeble attempt at justifying the errant and philandering behavior of man, it has simplicity on its side. It makes sense. The argument goes like this: in order to ensure the continued survival of his genes, a man has to mate with as many partners as possible, as often as possible. On the other hand, given the long gestation period, a woman optimizes the survival chances of her genes by choosing the best possible specimen as her mate and tying him down for undivided attention and for future use. Monogamy indeed is virtuous from her perspective, but too cruel a rule in a man’s view. To the extent that most of the world has now adopted monogamy and the associated nuclear family system as their preferred patterns, we can say that women have won the gender war. Why else would I feel scared to post this article? Weaker sex, indeed!
Evolutionary biology is only one way of looking at life. Another interesting set of rules comes from spiritual and religious philosophy, which we will look at in the next post.
A more complex example of how the rules shape the patterns on the ground is the corporate game. The usual metaphor is to portray employees as cogs in the relentless wheel of the corporate machinery, or as powerless pawns in other people’s power plays. But we can also think of all of them as active players with their own resources engaged in tiny power plays of their own. So they end up with a corporate life full of office politics, smoke and mirrors, and pettiness and backstabbing. When they take these things personally and love or hate their co-workers, they do themselves an injustice, I think. They should realize that all these features are the end result of the rules by which they play the corporate game. The office politics that we see in any modern workspace is the topology expected of the rules of the game.
What are these famous rules I keep harping on? You would expect them to be much more complex that those of a simple chess game, given that you have a large number of players with varying agendas. But I’m a big fan of simplicity and Occam’s Razor as any true scientist should be (which is an oblique and wishful assertion that I am still one, of course), and I believe the rules of the corporate game are surprisingly simple. As far as I can see, there are just two — one is that the career progression opportunities are of a pyramid shape in that it gets progressively more difficult to bubble to the top. The other rule is that at every level, there is a pot of rewards (such as the bonus pool, for instance) that needs to be shared among the co-workers. From these rules, you can easily see that one does better when others do badly. Backstabbing follows naturally.
In order to be a perfect player in this game, you have to do more than backstabbing. You have to develop an honest-to-john faith in your superiority as well. Hypocrisy doesn’t work. I have a colleague who insists that he could do assembly-level programming before he left kindergarten. I don’t think he is lying per-se; he honestly believes that he could, as far as I can tell. Now, this colleague of mine is pretty smart. However, after graduating from an IIT and working at CERN, I’m used to superior intelligences and geniuses. And he ain’t it. But that doesn’t matter; his undying conviction of his own superiority is going to tide him over such minor obstacles as reality checks. I see stock options in his future. If he stabs someone in the back, he does it guiltlessly, almost innocently. It is to that level of virtuosity that you have to aspire, if you want to excel in the corporate game.
Almost every feature of the modern corporate office, from politics to promotions, and backstabbing to bonuses, is a result of the simple rules of the game that we play it by. (Sorry about the weak attempt at the first letter rhyme.) The next expansion of this idea, of course, is the game of life. We all want to win, but ultimately, it is a game where we will all lose, because the game of life is also the game of death.
Richard Feynman used to employ the game of chess as a metaphor for the pursuit of physics. Physicists are like uninitiated spectators at a chess match, and they are trying figure out the rules of the game. (He also used sex, but that’s another story.) They observe the moves and try figure out the rules that govern them. Most of the easy ones are soon discovered, but the infrequent and complex ones (such as castling, to use Feynman’s example) are harder to decipher. The chess board is the universe and the players are presumably the Gods. So when Albert Einstein’s said that he wanted to know God’s thoughts, and that the rest were details, he probably meant he wanted to know the rules and the strategies based on them. Not the actual pattern on the board at any point in time, which was a mere detail.
A remarkable Indian writer and thinker, O. V. Vijayan, also used the metaphor of a chess game to describe the armed strife between India and her sibling neighbor. He said that our too countries were mere pawns in a grand chess game between giant players of the cold war. The players have stopped playing at some point, but the pawns still fight on. What made it eerie (in a Dr. Strangelove sort of way) is the fact that the pawns had huge armies and nuclear weapons. When I first read this article by O. V. Vijayan, his clarity of perspective impressed me tremendously because I knew how difficult it was to see these things even-handedly without the advantage of being outside the country — the media and their public relations tricks make it very difficult, if not impossible. It is all very obvious from the outside, but it takes a genius to see it from within. But O. V. Vijayan’s genius had impressed me even before that, and I have a short story and a thought snippet by him translated and posted on this blog.
Chess is a good metaphor for almost everything in life, with its clear and unbending rules. But it is not the rules themselves that I want to focus on; it is the topology or the pattern that the rules generate. Even before we start a game, we know that there will be an outcome — it is going to be a win, loss or a draw. 1-0, 0-1 or 0.5-0.5. How the game will evolve and who will win is all unknown, but that it will evolve from an opening of four neat rows through a messy mid game and a clear endgame is pretty much given. The topology is pre-ordained by the rules of the game.
A similar set of rules and a consequent topology exists in the corporate world as well. That is the topic of the next post.
After publishing my secrets on losing weight in my late forties, one question I got asked most was how I fought hunger. The question is straightforward. If you ate only 200 calories worth of fruits for lunch, wouldn’t you feel hungry in an hour or two? Yes, you would. What you then do is to take a snack of say 100 calories — a banana, for instance, or 10 cashew nuts (yes, you do need to count them). Trust me, it gets easier. Another way to fight hunger is to drink a lot of water. You need water anyway. Personally, I am not very font of tap water; I like Perrier. (I know, snobbish, right?) When I run out of Perrier, I can take tap water with ice as well. What is most important is to try to stay away from all other forms of beverages, even the light or zero-cal variety, and even the healthy fresh-juice kind. They all have calories.
More important than any of these tips and tricks is to develop an ability to listen to your body. If you suddenly find yourself craving for something like a juicy steak or lamb chops, it may be that your body is telling you that it is running low on proteins. You’d better do something about it. On the other hand, if you feel like a snack when you have a truckload of work to get through, it may be that you are trying to procrastinate. You have to develop an ability to know the difference. If you are trying to get away from work, don’t use a snack as an excuse; just take a break, a short power nap or whatever rocks your boat. Don’t use food as a filler. If you really need to use anything as a filler, use exercise as one!
Losing fat and getting in shape is a dynamic process. You have to modulate your exercise and diet regime as you make progress. In the beginning, it may be important to just lose weight. Apart from the obvious medical and self-image-related benefits, it gives you an added advantage in exercising itself. In my case, after I lost 10 kilos (20 lb.), I found it a lot easier to do the 100+ pushups, and said goodbye to that knee pain after a vigorous session of badminton. Losing weight when you are overweight does mean tons of cardio (running, swimming, treadmill, cross trainer etc.) and a strict diet. But you cannot keep losing weight at a steady, fairly drastic rate of a kilo a week and then suddenly stop at your target. You have to kind of soft land when you reach your target. That means less cardio, and perhaps a different kind of diet.
One thing you may notice as you lose weight is that you are losing muscles as well. My web research seems to indicate that it is most likely an illusion, although too much cardio and too strict a diet can make you lose muscles too. Apparently, that happens only at near-starvation levels. But it is a good idea to ramp up your resistance training as get closer to your target weight because what you want to lose is fat, not weight in the form of muscles. Right now, my exercise time is roughly 50% cardio and 50% strength training. I plan to make it progressively more strength, perhaps up to 70%. But it used to be almost 90% cardio in the beginning of the year. The best form of cardio for me is what they call high intensity interval training (HIIT). In this mode, after a short warm up (of two minutes), you go flat-out for 30 seconds and then slow down for a minute, and repeat the cycle. Flat-out in my case means I get my heart rate up to what they consider the maximum (which is 220 minus your age). So I oscillate between the heart rates of 170 for 30 seconds and 140 for a minute. I think this is a pretty drastic cardio regime; I could do it because I have always had some level of exercise ever since I was a teenager. Your fitness levels may call for a different regime. So please be careful if you decide to take up this HIIT formula. If you have any doubts at all, please talk to your doctor first.
Finally, what about those six packs? Are you ever going to get those? The honest answer is, it is unlikely, especially if you are a man. If you are woman, and you really want the six pack, it may be easier for you. Let me explain. We all have good abs muscles. It is just that we have layers of fat covering them. It reminds me of that time twenty years ago, when I was trying to get my then housemate in Ithaca, NY to join me on a long bike ride. This big fellow (over 250 lb.) wasn’t budging, and I tried to egg him on, “C’mon Roger. It will be a fun work out! Get the body you always wanted.” His sleepy reply from the couch was to the point, “I got the body I want. And then some!” That extra “some” is the problem hiding your six-packs. In order to begin to see them, you need to bring your body fat level to less than 10%, or less than 20% if you are a woman. Given that the body fat level for a reasonably inactive, but healthy, man is about 30% (and 40% for woman), the target level for a six pack is pretty far off. My own body fat percentage, according to my last medical, was over 35%. Now it may have come under 30%, but still pretty fricking far from okay (to paraphrase Marsellus of Pulp Fiction).
Having said that, I will try to get there because I like impossible odds and lost causes; I always did. Here is the plan: first thing to realize is that there is no such thing as a “targeted” fat loss. You cannot lose fat just from your tummy. And there is no way you can do countless crunches and get a six pack, which is why you don’t see a six pack on a guy with puny, pencil-like limbs. It is an all-or-nothing deal, part of a package. You have to do a lot of strength training on your major muscle groups (legs, back, chest, hands etc.), which will then act as fat burning machines getting you closer to your target of low body fat percentage. This is precisely what I plan to do for the rest of the year.
I think I will have one more post on this series, describing some exercises that I consider good, and sharing some tips. And describing the results of my protein shake experiment, which I am getting into this week. I don’t want to make this blog anything like a lose-weight, build-body, live-strong kind of site because I am just not qualified enough to talk too much about these things. This fitness craze of mine is perhaps only a passing fancy. Then again, my life has been a series of passing fancies, which I guess is as good a way to live it as any. Probably even better than most.
Once a favorite uncle of mine gave me a pen. This uncle was a soldier in the Indian Army at that time. Soldiers used to come home for a couple of months every year or so, and give gifts to everybody in the extended family. There was a sense of entitlement about the whole thing, and it never occurred to the gift takers that they could perhaps give something back as well. During the past couple of decades, things changed. The gift takers would flock around the rich “Gulf Malayalees” (Keralite migrant workers in the Middle-East) thereby severely diminishing the social standing of the poor soldiers.
Anyway, this pen that I got from my uncle was a handsome matte-gold specimen of a brand called Crest, possibly smuggled over the Chinese border at the foothills of the Himalayas and procured by my uncle. I was pretty proud of this prized possession of mine, as I guess I have been of all my possessions in later years. But the pen didn’t last that long — it got stolen by an older boy with whom I had to share a desk during a test in the summer of 1977.
I was devastated by the loss. More than that, I was terrified of letting my mother know for I knew that she wasn’t going to take kindly to it. I guess I should have been more careful and kept the pen on my person at all times. Sure enough, my mom was livid with anger at the loss of this gift from her brother. A proponent of tough love, she told me to go find the pen, and not to return without it. Now, that was a dangerous move. What my mom didn’t appreciate was that I took most directives literally. I still do. It was already late in the evening when I set out on my hopeless errant, and it was unlikely that I would have returned at all since I wasn’t supposed to, not without the pen.
My dad got home a couple of hours later, and was shocked at the turn of events. He certainly didn’t believe in tough love, far from it. Or perhaps he had a sense of my literal disposition, having been a victim of it earlier. Anyway, he came looking for me and found me wandering aimlessly around my locked up school some ten kilometer from home.
Parenting is a balancing act. You have to exercise tough love, lest your child should not be prepared for the harsh world later on in life. You have to show love and affection as well so that your child may feel emotionally secure. You have to provide for your your child without being overindulgent, or you would end up spoiling them. You have to give them freedom and space to grow, but you shouldn’t become detached and uncaring. Tuning your behavior to the right pitch on so many dimensions is what makes parenting a difficult art to master. What makes it really scary is the fact that you get only one shot at it. If you get it wrong, the ripples of your errors may last a lot longer than you can imagine. Once when I got upset with him, my son (far wiser than his six years then) told me that I had to be careful, for he would be treating his children the way I treated him. But then, we already know this, don’t we?
My mother did prepare me for an unforgiving real world, and my father nurtured enough kindness in me. The combination is perhaps not too bad. But we all would like to do better than our parents. In my case, I use a simple trick to modulate my behavior to and treatment of my children. I try to picture myself at the receiving end of the said treatment. If I should feel uncared for or unfairly treated, the behavior needs fine-tuning.
This trick does not work all the time because it usually comes after the fact. We first act in response to a situation, before we have time to do a rational cost benefit analysis. There must be another way of doing it right. May be it is just a question of developing a lot of patience and kindness. You know, there are times when I wish I could ask my father.
Long time ago, my teenage gang saw a pretty girl whom we called the Eye Catcher. One of my friends in the gang insists that he came up with the name, although I distinctly remember that it was I who first used it. I remember because it was from the last page of India Today of the time, which had a column titled “Eye Catchers.” But my friend has always been more articulate than me, and it is quite possible that he coined the catchy name without any help from India Today.
Time has flown, and today has become yesterday. During the years spanning that age of innocence and now, whenever our gang met up (once a year or so in the beginning, once a decade of late), the Eye Catcher was a topic that always came up. And once, one of us wondered if we would talk about her if we met at the age of fifty, which was incomprehensibly far away then. (Again, I think I was the one who came up with it; may be I like to take credit for every witty thing that happened around me.)
Now with the distant fifty just around the corner, I wonder. Was it the prism of adolescence that amplified her beauty, or was she really that eye-catching? Now, of course, the ravages of time would have surely dulled any beauty she may have possessed, and made cynics of the beholders prompting them to consider prisms of adolescence and ravages of time. I think I prefer not to know the answer. Often the blurry pictures with fading colors are more beautiful than the garish reality in high definition.
It is similar to the scratchy Malayalam songs I listen to in my car. My English-speaking family laughs at me whenever I do. To them, the lyrics don’t make sense, the beat is silly, and the sweet melody of Yesudas is almost gross, like cold pancakes swimming in stale syrup. I don’t blame them. Even to me, it is not just the words and the sounds that bind my heart to the songs; it is the fading colors of the past. It is the faces and scenes that the songs bring to mind, like the smell of June rain, the orange hue of the muddy potholes, and the tall coconut trees against blue skies and white cumulus, gently swaying their heads in assent to whatever adventures the day had in store. And the faces of the simple souls who played out their part on that stage of life and bowed out. Memories of a paradise lost.
But those players played their part well enough to imprint themselves on the songs for good. And with the twilights peeping over the horizon now, I often wonder — what am I going to leave behind? What are you?
Here is a simple 20-question quiz to see if you are an introvert or an extrovert. Introverts tend to agree with most of these statements. So if you get a score of close to 100%, you are a confirmed introvert, which is not a bad thing. You are likely to be a quiet, contemplative type with strong family ties and a generally balanced outlook in life. On the other hand, if you get close to 0%, congratulations, I see stock options in your future. And you are a party animal and believe that life is supposed to be wall-to-wall fun, which it will be for you. I’m not too sure of those in the middle though.
I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.
I often prefer to express myself in writing.
I enjoy solitude.
I seem to care about wealth, fame, and status less than my peers.
I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in-depth about topics that matter to me.
People tell me that I’m a good listener.
I’m not a big risk-taker.
I enjoy work that allows me to “dive in” with few interruptions.
I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members.
People describe me as “soft-spoken” or “mellow.”
I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it’s finished.
I dislike conflict.
I do my best work on my own.
I tend to think before I speak.
I feel drained after being out and about, even if I’ve enjoyed myself.
I often let calls go through to voice-mail.
If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled.
I don’t enjoy multi-tasking.
I can concentrate easily.
In classroom situations, I prefer lectures to seminars.
title: Are you an introvert?
These questions are from Susan Cain’s best seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and a prelude to my review of it. The questions are copyrighted to Cain, and are reproduced here with the understanding that it constitutes “fair use.” If you have any concerns about it, feel free to contact me.
I’m an introvert. In today’s world where articulation is often mistaken for accomplishment, introversion is a bit of a baggage. But I have no complaints about my baggage, for I have been more successful than I expected or wanted to be. That’s one good thing about being an introvert — his ambition is aways superseded by the need for reflection and introspection. To an introvert, the definition of success doesn’t necessarily include popular adulation or financial rewards, but lies in the pleasure of finding things out and of dreaming up and carrying out whatever it is that he wants to do. Well, there may be a disingenuous hint of the proverbial sour grapes in that assertion, and I will get back to it later in this post.
The reason for writing up this post is that I’m about to read this book that a friend of mine recommended — “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. I wanted to pen down an idea I had in mind because I’m pretty sure that idea will change after I read the book. The idea calls for a slightly windy introduction, which is the only kind of introduction I like (when I make it, that is).
Like most things in life, extroversion, if we could quantify it, is likely to make a bell-curve distribution. So would IQ or other measures of academic intelligence. Or kinesthetic intelligence, for that matter. Those lucky enough to be near the top end of any of these distributions are likely to be successful, unless they mistake their favoured curve to be something else. I mean, just because you are pretty smart academically doesn’t mean that you can play a good game of tennis. Similarly, your position on the introvert bell curve has no bearing on your other abilities. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, you will be badly and equally beaten if you try to play Federer — a fact perhaps more obvious to introverts than extroverts. Therein lies the rub. Extroverts enjoy a level of social acceptance that makes them feel as though they can succeed in anything, just like a typical MBA feels that they can manage anything despite a total lack of domain knowledge. That misplaced confidence, when combined with a loud assertiveness hallmark of extroversion, may translate into a success and make for a self fulfilling prophesy.
That is the state of affairs. I don’t want to rant against it although I don’t like it. And I wouldn’t, because I estimate that I would fall about one sigma below the mean on the extroversion curve. I think of it this way: say you go and join a local tennis club. The players are all better than you; they all have better kinesthetic intelligence than you can muster. Do you sit around complaining that the game or the club is unfair? No. What you would have to do is to find another club or a bunch of friends more at your level, or find another game. The situation is similar in the case of extroversion. Extroverts are, by definition, social and gregarious people. They like society. Society is their club. And society likes them back because it is a collection of extroverts. So there is social acceptance for extroversion. This is a self-fueling positive feedback cycle.
So, if you are introvert, and you are seeking societal approval or other associated glories, you are playing a wrong game. I guess Susan Cain will make the rest of it pretty clear. And I will get back to this topic after I finish the book. I just wanted to pen down my thoughts on the obvious feature of the society that it is social in nature (duh!), and therefore extrovert-friendly. I think this obviousness is lost on some of us introverts who cry foul at the status quo.
To get back to the suspicion of sour-grapishness, I know that I also would like to have some level of social approbation. Otherwise I wouldn’t want to write up these thoughts and publish it, hoping that my friends would hit the “Like” button, would I? This is perhaps understandable — I’m not at the rock bottom of the extroversion distribution, and I do have some extrovert urges. I’m only about a sigma or so below the mean, (and, as a compensation, perhaps a couple of sigmas above the mean in the academic scale.)
My wife, on the other hand, is a couple of sigmas above the mean on the extroversion department, and, not surprisingly, a very successful business woman. I always felt that it would be swell if our kids inherited my position on the academic curve, and her position in the people-skills curve. But it could have backfired, as the exchange between George Bernard Shaw and a beautiful actress illustrates. As the story goes, Mrs Campbell (for whom Shaw wrote the part of Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion) suggested to him that they should have a child so that it would inherit his brains and her beauty to which Shaw replied: “My dear lady, have you considered that it might inherit my beauty and your brains?”
Tell us a little about why you started your blog, and what keeps you motivated about it.
As my writings started appearing in different magazines and newspapers as regular columns, I wanted to collect them in one place — as an anthology of the internet kind, as it were. That’s how my blog was born. The motivation to continue blogging comes from the memory of how my first book, The Unreal Universe, took shape out of the random notes I started writing on scrap books. I believe the ideas that cross anybody’s mind often get forgotten and lost unless they are written down. A blog is a convenient platform to put them down. And, since the blog is rather public, you take some care and effort to express yourself well.
Do you have any plans for the blog in the future?
I will keep blogging, roughly at the rate of one post a week or so. I don’t have any big plans for the blog per se, but I do have some other Internet ideas that may spring from my blog.
Philosophy is usually seen as a very high concept, intellectual subject. Do you think that it can have a greater impact in the world at large?
This is a question that troubled me for a while. And I wrote a post on it, which may answer it to the best of my ability. To repeat myself a bit, philosophy is merely a description of whatever intellectual pursuits that we indulge in. It is just that we don’t often see it that way. For instance, if you are doing physics, you think that you are quite far removed from philosophy. The philosophical spins that you put on a theory in physics is mostly an afterthought, it is believed. But there are instances where you can actually apply philosophy to solve problems in physics, and come up with new theories. This indeed is the theme of my book, The Unreal Universe. It asks the question, if some object flew by faster than the speed of light, what would it look like? With the recent discovery that solid matter does travel faster than light, I feel vindicated and look forward to further developments in physics.
Do you think many college students are attracted to philosophy? What would make them choose to major in it?
In today’s world, I am afraid philosophy is supremely irrelevant. So it may be difficult to get our youngsters interested in philosophy. I feel that one can hope to improve its relevance by pointing out the interconnections between whatever it is that we do and the intellectual aspects behind it. Would that make them choose to major in it? In a world driven by excesses, it may not be enough. Then again, it is world where articulation is often mistaken for accomplishments. Perhaps philosophy can help you articulate better, sound really cool and impress that girl you have been after — to put it crudely.
More seriously, though, what I said about the irrelevance of philosophy can be said about, say, physics as well, despite the fact that it gives you computers and iPads. For instance, when Copernicus came up with the notion that the earth is revolving around the sun rather than the other way round, profound though this revelation was, in what way did it change our daily life? Do you really have to know this piece of information to live your life? This irrelevance of such profound facts and theories bothered scientists like Richard Feynman.
What kind of advice or recommendations would you give to someone who is interested in philosophy, and who would like to start learning more about it?
I started my path toward philosophy via physics. I think philosophy by itself is too detached from anything else that you cannot really start with it. You have to find your way toward it from whatever your work entails, and then expand from there. At least, that’s how I did it, and that way made it very real. When you ask yourself a question like what is space (so that you can understand what it means to say that space contracts, for instance), the answers you get are very relevant. They are not some philosophical gibberish. I think similar paths to relevance exist in all fields. See for example how Pirsig brought out the notion of quality in his work, not as an abstract definition, but as an all-consuming (and eventually dangerous) obsession.
In my view, philosophy is a wrapper around multiple silos of human endeavor. It helps you see the links among seemingly unrelated fields, such as cognitive neuroscience and special relativity. Of what practical use is this knowledge, I cannot tell you. Then again, of what practical use is life itself?