Monday, June 11, 2012

On Identity

To me, the concept of identity seems to consist of a paradox. To define something its particular character must be highlighted but at the same time this particularity must be formulated in general terms that are in no way unique to object being defined. In effect, not only must a definition consist of contrast to something but must also simultaneously consist of similarity to something else.

For instance, let us say someone asks himself "who am I?". The two extreme forms that the answer can possibly take are - 1) I am who I am or 2) I am a being. The first answer lies on the particularist extreme, where the object is considered as something unique, as sui generis; without any common characteristics with anything else. On the other hand, the second answer lies on the generalist extreme, where the object being defined shares its definition with every existent thing. Both are logically true, in fact both are truisms. But both are useless as definitions; they give no new information at all about the object. The first answer puts the object too close to the eye, and the second one puts it too far. In either case, the object being defined is invisible.

A more useful definition will then be the one that lies somewhere in between these two extremities. It must move away from the generalistic extreme by bringing about the unique characteristics of the object ("I am a human being, an Indian and an Engineer") but at the same time these characteristics must have an existence independent of the object and thus necessarily indicate the object's similarity with certain things; the things with which the object shares these characteristics  (my Indian-ness does not owe its existence to me rather I share it with all other Indians). So,while I am distinguishing myself and highlighting my uniqueness, I have to also simultaneously highlight my similarity to certain things and characteristics. And, even though there's a strong tendency to highlight my uniqueness, I can not to go all the way to define myself in absolutely unique terms; in that case, I will come too close to the mind's eye, so to speak, and thus will become incomprehensible.
I think we understand this intuitively and thus rarely think of things or ourselves as completely unique or completely general. When people choose identities (often multiples) between these extremes, the most basic desire governing these choices perhaps is the desire to be seen and understood.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On God

 I am sometimes asked about my views regarding existence of God and invariably, unable to articulate my position vis-a-vis God, I end up saying that I am an agnostic. However, that's more because I am not really sure what it actually means to say that God exists. If what is referred to is some sort of physical existence then definitely I am an atheist (as, I suspect, every one else who will think rationally about it will be) as I haven't yet perceived any physical entity that can be called God nor have I got any reason to suspect its physical existence. However, most people don't talk of God in this physical sense, they talk of Him at a more spiritual and emotional level. They talk about the comfort and the sense of security they derive from the idea of God. Of course, there need not be any objective existence of God for such an emotional connection, a mere idea is sufficient. That placebos work is an established fact. And in so far as humans, almost universally and eternally, have had an idea of God, it's a truism that God (as an idea) exists. So, in this sense I believe that God exists.

But then in this sense the belief in existence of God is not any different than the belief in the existence of a point or a straight line. They are all concepts that reside purely in the ideal realm and are quite necessary and useful in their own way; being helpful approximations and aids to our understanding. And as I see it, God is a term man gave to the concept at which he arrived when he contemplated his limits and strove to see beyond them. When man got afraid of the nature and found it outside his control, he said nature was God. Then when he aspired to an ideal social order and found that human nature was not capable of attaining it, he invented Gods that were compassionate, just, honest and merciful. He saw in God what he desired in himself. (And isn't the same instinct at play when a particularly gifted sportsperson is termed 'God'?) It would not be stretching it too far to say that God is man's own reflection while he aspires to the impossible perfection.
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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Why Public Policy Matters

I recently applied for this public policy course offered by The Takshashila Institution. For one of its essays on 'Why public policy matters?', I wrote the following. 
At the very basic level, there is usually a rather surprising agreement among the various groups about the end goals to be pursued in a society; be it then eradication of poverty, removal of corruption or the establishment of an egalitarian order. What, however, differs is the means these various groups advocate for achieving these objectives.

Fortunately, since the ends are causally related to the means, these means or policies can be studied and evaluated in a scientific manner and their merits/demerits be discussed objectively. (Same thing can not, however, be said of the ends to be pursued which fall in the realm of desires and aspirations and are hence beyond any objective evaluation.)

Further, in a democratic society like India it is essential that even though the formal responsibility for policy making rests with the elected politicians, the general populace is also sufficiently capable of understanding and discussing various policy options and their nuances. For, ultimately in such societies it is the masses who decide which policy options get preference over the others.
Therefore, insofar as public policy provides a vocabulary to discuss and debate various issues of public importance and develops frameworks and models to objectively study and understand these issues, it is important.
Comments welcome. 
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