Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Propensity towards Conspiracy Theories

Unable to contemplate beyond binaries, the limited mind, when confronted with the greater possibilities of the world, found a useful and convenient tool in the conspiracy theory. If something is not with us, the limited mind thought, then it must surely be a conspiracy against us.

Fun exercise: Observe a person, an organization or a political group that is predisposed towards conspiracy theories. More than an even chance that they also have an essentially limited and rigid world view.
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Monday, December 9, 2013


So, I had this epiphany which seems rather straightforward now but let me still share it.

It started with reading how our 3D vision works - the basic stuff. How each of our eyes only provides just a 2D image to our mind; with no depth information. It is the mind that then synthesizes these two ever so slightly different 2D images to construct a field of vision that has a third dimension -- depth -- in it.

I think it's a very useful analogy to also think about how we construct much of our conception of the reality around us. The more different types of perspectives we can bring to bear on this reality -- social, political, economical, cultural, historical -- the more "depth", in some relevant and useful sense, we can perceive in the synthesized view.

A corollary to this is that the more you align or identify closely with a particular ideology or a way of looking at things, the more "depth" you may be giving up.

Of course, nothing earth-shatteringly original about this line of thought, but yeah it caught my fancy.
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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Einstein and Tagore Discussion


Einstein and Tagore in a discussion on the nature of knowledge and reality. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Einstein takes a realist position and Tagore a completely idealist one. (The terms idealist/realist used in the philosophical sense which is quite different from the sense in which they are generally used in political theory. Basically, the philosophical realists believe that there exists some reality "out there" which is independent of human mind and idealists believe that since everything is known to us through our minds we can not be sure about existence of such an external reality. Every thing we know is somehow shaped by our mind; to what degree we are in no position to determine.)

It's very tempting to relate idealism to some sort of subjectivism. So, I found it particularly interesting how Tagore even while maintaining the idealist stance articulates hows the concept like objective knowledge would still make sense.


EINSTEIN: I cannot prove scientifically that Truth must be conceived as a Truth that is valid independent of humanity; but I believe it firmly. I believe, for instance, that the Pythagorean theorem in geometry states something that is approximately true, independent of the existence of man. 


TAGORE: [...] In any case, if there be any Truth absolutely unrelated to humanity then for us it is absolutely non-existing.

It is not difficult to imagine a mind to which the sequence of things happens not in space but only in time like the sequence of notes in music. For such a mind such conception of reality is akin to the musical reality in which Pythagorean geometry can have no meaning. There is the reality of paper, infinitely different from the reality of literature. For the kind of mind possessed by the moth which eats that paper literature is absolutely non-existent, yet for Man’s mind literature has a greater value of Truth than the paper itself. In a similar manner if there be some Truth which has no sensuous or rational relation to the human mind, it will ever remain as nothing so long as we remain human beings.

EINSTEIN: Then I am more religious than you are!

P.S. Does anyone understands the context in which Einstein says the last line? Does he mean that he is more religious because he is a realist and Christianity subscribes to it?

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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Observations on Kumbh Mela

I wrote the following write-up after a visit to Kumbh earlier this year in February.

Every 12 years, when the stars and planets are aligned just right, the annual Magha mela at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati in Allahabad assumes a special significance and attracts an increasingly immense mass of humanity eager to wash away its sins and attain salvation by bathing in the holy waters. This year, during the months of January & February approximately 80-100 million pilgrims visited the Maha Kumbh to take the holy dip at the Sangam (the confluence)making it the largest human gathering ever. 

The humongous size of the mela naturally demands a proportionally huge administrative effort and planning. A temporary city spread over 1,900 hectares - divided into 14 sectors - is build within months on the sandy banks of the Sangam. Civic amenities like hospitals, sewage system, electricity supply lines and the roads etc. are built from scratch just before the commencement of the mela to be dismantled promptly after its conclusion. Around 11,000 police personnel, including the Provincial Armed Constabulary, are deployed for the maintenance of law and order and for crowd control. The thousands of Kalpwasis - the pilgrims and Sadhus who stay for a longer period at the mela - are provided with the daily food and civil supplies through 125 ration shops set up in the mela area. Clearly, the immensity of the whole administrative task cannot be overstated. And yet the Kumbh is regularly organized with relative success; a fact that becomes all the more exceptional given that it is organized by the administrative machinery of Uttar Pradesh - a state which is generally not known for its administrative prowess. A natural question thus arises - what explains the paradox that the same state machinery that routinely fails to provide basic amenities and services in the majority of towns and cities can build a temporary township quite efficiently and organize such a huge festival with relative success?

In the view of the authors, a major part of Kumbh's success can be explained by the coming together of the many favorable conditions, auspicious planetary positions not being one of them.

To begin with, the demographic of the pilgrims at the Kumbh makes it politically very relevant. The typical profile of a Kumbh pilgrim is a rural resident of the Hindi heartland who is religious and socio-economically belongs to the lower middle class. This socio-economic profile derives its political importance not only from its sheer numbers but also from its propensity to be one of the more active participants in the political process. Naturally, any state government wouldn't want to lose a chance to earn their goodwill.  

Not surprisingly, this has been the case almost throughout the history of the Kumbh mela at Allahabad starting from the time of Government of India Act, 1858. During the first half of the 18th century the Government of East India Company was largely indifferent to the religious sentiments of the masses. Some records show that it even levied the exorbitant charge of Re. 1 on the pilgrims coming to the Magh mela at Sangam. This naturally alienated the priestly class which fought British during the revolt of 1857. Subsequently, The GOI Act, 1858 made conscious effort to correct this and give greater freedom and respect for the religious aspirations of the people.

Further, as has been argued elsewhere (OECD, 2000), the two helpful conditions for better urban governance include: solidarity and subsidiarity. And both of these can be seen at work at the Kumbh.

There definitely is solidarity among the pilgrims at Kumbh. There's a commonality of purpose and interest - what the literature on pilgrimage frequently term communitas - unlike in more permanent settings where different sections jostle for limited resources for different and opposing interests. This solidarity obviously limits the scope for politics along the caste/religion/section faultlines and allows for a more coherent and focused approach of administration. Also, it helps that most participants are non-local who come to the site for only few months. This ensures that there are no permanent turfs that are protected through local politics and no privileged sections with in the mela. To be sure, historically there have been fierce turf wars between the Akhaadas and each of them still vie for favorable location in the Kumbh, but their difference are now resolved in during the meetings of Akhara Parishad and the Government officials before the mela. 

Also, the subsidiarity factor (" local autonomy, decentralisation and keeping government close to the people") is also at play at Kumbh to an extent. The mela administration provides the basic infrastructural services i.e. water, electricity, roads and police etc. reasonably well and then leaves it up to the Akharas to micro-manage their own sectors with reasonable autonomy. 

Finally, it must be said that despite its size the space-time framework in which the Kumbh is organized is still relatively quite small. To install new facilities and services is one thing, but the maintain and operate them on a sustainable basis is quite another. It is in the latter that the state generally lacks the capacity in the more permanent setting of Indian cities and villages.

So, even though Kumbh is a spectacular event organized with remarkable efficiency and skill, large part of its success still seems to be linked to the coming together of many different factors that are generally absent in more permanent settings of Indian cities and villages.

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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Contradictions of Urban Middle Class

I find it contradictory (hypocritical is perhaps a little too strong a word) when a person (mostly with an urban middle class profile in my experience) supports economic laissez-faire but sneers at "vote bank" politics. Apparently, he can clearly see and approves of the "invisible hand" of profit motive in business but fails to see the working of a similar "invisible hand" of power motive in politics. So, while his economic understanding is based on the assumption of human nature as essentially self centered and egoistic, his political understanding inexplicably expect the same human nature to be altruistic.

What gives?

I offer the following thesis: while economically urban middle class starts off from a relatively advantageous position, it is quick to shout "let it be" (laissez-faire, literally) but politically, where its single vote counts just as much as another person's and it can not get its own way, it's equally quick to shout "vote bank politics".

P.S. Personally, I hold both the adversarial systems (capitalism in economics and electoral democracy in politics) in equal regards. To the extent I accept lassiez-faire economics, I am also fine with vote bank politics.
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Saturday, February 16, 2013

On Philosophy

What is Philosophy?

Before trying to answer this question, let me pose a different one- For what field of study x, does the question "what is x" fall within the realm of x itself? It's not mathematics, for what is mathematics in not a mathematical question. Neither is it science (what is science isn't a properly scientific question that can be decided empirically) nor it's politics or psychology etc. The only candidate for x that fits the above criteria seems to be philosophy. "What is philosophy" is strictly a philosophical question. In fact, all other such "what is x" type questions mentioned above are themselves philosophical questions.

Now how does this relate to the original question? I think this highlights a crucial distinction between philosophy and other specialized field of studies and it is this - for any specialized field of study, the particular aspect in which it studies reality is fixed and this aspect is given to it as if from outside; philosophy, on the other hand, is not constrained by any such boundaries. It is free to choose any and the most generic aspect under which it wants to study reality. And therefore only philosophy seems sufficiently capable of self-consciously looking at itself in a manner in which other sciences, being limited by their own definition, are not.

In fact, it is only when a particular aspect of reality under consideration becomes sufficiently articulated does it become a separate discipline. Thus what was once studied under philosophy as natural science, once it got articulated, became physics as we know it and thence got subdivided further into chemistry and biology and so on.

So, philosophy is simply an "enquiry into the unknown". And the only distinction between it and other specialized studies is a negative one - once everything is accounted for by one specialized field or the other, whatever else is left is philosophy.

The best definition that I came across for Philosophy, and which succinctly sums up my views as well, is due Wilfrid Sellars:
Philosophy is the attempt to understand how things in the most general sense of that word hang together in the most general sense of those words. 

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