24 April, 2017

Theories, not Ideologies

The problem with political discourse today is that a specific framework of reasoning (originating from the West, of course) is imposed upon all forms of social and political organizations around the world.

Politics is divided into "left" and "right" ideological extremes and are respectively called "liberal" and "conservative".

For one, both extremes are just ideologies -- they are neither theories nor strategies.

The "liberal" ideology argues that individual liberty is the cornerstone for good social organization, but has no strategic model towards sustainable individual liberty. Hence, if an individual says that his free-willed choice is to dominate and subjugate others, or to submit oneself to the will of others, liberals do not have a good ideological counter-response.

The "conservative" ideology (of the Western world) argues that some "God" has commanded how society ought to be organized and any deviation from that shall be a punishable offence. Some form of scriptural basis is seen as a timeless solution to social organization.

This framework is now imposed upon other cultures which have had vastly different ways of thinking.

Rather than attempting to breakdown the world using a flawed hermeneutic framework, the Western world would do well to invest in some deep introspection and recognize the need for systemic theories for governance.

Most theory of systems in the Western model of thinking, equate systems to machines.

A machine is an artificial construct -- it is a tool built for a specific purpose. The overarching purpose for the machine forms the converging factor for all design decisions.

A society on the other hand, is not a machine. There is no overarching purpose for a society and there is no naturally endowed command hierarchy. The task of managing a society is to manage a potentially divergent system in a way that it is sustainable.

It is such a wonder that the importance of the concept of "sustainability" is not given the central role that it requires, in the Western hermeneutics about social organization. Every issue is argued using an ideological lens -- not a systemic lens.

For instance, there is no liberal ideological argument if a close, adult friend decides by one's own free will and informed consent, that they would submit to the will of someone else and live like a slave. After all, "it is their life" and we have "no right" to dictate to others how they ought to live their lives.

However, if this friend were to be endowed with a reasoning framework based around systems and sustainability, it would be easier to reason with them with an argument that what they are doing is "adharma" (unsustainable) for the system as a whole.

In the 1990s when we graduated from college, the conventional wisdom was that, we have to emigrate to the US. No questions to be asked. The usual arguments given were how India was corrupt, how life is much better in the US and how Ayn Rand says that being selfish is virtuous.

The only argument I had was to agree with the conclusions, so much so that we need to extend this argument and advocate to the entire 1.2 billion people of India to emigrate to the US! Because after all, it is a better country and selfishness is a virtue.

Unless we are endowed with a capability to reason about systems as a whole, it is not possible to create sound strategic models for managing such individual dilemma that have systemic impact -- it will just be an ideological battle of what is a virtue and what is moral. Never what is sustainable.

The so-called "conservative ideology" in India is basically trying to re-establish the hermeneutics of dharma, where systems and sustainability form the core elements of reasoning. The "conservative" dharmic ideology is basically about sustainable liberalism.

The usual argument we hear is that our society has evolved away from this ideology for a reason.

Well no, firstly, sustainability is not an ideology -- it is a natural basis for a theoretical framework whose theories are open to debate and argumentation. And secondly, the society has not evolved away from dharmic hermeneutics. This way of thinking was upended due to external aggression, and it has survived (sustained?) centuries of aggression. Indian society has not changed from within -- change has been imposed upon it.

03 March, 2017

Theory of Being -- IV: Prana and Entropy

This is the fourth in the series called Theory of Being. A clearer understanding of this post is possible when the reader has read through the earlier posts in this series.

To summarize the main elements, we started by noting that the universe as we know it can be broadly divided into two realms -- the energy realm and the information realm. Everything in the physical universe can be reduced to energy, and everything in the conceptual realm is fundamentally built from information.

We also started to develop a new theory of the universe, inspired by the dharmic worldview. Here, the building block of the universe is an entity called "Being". A being is a template that can host energy and information. The "state" of being is the information content in being. Beings tend to settle down into "stable" or "sustainable" states, which is called its dharma. These are states that correspond to robust optimality given its operational neighbourhood (called its Vidhi).

Beings can compose with one another to form bigger beings, with the entire universe itself forming the ultimate Being.

*~*~*~*~*~*

The tendency of beings to settle down into stable states is treated as axiomatic, as it is based on ample empirical evidence -- be it in the quantum dynamics of sub-atomic particles, or the elasticity of solids, or the dynamics of fluids or the phenomenon of homeostasis in living beings.

The philosophy of dharma that characterizes Eastern thought is built on the concept of sustainability of beings. This in in contrast to "particles" and "mechanics" that forms central elements of Newtonian worldview, that can be traced all the way to ancient Hellenic Greece.

It is not that Western thought has not recognized stable states or Eastern thought has not recognized mechanics. For instance, the relatively recent discipline of Game Theory, also dubbed as "A Beautiful Math" is predominantly based on understanding equilibria and stable states. Game Theory is applied as much to biological and social phenomena as much to physical phenomena.

The question we are now posing is to understand the way in which mechanics feature in the hermeneutics of dharma.

Even though stability and sustainability form the fundamental building blocks of the dharmic worldview, there is another important concept that we need to consider. This is the concept of Prana.

Prana is variously translated as "force", "energy", "life", etc. Of course, none of them capture its essence exactly. The closest working definition of Prana that we will be using to develop our theory is Prana as "vitality".

Prana is basically the fundamental element of vitality in the universe. It is what makes beings seek different levels of dharma or stable states.  A being with low levels of prana settles down in a "lower" state of dharma and a being with high levels of prana can reach "higher" states of dharma.

So how do we understand, and perhaps quantify this "lower" and "higher" states of dharma?

"Lower" and "higher" states of dharma can be distinguished by their "information content" or entropy.

Consider a society of beings each of whom are trying to maximize their survivability. (Note that, a society of such beings is also a being which is trying to maximize its sustainability.)

Each being has some needs for its survival, which requires it to build connections with its environment, made up of other beings. Let us say that we have one such society with low levels of "Prana". The beings do not have much vitality and have just enough resources to build just one connection. The beings are focused solely on their survival and do not have the wherewithal to process complex notions like social fairness and such. The beings just connect with one another so that they can get to everybody else, as quickly as possible. So in what kind of a stable state, does such a society end up?

Some truly awesome research efforts have shown that, the resultant "dharma" for such a society, looks somewhat like this:

Star graph: Image source: Wikipedia

A "star" network is an emergent stable property (or an "equilibrium" in Game Theory parlance) resulting from individual beings exercising their Prana to maximize their sustainability.

As we can see, a star network is optimal in the sense that, anyone can reach anyone else in the network, in a maximum of 2 hops. Given very little Prana of just making one connection, this is the class of network with the shortest separation, that can be built. No one imposed a star graph on this society -- it emerged as a stable property from individual beings seeking to sustain themselves! This network now becomes a "being" of the "star" variety. We are already talking evolution here!

So how does the "star being" fare with respect to its sustainability? For one, it is quite efficient, since anyone can reach anyone else in a maximum of two hops. The "star being" is also robust against random failures. If every node is equally likely to fail, and there are n nodes in the network, then, for (n-1) possible failures, the rest of the network (and the "star being") continues to function. It is only one critical failure (of the central node) that can kill the "star being".

However, the "star being" is also innately vulnerable because the central node is heavily loaded in comparison with all the other nodes. It has to manage (n-1) connections, while every other node manages just one connection. The heavy load on the central node makes it most vulnerable to burnout and collapse, which would in turn, bring down the entire "star being".

The star network also has very low information content or "entropy". If we have to describe a star network over a given set of n nodes, all we need to specify is which node is the central node. The rest of the network can be reconstructed just by knowing who is the central being.

We can make this society reach a higher level of dharma by infusing more "Prana" into the constituent beings. We can do this either by empowering them with more resources (by providing enough energy to make more connections), or by empowering them with richer information constructs like "fairness".

Let us take the second case to understand the concept of Prana. As we can see, Prana is not just energy. Increasing awareness also increases Prana. The vitality of a being towards sustaining itself is based not just on its energy, but also on its awareness.

When beings are aware of the network that they are part of, and understand concepts like fairness, they would be able to see that the star network that they created is not very sustainable. The network is its own adversary -- by overloading the central node and by giving it an unfair amount of load.

So how would a collection of beings operate towards sustainability, when they are empowered with the concept of fairness? They form what is called as a "scale-free network" or a "hub and spoke model" as shown below: 
Scale-free network. Image source: Wikipedia
A scale-free network has several "hubs" with different levels of "centrality". No node in the network is so overloaded that it has to manage all communications between all nodes. But a few nodes are slightly more central and manage more load than others. Failure of these nodes, do damage the network, but none of them will damage the network to such an extent that the failure of the central node in a star network does, where the entire network gets totally broken.

The "scale-free being" is more sustainable than the "star being" even though it is less efficient. In the "star being" anyone could communicate with anyone else in a maximum of just two hops, which is not the case here. But the "star being" was also inherently unsustainable, as the very nature of the being made it vulnerable for a fatal internal failure (of the central node).

The "scale-free being" also has more information content, or "entropy" as compared to the "star being". In order to describe the network we need much more information than just specifying who is the central node.

So basically, increase in Prana increases the information content of the stable state that the being settles down in -- a "higher" form of dharma, if you will.

Prana is not just about "living" beings -- in fact, there is no difference between living and non-living beings in dharmic thought. Prana is the "cosmic energy" that permeates everything in the universe.

The concept of annealing shows how infusion of Prana (heat energy) in metals can make them change their stable state, and change the characteristic nature of the metallic compound. Although annealing has its roots in metallurgy, the process itself is generic and is applicable in various other domains.

Now think of a computer that is fresh off the factory and just has the inbuilt firmware. When we switch it on, it settles down to a state where it can perform a very basic set of operations. Its Prana is very low. Now, add more Prana to this computer in the form of an operating system like Linux (ok, even Windows or Mac 😋), and suddenly it settles down in a state with much higher information content, and capable of doing much more things!

Dharma (the teleology of sustainability) and Prana (the teleology of vitality) form the basic building blocks of the universe!

09 December, 2016

Theory of Being -- III: Being and Sustainability

This is the third post in the series about a "Being" theory of reality. For earlier posts in this series, click on the label "Theory of Being" in the sidebar.

Thus far, we have seen how reality can be divided into (at least) two realms -- the energy realm and the information realm. Energy realm is what constitutes physical reality, for which we have different interfaces in the form of sense organs. The information realm consists of concepts, the reality of which are perceived through the mind -- or cognition.

In that sense, I view cognition as our "sixth sense" or our ability for "Extra-sensory perception" -- it perceives objects that our sense organs may not be able to perceive.

Based on the above, let me try and formulate a theory of reality combining the two realms.

Existence 

To begin with, I would like to assert that: Existence is formed by the interaction between energy and information

An object is said to "exist" if it represents an active interaction between energy and information. This is easy to see for living beings like humans. We "exist" as long as our body (matter/energy) is in an active interaction with our "soul" (information). The moment their interplay ceases, we cease to exist (as a living being).

In the following theory, I would like to generalize this model to all objects -- not just "living" objects.

The Being 

Energy in its purest form has no characteristic. It can become light, heat, matter, force or whatever else in the physical world, when it acquires (or gets into an interaction with) an element from the information realm.

The building block of existence, representing different kinds of interplay between energy and information, is called a Being. A Being is a chunk of energy that has acquired a concept (information object). This interplay between energy and concept gives the being its own set of characteristic properties.

For example, a hydrogen atom is a chunk of energy that has acquired the concept of a hydrogen atom from the information realm to give it its specific set of characteristics as that of a hydrogen atom. Note that this "acquisition" need not be a form of creation or "intelligent design" (a creator bringing together a chunk of energy and a concept, and weaving a being out of it).  It is usually the result of a physical causal phenomena (except in cases of singularities like black holes).

Beings affect one another by the causal laws of physics. However, every being also has a teleological objective that it strives to achieve -- this is the objective "to be" or to "preserve itself" or to "sustain itself."

As an aside, this teleological objective bas been noticed in different cultures in different ways. In Sanskrit, the term भव (bhava) or "being" is the root of भाव (bhaava) or disposition, and the self-preserving nature of being is called स्वभाव (svabhaava) or self-disposition. In Arabic, the saying  كون, في كون (kwn, fi kwn) expresses the nature of reality as: "Be, and it is". In French, the saying "Que sera, sera" expresses this as "What will be, will be."

The tendency of things "to be" is seen even in physics, in different ways.

Newton's laws of physics for example, concern two basic properties -- inertia and motion. The first and the third law are primarily about inertia (or the tendency of an object to preserve its state), and the second law is about motion.

Physics, following the time of Newton, has largely focused on mechanics rather than inertia (perhaps because, what is so interesting about "just being"?) But what we are interested in here, is the "just being" part and the algebra of the "inherent laziness" of existence.

This tendency for self-preservation is also seen in the quantum world. Sub-atomic particles are known to absorb energy in discrete units called quanta, giving them a discrete state space in which they can exist. And not all such discrete states are equally stable. The sub-atomic particles tend to settle back into stable states once the source of energy is removed.

Hence, when an electron absorbs a quantum of energy, it goes into an "excited state" -- usually an orbital in a higher orbit, away from the nucleus. But if the source of energy is removed, the electron emits the absorbed energy and reverts back to its original orbit or its "ground state."

Why does the electron come back to its ground state? While physics has sound explanations for how this happens, the best answer thus far for why this happens seems to be that, "because, we have observed it to be so."

Even when we consider the behaviour of compounds or matter, this tendency of self-preservation appears in the form of elasticity. Materials, when subject to stress, tend to return to their original dimensions.

It is not that beings always succeed in returning to their original state. An electron can be excited enough to escape away from the atom, making the atom into an ion. An ionized atom is extremely sensitive towards ionized atoms with the opposite charge, in an effort to bring it back to its self-preserving state of being.

The state where a being settles down in order to self-preserve is called its धर्म or "dharma".

Dharma is not an inherent characteristic of being (स्वभाव is the inherent characteristic). It is the state that is maximally suited for self-preservation given the environmental factors in which the being is operating.

The environment in which a being seeks its dharma is called its विधि (Vidhi), which is sometimes incorrectly translated as "fate." Fate is something that the being has no control over, and towards which, it is helpless. Vidhi on the other hand, refers to the schema or the layout defining the environment in which the being operates. Vidhi imposes constraints, but not absolute determinism.

The same being may settle down in different stable states depending on the environment in which it operates. For instance, atoms operating in an environment of high stress (like in volcanoes or deep inside the earth), tend to form ionic bonds with one another, to result in stable, crystalline structures. On the other hand, atoms operating in chemically rich environments tend to form covalent bonds, that are stable against corrosions from other chemicals.

It requires enormous temperature and pressure to break the ionic bond of Sodium and Chlorine in a grain of salt. But this bond can be easily broken by putting the salt crystal into water. Covalent bonds on the other hand (like many organic compounds) are not easily soluble in water and cannot be broken down in a wide array of chemically rich environments. But, they can be broken by subjecting them to stress, like high pressure or temperature.

To use the parlance of Game Theory, dharma is the best response function of a being, given the environment in which it operates. When two beings operate in an environment (thus forming the Vidhi for one another), the mutual best response function results in a state of Nash equilibrium, something which finds application in physics, in the form of quantum game theory.

While dharma drives beings to settle down to their self-dispositions in a neutral environment with no stressful interactions, almost all beings change their dharma, or the stable state that they settle into, in highly stressful environments.

And I'm not at all talking about humans here.

Chemical reactions can be induced in most collections of different stable molecules, just by subjecting them to high temperatures and pressure. When Vidhi changes, the teleological force of dharma pushes the being to adapt suitably to maintain the property of self-preservation.

Living Beings

Finally, there are a class of beings called "living beings" that take sustainability and self-preservation to a whole new level. Living beings are basically complex beings called "genes" that have acquired a specific concept from the information realm, that enables them to pursue self-preservation of their complex nature, by a process called evolution. Here they interact with other gene ensembles to look for ways (fitness) that can help sustain them for as long as possible.

"The greatest show on earth" as evolution is sometimes called, is basically the principle of dharma operating across generations.

Living beings are primarily driven by two forms of dharma -- homeostasis, that strives to preserve the being in its present form; and evolution, that strives to preserve the being across generations.

Let me end this post on this note, and invite my readers to "just be" with these thoughts, while we return again to look into how beings bridge between energy and information. And how, awareness and consciousness represent different stages of bridging between energy and information.

01 December, 2016

Theory of Being -- II: Information Objects

This is the second post in the series where I'm trying to develop a theory of reality based on a concept of "Being". Click on the label "Theory of Being" on the right, to see all other posts in this series.

In the previous post, we had seen about uncertainties that lie at the heart of quantum mechanics, which gives it several possible interpretations. We had also seen a specific interpretation from David Bohm about a "non-local" hidden variable as a means of explaining quantum entanglement.

The "standard" interpretation of the quantum wave function that is widely adopted, is called the Copenhagen Interpretation. This states that the quantum wave function does not represent the objective state of reality, but rather, represents the observer's knowledge about the objective state of reality. When we do a measurement, it is not objective reality that collapses, but the uncertainty in the observer's knowledge.

This interpretation is consistent with the conventional, deterministic model of the universe, which is what Einstein ascribes to when he said, "God does not play dice."

In the conventional Newtonian worldview, the universe is inherently deterministic, where, if we know the states of every particle in the universe, we can determine how they will evolve in the future and work backwards into how they were in the past.

In other words, in the Western model, the universe is considered to be a machine -- a system of interacting parts that are completely indifferent and deterministic. The machine is just there -- it has no will of its own, and no purpose towards which it is working. The state of the machine at any point in time is simply a function of what happened in the past.

It is important to note the mechanistic worldview that forms the predominant hermeneutic framework for doing most part of physics. We will use the notion of a Machine, to form the underlying backdrop for contrasting it with Being.

It is not that Western worldview was always so mechanistic. Debates on Causality versus Teleology, have characterized Western philosophy since several centuries. Causality is the principle of cause and effect. As a philosophical theory, Causality states that the state of reality we see today is a result of what happened in the past. In contrast, Teleology is a theory of "purpose" or "goal". In a teleological worldview, the state of the world today can be explained by its teleological intentions -- where it intends to go.

The scientific worldview has largely favoured causality over teleology in constructing its models. Teleology conventionally requires us to imagine an entity that provides a goal for the universe, or to an anthropomorphic model for all objects -- like intentions, goals, desires, etc. Such kinds of elements appear too primitive, reminiscent of old tribal societies, and are usually rejected by modern (20th century) science.

But what if we can show that a teleological theory does not necessarily require an anthropomorphic interpretation of all objects? What if we can build a teleological theory without having to use explanations like, "Storms are an expression of anger by the Gods"? What if we can show that there exists an innate notion of goal or purpose for every physical system as an element of physics, rather than as a divine decree or as a divinely ordained moral code?

Hold on to this thought as well, as this debate on causality and teleology is very important for us in developing this theory of Being.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Scientists like Stephen Hawking have have criticized the overtly mechanized model of the Western scientific worldview.

If God does not "play dice" and the quantum wave function is simply the uncertainty of our observation, then there is some "hidden variable" that is causing this uncertainty. The question we will then have to ask is, what is this hidden variable and where is it coming from?

Unfortunately for Einstein, John Stewart Bell proves in his theorem that there cannot exist any localized hidden variable. No known element of physics (any form of energy) can cause the uncertainty of the quantum wave function while observation.

But the operative word in Bell's theorem is "localized" hidden-variable. Bell's theorem can still admit "non-local" hidden variables -- in other words, some form of non-physical entity that is not constrained by physical space-time, and can be in several places (and time) simultaneously. Hmm.. interesting, right?

And Bohm's theory that comes close to the concept of Being (to be developed in subsequent posts), is based on the non-local property of the hidden variable.

In contrast to Einstein, Hawking boldly rejects the mechanistic axiom of the Western scientific worldview and states, "God not only plays dice, but sometimes keeps the dice where we cannot find them." (The second part of his quote has to do with the loss of information in black holes, which is very interesting, but not directly relevant to us at the moment.) It is interesting for a scientist to be saying that our universe is basically a game played by the Gods.

His words have been interpreted by "believers" many of whom argue that Hawking has "proved" the existence of God -- even though no one seems to be bothered about what it means to prove that God "exists" when God is defined as the creator of existence. Existence is a very bounded notion and has a clear opposite notion of non-existence. The creator is supposed to be unbounded, yet we want the creator to "exist" within the boundaries of existence!

Anyway, despite this foray of a physics pioneer into the realm of religion, Professor Hawking has kept his scientific reputation intact.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Let us now look at yet another philosophical debate in the Western world -- about mind versus matter. The mind-matter dichotomy is used to distinguish between the reality of perception and the reality of cognition.

Matter constitutes physical reality, and elements of matter are known to be real (known to exist), because we have several sense organs to perceive them. I know for example that there is a cat next door, because I can hear it, I see it and recognize it to belong to a class of other similar objects labeled "Cat."

There are however, some objects that seem to exist purely in the mind. Consider the concept of a Prime Number. Prime Numbers have very specific properties, that we can "show" (by way of proof) to others -- as long as those others can think and communicate like us. For instance, a child and a dog may act in a similar fashion when we throw a ball at them. This shows that they can both perceive the ball and can communicate this perception to us. However, try explaining the concept of a Prime Number to both of them to see who can fetch us a Prime Number.. The dog would likely fail to recognize this object of the mind, where the child mostly succeeds.

But let us not laugh at the dog just yet. Dogs are known to perceive and communicate objects of the mind like our intent and emotional state, which even our closest cousins -- chimpanzees -- cannot.

Do these objects of the mind really exist or are they simply a figment of our imagination? Do we imagine Prime Numbers, or are they really there? The predominant philosophical framework today in the Western world, called Analytic Philosophy (developed by Moore and Russell, and considered to mark the philosophical foundations of modern scientific pursuit), considers objects of the mind to be as real (called as "simpliciter") as physical objects. Prime Numbers do exist, and several minds have found them independently. They existed even in the time of dinosaurs when there were no minds that could see them. They exist on Earth as well as on Mars or anywhere in the universe.

In other words, objects of the mind, which we will call Information Objects or Concepts, exist on their own in a realm of the universe that is not constrained by the laws of physics (energy). Hence, the concept of a Prime Number that Euclid discovered is the very same Information Object that was addressed by Riemann or Ramanujan or Goldbach at different points in time.

To clarify it further, Information Objects has the property of non-locality in physical space-time! They are not constrained to exist at a specific place at a specific time -- they exist everywhere at all times!

While Information Objects always exist, physical objects are "affected" by them in specific ways.

Sub-atomic particles are known to be indistinguishable from one another. Unlike macro elements of matter like say zinc and carbon, every electron looks like every other electron. An electron from Zinc may get shared into a carbon atom, but it won't be treated like a foreign body in the carbon atom.

However, there is a way by which electrons can be distinguished -- by their information content like orbits, orbital and spin, that influence how they operate. All electrons having a certain value for their spin (say -1/2) basically have the same Information Object affecting them, and basically have exactly the same affect due to this information object. This affect may of course, be suppressed, blended with or compounded by other Information Objects that are acting the electron.

When we recognize Information Objects as first-class entities of the universe (in a non-physical realm), we can think of developing a theory of reality that includes the interplay between physical (energy) objects and information objects. For instance, the non-local hidden variable that can explain quantum entanglement, can be an Information Object rather than a physical object. When two sub-atomic particles collide and fly away in opposite directions in the speed of light, they can be seen as being attached to the same Information Object that has the exact same affect on both particles, thus giving this spooky action at a distance.

Let me stop this post on this note.

End notes: We are now ready to imagine a universe comprising of two realms -- the Energy realm and the Information realm. The former is predominantly characterized by causality driven by physical conservation laws that we know very well.

But, what drives the Information realm? Are there any laws that determine how the realm of information affects the realm of energy? We may be in too premature a stage to talk about laws, but at least, are there patterns in the ways by which information affects energy?

I would like to contend that there are indeed definite patterns in the interaction between these two realms. Optimization seems to be an important driver of the Information realm, giving information dynamics, a teleological characteristic. Causality and teleology, far from being an either-or dichotomy, seems to be intricately intertwined in the way our universe operates. 

27 November, 2016

Theory of Being -- I: Glimpses of Being

Our current day understanding of physics leaves several knowledge gaps. In my previous posts, I have argued that ancient Indian thought based on the concept of  धर्म or dharma (sustainability) and भव or bhava (Being) can help address some of the open questions in physics. This post is the first in a series, that tries to make this case a little more coherently. In this post, I'll be addressing some open questions in physics and how some theories to explain these phenomena, have touched upon the notion of "Being".

Before I begin this series, some notes about the vantage point is necessary.

There are some scholars who say that interpreting dharmic thought through the lens of Western universalism (making the Western way of thinking as the fundamental framework through which we interpret other frameworks), does a lot of disservice. It only results in "digestion" of dharmic thought into the Western worldview, thus losing its essence, and reducing it to superficial symbolics.

The above is a very valid argument and I completely agree with it.

However, this post still falls in the realm of Western universalism and, I would argue that this is necessary too. For one, the interpretation that I am attempting to make here addresses some of the core elements of the Western physical worldview. Thus far, dharmic thought in the West has been mostly relegated to the category of "religion" which in turn is defined as a framework of interpretation of the world based on "belief" and "faith" and is considered to have nothing to do with the faculty of science. By this interpretation, I wish to refute such assumptions. Second, it would be difficult to write something about the dharmic worldview using the dharmic worldview as the hermeneutic framework, for my audience who are largely unaware of this worldview. So the Western universalism becomes an imperative here.

Once I have developed the theory of Being (inspired by the dharmic worldview) to a sufficient level of clarity, I can attempt to interpret the Western worldview through this lens. Trying to do that now would make my writing appear meaningless.

I am also in a dilemma whether to use terminology like dharma while developing this theory of Being.  Using such terms in a specific sense to build this theory, risks distorting their original full meaning. However, not using these terms tends to dissociate the inspiration from ancient Indian thought, that is very critical to this theory. Many seminal physicists like David Bohm and Erwin Schrodinger, were inspired by dharmic thought in formulating their theories. However, the world in general, is not aware of this attribution, and continues to associate and propagate meaningless quaint stereotypes with ancient Indian thought.

Hence, I'll resolve the above dilemma, by simply stating it, rather than taking either stance.

*~*~*~*~*~*

Current day physics is based on a particular way of thinking about the world that has its roots in ancient Greece. Around this time, there were several other major and much older civilizations like ancient India, ancient Messopotamia, ancient Egypt, etc. each with their own hermeneutics for interpreting the universe. By the time of Aristotle, ancient Indian thought was already 2000 years old. However, historical events with their twists and turns have resulted in the predominant current day scientific worldview to be largely rooted in the hermeneutics of ancient Greece.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Newtonian physics was the predominant framework for understanding the physical universe.It is based on two fundamental building blocks for the universe -- Particle and Energy. The Particle is the building block of all matter, while Energy is the building block of all forms of force, dynamics and transformations.

The underlying framework in which Newtonian physics interpreted the universe also has two more elements from classical Greek philosophy: logic and Essentialism.

Logic refers to a way of reasoning about truthful implications in a precise fashion. An assertion in logic is either true or false, but never anything in between. This is called the law of excluded middle.

Essentialism posits that everything in the universe is characterized by an abstract "essence" or "-ness". Given an object X belonging to category C, if we remove any element of the essence of X, then X ceases to belong to category C. However, we can remove any number of non-essence properties from X and X continues to belong to C. For instance, if we see a tiger whose tail is missing, we do not fail to recognize it as a tiger -- because the tail does not constitute the "tigerness" of a tiger. 

A method of inquiry driven by Essentialism and logic creates a theory that has a specific characteristic -- articulation. This involves understanding a complex entity by reducing it to its bare essentials and performing logical implications based on these essentials.

As a result, early 20th century Western thought (including physics) was replete with dichotomies of several kinds. Dichotomies are a characteristic outcome of a method of inquiry driven by Essentialism and logic.

Whenever there is a dichotomy, there is an open question -- what brought about this dichotomy? Much of the great theoretical advances in science involve discovery of an underlying characteristic or phenomena that bridges a dichotomy.

Some of the greatest theoretical advances in physics of the 20th century too involved breaking some of these dichotomies and establishing an underlying unity.

One such seminal achievement is by the theory of relativity that unifies matter and energy, epitomized by Einstein's famous equation E = mc2. Where we once had a dichotomy between particle and energy, we now know that both are simply energy.

Similarly, another important outcome from quantum mechanics is the realization that for a complete theory of reality, we need to address the entanglement between the subject and object. This entanglement seriously impedes the fundamental dichotomy that is critical for scientific observation -- separation of the observer from the observed. Such results points at fundamental uncertainties in the way we can observe the universe and subsequently in the way we build our models of reality, prompting Werner Heisenberg to famously state:
“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."
The entanglement between the observer and the observed results in quantum mechanics being formulated on a probabilistic model of the universe. Quantum elements are said to be in a "superposition" of several possible states, represented by a probability distribution (also called the quantum wave function). The act of observation is said to result in a "decoherence" or a "collapse" of the wave function onto a single state that the observer sees.

This probabilistic basis for a physical theory disturbed many physicists. Einstein, for instance, was unconvinced by the validity of a theory of the universe built over a probabilistic basis and said, "God does not play dice."

Einstein was not the only physicist who was dissatisfied with the concept of quantum superposition. Indeed, there are several "interpretations" to the quantum superposition theory as to what it really means. For instance, in the "many worlds" interpretation, a quantum element is said to exist in all its quantum states simultaneously. When subject to an observation, the quantum particle undergoes "decoherence" or a collapse of the wave function into a single state that is observed. However, at the same time (according to this interpretation), the universe splits into several parallel unobservable universes each of which contains all the other possible observations of this decoherence.

Einstein was quite dissatisfied by the concept of quantum superposition and decoherence and with his collaborators Podolsky and Rosen, formulated a thought experiment, called the EPR paradox. We will come back to this paradox in a while, after characterizing the underlying dichotomy that is causing this confusion.

*~*~*~*~*~*

While 20th century advancements in physics resulted in a grand unification of matter and energy, another major dichotomy remains today -- the question of energy versus information.

The second half of the 20th century witnessed great advances in information technology and suddenly "information" became a first-class entity of interest. Information came to be treated as any physical entity in our social universe -- it is created, it is traded, it is consumed, it is secured, it is preserved, etc. 

However, it is increasingly clear that information is fundamentally different from matter. While matter has mass and occupies space, the same is not true for information. A 100GB disk that is full of data, weighs no more than a 100GB disk that is empty. 

We know that all physical processes can be reduced to the dynamics of energy. Energy dynamics has specific properties -- most importantly, the property of conservation. Energy (or matter) exchange is a zero-sum game. We can only convert one form of energy (matter) to another, but cannot create or destroy energy (matter). But information is not subject to the laws of conservation. If I give someone a piece of information, we both have the piece of information. Which is the reason why we can copy a piece of someone else's software for our use, but we cannot copy someone else's car for our use. Similarly, we may never know if our emails are being stolen (that is, copied and read by someone else), but we will definitely know if our car is stolen. Also, unlike matter, a piece of information can be in two places at the same time.

So, there seems to be yet another fundamental dichotomy in our physical universe. This prompted Joe Tucci, chairman of  EMC2 to say: "Everything in this world is either energy or information."

The question of understanding what is information has definitely bothered physicists, who have have long sought to find a physical basis for explaining  information. There are several theories for what is information -- none of them fundamental enough to unify the dichotomy between energy and information. 

However, there is one concept that appears in a rather unsettling manner when we are studying about either energy or information. This is the concept of entropy

The concept of entropy was first proposed by Boltzmann, in the context of thermodynamic processes to represent dissipation or loss of energy contributing to an overall state of "disorder". When developing a theory of information, Claude Shannon developed a theory representing the amount of information in a system as being proportional to the level of uncertainty or "disorder" in the system. When Shannon explained his theory to von Neumann, the latter suggested that he call this as information entropy, saying
"You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, nobody knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage."
One of the reasons why "nobody knows what entropy really is" is that, the concept of entropy is characteristically different from the way in which physics largely thinks. Entropy is an emergent characteristic of a system or an ensemble, rather than an attribute of a particle or an interaction. It is not possible to narrow down entropy to any one particle or interaction in the system. The hermeneutics of articulation is not expressive enough to sufficiently explain the concept of entropy.

So there are two notable takeaways from the above. The concept of entropy which seems to have parallels in the study of energy and in the study of information has the following characteristics: the concept pertains to a system or an ensemble as a whole, rather than any specific particle or interaction; and second, entropy is not constrained by binary existentialism. That is, it is meaningless to ask a true or false question as to whether a given system has entropy or not -- we should instead be asking what is the level of entropy of a system.

Both of these takeaways are important for us to build this theory of Being, in order to connect Energy and Information.

Coming back to quantum mechanics and the EPR paradox, let us look at the debates around this in some more detail. The characteristic feature of the quantum wave function is that it applies as much to ensembles of quantum particles as much as it does to individual particles. This prompted Einstein and his colleagues to formulate the EPR thought experiment.

Suppose two quantum particles collide and fly off in opposite directions at the speed of light. The "system" represented by these two particles is now in a superposition of several quantum states at the same time. When we observe one of the particle, the wave function collapses onto a single state -- causing the other particle which is moving away at twice the speed of light relative to the first, to also collapse its wave function and obtain a deterministic state. If the ensemble were to be in multiple states at the same time, then the first particle needs to somehow communicate with the second particle at twice the speed of light -- which is physically impossible.

While EPR was proposed as a thought experiment, this quantum entanglement has been empirically verified to actually happen. At the core of the quantum entanglement problem lies the problem of understanding information. Either, information can travel faster than the speed of light, without any material carrier, to instantly affect different elements in different parts of the universe, or, there is something about the nature of information that does not need any communication at all (in this case, at least).

One of the most interesting theories (for us) to explain quantum entanglement, was given by the Berkeley physicist David Bohm based on a concept of "non-local" affect or holomovement. To explain this, consider an analogy. Suppose in a room, there is a fish tank containing a single fish. There are two cameras that are focused on the fish. These cameras capture images of the fish and transmit it onto two screens in a lobby. We are observing the two screens in the lobby and it appears that there are two fish moving around in their tanks. After a while, we notice that whenever one fish turns in some direction, the other fish also turns in some other direction. They seem to be coordinating their movements by somehow "instantly communicating" with one another.

But the creator of this system knows that there is no instant communication between the two fish in the lobby. In fact, there is no "two fish in the lobby" -- they are just images of a single fish that exists somewhere else that we cannot see.

This in essence, is the idea of Bohm's non-locality theory. What appears to us as individual particles in different parts of the universe, are basically projections of a single "Being" existing in some higher dimension. The coordinated action by these disparate particles are basically a result of the underlying Being changing its state, rather than an interaction by communication.

There are several observations by Bohm that support such a "Being" basis to understanding the universe. For instance, when electrons are in a state of plasma, Bohm notes that
"...they stopped behaving like individuals and started behaving as if they were part of a larger and interconnected whole. He later remarked that he frequently had the impression that the sea of electrons was in some sense alive."
At the heart of this problem of quantum non-locality and entanglement, lies the question of understanding information and unifying it with matter/energy. And I have reasons to believe that the theory of Being and sustainability, may hold answers to both these questions. Being theory can help bridge the dichotomy between mind and matter (which operate respectively in the realms of information and energy) and perhaps usher in a new era of science that is much more in harmony with the universe. 

28 September, 2016

On declarative social orders

EDIT: Some Related Literature about the interpretation of dharma as sustainability:

Dharma, Brahma, Rasa 
Dharma as Universal Principle of Equilibrium 

Over the last few months, I have been increasingly posting about the concept of dharma and other notions that are found in South Asian thought. Not surprisingly, I've promptly earned the label of a "Hindu Nationalist" (whatever that means) from some section of my reading population. One even went to the extent of hoping that I would "allow" others express themselves, given that I am now a Hindu Nationalist.

Not surprisingly, I've often choked on the overload of irony in such situations.

Firstly, a brief look at my posts over the years would make it apparent that if there is one thing that I fundamentally value, it is liberty. A liberal society is any collective that designs its norms and laws based on the legitimacy and integrity of the individual.

And the reason why I find the concept of dharma so fascinating is that, it perhaps holds the key towards building sustainable, liberal societies. Let me try and explain why I think it is so.

Sure, because of the current political circumstances, it is likely that dharmic thought has got a louder voice in Indian public discourse, because of which I was able to better understand this concept. But my interest in dharmic thought has got nothing to do with my political preferences, and it is also unfortunate that I need to give this disclaimer to talk about what is essentially an interesting notion about systems.

Much of our current misconceptions about dharma, stems from South Asian worldview being classified into the box called "religion" in the more powerful Western worldview, which is disseminated all over the world. As noted by Maria Wirth in her blog post about becoming a Hindu, she says that she did not "convert" to Hinduism, but liberated herself from the system of conversions between religions. If religion is defined as a belief system, Hinduism and dharmic thought in general, are certainly not religions; and if religion is defined as a quest for understanding the universe, then both Hinduism and Science are religions.

I used to say that my research interests are about semantics and systems. But after understanding dharma, I've raised my research interests one notch meta -- I'm now interested in the philosophical notions of meaning and being. As noted in an earlier post, we think of systems as a composite entity only when we examine them from the "particle" worldview of the West. Here, the building blocks of the universe are static particles, on top of which, dynamics are imposed, typically by the algebra of energy.

Eastern thought on the other hand, is based on a theory of "Being." The entire universe is said to be built from "beings" -- which are basically entities that can have different states. A being is an atomic encapsulation of particle and dynamics. When several beings come together, their affinities and disaffinities (as defined by their dynamics) result in the emergence of a larger being with its own set of dynamics. The entire universe is of course a being -- the Being -- the biggest possible being. This composition however, is not linear, but circular. The biggest possible being -- the Being -- is the essence of all beings.

The core element of Hinduism based in the Vedas basically posits a universal Being called Brahman, which forms the essence of all beings; and consciousness as a graded function of the awareness of this universal essence in oneself. The ultimate state of consciousness is when we discover the essence of the universe within ourselves.

The society that created and operated along the above line of reasoning, tended to think in terms of beings, which loosely maps to "systems" when viewing it through the Western lens.

A characteristic concern of all systems is optimization. When viewing the world through the Western lens, we first learn about particles and energy, then about systems and finally about optimization. But when viewed through the theory of Beings, optimization is a most basic, characteristic property of being.

All systems found in nature are perennially executing a process of optimization all the time. If we excite an electron with some energy, it will soon shed the energy to settle down into a low energy "stable" state. "Noble" gases are so optimal that they don't react to anything. A fight for survival by an animal, is fundamentally an optimization process. Rationality is a process of optimization. Even spiritual quests are about understanding something that lies beyond our epistemological capabilities, in as clear a way as possible within the framework of our epistemics -- an optimization process. Management is about optimization, as is governance and administration. Even evolution is a process of strategic optimization -- evolution tries to make the next generation more "fit" than the previous generation, in other words, it strategically primes the next generation to survive better than the previous generation.

Optimization can be driven by several objectives like efficiency, throughput, cost, etc. But nature by far, favours one optimization objective over all else -- robustness. Robustness is the property of a system (being) to survive or sustain itself, across disparate, unforeseen circumstances and contexts.

For instance, nature prefers legs over wheels for its animals for their locomotion. Wheels may be more efficient and may need lesser energy to move, but legs are more robust and can sustain the animal across different kinds of terrain.

In essence, that is the concept of dharma -- sustainability or robust optimality.

Dharma is a declarative or a "what-is" notion. It tells about the property called sustainability of a system. It is not an imperative notion -- it does not tell us what to do or "how-to" lead our lives. It is for this reason, all the usual stereotypes about Hinduism like patriarchy or arranged marriages or whatever else, are all fundamentally incorrect. Dharmic thought does not impose any kind of imperatives on how one should lead one's life. Understanding dharmic thought is basically about understanding systems. And the concept of dharma, or sustainable robustness, is an important tool to understand how systems function. It gives us a handle using which we can build models and theories over very complex systems.

Dharma is also not a moral concept. In fact, morality is a dharmic concept. Morality refers to a system of hermeneutics that is conducive for sustenance of life -- dharma in other words. Morality is typically applicable only to human societies, while dharma is applicable to all systems, including non-living systems. Noble gases are in a state of dharma -- sustainable robustness. But there is nothing moral about being neon gas!

Dharma is also not a delusion (a deeply embedded thought pattern in our minds.) In fact, delusion is a form of dharma. A delusion is a thought pattern that our mind thinks is very important to our survivability and hence embeds it deeply in our minds. Be it paranoid delusion or delusions of superiority -- they are all embedded in our minds in response to circumstances that have challenged our (or our parents' survival). Delusion is hence, a form of dharma.

Of course, in order to explain the concept of dharma, several philosophers provide several examples and even codified rules applicable for specific contexts to uphold dharma -- or to make the system robust and sustainable. But these examples and codified rules are not the essence of dharma in itself. When someone says being a vegetarian is dharma, it simply means that (in some context) being a vegetarian makes them and the system there more sustainable and robust, compared to a meat-eating lifestyle.

There is a saying called "Ahimsa paramodharmah" (non-violence is a prime dharma) and also a notion of "dharma-yuddh" (dharmic war). They are not contradicting one another. The first one simply says that non-violence is a fundamental element of building sustainable societies, while the latter is the concept of war that is waged in order to bring sustainability back to a system.

*~*~*~*~*~*

When we study systems theory today, we are usually taught about eigenvectors or invariants in a system and how complex systems can be understood by locating their eigenvectors. (The term eigenvector is a German term which literally means "self vector" -- it represents a state of the system that can be called the "self" of the system.) Eigenvectors are usually an advanced mathematical concept and anyone who has not studied advanced mathematics or engineering would have been unlikely to have encountered this concept.

But imagine a civilization who use eigenvectors as the fundamental building blocks from which the entire universe is understood. Imagine a civilization where one of the first things children are taught, is the concept of eigenvectors. If we can imagine how such a civilization would pan out, we have started to make some progress in understanding South Asian worldview.

So, nope. I'm not apologetic about my fascination with the concept of dharma and I'm not a Hindu Nationalist (whatever that means).

Gosh, I'm sounding like the protagonist of "My name is Khan" movie!

22 September, 2016

Homeostasis and Evolution

Life as we know it, is an interplay between two abstract forces: homeostasis and evolution.

Homeostasis refers to the tendency of life to preserve itself and its integrity. The term is usually used in the context of the biological being, but in its essence, it refers to a more abstract property of a system to preserve itself, by staying in a region of stability. Even physical systems like atoms and molecules exhibit this property in their tendency to settle down at low energy "stable" configurations.

However, regardless of how efficiently homeostasis preserves life, life is finite and is bounded by physical constraints that limit how long a creature can live. Also, a stable region that homeostasis strives to preserve may be "optimal" but not the "optimum". A stable region is one that minimizes the cost of existence and maximizes utility. A region may be stable in its neighbourhood, but there may well be other, even better stable regions, with even lesser costs and even greater utility.

For this reason, life never stays at a stable region. While one generation preserves itself in a stable region by the force of homeostasis, there is another force at work, namely evolution, which keeps foraging for even better ways for life to exist, and striving to overcome whatever major challenges the current form of homeostasis is facing.

The process of evolution hence strategically disposes the offspring in ways that can help it escape from, or provide it with innate defenses towards the major threats faced by its immediate generational ancestors. It is for this reason that we often see instances where parents would have taken immense measures to protect their offsprings from some form of danger, only to realize later on that the children were innately aware of such a danger. (The story of Gautama Buddha comes to mind here.)

Homeostasis and evolution can be projected from individual life forms to the collective society formed by the individuals.

What we call as culture is essentially the force of homeostasis operating in the collective. Our culture is often imbibed onto us in several ways -- at home, at school, at work and even on the media and at public places. Cultural forces work to subtly orient our thinking and hence our actions towards a region that is considered stable for the population.

Yet, while culture is at work towards preserving what we have, evolution is also at work towards strategically orienting the next generation to handle the major challenges and opportunities faced by the present generation. This is why the "generation gap" is real. Major social changes happen not because a society changes its mind, but because it is replaced by a new generation that has a different mind.

Often times strategies that give desirable outcomes in the system of homeostasis, often give vastly different outcomes in the system of evolution.

Let me give an example.

A common axiom that is often used to bring up children glorifies reward/punishment and operand conditioning. It is sometimes generalized as the belief: "adversity builds character." And this belief can be tested by creating pedagogic experiments and measuring outcomes. It is often indeed the case that adversity builds character. It is easy to see why. Adversity tries to push a system out of its stable region. The forces of homeostasis kick in and utilizes all resources that it can muster to bring the system back into its stable region. In this process, it builds its "character" and the students realize the "stuff" that they are made of.

However, homeostasis is not the only force that drives life. When we factor the other force -- evolution -- into the above equation, we see that the story is more complicated. When homeostasis is busy building character to counter the adversity, it is also priming itself to tell the next generation to avoid or be wary of this kind of adversity. The next generation is not likely to face this adversity and build their character. Instead, they would be innately programmed to either avoid this adversity, or be so fearful of this adversity that they perhaps break down psychologically when faced with the same adversity.

It is quite disappointing that even among the most erudite thought leaders that we often see on public media, there does not seem to be enough appreciation, or even awareness about this silent force called evolution that is shaping our lives. We seem to consider social responses as a memoryless snapshot of the present.

More than once, I have encountered this lament by cinematic figureheads about "rising intolerance" among the Indian audience. They lament on how even one of the most tolerant of cultures -- dharmic thought, loosely categorized as Hinduism -- is becoming intolerant in recent times. The usual example that is given is to show how Hinduism was lampooned in the movies of 1970s and it was well accepted by the audience, while the same thing today would offend a lot of Hindus. Here is one such talk show where the speaker is making this lament and asking the Hindus to not become like "them" (referring to other religions in the neighbourhood, that implement adverse blasphemy and apostasy laws).

But we can see the flaw in his reasoning by considering the way evolutionary forces work.

Hinduism that was subject to lampooning and criticism, accepted and assimilated it as part of its dynamics of homeostasis. But concurrently (and subconsciously) it was also communicating to the next generation to be wary of or not tolerate, these kinds of invalidation of its core beliefs, which are anyway not admitted by other religions towards their beliefs. The very openness that made them tolerant in one generation, primed the next generation to become intolerant towards the same stimuli.

There is an important lesson in there for all of us. Adversity may build character -- but only for this generation, and how the next generation may react to that adversity is very unpredictable. Dissent may strengthen democracy -- but only for this generation. How the next generation will handle dissent that was graciously debated by the previous generation, will be very hard to predict.

When it comes to managing evolutionary dynamics, the "law of attraction" may be more pertinent. The strategic orientation of the next generation will be based on what the previous generation predominantly thinks about. If we want the next generation to be more tolerant, it would make more sense to celebrate and uphold commendable practices, rather than lament, lampoon and criticize unacceptable practices.

Undesirable social practices are best combated by making them irrelevant across generations by strengthening the desirable practices, rather than fighting them head on. It is somewhat like making a tall building short, by building even taller buildings in its vicinity. If we want Hinduism or any other culture to become or preserve its tolerant nature, focus more on its positives (including its tolerant nature), rather than lament on why it is not accepting invalidation like it used to.