Neuroscience, Philosophy, Science, Technology

On Intelligence Paradox…

If you think about it for a while it may make sense. To explain our existence from an origin-perspective, the teleological argument (that we have a predetermined purpose for existence) soon turns out into a negative – an unfalsifiable idea. The idea of an intelligent creator or creators, whether be it a certain god or a computer programmer simulating us all, is subject to the same old circular reasoning as implied by the teleological argument. So even if personalities like Elon Musk have made it famous, for the “fascination” of many people, I am quite apatheistic in that regard. It’s an interesting thought experiment – but that’s it, until we have anything solid on this subject matter (we may never, to be fair to the negative). Abstract thinking is desirable, but perhaps we shouldn’t take anything that is abstract much too seriously than practically warranted.

Talking about purpose, this one idea I really like is that of the purpose of intelligence in general. And this is not a predetermined purpose as in the teleological sense, but rather a purpose that is in the making (or perhaps is already nascently existent). We know that complex or abstract systems can originate from simple physical or non-physical combinations (eg. John Conway’s ‘The Game of Life‘, language, ant or termite colonies, People in dancing flash mobs etc). Complex behavior can ensue from just a few simple arrangement of neurons (such as the enteric nervous system moving our guts independently and under influence from the autonomic nervous system, or take any arthropods or worms for that matter). So an organisation of neurons even more complex than that of nerves in our guts or in a cockroach, without doubt, is capable of generating virtually infinite permutations of complex behaviors (like when talking, generating written language, doing science and so on).

As contemporary philosophers and cognitive scientists have deduced for a while now, that it is us who assign a sense of purpose to anything objective or abstract, and not an external force; it can be speculated that the goal of any highly intelligent system such as ours could be directed towards the creation of at least some “purpose”. And such a system could be capable of improving upon itself as time progresses. A self-learning intelligent system becoming more complex with every input of information, to the point of being capable enough to assign abstract purposes to objects or subjects of concern.

As of now, the only intelligent system we know of, that can generate some set of purpose, is within ourselves. We have no other similar system to compare ourselves to yet – be it extraterrestrial or synthetic. So the idea of purpose being the end-product of an intelligent system – can be said to be at present, just hypothetical. We do not know whether the idea of being able to think in an abstract manner or to be able to recognize or assign purposes are just byproducts or offshoots of evolution on this planet, or whether such an algorithm, are but means to every intelligent end – to collect understandings (information) about the universe. It remains to be seen whether or not any synthetic intelligent systems which we design or intelligent systems which have evolved far away from us will have similar (if not the same) end – algorithm establishing purpose. Whether they are capable of thinking only in terms of objective raw data or whether they can, like us, be able to form abstract concepts like a sense of purpose – only time (or maybe serendipity) might tell.

It will be very likely that synthetic intelligent systems that we create in our proximity may mimic our thought modalities and try to serve similar (if not the same) purpose as our own; but we may not be able to proclaim the same for those from another planet. Will they have a communication modality such as language? Will they need language? What may be their world-views? Do they have a similar understanding of science and mathematics as we do? What are the ways they resemble or differ from us? Can they help us conclude that intelligent systems are a universal phenomena of animation, requiring only time, for them to be able to exist? Much remains to be discovered and answered – this much we know for certain. I’d like to call this concept, if I’m allowed, the Intelligence Paradox, in a sense that our idea of universal intelligence (or intelligent purpose) may be limited, mainly by our grounded and thus restricted perception of our own.

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Image: from an iteration of John Conway’s code – Game of Life 

 

Philosophy

On Stoicism

Just like many people, when I first heard of the word ‘stoic’, I looked it up and many dictionaries showed me definitions which sounded somewhat similar to what google gives you – a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining. The first character that came to my mind was Papa. He happens to be this hardened, seasoned, struggler, whom I’ve heard complaining on fewer occasions than the number of fingers on my hands. The second stoic in my mind was obviously Bhinaju, he’s endured many instances of pain, the likes of which most of us do not even know about, and yet he remains the same old composed, sociable, and caring Bhinaju for all of us like ever before. These are the two close men I’ve always looked up to in life. But sadly, I am nothing like them in anyway, so I don’t consider myself a stoic in that regard. I claim to be just the opposite, but this blog is not about me, nor does it deal with these two men – but rather about a philosophy that has been adopted, knowingly or unknowingly, by countless mentally strong men and women throughout human history.

I was first introduced to the idea of Stoicism in a very non-traditional way. There was this time I was watching an episode of ‘Gotham’, a FOX and DC television series based on the early life of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon – a sort of a prelude to DC’s Batman comics. The series turned out to be very superficial towards the end of the second season, but for its early episodes, it was more or less captivating. So in this one episode, young Bruce meets his company’s tech supervisor, Lucius Fox, to ask for clues about his father’s murder. Fox then explains by revealing that his father, Mr.Wayne, was a stoic and would never make careless decisions. Rest aside, the word ‘stoic’ had caught my attention. I then looked it up and was subsequently directed towards the philosophy of Stoicism itself.

For a few years then, I started casually learning about Stoic philosophy from others who knew more about it. There were numerous articles on the core tenets of Stoicism on The Atlantic and Aeon, I also devoured the Stoicism page on Wikipedia as much as my memory could retain, watched numerous video essays dealing with similar ideas, and I subscribed and listened to numerous podcasts which dealt on this topic on a regular basis – the most notable one being ‘Daily Stoic‘. However, I came to read Marcus Aurelius’s famous work on stoicism –  ‘Meditations’, fairly recently after being inspired into it by a very close friend of mine. It may seem as if I was obsessed, which is only partly true since I never seriously considered becoming a stoic myself. It’s not as easy as declaring myself into a certain doctrine, and stoicism, I have come to learn is not just about garnering the identity of this line of thought, but rather about practising it whenever you can. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t consider myself a stoic, although it is one philosophy I have found to be practically useful for daily life – especially for acquiring useful insight for enduring the long and uncertain journey in my career.

When we first look into the philosophy, we may assume that it’s a strategy for hiding our emotions. I’m guilty on this regard as well, but the more I looked into the philosophy, the more I discovered that it’s not a very organized idea to be described in just one sentence. The word Stoic comes from Greek word ‘stoa’ which simply translates to ‘porch’ in English. This is because the first Stoic philosophers in Greece, like Zeno, preached and dictated their philosophies to pupils from the porch of their schools. The word stuck after the Hellenistic period, much later than the time of Zeno, even though the tradition vanished into the vastness of history. The problem with this terminology is that not one philosopher we know as a Stoic today, ever assumed that title for themselves in their teachings. For instance, Marcus Aurelius, the emperor towards the end of the old Roman empire, wrote Meditations as a diary for objective self reflection and to practise philosophy for just himself. He never really intended it to be spread through publications. Likewise, Zeno never really taught his pupils the philosophy of Stoicism, he just taught philosophy. Epictetus and the Roman Seneca, never really mentioned the term Stoicism in their writings or teachings – they all just called themselves philosophers practising philosophy.

What we today identify as Stoicism, is nothing but a set of practically useful philosophies, which many men in history have come to agree or elaborate upon. Individual stoics have ranged from emperors like Marcus, to slaves like Epictetus. They have been highly spiritual and pious, but they have also have been skeptics who doubted the gods of their times. They span across different times, religions, and cultures but the core tenets of their individual philosophies for approaching life remain strikingly similar. Ibn-sinha (aka Avicenna) and Rhazes, for instance, were physicians and philosophers of the Islamic golden age with keen interest in the Stoic philosophy. It could be said that some eastern philosophers like Lao Tzu, Confucius, Zen master Ikkyu Sojun or even the Hindu economist Chanakya were in some ways Stoics as many of their ideas on self-reflection and endurance resonated to those of the classical Stoics from the West. What’s even more interesting to note is that the reiterating themes of endurance and composure in the Stoic philosophies, could be said to have been simple empirical observations of these diverse group of people, pertinent to their time of existence.

Even some well-known critics of Stoicism, like Friedrich Nietzsche, have inadvertently adopted some aspects of the Stoic philosophy for themselves. It can be said that Nietzsche’s critique of Stoicism was borne out of an obvious lack of understanding, perhaps he assumed the Stoic philosophy of being a singular conformist attitude in favor of the Judeo-christian way of life he was so critical of. Perhaps he thought Stoicism was just about wearing a mask in public to suppress our emotions. But regardless, his ideas of Amor Fati (The love of one’s fate) and the purpose of his thought-experiment of Eternal Recurrence, are intimately tied, albeit unknowingly, to the core tenets of the Stoic way of life. Why this has happened is probably because Stoicism encompasses a set of observations made by people for the sole purpose of introspection, selective indifference and coping and for endurance – skills that are very useful and needed by all of us, regardless of gender, culture, race, or era. And since Human nature is too obviously universal, our philosophies in this way do tend to resonate across millenia. For instance, I’m almost certain that my Papa and Bhinaju had never even heard of Epictetus in their lives, but regardless, they still have more in common with the Greek man than Siddhartha Gautama himself.

Although many people can get their insights from other means such as Zen Buddhism, Sufi mysticism or even Hindu Vedic philosophies, most of us make the mistake of immediately identifying with the name of the first idea we come across. For example, we tend to readily identify as a ‘Buddhist’, even if Buddha himself may never have intended the same for himself or his disciples. This approach, I think is quite hasty, and similarly it may also be wrong to call ourselves ‘Stoics’ just because we like many aspects of this philosophy. However, what has drawn me towards Stoicism is it’s immensely useful practicality rooted in the basic rules of Human nature. In short, Stoicism is perhaps one line of thought that never really goes against human psychology, all the while being a useful tool for improving it. It teaches us to see ourselves and other humans as phenomena, like how we observe rocks or other animals. One recurring idea in Stoicism is to not complain about the rain – not because we shouldn’t but because we should identify the futility of the complaint as we cannot do anything about it.

Marcus Aurelius specifically found it useful to read people, and he did that by seeing them as facts of nature, even through their emotional outbursts – all so he could deal with people in the way they wanted and could also empathise with them or avoid them when needed. Stoic ideas have less to do with suppressing our emotions, than with acknowledging them so in the end we become less affected by our own as well as those of others. Basic common sense. In this way Stoic philosophers have talked about many different areas concerning human life, from relationships with others, and proper use of power, to perseverance and curiosity. Contrary to the popular criticism that Stoicism makes us suppress our feelings and emotions, it instead encourages us to channel it safely to where it’s worth, thus removing the need for us to suppress our emotions in the first place. Obviously, my take on Stoicism is limited in this particular article. Perhaps I’ll talk more on the details of the Stoic philosophy in a later sequel to this blog, but I can’t stress enough on how important the findings of Stoic philosophers can prove to be for us all.

A topic for a later day, I’m also intrigued about how Stoic ideas have been supported in many ways by the current findings of present day cognitive and evolutionary psychology. For example, an empirical psychological therapy known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT (a kind of psychotherapy) has proven to be effective for addressing numerous mental conditions and personality disorders in the clinic. CBT teaches us to envision ourselves objectively, to reflect on our past actions, and to see our emotions in action and exactly how we are affected by other people and how we react to them. It gives us insight to improve upon our mental resilience – much like the core ideas in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and the rest of Stoicism. Perhaps this is how Nelson Mandela, who was a self-admitted follower of Marcus’ notes, endured his stressful 27 years in prison. And much like him, I think it is about time we all gave Stoic ideas a try, even if we can do that just once.

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Marcus Aurelius

 

 

 

 

 

Mental Health, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Psychology

On Meditation…

Upon reading the title of this article, you may be imagining a serene and tranquil environment where calm-appearing people clad in white apparel are seated with their legs crossed and backs straight on a mat, while gently breathing in and then out in synchrony. This is also exactly what may come into your minds every other time you hear the word ‘meditation’ and you are partly correct – this is one form of it, not really the sole definition. But that’s just half the story.

The term itself is probably one of the few positive sounding words out there in our everyday lingo. When people tell you that they meditate, you may automatically assume that they may be doing something constructive and healthy. To be fair, that is what it actually is, most of the time for many people – meditation is a positive thing to do.

But what concerns me is the apparent skewed understanding of this mental exercise, tipping mostly towards the narrative set by the rapidly growing wellness industry. And seeing how things work in the global economy, such a skew is oftentimes an expected affair. We often assume that the practice of meditation is something extra-corporeal and so we tend to see it through this presupposed net of airy mysticism. Now I’m not trying to belittle people’s perception of this art form through this blog, as I’m fully aware that attaching such mystic themes may sometimes be helpful to the some people who want that. What I’m trying to reveal is a well-known yet widely understated fact – meditation is a purely down-to-earth affair and there’s nothing magical about it. But this also doesn’t mean that we’ve fully understood it’s neurological significance and workings.

Subjective perceptions apart, let’s come to the interesting part. First and foremost, let’s talk about what exactly meditation means, regardless of the various forms. What does it mean to meditate? What are the common grounds between the various choices -contemporary or ancient?

Above all, one thing is fairly certain and is agreed upon by people from all sectors concerned: meditation is about attaining deep focus and psychological equilibrium. We do not know how exactly this is achieved, but evidence is mounting that it has mostly to do with our biological brains. It’s hypothesized that since every form of meditation somewhat deals with focusing on the fewest possible things for the longest possible time, and on diverting our conscious awareness to reflect upon our thoughts, personalities and behaviors – it may help strengthen our ability to better understand ourselves and thus others. What I assume on a personal level, being fully aware that I may be mistaken, is that training to meditate may actually help us train this area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. Perhaps the mechanism could be explained by more neural connections being formed in this region, or maybe by the strengthening of existing ones (or maybe even both). I’m not throwing out airy assumptions, just making some educated speculation based on the basics of neuroscience. But people who know better than me are conducting research into this and it may be better to look them up instead for more information.

Making at least this much clear, I’d like to move on to what the various forms of meditation can be. We usually assume that meditations have mostly to do with ancient eastern philosophies such as Buddhism or Hinduism, owing to their popularity. But as I’ve said before, this is a human practice (or should I say art form) and much like how human nature is universal, meditation is too. To put this into perspective for instance, we can’t rightly say that the art form of painting is a western construct can we? So the same argument applies for meditation.

History has documented many instances of human cultures that have come up with their own forms of meditation. From Epicurean subsistence communes in antiquity Greece and Vipasana or Yoga in ancient India, to Christian Monasteries of medieval Europe and Sufi dance schools during the Mughal era. These are all forms of meditation established by different human cultures, independently or under influence.

But what many of us may not grasp is the fact that it doesn’t always have to be limited to a certain ancient discipline or spiritual schools of thought. Any hobby of your liking that you pursue solely for your own pleasure can prove to be an equally effective form of meditation. Painting, composing music, playing musical instruments, writing stories, trekking or hiking, sports, photography, exercise, dance or martial art, you name it. These being the intuitive ones, other less intuitive and unconventional forms of meditations could be even found in computer programming, digital art, video gaming, or for some, maybe even You-tubing. Any act that involves deep focus and is enjoyable especially for ourselves in one way or the other could be said to be a form of meditation. And I assume even in this direction, my earlier thesis – of meditative actions strengthening our prefrontal cortex and thus helping us focus more efficiently – stands. Of course, the common sense notion of moderation being key will still apply.

It will be interesting to see what actual science will tell us in the coming years, since research into meditative practices such as basic mindfulness is currently ongoing. Where I do have some doubts about them, they may lie in the fact of such practices having mostly subjective outcomes through the individuals being tested – which makes it very hard for any known scientific method to empirically document the effects. But as newer brain imaging and electroencephalographic modalities are being developed as I write, it may only be a matter of time before we start uncovering the enigma associated with meditative practices and their widely stated benefits on our brains. The only thing to look out for then, I assume, would be for people’s range of acceptance of the hard facts.

Featured Image: JJ Studios Designer Abstract Painting

Personal Opinion, Philosophy

On ends and their means…

“If two people arrive at the same conclusion from two different sources of knowledge, would it be necessary to differentiate or discern the validity of these sources?”

For example, one person becomes a vegetarian after reading Buddhist scriptures and another becomes a vegetarian after thinking through utilitarian ethics and the rationality and morality behind suffering of animals for dietary gains, would it still warrant skeptics to be skeptical of Buddhist values or vice versa? Would ends justify the means?

To those who say we shouldn’t and that all schools of thoughts should be given equal importance in terms of values and outcomes, what if in the next few lines of some Buddhist scriptures it is mentioned that only men can attain enlightenment and not women because they are not higher up the spiritual hierarchy? (This is just an example I made up, but many, not all, traditional Buddhist scriptures do limit women’s enlightenment status and proclaim that women can never truly become the enlightened Chakravartin or the Buddha).

I would assume that defendants would come to the rescue of Buddhism by saying those are “not true words of the Buddha but later interpretations by his numerous disciples through the ages”. A perfect “no true Scotsman fallacy”. And others may add that “we ought to accept the good values and reject the old and redundant ones”. I would perfectly agree with the latter statement of defense, but a question would definitely come to my mind: If we were indeed to cherry-pick what we deem ‘good’ and filter out what we deem ‘bad’ from established documents of an idea, what is the point of accepting or adopting the identity of the whole doctrine itself? Haven’t you clearly contradicted from the original doctrine yourself? Are you being unaware of your double-thinking? Are you not uncomfortable having to live with the evident cognitive dissonance that you’re displaying?

This was an effort to highlight one fundamental problem with eclecticism or syncretism  that are prevalent in the current globalized world, thanks to John Lennon’s Imagine and the 60’s hippy-movement. In short, these are schools of thought that equate every human idea or philosophy to be of similar value and importance. But the fact of the matter is that, this cannot be consistently true. In that sense, can we rightly equate the core tenets of Nazism to those of the Quakers? Can we equate the fundamental principles of Islam to those of Buddhism? Can we equate Advait Vedanta to Hindutva? Can we equate superstition to science? Can we equate the values of Democracy to Maoism or Freedom of speech to Fascism? No we cannot!

For a careful thinker, there are flawed ideas and there are sound and valid ones. The conclusions derived by the latter of the sort follow through cogent and valid premises themselves. All ideas cannot be given equal weight, even if we do consider going through them to broaden our perspectives. (You cannot logically try to match the core ideas of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf to those of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty). This much should be well evident and well thought, and not to be confused upon.

It is important to give every idea a chance, but more importantly, there is a dire necessity (and perhaps also a great responsibility) these days for us to be able to distinguish between good ideas and bad ones. We definitely need to ‘train’ ourselves to do so because we aren’t born good thinkers. All in all, we definitely need to learn to not confine ourselves, as much as possible, within boxes of unchecked biases.

Futurism, Personal Opinion, Philosophy, Technology

Can machines think? 

A unique thing that a future AI will most likely do is to ‘decide’ for itself, and to ‘learn’ from the consequences of it’s decision. The process has already begun. So what different will it be from humans, if an AI can ‘decide’ and ‘learn’ from available inputs and memory? Should we still call their cognitive algorithm ‘Artificial’ intelligence, or simply “Intelligence” like we call our own?

But first, let’s have a look at how we think as individuals. Suppose we have a notion in our brain as a result of a perception of some stimuli that leads to it, such as visual ques or auditory ques of someone’s speech.  Subsequently, when the turn comes for us to either act or form an opinion or a stance about it, we try to rationalize it, justify it or either scrutinize it based on our memory and knowledge (or beliefs) before coming to a calculated or an emotional conclusion.

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If you haven’t watched this movie, leave everything and watch it now!

Even lower mammals think. They rationalize their actions only through a much simpler algorithm: Heuristics. Putting it simply, heuristics can be said to be prompt justifications based on emotions such as fear, hunger, attachment, lust and so on or based on readily available impromptu memory. Humans probably just have an added dimension to this algorithm, with the ability to separate emotions from pure cognition most of the time. It’s evident that such a quality is not inherent, but rather learned. Nonetheless, it seems that only humans have the capacity to learn to such an extent so as to be able to travel to outer space or to be able to harvest the energy of an atom.

Pure cognition helps provide an additional, learned dimension to the algorithm such that we have been able to cooperate with other members of our species, learn written languages (spoken language is innate but written is always learned, no wonder the focus on literacy rates around the globe), do advanced mathematics, learn to cook food with style, do art, train to understand science, build aircraft and so on. We are just like other mammals who can be said to think, but with a much more complex algorithm. Say, when compared to Rhesus monkeys who also do think, live in social groups and have opposable thumbs like ours, but do not have the capacity to learn as significantly as we do.

In that sense, dogs think as well. And most of us must be familiar with their behavior. Throw a ball for them to fetch, they’ll retrieve it back. Hide the ball again, they will search for it and sniff around your body because they have the memory that you last had it. If you show your empty hands to their eager eyes, they’ll then start to sniff around the lawn closest to where the ball had landed previously. This is basic mammalian algorithm. Food is here – eat food. Food isn’t here – search for food. Food was here, now no food – search where food was last seen. Then repeat this cycle, until new food is found. Forget about the old food.

We do this too. But we have a higher level of problem solving ability, because our algorithm is much more complex as I’ve mentioned above. In the dog’s algorithm above, it tends to forget about the food of interest if a new food is found. But we humans on the other hand, tend to keep thinking about the object we have lost in the distant past, the food we were denied and keep looking for innovative ways to either search for the same food, or to be wary in the future so as to not commit the mistake of losing the food or object in the same way or to eventually learn to assure plenty of food by learning how to farm! You may have noticed here, that unlike our canine friends, we plan for the future and think ahead. We see the bigger picture, when a dolphin or a chimpanzee simply cannot. Their solipsism is limited to survival or hereditary kinship, while our solipsism can go beyond survival to wonder about the diseases that kill us or even so far ahead to wonder about the stars and planets that have no connection with our immediate survival; all when simultaneously co-operating with other individuals of our species who aren’t even siblings in any way.

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Another great movie that portrays a successful outcome of a textual-auditory Turing test. A must watch.

But a crucial similarity between monkey and human cognition, is the process of decision making and learning through experience (detailed memory), regardless of the vast differences in cognitive capacities. What a machine could not do till now, even a cognitively less developed dog could do. But that is, interestingly, changing.

Most machines and software in use today, can think and make decisions. But their decisions are seemingly redundant. They don’t learn much. However, a new approach to programming and computer science these days is calling in a new era of ‘machine learning’. There are already ‘bots’ circulating throughout the internet which alter their codes to suit their website or server’s agenda. And they learn from previous failures to be able to improve in the future. Some computer viruses may be doing that as well. Notable projects include Google’s Deep mind, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana; are all being developed after every launch so that they increasingly cater to the customers by learning about their relevant behavior patterns and making accurate decisions based on it. They are only getting better by the year.

I remember Noam Chomsky, who is foremost a Cognitive scientist, replying to a journalist who asked him “Can machines think?” by saying something like “I think to ask ‘can machines (computers) think’ is like asking ‘can submarines swim?’. Computers were designed to think.”

According to him, since computers were designed to think, and to calculate one has to think, they’ve always been thinking. It’s just that they couldn’t decide on their own or couldn’t learn on their own without some kind of human input. We witnessed the attainment of this decision aspect in machines which spearheaded us to a digital age from an analog one. The next step is that we may witness machines daft with the learning aspects as well. These two faculties, which we’ve only been accustomed to witnessing in humans and lower animals, we will possibly see it unfold in inorganic machines who can actually think just like us and often become indistinguishable from (or even superior to) humans. And this thought may be creepy for some of us because after this, our inventions will have taken over the very definition of our species, Sapiens, itself (Sapiens = Wise/Thinking). If so, we may no longer have the sweet comfort of becoming the only intelligent entity on the planet.

Take this idea for a moment. By just looking at a person talking to you, can you tell for sure whether they are either thinking like you are or simply are just involved in the conversation? Can you differentiate their affect (emotions) from their cognition (thoughts) right there and then? Can you tell whether their thoughts are spontaneous or pre-programmed? I guess not. And we certainly couldn’t do so, if for example, humanoids passed the turning test. Now who is a machine and who is not? Are we only calling ourselves machines just because we are organic? Why are our cognitive algorithms called ‘thinking’ but not that of machines because of this organic bias? Are we not organic ‘survival machines’ as well?

Questions may also arise as to whether or not to call them ‘artificial’ anymore because of their ability to decide and learn on their own. For a robot that passes all levels of the Turing test (text, auditory, audio-visual), how can we tell by simple interaction that they are thinking or not thinking? Can you tell then, for certain, whether a pedestrian you collided with while commuting, was a humanoid or a human? Other issues may come about after that, such as rights and cognitive egalitarianism (equal rights for all intelligent entities and such) but it’s beyond the scope of this essay.

So the whole point behind this write up was to highlight the idea, that before asking questions like “can machines think?” it may give us a better insight if we also entertain the question of “can we think?”. It’s an interesting matter to ponder about. Because seriously, can we really think or are we under the illusion of thinking? Or are we merely processing information and memory to form a conclusion or a specific reaction that gives us this illusion that we are actually thinking?

Egalitarianism, Personal Opinion, Philosophy, Rationalism, Secular Humanism

“But it’s their culture!”

As a Humanist, I believe ethics and morality should be consequential. To be judged by the outcome of collective human actions rather than from a virtuous standing.

So certainly preserving a particular faith, cultural, ritual or political practice in place of reason, freedom of speech and fundamental human rights seems very inconsequential.

This isn’t just a mere personal hunch. We can take important lessons from history that in doing so (preferring harmful cultures/traditions over reason), more harm can be brought upon Humanity than good, as seen across many different cultures and societies.

Sati pratha, Caste System, Slavery, Colonialism, Religion, Political fundamentalism, Female Hysteria, Witch Hunt, Spanish Inquisition, Xenophobia, Rwandan Genocide, Ethnocentrism, Ethnic cleansing, Cult worship, Capital punishment, Ban on abortion, Ban on contraceptives and what not! If all these teach us one thing, then it is the idea that it is much more beneficial for everybody to adopt reason over lack, thereof. I admit that the practice of reason is hard for everyone. But nonetheless, it’s worth a shot.

To modify our cultural practices to suit the progressive and liberal zeitgeist seems like the best option. For instance, if we hadn’t done so in some way then we’d still be burning widows in Pashupatinath and beating Kamaiyyas because they ruined a batch of maize. Because even if we are in denial, sooner or later our societies will have to be subject to that change regardless of our conservative sentiments.

If irrational practices can change to suit such values, then good, but if it refuses to change, then it will have to go sooner or later. But people like me think sooner is much better than later. So why stop voicing against them even if the majority have no problem with such?

“But it’s their culture” is a perfect example of a serious kind of Genetic Fallacy. It’s a logical fallacy, which may appeal to our emotions by appealing to historical sentiments for the short term. Whereas in the long run they lose their rational significance.

This is why I consider Voltaire as a great champion of farsightedness. As my opinion resonates with some of his in his “Letters concerning the English nation”. Because history has shown us that Voltaire was right about many aspects of the collective human condition.

And finally, I’d want to sign off with my all-time favorite slogan: No idea is above scrutiny, no human life is below dignity!

Personal Opinion, Philosophy

Life advice and Personality 

Speaking about life advice, no matter how well intended they seem like, may not apply to us universally.

Why I don’t bother to give life advice to anyone without them asking first for it, is because it’s utterly futile. They’re not going to listen and even if they do it may not apply to them.

What I think we fail to understand about human behaviour when approaching someone to advice them on life, is the fact that in terms of achieving our goals there are three broad categories of people in general.

  1. People who like to constantly stay in their comfort zones.
  2. People who can with ease sacrifice their comfort zones and tend to avoid it while trying to attain a goal.
  3. People, who like to stay in their comfort zones most of the time but can sacrifice it when the need arises.

Also none of these are ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ qualities, but rather just qualities of personality that simply are there. (And do note that this hasn’t got anything to do with hard work, emergencies or urgencies).

We can find satisfied as well as unsatisfied people carrying any of these qualities in any expansion of human life. So one advice may not work for all because first of all, we need to determine their type of personality.

And how do we do that? By a deep understanding of their nature, possibly through an open and an honest conversation.

Perhaps this is one reason why people who understand each other in any relationship and any bonding processes are less likely to fall apart. And I also would like to assume that perhaps this is also one reason why there are people who are satisfied with their lives in more than one possible way; simply because they got a suitable life advice from someone, somewhere who understood basic human nature. On the other hand, it could also be possible that the individual understood himself and made life choices by himself regardless of the people around him.

So identifying individual personality types seems pretty important for us as individuals, as well as others surrounding us while suggesting something about living. Best life advice, to me, are those that are holistic and not too general.

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(But at the end of the day, this just my own philosophical postulation, and not authentic behavioural science or established philosophy of life)

Philosophy, Rationalism

Is Dualism Dead?

Spoiler: I think we can confidently say today that the basic idea of Cartesian Dualism (dichotomy of mind and body) is effectively dead and debunked, if it is used to explain the nature of reality.

In addition, so is metaphysical solipsism, effectively dead! Methodological solipsism, may not be (there’s a difference) so hang on.

Cartesian Dualism covers a similar mind-body dichotomy concepts as posed in Adhyatma or Bedanta in the Vedas or Buddhism (In almost every spiritual faith system). So we do not have to give each theological variety a special consideration or a higher ground in philosophy, as the core idea is like that in Cartesian Dualism itself.

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The mind (consciousness) as we know today, is a product of observable, material phenomenons involving sodium, calcium, chloride, neurotransmitters, action potentials, neurons, nerves and their intricate arrangements and their interplay with myriads of different kinds of external stimuli. This much is already too certain to not be considered for explaining the origin of the mind (but unfortunately not enough for explaining as to how it works), as the evidence is heavy. Let’s try to find consciousness without these shall we? Or injure a brain-stem region and not be unconscious? Or alternatively, let’s try to code for a supposedly self aware AI without silicon chips, circuits, photons and electricity. We cannot even fathom such feats can we?

Back in the time of Descartes or even before that, say during the period of inception of the great spiritual faiths, this much was not known so their idea of dualism is understandable and intuitive. Nonetheless, empirical evidence is counter-intuitive and possibly the reason why dualism still lingers around much of the philosophical community. I admit, sadly, that critical understanding of philosophy, without confirmation biases is hard and the idea of dualism, despite of being fallacious is pleasing.

Now Metaphysical Solipsists and Idealists will argue that observable evidence is also a result of our conditioning and experience (subjectivity) so cannot be relied upon, but that is a circular argument, such that this doesn’t explain that if reality were to be a product of our minds, why others around us experience similar subjective things not much differently than we as ‘self’ do? Cognitive science can study subjectivity better and better with each passing day and has been producing observable, reproducible results with a considerable degree of universality. So the idea that subjectivity cannot be studied rationally is long expired.

In this respect Idealism, Dualism and metaphysical solipsism will not carry much ground for the purpose of explaining the nature of our consciousness. I repeat, useless for the purpose of explaining but useful for the purpose of questioning, since philosophy can be considered as the art of questioning. It’s not, as a whole, completely dead like Stephen Hawkins and some notable physicists have declared. Philosophy may not be useful for answering the questions it asks, but it is also important to remind ourselves that formulation of every hypothesis follows questioning borne out of curiosity. It is again vital to understand, that curiosity cannot on itself answer or satisfy the questions it asks. So a system or a method is required, to rid the observer of subjective biases and conditioning that could skew their empirical observation.

Now some philosophers like to interpret Dualism with today’s scientific understanding, as in relating the mind body dichotomy to highlight the bridge between subjectivity and objectivity. In my opinion, that may be understandable for many intellectuals, but I think it falsely justifies an ingenious but an expired idea. I think we can find better ways to ask questions about the nature of the Qualia or simply our experiences borne out of our subjective perceptions without obscuring the already clear link between the brain and the mind.

To sum up, I think instead of dedicating our time and effort to revolve around in the circular arguments posed by dated concepts like dualism, philosophers and scientists may better utilize their resources and time, if important questions about the very details of the origins of the consciousness and it’s functions is asked instead.

Altruism, Philosophy, Psychology, Rationalism, Secular Humanism

Effective Altruism

When you see a beggar or a homeless person on the street asking for some tip, what do you do?

Most of you reading this tend to give them a change or two as you pass them by without even giving your action a little thought. Others tend to be undecided and perhaps depending on mood, sometimes give, whereas at other instances dont. On the other hand, there are others who never give out change at all for a variety of reasons known only to themselves; whether they are them selves broke, whether they don’t want to lose hard-earned money, whether they are emotionally indifferent or whether they think it’s not an effective move to solve the beggar’s problems once and for all.

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Let’s imagine for a while that a neutral onlooker is observing each person from their respective groups as they pass a beggar. The first one will be judged as benevolent (and rightly so), the second one as hesitant and the last one as a miser or ‘kanjoos’ or ‘daya nabhayeko’.

Now this blog is actually a focus onto the latter non-giving group of people. I’ll try to go even deeper into this cohort of interest. A subset within the group, who do not believe in charity that has no potency for change (especially the latter of the last group). Thus the term effective altruists.

I’d like to consider myself an effective altruist even though I haven’t really participated in any major philanthropy so far. I’m one of the third group, for I simply do not think that giving a man a fish for a day will solve his problems in any way.

Now you may argue in this age of individualism, that giving them money for a day will make you “feel better”. Better you may feel, but the short-sight in this way of thinking will not alleviate the number of beggars in the street but in fact may even make matters worse for them by encouraging begging. You create a vicious loop of begging instead.

This analogy was my effort to help readers grasp the concept. It would surely help if you all were to briefly learn about the very psychology behind philanthropy.

What is altruism and why do we indulge in charity?

Altruism is not anthropocentric as most people tend to believe. The meaning of being a human is not defined solely by the joy we find in giving. To give is not only being human. To give, is actually being an animal as altruism can be observed in hundreds if not thousands of species, vertebrate or invertebrate.

Perhaps the best explanation of biological altruism has been provided by evolutionary ethologist, Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene. He explains that we are all survival machines for the residing genes which code for our bodies, and for the genes to survive, the survival machines must be kind, empathetic and protective even at the cost of one or two individuals so long as their genes are safely passed on to their offspring. This explains why parents rush into a burning building to save their child and why animals give out warning calls when they spot a predator and why we feel empathetic towards the plight of other humans.

All major and minor acts of philanthropy throughout human history is based on this single fact. This is our urge to survive. We act kind because we want the human race to survive. It’s the same principle even when we talk about the ‘collective good’ or ‘greater good’, be it borne out of religion or by other means. Our psychology has been shaped much in the same way, so as to cater to the survival of our genes, when it come to donation.

So why think while giving? Give away then! Right? Not entirely.

Bring in reason and evidence and we have effective altruism

Like I said before, the meaning of being a human is not solely defined by our capacity to empathize. It’s rather defined by our ability to think and reason and of our ability to make things work when it comes to manipulating the nature around us for our benefit. This is what separates us from other species (often wrongly used by anthropocentrists to glorify our illuded superiority). So there is a reason why the word effective is emphasized.

Compared to the act of just giving away money or charity, the act of doing so effectively can matter a lot. First of all it ensures that the money you spent is able to provide maximum good or benefit for that sum. A utilitarian mindset. Secondly, in this age of information overflow, fact-checking and empiricism is ensured so that you are not hoodwinked by fraudulent or corrupt organizations; and lastly, to gain the satisfaction that your work is actually helping to change people’s lives for the better, because you were smart enough to think responsibly before setting out to donate.

Effective Altruism or Effective Philanthropy, as a means to meet charitable ends that was spearheaded by the moral philosopher Peter Singer through his two books The Life You Can Save and The Most Good You Can Do, is gaining popularity especially among self-aware, conscious and responsible people and is being used by reputable organizations such as Oxfam, UNICEF and GiveWell. Some core aspects of this new philosophical movement are discussed briefly below.

Evidence Based Philanthropy

Effective philanthropists, whether individual people or organizations, opt for an empirical approach while giving away charity. It is imperative that one research thoroughly and usually adhere to Randomized Controlled Trials, meta-analyses, research evidence and the general scientific consensus in an effective altruism.

This is to prioritize the area of charity so that when you spend your money, the sum that you have paid is likely to bring about maximum benefit. Some notable examples are Bill Gates and Elon Musk.

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Bill Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates through their foundation have delivered billions of dollars worth of effective charity to fund vaccines, infectious disease prevention programs and research in developing nations, as a result of which millions of children world-wide recieve essential vaccines for free or at lowered cost. The end result: lesser infant and child mortality rate and greater national productivity.

I’ve brought up Elon Musk as another example because unlike Bill Gates, his philanthropy is mostly focused on individual research primarily in technology so as to inspire pioneering innovations among enthusiastic scientists, science-entreprenuers and researchers. This is to make a statement that effective altruism is not only limited to delivering responsible empathetic charities to poor people, but it’s scope can extend to any activity which helps towards the betterment of human (or animal) lives.

Consequential Approach

Effective Altruists are consequentialists; i.e those who know that the consequences of their actions are the only basis for judging whether their actions can be deemed right or wrong. That is to say that if you donate for a particular cause, and the end result bears desired benefits, then your action can be rightly deemed effective or successful. In short, their ethics is consequential means that they are to be judged by the results of their actions. And in most effective philanthropy, since the means is scientific and fact-based, the end is often successful. So I’ll again exemplify Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, as they are perhaps one of the most influential and ethical effective charity foundations that have actually made significant positive changes in people’s lives.

Egalitarian Mindset

For an effective altruist, no human is above another. In practice it may not be consistent, but most tend to consider that people in a developing nation have equal value to people in their own community. While most of their effort is focused on reducing human suffering in a selfless but thoughtful manner, some altruists may also argue the case to extend their moral compass towards ethical treatment of animals.

Cost-Effectiveness

Since money is hard-earned and doesn’t come easy, it is common sense to be strategic and careful while trying to spend it, even for a noble cause. For a utilitarian approach, most effective altruists go for the cheapest commodities and materials that bring out the most benefit for their cause. Most nowdays even think in terms of QALY (Quality Adjusted Life-Years) saved per dollar and DALY (Disability Adjusted Life Years) reduced per dollar. These are useful indeces used to assess tge improvement in tge quality of people’s lives. Whatever saves the dollar but still maximizes the benefits, effective altruists tend to go for it after much calibration.This allows money to be literally ‘well spent’.

Cause Prioritization

Cause is prioritized and usually a single cause is taken into consideration. This allows room for proper planning of logistics and makes it easier to assess the end result, i.e to measure it, and to work step by step to deliver the best services or programs.

For example, instead of donating money to poor people, effective altruists focus on certain core aspects as to what a certain community is most at need for (such as vaccination or family planning) and deliver accordingly to improve that sector first before moving on to other ones.

Criticisms

Most vocal philosophical criticisms of Singer’s Effective Altruism dig at it’s utilitarian aspects, while they do commend the motive it carries along. As John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism goes, as I’ve mentioned above, this is the act of doing the maximum amount of good. Critics argue that utilitarian views in philanthropy may seem strategically beneficial but in the end it may even miss, during the process of weighing out options, quite a lot of important sectors that may require more attention even if it doesn’t look so on paper.

One important area of criticism is on the over-reliance of people who call themselves effective altruists, on third party institutions (or ‘evaluators’ such as Charity Navigator) who do their research for them instead of the altruists doing it by themselves. This could at times be contrary to the core principles of effective altruism and this reliance is in itself a weakness of this otherwise noble concept.

A Lesson To Be Learnt

So let’s come back to the initial question: When you see a beggar or a homeless person on the street asking for some tip, what do you do?

Reference and Further Reading…..

If you want to learn more about effective altruism start from some of the links provided below. Also if you are not satisfied, there are a number of links on some valid and some invalid criticisms of effective altruisms that you can go through.

  1. Biological Altruism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. Effective Altruism, Wikipedia
  3. The Live You Can Save: How To Do Your Part To End World Poverty – Peter Singer
  4. The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically – Peter Singer
  5. Altruism, Wikipedia
  6. Effective Altruism, Website
  7. Basics of Altruism, Psychology Today
  8. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, General Information
  9. Combining Empathy with Evidence, Center For Effective Altruism
  10. Ted Talk – Peter Singer: The Why and How of Effective Altruism
  11. Effective Altruism and It’s critics, Journal of applied Psychology 2016
  12. Philosophical Critiques of Effective Altruism, By Prof Jeff McMahan
  13. Effective Altruism Has 5 serious Flaws, Avoid it and be a DIY Philanthropist – Hank Pelliser 
  14. Altruism, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
Philosophy

On Stoicism II

We do this to our philosophies. We redraft their contours based on projected shadows, or give them a cartoonish shape like a caricaturist emphasising all the wrong features. This is how Buddhism becomes, in the popular imagination, a doctrine of passivity and even laziness, while Existentialism becomes synonymous with apathy and futile despair. Something similar has happened to Stoicism, which is considered – when considered at all – a philosophy of grim endurance, of carrying on rather than getting over, of tolerating rather than transcending life’s agonies and adversities.

Read more via Why Stoicism is one of the best mind-hacks ever devised | Aeon Essays