Friday, June 26, 2015

Mentioning institute affiliations is not enough - III

Man is a Reasoning Animal. Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute. - Mark Twain

In this post Sanjeev says, 'I could never get a satisfactory answer to what the source of this consciousness is. If I fear death, feel pain and pleasure, who is this I actually?' Many people think that we are more than just chemicals and electrical impulses. Thoughts, beliefs, choices etc. seem to suggest Decarte's concept of mind-body duality - the body is made of material stuff but the mind is not. It seems difficult to accept that the mind is the emergent property of the brain.

There is plenty of neurological evidence to show that all aspects of our mental lives depends solely on physiological activities in brain tissues. When some part of our brain tissue dies some part of the mind disappears. As I heard Sam Harris say in a discussion about life after death, when different bits of brain tissue is destroyed, people lose different abilities, yet they seem to think that when the whole brain is destroyed on death, they will rise up perfectly intact, recognising grandma and speaking English. As Steven Pinker says in The Blank Slate: is still tempting to think of the brain as it was shown in old educational cartoons as a control panel with gauges and levers operated by a user - the self, the soul, the ghost, the person, the "me". But cognitive neuroscience is  showing that the self, too, is just another network of brain systems.
The hint first came from the case of Phineas Gage, a 19th century railroad worker. While at work, a sudden explosion blasted a rod straight through his brain, left eye and skull and lay meters behind him. There was a hole in his head where his frontal cortex had been. Incredibly he was only briefly stunned and was able to walk and talk soon afterward. He seemed okay but from the next day, as one co-worker put it, 'Gage was no longer Gage'. His personality had changed.

From a pleasant, reliable, popular person, he had changed to someone who lied and cheated uncontrollably.He lost his sense of responsibility, his moral compass had degenerated and he was not able to hold a job for the rest of his life. In one lecture during his Human Behavioural Biology course at Stanford, Robert Sapolsky gives several instances of problems with frontal cortex damage.This shows that consciousness  is not some disembodied concept mediated only by culture and religion. Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else about us.

There isn't even a single 'I'; the brain just gives the illusion that a single 'I' is in control. It is not just in fiction that Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde. In an earlier post, I had mentioned several brain disorders like anosognosia, hemineglect, blindsight, Capgras Sndrome, Cotard's syndrome etc. But the realisation that genes have a role to play in deciding one's morality need not make Sanjeev have such existential hopelessness as to make him say that his fate 'was decided in the first nanosecond of big-bang or even less'. In most cases the effects of genes are probabilistic in nature and depends on a complicated interaction with nurture. Moreover, most DNA are non-coding i.e. they don't seem to do anything.

Complex traits are affected by multiple genes with individually small and typically fickle effects. Most genes are pleotropic i.e. they have multiple effects, and most behaviours are polygenic i.e. they are mediated many genes working in a network having positive and negative feedback loops.Also some DNA sequences are regulatory elements i.e. they regulate the actions of genes near them, often under the influence of environmental factors.

 Thus most human behaviours can't be predicted with 100% accuracy. The reason is that the causation involved is so complex and deeply probabilistic that it is, in effect, unpredictable even if we were to try to enumerate all the contributing factors. Thus for all practical purposes, we are indeed free.As Robert Sapolsky says in Monkeyluv:'ve have got nature - neurons, brain chemicals, hormones, and, of course, at the bottom of the cereal box, genes. And then there's nurture, all those environmental breezes gusting about. And the biggest cliche in this field is how it is meaningless to talk about nature or nurture, only about their interaction.  And somehow, that truism rarely sticks.
Sgmund Freud said, “Humanity has in the course of time had to endure from the hands of science three great outrages upon its naive self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable...The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated him to a descent from the animal world, implying an ineradicable animal nature in him...But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the ego of each one of us that he is not even master in his own house, but that he must remain content with the veriest scraps of information about what is going on unconsciously in his own mind." Neurological findings have increased the third outrage and many are not willing  to acknowledge it.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Mentioning institute affiliations is not enough - II

It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this - Bertrand Russell 

In his post, Sanjeev says, 'Anything that is not measurable under their telescope or microscope or meters etc does not exist for them.' One reason for relying on instruments is that they are free of human biases. Perhaps the most problematic of these biases is confirmation bias - the tendency of people to look for evidence that confirms what they already believe. As Richard Feynman said, ' The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.' Eyewitness testimony is a very unreliable form of evidence. People see what is not there and don't see what is there. Optical illusions show that people can be fooled by simple lines drawn on paper.

Instruments increase the range of signals that can be detected. For eg., the human eye can detect signals only in a narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum and has limited power. Telescopes and microscopes enable us to see objects that are far away and tiny objects respectively, objects that can't be seen by human eyes. For eg., the Hubble Deep Field image is produced by pointing Hubble space telescope at an apparently empty patch of sky.It is revealed to contain many galaxies each with millions of stars many of which are a few billion times dimmer than what can be seen by the human eye.

Dogs can smell far better than humans, bats can hear sonar, insects an see in infra -red, birds can see in ultra-violet.  Then there are signals like the magnetic field of the earth that you will not detect without instruments. Relying exclusively on human senses reveals  a small world enabling humans to harbour the delusion that they are the pinnacle of creation. The vastly bigger universe revealed by instruments is far grander than the tiny universe revealed by human senses.Maybe everything we know about the universe now is wrong but what will replace it will be backed by evidence not dreams.

Sanjeev says, 'They do not have any conclusive logic to justify how they are so certain that no world apart from what can be measured by their scopes and meters can at all exist.' The conclusive logic is the absence so far of evidence to that effect. The personal experiences that people relate are very real and convincing to them but as evidence, they are worthless. As Oliver Sacks shows in his book Hallucinations (I had written a post about it), people can experience many things in many circumstances and be certain that they are real.

Sanjeev asks, “Who guided atoms to become humans?” Nobody. That was the brilliant discovery by Darwin. He noticed how breeders moulded the shapes and qualities of plants and animals in the way they wanted by choosing the breeding individuals in each generation. The entire first chapter of On the Origin of Species is devoted to artificial selection. But in artificial selection human beings are the controlling agents.

Then Darwin had his leap of imagination - why can't the same thing occur in nature with gradual change in wild plants and animals over many generations without the aid of a controlling agent? The individuals that breed in each generation are chosen automatically - those individuals that have the superior equipment to survive in their environment are most likely to reproduce and pass on the genes (a word that Darwin didn't use since he didn't know about them) that helped them to survive.

Sanjeev asks, “Why not slightest of evolution take place in documented history?”. If he means visible human evolution, then the time period is too small. Evolution by natural selection depends on the generation time of the organism and not enough human generations have gone by in recorded history for there to be visible evolutionary change. In organisms with shorter generation times, evolution has been documented. One of the most potent examples of evolution by natural selection which has the potential to cause havoc for humans in the not too distant future is the development of antibiotic resistance by bacteria.

Evolution by natural selection has occurred at the genetic level in human beings in recent times. An oft-cited example is the evolution of lactose tolerance in adults in pastoral communities. Another common example is the evolution of genetic resistance to malaria in some African populations due to hetero zygote advantage - When carrying two copies of an allele is disadvantageous (in this case, causing sickle-cell anaemia), but carrying only one copy is advantageous(in this case, conferring resistance to malaria). Isaac Asimov writes in his essay The Relativity of Wrong:
If the rate of change were more rapid, geology and evolution would have reached their modern state in ancient times. It is only because the difference between the rate of change in a static universe and the rate of change in an evolutionary one is that between zero and very nearly zero that the creationists can continue propagating their folly.
Actually, the idea of vast stretches of time should not  faze the Indian mind since such ideas are part of myths.For eg., in Hindu mythology, there are 4 yugas which make up a cycle called divya-yuga, which lasts 4,320,000 years. One thousand of these yugas equal one day of Brahma. Brahma's lifespan is 100 years of this time. The idea of a 6000 years old earth believed by Young Earth Creationists in the US will strike the Indian mind as strange.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Mentioning institute afiliations is not enough - I

Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge. But taking pride in their ignorance is self-defeating - Peter Drucker.

Agniveer is a site which, while introducing itself, says, 'Vedas are the best available benchmarks cum workbooks cum textbooks to help us model ourselves.' In it,  I came across an article by one Sanjeev who says, ' I am an alumnus of IIT-IIM and hence try to find my humble ways to repay for the most wonderful educational experience that my nation gifted me with.' Citing the names of well-known institutes can only take you so far. The effect wears off after a while. I think he should have read and thought a bit more before writing his post.

Education is an investment that will yield returns after a while. The returns are increasingly being viewed only in monetary terms rather than about whether you learn something. As a Mehmood song says' 'The whole thing is that ke bhaiyya, sabse bada rupaiyya.'“Why create a generation of thinkers when what’s needed are workers?” seems to be the thinking behind education in most Indian schools. The RSS recently advised the government to  make education 'more practical and less theoretical'. In other words, don't think, just do.

I won't entirely blame Sanjeev for this post. The school system is geared towards training children to jump through the requisite hoops to get to college. Once there, you are expected to know about progressively narrower ranges of knowledge. When working, with the current fashion for staying late in office, there is no time to develop other interests. So people can be very knowledgeable about one area and astonishingly simplistic in their views about other areas.

It will be erroneous to think  that if a person is very good in one field, he is equally good in other fields. I was trapped in this bubble and would have continued in blissful ignorance but then I slipped on Life's banana skin and everything changed. Since then I have been reading about many things (since time is not of the essence, I can indulge in such luxuries)  and the common element in all  of them is that they have very little to do directly with what I studied in college. What I found was that the universe is a lot more complicated (and therefore more interesting) than I had been led to believe.  I agree with what another person said in this post:
All our technical universities seem to have one thing in common: their constant refrain to us to be ‘successful’. Be it the IITs, BITS or of course, the myriad others, anyone observant enough can make out that ‘success’ is the buzzword. ‘Achievement’ is a virtue, and dreams of 50 Lakh p.a. starting salaries seem to be the bench mark of the student who has ‘used his time wisely and worked hard’. And somehow, somewhere down the line, the real point of it all seems to have been lost.
It is simply not enough that universities exhort their students to make something of themselves. It is not enough that they churn out well-educated young professionals who still seek solace in astrology, continue to hold conflicting views about the universe in the face of scientific evidence, and continue to cling to crippling fears and insecurities about themselves and their purpose in life.
The cat is already out of the closet, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that a spurious understanding of science can co-exist with academic brilliance in higher education. If we are to really get anywhere to begin with, we must shed our collective cultural tolerance for faith-supremacy and stop riding on the popular bandwagon of Appeal to Antiquity. This manifestation of Karmic Capitalism comes at the cost of the rational worldview, and feeds off modern insecurity. It festers in a vacuum of discourse and open debate about what it means to be successful, or how we can overcome our anxieties thoughtfully.
Sanjeev seems to think that a scientific theory is a random guess that someone came up with over dinner. A theory is a system of ideas that gives an explanation of a group of facts or phenomena. It begins as a hypothesis and finally becomes a theory that is accepted by the scientific community after it has been confirmed by experiment/observation. If even one observation is wrong then the theory is wrong and has to be modified. The new theory must not only explain the anomalous fact but also explain the facts that had been satisfactorily explained by the old theory. Stephen Jay Gould says:
Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from apelike ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other, yet to be discovered.
Like the theory of gravity or the atomic theory, evolutionary theory is an extensively documented set of principles with evidence from multiple independent sources - morphology, embryology, paleontology, bio-geography, molecular biology, etc. There are multiple books and online sources which give information about evolution in language accessible to the layman. Following the advise of the Bible is useful: 'Seek and ye shall find'. As Jacques Monod said, '[A] curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it."

There are an amazing number of misconceptions about evolution by natural selection, an idea that can be summarized in just a few words - non-random selection of random variation. The use of the word 'evolution' as a synonym for the word 'change' in many contexts like evolution of Indian foreign policy, evolution of cities, evolution of car design etc. are misleading. These processes have nothing in common with the process of biological evolution.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

An irritating nurse - II

Once when I asked the nurse to turn the page of a book, she muttered something under her breath that sounded like, 'Why can't this guy just lie down quietly?' After that, I stopped asking her to turn pages. I would read the two pages in front of me and sit quietly. After half an hour, she may turn the page. If she did, I read; otherwise, I didn't. During such times of simple living and high thinking, my favorite pastime was how best to bore you in my next post. So you can blame this nurse for some of your miseries.

The nurse had the habit of saying one thing when people were around and muttering the opposite thing under her breath when she was alone. For example , she will say to people that she had learned my system of communication quickly while the reality was very different. She seemed to temporarily think that I was deaf and couldn't communicate anything to anybody. At these times, I will quietly continue doing whatever I had been engaged in, pretending that I didn't hear anything while she will be sitting with a brilliant smile as becomes the victor in a battle of wits.

She seemed to be the perfect example of the cliché  - a bad carpenter blames his tools. If she couldn't remember where she kept a towel, she blamed the towel; if some piece of clothing that she had put out to dry flew away in the breeze because she had not fastened it with a clip, she blamed the clothing. If she spilled some feeding or urine, she blame my cough even though I had been lying quietly.

Once she spilled urine all over my pant because she had not kept the can properly. At this time, I was lying on the bed and the so the nurse didn't have to call anyone to shift me. She struggled on her own to remove my pants and wipe me clean. I told Jaya about the incident when the nurse was not in the room. We knew she would blame my non-existent cough which was exactly what she did later when she described her struggles in making me clean. Jaya pretended as if she was hearing about the incident for the first time and said, 'Really? You should have called me to help!' I did my best to look on impassively.

When Sujit was discharged from the hospital, I asked Jaya to get the nurse changed. It was the first time I had made such a request. There had been other nurses too who had some similar characteristics but this nurse had them all to a much greater degree. In A damsel in Distress, P.G. Wodehouse wrote:
The gift of hiding private emotion and keeping appearances before strangers is not, as many suppose, entirely a product of our modern civilization...Of all the qualities  which belong exclusively to Man and are not shared by the lower animals, this surely is the one which marks him off most sharply from the beasts of the field.
Animals care nothing about keeping up appearances.  Observe Bertram the Bull when things are not going just as he could wish.  He stamps.  He snorts.  He paws the ground.He throws back his head and bellows. He is upset, and he doesn't care who knows it.  
As long as this nurse was around, there was always the danger that I might forget my better nature and decide that Bertram the Bull had the right idea.

Monday, May 11, 2015

An irritating nurse - I

Sometime back, I had a nurse  who the agency said was very experienced, had looked after quadriplegic patients and would be able to look after all the needs of the patient without trouble. All agencies say this so not much confidence could be placed on it. The part about experience was not very reassuring because rarely had a nurse handled a quadriplegic who could not speak so any experience would have had limited relevance.

The first and foremost problem with her was that she was never able to understand my basic communication of one blink for 'yes' and no blinks for 'no'. When I indicated that I wanted something, she would ask whether it was about pillow, hand, fan, etc. but was unable to understand what I was saying. She would randomly adjust various things which would make matters worse till my eloquent eyes discouraged further investigations.

I always want the nurses to close the door when my motion is being cleaned. This nurse would often forget it in spite of being told to do so numerous times. On one such occasion, when she forgot to close the door, I kept turning my head towards the door and making some croaking sounds. She understood that it was about the door and kept insisting that she had closed and bolted it which I could see wasn't the case. All she had to do was to turn and look at the door and the mystery would have been solved but she was reluctant to do it.

At times like this it is a good idea to ask the question, 'What would Sherlock Holmes have done?' But this did not help. The famed resident of 221B Baker Street had only handled murders, burglaries and international intrigues. This was a lot more tricky.I could not expect Luck to do the heavy lifting at all times. I had to occasionally give it a push with my own effort.

Not being known to act with promptness and dispatch in sticky situations (or in any situation for that matter), I had to fall back on my tried and trusted eyes to convey the gravity of the situation. They screamed at her in helpless anger, 'Look at the bloody door!' There were some fruity words long suppressed swirling about in my mind struggling for utterance. It is said that meaningful silences are better than meaningless words. I am full of meaningful silences and this was as meaningful as any. (My meaningless words are reserved for the blog.)

The usual clonus set in and my  hands and legs began to have the typical shivering movements. The nurse finally got the message, turned towards the door and found it wide open. Mission accomplished.  If she had looked at me sheepishly, I would have laughed over the incident. What irritated me further was that the nurse pottered towards door muttering under her breath as if she was annoyed that I had pointed out her error.

At this time, Sujit developed some health issues and had to be hospitalised for a few days. This meant that Jaya had to be in the hospital for extended periods of time leaving me to deal with  the whims of the nurse. This was a situation that could not have been avoided and I had no option but to depend on Lady Luck. In  A Damsel in Distress,  Wodehouse writes:
Luck is a goddess not to be coerced and forcibly wooed by those who seek her favours.  From such masterful spirits she turns away.  But it happens sometimes that, if we put our hands in hers with the humble trust of a little child, she will have pity on us, and not fail us in our hour of need. 
I decided that Wodehouse knew what he was talking about. I am pleased to report that my trust was not misplaced. Luck had shaken off her capriciousness and was on her best behaviour. I suffered only the discomforts that I had anticipated and there were no unpleasant surprises.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Harking back back to a glorious past - II

It is claimed that Pythagoras theorem was known in India before Pythagoras. This  is an example of a partial truth - a statement that can't be rejected outright because it has some elements of truth but it can't be accepted without qualification because it is some way from the whole truth. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, scientist and philosopher,  said that the most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth.

From what I have read, there were civilizations that knew about the theorem before Pythagoras.and they used it frequently in their construction activities. But they knew specific instances of the theorem. It was true for the instances they checked but they had no way of knowing whether it was true for an infinity of right angled triangles.  The theorem is named after Pythagoras because he was the first person to give a mathematical proof using variables to show that it was true for all right angled triangles.So till Pythagoras provided the proof, the equation was a conjecture.

The PM stated that the creation of Ganesha is proof of the existence of plastic surgeons thousands of years ago. He said that an elephant's head had been grafted on a person's body to create the god. There were claims that Kauravas were born using stem cell technology, that cars and TV existed in Mahabharat times, that a helmet used in the Mahabharata war is found on Mars, that there were inter-planet planes during the Vedic age...the claims keep getting more bizarre. Some of these claims were made at the Indian Science Congress. Here is a discussion about it. By such glorification of myths the real achievement of ancient India like creation of the number zero is  in danger of being brushed under the carpet.

The argument that science has often been wrong and the ancient sages always knew the right thing is underwhelming. Each generation finds out something about the universe that is more true than what the previous generation knew. Isaac Asimov illustrates this idea in a piece he wrote called The Relativity of Wrong in which he said that if you said that the earth is flat, you would be wrong; if you said that the earth was spherical, you would still be wrong; but the first statement is more wrong than the second. Asimov writes:
What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.
In IIT Madras, one Dr. A. B. Sudhakara Sastry delivered a speech on the topic of “Vedic Sciences: A Treasure waiting for YOU”. He said' 'Vedic literature has every speck of knowledge we need for today. There is no need to invent; we just need to discover what’s already there.' Judging from the videos of the event (Part 1, Part 2), he had a testing time. As Tagore said:
That our forefathers, three thousand years ago, had finished extracting all that was of value from the universe, is not a worthy thought. We are not so unfortunate, nor the universe, so poor.'
It is all designed to evoke a false sense of pride among the gullible. It is an extension of the trend of taking pride in what you are not. Résumés are about showcasing the outstanding personality that you are not. The inflated marks in schools are about projecting you as the brilliant student that you are not. Liberal use of fashion accessories is about showing off the trendy, debonair person that you are not. In one commentary stint, Sunil Gavaskar called this generation 'the hyped generation'. It is all about hype and show; about exaggeration and chest-beating; and reality be damned.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Harking back back to a glorious past - I

It is not difficult to call for a return to the past, to tell men to turn their backs on foreign devils, to live solely on one's resources, proud, independent, unconcerned.  India has heard such voices.  Tagore understood this, paid tribute to it, and resisted it. - Isaiah Berlin

H.L. Menken said, “Politics, as hopeful men practise it in the world, consists mainly of the delusion that a change in form is a change in substance.” One of the biggest delusions that people have is to think that recreating a Golden Age of the past is the answer to all problems. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay alluded to this in a talk quoted in Makers of Modern India.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was one of the Makers who I knew nothing about. Apparently, after independence, she could have entered Parliament, Union Cabinet, become an ambassador etc. but she rejected all offers and preferred to concentrate on social work instead. Ramachandra Guha writes, "That Indian crafts are still alive and, moreover, have a visible national and international presence, is owed more to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay than to any other individual." In a speech quoted in the book, she accuses the Muslim League of spreading 'medievalism' and the Hindus of similarly spreading 'fanatical passions'.
It has...souught refuge in a demagogic past. It tries to cover the complex present with the veil of a vague past, tinting the harsh realities with elusive shades and the gross angles with sentimental contours, conjuring up in short bygone ghosts to lend heroics to commonplace sentiments.
She warns that the selling of this Hindu mirage is trapping immature minds who, being overwhelmed by the present, 'fill the imagination with past achievements, which at least for the fleeting moment gives them a sense of security'. She warns that present problems cannot be tackled by going back to a glorious past but  by 'a bold and courageous reckoning up of existing conditions and their appraisal'.

It is often claimed that the democratic practices of modern India was a tradition of ancient India. Actually, the Indian constitution with its emphasis on equality and fundamental rights is a radical break from a hierarchical past. The hierarchical nature of the society can be seen in many parts of India even now. I can hear many statements of caste, gender and religious biases from supposedly liberal people who will swear that they don't harbour such biases. The idea of caste privileges exists even among educated city dwelling people. It is easy to change laws but it is not easy to change customs. As Sunil Khilnani writes in The Idea of India:
Mere recovery of the past could not make Indians self- sufficient: the necessry veneration of a rich and unusual history had to coexist with a modernist, more self-critical idiom that acknowledged the immense failings of that past. 
Every country has a Golden Age to talk about which in India is usually the Gupta period or the Vedic Age. People who don't know about either the science or the relevant scriptures will  neverthless be thrilled when told that something that science has discoved was actually foretold in an ancient text. It is regularly claimed that NASA has proved something in Hindu scriptures. It would seem as if NASA had nothing better to do than verify the historical truth of incidents in Hindu scriptures.

Instead of providing metaphorical explanations of speculative musings in Hindu scriptures, people will try to pretend as if they are the same as the discoveries of modern science. For instanc some have interpreted Vishnu’s ten avatars as foreshadowing the Darwinian theory of evolution. They know that their audience is science illiterate, that they will remember a few scienc words from school, put two and two together and conclude that philosophical musings and science are the same. Indian gurus do it all the time