Friday, February 27, 2009

Picasso on the Beach

As Roy looked down from the cliffs, he saw a man drawing on the sands of the beach. He peered closely to take a look at the image and his heart jumped a beat as he viewed the emerging drawing that showed multiples angles of an extraordinary face. It seemed like a Picasso! He lifted the binoculars to his eyes and he was dazed as if he was in a dream, for the man drawing on the beach was Picasso himself! He was painfully aware that the high tides of the beach would soon erase an original Picasso and his thoughts were racing to find some means to preserve the work of art. Well, he couldn't try to hold back the sea, nor could he try to save all the sand holding the drawing. He could perhaps run home and fetch a camera to record the picture, which would anyway just be a record copy and not the original. But if he did try to run home, he would never make it in time to save the work from the waves. Perhaps the only thing he could do was to enjoy the experience of the work of a magnificent piece of art from the master himself. Yet, Roy had mixed feelings and didn't know whether to smile or cry (Source: "In a Season of Calm Weather" by Ray Bradbury)

It's obvious from the excerpt that this is not exactly a puzzle to be solved; there isn't really a solution to Ray's dilemma. I guess the essence of this hypothetical scenario is to reflect on our views on art, the immortality we tend to associate to visual arts, and probably how the spirit and essence of participating/experiencing art is often overridden by the materialistic significance attached to the physical form of art.

Is it trivial of us humans to try and preserve Art? If Michelangelo's, Picasso's, Monet's works were not preserved, wouldn't our generation be deprived of reveling in their splendor? If Beethoven's, Mozart's and Bach's musical notes were never recorded, I would acknowledge that it is indeed a loss. But at some level, is the real spirit of the original piece lost when there are reproductions of these master pieces? There can be millions of color prints of Monet's paintings, but none of those come close to the actual piece, or is it really so? Is our intent behind preserving master pieces a vain attempt to immortalize the artist and the work, in a denial to acknowledge our own mortality, and the inevitable mortality of the physical form of art?

I've always seen the preservation/restoration of Art as one way of passing on a rich heritage and culture to the future generations. Art evokes sensory and spiritual pleasures and it seems quite reasonable for us to want to cherish the sensory treats and expose the next generation to those. So in that regard, was it a tragedy that Ray could not find a way to preserve the Picasso on the beach? It is indeed a loss for millions of art enthusiasts and future generations, but what Ray experienced is priceless in comparison to the loss. Ray not only got to view a masterpiece, he was also privileged to experience it's creation. The Native Americans believe that a part of our soul and spirit fuses into our creations. In that sense, Ray participated in the creation of the art work, thereby experiencing a level of spiritual and visual treat incomparable to just viewing the physical proof of the work.

I've always craved to see an artist at work; observing a painter from their very first stroke, a composer humming the very first set of notes to weave together a musical piece, even a cook starting from the very first ingredient... experiencing creativity is something subliminally beautiful and awe least to me. Another aspect which is special about visual arts is our perception that the significance of their portrayal is immortalized, coagulated in time. Is it an attempt to not acknowledge our mortality? Well, I feel it is our acknowledgment of mortality that creates a sense of awe on the art piece that was not only present before our lives, but will probably be so, even after the end of our lives.

The following beautiful lines from John Keats' immortal poem, Ode on the Grecian Urn is what comes to mind.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,

With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.' "

Monday, February 16, 2009

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Someone once said, Happiness is nothing but bad memory. There have been popular movies, notable one being the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which Jim Carrey tries to go through a surgery/procedure that attempts to pick out all his memories with his ex-girlfriend and remove them from his brain/mind to relieve him of the pain of separation. This was viewed as a weird science fiction not many years back, and now scientists seem to be on a path to do just that (although they are miles away from doing it)

If you read the article, there are obvious ethical concerns raised by other scientists. Are we compromising on our identities by losing our memories? How much impact will it have on what we've learnt through experiences? Is it worth all of that than to relive a trauma till time eventually wanes the memory down?

On one hand, I would be tempted to attempt this procedure if I get to a stage in my life where my past and memories haunt me beyond my capacity to live normally. But does it boil down to escapism and running away from reality... almost like being on drugs? But yet, some of the benefits would be overwhelmingly helpful to some people and humanity in general.

The cases that pop into my head are those of the lives of terrorists and mentally disturbed people around. There are tonnes around. These days I'm beginning to lose hope on psychotherapy, but if there were some way to make such troubled people forget their disturbing pasts which is causing them to develop into the personalities they currently are, isn't that miraculously wonderful? Wouldn't it be like a magical wand acting on all our heads? As I write that sentence, it spells out the incredible danger such a procedure can have... talk about controlling the universe and ruling it, if all you had to do was make people unlearn everything and convince them that you are God! I'm getting carried away... But would you consider taking such a procedure at some hypothetical instance of your life? Would you advocate and encourage more of this research?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Pat on the Back

It's interesting how we humans cannot isolate our emotions and need for social interactions, however restrained an environment gets and find ways to break down barriers :). Many believe that blogs were originally started as a medium to exchange thoughts, ideas and focus on neural communications. But as we meet new people virtually, it's quite hard to restrict interactions to be solely through the abstract space of ideas and thoughts; every new person is a potential budding friend and there is an ever so slight curiosity and temptation to know more about the person behind the gray brain, to put a face and personality to the blogger, and to find ways of expressing emotions through virtual ways. There are tags/memes that are entertaining, a little introspective and above all a conduit to know more about the person/blogger, and there are virtual symbols of appreciation to substitute the inadequacy of meeting/talking and other direct forms of expression. An anthropologist could learn so much more about human interactions and ways of communication in virtual environments! :)

I got a pleasant surprise from Oorja this week. She is very generous and kind to have lauded my blog with so many virtual awards. Thank you very much :). A short while ago my blog was dusty and rusty, so it's nice to be pepped, although I know I don't deserve all of them :). I have been ignorant of many novel concepts circling within the blogging community; I've come to know about tagging and awarding this month, and hopefully will learn more soon.

Thanks again Oorja, it is nice to have come across you and your blog and to share insightful views with you! There are more blogs/bloggers that regale me and I'm glad to have come to know them. To carry forward the spirit of expressing appreciation, as a symbol of my appreciation and adoration towards their posts/thoughts, these award-symbolisms are passed onto these three lovely ladies:
SUMI - Truly inspiring and multifaceted; art, music, philosophy, science and so much more. A treat to both my left and right brain :)
Second Sight - Adore your unique, insightful and poetic style of writing. I fortunately have more chances of "real" interaction with you :)
Perception - You have the gift of looking at every simple aspect of our so called mundane life through colored glasses! Your posts are so refreshing since they capture all the simple pleasures of life :)

I'm getting to know of new interesting blogs, so my list will sure keep building over time :)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Ship Theseus

Ray North was an International Master Criminal who had the reputation of getting his job done. His latest client had ordered him to steal the famous ship Theseus, from which the British Newspaper magnate Lucas Grub had thrown himself into the arms of death and had been the scene of murder of a famous LA rapper. Above all it had historical significances associated with it that made it worth millions of dollars. But Ray was now dubiously standing at the dock where the ship had just been repaired, confronted by a dilemma he didn't know how to resolve. There were two seemingly identical ships standing in front of him. He held the security man at gunpoint and bellowed, "If you want to live, better tell me which one of these is the real Theseus!"

The man nervously swallowed and said, "That depends... when we started to repair the original ship we realized we had to change a lot of its parts. So we replaced virtually most of the old parts of the ship with new ones. But instead of discarding the old parts, the boys thought it would be a nice idea to use all the old parts and create another version of Theseus. So on the left, stands the Theseus repaired and on the right, the Theseus restored from the old parts. "

"So which one is the original Theseus", exclaimed Ray. The guard screamed for his life as he said, "I've told you all that I know! Spare me!!"... Ray was indeed caught in a conundrum. Which ship is the real Theseus? (Source: Leviathon by Thomas Hobbes (1651))

The timing of this paradox fits well with my laptop crisis. As an aside, I replaced the LCD screen with a used one, as this seemed the most efficient, cost-effective fix. Mr. Thinkpad seems well recovered and looks happy. But is he the same Mr. Thinkpad, or is he a different one? Here is the crux of my reasoning - if I anthropomorphized my laptop, then replacing the LCD screen is probably equated to an eye-transplant, or corneal replacement. If a person went through such a surgery (or for that matter even a heart transplant) is he any different from who he was? No.... for his consciousness never ceased to exist and according to me, that is what defines who he truly is. It therefore follows that my laptop is the same one, since I equate it to a human form. But if I didn't equate my laptop so (for it's tricky to define the "consciousness"/identity of my laptop), and viewed it as a combination of physical objects that define it, then replacement of a part of it, breaks down the definition of it's earlier form. Hence my laptop is not entirely the same one. This paradox is along the same lines of the one discussed in the post, "Beam me up". SUMI added a good point about adding dimensions to the person/object in terms of their existence as defined by them, and a third person along the time axis.

So it all boils down to our perceptions and definitions of what constitutes a system or a person, to the point where their uniqueness/identity is not compromised. Aristotle describes a system in terms of four causes - the formal cause, the the material cause, the final cause and the efficeint cause. The formal cause is the formal design of the system (the unique engineering design of the ship, or the laptop), the material cause is the set of all materials/matter that comprise it (the planks, boards, iron, steel, screen, etc), the final cause is the purpose or functionality of the system (to transport people, run software etc), and the efficient cause that signifies who and how the system is made (the workers, the methodology, the tools etc). Now we know for sure that the material cause does change over time, and probably so does the efficient cause. But the formal and final causes remain the same. Does this mean the old ship is the true Theseus? Well, the other ship built out of the old parts does seem to satisfy the formal and the final causes as well....

We don't have precise information as to how much of the ship was replaced and what constitutes as the heart/soul of the ship. Hence being a physical entity, I would define the system as the set of all the material and formal causes. Although the formal cause remains the same, the materials that define the ship's heritage and history are patched in different places. Thus, the real Theseus no longer exists. Both the ships are "new" creations, which hold parts of the material from the original (sort of like children holding some genes from the parent). The guys need to pick the ship that has the most material symbolizing the old ship. And that's tricky too... for I don't know if the mere quantity of materials would matter as much as the weights attached to them.

But if I anthropomorphized the ship, then I can perceive different parts of the ship as metaphors to the human body/brain and claim that the skeleton of the original ship that continued through the time dimension, is the original Theseus (since there was continuity of existence), although the materials/organs it comprises of are different. And that's what we do with cars, laptops and other machines and gadgets around us. But it's an obvious fallacy :). Humans can be associated with an identity due to their conscious state and existence, what sort of identities do physical entities have?