Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Dutiful Sacrifice

Private Kenny's family was engulfed in grief and pain on his recent demise. In a recent bomb attack, he had thrown himself to save his comrades by smothering a grenade. Private Kenny's family had no consolation but the pride they held on account of his heroism to have fearlessly sacrificed his life, quelled their grief. But just as his family tried to cope with his loss, their shred of honor and pride was snatched by the regiment, which refused to acknowledge Private Kenny's act through the prestigious award - The Victoria Cross for Bravery. Shocked, his family demanded an explanation. The regiment politely and apologetically stated, "It has been the practice in the past to reward such actions with the appropriate medal. However we have decided that it's a mistake to consider such acts as requiring an exceptional devotion to duty. All military personnel are required to act in the interests of the whole unit at all times. To suggest that Private Kenny's act was over and above the call of duty, therefore suggests that it might be acceptable sometimes not to act in the interests of the whole unit. This is clearly absurd. Therefore we no longer reward such acts with posthumous awards. Although we appreciate this is a painful time for the family, we should also point out that Private Kenny would have died in the blast anyway, so it's not even the case that he sacrificed his life for his colleagues." The cold letter added insult to injury. Is the regiment's take on this incident justified? (Source: The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, Julian Baggini)

It's quite possible that your initial reaction on reading the letter from the regiment was of anger or shock, or perhaps just intrigue. I was shocked and furious, although Kenny is but a fictional character and I've had no one in the army to even realize the true emotional implications. I was not necessarily shocked because of the regiment's cold-hearted logic in refusing an award, but because I equate the loss of a life in the name of war, as just a horrible exploitation of human beings. This is probably out of naivete, but I can never fathom why we humans need to still resort to physical duels to resolve issues. My God, we have been through millions of years of evolution, isn't it time that we stop acting so animalistic and territorial, literally butting heads, or clawing each other to let our "brawn" and physical might determine the "winner"? How ridiculous that we still can't use our developed brains and ability to reason as tools to come to a solution! It deeply saddens me when I hear of soldiers dying every single day trying to "fight" the "bad" guys. Sadly that's how the world is and we have not really civilized beyond knowing how to dress well and put on social charades.

I should probably stop attributing humans as being "special" just because we are at the highest level of the food chain, and we have a 6th sense to boast about. Survival is still our prime instinct. So anyway, having resigned to that, I must say that for someone to look beyond their personal interest and survival and to have sacrificed their life does merit a proper recognition. It does take immense courage. Doesn't matter if they merely executed their duty and moral code. A person who enters the army knowing fully well that he might lose his life as part of his duty, by itself deserves merit. The duty poses a threat to our very basic instinct of survival, and to act selflessly at that tragic second requires tremendous will to push aside the basic survival instinct. For a person to stare straight at death and still not have his thoughts and body reflexively protect him, is indeed a feat.

Besides, incentives, encouragement and motivation are necessary elements for effective performance. Yes, it's the duty of every student to excel in every class in school. Why then are their awards for top rank holders? It's the duty of parents to take care of their children. Why then should mothers and fathers be revered and appreciated? We keep imposing a lot of idealism, regardless of whether we are equipped to naturally be so accomplished. Incentives are those that drive us - for many, recognition is what fuels their motivation and brings meaning to their lives. Our scriptures preach that our motivation and sense of duty should be independent of the results/consequences/incentives. But that doesn't justify indifference to a duty well performed. Incentives need not be materialistic, a sense of respect and honor are higher awards.

An oft repeated pattern in all moral dilemmas is the delicate balance between doing "good" versus self-interest. For someone to take that extra leap to save a child from a frothing sea or a burning building, risking their own lives is surely extraordinary and heroic. Does that make the rest of us, who do value their life higher than others, moral failures? Or as I mentioned, are we just trying to impose idealism that is against the way nature made us?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dismal Rant

Warning: This is a literal brain dump of trite questions and rants... a boring long winded ramble, which had to be vented. But if you can offer me some answers, I'll be grateful.

What does it mean to be a human being? What characteristics would you signify? Emotions? Ability to think, to discern, to reason? Making mistakes?

I've lately been very intrigued by ascetics and those in search of the truth, who abandon all qualities of human nature to elevate and transcend beyond average human consciousness. For years I've been familiar with the Indian philosophy of emotional detachment from worldly desires, pleasures and materialistic needs to attain salvation or enlightenment. But I've also been familiar with the Hindu/Vedic principle of going through all 4 stages of life - having experienced everything there is to in life, and then gradually detach from the material world to reach spiritual enlightenment. So when do we start on this quest for truth? Should I search for the truth only after having abandoned all material bonds? Will my consciousness naturally elevate itself if I get to a state where I no longer attach any emotions on anything/myself?

Why all these questions? Well, I recently came to know of a sect of ascetics who go through extremely primitive and crude practices in their attempt to attain enlightenment; their primitive and even disturbing practices (well disturbing to you and me) is a symbol of their philosophy to totally abstain the body from any kind of pleasure, and to go through extreme conditions that would otherwise scare and disturb normal human beings. They thus conquer all emotions and reign control over their mind; they thus look beyond the illusive world and our social conditioning of what is good, bad, ugly, dirty, clean, beautiful, scary etc. Almost like facing one's fear of drowning by jumping into the water and learning to swim. What if one is to face the ultimate fear - fear of death and meaning of life beyond? Let your imagination run wild... I don't want to name the sect of ascetics here, because my post is definitely not on them. And if you're the sensitive kind, whose mind hardly needs a reason to go haywire, please do NOT research and find all that you could read about them, like I did. I don't know whether I regret it.... but I have been definitely unsettled.

Anyway, my little research made me bring back those trite, elusive and deep questions that periodically surface and then go back into their shell, because I get tired of not knowing how to find answers. But now, especially at this point in my life, I really would like to get some answers. From whom and how I don't know. Books are not helpful beyond a point... I don't know how to achieve that inner realization, as they call it. But I had to at least rant and get it out of my system.

Everything in life seems insignificant to me these days. Looking around me everything seems silly... we constrain ourselves with so many rules, bound with so many complicated emotions, relationships, elusive ambitions, illusive desires. I remember my father telling me a story about the great Alexander who craved to conquer the world. A wise saint comes to him and asks him, "Ok, imagine you have conquered the world. Then what?". Alexander couldn't answer, so he got furious. I ask myself that... I struggle and toil everyday. What after I've solved all my issues and accomplished my ever extending "goals"? Will I be happy and content... well for a few months maybe, then what? I don't know. So is it even worth fighting and struggling for such aspects in life that will never leave us with lasting peace and contentment?

My life currently cannot be more tightly coupled with emotional issues. It almost saddens me that my life revolves around people dear to me. In many ways I'm crippled without them, and I don't know how to objectively detach from so much emotional bonding, that is clearly causing me so much pain. And I can't help but wonder what my purpose and real duty in life is. To whom is my duty bound to? To my parents as my culture/religion states, or myself alone like the ascetics practice? Should I stop perceiving situations as problems by detaching myself from these claws of emotions regardless of whom it hurts, to attain that blissful inner peace? Won't that be counted as bad Karma, and running away from my "duties"? Is my duty to wander and search for truth/inner peace, being born as a creature with six senses? Or is it just beyond my level of consciousness to even try and explore such dimensions of life, and should I just accept my current "human" state slurred with emotions and ignorance? Are ascetics and saints an evolved state of human beings, with their intelligence and mental faculties far exceeding ours, making them sensitive to perceive and understand those concepts that we can't? Will we eventually evolve to their state? Is this kind of evolution the meaning behind countless rebirths till we eventually understand the meaning of life and attain enlightenment/true wisdom?

This is by far my most skeptical phase in life. I've started to believe that we do live in an illusive world of Maya. Illusion on our freewill, our "intelligence", our purpose and calling in life. My friend once observed a tank of fish and commented, "I feel sorry for them. They swim here and then there, eat food and again swim here and there. They seem to have no purpose... ". In reality we all have such similar short-term goals, that make us wander here and there. We are all trying to believe we have a final purpose in life by solving problems and building a community, and creating more problems for ourselves; in the grand design, we all seem like those fish swimming here and there with no ultimate purpose.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Generous ATM

John received quite a pleasant surprise at the ATM last evening. He had punched in $100 to be withdrawn and instead saw stacks of notes pouring out of the ATM. Aghast he collected all the notes and counted them to a staggering $10,000! He peered at the receipt from the ATM and the receipt mentioned an innocent $100 off his account. With the notes stacked neatly, he looked around and saw nobody in the vicinity. He put the notes in his bag and walked away trying to think coherently on what he needed to do. He put the money at home and waited for a few weeks, expecting the bank to call him and get back the money. Weeks flew and John was still buried in doubt as to what he should do with the money. Part of him wanted to go to the bank and tell them of the mistake... but then would it be so wrong if he used it on himself? After all he didn't steal the money, he didn't rob the back... it was given to him! And such a small amount was a drop in the ocean for the bank, but for him it meant a decent home, a decent car, probably a good vacation...things he truly deserved in life and lady luck was kind enough to offer them at last. He thus continued his rationalization... (Source: The Pig that wants to be Eaten, Julian Baggini)

This just seems like an open-shut case! Little kids in kindergarten would tell us what the moral of this story ought to be... honesty. Yet, it is somehow not surprising that many a times we don't adhere so strongly to honesty or morality and we tend to rationalize our qualms with reasons justifying our needs. What if John had received $150 instead of $10,000? That doesn't sound so big a crime... it's probably a hassle to spend $20 to get to the bank to handover the extra $50; $50 is merely one week's worth of grocery, can't the bank afford so much?! Even $10,000 would just be a small trickle in the ocean for the bank (not in today's economy though...). So can we draw a line on the intensity of the crime/greed/dishonesty?

What if John had an ailing parent at the hospital (the classic morality check the hero goes through in cinemas), and he didn't have enough money to save them? What if John himself needed the money for curing some ailment of his? What if he needed the money for dire needs - paying the rent, buying groceries for him and his children? Bring to mind Will Smith, from The Pursuit of Happiness.... having spent a night at a public restroom with his son, wouldn't you beg him to just take the money if he found such an ATM? So can the needs justify the action?

What would I do? If I were in dire need of money, I'm sure to be caught in a dilemma - my survival weighed against plain morality/honesty. But if I rationalized to keep the money, however much it justifies the need, it is a theft nonetheless. Honesty is perhaps the most difficult tenets of morality. Our bias to self-interest plays in heavily in the context of honest/moral decisions and it's a constant struggle to figure out how to do the right thing while still being in the survival race of the fittest, in this large hostile world.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Colorful Senses

Mary is a scientist who has specialized in Vision and Colors. She knows everything there is to know about colors and vision; how we see objects, how light gets reflected, what neurons in the brain decipher the perceptual signals, what are colors, their wavelengths, their nature, their combination, etc. Anything you need to know on colors and vision, Mary has the answers. Yet, Mary herself is an achromat - she has no color vision. She views the world in just two colors; black and white. The cones in her eyes are not defective themselves; the part of her brain responsible for processing the color signals are defective. Of course, with advances in neuroscience and surgery, this can be fixed. Mary is all set for her surgery, curious to know how the world would look, bathed in all the colors she has meticulously studied. Hmmm... why would a scientist who has expansive knowledge of all colors, wonder how the colors would look like to her? Seems like despite knowing everything there is to know about colors, she still doesn't know quite a few aspects about these colors... (Source: "What Mary didn't know", by Frank Jackson)

This is quite a classic hypothetical scenario used by dualists (those who believe in two entities- mind and body, interacting with each other) to spark a debate with the physicalists (those who believe in only the existence of a body and try to explain/reduce mental states through physical states). I am a dualist (else I wouldn't be using the word Mind all over my blog;)). I do believe in an entity that is separate from a physical body, and assert that not all mental states can be reduced to physical states. Therefore I'm sure to bring in my biases as I put forth my views, but argue with me to help me question my biases :)

It's one thing to know about the physical attributes of perceptual stimuli but it's another aspect to feel them for yourself. Mary might know everything about the color green, yet when she sees a palette of colors, she needs her sensory stimuli to know which color is green. Beyond the work of her sensory stimuli (which is reducible to physical states), is a mental state - a feeling that is associated with the color green. This feeling is impossible to be measured and is highly subjective. This subjective qualitative experience of perceptual stimuli is called qualia.

A related aspect is the inverted spectrum problem. My visual experience of looking at green, might be your visual experience of looking at the color red. This can extend to many other experiences. Pain, happiness, taste, smell etc. I can read everything about a vegetable I have never tasted - I might have heard that it tastes sweet, crumbly and hard to chew... yet I wouldn't know the exact taste of the vegetable, and neither would I know what sweet and crumbly are, unless I've experienced them. I can ask millions to gather more adjectives, yet the essence of the taste cannot be verbalized, neither can it be expressed in physical terms. It is a combination of sensory experiences, that are quite subjective. With advances in Neuroscience, one can probably understand the neurons that fire when people eat an apple and can compare that against thousands of samples to statistically prove similarities in patterns. Yet, there is noway for us to prove that the quality of feelings associated with the neurons are the same.

Consider another example - we measure the activity of neurons when a standard bob pin is poked (using a uniform pressure) into 100 individual's arms (let's make this experiment clean by considering a homogeneous sample of same age, same, gender, same weight). The pain measured via the neurons being stimulated might look similar, yet if we are to ask the participants' rating of their pain, it is going to be highly subjective! There is no way to verify person X's feeling of the pain, with person Y's feeling of the pain! Don't they say it's all in the mind?! There are some brave souls out there going through surgery without anesthesia (in the name of hypnosis, but that is a tangential topic).

There is active research on transferring tactile sensations from expert to novice through haptic devices that try to replicate and simulate force-feedback sensations as experienced by the experts. Yet only a diluted extent of parameters are feasible to be measured (and precision is another issue). But let me not get too emphatic. With progress in neuroscience and haptics , maybe qualia can one day be expressed in physical terms. But the impossibility of verifying qualia against different people (unless we transpose from one body to another), still leaves the stone unturned.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

An Incomplete Wish

Oh girl, a fairy tale was all that you wanted.
Trapped in a tower,
A possessive sorceress in power,
Vicious dragons all over,
Flaming ivies sending knights to cower
A fairy tale was all that you wanted.

Aye you wretched soul, how long does this battle wage?
As the sorceress fuels with unabated rage,
How large was an error in your gauge?
Many more eons await you in her cage,
Pucker up, this tale will run many a page,
After all, a fairy tale was all that you wanted.

Oh you girl shuddering beneath your window
Look down to see your knights defeated in woe
Brave they are, to face the dragon's fiery blow,
Alas, your tears are wasted on their fatal blow,
The agony of your pain doesn't vanish their vow,
But then, a fairy tale was all that you wanted.

Girl, don't you romanticize the action?
Isn't the drama to your satisfaction?
What are those angry sparks I see of friction?
Is that you breaking your shackles to end your predilection?
Pray, where will you land spurring the sorceress's affliction?
After all, a fairy tale was all that you wanted!

Bound you are to an eternal curse,
A curse that befalls no matter what your ruse,
Flee from your shackles, but the curse shall abuse,
Yet another runway of thorns, fear not the bruise,
Alas, trapped you are in a fairy tale you wished,
You foolish girl, you forgot to wish it to end.