Friday, June 26, 2009

Life Dependency

John made a careless mistake. Despite knowing that level 6 of the hospital was a restricted area, he inadvertently staggered out of the elevator on the sixth floor, owing to heavy intoxication from all the drinks he'd had with his friends. When he woke up on the hospital bed, he discovered that he'd been mistaken for a volunteer in a new life-saving procedure. Those patients who required vital organ transplants were being hooked up to another healthy volunteer, whose healthy organs kept both alive. Each donor who came forward would do this for 9 months, after which another donor would step in and support the patient. John spared no time in calling the nearest doctor and explaining what had happened. The doctor said, "I understand your anger, but then you have yourself to blame for behaving irresponsibly. The truth is if we let go of you now, the patient, an eminent violinist will die and the music world will face a huge loss. You will in fact be murdering him." John protested, "You have no right to say that. Even if he dies without me, how can you force me to sacrifice my life for the next 9 months!" (Source: A Defense of Abortion, by Judith Jarvis Thompson, in Philosophy and Public Affairs)

An allegory again, on a topic that has been beaten to death. Almost everyone holds a strong opinion on it and my take on it is nothing phenomenally insightful or novel. Still I found the allegory quite interesting, although obviously it's not a great one. In the real world, John can sue the hospitals for plugging his organs with another's just because he dropped asleep on a hospital bed. Secondly, abortion really doesn't boil down to the simple element of the ethics of ending another life that is dependent on the mother. Contrary to the excerpt, there is a more challenging phase for mothers and children after the period of 9 months.

If I were to bring in the question of morality into abortion, it's a matter of: a) ending a speck of life that is yet to develop, or b) potentially ruining the life of another being or person. I'm vehemently opposed to the idea of bringing in a new life when it is not assured of parents who can provide their best. If the woman/couple recognizes the conception as a mistake, then according to me, the most ethical thing to do is to spare bringing in such a child instead of messing their life. Although I'm in support of adoption, I don't advocate the idea of being careless and then dealing with adoption as a solution. Adoption is a solution to the current problem of providing abandoned and homeless children a home and a loving family which is yearning for kids. But it's understood that these children will invariably carry some emotional baggage and certain inevitable challenges due to being adopted. Why make them go through it, if there is a choice? Especially when we are in no dire need to keep up the population rate.

It troubles me to no end when I meet so many young children in schools being classified as "emotionally challenged", and listen to them talk about their angry mothers. It's grossly immoral to mess up these lives right from the tender ages. To convince a careless and precocious 15 year old girl to go through with a pregnancy is just a huge crime to the unborn child, more than it is to the young girl. Many have lashed back at me saying that there are no ideal circumstances to raise a child and one cannot take a course on parenthood before being one.

Is asking for the mother to be above 18, and to have a job (or for the father to have a job) to support and provide for the child, too much to ask in terms of circumstances? Isn't that stripped down to the barest of bare minimum? And if it were up to me, I would most certainly enforce every expecting mother/parent/couple to go through a basic psychology course on parenthood, and based on progress (or lack of it) they would need to retake courses, else they will not be entitled to complete custody of the child. Severe yes, but I have seen enough neglect of children to make me feel so.

In cases when the child is congenitally deformed, I think the choice is entirely up to the parents. No matter how loving and able such parents, in some sense I do find it immoral and cruel to inflict such a life on the child, when even normal and healthy ones struggle to survive in our jungle.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Drawing The Line On Promises

Hew, Drew, Lou and Sue all promised their mother they would regularly write during their trips. Hew wrote his letters, but gave them to other people to post, none of whom bothered. So his mother received no letters from him. Drew wrote her letters and posted them herself, but she carelessly put them in disused boxes and attached far too few stamps, which meant none of the letters reached her mom. Lou wrote and posted her letters properly but the postal system let her down every time. Mother didn't hear from her. Sue wrote and posted her letters properly and also made brief phone calls to check if they had arrived. Alas, none did. Did any of the children keep their promise to their mom? (Source: The moral philosophy of H.A. Pichard, as critiqued by Mary Warnock in, "What Philosophers Think", edited by J. Baggini and J. Stangroom)

How much moral responsibility should one take to ensure that their duties/promises are fulfilled? What is the interaction between the agents, actions and their consequences in deciding the moral philosophy of executing a duty?

From the excerpt, it feels like Sue was the only child who gave her best in trying to fulfill her promise. The rest somehow, did not put in their best efforts. But in our everyday world, Sue would be called a paranoid person, a stickler, a perfectionist, whose actions are probably unrealistic to be executed for every given situation. Most of us would probably fall under the category of Lou. We all have our duties, our promises, but how much is really good enough?

To me, a duty remains just a drudged monotony, until the heart is involved. When there is sufficient desire stemming out of passion, care and interest, the effort that is expended is much different, much higher. Ideally, that's how most promises must be viewed. This is not to say that Sue was the only caring child. It is the extent of importance weighed on those particular letters to the mother - Sue attached the greatest importance to them. But I don't necessarily translate this to a proportionate extent of love or affection.

Yet, even Sue's letters didn't reach. Didn't she also fail? This is where the role of consequences come into play. Not all situations and actions can be purely evaluated by their consequences. Surely what matters is the thought, the intentions and the amount of effort, and type of action that go into it. I do attribute the journey to be more valuable than the destination itself. Yet, consequences cannot be always ignored. The severity of the circumstance surely plays a role. If the
childrens' duty was to make sure their mother was recovering well in a hospital, surely the actions would have been far more sincere, because the consequences are dire. But still, one can only do their best. And each one defines what their meaning of "best" is, by being true to themselves.

This analogy can also extend to bigger responsibilities we have as citizens of a country, members of a community etc. What is the role we play in avoiding wars and working towards peace? How far should we go in fulfilling those duties? Can one draw a line on how much sincerity goes in fulfilling a promise? The minute one starts to contemplate what the minimum expectation is, the promise becomes a mere compulsion. When the heart is not involved, one can never put in their best, and they stop being completely true to the other person/

However, having said that, even if each of us did
execute only our bare minimum just for the sense of duty, in the larger perspective, the higher goals can be achieved; like those little squirrels helping Rama build a humongous bridge. Hmm... for a tiny squirrel, maybe that was the best, not the least? I'm digressing... from a practical standpoint, I guess even if each of us did our very least, the effects will still count - helping just one child in need of help, growing just one tree, saving just one room worth of electricity... etc.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pain's Remains

The auditorium was fraught with nervous onlookers as the doctor put on his mask and gloves and prepared to take his needle and thread to the conscious patient's tied down leg. As he drove the needle through the patient's flesh, the patient let out a ravaging scream of pain. But the next second he was calm as could be. "How do you find that?", asked the doc. "Quite, fine", replied the patient with a cheery smile. "I do remember you putting the needle through me, but I don't remember any pain." "So do you have any objection if I do the next stitch?" "Not at all, I'm not anxious at all," replied the patient, much to the amazement of the crowd. The doc turns and explains, "The process I have developed does not remove the sensation of pain, like an anesthetic, but it removes the memory of the pain which was on the patient's nervous system. If you're not going to remember your fleeting momentary pain, why fear it? The patient here, just demonstrated that. This enables us to conduct surgery even while the patient is fully conscious" (Source: The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, Julian Baggini)

Thought experiments such as the ones I've been trying to analyze/think about, do get bizarre, sometimes stretching the boundaries of imagination, reason and plain comprehension. Many get me to the point of plain exasperation and agitation at just splitting hairs. This one surely qualifies as one of those. Yet, I'm aware that such excerpts also do make me confront those seemingly basic and most elementary of concepts that have been imbibed in me. It painfully makes me reevaluate and understand every single strand of reason and thought in me, makes me dig so far deep into the roots to discover that minute particle of reason, that although seems so pointless and unnecessary, does help me gain more clarity about how my thoughts have sprouted, where they've sprouted from, how they are connected, and how much pure reason is responsible for them. In the process of searching, I also end up rearranging a few to sit in the right places and brushing off the dust bunnies on those I haven't used in a long time. So, well, I'm ready to face yet another journey down the crevices.

Why is pain bad? What is pain? How is pain different from suffering?

Inflicting pain is associated with immorality since it leads to misery and suffering. Pain is not just the momentary sensation of misery, but it also forms a component of fear, due to the miserable anticipation, and the memory of going through the trauma and healing the scars. When the memory of the pain is removed, it is hypothesized that one will no longer have any fear of facing it. If my memory of the pain of scathing myself is removed, I wouldn't know how it feels like to burn myself, and hence will have little fear. If all that's remaining is just the momentary shoots of fleeting pain, will that qualify as suffering? If inflicting pain is bad, is it still wrong if the suffering associated with it is removed? I answer, YES and YES.

For one, even if I have never been subject to a particular type of pain, my knowledge that it will hurt, is enough to put me into a fearful anticipation of it. I have never had a root canal treatment, yet I wouldn't say I am fearless about it. I wouldn't care if I lose my memory of the pain, I would still be apprehensive of the anticipation, because it's common sense that it will hurt without Novocaine. The patient in the excerpt is just weird and brave, maybe masochistic. Secondly, even if the pain be fleeting, lasting just a second and I'm assured of forgetting it, time is but abstract. Those 60 milliseconds, 3600 microseconds can last an eternity in my head. And to subject any person, any animal with the argument that the person/animal will only experience a series of momentary sensations of pain, which will be forgotten, does not hold strong. In that one second, the body and mind is put through searing torture, and nothing can justify inflicting it, when it can be avoided. It still qualifies as suffering.

Maybe if all my sensations of pain (spanning my whole life) are removed, would I be any braver, because I don't even know the meaning of pain? No. I can still see people scream with pain as a needle is stuck into them, and that's enough to make me suffer with fear of anticipation. That's just me. Many times, it's not just the memory, or anticipation of the pain, it's the combined trauma of going through something unpleasant. To me surgery is unpleasant. And why would compassionate and rational human beings try to inflict something unpleasant, however brief, when it can be avoided?

Some argue that pain is merely a state of mind, and I have heard of great people going through surgeries without anesthesia. This analysis doesn't apply to such enlightened people. It concerns those people who still haven't conquered pain. It is not the least bit ethical to inflict pain on such people, when it can be avoided.

PS - My rambling does not include a major component of most pain - the emotional aspect. The thought experiment is merely concerning physical pain; whether in concept, the definition of physical pain and the fear of it will cease to exist if the sensation of physical pain is removed from memory. Doing so is obviously against the basic lessons Nature tries to teach us and survival will be pretty hard, but that is beyond this particular thought experiment. It concerns the ethics of inflicting pain, if the concept of physical pain ceases to exist.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Chat With The Mirror

The mirror looks at me, absorbed and quiet. "I wonder what you're made of", he says. I raise an eyebrow in question and I see a clear glimpse of my mother staring back at me. "Face borrowed from your mother, I can discern that much, what about the rest?" The rest? I proceed to look down at my arms, my fingers and the mirror snaps, "So you think the rest of you is all but arms, fingers and legs?!" I shake off the misty vision from the past where I sat giggling with my father as I pointed out the eerie similarities between our feet. The rest of me? The rest of what? "The person behind the face", the mirror offered.

The person I am today, the person I have been growing into, the person I will be tomorrow, and hope to remain so in the days that come after tomorrow, the force that drives me, the love that binds me, the wisdom that guides me, are largely due to one person- my only hero in life, my greatest teacher in life - my father. I am lucky, I tell the mirror, nature blessed me with a lot of his genes, no surprise our birth dates are so close, I chuckle. Right from when I was four and I picked up a book, his crossword puzzle, made him play the songs he listened to a million times over, and still listen to those songs a billion times over, I learned to reason, and disciplined myself to please him and follow his steps to the tee. A love so overwhelming, emanating from an inseparable cord between us that makes one wince with pain as the other merely grimaces.

But I can never come close to many things, I tell the mirror. His staunch sense of duty, his all encompassing love that persists even during the toughest of circumstances with the most heartless of people, his sheer determination, courage and will, his brave sacrifices, his undying altruistic spirit, his wisdom, his intelligence...and I stop as my eyes blind me with tears.

The mirror looks on silently as I wipe away the mists. I don't know what hurts me more, I continue. My own pain, or the thought of him suffering due to my pain. It's a vicious cycle, I tell you. I want to stop my pain, stop tormenting him. Do you know how to stop it? The mirror sighs and speaks, "Daddy's little girl, aren't you? Seems to me, both of you cannot find anyone else to love each other so much... well, no wonder, Dawkins says it's due to both of you sharing those damned genes!"

Yes, we share way too many of those... and that's who I'm made of, to answer your question. And it won't ever change the fact that he will be my proud hero, forever. The mirror smiles and fades away.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Squaring the Circle

And the Lord spake unto the the philosopher, "I am the Lord, thy God, and I am all-powerful. There is nothing that you can say that can't be done!" And the philosopher spoke unto the Lord, "Ok, your mightiness. Turn everything that is blue, red and everything that is red, blue." The Lord spake, "Let there be color inversion!" And there was color inversion. The philosopher then spake unto the Lord, "You want to impress me: make a square circle!"The Lord spake, "Let there be square circle", and there was. But the philosopher protesteth, "That's not a square circle! That's a square!" The Lord grew angry, "If I say it's a circle, it's a circle. Watch your impertinence!" But the philosopher insisteth, "I didn't ask you to change the meaning of the word circle so it just means square. I wanted a genuinely square circle. Admit it - that's one thing you cannot do!" The Lord thought a short while, and then decided to answer by unleashing his mighty wrath on the philosopher. (Source: The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, Julian Baggini)

What a fitting coincidence to be discussing about square circles right after reading Flatland! Before engaging in any analysis on whether faith and rationality are indeed compatible, I couldn't completely get the logicality of the philosopher's request. It's like asking for dolpho-crocodiles, a creature that doesn't exist, and if it were to be brought into existence then we can envisage such a creature to have both physical and biological characteristics of a dolphin as well as a crocodile (a dolphin face with a crocodile's prickly thick skin, maybe). Or perhaps a unicorn - which is popularly the cross of a horse and a bird. Horses don't fly, that's their property, yet a horso-bird, aka unicorn, will fly due to the added characteristics of a bird. In a similar way, why didn't "God" just produce a new geometric figure called the square circle, which is nothing but the cross of a square as well as a circle? It can have the characteristics of both a square as well a circle, yet not being mutually exclusive.
Something like those above? I mean, fundamentally, I don't understand arguing about logicality of those shapes/attributes that don't even exist! And if such objects were to be invented, who is to set the rules of their properties?! Logicality to a great part is what we define and redefine over the years. A thousand years back it was illogical to expect to talk to people disconnected over thousands of miles. Now it's mere commonsense. And if we attributed God to be omnipotent then even the basic rules of nature can be changed, yet with basic rules of logic still holding true. If the laws of nature are changed such that one can walk on water, then all subsequent laws would change accordingly, leading to a redefinition of our perception. Or else nature wouldn't survive, or would it? Something like Harry Potter's world. Despite conjuring an imaginary fantasy land of wizards and magic (that are highly illogical to us) the rules and constraints of magic were beautifully and logically formed by the author, and with these as the foundation, the story was built logically. One can hardly argue that the story was illogical, when the rules of the land were set.

Anyway, the essence of the above excerpt is to question how rational faith can be. Does faith and belief in God still conform to rationality? I recall a nice paragraph from the book, Sophie's World. If we believe that humans are rational beings, if we believe that we reason and act on our thoughts, and that every creation and act around us is due to the result of some thought process, then there should be a thought emanating from some other mind, whose result is this universe and us. As part of rational thought, we humans need to find meaning and the causal nature of everything. According to us it is irrational to have something without a meaning or cause. Therefore the thought, of the logical belief in the existence of a higher spirit, force, God, sounds rational enough to me. Just because we haven't reached the state of conclusively proving the existence of this higher force through our current framework of intellect, (and limited dimensions in which we live) it doesn't necessarily mean that the faith is irrational. One doesn't have to be irrational to believe in God. Many times faith is just the precursor to a logical deduction. Many great scientists of the world would vouch for that.

Of course the common criticisms of irrationality that stem due to a claim of rational belief in God are - 1) why does God allow all this cruelty when he is all loving, 2) Why are people punished if God is all merciful, and is the cause of all our actions? etc. But don't we still try to logically defend and answer these questions to ourselves? We seek more logical beliefs and explanations to iron out the contradictions and fill in the gaps. It is perhaps at this point that the road forks - one path taken by the rationalists who try to rationally find answers whilst holding onto a faith, and the other path being taken by those who just believe in the existence of an explanation and look no further. Is one path more rational than the other? I'm inclined to think that the rationalists' path is obviously more rational, but it might just be my ignorance. Isn't a rationalist again trying to assuage his questions with more speculations, more beliefs, however logical they are contrived to be?

In the end, faith that exists without any reason or rationality as we presently define, seems to remain just a belief, whereas faith that is complemented with some sense of reason and the need to find rational explanations holds more promise to transform from mere faith to pure knowledge. In that regards, faith and rationality can be made compatible by our own sense of reason.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Reflections: Flatland

A classic that needs no introduction. I have seen this book on our bookshelf for as long as I can remember and yet I never ventured into even turning a page, for I had seen this book in the hands of intellectuals, of mathematics geniuses and heard them talk about a new abstract dimension in mathematics. Me and mathematics, and that too abstract, never go together in a positive sentence. And naturally I shied away from the book as long as I could. But I'm glad that I finally "faced my fears" by not only reading this book but also marveling at how simple it now seems to try and conceive of another geometric dimension and perhaps many more.

Imagine a land of two dimensions, a world existing inside a geometry book, where triangles, lines, squares and other polygons have a life, a personality, intricate social structures, legislatures and laws...all within the constraints of their two-dimensional flatland. Ha! how bizarre does it seem to us, elevated people of the third dimension. How silly that there could be a degradable world in mere 2 dimensions and how amusing to read about utterly ignorant and pompous flat shapes who assume that their world is the only one to exist and that space beyond 2 dimensions is pure gibberish! The smirk on the faces of 3 dimensional-creatures soon gets wiped away with a mere question - what if you were ignorant of a fourth dimension? How silly would us 3 Dimensional know-it-alls appear to a more intricate creature looking down upon us from a greater dimension and witness all our hullabaloo over a small speck of space?

This reminded me of Plato's allegory of the Cavemen, in his Republic. Plato claimed that what we humans perceive are mere shadows on the walls of the deep caves inside which we reside. Seldom do one of us climb out of the cave to see the sun and the beautiful land beyond the caves, whose mere shadows are the ones we perceive as being real. Yet a person who comes back from such a land of "true shapes" gets ridiculed at, due to pitiable ignorance and tight walls of brick built around one's sense of reason, power of thoughts and imaginations.

The author with his tickling style of satire casually brings out the plausible notion of further dimensions with his charming tale of a frustrated Square trying to grapple with the truth he witnessed in another dimension and faltering at conveying what he witnessed, to his closed minded fellow men. The cruel fate of innovators and thinkers, starting from Copernicus. Since the book is more than a 100 years old, the author's depiction of the social system in the land of 2 dimensions reflects the common norms of society and culture that existed in most parts of the world then (on reflection we can still see remnants of those social structures even in today's contemporary societies).

The descriptions and narrations of the inhabitants of the land of 2D really appealed to the child in me. If I had read this years before, I would have easily gotten distracted, fantasizing about the squares and triangles every time I opened my geometry textbook. I'm probably the only loony who does this, but when I was little I associated each alphabet to a personality of their own, living in their land of English. Somehow the shapes of the letters (and probably the phonetics of some of the words which begin with them) paint a general impression of their personality. The letter "A" for example is an arrogant intellectual, B is the henpecked husband of C, who is an incorrigible spendthrift...and A-H forms one family of the upper class, with I-S forming the middle class etc. I used to have a similar imagination with vegetables and fruits, but that could be the influence of cartoons! But to read about personalities and characteristics of Isosceles, Circles and their little houses, in a "grown-up" book dealing with math-fiction, was just so refreshing to the imagination! And to see it all being strung into a significantly intense concept is like watching Mickey Mouse explain the theory of relativity and me understanding it! How much more creative can an abstract book get? :)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reflections: Sophie's World

I'm finally trying to make time for books that have been on my wish list forever, and those that I'd given up on years before. Sophie's World belongs to the latter, but thanks to SecondSight, I got back to it after 10 years.

This is a novel that tantalizes you to think and rethink till you reflect on an "answer", and then yet again pushes you to rethink and question your answers... a long loop of recursive reflections. Ten years back, I could hardly get past 50 pages, because my brain simply hurt and my head was too thick. But this time, the pieces started to slowly fall into place and I ended up learning so much more than I have ever learned from a novel. And the author's intent is fulfilled.

Well, is it really a "novel" or a textbook? It's neither, but both. Confusing? Welcome to Sophie's World. The author takes a couple of 15 year old girls on a journey of the history of philosophy - from Pre-Socrates to Sartre. For someone like me who has never read any philosophy textbook cover to cover, this book gives a beautiful bird's eye view of how the ideologies of Western Philosophy progressed through multitudes of generations. And the commendable part is Gaarder's simple yet brilliant style of writing -- devoid of convoluted statements, lofty phrases and intimidating prose, his writing is focused on lecturing a 15 year old inquisitive mind with simple and profound analogies, and I lapped it all up. This very well could serve as an introductory textbook on Philosophy.

Weaving through this discourse on philosophy is a brilliant portrayal of our illusive existence. The riddle is a recursive illusion of life - sort of like Morton's salt box which contains the picture of a little girl carrying another Morton's salt box, which would have the picture of the same girl inside the box, which will have another picture inside the picture.. which might go on to an infinite recursive loop.  Each girl in the box is surely just a fabrication of our paints. However, it makes me wonder if some other girl is seeing me hold the box that contains the picture of a girl holding the box, which has the picture of another girl holding the box....confusing and eerie? Am I also a painting to some other girl? What if our lives are nothing but entertaining soap operas to the "Gods" above? How sure are we of being alive, breathing and real, directing our own actions? But let me not let the whole cat out of the bag.

A book that makes us reflect on the extent of our freewill and the reality of our existence, while administering a foundational course on the history of western philosophy; a torment of thoughts that leaves one with very few words.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Lifeboat

Roger, the self-appointed captain of the lifeboat, proclaimed, "So this boat can hold twenty people, and there are only twelve of us on the boat, and we have plenty of rations to last us till the rescue team arrives, which won't be more than 24 hours. So we can safely allow ourselves to relax and enjoy on some warm cocoa. Any objections?" "Err...this is indeed a reassuring situation, but rather than enjoy on extra cocoa, shouldn't we try to rescue that drowning lady who's been shouting for help?", asked Mr. Mates. A few people bent their head down to avoid confrontation, while others couldn't care less. "I thought we had agreed that it's not our fault that she's drowning! If we picked her up, we wouldn't be able to enjoy our extra rations! Why should we unsettle the cozy set up here?" And there were surprising nods of agreement to this. Mr. Mates retorted angrily, "Because she is dying and it's our responsibility to save her!! Isn't this reason enough?" "Life is a bitch, if she dies it's not because we killed her", said a cold-hearted Roger. (Source: 'Lifeboat Earth', by Onora O'Neill, republished in "World Hunger and Moral Obligation", edited by W.Aiken and H.La Follette)

Quite a coincidence that I conjured up a similar scenario a couple of posts before, but of course the context in which I used it was different. But nice to know that even I can sometimes think like some well known people ;)

I know that this scenario is so appalling and I'm sure I will hardly come across anyone who might argue that the woman shouldn't be rescued. And the objective of this post/analysis is not to pour over reasons as to why one needs to offer help. This scenario is but an allegory - the boat can be likened to an affluent country with surplus resources, and the dying woman is a metaphor for the thousands of people from war-torn developing countries dying everyday of hunger. In a country like India, the disparity is so stark, that the boat can very well be compared to huge corporations and wealthy merchants. Put in such a manner, isn't it the moral obligation of such affluent sections to help the underprivileged?

Having expressed so, one can notice obvious undertones of communism/socialism. To me this was the biggest revelation. I have always discussed communism in the light of equality, but never from such a stern angle of moral obligation. Philanthropy is heralded as a righteous deed, praised and encouraged. But the above allegory suggests that it's one's mere responsibility, there's nothing to be praised! It's the duty of those people on the boat to rescue the woman; doesn't matter if the resources belong only to them, and was earned by them. It's a crime if they didn't rescue! So if we didn't actively strive to help those in need of help, are our occasional splurges of charity work, half-baked realizations of our moral code?

Is our life indeed such a plain comparison to the people on the boat? One might argue that we hardly get to witness someone suffer and die before our eyes. The reaction of seeing someone die in close quarters is different from seeing those heart-wrenching images on TV millions of miles away, that leave us with a sense of helplessness and disconnect since we don't have the direct means to offer fruitful help as in the case of the allegory, wherein the concrete solution is to jump into the waters and save. But in India we see these images right outside our comfortable homes, and yet there are still very few who actually venture out to at least offer a morsel of food... not leftover food that is "generously" thrown, but actual food. Also, these problems are not as simple and straightforward as a one-time offer of help with food, money or shelter. The problems in the real world require a long-term solution, a sustained effort at uplifting other lives, and a continued resolve to dip into our own resources without a feeling of possession. It requires long-term commitment to the cause. Reaching out and finding ways to help and to keep at it, are the main challenges. Such challenges are deterrents, but it doesn't seem fair if they are converted to comfortable excuses. If no one in the boat knew swimming, it still doesn't justify them not even trying to help.

Having argued that the lifeboat scenario presents minimal challenges as opposed to the real-world, do I still view philanthropic gestures to be nothing more than moral responsibilities? Yes, in a way I do. There are always levels of philanthropy obviously... it all depends on how much a person detaches from their possessions and ego. If I choose to share 3 of my 10 apples, I can't laud myself, but if I give away all 10 and choose to remain hungry a day without looking forward to any ego satisfaction, then that goes a little above moral obligation. Most of the Hindu scriptures prescribe the act of giving and sharing without expecting returns. Maybe in this jungle of a world it's a little too idealistic, but it's nonetheless a good exercise to discipline oneself to work towards more meaningful causes.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


Ephiphenia was a strange planet. It looked much like Earth in appearance, but it's inhabitants held one majorly different view. The Ephiphens had long before "discovered" that their thoughts did not affect their actions. They were convinced that thoughts were the effects of bodily functions and not the other way around. They explained that although thoughts often preceded actions, there was no causal link between the two. One's body and brain might suggest that the stomach needs food due to bodily alerts and functions, but the thought of going out and eating, is just a consequence not the cause. So is the Ephiphens' claim... are we humans any different? (Source: Ephiphenomenalism was coined by T.H. Huxley, in an 1874 paper, "On the Hypothesis that animals are automata and it's History", republished in Method and Results: Essays by Thomas. H. Huxley)

That's a fundamental question. Are thoughts just byproducts of bodily functions, or are they the ones that drive us? Ephiphenomenalism is a class of dualism (acknowledging both mental and physical states), that ascertains that although mental states exist, they are merely caused by bodily functions and have no influence on the physical states, the body and the world around us. Such a way of thinking minimizes our perception of free will. Many philosophers, most notable being Spinoza, held such a view on the philosophy of the mind, mainly stemming from the belief that our perception of free will is a mirage. He claimed that humans are very much like automata because we are constantly driven by nature's law. In reality, the number of options available to us to exercise free will is quite small. There are societal constraints which we can probably fight against (with the risk of losing acceptance), but there are natural constraints on our body and circumstances that minimize freedom in it's true sense. One can't just fly out, can't abstain from food and other basic needs, and these basic bodily necessities are the one that seem to drive us, and influence our way of living.

Ephiphenomenalism also obviates the need to dwell on, give importance to, and understand consciousness and thoughts. The biggest hole in dualism is the missing link of explanations as to what happens between thoughts and actions. If one did hold the view that thoughts drive us, the basic questions is how are thoughts translated into actions? If there is an abstract space of mental states, how do these non-physical states interact with the physical brain, and how do such thoughts get converted to actions? No one knows. Hence Ephiphenomenalism then comes in as an explanation that dismisses thoughts as mere byproducts, and argues that studying thoughts is a futile process. This is supported by behaviorists like Pavlov, Watson and Skinner who focused on understanding behavioral responses to stimuli, completely bypassing mental states of cognition. But this still doesn't explain the causal link between input stimuli and behavioral response in cases such as computation and problem solving. How do we problem solve? How does rationalism take place? Ephiphenomenalists argue that computation takes place in the level of brain states (as in the case of a computer, wherein computation takes place at the level of physical states of chips and processors).

But anyway, enough of history. This is a chicken-egg problem in itself, which continues to have "empirical proofs" of research on both the supporting and the opposing teams. To me, this view is against rationalist view of thinking. It strips humans from the ability to reason and act on such reason. Most of the problems we encounter are not necessarily driven only by the need to hunt/gather food (and other such known primordial needs), or compute/problem solve by crunching numbers. We form complex opinions, solve problems and make decisions that are novel and unprecedented, and it seems overly simplistic to attribute all of them to neural connections in the brain and other bodily functions. Yet I am also aware that neuroscience is striding confidently with more and more research under it's belt to prove that our actions and thoughts can be linked to neurons. I don't deny that. Obviously if there are cerebral deformities or damages, one can clearly see how mental states, thoughts and actions get affected.

While I do concede that some thoughts can arise out of bodily functions and neural connections, I don't agree that these thoughts cannot interact again with the brain/body to influence actions. This subset of thinking is called "interactionism", wherein one believes there is a constant interaction between the body and the mental states. Where do "will" and "motivation" arise from? When the body is screaming from pain, when the brain is tired and wants to sleep, where does determination and will sprout out of and push the body to perform? Will that be called as the plain effect of adrenaline or dopamine? How do patients with paralysis find the energy to wake up their limbs and motivate themselves to walk again? Can will and motivation also be reduced to physical states in the neurons? And is it our bodily need to ask such epistemological questions and find answers? What is my body gaining out of such thoughts? Surely there are no direct implications of such thoughts. Not today, maybe not tomorrow, but my collective self and my actions in the long run will be influenced by such thoughts through indirect decisions and ways of life. Where do creativity and innovative ideas come from? Is painting a picture a mere result of neurons firing away and due to excessive chemicals of a certain kind? Surely there has to be some sort of interaction between thoughts and such actions...

In the end, both realms of theories are not decidedly proven; each theory has been multiplying into trickles of sub-classes, each combining a little bit of both theories and adding a slightly different view. We have a long way to go to scientifically prove/disprove all the hypotheses. While it's indeed hard to study an abstract non-physical entity, dismissing it altogether cannot be a solution. Do you believe in your thoughts influencing you?