Saturday, March 22, 2014

Common fallacies in an (attempted) rational debate

By no means extensive, and certainly debatable, this particular blog post is a collection of the common fallacies I have come across in my discussions online. Given the political climate in the country, the discussions have increased in number and have become heated, at times. The other motivation for this blog post is to have, at one place, the common fallacies and my reasoning behind calling them so. That way I don’t have to explain myself from the start in every new discussion. Lastly, my objective of engaging in a discussion is for both parties to end up with a more informed opinion. I think it is very childish to speak of “your” and “my” opinions. I think it is more reasonable to progressively improve one’s opinion (much like what a scientist does).

1. Knowing what the basic assumption is: All ratiocinations rest on certain axioms. Euclidean geometry follows from certain axioms. Linear analysis follows from certain others. (This is a limitation of deductive reasoning). Similarly, any discussion should, a priori set forth what the assumed axioms are. For example, in our democracy, the basic setting is that the judiciary is the sole source for delivering justice (i.e. for acquitting/convicting people). Also, until proven guilty, a charge levied is just an alleged accusation (be it Asaram Bapu, Chidambaram or any one). This is important, because it has come up time and again in many of my discussions – like the clean chit given by Karnataka HC to Yedurappa, by the SIT to Modi in his role in 2002 riots, etc. People are just not willing to accede that Modi or Yeddy are not guilty. This doesn't mean that the judiciary is infallible. A citizen is certainly allowed to contest even the SC’s decision, but with specifics. For example, if someone wants to hold Yeddy guilty of corruption, he/she should clearly quote the inadequacies of the court ruling and even better, contest it again in a higher court of law. It is important to note this, because this gives us a common baseline to work with. Otherwise, who is to decide which court ruling is correct and which isn't?

2. Digressions from the discussion: This is a problem when one of the parties has the attention span of a woodpecker. For example, in a discussion on one of Wendy Doniger’s books and the prospect of factual inaccuracies in it, if someone describes the mindset of a fanatic mob (what has that got to do with the discussion?), that is digressing. One has to give facts that are verifiable and not concoct some unverifiable conspiracy theory. The other instance is, in a recent debate on communalism and in another on AAP’s funding, someone was asking Dr. Subramanian Swamy on why he had joined the BJP when he had opposed it during Vajpayee’s rule. What has that got to do with communalism, (or AAP's funding) which is the topic of the debate? (Dr. Swamy can and should be asked about his opposition to the BJP back then and I am sure he will answer it). Digressions are bad because most of the times they can be vague and not verifiable. More importantly, they detract focus from the topic of discussion.

3. Self-serving statements: In an argument, one gentleman (opposing Modi and BJP and probably supporting Congress or AAP) had said something to this effect: “How can someone, despite being educated, support BJP?” This is hardly an argument. You can replace the word “BJP” with any party you like to criticize.  Hypothetically, one might as well ask “How can anyone in the right frame of mind vote for AAP except for AAPtards?” These are self serving questions/statements and hardly add value to the discussion. They don’t prove anything. Very recently, when asked not to mumble something but to explain himself, a gentleman had this to offer “Even dimwits can understand this”. Statements like these help push propaganda or make one look like an intellectual. In the face of reason, they crumble like a house of cards.

4. Circular logic: When proving a hypothesis or a theorem, you can’t use the hypothesis itself in the proof. For example, a definite integral follows from the knowledge of the formula for a rectangle‘s area. That is, you assume that you know the formula for the area of a rectangle when defining definite integrals. In order to calculate the area of a rectangle, you can’t use integration theory because that is circular logic. Similarly to prove that AAP is not the B-team of Congress you cannot use the fact that "AK defeated Sheila Dikshit in Delhi". Let me explain. The contention (or conspiracy theory, if you will) is that AAP is the B-team of congress. What does this entail (if true), politically? It means that having either Congress or AAP in power is the same. Given this, what does one mean by "AK defeating Sheila”? It is just an "exchange" of power between the two, if the contention were true. You don't prove a hypothesis by using it in the proof. This is just a shoddy piece of argument. I am not suggesting that AAP is the B-team of Congress. I am saying that you don't disprove it in this way.

I reiterate, this list is by no means exhaustive. They include some observations of mine over a period of time. If factually incorrect or logically inadequate anywhere, feel free to comment.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Existence of Soul

The current post will not conclusively answer if souls exist or not. What it will definitely do is develop a scientific line of inquiry that may lead to an answer about the existence of souls. But before that, what do we mean by a soul? Google it and this is what Wikipedia has to say – “A soul – in certain spiritual, philosophical, and psychological traditions – is the incorporeal essence of a person, living thing, or object”. The catch here is that the soul, if it exists, is incorporeal, not matter.

All possible efforts shall be made to argue with in the realms of reason and not resort to scriptural dogmatism. Since we are discussing the question of existence, let’s see what can possibly be valid proofs of some object’s existence. We will start with some very obvious objects/phenomena/property. Take the sun. We know that it exists, because we can directly perceive it (through our faculty of vision). Another example – sound waves exist because we can directly perceive them (through our faculty of hearing).

Let’s complicate a little. The nucleus of an atom – Direct perception is not possible here, courtesy the limitation of our vision. What do we do now? We perform Rutherford’s alpha rays scattering experiment and infer that an atom has something called the ‘nucleus’. The spin of an electron, wave-particle duality, electricity, magnetism are other examples where our senses fail us in direct perception. The more we move away from the limited sphere covered by our senses, the greater is the need for inferential arguments.

The point of the above discussion is this – if direct perception fails us in distinguishing certain states of matter, then it will surely fail in that which is immaterial/ incorporeal- a soul. So we have to cook up an inferential inquiry. If there is a soul in humans, then an individual can be thought of to have three parts – the physical body, the brain and a soul. If we can somehow ‘switch off’ the physiological body and the brain, whatever remains will provide an answer about the soul’s existence. This is no ingenious technique – this is exactly what you’d do if your house’s electrical wiring goes awry – check each wire one by one after switching off the rest.

It is no easy task to switch off our physiological and mental components (I, for one, prefer agnosticism in this regard) How do we control the heart, or our digestive system? And that’s only half the story. The brain is even queerer. It doesn’t stop for one moment. You might think that it does when you sleep – but it doesn’t. Here is a simple explanation – if the brain does stop when you are asleep, how is it that dreams are registered? The brain never stops.

To sum up, because we do not directly perceive the soul cannot be a reason to deny its existence. Advice on how to control the physical and the mental might provide an answer to the soul’s existence. The system of Yoga addresses this need.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Science and the many gods in Hinduism

Within the confines of theism, the need for a multitude of Gods in Hinduism is not very clear, if not confusing. This apparent redundancy can be reconciled on a scientific basis. Before that, it is worthwhile to consider the basic premise of science. By this, I intend to ask the following question: “What lends credibility to a scientific law?”

Consider the Boyle’s law, discovered as early as in the 17th century. Now, to a current student of chemistry, the assurance given is that, under iso-thermal conditions, the product of pressure and volume of a fixed amount of gas is constant; and more importantly, this is verifiable and repeatable. Any scientific discovery gains credibility from its nature to be infinitely verifiable and repeatable. No matter how many times one repeats the experiment under specified conditions, Boyle’s law stands verified. Thus, infinite repeatability is what lends credibility to a scientific fact. Also, this infinite repeatability should be both in space and as well as in time. Any and every law will be verified by the many generations to come. Also, it wouldn’t do if Boyle’s law was verifiable only in India and not elsewhere. (Repeatability in space should be included, lest the Bermuda Triangle should come under the class of scientific phenomena). Singular occurrences cannot and do not come under the umbrella of science.

The phenomenon of God incarnating as Man can be harmonized with science if and only if it can be verified an infinite number of times. Thus, we are forced to concede infinite incarnations - both in space (across continents) and time (through the ages). This does not mean that the essence of each manifestation is different. It is the same principle repeating itself. In summary, the many gods in Hinduism is but a logical necessity within the confines of theism. The correctness of theism is a different discussion altogether.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Quantum Physics of Light & Kena Upanishad ( केन उपनिषद् )

The final word (yet) of quantum mechanics on light is that it has a dual nature – it is both a wave and a particle.  Verily, the human mind is in discomfort with this, primarily, because it lacks a clear mental picture. In Hindu scriptures, instances abound, where similar dualistic concepts are conjoined – “Non-being then existed not nor being existed”Hymn of Creation – Rig Veda X 129. Such a meek correlation, however, is not the point of this post.  What is first attempted is to understand why making a science of light is difficult and then, to realize that this inherent difficulty was understood by the writers of Kena Upanishad. ( केन उपनिषद् )

The scientist makes observations (using appropriate tools) of the phenomenon he intends to study. Based on these facts, he generalizes and comes up with a principle. Any science rests on these perceptions, also called axioms. The Archimedes principle rests on the observation that objects weigh less in fluids. You and I have to take a weighing machine and observe it for ourselves to be certain of it. The photo-electric effect pivots on the observation of (backward) current when light (of sufficiently high intensity) is incident. The instruments for perceptions are our five senses. No matter how fine-tuned the microscope is, ultimately, it is with our eyes that we observe a sample. Hence, we can make a science of a phenomenon, provided, we are somehow able to make observations of its nature. This is especially true in cases where direct sensual perception is not possible. For example, magnetic (electric) force, though beyond our senses, is manifest in the motion of a magnet (electric charge) - inferential judgements.

The problem with light:
If we want to make observations on light by visual perception, the question is, with what will we observe light? Light itself is what enables us to make observations. Without light illumining the lab, how can we make any visual observations in the first place? Light, which facilitates visual observation, if used to observe itself, has in one instance revealed itself as a particle and in another as a wave (depending on the type of experiment – double slit or photoelectric). The reality is that light is much more than both a wave and a particle.

Kena Upanishad केन उपनिषद् )
The difficulty with light, elucidated above, is only a specific instance of the discussion in Kena Upanishad. The idea is in a ‘germ’ form, i.e. it is generalized. Below outlined are verses relevant to the discussion:
"That which cannot be expressed by speech, but by which speech is expressed-That alone know as Brahman, and not that which people here worship." (I. 5)
“That which cannot be apprehended by the mind, but by which, they say mind is apprehended -That alone know as Brahman, and not that which people here worship.” (I. 6) 
 “That which cannot be perceived by the eye, but by which, the eye is perceived -That alone know as Brahman, and not that which people here worship.” (I. 7)
“That which cannot be heard by the ear, but by which the hearing is perceived -That alone know as Brahman, and not that which people here worship.” (I. 8)
“That which cannot be smelt by the breath, but by which the breath smells as an object -That alone know as Brahman, and not that which people here worship.” (I.9) 

  1. Hymn of Creation - translated by A.A. Macdonell.
  2. Translation of Kena Upanishad from "The Upanishads" by Swami Nikhilananda, Advaita Ashrama.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Good, Bad and the law of Karma

One of the oldest and perhaps the strongest superstitions that we hold onto is the duality of good and bad. Also, the law of karma is often misunderstood. It is mistaken to mean that good actions entail good effects and bad actions, bad effects. Before deciding if or not the law of karma is actually valid, a closer look at good and bad is warranted. What follows here is an abstract proof that every activity has with it both good and bad. This is supplemented with concrete instances.

The proof rests on a fundamental axiom – our capacity to effect any change is limited.  Put differently, what this axiom says is that only a finite number of people get affected by one’s actions. Let the universal set of all living forms be U and the set getting affected be A. Say any particular activity X is good. The people/living forms in set A are positively affected by this activity. This leaves people/living forms in the complement set (U-A) who are not beneficiaries of this particular activity. And to the latter class of people, this apparently good activity is bad. Similar proof can be attempted with activities termed ‘bad’.

Some examples. Conventional wisdom suggests that food wastage is bad. Humans getting affected by this form the set A. This very wasted food is what microbes feed on. To the microbes (belonging to the set U-A) food wastage is actually good!! Any vegetarian fanatic would want the world to immediately turn vegan. But this very act snatches the livelihood from millions of butchers. A thief is robbing somebody of their valuables. This indeed is very bad. But this very act ensures that nobody else will be mugged during the same time. Whether the thief would have mugged anybody else or not, we do not know. But, because he is already mugging someone, he cannot simultaneously engage in another act of robbery. In economic parlance, there is an opportunity cost associated with any activity. This ensures that any activity is both a mixture of good and bad.

The law of karma is in essence the same as Newton’s third law; only discovered much, much earlier. Every action will have its reaction; i.e. every karma will bear its fruit. The question of good and bad karmas doesn’t enter here. Neither is it logically profound because there are both good and bad attached with any activity. Work backwards, the fruit (reaction) is caused by some karma (action). The law of karma constitutes the very basis of scientific enquiry. When we ask as to why the apple has fallen down, we are implicitly assuming that some karma has ‘caused’ this.  It is only within this realm of cause and effect can such an enquiry exist; and the law facilitates such an enquiry. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

God and Quantum Mechanics

One of the arguments I came across in favour of God’s non-existence provided the tipping point for this post. “God cannot build a wall which he cannot climb.” On the face of it, this is a very plausible argument. Nothing original, though; because arguments like these have existed since antiquity. The sage Kapila (from the Sankhya school of philosophy), some aeons ago, postulated something to this effect: “God cannot create because, if he is forced to create, he is not completely free. And a God who cannot create is no longer God.” Thus, we see very sound arguments, apparently, towards disposing of a God. The arguments, when dug a little deeper, are similar to the omnipotence paradox- “There is nothing an omnipotent being cannot do; and this is a limitation on such a being.”

At their very root, the formulations are applying the complement operation twice. The operation referred to is the complement operation in Set theory, i.e. A’ = U-A, where U is the universal set. So, in the language of set theory, the above arguments are effectively saying (A’)’ = A. Extending the same idea, it is equally logical to say that the error in truth is that there is no error.  Or the truth in an error is that there is nothing true. As counter-intuitive as these arguments appear, they can be reconciled on a quantum mechanical basis. Let us take the first argument “God cannot build a wall which he cannot climb”. When we formulate this statement, we are restricting by our observation, the entity of God to either one of the two states – Of either climbing an already existent wall or building a new one.  When the act of climbing is observed, there is no further building process. Similarly, when we try and observe the building operation, there is no further climbing. This is a limitation in observation – any observation tends to restrict the ‘observed’ to one single state.

The underlying dynamics are a part of a bigger scheme. It is always difficult when the ‘observed’ is also the means for our observation. For example, the science of light has always been eluding us. Sure, all of us robotically repeat that light is both a wave and a particle, but not one can have a mental picture of the same. We are only repeating the words. To understand why light is always eluding our intellectual grasp, one needs to realize that light is itself the essence of observation. What is meant is that light itself aids us in making observations. There is no substitute for light which we can use to observe light. So to speak, the light which is helping us observe is being used to observe light (itself). The light allowing the observation is interfering with the light being observed and thus in the process creating some disturbance. (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle)

An everyday example: Say a new employer of mine wants a recommendation letter as a supporting document. Common sense suggests that he wouldn’t approve of it if I were to write my own recommendation. Why? The ‘observed’ (myself) and the means of observation (again, me) cannot be the same. And in cases where they are the same, they inevitably introduce some disturbance. Similarly, building which is aiding our observation is polluted by the ‘observed’- God in this case, because he is the builder as well.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Perceptions and their common ground

In any point of dissonance, especially on subjective matters, we get defensive with liners like “Your judgement is yours” or “I'm only responsible for what I say and not what you understand”. This is more so with sensitive matters – like Casteism, rift in your friends’ circle, politics (Telangana agitation) etc. The logic behind these lines is that perceptions are different for different people.  For example, you have people who adore Hitler, too; and those who hate him are available by the dozen.  I totally dislike Balayya, but there are people who quite fanatically endorse his movies. By these empirical examples, we understand, on one hand, that perceptions are different. A detailed analysis of this variation (and its necessity) can be had here.

On the other hand, we have very common perceptions when it comes to hard-hitting scientific facts. Nobody retorted to their Physics lecturer explaining Newton’s laws by saying “These are your perceptions/ judgements.” When we speak of the Sun, all humans with the faculty of vision will approve of its existence in unison. There are no ifs and buts, and other differing viewpoints. Thus, we find that there are perceptions which are common to us. In-fact with no common perceptions, no scientific discussion can ever be possible.

It seems, apparently paradoxical, that perceptions can be both common and different. It’s not as much of a paradox as it is a mixture of commonality and differences. That is, there are perceptions which are common to two humans, and also those which are not. (Akin to light being both a wave and a particle). To illustrate, we represent perceptions of my friend (Rakesh Mashar) and mine by Venn diagrams in the adjacent figure. The intersection portion has scientific facts and deductions. There are no two contrasting opinions when he and I are in this intersection zone. Quite differently, away from this zone, there are differences. Mashy likes Pawan Kalyan while I don’t. I like classical music while he is not such a big fan.

The million dollar question – What is the use of this entire grind? The analysis has the greatest practical utility. When one uses the rationale ‘Your judgement is yours” in the non-intersection zone, he is being logical. When one does the same in the intersection zone, he is being a hypocrite. One step further: so far the discussion has only been about humans and their perceptions. In the following lines, I try to extend it to all living forms, and take the logical conclusion as it is. All humans/animals with the faculty of vision accept the scientific fact ‘Sun’, but the blind won’t. Similarly, the deaf will not be on board with the barking sounds of dogs. Thus, people deprived of one or more sense capabilities will differ more and more, even in the region of scientific facts. That is, if I were to draw Venn diagrams of perceptions of me and a blind guy, the intersection will not have Sun and so on. Human death is a very bad thing to us and we do not want anyone to die. But a lion in hunger thinks otherwise. Thus, we see that as we include more and more living forms, the intersection part becomes smaller and smaller. Imagine infinite Venn diagrams denoting the perceptions of all living populace – human and others- the intersection part being the point of discussion. With very little thought, it is obvious that only consciousness exists in the intersection part. That is the common ground of all perceptions. That is to say, the very root of all our thoughts and perceptions is consciousness – 'Aham in Sankhya philosophy or Ego'. For an observation to be made, we implicitly assume a conscious observer. The very root of all thought/perception is consciousness. When the Vedantist declares that the abstraction of ‘Existence’ is the only constant thing in this world of constant flux, he is being the most rational. The common ground of all perceptions is consciousness.