Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Lessons from Lokayata



There were intelligent seekers of truth even in India as far back in history as seventh century BCE. One such school was Charvaka whose doctrine was known as Lokayata. Very little information about them has survived to our day. No copy of their central text, the Brihaspati Sutra, which dates from 600 BCE, is available now. It is assumed by historians that the Lokayata texts were systematically destroyed by the Brahmins whose authority was questioned by these texts. But, rather ironically, the works which argued against the Lokayata texts were preserved and thus we have sufficient information about this rebellious doctrine.

The adherents of this doctrine, the Charvakas, rejected life after death. They considered such beliefs funny. Thinking and feeling are part of our physical system and in the due course of time they wear out and die. Nothing is left to live on after death. The ancient play, The Rise of the Moon Intellect, has a character who ridicules religious believers as “uncivilised ignorant fools” who expect fruits to hang from trees growing in air. This character supported the Lokayata doctrine.

Truth is obvious, according to Lokayata. You can perceive it through your senses or reason. Entities like gods are creations of the imaginations of crooked people whose intention is to deceive others.

The Charvakas thought of the ascetic’s approach to life as sheer waste. We have just one life, this one here on earth. It is our duty to enjoy it as much as possible.

The Charvakas were highly critical of religious approaches to life. They considered the Vedas as fraudulent. The Vedic faith in a higher system of justice was particularly questioned by this school. The Vedas cheat people, according to Lokayata, by imposing absurd rituals on them. There are some interesting arguments given by the Charvakas. The Vedas say that the animals slain in religious sacrifices will ascend to heaven. If people really believed that, surely they would sacrifice their parents and thus give them an express ride to paradise.

Lokayata obviously did not believe in gods or heaven. They believed in hell which, they insisted rather gleefully, is here below. We create the hell with our actions and frustrations mostly. If we exercise our intellect properly, we will do things to avoid pain and increase pleasure. Virtue belongs to the intelligent, in other words.

Religion is both foolish and fraudulent. The Sarva-darsana-samgraha cites the Charvakas as saying that the Vedas are “tainted by the three faults of untruth, self-contradiction, and tautology.” The Charvakas ridiculed the Brahmins as people who used religion as a means of livelihood. Death was the best for them. There are so many ceremonies associated with death.

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Interestingly, Lokayata and its adherents did not survive for long. What they considered irrational, absurd and ridiculous survived and flourished. Why? This is what Lokayata should make us wonder about. Why do we still – nearly three millennia after the Lokayata doctrine – keep killing people for the sake of divine entities whose existence is not even certain? Why are we so irrational and absurd though we keep claiming that we are rational and capable of great wisdom?

This is something that has baffled me for years. In the autumn of my life, I am still left with this enigma. In a very enlightening book titled Doubt, the author Jennifer Michael Hecht makes a very interesting observation. “People throughout the ancient world had argued that a thinking person could be happy and moral without God or gods, but most of them worried about what the average man or woman would do, and feel, without religion.” Doesn’t that imply that religions and their gods belong to the mediocre? Well, I’m not arrogating intellectual superiority to myself and other doubters. But I’d like to leave that question to all those who go around peddling gods even using the electronic media.

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The previous posts in this series can be read here.

Tomorrow: Murderer

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Kafka’s Prison

 


The world in Kafka’s fiction is a veritable prison in which you are not free though you are allowed the illusion of being free. As the police Inspector tells the protagonist of The Trial, “You are under arrest, certainly, but that need not hinder you from going about your business. You won’t be hampered in carrying on in the ordinary course of your life.”

Carry on in the ordinary course of your life. Eat, sleep, mate, and do some job like all other normal people. That is the ordinary course of life. If you dare to do more than that, the authorities will tell you in no uncertain terms that you are crossing your limits.

What are those limits, however? Kafka does not make it clear. His protagonists fight invisible forces. The so-called authority lies beyond the reach of the ordinary mortals in Kafka’s world. In The Trial, for example, it is the Law that determines the protagonist’s fate. What is the Law, however?

Joseph, the protagonist of The Trial, admits his ignorance of the Law to the officials who came to arrest him. He does not even believe that such a thing exists. Then one of the officials tells the other, “See, Willem, he admits that he doesn’t know the Law and yet he claims that he’s innocent.”

You can’t be innocent unless you know the Law, apparently. But ignorance of the Law is not the crime for which Joseph has been arrested. Moreover, knowing the Law isn’t quite possible either. Towards the end of the novel, a priest who is the prison chaplain of the place tells Joseph the story of a man who wanted “admittance to the Law.” The doorkeeper blocks him saying that his time has not come. The man waits for days for his time to arrive. Days pass into years. The man grows old sitting there waiting for his time for admittance to the Law. His eyesight is weakening now due to age. In the darkness of his failing vision, he can perceive a radiance that streams immortally from the door of the Law. His life is ending, however. As he is dying he asks a final question to the doorkeeper. “Everyone strives to attain the Law. Why is it then that I am the only one who has been waiting here for years to gain admittance?”

The doorkeeper answers, “No one but you could gain admittance through this door since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Every person has a unique entrance to the Law. But everyone does not get to enter that mysterious Law. Does anyone manage to enter the Law at all? Well, there is no clear answer in Kafka’s world. Are we all living in the prison where necessities matter more than truths? “It is not necessary to accept everything as true,” the priest counsels Joseph, “one must only accept it as necessary.”

Kafka’s world is a post-truth world. In post-truth world, truths don’t matter; necessities do. Those who can’t accept the necessities (created by the authorities) are condemned to imprisonment, if not death. Joseph, in The Trial, gets death in the end. He does not know what his crime is even when he is taken by the agents of the authorities to his ultimate end.

The executioners take Joseph out of the town to a bleak, deserted stone quarry. Joseph is stripped half-naked. When he shivers involuntarily, he is given a pat on his back by one of his executioners. The pat notwithstanding, Joseph knows that his end is imminent. Yet he longs for a helping hand. Can help come now? Were there some arguments in his favour that had been overlooked? Of course there must be. That is logic. But logic doesn’t help beyond a point. What more could be done, however? Joseph had spent a whole year doing his best to save himself. He could not even discover where the Judge sat, let alone see him. Where was the Court? Joseph was utterly helpless.

One of the executioners holds him by the throat. The other thrusts a knife into his heart and turns it there twice. Joseph’s vision flails. He can still see his two executioners watching him die. “Like a dog!” Joseph mutters. The novel ends with this sentence: “It was as if he meant the shame of it to outlive him.”

What shame is Kafka speaking about? The shame of the death? Or is it the shame of life itself?

Some of us are on a relentless quest throughout our life. Most of Kafka’s characters were on some quest or the other. The ordinary life of eat-sleep-mate-work doesn’t satisfy them. Life has to have some meaning beyond those animal acts. What is that meaning? Like the man who died in front of the door to the Law in the priest’s story, after waiting for years and years for his chance to enter the door that was meant only for him, the seekers of greater truths than those created by the earthly authorities are condemned to a canine shame in the end! That tragic state of affairs is Kafka’s prison. Are you living in one such prison? Your answer implies the nature of your quest.

PS. This is powered by #BlogchatterA2Z

Read the previous parts of this series below:

A: Absurdity

B: Bandwagon Effect

C: Chiquitita’s Sorrows

D: Delusions

E: Ego Integrity

F: Fictional Finalism

G: The Good Child

H: Humanism: Celebration of Life

I: Intelligence is not enough

J: Just-world Bias

 

Monday, April 12, 2021

Just-world Bias

 


Human beings have infinite ways of deluding themselves. ‘Just-world bias’ is just one of them. It is the belief that we live in a just world which rewards us for our good deeds and punishes for the evil ones. In other words, we believe that there is a moral order in the world or the universe by which our actions merit just consequences. You get what you deserve. What you reap is what you sowed. What goes around comes around. Karma. Most religions believe in the just-world concept in one form or another. In religions, a god or some divine entity controls this system. Many people who are not religious believe in a universal force that maintains this moral balance.

The naked truth is that there is no such force or divine entity dishing out justice to us from somewhere out there. The death of an innocent child due to a pandemic alone should be enough to make us realise that the heavens are not a bit as fair as we would wish them to be. We can choose to hoodwink ourselves with beliefs such as punishment for the sins of one’s previous birth. The child is paying for the sins of its previous birth. Dharma is religiously vindictive. Or you may believe that the child is paying for the sins of its parents. “If the fathers eat sour grapes, the children’s teeth are set on edge,” says the Bible.

When the coronavirus started killing thousands of people, many religious leaders ascribed it to God’s way of punishing us for our sins of commission and omission. “Thank God for the coronavirus” was the title of a sermon preached by Omar Ricci at the Islamic Centre of Southern California when the pandemic had started extracting its toll. The coronavirus was Allah’s gift to mankind, according to this religious leader. Many Christian and other religious preachers said the same thing in different words: God is reminding us of our need to repent and mend our ways.

It is very convenient to have a god sitting somewhere up there and serve as the Great Arbiter of human actions. It gives a heavenly bliss to some people to believe that the meltdown of the World Trade Centre was a divine retribution for the American sins.

Whether it is a natural disaster like a pandemic or a manmade evil like a terrorist attack, the just-world bias can justify it easily. The just-world bias is an acceptance of evil, so to say. The psychology department of the University of Kassel, Germany, conducted a research on the correlation between belief in just world and dishonesty. The research showed a strong link between the belief in just world and antisocial tendencies. It is easy to convert your wicked deeds into holy ones if you can give your deeds a moral sanction coming from a god or religion or something as holy as that. Were the crusaders of the Dark Ages saints or antisocial elements in religious garbs? What about the religious terrorists of today? What about the nationalists of present India?

You can convert your wickedness into holiness just by convincing yourself and a significant number of others that your act is a divine retribution for the wrongs done by any community. The Kassel University research found strong correlation between the just-world bias and religiousness on the one hand, and antisocial tendencies as well as exploitation and victimisation of others, on the other. That is, those who believe in the just-world notion tend to be religious and antisocial and exploitative.

To sum up, the just-world bias is a self-delusion. It gives you the comfort of thinking that the other people deserve the calamities they are suffering. It is also an indirect way of patting yourself on the back that you are better than them and that is why the calamity did not visit you. What’s more, it makes you feel that none less than god himself is on your side.

 

PS. This is powered by #BlogchatterA2Z

Read the previous parts of this series below:

A: Absurdity

B: Bandwagon Effect

C: Chiquitita’s Sorrows

D: Delusions

E: Ego Integrity

F: Fictional Finalism

G: The Good Child

H: Humanism: Celebration of Life

I: Intelligence is not enough

Tomorrow: Kafka’s Prison

 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Intelligence is not enough

 


Lewis Terman is a psychologist who put a high premium on intelligence. “There is nothing about an individual as important as his IQ, except possibly his morals,” he declared fervidly. He carried out a lifelong research on certain highly gifted children continuously until they grew up into adulthood. His research is the longest-lasting longitudinal study ever conducted.

In 1921, Terman sent a team of fieldworkers to California’s elementary and high schools with the mission of finding out the brightest students. Intelligence tests were conducted on the students suggested by the teachers. The top ten percent of the candidates were given another IQ test. Those who scored above 130 in that second test were administered a third test. Thus Terman selected the most intelligent students of California, no less than 1470 of them.

These students, who came to be known as Termites, were monitored constantly as they grew up. They were tested at regular intervals, the results were analysed, and guidance was given. Their educational progress, married life, illnesses, psychological health and job records were all followed up meticulously. They were the most precious individuals in California as far as Terman was concerned.

Terman was convinced that the IQ geniuses would produce our great leaders in every field – arts, science, government, education and social welfare. He was delighted whenever his proteges went on to win various competitions.

Finally, after years of study, the records of 730 adult Termites were assessed. The top 20% were true success stories. They became eminent lawyers, physicians, engineers and academics. The middle 60% were just “satisfactory”. The bottom 20% did as well as any Tom, Dick and Harry. They were postal workers, struggling bookkeepers, or something as ordinary as that. A few of them were even jobless. One-third of them had dropped out of college. One-fourth had not gone beyond high school. Yet they had outstanding IQs as children.

Terman’s first premise stood disproved. He realised that intelligence alone was not enough for success in life. Further studies showed that success required many other ingredients like supportive parents, conducive social environment, and personality traits.

Christopher Langan had an IQ of 195. You may recall that Albert Einstein’s IQ was 150. “The smartest man in America.” That is how the TV anchor of the show One versus One Hundred introduced Langan to the audience in 2008. Langan was the guest at the reality show in which he had to outsmart 100 intelligent adversaries to win up to a million dollars.

Questioned by the host of the show about his high IQ, Langan said, “Actually, I think it (high IQ) could be a hindrance. To have a high IQ, you tend to specialise, think deep thoughts. You avoid trivia.”

Langan’s high IQ took him to many TV shows and other programmes. One such TV show once hired a neuro-psychologist to give Lancan an IQ test, and Lancan’s score was off the charts – too high to be accurately measured. Langan could read and understand academic books faster than anyone. “He got a perfect score on his SAT, even though he fell asleep at one point during the test,” says Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.

What did Christopher Langan, the genius with the highest IQ in the world, become in life? A horse rancher. Yes, that is what he is today. He lives in rural Missouri on a horse farm. “I don’t think there is anyone smarter than me out there,” he told Malcolm Gladwell when they met a few years ago. That sounded boastful but in fact the man was defensive, says Gladwell. “Here … was a man,” writes Gladwell, “a man with a one-in-a-million mind, and he had yet to have any impact on the world. He wasn’t holding forth at academic conferences. He wasn’t leading a graduate seminar at some prestigious university. He was living on a slightly tumbledown horse farm… sitting on the back porch in jeans and a cutoff T-shirt. He knew how it looked: it was the great paradox of Chris Langan’s genius.”

Langan didn’t know how to navigate the world of ordinary people. His high IQ made him unsuitable for that world. Gladwell says that Langan’s family background didn’t help any bit to make life easy for him. He belonged to a broken family and went through a lot of misery. That matters much however high your IQ is.

No one rides to the cliff of success alone. “Not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses,” says Gladwell. Some social skills are essential for success anywhere. And some luck too – in the form of family background, opportunities, and so on. There may be exceptions, of course. But the general rule is that intelligence alone is not enough if you want to be a success. The world actually belongs to the mediocre.

PS. This is powered by #BlogchatterA2Z

Read the previous parts of this series below:

A: Absurdity

B: Bandwagon Effect

C: Chiquitita’s Sorrows

D: Delusions

E: Ego Integrity

F: Fictional Finalism

G: The Good Child

H: Humanism: Celebration of Life

Friday, April 9, 2021

Humanism: Celebration of Life

 


One of the best philosophies of life is humanism. It is an attitude to the world that is centred on human experiences, thoughts and hopes. Our rational faculty is the foundation of this philosophy. Our reason can tell us clearly why certain actions are good and others are bad. Our reason can tell us why we should choose the good and avoid the bad and hence can be the solid foundation of our morality. Our moral code does not require other trappings like gods and religions.

Humanism asserts that we have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to our lives. This noble philosophy aims to build a more humane society through an ethic based on human and natural values in the spirit of reason and free enquiry.

The American Humanist Association defines humanism as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfilment that aspire to the greater good.” It is informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.

Every word in the above definition deserves attention. We can and we should live ethical lives. Religions also tell you the same thing. But religions posit eternal reward or punishment as the ultimate motive which apparently does not convince most believers. We are asked to be good in order to merit heaven and avoid evil in order to escape hell. Or something similar to that. It may be rebirth instead of heaven and hell. Whatever it is, religion’s offerings lie somewhere out there, far away in the realms of faith. The world has not become any better a place for all that. Humanism tells us that the benefits of being good and doing good lie here itself. By being good and doing good, we create a better world here itself. Heaven can be here itself; there is no need to wait for death.

Humanism does not accept truths from books merely because they claim to be divine or inspired. Humanism wants reasons. It relies on reason and science for proofs. Not everything can be proved in science labs. Why we should choose good and avoid evil, for example, cannot be proved using test tubes and chemicals. But our reason can tell us clearly why we should do that. But there are a lot of other situations where science can assist us to separate truth from falsehood.

Art inspires us and teaches the finest lessons of life. Humanism relies heavily on art for the attainment of nobility while most ordinary mortals rely on religions and gods. Human history shows us that gods and religions have not been able to create a humane world so far though they have been with us for millennia now. If we keep on doing the same thing, we will keep getting the same result, as Einstein said. If we continue to place our trust in gods and religions, we will keep getting more crusades, jihads, and other holy wars. Just think of the millions of lives extinguished brutally in the name of gods and creeds. Humanism never snuffs out lives for the sake of entities supposedly living on some other planet or somewhere in the outer space.

Humanism is all about your dignity and liberty. You are worthy of respect just because you are who you are and not because some god created you in his image. You have the freedom to think and act so long as you don’t encroach on the freedom of the next person. You have the freedom to create something new using your imagination and other aesthetic faculties. You have the opportunity to create a better world.

Think rather than feel, humanism tells us. Have well-informed thoughts. That is what can make the world a better place.

Appreciate the arts, literature, music, crafts and other such creative outputs of human beings. They enrich our lives.

Take responsibility for your own life by seeking new knowledge and exploring new options.

Humanism is a quest for more truths and a better world.

PS. This is powered by #BlogchatterA2Z

Read the previous parts of this series below:

A: Absurdity

B: Bandwagon Effect

C: Chiquitita’s Sorrows

D: Delusions

E: Ego Integrity

F: Fictional Finalism

G: The Good Child

Tomorrow: Intelligence is not enough