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Showing posts from April, 2021

Zorba’s Secret

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  Alexis Zorba is the 65-year-old protagonist of Nikos Kazantzakis’s celebrated novel, Zorba the Greek . Zorba is the happiest person in the entire world of that novel. Age does not wither him and routine does not stale his infinite charm. What is the secret of his happiness? Zorba lives in the present. He belongs to the here and now. The young narrator of the novel, who is an intellectual trying to discover the meaning of life using books and contemplation, feels as he listens to Zorba that the world is recovering its pristine freshness. “All the dulled daily things regained the brightness they had in the beginning,” the narrator says. Each day is a new day for Zorba, a new opportunity to start life afresh. Every morning the earth looks new to him. He sees everything as if for the first time. He does not really see it, he creates it. In the words of the narrator, “The universe for Zorba, as for the first men on earth, was a weighty, intense vision; the stars glided over him, the s

Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Monkeys

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  Are animals as stupid as human beings? Will they indulge in trading if trained? Will a dog exchange a bone with another dog for some favour like sex? Keith Chen, a professor of behavioural economics, wanted to know. So he conducted an experiment which came to be known as the Yale-New Haven Hospital’s monkey experiment. He was shocked by the results. And the hospital had to ask him to leave the monkeys alone. Chen conducted his research on a group of monkeys. His choice was the capuchin, which is a cute, little, brown monkey with a small brain that is highly focused on food and sex. (Not very unlike many human beings, you are tempted to think.) Chen, along with Venkat Lakshminarayanan, worked with seven capuchins at a lab set up by psychologist Laurie Santos at Yale-New Haven Hospital. The monkeys lived together in a large cage. At one end of the cage was a smaller cage which was the testing chamber, where one monkey at a time would enter to take part in experiments. First, Ch

Xenophanes’s God

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  If cattle and lions could paint, they would depict gods in their own images. And worship them too, of course. Xenophanes, the Greek philosopher, said that long, long ago. We create our gods in our own images. Xenophanes was disturbed by the behaviour of many of the gods in his religion. These gods had too many conspicuous weaknesses and vices. They were lascivious, jealous, scheming and cruel. They behaved just like the men who created them. Just like the mediocre Greek men and women. Xenophanes, being a wide traveller, was aware of other cultures and their gods. In contrast with those gods, Xenophanes thought that his own gods were silly and childish. And very Greek to boot. Soon he observed that all the gods he knew were very similar to their creators. The gods of the Ethiopians were black and flat-nosed. The Thracian gods had blue eyes and red hair. Xenophanes longed to replace the entire Greek pantheon with one God. He imagined a God without human shape and gender. Why would

Will, the Tyrant

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  Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described the human will as a “the strong blind man who carries on his shoulder the lame man who can see.” The lame man with vision is the intellect. The intellect is conscious and hence will take sensible decisions. But beneath that sensible faculty lies the real driving force of human action: the will, which may be conscious or unconscious. Schopenhauer spoke of the will as ‘the vital force’, ‘striving’, ‘spontaneous activity’, and ‘desire’. It is the will that drives us onward in life. Most of the things that we do are driven by the will. We may like to think that our intellect is leading us on. Schopenhauer says that the intellect acts only like a guide who leads his master. Will is the master. That is why we do a lot of stupid things. The will does not have the vision to see the whole reality. It goes by instincts and desires, partial perceptions and fractional understanding. The philosopher says that we want a thing not because we have reas

Violence

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  Violence is the choice of the incompetent. We were not born with fangs and claws like animals which need to resort to violence even for their food. We are endowed with a higher-level consciousness, a mind that that can think rationally and find practical and amicable solutions to problems. We are not meant to be violent by our very physical structure and nature. Yet many of us choose to remain at the level of animals by resorting to violence. Human evolution seems to have been one-sided; the brain evolved while the heart remained the ape’s. Our intellectual faculties went on acquiring more and more finesse enabling us to probe the microcosmic world of subatomic particles and the mystifying infinity of the cosmos. We have created technology that can put the old gods to shame. We will achieve a lot more in the days ahead. Our brains will ensure that. But what about our hearts? We are still primitive enough to hunt down other people just because they worship other gods, have diffe

Utopia

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  A utopia is an ideal place and who does not want to live in an ideal place? We create paradises and heavens in our myths and religious beliefs without ever giving serious consideration to the possibility of creating a utopia here with the only life we possibly have. How can we create a utopia? First of all, we should admit that people have different worldviews. Each individual has her own notions about what is right and wrong, good and bad, God and life, and so on. A utopia should accept that diversity not merely with an attitude of facile tolerance but with profound understanding. Truth is nobody’s prerogative. There is no individual, state or religion that can claim the possession of absolute truths. What is truth for one person may be a joke for another. Hence a utopia should never aim at imposing on its citizens a single truth in the form of religion or culture or anything at all. Instead a utopia should give freedom to its citizens to explore truth in their own ways. A uto

Tatvamasi

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  One of the most profound philosophies of life is Advaita Vedanta. The very word ‘advaita’ which literally means ‘not two’ summarises the entire philosophy succinctly. The Atman (self) and Brahman (God) are not two distinct entities; they are one and the same. Aham Brahmasmi , as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad puts it: I am Brahman. The Chandogya Upanishad repeats the idea many times using the phrase ‘Tatvamasi’ which means ‘You are that’. You are God. The distinction between Brahman and Atman, God and man, peters out as we move from the early Upansihads towards the later ones. As S Radhakrishnan (academic, professor, philosopher, and India’s second President) puts it in his scholarly introduction to the major Upanishads, “God is not merely the transcendent numinous other, but is also the universal spirit which is the basis of human personality and its ever-renewing vitalising power.” God is not an entity lying somewhere in the outer space tinkering with the earth and its creatures

Spirituality

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  “Man does not live by bread alone,” Jesus said. “He needs butter too,” the wit added. But even with butter on it, bread will not satisfy the human being for long. His soul hankers after something, something that is not quite of this world. That hankering is what makes the human beings spiritual. It is difficult to speak about the soul or the spirit because science has not been able to identify that part of the human being. The soul is not the mind. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts especially when we come to living organisms and all the more so in the case of human beings. Man is not just the body and the mind put together. There is something more to the person than the body-mind sum. That ‘more’ is the soul or the spirit. It is the soul that makes a person a spiritual being. It is the soul that makes us feel that we are incomplete somehow and consequently puts us on a quest for completion. That quest for completion is what spirituality is essentially about. To com

Rebel

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  Anyone who loves life genuinely cannot but be a rebel. You will rebel against the all-pervasive evil that appears in the forms of diseases, natural calamities, and manmade disasters. You will rebel against malevolent bacteria and viruses. Your blood will boil when you see innocent kids dying because of any reason whatever. You won’t be able to accept a fraction of the injustice you see around you. If you love life. As Ivan Karamazov tells his fervently religious brother, “I don’t accept this world of God’s… I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept.” This world is a terrible place where, in the words of the Bard, fair is foul and foul is fair. A lot of great people have tried to change that terrible situation. What else were the Buddha and the Christ and the Prophet and the Mahatma trying to do? And what did we get because of their efforts but more evil in the names of their respective re

Quest

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  “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.” Physicist Carlo Rovelli wrote that in his recent book, Reality is not what it seems . “In the morning, the world is a curved space-time where everything is continuous ; in the afternoon, the world is a flat one where discrete quanta of energy leap and interact” [emphasis in original]. Einstein’s physics and quantum mechanics perceive the same reality differently. Yet both hold good in scientific models. Both are true though they are contradictory to each other! “With every experiment and every test,” Rovelli goes on, “nature continues to say ‘you are right’ to general relativity, and continues to say ‘you are right’ to quantum mechanics as well, despite the seemingly opposite assumptions on which the two theories are founded. It

Paradigm Shift

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  Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition by Cristiano Banti, 1857.  If we keep doing the same thing, we will keep getting the same result. Albert Einstein is credited with that saying. But Einstein’s genius is not required to say something as obvious as that. Yet, in spite of the backing of Einstein’s genius, we keep doing same things and keep getting same results. Our petty jealousies and violent spirituality, craze for power and race for wealth, idolisation of a Hitler or a Modi in the name of something as evasive as culture or race – nothing has changed over centuries. We need a paradigm shift. Desperately so. We have messed up this world of ours terribly. We need to reshape our earth and our heavens. We need a paradigm shift. One of the most influential philosophers of science of the 20 th century, Thomas Kuhn, introduced the concept of paradigm shift. A paradigm, according to his definition, is a collective set of attitudes, values, procedures, techniques, etc that form the g

Outliers

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  An outlier is an outstanding person. He does not belong to the herd because of certain qualitative characteristics like exceptional intellect or skill in a particular domain. Albert Einstein was an outlier, for example. Leonardo da Vinci, another example. Carl Sagan, yet another. Outliers stand out of the herd like a tall oak in a forest. Is it some genetic factor that shapes the outlier? Is his exceptional quality inborn? Well, not entirely. The tallest oak has its origin in a quality acorn, no doubt. But there are many other factors that contributed towards its healthy growth like availability of sunlight (no other trees blocked it), deep and rich soil, and not being espied by a lumberjack. Bill Gates wouldn’t have reached where he did unless his parents provided the conducive environment for his growth and development. When they realised that young Bill was getting bored of his school, they took him out and sent him to Lakeside, a private school that catered to the elite fam

Naïve Realism

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  “The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments,” declared the judge who granted bail to 22-year-old Disha Ravi recently. Disha was arrested on charges of sedition. She was supposedly working with Greta Thunberg to undermine the Indian government! The only thing that she did which provoked the government was to support the enduring farmers’ agitation. Disha is just one among hundreds of people being victimised in India merely because they have wounded the vanity of the government. The vanity of the present Indian government comes from what psychology and philosophy call naïve realism. Naïve realism is the belief that one’s view of events is unbiased and correct and when others disagree they must be wrong. Naïve realists assume that those who disagree with them are uninformed, irrational and biased. A whole lot of politicians in the ruling party in India now seem to be naïve realists with vanities wounded by the ghosts of history.

Murderer

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  People call him Switch. Most of them probably don’t know what his real name is. At least none of those whom I asked knew it for sure. But everyone knew that he was a murderer. He had killed his own brother. I know Switch from the time I came to live in Kerala six years ago. He worked for my brother. Most of the time he reeked of cheap brandy or palm toddy. One of his usual haunts is the toddy shop that is half a kilometre from the school where I teach. The bifurcation of the road towards my school is a 90 degree turn just near the toddy bar. My car invariably slows down at the turn and Switch would be there sometimes waiting to hitch a ride. I never refused him though I knew he was a murderer whose case was in the court. He would speak something silly and the stench of toddy would nauseate the air in the car. Otherwise he was just another innocuous villager. A few weeks back he came to me, “Sir, give me hundred rupees.” “Aren’t you working today?” I asked hinting that he should

Lessons from Lokayata

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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 “unci

Kafka’s Prison

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  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 t