In Defense of Reservations

Reservations are, and have always been, a sensitive subject in India, ever since they were introduced in the Constituent Assembly. Keeping that in mind, this post is going to be relatively lengthy. I know I must tread lightly, since most of my friends who are middle-class (and incidentally, upper-caste) are anti-reservation. So this post must start with a disclaimer.

Disclaimer: I do not belong to the Dalit or Adivasi communities. I come from a Hindu family, but am not Hindu myself. So I don’t really belong to a caste. I have never availed of any kind of reservation, nor have I ever lost an opportunity because of reservations. I am, in other words, pretty much a neutral observer in this matter.

In this post, I will try to go through most of the arguments against reservations and examine them, given the science, history and socio-economics of Indian society.

Meritocracy

A section of Indians believe that there should be no reservations at all. Not even based on economic status. The argument is that if a person is talented, they should get the opportunity, regardless of whether they come from rich homes or poor homes.

Prima facie, this argument looks sound. If a poor kid is talented, he/she should get admission to an institute, and if a rich kid is talented, he/she should also get admission. This ensures that the top talent gets the best opportunities.

However, when we take into account the science, i.e. the physiology and psychology of poverty, this argument breaks down.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine two clone babies. Exactly the same in their genetics, and epigenetics. Now we make one of them grow up in a rich household, and the other one in a poor household. For the sake of this thought experiment, let’s eliminate all other variables. They study in the same school, have the same friends, etc.

Now, pause when they both reach a certain age. Let’s give them a test. Any test. What do you imagine their scores would be? Equal?

All the science that has been done on this question, indicates that it’s highly likely that the poor child will score less than the rich one. The effect of poverty on the human brain has been documented, and it tells us that if you are poor, your brain becomes literally less efficient than a rich person. Memory, both long-term and short-term, language skills, cognitive control; all of these are affected by your socioeconomic status. [1] [2]

How, then, are the poor to compete in a meritocracy? Given what we know, a meritocracy would make the poor poorer, and the rich, richer.

The solution, as is mandated in the primary schools of Delhi [3], is to make kids compete in separate quotas according to their economic status.

Poverty, not Caste

Now, another section of Indians believe that reservations are necessary, but the judging criterion should be economic status, rather than caste. Proponents of this belief would have been encouraged by the previous section, where it would seem I am advocating for an income-based quota.

Again, prima facie, this argument looks cogent. And I would have supported an income-based quota, had it been any other country except India. Lets examine reservations in India, in context of its history and socioeconomics.

In the first section I argued that for a meritocracy to function, you need some reservation for the economically weaker section of society. But India is not a meritocracy.  India, as enshrined in our constitution, is a democracy. And what is important in a meritocracy is very different from what is important in a democracy. While a meritocracy places importance on talent or merit, a democracy places importance on representation, i.e. the right of people to be represented in government, and in government-related institutions.

Let’s go over this more thoroughly, since this is an extremely common misconception among Indians. Most people I have talked to, believe that the intent of reservations was to ensure economic upliftment of Dalits and Adivasis. That is, to bring them at par with upper-castes in terms of education and wealth. Instead, the actual reason was to ensure representation of Dalits and Adivasis in governmental institutions. And the hope was that, in time, when the forward and backward castes worked with each other, side-by-side, casteism would eventually go away. In fact, the word Reservation is a misnomer. The appropriate word for it used in the Indian constitution is Representation. It is not given to anyone in his/her individual capacity. It is given to an individual as a representative of an underprivileged community.

This fact about the intent behind reservations is sufficient to debunk another common argument against reservations. Summarily, this argument says that if a Dalit or Adivasi family availed of reservations once, and rose to a better economic status, then their kids don’t need reservations. This argument would hold value had the focus of reservations been economic upliftment. But as we know now, the intent is representation. And even though a Dalit family may have achieved middle-class economic status, they remain a part of the Dalit community, and hence would able to represent that community in government.

When I talk about representation, some people say: if representation is what you want, why not have quotas for all sections of society. Why just Dalits and Adivasis? I, too, have a right to be represented in government. Don’t I?

Yes. Yes, you do. But your community is most likely already represented in government without need of reservation. Reservations are required for groups that will be unable to get representation without them, such as Dalits. To understand this better, let’s examine a section of society where there is no reservation: the private industry.

Let’s look at the top 1000 companies of India. What percentage of their board members are from SC/ST communities, given that SC/ST comprise approximately 28% of the Indian population [4]? We know that most companies strive to create a meritocracy in their ranks. And obviously, no sane person believes that Dalits have less talent, or less intelligence than people from forward castes. So we would expect their percentage among company board members to be near about their percentage in the population. But what does the actual data say? A study done in 2010 found that only 3.5% of board members were SC/ST, while close to 93% were forward castes. [5] [6]

But why? If these companies are sworn to meritocracy, why this discrepancy? Because no meritocracy exists in a vacuum. Indian companies exist within the context of India’s social structure. Even though recruiters would swear that they don’t even look at an applicant’s caste, biases do come into play. For instance, a randomized control trial done in 2005-06 found that an application with a Dalit name had only a 67% chance of being called for the second round as compared to the application of an equally qualified higher caste Hindu [7]. Also, recruiters will freely admit to you that they favor candidates who have a good family background. Now, imagine a Dalit candidate who is the first person to receive education in their family. This criterion will, obviously, put them at a disadvantage.

Now, I am not advocating for reservations in the private sector, but you see how social biases can affect the recruitment process to the detriment of marginalized groups.

They eat up all the good seats

Another argument against reservations is that candidates of the general category suffer because they get to compete for less seats than are actually there. This is fallacious, given the population share of reserved categories versus the general category.

Scheduled Castes constitute 19.5% of the population. Their mandated quota in government is 15%. Scheduled Tribes constitute 8.7%, with their quota being 7.5%. OBC constitute 41% of the population. Their quota is only 27%. All of the people in the general category, combined, make up only 30.8% of the Indian population. Yet, they can compete for 50.5% of governmental opportunities. [8]

And even though candidates from reserved categories can compete in the general category, the number of such candidates is small and not statistically significant. So no, you are not being ripped off by the reserved category candidates. Rest assured that you are being represented by a fair number of general category people in governmental agencies.

There is no Caste

There is also, in a section of Indian society, a certain blindness towards caste-discrimination. There are people who actually believe that caste is no longer a factor in the lives of Indians. That we have truly achieved, what Dr. Ambedkar called, “the annihilation of caste”. Of-course, this is far from the truth.

In 2014, the India Human Development Survey and the India Exclusion Report documented that caste discrimination is very far from being history. According to a survey, 27% of households self-reported engaging in untouchability practices. Among Brahmins, 52% self-reported to not allow a Dalit to use their kitchen utensils, a common practice of untouchability. The findings on untouchability were particularly stark in some states where as high as 50% people across castes self-reported practicing untouchability. [9]

Two other key reports “Justice under Trial” and “Claiming Justice”, from 2014, also find serious obstacles to Dalits obtaining justice in crimes against them. In cases of rape, the conviction rate was found to be only 2% in cases where rape victims are Dalits, in comparison to a national conviction rate of 25%. Think about it. That means that when a Dalit woman is raped, she has a statistically insignificant chance of ever getting justice. In other words, she has nowhere to go.

In our daily lives, a cursory glance at the matrimonial section of the newspaper is enough to prove that caste is far from being a non-factor in the lives of Indians. Inter-caste marriages are still rare. In a survey conducted in 2014, merely 5% of Indians said they had married a person from a different caste. [10]

And of-course, there are tens of thousands of caste-related atrocities across India, every year. [11]

Just because we don’t encounter casteism in our city-dwelling, upper-middle-class bubble, does not mean that caste-discrimination has disappeared.

Reservations breed Caste

There is another peculiar argument I have heard. This one is from people who do acknowledge that caste-discrimination exists. It goes thus: these reservations are the reason that the caste system is still in place. It is the reason caste-based atrocities are committed. It is the reason political parties have caste-based vote banks that they exploit. If there were no caste-based reservations, casteism would have long been eradicated from the country.

Interesting. You do realize that even though there are no religion-based reservations in India, religious strife still exists. Riots still happen in the name of religion. Political parties still have religion-based vote banks.

Reservations exist because caste exists. Not the other way round.

The Annihilation of Caste

Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, the architect of the Constitution of India, had but one dream. It was, what he called, “the Annihilation of Caste” [12]. He believed that there will come a day when every citizen of India, regardless of their family history will be able to live a life of dignity without fear of discrimination. He never lived to see that day.

But maybe we will. Because of reservations, and other affirmative action, Dalits and Adivasis have taken huge strides in social standing and economic status since the 1950s. Education has increased. Workforce participation has increased. Entrepreneurship has increased. Plenty of Dalits and Adivasis have lifted themselves out of poverty. Because of these policies. I know, they are still under-represented, but the differences have decreased.

But there is only so much that governmental policies can do. To truly annihilate caste, society itself has to change. We must get out of our bubbles, and see that there are other people worth meeting, who are not upper-middle-class. Make friends who are from Dalit communities. Have a conversation with them. Ask about their life experiences.

And finally, marry someone who is not of your caste. I know I will. Because only a generation of caste-less Indians will truly be able to annihilate caste from India.

Advertisements

Dear Young One,

Look around.

What do you see?

Maybe you’re in a room, and you see lights, furniture, air conditioning, and a TV.
Or maybe you’re in a park, and you see trees and grass, and fountains.
Or maybe you’re on the road, and you see cars and traffic lights.
And of course, you see the device on which you are reading this. A computer? A phone? A tablet?

Everything around you, absolutely everything you see right now, is an engineering marvel. Yes, including the plants.
Each little thing you see has probably been the life’s work of at least a hundred people, and at most thousands of generations. Whatever be their reason for building them, it is you who are enjoying the benefits.

You could not have chosen a better time to be born. You were born in the age of the Internet. Do me a favor: pick an object of your choice. Go to Google, and search for “History of <insert object here>”. For instance, “history of lighting”. You will see that just a few years ago, that thing was very simplistic and crude. And still more years ago, it probably didn’t even exist.

If you ever get a chance, visit a wildlife sanctuary, or a national park. There you will see what the natural world looks like. It is a gruesome world. Each creature (including plants) either fights for its survival, or dies at the hands of either a predator, a parasite or hunger. Contrast this to the human world. Contrast the plants in the wild to the plants in the human world. Contrast the struggle of wild animals, to the lazy comfort of your couch. Humans built this world, so their children don’t have to struggle like the animals in the wild.

Humans have a long history, hundreds of thousands of years of it. For most of this history, they did not live very comfortable lives. Consider the taps in your house. You simply open the valve, and clean water gushes out. For most of human history, people had to walk for many kilometers to get a few buckets of clean water. Sometimes this water was not even potable, and they fell ill, sometimes fatally so. But today, you have advanced purification systems, and of course a reliable plumbing system, which ensures you get clean drinking water at your whim, even if it’s 3 o’clock at night.

A young one like you, recently said to me with a long face, “I’m bored.” I asked her, “How can you be bored? Look around. Don’t you see the thousands of opportunities to explore the marvels of human endeavor? Don’t you want to know how the ceiling fan works? Or what it takes to get the food on your plate? Or how it’s possible for you to watch YouTube videos on the Internet?”

The world is full of interesting things, hidden in plain sight. You just have to notice them. You are new to this world, and this gives you the opportunity to learn, to explore.

In time, you will inherit this complex world we have created. We are not leaving you a perfect one, though. There still remain some serious problems, such as Climate Change and Corruption. It is your responsibility to equip yourself with the tools necessary for solving them. Maybe you will be live to see humans colonize Mars. Heck, maybe you will be one of the first Martians. Who knows?

I leave you with this: your ancestors have built a wonderful world. But we can only get you so far. It is up to you to understand the path we came from, the path that past generations followed, and to carve out the path for the species’ future.

The Myth of Self-Sufficiency

A few of my friends are pretty big on the whole “self-sufficiency” ideal. So I thought I’d write a post debunking it. *Evil grin*

To start off, let’s define self-sufficiency. Merriam-Webster defines it as “being able to maintain oneself or itself without outside aid :  capable of providing for one’s own needs“. Being able to fulfil your needs, without outside help, is being self-sufficient. In that case, let’s list what these needs are, that need fulfilling.

  1. Food: This is undoubtedly the most basic human need. Humans get their food in two major ways.
    1. Buying food from the market:  This includes eating at a food joint, and buying raw materials and cooking for yourself. In this case, clearly the person buying the food is not self-sufficient. They are dependent on the existence of the food market. They are dependent on the farmers that grow the food, the people who transport the food to your local market, and, if eating at a restaurant, the chefs for cooking of the food.
      Now you might say, “I buy the food with my money, so I am technically not dependent on anyone.” Not so, of-course. It’s just that you and the market are inter-dependent on each other. You for the food, and they for your money.
    2. Growing food: After reading the above, you might say, “OK, what if I grow my own food? Then, I am self-sufficient, right?” Well, you’d be right, if you weren’t so wrong. The farmers are not self-sufficient at all. They are dependent on a number of things, from the sun, to the rain, to the soil, to fertilizer companies, and so on.
  2. Shelter: Another important basic need. Probably the only need humans can be self-sufficient in obtaining, if they build their house themselves, using only naturally available materials. You know, cutting their own lumber, making their own mud bricks, and so on. Otherwise, you are just dependent on construction companies, and construction material manufacturers.
  3. Transportation: Unless you are willing to walk everywhere, you are dependent, for your transportation, on vehicle manufacturers, petroleum companies, servicing agencies, etc..
  4. Clothing, Education, yada yada yada: You get the drift.

So, all considered, we are not self-sufficient. Not by a long shot. In fact, the only things in the universe that can be considered self-sufficient are “stars”. Yes, I mean the big glowing balls of gas, and not Hollywood ones.

Why then, does this rhetoric of being self-sufficient keep going on in the world? Why don’t we promote inter-dependency, helpfulness, collaboration, and empathy, which are much more aligned with what we observe in nature, instead of this selfish ideal of “self-sufficiency”?

I am not sure. Maybe because dependence is risky. If something you depend on to fulfil an important need fails, you might face dire consequences. Maybe you’ll starve, or perhaps you won’t have enough petrol in your car to get to work. Maybe the illusion of self-sufficiency makes us feel safe. The market as it exists now is so robust in fulfilling our needs, that we can get away with living in this illusion of self-sufficiency.

Another possible reason might be history. In India, for instance, the rhetoric came with the independence movement. Being dependent on the British for policy proved disastrous for our population. Disastrous, as in millions-starved-to-death. Independence, and hence self-sufficiency, was seen as the need of the hour. When we did achieve “independence”, what we actually achieved was “policy independence”. Everything else remained the same. To this day, we still depend on other countries for things like oil, food, technology and clothing, among others. From this perspective, I think South Africa’s solution to the British problem was far more effective (they strove for equality and not independence). But let’s not get into politics. It is not the scope of this writing.

But inter-dependency and collaboration, in my opinion, have many more pros than the cons you read above. Let’s list them as well, shall we?

  1. It’s good for the society. When you know that the weakest link might compromise the whole chain, you invest in your weakest links. When you depend on someone for something, you want to make it so that they continue to provide that without fail. Meaning you will perhaps invest in their well-being. It is partly the reason why the market is so robust. The supply chains work like clockwork day and night, to get the goods in the places they are needed. Only because people know that there will be mayhem if producers fail to deliver bread to the population for even a single day.
  2. It’s more resource-efficient. Believe it or not, car-pooling actually saves fuel and money. In all seriousness though, collaboration and sharing means less resources used by more people. Doing more with less. Companies like Airbnb and Zipcar, rely on this simple understanding. The idea of the collaborative commons is gaining traction in the West. Projects like Open Source Ecology and Maker-spaces are booming.
  3. It leads to more innovation. No one ever invented anything in a vacuum. All accomplishments of humanity have been based on previous work, done by unacknowledged authors. As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen far, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants.”
  4. It leads to more productivity. Solving problems becomes easier if you have more heads thinking about it. Work gets done faster if you have more hands doing it. Obvious.
  5. It increases bonding and camaraderie. You know, just a small side-effect.

All these benefits make it seem that promoting inter-dependency and collaboration would be much more beneficial to us, and everyone around us, than maintaining this façade of self-sufficiency, which cannot be realistically achieved.

So, umm… let’s do that, then.

The Curious Case of Confirmation Bias

With this post begins, I hope, a series of posts on the various kinds of cognitive biases and logical fallacies that human beings are susceptible to, in their reasoning. On the first one, I thought I would tackle a very common bias, known as the Confirmation Bias.

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to interpret presented information in a way that reinforces their current beliefs. This information can be of any kind. Even information designed to counteract a certain belief can end up reinforcing it.

How is that possible, you say? Well, humans have a myriad of tools at their disposal to rationalize away conflicting information. This includes:

  • Cherry-picking: where one just ignores conflicting evidence and only pays attention to confirming evidence,
  • Positive testing: where one tries to confirm their beliefs by asking loaded questions which would do only that, and other fallacious ways.

For instance, let’s say a person believes that a god exists. Then let’s say someone they know suffers an accident. Now there are 3 possible outcomes of the accident. Let’s list these, and see how the believer rationalizes the accident (which, incidentally, wouldn’t have happened at all if a benevolent god of any kind was in control of the universe):

  1. The person suffers only minor injuries: In this case, the believer would thank their god for protecting said person from harm.
  2. The person suffers major injuries but survives: In this case, the believer would again thank their god for helping him survive such a dreadful accident.
  3. The person dies in the accident: In this case, the believer says that their god needed the person in heaven and that he/she is with god now, and in a much better place.

As you can see, an incident which a rational person would think would weaken a believer’s belief in a benevolent god, actually goes in the opposite direction and strengthens it instead. The believer uses cherry picking in the first two instances, and positive testing in the third instance to reinforce their belief.

Confirmation bias is not just limited to religious beliefs, it is applicable to all kinds of beliefs. Be it political or economic beliefs, or personal ones. It rears its ugly head everywhere. A very recent example is the political polarization during the Indian Lok Sabha elections held earlier this year. Let me share an observation on the behavior of supporters of various political parties. If a rival party is accused of some wrongdoing, these people will shame that party to no end. However, if the exact same allegation is leveled on their party, then instead of abandoning support for the party, they are quick to rationalize it away, or shift the blame to someone else. Let me be clear on something: these people are not malevolent. They are not knowingly defending bad parties. They are only biased towards the belief that their party is the best one to rule the country.

Confirmation bias is ugly, yes. But the title of this writing indicates it is also curious. Well, I’ll let Michael Shermer, a renowned rationalist, explain.

“Once people commit to a belief, the smarter they are, the better they are at rationalizing those beliefs. Thus, smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”
– Michael Shermer

You see, unlike other biases, which tend to decrease with education and intelligence, confirmation bias is curious in that it strengthens with increasing education and intelligence. So confirmation bias cannot be countered with widespread education campaigns and things like that.

The only way to counter-act confirmation bias is to actively train your brain to analyze information in an unbiased manner. You must question your beliefs by asking questions that aim to disprove those beliefs rather than reinforce them. For instance, in the first example above, you must question why the accident happened in the first place. And in the second example, you must analyze both accusations equally, keeping aside your belief in the goodness of your preferred party. It is hard, I know, but not impossible to do. And it is the only way I know that our reasoning can be free from confirmation bias.

On Change

The only constant in the universe is change.
– Unknown

Change is everywhere. Change is inevitable. From the smallest atom, to the largest galaxies, and ultimately to the universe itself, everything is in a constant state of flux. We humans, who comprise of a very tiny fraction of this universe, are no exceptions. Today, human society changes at such a rapid pace, that a person from just 10 years ago would not be able to believe their eyes, if they somehow time-traveled to today.

And the inevitability of change is evident in our lives as well. Please note that I am not talking about changes in everyday routine, like changing clothes, or taking a break and going on vacation. I am talking about changes in your ideas, your beliefs, your behavior, your personality. In fact, most likely, you are very different from what you were 5 years ago. I am talking about changes in “you”.

Now, due to the limitations of our tiny monkey brain, humans interestingly fear such change, despite the universality of it. It is understandable, though. For millions of years, our predecessors lived in societies and cultures that were mostly static. Change happened slowly and rarely, and due mostly to environmental and geologic changes. A human lifetime is not sufficiently long to notice changes in climate, for instance. Our predecessors lived very unchanging lives, hunting and foraging. In fact, evolutionary-fitness-wise, sudden change is indeed something to be feared. If you leave your children at a pond to play, and return after gathering food to find them missing, it is a very bad sign. It is probably evidence of a predator.

However, such things are of no concern to us modern humans living safely in cities. And so, I will suggest something you may find uncomfortable: change is not something to be feared; it is something to be celebrated, and sometimes pioneered.

In science, change is an occasion to celebrate. If someone disproves a long-standing theory, the day is marked forever in history, as a day we came just a little closer to understanding our universe. When the Higgs boson was finally confirmed by CERN in March of 2013, a lot of physicists were shocked, as they thought that such a particle could not exist. But ultimately, everyone changed their minds. Today, one will be hard pressed to find a physicist who does not believe that the Higgs particle is real.

The ability to change one’s mind is of supreme importance if one wishes to be scientifically minded. However, the very mention of the word “change” implies 2 states, one before the said change and one after. It is imperative to science that we are better off after the change, than before it. Hence, let me introduce what I call “evidence-based change”.

I define evidence-based change as a change in beliefs, behavior, or personality, when a person is shown enough evidence against their current beliefs, behavior or personality. Such a change can be made by a scientifically minded person in, say, their belief in a deity, their unhealthy food habits, or maybe their condescending personality.

However, such change is not easy. I pointed out earlier that our teeny tiny brains are wired to distrust and fear sudden change. Over the millennia, people have sought various ways to avoid and oppose change. They said new ideas go against their religion, or their culture. They said that things have been the same for generations. “Who are you to challenge long-standing traditions?” All varied defense mechanisms.

Today, we see a new defense mechanism perpetrated by pop culture. It is the idea of “me”. A typical argument about someone’s unreasonable behavior goes like this:

“Dude, why do you behave this way?”

“Hey, that’s just me. This is how I am. If you can’t accept me the way I am, then get out of my life.”

“Fine, have it your way then.”

I wish to debunk this mechanism most of all, as it is the most prevalent in my age group. Pop culture memes from the simple, “Be yourself!” to the more elaborate, “Find out who you are, and do it on purpose,” (Dolly Parton) have perpetrated this false notion. There is no such thing as “you”. Whatever you are, whoever you are, you were made by your experiences. And if you had had different experiences, your notion of “me” would be different too. Neurologically speaking, there is no hard-wiring in your brain that says that you will always behave a certain way, and are unable to change. So this entire concept is rubbish; not even worthy of debate.

A side note here: If you are a people person, you will find that people who are unaware of such defense mechanisms (kids, mostly) are more open to change than those who are. Interestingly, this also makes them more open to manipulation. Hence the need for “evidence-based change”.

We must be aware and vary of our defense mechanisms. They should not hinder you in becoming a more amiable person, in becoming healthier, in learning new things, in acquiring new skills. The only requirement you should demand, is sufficient evidence. And if the evidence seems reasonable, you should delight, for the universe has given you a chance to be a better human being.

Celebrate change. Don’t fear it.

The Universe Does Not Owe You

“The universe doesn’t owe us condolence or consolation; it doesn’t owe us a nice warm feeling inside.”

These words were spoken by Prof. Richard Dawkins, the celebrated evolutionary biologist and atheist, to answer a question raised by an audience member at one of his talks. The question was related to the fact that a lot of people believe in Gods because it gives them a sense of hope.

Life on earth is hard. People go through rough phases in their lives, and think, “Why would God do this to me? Have I not been a good person?”, or “Everything happens for a reason. Maybe this event will lead to something good.”

But invariably, the reply from God, or the good thing that was supposed to follow, never comes. So they keep lying in the dirt, having been tripped by the Universe, hoping that it will pick them back up.

The universe is not a conscious entity. It doesn’t care if your life sucks. The universe will continue to go on, the way it has for billions of years, whether you are happy or depressed, whether you live or die. Just because you have been a good person all your life, doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to you. Life will kick you on the shins and then rub your nose on a rough wall, even if you are the most kind and caring person on earth.

What does this entail then? Is there no such thing as hope? Or justice?

Yes, there is. But it doesn’t come from deities. There is no such thing as “Cosmic Justice”. I repeat, the universe does not owe you justice, or hope. The hope and justice that does exist comes from within us, and from within our friends. Meaning that if you fall, it is entirely up to you to get back up, with the help of your friends and family. The universe will not make lemonade out of those lemons it gave you. You will have to do that, with sweat and tears. It is you who have to face your trauma and overcome it, and eventually leave it behind, in the mist of the past. The world is a cold, hard place. It is only because of our presence that it feels alive. You are the conscious entity dammit, not the universe.

Like all things man-made, this hope is not perfect. You will fail, perhaps repeatedly. But it is up to you to keep trying. You must keep looking for new opportunities, new experiences, that will take you out of the pit you are in. And when they appear, you must grab them with all your might. There is a chance you will fall down into that pit again, this time even deeper than before, but there is also a chance that you will finally get out of that sodding pit. But if you don’t grab that sliver of hope, the odds of you getting out of your situation will remain zero.

If your experiences have been especially traumatic, devise a coping mechanism. Maybe spend time with friends. Explore new hobbies. Find solace and inspiration in new experiences. Do whatever you think will help you overcome your past.

Above all, do not give up. It won’t guarantee you a win, but it will give you a fighting chance.

——————————————————————–

PS: Wow this post is dark. But I can’t help it. I care about what is true and not what is comforting. Also, I am surprised I never wrote about this before. This has been one of the key learnings in my life, ever since I embraced a scientific outlook.

Two sides of the human coin

Emotion versus Reason.

We have heard this debate many times. Which is more advantageous to the human species? It has been raging on ever since humans first discovered reason, and its power. Many philosophers throughout history have tried to tackle this. The original Star Trek series tried to show a perspective on it. It is enshrined in the Kirk-Spock partnership (Sci-fi nerds will know what I am talking about).

This post describes my perspective on this issue. And I encourage the reader to find faults in it. I would love to hear from you.

Let us begin by studying the nature of both Emotion and Reason.

Emotion

Emotion is an evolutionarily selected trait. It played a huge role in the survival of our species, back when we started living and moving in tribes. The bonding and camaraderie between the individuals in a tribe increased its chances of survival in case of, say, a drought, or conflict with other tribes. Since emotion served as an evolutionary advantage, with time, the trait strengthened. The presence of mirror neurons demonstrates this. Mirror neurons enable what is known as the Group Mind, in which individuals in a tribe “mirror” each others’ emotions to a point where the group can be said to have a single mind. A recent example of a group mind is a certain Wave, that swept the country of India in the months of April and May, 2014.

Emotion has been one of the key drivers in humans achieving greatness. Curiosity and ambition have led select humans to achieve things no one thought possible. It is one of the reasons that humans spread, like a cancer, to all the continents of the Earth (except Antarctica), even at a time when the only mode of transportation was feet. The Originals in Africa, the Arabs and Turks in the middle east, white people in Europe, Slavic and Mongoloid people in Asia, Aryans and Dravidians in India, the Aboriginals in Australia, and the Incas and Aztecs in the Americas. No other species inhabits such a large variety of landscapes and climates. Passion and inspiration are also great drivers of human achievement. In fact, most scientific discoveries that revolutionized our world view, were made possible by the immeasurable passion of the discoverers. They had passion to tell the truth to the world even in the face of opposition, which in some cases was life-threatening.

So emotion has played a huge part in human society. But since it is so powerful, it is also easily manipulated.

Our history is full of instances where people in positions of authority have used the emotions like fear, pride, ego, and sometimes even love, to control the masses. The power of emotion made it possible for people and organizations, like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Christianity, Islam, etc. to rule, subdue, and kill countless individuals.

So emotion can be good or bad, revolutionizing or devastating, depending on who is wielding it.

Reason

Reason, on the other hand, is a process that the most brilliant humans have carefully crafted and polished for centuries. Reason, or “evidence-based logical argument”, is enshrined, today, in the scientific method, which has made possible almost everything around you. It is a very recent invention considering the timescale for which the human species has existed. Hence, it is a learned behavior and not an inherited one (like emotion).

From Aristotle, who gave us the first rules of logic, to the rigorous double-blind peer-reviewed scientific research of today, Reason has been built, one stone at a time, over many generations, as a tool to find out the truth. It is responsible for our almost God-like control of natural forces. Although curiosity and inspiration get the ball rolling for scientific research, it is the rigor of the scientific method, which delivers the final results. From curing deadly diseases to sending probes to study the solar system, the scientific method has enabled us to live like Gods. If you think I am over-exaggerating by comparing us to Gods, consider this: we communicate with each other over thousands of kilometers instantly by controlling tiny electrons in metal and silicon devices which were made by extracting pure metals from solid rock.

The answer to why the scientific method (or reason, in short) is so important to us is this: it works. That’s it. It demonstrably works, every single time, in helping us understand the forces of nature and in helping us control said forces.

So reason is an effective tool to separate fact from fiction. To know if someone is telling you the truth, or luring you with lies.

Emotion and Reason

Emotion and Reason are incompatible, in that if you are driven by emotion, you lose the ability to reason. However, the catch here is that if you are driven by reason, you do not lose the ability to emote. An example will help. We see a lot of superstitious people today. People believe in all kinds of stuff: religion, astrology, tarot cards, dowsing, god-men performing so-called miracles. All kinds of really crazy stuff. They are driven by varied emotions. Fear, insecurity, wonder, love. And in being driven so, they become unable to see the falseness of their beliefs. They fail to see, even when presented with evidence, that say, prayer does not work. Many rationalist organizations, like Nirmukta and the FIRA, are trying to counter these crazy superstitions by spreading awareness. They go to villages, and educate people, by showing how the god-men perform their miracles. They teach people how to see through such stuff, how to debunk supernatural demonstrations. These people are clearly driven by reason. But why do these people wish to go out and do all this hard work? Is it not enough to not believe in such things? Why go out and spread awareness? That is because these people are also driven by their love for humanity. They do it because they think it will make the world a better place. So clearly they did not lose the ability to emote when they chose to be driven by reason.

This point is especially important for people who think embracing a scientific worldview means becoming an “emotionless robot”. Emotion is a valuable part of us, it is an evolutionary trait that makes us special. Reason does help us in understanding the truth. But it also helps us in directing our emotions effectively, to things that are beneficial to us humans, like friendship, and love, and passion for the betterment of humanity, while helping us stay away from those that might want to exploit our emotions by selling superstitions.

If you still think rationalists are emotionless robots, maybe Richard Feynman will explain better than I did.

——————————————————————————

PS: I have a new editor now. So expect my posts to be awesom-er than ever :D

Out of my mind

When I sit down, look up, and contemplate. When I wonder at the immensity of the Universe and my place in it. When I look, at the hustle and bustle of human society, and see, what it really is. When I compare the magnitude of what is, with what I experience on a regular day. When I realize that even though I am small, I am big. When I understand that I am not an entity, but a part of the whole.

I cease to reside within the confines of my body. My consciousness expands, in all directions, until it fills up all the corners of the visible universe, and beyond.

I am everything. Everything is me. The name ceases to matter. All that matters is the realization.

That I have become one, with the Universe.

———————————————–

PS. And that, kids, is what an “out-of-body experience” feels like.

PPS. Let’s just say something inspired me to put pen to paper after such a long time.

On Normality

Most people who know me today, would tell you that I am not “normal”. Not in the “mentally disabled” way, but in the “different from the rest of society” way. But I wasn’t always like this. I used to be normal. Hell, I was so normal, I was actually good at it. This post tells the story of my transformation from a popular kid everyone liked, to the person I am today.

The story starts in my college, where I was pursuing my bachelor’s degree. I was there for the same reason millions of kids pursue college today, because my parents and others had convinced me that “success” lay in getting into a good college and then passing out and getting a good job. So I got admitted in one of the best colleges in the country and enrolled in the highest paying engineering field at the time: Computer Science. Like most people, I didn’t really like studying. Like most college-going kids, I bunked class a lot. When I did attend class, I slept in the back rows. I was interested in cultural activities, so I picked up dancing. I played table tennis, badminton, even football (or soccer for those in the US) for a short while.

I made a lot of friends. I won competitions due to my choreography skills. I was admired by many. Some even considered me to be the best choreographer on campus. Eventually, I even got good at my field of study, or atleast, good enough to be consulted by fellow students sometimes. When placement season came, I won one of the best jobs on display, completely surprising some of my peers.

Oh, and did I mention, I considered myself a faithful Hindu.

I was normal, and I was good at it.

But normality is over-rated.

I found what I now simply refer to as “logic”. Some people are raised with it, some people come to know of it during their youth, some in their middle-age, and some in their old age. And yet some die without knowing at all.

What is this “logic”? It is a realization, a set of values that allow one to live fully. Values that allow one to live in the real world, knowing the truth of the role they play on the great cosmic stage. What we humans have created for ourselves today is a fantasy. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that the lives we live matter. We run after money, we wear fancy clothing, we pursue varied entertainments, we ingest varied concoctions (read “food”), and we seek respect from others based on very specific and narrow scales of performance (like how much money you make, how popular you are, etc.).

Two years ago, in my final year of college, I came across a documentary, which seemed harmless at the time, but which would eventually lead to a major change in my perspective. The documentary introduced me to something called Science. For those saying, “Weren’t you taught science in school?” Yes, of course I was, but it was just another subject back then. This documentary introduced me to what science truly is, and what it offers. It intrigued me. I wanted to find out more.

I dived into months of research. I trained myself on thinking scientifically. I found out how science pervades every facet of our lives, how it improves people’s lives, and how, with its correct application, we could solve potentially all problems humankind faces today.

Thinking scientifically changed everything about me. I found most constructs of human society to be false, unnecessary, irreconcilable with scientific understandings and, in general, stopping us from achieving our true potential as a species.

With scientific thinking, I found humility, I found how much we don’t know about our universe, and even from what we do know, I found that we were tiny beings of not much importance to the universe. My horizon broadened so much in a few months that people around me got scared. They thought I had gone mad.

I found that running after money is completely stupid, when billions of people around the world, even in our own backyard, are dying of poverty and preventable diseases, not because we don’t have enough to feed and house and care for them. We do, many times over. It was because of a failed economic system which retards human progress, and causes unnecessary suffering.

It was the first time in my life that I understood the world I was living in. And it was the first time in my life, I was sure what I wanted to do, not because my parents or anyone else had told me to do it, but because I knew how important it was.

It is rightly said that “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” For many months, I was so angry that I alienated most of my friends. I have very few now. But the anger subsided eventually, and with the noise of old friends behind me, I found new ones. Those who knew, just like me. And those who wanted to do something with that knowledge, just like me. I am now part of a growing mass of conscious people, which might someday grow to a size to warrant a change in society and its norms.

So to those who say I am not “normal”, I say that I used to be. I was so normal, you couldn’t possibly imagine it seeing me in my current form. But normality is over-rated. There is a great video on youtube, called “When Normality becomes Distortion”. The contents of the video aside, the title is what I want to focus on. I want the reader to stop and think about this. What if everything you knew, everything you were taught from when you were a child, was just plain “wrong”. What if everything you are currently doing is harming you and everyone around you. And what if you could live a vastly better life, pursuing what you love, not money, not being scared of crime and terror, not having to watch fellow humans live on nothing, and having a community not limited to your friends and family. This is what appeals to me the most, what if everyone on earth was your friend. Imagine what life would be.

With my new-found knowledge, I am much happier than before. I am living much more healthily, I have renounced affiliation to any and all religion and superstition. I am caring about the environment by reducing my footprint on the earth. I am studying to get admission into a PhD program, so I can start contributing to human knowledge and teach the next generation. And, I will end this post with something a lot of people find offensive: I am awake.

The Scientific Mindset

A lot of us recognize Science as merely a course taught in school, a set of laws and theories to memorize or simply something too complex for their understanding. But Science is something much more than that. It is a way of thinking. And it is this way of thinking that is so crucial to our survival, and continuous development, as a species.

So what is the scientific mindset? And why is it so important? Why is it better than other mindsets like a religious mindset, or a traditional mindset? This post will seek to answer these questions. And as always, I hope it helps the reader better understand the world around him/her.

Science is the study of the laws that govern everything around us. From what makes us breathe to how your pencil will behave if released from a certain height above the ground, to how humans and other animals are shaped by their surroundings. In short, science is the process of “finding out”. Once that is clear, we can move on to how to go about “finding out”. Well, the first step is simple: saying, “I don’t know”. Only when you accept that you do not know how something works, or why something happens, can you begin your journey of finding out about it. And this step is by far the most important (and for some, the most difficult) step in moving towards a scientific mindset. If you have some preconceptions about a topic, which may be due to traditional beliefs or religious teachings, you are hindered in your discovery of the true nature of it, because you will always seek to affirm the belief you already have. So a scientific mindset requires an “open mind”: an acceptance of the fact that anything is possible.

The next step is to observe and postulate a plausible hypothesis. Observation here is key. It is very important to keep observing things that happen around you. A very good example is that of Isaac Newton. If it weren’t for his observational skills, he would have dismissed the fall of the apple as just another daily life event and moved on, and the law of gravity would not have been discovered. So even observation of daily-life events can lead to paradigm-changing discoveries, as in the case of Newton. Observation also requires a study of all the previous studies done on the subject you are studying. Remember that all discoveries that seem revolutionary are actually built upon previous work. In case of Newton, the work was already present explaining mechanics of heavenly bodies and terrestrial objects separately. All he did was unify the two behaviors in a single law of gravity.

Next is, ofcourse, accumulating evidence. Without evidence, there can be NO theory. All scientific facts must have evidence supporting it. Evidence has a special role in making the scientific mindset. Ever seen two scientists arguing? I bet you haven’t. Because all debates in the scientific world are settled through evidence. If a scientist asserts something and presents evidence supporting that assertion, then unless someone comes up with contradicting evidence, the assertion is accepted as the closest approximation to reality. There are NO debates in science, simply because there is only ONE objective reality. Contrast that with religion, for instance. A debate about whose God is better, will go on forever, because the concept of a God is not based on evidence. Such a debate can only be “won” if one side kills the other, which has been happening ever since religion was invented.

And then we come to the final point: the emergent nature of scientific discovery, which basically means that whatever science suggests, it accepts the posibility of being proven wrong eventually. Our understanding of the universe and of each other is constantly changing, and it is important for us to be able to “let go” of the old explanation in the face of contradicting evidence. Just as Newtonian relativity was replaced by Einsteinian relativity, so too all scientific understandings undergo constant change. The scientific mindset requires the acceptance of the fact that our understandings may eventually be updated, changed or eradicated; the fact that the only constant in the universe is “change”.

To summarize, these are the key features of a scientific mindset:

  1. The ability to say, “I don’t know”, leading to what can be termed as an “open mind”.
  2. The constant urge to observe and understand the nature of things around us.
  3. The resolve to make all decisions based on facts and evidence.
  4. The ability to let go of old beliefs and accept new explanations when evidence to support them is presented.

The scientific mindset allows us to be in harmony with the closest approximation to “reality” that we have. And when we acknowledge that, we will truly know how we can achieve World Peace. Because there can be only ONE objective reality.

Mirror Neurons

First of all, one of my favorite videos of all time.

Now, once you have understood the concept, some examples to show just how powerful this phenomenon is. A few days ago, I sat down to watch “Chak de India” with my family. And anyone who knows me, knows that I do not relate to either any single country like India, or to competitive games like field hockey. Yet, at the end, I had tears in my eyes. I could literally feel their anxiety, their ambition, their urge to prove themselves. I could relate to the people involved, even if they were involved in a meaningless game. That’s how powerful the mirror neurons are.

Advertisers use this to a great deal. From the “Kuch meetha ho jaye” which makes you think that everything is perfect in the world, even though its a shit-hole out there, or the “Darr ke aage jeet hai” that makes you want to jump of a cliff yourself, the advertisement industry thrives on these associations. Of course, the reality remains that you can’t get to date a girl by asking her for a piece of chocolate, but these ads manage to get us involved, and eventually make us buy shitty products thinking that we need them in order to survive, when we don’t.

Another example is the recent Anna Hazare campaign. Now, I’m not against the guy. I respect him, because he’s a passionate man who is doing what he thinks is best for his people. But anyone, who has taken a closer look at the Jan Lokpal Bill will halt to think twice before joining the campaign, as was done by many activists like Arundhati Roy (though her critique was very different from mine). The movement gained such a large momentum not because of the bill, but because the media associated with it appealed to the emotions of the public. The people quickly related to frustration they all face everyday due to corruption, and set out in protest, many not knowing what the bill entailed, but thinking that it will make everything rosy. That’s how powerful mirror neurons are.

So what does that prove, you ask. How easily manipulable we all are? Well, um, yes. And that’s the point.

So how do you get away from being manipulated? By gaining knowledge, because once I had watched the movie, I went back to my original stance about separate nations and competitive games. We need to learn how to make associations with things that are relevant. Like the billions of people starving around the world. We must learn to empathize with the underpaid workers who hate their boring jobs but must do them because of lack of education or opportunity. We must empathize with our environment: the plants and animals and the biosphere, which are undergoing terrible degradation everyday. We must empathize with the scientists, who are working days and nights to devise methods to improve the human condition, but are not able to implement them due to lack of funds, because no corporation wants to invest in solutions, because solutions are enemies of profit. And finally, we must empathize with our children, because the earth is a finite planet, and what we are doing to it, is going to hurt them in the long run.

It is when we realize this, that we see that our current system is broken. It is counter-productive and will ultimately lead to our own extinction. And no amount of new laws can fix it. We need a complete overhaul. A redesign of our culture based on empathy and cooperation, instead of competition and greed.

Associative Memory

OK, the basics first. Our brain is basically made of neurons, billions of them. And they are all interconnected, with hundreds of trillions of connections. These connections are called synapses. These synapses pass signals to other neurons with the help of very small particles called neurotransmitters. Through these synaptic connections, every neuron establishes associations with its surrounding neurons. Based on the amount of signals being passed from one neuron to another, the synapses between them strengthen and weaken.

This forms the basis of memory. We remember everything based on the associations we can make with what we already know. That is, we remember new things by strengthening and weakening certain synapses. We do this by first finding the neurons responsible for something related to the things we wish to learn, and then, by manipulating their synapses, we succeed to remember something new. Also important to know is that one can make multiple associations of a single piece of information. So we can remember one thing in multiple ways, in multiple parts of the brain.

Now that is quite a fancy biology lesson. But what I really want to convey is: how does all this relate to what you experience in day-to-day life? It does. It explains the basis of what we know as “intelligence”.

If I tell you to learn something and ask questions from you about it a week later, some people will answer more questions correctly than others. Why? Since we didn’t know the answer to this till now, we said, “Maybe one of them is simply more intelligent than the other”. But what does that mean? What makes some people intelligent and some not at all? Yes, you guessed it right: it is something related to associative memory. So if I tell you to learn something, you will go through the data, in whatever form it may be, and try to associate it with something you already know. It may be some emotion, some sensation, some physical object or if the data is theoretical then other theoretical stuff that you already know. It happens unconsciously, so you won’t be able to feel the stages as I have described here. And it doesn’t matter what the association is. What matters is: how many associations you can find.

As an example, I will take myself. Most of my school-mates would agree that I have a natural affinity for classical physics. I answered most of the difficult questions in class. So how did I do it? To get the answer we will have to go to my childhood. Till I was about two years old, I lived with my grandparents, in Ranchi. We had a simple house and a huge lawn. And like every kid I was curious, but unlike many kids, I was given the freedom to explore. By exploring things around me, I learned the nature of the physical world. My favorite pass-time was taking rice out of a jar and putting it into another jar. And my favorite toy was a cardboard box. And when I grew up and went to the physics class, it was suddenly all so intuitive to me, because I could immediately make associations with the knowledge of the physical world that I learned in my infancy. For every law that I learned, I could find many many examples of it, and hence many associations to enable me to learn it. And so whenever I see parents discouraging a curious kid by telling him to sit down and shut up, or when I see parents gifting infants extremely complicated toys with lights and sound in them, I speak. Because unknowingly, due to a lack of knowledge about the human brain, they are depriving their child of his/her full potential. About why such people are allowed to raise children is a matter which can be discussed later. But lets move on.

So as I have demonstrated, the reason some people learn faster than others is because they can make more associations with the thing they are learning. And the more information you acquire, the better you would be able to learn new things because success of learning new data depends on the data you already have. And this is primarily the reason why you should learn actively. Not passively, actively. You should always be finding new information to learn.

If the reader has ever taught, or given a talk or a presentation, I am sure he/she must have encountered a tip saying, “Explain things by going down to the listener’s level”. If you are a teacher and you haven’t heard this, then I’m sorry mate, you’re not a good teacher. Anyways, now you know why this tip is so important. Because it comes not from higher cognitive levels of human thought, but from the core neurological functions of the human brain. Because the listener won’t understand or remember anything you say unless they can relate it with something they already know.

And this, my friend, is how humans learn. This is how you can make people learn. This is why some people learn faster than others. And this is why we desperately need to make some dramatic changes to our education system. Because lets face it, we are not exactly letting our children explore their full potential.

And so, when Steve Jobs said “stay hungry, stay foolish”, I really wished that those who heard will follow.

The Human Brain

Ah, the human brain: the ever-elusive part of the human body, which countless of scientists are trying to understand, but have not been completely successful so far. As a student of science, I acknowledge the possibility that we may not be able to understand the human brain, for how can a machine understand its own workings. As Lyall Watson puts it:

If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.
-Lyall Watson.

And although we may never be able to fully understand its function, we have learned, through research, some very interesting things about it, which have given us a pretty good insight on how it might be functioning.

Following this post will be series of three more, where I discuss three key mechanisms on which the brain functions:

  1. Associative Memory: This post will relate to how the brain learns new things by forming or weakening synapses.
  2. Mirror Neurons: Also dubbed as “empathy neurons”, these help us connect to other people and explains how we are able to relate to our environment.
  3. Conditioning: The most important topic, which explains most of the behavior exhibited by humans.

All these posts will be strictly from a scientific perspective, based on scientific findings. No spiritual voodoo going on here. I’ll take concepts from neurology, behavioral psychology and sociology.

But first, a few basics(for those who didn’t care to read biology in schools). From Wikipedia: The brain is the center of the nervous system in all vertebrate and most invertebrate animals. The cerebral cortex of the human brain contains roughly 15–33 billion neurons, perhaps more, linked with up to 10,000 synaptic connections each. The brain controls the other organ systems of the body, either by activating muscles or by causing secretion of chemicals such as hormones and neurotransmitters.

In short, it is probably the most complex and the most important organ in the human body. Without it, we would cease to function, to learn, to act, to react, to communicate, and to think.

Now what may be the purpose of this post? Why am I suddenly writing about the human brain? There has to a purpose, right? Yes, there is. The purpose is to educate. I always say that with knowledge comes understanding of the world around you. When we begin to understand how the brain functions, we understand why people behave the way they do. We understand our fellow human being. My sincere hope is that this understanding will help to create much needed understanding in the world. It will help us solve our quarrels. And ultimately, I hope that it plays a small part in building a better world for all, where one respects their fellow human not because of societal rules and norms, but because we have truly begun to understand each other. I would like to live in such a world, won’t you?

Also, in this introductory post, I would like to give a side-note for my more poetic friends. There is no ‘soul’ and your ‘heart’ doesn’t tell you stuff. There is no evidence to support any of these claims. Anything that feels like ‘soul’ or ‘heart’ is essentially emulated by your brain, nothing else. So stop getting brainwashed! Stop believing everything popular media tells you. Their main aim is to make as much money as they can, not to educate you. That’s the main reason they engage in lovey-dovey stuff – because it sells. If they started telling scientific truths, they wouldn’t be able to sell their movies. Believe it – that’s how sick our popular culture is.

Back to my upcoming posts. I hope they will play a small part in making people understand each other, see why discussion and active learning are better than debating and quarreling, and see themselves from a new standpoint. So, stay tuned, stay hungry and stay foolish (a slight modification of Steve Jobs’ statement).

EDIT: Updated the link to the first post. So you can click on it and get reading :)
EDIT 20110917: Updated the link for the 2nd post. Just one more to go :D