October 14, 2014

Three Myths and a Lie : Charbak Unplugged

The world today is awash in lies and myths, because nothing is what it seems to be. Paid media, biased press -- no one seems to be telling the truth anymore. Is this how it is supposed to be ? As an aside, any analysis of philosophy in India invariably begins with a commentary, or denunciation, of Charbak’s philosophy of extreme materialism -- reenam kritwa, ghreetam pibet! Borrow money and have fun. Now that we have invoked Charbak, let us get along with our thoughts.
image from http://thedailybanter.com/2014/03/the-top-10-most-egregious-republican-lies/

There are so many lies floating around that it is not too difficult to pick any three of them. Consider the fallacy of the demographic dividend that has been tomtommed by everyone from an opportunist Nobel Laureate to the semi-literate leftist. The main thesis is that if a country has lots and lots of young people it will automatically become an economic powerhouse. Why? Because young people can work. What it ignores completely is that more kids mean less spent on each for education so what you get is a bunch of useless monkeys who are of no use. The labour they could have provided is more easily available through automation and all that this demographic surplus does is to suck more and more resources out of a strained ecosystem thus degrading it further. No country has ever pulled itself out of poverty by producing more and more babies but politicians love the concept of a demographic dividend because a vast mass of poor, uneducated people who can be ruled over very easily. The next elusive concept of a win-win situation. A long time ago in a country called Paradise far, far away there lived a farmer and fisherman who would exchange rice and fish and live happily ever after on a daily diet of fish curry and rice, but everywhere else, and ever since then, let us understand that the global economy is a Zero sum game. If you win, someone else has to lose and that is why the economic topology of the world will always have gradients, with peaks and valleys, irrespective of how loudly we scream that the world is flat! In the past, Europe became rich at the expense Africa and Asia, then it was the turn of the oil countries, currently it is China and perhaps someday it will be India. What is true at the level of nations is also true at the levels of individuals. Each of us, as individuals or corporates, are interested in winning and whether the trade is commercial or even emotional, you would always be fighting to get more than what you have paid for, in the currency of your choice. Which leads us, most naturally, to the next fallacious concept that by default, man is inherently good and it is circumstances that lead him astray. Very similar is the assumption -- made these days in the context of Islamist jihadis -- that the silent majority is inherently good, nice and peaceful and it is a small fringe that displays barbarism. Not so. Man is inherently selfish and will turn violent if he sees his interests threatened and if, a very big if, he has the courage and ability to carry through on his violence. But very often, he does not have the courage to be violent and takes recourse to the philosophy of non-violence. Yes, Vivekananda has talked about “the potential divinity of man” but the operative word is potential and not divinity! Once the potential is achieved man can become good but until then he is just another selfish animal and the selfishness is coded right into his genes. Richard Dawkins has very clearly established that selfishness, of the gene at the expense of its host organism, is the driver behind the evolution of living organisms and so, the human race standing at the top of the pyramid, cannot but be the most selfish organism on the planet. The demographic dividend, the win-win scenario and the inherent goodness of man are just three of the many myths that we live with but there is a bigger lie that forever lies beneath the surface of our daily dialogues -- that the ascent of man continues and we are in the process of doing something great and good. Whether it is Malala or Kailash trying to drag children out of their misery or Akasaki, Amano and Nakamura “discovering” the blue LED that will keep the planet green, the world is obsessed with doing something that will improve the current lot of man. But if you step back for a while and think about : “Does it really matter?” We have been on this planet for 5 billion years and the known universe has been around for 15 billion. Then of course there could be other universes. In all this how does it matter whether human beings -- who have been around for a mere 100,000 years -- live or die? and whether they can use blue LED to save energy? Only an arrogance of monstrous proportions can make us feel that we do matter and hence we should go around doing what we believe is right. We have just had Durga Puja, where, as in all other years, truly beautiful idols of the goddess were made and installed in fantastically decorated puja pandels. But then, on Bijoya Dashami day it is all thrown away to remind us that everything is temporary, transient and transitional. The devi and the pandel is not permanent and so is the case with the world. You may spend hours and hours decorating and beautifying one corner of your Puja pandel but then on the last day, it would be swept up with everything else and thrown into the river. So is the case with the world in general. We may think that we are doing a great job in making the world a better place to live in but in the long run it simply does not matter. It is all transient and temporary and will be washed away by the passage of time. So what should one do? Give up and commit suicide? For the vast majority of us, it is Charbak and his philosophy of hedonistic materialism. Eat, drink and be happy. But is it really as “bad” as that ? Can I not do anything meaningful like helping my neighbour? or discovering blue LEDs ? Go ahead, indulge yourself and feel happy about it but the point is that in the long run it just does not matter. You may just as well make yourself happy by drinking beer instead. Beer and blue LEDs are just two sides of the same coin of human cognition as Ralph Waldo Emerson has said so elegantly in his poem, Brahma.
Far or forgot to me is near, Shadow and sunlight are the same, 
The vanished gods to me appear, And one to me are shame and fame.
That was Charbak for the vast majority. But for a tiny minority, there could be something else, that lies beyond pale of reason, of logic, that has created this illusion of a physical world. The world that is hinted at in movies like the Matrix, the simulation argument of Nick Bostrom and of course by the original Advaitin, Sankara, and his thesis of “Brahma Satya, Jagat Mithya” -- that the world is an illusion. Could it be that we are not real at all ? Should we doubt our own existence? But then again
They reckon ill who leave me out; When me they fly, I am the wings; 
I am the doubter and the doubt, And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.


P.S. As an aside, and as a shameless plug, the author would like to state that he has written a book -- The Road to pSingularity -- that explores this concept a little more.

P.P.S. This article originally appeared in India America Today