Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Life as a neural engineering problem: Nov 30, 2016

(This essay was composed at the conclusion of my six and a half years of stay in Berkeley, California, where I was pursuing my doctoral degree. In this essay I tried to write down the guiding principles that can be used to explain the events that happened in my personal life in Berkeley and make inferences about life in general.)

I am trying to describe the world we live in. In order to do that, I first make a very important distinction- distinction between the physical world and the mental world. Of course they are connected but we can still separate the two. What is the basis of the separation?

From an experiential point of view it does not matter to us directly why things happen a certain way in the physical world, but why things happen a certain way in the mental world matters to us. “Us” is very important here because we, humans, are coming up with all these ideas. From an impersonal/ scientific point of view, activity of individual neurons and its collective behavior separates the mental world from physical world.

Relevant questions in the physical world- What is the origin of the universe? What is matter? How does matter behave at different length scales? How do different materials interact with each other? Answers to these questions don’t affect our well being. So we can look for truth with respect to these questions without caring about our happiness.

But answers to questions that involve the mental world affect our happiness. For example, what is the origin of life? Does mind emerge from matter? Is there a higher power? Does that power control our lives? While answering these questions we are biased towards finding answers that make us happy. Human beings are the truth seekers and the truth which is sought after cannot be separated from the happiness of the seeker. All the arguments that I provide here follow from mere acceptance of this fact. We have to accept this fact based on our experience, which is empirical evidence.

If we accept this then truth, with respect to the mental world, largely consists of what we need to know to make us happy. Now because we have to sustain ourselves we don’t want to be happy over a short term- we want long, term happiness. Hence my guess is that the ultimate truth is something the knowledge of what gives us happiness over an infinite stretch of time. This state of eternal happiness is often described as nirvana or mokhsha in ancient Indian scriptures.

Thus I have reduced ultimate truth to what makes us eternally happy. Now let us look at what happiness is. The world “happiness” does not mean anything unless we can clearly associate a mental state, or neural activity inside our brain, with it. This brings us to a little bit of discussion of human anatomy. I will do this at a very functional level.

Fig1.png

The schematic above shows how a single individual interacts with the world around them and what they feel internally. Thus the mental world of others reduces to physical world for that individual because no way they can directly interact with the neural activity inside other person’s head, they can only get clues from the physical world about what goes on in other people’s mental world. The individual interacts with the physical world through their senses which are eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin and genitals. Their mind sends signals to the physical world through the senses and receives the signal from the senses. However, the final thing that the mind receives is simply not just the signal from the physical world coming from the senses. That signal is conditioned by hormones secreted by the body and also conditioned by memories, which are past associations in the brain about previous signals that have come to the mind, and then the mind receives it. This final signal can create two states in the mind, one is happiness and the other is sadness. They are both essentially neural responses to the signal. Now as individuals we want to keep getting the “happiness” signal and not get the “sadness” signal. This paper claims that this is the ultimate truth. Rest of the paper is about how to the neural response called “happiness” can be continuously generated in the mind for time stretched to infinity or in other words how we can be eternally happy.

The easiest way is to keep interacting with the world through our senses in a way that we keep getting the signal that makes us happy. But this method stops acting beyond a point for two reasons:
1. The physical world around us changes. The signal that we are receiving that makes us happy can abruptly end some day. Say, I like a particular kind of food from a restaurant. The restaurant may shut down. (sense involved- tongue). I like physical intimacy with a certain girl (All senses are involved and hormones condition the signals the senses receive). But the girl may choose to get out of my life. Thus in these cases the neural response of happiness decays making us sad, which we don’t want.
2. If a certain signal makes us happy and we are continuously receiving it, it is gradually getting conditioned by the associations formed in our brain (memories) in such a way that eventually the signal stops generating the neural response of happiness. We have all experienced that doing the same act over and over again spoils the fun associated with it at some point.

So what is the solution to this? We have to find ways to be happy with reduced dependence on the senses and finally have zero dependence on the senses. That is the ultimate bliss state. Even if we don’t get all the way, we can get to a state where we are happy over a long period of time if not infinite, and even that is getting closer to the ultimate truth by our definition.

So how to get there? There are broadly three paths laid out in the ancient Indian scriptures. All these paths reduce our dependence on the senses to be happy and hence are effective to take us to the bliss state.

1. Karma Yoga- Karma means work. We need to work to make a living. In addition, if we take our work seriously and are able to contribute to society, seeing other people enjoy the benefits of our own work makes us happy. This happiness depends on more than enjoyment of the senses. The cause of the happiness is contribution of our work to society, which realistically cannot go away as fast as some source of pleasure of the senses can.

2. Bhakti Yoga- Bhakti means devotion, a special kind of love. The word “love” is thrown around everywhere in the English language and thus activities which are physically very different and are done with very different purposes are all termed “love”. \textit{Bhakti} is the kind of love, which makes us less dependent on the senses and takes us to the bliss state.
Usually we love people with the expectation of rewards. The rewards are satisfaction of the senses, sometimes in a direct way like lust in the case of romantic love, or indirect way like financial support also in the case of romantic love or love between parents and children. If the reward keeps coming we love more and we feel more happy, but if the reward stops coming we end up being sad.
But if we can love without caring for the reward then we will be happy perpetually. The concept of divinity in the Bhakti tradition of India comes as an extension of this concept. We love the people around us for various reasons. Once we see the effectiveness of loving without caring for rewards then we can create an image inside our head. We love that image unconditionally. That image is divinity.

3. Gyana Yoga- Gyana means knowledge. Gaining knowledge can make us eternally happy because we learn what our senses are, how we interact with the world through them and how they control our happiness. So extending that knowledge we learn how to not let the senses control our happiness, which is the point of this paper. Hence this paper itself is a lesson in Gyana Yoga.
Meditation is an important part of Gyana Yoga. In meditation we observe our senses, our body processes, our thoughts and we often let our mind generate the neural response of happiness based on very simple elementary signals from the senses, like some hymn, some melody or even the sound “Om”. Thus we are learning to be happy with reduced dependence on the senses. We also learn that thoughts can give us a lot of pain. Thoughts are essentially signals received from the senses or lack of signals received from the senses, conditioned by our mental associations or memories (Schematic 1). In daily existence an individual thinks that they are their thoughts but through meditation one can get to a thoughtless state and see their existence beyond the thoughts, which is often termed the “self”. By doing meditation one can thus learn how to be happy by going beyond the senses and becoming the “self”. By repeating it on a daily basis, one can thus achieve eternal bliss or Mokhsa or Nirvana.

Thus in this essay I have argued that pursuit of eternal happiness largely constitutes truth, as far as the mental world is concerned. Then I have stated methods to achieve eternal happiness and argued why they would be effective. Essentially, this whole practice described here, which may be called spirituality, is engineering our neurons in the body such that the neural response of happiness is generated perpetually irrespective of external circumstances. Since our knowledge of the anatomy and functioning of the body, and particularly the brain, is very limited, we carry out this engineering empirically. Life experiences are the experimental data here. This neural engineering to achieve a perpetual state of happiness is the very essence of life. The method to attain that state will just evolve over time as we experience more and more in life.

(Endnote: Between the time of this composition and the time of uploading it here, my understanding of this subject has evolved a little bit. I feel that my observations here are too much centered around the happiness of an individual, often in exclusion of one’s family and friends. Over the last several months, my preference has slowly shifted towards collective happiness of the society we live in because I have started believing that an individual’s happiness largely depends on keeping everyone around happy, which is the subject of some of my other posts.) 

 

 

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Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Solitude,collective wisdom, world of thoughts, fear of death, the divine female and many-body interactions: July 7, 2017

(Written after about spending eight months by myself at my new workplace in an altogether new city, where I knew no one when I moved in)

Writing this essay after a solitary dinner at guest house on a Friday evening and a walk back to the house with a minor trip while crossing the road, lights of car coming towards me in the dark, I am standing on the pavement with mind flooded with thoughts, I didn’t cross the road,just standing on the pavement, I would focus on the road before I cross, but what if I forgot to do so and just step in front of the car? Fear of death lol.

This fear of death is most prominent when I am by myself and I am unmindful. The deeper the thought in the head, the stronger is the fear of death on the awareness of the existence of a potential cause of death in the vicinity. The potential cause of death that I can envision can largely be categorized into three types:

i. fear of heights: The staircases in the buildings in IIT barely have any rails and they go all the way up to the 7th floor. You slip off the side and you fall through a few floors- spot dead. Such lack of safety can be barely thought of in the US, but hell, this is India!

ii. fear of cars: I have crossed a main road in Delhi not more than three of four times since I got here. I mostly walk inside campus, where the traffic is much less but I still don’t completely trust these cars.

iii. fear of small objects: The craziest fear, small objects are everywhere, what if I swallow something! I have gotten rid of small objects as much as possible in the house and the office but one cannot avoid them completely altogether, this gives me the most frequent death trips of the three.

Apart from these there are minor fears like fear of dogs, fear of a sharp object like the tip of the pen hitting the eye, fear of knives etc.

But these are the details of the fears, but philosophically what I have learned from the fears is as follows:

i. Solitude definitely intensifies these fears and there is a good reason for it. Most things we do in our lives  One weekend a while ago, it was crazy hot outside, and I spent the entire weekend by myself in the house and then Sunday late at night as I felt very sleepy and I was taking off the ring before going to sleep, I thought why not try swallow the ring and see what happens, and then I stopped myself from doing so and felt so scared. And then finally it dawned upon me- why is being alone scary, even if you have tons of work and hobbies and you thoroughly enjoy them and your are happy being alone it still gets scary. That’s because in our daily life we do a lot of things and do not do a lot of things simply based on collective wisdom. My own consciousness is actually a collective consciousness that I have developed through interaction with society. For example, why don’t I put small objects in my mouth and swallow them? Have I done it before and seen what happens? No, I have learned from others like my parents when I was a kid that it is dangerous thing to do and so I do not do it, and later I have reconciled that knowledge with science. Now if humans start disappearing from my life, that collective wisdom slowly goes away and the chances of doing things that can threaten my life go up and hence death trips go up.

ii. Thoughts have the world of their own, and that world is connected with the physical world we live in. Plato has this theory of forms- all virtues have some kinda real forms in an ideal world, and our present world is a shadow of that or something. Kinda sounds similar to our reciprocal space idea right? Somebody may dismiss this whole thing saying that essentially neurons in this physical world are firing in some weird sequences giving you this kinda impression, but the thing is there is a remarkable amount of consistency in the way my neurons fire, your neurons fire and Plato’s neurons fired which makes me more and more convinced of an actual existence of this world of thoughts. I am trying to get into more math of late, as I am teaching this magnetism course and often tapping into this other world. I guess my physical space is very limited now, this less than one mile of campus is my entire physical world, and my thoughts are running wild all over the place- magnetism, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, neural networks, Socratic dialogues, current affairs published in The Hindu, etc. And my mind is moving freely through all these domains totally becoming what it is looking into, and then suddenly there is an interaction with the physical world where the mind identifies a potential cause of death, and the death strip starts, like tonight, the bright yellow lights of the car in the dark racing down…..

Spent four days and four nights straight with the divine female, beautiful body, amazing form, but it feels so forced and repetitive if I am not fascinated by the mind behind the body.

It just helps with two things : satisfies lust, and reduces the fear of death by eliminating solitude and keeping me connected to the physical world instead of letting me float in the world of thoughts. And with age, these two things will get worse and worse. But is a commitment to spend my entire life with one person worth it only because of these two things? I am not sure.

Last thing, these days I am taking interest in current affairs, cricket and even old black and white Bollywood movies- things I hardly took interest in during grad school. Moving from Bhakti and Gyana Yogas and Philosophy of the Mind to politics, economics, history or even social affairs like bollywood is similar to a high energy physicist moving to the study of condensed matter physics or many body interactions. As far as I understand, the goal of high energy physics is to understand the interactions between particles at the most fundamental level. On the other hand, in condensed matter physics, they assume that particles interact in a particular way without going deeper into why they interact that way and instead try to find out how such interactions lead to new phenomena when the number of particles and hence complexity of the system goes up. Similarly, instead of just exploring more and more about the nature of the individual self through the study of more eastern and western philosophy, I am trying to assume that the self is whatever my current understanding is of it now and then see how the different self-s interact with each other in a complicated system like politics, economics, justice, world of movies, etc. Just like many body physics, beautiful new phenomena emerge here too at different levels of complexity. And also just like condensed matter physics is more useful to the society than high energy physics in terms of practical applications, study of politics or justice or economics is more useful to the society than philosophy of the mind. As a result, I am currently finding the dumb hippies of my Berkeley gang, obsessed with the self, completely obnoxious and the smart hippies of my Berkeley gang, obsessed with the self, borderline obnoxious.

(Endnote: Between the time of writing this essay and the time of uploading it here, the necessity of marriage to avoid all the paranoia connected to solitude has become more and more obvious to me. Also planning to write something soon here on the Socratic dialogues by Plato, maybe emphasizing on Plato’s theory of forms.)

Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings

Notes from Darjeeling: Dec 17-18, 2016

(First composition on return to India after spending 6.5 years in Berkeley, CA)

Hotel room (11 PM, 17th Dec, 2016)

First night all by myself since I left Berkeley. Spent ten days at home in Calcutta. Then took the train to North Bengal by myself while parents stayed over in Calcutta. Been visiting uncles and aunts in North bengal and sleeping at their places so far, got an aunt in Siliguri and one in Jalpaiguri, mom’s sisters, they are my second and third moms basically, met grandparents in uncle’s place,  they are pretty much locked up in a room on the fourth floor of an apartment complex, can’t go anywhere, they sit and watch Bengali serials and cricket on TV and read spiritual books, granddad chants God’s name for an hour everyday with the rudraksh, he had been told that meditation worked in Dwapar Yuga but in Kali Yuga only chanting God’s name works.

Came to Darjeeling today by myself, wanted some solitude up in the mountains, two hours on a window seat of a Tata Sumo from Siliguri, steep ride, Darjeeling, the king of Indian hill stations, quite crowded and touristy, lot of Bengali families, wanted to escape the crowd, do something cooler, feel the temptation to hit the 9 3/4th platform too much these days, so in the afternoon visited a couple of monasteries in Ghoom, eight kilometers from Darjeeling.

The first Ghoom monastery had a huge statue of the Buddha wearing a crown, it was all empty, I had the whole place to myself to meditate lol. Crazy shit happened at the second monastery which made me write this letter pretty much.  As I got out of the first monastery and was walking on the road, I heard chants coming from another monastery, it was near evening, walked into the monastery through a gate, beautiful statue of Buddha, this one without a crown, around thirty people of all ages in monk’s robes, red in colors, sitting with old manuscripts (later figured that’s a Lama script), some playing trumpets, some playing huge percussion instruments, mesmerizing, no one speaks English or Bengali or Hindi or Nepali, a world of its own just a flight of stairs down the main road, sat there for a long time meditating, contemplating, suddenly felt that instead of going solo in my own spiritual quest and telling myself that nothing matters to me I should care more about my parents, my grandparents, my uncles, my cousins, immerse myself in their world, their struggles, try to share their joys and sorrows. I am extremely lucky to receive so much love and there is no need to reject all that in search of some Zen solitude, made a promise to go back to the plains tomorrow and spend more time with them and buy them gifts before I leave for Calcutta in two days (return train already booked).

Turned around and saw that it had gotten dark outside, walked out, the chant was still going on, walked up the stairs towards the gate, a dog and a monk kid started following me, some other dog started barking nearby, realized the big main gate had been locked, they probably thought that there’s no more visitor inside and then realized someone from outside was still there and sent the kid with some keys to open the gate, the kid was struggling to find the right key, the dog came very close to me and started growling mildly, imagine me and a dog and a locked gate with nowhere to go and another dog barking in the background, the kid spoke no language I knew, a few minutes of crazy fear, finally opened the gate, got out, walked an hour in the dark on the mountain road with cars and toy trains and steep slopes without railings to get back to Darjeeling while thinking about the dog incident, no matter how beautiful the monastery was it was their world, an indian or a Bengali or a householder was an outsider there and I got into trouble intruding into their world.

Later went to Mal (Darjeeling’s town center) up the hill, sat in CCD smoking lounge, only place there with unobstructed view of the valley, finally a clear night sky full of stars, first time since Berkeley, the maximum number of stars I counted in India before tonight was around fifteen, that was in Jalpaiguri, spotted only one constellation in Siliguri and Jalpaiguri, in the east, three stars forming a vertical line and one star on each side of it together forming a rhombus, now spotted the same constellation among a million others in Darjeeling’s night sky.

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Started talking to this local guy called Yuvi at the lounge, smoking, drinking coffee,  the servers in CCD were his friends and they were bringing him local brandy in CCD’s coffee cups lol, had a long chat about friendships and relationships and the blurred lines in between, got back to the hotel after dinner, now sitting under a blanket and writing this.

Outdoor cafe at Mal (10 AM, 18th Dec, 2016)

A clear morning, a rare day with bright sunshine in the foggy days of winter,  sitting at a cafe and having coffee and looking down the valley, a couple of hours back I quit the comfort of the blanket and walked outside, very few people at Mal at that hour of the morning, almost no tourists, it’s the cold perhaps, tried to find an unobstructed view of the valley, walked along a road with tall conifers on both sides, came to some kinda observation point with benches painted green, looked up and was amazed by the sight of a gorgeous snow clad peak standing out in the distance with some green peaks of nearby mountains in the foreground, asked a local pointing at the peak, “Yeh Kanchenjungha hai?”, he replied, “Yes” 🙂 🙂 , sat there and meditated for a long time, then took a picture with my smartphone for the sake of this composition.

20161218_085215

The following thought has been coming to me for a while, now after staring at the Buddha last evening and the Kanchenjungha this morning it has taken a more concrete shape, I have definitely found calmness inside, every human being has an access to a void state inside and he is often scared to encounter it, Yuvi said last night that when he is alone he wants to commit suicide, I have become quite comfortable with the void state now but this is addictive, I definitely feel a lethargy to work (do science for example) and just want to sit and contemplate. It feels great but then there are some holes here and there through which the fear of death creeps in- the dog incident last night for example.

(Sounds of “Mehbooba, Mebooba” coming from somewhere down the valley, somebody paragliding up in the sky)

I think the whole idea of spirituality is that one should be led by it naturally without getting addicted to it, that’s where it differs from substances, every step on the path of spirituality should be reversible and that’s why if I lose the ability to pursue a career in science or live a householder’s life like my parents and relatives are doing then it’s not really the path of spirituality or more importantly the path of truth, abilities should be gained and not lost on the right path.

Church close to Mal (1 PM, 18th Dec 2016)

Sunday morning, service going on in Hindi and Nepali, someone playing the violin, someone playing the piano. A few thoughts about Darjeeling- absolutely amazing place, there is a tourist crowd but if you can bypass that, there are entry points into the 9 3/4 th platform on every roadside, ancient Hindu temples, Budhist monasteries, churches and government office buildings from the British era, music all over the place. After visiting the Buddhist monasteries yesterday and a Shiva temple on the top of the hill this morning and observing amazing similarities between their idols, images, decorations, scripts, I realized that Buddhism and Hinduism have kinda merged in the mountains, gotta study on this more once I get back to the plains.

I really don’t feel like leaving Darjeeling so soon, can be here for days by myself, can walk around here for hours and stare at the trees and the buildings and the valley but I made a promise to myself to get back to my relatives by today and spend more time with them before I leave North Bengal, so I gotta take the ride back to Siliguri now, hence goodbye mountains for now, will visit you again soon once I move to Delhi, little hill stations in Himachal Pradesh on weekends, and then Darjeeling again next summer!

(Endnote: Between the time this essay was written and it is being uploaded here, I was able to visit the Himalayas only one more time- 4 days in Shimla end of Jan, 2017. There will be another post on that. Darjeeling has been going through an indefinite shutdown, which has already lasted three months, rendering my chances of visiting the hill station again anytime soon extremely bleak.)

Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/ Ramblings · Philosophy

Chronicles of an ongoing battle between solipsism and empiricism

On one hand there is a real physical world out there with objects that we can see, hear, touch, perceive. Living entities are the most intriguing of them all- we can talk to them, we can listen to them, we can play with them, we can fight with them, we can build relationships with them.

On the other hand there is the mental world- the world of thoughts, emotions, ideas and dreams. Mathematics, philosophy, music, painting etc. are major manifestations of this mental world. They often give us a glimpse of the existence of an abstract world beyond the physical world we live in – the abstract world nearing to have a physical existence of its own, defying the word “abstract”.

We live in the physical world, with mountains, rivers, trees, animals, houses, roads, cars, schools, colleges, hospitals etc. but often we encounter bridges to the abstract world like the 9 3/4-th platform in Harry Potter’s stories. These bridges range from critically acclaimed works of art like Claude Monet’s paintings, John Keats’s poetry, Amir Khusrao’s and Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics and Plato’s dialogues to myriads of events we experience in pop culture- Sachin Tendulkar’s cover drives on TV, Ultimate Warrior’s crazy promos before Wrestlemania, Rick and Morty’s trippy episodes to name a few. In this blog I shall try to explore several of these bridges between the physical and the mental worlds in a methodical fashion . At the core of all my posts recurs a constant struggle between two conflicting ideas- the idea of realism/ empiricism/ materialism, i.e., this world exists as it is independent of us and we are perceiving it through our sensory organs and modifying it through our motor organs, and the idea of idealism/solipsism, i.e. there is nothing real in this world outside our mind, all our friends, family, jobs don’t really exist, they are just impressions in our mind and this world is nothing but a simulation. My posts however don’t resolve the age old debate among philosophers regarding these two contradictory epistemological positions. I don’t think anybody ever will be able to do so. My posts simply put this debate in the right context, and throw more light on it.

One more thing, I have used the existing terminology in academic “philosophy” very freely here and in my other posts partly due to my my academic background in science as opposed to philosophy and partly due to my little lack of reverence for existing academic “philosophy” to explore philosophical themes. Academic “philosophy” explores philosophical themes only through words, crafted in a meticulous fashion. But in my humble opinion, the same themes can be captured only if the words are backed by actions in day to day life giving the appropriate context to those words, e.g. how we talk to our colleagues, how we interact with our friends, how invested we are in our romances, are as important as scholarly articles in understanding philosophy.  As Kabir says,

“Labzo se hum khel rahe hai, maana haat na aaye,

Paani paani rat te rat te pyaasa hi raha jaaye

Shola shola rat te rat te lab par aanch na aaye

Ek chingari lab par rakh lo, lab turant jal jaaye”

(We are playing with words, but we don’t understand the meaning. We keep chanting “water” but we stay thirsty. We keep chanting “fire” but we don’t feel anything on our lips, but the moment we put a flame on our lips,  our lips burn).

Growing up in a society full of friends, family, classes, jobs, degrees and honors it is very hard to perceive the possibility of the existence of a world beyond the physical. But life experiences can be such (getting immersed in music or painting, a feeling of extreme pain or cornucopia of joy in love, an emptiness through isolation from society in a new country or job) that the existence of the abstract world not only becomes conceivable but can even take over the existence of the physical world in one’s consciousness. There are thoughts going on in our head and we translate only a few of the thoughts into action. In mathematical language, it is a many to one mapping from the mental world to the physical world. In extraordinary circumstances like solitude, it is often hard to distinguish the world of thoughts from the world of action because there are too many thoughts and too few actions. The lack of onlookers to verify the reality perceived through our senses adds to it. Our consciousness is largely collective after all, a lot of the common sense we use for our day to day actions is imbibed by us from society through collective wisdom. With lack of people, the collective wisdom may start fading.

And with it, often comes lurking forward the fear of death, an event probably absolute in an otherwise conflicting world of ideas and arguments and events where probably every argument can be countered by another argument. Though I shall attempt to make my posts in this blog be as drenched in bright sunshine as possible, somewhat like Ruskin Bond’s writing, I cannot guarantee that death won’t expose its dark face here and there in the posts.

My posts will be broadly in the following categories:

i. Short stories

ii. Essays/ Travelogues/ Poetry/Rambling

iii. Golden Era of Bollywood (50s and 60s)

iv. Professional wrestling

v. Calcutta Corner

vi. Science

 

I shall add more categories with time, e.g. Impressionist art, Sufi poetry, sci-fi TV shows etc. with time.

Please check out the posts, thanks for visiting the site.