Philosophy · Short stories

Divine love and neural engineering

It was about 8 PM in the evening. Done with his work in the laboratory for the day, Ary was packing up his stuff and getting ready to leave. He had completed four years of his PhD and had already finished majority of his thesis work. Thus he didn’t really have a lot of work to do in the laboratory of late.

The phone inside the pocket of his jeans suddenly started vibrating. He usually kept his phone on silent mode with no vibration on to avoid being disturbed in the middle of some engagement. As a result he missed all his incoming calls, much to the agony of his friends and colleagues. In fact he had almost forgotten the experience of picking up an incoming call. Usually he would look at his mobile phone once in an hour or so, check the call log and call back the people who had tried to contact him in the last one or two hours if they were important enough to him. But that day by mistake he had put his phone on vibration mode.

He pulled the phone out of the his jeans’ pocket. The call was coming from some unknown, but local number. Reluctantly he picked up the call. It was an old lady’s voice on the other end. The accent was American, most probably Californian. Interestingly his fellow American friends identified that as having no accent.

“Am I speaking to Aranyak Sen?”, the lady asked.

“Yes”, Ary replied.

There was a second’s pause. Then she said, “Your friend Poulomi Chatterji met with an accident. She is bleeding profusely. May have broken some bones too. She is getting transferred to a trauma center in Castro Valley. She has listed you as her emergency contact person and gave us your phone number.”

Ary didn’t know how to respond. It was a weird feeling. There was shock and grief, but surpassing all that he experienced a strange feeling which several times he attempted to recall later and describe in words not only to communicate it to someone else but also for his own understanding. But he always failed to do so. It felt like memories of day to day events that happened about him and their associated emotions were only residing on the surface of his brain. This news had pierced through all that and hit the core of his brain, as if he was waiting for this moment for years. So far all that happened to him was trivial. This was the moment when his actual life began.

“How did the accident happen?”, Ary asked.

“She fell off a cliff near Muir Woods. She was hiking by herself. Some other hikers found her lying senseless and called 911. The paramedics gave her first aid and took her to a local hospital to realize that she was suffering from internal bleeding and that it was a medical emergency. So she was rushed to the biggest trauma center around, in Castro Valley.”

“Okay, please tell me the address of the trauma center, and where in that hospital I can find her. I am driving there right away.”

After ending the phone call, Ary signed in to the rental car application on his phone, rented a car for the night which was parked very close to their office building and left his laboratory in the direction of the parking lot. Why on earth would Polo go for a hike to Muir woods on a working day? And yes sure, it was summer and the sun didn’t set until almost 8 PM but still why would she be out in the hills that late? Ary had noticed that Polo was getting more weird and crazy every passing day, but this was probably too much.

When he reached the parking lot, he was quickly able to locate the car. It was a white Hyundai Santro. It was always parked at this lot for people to rent it on an hourly basis, and so many times Ary too had rented it before to practice driving on freeways. Most of the times he was accompanied by Polo. She grew up in Singapore where public transport was very convenient. It was also very expensive to own a car. Hence her parents never owned a car. Yet she learned driving in Singapore through a driving school. When she moved to the bay area a couple of years back for her PhD she got her California driving license immediately and started driving around the bay area frequently. On the other hand, Ary had been in the bay area for four years now but only got his license a year back. Despite passing the driving test to get his license, he still wasn’t very confident about driving on freeways at 80 miles per hour. So he often rented that specific Hyundai Santro car after a day’s work, asked the more experienced Polo to join him and went straight on the freeway just to get used to that speed of traffic. Sitting in the passenger’s seat, Polo wasn’t really the conventional instructor. She didn’t give her continuous instructions on how to drive. In fact she rarely said anything. Often she would even have her eyers closed. But Ary knew that this entire time, Polo was making sure they were safe.

On the first such driving session with Polo, Ary took the car out of the parking lot and drove it along University Avenue, which ran westward from UC Berkeley campus, tearing through the heart of the city, all the way to the bridge that connected it with Interstate 880 freeway that ran between south bay and east bay. As they approached that bridge, Ary felt a little nervous and unsure. He asked Polo, “Hey, what happens at this bridge? I can’t recall. Does it straight join 880?”. But her eyes were closed and she didn’t respond. Ary asked the same question again. Then she slowly responded, “no, the road goes upward and upward and then it joins the sky”.

All these memories were flooding Ary’s mind as he was driving at 80 miles per hour on Freeway 880 to reach the trauma center at Castro Valley. It was past the evening rush hours, so the lanes were relatively empty. He kept wondering about the state he was going to find Polo in at the hospital. Would she be in a lot of pain? Would she be able to identify him? Ary had no clue.

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Calcutta Corner · Philosophy · Poetry

Banalata Sen: Adaptation of selected poetry of one the most iconic Bengali poets- Jibanananda Das

Jibanananda Das is widely considered to be the greatest Bengali poet of the post Rabindranath Tagore era. Poetry books like “Rupasi Bangla”, “Dhushar Pandulipi” and “Banalata Sen”, which are essentially sincerest meditations on nature, feminine beauty, history, geography, life and death, have made him a common name in the Bengali household.

Here I have tried to adapt five of my favorite poems from his book “Banalata Sen” in English. I did not translate these poems word by word from Bengali to English since I believe that in such a manner it is very hard to reproduce the beautiful imagery of rural Bengal or that of far distant lands like Vidisha or Babylon that the poet created in the original poems, as his mind raced through both space and time in all its lonesomeness. Instead I have rewritten the same poems in my own way in English, trying to stay as close to the themes and imageries of the original poems as possible.

Please give them a read, irrespective of whether you are aware of the original Bengali poems or not. These five poems build on one another, so it’s probably a good idea to read all of them at one go, may be following the sequence in which they appear here.

 

 

Banalata Sen from Natore

 

A thousand years I’ve trodden paths on the face of the earth,

The seas of Ceylon and Malay I’ve voyaged through misery and mirth.

From Bimbisar and Ashoka’s fading city

Through endless streets of ancient darkness

Among even further away Vidarbha’s men,

Countless sojourns have made me listless

Until I found a moment of tranquility

In the soulful eyes of Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

Darkness of her hair reminded me of nights forlorn

In the city of Vidisha of long lost times. Sculptures that adorn

The temples of Shravasti inspired her countenance.

After a long lost voyage the way a sailor

Eyes a verdurous isle amidst the azure ocean,

Ohh I did see her with the same ardor

“Where wert thou all these days?”, asked she softly with a glance,

Tranquil as a bird’s nest, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

End of the day like the dewdrop’s sound descends the eve’s veil,

Smell of the sun on the kite’s gorgeous wings grows pale.

As the last hues on earth fade into blackness eternal,

And sounds of sentience drown into slumber deep,

All birds return to the nest, all beasts to the den,

So do all brooks, all streams. All blossoms do sleep.

All that’s left behind is darkness abysmal

And reposed in front, pining for love, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

A Windy Night

 

Last night was a windy night,

And a night of a thousand stars.

Scattered winds played with my mosquito net all night,

Swelling its bosom like the heart of a boisterous sea,

Making it long to escape the bed and fly into the stars.

Indeed, at times, half-asleep,

I felt like the mosquito net escaped from over my head

And set itself afloat in the turbulence of the winds, amidst all the azure-ness,

Like a white dove.

Such was the mystery of last night.

 

All the dead stars were resurrected last night.

I sighted the fading countenance of my favorite dead amidst them.

They were effulgent like the eyes of a lover kite on a dark tree top,

Eyes moistened by dew drops,

Resplendent like the leopard skin, the queen of far distant Babylon

Used to drape about her bosom.

Such was the splendor of last night.

 

All the beauties, I witnessed whom dying in Assyria, Egypt and Vidisha,

were resurrected last night.

I sighted them thronging the foggy horizon,

Holding tridents in their hands, determined

To trample death under their feet,

To celebrate the triumph of life,

To erect the menacing tower of love.

Terrified was I, last night’s turmoil tore me from within.

Within the tirelessly flapping wings of the azure sky

Faded time- like a tiny earthly insect.

Such was the tremor of last night.

 

Wind raced in through my windows last night,

Fierce as a herd of zebras running frantically

Through the lush green meadows,

Terror-stricken by the menacing roar of the lion.

My heart reverberated in joy

Intoxicated by the smell of the wilderness,

By the excitement of the darkness that roared within me,

Like a lustful tigress, ecstatic in her union with her lover.

I felt like my heart escaped this earth,

And set itself afloat like an inebriated balloon in the turbulence of the winds,

And sailed through the distant stars amidst all the azure-ness

Like a swift vulture.

Such was the mystery of last night.

 

 

A couple of decades later

 

A couple of decades later what if our paths again cross

Far beyond this city that gathers our generation’s moss;

Back in the pleasant countryside where our roots are entrenched deep,

In autumn by a granary with harvest the peasants did reap.

 

When kites, golden in the setting sun, journey homeward bound

And the pall of eve descends on meadows like the dewdrop’s sound,

When the moon moves soft behind the forest boughs in her regal grace

With leaves pitch black and branches specter thin silhouetted against her milky face,

 

When the lonesome owl, hiding from a tree top, at the village path does stare,

And strands of hay, from the ducks’ nests, from the crows’ nests, waft in the air,

When indolence prevails over the paddy fields stretched wide,

In this meadowy path I’ve found you again by my side.

 

After twenty years moving about the city swept by life’s tide,

In this pastoral land I’ve found you again by my side.

 

 

Naked, lonely hand

 

Once more darkness intensifies in the spring sky.

Darkness,

The mysterious sister of light.

Like a lady who always loved me dearly,

But whose countenance I’ve never seen.

 

The shape of a fading palace in a long lost city looms in my mind.

By the side of the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea,

There was once a city, a palace,

Where there were

Persian carpets,

Kashmir shawls,

Cockatoos and pigeons,

Shadowy boon of the mahoganies,

Orange sun,

And you, my lady,

You.

I haven’t searched for the beauty of your countenance

For centuries,

For centuries.

 

The spring sky brings back those memories, those stories,

From far distant lands, from long lost cities.

Fading manuscripts made out of leopard skin,

Window panes of rainbow colors,

Orange sun playing on

Persian carpets,

Curtains with colors of the peacocks’ feathers,

Glass full of wine,

Crimson red,

Your naked, lonely hand.

 

Your naked lonely hand.

 

 

Walking Along

 

I’ve taken solitary walks along endless streets of the city,

For years and years,

With a vague remembrance of some fading message.

 

Trams and buses move about the city, punctually, all through the day,

And then desert its streets to fade into their own world-

Their own world of sleep.

I’ve seen them sleeping in sheds and depots all night.

I’ve seen gaslights lighting the streets of the city tirelessly through the night,

Aware of its duties.

Bricks, doors, windows, signboards,

Drowned in slumber

Under the night sky.

I’ve absorbed their peace, their bliss, through my lonesome walks.

 

It’s late in the night,

Stars whisper around the peak of the Monument.

Have I ever witnessed something more seamlessly beautiful than this-

A starry lonesome Calcutta?

Eyes descend upon the grass,

Dew drops on the blades,

Strands of hay waft in the air.

 

Why did I take lonely walks along endless streets of Babylon

Through the darkness of the nights?

I still don’t know, even after a thousand years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philosophy · Science

There’s more to it than meets the eye

For a long time, it wasn’t clear to me why a stick inside water appears bent- a phenomenon we all witness in our day to day lives and about which we have read in high school Physics textbooks.

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A high school Physics textbook uses a schematic as below (Figure 1) and offers the following explanation: Light (ambient) reflected by the stick get bent when it traverses from water to air due to refraction. Our eyes can’t follow the bent path of rays, backtrace those rays as shown in the schematic (dotted lines) and hence we see the stick at a different position from where it really is.

schematic_1Figure 1- Schematic used in high school physics textbooks to explain why a stick inside water appears bent. Light from point A on the stick bends at the surface of water, our eye can’t follow the bent path and so we see image of A at A’. Using the picture of an eye and back-tracing the light rays to a point basically involve one layer of abstraction, which we don’t use in the subsequent ray diagrams.

In high school, I took this explanation for granted, reproduced it on answer scripts of examinations and even solved numerical problems related to it. But I never really understood this phenomenon until I got into graduate school, where my lack of understanding of this phenomenon eventually made me conclude that I do not understand how science works in general. Then after a phase of “soul searching” and of course reading up on several things, a much more satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon dawned on me, which I shall describe here in details.

The fact that this is a blog post gives me the liberty to not only write about a field of science in which I am not an expert but also state something which may already have been published before or has been proven wrong. I simply may not be aware of it despite talking to several friends, pursuing research in the sciences, and spending a lot of time on the internet browsing on the topic. I don’t have this luxury while writing research articles in peer reviewed journals for my professional career.

Another reason to write this essay is that my explanation starts from physics, that governs all phenomena in the physical world, but eventually delves into the mental world and becomes a neuroscience problem, true to the theme of my blog. In my opinion, the neuroscience aspect is key to understanding the phenomenon, but has largely been ignored in high school textbooks, which led to a gap in my mind between what I read in science textbooks and what I witnessed in the real world.

So let’s first get back to the explanation provided in high school physics text books. Light from the stick travels in a straight line inside water, but when it crosses the water surface it bends since air has a refractive index different from water. Then light again travels in straight line in air to reach our eye. The fact that light travels in straight line in a medium and that it bends at the intersection of two media are consistent with the laws of physics. But these facts alone don’t solve the puzzle. The last part of the explanation is that our eyes cannot follow the bent path and backtrace the incoming rays in a straight line path to form an image of the stick at some other position. But there are no details on why this is so in high school textbooks.  Similar issue arises with explanation of how magnifying glass works, why we see our reflection on the mirror or occurrence of mirages- basically any case where a “virtual image” is formed.

First let’s take the case of a magnifying glass and analyze it in more details. In order to solve the last part of the puzzle, we have considered the eye as a combination of a convex lens in front and a screen (retina) behind it in the ray diagram below (Figure 2). High school textbooks instead show the picture of an eye and backtrace the rays, which is basically a layer of abstraction which was the root cause of my confusion.

RayDiagram1_1

Figure 2- To our retina, there is no difference between an object at position x with lens at position z, and a larger object at position y with no lens. But our brain always thinks that it is the second case and that is what we “see”.

Actually, if an object AB is placed within the focal length of the convex lens (magnifying glass)  rays from object AB go through the lens, diverge and then hit the lens of our eye only to converge again at the retina. There is absolutely no difference in the spatial intensity pattern formed on the retina between the case in figure 2 (object AB at position x and lens at position z leading to formation of virtual image ab at position y) and a simpler case of a larger object ab at position y with no lens at position z. However, our brain only considers the second case and hence we “see” a magnified object at position y. No matter how much we train our brain through physics textbooks, we can never instead “see” a much smaller object at position x even though we know that is the case physically. Thus there is a subtle difference between the intensity pattern/ image formed at the retina of the eye and what we “see”. This subtle difference is probably created by some extremely complicated signal processing in the brain. Instead of looking at the magnifying glass with our eye if we took a snapshot with our camera then also we will end up “see”-ing the same thing. This is because the lens of the camera acts like the lens of our eye leading to the same intensity pattern on the film/CMOS sensor as the retina. Then we interpret that intensity pattern with our brains the same way we do in the case of looking at the magnifying glass with our eyes.

Next let’s discuss why we see the reflection of an object on the mirror the way we see it. In Figure 3 below, we consider two cases: Case I (an object AB at position x and a mirror at position z) and Case II (an object AB at position x, another identical object CD at position y and no mirror)

RayDiagram2_1

Figure 3- To our retina, there is no difference between case I and case II, but our brain thinks that it can be only be case II. It is to be noted that A’B’ and C’D’/ a’b’ are formed on the same region of the screen. They have just been drawn slightly away from each other for the sake of clarity here. 

Again, in either case, the intensity distribution on the retina is the same- a focussed image of object AB and a slightly defocussed image of object CD, or ab (light rays from object AB get reflected off the mirror and converge near the retina). However just like in the example of magnifying glass, our brain only considers case II and hence we “see” an object at position x and another identical object at position y. No matter how much we try we cannot “see” an object at x and a mirror at z which is reflecting off the light from the object at x.

At this point, I guess it is obvious what happens in the case of a stick immersed in water. Rays of light (ambient) reflected by the stick cross the surface, bend, hit our eyes and converge to form an image on our retina which is identical to an image of a bent stick in the air. Just like the previous cases, we end up “see”-ing a bent stick in air (yes we still see the water in all practical cases but that is for other reasons like presence of the vessel, water droplets, water reflecting off ambient light etc.) as opposed to a straight stick in water with light bending off as it comes towards our eyes.

The subtle point I am trying to make here through all the examples above is that light can travel through a bent path on its way from the object to our eyes if it passes from one medium to another with different refractive index. The image formed on our retina will be identical to an object being displaced from its actual position and light traveling from it to our eyes through vacuum/ air following a straight line path. However our brain can only conceive of light traveling straight through vacuum/ air and hence we “see” the object at a position different from where it actually is. This particular behavior of the brain may arise out of evolution because we and our ancestors have grown up in a planet with air of a nearly constant refractive index and our visual perception is hence calibrated to that. Essentially, the laptop/ computer on which the reader is reading this article, the table on which it is placed, the window in your room, etc. are present where they “see” it to be present simply because light is traveling through a medium of fixed refractive index on its way from the object to their eyes. If the refractive index of the medium changed along the trajectory of light, they will see the objects at different spots from where they actually are. If we could do an experiment where we could have brought aliens from a planet where the refractive index of the medium varies much more as a function of height from the surface of the planet than it does in the case of our earth and ask them where they locate different objects on earth, then my hypothesis could have been tested. My guess would be that they would locate all objects on earth wrongly because their brains are calibrated to how light travels in their planet, which is not usually in a straight line unlike our planet.

At this point, the really imaginative readers may be wondering if what we see around us indeed exist or not. Probably they have asked this question to themselves before. My humble opinion in this regard is that there is no absolute reality, or at least we can’t perceive it. We can only be more convinced of the existence of something we see through other senses like smell, touch, etc. but can never be convinced of the absolute existence of something. A subjective aspect of consciousness always accompanies our perception of reality, which is essentially a calibration of the current signal we are receiving from the external physical world to some previously received signal, which we may have received in our own lifetime or inherited from our predecessors through evolution, as in the case of all the optical phenomena discussed in this essay.

 

 

Philosophy · Science · Short stories

The mind-matter dilemma

“Hey, are you gonna be here longer? Then I won’t lock the door now.”

Jack asked Ary as he was about to leave the laboratory for the day. Ary didn’t know why he asked the same question to Ary every evening. Though he certainly wasn’t the first person to get into the lab everyday, he almost always was the last person to leave. He worked till late hours of the night while most others would hang out with their friends and families, attend parties or simply go to bed early to have an early start for the next day.

Ary’s eyes were on the computer screen, as the tip of the microscope scanned the surface of the last thin film he grew.

“Hey Ary, will you lock the door?”, Jack asked again not getting an answer from Ary.

Of course I would. I am a poor Indian grad student living in a foreign land. I have no life. I have no girlfriend- Ary told himself.

But then to his own surprise, he said, “No, I think I am done for the day. I shall leave with you. Lock the door”.

Ary packed his backpack, left the computer to direct by itself  the motion of the tip of the microscope over his dearest thin film sample, and got out of the lab, located in the basement of Hearst Memorial Hall, the oldest building on the University of California Berkeley campus. Outside it was dark already. It was the end of November. Days had already become very short in this part of the globe.

Ary hated this part of the year the most. It had been more than two years since he had moved to California from Calcutta for his PhD. He would go home every winter during the Christmas break and come back quite refreshed to resume research. So during this time of the year, with days too short and nights too long for a guy from lower latitudes like Ary and Christmas still a month away, he would feel exhausted and depressed after swimming with the sharks in a highly aggressive and competitive research environment of one of the top graduate schools in US for an entire year, and longed for the peace and warmth of his sweet home in Calcutta.

Ary paced across the campus briskly in the dark and reached the University Avenue, which started from the west end of the campus, pierced through the heart of the city of Berkeley which was rather somewhat between a college town and a full blown city and ended at the Berkeley Marina, which overlooked the bay that connected with the Pacific Ocean. Ary wondered where to go for dinner. He didn’t want to cook the same marinara pasta at home again. He called up Diggy, a fellow grad student from India and one of his closest friends in Berkeley, to check his availability for dinner. Diggy, as expected, didn’t pick up the phone. Ary followed the University Avenue to the downtown area, passed the dingy McDonalds restaurant frequented by homeless people and walked into Bobby G’s Pizzeria- a sports bar with some good pizza.

Ary sat at the bar and waited for his pizza. The “football” game on TV didn’t register in his head at all. He never really understood the rules nor he knew any of the teams or the players. He kept thinking about the results of his experiments or lack thereof, his withering interest in the topic of his research and the apparent lack of direction in his research work- an activity which occupied most of his time for the last two years.

Just when his pepperoni pizza arrived, another fellow grad student, Steve Lambson, hopped in and sat next to him. Ary had talked to Steve a few times in the graduate social hour, but he didn’t really know much about him other than that his name was Steve Lambson, he was a second year PhD student in Civil Engineering and he was from Minnesota.

“You eat meat?”, asked Steve, “I thought Indians don’t”.

Ohh, another conversation aimed at dispelling misconceptions about Indians’ food habits, which won’t serve its purpose! – Ary told himself.

Ary didn’t feel like talking. For a while he had observed a pattern about himself. His inclination to interact with people outside the Indian graduate student community used to be very high when he wasn’t occupied with research. But after he spent a few days immersed in research, he only wanted to talk to his fellow Indian grad students. The current conversation with Steve would possibly continue along the lines of Indian culture, which Ary was tired talking about after spending two years in Berkeley. The conversation could also take an alternate trajectory where Ary would talk about his own research and Steve would talk about his, with neither person understanding anything about the other person’s research. Neither trajectory appeared promising to Ary, but he was too polite in this foreign land to not continue the conversation.

Though the conversation took the well-trodden second trajectory, Ary was pleasantly surprised to identify that he was actually able to follow Steve’s research. In fact, he started liking it. To make it more intriguing, Steve also mentioned that there was an opening for a new PhD student in his project. Steve was deploying wireless sensors in the Sierra Nevada basin to detect the occurrence of landslides. Though the technical aspect of the project sounded interesting, what really captured Ary’s imagination was the location of the project- instead of spending all his time working on thin films in a basement of a Berkeley building he would do laboratory work out there in nature, amidst the majestic Sierras. Ary had driven to Yosemite Valley that summer with some fellow Indian grad students and was mesmerized by the Sierras. Though he had visited several hill stations in the Himalayas with his parents back in childhood, he felt that the beauty of the Sierras wasn’t comparable to any other mountain he had seen before. He wasn’t sure why he felt so. He meticulously photographed the looming granite structures, the serene lakes, the tall redwoods and the beautiful chapels with his newly bought DSLR and wanted to go there again soon to pursue his passion in photography further. Now he was probably provided with the perfect opportunity to combine his work and his passion.

For a long time he knew that he loved Physics. That’s why he was working all day in a laboratory trying to find a phase boundary in a ferroelectric thin film, which nobody had observed before. But of late he loved photography and nature and nature photography so much more. This was his chance to stop being an Indian nerd and become cool like an American. Ary walked home that night, confused but excited. However when he jumped into the twin sized bed of his small studio apartment in downtown Berkeley, for which he paid a rent half his monthly stipend, he was too tired from the day’s work and inebriated from the beer at Bobby G’s to think further and slept immediately…

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.) 

 

 

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 · 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.