10 October 2014

Of Religion and Science

I have been reading a very interesting book these days. "The Trouble With Physics" by Lee Smolin. Yesterday, I hit a very interesting part of the book. One that deals with the formation of cults within the scientific community and the curbing of free thought. But first, I think a little context is at hand. Lee Smolin tries to explain the recent developments in Physics (post Einstein mostly) and closely dissects the string theory and presents it to the layman. To cut the long story short, he tries to show how the string theory community has turned into a dogmatic herd which prosecutes any outsider for non compliance. How they hold most of the academic positions and research grants at their disposal and are, in effect, snuffing out other branches of science. He also talks of the administrative problems that dog the academia and make the entire environment stale and repelling for radical thinkers. But that is not the aspect that I am interested in. I will pick up the former for there is a comparison I wish to make. Reading the book gave me a giddy feeling. I have not read good philosophical physics in quite a while. The last was probably Hawking's 'Brief History of Time' back in college, though I did read a couple of updates on the 'Theories of Everything' since. While Lee Smolin was emphatically describing how the string theory had hijacked the science community for the past 25 years and things were not being done in the healthy "scientific" spirit, my mind was racing back to what I had learnt as a kid back in school. I was thinking about how my view of science had changed over the years and how in a recent discussion with a colleague I had proposed my latest take on science and religion. But let us get on with the task at hand. There is a comparison I have to make.

A couple of days back we were back at an old discussion at my work place regarding the constitution and origin of the Hindu religion. It has happened before and there are usually two people with views sufficiently contradictory to battle it out : M and me. But this time was different. M cut me short abruptly and told be he wasn't interested in my point of view unless there was a Veda to back it up. He said that the Vedas were the only thing he trusted when it came to the truth about Vedas themselves. We had previously had a discussion around what is believable as a source of truth. It had boiled down to M thinking that something in itself is it's authoritative source and me thinking that one cannot trust someone stating things about itself. Now to come to the comparison that I was trying to make. Lee Smolin described a behaviour of the string theory community that I have seen more than once in religious fanatics (M included). They are not open to discussion. They are unwilling to hypothesise a situation where they might be wrong. Their worlds are impervious to any change lest it be in the same direction.. Of course, that might be the very definition of fanaticism, but I am not yet finished.

As to why certain people show such a staunch adherence to their ideologies, there are many possible arguments : tendency to form groups or cults, deriving a sense of identity, or simply being at ease in a certain kind of a world. There are many reasons why people might choose to stick to an idea and defend it strongly and rather rudely when faced with opposition. Even Smolin agreed that the "string theorists" were simply doing what they naturally should, that is, defend a theory they believed in. Some to the extreme of proposing human inability to comprehend string theory and Intelligent Design as the ultimate theory that helps string theory's case. One could wonder why they put in so much effort just to come to a conclusion that has been around since we started pondering over the problem.

A more interesting observation is that this belief system varies widely from person to person. As M had once pointed out, everyone believes in something, if only his own head. M believes rather firmly in the Vedas. That is his source of truth. Nietzsche said that religion was a gross answer that would insult anyone who wishes to think for himself. Scientists are probably in that category. A breed of people looking for answers for things that they do not understand. The ones who would rather not think for themselves have the convenient excuse of a God. But wait, Intelligent Design has been endorsed by (erstwhile) scientists. Again, what makes these breeds so different?

Here is what I think about it. Science is not so much different from any other philosophy. A religion is a life philosophy that keeps to things that matter in daily life. There is a gross answer to the abstract questions like 'why does the earth revolve around the sun?' and 'what are black holes?'. God put them there for a reason he understands best. Religions tend to be more direct and explanatory about the day to day conduct of a man : conduct in society, importance of diet, etc. It is, I am very surprised to observe, a much pragmatic approach to life. Of course, some would say that religions are full of unnecessary customs and traditions. But if one looks into it, religions have evolved to stay current (I know M would fiercely disagree). At any given point of time the customs can be explained to have a reason. Those that do not have one, die a vestigial death in time. Science, on the other hand, offers more freedom to those who wish to think. Be it about the origin of universe or the reason why there are so many species on Earth. It is a branch of philosophy that lets you explore and choose from a vast variety of theories, whichever appeals to you the most. If none do, it lets you build up one of your own. If it is credible enough, you might find it being endorsed and furthered by fellow scientists. This would make science a favourite of romantics. People who like to dream and wonder about the hows and why of things that are more or less inconsequential. And of course you will find a branch of science dealing with every possible direction one can imagine in. Nature, the world around, the universe beyond, human brain, emotions, animal behaviour and what not! But eventually even scientists settle down to believe in an answer about the unknown.

There is a gross answer on one side and unlimited possibilities on the other. All of us lie somewhere in between. As M puts it, everyone believes in something. All that differs is one's taste and appetite.

12 August 2014

A Dark Enchantment

Princess once said that there was magic in the mountains. I had agreed then. I still agree, but there is a 'but' now. Over the five year long relationship I have had with the mountains, I have gotten to know it better. Three of those five years, I have gone to the mountains in the months of monsoons. True, the mountains have their magic. But the magic dons a darker hue in these months. I prefer trekking with a certain individual for many reasons. So I wait for him to be free of other engagements and plan my treks accordingly. His work load drastically reduces in the months of monsoons and so we find ourselves in the lap of the mountains when the rains batter down hard on the earth.

And it is never easy. The very first time I had gone trekking I had to cross a landslide. The memory is still etched in my brain. It was then that I had lost my fear of heights. Standing awkwardly on near perpendicular ground; with loose mud and rocks to support my weight; unsteady and excited. It was the most adventurous thing I had done till then, maybe it still is. But that was not the last of it. Every year that I go to the mountains, there is some patch or other of freshly slid land that makes for an adventurous minute. Last year we crossed a really fresh one, not too steep but with boulders still falling down. One guy on the lookout shouted out when it was safe to cross. You could feel a rock tumble down behind you as you raced across thankful that you did not hesitate that extra second or your foot did not slip at the wrong moment. This year it was there again, right towards the end of our foot journey. Another fresh one but not sludgy. Very steep, with hardly any foothold. I had my troubles. The ground shifted and groaned under me more than once. Had I slipped, there was nothing to break my fall. Not for a hundred feet at least. The novelty of such dangers wears down after a bit. And you wonder. What would it be like to do this on a daily basis?

The pahadis have adapted to it. They race across barely putting their weight on a spot long enough. But it is a risk anyway. One that they take every single day for more than a month every year. And it is not just landslides. Wash outs, complete disruption of communication, broken bridges. Monsoons wreck all kinds of havoc up there. And the pahadis rough it out. There are other tales of horror from my last visit. We had stopped the jeep for a hour for a police officer who had gone across the valley to assess the damage done to a few households the previous night when the rains washed away the houses. I am not sure if there was a loss of life. Then, in the same jeep when we resumed journey, a young man sat next to me. Told me how he and his group had braved the river on his way here. The river had washed out all five bridges that connected his village to this side of the mountain. He told me how a rock had crushed the foot of a girl who was with them. She was supposed to go down to Mori to attend school. They had to go back and leave her at her home. All this said in a manner of casual banter. It was an everyday thing for them. Stories fit for entertaining a townsman. Then there were the talks with S didi later the same evening. The problems with the mountains are not limited to the monsoons. The state of education and health in the mountains are pathetic. Schools are barely staffed. The teachers do not show up. Communication as well; no mobile network even in the more inhabited villages. Imagine a life where you would have to travel 30 kilometers just to get mobile network, if you are fortunate, that is, else it would take close to 60. In the mountains, going to and fro that distance is an entire day's activity. It is always with marvel that I hear B speak of the problems that plague the mountains and its denizens. His passion to help his fellow pahadis borders on rudeness. But he has seen both sides of the coin and has every right to be opinionated.

Still, B dreams of settling down in the mountains on some future date. The life there is quiet and relaxed. He always smiles when he speaks of this future that he has dreamt. I can imagine why. Even I have harboured such dreams. Despite all the dangers that the mountains hold, I do keep going back to them and the duration keeps growing longer with each passing year. There is much I should be thankful of to the civilization in the plains. Concrete buildings to keep me safe against lashing winds and rains. I should be thankful I never had to brave a river and risk getting my foot crushed to attend school. I should be thankful that I can talk to my dearer ones whenever I can. I should be thankful that my commutation concerns involve rash drivers and not sliding faces of a mountain. I should be thankful that I have the luxury of having petty troubles. But I still yearn for the mountains when I am back in my sheltered life. Princess once said that there was magic in the mountains. I had agreed then. I still agree.

09 July 2014

#Fiction : Eternity - Fate

How it came to be thus, I cannot say. Maybe it was so since the beginning of time, whenever that was. Or maybe we discovered each other somewhere down the line. However, that matters not. Not anymore. It is fate now. Destiny.
The sun had risen in an azure sky and shone over dew coated grassy meadows. A cold breeze blew from the north reminiscent of the chilly night that has passed. But my insomnia robbed the setting of their pleasures. I had barely slept a blink during the night. Drunk with exhaustion, I looked at the path that lay ahead and hoped that I would meet him soon. I had no idea where or how far he was but I knew he would appear on my path. Right there as if he were the one hunting me. I hoped it would be soon. I would love to come back to this place and spend a few days of peace here. 

The visions had plagued me for months now. Not letting me sleep. Not letting me rest. Driving me to the brink of madness. It was always so. The visions recurred announcing his birth. And they told me which direction to go. Every night I had visions of the path ahead until the day I met him. That would be the end of my torment. And his. I had no choice but to find him. No matter how far and how difficult the way. I had crossed oceans and deserts to hunt him down. I had walked for days, sailed for hours, climbed mountains, cut through jungles. It was terrible and tiresome. But I had no choice. Every time he spawned, I broke down and wished myself dead. But that was not my destiny.

I kindled a small fire and put some water to boil. As the sun wiggled out of the horizon, I looked back on how it had been over the years. It was a necessity that drove me to him. He was my deliverance from the unrelenting nightmares. But I felt that he needed it as much as I did. He was always pathetic in my presence. Unable to put two words together without a wail. Our pain was mutual. Our deliverance too. I had tried everything. I had tried resisting the urge to move forward. But the visions grew unrelenting. They turned horrifying. I had to move towards him to preserve my sanity. I had tried evading him when he came in sight. I would always be the first to spot him. But evasion was impossible. The visions led me back to him. I had tried killing myself as well. But I just woke up in my bed again. It was fate. It had been predestined. There was but one solution. It was writ.

I sipped on the warm water and put out the fire. The path sloped upward to a snow clad ridge. I hoped that I would find him on the other side. I prayed for my sake. I was physically incapable of going on much longer. But I knew I would. Till I found him. Till I killed him in hope that it was the last time. That this time we would be delivered for ever.

22 April 2014

The Endless Buffet

1. (of an appetite or desire) impossible to satisfy.

That is what comes up when you look for the word insatiable. It is a voracious hunger that haunts the being. Asking to be fed again and again. Granting short respites and clawing you again for more. Insatiability, I think, is a state of being. It is an intrinsic part of one's self that surfaces from time to time despite the conditioning that you subject yourself to.

Tonight I was counting the projects I had on my plate.

  • A couple of private programming projects
  • Learning clojure
  • Last two travels have not been documented
  • A few topics pending to write on
  • Then there is that big stack of unread books
  • I need to get back in shape
  • Need to ride more

And those are just the ones that I desperately need to do. These do not include the ones that do not strike me with a sense of urgency. I have not sketched in close to three years. I still have my gear around in hope that I would want to get back to it. The stories that I started and plotted need to be substantiated. But I am not even remotely inclined towards it right now. And I have learnt absolutely nothing new of late. The guitar is rarely picked up, the harmonicas are forgotten.

One might choose to say that it is a problem with my focus. If only I would focus, I would be done with many a things. But clearly, there is nothing to be done away with. Very few of the things on the list can be struck off. Most of then persist despite having appeased them. Ride today and a week later you see it back on the list. Writing is another such phantom. And you can never be done with reading. It is an endless abyss that you have fallen into. Not much you can do about it now. Gaming is an addiction. No, the problem is not with focus.

The problem lies with the number of hours one has to oneself. If I work to earn my bread (or more than that) I will have obligations towards my employer. There are stipulated hours of work one needs to put in so as to remain on schedule. So the number of hours left for doing things on the list is countable. And those hours are never enough. I usually find myself in a maddening frenzy when I do get these hours to myself; doing one thing after the other. At times unable to break myself off one project in order to devote time to the next, for these are all things that I love; things that I do of my own volition.One simply has to find the time for them all. Prioritize them according to how long you have ignored them. Beg their forgiveness, kiss their hand and please them. Then put them back on to the plate and choose another offering : an endless buffet for an insatiable glutton.

03 April 2014

#Fiction : Eternity - Horror

I sensed him closing in again. I looked to the west in dejection. That is where he would appear. A black dot on the horison. His arrival no longer scared me. Somewhere in the past I remember there being a time when even his thought was terrifying. A vague recollection. But now my nerves held their stead till he appeared in sight. However, strangely, I do not remember the first time it all happened. I looked at the sky above me. The sun was high and the desert offered no respite from the heat. I never liked the deserts. I hated them the most perhaps. Almost as much as the the rain forests. Or maybe more. It was the monotone that bothered me most; not the heat or the dryness. The redundant days, one running into the other without a change in the scenery. They spelled futility and helplessness. Everything one did seemed no more than an absurd sciamachy.

I stretched out my legs and dug them under the burning sand feeling the heat slowly seep through my skin and burn the insides. Then I quickly pulled them back out and wiggled my toes till the sand stuck between them tumbled off. I wondered how far he was. After all this time I had come to the doubtful estimation that he must have gotten on my radar when he came some hundred or so leagues close. Give or take a few depending upon the weather and terrain. This sense always came with a morbid countdown. Again, depending on the terrain and weather, it was some time before he reached me. Might be a few days; at times it was a few weeks; at times months. I guess he must have had his whims as well. I had no such luxury. It had been a week since I had first sensed him. His presence grew stronger by the minute. He was close by; we would meet today in all probability. If he chose to keep coming that is. Else we would meet whenever he chose to. I never went to him. Even the idea was appalling. A faint smile crossed my face as I realised the irony of things. I did not want to go to him but I desperately wanted him to come to me! I broke out into a soft chuckle. My parched lips ripped themselves with the exercise and I tasted the warm blood ooze out of the vents. I sucked it in. Warm sweet blood. Was this what drove him?

I laid back and closed my eyes. The sun shined through my eyelids. It was slowly making its way down but its rays were still unrelenting. I wondered when the horror had mellowed into an expectancy. I was awaiting his arrival now. It had become a ritual by now and I could play it in my head to utter perfection. I imagined his shadow preceding him. The shadow would shade my face and I would open my eyes to see him as a halo; a deliverer. He would look at me with his tired eyes. I imagined him letting out a long sigh like one does at the end of a long journey, when he has reached his destination and can grab precious moments of rest. He would come kneel next to me, his sweat dripping from his face, a few drops splashing my face. I would smile this time and face him with courage... But I always ran out of courage. I knew this time would be no exception. I opened my eyes and sat up and watched the sun bow in servitude to earth and a mild breeze blow across the sandy dunes stirring up some dirt into action. I closed my eyes and pushed all thoughts of him out of my head. I willed myself to sleep.

I woke to metallic sounds. I opened my eyes and horror filled me up. He was here. I did not turn to look at him but the knowledge was certain. His presence overwhelmed me. I was incapable of feeling anything else in his presence. It was fear and terror. Enough to choke one to death. I tried gulping it down. To my left I could hear him strike a match and the smell of burning tobacco soon reached my nostrils. I looked ahead. The sun was an orange sphere now, no longer forbidding to look at. It's yellow heat had given way to an orangey warmth. I just stared blankly at it, my head occupied with the presence of the one beside me.

We sat there for a long time. At least it seemed like a long time to me. The sun was swallowed by the horison. The night grew cooler. The stars came out and lit the desert sands a little. There was no moon tonight. Perhaps it took pity on my plight and spared me the extraneous terror of sight. But I had terror enough in my heart not withstanding the attendance of the moon. And this terror peaked in expectation every time he emptied his pipe. And this time I did not hear him refill it. This was it. My head was abuzz with noise, my eyes misty with what felt like tears.
"Shall we?"
I did not reply. I was not even sure whether I had imagined it or if he had spoken those words. But he had. I heard him sigh again, like a man with a task ahead of him that he needs to complete unwillingly. I heard him close in towards me. Through teary eyes I saw him shift and take a seat in front of me. I was not sobbing. My eyes were just teary. Involuntarily. I hope I did not make a spectacle of myself before him. I would not like him to think that I was just as big a mess as when we did this the first time. Whenever that was. I remember myself being a sloppy mess once. Crying all over him and begging his mercy. I would have laughed at the memory had the present situation been otherwise. He was leaning in now and I heard the fateful whisper .
"May this be the last time for us."
Since as long as I can remember, he almost always said that to me as he sunk the steel into my heart. There were a few times when he was too tired or too irritated to be polite. But mostly, he hoped that this would be the last time he had to kill me. Even I did. But it would be naive to suppose that this would end; whatever this was. I knew that as the blood drained out of me, I would be taking a form somewhere else. The memory was transient and hollow, but the experience was indescribably real. I would be formed again, in the full. My existence would persist. Maybe a forest this time, or a mountain. I pray that there be a lake or river nearby. The desert had really left me dry. And he would come again in search of me. He would travel for years at end to come to me. He would find me and then we would sit together a bit. At times he talked. Mostly he kept silent. I liked the former. I never managed to say much. Just a few words here and there. Then as my horror would become unbearable, he would help me out of it. He would push his knife into my heart and hope that we never meet again. But we would. Thus are we destined.

27 August 2013

The Solitary Diner

I went out to dine today. Since I am in a new city and neither have a place nor know anyone here, I went to a restaurant nearby that I had noticed yesterday. Seemed a neat and small joint. The rate list said otherwise. The food was pretty expensive and the quality of place did not justify it. While waiting for my dinner to be presented to me, and since I was without a book (the rare occasion when I am between books and taking a few days' break), I started looking around. A family with two kids behind me, two female friends celebrating one's birthday on my right, another couple seemingly immersed in discussion a little father to the left, etc. I noticed that I was the only one sitting alone. This is a common enough practice for me. I usually dine out alone when I feel like it. If none of the ones at hand are interested enough, I just take off with a book in my 'jhola' and sit in some joint and spend time. But over time I have noticed that dining alone is not a common practice in general. On the odd occasions that I have seen someone digging into his food alone, it has usually been men towards their middle ages seemingly on errands (they carry files and folders or something of the sort). I have even shared tables with them at times, two solitary diners unmindful of either's presence. Since I had nothing better to do today, I started wondering why it was that people did not done alone? 

It is not that I am exceptionally unsocial to not have dinner companions. But I occasionally do find myself in a position where no one is interested, is otherwise engaged or has already had dinner. In such cases I step out alone. Do others not face such situations? I think they do. Assuming they do, why don't they go out? Apparently the inhibition to go out to a fancy place and dine alone is greater than the longing to have that special food. Perhaps the longing was not great enough in the first place. Or maybe people find their own company too burdensome to bear alone. Loneliness is boring for many. Has never been for me. Is that why I have failed at almost all human relationships? Except the ones in which people have stuck to me and made me succeed? But then that's their success. Still my failure. I digress however. My food was presented.

Chicken cutlet served on gravy with some fries. Hmmm. And some bread to go along. Fries and bread both? Weird. 

My mouth was busy with the food but my brain was still free to rave. So. Why do I not mind myself enough to ditch plans where I am left alone? I travel alone, quite a few people do that but attach themselves to temporary companions. I dine alone, not many do that. I go to theaters and watch movies alone, rarely people do that. I ride alone, still fewer do that, if any. I let out a low laugh as I realised what had made me this solitary diner sitting and chewing on the cold cutlet and excellent gravy. It was a social experiment. Triggered by a spat with friends back in college and converted into one of the many experiments that I had chosen myself as the subject of.

The ice tea was good as well. If only the cutlet had been freshly prepared and the prices a little less, I would have come here oftener. Well...

So this particular one was about me surviving alone. Absolutely alone. I used to attend classes occasionally, else lock myself up in my room. I fancied I could was in a prison. No, prisons were not a lonely place. I wonder why I had fancied that back then. Anyway. Self imposed confinement. Alone in whatever I did. I picked up habits that let me survive without craving social contact. Reading, writing, surfing, walking, thinking. What was funnier was that this was not the only experiment that I had forgot to terminate. My unkempt look, lack of enthusiasm or ambition, no tube, cynicism - my entire self was more or less from these weird experiments. Damn me! I am a concoction! Ah, well, the dinner was decent.

No Amex. Hah. Fake appearances. [:P] That is how I have stated judging the sophistication of places now. But then CCD accepts Amex. What a world!

As I walked back I wondered why I had not ended the experiments and whether I should end the experiments now. But there was no need to. Why make the effort? Who cares? Not me for sure. Wait, is that the experiment speaking in the first place? Argh! Too complicated. Let me just go back to the big posh room with a big bed that I have for a couple of days and stare in my laptop. Weird that I don't feel weird. I should probably get my head checked.

17 June 2013

The Powers of Defeatism

There are multiple definitions of defeatism out there. Many presume that it is a negative concept and hence they define it as such. Many link it to pessimism or weakness. But there is a definition which might make you want to look at it more objectively :

- n
a ready acceptance or expectation of defeat

Let us shun the prejudices against defeat and failure for a while and look at the concept of defeatism again. Defeatism can possibly be a ready acceptance of a thwarting circumstance. Simple as that. It is nothing more than pragmatism in the face of failure. Going forward with that definition, let us look at what defeatism has to offer.

In the red corner is the ever acclaimed and glorious Struggle. The one that leads men to better their lot. The inspiration for changes. The giver of splendor. In the blue corner is the despised Defeatism. The peddler of pessimism. The asylum of the weak willed. It is hardly worth the fight to find out who would win the competition. Defeatism with it's weak will would be seen walking away in trepidation while Struggle would stand tall in all it's magnificence. Hardly a match.

But wait. All that is plain glory talk. The conventional stuff that is fed to the kids so that they can grow up to be respectable men who know what's right and what's wrong. Struggle in the face of adversity and do not give up without a fight. Right? But then we were also taught that an unbending tree topples in the storm. So is it better to put up a fight and struggle when faced with a compelling situation or simply bend, give way and move on to something else? Depends on the situation mostly. Depends on what can be compromised upon and what cannot.

It is when the situation is something you can compromise upon (and there are very few that cannot be, despite the egotistical outlook of people) that defeatism truly shines above all other traits. It lets you accept defeat as a valid result of your enterprise. You tried, you put up a fight, you lost. Accepted. You probably want to give up at this point of time and move on to something more enticing, something better if even as a prospect. Sure, go ahead. Defeatism does not pile up guilt on you like the concept of honour does. It lets you abandon the sinking ship that you have captained and seek a shore to build a new ship and sail afresh. Defeatism lets you be happy in whatever you endeavour to pursue for you pursue it not to win it over, you pursue it because you want to pursue it and you can stop whenever you have had enough. It let's you do and not care about the result. Does not the Geeta say the same?