Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Avurudu during COVID: Recalibrating real fears and vague rituals

As we move deeper into the month of April and must, almost automatically, consider its traditional song and dance, our thoughts are collectively overshadowed by this other consideration.  Both, in the minds of many, have to do with the unseen, the unknown and the frightening. On the one hand, we want to engage in activities we normally won’t be doing like cracking out the crackers, lighting weird shaped lamps, beating drums and engaging with family members and strangers in weird, ritualistic ways wearing new, bright clothes all to ward off unseen inimicals lurking behind Pisces and Ares and invite benevolents waving from behind the sun and the moon. On the other, we are told to engage in activities we normally won’t want to like staying indoors, staying away from the fridge, staying close to hot drinks, washing hands raw, engaging with family members and strangers in weird, ritualistic ways wearing masks or space suits or both all to ward of some unseen inimical lurking in the throat of one’s best friend or watching one with vicious anticipation from one’s spouse’s car bonnet.  As we move deeper into the month of April we must, almost necessarily, consider its traditional song and dance, this time glorified twice over by two entirely different but superbly complimentary and congruent set of unknowns and vagaries.   

The key here is unknown and vague. Very few know that Avurudu is a harvest celebration and not a Buddhist or Hindu religious ritual. Most think it is the Sri Lankan version of the bacchanalian. A booze fest disguised as a fashion pageant. Few thought quarantine was a form of voluntary self-denial of bad habits until the authorities literally had to point a gun and say “quarantine is not valentine” and put everyone under enforced house arrest.

Very few urbanites know that Avurudu achieved social sanctity and relevance to our farmers because they toiled in the field, worked the land, planted things and reaped the reward of their labors. It is they who are justified in giving thanks and giving gifts to one another to commemorate a bountiful harvest, and, for those that way inclined, giving alms to the clergy of their new produce, and, transferring the good karma of meritorious deeds to their departed. Or, when their crops failed, convert the celebration into an understanding of climate change, failure of science to predict the lack of rain, karmic causality, inability of agrochemicals to do much more than poison the earth, god’s will and other similar religious instruments for dealing with setbacks while resolving to bear the hardship, giving and sharing of what little they have and, either feeling strengthened by their sacrifice or, for those that way inclined, holding those acts of merit gained despite of their suffering as their forfeit to create the spiritually valid enabling conditions for better times next year.

Very few know that the Venetians forced ships to stay isolated outside port for forty days (quarantina) during the Black Death or bubonic plague of the 14th Century that also originated in china and attacked Italy first among Europeans before decimating a third of its population. Nor do they know that the only way to stem this almost unstoppable, unseen and deadly juggernaut of death was to take themselves out of the ecosystem of disease transmission either out of desperation or enforcement or social responsibility.

Ah but how things have changed.

Regardless of how dumbed out our urban population is, COVID has done something that other world threatening crises such as the food crisis, the energy crisis, the climate crisis, the environment crisis, the conflict crisis and the religious crisis tried hard to do but never actually got any global traction.
It has proved to the world that the world is in serious trouble.

It has proven to the urbanites that their white collar jobs, their ties and designer shoes, their desk jobs and their debt ridden wealth display are useless. It has shown the world that there is a very good reason to stem exclusively profit oriented industry. It has told the world to recognize the song of birds, to listen for the tune of the bread man, to speak to one’s neighbors, to engage in family activities. It has actually made people aware that the simpler life removed from the complications of competition, gain, fame and pleasure is actually a great way of being. It has proved to the urbanites the truth of the fact that health is indeed the greatest profit and happiness is the greatest wealth. It has demonstrated that growing one’s own food and sharing one’s wherewithal with the community is more important that 10 foot tall walls, roller doors and SUVs. In fact, for the first time in a long time, the urbanites are actually justified in celebrating avurudu because they too are now societally engaged and agriculturally enabled. They, in fact, have reason to think, “thank whatever determinants, dynamics, deities, defenses, deployments, displacements, devices, dogmas and dodges for the fact that we are still alive”.

As urban life progresses suddenly non-linearly with swirls and clouds of unseen particles proximating everyone to disease and death, as urbanites growl and grumble at the speed at which their comfort zones were assaulted and violated, as urban travails are suddenly reduced to the mundane through the COVID treatment of social astigmatism, let us be thankful that as a collective, either through force or necessity or sheer darn desperation, we have been awoken from our social slumber, we have been recharged by our recognition of the ultimate levelling of human existence, we have been made to renew our license to live through the payment of our dues to the country.
Avurudu is ultimately a celebration of renewal. COVID19 has sloshed a big bucket of deep cleanser over our urban population. We have been washed cleaner if not completely free of social sickness. It is truly a time to celebrate.  

Saturday, September 7, 2019


There is nothing more proximate and yet more distant that that which is generally understood by that word.

Everyone want’s their kind of peace. But peace cannot be qualified. Peace is peace, it stands on its own and allows those who can, to hold it, bite into it, taste its elixir. Individually. 

It cannot be achieved when the world is rid of Muslims or when the Muslims rule the world or when the only form of governance is representative democracy or the only rightful governance is direct democracy or by the optimal juxtaposition of the various isms of the world.

It is not the end result of processes involving men, methods and machines, women, wishes and worry. It is not a forward-looking work-in-progress. It is not a goal where all means towards it are justified. 

It can be had, individually, by those who have completely rejected the linear vision of dogma be it via isms or the scientific religions or the religious sciences, the arts, the action or the attitude. It can be had, individually, by those who have no real ideal except to feel in trine, in harmony, with the nature of things and the things of nature.

For the rest, there is this current version of the world we live in, clouded over by the burst of unmanageable forces. Boiled in the steam of a tidal wave hitting a volcanic eruption. blasted by doubt, suspicion, hope, trust, anger, forgiveness, jealousy, admiration, concern, worry, joy, disregard and contentment. Regardless of who promised them what, where, why, how much, at what cost. For them I feel greatly for they will die mostly in ignorance, knowing not who they are, why they are or when they are. A very fortunate few among them will die screaming with horror “what have we done” when the next tsunami, made of madness, man and manipulation slams over them, through them, under them.

The peaceful will live evenly among the horror struck, the damaged, and, when that next tsunami hits, first merely smile, next, merely die.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Revisiting Calhoun: Death by congestion

Congestion is something we take for granted these days. So much so that we cannot now imagine a world without it. Even a casual glace will at ourselves will show us that we live overcrowded lives. Drowning in a thick soup of human beings, vehicles, buildings, gadgets, ideas, thoughts, emotions – you name it, we are hammered on a daily basis by an excess of it. Cities overflowing with humanity and its attendant excess and waste. Roads snarled to a standstill by motors. Air, water and earth saturated with toxins. Social media idea sludge chocking our ability to even breath let alone think. Forced to absorb this, most of us are going crazy without knowing why because everyone else is also going crazy at the same time so there is no way to see it any different. No amount of money, power or fame can free us from this mental, physical and verbal crowdedness. If fact, those things have a tendency to infinitely compound an already impossible situation.

Flashback to my early teens. Back then, telling horror stories to each other was one of the ways of gaining acceptance among friends. My favorite (for a very short time) was about over-crowded rat enclosures where everything was aplenty but space at a premium. For me, it was the scientific bogey story to beat all bogey stories.

Alas, my friends didn't seem to think so. They didn't remain my friends for much longer either. You see, there were no ghosts or zombies or aliens in my story and I was merely a morbid, pessimistic, storm crow.  When asked where I had heard the story, I carelessly said I had read it somewhere but couldn't remember. Their conclusion was obvious. I was a serious case of nutjob. I was to be left well alone, or, if touching was required, then, carefully, clad in a virus resistant coverall, with a ten foot bargepole with a condom on it.  And, in Sri Lanka, in days when the number of humans was not that big and there was no internet for instant affirmation, my claims that rats and humans were interchangeable in the social ordering of exploding populations was deemed the stuff of a very seriously deranged imagination. 

This story (for it does read that way) was one of the most famous social experiments of all time. It was designed and conducted by Dr. John B. Calhoun, the American ethologist and behavioral researcher and became famously known as the “behavioral sink”.  He started his work in 1947 and published his findings in the Scientific American in 1962. His paper became known as one of the 40 studies that changed psychology and went on to be quoted upward of a 150 times a year.

Utopia is a much sort after destination but once reached can have some nasty ramifications

What Calhoun did was create a quarter acre enclosed pen for rats or, to use his words,  “built a rat city”.  It was enough to hold as many as 5000 rats and he seeded it with five pregnant females. But the population never got to that. It leveled off at about 150 and during the years he kept watch, never exceeded 2000. What happened?

In his 1954 experiment at the Laboratory of Psychology of the National Institute of Mental Health, his rat universe was provided with as much food, bedding and shelter as the rats required. The enclosure held no predators and disease exposure was minimal. Calhoun described his experimental universe as “rat utopia,” or “mouse paradise.” With all their visible needs met, the animals bred rapidly. The only restriction Calhoun imposed on his population was of space – and as the population grew, this became increasingly problematic. As the pens heaved with animals, one of his assistants described rodent “utopia” as having become “hell” (Marsden 1972).  Again, what happened?

Here is a very general summary of the various phases of his behavioral sink and it shows excesses resulting in a rat utopia lost or, in human terms, as Tennyson was wont to say, in paradise lost. 

Like Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s pigeons, Calhoun’s rats came to assume a near-iconic status as emblematic animals, exemplary of the ways in which behavioral experimentation at once marks and violates the human-animal distinction. The macabre spectacle of crowded psychopathological rats and the available comparisons with human life in the densely-packed inner cities ensured the experiments were quickly adopted as scientific evidence of social decay (Ramsden and Adams (2009)).

Human beings are in the same trap

Enough science I think? The parallels to modern human behavioral trends are quite obvious. While I have sufficient metaphysical evidence to be anthropocentric, in this case, I stand down on that stance. No one needs metaphysics or density studies to figure this one out.

The reason why each of us needs more space than our physical bodies inhabit is because of something zoologists call the flight distance (The minimal distance from another animal or human at which point it decides to flee). Beyond that point, any encroachment of space, or, minimal point of territorial integrity, moves the animal closer to fight distance at which point the animal decides that it cannot flee but can only fight. 

Given the number of people in the world (7.2bn), habitable land mass (just 19% of total land mass), each of us has only about 4,104 sq. meters to live on. If we apply the rat-universe parallel of a maximum of 200 rats per 1000 sq.m to human habitation, a small calculation will inform us that we have already two-fold exceeded our peak point population vis-à-vis overcrowding. Two fold! When one takes into account that not all habitable land is actually occupied, we have a very large number of people living in many high density pockets (metros, cities, towns etc.) where the flight-distance is already invaded and in many cases, even the fight-distance has been compromised. 61 wars at present across the planet folks. SIXTY ONE I tells ya... 61! Most of them group driven, ethnoreligious, genocidal, brutally extravagant in the type and form of murder and the direct and indirect body count. If you are looking for a good example of Human Calhoun rats in phase 3, look no further than the so-called war on terror in Iraq where 2 million people were murdered of which 50,000 were children. 

So, while continuing our commitment to excess and waste, while continuing our desire to fornicate like rabbits and breed like rats, can we resolve conflict? No. Can we curb roaming gangs of politicians and thugs attacking anything and everything? No. Can we curb galloping same-sex relationships? No. Can we curb this preoccupation with manicures, haute couture, haute cuisine, haute gyms and umbrellas? No. Can we curb the explosion of shrinks and couches? No.

Yeah, who is not fighting these days? Who is not competing? Who is not highly opinionated? Who is not self-centered? Who is not angry? Who is not complaining? Who is not jealous? Who is not wounded? Who is not scarred? Who doesn't have eating disorders? Who isn't spending inordinate amounts of time in the salon? Who doesn't need a shrink? 

Our present situation shows us that the human race is past the striving and exploiting phase and are in the process of transiting swiftly past the equilibrium phase to the death phase. We have cast the die and the die reads "die". 

Well then, we must ask ourselves what on earth are we doing here, going round and round the earthly enclosure like rats in a trap, trying this democracy or that dictatorship, this rule or that law? Not a lot that bears mentioning.

Instead, what we have are psychopathological humans huddled over mobile devices, running away from social engagement, slamming themselves repeatedly into waves of information explosions comparable only to population explosions, running screaming away from that into vacant staring or equally vacant copulation, terrified of committing to anything, scared witless of breeding and feeding and caring, rationalizing every irrational behavior, throwing kids at daycares, killing teachers, raping mothers, humping anything that moves, bouncing from twenty-minute uppers to twenty-day downers, poisoning bodies with every kind of drug imaginable, searching…searching…searching… uselessly for an escape from this overpopulated prison we call earth. 

Next time we have the urge to FaceBook, NightClub, WhatsApp, DrugNight, ScrewBinge, TVDinner, ChatFeed, SpouseCheat, MathMull, StratPlan, CutSlack, GrowBeard, DyeHair, FaceLift know this: #WeCannotEscape. We are the #Doomsday. We are the #StormCrows. 

We are the chaos point. We are the morbidity metric. We are the necromantic vacants.

WE? ...are the hell.

Friday, November 17, 2017

It is the whole elephant that is sick - not just it's trunk

(This is the third part of a three part series that anecdotally explores the fundamental question of whether science is an adequate tool/system /conduit to arriving at truth) 

The insanity of specialization 

These days, when I go to a doctor, I feel like the elephant that was analyzed by five blind men. I get shunted from the trunk-lady to the foot-dude who consults the tail-gal who speaks to the ear-guy who phones up the mahout. Each selectively tests everything from my teeth enamel to my toe nails. Each gives me five different types of medication specific to each person’s specialization. They attack my wallet to the tune of fifty thousand rupees and turn me into a chronic, serial pill popper.  Almost, I want to tap them on their shoulders and whisper “people, it is the whole darn elephant that is sick, not the elephant’s trunk. That is only diseased. Curing that will only cure the disease not the sickness”.  I know it won’t do any good though. Specialization has blinded these people and telling them they are blind won’t give them back their sight. Nor will it give sight to those who equally blindly believe in these sightless scientific surgeons when they poke and prod at people, ideas and things, hitting a few, missing a lot and mostly destroying the things on which their intellectual scalpels land.

I’ve written about this many times in many ways but this line of thinking started some fifteen years ago because of a casual statement made by an American busker (and biochemist) named Stewart on the banks of the Huron river at the University of Michigan. My guitar and his harmonica were talking to each other under a bower of maple, linden and aspen blazing their autumn shades off caramelized leaves. On one of the breaks from the music he waved his hand to take in the red-gold forest and casually said “AJ, did you know that most trees are standing on their heads?” and I’m like “huh?”. He shrugged. “Think about it, most of them absorb nutrients through their roots and excrete oxygen and water vapor through stomata in their leaves”.  hmm?! That was a new one for me although Stu’s observation is as old as the hills.

I’ve never thought of them that way before” I said as I put my guitar down. As I pondered what he said, something triggered, something kindled, something became. “mmm… so too is the tree of knowledge”. He’s like “huh?”  

Think about it” I said. “The source energy of the knowledge tree comes from the roots. Not the trunk, large branches, sub-branches, twigs, leaves or fruit. Those are the outcomes of processing root nutrients not the source of the nutriment itself. We cannot truly know anything by going up that tree. We must climb down from its sub-branches to bigger branches to large branches to massive branches to trunk to root. Each lower level providing baser, greater, wider levels of understanding as to why the entire tree from root to fruit exists”.

Stu had this habit of rapidly popping his lips when he is thinking of something and he popped away for a long time, his double barreled harmonica forgotten before he said (paraphrased) “So a huge branch would be the physical sciences, a big branch would be chemistry, a smaller one would be biochemistry, a twig would be Lipids, a leaf would be cholesterol and a fruit would be the finding that cholesterol is bad. So if a biochemist says cholesterol is bad, that finding is the excrement of some fundamental food intake of a form and source that chemistry knows nothing about?”

I nodded vigorously. “And, here’s the thing. You will have to drill down below chemistry to figure out if your conclusion about cholesterol is good shit or not. You have to know the reason why the massive branch of the physical sciences exists in the first place since chemistry is merely a sub-branch. That will give you a minor paradigm shift like the crossover from Newtonian to Quantum mechanics. But  that is not enough. One level lower you land on the trunk which is a large paradigm shift such as those being proposed by the meta-physicists and noetic scientists. That won’t’ cut it either. You will have to mosey down to the root like the wise and the spiritualists do.  Those feed off a plethora of nutrients that enable them to reflect, assimilate, consolidate, reject, interact, intermesh and direct their ever growing insight and understanding of wholes within wholes. Only then can one stabilize knowledge and obtain key clues as to how the food and why the waste”. 

I pulled out a piece of paper from my backpack and hastily sketched the figure that I have recreated here. He studied it, engaging in some very serious lip-popping.

“You just now cooked this up?”

Well yeah, because of what you said, but it’s pretty obvious and I am sure there are others who’ve come to the same conclusion before me Stu”.

He shook his head. “No. This is simpler. Damn it  man, following your reasoning, all that we have been doing for a long time is showering the world with shit. AJ? That’s some serious shit you are claiming and the thing is – it makes sense. We are no longer seekers, we are just excrement manufacturers”.

Soon after,  I returned to Sri Lanka and Stu?…well… I dunno. But folks, if all that French was confusing, let me try to explain this a bit more.

For 400 years, we have refused to believe that understanding exists at the root of the knowledge tree and conveniently messed around with twigs, leaves and fruits trying to stand it on its head. Valiantly, we have attempted to legitimize the case for calling it’s excretory organ its intake organ. Responding exclusively to symptoms and surface observations, we have tried to re-label its backside as its mouth.  Yet, when we want to describe someone who is totally with it, we say “she has her ear to the ground” and when we want to describe someone who has totally lost it we say “he has his head is in the clouds”. Right? Smile.  

Collecting facts into fact-buckets like biochemistry is selectively useless, merely subscribing to the fallacious view I described in my previous piece. A view that believes that everything can be broken down into their component pieces, studied in mutually disassociated states, deductively or inferentially linked together through analysis and understood as a whole.

Here is the general rationale: If you break a car into its component parts, you can understand exactly how it works and if you put it back together it will come back alive. Here is the fallacy: If you do that to a dog, once it is put back together it will remain dead.

Something very essential to the idea of the living dog, the whole of its existence is lost in the process of dismembering it.  Similarly, when attempting to understand systems that exist dependent on an infinity of parameters (living beings, ecosystems, social groups, nations etc.), breaking them down has only one practical outcome – it breaks them.

But we are never taught that. Instead, we are told that we must break things into sectors and pieces to know what is going on in the cosmos despite the fact that the cosmos is neither made that way nor exists that way nor functions that way. And so, we’ve landed ourselves with hundreds of specializations and thousands of minor ones, each basically a fact-bucket. Inside them lives that very strange animal – the specialist or, the fact-sop - answering a series of (mostly) irrelevant questions that yields a lot of nothings about mostly everything.

Preoccupied with crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s, they expend years and dollars to find out say, “the impact of water droplets on the air-water interface” or, in English, what happens when a drop of water is dropped into a glass of water, or, in even simpler English, “oh lord, is this guy serious?” Yes, he is. He believes, erroneously, that he is manufacturing gourmet chocolate when all he is doing is making dung.

Let us pause here for a while and take a careful look around. What has this type of science done for us? Have we understood the world clearer or made it better? No. As I said in my last piece, everything science has cooked up is cyclically false. Moving round and round in circles of error, we are now at Armageddon. Do we need fact-sops like climate specialists, agriculture experts, energy gurus, military strategists or money moguls to tell us that? No!

Can we solve it? Sure. There are no questions that we feel like asking that don’t have solutions, provided that we are not afraid to look wide and deep. However, acknowledging those two keywords is a challenge for most. Because of specialization we fear them both.

Instead of scrambling up into the branches and twigs of the tree of knowledge, we need to scurry down to its root. Instead of flying up into its canopy like eagles, we need to scratch at its base like turkeys. Instead of selecting the particular type of tunnel vision we will use for the rest of our lives, we need to buy ourselves the widest angled scope possible. Instead of selective facts we need holistic awareness. We need to be able to study the dog in situ and figure out how it actually manages to be alive without trying to make mincemeat out of it. Try. I did. The result is heady. Or, should I say, *smiles* - rooty? 

The rise of the great good religion of science

(This is the second part of a three part series that anecdotally explores the fundamental question of whether science is an adequate tool/system /conduit to arriving at truth)  

“The scientific method is the addition of new truths to the stock of old truths, or the increasing approximation of theories to the truth, and in the odd case, the correction of past errors”

The above um… heroic definition or Whig Interpretation of scientific history appears in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In that, one can almost see with one’s mind’s eye, cohorts of theorists, researchers and experimenters marching resolutely on a journey if not towards the truth, then at least towards a cumulatively better understanding of the natural world. Beautiful. Unfortunately, it is the greatest myth ever promoted to a gullible modern world. You ever heard the phrase “Paradigm shift” yes? These days, every Tom, Dick and Kusumalatha uses it to describe some fundamental change, some intellectual progress, some shake-up idea. The term was first coined by physicist Thomas Kuhn who,  after having a jolly good laugh at that goody-two-shoes view of science sobers up sufficiently to give the world an alternative take on this imaginary, utopic idea of what science is all about
He proves  that there is no such thing as incremental progress in science and argues instead for an episodical model.  Science, he says, is quite comfortable running around in happy circles within a given knowledge structure, making little scientific toys and trinkets in the form of casual discoveries, attending conferences, writing papers and generally being of no practical use to anyone until BAM! Some nutjob somewhere comes up with something totally crackpot and completely different than anything that went on for a hundred years before. End, episode 1 and start, mad scramble for episode 2. The period of transition from one episode to another is awash in turmoil and doubt where no one knows what the hell is going on, everyone has an opinion and no one has a reasonable answer. Example: the crossover from Newtonian to quantum mechanics. What happened there, as you’ve probably guessed,  is a paradigm shift. 

Khun’s airtight, historically consistent claims traumatized a lot of scientific philosophers at the time but what really pissed all of them off was his assertion that competing paradigms were incommensurable. This means that there was absolutely no way of determining which of any two contenders was closer to the truth. For example, Newtonian mechanics looked at the externalities of an object while quantum mechanics looks at stuff at the sub-atomic level and there was absolutely no baseline against which to measure their relative merits or demerits. No benchmark that is scientifically consistent, triangulated and validated. So, what he implicitly asked (and what caused the aforementioned angst among the scientific philosophers) was this: When we celebrate our next so-called scientific breakthrough are we not simply subscribing to yet another outbreak of mob psychology or, more brutally, fashion?  Amusing if it were not so earth shattering.

This, from a man whose work has been described as one of the most influential in the 20th century, is the stuff of nightmares for the so-called scientific purists. It is the death knell to their blithe claim of a of concord of intellectual thought driving forward in a juggernaut of truthful effort through a linear, Cartesian view of the world to greater and greater heights of knowledge, larger and larger ecosystems of understanding. Looking at the actual history of science as opposed to the fashionable, favorable view of it, it is not hard to figure out the utter absurdity of the claims of the purists. Kuhn’s work spawned a whole new area of study into the sociology of science which proved that science was not this sacred, untouchable product of enlightened beings but simply a subculture.  A deeply self-protective subculture where nothing novel is attempted by normal science which simply defaults to preserving and cleaning up the status quo. Content, contrary to all norms of seeking, as Ian Hackings states, to discover what it expects to discover

We are fifty odd years on from the time that Kuhn paradigm shifted the common idea of science and its methods. I would go a few steps further along the way. I will go so far as to say that science has now thrown caution to the winds to abuse and misuse the fanatic trust that people place in its methods to a) suborn highly questionable research, b) bumble along from useless conference to negligible summit, c) espouse not truth but expedience and d) tag along with trends and fashion mostly engineered by business interests with no thought or desire or requirement to delve deep into the core of truth.

Science has now digressed beyond linearity or episody. It’s entire structure is driven by a base stupidity (unfortunately I cannot find a less scathing word here) that has made it, laughably, cyclic in its fallacies. For example, back in the seventies, eggs were good. Next they were horrible. Then whites were great, yolks were bad. Then yolks were fine, whites were slime. Finally, the whole darned egg was good – again.  Sum total of egg-research, human effort, forty years and millions spent? A round, smooth, humpty. Bad cholestrerol? Oh la la. A very recent study shows absolutely no correlation between that and heart disease among the aging population. Yet, ask yourself how many times have you messed up your food patterns, how many mad adverts appeared on TV, how many new products more poisonous than butter you stuffed your face with because some set of scientific crack heads screamed cholesterol at you?   Ask yourself if there is any difference between the fear instilled in you by religions and that instilled in you by science. Coconut oil? Great a century ago. Insane until a year ago. Now? Wow!

What does this tell us? Science didn’t lose its senses – It never had any sense. Another example. Evolution. No one has proved it but everyone believes it. The operative word is belief. They believe that we came down from monkeys. Apparently our genes match more closely to a species of African tree frog than anything else. As kids these days are wont to say, wtf?

Wtf indeed. We still believe with absolute faith that science is the best weapon we have regardless of the fact that its collective effort, through all of its disciplines, from economics to agrochemicals to petrochemicals to soil science has us teetering on the brink of destruction. I know, for certain, that every scientist who reads this would rather issue a fatwa against me than acknowledge the very inconvenient truth that science as it is, is a piece of junk. This is tragic. It shows science for what it is – the playground of a group of religious fundamentalists who feed off the trust of millions and feed them fear in return. Other religions started out with great base ideas and processes, driven by charismatic leaders and genuine seekers. So too, we saw the dawn of science. We saw how other religions degenerated into ritual and self-preservation. So too, we see the evolution of science. We saw the high priests of other religions dumbly following something that was far removed from its original base and create entire hierarchies of falsehood, lies and fear. So too we see the degeneration of science. We must now be bold enough to acknowledge that mainstream science is no better than the religions it sneers at. If we reject the one, it is high time we also reject the other – and for the same reasons.

In the first segment of a three piece series, I mildly encapsulated the fact that science was just a story inside another a story. In this second segment, my treatment of the subject is bordering on the vitriolic. I apologize for the fact that I cannot sugarcoat it, just as much as I cannot sugarcoat my critique of religions. 
But all is not lost for science. Its great advantage over other religions is that it has given itself the capacity to rethink its thinking, restructure its structure and redo it’s doing. It can start by rejecting this absurd, fairytale idea of itself and its jocular belief that everything can be studied in parts to understand the whole. It can take the advice of physicists like Fritjof Capra (Tao of Physics, Belonging to the Universe), reject its Cartesian foundation  and embark on a more holistic approach. It can take Capra’s advice in The Web of Life, and focus on systemic information generated by the relationships among all parts as a significant additional factor in understanding the character of the whole, emphasizing the web-like structure of all systems and the interconnectedness of all parts.

With the world going belly-up as we speak, we are now, as a civilization, actively moving towards rejecting the industrial era and espousing the sustainable era. It also sees us actively considering holistic science over normal science. In that transition, come all ye faithful, joyfully confused and questionably triumphant, and see for yourselves that this might be the foundation level paradigm shift that saves science as a tool for seeking the truth and not yet another failed religion that decided to continue with mindless ritual.   

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Moving beyond science: Doing what one must, not merely what one can

(This is the first part of a three part series that anecdotally explores the fundamental question of whether science is an adequate tool/system /conduit to arriving at truth)  

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. And probably the biggest story we have ever told ourselves is ‘The scientific story’ and we always think of science as this ultimate truth, but science is just a story”.
That was Lynne McTaggart the American investigative journalist and author of “The Field” quoting Joan Didion during an interview with movie director Tom Shadyac (Ace Ventura, Liar Liar etc.) for his 2010 documentary “I am” in which he attempts to figure out what is wrong with this world and what we can do about it. 
As I finished watching that excellent documentary in Phlladelphia in 2012, my mind went back 11 years, to 2001, 9/11, anthrax and a frosty December day in Flint, Michigan. On that day, Dr. Kim Thet Oo, a doctor from Bhurma, proved the truth of Ms. McTaggart’s statement to me.  Much in the news today because of the Rohingya massacres, the protracted pogroms by Burmese Buddhists against Burmese Buddhists over decades in the longest ongoing conflict in the world went completely under our radar. Dr.Kim lived through that, and, as a Buddhist and humanist, didn’t care what race, cast or creed he treated. This is his story my friends, and I share this with the hope that you will smile, as I did, so many years ago. 
I had taken a Greyhound from Ann Arbor to Flint to meet my Theravada Buddhist friends Ken and Visakha Kawasaki to help them set up the Buddhist Relief Mission and Burmese Relief Fund websites when I met Dr. Kim for the first time.
Having joined the 8888 uprising in Burma he fled the Junta in 1990 just months before graduation. He lived the next eleven years in the jungles along the Thai-Burmese border. The Kawasakis had somehow managed to get him and his family out of there and over to America. He had arrived in Flint just a few months before my visit. As you will find out, he was already accomplished in many ways – including driving on American highways.
We talked. Chuckling over the reason why only  Sri Lankan and Burmese people can eat rice with the tips of their fingers. Clucking in disgust at the way Therawada ritual had almost killed off Therawada practice in our two countries. Skimming, inevitably, through various conflicts across the world from Peru to the Philippines.  Hesitantly, I also asked him about his experiences in Burma. In response, he described an interview with a breathless young thang from the local newspaper in Flint. So vivid and detailed was his description of it that I felt almost as if I were there so I am reproducing my notes from the perspective of a fly- on-the-wall.
Breathless Young Thang (BYT): You were exiled before graduation.
Doctor Kim Thet Oo: (smiles) Yes. I graduated in the jungle.
BYT: What?
Kim: There was no one else in the jungle with medical experience. Just me. My practice stretched 1000 miles. I tended thousands of Burmese homeless. Many  sick. Burmese and Thai authorities were hounding and pounding  them.  Do you know any American doctor with such a practice?  
BYT: (blinks) er…no, I guess not.. er…we had some of that terror during 9/11.
Kim: Yes. I am sad.  Many people died without knowing why.
BYT: Nothing can compare to that.
Kim: (mildly) There are situations that compare.
BYT: (looks blankly at Kim)
Kim: You experienced 9/11 once, I dealt with it five or six times a year for eleven years.
BYT: (Gapes) huh?
Kim: (smiles) I was joking.
BYT: (relief)
Kim: Definitely it wasn’t more than three times a year.

Breathless young thang wisely decides to change tack.

BYT: There has been much worry in the USA about Anthrax.
Kim: Yes, I feel sorry for those medical people. They are in great fear.
BYT: I think, surely, anybody would be terrified?
Kim: That depends.
BYT: (laughs) You aren’t?
Kim: In the jungle, I did not have those protective suits I saw the doctors wearing on TV. Jungle doctors  cannot afford fear.

At a loss for words, BYT stops. She smiles weakly around the room, wishing she were somewhere else. But she had this darned interview to do. She steels herself, takes a deep breath and asks the next question.

BYT: (carefully) You…you mean you treated anthrax cases in the jungles?
Kim: Of course.
BYT: Without protection?
Kim: Yes.
BYT:  (Incredulous) Can’t have been many cases or you would not be here.
Kim: (shrugs) You are right. I am lucky.  I did not treat  more than four or five a month.

Poor BYT. She just gave up. Wanting an interview she walked into a reality show. Not just any old reality TV but something that literally and figuratively broadsided everything she had ever been taught about life and science.  If I had been there, I would have seen Dr. Kim watch, with deep concern, as she walked a bit unsteadily out the door and I would have heard him mumble, “She doesn’t know…she cannot know… she will never know”. 
He drove me back from Flint to Ann Arbor. He was studying to get a license to practice in America and I asked him how that was going. He said it was tough.
Language?” I queried. He shook his head.
No. My problem is trying to find the answers they expect from me”.
What do you mean?
They ask these various questions you know. Like about some procedure maybe say like setting broken bones”.
So, yes…” he said, swishing past a few vehicles Asian style.
“… there is a correct answer in medical science but I also discovered about 50 other far better methods. But medical science has never heard of those. Because medical science did not have to practice medicine in a bamboo hut with no drugs, no nurses, no equipment. The only thing I had was  my will to somehow cure the patient. But American medical exams do not know how to ask about such things so it is difficult for me.
We were silent for a couple of highway miles and then Dr. Kim said something that changed my view of science forever.
 “I learned something in the jungle. Desperate desire to heal is a far better weapon against disease than science”.
Something clicked on in me at that moment that has never been unclicked. It is this: Science, despite how big a story it is, despite its laudable successes, is a very limited tool, and, because of its structure, it can never  be anything more than a limited tool. More seriously though, I realized that it was also a limiting tool.
Dr.Kim” I said. “I really don’t know if I should sympathize with you or be jealous of you”.
Neither. I am human. And, humans do what they must, not only what they can. I not only had to provide medicine, but also food and shelter since my patients did not have those either. No point giving them any sort of medicine if they died of starvation or exposure. My hospital hut was also a hostel and a hotel. I cooked. I cleaned. I doctored. We ate this really heavy rice because we never knew when our next meal was going to be”.
As we barreled down that American highway I thought to myself that at that very moment, similar miracles were probably happening in the north of Sri Lanka. That thought, contrarily, served only to depress me. So I thought about his family instead.
Warm, inviting and never out of a hot meal for the hungry because Asian hospitality is always ready for the uninvited guest. He had three lovely daughters. One was around twelve and the others around five or six years of age. That got me thinking that he must have got married while still a student in Burma and I asked him about it. He said in his usual quiet voice, “We have been married eight years now. We met in the jungle”.
I glanced up sharply but he had anticipated my question “My oldest was two and dying of diarrhea when  her mother brought her to me. She didn’t expect the child to live. Neither did I. I fought for her life but it was hopeless. I was exhausted. I slept. The mother disappeared in the night thinking the child would be dead by morning. But she survived. Somehow she survived. Not because of me. Not because of medicine. She is my daughter now.  She rode to America on my back”.
I smiled then. I am still smiling. Ten such and this earth will be a worthwhile place to inhabit. In the darkest places on this planet, where the worst qualities of human beings are seen, there, I firmly believe, are to be found the finest as well.
In people who  see beyond their noses.  Who feel beyond their hearts. Who prove that science is just a story.  Join me people and say "Thank you Doctor Kim for being around" 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Does anyone need to tell us what is good?

NO, we can think, say and do whatever we want” most people say, adding, (if they feel kind) “Bread is 60 bucks a pop, grandpa, ya can take it or leave it”.

This is shallow, casual and anarchic thinking that has washed over the world like a plague. So much so that each time I have thought “there cannot be anything more vicious than that”, “there cannot be anything more terrible than that”, “there cannot be anything more disgusting than that” I have been forced to recalibrate lower. In every new time, clime and social sub-stratum I traversed, I saw people standing on their rights to what they want, screwing themselves, screwing the world and assailing me with new and improved versions of human viciousness. Clobbering me with bigger and better versions of human failure.  Horror in human thought, word and deed was a bottomless pit I concluded. These days, be it politics, religion, education, ethnicity, medicine, finance, art, fashion, war;  there are few men and fewer matters that can elicit more than an amused smile and casual shake of my head.  Mildly tragic perhaps, but nothing really surprises me anymore. But one.

Quality surprises me. Nay. The presence of quality in people, ideas and things shocks the living bejesus outta me.  And I was surprised to say the least when I came across it in an article by Gamini  Akmeemana titled “Math, Idiocy and All Those Sums Which Don’t Add Up”. He and I both seem to share a mutual regard for Robert Pirsig and his book “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”.  He and I both seem to share a mutual regard for Robert Pirsig. He says a few nice things about stuff I’d written earlier but that was not the reason why I think he is a quality human being. Not as a reciprocal patting of backs but rather as a statement of fact, he did three things in that article that set him way apart from the raff that I deal with on a daily basis. In it, he said a beautiful thing, he did a beautiful thing, he triggered a beautiful thing.  Any one of those is kinda rare but to be at the receiving end of all three at a single sitting is indeed an event. Let me take a few paragraphs to explain because I feel that will give me a nice Segway into the topic and an opportunity to present eventually, a comparative example.  

First, even before I read the piece, I saw his strapline where he says that books are not mentioned anymore. With that statement he indicated a love of books and a nostalgia for their true worth as precious and valuable creatures, pets even, that can, as Pirsig says “edify” and not merely inform. To be read, reread, caressed, dog-eared, underlined, annotated, mulled over, discussed. Giving them relationships with their readers that are unique and personal and pretty much impossible with your Kindle versions of them. In an age and day where the time between thought formation, thought consolidation and thought dissemination is zero, where knowledge acquisition has been completely subsumed by information interchange and information overload, where harried people hurry through their own experiences and those of others, where, as Gamini says, “today’s big becomes tomorrow’s trivia” it indicates an uncommonly even keeled person. When I saw that, I fondly remembered the greatest love strong ever written about the love of books: Helene Hanff’s “84, Charring Cross Street” and I silently saluted Gamini for bringing those memories flooding back.

Next, he excellently outlined the gist of a very complicated read with a tapestry of images veined with the thread of all of those sums that cannot possibly add up through any rubric known to modern man. As I was writing my previous piece, the thought had crossed my mind that I should speak in greater detail of Pirsig’s brilliant defense of Sophism and rhetoric and his deviously clever strategy to sweep the church of reason and dialectics into the intellectual dustbin. But that task is no longer required. Gamini has executed it very well.

Finally, he took me back to the meat of the book itself and Pirsig’s tortuous route to understanding the meaning of quality.  Those memories also put in sharp relief, its most lasting takeaway for me. It is when Pirsig, towards the end of the book, in what  I consider to be its most powerful and dramatic chapter, finally ties his real self “Phaedrus” to a Platonic dialogue of the same name and says “What is good, Phaedrus and what is not good, need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”.  This is both the apex question and the rhetoric answer to the question  “what is quality?”  where this quality in described in terms of the Greek word araté meaning moral value.  It triggered in me the thought that I should write about that at some future date and with that thought came another one. That the man making me think all of this was a man of quality.  

It is tempting to leave this question in the realm of Sophism and rhetoric where Pirsig left it. I would be justified in walking away with a vague sense of easy unease that the question was completely and fully answered - not through the convenient method of actually answering it but rather, by expanding the potency of the question-answer matrix to the point where any dialectic answer would be the silly indulgence of the church of reason and its henchwoman – rationality. Yet, we have moved on from a hundred years ago when guys like Pirsig was battling these issues. More importantly, we, as easterners, know that our dharma licked this problem of quality yonks ago through ways of seeing (dharshana or philosophy) that the west (Pirsig included) found difficult to understand. We used a whole body of material generally described by such words as sathdharma, saarachiththa, sathguna, sathyakriya to explain moral value. Rather than delve into the complex intricacies of these terms, I will give an idea of araté  through a comparison of how the meaning of a set of key social tasks and those assigned to execute them have changed over time. Those that I choose for this example are the ones associated with protection and the reason I choose them is that they are the foundation upon whose strength all societies and all nations either fly or fall.

The things that protect us and make us safe, we value over all else. The people that protect us and make us safe, we revere above all others. There are four ways in which we are protected and there are four types of people who use them for our protection.

We are protected by knowledge, we are protected by truth, we are protected by medicine and we are protected by the material requisites of food, clothing, shelter and security from physical attack. Until quite recent, these factors, also known as the four societal shields against disaster, were deemed so critical that they were provided to all for free. The first was provided by teachers, the second by the renunciates, the third by healers and the fourth by the kings.

Gurukama, pavidikama, vedakama and rakajama  as we used to call them protected us. I use the past tense here on purpose.  Not too far back, kings thought, spoke and acted in accordance with the kingly virtues and disciplines (raaja dharma, raaja vinaya) and similarly, written edicts of virtue and discipline governed the way in which the other shield bearers engaged society. The basis for those codes of conduct were simple: they were put in place to make sure that every thought, word and deed of the societal shields served to protect and succor the people and make their lives more content, more even, more stable, more sober. Therefore, they were callings, often thrust upon people because of proven ability and never considered to be livelihoods. Their practitioners were the “aristo” or the best, as Pirsig notes. Their conduct increased, every day, the trust and love that the people had for them. For that they were revered.

Now, instead of kings we have leaders. Instead of healers we have doctors. Instead of teachers we have educators and instead of monks we have clergy. The difference between these is devastating. Whereas the earlier crop had these vested upon them to protect society, the present crop take these labels on simply to protect themselves. They set themselves out to become leaders or doctors or teachers or clergy and quite apart from being shields for society, they want society to protect them. Through that very desire they prove that they are the worst. The filth. The slime. The dregs of society. Defaulting to conduct that lacks both value and morality. All the while, they also insist that their self-serving hollowness is given the same status as that of the protectors of yore  and that they too are similarly worshiped. Compounding the insults they heap upon society, they also insist that everything reduces to money and therefore they are merely cat’s paws of those who have it. They damage. They destroy. They give us, day by day, increasingly more terrible examples of human mediocrity and failure. Sucking almost all people into their horrifying vortex of disaster, they wipe out whatever goodness remains in them. Their conduct continuously increases the doubt, suspicion, anger and hatred people have for them. For that they are reviled.

Taking the above comparative example folks, as Asians, steeped in our dharmic tradition, cocooned in our dharmic ethos, we do not need to be told what is good. We know. But that knowledge has been subsumed, marginalized, ridiculed and finally eliminated from societal ordering by a set of shield bearers that sit, not upon thrones of honor but rather, upon their brains. Let us therefore resolve to redeem ourselves and reclaim our knowledge. Our heritage. Our legacy. Let us, my friends, resolve to blow away the clouds of ignorance and webs of deceit that have trammeled our vision for decades and see our true worth. Our true quality. Our true  araté

(this article appeared in the Daily Mirror in September 2017)

For those of you who want to know...