Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Spirit of Inquiry

My 5 year old asked me about ghosts the other day. He wanted to know if ghosts really existed and whether I believed in them. It was a little after he and his elder brother, my 8 year old, watched the movie Bhoothnath for the n'th time. I guess he was confused by the conflicting responses he got from everyone he asked, every time he saw the movie. (And I bet his elder brother had been feeding him all kinds of stories about ghosts, just to scare him.) So now the younger tyke wanted a definitive answer from Daddy. I told him that ghosts were people who have died but whose memories lived on inside our minds, which sometimes took shape in our imagination as though they were still really alive. Difficult to explain phenomena like hallucination to a five year old, so that's about as close as I got.

That conversation set me thinking about the subject of spirits and ghosts. As a teenager with a strong scientific temper and a keen interest in the physics of the infinite (astrophysics) and the infinitesimal (nuclear physics), I'd already dismissed that kind of talk as mumbo-jumbo. Even so, there were a bunch of questions about ghosts I used to ponder over (when not preoccupied with questions about Schroedinger's cat) just assuming, for the sake of argument, that ghosts were a real phenomenon. For example: Do ghosts age? Is the ghost of Newton older than the ghost of Einstein or are they both "frozen" at the point in time when they died? If one were to "see" Newton's ghost, would he look as he looked at his dying moment or would he look as he would have looked if he were still alive today?

When I was watching the movie Ghost some years ago, I found myself wondering whether the character played by Patrick Swayze, as a ghost, would ever get to change his shirt. It must be rather uncomfortable to have to eternally be clothed in the outfit one died in, I thought. Ditto in the movie The Sixth Sense, which made the line "I see dead people" famous, in which the ghost played by Bruce Willis continues to wear a blood-stained shirt all through but realizes it only at the end. I found that odd. (Such mundane trivia do bother me, even as I watch highly engaging movies.)

Reflecting about it now, after having answered my son's question, I found the idea of a spirit that might exist without a body quite fascinating to investigate (provided one is equipped with the knowledge and tools brought to us by studies in psychology, physiology, anthropology, phenomenology, epistemology and various inter-disciplinary branches of knowledge that draw from these subject domains -- which I don't claim to be). On a related note, there seem to be as many imponderables about the subject of human cloning, along the same lines. The movie Multiplicity played with the idea of cloning, introducing minor changes in capability and personality in the many clones of a single human being, to create amusing situations. But it opened out so many interesting questions, including the question of how each of the clones must have felt -- about themselves and their past(?), the world around them and about one another. But how does one even begin to find answers to such questions?

The common thread running through such questions is the notion of consciousness as we humans experience it. Unfortunately, human consciousness doesn't seem to lend itself to much scientific investigation beyond a point. Clearly, there are obvious limitations to empirical experimentation as a methodology for inquiry into the idea of a spirit without a body. You can't die and then come back and record what you were conscious of when you were dead. Worse, you can't even demonstrate that you can't do that. Or even that you can. Experiments like the ones in the movie Flatliners don't count, because those are near-death situations, not actual death, though they kept pushing the limit in that movie.

But there are no constraints in conducting what scientists like Einstein called 'thought experiments' in the laboratory of our minds. And the reason I have so many references to movies popping up in this post is that the entertainment industry, where having a vivid imagination is just table stakes, is a fertile environment for such thought experiments. The same goes for science fiction movies and their relationship with real-world scientific inquiry, and with real-world technological innovation. Quite often, being bold and going where nobody has ever gone before results in best-sellers and box-office hits, for writers and film-makers who explore extraordinary topics in the spirit of inquiry (not always scientific as it turns out). And that in turn inspires investigations, discoveries and inventions in real life through a process of true scientific inquiry and/ or technological innovation. But that's another story, and another digression.

Let's get back to our own inquiry into the question of consciousness removed from body. As sentient beings our bodies (normally) come equipped with the 5 senses, whose job it is to capture and deliver sensations to us. The dynamism of time ensures that things are never static, as in a photograph -- we are always in real-time, continuously seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching and feeling things. As sapient beings we continuously think about stuff that we see, hear, smell, taste and touch and feel. That's how we learn and grow. Even a computing machine has input / output devices as its peripherals, which connect it to the rest of the world by providing a conduit for data flow. Assuming an advanced computer can be aware of itself (we're not really too far from developing one), could it be aware of itself bereft of its I/O interfaces? Could sapience exist without sentience? That's my big question.

It takes more than intelligence to be human, as we know (though when we interact with some people we begin to doubt that). As different from machines that can think, humans also have a priori impulses: the sexual urge, for one, and the creative urge, for another -- we've all had spontaneous feelings and great ideas that seem to have come out of nowhere. But even these need a vehicle, which the body provides: a medium through which stimulus and response are received and delivered. The experience of a body has a crucial role in shaping what and who we are, what and who we become as our bodies change, and how we think and feel about ourselves and our worlds. If we believe we look good it makes us more confident, even vain, but if we believe we look ugly, it erodes our pride and leads to low self-esteem, even depression.

Our self-image depends a lot on the size, shape and overall appearance of the bodies we wear. The loss of a limb or an organ or a faculty significantly changes us and how we interact with and relate to the world around us. Helen Keller was an amazing human being who lost two of her senses before she was 2 years old, yet rose to become a towering figure in her time. Her determination to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges continues to be a source of strength to many in similar situations, to this day -- one may even say her intrepid spirit lives on in their hearts and minds and inspires them to achieve their goals despite all odds.

Surely, loss of the whole body would have a dramatic impact on what and who we become? How would we feel about losing our body, and in fact, what does 'feel' mean in that context? Can we feel or think without having a body? What interface would we then have with the world around us, to interact and transact with others, to give and to receive, to act and be acted upon? What is growth and learning and how could it possibly come about without interactions and transactions that can only be effected through an I/O interface of our bodies? Can we be creative without our bodies? How would creativity manifest itself in the case of a ghost?

Questions about ghosts haunt me even if ghosts themselves don't. Maybe I should just be satisfied with the explanation I gave my son and enjoy the rest of my weekend.

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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Filling Buckets Or Lighting Fires?

"Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire" -- W. B. Yeats

I was reminded of that quote today as I read a news report in the The Times of India excerpted here below:
The 86th Constitutional amendment making education a fundamental right was passed by Parliament in 2002. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, a law to enable the implementation of the fundamental right, was passed by Parliament last year. Both the Constitutional amendment and the new law came into force from today. 
Future generations of Indians will look upon this as a 'Great Leap Forward' for the Indian education system, notwithstanding the fact that it happened on All Fools' Day. It certainly would be a giant leap when successfully implemented, in terms of enabling 10 million children with access to schooling. Of course, there are several unanswered questions at the implementation level, including the dearth of qualified teachers, lack of suitable facilities, the potential for malpractices, etc., but let's assume that we will find ways and means of overcoming these challenges. But there is a larger issue here, even at the conceptual level, and that deals with  our understanding of, and approach to, education itself. And that's where the quote from Yeats comes into the picture. When it comes to Education Reforms, are we seeking to light fires or are we continuing to fill more buckets (and that too, more efficiently)?

I found myself wishing that they had more accurately called it 'Right to Literacy' because that's what it really is. Yes, it deals with primary education. And yes, it comes under the rubric of "Education Reforms" with a capital E and a capital R. But let's not confuse education with literacy. Or with skills training. While all three are important, each has a specific purpose and each plays a unique and vital role in shaping our children's lives as they grow into adults. Literacy gives them the basic tools they would need to learn more, acquire knowledge, develop skills, etc. and training empowers them with a range of capabilities -- some general, some specialized. But education builds character. Unfortunately, nowhere in our education system do we really focus on the last part. A few exceptional schools make an earnest attempt, but that stems more out of their own independent vision than from a systemic requirement.

IIT Bombay, where I spent my late teens and early 20s, has as its motto "Gyanam Paramam Dhyeyam" -- Sanskrit for "Knowledge is the Supreme Goal." The IITs excel in selecting the brightest (read: most analytical) young Indian minds (of those that have opted for the science stream in high school and chosen to pursue engineering as a career, as opposed to medicine) and then honing their pre-existing analytical skills to near perfection, through years of rigorous training in a highly competitive environment. What the IITs do not do, or even attempt to do, is to provide a well-rounded education to their students -- an education that would help them understand, for example, that the supreme goal is the development of the sensibility to apply knowledge judiciously, and not just the mere acquisition of it, as a literal reading of the IIT Bombay motto might suggest. Only the well-educated mind would be able to interpret this motto wisely, and understand the difference between letter and spirit, between acquisition and application. So this is the feedback loop in which this issue is stuck: the minds that run the IITs are the minds that believe that (acquisition of) knowledge is the supreme goal. And that too when what they mostly do is develop analytical skills and impart technical knowhow.

Our children have a right to a decent education too, not just a right to literacy and a right to training. Now that we've taken the first step today, I wonder when we will take the next one. And what, exactly, that would be.

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