In worship of “I”

The Times of India asks “Is the first person pronoun sacred? Or should it be in the lower case, as it has appeared on our editorial page for the past few months?” and prints an article titled “Me, Myself and I

“Why do we capitalise the word “I”? There’s no grammatical reason for doing so… (some uninteresting history here)
So what effect has capitalising “I” but not “you” — or any other pronoun — had on English speakers? It’s impossible to know, but perhaps our individualistic, workaholic society would be more rooted in community and quality and less focused on money and success if we each thought of ourselves as a small “i” with a sweet little dot.”

I cannot frame a more eloquent response to this assault on my values than this excerpt from Chapter 11 of Ayn Rand’s Anthem

I am. I think. I will.
My hands . . . My spirit . . . My sky . . . My forest . . . This earth of mine. . . . What must I say besides? These are the words. This is the answer.
I stand here on the summit of the mountain. I lift my head and I spread my arms. This, my body and spirit, this is the end of the quest. I wished to know the meaning of things. I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.
It is my eyes which see, and the sight of my eyes grants beauty to the earth. It is my ears which hear, and the hearing of my ears gives its song to the world. It is my mind which thinks, and the judgement of my mind is the only searchlight that can find the truth. It is my will which chooses, and the choice of my will is the only edict I must respect.
Many words have been granted me, and some are wise, and some are false, but only three are holy: “I will it!”
Whatever road I take, the guiding star is within me; the guiding star and the loadstone which point the way. They point in but one direction. They point to me.
I know not if this earth on which I stand is the core of the universe or if it is but a speck of dust lost in eternity. I know not and I care not. For I know what happiness is possible to me on earth. And my happiness needs no higher aim to vindicate it. My happiness is not the means to any end. It is the end. It is its own goal. It is its own purpose.

And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride.
This god, this one word:
“I.”

So far I have kept my writings on this blog free from emotion. This undisguised assault on my highest values calls for a proud and passionate assertion. My quoting the excerpt above is a statement of worship for my highest value – me. This assault also calls for a proud and passionate rejection. No one who reads the excerpt and fails to be inspired can claim to be alive in a human sense.

Note:
Aristotle The Geek also has a similar response on his blog. Thanks Aristotle.

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Philosophy is difficult – Applied Philosophy – 1

Background – I recently started a technical blog. It has just 4 posts so far, 3 of which are about WPF1. I have not actively tried to promote it. Yet it gets some steady traffic mostly from search engines, something that has started to happen with this blog after 30 posts, despite the fact that 2 of the posts are on highly controversial topics (here in India) and despite the numerous comments I have posted at other blogs. 

Although this is not particularly surprising, the reason is important in the context of this series.

Consider my technical blog. What is its target audience? Software developers working on the same combination of platform, application type and framework as I am. How do people find the blog? By searching for specific keywords, chosen to lead them to a solution to a very specific problem. How do they evaluate what they find? By testing it directly (usually a matter of minutes, or at most of hours) and seeing if it works. Why do they return to the blog (if they do)? Because they have found working solutions in the past and expect to find them again or get alerted to issues they have not encountered yet.

Consider this blog. What is its target audience? Everyone (i.e, no one in particular). How do people find the blog? By any number of ways but mostly by chance. How do they evaluate what they find? By reasoning about it or by their emotional reactions or by some mixture of both. Certainly not by testing it (That would take weeks, if not months or years). Why do they return to the blog? Most of the returning visitors are those who already agree with the content.

This difference is inherent in the nature of the two fields – software and philosophy (and more generally any technical field and philosophy). Technical content is narrow in scope, specific in its application and indisputable in its validity. Philosophy deals with everything that is. Technical content (with the necessary background) is easy to understand, easy to apply and its benefits are immediate and tangible. Philosophical ideas are difficult to understand, difficult to apply to real life situations even after they are understood and their benefits are rarely immediate or tangible. Philosophy is difficult.

Notes:
1) A not-yet-mainstream framework for writing desktop software applications for Windows.

Applied Philosophy – Series

This is an introduction to a series where I intend to put my thoughts on several loosely related topics and finally tie them together.

1. My tech blog gets much more traffic than this blog with no active effort to promote it.

2. Some comments on the article Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid

3. Some comments on the essay Why Nerds Are Unpopular?  (Thanks to Gus Van Horn for pointing me to it)

4. Analysis of a comment by a friend that “Perfect capitalism is untenable because of an innate desire for security in most men”

5. Conclusion

The series will begin with my next post.

Culture

What is a culture? What is its role in man’s life? Can a culture be good or bad?

The concept culture refers to shared beliefs, practices, tastes, values, attitudes etc. A culture plays many important roles in man’s life

Cognitive:
As a child grows, he learns by observing the world around him. An important part of this learning process is observing and mimicking the actions of others. He builds his knowledge and his concepts on the evidence that he sees – the facts that he observes, the results of the actions that he and others around him perform. Even as an adult, it is difficult – if not impossible – for man to consciously and explicitly think about every issue in his life or question all conventional wisdom. A conscientious man will attempt to find first hand all the relevant evidence on issues that he considers important. But he will also have to depend on commonly held beliefs and on trusted authorities. Clearly then, the extent of a man’s knowledge, the validity of his concepts, his conviction in his beliefs all depend to a considerable extent on the culture he lives in. This should be obvious. The most intelligent and conscientious man living in a tribal society has far less knowledge and holds far more false beliefs than an average person in a modern industrial society.

Moral:
A very important part of commonly held beliefs are moral beliefs – beliefs about the right way for man to live his own life and to deal with others. These beliefs determine how a society will deal with those who choose to dissent. Irrespective of the specifics of these beliefs, a person who chooses to dissent on fundamental beliefs will be shunned by society. But a society that does not believe in the right to dissent will make life physically impossible for the dissenters.

Practical:
It is easier for a man to live in a society whose members speak the same language, have similar behavioral habits, eat similar foods etc. A shared culture eases communication and makes interaction predictable.

Psychological:
Shared tastes in music, literature, cinema, sport etc provide psychological support to man. They give him ways to enjoy the company of friends and content for polite conversations with strangers. They help in making a purposeful life complete.

These roles are interrelated, particularly the cognitive and moral ones. As an example, although the role of culture in the cognitive realm is one of default (It affects those beliefs which a man has not consciously questioned), a freedom-loving and rights-respecting culture increases the motivation to question and discover knowledge while an authoritarian culture kills it. As another example, a technologically advanced culture gives men leisure time to spend on the arts.

The cognitive and moral aspects of a culture are its defining or essential characteristics. It is easy for man to change his food and behavioral habits, or to enjoy different sports. It is not very difficult to learn a different dialect or a new language. It is difficult to reject long held fundamental beliefs. It is nearly impossible to change a thought process or an outlook on life. These are formed at the early stages of a person’s growth and they are the core of a person’s identity. A culture that promotes rational and independent thought is a great value to its members. A culture that inhibits it is a great burden.

A note on geography and globalization:
Today geography is an important factor in the way culture affects a person’s life. As globalization happens and people are exposed to ideas (and their effects) from other cultures, the importance of geography will decrease. But globalization is by no means an inevitable process. A culture that seeks truth and believes that its pursuit is possible by natural means will welcome globalization. A culture that believes that truth can only be attained by mystical insights will consider outside influences as harmful and will close itself to them. Moreover the mere spread of ideas and information is no guarantee that the right ideas will win. Information has to be interpreted. Ideas have to be understood. Understanding ideas and interpreting information from another place or age is not an easy task – especially in cultures dominated by bad ideas. The success of globalization depends on active effort by intellectuals who understand its nature and importance. If globalization fails, the results might be worse than if it had never occurred.

Patriotism

The concept of patriotism (atleast from what I remember of my school education) is presented as a self-evident virtue requiring no justification. It is presented as a virtue by merely describing it with positive (and often hyperbolic) adjectives and by associating it with the concept of sacrifice (which is also presented in the same way). In contrast, concepts like honesty, hard work, optimism, determination, punctuality etc are presented as virtues by demonstrating the results of practising them. The obvious purpose behind such a presentation is to condition peoples’ minds to consider these concepts as virtues merely by association with actual virtues and without ever needing to provide a single reason. The question is

Is patriotism actually a virtue and if so why is it presented this way?

Patriotism is love for or devotion to one’s country. A country is a geographical region with a single ruler or government. Except for periods of political turmoil, the people of a country usually share the same culture. Love for one’s country is love for its culture or its political institutions. Patriotism is a contextual virtue, not a fundamental one. It is a virtue if one’s culture or political institutions are valuable.

India’s political institutions are clearly not worthy of love. What about its culture? The first thing that comes to mind (and overwhelmingly so) when one thinks of Indian culture is the religiosity of its people – an unthinking, unquestioning attitude of blind obedience to tradition. This can be seen in the way religious rituals are a part of everyday life in general and all special occasions in particular like festivals, the inaugration of a home or an office or a business, the birth of a child, marriage, death, anniversaries of death. This is worthy of ridicule, not love.

Patriotism is not a virtue in the Indian context. It is merely a convenient concept that is employed by the power-hungry as a cover for their actions. Just like the concept of sacrifice, it is used to draw attention away from the results and legitimacy of actions and focus it on their allegedly noble motivations.

A Confession of Collectivism

In a guest article in The Times of India, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes1

“The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality … You can create a global continuum with the most individualistic societies — like the United States or Britain — on one end, and the most collectivist societies — like China or Japan — on the other. The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first. People in these societies tend to overvalue their own skills and overestimate their own importance to any group effort. People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty. They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts … individualistic societies have tended to do better economically But what happens if collectivist societies snap out of their economic stagnation? … A new sort of global conversation develops. The opening ceremony in Beijing was a statement in that conversation. It was part of China’s assertion that development doesn’t come only through western, liberal means, but also through eastern and collective ones … it’s unlikely that the forces of individualism will sweep the field or even gain an edge … the essence of a lot of the latest scientific research is that the western idea of individual choice is an illusion and the Chinese are right to put first emphasis on social contexts. The rise of China isn’t only an economic event. It’s a cultural one. The ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be as attractive as the ideal of the American Dream. It’s certainly a useful ideology for aspiring autocrats.”
(Emphasis mine)

Note that Brooks sees China’s recent economic success as the sole criterion for deciding whether collectivist are attractive inspite of the fact that China is a dictatorship that routinely violates the rights of its people. By his own observations about the preferences of individualists (“The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first”), that makes him a collectivist (Also note that he does not believe in individual choice). So why does a collectivist need to write an article saying that the ideal of a harmonious collective may turn out to be attractive? Because he believes in collectivist ideals but also wants the dignity of a society that respects rights and privacy. At some level he realizes that the two are incompatible (Note his cynical final sentence) but he is unwilling to choose one over the other. Even as some Eastern societies are accepting the fact that collectivism does not work and are starting to prosper by slowly embracing individualism, the collectivists in the West are trying to use this prosperity as evidence that their ideals can actually work.

Notes:

1) Thanks to Aristotle The Geek who alerted me to the fact that there is an extra paragraph in the Brooks original NYT article. That paragraph does not change the essence of his article or my post however.

Today’s Cultural Vacuum

This post began as a reply to a comment on my previous post that said “We must do something about it otherwise it will be too late.” but I decided it was worthy of posting as an entry by itself1. So here goes.

Indeed now is the time to do something about improving our culture. The culture around us today is dominated by people who have seen that the ideals they believed in have failed. Instead of questioning the ideals, they have chosen to reject the necessity of ideals and principles itself. They believe that as long as they do not stick to any principles and do not take any definite stands but keep revising their positions everytime a new angle of some issue confronts them, all will be well. But man cannot live without ideals or principles. Since these men have not questioned their ideals, they still believe in them implicitly, and these ideals still drive the decisions they make, but this time unconsciously. The old leaders and trend-setters of this country atleast had the advantage of knowing what they wanted and of being sure of what they chose, no matter how flawed their ideas were. The cultural leaders of today now live in perpetual doubt, ready to change their stands at a moments notice. They are in the position of men trying to navigate a vast desert who have seen that the compass they had is faulty and decide to depend only on the terrain around them but end up using the faulty compass everytime they get confused. Except that the compass here is a code of ethics and the terrain is a world that gets more complex by the day as technology progresses. It is no wonder that our politics is now dominated by crooks (in place of the misguided do-gooders) who know how to take advantage of the cultural vacuum and the lack of any principled opposition. The time is indeed ripe for those who know the importance of ideals and principles to discover the right ideals, advocate them and take control of the culture. Cultural trends are set by those who dare to set them. Today India is in a position where no one will present any real opposition to anyone who dares to set the trends. If those who have the right ideas fail to set the right trends, the fault will squarely be theirs.

Notes
1) Since it integrates the content of some earlier posts and has to do with the purpose of this blog.

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