What is Mysticism? – Part 1


In a comment on my previous post, I wrote:
“My working definition of mysticism is:
Any claim about reality (not just the self) which cannot be verified by another person.”

“If you say that your mind tells you X and my mind does not tell me X, and there is nothing in external reality that can validate X, clearly we are at an impasse. No further communication is possible, which, not surprisingly, is the core of all mystic claims”

To which Ajit Jadhav replied:
The matters of truth and falsehood are not established in reference to other people. It’s all between your own self, and reality, full-stop. The objective standard is (your grasp of) reality, not other people. And, note, “reality” also does include consciousness, i.e., “self” (and the selves of others). Primacy of existence doesn’t deny that fact. Consciousness is real.

the issue really is only with the qualifier: “external.” Agreed? If so, would you please tell me why you insert that qualifier? And, could you offer me a definition of the term “external?”

Main post:

The exchange above raises the crucial question: How does one evaluate claims related to consciousness- such as telepathy?

Quoting Rand:

A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something.

Directly or indirectly, every phenomenon of consciousness is derived from one’s awareness of the external world. … It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated.

Communicated, yes. But experienced, grasped and defined too? Can one not experience pain or pleasure without relation to the external world? What exactly does external mean here? Consciousness (mine as well as other people’s) is a part of reality. It exists too. Does the external world include the consciousness of other people but not one’s own? Does it exclude all consciousness?

All concepts are formed by a process of abstraction. One cannot form a concept from a single unit. That holds for the concept of consciousness too. Before a consciousness could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of other entities having consciousness. A baby raised in total isolation with no conscious entity around it, could not conceive of consciousness, could not conceive of any difference between the external world and the products of its own consciousness, could not achieve certainty about anything. It should be clear now that what one perceives and infers about other people’s consciousness is crucial to the concept of consciousness as such.

For instance, a child may see people walking around a table instead of colliding with it. This allows him to infer that the table exists external to the consciousness of these people and his own. The child sees (readily) that his mother does not understand what he wants. This allows him to infer that his desire is internal to his own consciousness and is not accessible to his mother. The child sees (readily) that he does not understand what his mother wants. This allows him to infer that her desire is internal to her own consciousness and is not accessible to him. Without such an understanding of what is internal and what is external, the child would not be able to develop the concept of consciousness at all.

The external world is those aspects of reality to which other people have access. Or, employing the concept of consciousness, the external world is those aspects of reality to which any consciousness has access. With this understanding of the external world Rand’s “It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated” makes sense.

That is enough for this post. I will pursue this later.

Validating theories

After more than a month of architectural redesign in the software product I am working on, I reluctantly took a couple of days off to attend a cousin’s wedding (which was interesting enough to merit a post of its own… coming soon…). The last pieces of the redesign are left and this morning, I intended to resume and finish them off. Instead, I just ended up sitting in front of my computer for several hours staring at the screen blankly. Surprised at this, I constructed a theory that being the introvert that I am, the two days of social interaction had taken so much out of me that my mind had hibernated and needed to reload all the stuff needed to think about work from the hard disk. (Perhaps, as a programmer, I can’t help thinking about everything in computing related analogies) The theory tied in nicely with what programmers call being “in the zone” (Look for Paul Graham’s essay on the topic – if I am not mistaken).

A few hours later I discovered that I had an upset stomach and a slight fever. So much for my theory! I need to be more careful.

Computability and Free Will

In this post I will draw on a proof from Roger Penrose’s book Shadows of the mind that I think is important to the free will issue. The proof goes like this.

Consider an algorithm that takes a single positive integer as an input. Depending on the input and the algorithm itself, either the algorithm terminates in a finite time or it does not. In the first case the algorithm is said to stop.

Define a mapping from the set of natural numbers to the set of algorithms (of the kind above). A1, A2, A3 … Let Ai(n) denote the ith such algorithm operating on the input n.

Let B be an algorithm that also takes a single input, such that B(n) stops if it determines that An(n) does not stop. Since B is an algorithm of the same class of algorithms (taking a single input), it exists at some location in the list of As. Let B = Am. That is, Am(n) stops if An(n) does not stop

Consider the operation of B (= Am) with the input m. B(m) = Am(m) stops if Am(m) does not stop. That is, the task of B(m) is to stop if it is able to determine that it itself does not stop. If B(m) stops, we have a contradiction. Therefore B(m) does not stop. Therefore B is unable to determine that its own operation on the input m does not stop.

Now suppose that B represents all human understanding of algorithms that can be expressed as an algorithm. All of this algorithmic understanding is unable to detemine that B(m) does not stop. But we as humans are able to determine that B(m) does not stop.

Therefore atleast some aspect of human understanding is non-algorithmic. (Or in other words, the human mind can solve some problems that are not computable)

Penrose intended this proof (which parallels Godel’s proof of the incompleteness theorem) to debunk the claims of strong AI (artificial intelligence) that the human mind works by just “running” a higly evolved and complex algorithm. He explicitly steered clear of taking any position on the issue of determinism. And with good reason. Computability is not the same as determinism. A non-computable process can still be fully deterministic.

Most people who deny free will do so because they cannot reconcile free will with present day science. But Penrose’s proof conclusively demonstrates that present-day science (all the physical theories widely accepted in physics today are computable)  is incapable of explaining human understanding. It is not just that present day science does not have a theory of the mind. It cannot have a theory of the mind even in principle. Penrose argues that we need a non-computable theory in physics.

While this is not a proof of free will (without a scientific breakthrough, I don’t see how the existence of free will can be proved), it destroys the most common arguement against free will – the success of present day science (physics in particular).

Intuitions and a-priori knowledge

In a comment on my post on hypotheticals, Krishnamurthy asked:

When you say “Rationality means that man must instead find principles on which to base his actions “, the question arises about how to arrive at those principles. If he cannot use his intuition, and if he cannot do the complicated expected utility maximization, then he can only arrive at the principles by evaluating the outcomes of his previous actions. But to evaluate he would need some principles to begin with. (on second thought, even to do expected utility maximization, he would need to make some evaluations). how does a human being find the principle to base his actions on ?

I hold that knowledge can never be a-priori. To see why, consider these questions

Does a digital balance know how to measure weight?
Does a computer know how to add numbers?
Does my heart know how to pump blood?
Do my eyes and brain know how to distinguish objects from each other?
Does a parrot that recites 2 + 2 = 4 know that 2 + 2 = 4?

My answer to all these questions would be no. There is no knowledge involved here. Knowledge, in the sense applicable to a human mind, involves the exercise of free will. An entity that does not have free will cannot have any knowledge. It is like a machine that does certain things because that is its nature. Since no exercise of free will can occur before one exists, knowledge cannot be a-priori.

Now consider the human mind. I believe that the mind is built with the capacity to use logic, but not with the knowledge of the laws of logic. This is a subtle point. What I am saying is that the mind has an inbuilt ability to determine whether something makes sense. But active effort is required to use this ability. And further effort is required to identify why it makes sense. Men obviously have been using logic for millenia. But it took Aristotle to identify the laws of logic. The operation of the laws of logic is part of the nature of the mind but the knowledge of the laws of logic is not. It takes active effort to grasp the laws of logic – to realize that when something “makes sense”, it is because that something is consistent with the laws of logic. The faculty that is capable of doing this grasping is reason. Man is born with the faculty of reason. But it is the use of reason that results in knowledge.

Recollect the time when you learnt the truth table for “p AND q” where “p” and “q” are propositions. How did you grasp that the truth table was correct? I did so by substituting actual propositions for “p” and “q” and verifying the values in the truth table. This indicates that knowledge of the truth table was not a-priori but the ability to verify particular propositions was. The truth-table was <i>induced</i> from the ability to verify particular propositions. More importantly, this also indicates that in the absence of any particular propositions, I could not have induced the truth table for “p AND q”. This is another reason that knowledge cannot be a-priori.

The ability to understand and evaluate propositions and to induce principles is inbuilt. If you want to call this ability intuition (I call it reason), I have no problem accepting the validity of intuitions, provided effort is made to express the result of this “intuition” in terms of the laws of logic, observations and any other principles one has already validated. But I don’t think this is what anybody means by intuition. For example, the Merriam Webster dictionary defines intuition as
1: quick and ready insight
2 a: immediate apprehension or cognition b: knowledge or conviction gained by intuition c: the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference
Note the parts I have emphasized. They all indicate that intuition is knowledge achieved without active effort and without the use of reason.

Does this answer your question?

Nonsense masquerading as profundity

I do not read the Economic Times and so did not know that it had a column named Cosmic Uplink (What does that mean?). It recently featured an article by Mukul Sharma titled “There’s nothing less real than reality” that ended with

Zhuangzi, said one night he dreamt he was a carefree butterfly flying happily. After he woke, he wondered how he could determine whether he was Zhuangzi who had just finished dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly who had just started dreaming it was Zhuangzi.

The Times of India has a similar column named The Speaking Tree usually featuring similar articles. All that is needed to refute such nonsense is to take it literally. Aristotle The Geek does that very well with

Let me chop off the index finger of your right hand. If you are dreaming, the finger will still be there when you wake up. If you are awake, the fact that you are awake will be confirmed and a finger is a small price to pay for such profound knowledge.

Such articles are inherently dishonest. What is Mukul Sharma relying on when he writes such nonsense? He is relying on the fact that his readers are capable of reading it and understanding it. And yet it is the roots of that understanding which his article intends to destroy. Some time back I wrote a little about a book called “Practising The Power Of Now”. It contained this gem

The essence of what I am saying here cannot be understood by the mind.

But Mr Sharma and Mr Tolle, I do understand what it is that you are trying to do. And I refuse to fall for it.

Social planning

In a response to a forwarded post, a friend made the following argument (I am putting only its essence and in my own words, since I have not taken permission to make it public)

Market forces can produce outcomes that are worse off for everyone in the system. A social planner can, (in some cases at least) improve on the efficiency of the market. Pigouvian tax is an example.

In his response, he acknowledges that it might be difficult in practice for the social planner to obtain all the information required, but says that it would be very surprising if the social planners actions could never lead to efficiency improvement.

Consider the crux of the argument (emphasized above). There are three aspects to it that should be considered.

1) What are market forces? They are an abstraction that refers to all the judgements made by individuals interacting with each other under some conditions. If one is talking of a free market, these conditions are the absence of any coercion. Note that for the concept of coercion to be clear, a system of property rights (at the very least) needs to be in place (More on this in 3). If one is to prove the statement above (in a mathematical sense, which is what my friend meant), these market forces need to be modeled. This leads to 2.

2) How are choices evaluated? In actuality, every individual evaluates and weighs choices in a unique manner depending on the context of his knowledge, his hierarchy of values etc. This evaluation is neither necessarily rational nor quantitative. Yet if a mathematical result is to be obtained, both the evaluations and the decisions based on these evaluations need to be quantified. The evaluation (sometimes called “utility”) is quantified by assigning a monetary value to every “variable”. The decision making process is quantified by assuming that each individual acts to maximize utility (the sum of the monetary values of the results of all his choices).

3) What is the system? In actuality, the system is the set of laws that determine the kind of interactions that occur among individuals. In the model, this translates to assumptions that certain factors will remain constant over time.

Once these three aspects are modeled, one ends up with a set of equations that can be solved to determine what utility each individual will be able to achieve. The solution represents an outcome. In certain cases, feasible outcomes may exist that are better for each individual. (This usually happens when there are “externalities” which can be considered mathematically as non-linear effects). The most obvious problem with this argument is that it involves a huge number of variables, so man variables that no human (or computer) can solve the set of equations in any meaningful time. That however, is not my argument. My friend already acknowledges this fact and claims (plausibly) that in certain cases, a social planner may find an approximate solution that is still better than the free market one. My arguement is that: The fact that a (mathematically) feasible better solution exists, does not mean that it is possible to achieve in actuality. The reason is that the sort of actions required to achieve the feasible solution change the system (point 3) that was analyzed. In actual terms, such actions necessarily involve violating the property rights of individuals, thus changing the interactions between people, the monetary values they attach to different choices and the strategies they adopt to maximize their values. In plain language, attempts to achieve the “optimum” solution are lost in a host of unintended consequences. The information that says a better solution is feasible exists not with any single individual but with a vast number of individuals. To put that information to use, even if a social planner is able to approximate it, he needs to communicate it to all the people who will need to act on it. But force (and social planning is all about force) is a very destructive way of communicating. Successful communication is done with persuation and persuation is what the free market is all about.

Now consider a much simpler moral argument. Every value that man achieves is a result of using his mind. And the essential requirement for the mind to work is freedom. When man is free to act as his mind instructs him to do and is responsible for the consequences of his actions, his mind works the best. When he is forced to act against the judgement of his mind, his mind becomes passive and he loses the motivation to use his mind (something that never figures in a mathematical model). In the most fundamental sense of the word good, force can never be good for man.

In his response, following my post on propaganda, my friend clarified that what he meant by propaganda was a one-sided presentation of an idea that does not consider all sides of an issue. The moral idea (in the paragraph above) when supplemented with the practical arguments and all the evidence of the past century becomes a fundamental political principle. And there is no other side to the issue left. As I wrote in this post, as long as one is unsure of something and has not integrated ideas into principles, it is good to be circumspect and consider all pros/cons of all sides of an issue. But on issues on which it is possible to have relevant principles, there is only one side. Fundamental principles do not allow any evaluation in shades of gray. Whether I should be free to act on my own judgement or whether I should allow a social planner to force his whims on me or whether I should become a social planner myself is not an issue where I will weigh the pros/cons of the alternatives.

Finally for the sake of completeness, consider the Pigouvian tax/subsidy to correct for externalities. The first point to be noted is that most externalities go away when property rights are properly defined and implemented. And in fact a tax on pollution is actually quite close to what a property-rights solution to the “problem” of pollution would be. As for the subsidy on education, one can just look at the state of subsidised public education in the U.S. to see how it works. Externalities cause problems in model-based economics because they are non linear effects and most models are linear (eg, price = marginal utility) (for the simple reason that non-linear models are untractable). Man’s mind is not a linear device however, and a linear model does it no justice. Just think of the salesman who negotiates a price (= marginal utility?) or the investor who depends on a virtuous cycle where increase in supply creates a non-existant demand to recover his investment.


What is poverty? What are its causes? Is it a personal problem or a social problem or a political problem? Whose responsibility is it? What actions are needed to eradicate it?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines poverty as

1 a: the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions b: renunciation as a member of a religious order of the right as an individual to own property

2: scarcity , dearth

3 a: debility due to malnutrition b: lack of fertility

Note the difference in definitions ‘1 a’ and ‘2’. The perspective of ‘1 a’ is social, egalitarian and materialistic. It emphasizes a comparison between the material possessions of people. It equates self respect with prestige and prestige with the possession of material values.  It seeks to identify people in terms of class. By this definition, a worker in an industrial society who owns a car and is able to provide for his daily needs is nevertheless in poverty, simply because there are a large number of people who have bigger, better or more material possessions than him. If this definition is accepted, then it is in the nature of society for some of its members to be in poverty. Any attempt to eradicate poverty would then be a (necessarily futile) revolt against the nature of society. The nature of society cannot be a problem in itself and no further analysis of this definition is necessary (The fact that ‘1a’ ranks above ‘2′ is quite interesting but it is not the topic of this post).

This post will therefore be concerned with definition ‘2′ – poverty is scarcity. But scarcity of what? Scarcity of the values and conditions necessary for a proper human life. What are these values and conditions? Food, shelter and clothing are often considered to be the basic values necessary for life. But man needs to earn these values (and all others) by conscious, wilful and sustained effort and by the application of knowledge. Neither the effort nor the knowledge is automatic. Both are affected (to some extent atleast) by social and cultural conditions. In the absence of proper conditions, the lack of the basic values for life becomes endemic. This sort of poverty is a social and political problem and it is this that is the concern of this post – poverty as the lack of the social and cultural conditions necessary for man to flourish.

What are these conditions? The primary condition for a flourishing society is a respect for the mind. Man’s mind is his only tool of knowledge, his only judge of truth, and his only means of survival. All the values he needs to live, from basic material values like food, to abstract intellectual values like art, are a product of his mind. A respect for the mind has three aspects – rationality in ideas, egoism in ethics, and liberalism in politics. Rationality is the recognition that the mind is capable of understanding and dealing with reality. Egoism is the recognition that the mind (or self, or ego) is one’s greatest value. Liberalism is the recognition that the mind cannot coexist with force.

The primary cause for endemic poverty is a lack of respect for the mind, most commonly in the form of supernatural and religious beliefs. Supernatural beliefs destroy all three aspects of respect for the mind. By claiming that the truth is beyond the reach of the mind, they destroy rationality. By claiming that man’s ultimate purpose is something greater than his life (whether an after-life in heaven or a cosmic consciousness), they destroy egoism. By claiming that the truth is revealed only to certain prophets, they create figures of authority and destroy liberalism. Societies flourish only when some of their members are able to shake off these beliefs. Shaking off supernatural beliefs is not enough however. The many experiments in all kinds of socialism in the last century are a good illustration of this. The advocates and leaders of these experiments claimed to be rational and scientific even as they rejected egoism and liberalism. They only succeeded in plunging their societies into poverty and economic collapse. Rationality, egoism and liberalism are merely different aspects of the same philosophical outlook and it is not possible to practise them selectively. The only solution to endemic poverty is a culture of reason and the social and political institutions that are necessary to maintain it.

The crucial thing that must be understood is that endemic poverty is not just a lack of wealth but the lack of the conditions that make the creation of wealth possible. Unless these conditions are established, no amount of wealth redistribution will have any positive effect. Unearned wealth is not a solution to poverty but a catalyst for corruption and violence. It allows the unscrupulous powers that invariably rule irrational cultures to maintain their stranglehold on people by preventing their collapse. Over the past few years, there have been vigorous calls for action to end poverty by a certain date, mostly focusing on Africa. The proposed action consists of writing off loans and granting new ones to the corrupt and tyrannical regimes that rule most of Africa, the loans to be funded by tax payers in the developed world who are not responsible in any way for the irrational and primitive cultures in Africa. These calls for action are extremely repugnant – morally, practically, politically and economically. Morally repugnant, because they are attempts to achieve a sense of altruistic greatness, to be paid for by the forced redistribution of unearned wealth by selling unearned guilt to the people who produce that wealth. Practically repugnant, because a century of such attempts has shown that forced redistribution of wealth results in economic collapse and a loss of all individual rights. Politically repugnant, because such action can only be carried out by the further enslavement of productive individuals in a global welfare state, and because the beneficiaries of such action are corrupt and tyrannical governments. Economically repugnant, because such action consists of punishing success and rewarding failure.

This post is a call for action – not the action of donating to charities that help to sustain corruption and violence – but the intellectual action to discover, understand and apply the moral, political and economic principles that govern man’s life. An examination of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is a good place to begin.

Note: This post was written for Blog Action Day 08. It is also available on desicritics.org with an independent comment section

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