Who killed your father?

Background: A little boy about 5 years old was asking me some questions. He only knows Telugu. I only know enough Telugu to follow a conversation when I know the context and my vocabulary is limited to a few common words.

I will call the boy A and myself K.

A: Nee nana per enti? (What is the name of your father?)
I tell him my father’s name
A: Ekkada unnaru? (Where is he?)
Me: Leru (He isn’t. I didn’t know the appropriate way to express the fact that a person is no more in Telugu)
A repeats the question, apparantly not understanding my answer.
I repeat the answer, not knowing how to make him understand. This goes on a couple more times.
A: Chachi poyara? (Is he dead?)
Me: Aaunu (Yes. I would have used less explicit language had I known it.)
A: Evaru champeshadu? (Who killed him?)
I was too shocked at this point to respond properly and anyway I wouldn’t have been able to frame a proper answer in Telugu.
At this point A’s mother came into the room.
A to his mother: K nana chachi poyaru (K’s father died)
A’s mother: Atla kada raa. Devudu deggara ellaru. (You shouldn’t say that. He has gone to visit God.)

On one hand we have the euphimistic language we use to “protect” children from exposure to “adult” topics like death.
On the other, we have the casual and unnatural portrayal of excessive violence in what we watch for entertainment. (Telugu movies are probably worse than others in this regard).

The result is that the first thing that comes to a child’s mind when he hears that someone is dead is “Who killed him?”. Murder is obviously the most common cause of death that this child has been exposed to.

There is little we can do to improve popular means of entertainment, but we can atleast stop using unnecessary euphemisms to hide facts from children. The truth is the truth and no one – not even children – can or should be “protected” from it. As adults, it is our responsibility to teach our children to face it and deal with it. If we hide the truth behind words that they are clearly not capable of deciphering, we do them a disservice and fail in our responsibility.


I have struggled with the concept of probability for a long time. Not with the maths but with the meaning. Does a probability number really mean anything at all? And if so, what? Recently, I have reached a definite position on this. Here it is.

In a metaphysical sense, it seems clear that the probability number is meaningless. Or, more accurately, that it is not a property of the event in question at all (I am using the word ‘event’ loosely to refer to anything for which a probability may be calculated). An event either occurs or does not occur. No fractions are possible. Probability therefore must be a measure of a person’s state of knowledge of the factors that determine the event in question. That is, probability is an epistemological concept rather than a metaphysical one. It originates because of the need to make choices in the face of incomplete knowledge. This is clear since probability is used not just for future events but also for past ones. A classic example of this is the use of medical tests in conjunction with statistical analyses to arrive at a probability of a patient’s having a particular disease. In reality, either the person has the disease or not. The probability assigned to the possibility of disease is merely a tool used to decide whether further investigation is warranted.

This seems to suggest that probability is a subjective rather than an objective. But the precise math used to calculate probabilities suggests otherwise. Is probability subjective or objective? To answer this, it would be useful to look at what the words subjective and objective mean. In a comment on an old post, Burgess Laughlin wrote (and I agree):

“Objective,” in my philosophy (Objectivism), has two meanings. First, in metaphysics, it means existing independent of consciousness. The redundant phrase “objective reality” captures this meaning. Second, in epistemology, “objective” refers to knowledge that is drawn (inferred) logically from facts of reality. (See “Objectivity,” The Ayn Rand Lexicon.)

Subjective, as I use the word, refers to judgements or responses that cannot be traced back to facts of reality or the thought processes of the subject (A typical example is emotions).

Probability is not objective in the metaphysical sense. In fact, without consciousness, it would not exist at all. It is also not objective in the epistemological sense since it arises only in cases where the subject does not have complete knowledge of the facts of reality. And the fact that there are precise mathematical rules to calculate probabilities means that probability is not subjective either. If probability is neither objective nor subjective, what is it? Consider the case of a coin being tossed. Lacking any knowledge of the composition and weight distribution of the coin, the velocity with which it was tossed, the composition of air, the nature of the ground etc, the probability of a particular side showing up is taken to be 0.5. Where did this number come from? It is quite clear that this choice is purely arbitrary. The entire math of probability is based on a simple principle applied consistently. Given multiple possibilities and a complete lack of quantitative knowledge of relevant causes, each possibility has an equal probability. Clearly this is arbitrary, but it is the best one can do. And applied consistently, it provides a very precise framework for quantifying a lack of knowledge. It allows quantification of that which we do not even know!

Anyone who is familiar with Rand’s philosophy should note that my use of ‘arbitrary’ is different from (though related to and inspired from) Rand’s use of the word in the classification of the epistemological status of statements as true, false or arbitrary. To apply the principle of equal likelihood, one already needs to have identified all the possibilities. This means that probability cannot be applied to arbitrary (in Rand’s sense) assertions. What about the truth status of a statement involving probability? Such a statement can be demonstrated to be true (or false) subject to the equal likelihood principle. Without the principle, it is arbitrary (in Rand’s sense).

I think this classification – objective, subjective and arbitrary – might be useful in several other areas of math as well. For example (I need to think more about this though), it can be applied to Euclid’s axioms (in geometry). These axioms could be described as arbitrary and theorems could then be considered as true subject to the axioms.

In my next post, I will try to relate my position to statistics and randomness.

Sach Ka Saamna (Facing the truth)

Today’s supplement to the Times Of India carries a column by Vinita Nangia on the controversial TV show ‘Sach Ka Saamna’. Ironically the lesson Nangia draws from the show (as do many others) is

Facing the truth isn’t all that easy and some truths are best left unsaid. Each one of us has a dark side that is best left hidden from others; revealing our dark secrets can do nothing but cause harm to loved ones. As a young lady puts it succinctly, “There’re skeletons in every cupboard, and we shouldn’t rattle them!” Another adds, “Is there really anyone out there who doesn’t have a dark deed festering somewhere in his heart?”

This is bound to destroy a lot of relationships… simply because more questions will be asked… and more truths served up on a platter! Thankfully, we all have a choice — stop watching or at least stop trying to lift the veils of illusion; believe me, it is sure to backfire miserably…
(Emphasis mine)

I should note that I haven’t watched the show yet, nor do I intend to do so. I have no interest in the private lives of random strangers. But the concept of the show (from what I have read of it) is fascinating in the context of today’s culture. This is obvious from the attention the show has got. It is worth analyzing the issues that the show raises.

The show is about facing the truth about one’s emotions and actions and whether these are consistent with one’s consciously or implictly held value system. An emotion is an automatic reaction. It is determined by one’s values. If one’s emotions are not consistent with one’s values, it means that one’s value system is not consistent with itself. In any situation where one’s value system clashes with itself, there is bound to be conflict. It is not surprising that people act badly when they are in conflict. What the show reveals is that its participants and audience – judging by their reaction – are very often in conflict about a lot of very important aspects of their lives. And worse, that this conflict is usually brushed under the carpet by repressing one’s emotions or by indulging them stealthily.

By bringing this conflict into the open, the show has disturbed a lot of people. That is good. It is good that people are concerned about the truth. But the concern will not be of much use if it does not lead one to question its cause – the inconsistencies in one’s value system. But that is not what Nangia (or any other article writer that I have read) wants to do. They all want to brush the truth, the conflict and the show itself under the carpet. Some even want to legislate the show out of existence. All of them want to preserve their existing relationships even at the cost of the truth. They think that conflict is inevitable. There is a grain of truth to that. Man is not born with a value system. He has to create it for himself. And not being infallible, it is likely that he will make mistakes. So some amount of conflict is inevitable when those mistakes manifest themselves. But the mistakes can and should be corrected. And that requires facing the truth. Conflict certainly does not have to be perpetual. For most people, it is perpetual because they have never made the effort to explicitly create a value system or even to question the one they happen to absorb from the culture. Their method of dealing with conflict is to pretend that it does not exist. When someone exposes this pretense, they want to pretend that the exposure does not exist either.

There isn’t anything wrong about not revealing the entire truth to everyone. Honesty is not an unconditional virtue. It is merely a recognition of the fact that wishing something does not make it so, that reality cannot be changed by refusing to recognize it. It is a virue when one is dealing with rational people. There is no reason to reveal the entire truth to random strangers when one does not know whether they are rational or not. But when one is dealing with people one claims to value, there can be no excuse for dishonesty. If a relationship is weakened by the truth, it cannot be valuable in the first place. Anyone who advocates hiding the truth from one’s loved ones is doing himself, his ‘loved ones’ and everyone else a great disservice.

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.

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