Trip to Mangalore: Reflections

Visited a manufacturing unit for diamond polishing machinery belonging to a business associate from my first venture. The unit contained several lathes, shapers, milling machines, a CNC machine and some other machines I could not identify, some of which were designed/assembled in house. There was nothing extra-ordinary about the machinery but it was difficult not to feel a sense of awe at the complexity of the machines. The owner of the unit is not even an engineer. His father, who apparantly has designed some of the machines hasn’t studied beyond class 8. I am supposedly a mechanical engineer with a masters degree from one of the most reputed colleges in India. What a waste of everyone’s time these degrees are!

Also visited the father of the owner of the unit, 79 years of age and a self-made man who came to Bombay at the age of 16, worked at several places in various jobs, set up a factory with all his savings at the age of 55 and still visits it everyday. The only advice this man had to give us was:
1) Everything comes from god
2) Take care of your parents, don’t make them cry!
I was quite bewildered. The world is a strange place.

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Boys vs Men, Indian weddings, and an essay by Paul Graham

Boys vs Men

This has been going around in my head for some time; ever since I read/reread some of Alexander Dumas’ novels a few months back. The main characters in his novels (especially “The Three Musketeers”) are all people in their early twenties. And they are described as men and women, not as boys and girls. Today the age at which we describe someone as a man seems to be around 30. Young people seem to think of themselves as boys and girls, not men and women. The standard love stories in the movies are described as boy meets girl, not man meets woman. It should be a matter of pride to think of oneself as a man or a woman as opposed to a boy or girl. And yet, there is a definite reluctance in most young people today about letting go the self-image of a boy or girl. It is as if we want to remain boys and girls forever. This reluctance is quite surprising considering that young people – atleast in India – have never been as financially independent as they are today.

Most of us have grown up in families where our parents have been extremely responsible people in an age when there were very few opportunities. Our parents have held the same job for decades while we are free to change our jobs every few years. Our parents have lived in a socialist hell where achieving financial security meant dreary jobs and a sacrifice of their dreams. Is it that we associate adulthood and responsibilty with sacrifice, boredom and dreary routine? In the relatively free economy today, it does not have to be so.

Regardless of the cause, thinking of oneself as a boy well into actual adulthood is clearly a bad thing. Ideas held unconsciously have an enormous influence on our lives. If we don’t think or even want to think of ourselves as fully grown adults, we will always look to various authority figures in our lives to make our decisions for us, to take responsibility for our lives.

Indian weddings

There are two parts to most Indian wedding ceremonies. A religious ceremony consisting of various rituals and a reception party. The interesting thing is that neither part is directly controlled – to the extent that a ceremony involving so many people can be controlled – by the couple getting married or even their families. The first is controlled by some Pandit and the second is controlled by a photographer! If ever I have a wedding ceremony I would want to control every aspect of it.

“The Top Idea in Your Mind”, Essay by Paul Graham

Paul Graham is easily one of the most thought-provoking essayists I have read. And this one is particularly good (Via Gus Van Horn). Graham writes that there is a “top idea” in one’s mind – the idea that one’s thoughts keep turning to when one allows them to drift.

I suspect a lot of people aren’t sure what’s the top idea in their mind at any given time. I’m often mistaken about it. I tend to think it’s the idea I’d want to be the top one, rather than the one that is. But it’s easy to figure this out: just take a shower. What topic do your thoughts keep returning to? If it’s not what you want to be thinking about, you may want to change something.

This seems to be a brilliant observation and an excellent way to take control of one’s thoughts.

The scope of free will

I was debating the issue of anarchy and was directed to this article (pdf) by Prof. Moshe Kroy which highlights some fundamental differences between Rand’s philosophy and Rothbard’s including the scope of free will.

According to Rand’s theory of human freedom, man’s only fundamental freedom, the sole domain in which he is capable of being a “first cause”, the only realm where he can exercise absolutely unpre-determined choice, is his own consciousness. Man’s basic choice is between identifying the facts of reality through an act of consciousness, and evading the knowledge of these facts. This freedom does not extend to man’s decisions and actions: Your decisions and actions are the necessary product of your values and premises, Rand claims.

Rothbard’s theory of man, however, assumes another dimension of freedom in man: the freedom to make decisions, to originate action. For Rothbard values, and their hierarchy, are not the product of perception alone, though, clearly, his writing implies that awareness of the facts is highly relevant to your choice of values.

In Rand’s words (also look at the related concept of focus)

That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.

In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality—or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.

Psychologically, the choice “to think or not” is the choice “to focus or not.”
(Emphasis mine)

I am not quoting Rothbard because I have not read his works. Aristotle The Geek has directed me to this article by Rothbard but the focus of that article is more on refuting determinism than the scope of free will.

How does one decide which theory is correct? The existence of a choice to focus or not (ranging from no focus to full focus) is immediately available to introspection. When I am solving a difficult problem, I am consciously choosing to be fully focused. When I try to go to sleep, I consciously suspend my focus. But does free will extend beyond that? Am I free to choose the object of my focus or the subject of my thoughts? Am I free to choose the outcome of my thoughts? I don’t think so.

Firstly, there are occasions when I get distracted. This is an indication – though not a proof – that I lack control over the object of my focus. There are occasions when I want to stop thinking about something but cannot. This is an indication – again not a proof – that I lack control over the subject of my thoughts. There exist such things as mental habits and character. These concepts would surely be meaningless if I were free to choose the outcome of my thoughts.

Secondly (and less importantly), one can apply Occam’s razor. The freedom of choice to focus is necessary to explain human behavior. It is also sufficient. Why assume a greater freedom without evidence – especially when free will sits uncomfortably with known physical theories? And until we discover physical theories that can explain free will, I don’t think this issue can be proved either way.

On these grounds, I agree with Rand’s position.

How is this relevant to anarchy? I will deal with that in a separate post.

Extremism

What is extremism? The word means advocacy of extreme measures or views. Consider a few examples of extreme measures or views.
A commitment to never lie is an extreme view of honesty. (Extreme consistency in a virtue)
Taking a larger than normal dose of a medicine is an extreme measure. (Extreme with respect to a norm)
There is nothing in the word itself that indicates either a positive or negative evaluation. Yet it is almost exclusively used with implicit negative connotations (impracticality, violence, terrorism). Why has the word acquired these connotations and what is the effect?

Consider the effects first. The negative connotations make it possible to reject consistent ideas or actions as impractical by simply labeling them as extremist. The fact that the connotations are implicit allows the person doing the labeling to avoid analyzing the ideas or actions and actually demonstrating or arguing their impracticality. Even worse, it allows the defense of bad ideas. When someone points out the inconsistency in an idea, it suffices to say “Don’t go to extremes.”

Now some of the causes. The dominant philosophy in today’s culture is pragmatism. After decades of unsuccessful attempts to implement vicious principles, the dominant conclusion today is not that the principles were vicious but that principles as such are inapplicable (Ironically this is also an extreme position). Having rejected principles, a pragmatist has no reliable way to project the long-term consequences of his actions. Hence the fear of anything extreme, anything that deviates from the norm, anything that is fully consistent.

Language is a tool of thought. One forms words or concepts to organize one’s thoughts, to concretize, retain and communicate them. A valid concept is an integration of essential similarities. Concepts like extremism that are an integration of inessentials are not just useless. They are destructive. Since one thinks in terms of concepts one has already formed, forming such concepts ensures sloppy thinking.

K. M.

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