Blog

GLOSSARY

Glossary lists the concept words that forms the toolkit of SV. Few of them have been already discussed. Few others are piloted as a prospective plan. Those words that have good description online are provided links; few others are given links to the best available description, pending discussion in SV. Those external links with less than adequate explanations are starred- SV will update these words with internal links.

 

Absurdometry

Absurdometer

Absence of Evidence Conundrum

Agnosticism

Atheism

Controlled Hallucination

Counterknowledge

Deep State

Deconstruction**

EBO: Evidence Based Opinion

Experimental Philosophy

Fashionable Nonsense

Falsifiability

Great Moral Resetting

IBO: Ideology Based Opinion

Incommensurability

Logical Fallacy

Model Based Realism

Modernity

Morals

Paradox of Tolerance

Probabilistic Reasoning

Postmodernity

Propaganda

Rhetoric

Social Capital

Social Contract

Social Cognition

Specific Dyseconomy **

Symmetrical Anthropology

Totalitarianism **

Tolerance

ABSURDOMETRY AND THE MUSEUM OF NONSENSES

Courting absurdity and yet declaring oneself as smart and righteous is a bane we see around.  Absurdometery is a quantification of nonsense. Absurdometer is its scale.

It’s an essential toolkit of Skeptic’s Vocabulary. In this page SV will curate a museum of nonsense.

Foolish, disingenuous, delusional and/or dangerous.

As the usual suspects, you will see plenty of pontiff, evangelists and politicians here. Sometimes you will encounter few advertisements as well.

Be ready to be challenged and amazed by the man’s capacity to fool oneself and deceive thousands and millions.

Absurdometer:

1  foolish, bearable 🐵

2 foolish, delusional 🐵👻

3 foolish, disingenuous 🐵💀

4 foolish, disingenuous and dangerous 🐵💀☠️

5 foolish, delusional and dangerous 🐵👿👻☠️

 

MUSEUM OF NONSENSES

## Theory of evolution being demolished

 

 🐵🐵

 

## Taliban’s tutorial to Buddhists

 

🐵💀☠️

##Why Saudis are correct

🐵💀☠️

## Astrophysical reasons for disallowing women in Shani temple

from the staple of Sadguru’s Astrophysics

http://satyavijayi.com/what-a-brilliant-reply-by-sadhuru-on-why-women-are-not-allowed-in-certain-temples-do-read-it-full/

🐵🐵💀

## Breaking Whatsapp News: Sudhir Chaudhary

This news journalist jumped the gun to make a swoop of a whatsapp message spread immediately after the demonetisation of high value currency announcement made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 8th of November 2016.. The message claimed that the new Rs 2000 bills had ‘nanochip’ installed in it that would allow satellite tracking of its ‘mass storage’. Sudhir Chaudhary is known as a right-wing eulogist of the Prime Minister, and announced the whole hoax as valid news in his news channel.

 

 

   🐵💀🐵💀

 

## Why is women forbidden to enter Hindu temples?

menustraion-and-temples

 🐵🐵

The tendency of religious apologist to ‘appropriate’ ‘scientific terms’  towards their beliefs makes the most elastic of all absurd claims. Underlying such ridiculous attempts is the delusional belief that their faith is a ‘scientific religion’ . Thus, they discover genetics, embryology, plastic surgery, artificial insemination, ballistic missiles, atomic bombs and supersonic jets in their religious texts.

 

Evidence Based Opinion and Ideology Based Opinion: Matter of Thought in the Face of Matter of Fact

 



 Intellectual honesty does not consist in trying to entrench, or establish one’s position by proving it- intellectual honesty consists rather in specifying precisely the conditions under which one is willing to give up ones’s position

(Imre Lakatos on Karl Popper’s recipe for ‘Good Science and Good Scientist’)

Ideology driven opinion is fundamentally different from Evidence driven opinion. For the sake of this article, I would term them as IBO ( Ideology Based Opinion) and EBO ( Evidence Based Opinion). It is important to distinguish these two patterns of opinion making when we engage in any meaningful debate. It is also important to identify individuals who consistently maintain IBO, because of two reasons: No meaningful debate or exchange of conclusions can be achieved if the debate is between two IBO positions or IBO persons. A sociological and psychological profiling of the individuals is important before such a debate is initiated. General population should understand these nuances before concluding the outcome of a debate. This is important because achieving consensus is critically important is achieving ‘peace’ and ‘efficiency’ in civil society.

Generally, the opinions made by political party spokespersons, religious leaders, and diplomats are mostly ideology-based opinion. Here a given fact is tailored to suit the ideological disposition of the opinion makers. While these individuals are supposed to maintain IBO as part of their profession,  a journalist, a scientist, a historian or a social commentator ought to  make evidence based opinion. But most often than not, this is not the case- many of the commentaries are driven by hidden ideological considerations. This vitiates the environment of debate and makes dialogue meaningless. Such scenarios unfold grotesquely in the interfaces of many intractable conflicts, while it brews indolently in many other forms of apparently futile debates.

The fundamental difference between IBO and EBO is that EBO changes over time, while IBO does not. As evidence generally change over time, the scope and depth of EBO change over time. All scientific statements are supposed to be evidence driven opinion. They are ‘true’ only for a given moment of time, based on the synthesis of the best available evidence at that point of time. As new evidence emerges, the opinion and positions change. While there may be skeptical resistance1 for such change at different period of time, by and large, the consensus generation in science is based on facts.  Statements in science are not ‘truth statements’, but consensus statements of best available information at a given point of time. This consideration for understanding the nature of statements in science- the most successful enterprise that man has ever built- is important to follow the difference between IBO and EBO.

IBO generally talks of ‘truths’ and inviolable positions. This may be religious dictates or masked interests of the concerned parties. These interested parties employ individuals who are good at using language to ‘construe’ facts to their predefined ‘truths’. On the contrary, people who tend to maintain EBO are not sure of themselves. They make tentative statements based on the available information at that moment of time.  As there is fundamental issue with our evidence gathering process, evidence at any moment of time is always provisional. Therefore, people who tend to maintain EBO do not make fundamentalist arguments.

IBO is maintained by ordinary people converted to ideological positions. They selectively screen facts to substantiate their own ideological positions, and engage in variety of logical fallacies in reaching at that position. The whole gamut of ‘knowledge’ acquired by logical fallacies for maintaining IBO should be termed as ‘counter knowledge’, because they are not ‘knowledge’ at all, but ‘apparitions’ of knowledge moulded by the tools of ideology and logical fallacies.

EBO making is not an easy position to gain or maintain. It requires years of retraining to achieve the mental sanity for making EBO. This is because human moral landscape is full of bias that are based on biological, social and cultural disposition. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses the divide on social and political issues as fundamental to the way human perceives things on five standards: Harm/care , fairness/reciprocity, ingroup loyalty/tribalism/territorial sense, authority/respect/deference, purity/sanctity. Haidt’s analysis of his massive database of cross-cultural comparison found that ideological difference between on social and political issues is based on variations by which people grade these five standards of morality. For instance, liberals have high grading of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity standards, while social conservatives  have higher grading for authority, ingroup loyalty and purity/sanctity standards. Libertarians- free economy champions- are like liberals on most standards like ingroup loyality and purity/sanctity, but are low on indicies that signify compassion – the standards of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. This induce them to make socially insensitive ( low on fair/reciprocity standards), but economically liberal point of view. The Left-wing liberals, on the other hand, make socially progressive , but economically regressive ideas that many a times runs contrary to prevailing evidence on the nature of economic progress. In Haidt’s study this phenomenon was consistent across cultures. Because of this divide, liberals have difficulty in understanding conservative and libertarians and vice versa. They maintain their position ‘righteous’ and steadfastly argue it out. Logical fallacies, counter knowledge and the slipperiness of languages of common use for logical reasoning afford them to maintain their view point.

EBO can make very limited inroads when people maintain higher rating of in-group loyalty and purity/sanctity standards. These are inviolable positions, and cannot be ‘argued’ out. In the same way, people who have low grading of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity standards cannot be made to impress upon the importance of maintaining the social and political goals of fairness and justice.

The best bet in this context is to start training in EBO making techniques from an early period itself. This necessarily involves training students in EBO in the primary and high school curriculum. It also should involve avoiding curriculum that explicitly promote lessons that incorporate territorial behavior and non-evidence based ideas of purity/sanctity. At the adult level, this involve peer group discussions that promote contrarian arguments that validate EBO stances, and demonstrate its long-term utility. Unless this is done the divide that is maintained by IBO would be irreconcilable, and dialogues and debates ultimately futile.

See Jonathan Haidt’s survey website www.YourMoral.org to evaluate your ‘moral landscape’

———————————————

  1. Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn described the resistance of scientific community to change in his seminal book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolution’. But such changes, nonetheless, occur and give way to what Kuhn describe as ‘Paradigm Shifts’.

Fashionable Nonsense

sokals-hoax-new-report

News paper reporting on Alan Sokal’s Hoax

 

Fashionable Nonsense by physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont is a reminder of the vulnerability of our means of communication to absurd confabulations . Immaterial of whether it is read or not, one need to know that such a compilation exists. It documents an important phenomenon that is prevalent in the nature of language of our everyday communication: It testifies the central thesis of this blog that Languages of common use (LCUs) are a very poor tool to reason; rather the book documents language as a good tool to confuse and obfuscate.

The theme of Fashionable Nonsense emerged from a hoax  Alan Sokal  played on a humanities journal called Social Text. He constructed a grandiosely titled article –Transgressing the boundaries: Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity- by interspersing conclusions from quantum physics with the quotation from influential ‘postmodern’ theorists commenting on relationship between ‘new physics’ and ‘postmodern thinking’. Sokal got inspired to develop such an hoax from the commentary by science writers Paul Gross and Normal Levitt who stated that new generation humanities journal would publish anything as long it ‘sounds’ postmodern.

Postmodernism is a heterogeneous movement in literary theory, sociology, architecture and philosophy that emerged in the second half of 20th century as a radical departure from the sensibilities of what was considered ‘modernity and modernism’. ‘Modernity’ loosely emerged from the 17th century European ideas known as ‘the Enlightenment’ that broke away from the medieval ideas of the nature of state, government and freedom. It has its origin in the works of European thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Adam Smith and David Hume. These thinkers upheld social and political doctrines based on reason and delimited the influence of religion on affairs of state ( see for example, Social Contract). They promoted the ideas of liberty, democracy, citizen rights, rationality and the separation of religion and politics.  Western scientific revolution and industrialization closely followed the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. Colonization that followed the discovery of oceanic trade-roots, however, met with a conflict of values and interests with the native population of the new-found continents. True to the pragmatism of the merchant class, the colonizers conducted their trade in the ways that suit their mediveal instincts. These involved  marginalisation of the native population and destruction of their habitat. Back home, many of the thinkers who preached the ‘Enlightened values’ to their population, rationalized the excesses of the colonizers by describing the colonized population as inferior in many values common to the Christian Europeans. For instance, John Locke, who was cardinal to the development of ideas of citizen rights and limits of power of the state, and the principal influence for the American declaration of independence, justified the subjugation of Indian-Americans in the ‘New World’ of Americas.

John Locke wrote:  God gave the World to Men in Common; but … it cannot be supposed he meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the Industrious and Rational, not to the Fancy or Covetousness of the Quarrelsome and Contentious1 .

Locke, in effect, justified removal of Red Indians from their land, stating that they do not have the ‘rationality’ to put those tracts of land to use. Locke justification of appropriating the land of Red Americans came upon as the general justification of European colonization throughout the world ( See Manifest Destiny).

“Among the categories of persons denied the benefits and rights that liberalism theoretically promised to all human beings were, variously, indigenous people, the enslaved, women, children, and the mentally disabled, those whom Locke called ‘mad Men’ and ‘Idiots’. The main criterion used to exclude such persons was their lack of rationality, and it has been argued that ‘[t]he American Indian is the example Locke uses to demonstrate a lack of reason’”2

Thus, the ideas of rationality and liberty associated with modernity were also associated with European imperialism, colonialism and atrocities related to the subjugation of native population. The two world wars were the culmination of the European scramble for global domination and mutual competition. The second world war, in many ways, was the climax of this ‘theater of modernity’. It reached its orgasmic peak with the two critical events: The postwar unraveling of the extend of Nazi atrocities, and the destruction that followed the atomic bomb holocaust in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I would date the definitive origin of postmodernism with these two catastrophic events. In both these situation modernity, rationality, science and the instruments of power it created were clearly associated with catastrophes witnessed. In subsequent years the relationship between modernity and the wanton exercise of its instruments of power was closely interrogated. Postmodernism emerged as the product of the skeptical ‘revision’ of the ideas of modernity. Many of the postmodern writers found deep fissures and violence in the very narrative of modernity that drew different standards for different people. The universalism of the ideas of modernity was questioned, and the dynamics of violence in its structure was examined.

Postmodernist thinkers tried to associate ‘rationality’ and ‘science’ with western imperialism and its devastating consequences. A breed of writers who started to think in the reverse direction started to emerge. Thus, there were thinkers who started to discuss various heterodox relationships like that between power and knowledge, power and gender and power and social institutions.

However, in doing so they tend to divorce the ‘clarity’ of thinking of many of the Enlightened thinkers. Whether this was a deliberate attempt, or rather a consequence of the flight of speculations these writers engaged in, is an issue that is debatable. My impression is that it was a sort of a ‘deliberate attempt’ to begin with ( eg. The style of writings of postmodern philosopher like Jacques Derrida who introduced  the literary technique of ‘deconstruction’ ), but  subsequently the lingo led many of the authors to get ‘carried away’ in their own narrative style.

Coincident to these developments in the humanities, but unrelated to the stream of thinking in humanities, there was a development in philosophy of science that apparently corroborated the standpoints of the ‘postmodernists’. This was a series of ideas starting from philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn  that tend to show the ‘non-rational’ sociological influences in the way the community of scientists behave in different periods of history of science. This was in contrast to the ‘heroic’ depictions of staunchly rational science as described by many of Kuhn’s predecessors like Karl Popper and the logical positivists. Drawing extensively from the history of science Kuhn demonstrated in his highly influential book ‘The structure of scientific revolution’, the vagaries of scientist in their endeavor in the generation of scientific knowledge. Although Kuhn did not refute the basic validity of science in his writings, Kuhn’s demonstration of its ‘sociological issues’ lead to the ‘postmodern’ interpolation into the nature of science. Paul Feyerabend who followed up the strands of thinking of Kuhn described an anarchic view of philosophy of science that refuted its differentiation from other belief systems like myths and religion. The leads of these philosophers of science prompted many postmodern authors to argue that science is just one among the numerous other view points of world, and that it does not command a special status vis-à-vis beliefs systems of various native communities. Beyond this, there were authors who started to find ‘relationship’ between phenomena described in quantum  physics and eastern mysticism. These ‘loose’ interpretation of the ‘facts’ of science was aided by kind of opaque language that many a times defies clarity of understanding. Language was used in unintelligible manner and connections were made with disconnected and dissimilar entities. I would argue that over a period of time, postmodernism  developed a ‘sociological’ milieu for themselves where ‘opacity and disconnection’ was, as a matter of style, tolerated by a whole community of authors and readers. The style of writing was so well established in the mainstream discourse of postmodern humanities that it required a ‘child’ who do not share the ‘sociological milieu’, to call their bluff, and shout that the king is naked. Alan Sokal, physcists by training, turned out to be the child who didn’t share the fashion sense of the postmodernists.

Fashionable nonsense is a sequel  of the ‘Sokal’s hoax’ on the manner in which ‘postmodern’ writers abuse language and scientific concepts. It describes a community of people who encourages obfuscation in their communications. Sokal and Bricmont give detailed excerpts of authors who tried to freely interpret concepts in mathematics and physics into unrelated terrains like literary and cultural studies. The authors discuss in length writers like psychoanalyst-feminist Julia Kristeva, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, feminist-psycholinguist-cultural theorist Luce  Irigaray, philosopher-anthropologist-sociologist Bruno Latour, sociologist-philosopher-cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, philosopher-cultural theorist Paul Virilio, philosopher Gilles Deleuze and  philosopher-psychotherapist Felix Guattari.

While Sokal and Bricmonts’s critique was limited to the abuse of concepts of science by postmodern writers, the larger issue the authors’ documented is the issue of intellectual ‘porosity’ of common place language that allow inconsistent and incredulous ideas to populate a variety of scholarly fields in humanities. It demonstrates the slackness of rational guard of audience in these fields. As mentioned before, I would consider this as a general problem with language itself. While grammatical errors are immediately detected by readers, logical flaws are seamlessly incorporated in the narratives in languages of common use. This blog highlights this as serious issue that perpetuate nonsensical thinking and flawed reasoning in social circles. In more than one ways, Fashionable Nonsense is a must-to-be referenced book for those who are concerned of irrationality in public spaces.

 

_______________________________________________________________________

  1. John Locke, ‘Morality’ Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development. Cambridge, 1979. Quoted by Armitage D. John Locke: Theorist of Empire?. department of History, Harvard University.
  2. Barbara Arneil, ‘Citizens, Wives, Latent Citizens and Non-Citizens in the Two Treatises: A Legacy of Inclusion, Exclusion and Assimilation’, Eighteenth-Century Thought, 2007.

 

The Paradox of Tolerance: A Case Study

karl-popper-photo

Karl Popper

Of the creed of philosophers of science, Karl Popper, the 20th century Austrian-English philosopher is the favorite of many scientists. He had made a ‘heroic’ image of scientists and the pursuit of science. His notion of ‘falsification’ is considered by many scientists as the principal demarcation between science and pseudoscience. Falsification principle states that all scientific hypothesis leaves a possibility that an experimental outcome would falsify it. If for instance, a hypothesis state that all metals expand on increase of ambient temperature, a single conclusive example of a metal that doesn’t expand with increase in temperature would falsify the statement. A statement that does not extend a possible future condition that would go against it, is NOT a scientific statement. In other words, scientific hypothesis should ‘stick its neck out’ when it is framed.  According to Popper, this ability of scientific statements to expose the condition of its own falsification is the essential feature of ‘true science’. Pseudosciences, on the contrary, do not expose themselves like this. Rather, it would ‘explain out’ the situations that have emerged contrary to their initial statement. Thus, pseudosciences won’t let itself be refuted by objective evidence, but would rather ‘somersault’ with adhoc or posthoc explanations.1

 Convinced of the ‘openness of science’ and the contribution of its openness to the progress of mankind, Popper wrote a two-volume book titled “Open society and its enemies”. In this book-series, Popper makes a statement widely known as the ‘Paradox of tolerance’. He states that unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.

“If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them”

Many leading social commentators agree to this idea. For instance, John Rawls, who propounded an influential theory of justice, state that while as a general principle a just society should be tolerant to the intolerant, the extend of tolerance is NOT infinite.

“While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger”

I think the Islamic proselytizer Zakir Naik is a test case to apply this principle.

Zakir Naik is a medical doctor and he claims he is a student of comparative religion. He conducts massive meeting with tens of thousands of audience and takes questions from the audience. His television Peace TV broadcasts these sessions and its videos are propagated through online media. He quotes Quranic verses from memory and gives an impression that he is a man of reason and logic. Having a MBBS degree in medicine, he claims he is a man of science. Many Muslims consider him as a great intellect and the bulwark of their faith.

Recently, during the investigation of one of the terrorists attacks in Bangladesh few of the culprits were found to be followers of Zakir Naik. This brought media spot light on Naik, and there was hue and cry for banning him. Many of my Muslim colleagues thought this was unreasonable as Naik is always open to debate and he constantly condemns violence. They conclude that attack on Zakir Naik is just one of the skewed narrative of hypernationalist media in India.

I do not subscribe to many of the jingoist viewpoints of mainstream media. But on the question of Zakir Naik, I agree with them wholesomely. The reason is the very reason Karl Popper cited: The Paradox of tolerance. For clarity of the argument, I shall derive it point by point.

  1. To start with, below is the answer Zakir Naik gave to a question regarding Taliban vandalizing Banyan statues of Buddha.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHpvBDDgJOw

He states that Taliban is correct, and is, in fact, teaching Buddhist ‘real Buddhism’ by destroying idolatry.

He does not think that it is necessary that a majority sect should protect a minority sect when the majority has absolute power at its disposal. For this, he answers that with respect to religion, Saudi Arabia and the kind of nationhood Taliban promoted is ABSOLUTELY correct.2 He argues that since Taliban and Saudi Arabia know that they are absolutely true, it is incorrect for them to follow the falsehood. He says it like a mathematics teacher being forced to teach 2*2 is 5, when he knows it is incorrect.

I think this argument of Zakir Naik sets the tone of our approach to Zakir Naik’s thinking.

2. In other words, suppose Naik’s creed become majority in India, and if his followers vandalize sites like Ajantha caves, Somnath temple or Vellankani Chruch, he would extend the argument that they are indeed teaching Hindus and Christian the ‘real’ teaching of Hinduism and Christianity ( as per Naik interpretation of comparative religious study).

This also reflects on the real nature of ideology propagated by Naik, for the real nature of an ideology would uncover when it is in power. In democratic terms, this is when a community becomes majority.

3. Suppose in such a state, a Muslim gets disillusioned and become agnostic and tend to propagate it ( read discloses the reasons of he becoming agnostic and argues his points in a public forum).

Zakir Naik’s  gives answer for this no uncertain terms

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRl5c-xPVA0

Punishment for apostasy and its propagation in a Muslim realm is death.

4. Now we have to see the nature of what is considered a ‘Totalitarian regime’ . A totalitarian regime is one that control every aspect of its subjects’ life. And if the prescribed code is not followed he is put to death or near-death incarceration (We have seen this in Nazi Germany, Soviet Communism and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq)

Let me give an example.

A crusader develops a political system. His name is Marx. He calls it ‘scientific communism’ and calls himself the greatest scientist of the whole world. If someone asked why it is called scientific, he replies that it is scientific because it is written in its manifesto that it is scientific and he himself is the greatest scientist because he has written the manifesto which is scientific!

Millions of people get impressed and follow the ideology. They get a nation to rule. In that nation, Marx insist that all its citizens should raise the following slogan: ‘There is only one true scientific communism. That is Marxism, and Marx is the greatest of all scientist. Lal Salam Marxism’

All the citizens are supposed to raise this slogan five times in a day, dusk to dawn.  There is no time  given for the students or citizens to think or question. The chief instructor says that it is written in the manifesto. That’s why it is scientific. He also asserts his pupils need not think that much- because is time to chant the slogan!

Any person who is found disrespecting the slogan is put under observation. And any person who question its ‘scientific nature’ is considered an apostate. And if he discusses his ideas with his friends, he is considered apostate who propagates his idea against the ‘scientific’ state and is put to death.

The above example is a generic illustration of what is totalitarianism. You can substitute the words Marx and scientific with any other term.

Essentially, Totalitarianism is complete control. Any objection or criticisms is plucked at the bud.

5. While Zakir Naik desires freedom for propagating his ideas, in the land of his ultimate goal, there is no freedom to propagate a contrary idea- because he believe that what he is following is the ultimate, absolute truth!

Naik2 , indeed, is the test case of what Karl Popper mention as ‘Paradox of tolerance’ .

To quote him again:

If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them

Whether Zakir Naik and his institutions need to be tolerated is a matter of Indian state’s discretionary right. I think the instruments of state should be given free hand in dealing with him.

————————————————————————

  1. Mainstream Science also undertake adhoc or posthoc explanations. This is the subject matter of debates of philosophers like Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn who examined this situation in detail in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolution” made ‘scientist’ lesser of a hero that Popper had made. Nonetheless, Kuhn also considered Science as a great enterprise man has developed. We would examine this issue later in another context in an article dedicated to science -pseudoscience ‘demarcation principle’
  2. We shall discuss in a separate article how the claims of ‘absolute truths’ are the origin of totalitarian ideologies, and how statements of ‘absolute truth’ are incompatible with the modern understandings of the nature of knowledge. Science do not claim ‘absolute truth’, and those who claims ‘absolute knowledge’ have no idea of the nature of modern scientific knowledge. Generally, people have a difficulty in understanding this idea, because human mind seems ‘certainty’, but the real fact of matter is that the most successful enterprise of mankind, science, disowns such an understanding. It is imperative that students get an early understanding of this idea, lest they fall into the absurdity propagated by people like Zakir Naik.
  1. Teaching student techniques of correct reasoning, make them impervious to all forms of propaganda. See how Zakir Naik fumbles when correct questions are asked.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7yKiAbM5MY

http://www.answeringmuslims.com/2011/07/zakir-naik-25-errors-in-less-than-five.html

The audience of the likes of Zakir Naik are people who are ‘groomed’ to a particular way of thinking. Antidote to such reactionary ideas is to make students learn techniques of critical thinking early in their school years. This blog propounds to the explore the building blocks of this cardinal skill.

Agnosticism, Atheism and the Question of Absence of Evidence

Agnosticism can be explained by a simple statement. I would borrow from renowned physicist and science-writer Carl Sagan on this. He said (  in the context of searching for extraterritorial intelligence), extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This he said after stating that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Existence of God is an extraordinary claim. It requires extraordinary evidence.

Following and seeking evidence is a recent phenomenon-because we now have the means to seek evidence. In the ancient and medieval times, evidence was limited to what people sensed with their immediate senses. In those times, the best recourse was to resort to speculations; and ‘generate’ reason to believe in speculation. Modern science developed in a different trajectory, and sort evidence and detailed methodology in establishing a speculation. Science developed from the speculating tendencies of ancient and medieval philosophers when Robert Boyle and others founded ‘experimental philosophy’ in the 17th century. ‘Experimental philosophy’ tried to establish ‘knowledge’ based on evidence and ‘matter of fact’. The initial ‘scientist’ ( or more correctly ‘experimental and natural philosophers’) were all God-fearing Church followers. They couldn’t afford anything further-because science and empirically established facts were marginal and the ‘facts’ explained were far less than facts ‘unexplained’. ‘God’ and theology provided easy explanation to all those things that were inexplicable. Indeed, Boyle’s ‘experimental philosophy’ developed under the tutelage of Church. In fact, University like the Oxford was primarily meant to ‘teach’ the clergy. In all those period of time, it was impossible to defend atheism or agnosticism.

But as ‘experimental philosophy’ evolved and ‘Science’ emerged, increasingly more and more ‘reasons’ that sustained belief of ‘God’ was displaced. Darwin’s theory of evolution takes the most prominent place in this body of evidence that broke the back of ‘theism’. Now the accumulating evidence in favour of evolution from genetic and palaeontology is so overwhelming that it is a ‘fact’ that is almost indisputable.

The confidence in the ‘evidence generating capacity’ of science is what consolidated agnosticism in a big way in modern times. That’s why increasingly more and more people embrace agnosticism  in nations where science has evolved and are in advanced state.

Science in its conception maintains a position of agnosticism. Its implies that while absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence ( of something), you require extraordinary evidence to substantiate an extraordinary claim. The existence of God and fairies and demons are one such claim.

Atheism, on the contrary, is a position that explicitly state about the absence of something (say deity). It is metaphysical position. Metaphysics comments on the ‘nature of things’, while agnosticism comments on the nature of knowledge. Agnosticism is an epistemological (epistemology is the theory of limitation and validity of knowledge) position stating the limitation of ways of knowing things, and absence of alternative ways of knowing (refuting the claims of others who claim that they know more than the rest of the people by means not accessible to all). It does not comment on the nature of things, but on the nature of perceiving things.

While agnosticism is perfectly defensible, atheism is not. But strong agnosticism is almost the equivalent of atheism. The only thing is that it does not state it explicitly. It rather state the extraordinary nature of the claim ( of God) and absence of appropriate ( extraordinary) evidence. New Atheism, propounded by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, however, state that ‘absence of evidence is the evidence of absence’ in the context of God, because given the phenomenon attributed to God, it is very unlikely that it do not leave evidence of itself. At least  for the personal gods of Semitic religions this is true. It is conceived as an omnipresent and powerful entity that it is highly unlikely that it will not leave its footprints for  validation by the routine tools of science. That this is not the case is the evidence that absence of evidence is the evidence of absence.

Social Capital and Affirmative Actions in India

Social capital is the aggregate influence a person by virtue of his birth and social connections gains in the society. It is the fundamental basis for institution of reservation in Indian society. In India, caste is an important factor of social capital. Caste in India is an exclusivist institution ratified by religion that has created endogamous units that do not allow social intermixing. The most identifying feature of caste is that it won’t allow intermarrying below the level of the caste in the social hierarchy. Endogamous units are social structures that breed only within.

I shall explain this with an anecdote narrated by an upper caste software engineer based in Silicon Valley in the United States. As I did not get the reference, I am recollecting the narrative from my memory.

The author was planning to establish a firm in the United States. While doing so, he reflected on one of his class mates in the Victoria college in Palghat, Kerala when he was doing his Predegree course (PDC). The protagonist was from a Dalit family in Palghat. He was brilliant and had stood first in his class in the local government school. None of his parents, relatives or neighbors were educated. He didn’t have many friends as he was from a lower class family.  Further, he didn’t have spare time to socialize as he had to daily commute 20 kms by foot. But yet he did his predegree  reasonably well gaining about 80% marks. After PDC, as everyone was attempting for engineering and medicine entrance,  he choose a local vocational training school popularly known as ITI ( Indian Technical Institute) to study as an electrician. Seeing his choice, the author asked about the reasons of his decision. He thought that his colleague could have easily got engineering or
medicine given that he is a Dalit. The answer from the boy was illuminating.

He said he didn’t ‘know’ about entrance tests and the career ladder to be an engineer or doctor. He got to know of the entrance tests only few weeks before the test. All he knew was that if he takes the ITI course he could easily get a job. This he learned from a relative of his who had made it to the ITI, to be an electrician. He cleared ITI, joined the local government owned electricity board as an electrician, studied part-time engineering
diploma and finally became an assistant engineer.

The author, however, was clear of his career plan. While doing his PDC, his doctor uncle had ensured him a seat in a reputed entrance couching centre. He did not clear the entrance test in the first attempt. He tried once gain, got into a government owned  engineering college , did his MBA and finally reached the Silicon Valley in his endeavor  to establish an enterprise.

Once he reached the United states, he found how difficult it was for him to establish the company, and how easy it was for a Jew to do the same. For, he found that Jews had elaborate network of influence in the industry such that the scheme of things was as easy and straight forward as was for the author in joining the entrance coaching center and finally securing a seat in the government endowed engineering college. He recounts that as a member of a privileged community, many things ‘just happened’, and the contrary was a ‘surprise’ to him. He concluded that his experience in the US made him understand the ‘necessity’ of choice of his Dalit colleague during his Predegree days.

The social capital makes your journey seamless. Many things you just didn’t know. It just happens. It happens through an Uncle here or an Aunt there. Average individuals cannot make it without a social circle of influence. Since the caste-system does not allow interbreeding, each caste need to generate ‘social capital’ of its own to be at par with others. This is more so in states where caste is an important social determinant.

Reservation or any affirmative action is not a poverty alleviation program. Rather, it is designed to generate what is known as ‘social capital’ for group of the society who have been deprived of opportunities for generations for centuries. Reservation is not directed to the individual, but to the community as a whole. It should continue as long that community’s historical social disadvantages cease to exist. For a community to achieve enough social capital, multiple people of that community need to be in positions of influence. Its endpoint is the community, not the individual.

Jobs and positions in a society does not exist in vacuum. It is the direct reflection of the population strength of a society. If Brahmins alone constituted the population of India, the government would not require the staff strength it requires at present. The bench strength of the governmental instruments is proportional to the demography of the nation. If a particular community dominate the instruments of a state they will create a social capital of reciprocal influence to perpetuate their hold.  The development of rigid caste system from an egalitarian Buddhist society itself is the evidence of this phenomenon. If this scenario goes on the nation would soon or later have erupted into violence. India’s founding fathers visualized reservation as a way to neutralise the asymmetrical privileges enjoyed by a minority for centuries. It is a safety valve for the deprived to hold on to the Indian state, and not rebel like the tribals in the Maoist belt of the country.

There is no pan India Maoism precisely because there is an elaborate system of reservations that allow the socially underprivileged communities to rise the social ladder. This is quite the contrary to the pre-independent India- because caste forbade social mobility in pre-independent era. Presently, on the contrary, caste aids social mobility.

The most economical solution for upper caste to combat reservation is to intermarry with communities of the lower caste. If intermarriages become seamless and commonplace, the state would not be able to discriminate the upper caste based on caste. Reservation would cease to exist if such a phenomenon become universal.

Social Contract and the Origin of Morals

social-contract-locke-book

John Locke’s seminal treatise on the origin of government 

 

The concept of social contract is a fundamental principle upon which human society and its rules and moral are laid down. We can discuss morals and ethics only after clarifying the concept of social contract.

The concept of social contract was developed by a number of western thinkers. The foremost of them are the 17th century English philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and 18th century Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques  Rousseau. In 20th century, the American philosopher John Rawls expanded it to develop a theory of justice.

In my exposition of the concept, I won’t be referencing these thinkers, but would be giving an independent interpretation of the theme. I think this is important, as social contract is a principle ‘intuitively’ understood by all rational human beings, and you just need an illustration to show how it works. These concepts are so robust, that any of you can independently reach at the same conclusion if you give these ideas an unbiased treatment.

We all know that man is a social animal and without our community, man cannot for practical purpose make a living in the wild. We do not have the brute force of a tiger or a tusker to make it alone. We owe to the society for our security, for our division of labor, for our specialization of labor, and for our luxury of free time. If one of us choose to live alone, he need not have to respect any law or follow any moral code. He can do whatever he wishes to do. He can murder his father, rape his sister or cannibalize his brother. Nothing stops him. But if he chose to be part of the society, he cannot do that.

He is essentially restrained by various kinds of norms- infringement of certain norms would make him a criminal and certain others would make term him a pervert. Certain infringements are called as criminal infringements, and certain other infringements are termed as moral travesty. In other words, certain transgressions of social contract make someone be termed criminal and certain other transgression make him to be termed immoral.

Essentially, when a man chose to be part of a community, he submits a part of his ‘freedom’ to the community, in return the protection and security the society implicitly promises. My submission of my freedom for the reciprocal security of myself and my family is the  implied contract we engage with the society. Social contract bars you from stealing, from killing your kin, from raping your sister or from telling lies.

Religion for historical reason formalized the lesser transgressions as morals and attached social restraint on these. Taboos developed as social restraint imposed by the social agency like religion. Here, we need to understand it is not religion which is the source of moral codes, but the social contract. Religion just happened to there as an agency through which principles of social contract is imposed.

Even if religion was not there, the principles of social contract would have imposed moral restrictions. An agnostics or atheist also follow moral principles.  The source of moral norms is human rationality that informs an individual that he is living in a society and that he has to follow the principles of social contract. Indeed, many religions that has developed rigid moral codes in the period of their origin find themselves increasingly anachronistic in the modern era where social circumstances as well as social and political relationships have changed.

For instance, Islam developed in a war economy where the number of women always outnumbered men because of attrition during war. Therefore, to maintain social order, Islam codified polygamy as an acceptable contact. In the modern society, however, the social and economic circumstances have changed and polygamy is considered as a undesirable contact. But Muslims cling on to the contact of polygamy stating that it was divinely laid down moral principle and cannot be changed. In the Southern Indian agrarian state of Kerala, polyandry was an accepted norm among caste communities like Nairs. In many families, children knew only about their mother; and inheritance was matriarchal- from uncle to nephew. This system is now no longer practiced. Had this practice been given ‘religious stature’ as that is given in Islam for polygamy, it would have generated unnecessary social tension. But ‘Hinduism’ being a loose cultural practice without the rigidity of Semitic religions like Judaism, Christianity or Islam, there was no vigorous conservative resistance when time-appropriate changes were effected to the moral codes.

Here we have to see two types of norms imposed by the Social Contract: soft norms that are morals and hard norms that are laws. That one should not steal, murder or rape are universally applicable norms that are time and place insensitive. Most of the society prohibit these contacts across time period. They are hard laws. Morals, on the contrary are soft norms- they have their origin in the social, economic and political circumstances of the community. They change as the social, economic and political relationship changes.

As a person brought up in a particular society, he or she knows intuitively what is acceptable and what is undesirable conducts in that particular society. If a person conducts undesirably, he will over a period of time become a social outcast; and this would eventually impair his living in the society. Rational individuals have an intuitive understanding of this concept. On the contrary, there are people who do not have these insights. There are individuals who as children were not exposed to the benefits of ‘social contract’, and therefore, do not have an allegiance to ‘social contract’. Say people who have a very broken family, children exposed to criminal environment.  These people have higher probability of disowning norms of social contract- whether it is minor infringement as moral transgressions or major infringement as criminal transgressions. Similarly, there are rare individuals who because of biological reasons do not have the faculty of rationality normal human being possess, irrespective of the social circumstances of their upbringings.  These individuals exist irrespective of being religious or not.  As the American theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg said, evil exist whether religion is there or not. But religion make good people commit evil things. This is precisely because religion is an outdated agency promoting principles of social contract from the social circumstances of its origin.

To conclude, social contract is the basis of all our laws and morals. Human rationality is agency that make people follow laws and morals. Laws are boundaries of major infringements of social contract, while morals are minor infringement of social contact. Change in social, economic and political circumstances bring about changes in the principle of social contract- more so for minor norms or morals and less so for major norms or laws. It is the human capacity for reason and rationality that make them follow laws and morals. Various degrees of compromise to human reason and rationality would cause various degree of infringements of social contract. Religion has no role in it. Religion was just a historical agency that acted as a vanguard of social contract. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for the practice of social contract.

The Accidental Prime Minister

Book review: The Accidental Prime Minister by Sanjay Baru

The Accidental Prime Minister is a peep into the intrigues and tribulation of work in the high offices of Delhi. The book has been marred with controversy regarding the timing of its launch in the rundown to the Indian Union general elections of May 2014. The then prime minister’s office had issued a statement that the book amounted to misuse of confidential information the author, Sanjay Baru, as the press secretary of the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was privy to during his tenure in the United Progressive Alliance-I (UPA I) government.

However, going by the book, Baru has tried to show Manmohan Singh is a better light throughout, except few occasions that illustrated the dilution of PM’s authority. Overall, the book appear more as a defense of the prime minister. Indeed, the widely published excerpts of Sonia Gandhi former aide in the PMO, the principal secretary Pulok Chatterjee, regularly discussing key files with the UPA chairperson, is perhaps, the only damaging instance of revelations that Baru brought about ( but this revelation is indeed damaging to the Congress Party under Sonia Gandhi facing the general election as the latter seemed to have compromised the authority of the prime minister).

Overall, the book is an insightful commentary on the complexities of coalition politics. As Baru claimed in his defense when the controversy of the inappropriate timing of the publication erupted, the author seems to have rightly kept the word of not revealing events passed to him as genuinely confidential. Thus, the book is relatively silent on many of the issues that later snowballed as major controversies like the coal block allocation scam. Also, the book does not divulge much on the Krishna Godhavari basin issue involving Reliance industries.

What the book reveals, however, is the way PM Manmohan Singh works, his relationship with Sonia Gandhi and how the PM’s inability to articulate his authority decisively lead to the events that ultimately caused the downfall of the UPA government.

The book helps one to make a perspective of the real achievements of UPA government in general and Manmohan Singh in particular. This includes the vision with which Singh carried on the economic reforms which he initiated under the tutelage of late Narasimha Rao.  It also lauds the diplomatic tightrope of opening up relationship with the US and at the same time maintaining the traditional ties with Russia and Iran. Baru eludes that in these areas Singh succeeded to a significant extend, but the front where he completely failed was to prevent the ‘enemy within’  to erode the credibility of the regimen. This includes UPA allies like Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)  who created scenarios that engulfed and overshadowed the achievements of the UPA in the media cacophony that followed.

DMK came to UPA with an intent to practice the brand of politics all the Tamil Nadu ruling parties have successfully played:  to systematically use the vantage points of power to help the corporate to amass fortunes and as a return-favor generate revenues for their parties. A portion of the amassed wealth is run as a drizzle of soaps and favors to its ever loyal electorates. The methodology was well-tested and fool-proof. There won’t be any direct money trail, but circuitous route of front companies propped up to receive favors in kind.

MM Singh was oblivious or neglected the reputation of these parties, and was apparently more comfortable with these unscrupulous parties than the headache of the Left who was middling with his grant plans on the economy and diplomacy ( mainly ties with the US). Perhaps, he had seen realpolitik play out during the tenure of the minority government of his mentor Narasimha Rao when the money was traded to buy the votes of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMK) MPs. Singh’s stern dealing of the Left parties ( when he chose to resign over the nuclear treaty with the United states) compared with his loose accommodation of the DMK brand of politics make one think that he generally endorsed the Narasimha Rao line of running the government, making the ‘end’ of the government prevail over the means of DMK-style politics.

But the replication of Tamilnadu style politics was too calamitous for anyone to stall an avalanche. The 2G spectrum and Nira Radia tapes turned out to be so sensational that none of the congress spin doctors could prevent a negative spiral.

Effectively congratulating himself, Sanjaya Baru paints that the press-management was rudderless in the UPA-II regimen that none of the achievements of UPA government- the change in fortune with respect to relation with the United states, the Right to information (RTI) act and the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA) was washed away in the tsunami of scams after scams. Manmohan Singh’s inability to intervene or articulate his position proved a damage that was irredeemable.

A must read for those who are interested in the inner workings of Continue reading The Accidental Prime Minister

The Rise of the West

(An Annotated review of Nial Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest)

german_migrations_150_1066

 The migration route taken by the Germanic tribes. Germanic tribes were the barbarian hordes from the west that lead to the liquidation of the imperial Roman empire. The rise of the barbarian west as the civilized West is essentially the history of the modern world

 

British historian Niall Ferguson’s book  Civilization: The West and the Rest ( Alien Lane, Penguin Group, 2011) is an interesting survey of the world history through 1000 years examining the rise of Western civilization through many historical intersections that were crucial in outsmarting its rival formations.

I would recommend this book as a must read for anyone interested in politics, science or technology as it provides a synopsis of the West vis-à-vis the ‘rest’ in the grand scale of a millennium. It also helps us to reevaluate the ‘fabrication’ called history, which we learned during our school years, especially those indoctrinated in the texts of many superfluous debates that inhabit our pop-media. We need to know about the western ascent because we live in a world overwhelmed by the western influence, and we practice a science-notwithstanding every protestations to the contrary-conceived, bred and quickened by the West.

Another important reason why this book is a must read is that it enable us to reflect upon the strategies the Japanese( from the late 19th century to early 20th century) and the now the Chinese ( from late 20th century onwards) adapted in replicating the advances of the West. It will be a window of strategies India as a nation ought to adapt to replicate what the Japanese achieved and what the Chinese aim to achieve.

Being a monumental survey of world history through a one thousand-year time- line, the arguments are not straightforward. There are many tangential subtexts that intersect the mainstream of the argument. To separate the author’s position from my own comment on the context, and to provide critique of the author’s narrative, I have used italicized text wherever appropriate.

As a general issue in approaching works in humanities, authors quite often get carried away by there own theories and predilections. This pertains partly to the lack of a rigorous logical tool to ‘crop’ and ‘restrain’ arguments ( the kind of mathematical restrain available in exact science like physics) and partly because the very nature of the subject (of the innate complexity that does not allow mathematical reduction, and the consequent qualitative nature of interpretation). Ferguson is also not clean of such a bias. Yet, I feel that a significant part of Ferguson’s arguments would stand scrutiny even after discounting for this universal problem of bias.

Four ‘Killer Applications’

 According to Ferguson, the crucial differential between the West and the ‘Rest’ is institutional (I think this as the most important statement of the book, which I would like to revisit again). Using the lingo of the smart-phone age, Ferguson stitches the narrative of Western ascent using what he describes as the six ‘killer applications’, which the West encountered and fostered in the course of its ascent- viz: Trade, Science, Medicine, Work ethics, Property rights and Democracy based on rights of ownership and the Consumerism that sustained market driven mass production and industrialization.

Ferguson considers these ‘properties’ as the ‘differentials’ around which the West diverged from different civilizations/cultures that possessed some of these ‘properties’

Ferguson explains this ‘institutional differences’ in six spheres of activity:

Competition ( or trade)- explaining how West diverged from ancient China

Science( ‘the way of studying, understanding and ultimately changing the natural world’) – explaining how the West diverged from the Muslim Ottoman empire

Property rights (and the rule of law based on private property right, which formed the basis of –as the author explains-stable form of democratic governance as seen in United States)

Medicine( ‘ the branch of science that allowed improvement in health and life expectancy’) – explaining the divergence from the ‘Rest’ as a whole

Consumer society( of consumer being the central operating principle of the economy and the industry- as against the whim of the central planners who impose ‘desires and limits of desire’ on people) – explaining the divergence and eventual western outsmarting of the 20th century Soviet ‘empire’

Work ethics ( which the author attributes to the frugality and work-worship of Protestant Christianity)- explaining the divergence of the Anglo-Saxon nations from the rest of the world, in forming the core of the West

West

Here the term ‘West’ is not entirely geographical, rather it is ‘a set of norms, behaviors and institutions without borders that are blurred in its extreme’. Accordingly there are different delimitations of the West. Ferguson sympathize with the description of the US historian Samuel Huntington ( of the ‘Clash of Civilization’ fame).  This consists of Western and Central Europe, North America and Australasia. It excludes nations like Mediterranean nations like Greece ( even though ancient Greece is considered as the fountain head of Western thought) and eastern European countries like Russia.

1) The First Front: Trade – Divergence from Ancient China

The China of the first half of the 1000s was more sophisticated that any nations in the world.  Signs of what could be prescient of a major industrial revolution were very much there in China. Water clock, paper, printing press, mechanized textile instruments and gunpowder were all Chinese innovations. Chinese Admiral Zheng He traveled across the Indian Ocean in a ship five times the size of Vaso da Gama’s Santa Maria, years before Gama made his voyage. Chinese navy with a combined crew of 28,000 was bigger than any Western navy until the First World War. However, Zheng He’s voyage was quite unlike that of Gama.

zheng_he-route

The sea route taken by Chinese Admiral Zheng He in early 1400s, almost 90 years before Vasco da Gama.

He didn’t want to engage in trade, but to ‘go to the barbarian countries and confer presents on them so as to transform them by displaying our power’. In one of his voyage he reached east coast of Africa, only to bring home a giraffe presented to him by the Sultan of Malindi! In contrast, Vasco da Gama’s brief was ‘to make discoveries and go in search of spices’. Chinese confidence in their own self-sufficiency and superiority was such that when Earl Macartney led an expedition in 1793 to persuade Chinese to open their empire to trade with an assortment of items like telescopes, air-pumps and electrical machines, the Chinese Emperor wrote a dismissive edit to the English King stating ‘we have never set much store on strange or ingenious objects, nor do we need any more of your country’s manufactures’.

Ferguson says that it is this Chinese antipathy for trade with the world that made China retard while the Europe progressed, despite having a head-start in ‘science and technology’ compared to any nation of the world.

Incidentally, however, the 21st century Chinese rulers seem to have realized this mistake and are making amends.  Presently, Chinese trade with anyone who is good enough to trade with- whether it is African despots or Burmese generals, irrespective of what ideological poles they are in. Ferguson quotes Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping articulating this position: ‘No country that wishes to become developed can purse closed-door policies. We have tasted this bitter experience—- 300 years of isolation has made China poor, backward and mired in darkness and ignorance. No, open door is not an option’

2) The Second Front:  Technology from Science- Divergence from the Islamic Ottoman Empire

 The Muslim Ottoman Empire of Turkey was one of the largest and longest of all Empires. It extended from 13th century to early 20th century, from the outskirts of Vienna in the West to Azerbaijan in the East.  It had trade monopoly through land and its military and navy was the largest compared to what its contemporary world had ever seen. When the Europe was reeling in the ‘dark ages’, it was the Ottoman Muslims who preserved the ancient Greek ideas (which later would form the fountain head of European renaissance).  They had adapted the best of Indian school of mathematics and had made seminal contributions themselves.

ottoman_empire-map

 

 

 

Ottoman Empire is one the largest and longest serving empires spanning two continents. Ottoman’s lost to the West in the race of science and technology

 

 

 

However, a ‘great divergence’ developed in the 16th century when Europe was progressing to the next stage of its development. This was the period of Renaissance (literally the ‘rebirth’- of what many believe as the Greek school of thinking). It was the period when the stranglehold of Church was getting weakened, and Europe was thinking of a world beyond the biblical scriptures. During the period between 1500s and 1700s, 29 major breakthroughs happened around ‘ a hexagon bounded by Glasgow, Copenhagen, Naples, Marseille and Plymouth. This ranges from the work of Paracelsus ( physiology and pathology), Copernicus ( astronomy),  Galileo ( mechanics), to Hooke ( microscopy), Lippershey and Jansen ( telescope), to name a few.

But this was the time when Islamic clergy were tightening their grip over the Ottoman Empire. What was vogue in the medieval Europe was becoming vogue in (European ) renaissance-era Ottoman Empire. Printing was resisted in the Muslim world, as ‘scholar’s ink’  was thought to be ‘holier than martyr’s blood’. Soon there was a royal decree that threatened with death anyone found using the printing press.

Ferguson says that Muslim scientists, thus, became effectively ‘offline’ being cut-off from the scientific development in the Europe. Soon these intellectual advances were transmuted as military advances. In 1742, Benjamin Robbins published a volume on the ‘New Principles of Gunnery’ based on the principles of physics and mathematics (especially the calculus) developed by Newton. This soon translated to better artillery designs that in no time were to outsmart the ancient cannons of the Turks.

Ferguson sees this as the second front of Western ‘ascent’.

3) The Third Front: Private Property and Democracy- Divergence from Colonial South America

The third ‘differential’ operated between the North and the South America. While the North America developed as the vanguard of the Western civilization, the South America remained a laggard as one among the ‘third world’. Ferguson sees this as the result of a differential development of private ownership and democratic representation based on property ownership.

Spanish and the Portuguese who colonized the Southern Africa didn’t have the disadvantages of the Chinese or the Ottoman Empire. In fact, they were the pioneers who conquered the sea routes, and they were exposed to the scientific revolution of the post-renaissance era. Yet, the Southern states lagged the Northern America.

The Spanish who colonized the South started with the cheap gold and silver that was available in South America, initially plundering the Inca resources, and later establishing their own mines. The colony was managed by a tiny group of Spanish using indigenous labour, while the whole land was owned by the Spanish Crown. In the North, mainly colonized by the British, however, the situation was quite different. According to Ferguson, North America didn’t have the ‘ready-made’ resources of the South. What were in plenty were enormous tracts of land.

The British colonization of the America coincided with a scenario that would have incited a Malthusian population trap (after Thomas Malthus who stated that natural resources are limited to keep up with the population explosion, and that a breakpoint will develop in all closed communities) in the English isles. However, the Malthusian predictions didn’t happen, as there was ‘an exit option for those willing to risk a Trans-Altlantic voyage’ .

 Ferguson says that the ‘exported labour’ was more productive in land-rich, labour-poor America . It also benefited those who stayed behind in Europe as it prevented the local wages in Europe from falling down (as Malthus predicted), and soon resulted in progressive increase in wages (because the exodus of labour to the Americas created a healthy balance between supply and demand of labour).

As land and its ownership became the key for initial North American economy, its protection against engorgement became the template of North American governance. The initial parliamentary system in Carolina where the first settlement started was based on the ‘land ownership status’. Voting right was decided based on the ownership of a ‘minimum of 100 acres of land’.  However, this voting right didn’t multiply as  those who had land dominated the scene, with each person owning  hundred to thousand times the  amount that make him eligible for voting. For instance, when George Washington executed his will his estate totaled 52194 acres of land.  In 1700s this was a revolutionary idea, as in those times every where else a person’s ‘legal’ ( as against extralegal power) power was proportional to his ‘asset’ power.

Ferguson says that the concept of ‘rule of law’ developed- perhaps rather pragmatically –as a method to protect private land ownership. Ferguson seems to suggest that democracy developed and consolidated on this pragmatic goal, rather than on any high pedestal of ideas of liberty and freedom.

I think this is an important point to understand. Democracy as we see today is NOT IMMEDIATELY apparent as an ideal form of governance. In the ages of monarchy, the monarchy was thought as the ideal form of governance (just as we think that democracy is the ideal form of governance).

 This not-so-idealistic development of the New World institutions become evident when Ferguson notes that one of the principal incentive for American revolt against the British government was the British government’s opposition to allow further advancement of European settlements into the Indian Americans heart land (eg. towards the west of Appalachian Mountain range).

Ferguson maintains that property speculators like George Washington ( the same Washington who is the one of the founder fathers of USA) could not stomach this. They saw the land occupied by Indian tribes as land of opportunity, which should never be forfeited. Subsequently, Washington himself benefitted from ‘forcible ejection of the Indian tribes south of Ohio river’ (to the tune of 45000 acres!).

american_progress

European removal of the American Indians was considered a ‘Manifest Destiny’ of civilizing the uncivilized. The lady Columbia carrying the book of the republic and the telegraph cable was considered a divinely predestined order. 

 

Although at the cost of Indian tribes, the North American colonization greatly benefited the poor and the desperate in the English Isles. Many indentured servants, who came to America to work in British property, were given land ownership after completion of the term of their service (as land was in plenty and unclaimed). Thus, North America provided a certain route for the English poor for social mobility. Ferguson records that three fourth of all European migrants to British America during the colonial period were indentured servants.

In South America the situation was the contrary. The silver mines in Peru and elsewhere that was plundered back to Spain, consolidated the imperial authority. The Crown owned all the land. The labour was provided by the expropriated local tribes who were subdued by superior weapons and exotic diseases (small pox, measles, influenza and typhus to name a few). There was no question of property ownership or ‘democratic’ governance. Ferguson says that this inexperience with democratic governance prevented the development of sustainable democratic institutions in South America when the Spanish imperial rulers ultimately made retreat.

Thus, while democracy flourished in North America and ultimately lead to a United States of America, South America reeled under autocrats and military tyrants.

4) The Fourth Front: Consumerism as the operating principle of the economy- Divergence from the Soviet model

One of the key differences in the Soviet model of development and the Western model of development is that in the former the central planners decide what its subjects need to consume and produce, whereas in the Western model consumers are made to choose what is made available to them. Consumers apparently apply their ‘free-will’ to chose what they want ( rather only in an eerie ‘Matrixique’ manner where the consumers believe that they are playing out their choice, while choice itself is determined by what is made available, and what is made ‘desirable’ by a host of advertisement campaigns).

Ferguson says that it is this consumerism and industrialization based on mass-production catering to the consumerist population that made the Western economy outsmart the Soviet model over a period of time.

To put this argument in perspective, the growth of Soviet Union after the revolution until the World War II was one of the fastest of any economy’s growth trajectory. Immediately after the October revolution, in one of his writing, Lenin proclaimed ‘electrification’ of the Soviets as one of his top priorities. This was disclosing the pitiful state of the Soviets in those times. However, just in  5-6 decades, the same nation would catapult the first spacecraft to orbit the earth. This was a tremendous symbolic feat as the resources and the scientific sophistication needed to achieve such an act in the pre-computer era was just stupendous. Soviet Union’s mastery of nuclear energy and missile technology occurred concurrently. This was in addition to the almost impossible feat of stalling the progress and reversing the fortunes of the formidable Nazi Germany in Second World War. What the Western world achieved over centuries of imperialist hegemony, the Soviets achieved in barely 4-5 decades  (Remember nations like India and Brazil are still struggling with the technological feat that the Soviets had achieved 70 years ago, when the computing technology was light years behind). This was the most important propaganda score point that the communist block had projected before the newly independent third world nations like India in the middle of the 20thcentury. Nations like India followed the Soviet example in planned development after being impressed by this spectacular growth trajectory.

 Similar growth trajectory was achieved in Germany during the Nazi era (what is termed as the ‘rearmament period’ after the World War I defeat).  It is also said that the world, which was plunging through the 1930 Great Depression, got salvaged from the economic slowdown by WWII.  The common denominator that links the growth of the Soviets, the Nazi Germany and the reversal of the Great Depression is the command style economy following orders from above down. Both in Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany this involved enormous human losses. It is estimated that in Soviet Union about 10 million perished during the Stalin’s regime succumbing either to the firing squads or to the weather in the Siberian labour camps.

 However, such command style economy started to falter when the immediacy of a situation like a war or a calamity ceased to exist. This was the situation of the Soviet Union of 1970s-1990s. Soviet model of economy did not produce good quality consumer items, as people didn’t have any choice to decide what they need to consume. This lead to continuously deteriorating standards, leading eventually to an economy that could not run on its own strengths.

 Ferguson says that the differential that operated between the Soviet and the West was the design of the economy- one based on top-down command system and the other based on an industry that relied on consumer choices and ‘mass consumption behaviour’.

5) The Fifth Front: Protestant Work Ethics

 Ferguson advances German sociologist Max Weber’s theory that the emergence of North America as the leader of the Western world was because of the predominant presence of Anglo-Saxon Protestant Christian ethos.

Max Weber                                             John Calvin

Protestant reformer Calvin propounded that human is born ‘damned’ and the only way to redeem oneself from the certain ‘hell’ is to immerse in work. Max Weber attribute the protestant culture of the AngloSaxon community to their rise of industry and trade

To follow this idea, one needs to delve into the history of the development of Protestant movement in Europe.

Protestant ‘reformation’ developed in Germany in 16th century as a reaction to the bureaucratization and commercialization of the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther started the movement after being despondent of the practice of ‘indulgence’ where the Church made money – to renovate Bishops Houses among many other things- in exchange of sale of ‘penance’ from what was called the ‘Treasury of Penance’ ( a treasury of accumulated ‘holiness credits’ that Christian holy men from Jesus Christ onwards had aggregated by virtue of their corporal sacrifices). The church had monopolized the biblical services, and only the clergy were allowed to read the scriptures. Martin Luther revolted against this and rejected the idea of exchange of penances as well as the idea of requirement of the mediation of the clergy for rendering the scriptures. His movement advocated literacy and the Lutherans were supposed to read the Bible themselves.

According to the Protestant theology Man was doomed, and only a select few will be ‘elected’ by God for salvation. Work was regarded as a form of service to God, and devotion to it was considered as a means of escaping the damnation that was almost due. Certain Protestants discipline like Calvinist sanctioned taking ‘interest on money saved’ as legitimate (an act considered sinful in early Christianity). It also denounced beggary and discouraged giving alms (for abjuring work was considered sinful). Indeed, Calvinist idea of sin was that it stated that all human beings are born with sin by default- and until each of them try to proactively take care to reduce the ‘sin credits’, all are doomed to hell. One of the ways to mitigate the sin default was to immerse oneself in his work.

Weber’s thesis was that this devotion to work (as Godly service), the religious consent for lending money for interest and denouncement of sustenance living created an ethos that was congenial for the growth of industry (for dedicated labour was in plenty, and efficient enough) and capitalism ( for money was freely available for an interest). Money making was not considered a sin, and indeed was a reflection of ones devotion to work (and ergo to the God)!

It is assumed that initial religious ethos soon translated to secular cultural ethos that characterizes the work ethics of the West. However, Ferguson falters here onwards and argues this as the manifestation of ‘religious belief’ per se.

 It is important to understand that the Protestant ideology per se did not aid capitalistic work ethics, but did it as a consequence. There are three issues:

  1. a) Spread of literacy – whose primary intention was that everyone can read Bible and be ‘one’s own clergy, but which by consequence (or as an collateral effect) allowed people to learn many things besides the bible. b) Spread of printing press– again primarily to disseminate Protestant literature, but which also had the ‘collateral’ effect of disseminating any other kind of literature. c) Devotion to work ( work as devotion) didn’t came to the Protestant beliefs as a ‘primary’ dictate, but as the consequence of the dictate that God chooses only a select few, and the majority are ‘damned’, and that the external sign of this damnation is misery and fall into depravity. Therefore, to prevent the external sign of ‘damnation’ becoming ‘certain’ most of the people devoted themselves to work to become successful and prevent signs of ‘damnation’ ‘manifesting’ on them. Subsequently, this ‘work ethics’ became the part of the culture- as much as an etiquette, without whose observance people were not socially recognized.

 Max Weber’s had contrasted this with Hindu culture, where begging and alms- giving is a socially acceptable behavior. Caste system made people who are involved in jobs involving contact with soil and metal as lower caste. They were disallowed exposure to higher language skills and formal education. The Vedic education itself was based on ‘phonetic’ transmission of sounds. As innovation in technology developed amongst those who used tools, while people were incapable of articulating their innovations in a formal language, technical innovations and the science based on it was largely limited as monopoly of individual families who transmitted their ‘intuitive’ knowledge only amongst themselves. As most of the development in science and technology developed by multiple people improvising –at different times and at different places- on the existing core of knowledge, the absence of an effective ‘online’ social knowledge base that was freely accessible to everyone hampered scientific and technological progress.

 Because of the ‘online’ nature of the Europe and the United States (in turn because of literacy and more importantly because of a media to spread that- the printing press and the industry around it), the innovations in one part of Europe would rapidly spread to another part and to the US, with back to back replication and improvisation following (remember this was in an era prior to the era of patenting). The development of the steam locomotive in rapid succession in England, Germany, the US and Belgium is a case in point. This would not have happened without the ‘online’ nature of these societies.   India, in contrast, was socially and culturally offline. The pan-Indian identity of India was largely established by Hindu philosophical traditions, which was essentially ‘offline’ to the large majority of Indian people. Majority of native scientific and technological innovations remained ‘offline’ without the scope for ‘simultaneous replication or sequential improvisation’. Here the advantage of having a large population (with resultant diversity of talents) was offset by effective compartmentalization and cultural segregation of the society.

 Atrocities- a point of Universal Convergence

If the above listed are the points of divergence between the West and the Rest, there is one issue in which the West and the ‘rest’ converge in equal measure.

To give full credits, Ferguson, even while eulogizing the West on every fronts, is very objective in listing the atrocities the West committed in building its Empires and its civilization- an issue upon which, however, it cannot rival any other nation or civilization.

Ferguson explores the central theme of the Western ascent without too much emphasizing its righteousness ( but not entirely, as we shall see later). The rights and wrongs of modernity or even more the ‘post-modernity’ was simply nonexistent in the eras preceding it. To write a treaty in history without acknowledging this is a fatal error which authors (especially textbook history writers) do repeatedly. They do it for variety of reasons, not least of which is political agenda, of making ones ideological position and whose historical icon ‘righteous’ than everyone else.

 The colonization of Africa in the 1800s by various European powers- commonly and rather ignobly called ‘scramble for Africa’- illustrates the central theme of all history including that of Western colonization.  One of the chief patrons of the ‘scramble for Africa’ was the Belgian King Leopold-II. He coaxed all European powers interested in Africa for a meeting in Berlin in 1884 for ‘formalizing’ the ‘partitioning’ of Africa.

 In the Berlin conference, Leopold managed to get an accent for a free Congo state, as a private dominion, in the guise of abolishing slavery and ‘civilizing’ natives. Leopold developed an organization called International African Society to advance this apparently ‘humanitarian’ goals. But once Congo Free State was formed, Leopold’s real motives came to the forefront. He engaged a tyranny of forced labour for collecting ivory and rubber from Congo. He used women and children as captives to make men collect goods for his business. Those who protested were tortured. He engaged a private militia to flush out and liquidate protestors who ran into forests. As the terms of the private militia was to be as economical as possible, they had to collect severed hands of killed rebels to tally against the bullets spend. As these terms could not be met many a times, the militia found it easy to severe hands of women and children as a ‘proof’ of their ‘successful’ operation. It is estimated about 1/5th of the population perished in the whole episode. The situation was so outrageous that colonial apologist like Winston Churchill came up with statements against the Leopold’s regime.

 Human exhibits in European Zoo. Europeans did not consider Africans as one of their kind.                             They were ‘subhumans’ to be exhibited as exotic animals. The ‘subhuman’ thesis is a  recurring theme in the European history until its complete burial in the graveyards meant for the Nazis in the WWII

While Leopold acted as the most outrageous character of the Western scramble for Africa, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade does not find mention in the narratives of Western ascent. The discovery of the America necessities a demand for an enormous amount of labour for the new world colonies. While indentured servants and native Indians were made to run the initial settlements, soon they proved insufficient ( while many indentured white servants got freedom at the end of their term, the Indian tribes started to decimate after contracting the exotic diseases brought by the colonists). Africa was seen as a source of cheap labour.

congo-mutilation-edited

In Congo Free State, soldiers used to chop off hands of innocent citizens to exhibit as  proof of combat. The instruction was to chop the hands of dead combatants as proof of genuine action, a documentation intended to prevent misuse of ammunition. The soldiers found a solution to this restriction by chopping the hands of children and women. Congo Free State is the nadir of European ‘Scramble of Africa’.

And not to take away the discredit, Africa, was indeed, the source of slaves for the Arabs who had ‘discovered’ Africa before the Europeans. In the traditions of the Arab pioneers, the European slave traders would station along one or other coasts of Africa, and would trade slaves from the African local rulers, who were keen on supplying their prisoners (whether prisoners of war or criminals) for a price. As this became a lucrative business, African rulers found ‘wars’ as a good business proposition. Soon slave trade turned to be the reason rather the consequence for African internecine wars ( It is further argued that many of the present day seemingly intractable hostilities among African nations/tribes seems to have it origin in conflicts incident to ‘raids’ meant to procure subjects for the European slave trade- a situation quite similar to hostilities that exist between India and Pakistan and that exists between Arabs and Israelites, where a vicious cycle of deceit and violence make sure the hostilities never end, and none can decipher the origin of the ‘sin’).

It is said that the total casualty in the transatlantic slave trade is about 10 million. Of which 6 million died in Africa itself, either in the hand of African slave raiders or the European slavers. The mortality during the transatlantic slave shipment was around 15%. (the conditions were so sordid and inhumane-even by the 19th century African standards- that many slaves used to commit suicide by starving themselves or jumping over to the sea, and it was a routine affair to force feed them to prevent them from killing themselves by starving) Further, more died during the ‘seasoning’ process where slavers made the slaves equip to the rigours of American slavery.

 This definitely was one of the worst holocausts the world had  seen. Just to compare, the Jew mortality in Nazi Holocaust was about 6 million. The number of people who died in Stalin era in Soviet Union were- according to ‘liberal’- western estimate about 10 million. The number of people who died in Soviet Union during the World war II was 27 million (more than a third of the total WWII casualties). Chengis Khan’s massacres amounts to 40 million, and Timur’s contribution about 17 million.

Ferguson do not comment about the contribution of African slave trade to the ascent of the West (or rather its masthead, the United States) or whether Western intervention in Africa amounts to a holocaust akin to the Nazi Holocaust of the 20th century. This is important as from the middle of the 20th century the key ‘patron’ of the Western world is the United States. In fact, one of the key differentials that shifted World War II from the Axis powers to the Allied powers was the entry of United States to the war. Indeed, once undisputed Britons keenly wished US to enter the scenario to tilt the balance. Ever since the WWII, it was the US, not the British or the French who could put counterweight to the Soviets. This was precisely because of the fact that the US was in a very healthy state vis-a-vis UK or France towards the middle of 20th century. How much did the initial kick of cheap slave labour help this ascent of US behemoth vis-a-vis other imperial regimes? This is clearly a point when we see that it was the New World which was the greatest beneficiary of African slave trade.

However, Ferguson does not address this question. Instead he discusses the ‘Scramble for Africa’ under the title of ‘medicine’ as one of the five differentials that mediated the ascent of the West. At one point Ferguson mentions that the Western colonization of Africa helped Africa by improving its medical indices, including its life expectancy (p 191 ). However, he neatly keeps this reference wrapped in a 46-page narrative of European atrocities in Africa. All through this survey the reader keeps wondering why Fergusons chapter on ‘Medicine’ is but an essay on Western conquest on Africa. Did he imply that the advances of western medicine in containing African diseases from malaria to yellow fever mitigate European atrocities in Africa?

 Ferguson’s prejudices unravels when he talk about Marx ( ‘an odious individual, an unkempt scrounger and a savage polemicist, who had an atrocious handwriting, and who depended on Engels, whose evening hobby was- along with fox-hunting and womanizing-socialism’), Stalin ( whose ‘Liquidation of the Kulaks-the landowning farmer class-was an euphemisms for genocide’) and the  American students’ campus revolt against US war in Vietnam ( whose true aims ,was for ‘unlimited male access to female dormitories’). He also makes inaccurate conclusions based on inaccurate observations to fit his theory ( e.g. Kerala’s literacy being due to the predominance of the Anglican Protestant Christians).

One wonder whether Ferguson would employ such techniques of hitting below the belt while reviewing his admirers, the British thinker John Locke or any of the founding fathers of the United states.

 The Rivals ( the Ascent of the Japan and China)

Ferguson makes interesting observations on the ascent of Japan and now on the ascent of China.

Japanese was so awed by the Western ascent that in the 1800s, they started to tour the West so as to decipher what has made the West so powerful. ‘Was it their political system? Their educational institution?  Their culture? Or the way they dressed? Unsure they copied everything. Japan’s institutions were refashioned on Western models’ . The Japanese army uniform, their army drills, their educations system, their business models everything was ‘made as’ West. Japanese swarmed western universities and returned to replicate and ultimately outrival the West in their own games.

The post-Deng Xiaoping China is also doing pretty much the same. The Chinese do business with African despots and oligarchs without any questions asked about corruption or human right abuses. Exactly, the way the European colonist and in the later years the United states used to ally with any kind of tyrants in advance of their economic and military goals. They swarm Western universities and plough back  western study designs just the way the Japanese did it half a century ago. For those who disparaged them as an assembly line of Western designer products, they answer by displaying indigenous technology to catapult space crafts to the moon. They accumulate US dollar reserves and treasury bond to hedge against any US ‘concern’ of civil rights and human rights violation!

Truly, China is rising to become a ‘Chimerica’ ( an economic marriage of convenience between China and America, in Ferguson’s own dictionary of neologisms).

In ‘Civilization: The West and the Rest’, Niall Ferguson makes very pertinent observations on the rise of the West, and the nature of the superiority of its institutions. However, he does, many a times, succumb to make ‘amends’ to facts in order to fit his theory.

Just as any other historian venturing to write ideologically inspired interpretation of the history, he overlooks many hiccoughs in his own narrative by hitting below the belt, especially on those people whose ideology he detests. On the contrary, he provides different treatment to his ideologues, being as ‘objective’ as possible. Nonetheless, Ferguson’s book is a must-read course book for any one interested in the rise of the West, and the demise of the Rest. It is also a must-read for anyone trying to refashion the West among the Rest- for the West is not just few intersections in the map of the world, but truly a set of institutions and behaviours, whose replication alone will recreate its marvels.