I was told one more time by a friend who called me day before yesterday that I spout a lot of gyan and that I keep on changing it from time to time. When I thought about it, I realized that it was true.

When I was ruminating on it I remembered a wonderful book called  Gora by Rabindranath Tagore that  I had read a long time back. The main character Gora is a man of quick action, deep and clear convictions, impressive powers of persuasion and a capacity for tremendous pain in the service of the causes he believes in. When you see that the weird name is a sort of anagram of Tagore you are left wondering whether Tagore is trying to convey something about himself. Like Tolstoy did with War and Peace…

As the story slowly unfolds, Gora has to countenance the purging of the most foundational precepts that guided his life one after the other. But, the changes do not dishearten him nor do they truly break his spirit. One would think that a wo/man is the sum of the opinions s/he holds and that changing them is the sign of a weak mind. But the book tells the story of a man whose character transcends mere opinions.

Any one reading the book can easily see that what is unique about him is not just what he says or does at any particular point in time. But, it is the way he says and does those things that makes him special.

I really liked the character because his confidence was not predicated on his infallibility or the intransigence of his principles. Only a fool would think that any one would achieve anything of any value without making mistakes. His self-assured personality was born out of his readiness to take a risk and walk-his-talk.

I have seen a lot of people who would rather sit around and criticize than go out, make some mistakes and walk back proudly with the results of their experiments. You will never know anything with certainity. But using that as an excuse for inaction is a sure shot recipe for mediocrity. Which of course is a bad thing only if one thinks it is.

Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

I had read this book a long time back and I thoroughly enjoyed it then. Recently, an especially striking part of it resurfaced in my mind. Since no one was prepared to endure a verbal explication of my thoughts I decided to put it down here.

Memory as the foundation of intelligence

There was a part of the book which resonated deeply with me. By the time we reach adulthood, there is not a single cell in our body which we had when we were a child. The meaning of this was shocking to me. Just imagine, my whole person has been materially replaced. But, still, there is something about the new person which follows from the child I once was. There is a continuum of existence, of experience, of thought and consciousness. I feel a deep connection with that child and I believe I am him despite not possessing his body. What is responsible for this phenomenon. There is something that permeates us and links us through time and changing biology. It is memory. That web of experiences, emotions, thoughts and memories that will mark me as unique and make me feel like I have some value, make me feel that despite all my failings, I am someone special. That is the magic of being able to recollect.

It marks time and adds life to existence. It makes one feel that he/she has lived for 10  or 80 yrs. It follows from this that if I wanted to feel myself, by which I mean my personality, my character, my uniqueness more strongly, then it is imperative that that web of experience be made denser and more extensive. Only when we learn to embrace experience and feel emotions strongly do we get to feel the intensity of the life that we are in possession of.

I know it sounds like sugary philosophy. But, this is something I had already realized. This was what sparked my passion for traveling, reading, cycling, weight-lifting etc.. I realized that being a grown-up is not about being “in-control”, being cynical, or being difficult to excite. It is not about having a routine. Settling-down is not what defines it. It is about realizing that we now have the power to make things happen and at the same time remembering the things we wanted as a child. To use our enhanced ability to satisfy the child in us and to keep that spirit alive. To never forget our most ardent desires and to always have the energy to go out and fulfill them.

If every day were the same then there wouldn’t be anything special about living for a long time. The “length of life” is something that should be measured not in time but in-depth and breadth of experience.

When we have lived life, it adds a certain color, dynamism and intensity to our character, I think. It makes a person seem intelligent and attracts people to him/her. A collection of memories can help us assimilate more things. It is a case of more knowledge leading to even more rapid acquisition of knowledge.

I really enjoyed that book. There are a lot more things in it that are worth thinking about when you have the time for it. I came across the author while reading a piece about Conlanging on the New York Review by him. I liked his style of clustering ideas and concepts around his personal experience as he gets intimate with the subject. This led me to the book and I am thankful for it. Hope you guys too enjoy the book and let me know about your thoughts on it…

Religions and morals

A lot of people harbor a deep suspicion of atheism and atheists. I was recently reminded of this while reading an article on how admitting that one is an atheist would badly effect his/her chances when running for a public office.

This has always struck me as a rather strange phenomenon and I have often wondered why someone would fear/doubt an atheist more than a guy who believes in God. Religious institutions have done a very good job of convincing a lot of people that all the morals required for a person to participate peacefully in the process that society is comes solely from them.

The business of giving advice

It is definitely an easy thing to do. The various institutions which exist in the name of religion and spirituality are more than happy to tell you that everything there is to know and understand about human morality has already been made clear to them through the word of God. Moreover they are willing to interpret these words in the light of the various dogmas they bandy about to tell you what you should do. In return for a sufficient amount of money of course.

But, are they doing a good job of it? I mean, when you pay them to tell you what you should do with your lives you are certainly not acting like an adult. But, at the very least you have the right to expect some value for your money. Right? Maybe a more important and perhaps basic question is whether they really are capable of doing the job they claim belongs to them, well.

Is the business based on a sound product?

I have tried a lot to put aside my very profound disagreement with religion, the kind of philosophy that drives it and the conclusions it arrives at. Most of my problems with it stem from the fact that I have a very strong passion for truth and a belief that it has some intrinsic value which is worth significant sacrifices. Not a lot of people nowadays claim that the religious texts are literally true simply because they look more and more ridiculous with the passage of time. The defense of religion nowadays finds its material in the problem of the source of human morality and the need for psychological comfort and support in times of distress and depression.

If you are going to claim that you already have with you everything required to make an informed decision about such a complex and subtle problem as morals then will you be open to asking deeper questions and critically looking at your own suggestions?

Secondly, given the fact that almost every religious book is full of contradictions, how do you go about choosing which directions to follow, which stories to take in their literal sense, which ones are metaphorical etc. etc.. People in the know say that you have to use your “common sense” or if you feel like you are not up to it leave the questions to the people “qualified” to do it. If it is possible to twist the sometimes incoherent and ambiguous texts into something that YOU THINK sounds right, then what really is the role of the text? Can’t you arrive at the same conclusions by yourself or better still through a wider consultation among people with different perspectives? Going one step further, aren’t these texts of dubious sources and doubtful intentions a force constraining when it comes to reasoning out deep and confusing questions?

Thirdly and this where hints of my problem with religion based philosophy not regarding truth with the value it deserves starts becoming apparent. If you are going to go around saying that somehow you know better than everyone else how everyone should act, then you either be ready to battle the world with your wits or if you are too lazy for that claim the backing of some authority that everyone respects and fears.

You know what everyone fears, respects and bows to!? Yep, you guessed it right! It is the UNKNOWN! Something you are told you cannot understand, control or communicate with yet possesses total and absolute power over you. A lot of people have traced the origins of supernatural thinking to holes in man’s understanding of the world. Though it is an ever shrinking one, it will always be there and it will always have some power over our lives. But, some people have succeeded in assigning an anthropomorphic personality to it and claiming its backing for their actions and words.

The authority

Whatever you say or do has value only as long as people continue to believe in that authority. It is only then you escape from the need to provide clear reasons or results in support of your prescriptions for life decisions. So, it becomes of paramount importance that you first and foremost drive into everyone’s psyche the importance of never doubting that authority. To value faith above all else. To not question you. This is important because this is where it all starts. Built on this foundation of lies the tottering edifice of religious morality rises up in search of answers to the bigger problems. It is only when you start moving away from the stink of the foundation that you get anywhere even close to solving the problems you are interested in.

Where this gets us

Well, what is the end result of it all. More often than not it results in a kind of moral inversion. Instead of starting from the question of what one should do to leave peacefully with others you started with ensuring that whatever you say carries the weight of the truth without any need for experimentation or the difficult test of passing the critical scrutiny of society.

What does this inversion mean? Things that are really important, like honesty, integrity, civic sense, non-violence etc. become somehow less important than making the required contributions to your priests, chastity, credulity, not pissing off your God and ensuring that everyone hears about him or better still believes in him.

It is really when we get to this point that the defense of religion on the grounds that it somehow makes people more moral starts to fall apart. Good people generally speaking find justification for and enough motivation to be good to others. No matter what their religion. The reason for this is that man evolved to be a social animal. That is why the overwhelming majority of people in the world are good. But the bad ones will simply twist things to suit them. Moreover some good people, people of action and strong convictions can simply and easily be prodded into taking their religion too seriously and through that made to do grievous harm to others. The really sad thing is that the firm conviction and absolute trust that unquestioning faith creates in people can act to undermine their own consciences and abate their natural guilt.

An example

There is this funny story I know about a friend of mine. I always used to think that it illustrates the problem of misplaced priorities of faith-based morality pretty well. This friend used to regularly download porn(rather copious quantities of it) on his neighbor’s unsecured Wi-Fi connection. He used to tell us that watching porn was anyway a pretty bad sin that would need some serious confessing to wash away. But, it can’t be helped. He was relieved that at least he didn’t have to pay for his weakness.  This reasoning always used to make me laugh. Watching porn is something people do privately and I can’t think of anything bad that could come out of it. In fact, it might even be helping the mighty American Porn Industry. Not to mention lots of talented young guys and gals who make money from something they are passionate about and enjoy doing!(Hahaha). Plus, in our deeply repressed society it might help douse some fires and improve the collective mood a bit. But, using the neighbor’s Wi-Fi without permission is a pretty bad thing in my book. You are exploiting a guy’s ignorance for your own benefit. It seems even worse, in light of the fact that if the friend ever ran into some trouble that guy wouldn’t mind helping him out.

When things that don’t really matter are blown up into huge crimes it blinds us to the things that actually hurt other people.

I have no problem with people even the ones who are in my life and closely associated with me being religious. But their faith should be a personal matter and it cannot be allowed to influence decisions that affect everyone. On a larger scale, I think, our society needs to consider questions of ethics, law and state powers as completely separate from questions of faith and not allows faith-based bodies to interfere with decision-making in these areas.