Rant against The Righteous Mind

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently, I got to read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. I was disappointed by the general quality of the book, the style of reasoning and the somewhat surprising conclusions the author draws from them.

Somewhere in the middle of the book, he discusses the type of people he thinks are more susceptible to liberal ideas. As examples he takes great thinkers like Immanuel Kant, David Hume and John Stuart Mill.

He says in the book that the liberal thinkers among them tended to be recluses with some anti-social tendencies.
In order to support this somewhat strange point of his he talks about how these people had few friends, had odd routines and about their dysfunctional or somewhat abnormal personal relations.

He then goes on to analyse the liberal thinkers'(John S Mill and Kant) personalities in light of his interesting Moral Foundations Theory that posits that the human moral system is founded on a few basic concepts that supposedly have their roots in basic human psychology.

According to this theory, these foundations are :-

  1. Care/Harm foundation
  2. Justice/Fairness
  3. Sanctity/Purity
  4. Loyalty
  5. Respect of authority

He thinks that conservatives and conservative thinkers depend on all these foundations “evenly”(whatever that is supposed to mean!) to make moral decisions. Whereas, liberals depend overwhelmingly on the first two to make their moral choices.

At this point the book starts to get really weird. He says that the moral foundations are like taste buds and that moral systems exhibit so much diversity because of the infinite ways in which these “tastes” can be combined to create “cuisines”.

Then, he jumps from this to his follow-on conclusion that because liberals depend on fewer “tastes” to stimulate their moral sensibilities they are less broad-minded than conservatives!! (WTF moment!) Please read the above sentence once more. I wanted to make it all caps. Because, that is how it appeared to me when I read it. It was like a giant big flashing red sign telling me that somewhere something went horribly wrong….

Hmmm…. So, turns out conservatives are more broad-minded when compared to liberals because they crave for and appreciate a more “varied (moral) diet”.

So, the liberal thinkers who made such astounding and paradigm changing contributions to human welfare by suggesting ways of removing fundamental blocks to it in our law, social and political organization and personal behavior and who have had a fundamental impact on our collective well- being in addition to providing the basic concepts that underpin the most sophisticated, peaceful and developed social systems in the world are apparently narrow-minded people because they don’t have as many moral taste-buds!! hahaha

He bolsters his case by talking about how Kant was such a loner and a strange character. He then comes up with a clever experiment. He rates people on a spectrum of qualities at the far end of which lies characteristics that indicate possible autism. He then measures the degree to which their attitudes are liberal and discovers that people who tend more towards autistic qualities are more liberal than the “normal” people.

There is a hidden implication here. The overall point of all these specious arguments, cherry-picking of facts and flawed experiments is to somehow justify his apparent “enlightenment”(more on that later) and awakening to the value of conservatism and his unstated conclusion that liberal attitudes don’t fit with “human-nature”(TM).

This is wrong on so many levels that one feels a little pity for this dude for having spent so much time on confusing himself so thoroughly. It might be true that loners who don’t spend as much time partying and hanging out with friends are more liberal. But, did he ask why? Is it because there are some neurological differences in their brains that make them susceptible to moral deviances and deficiencies or is there something about the typical lifestyle of such a person that causes them to dump conservatism?

Isn’t it likely that people with a scholarly personality will be reading a lot more stuff, spending more time thinking about things and observing others from a distance? Isn’t it possible that the consequent higher level of intellectual development and detached perspective is what causes them to realize that the purpose of human morals is human well-being and not “tasty moral cuisines”(hahaha, what a stupid fucking idea!!) and causes them to be economical with moral principles that make them more judgmental?

Extending this line of reasoning, isn’t it possible that the differences in attitudes of “normal” people and liberals might not be caused primarily by their personalities. That might be only a distal cause. The proximal cause might be the kind of universalist thinking and hunger for other perspectives that reading and thinking can generate in a person. So, if “normal” people with 10s of girlfriends and 1000s of Facebook friends and a party schedule that is limited by his/her liver capacity were somehow encouraged to read and think a lot what would happen?

He never asks these kinds of questions. Instead he just says that Kant and Mill were probably a little weird. But, he is careful to point out that he doesn’t hold that against their conclusions. That would be an ad-hominem attack. And that would be wrong(tut-tut). But… you get the idea! If you are a liberal, you are probably an odd-ball who doesn’t have many friends and is going to get divorced.

Again, he doesn’t fully explore this line of thinking. He just casts aspersions on some great thinkers, makes a half-hearted attempt at ameliorating the rape of logic and then leaves it at that, leaving the reader to fume and rage over it. So, let us examine the conservative thinkers then!

Let us look at the Popes, all the amazing Pastors, God-men, catholic-priests, saints, religious thinkers and conservative philosophers. Let us look at how successful their marriages were and how many friends they had and how few children they abused and how few women they have tortured and killed and how well they can dance the Salsa! Let us do that and see how they stack up against Kant and Mill. If you do that you will also conclude that what the author had was probably not an “enlightenment”.

Equivalence of moral systems

Since all moral systems are basically just a random combination of his moral foundations, all of them are according to him about equivalent. He never makes an attempt to see if the moral systems are tied to social conditions, economic and technological development and average levels of violence and strife in the society. He never tries to discern the overall drift of all moral systems and in which direction they are all headed.

He fails to appreciate the fact that the greatest advances in human happiness were caused by the abolition of slavery, feminism, recognition of child rights, secularism, democracy, rise of individualism and science – all of which are liberal concepts. These are also things that are spreading the world-over and which most societies are striving-for with higher levels of economic development acting as a symbiotic agent. What is happening here is not the rejection of 3/5ths of human morality(as the author would have us believe).

It is a growing realization that the first two moral foundations have the veto over the other ones.

You should not respect authority that asks you to rape and kill.

You should not be loyal to your teammates to the point that you don’t mind their cruelty to others.

You should not be so obedient that you will go out and kill someone if your dad asks you to.

You should not beat your kids because your religious text asks you to.

You should not abuse your spouse because he/she is not traditional or obedient.

Our moral feelings have a survival value. But, they are also open to exploitation and erroneous firing. The only way to protect ourselves against our own survival instincts is by recognizing the primacy of reason and justice.

He talks about how in India, the unit of social organization is the family and community and how that is so prevalent in most parts of the world(he doesn’t mention that most of those parts are also seriously underdeveloped) as compared to western individualism which is sort of rare(but kind of common in all the developed countries). He doesn’t write much about how women and children suffer under these social systems, how the country has been crippled by casteism and communal thinking and how the idea of sanctity and tradition has atrophied the intellectual growth and cultural renewal of our country.

He doesn’t make a single attempt at trying to answer one critical question. What is the fucking purpose of morals!!?? In your mind you are always thinking, “Please, please answer that!” If you read his book the idea you get is that morals are supposed to be complex and tasty and that liberal morals are just plain boring.

Morality as an end in itself

The author claims that he was a liberal who was suddenly “enlightened” and came to the realization that he was superior to both liberals and conservatives. He gives his acceptance of the moral equivalence of both attitudes as a proof for it.

But, does he say anything to convince us of this equivalence. He narrates some anecdotal incidents which alternately show the folly of both liberal and conservative solutions for particular problems. So, he goes like, “Yeah, so, you see, both liberals and conservatives are occasionally wrong and here I am like a wise old grand-dad watching the little kids squabble over gay-rights and freedom-of-speech. Tch-tch, if only they just sat back and enjoyed each other’s moral cuisines!”. And you feel like punching him in his face for being such a pretentious little prick.

Liberals are only 2/5ths as moral as conservatives

What he fails to analyse in detail is the relative priority of the foundations. Liberals don’t let the last 3 foundations effect their judgement if it contradicts the first 2. This does not mean that they are disloyal, indecent or disrespectful. It simply means that they appreciate that things are not black and white and that at times they will need to go against authority, appear indecent and break away from their groups if that is what is required to be just and compassionate. In short, their morals might be more subtle and complex than it is given credit for in the book.

It is not like liberals don’t like football or other such team sports which are so enjoyable mainly because of the team-spirit and cohesion it creates in the players.

It does not mean that they randomly break laws. Science is considered to be one of the most disciplined professions.

It does not mean that they are incapable of learning from the past or respecting tradition. After all, the most famous liberals are also some of the most erudite people.

So, when he says that conservatives are broad-minded because they consider all foundations on an equal footing, I think that he has got it ass-side-up.

Science and reason fail to appreciate the moral complexity of humans?

He routinely drops lines like, “yeah, so scientists have failed” and “rationality has failed at grasping human nature” etc. etc.. And you are like, “How did this guy get a PhD!?”.

The fundamental idea of science is that humans are fallible and that their individual judgements are of limited value when trying to ascertain facts and truths and coming up with theories to account for them. Science is precisely the solution to the vagaries of human cognition. And whatever our failings, we have to give ourselves credit for coming up with something that has worked so well!

Now, here is this guy saying that science, logic and reason doesn’t work for clarifying moral dilemmas because people just “know” that some things are wrong! They can’t give reasons for it. Obviously, you too think that they are wrong! And you can’t give reasons for it. So, hence we can prove that reasons are useless when it comes to morals.

He fails to appreciate that you can find somethings distasteful but don’t see the need for it to be banned for others or for it to be made an offense that is punishable. What you like or don’t like is different from what you consider to be morally wrong.

Liberals have a ready standard for separating what is wrong from what is merely distasteful. For example, if I were asked his “trick” question,” Is it ok to have sex with your dead chicken before eating it?”. I would probably be shocked for a second thinking why anyone would want to do that. Then, I would instantly say no. Then I would think about it for a bit more and then say, “Hey, I can’t see why you would want to do it. But, I don’t think it is a wrong thing. So, no one should stop you from doing it.”

Now, he says that some people would just say no to it. It is easy to see why. It is obviously a disgusting thing for some people, myself included. So, I can be forgiven if I just say no to it. If I think like that I am probably a conservative. But, nothing has been proved here, mind you. Reason has not been defeated here. What has been proved here is that some people don’t want to follow the lines of reasoning to their logical conclusion and are quite satisfied with giving an answer from their gut.

What he is hoping for here is that people will get confused by his own muddled thinking and conclude that reason is useless when it comes to deciding what is morally wrong and what isn’t.

If he thinks that people just know some things to be wrong regardless of their conditioning or social or intellectual background, then maybe he should have asked this question to jews and muslims.

“Hey, what do you think of me cutting-off a piece of my newborn baby’s penis(circumcision)?”. They would say, “Great Idea! Do you want me to do it?”. But, a mother who has never heard of this practice will probably take a shotgun and take off your head with it if you went anywhere near her baby’s penis with a knife.

So, as you can see, exposure and culture are strong factors in deciding what people consider right and wrong. This might not be anything innate. And it certainly doesn’t prove that reason can’t help refine social practices. For example, circumcision is just plain silliness. Female circumcision is nothing short of a crime against an innocent child. Yet, many conservatives intuitively “know” it to be the right thing to do. People who refuse to consider justice and harm to an innocent child over tradition, sanctity and deference to authority cannot be placed on a level with people who consider fairness and compassion to be of primary importance.

More on his “experiments with disgusting questions”

His experiments with these questions are just plain retarded. If I were asked whether I would want to eat the shit of a particular civet which has been fed coffee beans(Kopi Luwak), I would say no to it. Because, I am not used to it. Now, there are people who pay thousands of dollars for this thing because it is a delicacy.

So, you can see that I don’t want to consume it. But, if it were safe for human consumption, I wouldn’t support any motion to get it banned.

Just like that some actions might not be agreeable to me. But, I will not have them banned for everyone.

But, conservatives don’t want anyone to do the things they think are wrong and the things they consider to be wrong are determined more by dogma and tradition than by reason. And this is where the problem lies. He doesn’t address this issue at all in the book.

In fact, he goes one step further and aggravates the problem further by seeking to justify this kind of insular thinking by attributing such feelings to certain moral foundations. He says, “See this is why people think that way. It is human nature.”.

“Yeah, so what? “. Racism is human nature too. Violence is human nature. Rape is human nature. Murder is human nature. Theft is human nature. Stupidity is human nature. What exactly does that prove? These tendencies might have evolved in response to certain factors in the pre-historic environment of our ancestors. But, that doesn’t justify anything. And, we are certainly capable of recognising these tendencies for what they are. Unacceptable manifestations of primal instincts that need to controlled at any cost. Except maybe murder which is ok during war( I am not sure, actually, about this).

The moral foundations theory doesn’t make social conservatism appealing. It merely explains it in a slightly different and I must add, dumbed-down/scientifically shallow way.

Polarization of political debates

This is the only part that you can read without getting a headache. But, this idea has been dealt with by many other authors and I didn’t think that this book’s treatment of the problem of growing polarization and partisanship in politics was in any way extraordinary.

His ideas on how common ground can be found between people of opposing view points and on the art of convincing people are interesting, but they are neither original nor exceptionally well-presented.

There is a very strong correlation between liberalism and factors like scientific aptitude, awareness and erudition. Social conservatism thrives in an environment that dulls the above factors. What this book has done is merely explain what is already known about this phenomenon in terms of fundamental human tendencies along with claiming that social conservatism is fine because it is human nature.

Well, the real question that one is left with after reading the book is……..

“Am I a narrow-minded liberal or a broad-minded conservative!?”

View all my reviews


Sometimes, breaking rules is the only way to ensure justice

Today, I learned that Salman Rushdie has decided to not come for the Jaipur Literary festival after all citing death threats. This is on top of the fact that his book The Satanic Verses is still banned in India. Coming on the heels of the death of the great MF Hussain as a citizen of Quatar in a hospital in London and various other such events this news was very depressing for me. I have always found such incidents to be shameful and every time something like this happens, it is like someone has violated my own sense of security and feeling of freedom.

How is that a bunch of good for nothing bigots who have contributed very little intellectually, culturally, economically or socially apart from serving as dead-weight on the ankle of India who is in a mortal struggle to free herself from debilitating social evils and systemic problems get to decide on what others should or should not do? How is it that they have a right to be outraged when people don’t take their god or gods or prophets or whatever seriously? Why is that their sense of outrage at books being written or words spoken more important in the eyes of society than the outrage of the common man at having his freedom to enjoy what he likes, to travel wherever he wants or his right to personal safety violated?

Anyone can believe in anything. That is up to them and their right to do so is something that is worthy of protection by every member of our society. But, to think that everyone should respect what they respect as a result of their beliefs is a mistake and  if such desires are indulged it can do immeasurable harm to the intellectual and moral fabric of our society. If the government is going to accept that no ideas that can “offend” people can be disseminated then where are we going to find material with which we can evaluate, understand and question ourselves? If intellectuals, artists and activists have to operate under the yoke of religious bigotry and blackmail by pre-modern  organizations, then what hope do we have as a society of progress and enlightenment?

If the government is worried about the hurt caused to people why doesn’t it take into account the outrage that the decent, hard-working moderate majority of India feels on seeing their fellow citizens of talent, ability and erudition threatened? What about their hurt at finding out that the government won’t be willing to side with them in a confrontation with violent bigotry? What about their opinion on books and movies denied to them because it is offensive to someone else?

What is this “offense” or insult anyway!? I have the right to say no to anything that can happen inside my house or be exposed to without my express intent. I shouldn’t be allowed to decide what others should read, what others should write, what should be available on the book-shelves of India, what DVDs and CDs are available for purchase, what audio can be distributed, what can be there on the internet etc. etc.. If there are outright lies being published under the guise of fact, I can challenge them in court with a request for evidence.

There is a silent, faceless enemy among us, stalking our future. It fills the dark deprived recesses of our society and uses the cover afforded it by the ignorance and helplessness of the masses. The authorities think that they are “playing it safe” by forfeiting every challenge thrown its way. They think that they are doing the people a favor by allowing them to be lead by people with a divisive and communal ideology motivated by political aims and personal ambitions. Every time the people in charge, whose responsibility it is to know better and safeguard our values and true legacy take a step back and shy away from confrontation, they are simply setting themselves up for a bigger challenge in the future. The stakes will be higher and giving up might not be a  tenable option then…

The government does not ban every book, movie or painting that offends any number of people. Only when there is a threat of violence does it rush to oblige the demands made of it. What does that tell people who are taught to be intolerant? That if you ask nicely no matter how reasonable you are no one is going to listen to you. But, if you are going to make a lot of noise and threaten to unleash death and violence then whatever you want will be given to you. When civil rights organizations, authors’ guilds and decent people request the government for lawful protection the government has a moral obligation to listen. Else, eventually, the only people left with options will be the ones prepared to kill and once everyone realizes that, we will be only a stone’s throw away from anarchy and bloodshed.

The constitution sadly provides protection(Section 295A of the IPC) against criticism targeted at religious ideas. But, what about injury targeted at more universal ideas like freedom or expression, right to criticize and right to question? Are they not worthy of at least as much protection as old fairy tales? Reading the First Amendment to the US constitution was an instructive experience for me. It cannot be the business of the government to act as the protector of religious dogmas.

It is not enough that the government does not ban anything, it has to step in and use its muscle to protect people when rights are under attack. We have no issue with deploying massive forces against our own people. We don’t mind it when government machinery and money is put to use to maintain and service pilgrimage routes and to help people make pilgrimages. When there is an individual being threatened we must not think in terms of his security. It is our own freedom that is under attack. Nothing can be more precious and worthy of defense than that.

I read today in the morning paper that the authors at JLF read out passages from The Satanic Verses as a gesture of resistance. Individuals showed courage and vision that is worthy of emulation by our country. People like them are the ones who keep the flickering flame of hope for this country burning.

“… we have strong social values…”?

I was recently going through some newspaper articles and I noticed one about a court petition filed to allow euthanasia of a person who has been in a Persistent Vegetative State(PVS) for 37 years now.

In that article it was mentioned that AG G.E. Vahnavati had said/stated ..

What was applicable to the western world would not be relevant to “our country where emotions and culture played a major part and we have strong social values.

It kind of stuck. Later, I was wondering why and I realized that I was just confused by the subtle hypocrisy hiding in those words. Questions pertaining to euthanasia are certainly very serious and require intense debate and consideration. But, in the process when you bring into picture our “strong social values” things start to get kind of fuzzy.

As I was digging into the topic, I thought it would be a good idea to first understand what social values are. They are quite what they sound like. They are a set of principles by which one engages with one’s society. Now, notice that it is different from family values which pertain to one’s family.

After that I made sure that I and GE Vahnavati live in the same country. Then I started noting down some things which most bothered me about India. We for long insisted on women committing suicide after their husbands’ death. We treat our women badly.  At least implicitly encourage them to be within the four walls of our home and to take care of all the old people in the family without giving a consideration to what their real inclinations might be.

We as a society have committed infanticide and foeticide on shameless and gigantic scales which has resulted in 32 million “missing”(read murdered) women and a heavily skewed sex ratio. Potential inability to pay a dowry in the future and the social stigma that might result from it is enough to scare ordinary people into murdering their babies.

Entire communities are forced to make a living out of removing other people’s faeces manually. Apparently, this does not in any way clash with our “values”.

We brazenly kill our own family members for the sake of our “honour”. Stories of lower caste people being humiliated, raped and butchered by upper castes are routine news items. People who commit these gross crimes are let go with laughable sentences after long, meandering and frustrating judicial processes.

We let the Anti-Sikh riots happen. Allowed the destruction of the Babri Masjid. The Godhra riots that killed and maimed thousands and that too right under the glare of the media with the state complicit in the violation of every standard of human ethics and morality. The people responsible for it are still holding the highest positions in our government. Narendra Modi is winning election after election. What does it say about the morality and social values of the common man? We accuse The West of being materialistic. Yet, for the sake of development we are willing to ignore the screams for justice of our own people.

Our police uses intelligence as a last resort when it comes to solving crimes. I know of a person who was so badly tortured as a boy when he was about my age, that even after decades he is almost fully blind and permanently handicapped. The police mercilessly beat him and tortured him in the locker after he was falsely accused of stealing a gold chain that belonged to my aunty!! It was later found lying somewhere. My grandfather later regretted having communicated his suspicions to the police. But, no one dared raise their voice against them. The onus of compensating them and lifelong guilt fell on him. Where are the social values of those who are supposed to “Protect and serve”!?

India has a great and ancient culture. But, like everything else it has its flaws. Some of them unconscionably serious. They won’t go away if we keep harping on our relative social superiority vis-a-vis The West! If I were asked to choose between being born as a low-caste person in India and as a poor person in say… Denmark, I am sorry to say, I would have to choose the latter. This might have something to do with my shaky belief in our “strong social values

More about the case

Vahanvati said western parameters seldom applied to Indian conditions and culture. “We do not lead our terminally ill parents or kids to death. Who decides if one should live or die? Who knows tomorrow there might be a cure to a medical state perceived as incurable today. And won’t leading the terminally ill impede pro-life medical research?”

The above words, dripping with moral condescension sound more like rhetoric than the cold, hard considered opinion of a man of the Law. “We do not lead….”!!??  We daily DON’T save thousands of lives than can be saved with simple steps like clean water and cheap drugs. “We….” ha!! What right does he have to sound so supercilious!? “Who decides ….?”. Yes, while you are wondering about such profundities we are unknowingly deciding to prolong someone’s unnecessary suffering.

If pro-life research is going to receive a shot-in-the-arm by prolonging this for a few more years, that would be great. But, a way to restore dead brain tissue hasn’t yet been even conceptualized. It will certainly be not ready in time to help this person. And from what I could gather from the article, there is currently no research that is being helped by this suffering. If I am wrong correct me.

A contradiction….

After stating that western ideas and the recommendation of our own Law Commission would not work given our Strong Social Values and the importance of emotion(have no idea what that means, will come to that later), the AG goes on to say,

Mercy killing would result in a dangerous situation as it would be easy to eliminate others if such a thing was allowed in the country, …

Hey, I thought someone just said something about Strong Social Values(TM). That should prevent something like that from happening, right? Well, no! There will always be people who are bent on misusing the law and there simply is no way that the state, atleast for now can prevent that from happening. THAT, is in fact a good argument as opposed to SSV(TM).

Then there is an observation by Justice Markandey Katju

“We are also concerned that once this is allowed, there will be too many such requests from relatives. There is a possibility that relatives in collusion with some doctors may bump off the patient claiming he/she is in a PVS though he/she may not be really so.”

I found it difficult to find any evidence for SSV(TM) in the above remark as well.

Matthew 7:4-5, “Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

I don’t believe in God or the Bible. But, I think this verse sums up what I am feeling right now pretty well. I have frequently come across people who try to put down other people’s culture and social systems. They say that they are sexually promiscuous, immoral, unhygienic, lack love for their family, are selfish and other such things. But, we never pause to think of our own faults. Every society has a system that works for itself. It wouldn’t be nice if we were to consider one to be stronger or better than the other.

In the west independence and initiative are valued more than filial attachment and subordination. I won’t pit one against the other because there are merits to both approaches. After a lioness raises its cubs it drives them away when they reach a certain age. That doesn’t mean that the lioness doesn’t love its cubs. Just because westerners don’t allow their kids to stay with them until they finish college or expect their sons and daughters to take care of them in their old age doesn’t mean that their love is weaker or that they have weak values. I think they just have a more realistic grasp of human nature. But, again, that’s just a personal opinion.

Emotional Justice?

I don’t know a whole lot of stuff about justice. But, Amartya Sen in his book The Idea of Justice seemed to make out a strong case for justice rooted in reason. Emotions, at least in my opinion need to be allowed to impact decisions only when it doesn’t clash totally with reason.

Here, the AG says it’s cruel, inhuman and intolerable to withdraw life support to the nearly dead woman. Why? Why should a person be forced to put up with the pain of sores, brittle bones, decaying teeth, a lifeless body and a compromised mind incapable of communication for 37 years? To satisfy the emotional needs of the society? To not “undermine” the 37 yrs of blissful experience that she has already had the luck to endure? The hospital has certainly done a commendable job of taking caring of her. Maybe, they feel that they are responsible, in an indirect manner for what happened. Maybe, they are doing it out of pure love in which case it would be interesting to see why they don’t provide free care to all who need it and not just focus obsessively on this one case. But, should the consideration given to “not undermining” their efforts over the last 37 yrs be given greater priority than the everyday suffering and indignity that the woman is going through?

Should we really consider the case as a test of our SSVs or as a question posed to our collective morality and decide based on considerations like minimizing pain and indignity? I was just wondering how “emotions” and petty rhetoric can help us decide these questions…

Continue reading

Nitc freethinker’s community goes online!

Free Thumbi recently signed up for a free domain name and set up a free-thinkers forum using free-software in his free time.

The site is


It is sad that even in a university, the level of awareness about scientific thinking and the importance of a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thinking is low. In this age of increasing intolerance and lack of reason, it is important that people maintain an open mind and keep in sight the uniquely human quality and capacity for science and accumulated wisdom.

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

When I was a kid, I absolutely hated History and Geography, mainly because of the need to memorize facts and trivia. After I completed my 10th boards I immediately cleared my brain of all the “crap”, because, my childish mind could barely grasp the significance of the dates and events and worse still, the texts didn’t even try to explain it.

The same goes for biology and chemistry. Whichever text you pick up, you always notice that it is loaded with information. I had recently put down my thoughts about the importance of information vis-a-vis wisdom or knowledge. The texts go about explaining how reproduction happens or the principle of photosynthesis as if they were merely mechanism to be studied, without explaining the awesome origins of such systems and their necessity to life on earth.

Textbooks always were atleast to me, something to be memorized. Recently, I read Discovery of India by Jawaharlal Nehru and The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen. The meaning and the breadth of perspective conveyed by these books is simply too awesome for words. When you consider that the Discovery of India is a book written by a single person while in jail, and the fact that it tries to convey an idea of India that took 5000 years to evolve, you feel  a sense of profound wonder and admiration. The vision and power of Nehru was rooted in his incredible understanding of India.

The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian is a masterpiece of an awesome intellect and demonstrates how reason combined with history can help one make informed choices. The book tries to expound India’s traditions in the field of debate and experimentation. The incredible breadth and depth of Indian thought as illustrated will easily amaze and render shallow and petty the ideas of even the most hardcore nationalist bigot.

The book deals with some of the biggest questions that face India, like Secularism, Globalisation, Nuclear Weapon Testing, Hindu Nationalism, the perception of India in the West etc. and tries to provide a balanced view on these matters. Efforts by people to define India and it’s thoughts and traditions in narrow and simple  terms appear silly to the point of almost being funny after reading the book. Some things like the fact that no other classical literature deals with atheism, agnosticism and free thought like Indian literature does with the same depth, beauty and power was a true eye opener. The Lokayata and the Carvaka schools of thought mentioned in the book and Madhavacharya’s Sarvadarshasangraha caught my attention and I did some more reading on Wikipedia on these topics.

The bits about the the rise and fall of Buddhism, an agnostic religion and it’s roots in Hindu literature are very enlightening. The myth about India having developed it’s culture in isolation is thoroughly destroyed by masterfully crafted arguments.T he designs of the Sangh Parivar for radicalizing sections of the Indian population with hideously distorted versions of history and the political motives for that are elucidated in some detail.

The most important thing that the book demonstrates is that things rarely have simple answers. Impulsive and “intuitive” decisions do more damage than good, and things that “sound” right more often than not turn out to be based on fallacies of the highest magnitude.

After reading this book, Discovery of India and a few anecdotes about Indira Gandhi’s prodigious reading skill by Natwar Singh I realized the true significance of the words

Men of power have no time to read, yet the men who do not read are unfit for power”

Michael Foot

Each one of us has power to influence the future of our nation and our people in ways that we might not yet realize. Wielding this power responsibly requires us to honor our duty to be informed about the decisions we make. Sadly, the Indian primary education system has failed most tragically in this highest duty. India’s problems will take longer to solve without this being remedied first.

Another thing, I noticed is that a lot of people are extremely proud of everything Indian and use their prejudiced assumptions to make easy decisions when faced with choices. Do you support the Indo-US nuclear deal? Well, the US is bad, so no! Do you think that the greatest contribution of India to the world is spirituality? How do you explain away the morbid caste system? Should India let her culture be “destroyed” by ideas from outside?

India was great in several ways and like anything else, had her failings. It is important we understand that and learn to be proud of the truly noble things and try to learn from our past mistakes. Efforts by people to impress others with stuff about Vedas being the ultimate source of all knowledge are an insult to the authors’ spirit of inquiry and do gross injustice to the true nature of the works. Indian classical literature is admired for it literary excellence and the unique perspective it offers of Indian classical thought.

Similarly, the modern day obsession with glorifying the past and trying to prevent changes to our society find a mention in the book.

While we cannot live without history, we need not live within it either.”

Amartya Sen

A thought…

When I look back at the years I spent trying to learn Indian history in school and the amount of lasting knowledge I gained compared to the ideas that I gleaned over a week’s time from reading a single book, I feel that maybe, something, can be done differently in our school system. If schools encouraged students to read these books instead of depending on textbooks and then prepared question papers that encouraged them to share their ideas, I think, a lot might change.

What is rationality?

Since I was a young kid, I always thought that I was a reasonable person. Later, I realized, most people think that way.


Sometimes, we meet someone and describe him as rational. Most  people seem to be  irrational to us. I mentioned in the beginning that everyone has a desire to be or atleast appear to be rational. Why then, do people differ so much in their opinion? Why do some people end up appearing stupid while others are respected for their rational and common sense soaked minds?

“Two roads diverged in the woods.  I took the one less traveled, and had to eat bugs until Park rangers rescued me.”
— Jim Rosenberg

Why is it that we humans who call ourselves the most rational beings mindlessly destroy the only place that can sustain us in this overwhelmingly vast emptiness? Why do Homeopathic professors exist? How can Reiki practitioners be raking in guilt-free money? What is the definition of rationality? Why do Republicans win elections? How does the Sena convince people to organise riots? What is the driving force behind violent Jihad?

All these were questions that interested me. Actually everyone has probably wondered about it at some point or the other. But, we just dismiss of these questions by saying that people are crazy. But, we never wonder why people want to be crazy. Or what qualifies a physiologically normal person to be crazy and thus by definition irrational.

After reading a few books and observing a statistically irrelevant number of people I somehow get the feeling that I am rational enough to write about rationality.

Why make such a fuss about rationality?

Humanity is a pretty intriguing phenomenon. We have by far, been responsible for the largest amount of change on this planet. Whether this change is for good or bad is obviously another question altogether. Which among our qualities is most responsible for the kind of dominance that we have achieved over nature? Scientists say it is the opposable thumb. People with more holistic approaches suggest that it could be a combination of our intuition and other neurological faculties combined with a weak physique and fear that is responsible for our current state. Some people like the Pope think that God made Man in his image and obviously He did not want his image look weak. The reason for the last thought being that it somehow seems more “mysterious” and “transcendent”!

Whatever people say about the reasons for humanity’s supposed superiority over the rest of all creation, everyone seems to agree on the point that humans are rational. This is one statement that is rarely challenged. This makes it very important to try and understand what rationality is. “What is the use?”, one might ask. I believe that an  understanding of  the limits and possibilities of this very colourful phenomenon can make all of us better decision makers and more capable of  contributing to our societies.

A closer look!

Humans are a very curious race and most probably, someone might have tried to understand the nature of rationality before. The ancient Indian civilizations, Greeks, etc. are possible candidates. What is certain is that people have definitely learned how to exploit the phenomenon. Religion is a great example of this.

The systematic and objective study of the human psyche received a big boost with the works of Freud whose theories are considered mostly obsolete nowadays. Since then scientists have tried to understand the workings of the mind and whenever the mind is under study, insights into the mystery of rationality are inevitable.

How is it that we go about the process of making a  simple decision, like for example, what to wear or which course to pick? This is a well studied question and Management students actually study different models that can predict the above decisions. Generally. it is supposed that, we first pick one choice based upon some undefinable feeling. Then, we try and rationalize the choice by coming up with reasons for it. We make a weak attempt to challenge the choice. Then, if it passes the test, we go with the choice. This is the favourite method of most of us humans. There isn’t anything extremely rational about the whole process. But, this is the only way our brains can process the decisions fast enough. Otherwise, we would be stuck at a shoe shop for hours, trying to pick “THE BEST” choice.

Now, leaving the mundane stuff behind, let us move onto the “higher” stuff. Like religion, belief in a God, trust in others, friendship etc.. What are the mechanisms that power rationality in these fields? Some say that we don’t depend on rationality for certain things. But, that is just a bag of hot air. If I ask someone why he believes in God or why someone prays to get better, they will come up with perfectly reasonable explanantions for it. No one does anything without a reason! Sometimes  they just don’t know it, or are unable to put it into words.

So, what again is rationality? The most likely answer is that it is the ability to defend our belief systems.

This explanation has been put forward by several people including Freud himself. Now, the above explanation can seem very strange at first. Atleast to me, it did. What  then is the meaning of the creed called Rationalism? How does the above explanation elucidate the idea of a rational person?

Once we answer these questions the questions posed in the beginning become clear. A rational person is one who can explain his viewpoint most convincingly to another person, or to use the more correct way, appeal to the other guy’s rationality. Now, it is clear that the underlying ideas themselves have little to do with rationality.

In other words a person can be very rational and very wrong! Atleast according to another rational person. Obviously if the ideas are completely indefensible then rationality is going to dump them and come up with a “better” set of ideas. Several scientists especially in the field of neuropsychology have studied whether this explanation holds any water. In a book called Phantoms in the brain by a Dr.Ramachandran, the author describes experiments on people who have suffered damage to those areas of the brain that are responsible for coming up with explanations that reinforce our world view. If the areas suffer from decreased function, then. the subjects become very depressed and emotional. It the opposite happens, then they are strangely oblivious to their own predicament.

The author goes on to suggest that maybe Freud was not entirely wrong. The human mind is like a state machine whose output depends on past inputs, present state, present inputs and the logic function implemented. The present state is held in the unconscious mind. Our minds try to filter the information that comes in through our senses using the world view that it has developed over the years(state).

Scientists have actually confirmed that cognitive differences exist between sensory-wise  identical, but content-wise different information. The ones that affirm our beliefs are amplified and used to strengthen our opinions. The ones that do not make sense entirely are rationalised using our awesome powers of reasoning to conform with what we know. The ones that don’t agree at all are simple discarded or “repressed into our unconscious” according to Freud.  This rationality is thus, among what are called psychological defences that our mind employs to prevent instability and indecisiveness. This last point is worth a little explanation.

“Lying to yourself about specific actions is easier than re-defining the bounds of your imagined identity…  When I see once-ethical men devolve into moral grey, they still identify as upstanding.”
— Ben Casnocha

If a person cannot rationalise his actions well enough, or in other words, if his psychological defences aren’t strong enough, then he just keeps changing his opinions. This will prevent any effective decision making and can make him vulnerable to situations that might temporarily not make much sense. The other psychological defences include Lying, Humour, Projection. Reaction formation, Denial etc..

In other words everyone is a little crazy. That is what prevents each one of us from becoming crazy, big-time! How many times have we said to ourselves that we are smart as the devil himself and that we can “do-it”! These self delusional statements and lying are important to boost up our confidence and is responsible for our ability to outdo ourselves. A perfectly reasonably guy would probably never get anywhere. Whereas a half crazy dude who treats everyone like shit and thinks that he is the only smart guy in the world might end up running it. Whether the crazy dude is happier for that is again worth some debate. When any of the defences get amplified it usually leads to inability to handle certain situations.

If rationality is the power to explain ourselves first to ourselves and then to others, what then is so “right” about it? The thing is that the connection between being right and being rational is not as strong as it is made out to be. But a connection exists nevertheless. The best rationalizations are produces by people with higher IQ who generally tend to seek more information and question themselves more critically, thus shaping their belief systems in more society compatible ways. But, this is only a very theoretical thing.

Very rarely does the above connection actually work out. The reason for that being the fact that the information that we have access to most easily is from our parents, friends and society. In this age of universal psychopathy, disaster and return to the intellectually undemanding world of religion by people unable to make sense of it all, this information tends to be coloured with all sorts of stuff that cannot be verified.


For example, homoeopathy is a recognised medical system in India with Homoeopathic practitioners recognised as doctors. The entire system is based upon the so called principal that diseases can be treated by simulating the symptoms more strongly and thus prodding the body to take action and restore the lost “balance”. This makes “sense”. But, the German who invented the system found out that material doses of drugs which cause the above said symptoms are toxic and cause damage. Therefore the dosages are diluted to concentrations like 10^-20 or lesser. At these conncentrations, chances are that there is not a single molecule of the orginal stuff in a whole bottle of the medicine. Then, this water is taken to cure the disease.

With the discovery that matter is made up  of molecules and that once they are further split up, they loose their properties, the basis of the system is more or less destroyed. But, still something could work without an explanation. But again empirical studies have conclusively proved that Homoeo has no effect beyond the well known placebo phenomenon.

Rationally, then we should reject the system. But, it doesn’t happen. Why? When a thousand people take the medicine, some of them get relief due to some reason or other not related to the medicine. They then tell all their friends and relatives about it and they in turn spread the word.

“Would it be good advice, once copying becomes practical, to make lots of copies when good things happen, and none (or perhaps even killing off your own personal instance) on bad things?  Will this change the subjective probability of good events?”
— Hal Finney

Forget the people. Ever wonder how the  Homoeo doctor manages to push ahead with this meaningless and considering that it is useless, very demanding job? How is it they deal with patients they cannot cure? What happens when a person who is vaccinated against jaundice with a Homoeo vaccine gets Jaundice?

Again, consider a Pentecostal faith healer. How is it that he finds the strength to jump around and scream all the time and convince himself that his psychotic babbling makes sense according to the language used in heaven to praise God who likes his sycophants screamy and crazy?

How is that despite the fact that there is a 20 million dollar unclaimed reward for any demonstration of paranormale phenomenon, people still believe in psychic powers and other bs like yogic flying and telekinesis?

Crazy people are more rational??

All this is not a failure of rationality. Infact, the people most strongly believing in them and the ones who are willing to actually lay down their lives for their beliefs are the ones who are most capable of rationalizing their ideas. If you ask a crazy sounding Pastor why he is right while he is drawing the organisational structure of Hell and explaining Satan’s family tree, he will give you a bunch of reasons that might make sense to someone prepared to do anything to get cured. The more rational the Pastor the better the explanations are going to be.

The failure therefore lies not with rationality. In fact rationality unconditioned by commensurate information from authoritative sources is at the mercy of intuition. Now, this is a pretty dangerous mix. You believe in something because it “feels right” and the try to come up with reasons for your belief. This is what religion is all about in a nutshell! The ideas are passed along from generation to generation and with passing time people grow less inclined to question them and they become truths.

The failure is thus always with not being exposed to facts. Unless a child is exposed to all kinds of information as he grows up, he is going to develop a world view that is probably unbalanced and based on some 2000 yr old text that doesnt make much sense when actually read in an objective manner. Since the beliefs develop before the child is capable of questioning them or ascertaining their validity them become like thought viruses that infect his mind. Once reasoning powers develop the person tries to validate his beliefs. Again, all contradictory matter is banned by someone or the other.

Thus, rationality ends up defending a belief system that places value on unquestioning belief in a badly written book. Depending upon the strength of conditioning and rational powers of the person, various levels of assault can be successfully withstood by the thought virus.

Now, this can help us understand why people act the way they do. It is never because they are stupid or irrational. It is because they just are conditioned that way. Very rarely do people view the opinion of their parents and relatives with scepticism. This gives rise to believing in word of mouth accounts. The tendency to value intuition, an old book and rumour over experiment, modern science and fact is cultivated as a virtue. Some people manage to delude and compartmentalize their personalities thus eventually becoming a doctor or an engnineer who performs animal sacrifices. This doublespeak is explained more colourfully in George Orwell’s classic 1984. Everyone has a time bomb ticking inside them which is unreasoning belief. Some people are by nature more action oriented and decide to act on whatever they know to be true. Their power of rationalisation providing the necessary conviction.

Thus, we have jihadists, Pastors, yogis and etc etc..

The really bad thing is that instead of trying to clean up the mess by letting atleast the kids get a balanced diet as far is information is concerned the world is trying to rush into the smelly lap of religion hoping that it combined with a “rational”  mind will allow the kids to become kind and gentle. What they fail to see is that the unreasoned belief in an adult combined with books written by old pervs is a dangerous mix. The reason they fail to see it is because they just dont want to look at it that way and see whether it makes sense.

How does one use rationality to seek truth?

Therefore, what one needs to do when confronted with someone who seems to hold an irrational idea is to try and see whether you and the other person have the same set of facts. Instead of blindly trying trying to defend yourself just let your defences break down for a moment and see whether the other guys point of view is capable of being rationalised as well as yours. This is the easiest and as yet the  only way in which the human mind can process comparisions.

This method should be among the most important thing is taught to kids when they reach the right age. Then, we can use this awesome gift called rationality for our own and others benefit.

I dont know whether rationality is an overrated phenomenon, but it sure is worth a very long article.

Sabu Paul