Thursday, June 21, 2007

God at the Perimeter of Ignorance?

Here is the link to the essay "The Perimeter of Ignorance". A must read!

Neil Tyson argues with multiple examples from history that people tend to invoke God right at the limits of their understanding. When the "boundary" of their understanding gets extended, they stop invoking God for the earlier things, but instead invoke him for the updated list of things that they do not understand. He aptly calls this "the God of the Gaps".

Similar is this article below.

I particularly liked the last few paragraphs from this essay, which I reproduce below.


When scientists do talk about God, they typically invoke him at the boundaries of knowledge where we should be most humble and where our sense of wonder is greatest. Examples of this abound. During an era when planetary motions were on the frontier of natural philosophy, Ptolemy couldn't help feeling a religious sense of majesty when he wrote, "When I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch the earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia." Note that Ptolemy was not weepy about the fact that the element mercury is liquid at room temperature, or that a dropped rock falls straight to the ground. While he could not have fully understood these phenomena either, they were not seen at the time to be on the frontiers of science.

In the thirteenth century, Alfonso the Wise (Alfonso X), the King of Spain who also happened to be an accomplished academician, was frustrated by the complexity of Ptolemy's epicycles. Being less humble than Ptolemy, Alfonso once mused, "Had I been around at the creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe."

In his 1686 masterpiece, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Isaac Newton lamented that his new equations of gravity, which describe the force of attraction between pairs of objects, might not maintain a stable system of orbits for multiple planets. Under this instability, planets would either crash into the Sun or get ejected from the solar system altogether. Worried about the long-term fate of Earth and other planets, Newton invoke the hand of God as a possible restoring force to maintain a long-lived solar system. Over a century later, the French mathematician Pierre Simon de Laplace invented a mathematical approach to gravity, published in his four-volume treatise Celestial Mechanics, which extended the applicability of Newton's equations to complex systems of planets such as ours. Laplace showed that our solar system was stable and did not require the hand of a deity after all. When queried by Napoleon Bonaparte on the absence of any reference to an "author of the universe" in his book, Laplace replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

In full agreement with King Alfonso's frustrations with the universe, Albert Einstein noted in a letter to a colleague, "If God created the world, his primary worry was certainly not to make its understanding easy for us." When Einstein could not figure out how or why a deterministic universe could require the probabilistic formalisms of quantum mechanics, he mused, "It is hard to sneak a look at God's cards. But that he would choose to play dice with the world?is something that I cannot believe for a single moment." When an experimental result was shown to Einstein that, if correct, would have disproved his new theory of gravity Einstein commented, "The Lord is subtle, but malicious he is not." The Danish physicist Niels Bohr, a contemporary of Einstein, heard one too many of Einstein's God-remarks and declared that Einstein should stop telling God what to do!

Today, you hear the occasional astrophysicist (maybe one in a hundred) invoke God when asked where did all our laws of physics come from, or what was around before the big bang. As we have come to anticipate, these questions comprise the modern frontier of cosmic discovery and, at the moment, they transcend the answers our available data and theories can supply. Some promising ideas, such as inflationary cosmology and string theory, already exist. These could ultimately give to the answers to those questions, thereby pushing back our boundary of awe.

My personal views are entirely pragmatic, and partly resonate with those of Galileo who, during his trial, is credited with saying, "The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." Galileo further noted, in a 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, "In my mind God wrote two books. The first book is the Bible, where humans can find the answers to their questions on values and morals. The second book of God is the book of nature, which allows humans to use observation and experiment to answer our own questions about the universe."

I simply go with what works. And what works is the healthy skepticism embodied in scientific method. Believe me, if the Bible had ever been shown to be a rich source of scientific answers and understanding, we would be mining it daily for cosmic discovery. Yet my vocabulary of scientific inspiration strongly overlaps with that of religious enthusiasts. I, like Ptolemy, am humbled in the presence of our clockwork universe. When I am on the cosmic frontier, and I touch the laws of physics with my pen, or when I look upon the endless sky from a observatory on a mountaintop, I well up with an admiration for its splendor. But I do so knowing and accepting that if I propose a God beyond that horizon, one who graces our valley of collective ignorance, the day will come when our sphere of knowledge will have grown so large that I will have no need of that hypothesis.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Anti-Socialism/Bureaucracy in the 60s

The idea that we are constantly sold is that no non-trivial voice in India imagined that there was anything wrong with the high degree of socialism/red-tape/government control/license raj practiced till the 90s. A friend recently sent me information about the Swatantra Party by C. Rajagopalachari which stood unsuccessfully against the Congress. Below is part of their manifesto which looks rather far sighted in retrospect, given their support for free enterprise and attack on the license raj.

To Save freedom

From, "Why Swatantra," 1960, by C. Rajagopalachari

The Swatantra Party stands for the protection of the individual citizen against the increasing trespasses of the State. It is an answer to the challenge of the so-called Socialism of the Indian Congress party. It is founded on the conviction that social justice and welfare can be attained through the fostering of individual interest and individual enterprise in all fields better than through State ownership and Government control. It is based on the truth that bureaucratic management leads to loss of incentive and waste of resources. When the State trespasses beyond what is legitimately within its province, it just hands over the management from those who are interested in frugal and efficient management to bureaucracy which is untrained and uninterested except in its own survival.

The Swatantra Party is founded on the claim that individual citizens should be free to hold their property and carry on their professions freely and through binding mutual agreements among themselves and that the State should assist and encourage in every possible way the individual in this freedom, but not seek to replace him.

The new party seeks to oppose the trend of the ruling Congress Party to adopt the ways and ideals of the Communists in its eagerness to prevent the Communists from going forward. The Swatantra party believes that going over to the enemy is not defence, but surrender.

The Swatantra Party, apart from the ideology here explained, hopes to furnish a real opposition to the Congress Party so that parliamentary democracy may be properly balanced. The absence of a true opposition has led to the rapid deterioration of democracy into a kind of totalitarianism. Voices have been heard from all quarters calling for a strong opposition and the new party is supplying a felt want.

This party of freedom is further making a novel experiment in restricting disciplinary control over party members to essential issues, giving freedom in all other matters to vote according to individual opinion. This is not mere strategy to "net in" discordant miscellaneous elements as at first might appear. It is really an answer to the constantly expressed sense of dissatisfaction with party rigidity, and to the complaint that it often amounts to suppression of opinion and rule by a minority in the name of a majority. A majority in the ruling caucus can always, under present conditions, impose their views on all and every issue in the Parliament of the nation.

The Swatantra Party intends to initiate a departure from the usual practice of political parties and, true to its name, give Swatantra or freedom to its members to vote according to their own convictions and conscience on all but the party's fundamentals so that the decisions of Parliament may on those issues truly reflect the prevailing opinion, and not be just, a replica of the majority opinion of the ruling party or the fads of the ruling clique.

Without the inconveniences resulting from proportional representation and, in particular, the instability of governments formed under such a system, the reduction of voting in accordance with whips to the barest minimum, as proposed by the Swatantra Party would be a healthy example for all parties. If followed generally or even by the more important ones among the various parties, the freedom given to members on all but essential issues would result in government more in accordance with the ideals of those who conceived the system of proportional representation and laid high hopes thereon. In this matter, the new party may claim to have initiated a great democratic advance worthy of trial in all countries really believing in democracy, and not willing to be subjected to a form of dictatorship in the name of party discipline which often serves only the ambition of individuals or groups.

The new party does not believe that legislative compulsion, any more than the violence that preceded and enthroned Communism in certain countries, can contribute to true or lasting human happiness. We must depend on the moral sense of the people in order to equalise without destroying freedom.

It may be that there are a large number of people in our ancient land who have now lost the capacity to respond to moral appeals, who are impervious to the call of dharma. There have been causes that have brought about this state of things. But this large number of bad and successful men of the world should not blind us to the fact that in the large mass, dharma still rules and supports our society. The millions that make up our nation are still moved and guided by their sense of dharma and the voice of their conscience. If the cynics who deny this were right, our society would have broken down long ago and perished. We should have been hearing of starvation deaths in thousands every day. If we take a survey of the numerous charitable foundations and trusts that work as a matter of routine in the country and which were born of a sense of dharma, without any kind of State compulsion, we can cure our cynicism with irrefutable and abundant facts. The charitable motives and compulsions of the heart which prevailed in the days when these trusts and charitable institutions were founded can prevail today, for we are the same people after all.

"There is no need for charity when there is an obligation; let the State compel". This is the slogan of the Socialists. But it is forgotten that this will lead irresistibly to total serfdom.

The cynics are not right. Our society is still maintained by the inner law. The outer laws can touch but the fringe of life. They deal with criminals and keep order going. Normal life 'does hot depend on the laws. It depends on the moral consciousness of people. This moral sense has not been effaced whatever changes may have taken place in the rituals and observances of forms. It is by dharma that society is sustained, Lokah dhriyate. It is on dharma we must build, and not on the sands of material motives and our capacity to satisfy them quickly and get votes to be in power. The good seed is not lost. It is still there. We must not ignore its availability. The soil also is good and God will send us the rains. Let us not fail to look after it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Flying Spaghetti Monster!

Sheer Genius! I didn't know that this was such a recent religion! :)

Details at:

Thursday, April 12, 2007

OBC reservations: The government's rebuttal to the supreme court objections

I thought one argument against removing creamy layer by the government was rather interesting. It appears to me that a clever attorney could very well shoot the govt with their own argument. Points 1 and 3 looked relatively vague to me so I just include point (2) below.

Why creamy layer cannot be excluded?

There is a danger that the top qualified candidates with adequate cut-off marks, may be cut off as Creamy Layer. At the other end, candidates who are not in the creamy layer may be cut off on the ground that their marks are too low as compared to the cut-off point. The result of this will be "leakage at both ends" and flow of quota seats to the general category, defeating/ truncating the policy of reservation.


So what the government is really saying is the following. They anyway cannot benefit the "needy" and the "deserving" people of backward castes, since such students in all probability haven't even had a good schooling background and therefore would be in no position to compete in a university with students whose schooling has been good. And they therefore want the seats to be taken up by "creamy" students, whose economic background and schooling are already strong, even though such students are by no means the "needy" and the "deprived" students one talks about when supporting the idea of reservations.

And thus the government can merrily go on with their farcical "upliftment" of the backward without ever addressing the real issues. With an argument like this the government is implicitly admitting that the only way to uplift the backward is to ensure that they receive good education right from the primary level and that quick-fix solutions at the university level do not reach the intended receipients at all.

So the solution is really to ensure the free and compulsary education for schoolchildren, which was envisaged in the directive principles of the constitution. Of course, such a task is undoubtedly harder than a quick fix solution like passing an OBC bill. It would firstly require that the government has enough money to pay for enough quality schools and teachers, which would mean that the government would have to embrace economic reform quickly and get rid of the perpectually loss making companies that it owns .

It would also have to dump foolhardy expensive schemes such as the rural employment guarantee bill (wherein the idea is essentially that you will "employ" people for some length of time, whether you need them or not... basically dole out free money). Such bills stand in sharp contrast to projects such as the golden quadrilateral project, which involved building good quality highways, consequently employing a good deal of unskilled labor "gainfully". And such projects could easily be paid for by tolls collected from transport vehicles using the highway.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

More on Neil Tyson...

I knew a fair bit of Dawkins's view due to his books + fame. I found Neil deGrasse Tyson's arguments very interesting too most of which he had written in his article titled "The perimeter of ignorance". A web-search should throw up this article.

He was arguing with multiple examples that people tend to invoke God right at the limits of their understanding. When the boundary of their understanding gets extended, they stop invoking God for those things, but instead invoke him for the updated list of things that they do not understand.


Some Random Thoughts on Science vs. Faith

Most of this blog post material is fairly contextual. It is based on the following books I've read:
1. The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins...
2. In a much smaller way on the book "The Meaning of it all" by Richard Feynman

In addition, the following are also relevant:
1. The "beyond belief" conference videos online at: This had Richard Dawkins as one of the speakers. Neil Degrasse Tyson was another speaker I was very impressed with.
2. "The God Delusion" and a couple of other documentaries made by Richard Dawkins online on youtube.

I watched a few videos of Richard Dawkins (the selfish Gene guy, and a
hardcore atheist) and others from a workshop/meeting held recently.

While my views match those of Richard Dawkins almost entirely, I
feel there is one issue that doesn't seem to get addressed too much
when discussing topics like these.

I have no doubt that there is immensely huge conflict between
science and religion. However there is certainly non-trivial
inspirational value to having faith that a force larger than yourself
is there to back you in your trying times, and in achieving any lofty
goals you may have. Feynman talked a bit about this in his book "The
Meaning of it all".

He simply states that he has no idea
how to derive the inspirational value that faith offers, while
maintaining a scientific temperament where doubt and scepticism are
major virtues.

In one of these videos dawkins talked a bit about having "faith
in faith" i.e. as an atheist taking the stand that faith in God might
be a good thing for some people. It is certainly not much problem if
some other people have value to derive out of faith, but it seems
rather hard if you want to derive that value yourself.

I personally don't see much inspirational value in having God as the
creator, preserver and so on, so these potential areas of conflict
with scientific discoveries are not present. I guess these are
additional concerns if a person derives faith by aligning with an
organized religion.

It unfortunately appears that most people have to make a
compromise somewhere; either have faith and sacrifice clarity of
scientific thought to some degree, or lose out on the potential
inspirational value. Between the two, I'd probably prefer the latter,
though I'd very much like to reap the benefits of inspiration.

I first read the book "The Power of Positive Thinking" by Norman Vincent Peale in 2002 and it had a huge impact on me. Peale was a minister at the marble collegiate church in New York and his book would probably have been nowhere as impactful if not for the references to God. The book in a nutshell tries to convince you of the following idea. You have immense potential and have much more strength to counter adversity than you would think. There is a power larger than yourself and you can tap into the huge reserves of potential it offers, by praying to it in your own way, and by also realizing that you have a massive power backing you in your endeavors. I read the book "Tough times never last but Tough People do" by Robert Schuller, who is apparently widely considered a good successor to Peale. This book however had hardly any impact on me. Undoubtedly Peale's books were far more potent due to their references to God.

A couple of sessions in the beyond belief conference addressed this issue of alternate sources of inspiration, but they didn't seem to be very convincing. The speakers certainly did a good job with the idea that the universe is a wonderful place to be in, far more complex and intricate than what religions and philosophers could imagine etc. However they didn't address the issue of self-belief and hope.

Any online pointers/thoughts addressing this specific issue? Any web search result
seems flooded with people debating about the correctness of different
beliefs etc., and never addressing this specific point, making it hard
to get more thoughts on this.


First Post

First blog by me. Just checking out how it works