In life I have found that the only person worth knowing, speaking in a philosophical sense, is one who is passionate about something. And as it so happens, almost everybody, at some point in their lives, indeed were passionate and excited about something and during those times they were interesting individuals indeed. Life, however, is a stern master which beats all passion out of her servants and leaves them hollow, pointless, and lifeless. Almost everybody succumbs to her mighty headwinds and the very few who survive are the only ones from whom something novel, something worthwhile could be learned. In this restricted sense I have also found that the dullest, most pointless people that I have ever met have been those with whom I have had the misfortune of sharing many deep beliefs. That there does not exist a God (or the chance is vanishingly small) is a foundational belief of mine from which spring the other parts of my personality. From it spring my utter contempt for authority and the meekness that it demands, my deep belief in the ultimate pointless of everything, and the most destructive facets of my personality which are inflamed far too easily in a society which I find essentially self-delusionary in an infinitude of ways. However the real issue is that by professing a non-belief in a God, I automatically get placed in the rather contemptible group of atheists. I get packed with the idiots who read the God delusion and think that they have gained a deep understanding of life, that they have become privy to its great truths. I get bundled in with the herd-followers whose prophets are Dawkins, Krauss, and other third rate 'thinkers.' These atheists like to think of themselves as rational people but they are anything but. They are just as close-minded and just as invested in their own creed as the religious people they are so quick to decry. In addition to that, I find such atheists to be dullards of the highest order. They worship not a God but money and status instead and what could be more boring and infuriating than that? I have found many religious people from whom I have learned a lot and with whom I have had great conversations with. I think that in all of those instances, the facilitating characteristic was their passion for their religion and my own automatic respect of that passion. I have, with very few exceptions, rarely ever met an atheist from whom I learned anything. They were all well functioning members of a civilized law abiding society who knew the cost of everything but the value of nothing. They were robots to me - dead already. Of course atheists are not the only such culprits here. The point is that religion has the potential to provide an exhilarating, all consuming meaning to one's life and I can and do see a lot of value in that. I respect it. However, religion can also just be another thing that one does and I think this is how it is practiced in much of the world. In this form religion is useless both internally and externally. In this form it neither provides any enduring meaning nor any lasting consolation. It becomes anodyne and passionless and with its passing the individual becomes utterly pointless - a mere cog in the wheel waiting to be replaced by the next generation of cogs.
Posted by Ankit On April 30th, 2016
An year and a half ago I mused about the inevitable decline of human employment which will follow the current developments in new technology. This is not a new phenomenon and it has existed in some form or the other since the dawn of civilization. Men as brilliant as Russel and Keynes were worried about its implications in the first half of the last century. What has changed now is the sudden rise in the capabilities of AI, something that nobody was predicting before around 2010. It is not inconceivable now to think of a time, perhaps in the next 5 to 10 years, when AI will outperform humans on many very human tasks, including but not limited to hearing and seeing. Coupled with software's massive reach into data this will mean that AI will displace humans who are now employed in many routine jobs (secretary, food ordering, banking, publishing). And coupled with the rise of robotic performance many humans who are now working in areas which only a few years ago might have seemed relatively immune from automation will also be rendered redundant. The prime example of this is the job of a truck driver which currently happens to be the most common job in the 29 states in the US. In short, millions of jobs will be lost to automation within the next decade and there will not be even a remotely commensurate replacement through the creation of new type of jobs. Automation systems are getting more and more integrated with the advances today making it easier to create newer systems for tomorrow. The software developers of a certain kind who are particularly in demand today will be the last to be displaced, but displaced they will be. I can only hope that that day won't be too long in the future. However, by the time that these smug assholes will get a taste of their own medicine, they would have condemned innumerable people to lives of untold misery and purposelessness.
In this context I see the rise of Trump and Sanders as inevitable. This phenomenon is here to stay and is a necessary correction. We will see more of it in other parts of the world in the coming years. Philosophically the essence of Trump and Sanders is the same and it is an economic one. The differences in their social opinions are of very little ultimate consequence. They represent that vast constituency which has lost in this economic system, whose jobs have been displaced, and whose communities have been broken. Sanders' supporter see this as resulting from a rigged system which favors the super-rich and Trump's supporters see this as being the influence of cheap labor from outside. Both are correct but this development was also inevitable. Medium skilled, moderately high paying jobs are at the greatest danger of being displaced by technology. At the precipice of being displaced market forces will require that only those who are willing to do these for vastly lower remuneration will do them. And a population which has grown in the shadow of the prosperous 60s and 70s will find it hard to justify doing them. The result, in any case, is that more people (immigrant or not) are pushed to live on less and and less. The rise of Trump and Sanders, therefore, represents a very necessary social reaction. Society currently produces more than it ever has in the past and yet expects a vast majority to fight ever harder for survival. The brutality of this demand will only get more severe if it is not for what is essentially a money grab from the Trump-Sanders phenomenon. And this money grab is extremely necessary because there is no other way. Today the phenomenon appears irrational, especially to those who are short-sighted or those who have too much invested in the status-quo. However, it will soon normalize and not only will it normalize but it will lead to broad legislative action sanctioning deep wealth transfers. This is unless other mechanisms of transfer could be devised. We'll see.
It was 1999, the year when I had to begin preparing for the JEE (Joint Entrance Exam) which is the nationwide exam to get into one of the 7 IITs in India at that time. Every single one of my friends who was even remotely serious about passing the exam had joined one coaching or the other. I decided not to. I did pass the exam but I'd probably have done better had I done what others did. I don't regret that decision because of two reasons: I'm now doing what I love to do anyway and I think Indians tend to highly overestimate the importance of an IIT education (especially if they graduated from one.) Still, sometimes I wonder why I decided not to join a coaching. That was the first major decision, as far as I can remember, where I made a conscious choice to not follow the flow.
It should come as no surprise that there is a part of me which would like to believe that that decision was inspired by a courageous stance of rebellion. That would most probably be delusional though. The truth, as far as I can tell, is that I was and have always been at a loss when it comes to understanding and appreciating the various forms through which social wisdom is dispensed. The great social machinery which chuffs and hums with stunning harmony might as well be a secret cabal to me. The customs of all of its groups have always appeared foreign. I seem to have stood outside of its circle of mysterious inner workings. And I don't think that I ever chose to be so aloof. Most of those early decisions which might now be mistaken as rebellious in hindsight were taken, as I now understand, purely out of my own hesitation and confusion. This includes not only not doing a coaching but also leaving my job and coming to the US for a PhD. This includes many other personal decisions as well. The overwhelming forces that have shaped my life have been indecision and hesitation, and this I am quite convinced of. Brighter, more ambitious people than me might as well have their lives and goals laid out in front of them but that was never my position.
Over the years I did notice something important though. I noticed that, as far as I can tell, I don't really regret anything from past and I do not feel anxious about the future (at most times anyway.) I noticed that I see my own situation in life as having emerged from a series of accidents, to which I have more or less only been a passive witness. And this series of accidents has landed me at a point where I can lay claim to a certain sense of inner peace and contentment. Perhaps others possess these qualities to a greater degree than I do. Perhaps not. They don't seem to, at least. This observation - that a life created from accidents can find contentment and one which is built upon foresight and wisdom often fails to do so - has sown great doubts within me. Does anybody know what they are talking about?
Posted by Ankit On April 24th, 2016
I remember a conversation that I was having with someone many years ago in San Diego. The talk came to the topic of books at which point I mentioned, in gushing overtones, the incredible joy I found in reading Catch-22. "Of course you would, since it's such a sarcastic book," came the immediate response. That person was a good friend of a good friend and at that moment, politeness and civility barely managed to eke out a slim victory over a harsh and stinging response. The statement was correct (only partially of course) but the person making it was not the correct person.
I'd have taken the exact same comment with good humor had it been made by some specific people that I have known in my life (countable on the fingers of one hand.) These people, in my opinion, were well read (better than me in any case) and had developed an acute thought process over time. In my eyes they had earned the proper right to make such a comment and be taken seriously. Those who are brought up on a steady dose of bestsellers, suspense thrillers, book-club suggestions, self-help trash, and young adult garbage would be well advised to at least cultivate humility in these matters. Their observations are better suited to a much more monochromatic world. One in which a hero is always good and he has to suffer in order to be good, one where there is such a thing as pure love which is excruciatingly painful but ultimately redemptive, one which deals with the inevitable besting of adversaries and adverse situations in a long and linear story-line culminating in a success which could not have been otherwise, one with simple morals and certainties for the simple people that they are geared towards. Quality sarcasm of the Voltaire and Heller variety is a domain these people have no business commenting upon.
It is clear to me that this attitude, which I hold in all walks of life, can be taken as extremely arrogant, especially in this society which teaches how unique and special everybody is and, by extension, how valuable everybody's opinion is. I disagree on both counts. I disagree that this is arrogance and I obviously disagree that every individual is special in the sense that his/her opinion is worth listening to. What is referred to as arrogance is often just a pruning mechanism: an essential tool for separating the wheat from the chaff. I think everybody has this general attitude to differing degrees and in different domains. What they do not like is when it is directed against them. I am perfectly fine with it. I have met some very "arrogant" professors and have been at the receiving end of their impatience and brusqueness but I have always felt okay if there was something backing up their "arrogance" (specifically, some relevant talent or understanding that they had which I understood to be much more refined than it was in me.) I felt that not only was this behavior efficient on their part but it was also a rite of passage for me. To not expect respect for my opinions automatically - this is a deep lesson I learned from the "arrogance" of those who could carry it well. On the other hand arrogance in those who are incompetent in a certain domain really drives me up the wall, from whom I expect humility instead. However, this is never true. In this life I have always found that those who understand the least are also the most confident. They are the quickest to offer what they consider is their very special and singular insight. And the world is full of such people - they spend their days watching trash TV, reading trash magazines, following the humdrum lives of others through social media, who then feel no hesitation in moonlighting as the great philosophers of life. In this world I find that a little arrogance is essential in maintaining my own sanity.
The truly conventional and dreadfully boring people talk about their day but the interesting ones talk about ideas. And it was over a conversation with an interesting friend recently that I came upon an idea, a part of my personality, which I was not aware of, at least with any sort of clarity, earlier. Our conversation came to the general topic of extra-sensory perceptions and I have, as a matter of principle and practicality, always maintained that it is all a lot of hot air. That wasn't the point that I found interesting though. It is absolutely idiotic to argue whether there is a God or not and I try not to lower myself to to the depths of intellect where I'd be forced to partake in such a conversation. Similarly it is absolutely ridiculous to argue about other supernatural phenomenon and it is waste of life to argue one way or the other. However, it is supremely interesting to think about whether one would like the possibility of a given supernatural phenomenon and if yes then why. Because it tells something deep about the person in question, about his or her personality. During the conversation I mentioned that I see two broad categories of people in this regard, one which is simple minded and numerous in its members and the other which is devious and very small. However, the latter category is small only because people are hypocritical and cowardly, especially when it comes to those characteristics in them which they see as being flawed.
The categories are with respect to the question, whether one would like the possibility of life after death and the possibility of any communication between the two realms. Allowing for this possibility may be greatly consoling for those who have lost someone dear (but perhaps not.) In this respect the first category comprises of those who would not want to accept this possibility but would instead try to provide an alternative form of hope. This hope generally goes along the lines of this life being precious and meant to be enjoyed, a life which is but waiting to be distilled into whatever meaning one would like it to have. The vision is one of a great and curious explorer, one who looks courageously in the distance, his eyes set forward, and has no business looking back and no need for much consolation from without. I do not belong to this category but to the second one. The second category comprises of those who, again, would not like to accept this supernatural possibility but would like to provide no hope and no redemptive possibility either. I did not have to think twice in order to conclude that I had no interest in being in the first category and that it was, indeed, the second one where I naturally felt at ease. The follow up question, obviously, is why, and the answer to this is not very clear to me. A related question, which I asked my friend, was on the nature of the kind of God that one would like to have. Whether one would like for there to be a benevolent God - who then must be incompetent in order to account for the great misery in this world - or whether one would like for there to be a devious, vile God who is having fun at the expense of poor humans. Again, I'd go for the latter. I feel that it lends more meaning and more dignity to human misery than a bumbling buffoon almighty who just happens to suck at his job. I ultimately have infinitely more respect for an intelligent and devious entity than a foolish and "good" one. And this perhaps is the central point here. My vested interest is not in whether the world turns out good or bad or whether people turn out happy or sad. I do not feel any automatic connection to the broad liberal goals of human emancipation and/or environmental protection, seeing much of it as a perverse extreme of self-congratulatory and self-delusional behavior anyway. My vested interest, which is much more modest, is only in whether they turn out interesting or insipid. A peaceful world full of good and happy people is the stuff of my nightmares. Like the very limited imagination of those who dream of it and hope for it, this world is pale, colorless, tasteless, featureless, and pointless.
Now, as he reviewed his past, he saw into what a deep rut he had sunk. The worst of doing one's duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else. At least that was the view that the men of his generation had taken. The trenchant divisions between right and wrong, honest and dishonest, respectable and the reverse, had left so little scope for the unforeseen. There are moments when a man's imagination, so easily subdued to what it lives in, suddenly rises above its daily level, and surveys the long windings of destiny. Archer hung there and wondered...
Nothing could more clearly give the measure of the distance that the world had traveled. People nowadays were too busy - busy with reforms and 'movements', with fads and fetishes and frivolities - to bother much about their neighbors. And of what account was anybody's past, in the huge kaleidoscope where all the social atoms spun around on the same plane?...
Archer did not accompany his son to Versailles. He preferred to spend the afternoon in solitary roamings through Paris. He had to deal all at once with the packed regrets and stifled memories of an inarticulate lifetime.
-from The Age of Innocence
Posted by Ankit On February 17th, 2016
Over the last 10 years I have noticed my entire personality move towards the cynical end of the spectrum and this transformation has occurred, no doubt, from the confluence of both my scientific training and my humble dabbling into such areas as philosophy and literature. Let me explain.
While it is a cliche to say that the most important trait of good scientific training is a liberally sprinkled dose of deep skepticism, there is some truth to it just as there is some truth to all cliches. Generally this skepticism is confined to specific scientific disciplines or, if allowed to fester any further, still limited by the confines of all things technical. This skepticism teaches not to take everything that one is told at face value, to check and recheck and to try to separate facts from fiction. When applied to scientific disciplines it imparts the self-correcting and self-doubting characters which are so central to their existence. It also teaches, as a corollary, to develop some degree of humility as one can never be too sure of one's own positions. And it also teaches, ideally at least, that an opinion is only as good as the force of its argument, its merit is divorced from its agency. This is all well and good for scientific disciplines but this kind of general skepticism does not go down well in society. People derive a lot of their self-worth from the statuses that are implicitly granted to them through the mere accumulation of years. They become old and with age they automatically seem to assume that their ideas also become wise. They win prizes and get promoted and really start to buy into the delusion that they have important things to say. Of course, in their delusions they are helped by the unquestioning minions who form the bulk of our regimented social structures. I am skeptical of the wisdom of people and I wonder how much of them is actually them and how much is merely a sum total of others. Since I fail to automatically ascribe wisdom and worth in this fashion, I also fail to ascribe automatic respect. They take this attitude as arrogance and I can only scoff at their ignorance! Respect, I have long maintained, is merely charity in disguise and I find it very hard to be charitable. What is generally taken as arrogance is in fact merely apathy. Apathy towards whatever an individual may think his/her opinion is worth. In a mutual conversation I will be the judge of how much they are really worth.
A healthy reading habit is not good for anybody and it certainly has not been good for me as far as my being a well functioning social member is concerned. There are patterns in human behavior and in history which are revealed by books. Circular, mindless, repetitive patterns which end as abruptly as they begin. An individual doesn't exist for an incredibly long time and then ceases to exist forever. And between these two eternities and for a very short duration he goes about mostly following orders in predictable patterns which have been laid out for him by forces larger than him and beyond his comprehension. What kind of an existence is that? Not only is his life pointless and ridiculous in eternity, it is also pointless in this life. Of course he tries to make it better by actively cultivating many delusions. He really does seem to believe that things matter, that his ideas matter, that his life matters, and that his possessions matter. It is all rather amusing as I sit around sometimes thinking about how much I know about my own ancestors from only three generations ago! Virtually nil. They ceased to exist and with their cessation almost everything that they might have thought important and eternal. Vanished into thin air just as I will. At least I do not harbor any delusions of grandeur or permanence and I do not take such ideas seriously in others either. Out of politeness, decorum, social propriety, and a fear of being throw out, however, I refrain from telling people how pointless their lives are. And sometimes I wonder whether there is camaraderie to be found in this view of life, whether happiness, if only in the form of mockery, can emerge from this effluvia and I am sure that it can and it does. Even with the incredibly intense cynicism which dwells within me, I find myself inexplicably content, even happy. And in the company of similar minded people who, above all, do not take themselves and others too seriously, I have often found such moments of joy which might appear fictional to those who are hilariously and permanently tied to the many yokes that they have chosen for themselves.
Posted by Ankit On February 6th, 2016
The most pointless people that I have met have all been conventionally happy with their lives. Their general state of lukewarm satisfaction results in a certain kind of intellectual morbidity, cowardliness, and superficiality in them and my dislike for these characteristics explains, in turn, my aversion with social media. Social media is infested with pointless people, plain and simple. On the other end of the spectrum, I am endlessly fascinated by the darkness which so often accompanies tragedy and travail which is perhaps why I have such a fascination with Russian literature of a certain era.
Russia, during the years ranging roughly from the 1820s to the 1930s, produced a canon of literary work whose impact, not heft, rivals that produced by any other country over any other time period. In excellence it more than stands up against the French, the English, the Spanish, and the German traditions. In that one century Russia produced writers of such brilliance as Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gorky, Turgenev, and Nabokov with such classics as The Overcoat, The Idiot, Anna Karenina, Lolita, Eugene Onegin, and many more. I would consider any of these books to be more important and more deep than any single book ever produced by any American writer. This is not to say that American writers have not been good but that Russian writers of a certain era were unusually brilliant. And I often wonder why that was the case. I also wonder about a related question: why was this kind of success never emulated in India (at least in Hindi literature with which I have some familiarity).
The Russia of let's say Tolstoy is an exceedingly grim place. It shivers under the perpetually frigid temperatures of the northern cold and it trips, falls, and huddles into a corner under its dark depressing skies. It is too cold for the general visions of healthy, plentiful, agricultural farms to breathe; instead, the only beauty it ever presents is the dead beauty of colorless, barren Siberian landscapes. There's widespread poverty of the general population, a direct result, no doubt, of a dictatorial monarchy which outlasted any other in Europe, finally overthrown only to be replaced by the more brutal reign of Communism. The life of the common man in such a place is a very tough one. While he is squeezed from one side by the unrelenting elements of nature, he is dehumanized from the other by a gargantuan, unsympathetic, and humiliating bureaucracy. His existence is fraught with the kinds of limitations that one can only dream of in the modern Western world. And with such monstrous institutional and natural limitations in place, the weak and pathetic common man indeed becomes a very interesting person. He must limit his dreams in order just to survive and he must grow used to being kicked around and denied the very little that he wanted in the first place. With his entire human vitality suppressed within the confines of his own sorry self he gains a depth of emotions which cannot be matched by those who have had a happy existence, by those whose wishes have been more or less granted. I think Russia, of a certain age, presented to its great intellectuals the potential building materials of a deep storytelling tradition. There was enough misery to provide the raw material but not enough censorship to stifle creativity when it arose. The latter part is what changed after the 1930s when the Bolshevik jokers took it upon themselves to treat Russian literature as their propaganda vehicle.
Why did America never produce anything comparable? Because people living here have always been far happier than their Russian counterparts. The only worthwhile voices amidst a sea of literary mediocrity are from those who were and are deeply affected by that peculiarly American malaise: horrific isolation and pointlessness which result in an utterly materialistic society. However, this sense of desperation is an individual experience by definition, as opposed to the communal desperation of 19th century Russia. The American sense of desperation is felt more or less only by some people of adequate sensitivity. Everybody else is busy buying shit.
Posted by Ankit On January 3rd, 2016
...for just as the universal family of gifted writers transcends national barriers, so is the gifted reader a universal figure... It is he - the good, the excellent reader - who has saved the artist again and again from being destroyed by emperors, dictators, priests, puritans, philistines, political moralists, policemen, postmasters, and prigs. Let me define this admirable reader. He does not belong to any nation or class. No director of conscience and no book club can manage his soul. His approach to a work of fiction is not governed by those juvenile emotions that make the mediocre reader identify himself with this or that character and "skip description." The good, the admirable reader identifies himself not with the boy or the girl in the book, but with the mind that conceived and composed that book. The admirable reader does not seek information about Russia in a Russian novel, for he knows that the Russia of Tolstoy or Chekhov is not the average Russia of history but a specific world imagined and created by individual genius. The admirable reader is not concerned with general ideas: he is interested in the particular vision. He likes the novel not because it helps him to get along with the group (to use a diabolical progressive-school cliche); he likes the novel because he imbibes and understands every detail of the text, enjoys what the author meant to be enjoyed, beams inwardly and all over, is thrilled by the magic imageries of the master forger, the fancy-forger, the conjurer, the artist. Indeed, of all the characters that a great artist creates, his readers are the best.