The Two Roots of ISIS

It is important to distinguish between the political and the religious roots of ISIS.
The political roots relate to past Western colonial injustices which include political domination, economic exploitation, imperialistic map-making, cultural marginalization, and the like. It is not unlike the masses in a country rising against decades of the ruthless dictatorship of a tyrant, with shouts of liberty, equality, and fraternity. In so far as this is the only cause, it may be applauded even if it causes the indiscriminate use of the guillotine.
     The religious roots of ISIS are more ominous. Every religion, whether human-constructed or Divinity-inspired, has several dimensions. One of these involves the treatment of fellow humans. Here, practically all religions teach love, charity, caring and the like. But most traditional religions also preach caution towards the stranger, antipathy towards the outsider, sometimes bordering on belligerent behavior towards the unbeliever. [There are ample passages in all scriptures that proclaim these attitudes.] Given that some of these are etched in the hearts of many ardent practitioners from an early age, it is difficult to extricate oneself from these.
     When and wherever religious groups and leaders fan the fires of hatred and are unwilling or unable to free their tradition from the mindless venom of regarding non-believing fellow humans as deserving of death, the potential for ISIS and its equivalents in other traditions will always be there.
     Just as the nobler elements of all religions can sensitize the human heart for attitudes of sympathy and acts of love, their more hurtful dimensions can turn the shade-giving branches of religions into rotting deadwood scorched by the desert sun of vicious hate.
     The technological offshoots of science include constructive devices and curative medicines, as well as destructive weapons. Science can at best be a mass of interesting information and a resource for contriving gadgets and chemicals. Without Enlightenment its civilizing possibilities will remain latent, and its capacities for destruction can be let loose. Religion without social and secular enlightenment can become ominously pernicious too, a full-fledged danger to the civilized world. This danger can be/is actualized if the youths of a tradition are brainwashed with the zeal for ruthless killing of the other, and when sophisticated weapons come with their easy reach.
     It would therefore seem that the key to resolving the current global crisis lies – aside from maintaining and using the military superiority of the civilized world – in how well and how earnestly the leaders of religious traditions shape the minds of their growing children, inculcating in them the values of love, compassion, and enlightenment. This is not that easy in frameworks that linger in the ancient modes of religious intolerance in a world where there are billions struggling with little education and economic hope, pathetic victims of social injustice and fanatical religious leaders.

October 4, 2014

On India’s Mission to Mars

     We live in a world of political tensions, economic crises, environmental degradation, and religious hate. In the midst of all this there are also billions of people who go about their routine chores and millions too who are also engaged in art and music, in sports, plays and science. Now and again their significant achievements also hit headlines all over the world.
     One such event of enormous import was the successful entry of a spacecraft into a Mars orbit on September 23, 2014. It was launched by India’s space-scientists on November 5, 2013.
This milestone in space science should be a matter of great pride for the people of India, reflecting as it does not only the sophisticated technology that is now within India’s reach, but also the advances in the worldview of the Indian people some of whom wondered publicly in 1969 if America’s man on the moon was perhaps no more than a Hollywood stunt. In less than half a century India has come a long way from regarding Mangal (Mars) as the God of War and as a planet of astrological significance endowing its beneficiaries with bravery and self-confidence to a planet out there that is to be explored through scientific means.

     A step from astrology to astronomy is a leap from ancient to modern science; and one from astronomy to rocket science is a leap from technology to space exploration.
     In the new era of human history where globalization is a buzz-word, it is not just in trade and commerce that nations interact. We do many things, good and bad together. In this matter India has been contributing significantly to the world at large: hundreds of thousands of her sons and daughters serve as doctors and engineers, scientists and advisers in every continent.

     This is matter, not for self-glorification (after all, other nations are also active this way) for Indians, but for rejoicing that their abilities and energies are channeled in constructive ways.
     What India has achieved in this Mars mission should be regarded as a matter of pride for the human spirit, as yet another step in humanity’s stride forward in our quest for understanding. Viewed thus, India deserves to be congratulated by all who stand for science and civilization.

Sept 24, 2014

Predicting the Future

Predicting the future, not just of individuals, and humanity but of cultures, nations,  is an ancient game. Once, this was done through speculation, astrology, interpretation of scriptures, etc. In the 19th and 20th centuries fiction writers began to express their ideas of the future  through reasonable extrapolations of current science and technology.
A number of writers have been doing this for centuries: not just  science-fiction that comes from science-informed imaginative writers –classic examples of which would be Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (17th century) which is about a country where a science-centered institution (Solomon’s House) directed the goings-on in that Utopia. Those were the early days of science, like freshmen in college, scientists were dreaming of all the knowledge to be acquired in the years to come, to be turned to epistemic power and intellectual prestige.
In mid-seventeenth century there was a fiction on a future century. Of course we have all read Gulliver’s Travels which speaks of super-weapons. Voltaire wrote a story about aliens landing on earth. We call Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the twentieth century H. G. Wells wrote about the War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. There are, of course hundreds of works of the genre we call science fiction.
Divining the future of science by scientists is of at least three kinds:
(a) Projection of what will happen to the world in the future: Current cosmology seems to suggest that in the distant future the galaxies would have receded so far away that they would no longer be detectable/visible from our galaxy (earth). Astronomers (should they exist) at that time, will have no idea of extra-Milky-Way galaxies, and their recession, and would be unable to come up with a Big Bang theory. Likewise in the very long future, practically all the stars would have died, and there would be utter darkness in the heavens, but there would be no humans on earth anyway.
(b) Eventual Fate of humanity: Some demographers say that after the human population peaks by the end of the century, it will begin to decline uncontrollably (as is already happening in Japan, Germany, and Ukraine), and will be eventually reduced to zero. On the other hand, Bryan Sykes argues in his Adam’s Curse that because of the declining sperm count and the gradual atrophy of the Y chromosome, a thousand centuries from not there will not be any human males on the planet.
(c) Possible impacts of science-based technology in the centuries to come: The negative side-effects of genetic engineering, the internet (invasion of privacy), cyber-wars, robots taking over, etc. Also, while our longevity might increase, our knowledge of what will happen to our individual bodies (which diseases when and how intense) may have negative effects on our psychological well-being. Knowing that one will have cancer or a stroke two and a half years from now may diminish one’s enthusiasm for going to the movies and attending a party. A war between nuclear-armed nations should also be listed among the dire possibilities.
There are optimistic transhumanist-futurists like Ray Kurtzweil, but as of now – imminent diminution in water and energy sources, the melting of the polar ice-caps leading to catastrophic rise in sea-levels, and the (possible) irreversibility of climate change sound more threatening than honor killings in Pakistan and the stoning of a woman for apostasy in the Sudan. Perhaps these latter evils are the kinds of plagues need to be eradicated, but we don’t know how to do that because they have nothing to do with science and much to do with ignorance and distorted religious views. While we can do little about sudden movements of tectonic plates and draughts and tornados, we can do a lot more to alleviate hunger, enhance basic health for millions, eliminate illiteracy, and decimate religious bigotry, superstitions, cultural prejudices, and such other factors that still poison human culture. Perhaps practical science and theoretical scientific knowledge can assist humanity in this regard.
Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future presents visions of what is to come in fields ranging from computers and medicines to space travel and wealth. The book is based on serious study and interviews with pioneers in science and technology. It tells us about driverless cars, photographing dreams, resurrecting extinct life-forms, hot fusion, robots becoming conscious, reversing aging, and much more. It talks about a planetary civilization. At the end there is a fictional chapter on a day in a human life in 2100 and concludes with an insightful quote from Mahatma Gandhi which traces the roots of violence to
Wealth without work,
Pleasure without conscience,
Knowledge without character,
Commerce without morality,
Science without humanity,
Worship without sacrifice,
Politics without principles.

Reflections on the Bhagavad Gita

In a new series I am reflecting on the shlokas of the Bhagavad Gita from non-traditional and cross-cultural perspectives.

My intention is to articulate some of the ideas that they provoke in me. I am not approaching the Gita as a religious devotee, but as another of its billions of readers.
There have been many parallel thought currents in the world. What I find interesting is that that many thinkers beyond the Sanskrit tradition have expressed in distant lands similar, if not identical ideas.

Furthermore, many insights in the Gita – a work that was composed many centuries ago – continue to be relevant and meaningful in this day and age; and This inclines me to recognize such writings as multiple expressions of the sublime human spirit. It induces me to embrace human culture as a bouquet rather than as mutually inimical forces.
Many revered sages, religious leaders, and competent scholars have commented on this immortal masterpiece.

My reflections are as thinking human being and an inheritor of the Hindu tradition. I am exercising these privileges in my reflections.

I regard the Gita as a great philosophical, cultural, and insightful work of significance. I am well aware that this goes counter to orthodoxy, but I know that I am not alone in this. There are a great many people who shy away from the Gita precisely because many traditional commentaries do not resonate with them. These reflections are addressed primarily to those who respect the cultural and literary treasures of the tradition without subscribing to every aspect of ancient worldviews.
I invite you to go to:


On Non-logical Thinking

When the human brain was wired to logical thinking, it was also wired to the faculty of non-logical and illogical thought.
Logic serves to reason out the present and even the future.
However, given the randomness in the course of events (due to unexpected intrusions of unpredictable causes arising from complex interconnections in the causal web), it was evolutionarily helpful to develop non-logical thinking.
Non-logical thinking is at the root of many very useful and enriching elements in human life:
(a) Hope: Without non-logical thinking hopes that sustain us in difficult and apparently hopeless situations would be impossible.
(b) Creativity: A good many expressions of artistic creativity arise from non-logical thinking. Consider the works of painters like Chagall and Klee, for example; or the musical outpourings of great composers.
(c) Imagination: is at the root of poetry, epic compositions, novels, and more. They don’t arise from logical thinking alone.
(d) Capacity for seeing through inadvertent mistakes: The computer is a 100% logical devise. If one makes a single letter-error in typing an e-mail address it will not work. But if one makes a spelling mistake in the name of an addressee on the envelop of a letter the postman will still deliver the letter. There are typos in our exchanges, but we understand what the writer mean. This is because our brains can stray away from logic at the appropriate time. As in the sentence: There is great wisdon in what I am writing hear.
It is good to remember that for practically thirty percent of our lives (during our sleep state) the logic button is switched off in our brains. We witness the most fantastic and illogical episodes in our dreams without the slightest feeling of mental discomfort.