POSTMODERNISM


Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward meta-narratives.                                                             – Jean-François Lyotard

The postmodernists’ tyranny wears people down by boredom and semi-literate prose.                                                                         –Christopher Hitchens

Of the millions of children who graduate from school each year, quite a few go to college and university to become professionals in various fields. Of these, some become scientists who discover new things about the universe, some become technologists and inventors, some artists, writers and musicians, and some turn out to be philosophers.  Philosophers reflect on a variety of topics. Not all are content with just interpreting, what previous thinkers had said.  Some  try  to think of something altogether new.

In the second half of the twentieth century a number of these thinkers propagated the idea that whatever past generations have been believing in was wrong. The new thesis was that worldviews developed by our predecessors ranged from muddled thinking to being dead wrong. Since the most recent successful worldviews related to religion, art, music, literature, science, and technology, the bases of every one of these had to be shown to be mistaken: grievous errors which the wisdom of the past simply failed to recognize.

So there emerged radically new movements  in art, architecture,  music, and literature which are reckoned as postmodernist: they came after modernism was acclaimed as the best that had happened in human civilization. The incentive in these instances has generally been the urge to create something entirely different from what past masters had done with great success.

Since we are concerned with philosophy let us consider some elements of postmodern thinking. One can detect at least two incentives for postmodernism in this regard.

The first was the increasing success, incomprehensibility, and hegemony of physics (and science more generally). It became well-nigh impossible for philosophers to penetrate into the esoteric jargon of physics with its psi-functions, double-slit experiment, Schroedinger’s cat, tunnel effect, cosmological constant, etc. Faced with this challenge the best that they could do was to erect epistemological frameworks from which the logical basis of modern science would be shown to be untenable, incomplete, mistaken, and inadequate; and that scientific truths are invariably subject to change. Their truths have at best temporary

So anti-science philosophers began to question the notion of objective facts and gloat over the demise of long-held scientific truths: For example,  the two-fluid theory of heat gave way to the kinetic theory, the photon erased the wave theory of light,  the ether idea was demolished,  Newton’s gravitation was replaced by Einstein’s space-time kinks. Recalling these gave a breath of relief to the deriders of science.

Whether or not they understood why or how changes occur in science’s worldviews,  these philosophers were happy to know that the knowledge proclaimed by science is, after all, not unshakable. So arose the  postmodern philosophers of science whose aim was to dethrone science from its epistemic pedestal.  They were quite successful in demonstrating that objective truths are no more than human centered truths; that scientific claims can never be verified, only falsified; that there occur periodic paradigm shifts in scientific theories; and that  we can never reach the absolute truth any more than absolute zero on the temperature scale. All these limitations, in addition to the fact that science cannot tell good from bad, right from wrong,  or beauty from ugliness. And it has not explained what is consciousness, not created life.

It was annoying for postmodernists to see successful applications of the unreliable knowledge that constitutes science: telephones, televisions, airplanes, computers, and so on. Nevertheless, the proclamation  of the limitations of scientific knowledge in sophisticated language brings great satisfaction to those who hold discourse beyond the citadels of technical science as well as to those who are craving for a return of ancient worldviews.

The second provocation for postmodernism is the marginalization of cultures victimized by Western intrusions and European colonialism. Enlightened thinkers recognized this moral flaw and began to see that the presumed superiority of Western culture arose from its military strength and imperialistic arrogance. Moreover, postmodernists  realized that if there was Plato’s Dialogues  in ancient Greece, there were Upanishadic dialogues in ancient India, that Buddha and Confucius were no less significant personages than Abraham and Jesus, that long before Berkeley there was Shankara, and so on. So the idea of the centrality of Judeo-Christianity was gradually removed.

From all this it followed that there was no such thing as absolute truth, absolute morality, higher levels of civilization, or the best form of government. So another running refrain in postmodernism is that everything, yes, everything, is like rest and motion in Einstein’s world: only relative. Here they ran into some uncomfortable predicaments: If there is no good and bad, how do we evaluate His Holiness and Hitler, MLK and the KKK, Mandela and Mao, Dictatorship and Democracy, the injunction to love thy number and that to kill the unbeliever? Is the flat-earth fantasy the same as the rotund globe view?

Postmodernism has left us with some thought-provoking terms like deconstruction of texts (Jacques Derrida) which says that in themselves texts carry no meaning: it is all a question of how they are interpreted. It refers to the grand themes of history such as the Enlightenment, Marxism, modernism, as meta-narratives that are not to be trusted. It recommends that books that do not advocate full equality are to be discarded. Yet, they tend to be liberal rather than conservative in the context of social and global issues.   

Most of all, postmodernists  challenge  modern science’s claim to truth, some even questioning European Enlightenment as having universal  relevance. They argue that science is a socially constructed collection of propositions for the benefit and exploitative purposes of the hegemonic West: this is a helpful image for non-Western cultures that are otherwise at a loss when they confront the arsenal of Western science and technology. It gives equal respect and value to all cultures: in this it is a loud voice of  multiculturalism.  It shows the emptiness in suppositions that Western Caucasian culture is unique and better than all other cultures. Though similar ethnocentric superstitions have been (still are) prevalent in many other creative cultures (Chinese, Japanese, Indic, Islamic), millions of people in non-Western cultures applaud this postmodern self-appraisal of Western culture.   

The devaluation of science and rationality, however cleverly argued, is a great disservice of postmodernism to civilization. However questionable scientific epistemology may be, modern science has been gradually freeing the human mind of a thousand superstitions and untenable worldviews and values. It has revealed to humankind the grandeur and splendor of myriad unrecognized facets of the physical universe, enhanced creature comforts and saved  millions from starvation and disease. Given all this,  postmodernist anti-science chatter, however stimulating it may be to ivory-tower scholastics, ill-serves the vast majority of humankind by drawing them away from Science. After all it is largely due to science that reason-based empirical knowledge is respected more universally than ever before, many superstitions have become mindsets of the past, and religious bigotry has been mitigated in cultures where science has taken deep roots. So while we may acknowledge some of the insights of postmodern philosophers about relative values, interpreting texts, and multiculturalism we cannot ignore that some of postmodernist anti-science propaganda  has not been helpful for humanity.

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Random Thoughts On Buffalo-slaughter controversy.


As one who was brought up as a strict vegetarian I am instinctively repelled by any kind of meat. Also, because of my sectarian cultural up-bringing I find cruelty to animals abhorrent. Therefore for me, there is really no difference between slaughtering a cow, a buffalo, a goat, pig, or a chicken.

As a mature adult, I realize that for millennia meat-eating has been prevalent all over the world, including India. Some day in the distant future all human beings might become vegetarians, but not in the next few decades.

As to Hinduism and meat eating, most objective scholars grant that writings considered sacred refer to animal sacrifices. The Ramayana mentions Rama as eating deer meat. Sita promised Ganga that upon returning to Ayodhya she would treat her to mámsa bhútodanena. In the Tamil version (Kamba Ramayanam) Rama is fully vegetarian, but the Shiva-bhakta Ravana is a meat-eater. In the Brihadáranyaka Upanishad it says explicitly that to beget an accomplished son one should study the Vedas and with cooked rice with meat. Not a Hindu-culture-destroying Westerner, but S. Radhakrishnan translates the words as veal or beef.

Non-killing of animals (for food) was introduced largely by Buddhism and Jainism.

The way I see it, if one eats meat (which involves the slaughtering of animals) it really does not matter which animal one kills. To be a vegetarian it is not necessary to seek support from scriptures or what our ancestors ate. Except for Jainism and some parts of Buddhism, no religion, including Hinduism, explicitly says one shouldn’t eat meat.

No enlightened government in the twenty-first century should dictate what its citizens should eat and not eat. One may argue that if pork is prohibited in Pakistan, why can’t buffalo-slaughter be banned in Bharat? The answer to this question is that modern India, unlike Pakistan, is not a theocratic state.

In many parts of the world the post-Enlightenment secular state is coming under attack, direct or subtle. There is a resurgence of forces, overt and subtle,  that are ethnocentric, racist, traditional-religion-based, xenophobic. In 1958 the Egyptian President Gamal Nasser refused to make the wearing of hijab compulsory for women. But today it is very different in the Islamic world.

At this point there is no telling to what extent and in what regions these forces will come to dominate. Wherever and whenever they take over, victims will be primarily ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities.

The forces of Enlightenment are resisting the rise of contrary forces. Their success depends on economic and global interconnectedness, as well as the worldwide spread of Enlightenment values through leaders, books and media.

In India there are many who regret that when the subcontinent was dissected as a result of the intransigence of one religious minority, India did not choose to become a Hindu country. Now it seems to be too late. But one can never foresee the course that history will take in times to come. 

From my own space-time coordinates I can only wish and pray for the wellbeing of India which, from my perspective, is related to the preservation of Enlightenment values some of which, like tolerance and freedom to think, are inherent to Indic culture.

26 June 2017

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On the Differing Perspectives on God of Physicists and Biologists


There is much truth in the statement that biologists and physicists look upon the world (in its deeper aspects) in somewhat different ways.

There are deep historical as well as epistemological reasons for this. But two broad conclusions we may draw from this fact of observation are that ultimately our statements about the world are interpretations, and that these interpretations are functions of our background, training, and cultural conditioning.

What science and objective inquiry try to accomplish, however inadequately, is to sort out these coloring factors from our appraisals, and come to as best an unencumbered-by-personal-constraints-as-possible set of conclusions as one possibly can.

In this context it is useful to recall what some historians of science have pointed out: In ancient Greek science there were three main paradigms of scientific inquiry:  the organic (Aristotle), the mechanistic (Archimedes), and the magical/mathematical (Pythagoras/Plato) traditions.

With the rise of modern science in the 17th century, these survived in varying degrees. The magical tradition became fully mathematical, the mechanistic became dominant in model-building theories, and the organic virtually died in the context of physics. Indeed, soon even biology abandoned its organic roots, and was brought into the mechanistic fold.

The mechanistic model came into conflict with the Church first because its clockwork world was no longer geocentric as was taught in the traditional cosmology of Aristotle et al. Next , the confrontation was because the mechanistic model stripped the human being of the traditional soul of Pythagoras, the Church, et al.

In our own times, physicists are concerned largely with the non-sentient world, and see therein absolutely no sign of anything that normal living beings possess. But they do know that the universe functions with uncanny subservience to immutable laws. In this context, many of them have little difficulty in  visualizing the universe as a whole as an entity functioning in accordance with some sort of an intelligent cosmic formula.

For biologists, on the other hand, it is all chemistry, and random mutations resulting in a variety of grown up amoebas, with little evidence that life forms were specifically created by a Cosmic Creator on the sixth day of the week.

This, as see it, is the primary difference between the physicist and the biologist when it comes to God-talk with respect to the universe: The physicist thinks of Intelligence, the biologist, of  the Creator. Intelligence is tied to logic, mathematics,  abstraction, law, and order, and is not incompatible with Physics or Science. The Creator brings to mind Scriptures, the Church, anthropomorphic God, etc., which it is difficult to reconcile with post-Galilean science

December 20, 2005

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Science and Politics


Science, in so far as it is a quest for rational understandings of the physical world, from quarks and leptons to double stars and dark matter, from big bang to black holes, can be chaste in its ivory tower of telescopes and microscopes, equations and explanations.

But, like any quest for and formulations of Truth, it can remain uncorrupt for only as long as its formulas and findings don’t affect the human condition adversely. If the impact is to increase physical comfort and cure disease, science is welcome with prizes and grants. But the moment scientific results begin to rattle our psychological security  by questioning the foundations of our deepest beliefs about this life and the next, or they become  threats to economic growth, drastically reduce bottom line profits, affect jobs for the masses, or may bring down a major industry, Science becomes suspect. Then, more comfortable modes of interpreting natural phenomena become urgent. Sadly, shamefully, but not surprisingly, some individual scientists are prepared to sell their science for tidy sums for erecting  alternate interpretations of collected data that would benefit the paymasters in the short run, even if they risk humanity’s long range interests.

My fear is that barring discernable dangers of major magnitudes,  extinguishing not thousands but millions of lives, neither industries nor governments will halt their current activities and policies which, all said and done, do help in providing jobs for millions and  raise their standard of subsistence.

In the meanwhile, if some reports are true, radical opponents of the status quo have not flinched from resorting to actions and propaganda that involve lying, exaggerations, and distortions that they deem are appropriate and necessary for the “right cause.’

17, May 2017

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Goals of Education


All nations educate their their children and adults for a variety of purposes.

The most important visible reason they do this is to give the citizens the necessary skills to handle technology, manage government and business institutions, and help maintain the laws of the land. A modern nation without people who can do these will simply cannot function, no matter how rich its natural resources are.

However, the larger and other necessary goals of education should be:

  • To expand the mind’s horizons.
  • To enrich the student’s life with the knowledge of the wonders of the world as revealed by Science.
  • To instill in the student an appreciation for art and music, poetry and philosophy,
  • To encourage the student to respect all cultures of the human family.
  • To teach the student to weigh dispassionately the different sides of controversial issue, and to give freedom of expression for the opponent’s view.
  • To enable the student to honor all the non-hurtful dimensions of every religion of the human family.
  • To strive for social justice, economic fairness, and gender equality in his/her own country, and all over the world.
  • To develop compassion for the suffering, and think of ways in which he/she can help the less fortunate.
  • To make the student realize questions relating to the Ultimate are Grand Mysteries which should provoke awe and humility in us, rather than dogmatic certainty as to their correct answers.

20 April 2017

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Some Thoughts on God in Hinduism


A  key message of Hinduism is that unlike mathematics and argumentation, lived life as well as visions of the Unknown are not built in a framework of rigid rationality, but in an elastic web of contradictions and complementarities. One who has grown up in Hindu culture is thus able to withstand contradictions in one’s own belief-system and behavior more easily that people brought up in many other cultures. This is what enables Hindus to pay respects to all gods, not just Hindu, but Christian and Jewish, Islamic and whatever. This is why Hindu atheists can still sing bhajan songs, prostrate before an icon of  Ganesh, and invoke Rama and Krishna freely: a capacity that people of few other groups enjoy.
This has advantages as well as disadvantages. The disadvantage is that it can drive your opponent nuts when you argue about these matters. It also allows many Hindus to tolerate the most absurd and silly superstitions. It is okay to decide on the time for a rocket launch on the basic of astrology. But it also makes us morally ambivalent, sometimes incapable of taking a firm stance on issues. The advantage is that Hindus can be more tolerant of the nonsensical beliefs of other groups than is possible for most people
Elusive Divinity is given form and substance through Puranic im­agery, If gods are endowed with many arms and heads, it is to re­mind us of divine omnipotence; if monkeys and serpents, rivers and mountains are worshipped, it is to affirm the omnipresence of the divine principle. Indeed, in the Hindu vision, every aspect of the world is an expression of the Cosmic undercurrent. As the mystic poet sees the world in a grain of sand, the religious seeker discovers god in every atom of the physical world. If it is religious awakening to see god in everything, the Hindu framework goads us to that wisdom. That is why, paraphrasing the Vedic aphorism, we may say, God is one, the Puranas call it by various names.
There is also much esoteric meaning in the forms and faces, sub­tle symbolism in the genesis and doings of Hindu gods. In the Puranic tales and epic allusions it is suggested again and again that divinity is by definition that which transcends the constraints of space and time, of causality and conservation, even of ethical categories. A god may be good and bad, beautiful and ugly, merciful and cruel, majestically grand and dwarfishly small, handsome as a hero and plain as a tortoise. Brahma grants boons to the deserving, yet schemes to deprive a miscreant of what he has won. Vishnu is majestic and manly, but he also becomes gynomorphic as Mohini. Siva is austere and ascetic, yet lusts for Parvati, he is supremely continent and erotical­ly virile.  Puranic gods love and hate one another, collaborate and com­pete, cooperate and are in conflict.
Mutual incompatibilities arise from our narrow perspectives. But in the cosmic grandeur they all dissolve. The same vast sky can be pitch black at night and gloriously bright at noon. We can float on the ocean, and also sink to its dark depths.
Such are the inspirations behind the panoramic pantheon of Hin­duism. In our own times, when physicists wonder how the same elec­tron can be both particle and wave, the ancient Hindu insight comes in handy to resolve the paradox. The world results, not from con­tradictions, but from complementarities. There are no absolutes. Our descriptions depend on our reference system. Two valued logic is useful and appropriate in certain contexts, but they are too restricted in the vision of the infinite.
With all that, when a devout Hindu thinks of God, it is a faceless, ornament-less, vahana-less, invisible personage that comes to mind. The God one invokes in silent prayer or closed-eye meditation is often not one of the Puranic deities, nor even the all-too-abstract Brahman, but a very real personal God who has no features, nor forms. If the Puranic gods are like integers from one to infinity, the personal God of the practicing Hindu is like the symbol x in algebra         which could stand for anything, yet is not anything in particular. This God is refer­red to as bhagvaan.
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ON CNN’S AFFRONT TO THE HINDU WORLD


CNN’s broadcast (Sunday March 5, 2017) on Hinduism by a so-called religious scholar did disservice to the cause of peace and understanding. With obviously no knowledge of Sanskrit or Tamil, he had the gall to report on Hinduism to a public already naive about Non-Christian religions, and can hardly distinguish a Sikh from a Muslim, at a time when anti-immigrant passions are running high,  prompted largely by the extremists of the religion to which this supposed scholar is affiliated. His crass and callous snap shots of an enormously complex and multifaceted religion could be charitably interpreted as arising from superficial book knowledge, and in more sinister terms they can be interpreted as a wanton effort to ignite anti-Hindu  sentiments in the country.

The program was a downright affront to a great religious tradition which, unlike the tradition to which this interpreter of religion may be more familiar, preaches respect and reverence for all spiritual paths. India, with its overwhelming Hindu majority is home to millions of others from different faiths, and has been so for centuries.

The United Nations has thought it fit to include in its motto a quote from  a Hindu poet on humanism.   The scriptures of Hinduism are reckoned among the most poetic and philosophical in the world: from Schopenhauer to Emerson, and countless others, informed thinkers have paid homage to the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.  The deep insights of Hindu thinkers  into the ultimate nature of reality have found resonance in sophisticated modern physics: The CERN in Geneva has acknowledged this.

The CNN “expert” on Hinduism is obviously ignorant of all this. His expertise seems to be in projecting pictures that titillate the superficial, ill-informed, and perhaps malicious tourist. This show was regarded  as the height of public affront to a billion people. Whether President Trump’s characterization of CNN as a purveyor of fake-news was appropriate or not in the context in which it was made, it was certainly so in this case.

It is important to emphasize that humanity’s cultural legacy is vast. Every nation and group has created art and music, plays and poetry, science and philosophy, dance and delicacy. Thanks to the marvels of technology transfer of information has become much easier. Through our powerful modes of communication it is not impossible to educate the masses on whatever is grand and glorious in every culture and civilization, in every race and religion of  the human family. We have the resources to educate and  enlighten humanity as a whole. We can make people  better understand and appreciate  the cultural richness in all groups.

Contrary to the hopes and wishful dreams of humanists that is not what is happening. Instead, we seem to be heading towards a world of mutual hate and suspicion, devoid of scant respect for the traditions of others,  displaying  religious intolerance of the most abject kind. One reason is programs like this. It is most unfortunate that a respectable medium like CNN did not recognize the motives of this “scholar”.

We are at the threshold of an age of narrow nationalism and sectarian bigotry.   There are at least two reasons for this throw-back to religious intolerance. One is the inability or unwillingness of religious leaders to preach basic tolerance to their followers; the other is the disservice done by the media by focusing on what is wrong and grotesque in various faith systems. No religion is spotless but all religions have their nobler and uplifting aspects too. Responsible groups should know which to emphasize to  whom and when.

I raise my voice of protest not only as a member of the Hindu tradition, but equally as a member of the human family who is alarmed by the divisive trends that are poisoning the world today; and by the fact that a news-providing institution like CNN would air a program of this misleading kind. I can only hope that they will not ask an ignorant Hindu to interpret Islam to the American public.

8 March 2017

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