Kauffman, Stuart A. Reinventing the sacred: a new view of science, reason, and religion. Basic Books, 2008.

Stuart Kauffman is  an ex-physician, expert in developmental genetics, founder of the BiosGroup in Santa Fe,and  also highly respected for his work on complex systems.  The book by this highly respected thinker of our times  offers some insightful perspectives on the physical world.  The classical and still current paradigm of science is that the “universe and all in it are governed by natural laws.”  Kauffman describes this as the Galilean spell, and like Daniel Dennett who has called for a similar action with respect to religion, he wants to break this spell. He transforms the glaring unpredictability in many aspects of the physical world into an essential (hitherto only rarely recognized) feature. He calls this creativity. [In my writings I have used the term hypercomplexity for this.] The central thesis of the book is that “God as the creativity in the universe can … offer us a view in which the sacred and the moral remain utterly valid.” But then, the sacred and the moral are only a subset of creativity. Indeed, it would be equally valid to say that devil as creativity in the universe can offer us a view in which the profane and the immoral are also manifestations of the same creativity.

June 15, 2008

News that dwarfs all news

The world of humans is witnessing problems of ominous proportions: a kicked out Kaddafi in hiding in Libya, Syria in turmoil under an awful Assad,  Anna Hazare cross with corruption in India and fiercely fasting, rioting in London, casino catastrophe in Mexico killing more than fifty innocent players, Hurricane Irene threatening the East coast of the U.S. after a not minor earthquake, time-honored terrorism in Pakistan and Iraq, no less terrible things in Nigeria and Sudan, a murderous maniac  in Norway, global financial crisis, not to mention the Iranian Hitler promising to wipe out Israel in a fiery speech. As if this not all enough, there are raging controversies about epistemology, science, theism and naturalism.

In the midst of all this, astronomers coolly, if not gleefully, announce they have spotted a supermassive black hole swallowing a star. Just imagine, if you can, a huge, a huge huge Sun disappearing all of a sudden  into the claustrophobic  entrails of an abysmal black hole of diminutive dimensions, abruptly putting an end to all the fiery nuclear fusions at the core of the resplendent star, carrying away with it perhaps its family of planets, if such there were, never, never to return to tell the tale of its dark adventure in the no-time- no-space realm of a black hole.

This is the Mother of All Monstrous events compared to which the exploits of suicide bombers seem puny, petty, pathetic, and paltry, except for one thing: The swallowing of a star by a black hole, fantastic and gigantic as it is, and exciting to a handful of astronomers,  occurred in a distant region of the universe, hundreds of thousands of years ago perhaps, and  it has less than zilch effect on our everyday lives, whereas the mindless monstrosities and deliberate destructions  committed by earthly evil-mongers, whether corrupt officials, dangerous dictators, or stupid suicide bombers affect thousands of mostly innocent and helpless people, as do earthquakes and hurricanes, and exploring the roots and relevance of epistemology is immensely satisfying to our restless intellects. If these earthly matters  seem far more serious, it is because  the magnitude of any problem is inversely proportional our distance from it.

August 26, 2011

Science and Pseudo-Science

“It was reported that a  joint study by Penn State University and the NASA Planetary Science Division that “A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilization may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand…. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilizational expansion could be detected by an ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) because our expansion is changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, via greenhouse gas emissions.” I read this on my computer. I will confess I don’t know how seriously this is to be taken, but it was not posted on April 1. For quite some time now, I have abandoned my trust in what some so-called scientists announce to the public. Respectable, chaste, and unadulterated  science seems to have become a thing of the past. Gone are the eras of Galileo and Huygens, Bernoullis and Euler, Laplace and Ampère, Faraday and Maxwell, Bohr and Pauli. Those were the times  when science was a disinterested quest to unravel the roots of perceived reality. Then it was an ardent and selfless search, tainted only by a desire for credit and recognition of priority: common human failings, but these do not tarnish the purity of the investigations, by and large. But now we live in an age when science has been corrupted by a variety of external forces: It is constrained by government interference, its findings are tampered with for business interests, its growth is sometimes stifled for economic/industrial gains, its truth-content is exaggerated for proving or discrediting religion, its claims  and goals are influenced by  grant moneys, its pursuit is directed towards national security and weapons hunger, its findings are distorted to correspond to ancient visions,  and now again its practitioners engage in embarrassing pseudoscience. I am inclined to think that the above news item is an example of the last kind of poison that has brought science down from her classical pedestal, unless, of course, it is a cleverly concocted spoof  of the kind of nonsense that is sometimes propagated as science these days. In any case, if research funds are used to establish these sorts of scary truths to the effect that aliens are watching us for terrestrial landing en masse in order to destroy us because our excessive carbon foot print will affect their safety, then there is something seriously wrong, not with the mental make-up of ETs, but with ourselves.

As I see it, it is also a colossal  waste of tax-payer’s money to fund researches of this kind.

August 23, 2011

On Supernatural Beings

Periodically we read news reports to the effect that such and such a percentage of Americans or Europeans believe in angels, another percentage of  Indians believe in spirits, yet another percentage of Chinese believe in ghosts, etc.  This says nothing about the existence of angels, spirits, or ghosts, but it does remind us  of the impact and continuation of premodern concepts in our own times, and the human proclivity to believe in unseen forces.

Since ancient times, people have observed and described a variety of creatures large and small that share this planet with us. Birds and beasts and insects have not only been seen and listed but domesticated and studied by ancient biologists. In our own times biologists have not only classified creatures but see them as belonging to hundreds of different species.

In the premodern worldview, there was another class of beings: supernatural or semi-supernatural that also populate the planet and often interact with human beings in different contexts. These beings are big or small, good or bad, visible or invisible, but always with magical qualities that ordinary creatures don’t possess.

One may surmise what could have given rise to this idea. In the early phases of wanderings, the very first strange creatures human encountered, whether it was a giraffe or an elephant, a mouse or a frog, must have impressed the human mind. From that it wasn’t difficult to extrapolate and imagine other such creatures. Then again, since these were only imagined, all kinds of powers and features were attributed to them. Given that fear was one of the emotions that stirred the imagination into fantasizing such entities, they were taken as beings possessing unusual powers, often malicious and capable of causing harm. On the other hand, perhaps to compensate for this early humans also pictured benign creatures in this supernatural world. In any case, as with many other ingredients of premodern worldviews no one can be sure about when or where or how these came into human culture.

In due course stories, amusing and frightening, grew around such creatures. Many of them were given specific names. Their numbers grew. They became part of the religions and lore of humanity, and have taken such deep roots in the human psyche that they continue to entertain, obsess, frighten, and persist in our human culture. The probability that some day humanity will regard supernatural beings to be no more than fictional characters of bygone ages, not any different from Batman or Spiderman, or Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck of modern mythology, seems to be rather small.

August 19, 2011

Martin A. Nowak with Roger Highfield’s SuperCooperators: altruism, evolution, and why we need each other to succeed, 2011

When grandma used to say, be good to others, when religions ask us to forgive, or when elders advice the young to work with rather than against one another, it all sounds old-fashioned and contrary to the competitive spirit. But in recent years psychology and empirical science have been suggesting that compassion, caring and cooperation are not just old-time wisdom but have sound scientific and evolutionary basis. Of the books written with this refrain, this one is one of the most original in insights and penetrating in reflections. It highlights not just the need for altruism and cooperation, but shows how it is built into the framework of the physical world even at the molecular and cellular level. Perhaps the most telling instance of the consequence of non-cooperation is cancer which results when cells stop cooperating. Written by an eminent mathematical biologist with a fine science writer as co-author, the book is replete with historical asides and brief notes on a number of related topics such as superorganisms and network games. We read about how language became a “remarkable spur for cooperation.” Or, perhaps it was cooperation that became a spur for language. The book also reveals some of the fascinating  mathematical structure behind some of these cooperating systems.

August 11, 2011

S. Kalyanaraman, Rástram: Hindu History in the United Indian Ocean States, Sarasvati Research Center, 2011.

This is a book with an extraordinary sweep. It speaks of the commonalty of the nations (Ráshtras: States) bordering the vast expanse known as the Indian Ocean. It recalls their history, and shows the power and prestige of ancient Indic culture in these regions, not just in ages past but in modern times also. In this context it explains the significance and relevance of dharma, the powerful and enlightened worldview that inspires and fosters our collective well being in an ethical framework.  There are painful reminders of the impact of Islamic onslaughts in these regions in past eras, resulting in the obliteration of countless Hindu places of worship and of Hindu culture too in regions far and wide.

The book evokes the potential that these nations  possess industrially, intellectually, and in terms of material resources. It elaborates on the concept of a United States of Asia as the Eastern counterpart of the United States of  Western European culture. The possibilities are immense. With the economic and technological resurgence of these new nations which had their rebirth in the twentieth century, there is no telling how  such a Rashtram will unfold itself, and how it will direct some day the course of world history as the West has been doing during the   past five hundred years.

Authored by a scholar whose love for his Hindu roots is as deep as his erudition on India’s history, this book is a solid contribution to an awakening India. Indeed, it is a clarion call to all the nations of South East Asia to join forces in creating a powerful new entity to take charge of their destiny. There are obstacles, for sure. It is difficult to overcome national self-interests for a larger good (as one sees in the still shaky European Union). The Islamic allegiance to Mecca is a stronger force than any trans-religious quilt. And the linguistic links will still be there through European languages (English and French). But these can and probably will be overcome in due course.

This book can be an eye-opener. It is the work of a visionary, whose ideal is to form a union from the rich cultural  diversity and economic powerhouse that lie scattered in the nations that have the Indian Ocean as their shores.

August 2, 2011

Three Kinds of Fields

There are three kinds of highly specialized fields: Creative arts which can be appreciated by one and all, scientific technical fields which are opaque, and directly human related fields which are within reach of our understanding and which affect us in our everyday lives. To the first group belong music, painting, plays and the like whose creators are men and women of talents which range from modest skills to extraordinary genius. Many compose verses, but not everyone is a Kalidasa or a Dante. May write plays, but not everyone is a Racine or a Shaw. Many hum and put together notes, but not everyone is a Mozart or a Thyagaraja. Many draw and paint, but not everyone is a Caravaggio or a Jamini Roy. But whether we create or not, we can all appreciate and enjoy the works of the great creators. The field is enriched from generation to generation by newly entering artistic geniuses. With specialized fields such as astrophysics, neuroscience and number theory, the outsider is usually lost. Popularization of the results can help up to a point, but one simply cannot get a full appreciation unless one goes into some depth, and that is not within easy reach of everyone. Experts and specialists make significant breakthroughs here, continually expanding human knowledge. Then there are fields like philosophy and history, ethics and psychology, economics and high finance. These are highly specialized fields also, but without studying these even at a superficial level people can comment on these matters on the basis of what little they might have gathered from magazine articles, hearsay, and TV commentaries. Once in a while insights from ordinary citizens with common sense can even contribute to solving some of the problems here. Though they might sound silly, sometimes simple ideas from non-specialists in these fields may turn out to be interesting, valid and even useful  

August 1, 2011