Friday, November 17, 2006

A Disturbing question

Recently a very close friend of mine asked me a very simple question. He heard from many radical fundamentalists that there is a sanction in Islam to kill infidels – meaning the Koran specifically grants the permission to do so. He wanted to know from people who read Koran whether such a statement does indeed exist. Basically his point is very simple – how can other religions coexist with Islam if such a provision does indeed exist in Koran? Of course, this friend of mine is a very fine scholar, so he believed that such claim by fundamentalists must be totally false because no true religion would ever make such a statement.

At a spiritual, metaphysical and philosophical level, such a statement can have many inner meanings, but if it were true – how can other religions co-exist with Islam at a theological level? If every non-Muslim is considered as a non-believer, and if Islam ‘mandates’ its followers that such non-believers should either be converted or killed, how can we even have a dialogue with them?

This is a widespread belief among many people and perhaps their source of discomfort with Islam. My friend told me that someone who read Koran thoroughly must come out strongly against such a widespread belief and make a public statement, providing the relevant references. How many people would have read Koran? If you are a Hindu, or a Christian or a Buddhist – you are not expected to read the holy book of Islam. May be half the Muslims do not know Arabic and so they cannot read Koran themselves.

What use is another newspaper article in any case?

Any sane person like my friend knows intuitively that such a belief has no basis and must be false. Islam apparently means peace and the Prophet called himself the messenger of peace. Therefore, any such belief must be self contradictory.

But, sanity today is an endangered species.

Our knowledge of history comes largely from various propaganda machines and is constructed by what we read about events in the newspapers. Newspapers report only events. Can they report progress, can they report ten thousand years of human evolution, can they even make an attempt to report what a religion and culture is all about?

But, it is a fact that we live in the age of short term memories and information overload. There is just too much information these days – most of it is pure junk – traveling at the speed of light. Short of asking everyone to read Koran – is there any other sane solution to such a wide spread belief?

There is overwhelming evidence in history that kings, leaders and clergy use their power with disastrous effects. Some societies – like some of the Polynesian islands like Easter Island and the Maya Kingdoms completely destroyed themselves largely because of the attitudes of their leaders. In all such cases, Religion was invoked by the leaders and rich people to justify their own ends, and to make people firmly hold on to certain belief systems.

Religion is a very deep rooted value system, and it can be and almost always is exploited by people in power to their advantage, to promote their own vanity or as an instrument to keep people ignorant.

However, religion and culture do not live in history books or buried in historical monuments. They exist for and through the common people. If we meet an average American, we can estimate the American value system, their religion and culture in five minutes of interaction – we may not be able to write detailed analytical essays, but we understand it intuitively. What a religion and culture stands for is represented by its living monuments – the common, average people. If you interact with an Indian – even casually – you get a ‘feel’ of Indianness, if you meet a Buddhist you get a ‘feel’ for Buddhism.

The average, common people – not people in influential positions – like scholars, clergy and leaders – but just average common people – internalize their culture so deeply and radiate their value systems all the time. They do it unknowingly, without any pretence. There is no drama, no cultivated, politically correct or incorrect responses. Their responses are natural.

If you meet a Muslim autoriksha driver in Hyderabad or a Muslim carpet merchant in Bangalore, a Muslim antique dealer in Delhi – what impression do you carry about them? I believe that impression is always correct. My impression is they are very tolerant, graceful, genuinely honest and nice people. To me, that is what Islam is.

Is there a better answer than that? Can any amount of scholastic reports answer such questions better than our own first hand experiences? Why don’t we trust what we observe, what we feel about our own fellow human being? Why do we place an overwhelming reliance on the media and other propaganda machinary?

There is so much of “manufacturing of our concent” that goes on in the world today by our governments, by our leaders and by the multi-billion dollar corporate houses. They have vested interests. Therefore, in today’s world – it is much better to trust our own first hand experience. If we don't then there is a danger that we lose our own innate ability to discern, and become unwitting instruments of manipulation by the powerful.

God is one when religion is dead.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Abstraction, Pattern Recognition and Problem Solving

The Design and the Designer – Part 6

A gap of more than two weeks interrupts the flow. But, the gap is probably required because from here – the approach is very different. Until now, I largely covered a lot of breadth, and was able to give examples in one paragraph – an approach that may not be sufficient from now onwards. It is like getting into the second chapter of a book – by nature, it gets a little deeper and a bit more boring.

The difference between Architecture and Engineering is like the difference between Music and Sound. Architecture is a word that is associated with many disciplines today – we talk of architects of nations, architects of enterprises and corporations, architects of cities, plantation forests, gardens, buildings, computers and information systems. Sometimes, this word is also used in relation to effects produced by an individual or a group of people – architects of success or failure, architects of war and of destiny. After the last Great War, this discipline seemed to have become main stream.

Even though, these days we use the term in its verb form, actually it exists only as a noun. The architect produces architecture – what he does is not architecture, but design. Therefore, the process used is the process of design, but the end product is “Architecture”. All architects are designers of a particular kind.

What does really an architect do?

Let’s consider the traditional architecture of buildings as an example. Even though the structural engineers deride architects as people who basically add unnecessary embellishments that do not have serve any functional purpose, in reality the job of an architect is one of transformation much like the work of an alchemist.

What the alchemist is to science, the architect is to engineering.

His work involves understanding the essence or meaning of space and transforming this understanding into an engineering problem.

Sounds abstruse even to me. We need some detailed explanation.

An architect basically brings meaning to space. An engineer does not make any distinction between kitchen and living room – both are basically enclosed spaces as far as the engineer is concerned. But, for people living in a house, kitchen and living room have very distinct functions, how they relate to these spaces is very different, the time they spend in these spaces is very different. It is the job of the architect to understand the function of a kitchen or a living room, and their relation to the people who use them and then somehow be able to express it in terms of certain ‘spatial’ characteristics – their geometry, placement, the equipment provided in that space. Basically, the architect defines what a kitchen is in certain engineering terms.

In short, the mysterious craft of architecture is very simple to express in words. The architect performs a series of semantic transformations; the last transformation achieves the feat of converting the problem into a structural engineering problem. If the alchemist transforms lead into gold, the architect transforms gold into lead – in a manner of speaking.

The reason why structural engineers do not respect architects is perhaps because of the fact that over the years, the community of architects was successful in creating a set of transformations that are universally accepted and understood, and the engineers themselves understand the difference between the kitchen and living room without the help of an architect. So, they do not see the necessity of an architect for the most common problems like the construction of a house, or a bridge any more.

In short, architects create new abstractions. An abstraction is an information structure – that codifies meaning objectively, an information structure that is universally understood. The power of abstraction is such that – if we have to state in one single line the difference between human being and an animal – we can say that the difference is the ability to come up with an abstraction.

What is an abstraction? A “tree” is an abstraction. ‘A Tree’ does not exist anywhere in the physical world – there are mango trees, there are lemon trees, there are all kinds of other trees, but there is no such entity called ‘tree’ – it is a pure abstraction that exists only in our consciousness. It helps us to group all mango trees, all lemon trees and all other trees in one sweep, and capture the ‘essential treeness’ that all of them share. Similarly, ‘A Man’ does not exist any where except in our consciousness – there is a John, there is a Joe, there is an Adam – but where is ‘Man’?

It took several thousands of years for us to come up with some very simple abstractions that we take it for granted today. One such example is the number system and the simple arithmetic of additions and subtractions. In ancient times, when people did not know the basic math, the methods they used for trading were very funny. If one goat equals two bags of rice (purely a concept of quantity decided by its value, there was really no such thing as ‘one’ goat and ‘two’ bags of rice) and if you want to want to exchange two goats, then what do you if you do not understand what is one and what is two? You give one goat, take two bags of rice, and then give one more goat again and take another two bags of rice. A very cumbersome process indeed – isn’t it?

But, what can people do if they do not know what is one and what is two? The numbers are very powerful abstractions.

An abstraction is valid only if it is completely objective. This condition means that an abstraction must mean exactly the same thing to everyone. The difference between an abstraction and a concept is in how strictly this condition is applied. A concept is not very strict in imposing the condition of objectivity. For example, “world” is a concept – but what I mean by world and what you mean by world can be somewhat different.

Abstractions, concepts or semantic types – are all information structures. It is a unit of information that retains the meaning of something, and is made accessible to everyone.

What is interesting is how we as humans acquire concepts and abstractions. We do it so naturally – we do not even realize that we are dealing with abstractions and concepts all the time. But, it is an amazingly complex process.

When as children we learn our alphabet – all we are shown is one particular shape of the alphabet. Your teachers writes ‘a’ in your notebook, and you practice recognizing ‘a’ and writing it yourself. That’s about it – after that you can recognize ‘a’ in what ever shape, size and form it appears – and you can recognize ‘a’ instantaneously. What you as a child accomplished is an amazing feat – by understanding one particular ‘a’ – you somehow extracted the ‘a-ness’ and then can apply that understanding of ‘a-ness’ like a flash. You can recognize ‘a’ in which ever font it is written, in millions of different handwriting samples. You do not need to be taught to recognize ‘a’ by going through several thousand samples, and various complex rules of recognition.

Such a simple act of extracting the meaning by understanding from one single illustration and then apply it on the fly to recognize millions of variations is an amazingly human ability – something very difficult for machines to do. Computers cannot even recognize their own hand writing!!

It is easy for a computer to produce millions of different ways of writing – you can type a word into a document, and then change the font any number of times. Computers are quite good at such manipulations. But, they are miserable when it comes to ‘recognition’ – at least until now. Suppose you take a printout of a document – and then use a scanner to scan the same document, connected to the same computer, and then try and reproduce the document in its original form ( a process called optical character recognition) – almost always you get a document with too many ‘errors’. The OCR programs are very complex where as the document creating programs (like Microsoft Word) are relatively simple. The OCR programs use several thousand ‘sample’ character sets, and ‘train’ the computer to recognize the ‘a-ness’. But, till now there is no foolproof method to accomplish this.

What makes us so good at pattern creation, extraction and recognition? Let’s leave that question to psychologists. However, this particular ability is at the heart of problem solving. In a most generalized sense, architecture, design, engineering, diagnosis are all a form of problem solving. Problem-Solving and Design involves an innate ability to recognize and categorize patterns, abstractions and concepts. Patterns, abstractions and concepts require associative thinking.

In the earlier posts, I mentioned about two kinds of thinking, two different processes of problem solving and so on. I tried to make a distinction between demonstrative reasoning, and heuristic reasoning. It is well recognized that the art of problem solving involves heuristic methods – for example, using analogy, generalization, reduction, specialization and so on. We also described in some detail about various forms of non-linear thinking – be it creativity, right brain thinking, lateral thinking, out of box thinking and so on.

Associative thinking and heuristic/plausible reasoning are the most generalized forms of non-linear thinking and problem-solving.

How does associative thinking work really and how can we use it systematically?

Here is a small exercise:

Let’s pick up some word randomly – let’s say it is Sun. Write down ten other words that come to your mind (without thinking) when you think of Sun – for example, star, heat, light, earth, round, fire, red, day, night, energy, Egypt, Japan and so on. Now, how is Sun connected with Egypt? The relationship between these two very different concepts is one association and it is association of some meaning. For example, Egyptians used to worship Sun God. Therefore, the relationship between these two concepts is “worshippers of”.

In the last post, I discussed about four structural relationships – hierarchy, network, hypertext and set. The relationship between Sun and Egypt is none of the four structural relationships. It can – at best – be represented in terms of a hypertext relationship, but it is in fact a “semantic relationship” – it is the inherent meaning that connects these two concepts.

Nasruddin – while solving a logic puzzle uses his associative network to come up with a completely out of the box solution. We need such an associative mental network to work with analogies, to work with induction, to generalize something, and from generalization to specialization and so on.

Another advantage with the associative thinking is that – you can recall your entire memory starting at any point. I suggest doing this as a fun exercise. Start with Sun – and write down all the words that come to your mind, and then for every word connected with Sun, write down all the words you can think of. For example, expand Egypt – something like – desert, pyramids, Africa, Nile, Pharaohs, Moses and so on.

Unfortunately, we are never taught how to make and keep an associative memory consciously. We are taught how to practice organizing our knowledge using the structural relationships, and we are taught how to use demonstrative (logical) reasoning, even though our brain uses an associative structure to organize its own memory and experiences. We are naturally gifted with the ability to organize and relate to our experience using associative networks. But, we are never taught how to practice it formally. As a consequence, our memory is a very randomly formed associative, semantic network that we cannot use efficiently.

The real trick of problem solving is nothing but consciously organizing our knowledge and experiences as an inner semantic network of concepts and relationships. In other words, if we can make and keep associative networks of our knowledge and experiences, then we have a better chance of becoming better problem solvers.

More on this in the next post.

Monday, November 13, 2006

An Apology

First – my apologies to all the regular visitors of my blog. Last two weeks have been very hectic. I made a promise to myself that I would upload at least two articles every week. Promises are like spoilt children – as soon as you make a promise - somehow, it brings along situations with it and is always bent upon proving that you are not worthy of it.

There are about seventy articles that I planed to write on various topics – I even made a brief abstract about each one of them – but the actual process of writing them down demands a kind of mental and physical discipline that is very hard to command all the time. The natural laziness is always waiting round the corner to catch up with its old friend, and its company is so enjoyable, one tends to forget everything else and spend all the time with that best of friends.

There is a wonderful Sufi story on this theme, published by Idries Shah in his Seeker After Truth. Here is the gist of the story:

A dervish visited a small town in India. He used to give a talk every night, and many people would go to listen to him. The discourse would begin some after dinner and usually lasted for about an hour and half.

An old man would attend the talk everyday along with his grandson. As soon as the dervish starts to speak, the old man would go to sleep. The dervish watched this for a couple of days, and then he called the grandson to him and promised to give him one rupee if he promises to wake up the old man every time he falls asleep.

The next two days, the boy would pinch his grand father whenever the old man dozed off. But, on the third day, the dervish noticed that the old man was snoring as usual.

The dervish called the boy aside and asked him what had happened – “I thought we had a deal. Why did you not keep your grandfather awake today?”

“That’s right. But when I told my grandfather about our deal, he offered me three rupees not to wake him up”.

The first rupee is our desire to do something productive. The other three are – our habits, our natural laziness and the unobserved opposition to truth.


Writing is very difficult. I know what to write, it is very simple to make up the outline of the article. The difficulty starts from the time I sit down to write the actual article. As I am writing the first line, the second line has to ‘spring up’ in the mind simultaneously. Otherwise, the flow is lost. I also have to think of the actual sentence at the same time, and the mind has to recall its typing experience. All this is just too much for the mind. It prefers to drift off, my old friend is back – and we go for a smoke break after every paragraph.

Sometimes the exact opposite happens. I can’t catch up with the speed of my thought – I can’t type as fast as I think. Too many thoughts flood my mind, and I just can’t type any more. So, I take a break and have a dialogue with myself. Before I realize, five hours are gone! By that time, there is too much content piled up in the head – I get enough content for another ten articles. I end up with a perpetual backlog.

I also have another difficulty. English is still a foreign language to me. The Indian languages and English are not natural friends. They are in fact quite the opposite. All Indian Languages are free order languages - it is so easy to construct phrases in Indian Languages. In fact, most words are not single words – most of them are phrases.

English does not have that kind of flexibility. So, when most Indians write English – they tend to make up wrong kind of phrases. For example, the meaning between “I am John’s friend” and “I am a friend of John” is quite significant depending on the context. For some strange reason, I always write the sentence in the reverse order, and then I have to do a lot of editing and rewriting.

Take the previous paragraph as an illustration. An Englishman would write almost every line in the reverse order: Most Indians tend to make up wrong kind of phrases when they write English. Depending on the context, the difference between “I am John’s friend” and “I am a friend of John” could be significant.

Can you see my difficulty? The previous paragraph was my first attempt. So, I have to apply the principle of inversion even to my English!! I always look for which sentences need to be reversed to make them right!!

I have a difficulty with the usage of tense as well. I still do not get the difference between the simple past and present perfect tense. The difference between I read the article and I have read the article eludes me all the time. For some strange reason, many Indians have a preference for “have, has, had” – they prefer “I have written a letter” to “I wrote a letter”. I am sure without the help of a grammar book, most of us can’t tell the difference between the two.

So, I end up doing a lot of editing on each article. I pray for the day when I can write effortlessly.

Forgive me for the delay. I will be back tomorrow again and continue the series on Semantics and other topics.