Monday, November 21, 2005

On Purpose or the lack of it

Earlier I had thought that i shall write a long series of articles almost a book on purpose in human life. Since that does not seem to be happening any time soon, I realized it might just be a better idea to sum up what I currently am thinking lest it should change drastically and I should lose track!

Here goes. The question of purpose is teleological. By teleology, I am referring to the study of or thinking around purpose. It can be purpose of universe, earth, dolphins or anything for that matter. Although most of our ancestors (the ones philosophically inclined at least) spent a lot of time on speculating on purpose of universe. Several hypothesis were proposed. Some through religion, some through philosophy while others through common folklore. In a similar vein, and as a continuation of the teleology of the universe, human life was also put under microscope of purpose finding. It turned out to be somewhat more difficult of a task. Because unlike rest of the universe, what one believed regarding one's purpose has a direct bearing on the kind of activities one undertakes, kind of things one works for and so on. Probably that was one reason people were less tolerant of the opinions of the philosophically minded ones on this!

Anyway, before starting my quest for purpose, I had asked myself the most obvious but often tactfully avoided question: Is there one? Here, being a non believer in god helped. Since for me there is no God, He cannot assign a purpose to me. I did not believe in nature's big design and fundametal purpose of the entire cosmos either! So that pretty much robbed me of the typical bedrock most (thinking) people base their purpose on. It took a while for the obvious to dawn upon me. There is no externally assigned purpose to my life. (I speak for myself, I believe the same for all human beings, but why impose?). The purpose or lack of it has to be defined by my own self for the person that I am. That is at once a big independence and big responsibility.

While I may well feel great about being able to define a purpose for my life, I also realized that I cannot take refuge in an externally assigned purpose or purposelessness. Typical believers would expect god to show them a purpose through some part of their lives. Typical materialists will generally claim that there is no purpose to life and get on with it. I have put myself in the difficult situation where I know that purpose CAN and NEEDS TO BE defined by myself. So I cannot claim purposelessness without giving it a try!

That brings back the fundamental question. What is purpose? To me, it is a reason of activities undertaken by a conscious entity outside the causal relationships between events and its activities. Hence, if I am eating to stay alive, that does not constitute purpose and if I am running away from a lion, that is not purpose. Purpose is outside the mechanistis causality. That I want to learn more about mankind's past can constitute purpose. So can an attempt to make a lot of money beyond that needed for bare survival. I am essentially pointing out the non material nature of purpose. An entity which is not conscious is governed by nature's laws. While we may not know them, there are laws that govern inanimate entities. Animate entities are composed of inaminate entities and hence are governed by the same laws. However, in nature, there are sponteneous evolutions of various patterns etc which are not governed by thought processes similar to those of conscious entities. So if, there is a hill and a river and a jungle, I would want to assume that this is by natural evolution of biosphere within laws governing inanimate objects. However, if a human being builds a house there, that involved a thought process within the mind of the individual. While one can always claim existance of a high level consciousness which actual organizes things natural in a certain way, that is tautological for the purpose of present discussion.

What I am willing to grant however is that maybe there is purpose at a higher level of a consciousness we are not aware of or used to. However, at the level of existance that we are, one mind governing a body of a certain size, human beings and some animals are unique. An earthwide mind or something of that order is similar to what human mind is to that is a cell (in case there is one!).

Human beings work within the constraints of laws of nature. However, their mind enables them to steer the effects of laws in ways they prefer. While I do agree with the biosphere argument that we are not separate from the environment but are a part of it, what I am referring to here is the interaction between an organism and its environment. In that regard, human beings behave in a manner (for better or worse) more complex than animals who in turn behave in manner more complex than plants and then non living matter and so on. Of course, human beings fall when left in air just as a stone does, but even if the stone could, it would never try to stop the fall unlike a human being. Self preservation is a naturally occurring purpose of all living matter.

So is procreation. However, again I would want to point out that the purpose I am referring to is a subtler phenomenon. As a part of animal kingdom, we also have the inherited purpose of self preservation and procreation. That is heirarchically higher than no purpose of non living matter. Note here that self preservation and procreation both satisfy our earlier extramaterial definition of purpose. Causally speaking, living beings have no more a reason to preserve themselves than non living entities. They just "tend to". That is the extramaterial nature of purpose.

So far so good! We have the obvious purposes like any animal. However, these purposes come with being alive. We are not only alive but are self conscious. This self consciousness brings about further complication in matters of purpose. At the outset I should state my view of self consciousness as a phenomenon arising out of sufficient level of complexity of brain leaving enough space and time for "thinking" outside what is needed for survival. Animals have faint consciousness. Early humans had a bit more. Current humans have lot more. In future, they may be even have more of it. Looking for purpose thus has been driven by these two factors. Both arise from larger brain and consequent processing power. Increased brain size enabled free time to think because survival and self preservation was managed in lesser time (hypothesis... can be disproved). Secondly, the excess processing power could be employed in asking more questions that were necessary for the inherited twin purposes of self presevration and procreation.

Hence, human beings are at stage where thay have realized thus far.
I am
I can survive
I can procreate
I can do more than that
There are various options under this "more than that"!
This is where the quest for purpose begins! If we could barely fulfill the two purposes naturally inherited by us and/or if we were not capable of thinking/doing anything beyond, there would hardly be a discussion of purpose.

With this backdrop, I have restarted my quest for purpose. I do not need a purpose to survive. I am not a fatalist. Nor am I going through such tough times that only something mentally provocative can keep my will for life intact. I can survive without purpose. I do not need purpose for being happy either. I know some things that make me happy. I have means to manage the same. I know I can discover more of such things if I try which I do. That can go on without an overarching purpose. In short, I can manage most of what is required of me by my body, my surroundings and my society without a purpose per se.

To be frank, I am not even desparately looking for a purpose. I know it has to be invented, not discovered. I am just trying to see if I can invent it in a sustainable manner. I want to optimize on the purpose. It should not be a complete pipedream nor should it be a no-brainer. Hence leading pan galactic settlement of humankind is out of question and so is becoming a millionaire. It has to be of the order of say improving the standard of living of more than a tenth of Indians or becoming a billionaire or establishing a cult in 21st century with followership of at least a few thousand people.

Now what makes these purposes optimal? The fact that they can provide some general interest in doing things beyond the bare minimum for survival and happiness/well being. That they be lofty or impress other people is probably a distortion I should beware of!!!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

On Sex (analytically rather erotically oriented, apologies)

Sex is a thing which is so very ubiquitous and yet dealt with in a manner so very secretive that it can qualify as the queerest thing about human beings. Rather than passing a value judgment either ways, this essay aims at exploring the evolution of this interesting trait and the accessory institutions around it.

There are three main topics covered in here. One is the gradual evolution of sex over development of human civilization. Second is the complex array of supplementary things which evolved with mankind’s ideas and handling of sex. Third is some speculation as to where it could go.

Procreation is the most obvious characteristic of any living being. That is the mechanism by which the organism actually manages to perpetrate its legacy beyond its death. For multi-cellular organism, procreation by just division of cell was less of a choice. However, how exactly these organisms went from single organism procreation to two organism procreation is also an interesting study. Assume they did by good evolutionary forces or by some happy (!) accident. Plants and animals alike now have two sexes and unite genes from two parents to start the life building process. Sex is the mechanism amongst animals to unite the reproductive cells.

What is amusing is the diversion it has taken from this role in human society. Sex today is far more than just a way to ensure continuity of human race. In fact, a very close analogy is the way options and futures developed in history of financial institutions. To start with, they were hedging instruments to be used by people and corporations engaged in some positions/transactions in the underlying assets. However, eventually the speculators took over and the trade in derivative contracts exploded. I do not know exact ratio of speculators to hedgers but I am sure it is very high. Likewise, the ratio of times people engaged in sexual activity exclusively for pleasure to that of times people engage in it deliberately for procreation is likely to be extremely high. Not that this is anything wrong. It is fine. I would have regretted if it was otherwise. What I am discussing here is simply the evolution from only for procreation end to mostly for please end of human sexual activity. Even more interesting is the intertwining of other human tendencies with it which complicated matters no end. Let us explore that bit further.

A possible explanation I have for this is the good old evolutionary forces of survival of fittest. The effect of these forces cannot be more direct anywhere other than sex drive. Very simply, let us assume the starting population had a decently well distributed sex drive amongst it members. What I mean by well distributed is being in line with say the distribution of intelligence, good congenital health, good features etc in the population. While good health and intelligence may over a longer time interval matter for survival, the sex drive had a direct impact on whose genes dominated the next generation. Those with greater sex drive and average and above average score in other endowments eventually end up begetting more children than say the most intelligent and the healthiest etc. We can even speculate that this could have been more pronounced for men than for women. However, that is not the main idea here. The next generation will have somewhat more skewed distribution of sex drive than that of say intelligence and looks.

Over a lot of generations where in each generation the ones with more sex drive take a larger share of the next generation, what one can expect is a human population with a significantly skewed sex drive distribution. The effect of this trend would have reduced with the advent of monogamy and increase in life expectancy followed by fewer children per woman. However, the effects of thousands of generation will hardly be removed in last hundred or so generations. Even today, some aberrations will be borne with much less sex drive than average. However, the distribution now has a far higher average than it did in past.

To the more interesting aspect of accessories now. Consider marriage. I am no sociologist to have studied the exact path the emergence of this institution took. However, some general conclusions can be drawn. First is obviously that marriage is to institutionalize monogamy. Why people would insist on it is due to another accessory of sex which we will come to soon. That has to do with elements of possession and ownership and eventually self esteem. Another big reason for marriage is allocating children to appropriate father. In a small clan, it might have been easier to have all women being protected by all men in a mechanistic manner. But from what I recall of the course of sociology I took in my graduation, organic solidarity emerging in late tribal societies may have forced them to find better solutions to the problem of lack of a smaller unit than clan. For families to emerge the society needs to recognize formally the bond of a man and a woman. However, the interesting question that remains is why marriage and monogamy became so sacred and why did people willingly put restriction on their sexual choices. I venture two guesses – owning the responsibility of children and jealousy. The first would have come from the collective conscious or say the wise men with experience. I can almost picture them pondering over the trade off of lack of sexual freedom and keeping the males responsible for the children they beget.

The second reason is more from within individuals. With emergence of consciousness, human beings also developed far keener sense of ownership and belonging. If the man is “married” to me, he will not copulate any other woman. Since animals don’t have marriages, they can take far liberal view of such things. In pre-marriage society, we can speculate that there would jealousy and fights over a man/woman and attempts at restricting the sexual freedom of a partner. However, the possibility of a socially recognized institution of marriage would offer a chance to settle such disputes. The solution was drastic no doubt. In hindsight, it might have slowed the process of biological evolution. However, it might have also helped societies maintain a good structure of families.

How did marriage affect sex? It tried to “discipline” the sexual activity. However, it is obvious that some human beings with above average sex drive will try and find ways to have sexual freedom. Thus would be born pre-marital and extra-marital sex. The society as a whole was constantly pitted against the refusal of individuals to fall in line. So the natural response would have been to make it taboo to do these things – to brainwash its members right since childhood that one is not “allowed” by the society to engage in sex till the society itself recognizes your right to do so. Even after that, it is to be looked down upon if you were to have sex with someone other than your marital partner. I have no judgment to pass on this. It might have been another example of the individual freedom being exchanged for a collective peace or simply a case of hypocrisy. That again is not the theme of this essay.

Another accessory of sex is its interference in ideas of self esteem, faith and goodness. I find it most amusing when I see a strong interlinkage of these for no obvious reason. If one is not good at a certain sport or say has poor vocabulary, it does not affect the person concerned beyond a certain extent in most cases. On the other hand, if one is not the necessarily preferred partner by the opposite sex, it seems to matter much more than one would expect on account of its weightage in general scheme of things. If a man turns a woman down, that would haunt her for much longer than if he defeated her in a sport she is supposed to be better than him. A man will be hurt beyond hope if a woman tells him after an act of sex that he ranks the worst in all her sexual encounters. This damage would be by far more than what it would be say if she tells him that he is dumbest human being she has seen on the face of the planet.

This might have come about on account of the two things – a very strong sex drive across the population and a certain primitive selection mechanism playing its role. The former is obvious. By the latter I mean maybe the sexually more appealing have something desirable in terms of procreating a child with. The healthier man, a woman with well endowed features etc all might have pointed to a greater chance of the survival of the child in pre-historic era. Physical health alone mattered in the good old days on account of which the evolution of preference for physically well endowed partner strengthened over time. In today’s world however, this natural preference is somewhat archaic.

The reasons for that are straightforward. Physical strength though a good bonus, has long ceased to be an element of power. Intelligence in broader sense has replaced it more or less completely. However, the sexual preferences have not changed in line with this. The forces of evolution by natural selection are too slow for this shift of seat of power. Secondly, the process of survival of the fittest has been negated to a large extent in recent years owing to advances in medicine.

The sum total of all this is that today, we are people with strong sex drive, little need to have it for procreation (because the infant mortality is low and population high), with sexual preferences out of date with our social evolution and a confused linkage of sex with our ideas of self esteem. Yet again, I am refraining from passing a judgment on this although I must say I have one. I would suggest the readers use the essay as a raw material to inform their judgment. What I have to say on this further is simply a speculation on how it would evolve over time from now on.

Without getting into much of justifications and rationalizations, I would straight get into few quick fanciful speculations I have on this topic. For one, I see marriage being restricted to a much smaller section of human population. Fewer and fewer people would want to have children (trends apparent in developed world already), fewer and fewer people would be willing to submit their sexual freedom to institution of marriage. Single mothers would eventually become the norm on account of significant reduction in crime against single women, better social systems to assist the single mothers looking after the child among others. The role of father will be played by the current partner if any of the single mother. Family will be simply a place one started out with till about first 20 years of one’s life. Generally, women would restrict number of children to zero or one. The population will come down but hardly anybody would complain. The pre-marriage sexual freedom will be back. With that, the strong taboos on pre-marital and extra-marital sex will become irrelevant. Eventually the high status of sex in private life will decline and sex will become another pleasant activity. This will be followed by the weakening of the linkage between sex and self esteem. Essentially, it is like becoming up to date with the ground realities of the interrelation of social and biological paths of evolution followed by human beings.

Emergence of a social conscious

Human society is a unique phenomenon on earth. While the other species of animals also have been observed to be living on fairly well connected groups, what I am referring to is the global human society. It is so ubiquitous that we almost take it for granted. The lives of our ancestors when they lived in a group, in a small geographical locality without much of either knowledge or aspiration of anything that lay beyond it, is according to me on a social evolution scale fairly similar to those of the animals. The uniqueness I am referring to emerged on the scene when human beings started to interact with other groups of their species beyond their own locale. The only criteria I consider important here is that of causal connection of events in the lives of either group pre and post advent of such interaction. Before men started interacting to remotely located groups, it is unlikely to have their lives being affected by each other. Obviously they would be affected by common causes such as flood and rain etc. What won’t matter is say a skirmish in one quarter and some discovery of a medicine in another. In that sense alone their groups are not significantly different from those of animals.

However, when they could interact, things must have become somewhat more complicated. On one hand, there could be trade and cooperation, on the other, loot and conquest. For better or worse, people’s lives after starting to interact with other groups of people must have changed, more and more with time. Eventually, today we stand in a world where the causality of events in our lives has become so complicated that chaos theory alone (along the lines of how it models the immensely complex atmosphere of earth) can aspire to depict it remotely! There are obvious causal connections in a top down sense. Simply put, the powerful people affect the lives of all the residents of this planet irrespective of the nationality of the powerful person or of the potential “affectee.” What I wish to point out however is somewhat beyond that as well. Today, we are slowly evolving into a world where the even the “powerful” are increasingly looking like what can very aptly be described as “puppets.”

I am not talking about anything supernatural, all powerful, omnipotent holding these puppets. The puppet drivers are our collective selves. Through a high level of connectivity, we have given almost a sort of distinct identity to the totality that we are. While this may sound a nice example of democracy at work, I am referring to things more than politico-economic control. Over a period of several centuries, we have not evolved into a society where paradoxically while in a philosophical manner we endorse individual freedom, at a social level we are becoming more and more interdependent. It is entirely beyond doubt that the menial and survival related “low-end” activities are now standardized and distributed across the society and each one of us has more time to him/herself than ever before. While this is true, this interdependence has also resulted in an ever increasing level of complexity in our social organization. What is even more interesting to notice is that this complexity further fuels the interdependence and it is precisely musing about the general direction this trend it likely to take in near future that this essay talks about.

Let us use an analogy. Human body has several million/billions of cells. Each cell has some function to perform. It lives a certain life much shorter than that of the human body. It interacts at times with cells which do the same things that it does, at times with cells which do different things that its own. They are arranged in groups called tissues which in turn are organized into groups called organs and in turn organ systems. The human society can be likened to an organism. Human being therein serve as cells. There is no point either expounding the obvious similarity or in stretching the analogy to claim that that particular aspect is uncommon across the two. There is something beyond that which I want to bring attention to. Just as a conscious human being is not quite aware of the individual cells and their work, the cells need not be “aware” of the consciousness either. Human beings likewise, can go about their daily chores while still being unware of a social conscious. And if we were to draw the analogy further, somehow “awareness” as we know it, does not seem to be something a cell can possibly have on account of its lack of central nervous system, there are inabilities in individual human being which make them incapable of understanding the existence of the social consciousness.

Now the crucial part. The “social conscious” as I am depicting here is not only a simile or analogy. It is a speculation on the evolution of human society. We can either leave the analogy at the level of calling it an interesting and informative tool to understand the complexity of society as an organism or take it to the next level and question if over time a truly conscious society will play a role in its evolution.

At this point I would like to end the analogy and take the concept forward standalone. The evolution is not like what human beings evolve as through natural selection and mutations etc. Nor are their any other instances of this species if existent. Coming back to the central theme of evolution here onwards, what difference does it make if the social conscious does exist? Depending on the answer to that, the relevance of the whole concept can be judged.

Two potential paths human society can take in future are one those of increased prosperity in general and two that of overall/near complete destruction. In the former we can eventually sort out differences, eradicate poverty as defined today; device ways to make things significantly better for a diminishing human population with increasing mechanization. In the latter, the differences can overpower the similarities and weapons used against each other can wipe out all but a few here and there. Can the social self have some influence over which one will prevail? Please do note that I am not contesting possibility of there being another million of scenarios for the future. The point is whether the social self matters in the choice of which one to move towards.

The reason for asking this is driven partially by the inability to locate the actors in today’s world. People who can be pointed to as causes are either merely symbols or at best “switches.” Behind the apparently personal act of great significance are hidden forces which shaped and sized the mind of the actor. Overall, the interdependent society affects its members so much that no one person can ever aspire to transcend it. The whole is so much larger than the sum of its parts that the idea of the whole having its own consciousness looks plausible. It is on this basis that I am thinking of the further evolution.

So far, the individuals did seem to be “doing” things. The information flow was weak and slow. The desire as well as ability to affect people beyond a very limited range was quite low despite the quite evolved communication and trade links. After imperialism, the connectedness and consequently interdependence increased significantly. Twentieth century was characterized by emergence of information age. In twenty first century we are going to see how this is also going to be one more factor in the growth of the social conscious. More about it later. Coming back to the temporal growth of this social conscious, like an infant it merely observed the events shaping itself. If it is existent, it did not interfere much. It is only now that the social self is coming of age. Why?

First factor is that of information – content and speed. Speedy diffusion of Knowledge enables creation of meta systems abstracted from individuals. Secondly, the collective memory of human race now has much to its credit including science, technology, medicine, arts etc. This is also a system of abstracting the content from the subject. While it was intended to make knowledge available to all, it also served as a reservoir independent of any actor. Thirdly, improving standards of living are leading to more leisure for even the common man.

Taken in isolation the factors do not sound as effective. Put them together to see their combined effect. As against the past, now we have lot of people having a good deal of free time and good amount of bequeathed knowledge of universe around them and also being able to communicate with each other across the globe in real time at low costs. What does that lead to? It leads to enhancement of collective thinking, alignment of ideas and building on each others’ thoughts in real time. Taken to its logical extreme, this is what I think will lead to the eventual coming of age of the social self.

What can we speculate about this self assuming it exists? It will not have the same set up as ours. Will it try to survive? Will it try to be “happy”? Will it try to enslave its components (that is us)?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005


This is a test post.