Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at Springer.com

Sunday, January 29, 2017

What does “being a human” mean?



Several recent events triggered these thoughts. The first was Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot which I had always wanted to, but had not read all these years. Finally, I was able to read it slowly and really savor it. I was particularly intrigued by the “robopsychologist”, Dr.Susan Calvin.


Then the book with the title R U R by the Czech writer by Karel Capek. The word Robot was the creation of this author, at the suggestion of his brother, and the expanded title reads as Rossum’s Universal Robot. This was the first time the word robot appeared in print.

The next is an essay on robots in a recent issue of National Geographic.

Finally, an essay on What is Human by Peter H. Kahn, Jr., Hiroshi Ishiguro, Batya Friedman, and Takayuki Kanda. They should know. Each one of them is a leader and a pioneer in their fields. Their focus is on “humanoid” robots. They show how developing a robot with human-like qualities requires an understanding of what a human is. Their focus was limited however.

Kahn, Ishiguro and their colleagues were interested in learning how to measure their success in building human-like robots, from the psychological point of view. For their purpose, they suggested developing “psychological benchmarks” defined as: “categories of interaction that capture conceptually fundamental aspects of human life, specified abstractly enough so as to resist their identity as a mere psychological instrument (e.g., as in a measurement scale), but capable of being translated into testable empirical propositions.”


Their suggestions are intriguing even with this limited definition of the “complex” that is human. They identified 6 items. They are: autonomy, imitation, intrinsic moral value, moral accountability, privacy and reciprocity. For details of these concepts and why the authors chose them, I refer you to their article. (What is a Human? – Toward Psychological Benchmarks in the Field of Human-Robot Interaction. Peter H. Kahn, Jr., Hiroshi Ishiguro, Batya Friedman, and Takayuki Kanda. The 15th IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication (RO-MAN06), Hatfield, UK, September 6-8, 2006) You can access this article through Google-Scholar.


What is intriguing, but not surprising is that all of these items except imitation impinge on moral and ethical characteristics. The way things are going, Isaac Asimov may be right. We may have robots with these characteristics in the future. Do we call them “human” or “humanoid”? 


Although we are the ones who taught them those values, the robots may be capable of making moral and ethical decisions more consistently, since they do not have to deal with emotions. That is my major point. If emotion is lacking, how can it be called “human”?


Since we are the ones who teach them “values”, how do we get ourselves out and judge the robots to be “objectively” correct?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Atman and Meta-cognition are the same


The title is a bold statement. I am a novice. What credentials do I have to make such a sweeping statement? Nothing; except I have been reading and thinking deeply about this topic. Now, I find that passages I read recently in Book 12, Sections 240 and 241 of the Maha Bharatha seem to support that statement. These passages and the preceding ones establish that the following Sanskrit words are used interchangeably: sakshi, keshtragna, hrdaya and atman. The English translation uses the word Soul (sometimes, Self) for all of them.
It is said that mind (manas) “creates objects”. The mind itself is defined as of two varieties – one which is the receiver of information from sense organs and another higher one which makes perceptions out of them. Higher than mind is adhishtana, or understanding. This is also called buddhi ( Mahat becomes Buddhi immediately after emerges out of Prakriti, according to Samkhya).  Buddhi is often mistaken for soul, because it creates ideas of subjects and concepts within itself. Then, there is the witness (sakshi), which is translated to be soul. Soul is only a witness, but because of its association with the mental faculty (buddhi) it is mistaken for the soul. Buddhi also gets arrogant not knowing that there is a faculty behind it.
Universe is “creation” of this higher mind or buddhi, says the passage. This view is similar to that of Buddhist teachings. The passage also indicates that when this buddhi creates ideas within itself, it is called the mind, the higher one. When it desires something it is called ahamkara.
Then there is the “heart” which indicates what is agreeable and what is not. This is also called the soul or the self.
In the next passage atman (translated to soul or self) is said to present itself to our understanding as chit (consciousness) with knowledge as its attribute. Chit is also called perishable understanding. Atman is also called achetanabuddhi or understanding without consciousness. If so, atman is meta-awareness of our consciousness, witness of the witness. A later statement says that this (atman or soul) is identical with Brahman (which has no sex, not a he or a she or an it) and that evidence for the soul is provided by the soul itself. “That Brahman is the ultimate mystery and the highest knowledge”, says Vyasa in his dialogue with Suka and as narrated by Bhishma.
To me, all of these passages indicate that translation of several Sanskrit words into one English word is part of the problem. These Sanskrit words include sakshi, ksehtragna, chit and atman. They denote the same entity. The functions of  sakshi, ksehtragna, chit and  atman as described in these passages are the same as that of what modern neuroscience will call metacognition, awareness of awareness. And, then we are told that the jiva-soul or jivatman is the same as the Supreme Soul or Paramatman. This will be Brahman.
There is still the question of a possible support for this meta-awareness or soul or atman. If we reason backwards, is there one universal source of atman? That source will then be Brahman. In other words, there is no reason to let go of the idea of an ultimate Brahman. But, atman is meta-cognition arising out of the functioning of our brains. Neuroscientists know even the part of the brain which is related to this meta-awareness.
Buddha said the same thing. The idea of atman or self (lower self) is a product of the brain and is impermanent. It is not a non-material entity occupying the body.
I will add one more suggestion. Godel proved in mathematical theorems, that in any system there must be truths that cannot be proven from within the system. Those truths can only be known by looking from outside the system. If we use this as an analogy (analogies are not strong proofs), we humans cannot “know” from inside our system whether a statement such as “God exists” or “There is no God” can be proven or disproven.

If so, there are two positions one can take. One is that of Blaise Pascal called Pascal’s Wager (see the post on Pascal, May 1, 2016) or that of Buddha.  I like Buddha’s teaching better. He would rather that we spend our time by learning how to live this life better than thinking about unanswerable questions such as “How did this Universe start?” or “Is the body a vehicle for soul or atman”?

The problem is that these arguments prove only the intellectual capacity, verbal skills, the speed of thinking and debating skills of the discussants. They do not answer the question convincingly. We can only silence our chatter and surrender to that Mystery. Those are paths of Yoga and Bhakti suggested by our ancestors.
Personally, I like the humility expressed in the Nasadiya Sukta of Rg Veda (see post on March 21, 2010)        which says that we do not and cannot know.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cyclic Universe and Creations - Maha Bharatha Series 20


                 Answering another question, Markandeya who is always young and has no “death”, tells the Pandavas about the recurring manifestation and dissolution of this Universe and what happens in between (Book 3, Section 187). He is the only person who can tell us about such events since he was the only person to have witnessed those events. This is a myth too, but it is an interesting one.

According to Markandeya this is what happens. The cosmic cycle is divided into yugȧs (as outlined in a previous post). One day and one night of Brahma (Not Brahman, the Primordial source, but the creator in each cycle) is made of 1,000 mahȧyugȧs each. At the end of the day when Brahma goes to sleep, there is a pralaya or deluge called anvantara pralaya when three of the seven worlds namely, bhu, bhuvah and svah cease to exist.

Each Brahma rules for 100 years, each made of 365 of brahma days.  At the end of the current Brahma there is a big deluge and all the seven worlds disappear. Then the cycle starts again, with a new Brahma and of course, new Vishnu, Shiva etc. At the end of one such cycle, Markandeya is alone after the great floods and the only “person” he can see is a young boy. Markandeya asks the boy how he is the only one left and finds out that the boy is indeed That Brahman.

Brahman is described in the following words: self existent, primordial, eternal, without beginning or end and devoid of attributes. He is called the Lord, the Immaculate, and the Great one.

Brahman addresses Markandeya and tells him: “I call the water nara and water is my home (ayana in Sanskrit). Therefore, I am called Narayana. I am the creator of things and also the destroyer. I am Brahma, and Vishnu and Siva and Soma and Yama. At the end of each cycle, Brahma goes to sleep and all of the Universe is reposed in Me. When the next cycle starts Brahma wakes up and I create all creatures back again”. In the actual translation of words from the Maha Bharatha, Brahman says: “When the grandsire wakes up, I will alone create all creatures endowed with bodies, the firmament, the earth, the light, the water and all else of mobile and immobile creatures”.

The clear implication to my understanding is that Brahman is the Primordial Source of the Universe, the Universe has no time line as we understand in this Time dominated world, it is a recurring cycle and if there is such a real-life person called Brahma, or Vishnu or Siva, he has to come into being from the Primordial source called Brahman, at the start of each cycle. If Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are called gods, gods also have a beginning and an end. 
Other points mentioned are that dharma or virtues diminish through Krita, Dwapara and Treta and is the lowest in Kali Yuga and that towards the end of each cycle, all natural orders break down and the earth is over-run by animals and people with animal qualities.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Markandeya’s Advice to Yudhishtra on Raja Dharma (virtues of a king)  - Maha Bharatha Series 19


Markandeya (Book 3 Section 190) advises Yudhishtra “to love all creatures and be merciful to them; to always speak the truth; to renounce pride and vanity and be humble; to keep passions under control; not to be overcome by the current calamities because they too will pass; to respect the ancestors and the gods; and to be virtuous in thoughts, words and deeds”.

In section 192, there is a discussion between Indra and Vaka, an ascetic. Indra asks Vaka: “O Muni, you have lived 100 hundred years. What are the problems of people who have a long life-span?” The answer is amazing: “They may have to live with a disagreeable person and put up with a wicked company for a long time. They may have to separate too soon from a companion who is agreeable and likeable. The death of the spouse, children and friends and the pain of dependence on others will be unbearable. There is a possibility of loss of wealth and thus of dignity and of being insulted. They may have to witness good people suffering and worthless people enjoying. They who lead deathless lives are destined to look at all these and thus suffer”.

In section 193, Narada appears on the scene and recites three poems. They say that a wicked man will behave wicked to a humble man, but a humble man will act with humility even to a wicked man. An honest man will behave honestly even to a dishonest man. A mean person should be won with charity; an untruthful one with truth; a wicked one with forgiveness and a dishonest one with honesty.

The story of Sibi starts in Section 196. We learn that the pigeon in that story is Agni and the hawk is Indra and they took the forms of the birds to test the truthfulness and virtues of the King. This was part of an earlier blog post. The only new point is a dialogue in which Sibi says that he does not do anything for fame, wealth or for acquiring objects of enjoyment. He does what his heart says is virtuous and not sinful.

There are several passages on the duties of a brahmana and the responsibility of a king to protect the brahmanas and give them respect. Many punishments are listed for those who disobey these responsibilities. All these passages are distractions to me. Compared to the lofty ideas expressed in several episodes which elevate one’s thinking, these parochial remarks lead only to rituals and superstitions. Yet, these passages are the ones which get attention and not the thought-provoking and profound dialogues.




Sunday, January 1, 2017

Markandeya Purana - Maha Bharatha Series 18


Markandeya Purana starts at Section 182 (English version) of Book 3.

When the Pandavas are in exile at the Kamyaka forest, the saint Markandeya arrives at their court soon after Lord Krishna arrives. Markandeya is said to be thousand years old, but looked like he was only 25. Krishna requests Markandeya to instruct everyone present about the “eternal rules of righteous conduct”. At about this time, Narada also arrives and joins the audience.

Yudhishtra starts with a set of questions. “How is it that we are in this exile whereas the evil sons of Dhritarashtra are flourishing? Do men reap the fruits of their actions? If so, what has God to do with it? Do the actions of men follow them only in this life or do they follow them in subsequent births? Is what we experience in this life a consequence of our actions in this life? Or is it from the prior birth? If actions follow men from birth to birth, where do they rest when the person is dead?”

Markandeya says that Brahma, the Lord of lives on earth sprang from the original Source (Brahman) created noble human beings initially. They were of virtuous character, lived for thousands of years and could go back and forth between the celestial sphere and the earth. Over the course of time they were confined to earth only because of their own greed, anger, lust, falsehood and senselessness. They went to the netherworld, suffered and were born again on earth, repeating the same mistakes.

The destiny of every creature is determined by its actions in this world. At the end of this life, accumulated effects of actions stay with the subtle body (sukshma sarira) when the physical body (sthula sarira) is worn away. It enters another body immediately for “it never remains non-existent even for a single moment”. To understand this point, one has to know a little about Samkhya philosophy.

According to this system, when the physical body dies, the 10 subtle principles (five sensory, five organs of action and the mind) stay on as subtle body and enter another physical body. They need to do this until one of two things happen: 1. After repeated births and deaths, gets washed of all karma by acquisitions of true knowledge and merges with the original Source (attains Moksha) or 2. Never attains Moksha and merges naturally with the Source at the end of one cosmic cycle, called Pralaya.

Markandeya says: “Some attain happiness in this world; not in the next. They are those of immense wealth who indulge in worldly pleasures without any other thought. Some attain happiness in the next; but not in this world. They are those who focus on the study of the Vedas and meditation, ascetic in nature while performing their duties even while straining their body, who have subdued their passions and who practice non-violence (ahimsa). Those who attain happiness in this and in the next world are those who practice virtuous and pious lives, earn wealth by virtuous means (dharma) and use it according to dharma in their married life (grahastashrama) by supporting others and performing sacrifices etc. Finally, there are those who do not attain happiness in this or the next world. They do not learn the scriptures, do not practice charity and indulge in all sorts of pleasures".

There is a passage in the story of Atri as told by Markandeya that the co-operation between  Kshatriya and the Brahmana is powerful and is necessary for keeping the social order. It says that the Kshatriya keeps the order, but it is the Brahmana who gives support and power to the kshatriya. They are compared to the fire burning a forest with the help of the wind. The relationship between the ruling class and the priestly class is known in all cultures. The priests gave legitimacy to the kings by being the mediator between the divine and the human.