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

Friday, March 13, 2009

Chapter 6: Introduction to other topics

Dear friends:

When I started this site I wanted to reach children. But I realized that I cannot write for children, since it requires an understanding of intellectual and linguistic development at different ages. For, example, children cannot understand abstract concepts at least until after age 11or 12. I cannot use the same language to teach a 6 year old and a 10 year old. In addition, they may or may not be able to access this site. I also realized that the best way to educate children is through parents. That is why I addressed the site to my grand children, but used a language only adults can understand. My wish and hope is that you find the ideas expressed in these essays stimulate your thinking and you find them useful enough to pass on to your children, your grand children and to all the children you know.

Let me restate,in the following paragraphs, my reasons for staring this virtual school for thinking and writing these essays .

There is information overload
There is a mass of good information
Also, misinformation, wrong information, and dangerous information
Too many people are trying to influence us
And they use emotionally loaded words.

Our listening skills are not well developed
Our logic is too rigid
There is very little available time to think
We are not given tools to think with.

Besides, Reasoning is often equated with Thinking.
It is more than that, say Edward de Bono and Chester Barnard.
Because reasoning is logic based.
It includes deductions, inductions, logic and their associated fallacies
These tools are useful for reductionism needed in science
and to reconstruct the past,
But not to think about subjective data such as values, emotions and judgment,
and to think about the future.

The future is not fully knowable.
To think about the future, the old definition of thinking is not adequate.
To think about the future, we have to have an open mind
We need creativity and imagination and vision
We need humility and respect for the unknowable
We need to add values and emotions to our equations
We need prudence and allowance for the surprises (flexibility)
That is why the new emphasis on creative thinking,
and new thinking habits.


Above all, we need time to think
And tools to think with


That is why I am working on this website.

Before we proceed, a few caveats.
I do not claim any originality to these ideas
Indeed they came out of my readings, followed by reflections
Therefore, I will refer you to the relevant passages in
some of the classic articles and books.
My hope is that some of you will go to the source.

My idea is to share these thoughts from several sources
So the future generations may think about them too.

In some issues, I have my own ideas
And when I come across a passage which resonates with mine
And the author had expressed the ideas better than I ever can,
I will reproduce the passage, if I can get permission,
and refer to the original.
You will see this approach in the essays on Spirituality and
The new Dharma for the 21st century.

I will also summarize my positions on some issues
I do not hold on to them; hope you don’t either
They are not final
With new information and insights, I may change my ideas.

There will be some essays written specially for our younger friends
For example, the essay on Form and Substance
that deals with Symbolism in Hinduism
Is meant for our young friends.

I have included thinking tools in several places
You may wish to use them too
And if you do use them or
Know other tools to think with
Please share them with every one
By sending in your comments.

Thank you. Balu

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Chapter 5A: Helpful hints to think about Faith

As soon as I posted my previous essay on Faith, I came across some essays by well-known philosophers on this topic. One of them by William James, the American philosopher is particularly interesting. Although his ideas may be disputed by other philosophers, his essay is helpful for a commoner like me when thinking about Faith. It will certainly help me teach children what questions to ask when confronted with “options”.

William James, a physician-philosopher in his address to the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown Universities in 1896, says that “ our passionate nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds”. (Quoted in The Enduring Questions – Main problems in Philosophy. 4th Ed Melvin Rader (editor) Holt,Reinhart and Wilson Publishers, 1980). This is what Adi Sankara said too, when he wanted us to go on faith in the writings of Vedas on metaphysical questions.

Obviously, options presented in response to philosophical, metaphysical questions are the subjects of this discussion. How do we decide about the best of the options to believe in, if you have to choose? William James gives three conditions that must be met in order for faith to be justified. They are: 1. The option should be genuine and he defines genuine option as one that is “living, forced and momentous”. He goes on to define these three words. Living, as opposed to dead, is to suggest that the option is “sufficiently exciting to tempt our will”. Forced, as opposed to avoidable, is to suggest that the decision cannot be escaped. Momentous, as opposed to trivial, is to suggest that it will make a significant difference in one’s life. 2. The individual cannot prove or disprove either option with adequate proof or reason. One is no more probable than the other. Reason alone cannot deal with this question.3. The result of believing will make life substantially better.

I find these guidelines helpful for thinking about faith-related issues. It is important to note that those who are trying to “convert” you to their “faith” (political,commercial,theological etc) appeal to item number 3. It is your responsibility to make sure the other two conditions are met before you succumb to the influence.

For example, think about the following question: What reasons are there to believe in the existence of God and how valid are these reasons? Follow this up with your personal answer when someone gives you the following options: 1. If you believe in God, you will go to heaven. 2. Believe in God; surrender to Him; He will take care of you.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Chapter 5: Matter of Faith

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi and Ariana…..

Until now I have written about reason and logical thinking. I want to finish this series with some thoughts on Faith which is also an important tool for the mind.

In matters relevant to life on this planet, I believe in the scientific method. Science gives us the tools to get as close to truth as possible. Answers based on scientific evidence lead to more reliable solutions. The conclusions can be verified. Science is humble to the extent it admits that given the current data, this is as close to truth as we can get.

However, there are dimensions where science and scientific methods of direct observation and verification do not work. These include the philosophical and metaphysical realms. We have to go by faith. In religion too, faith plays a major part.

The problem is not with faith as such. It is when faith demands exclusivity and cannot tolerate reason. As pointed out in the earlier essay, “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.” Even faith depends on some reasoning, to the extent you have to decide why you have faith in this system as opposed to some other system.

Among the oriental traditions, the Vedic philosophy requires faith as a basic tool. However, it asks one to think for oneself. In Bhagavat Gita, Lord Krishna gives an eloquent discourse on the relationship between the Ultimate and the historic dimensions and at the end asks Arjuna to reflect on his own and come to a conclusion. In Yoga Vasishta, Vasishta asks Rama to reflect on his teachings and make up his mind. Sankara categorically says that if what you read in the Vedas does not match actual experience, those passages may be ignored. Faith is demanded only on metaphysical issues and on the spiritual plane.

Buddha clearly wanted his disciples to go past dogmas and precepts. He suggested that his teachings can be compared to a raft. He wanted his disciples not to carry the raft on their heads after they have reached the “other shore”.

My knowledge of western traditions is very limited. But it appears that faith gets greater emphasis in these traditions.

In reality, faith, knowledge and reason have always been linked. Therefore, when we have to depend on faith, we have to ask several questions:
Faith in what? (on the concept of God, on life after death, the presence of individual will, on the existence of Soul etc) (Immediately, the problem of meaning of words becomes evident)
Faith in the message? in the method? Or in both?
Faith with reason or without reason?
Faith to live by or to profess ?
Faith for my guidance or to convince others?
Faith with an open mind or blind faith?
Transmitted, acquired faith or Discovered faith?

All of us acquire our beliefs and faiths from our family and the society we live in. This is the transmitted or acquired faith. This is the beginning. But it is necessary for every one of us to reflect on fundamental universal questions and find our own Discovered Faith. The roots will always be the ones we were born into. But, did we grow? This will depend on how well our parents raised us and how open the system we were born into is. Did my parents and my tradition want me to follow blindly or did they teach me to have an open mind? Did they give me the freedom to discover my own faith?

Let me explain with an example of my own acquired faith and my current station in discovered faith.

I was born in a family of Brahmins in southern India. My family spoke Tamil at home. My folks were deeply religious in the practice of rituals but were not deep into the basic teachings. They followed the forms and symbols such as daily worship at home (called puja), but could not explain to me the substance behind them. No one ate meat. Raised in this background, I learnt Tamil. I was taught all the rituals of the puja. I did not know anything about the Vedas except that they existed. I became a vegetarian. That was my acquired, transmitted, inherited faith.

I am very proud of my family and the traditions I was born into.

During my travels around the world, I learnt about other cultures, their life-styles, their traditions and their belief-systems. I explored the sacred texts from several traditions including mine. After reflecting on the fundamental and universal questions, and how each tradition dealt with these questions, I feel differently about customs and rituals in all traditions.

My own training was in science and scientific method. But I have delved deeply into literature and philosophy. I believe that faith and reason are like two different lenses of a camera. I use close-up lens for clinical photographs and wide-angle lens for taking pictures of panoramic scenes such as the Niagra or the Iguazu falls. So it is with faith and reason. They are both needed, but to look at different aspects of this universe.

I use reason and logic to understand physical aspects of this universe. At the spiritual level, I wish to imagine myself to be a wave and experience that the “water” in me is the same as the “water” in the ocean and merge with it, just as many mystics have done. I wish to experience the oneness of my ultimate and historical dimensions. For this, I need faith.

I believe that the substance is more important than rituals and symbols, although we need them to teach the children. I like the personal journey more than being told by an intermediary between me and my God. I am more comfortable with prayer in solitude than in a group. My religion and faith are for my spiritual growth and not for display. I believe that being a good human being is more important than going to the temples or reciting sacred texts.

I have eaten meat. My justification was that in reality life eats life. That is nature. Even Upanishads say so. Besides, plants have life too. I also wanted to experience the cultures I visited and food is an important part of cultures. What if I had been born in an Eskimo family and lived in a place where vegetable was just not available. Yes, they were my justifications to do what I wanted to do at that time.

But, on reflection, I am now convinced that I do not want animals to lose their life, to fill my stomach. Their life is as special and sacred as any other life. However, I do not think it is a sin. That still leaves an unanswered question: “What do I do with the knowledge that plants have life too?”
This is my discovered faith.

How will I know that the discovered faith is an honest one? First, I have to make sure by deep thinking that justification of preconceived notions and prior activities does not masquerade as reason. Second, if I have discovered my own faith, I will feel a sense of freedom when I act on that faith. In contrast, when I depend on acquired faith, I will feel guilty when I do not follow the “script” as given to me. Even when I follow, I may keep hearing the admonitions of my parents and enforcers of the faith. Third, actions that follow the discovered faith should not harm anyone or any life-form.

For example, after many years of reading and thinking, my relationship to the Divine Source of our Being and my concept of the so-called deities has changed. Therefore I do not follow many of the rituals and practices. But I do not feel guilty. Indeed I feel free, because I act on my own discovered faith.

I request you, I beg you to please discover your own faith. When you teach your children, teach them your tradition and your own discovered faith. Teach in such a way that your children will seek and discover their own faith and will not feel guilty if they break away from the faith that was taught to them.