Thinking about Languages

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.” – 1984, George Orwell

It is hard to imagine how one can learn without some form of thinking available at one’s disposal. If learning is the gift of life, then some form of thinking must be fundamental to all living beings. Thinking is processing, it will not be too much of exaggeration to suggest that thinking is a form of computation. But given the flexibility of this definition, even a small electrical circuit can be classified as thoughtful. For the purpose of this essay, let just say that all thoughts are computations but not all computations are thoughts.

For animals with linguistic capabilities, I’d suggest that main purpose of language is to compress lot of information. Some essential components of compressed information is retained as meaning which is associated with a symbol. Language can be defined as a collection of sequences formed by these symbols and can be used in two ways:
• Decompress the symbols and extract information for self to understand one’s environment.
• Send the symbols across for others to interpret (communication).

We restrict ourselves with the former because in case of the later, the individual might use language for various other tasks – obscuring the information for the purpose of confusing and tricking others for one’s advantage, not always unknowingly. This would not be an easy situation to analyze. When one is dealing with language to understand one’s own environment, perhaps the task of analysis for a person is much easier.

Much depends on the way society singles out certain activities and assign values to them. Needless to say, thinking associated with activities which are assigned high values by the society are going to be valued highly. Here lies the trap. Any language which provides any advantage for a highly values skill over some other language is going to be valued more. Perhaps it not hard to confuse the suitability of a language for a particular task with ability to think about that particular task.

How to neutralize the social content or value system of observer? Designing an experiment to overcome this seems to be a challenging task. Not merely because the designer of experiment himself has a value system to bias him but also because one can only express the experiment in a language itself. If something can not be overcome, it can be bypassed. To avoid this difficulty, we can definitely compare and contrast a complex and sophisticated language with the most primitive one.

Honeybees do pretty well (even perhaps better in some activities) as far as very basic life related functions are concerned. They can communicate the location of food accurately and reproduction effectively without having to evolve a language as complex as ours. On the other hand, if they were to cheat each other of food and sex, they would need a more complex language which allows more compression of information, ambiguous association of meaning with symbols, in which producing confusion and trickery is easier. Some higher primates have the faculty of building basic block of language – suffixing and prefixing sounds to create compound sound. And they are known to use it for various purposes: to get a head-start in competition as well as for cooperation. Yet they have not constructed a complex language, perhaps they are yet to realize that other do have thoughts and the best way to influence thoughts is to use language. It is hard to see how languages makes us better or worse at thinking as such. And even if they do, it would be nearly impossible to quantify such difference.

On the other hand, the idea that languages influence the way we think may be right if only we are willing to set the context. We need to ask us what kind of activity it impinges upon. Does Sankrit allows one to think in more modular way – composition of bigger sentences from smaller sentences is easier? Or German allows us to think more structurally? Music is also a form of language. We can compare Indian classical music with Western classical music. The former is hardly ever written down, instructions are transmitted orally from teacher to pupil. The Western music is almost always written therefore also extremely structured. In Western classical music, it is extremely easy to put a band of musician together and play a piece of music as complex as opera. With Indian classical music, one can hardly imagine putting up a something as complex as opera. There is simply no way to synchronize artists. Having nice structure allows one to create, play and disseminate music easily. On the flip side, you will never hear an entirely different version of Mozart as often as you might hear a raga sung differently. One can enumerate advantages and disadvantages of both musical systems. But it does not address the question if Indian or Western musical languages have certain advantages when it comes to create music as such. If a society put a high premium on team work then Western musical language is the winner, if a society value individual virtuosity more, then the advantage lies with Indian classical tradition.

In nutshell, language is a social category, it is not a neurological category. It might some some neuronal basis which we are yet to discover. It influences and get influenced by culture and traditions. And plays an important role in its own social context. It probably also modifies neuronal pathways, as any repeated activity would do. Some languages are perhaps better suited for expressing and accomplishing some tasks while others are good at others. To say more than that, one would need much more precise definitions of both thought and language.

To end, a good analogy would be of computer languages. Most of them are known to be Turing complete i.e. any program written in one can be written in any other. Using any of them does not limit our capabilities of programming as such. Yet there are problems which are are easy to program in one language are hard in other. Hardware are easy to control in imperative languages, while modularity is easy to achieve in functional framework. And choice depends on what you value more rather than the power they posses.

Poverty of philosophy

The mind of a man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beam of things should reflect according to their true incidence: nay, it is rather like a enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture. — Francis Beacon

Prof. Andre Beteille — whom I owe a great deal of intellectual debt — wrote once that the aim of intellectual pursuit is to scratch the surface of confusion caused by experience and observation. He wrote this as a social scientist, being fully aware of the fact that curiosity of a social scientist about a society is not the same thing as the curiosity of a mathematician about numbers. Nonetheless, I find this claim to be extremely rich about the general nature of intellectual pursuit.

Is “scratching the surface of confusion caused by experience and observation” is the purpose of a branch of natural science, or, if I may be too bold, of all sciences? This seems to be a good aim but I’d not push it too far for such a claim brings “subjectivity” and “subject” into foreground while claiming very little for the non-subjective part of  scholarship, namely methods and routines which each branch of natural sciences has discovered and perfected over time.

It is useful here to draw a thin line between Science and Scholarship [1]. Science is a pursuit of “reality”. It has methods which are to be mastered and perfected in a  workshop before one can strike on one’s own. I am not denying the place of intuitions in science, but I believe that there should not be a large scope of personal virtuosity in science as there is in Jazz or Indian classical music. If a branch of  natural sciences allows personal virtuosity and intuitions to take over methods and procedures of  laboratory and workshop, it only says the such a branch of science has not matured enough. To summarize, mimicking Max Weber one can claim that while Science is  “a slow boring of hard boards”, scholarship is flexible enough to accommodate other sort of intellectual adventures, including the useless and harmless one.

If we agree on that the purpose of science is to scratch the surface of reality than I have serious issues with philosophy of which there seems to be a great variety. Some branches of philosophies have turned into well established branches of science. It has been said that what was once known as “Natural philosophy” is now called physics. I wish to comment on the “field view” of philosophy which I find around me, rather than its “book view” which is very hard to grasp unless one is initiated or on its fertility to produce natural sciences in long run.

First, the scope of methods, facts, and arguments of science must be universal or universal enough. By X being universal I mean that X should not give a different result or lead to different conclusion, if applied correctly, merely because different persons are working with them or they were applied at a different times. Universalism does not seem to be a trait of much of philosophy, specially Indian philosophy.  Moreover, it is not always clear if understanding reality is the ultimate aim of philosophy. I am not suggesting that Philosophy, Indian or non-Indian, should adopt a different framework or approach; or metaphysics is not worthy of our attention. But the existing framework tends to undervalue if not ignore the “principle of reality” which is or ought to be held sacred by science.

Second, scientists study or at least suppose to study reality as it exists. A philosopher will not be a philosopher if he does not create alternatives of reality.  If philosophy is glamorized as a guiding force for humanity, it has to be said that it can easily turn into an impediment of understanding of reality. May be I am not philosophically musical, but to me, philosophy is confusing at best and misleading at worst. It is in the nature of human mind to mislead others, not always unknowingly. And philosophy offers vast opportunity to mislead others and oneself.

Third, newness in science and scholarship is not created because one has a strong desire to do so, and life of great many people will become better by its existence.  Philosophy does not seem to have such constraints. One can freely build and refute theories to his liking. Philosophy can be a healthy recluse from the harsh, tiring, boring and unpredictable world of scientific pursuit but it can easily turn into an opium of intellectuals, especially for those whom the pursuit of science and scholarship seems to be endlessly tiring and fruitless. To them, Philosophy seems to offer vast opportunities for that intellectual art of squaring the circle.

As for me Philosophy seems to offer options to choose without giving too much about what costs are involved in each choice. This is definitely better than having no choice but I’d rather turn to Sociology, Biology or Psychology  when I feel confused about my condition.


  1. Mind over matter, Andre Beteille, The Little Magazine, Middle class, Available only in print.
  2. “The problem of universals in Indian philosophy”, Dravida Raja Ram, Motilal Banarisidas. This is one of those rare book which deals with a general problem in philosophy rather than giving a general introduction. For a general introduction to Indian philosophy, See “Indian philosophy Vol 1.”, S. Radhakrishnan. On these lines, also see an informal essay by A. K. Ramanujam, “Is there an Indian way of thinking”.
  • Dilawar


Race and Caste, revisited

As for the word race, it has so many different meanings, as to be useless in scientific discussion, to very useful for getting members of the same nation to hate one another. — JBS Haldane

A resolution passed recently by European Parliament recognizing caste-based discrimination as a form of racial discrimination reminds one of an article written by the social anthropologist Andre Beteille about a decade ago. Beteille described a similar attempt by U.N. to accommodate caste-discrimination as a form of racial discrimination as ‘politically mischeveous’, and what is worse, ‘scientifically non-sensical’. (Race and Caste, The Hindu, March 10, 2001).

After reading his article, one gets the feeling  that to Beteille, treating caste as a form or race is non-sensical, because ‘it is bound to give a new lease of life to the old and discredited notion of race current a hundred years ago’, and, it is politically mischeveous because it ‘will open up a Pandora’s box of allegations of racial discrimination throughout the world‘ for it ‘will encourage religious and other “ethnic” minorities to make allegations of racial discrimination not only in India, but everywhere’. For if discrimination against disadvantaged castes can be defined as a form of racial discrimination, then it would take little imagination to paint any discrimination against religious or linguistic minorities as “racial”.

Interested parties naturally welcome such a move. One observer in our national daily welcomes it, praising it as a “historical resolution recognising caste-based discrimination and discrimination based on work and descent as a violation of human rights and an obstacle to development” which he finds to be ‘remarkably constructive’ for it ‘circumvents the Indian government’s contention that caste is not an element of race and therefore must be excluded from laws against racial discrimination’ (The EU flexes its muscles on caste, The Hindu, November 5, 2013).

Caste-based discrimination is indeed reprehensible and must be condemned by all; but do we need to paint it as a form of racial discrimination to do so? It is now a well established fact, at least in Anthropology, that there is no such thing as race. One can, if one is so inclined, talk of racial elements. There is only one race and that is the human race. The idea of race dies hard in popular imagination and one can understand why this is so. But what is remarkable is to find the intelligentsia promoting the myth of race. Perhaps it is in their nature to stretch the point somewhat when they believe that doing so will only serve a good cause. But promoting myths in the hope of bringing about a social changes may prove costly in the end, especially when these myths can easily be put to different uses.

One can throw cold water on this established anthropological fact by stating that “race” may be myth for anthropologists but people are conscious of it and see themselves belonging to a particular race; therefore, as far as discrimination based on race is concerned, race is real enough. Starting from here, one can then justify the basis behind this resolution by focusing on what is common to both caste-based and race-based discriminations rather than to the categories called race and caste. Myths are indeed powerful tools but they are dangerous weapons too.

People can be easily moved by myths, for both constructive and destructive ends. Who can deny that millions of Hindus have been convinced that they are indeed backward and inferior than other Hindus. But do we, as a responsible member of intelligentsia, have to build our arguments on populist lines. The progress in knowledge is made in the teeth of popular prejudice; and not by constantly pandering to it. Perhaps more and more people have started taking serious what Ashis Nandy wrote once in preface of his well received essays, “the way to fight the myth : by building or resurrecting more convincing myths”.

In the past, some groups claimed superior rights (and many still do) on the ground that they belonged to a Aryan or Teutonic race. Beteille tells us that the Anthropologists rejected these claims on two grounds: ‘first, on the ground that within the same human species no race is superior to any other; but also on the ground that there is no such thing as an Aryan race or a Teutonic race.’ And he goes on to ask if it is acceptable to ”throw out the concept of race by the front door when it is misused for asserting social superiority and bring it in again through the back door to misuse it in the cause of the oppressed”. He further cautioned us that “the metaphor of race is a dangerous weapon whether it is used for asserting white supremacy or for making demands on behalf of disadvantaged groups”.

The metaphor, the symbol, and the myth, called “race” is both powerful and dangerous like any other myth or symbol can be. Intellectuals do not like to be called populists, it is a term they reserve for those who are object of their disdain and intellectual wrath. Moreover those who have bitten by the calling of “change the world” do not mind inventing their own symbols and myths. They may not do so with evil intentions but it must be hard for them not to feel intoxicated when they feel that their ideas resonate with masses. They must consider the possibilities when symbols and myths created by them put to the uses which are different from the one for which they create them.

Many are welcoming the resolution passed by EU which treats caste as a form of race. Perhaps it is futile to ask them to reconsider their stand. Intellectuals do not like to change their stand unless the evidence on the contrary are overwhelming. Merely because one is not expected to take responsibility for creating myth, one ought not create them. As for me, I can’t see what benefit they expect to get from all of this for caste-based discrimination can be handled no less effectively as it is without painting it as a form of racial discrimination. The benefits are doubtful, if they exists at all, but the risks seems to be real enough to ignore


The curious case of happiness

What good is happiness if it cannot buy you money!

                                 – Attributed to Zsa Zsa Gabor

In 2008, New Scientists, summarized the results of a survey covering 65 nations to show the largest proportion of happy people lived in, of all places, in Nigeria, followed by Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and Puerto Rico. Last year, some other survey identified Bangladesh as the happiest country in the world, and perhaps a year or two before that, it was Vanuatu (heard the name before?). Going by Human Development Index, one can argue that they should be among the least happy nations on the planet. They say that money does not make people happy and they also seem to say that poverty does not make anyone sad; perhaps it makes them happier. What are those ingredients these surveyors thought essentials for happy life? These Ingredients can be measured, compared and contrasted!

Continue reading “The curious case of happiness”

On Insects and literature

Some human,  largely in West, found insects worthy of their curiosity. Some have filmed and photographed them, wrote about them, imagined and personified them, few lived among them to study their life. David Attenborough narrates their life : showing us faces of their life : beautiful, cruel and benign.  European, in particular, were very interested in insects. No one have popularised insects more than Walt Disney. One can accuse Disney of some bias for one gets the impression that Disney preferred ants, grasshopper, butterflies much more than any other insects (spider is not an insect, is it?). I am very fond of grasshoppers especially Wilbur and the singing and spitting one, ‘mehnat karne se kya fayda’ (The world owes us a living).

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Of fashionable Feelings and lowly Rationality

In these times, it is no longer taboo to talk about ‘feelings’ in plain terms – at least in academic circles, if you are lucky enough to be in one. You can criticize feelings and they will not come after you like they did with Bertrand Russel. Game theory, economics, sociology and psychology have taken quiet a dispassionate and blunt approach towards human feelings (or passions). Although results have been mixed but ‘feelings’ are no longer a sacred cow anymore which can not be put under the scanner of logic. People are more open to question their origin of feelings and much more open to accept their criticism if they ‘feel’ results are helpful for them e.g. a emotionally troubled person is seeking a psychiatric advice.

It is far from my intention to argue that feelings should not exist in a Human or that the feeling and Humans are separable from each other. Neither I want to insinuate that people who feels are anyway logically inferior. Some men who looks like to posses a heart of stone, are not afraid to show their feeling while watching or playing sports. In this blog, I’d like to point out the relative merit of rationality and limitation of feelings in human acts. In fact, some of my argument would imply that it is the absence of ‘rationality’ which gives birth to feelings (or vice versa, I am not sure!).

Let’s consider one of the most primitive act human do. It is an act of  making choices. Given some options, one tends to pick one. In most of the situation, one tends to pick a few. But in some cases, even though the individual is free to do otherwise, one is ‘ethically’ not allowed to choose more than one. Choosing a life-partner in one example in which more than one choice is not allowed, or at least appreciated. On the other hand, not necessarily driven by ethics, there are some situations where one only picks one. One tends to do one job due to ‘limitation on time’ or by ‘limitation of ability’. People argue quite emotionally about the choice they have made. These emotions are mostly visible when they try to criticize or justify their choices. For more technical details on the ‘art of choosing’ see this video or read this book
Whatever experience and observation I have from my life, I can say with a high level of certainty that most of time people do not use ‘reasons’ to make their choices. They tends to act under the influence of ‘feelings’ – an outcome of individual predispositions and social pressures. Feelings cause actions. In most of the cases it is implicit and hardly spelled out. In some cases the role of feelings are made explicit as the only reason of making a choice e.g. choosing a life parter in non-arranged marriages has been directly associated with feeling of ‘love’, which either of the partner could not articulate logically. Even though people use feelings to make their choices yet a sense of rationality is always at work. A person from a certain class or with certain level of natural abilities is free to ‘love’ anyone but he or she would only pick a person from same class or with somewhat same level of natural or marketable abilities. I do not know many (with countable few exceptions) with a rich background picking a parter from a very poor background. Lesser are the chances of a highly trained person marrying an illiterate (unless one is driven by some curious desire to be different).  
 Forming a lifelong relationship (with a high ethical values put on it in certain society like ours) with an incompatible men or women, even though one is in ‘love’, may lead to a totally different or disastrous ends. Then one tends to get emotional and start getting into depression. One may seek some help from psychiatrist. And it often works wonders.  ‘Reason regulate actions. Emotions causes them‘, said Bertrand Russel. Feelings can not regulate an action effectively. To win a war, authorities must have calm head and the ability to do cold calculations. A person high on emotions can start a war but he can not win it. Its the cold calculation of pros and cons which gets an Army general a victory or disaster in wars.
The choice of ‘which end’ can purely emotional. If I do want to become a mathematician, not because out of reasons, but may be because I ‘love’ doing Math. I feel ‘happy’ doing math. I ‘respect’ math or I may have an ‘ideology’ that math is the ultimate science. I may also ‘believe’ the capability of doing hard-core math makes me a superior humans, because few others are capable of doing it. Once the goal is set, one should not rely on emotions. Romanticism of math will not make me a good mathematician, it only helps me choosing it as a profession. Same way, if I want to marry a girl or at least want to have a relationship with her, its not because I have run a simulation with all possible partners. It is just because she might be at a right place at a right moment and something just clicked. And emotions took over me. Even though one does not have control over everything, especially in matters where the outcome is dependent on the choices made by the other person, there is a surprising level of cooperations between humans. It will be very hard to witness a successful man getting rejected even by few girls, or a beautiful girl is being rejected by even a fewer boys. Humans tends to maximize their profit – emotional or otherwise – in every choices they make.

I ‘believe’ that ’emotions’ are unsettled logic. Here I would like to make a rather non-intuitive distinction. The calmness is not a feeling at all. It is the absence of most of the feelings which causes anxiety. A calm face and a smile one can expect on the face of a man who have understanding of things he is curious about. Buddha is known to carry a smile all the time because he believed that he knew the solutions to all problems. Knowledge, thus, must decrease the level of feeling in a man. knowledgeable man can not posses a troubled mind, he is very likely to posses an ‘uneasy’ mind. A noted Political Scientist Rajni Kothari is of the view that, ‘uneasy is the Life of Mind’. True, that one can not acquire all the knowledge but one must strive for section or part of it about which he is most curious. If I understand why a child is behaving is such a selfish manner, I may be able to laugh it off and I can even trick him to change his behavior. Parents who have poor knowledge of child’s psychology tends to get angry and end up beating them up.

Whatever one knows becomes a part of ones rationality or common sense. Whatever is unknown causes emotions. The desire to know is strong in humans. If one can’t know something for sure, then, at least, one must get a feel of it. A human likes emotions and often use them because it saves them their precious time and energy he would spend thinking over it without any guarantee of success. The time and energy I saved, I might spend in some activities which I ‘feel’ worthy or dictated worthy by my social group. I may like to work to earn more money, I may spend this time chatting with friends or writing blogs, I can also use this energy reading fiction or playing sports. Same way, I may like to put an impressive picture on Facebook rather than figuring out why I am doing it in the first place. 

Feelings (passions) are so much appreciated when their returns are encouraging and expected. When a sportsman like S Sreesanth is high on emotions and is taking wickets, he is cheered by the crowed. But when the same bowler is being hit all around in the final over, his emotions are considered ridiculous and childish and he is booed by the same crowed. Emotions are an ornament for successful. Failed people have to be prosaic. There is little benefit (such a pity etc.) they can derive from showing their emotions.

Social constructs enforces these behavior. It is fashionable to talk in terms of feelings. No one would say that I married her or him because I had no other choice or she or he was best reward I could get as a potential partner. Talking in these terms are not appreciated in society. Why would these kind of social constructs were made in the first place. Why is it considered ethical that a man and woman should stay together all their lives once married? Surely, it is good for children, the next generation! It is also helpful when mobility was low and  are few options were available. Most importantly, developing a understanding takes a lot of time. If a couple has developed an understanding then they have to start afresh and will loose all their ’emotional investment’ – so they prefer to stick around. Those who can not develop an understating would still carry together for their children. Telling so much to everyone (or even to oneself) is costly and there is no guarantee that they will appreciate the reason. Besides emotional statements are consumed more rapidly by public than logical ones. A badly written poem generally have much more influence than a logically superb essay. To control a crowd is equivalent of having power. So why should any religious or spiritual leader turn to logic when he can spellbound his listener using emotional statements. No body like to listen to a logicians. To seek power, one must give people what they want. I must tell them what they like to listen. They will thank me if I tell them what they are already convinced of. In a group where Pakistan is deeply hated, I will hold no influence if I were to say things logically. But I start preaching emotional stuff which has nothing to do the points at hand, I’ll have a strong influence over them.

People like to avoid complex logic. It is much more easy for them to see things black and white – right or wrong. In fact they like to take it as a sign of their intelligence. One often preach that this is ‘morally right’ without giving many reasons or giving only those which will enforce what is being preached.  Once convinced that this is ethical, no one suppose to doubts ethics next day and  thus a system of belief is started. It helps society in many ways. People are less confused and there is some harmony in their actions. They are easy to control now. But the cost is often a reduced rationality in society. 
No matter how much knowledge human race would acquire, all of us will be ignorant of something. Feelings are here to stay. The world I wish to see where emotions are strong but not destructive. Where everyone is convinced of their limitations. As Russel said, ‘because they [emotions] are acknowledged, they lead no deception either of oneself or of others. Such a world would include love and friendship and the pursuit of art and knowledge.’

PS : I believe that ‘abstract reasoning’ which is the mother of all reasoning is a defense mechanism against the pain feelings cause. Empirically, one can prove it by noting that how many philosophers are known live ’emotionally painless’ life?