Sunday, 30 December 2007

Laugh, and the whole world laughs with you;
Weep and you weep alone.

-Oldboy (2003)

Sunday, 23 December 2007

A operational definition of free will?

Though I admit to have not given much serious thought to the problem of free will, it certainly is an important one in philosophy. Expressed in simple terms, it asks the following question: "Are our thoughts and actions consequences of decisions made by a larger entity or is it through our own agency?" The presence or the absence of God has always been thought of as a corollary to this answer and my aim in this blog is not to pose an answer but just to complicate the problem further.

Some reasonable people I know, who believe in the non-existence of free will (or are at least inclined towards believing so) state first that our life is governed by the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. No known experiment has, till date, demonstrated the violation of the second law of thermodynamics or achieved speeds faster than that of light. In that regard, I fully agree with them that every known thing in this universe is constrained to obey these laws in its day to day dealings. But does that mean one doesn't have free will?

Let's narrow our speculation to the things on this earth that possess both life and consciousness. A person likes me decides what time to wake up, what cuisine to eat for dinner, what movie to watch and what books to read. I'd like to call the options in each case as degenerate cases under the laws of physics. A recent essay I read about the "finite nature of consciousness" said the following:
Now we know that the brain is a finite physical object, containing roughly 100 million neurons and 100 billion synapses linking the neurons together. But by consciousness being finite, I mean something stronger: that there are only finitely many lives that could possibly be lived; and that therefore free will, if it exists, must at some level be simply the selection of an element from a finite set. The goals of this article are threefold: to show that this proposition is true; to discuss how it affects Penrose's theory of consciousness; and finally to explain why we needn't worry about the finiteness of our minds.

Now this is a slightly disturbing scenario and the reason is this. I don't know much about how our neurons work but if all of them are finite state machines and if that amounts to saying that the total number of states (or configurations) they can take is finite, then this effectively says that the number of thoughts/actions I am capable of is a finite number. The very reason this is disturbing because of the following: As an agnostic, I find it very difficult to believe in the existence of a god who controls my day to day affairs like a puppeteer. I am willing to accommodate a deistic god, in the very least, a creator who rolled the first domino and let the world be. But if I am capable of only finite states, this effectively makes the deistic god capable of specifying a particular trajectory in phase space for every living thing that ever stepped on this earth, one that will be unique (assuming the world will end before as many living beings as the total neuron states step on this earth. The latter is a big big number) but then something that is known before hand. It's like every action that I perform, thinking it has come from my personal choices, has been chronicled in some book in the heavens.

But then an idea from James Gleick's Chaos managed to temporarily placate my fears. I have already mentioned the Lorenz Attractor in one of my earlier posts. Lorenz investigated the following system of deterministic equations in 1963. I downloaded a copy of the original paper and plan to read it as soon as I find some time.

\frac{dx}{dt}  = \sigma (y - x)
\frac{dy}{dt} = x (\rho - z) - y
\frac{dz}{dt}  = xy - \beta z

He found two things - the system never settles down to a steady state. In other words it has a trajectory which never repeats itself over time and it is impossible to predict its state unless one numerically follows the equations themselves. At the same time the states of the system are bound - they don't blow up or become infinite. The phase portrait of the system looks like the following (x, y and z plotted on three orthogonal axes with time):

This elucidates an important fact in case you haven't noticed it yet. Suppose I were a deistic God and I decided that a human X would be governed by the system of three deterministic equations above. The boundedness of the solution would be the equivalent laws of physics that govern terrestrial behaviour (indeed in the case of the equations this seems to be embedded and doesn't call for any extra intervention). But then this deterministic systems yields a solution that is chaotic in a bounded region. It is deterministic but you don't know what it's gonna do next. Another point in this case is that the solution is extremely sensitive to the initial conditions of the differential equations.

My argument is hardly complete and I do not intend to reach a denouement here. All I wanted to share was that it is possible to reconcile determinism with free will in a way. Whatever the system is going to do exists as hidden information in the three simple differential equations. But it is impossible for a person to deduce that unless the system itself is simulated. And then again, knowing the system at a point in time is not going to help one realize what it's gonna be doing ten milliseconds, hours or years from then.

Saturday, 22 December 2007


What do you do when your day is filled with activities you don't want to involve yourself in? Vacation time in IIT is hard time. One finds oneself tethered when one goes home, so I try my best to avoid it. My sister is lost in her sophomore world of malls and college fests; my mom finds her solace in watching every cookery show on the television and there isn't much I have to talk to her too. Dad is pleasant to talk to but it isn't very often that two workaholics find time for each other. Socializing with friends has decreased considerably and I find it more and more difficult these days to be part of groups on a regular basis unless there is a specific purpose. The unfortunate part of being me is that I am the kind of person who ends up dominating conversations and I don't know whether the others are enjoying my company or meekly tolerating me while we're at it. I don't enjoy chatting very much either but then that's the only way I can keep touch with some people who're important to me. Long conversations bore and tire me and I stop responding and act callous after a point of time. This has led me to hurt some in a way that I did not intend to. I feel stupid. I feel sorry. One wants people but only wants them so much.

Friday, 21 December 2007

Math remedial class on Thursday is something I'd like to erase from my memory. And the reason is because I lost my patience with the kids that day. Teaching has become a bleak activity these days and for a long time I attributed it to what I call 'midterm crisis' among the students. One normally starts off fresh at the start of the year, with crisp new notebooks, upgraded classrooms and fresh topics to learn. It is the time when the academic load hasn't yet piled on and one's senses can discern the smell of the rain soaked mud while getting familiar with new lessons. It is a gestation period that seemingly welcomes an eager mind with ease and anticipation. But as the term progresses, the burden increases, concepts are like bouncers on a seamer's paradise, the same eager mind is at wit's end and to add to the symbolism, even the textbooks start disintegrating, echoing the owner's disability to maintain her/his constitution as the world races ahead. The boredom shows even on the teachers who start feeling consummated with the disinterest of their students. It was one such class on Thursday where for the hundredth time they couldn't remember how to crossmultiply two fractions, how to reduce simple algebraic expressions and other such things. I snapped and made a few condescending remarks. I've normally been extremely patient but I lost control that day and a weird feeling grappled me that very moment. It was probably a feeling of resignation. For the rest of the class I submissively solved all the problems on the board, explaining each step but not bothering to ask them questions to gauge how much seeped in. When I walked out of my class that day, I was sure they hadn't understood a thing of the shit I wrote so neatly on the blackboard.

I saw Taare Zameen Par today and I'm happy to have seen it at a moment as appropriate as this. I cannot sit and articulate everything, but I did learn two or three things from the movie, even if you'd like to call them quotidian. It was a beautiful film (despite some overtly melodramatic moments where I heartlessly smirked as the lady next to me was reaching for her handkerchief). But all said and done, amidst discourses from the Heisenbergs, Goethes and the Dawkinses of the world, a couple of hours at the cinemas is a necessary respite to help you realise that your feet are stuck to the ground. And it is a happy feeling to know that there is still much ground to cover :)

Einstein was a giant. His head was in the clouds, but his feet were on the ground. Those of us who are not so tall have to choose!
- Richard Feynman

Tuesday, 18 December 2007


Reading James Gleick's bestseller had been long overdue. Nonetheless I'm happy that I've finally gotten down to reading it. It is certainly one of the best pop-sci books ever and without second thought I shall ascribe it to the same pedigree as The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins or Six not so easy pieces by Richard Feynman or What Evolution is by Ernst Mayr. I lay down a few thoughts that came across my mind as I read the book. I also add the disclaimer that some of these would be unapologetically nerdy.

1. Non-linear dynamics is beautiful. I don't understand why the chemical engineering curriculum at IITB avoids it. Even in the most utilitarian sense, I think an advanced course in non-linear dynamics can be a reasonable inclusion. I've heard that much work has been done in investigating the nonlinear dynamics of reactors by Amundson and Aris so it's not really a field alien to chemical engineering.

2. The poster child of non-linear dynamics or chaos theory is the so called Lorenz attractor. A simple system of 3 deterministic ordinary non-linear differential equations yields a solution with time that neither shows periodicity nor converges to a limit. Interestingly it was published in a journal of meteorology and was hardly noticed for nearly ten years. Now that Chaos theory has developed thanks to people like Feigenbaum, Mandelbrot and Smale any standard exposition on chaos begins by describing the Lorenz attractor. But it's nonetheless interesting to see that the genesis of ideas that led to such a rich theory involving physics and mathematics could come from a non-specialist in either. So much for the chauvinists!

3. "Turbulence", Gleick says, "is a problem with pedigree". Apparently Heisenberg is known to have quoted that when the time comes he "would have two questions for God, why relativity and why turbulence?" He added, "I think He will have an answer to the first question."

Sunday, 16 December 2007

The emotion of scholarship

I was reading Nirad Chaudhuri's Autobiography of an Unknown Indian when I was at home this weekend. In one of the later chapters, the author tries to recollect his initiation into academic pursuits, particularly the study of history. He spends quite sometime arguing the case for scholarship at the same time describing the people, books and events that motivated him to become a writer. I was particularly captivated by a phrase he used - "to feel the emotion of scholarship". Many writers, particularly postmodern ones, often use the motif of verbal impotence or the incapability of words to articulate an emotion in their writings. I remembered this point being enunciated by my instructor in a recent literature elective I took as I read Chaudhuri's words, while at the same time remembering my failed attempts at convincing some of my friends and relatives about the career choice I intend to make. As I try to express my passion for science and desire to pursue it further to their patronizing air of presumptuousness, all I receive in return is rhetoric that presses me on to choose the utilitarian in the name of prudence. I give up for I do not want to act apologetic. What else can an unaccomplished romantic do?

He can tell the world to fuck off!

Friday, 14 December 2007

The incomplete man

If I had to come up with a motif to describe myself, the most conspicuous one would be 'incompleteness'. And I don't mean it in any congratulatory sense whatsoever. I was 'gung-ho' when I started this blog, determined to be regular, verbose and prolific. That sure went down the drain.

I haven't completed a book cover to cover for a long time. I seem to live in the past. The worse thing is that I seem to enjoy it. I quit reading 'India after Gandhi' just before the economic liberalizations set in. The second stage of my thesis is done with and I feel a sense of complacency has set in. I fear incompleteness but I'm wondering if I can help it.

I see incompleteness in my thoughts, my opinions, my expressions and also my ambitions. I reciprocate to people incompletely. Even my love is incomplete. So is my hate.