Alternative Systems of Medicine – a vacuous, outdated and dangerous notion

snake-oilMany years ago, my uncle – who was a doctor – once told me, “There are no systems of medicine, just a system [singular]”. What he meant was that the only effective “system of medicine” known to humankind is the one that discovers new ways to heal the sick through rational supposition (about a drug or a clinical method), and subsequent confirmation through controlled experiments.

Over 150 years have past since Pasteur & Koch confirmed the germ theory of disease, and it’s been nearly 70 years since the basics of health science and modern medicine were introduced into middle & upper school curricula in our own country. Yet I find that this foundational truth about the empirical nature of medicine has not taken root in the ethos of Sri Lankans. I see a worryingly large number of compatriots believe that there are several alternative “systems of medicine” available at our disposal, such as “Western Medicine”, “Ayurveda Medicine”, “Acupuncture”, “Homeopathic Medicine”, “Astral Medicine”, “Alternative Medicine” or “Indigenous Medicine”.

Furthermore, the fact that there is a functioning government Ministry for “Indigenous Medicine” shows how far and wide this retrogressive misconception is entrenched in Lankan society. I believe its high time movers, shakers and socially conscious individuals muster their courage and the necessary resources to launch a massive campaign to educate the masses away from this harmful notion of the availability of alternative “medical systems”. There are many “disruptive” campaigns afoot in Lanka to raise the consciousness of society about problem areas like Gay Rights, Smoking, Drinking, Drug Abuse, Women’s Rights and Children’s Rights. The addition of PSEUDOMEDICINE to this list is long overdue.

If one were to properly survey the magnitude of the damage caused by so-called “alternative systems” of medicine, calculated in the form of loss of life, debilitation and needless discomfort caused by maltreatment of diseases, and the amount of money frittered away on bogus therapies for chronic or incurable conditions, one might be stunned by its enormity. It may very well prove to overshadow the combined “cost” to the nation, incurred by the aforementioned problem areas combined, such as Smoking, Drinking and Drug Abuse.

I confess I’ve forgotten most of the details about elementary medical science that I learned at school; and yet I was impressed enough by the subject matter to have etched in memory such useful principles like The Double-Blind Trial, The Hippocratic Oath (i.e. doctors swearing to first do no harm to the patient), The Germ Theory of Disease and How Infections Spread, the Theory of Immunity and How Vaccination Works, the Hereditary Nature of Some Illnesses, the Unreliability of Anecdotal Evidence, or The Difference Between a Virus and a Bacterium.

Let us recollect for a moment the concept of The Double-Blind Clinical Trial; if memory serves me, this is something we learn about in our GCE O/L Class. Any new medicine is assigned a period to test its effectiveness, where neither the researcher of the drug, nor the drug’s potential beneficiaries, actually know who gets the potent pills, and who gets the dummy pills that are thrown into the bargain to eliminate subjective human bias. We learned that an impartial third party adjudicator does a random assignment of patients to pills (potent or dummy), and that this same third party gathers the raw results, performs statistical analysis, and presents only the final outcome to the research team.

Have such impartial clinical trials ever been conducted to test the effectiveness of these so-called alternative methods of treatment? I challenge readers to present a single credible experiment conducted on popular “alternative medicines” like the thailayas, guliyas and arishtas of Ayurveda, published as a case study in a peer-reviewed journal. At best these substances facilitate the placebo effect – where a patient’s psychology improves immediately because they think they are under treatment, perhaps causing some degree of physiological improvement in turn, due to reduction in stress. At worst though, some compounds (such as Alcohol, Heavy Metals) in these “medicines” can be toxic when ingested over long periods of time, aggravating the original condition or causing other illnesses to crop up.

I suspect however that the biggest problem is that there are countless unreported cases of patients having delayed receiving proper medical attention for their complaints, because they counted instead on an “alternative” therapy to do its work. When their condition gets acute, they are rushed to hospital, where oftentimes it’s too late. Septicemia or other complications set in, causing death.

The way so-called Western Medicine is administered in our country is far from perfect, where abuses range from incompetence, to the indiscriminate prescription of antibiotics for colds (which are caused by viruses and thus unaffected by antibiotics, unless there is secondary bacterial infection that needs treatment), to delays in the treatment of acute infections due to fear of accountability for their side effects, to the administering of drugs without informing patients of their side effects, and taking no precautions against them.

The naked truth though is that in spite of these common imperfections in its practice, the “Western” system of medicine remains the only effective and self-improving system of medicine available to us, and its benefits far outweigh its drawbacks. There is simply no comparison with “alternative medicines”; they are mere hocus pocus, and represent an early historical attempt at healing the sick. They were superseded by modern, evidence-based medicine around 150 years ago. We must move on.

What worries me most, and what I am trying to address in this appeal to Lankan society, is that the knowledge we are taught at school about health and medicine aught to shape our subconscious instincts about the world. Much in the same way that gravity makes us shy of heights, or the volatility of petrol makes us shy of lighting matches near open fuel tanks, one would expect the educated masses to shy away from pseudo medicines and quacks reflexively. It is this instinct, to know when we are stepping outside of the medical system into woo-woo land, which I feel we aught to inculcate in our children.

The movement to educate society about how to look after ourselves and our loved ones in times of ill health is worthy of being elevated to the level of a profound social campaign akin to human rights, anti-smoking or gay rights, where the consciousness of the masses are sensitized to this issue through direct action. Where are the NGOs promoting health awareness?

I am by no means advocating here that we must become completely mechanistic in our approach to helping sick people. All human existential problems in general, and illness in particular, must without doubt be approached with a touch of spirituality. I personally am an atheist, unless one considers a belief in a deistic order in nature that transcends parochial religion, as being religious. Yet I certainly could empathize with a more religious minded person, who says a prayer for her love ones to recover. Any compassionate human being aught to be able to relate to this need for an almighty’s help, when one feels utterly helpless. However a loving, spiritual approach to patient care clearly doesn’t include allowing charlatans to deceive patients and aggravate illnesses, or holding off on more effective treatments due to one’s sheer ignorance. It is this ignorance that we must eradicate.

If you care about your loved ones, and want them to be able to get the best possible medical attention when they fall sick, then please join this campaign and echo this mantra.

When you fall sick

Lets learn about our bodies,
and how we fall sick.
There is just one system of medicine,
that makes us well quick.

Or even if it doesn’t,
and it only eases the pain,
its far far better,
than suffering in vain.

Do say a prayer,
to heal your sister,
but don’t waste your time,
take her to a doctor.

When you fall sick, charlatans will rush forth,
they will play upon your vulnerability, and take you up the garden path.
Its only your education, and your desire to know the truth,
that will save you and your family, from the devils hearth.

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Letter to a Burkini wearer

burkini

Dear Burkini Wearer,

I feel that wearing Burkinis (and indeed Burkas) doesn’t make good dress sense at this point in history. I particularly dislike the Burkini fad because I believe that this fad helps symbolize an outdated and implicitly offensive view of normative human relations between the two genders. As civilized human beings, we have an obligation to inoffensively conduct ourselves in public places, if we can help it. Please allow me to explain myself.

I readily concede two possible handicaps, which may impair my judgment on this matter. I’m not a woman, and I’m not a Muslim. I’d be grateful to stand corrected, through rational discussion.

I believe that anyone has a human right to wear a Burkini. Any attempt to introduce a law banning Burkinis would violate so many fundamental human rights during the process of enforcing it, that such a ban would result in a moral travesty. Forcibly stripping the garment (and the dignity) of a woman is simply unthinkable to me.

Sadly, something of this sort happened in Nice last month. I am very disappointed with those French authorities that were responsible for this physical violence against Burkini wearers. I recoil from the notion that Muslim women must be “taught a lesson” physically, for revealing their religious identity through their clothing. If anyone wants to wage a “war” against what they feel is a highly offensive dress sense, then the proper thing to do would be to reach into the hearts and minds of the wearers.

I find nothing offensive in the mere physical appearance of the Burkini. Nor does it appear to be an impractical garment for the circumstances it was designed to be worn in. The Burkini is not quite like the Burka. Burkas were originally meant to be universal, commonplace clothing for women, yet they inhibit physical dexterity and the range of activities one can participate in today’s world, such as running for the bus, motorcycling, walking in the brush, exercising in the park or even driving a car.

The Burkini has no such shortcomings in my view, within its envisioned purpose. It is more or less like a loose, hooded wet suit, suitable for wading into the water, swimming (although a figure hugging wet suit made of the proper material might be more streamlined), or even hanging about the beach while avoiding a suntan. Burkinis might also be useful for those who have skin conditions or hair loss, which they’d like to hide when taking a dip. They come in attractive colors, can compliment a woman’s figure, and are pleasing to the eye.

I understand that the Burkini was designed with the good intentions. Aheda Zanetti presumably developed it as a step forward in the emancipation of Islamic women, allowing them to swim or wade in public places without revealing their skin and hair, thereby helping them to conform to the Islamic tradition of “modesty” in women. Women who wouldn’t swim beforehand, for fear of raising eyebrows in Muslim society by wearing a “revealing” swimsuit, are able to swim now.

I can appreciate the fact that some women, who have followed certain wardrobe habits through tradition, might feel an awkwardness to change them. Perhaps it may be similar to the awkwardness I felt the very first time I jogged in the park, in running shorts (I was a very shy teenager). I agree that you cannot be forced to wear something you feel awkward in, such as a swimsuit.

I don’t think however, that it’s a major leap of faith to change one’s dress sense. Islamic societies have been changing dress patterns rather rapidly at various points in history, in countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria or even in Sri Lanka, where I come from. Muslims have lived harmoniously in cosmopolitan Lankan society wearing both western and eastern (Sari) dress for centuries. It’s only within the past decade and a half that we Lankans have seen the Burka come into fashion amongst Muslim women. Their mothers didn’t wear them.

The Burkini and its “parent” garment the Burka cannot be isolated from the loud religious symbolism that underpins them. Anyone knows that Muslim ladies can only wear them, and that it would be an offence (in the eyes of a Muslim) for someone who doesn’t subscribe to the Islamic teachings to wear them. This is quite unlike other traditional garments such as Saris or a Kurtas, which were originally adorned by a particular culture, but with no exclusionist philosophy attached to them. Christian Lankans and Atheist Londoners have been seen wearing Saris and Kurtas for decades.

In a day and age where inter-cultural collaboration has led to better prospects for humanity, I feel it’s a little ostentatious to flaunt one’s inner religious beliefs as if it were the most important thing about oneself, to announce to the rest of the world. I feel the same way about the garb of Nuns or Priests, although in the case of nuns and priests, they by definition are renunciants from society. They would presumably like to discourage interaction with other people, except for solicited religious discourse. For women of the world, working closely with men and women of other cultures and religious denominations, I wonder if this flaunting of one’s religion makes good sense. It’s sort of like warning people that you belong to some intolerant cult.

Although some people might want to characterize Islam as such, I’m hopeful its not.

I am put off by the gender-demeaning symbolism of Burkinis and Burkas. The integrity and self-respect of both the genders are challenged by this symbolism. Just think about. In the case of the full Burka, we often find a well-dressed and otherwise attractive woman covered in what can only be described as a black cloth bag, to hide the “shameful” body she was born with. What are we ashamed of here?

Long before the advent of Islam, different human races had strived towards an optimal balance in body covering, balancing protection (from weather and sexual aggression) with display (of one’s unique identity and attractiveness). As dress senses evolved, we saw common patterns emerge, where one’s vulnerable places were often tastefully covered, whilst the rest of the body like the head, arms, hair, midriff and feet were often exposed (and adorned) for dexterity, recognition and beauty. Sure there were variations in the extent of cover, mainly based on climate. Those residing in temperate countries covered more of themselves because it was cold, and those in the tropics covered less because it was warm. There was no concept of hiding one’s entire body as a shameful object, with either gender. The fur coat of the Eskimo and the Sari of the North Indian are examples of naturally evolved wardrobe.

Furthermore, the majority of societies around the world developed systems of ethics, and rules of law, that strictly forbade women being molested by men at sight, for their bodily attractiveness. If we take Western Europe as an example, lawmakers and leaders improved social conditions over centuries, to allow attractive, figure enhancing dress to be worn by women, without being in danger of coming in harm’s way. The incidence of rape or violent sexual harassment due to the wearing of so-called “revealing” clothing is statistically insignificant in Western Europe today.

The philosophy of encasing women in order to protect them from the marauding instincts of men sets rather a low standard for men, and for the beautiful affair of human courtship. Since the days of the enlightenment, Western social norms neither accept nor allow disrespectful sexual submission; instead they expect high standards of restraint when it comes to sexual conduct. Women are not raped because they chose to be sexually attractive; rather, women occasionally get raped because of the psychopathic or violent behavior of errant men. Society trained to despise such men, and to protect the freedom of women (and men) to express their sexuality (i.e. capacity for sexual feelings and sexual orientation) openly, as a necessary part of friendly, nonviolent courtship.

Western traditions around courtship are fine-grained, such as reading the right body language before venturing into a kiss. Sex and courtship has evolved away from the course-grained affair described in the ancient religious texts, where women either covered themselves to look nondescript, or got plundered by sex-starved men. Courtship is about mutual attraction, love and consent today. Westerners or even easterners like myself who happened to grow up in liberal, evolved society, feel a tad uncomfortable to be implicitly branded as potential women-molesters.

I have this intuition that to be wisely dressed involves finding some middle ground between nudity and complete encasement in a cloth bag or skinny. Do you not feel this instinctively? That we should look nice and confident to others, but at the same time not offend others? That we should change how we dress based on our activities, our desire for comfort, and the weather?

If you do, I urge you to dress not for isolation, but for the occasion. If your society forbids you to do so, fight it nonviolently.

The debate on Free Will continues

The-Negative-Effects-of-JudgmentalismWatching the recent sparring between Dan Dennett and Sam Harris over the nature of “free will”1, 2 – the idea that human beings have conscious volition over their physical actions – has helped me immensely to refine my own opinion3 about this ancient and fascinating human intuition.

Sam’s view falls squarely in line with what neuroscience tells us. We know today that our subjective thoughts about a given physical action (like “lets turn on the light”) are preceded by unconscious neural activity that, if detected by the appropriate gadgetry, predicts the decision we “make consciously”. For example, if we were hooked up to the right kind EEG or FMRI scanners to measure our neuronal activity, we’d be able to first detect the neural processes that would make us “turn on the light switch”, and thereafter we’d have the subjective thought “lets on the light”. Finally, we’d physically turn the light on. Benjamin Libet first demonstrated this rather spooky phenomenon back in the early 1980s, through his famous “experiments”4.

It seems that Sam’s argument against free will emerges from this foundational scientific discovery, and is strengthened by his own, unique intuition based on introspection, that we don’t know where our thoughts come from, before they actually occur to us5. We don’t rationalize why we want to throw the light switch on, until the thought comes into our minds. Of course there would be physical causes for our actions, such as the ambient lighting in the room being low. It seems we make contact with the external world unconsciously, and a path of action falls into place unconsciously, and thereafter a thought bubbles into consciousness like “lets turn on the light”. Similarly, a myriad other thoughts may bubble into consciousness retrospectively, such as “its dark, that’s why I put the light on”. We are able to connect the dots – i.e. attach semantics to our actions in our consciousness – but only so far as our sensory inputs and other unconscious cognitive processes allow.

Therefore, a close study of the nature of our subjective thoughts and their relationship to our physical actions seems to nullify the long-held notion that we are in some sense absolutely free to “consciously preside and decide” over a multiplicity of options, when faced with a physical situation. Moreover, it seems that we usually don’t “think first and act later”. Rather, it seems on deeper analysis that we actually act deterministically, and rationalize or attach meaning to our actions later.

Sam has contrasted this important learning from neuroscience with the widespread advocacy for punishment, and the keenness for judgment in today’s society. Everyone wants to judge and punish others, because they falsely believe that wrongdoers “consciously decide” there actions and therefore are accountable for them in some absolute sense. In contrast, the concept of accountability it seems has no scientific grounding in an ontology of determinism, however complex and convoluted the deterministic processes that generate a given wayward action may be. We are never ultimately accountable for our actions in some puritanical sense, where if time were reversed magically, we’d have been able to “not switch the light on” (or more appropriately, “not plunge the knife in”). Therefore, according to Sam, we are better off sans the concept of punishment, and its allied judicial proceedings that focus on inflicting suffering on the wrongdoer, for making his “bad decision”. The practical implication of Sam’s central theme is not new, and in fact many countries practice a restorative system of justice (as opposed to a punitive system, that was instinctively rejected even by ancient sages like Christ) that, in theory at least, aligns well with the absence of free will.

It seems we aught to live in a world where wrongdoers are re-branded as errant human beings, or beings who are misguided, poorly trained or otherwise psychologically or physiologically maladapted to harmonious living. It is a well-known hypothesis that some people are by nature unempathetic towards others, due to physical abnormalities in their brains such as deficiencies in their mirror neuron systems6. It would seem less useful to understand such persons as “evil”. So we better off coming to terms with the fact that we live in a society burdened by weirdos, but not by “morally depraved persons” who must be punished or purified of their transgressions.

Therefore, systems of justice must focus on protection, prevention, restoration, and behavioral modification via training, if the latter were possible. The lives of such grossly harmful persons may still require termination, but merely as an act of self-defense by larger society. We don’t require a death sentence, nor do we judge people to be “evil” – instead we either sequester or (if absolutely necessary) kill extremely dangerous people as painlessly as possible, when we have concrete evidence of their impending transgressions.

Dan Dennett brings in an entirely different, but equally important dimension to the debate on free will. In summary, he believes that free will is a useful practical intuition (although perhaps an illusion in a theoretical sense) because it’s an effective way of minimizing and marginalizing errant behavior when living in an interconnected society. It’s socially advantageous to be “offended” and slap back, when someone slaps you, rather than contemplate about the inevitability of the first slap and the lack of volition on the part of the slapper. By placing the mantle of accountability on others, and punishing the wrongdoer, society jockeys towards a harmonious balance-position, where errant behavior is minimal.

The instinct to assume the capacity for an absolute freedom of choice in our neighbours, must have evolved for the above reason. To dwell on this point – how does the attribution of free agency to others become ubiquitous in a society?

The sense of pain (or discomfort) is the ultimate learning tool of evolution. Pain is useful because we have memories of us undergoing painful experiences. So when one has experienced a nasty slap for a particular action one has taken, the pertinent neural network associates that discomfort with the action. The next time that an opportunity presents itself for a similar physical action, an extra parameter comes into play during the early, unconscious part of the neural processing. The slap is not carried out, because its painful consequence is also fed into the neural network. When the subjective thought surfaces, the meaning of one’s action is expressed: “Lets not slap this guy, he may slap back”. So in a world where we punish people because they are “accountable” for their actions, we find society conditioned reflexively to expect a reprisal, and hence become more guarded. In the early days of human evolution, this would have amounted to an avoidance of death, and hence genes that predisposed a person towards retributive action, if they indeed exist, would have been selected.

There seems to be merits to both Sam and Dan’s points of view. I personally have developed weariness towards adopting Dan’s “social” or “3rd person hypothesis” of free will (which I used to empathize with some years ago).

The reason is this. Unlike in our evolutionary past, where person-to-person violence (strike and counterstrike) played an active, mediating role in behavior, we live today in a world where person-to-person violence appears to be on the decline7. Society has been trained to avoid person-to-person violence. Instead, large-scale violence organized via memes or catchy intellectual instruments of a punitive nature seems to be the order of the day. “Assad is an evil dictator” or “the west is greedy for Middle Eastern oil and is destroying the Islamic world trying to grab it, so we must defend ourselves” or “Corrupt Dictators are running some countries, lets punish them and do their countries a favor” or “Russia is an evil empire” are the sort of intellectual instruments behind global violence and suffering today. And, at some corner of these catchy thought patterns, lies the potent core idea of punishing leaders of countries, or even entire nations or communities, for what is perceived (and oversimplified) as their willful wrongdoing. The consequences of these crude attempts at justice often leave the world worse off then before.

 

References:

  1. Free will, a debate between Sam Harris and Dan Dennett in a bar: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/free-will-revisited
  2. Emails exchanged between Sam Harris and Dan Dennett on Free Will: https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/reflections-on-free-will
  3. Ruwan’s early thoughts on Free Will: https://izombi.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/an-ode-to-the-emotion-behind-free-will-though-it-may-be-imprisoned-by-causality/
  4. Libet’s experiments: http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/libet_experiments.html
  5. The determined nature of thinking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g
  6. Empathy and mirror neurons: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/do_mirror_neurons_give_empathy
  7. The decline of violence in the world: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature

Image acknowledgement: taken from: http://markdejesus.com/negative-effects-judgmentalism/

What I’m worried about; the relegation of mind in science

Most of us know, that we don’t know how exactly we know something1, 2, 3. Yet, when we know something, we reflexively think that it exists independently of how we know it, and, furthermore, that it exists even if we don’t. Rocks, bricks, atoms, electrons, superstrings, the idea of space-time bent by mass, the algorithm of evolution through the natural selection of mutations and even such notions as “free will” are all entities in subjective consciousness; and yet are often referred to in such absolute, external and eternal terms during public scientific discourse.

One has only to listen to Dan Dennett speak of the algorithm of evolution4, or Ed Witten speak about vibrations in superstrings5, to get an idea of how absolute and literal these concepts are to their inventors or advocates. There is no hint in their discourse of the metaphorical nature of the concepts they speak about; no room allowed for highlighting the limitations or abstractions imposed by the minds that envision these ideas.

The possibility that many scientific theories and laws are in fact models or metaphors (chosen out of countless ill-suited ones) in our consciousness is daren’t spoken. When we do care to, we seem to consider consciousness and “how the mind works” in a vacuum, outside of physics, biology, engineering and even outside of such “sciences” that are deeply rooted in human psychology like management. The role of the mind-machine is ignored, it seems to me. Mind or rather consciousness is relegated to neuroscience, philosophy and certain sections of “Computer Science” such as AI. I worry that this might be a huge mistake.

Perhaps this literal certainty (or even “intellectual arrogance”) with which we put forward our working models in physics in particular, and science in general, springs about from what philosophers call the “transparency of mind”6. That is to say, an evolved brain generates the world that we experience, and one of the Darwinian adaptations of this “world” we experience is blindness of how we experience it. Therefore, possible shortcomings in our picturing of the external world (or to be more accurate, the external unknown or noumena as Immanuel Kant put it) seem unlikely. In fact, it probably doesn’t occur to us at all to be cautious about the completeness of our subjective “world” in comparison with the external world, since our scientific theories yield good practical results.

Furthermore, the “objectification” of any sophisticated mental construct comes naturally, like “equating” the subjective experience of (say) rocks with that of (say) superstrings. After all, our ancestors from their unicellular days evolved banging into entities such as rocks. The more sophisticated and convoluted impressions that are formed in our minds today, like superstrings, are also erroneously processed in our mind-machines as being similar to rocks. So both rocks and superstrings become entities that are absolute and external, once we accept them as “true” after experimental verification. There is no instinctive gradation of “quality” placed upon perceived reality, no matter how far we have extended our reach through instrumentation and imagination.

So what is the evidence for this sort of absolutism in current science as being damaging to our intellectual development? “Big Physics” for one is stagnant and compartmentalized. Everyone has a theory, some of which contradict the others. The age old Big Bang, the Multiverse, the Universe From Nothing, The Cycles of Time, The Holographic Universe etc. they all stumble on each other’s toes. You cant have a cyclic universe that came from nothing, but which came from the halo of the evaporation of a previous universe, which then collapsed and is stored as information on the event horizon of a Black Hole, which is just one probabilistic copy of another universe that didn’t collapse, etc. This may seem a hideous dismissal of some profound mathematical musings; yet they remain profound musings in a state of contradiction.

Perhaps we need to throw in a profound functional model of our brains, the nature of consciousness and perception into this game, in order to proceed forward and untangle this mess? I worry that we haven’t done so as yet. And I don’t believe it’s impossible. After all, we already have some (albeit limited) knowledge of how our brains work, and of the philosophical implications of it7, 8, 9. It’s about time we incorporate these implications into physics, cosmology and suchlike.

Of course, I’d worry a whole lot more if we chose to abandon the scientific method. The last thing on my mind is a suggestion to herd us back to irrationality and superstition, citing the intellectual relegation of mind. I’m assuming that we have past this primitive era, at least in the scientific community. In such an enlightened environment, it worries me that we are clinging to theories too literally and absolutely, utterly ignoring the nature and paradoxes of our subjective consciousness’ itself.

PS: This essay is in response to the excellent collection of ideas titled “What should we be worried about” published in 2014 by Edge.org, under John Brockman’s editorship. I saw no essay address this particular issue head-on, hence this.

I for one am not an absolutist or naïve realist; I see the world through mental models, some more efficient than others. For example, I think space-time warping due to massive objects is a better mental model for dealing with the external world, than to think that every object attracts every other object according to an inverse-square law.

I know the very worry I expressed above, even if it has pragmatic value in eliminating silos of thinking within science, is in itself a crude psychological instrument, which would likely be superseded by another once we understand more about our brains and minds.

References:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consciousness
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology
  3. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/
  4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=efEjo2bLuHY
  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iLZKqGbNfck
  6. The Ego Tunnel, page 7 and elsewhere: http://www.amazon.com/The-Ego-Tunnel-Science-Mind/dp/0465020690
  7. http://www.amazon.com/The-Tell-Tale-Brain-Neuroscientists-Quest/dp/0393340627
  8. http://www.amazon.com/The-Ego-Tunnel-Science-Mind/dp/0465020690
  9. http://www.amazon.com/Consciousness-Explained-Daniel-C-Dennett/dp/0316180661
  10. http://www.amazon.com/What-Should-Worried-About-Scientists-ebook/dp/B00DB3D9PQ

For the love of reason

famous philosophersWhatever the critics may say, we Sri Lankans are approaching a decisive juncture in our history as a nation. Evidence suggests that we are poised for economic prosperity on a scale we’ve never seen before. We are rapidly reaching that stage where, no matter what internal or external turbulences we may face, we would never look back again except as a developed economy whose citizens enjoy a high physical quality of life (PQLI).

Our road to prosperity could also encompass what we could call an “intellectual emancipation”. By which we mean an awakening of intellectual spirit based on reason and a love of understanding the world as it is, on par with the west and the “new far east” (i.e. China). Without such an awakening of spirit, its unlikely we’d ever see eye to eye with those very societies that inspired us to improve our lot in the first place. We are not speaking here about us morphing into a sort of “Kalu Sudda” Version 2.0, who speaks a kind of Queen’s English. Rather, we could consider uplifting our “education system” (by which we mean not only classroom lessons, but also other key streams of learning such as parenting) to instill the basics of secular reason and freethinking in our children.

One might ask, “Do we really need to change the intellectual outlook in Sri Lanka? After all we’ve got a rich cultural heritage of over 2500 years that helps us in our intellectual development. What evidence is there to show that we lack the right philosophical outlook to navigate through the modern world? After all we study “western” science at school, and we study engineering, management and medicine at university. We have Buddhism and other Judeo-Christian religions that serve as our moral compass. What more must we want?”

Let us address this question by sharing a few commonplace examples of social phenomena prevalent in our country that reek of intellectual underdevelopment.

1. Consider the Marriage Proposals section in the Sunday newspapers (which incidentally covers several broadsheets of classified adverts in a paper like the Observer). Here’s a sample: “Father (executive grade) with assets over LKR 30 Million seeks suitable partner for daughter. Govi/Sinhala/Buddhist, 5” 4’ pleasant and young looking [:-)]. Kuja Kethu 07 Rahu 1 [a zodiacal planetary position at birth, for those who aren’t familiar]. Seeks handsome businessmen son of similar cast. Apply with Horoscope.”

The reference to the horoscope “Kuja Kethu 07 Rahu 1” (an absolute fiction) and a cast (!) is bad enough, but not so bad as there being a Sri Lankan father who would like to palm-off his (albeit plain-faced) daughter to a greedy opportunist. Provided his horoscope and cast is compatible, of course. This father is reminiscent of Walter Bray in Nicholas Nickleby, the very antithesis of a loving dad.

2. Consider a random Buddhist sermon. You’d never hear a more eloquently presented but philosophically unsophisticated discourse as the average Poya Day sermon, which is at best a polite exposition of the canon to underline commonsense ethical habits (like respecting one’s parents) to little children. At its worst, it is a discourse full of “Yakkas” [Devils] and portents for disaster, which could only be circumvented by providing regular “Dane” [Alms] to the temple and by stopping the consumption of fish and meat. Moreover, an ethical conundrum for a monk, which merits a sermon, is for example the wearing of slippers by children when monks are around. Apparently the demerit acquired by this symbolic sin against the clergy is significant enough for rebirth in an unsavory world (“narakadiya”).

Buddhism in its core essence – i.e. the endless continuity of life through rebirth (sansaric journey), as a direct outcome of Karma, and the need for escape from this (apparently) unsavory birth/death cycle through meditation and the achievement of higher mental states – is scientifically unverifiable. However, there are many interesting ideas in Buddhism such as transcendence through reason (vipassina bhavana) or a soulless mind (annatha), which could fit in easily into modern analytical philosophy. Many of the moral teachings found in the dammapada are apt for children today, provided the fantastical backdrop is openly acknowledged as metaphorical.

We must be grateful for this rich metaphysical endowment that is Buddhism. The shortcoming is that there is no modern intellectual insight absorbed into the knowledge base of the saasana [clergy], resulting in the standard of the discourse being laughably crude. How can a Buddhist monk afford to be ignorant of the basics of modern philosophy of mind, psychology or science? Buddhism is all about the mind and our phenomenal world, after all. The “cheap” conversion of the Buddhist philosophical tradition into a “bakthi religion” due to the isolation of the clergy from advances in empirical knowledge is indeed a pity. Many monks have fallen, through sheer ignorance, into the trap of being petty moral dictators of congregations even more ignorant than themselves.

3. Consider the number of “systems of medicine” flowering in Sri Lanka, ranging from Homeopathy to Acupuncture. We are taught in medical school that there is only one system of medicine: the one that is based on evidence of efficacy through double-blind clinical trial. And yet all one has to do is drive around Colombo and read the boards of the quacks, or travel to the provinces to be treated by “Welding Vedas” [welding doctors J] who heal broken bones, or consult those physicians with smoking pots who invoke the spirits to cure cancer, to see that the knowledge that there is “only one system of medicine” (i.e. empirical medicine) is largely absent in Sri Lanka. All these quacks operate at a great cost to their patients, both financially and physiologically.

We suggest that behind these three social phenomena lies a deep-seated irrationality, which, leave aside science, is not even rooted in respectable historical tradition. In this day and age we cannot excuse these practices as harmless examples of “divergent opinion” in democratic society. Divergent opinion is, for example, the decision made by an expectant mother to abort a two week old fetus due to economic hardship, or to have the child and hand it over for suitable adoption. Or, divergent opinion could even be the belief in a personal god in a socially harmless fashion, where you engage in daily prayer to Buddha/Jesus/Mohammed/Vishnu/Skanda to improve your wellbeing, as opposed to being an atheist who shuns prayer and “takes life as it comes”. But this is not the case with the three examples we sighted earlier; they represent socially harmful ideology in a modern global context. And there is plenty more nonsense of the same class prevalent in our country ranging from gross misconceptions about the intellectual capabilities of women, to crafty politicians brazenly campaigning for ethnic/tribal interests whilst overlooking the greater good of the country.

At the heart of this irrational and socially harmful conduct is the absence of an early training in freethinking, akin to that which the enlightenment philosophers taught in the west. Whilst even little children in Sri Lanka know that the west had a few great scientists like Newton or Darwin, they seem to lack that greater understanding that both moral and intellectual enlightenment happened over the entire course of world history, with seminal ideas being contributed by a vast number of western thinkers worthy of study in eastern schools. Also, the ideas of Newton and Darwin are taught in a kind of intellectual vacuum in Sri Lanka, as though we aught to follow their laws in a narrow, “engineering” sense. The business of molding a broader outlook to the world is left to “cultural Buddhism” (or cultural Christianity or Islam), where a framework of rules based on inherited mythology guide our ethical and intellectual conduct, sans the benefit of evidence for efficacy.

It is noteworthy that many years ago, E.W. Adikaram (a pupil of that great oriental philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti) saw this weakness in Buddhist cultural practice in Sri Lanka and attempted to uplift the intellectual standard of Buddhist discourse by squaring it with science and common sense.

We don’t see this sort of social reformist at work today, or else there won’t be so many Poya day sermons that demand a cessation to the consumption of all animal flesh under any circumstance whatsoever. All evidence is that a prawn for example, lacks the necessary sophistication in its nervous system to perceive a subjective world like higher mammals/apes do. Besides, we humans have evolved with a taste and bodily needs for “meat”, and the ethical problem of not infringing upon the wellbeing of other (possibly) conscious creatures is a tough one to solve. A viable long-term answer would be something of the nature of affordable commercially cultured animal tissue fit for consumption, which has all the subjective and nutritional properties of meat, but lacks a functioning nervous system. In the meantime, reasonable stopgaps include humane slaughter, consumption of non-mammalian flesh such as fish or shellfish, consumption of eggs (the average egg in the store lacks any tangible nervous tissue and is for all practical purposes “dead”). In a country like Sri Lanka the cost of maintaining a balanced vegetarian diet is unaffordable for most families. Their children would become physically and mentally stunted if they “went veggie”. The clergy need to take into consideration these facts before they preach.

Not to meander from our main topic, it is not just the Buddha or Jesus, or even Newton and Darwin, whose ideas are worthy of study. The worldviews of folks like Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, William James, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, René Descartes, T.H. Huxley, Johann W. von Goethe, Charles Sanders Peirce, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Allen Turing, Jerry Fodor, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, V.S. Ramachandran or Thomas Metzinger (to name a few) could all be absorbed into the curriculum of our sciences and social sciences. Their free and open spirit has helped shape our modern world. We mustn’t let young adults walk away from school thinking, “we know far more than those western hooligans who can only make love and smoke pot”.

We don’t live in a perfect world, and as such many of the issues stemming from the absence of reason in early mental training, are on the rise in western nations themselves. The rise of fundamentalist Christianity in the southern United States is an example of this social degradation. However, if we are going to deny an attempt to straighten out this significant kink in the education of our own children in Sri Lanka by sighting these lapses in other countries, we then are on track to becoming a wealthy but intellectually and spiritually underdeveloped nation.

So here is our plea. It is not governments that must respond, but parents and teachers from all corners of society. Our next generation must get as intellectually agile as our brethren in the west. Its time we threw out our historical garbage when we deal with our children, like astrology, faith healers and hells. Instead, we could teach our children to appreciate the external world in its raw sense, and discuss morals issues that are of practical benefit, in a strictly non-judgmental fashion. We as a nation are healthy, and rapidly becoming wealthy. Its time to get wise 🙂 Let us part with this apt quote:

Parents wonder why the streams are bitter, when they themselves have poisoned the fountain.” – John Locke, 1632 – 1704

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