This I Have Learned

Asato ma sadgamaya

Over a life mostly devoted to learning stuff and not much else except goofing off, I have learned quite a few interesting things. Interesting not in some absolute, objective or universal sense but only particular to me given my preferences, my talents and the opportunities I had.

From quite an early age, I recognized that the yoga consistent with my nature was gyan yoga, the way of knowledge and understanding. That was my dharma. Karma yoga is not my path since I don’t get things done. Left to do as I please, I’d do nothing. Neither is bhakti yoga since I am into any spiritual discipline.

My primary motivation is to know what the world is about. I am convinced that all human suffering — physical as well as mental — arise from ignorance. My core mantra is the Pavamana Mantra from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad:

asato mā sadgamaya
tamaso mā jyotirgamaya
mṛtyor mā’mṛtaṃ gamaya

which is roughly translated as:

From falsehood lead me to truth,
From darkness lead me to the light,
From death lead me to immortality.

The human condition is one of universal ignorance. What is known to an individual (or even the collective) is vanishingly small in comparison to what can potentially be known which is inexhaustible and infinite. From the point of view of the infinite, the most knowledgeable is indistinguishable from the most ignorant.

Stupidity and ignorance are causally related: each is a cause and consequence of the other. Ignorance leads to stupidity which leads to ignorance … in an endless cycle of cause and effect. Ignorant people are stupid people, and when the stupid gain power (which is quite often), they inflict suffering on others.

{Digression: Lord Acton had observed that great men are almost always bad men. I believe it is so because great men are usually ignorant and therefore stupid, and they generally don’t intend the harm they invariably cause. Mao, Lenin, Gandhi, Stalin, Nehru, Hitler — take your pick. But that’s a matter for another day.}

All we can hope for is some break in the chain through luck. Somehow one learns a bit, and that reduces the stupid component, which in turn allows one to learn a bit more, and so on. The luck comes in the form of the realization that one is ignorant and that one does not know. This realization can perhaps be described by the Zen Buddhist concept of satori — “seeing into one’s true nature.” Naturally, you only realize that you were ignorant of something only after you attain knowledge. Therefore, the more you know, the greater is your awareness of your ignorance.

Koch Snowflake
Koch snowflake

I use the metaphor of the Koch snowflake (which is constructed from the Koch curve) to illustrate this relationship between knoweldge and ignorance. The wiki describes it well —

“The Koch snowflake can be built up iteratively, in a sequence of stages. The first stage is an equilateral triangle, and each successive stage is formed from adding outward bends to each side of the previous stage, making smaller equilateral triangles. The areas enclosed by the successive stages in the construction of the snowflake converge to 8/5 times the area of the original triangle, while the perimeters of the successive stages increase without bound. Consequently, the snowflake encloses a finite area, but has an infinite perimeter.”

The area enclosed in the figure represents knowledge at some stage of development (of an individual or any arbitrarily defined collective however broad) and the perimeter represents the awareness of ignorance. The entity’s knowledge of its ignorance grows as knowledge grows. It is therefore that really wise persons don’t know all that much more than what the foolish know. It’s that the wise have a greater awareness of their own ignorance compared to the foolish.

This is a very powerful metaphor and I believe that as humanity’s knowledge increases, most of it is knowledge of the frontier of ignorance.

What I Learned

In response to my most recent ask me anything, I was asked by Ajit Jadav

Some topic / subject / book / concept / principle / theory / etc. where you had to struggle hard, very hard, before the proverbial light finally dawned upon you gradually, or, may be, the bulb lit up suddenly?

A bit of folk wisdom states that everything is withing walking distance — provided you have the time and energy. So also, I think everything is comprehensible provided one has a basic cognitive capacity (meaning, one is not a moron) and the inclination to use it for comprehending some aspect of the world. Interest matters.

I have never had to really struggle to understand scientific and engineering concepts. My conviction is that if one really, truly understands the basic principles (which are not many) of any domain, then one can readily grasp any concept in it. I believe that it is always useful to revisit the principles to make sure that you have properly understood them. Bob Solow, a “Nobel” laureate economist, said that he needs to re-read things at least three times to get it. I re-read principles many more times.

I have had at least half a dozen major Aha! moments.  Most of them are from the social sciences. But some are from the hard sciences and mathematics. In no particular order:

    • That time travel in the past is a meaningless concept. The problem is that you could never know that you have traveled to the past. It’s logically impossible by definition.
    • The laws of thermodynamics and mechanics. How heat engines work. (Later, I figured out all by myself how turbo-chargers work.)
    • I had to struggle hard with combinatorial mathematics. It doesn’t come naturally to me.
    • The calculus was moderately hard but the mechanics bit was easy.
    • I had many aha moments when learning probability distribution.
    • Supply and demand schedules are functions of price. Prices emerge in free markets. (See The Unbearable Silliness of Controlling Prices.)
    • Spontaneous order. Adam Ferguson’s insight that our artifactual world “is the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.” (For more on that, see this post Order without Intent from Aug 2019.)
    • There are no natural resources; all resources are human made. Nature provides the stuff; humans make resources.
    • Technology is know-how. Technology is another word for a recipe. Technology is a “public good” and the flow of technology is a positive function of the stock of technology. Therefore we will never run out of resources. (For more on that, see The Joy of Counter-intuitive Truths.)
    • The importance of rules. Rules define institutions. Institutions define nations. Nations rise and fall with the rise and fall of institutions. Leaders matter but only to an extent.
    • Freedom of the individual matters in how peaceful and prosperous a society is. Freedom is endogenous — it comes from within. Freedom cannot be taken away from people who are determined to be free; and it cannot be bestowed on people who wish to be enslaved.
    • Lessons I learned from simple games. The tragedy of the commons. The prisoner’s dilemma.
    • The Coase theorem.
    • Methodological individualism. Why laissez-faire is absolutely critical for human flourishing.
    • The importance of civic and economic freedom. Speech, particularly. All other freedoms are grounded in it.
    • Private property rights.
    • The role of the entrepreneur in an economy. Mainstream economics does not appreciate this.
    • The inappropriateness of equilibrium analsyes. Important as a didactic tool but not for understanding the real world.
    • Lessons of public choice theory. That people are people; that it’s the same person who goes both to the polling booth and the supermarket. That merely getting elected does not suddenly give people the superpower to figure out “the public good.”
    • “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Hayek.
    • Why centralized, top-down planning fails always.
    • There are good economists and there are economists who advise the government. There’s little (if any) overlap. The ones favored by the state are usually “a bevy of camp-following whores” (to use Buchanan’s evocative phrase.)  (This needs to be explored in detail why.)
    • Why India fails to prosper. It’s pure bad luck. Nothing else. In fact it is all luck. In the lives of individuals, and collectives. It’s just luck. It’s in the “stars.”

So that’s it for now. I will address the other questions people have asked in a bit. Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

Author: Atanu Dey


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