Keep Observing, Wondering, and Asking Why

My Dear Abhishek,

It gives me great joy to write a letter to you which you will understand – although you may still have to ask your mom or dad to read it out to you, and explain some bits. My previous letters to you will have to wait till you grow up a bit more.
Continue reading “Keep Observing, Wondering, and Asking Why”

Of Symbols and their Manipulation

My dear Abhishek,

You are a sentient human being who is capable of using symbols.

There is one fact that distinguishes us from the rest of creation: our ability to use language. Or to put it another way, our ability to do abstract symbol manipulation. That ability, more than anything else, allows us to call ourselves members of the species homo sapiens sapiens. All our best attributes flow from that unique faculty. How did our brains diverge from the brains of our pre-human ancestors? What were the evolutionary forces which molded our neocortex? These are questions that are fascinating to explore. Even the capacity to ask these questions and answer them in some fashion requires the ability to manipulate symbols. You will notice that there is a certain circularity involved in this process: we use the faculty to explore the same faculty.

We are part of that larger creation we call the Universe. We are also that part of the Universe which seeks to comprehend the Universe. So through us the Universe comprehends itself. Isn’t that the most astoundingly astonishing thing about creation? Through us, the Universe is self-aware. We make the Universe self-reflective. Our thinking about our ability to do symbol manipulation involves symbol manipulation and this is what makes the process recursive and ultimately makes it a recursive Universe. All recursive processes have a terminating condition. We are that terminating condition for the recursive Universe. We, through our ability to comprehend the Universe, bring the Universe into existence. That is what the ancients in India many millennia ago meant when they declared “Ahum Bramha” which means “I am the Creator of the Universe.” Lots of interesting implications arise from this realization. In modern day terminology, thinkers have called it “The Anthropic Principle” which basically states that the Universe exists because sentient beings exist within it which are aware of the existence of the Universe.

We will discuss more about the self-reflexive recursive Universe later in these letters. But for now, we will move on to the ability that allows us to comprehend the Universe: symbol manipulation. More specifically, we will concentrate on the symbols alone and leave the discussion on the manipulation of symbols for a later date. So what are symbols, you may ask. Well, the first answer is that they are abstractions. What is an abstraction? One way would be to call them “representations in the brain.” Another word for “abstractions represented within the brain” is “word.” See I have used the word “word” twice in this and the previous sentence. When you use words to discuss words, self-reference is unavoidable.

The word is primary. And all that the thinker does is to manipulate symbols — words. We are symbol manipulating entities. Through our senses we get impressions of the world outside our brains. These are stored as memory. Some of these inputs are mapped on to words and the higher functions of the brain manipulate these symbols. Without the words we will continue to sense the universe but we will not be able to do the symbolic manipulation which is thinking.

Here is my claim: that unless you know the word, you cannot think. Conversely, to think effectively, you have to have a very large collection of words. The collection of words that you “own” is your vocabulary. That last sentence illustrates an amazing concept — that of hierarchy. Words exist in an hierarchical structure and that is what gives them power.

Words, as we keep saying, are abstractions. They represent something but they themselves are not the thing. The word “cow” is not the thing that exists out there with four legs, gives us milk, and goes moo. Distinguishing the symbol and the thing is very important. When people fail to make that distinction, they confuse the symbol for the thing, and work themselves up into a rage and all sorts of nasty things happen. But I digress.

OK, so things exist out there in the world. Those things are what I call “atomic” things. A cow is an atomic object or thing that exists out there in the world outside our brain and we use the symbol “cow” in English to correspond to that. Atomic objects are not limited to material things. Without getting too academic about it, let’s recognize that the number “1” is also a thing and we label it and call the label the word “one.” Given our collection of atomic objects for which we have words, we then construct higher level abstractions of things that are not atomic but are what I call “compound”. So the word “cattle” stands for the abstract entity which is “the class to which cows belong”. In actuality, cows exist in the real world but cattle don’t. We just refer to the abstraction “collection of cows” as “cattle.” The word “cow” is an atomic word, and the word “cattle” is a compound word by my definition.

Now you see what I mean that words exist in a hierarchical structure? The words you own is represented by another word we call “vocabulary.” That is, “vocabulary” stands in for “the words that you own.” In a sense, the higher level word is more economical, or compact. The magical thing about words is that we can build higher and higher level words based on how we manipulate the words at the next lower level.

It is easy to see that even if the world out there has a limited number of atomic objects — which implies a limited number of atomic words — the compound words that we can form is unlimited. And as time has gone on, our collection of words have increased. Or we can say that our vocabulary has increased. The consequence of this increase? We can think more effectively. And after all this, I want to come to the advice that I would like to give you today. To learn how to think, you have to learn vocabulary. By that I don’t mean that you open up the dictionary and memorize it.

Learning vocabulary means to understand what the word means, not just its dictionary definition. When you understand a word, it means you know the connection between the word and what it represents and all that it implies and how it is connected with other words at the lower levels. All education is ultimately an attempt to acquire a vocabulary and the skill to manipulate the vocabulary to build higher level words. Think about that for a bit.

You may object and say that perhaps learning languages is about vocabulary but surely engineering or physics is not about vocabulary. But it is indeed all about vocabulary. A physicist knows physics vocabulary which he has patiently learnt over years. When he finally adds “quantum mechanics” to his vocabulary after years of studying all the component words that make up the compound word “quantum mechanics”, he can then use that word without having to think about all the bits that go into making that word. Note that he did not actually add the word “quantum mechanics” to his vocabulary the first time he heard it or read the word on the page. It became part of the vocabulary after a long time was spent in manipulating the lower level words which ultimately define quantum mechanics.

Here is one analogy that you may find useful. A compound word is like a theorem in mathematics. A theorem is a true statement in the system under study. Once a theorem is proved, then you can use the theorem to create more theorem. So also, when you collect (under certain rules) a number of words to create a higher level word, you then have the luxury of using the higher level words and it helps you to think more effectively.

So where am I going with all this? A large vocabulary is important if you want to be able to think effectively and clearly. As I noted before, education is about vocabulary (symbols) and thinking (manipulation of symbols.) The fact is that while thinking requires words as the objects upon which it operates, thinking itself creates more words. As more people think in the world, the collective vocabulary of the world goes up and this is what increases our ability to think more clearly.

So what is the point of all this thinking clearly, you may ask. I leave you with a thought that Blaise Pascal recorded: “Working hard to think clearly is the beginning of moral conduct.”

All evil in the world arises from faulty thinking. To become a truly moral person, we have to learn how to think correctly. To the ancients in India, ignorance was the root cause of misery and sorrow. We will go into that one of these days.

With a deep bow to the wordless wisdom in all sentient beings,


Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Also Form

My Dear Abhishek:

You, like everything else, are a little bundle of energy, aren’t you!

Let me tell you a story. It was a very long time ago, by some estimates about 15 to 18 billion years ago, this universe we inhabit was born. Why it came into existence nobody knows. Where did it come from? From Absolute Nothingness. You may ask: how can Something arise from Absolute Nothingness? Here is my conjecture. You start with Absolute Nothingness and represent it with a 0 (zero). Some call it “Shunyata” (Emptiness). Then you separate the 0 into some positive quantity (E) and an equivalent negative quantity (S). If you sum up those two quantities, you end up with what you began with: 0.

Now, take S and create space out of it. Simultaneously, take E and make energy out of it. This created energy permeates the space created. Then transform some of this energy into stuff of various kinds which then hangs around in space. This is where I conclude my conjecture. From here on, my story will follow the currently accepted theory of what the universe is.

They call it the Big Bang, an event which gave birth to Time, Space, and Energy. Right after the Big Bang (whatever it was), the universe was very very tiny. And it was very very hot. The tiny hot universe began to expand, that is, space began to grow. As the universe grew bigger, the temperature dropped. As the temperature dropped, some of the energy began to “condense”. Little bits of energy condensed first into what is called quarks and electrons and other little bits. There are just a handful of quarks. Then these itsy-bitsy quarks combined together to form bigger units such as protons and neutrons. As the universe expanded and cooled further, protons and neutrons combined and formed elements.

The early universe was simple. You had space, energy, and matter. Most of the matter was Hydrogen (about 75 percent) and Helium (about 25 percent). I am simplifying all this and leaving out details such as neutrinos, electrons, and all sorts of exotic stuff. What is important is to note that to start off with, there was just energy. And some of that energy became matter. Matter and energy are one and the same, as pointed out by one guy called Einstein.

Anyway, as time went on, the universe moved from begin featureless to a state where interesting structures started arising. Huge clouds of hydrogen and helium condensed into stars under the influence of gravity. Within the stars, hydrogen got converted by nuclear fusion into helium. The energy released by this reaction balanced the crushing force of gravity. But when all the hydrogen was converted into helium and other somewhat heavy elements such as carbon, oxygen, and iron, gravity won and the star exploded and became a Supernova. In that violence, even heavier elements were synthesized.

The stuff that was thrown off by supernovas again collected into stars with hydrogen and a new star went through its life. Every element that you have on earth (except for hydrogen and some helium) was manufactured in stars over many billions of years. We are made of elements that were cooked in stars: we are star stuff. Every atom in our bodies started off as a bit of energy which condensed a long time ago and came to us as the grandchildren of may generations of stars. The most basic description of anything anywhere in the universe is that it is a bundle of energy.

But then, you may say, that this basic description is lacking a certain something. It does not explain the distinction between equivalent amounts of energy with different forms. You may say that there may be exactly the same amount of energy in a sack of coal and you, but the sack of coal will not have the cuteness that you have. How does this cuteness come about, you ask. That I can tell you in one word: Information.

Let me see if I can explain what I mean. At some point in your life you will doubtless ask, “Where did I come from?” One answer (amongst many others) is: “From a store, mainly. You have been bought at a store.” Here is a thought experiment. Put a man and a woman in a suitable container and stock it with all that they need such as food and air and water. After sufficient time, if all goes well, some of the food would be converted into a baby just like you. Since all the food was bought from stores, the baby came from the stores in brown-paper bags in bits.

What happened was that some of the elements of the food was rearranged into a different organization according to instructions which are biologically encoded somehow at the cellular level. Those instructions you inherited from your parents, who in turn inherited it from their parents, all the way back to the beginning of organic life on earth. In creating you, no new matter was created; only a re-arrangement was done. You are a bundle of energy organized in a certain unique way.

To recap, everything material (including the food that became re-organized as you) is made up of a handful of elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, etc. You start off with sufficient amounts of about a 100 odd elements and you can build yourself everything you see around in the universe. The elements themselves are made up of even fewer more fundamental bits such as protons, neutrons, electrons, etc. These bits themselves are made of still fewer bits called quarks. You get the idea: the deeper you go, the simpler the bits become. The immense variety you see in the universe emerges from complex arrangements of simpler bits. At its most complex, at the highest levels of organization of the elements, life appears.

So we have elements organized in specific ways. The blueprint of that organization is information. You take some stuff (elements) and arrange them according to some blueprint (information) and you get all the structures, from stars (very little information content) to babies (very high information content.) To fully specify a baby, you need gigabytes of information about the DNA of the baby.

The whole universe is nothing but information and energy. Your fundamental nature is the same as everything else in the universe — it is all energy organized in special ways. Perhaps that is what the ancients in India realized when they figured out the philosophy of Advaita (non-duality) and said “Tat Tvam Asi” — That You Are. You and the Not-You are the same. When you attain enlightenment, you will see beyond the duality and realize that all things have the same nature but only the form differs.

So let me conclude this with a line from the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra:
Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is also Form.

With a deep bow to the Emptiness within us all,


PS: The first of my letters to Abhishek is here.

A Letter to Abhishek

My Dear Abhishek:

You, like all newborns, are a Little Buddha.

Welcome to the world and may you have a long and happy stay here. In this letter I will try to tell you a few things that may help you along.

You are just a month old. The universe you are born into is infinitely older than you. I hope someday you would learn what the relation between you and the universe is and appreciate the unique place you occupy within it. You will spend quite a bit of time making a living, but to truly make a life, you will have to comprehend who you are in the larger scheme of things. We will talk about this at length later.

Narrowing our focus, we now move on to the world we inhabit. Our world—the earth—is almost, but not quite, as old as the universe. Also, compared to the universe, the earth is infinitely smaller. While our concerns are mainly focused on the earth, don’t forget that there is a larger universe out there. Why? It will lend perspective to whatever you do. The most important feature of the universe—and therefore all that is in it including the earth and you—is impermanence and change. This realization is the most profound that you will ever achieve. The rest is all details. Whatever you do, great or small, is of no consequence in the larger scheme of things. Relieved of the burden of having to worry about consequences, you can then focus on what is your duty without being distracted by the inconsequential. For us the big over-arching task is therefore to figure out what our duty is. Each one of us is unique and therefore our tasks are unique. The good life, not merely a good living, is guaranteed to one who is able to figure out what that unique task is. It is an infinite uncharted plain out there and you have to figure out your own path. You cannot follow anyone else’s path. Others have walked that plane but their path is not the path for you.

To figure out your path, you have to comprehend the world. To comprehend the world, you have to know it. Acquiring knowledge is hard work and it involves sifting through vast amounts of information. You will read breathless prose about how stupendously amazing amounts of information is available to you at your fingertips. That is good but don’t make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge. It is important to make that distinction to avoid fundamental costly mistakes. Remind me to explore this distinction later. That brings us to an important point: the ability to make skillful distinctions is very crucial to thinking and consequently to comprehension.

The more sophisticated a consciousness is, the more distinctions it can make, and thus be able to comprehend the complexity of the universe more acutely and comprehensively. To illustrate what I mean, an intelligence which is only able to distinguish between one and many is not as sophisticated as one that is able to use the counting numbers 1, 2, …, etc. Our ability to distinguish is directly related to our ability to learn vocabulary. In a sense, all education is about learning vocabulary. Each word stands for a concept, and each concept is made up of simpler concepts and each of these simpler concepts has a one-to-one mapping with simpler words. The hierarchy of concepts is reflected in the hierarchy of words and in a strict sense, what we know consciously about is limited by our vocabulary. As our vocabulary grows, so does our comprehension of the world. The Word is primary; all else is merely an elaboration of the Word. What is that word, you ask. Some call it the Om, others the Tao. We will explore this a little later.

You must have noticed that I keep hinting at things and do not go into details. That is because this one is only the introduction, or even the introduction to the introduction. I promise you that we will discuss at length all the points mentioned above and more as they arise. Our exploration will be bounded only by our bounded rationality and our limited comprehension of the world.

I will close this one with some words from The Desiderata: “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

With a deep bow to the Buddha within you,