Category Archives: philosophy

Baby’s first scientific paradigm.

Well, she’s not a baby any more (that role is now filled by Anna-Rose), rather Chloe’s a little girl, aged just a little over 3 now, with an inquisitive mind. She likes trains and planes and science and that’s all rather good by me. Where she gets her taste in jazz from I’ve no idea. Recently, I’ve been reading her See Inside Space (a lift-the-flap book on all things space) to her, and for my own reading, Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It struck me that here I am giving her her first scientific paradigms: that the universe is composed of discrete matter (atoms, made of subatomic particles, made of quarks & etc.), that stars are “born” and “die”, that nothing can get out of a black hole (I haven’t complicated that picture by introducing Hawking radiation just yet), that galaxies are composed of stars, that we can observe these using devices—telescopes—constructed with other paradigms—EM radiation—in mind. That I’m also teaching her to recognise things: our position in the milky way, what interstellar dust and gas clouds look like, that black holes can be identified by their accretion disks. And I’m astounded at her ability to recognise/recall all of the above quite precisely!

The scary thing is that I could tell her Biblical/other mythological accounts of creation and she’d believe them just as much. She knows about evidence though; I teach her the evidence we have for the big bang, and she’s aware, from the history of theories and knowledge page, featuring famous astronomers & physicists, that scientific knowledge is updated: “Daddy, what did he discover?”. As for the moon being made of rocks (a fact she enjoyed repeated to me today without any precursor discussion on space) vs. cheese, she’s Ok with that because she can see the moon looks more like a big rock. I suspect there’s a connection here to thinking about views on climate change: people get set in both their ways of living as well as their set of paradigms as they age, and it grows harder to counter those. Much easier in children to build up a set of paradigms than to change one “brick” in a paradigm “wall” later. How to wind back the clock / replace a large set of paradigms (world-view)? Perhaps there are some lessons in The Young Atheist’s Handbook by Alom Shaha (next on my reading list).

You see what you see

Dealing with passengers day after day, you see what you see. It’s a question of morals. At the station, you get a very clear picture of people at their most negative, their downsides. For instance, if we’re sweeping up the station with a dustpan and brush, just when we’ve finished, someone will flick a cigarette butt or piece of litter right on the spot where we’ve cleaned. There are too many self-assertive people out there.

There’s an upside to passengers, too. A bloke around 50, always travels on the first train of the day, always used to greet me, he probably thought I’d died until I returned to the job. Yesterday morning when we met, he said: “Alive and well means you’ve still got things to do. Don’t give up the fight!” It’s such an encouragement just to get a cheerful greeting. Nothing comes of hatred.

Toshiyaki Toyoda, from Haruki Murakami’s Underground.

Walking the path of nonviolence

The Buddha taught of nonviolence to all things. In short, to “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. Jesus preached of turning the other cheek. A nice ideal, but practical? अशोक (Ashoka the Great) became a Buddhist after seeing the sufferings of war:
What have I done? If this is a victory, what’s a defeat then? Is this a victory or a defeat? Is this justice or injustice? Is it gallantry or a rout? Is it valor to kill innocent children and women? Do I do it to widen the empire and for prosperity or to destroy the other’s kingdom and splendor? One has lost her husband, someone else a father, someone a child, someone an unborn infant…. What’s this debris of the corpses? Are these marks of victory or defeat? Are these vultures, crows, eagles the messengers of death or evil?

Yet Ashoka’s state had to deal with the real world. Negotiations with enemies, brokering peace is fine, but what is that backed with? What if someone threatens you despite you being nice to them?

Being nice all the time is not an evolutionary stable solution – we have evolved in a competitive environment, and the best strategy from our gene’s perspective is to produce a mixed strategy of limited conflict (i.e. it is better to share, but sometimes it makes sense to take a risk, even of death, enter into a conflict, and grab the spoils). Is this an excuse for violence though? Should we not aim for peace? Perhaps the best way of thinking about it is to borrow from a Daoist* perspective on statehood, which is to always try for a diplomatic / nonviolent solution first, and have war as the last resort. What if, instead of invading Afghanistan, the US and her allies had focused on intelligent ways of homeland security (no I don’t include fondling kids or even adults in that), and on promoting mainstream Islam and education and health in Afghanistan, with only targeted killings of those who pose a threat. It’s hard to be nice to a bomb-maker and the hundreds or thousands he might kill simultaneously – would love to know how a Buddhist grapples with this version of the trolley problem

*Like mainstream Buddhism, or indeed any religion, Daoism also makes mystical claims in addition to social science / psychological claims (not that the latter are well-supported, though at least Buddhism encourages testing of ideas – vaguely scientific). I am not religious, but interested in what religion has to say about the human condition 🙂