The rule of omitting the self-field in calculations—and whether potentials have an objective existence or not

There was an issue concerning the strictly classical, non-relativistic electricity which I was (once again) confronted with, during my continuing preoccupation with quantum mechanics.

Actually, a small part of this issue had occurred to me earlier too, and I had worked through it back then.

However, the overall issue had never occurred to me with as much of scope, generality and force as it did last evening. And I could not immediately resolve it. So, for a while, especially last night, I unexpectedly found myself to have become very confused, even discouraged.

Then, this morning, after a good night’s rest, everything became clear right while sipping my morning cup of tea. Things came together literally within a span of just a few minutes. I want to share the issue and its resolution with you.

The question in question (!) is the following.


Consider 2 (or N) number of point-charges, say electrons. Each electron sets up an electrostatic (Coulombic) potential everywhere in space, for the other electrons to “feel”.

As you know, the potential set up by the i-th electron is:
V_i(\vec{r}_i, \vec{r}) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_i}{|\vec{r} - \vec{r}_i|}
where \vec{r}_i is the position vector of the i-th electron, \vec{r} is any arbitrary point in space, and Q_i is the charge of the i-th electron.

The potential energy associated with some other (j-th) electron being at the position \vec{r}_j (i.e. the energy that the system acquires in bringing the two electrons from \infty to their respective positions some finite distance apart), is then given as:
U_{ij}(\vec{r}_i, \vec{r}_j) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_i\,Q_j}{|\vec{r}_j - \vec{r}_i|}

The notation followed here is the following: In U_{ij}, the potential field is produced by the i-th electron, and the work is done by the j-th electron against the i-th electron.

Symmetrically, the potential energy for this configuration can also be expressed as:
U_{ji}(\vec{r}_j, \vec{r}_i) = \dfrac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \dfrac{Q_j\,Q_i}{|\vec{r}_i - \vec{r}_j|}

If a system has only two charges, then its total potential energy U can be expressed either as U_{ji} or as U_{ij}. Thus,
U = U_{ji} = U_{ij}

Similarly, for any pair of charges in an N-particle system, too. Therefore, the total energy of an N-particle system is given as:
U = \sum\limits_{i}^{N} \sum\limits_{j = i+1}^{N} U_{ij}

The issue now is this: Can we say that the total potential energy U has an objective existence in the physical world? Or is it just a device of calculations that we have invented, just a concept from maths that has no meaningful physical counterpart?

(A side remark: Energy may perhaps exist as an attribute or property of something else, and not necessarily as a separate physical object by itself. However, existence as an attribute still is an objective existence.)

The reason to raise this doubt is the following.


When calculating the motion of the i-th charge, we consider only the potentials V_j produced by the other charges, not the potential produced by the given charge V_i itself.

Now, if the potential produced by the given charge (V_i) also exists at every point in space, then why does it not enter the calculations? How does its physical efficacy get evaporated away? And, symmetrically: The motion of the j-th charge occurs as if V_j had physically evaporated away.

The issue generalizes in a straight-forward manner. If there are N number of charges, then for calculating the motion of a given i-th charge, the potential fields of all other charges are considered operative. But not its own field.

How can motion become sensitive to only a part of the total potential energy existing at a point even if the other part also exists at the same point? That is the question.


This circumstance seems to indicate as if there is subjectivity built deep into the very fabric of classical mechanics. It is as if the universe just knows what a subject is going to calculate, and accordingly, it just makes the corresponding field mystically go away. The universe—the physical universe—acts as if it were changing in response to what we choose to do in our mind. Mind you, the universe seems to change in response to not just our observations (as in QM), but even as we merely proceed to do calculations. How does that come to happen?… May be the whole physical universe exists only in our imagination?

Got the point?


No, my confusion was not as pathetic as that in the previous paragraph. But I still found myself being confused about how to account for the fact that an electron’s own field does not enter the calculations.

But it was not all. A non-clarity on this issue also meant that there was another confusing issue which also raised its head. This secondary issue arises out of the fact that the Coulombic potential set up by any point-charge is singular in nature (or at least approximately so).

If the electron is a point-particle and if its own potential “is” \infty at its position, then why does it at all get influenced by the finite potential of any other charge? That is the question.

Notice, the second issue is most acute when the potentials in question are singular in nature. But even if you arbitrarily remove the singularity by declaring (say by fiat) a finite size for the electron, thereby making its own field only finitely large (and not infinite), the above-mentioned issue still remains. So long as its own field is finite but much, much larger than the potential of any other charge, the effects due to the other charges should become comparatively less significant, perhaps even negligibly small. Why does this not happen? Why does the rule instead go exactly the other way around, and makes those much smaller effects due to other charges count, but not the self-field of the very electron in question?


While thinking about QM, there was a certain point where this entire gamut of issues became important—whether the potential has an objective existence or not, the rule of omitting the self-field while calculating motions of particles, the singular potential, etc.

The specific issue I was trying to think through was: two interacting particles (e.g. the two electrons in the helium atom). It was while thinking on this problem that this problem occurred to me. And then, it also led me to wonder: what if some intellectual goon in the guise of a physicist comes along, and says that my proposal isn’t valid because there is this element of subjectivity to it? This thought occurred to me with all its force only last night. (Or so I think.) And I could not recall seeing a ready-made answer in a text-book or so. Nor could I figure it out immediately, at night, after a whole day’s work. And as I failed to resolve the anticipated objection, I progressively got more and more confused last night, even discouraged.

However, this morning, it all got resolved in a jiffy.


Would you like to give it a try? Why is it that while calculating the motion of the i-th charge, you consider the potentials set up by all the rest of the charges, but not its own potential field? Why this rule? Get this part right, and all the philosophical humbug mentioned earlier just evaporates away too.

I would wait for a couple of days or so before coming back and providing you with the answer I found. May be I will write another post about it.


Update on 2019.03.16 20:14 IST: Corrected the statement concerning the total energy of a two-electron system. Also simplified the further discussion by couching it preferably in terms of potentials rather than energies (as in the first published version), because a Coulombic potential always remains anchored in the given charge—it doesn’t additionally depend on the other charges the way energy does. Modified the notation to reflect the emphasis on the potentials rather than energy.


A song I like:

[What else? [… see the songs section in the last post.]]
(Hindi) “woh dil kahaan se laaoon…”
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Ravi
Lyrics: Rajinder Kishen


A bit of a conjecture as to why Ravi’s songs tend to be so hummable, of a certain simplicity, especially, almost always based on a very simple rhythm. My conjecture is that because Ravi grew up in an atmosphere of “bhajan”-singing.

Observe that it is in the very nature of music that it puts your mind into an abstract frame of mind. Observe any singer, especially the non-professional ones (or the ones who are not very highly experienced in controlling their body-language while singing, as happens to singers who participate in college events or talent shows).

When they sing, their eyes seem to roll in a very peculiar manner. It seems random but it isn’t. It’s as if the eyes involuntarily get set in the motions of searching for something definite to be found somewhere, as if the thing to be found would be in the concrete physical space outside, but within a split-second, the eyes again move as if the person has realized that nothing corresponding is to be found in the world out there. That’s why the eyes “roll away.” The same thing goes on repeating, as the singer passes over various words, points of pauses, nuances, or musical phrases.

The involuntary motions of the eyes of the singer provide a window into his experience of music. It’s as if his consciousness was again and again going on registering a sequence of two very fleeting experiences: (i) a search for something in the outside world corresponding to an inner experience felt in the present, and immediately later, (ii) a realization (and therefore the turning away of the eyes from an initially picked up tentative direction) that nothing in the outside world would match what was being searched for.

The experience of music necessarily makes you realize the abstractness of itself. It tends to make you realize that the root-referents of your musical experience lie not in a specific object or phenomenon in the physical world, but in the inner realm, that of your own emotions, judgments, self-reflections, etc.

This nature of music makes it ideally suited to let you turn your attention away from the outside world, and has the capacity or potential to induce a kind of a quiet self-reflection in you.

But the switch from the experience of frustrated searches into the outside world to a quiet self-reflection within oneself is not the only option available here. Music can also induce in you a transitioning from those unfulfilled searches to a frantic kind of an activity: screams, frantic shouting, random gyrations, and what not. In evidence, observe any piece of modern American / Western pop-music.

However, when done right, music can also induce a state of self-reflection, and by evoking certain kind of emotions, it can even lead to a sense of orderliness, peace, serenity. To make this part effective, such a music has to be simple enough, and orderly enough. That’s why devotional music in the refined cultural traditions is, as a rule, of a certain kind of simplicity.

The experience of music isn’t the highest possible spiritual experience. But if done right, it can make your transition from the ordinary experience to a deep, profound spiritual experience easy. And doing it right involves certain orderliness, simplicity in all respects: tune, tone, singing style, rhythm, instrumental sections, transitions between phrases, etc.

If you grow up listening to this kind of a music, your own music in your adult years tends to reflect the same qualities. The simplicity of rhythm. The alluringly simple tunes. The “hummability quotient.” (You don’t want to focus on intricate patterns of melody in devotional music; you want it to be so simple that minimal mental exertion is involved in rendering it, so that your mental energy can quietly transition towards your spiritual quest and experiences.) Etc.

I am not saying that the reason Ravi’s music is so great is because he listened his father sing “bhajan”s. If this were true, there would be tens of thousands of music composers having talents comparable to Ravi’s. But the fact is that Ravi was a genius—a self-taught genius, in fact. (He never received any formal training in music ever.) But what I am saying is that if you do have the musical ability, having this kind of a family environment would leave its mark. Definitely.

Of course, this all was just a conjecture. Check it out and see if it holds or not.

… May be I should convert this “note” in a separate post by itself. Would be easier to keep track of it. … Some other time. … I have to work on QM; after all, exactly only half the month remains now. … Bye for now. …


A bit on Panpsychism—part 2: Why the idea is basically problematic, and what could be a different (and hopefully better) alternative

I continue from my last post. While the last post was fairly straight-forward, the subject-matter of this post itself is such that the writing becomes  meandering.


The basic trouble with panpsychism:

The primary referent for the concept of consciousness refers to one’s own consciousness. The existence of the same faculty in other beings is only an inference drawn from observations. If so, and in view of the two facts discussed in the last post, why can’t a similar inference be extended to everything material, too?

Well, consciousness is observed to exist only in those beings that are in fact alive. Consciousness is fundamental, sure. In Ayn Rand’s system, it even is a philosophical axiom. But qua a metaphysical existent, consciousness also happens to be only an attribute, and that too, of only one class of existents: the living beings.

Here, we will not get into the debate concerning which species can be taken as to be truly conscious, i.e., which species can be said to have an individualized, conscious grasp of reality. Personally, I believe that all living beings are conscious to some extent, even if it be only marginal in the more primitive species such as amoebae or plants.

However, regardless of whether plants can be taken to be conscious or not, we can always say that material entities that are not alive never show any evidence of being conscious. Your credit cards, spectacles, or T-shirts never show any evidence of being engaged in a process of grasping reality, or of having a definite, internal and individualized representation of any aspect of reality—no matter in how diluted, primitive or elementary form it may be posited to exist, or how fleetingly momentary such a grasp may be asserted to be. Consciousness is an attribute of only those beings that actually have life. You can’t tell your credit card to go have a life—it simply cannot. For the same reason, it can’t have the faculty to know anything, speaking literally.

Now, coming to the phenomenon of life, it is delimited on two different counts: (i) Life is an attribute possessed by only some beings in the universe, not all. (ii) Even those beings which are alive at some point of time must eventually die after the elapse of some finite period of time. When they do, their physical constituents are no different from the beings that never were alive in the first place. (This “forward-pass” kind of a logical flow is enough for us here; we need not look into the “backward-pass”, viz., the issue of whether life can arise out of the purely inanimate matter or not. It is a complicated question, and so, we will visit it some time later on.)

The physical constituents of a living organism continue to remain more or less the same after the event of its death. Even if we suppose that there is a permanent loss of some kind of a *physical* constituent or attribute at the time death, for our overall argument (concerning panpsychism) to progress, it is enough to observe and accept that at least **some** of the physical aspects continue to remain the same even after death. The continued existence of at least a part of physical constituents is sufficient to establish the following important conclusion:

Not all physical parts of the universe are at all times associated with living beings.

Given the above conclusion, it is easy to see that to speak of all parts of the reality as possessing consciousness is an elementary error: Not all parts of reality are alive at any point of time, and consciousness is an attribute of only those beings that are alive.


An aside related to reincarnation:

Even if reincarnation exists (and I do believe that it does), what persists in between two life-times is not consciousness, but only the soul.

In my view (derived from the ancient Indian traditions, of course, but also departing from it at places), the term “soul” is to be taken in sense of an individual (Sanskrit) “aatmaa.” An “aatmaa,” in my view is, loosely speaking, the “thing” which is neither created at birth nor destroyed at death. However, it is individual in nature, and remains in common across all the life-times of a given individual. Thus, I do not take the term “soul” in the sense in which Aristotle and Ayn Rand do. (For both Aristotle and Ayn Rand, the soul comes into being at birth, and ceases to exist at death.) Further, in my view, the soul has no consciousness—i.e., no feelings, not even just the desires even. For more details on my view of soul, see my earlier posts, especially these: [^][^][^].

The important point for our present discussion is this: Even if the soul were to be an attribute of all parts of the entire universe (including every inanimate objects contained in it), we still couldn’t ascribe consciousness to the inanimate parts of the universe. That is my main point here.


Another idea worth entertaining—but it is basically different from panpsychism:

Following the above-mentioned analysis, panpsychism can make sense only if what it calls “elements of consciousness” is something that is not in itself conscious, in any sense of the term.

The only idea consistent with its intended outcome can be something like a pre-consciousness, i.e., some feature or attribute or condition which, when combined with life, can give rise to a consciousness.

But note that such a pre-condition cannot mean having an actual capacity for being aware; it cannot represent the ability to have that individualized and internal grasp of reality which goes when actual living beings are actually conscious of something. That is the point to understand. The elements that panpsychism would like to have validated cannot be taken to be conscious the way it asserts they are. The elementary attributes cannot be conscious in the same sense in which we directly grasp our own consciousness, and also use it in our usual perceptions and mental functioning.

Even if you accept the more consistent idea (viz., a pre-conscious condition or a soul which may be associated with the non-living beings too), panpsychism would still have on its hands another problem to solve: if consciousness (or even just the pre-consciousness) is distributed throughout the universe, then for what reason does it get “concentrated” to such glaringly high degrees only in the living beings? For what metaphysical function? To allow for which teleological ends? And, following what kind of a process in particular? And then, what is the teleological or metaphysical function of the elements of consciousness?… From what I gather, they don’t seem to have very good ideas regarding questions and issues like these. In fact, I very much doubt if they at all have _any_ ideas in these respects.


Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder [^] notably does touch upon the animate vs. the inanimate distinction. Congratulations to her!

However, she doesn’t pursue it as much as she could have. Her main position—viz., that electrons don’t think—is reasonable, but as I will show below, this position is inevitable only when you stay within the scope of that abstraction which is the physical reality. Her argument does not become invalid, but it does become superfluous, when it comes to the entirety of existence as such (i.e., the whole universe, including all the living as well, apart from the non-living beings). To better put her position in context (as also those of others), let us perform a simple thought experiment.


The thought experiment to show why the panpsychism is basically a false idea:

Consider a cat kept in a closed wooden box. (Don’t worry; the sides of the box all carry holes, and so, the cat has no problem breathing in a normal way.) Administer some general anathesia to the cat, thereby letting her enter into a state of a kind of a deep sleep, being physically unresponsive—in particular, being unresponsive to the external physical stimuli like a simple motion of the box. Then place the cat in the wooden box, and tie its body to a fixed position using some comfortable harnesses.

If you now apply a gentle external force to the box from the outside, the cat-plus-box system can be easily described (or simulated) using physics; some simple dynamical evolution equations apply in this case. The reason is, even though the cat is a living being, the anaesthesia leads it to temporarily lose consciousness, so that nothing other than its purely physical attributes now enter the system description.

Now repeat the same experiment but when the cat is awake. As the box begins to move, the cat is sure to move its limbs and tail in response, or arch its body, etc. The *physical* attributes of her body enter the system description as before. However these physical attributes themselves are now under the influence of (or are a function of) an additional force—one which is introduced into the system description because of the actions of the consciousness of the cat. For instance, the physical attribute of any changes to the shape of its body are now governed not just by the externally applied forces, but also out of the forces generated by the cat itself, following the actions of her consciousness. (The idea of such an additional physical force is not originally mine; I got it from Dr. Harry Binswanger.) Thus, there are certain continuing physical conditions which depend on consciousness—its actions.

Can we rely on the principles or equations of physical evolution in the second case, too? Are our physical laws valid for describing the second case, too?

The answer is, yes. We can rely on the physics principles so long as we are able to bring the physical actions produced by the consciousness of the cat into our system description. We do so via that extra set of the continuing conditions. Let’s give this extra force the name: “life-physical force.”

Next, suppose the entire motion of this box+cat system occurs on a wooden table. The table (just as the wooden box) is not alive. Therefore, no special life-physical force comes into the picture while calculating the table’s actions. The table acts exactly the same way whether there is only a box, or a box with a non-responsive cat, or a box with a much meowing cat. It simply supplies reaction forces; it does not generate any active action forces.

Clearly, we can explain the actions of the table in purely physical terms. In fact doing so is relatively simpler, because we don’t have to abstract away its physical attributes the way we have to, when the object is a living and conscious being. Clearly, without any loss of generality, we can do away with panpsychism (in any of its versions) when it comes to describing the actions of the table.

Since panpsychism is a redundancy in describing the action of the table, obviously, it cannot apply to the universe as a whole. So, its basic idea is false.

Overall, my position is that panpsychism cannot be taken too seriously “as is”, because it does not discuss the intermediate aspect of life (or the distinction of living vs. non-living beings). It takes what is an attribute of only a part of the existence (the consciousnesses of all living beings), and then directly proceeds to smear it on to the entirety of existence as such. In terms of our thought experiment, it takes the consciousness of the cat and smears it onto not just the wooden box, but also onto the wooden table. But as can be seen with the thought-experiment, this is a big leap of mis-attribution. Yet a panpsychist must perform it, because an entire category of considerations is lacking in it—viz., that related to life.

What possibly would a panpsychist have to do to save his thesis? Let’s see.

Since consciousness metaphysically is only an attribute of a bigger class of entities (viz., that of living beings), the only way to rescue panpsychism would be to assert that the entire universe is always alive. This is the only way to have every part of the universe conscious.

But there are big troubles with such a “solution” too.

This formulation does away with the fact of death. If all beings are always alive, such a universe ceases to contain the fact of death. Thus, the new formulation would smear out the distinction between life and death, because it would have clubbed together both (i) the actions of life or of consciousness, and (ii) the actions of the inanimate matter, into a single, incoherent package—one that has no definition, no identity. That is the basic theoretical flaw of attempting the only way in which panpsychism could logically be saved.

Now, of course, since we have given a lifeline (pun intended) to the panpsychist, he could grab it and run with it with some further verbal gymnastics. He could possibly re-define the very life (i.e. living-ness) as a term that is not to be taken in the usual sense, but only in some basic, “elementary,” or “flavour”-some way. Possible… What would be wrong with that?

… The wrong thing is this: There are too many flavors now blurring out too many fundamental distinctions, but too few cogent definitions for all these new “concepts” of what it means to be a mere “flavour.”… Realize that the panpsychist would not be able to directly point out to a single instance of, say the table (or your T-shirt) as having some element of same kind of live which actually is present with the actual living beings.

If an alleged consciousness (or its elementary flavor or residue) cannot perform even a single action of distinguishing something consciously, but only follows the laws of physics in its actions, then what it possesses is not consciousness. Further, if an allegedly elementary form of life can have unconditional existence and never faces death, and leads to no actions other than those which follow from the laws of physics alone, then what it possesses is not life—not even in the elementary sense of the term.

In short, panpsychism is an untenable thesis.

Finally, let me reiterate that when I said that a pre-condition (or pre-consciousness, or “soul”) can remain associated with the inanimate matter too, that idea belongs to an entirely different class. It is not what panpsychists put forth.


Comments on what other bloggers have said, and a couple of relevant asides:

For the reasons discussed above, Motl[^]’s “proof” regarding panpsychism cannot be accepted as being valid—unless he, Koch, Chalmers, or others clarify what exactly they mean by terms such as “elementary” consciousness. Also, the elementary bits of “life”: can there be a \Phi of life too, and if yes, how does \Phi = 0 differ from ordinary loss of life (i.e. death) and the attendent loss of the \Phi of consciousness too.

As to Hossenfelder‘s post, if a given electron does not belong to the body of a conscious (living) being, then there exist no further complications in its physical evolution; the initial and boundary conditions specified in the purely physical terms are enough to describe its actions, its dynamical evolution, to the extent that such an evolution can at all be described using physics.

However, if an electron belongs to a conscious (living) being, then the entire of consideration of whether the electron by itself is conscious or not, whether it by itself thinks or not, becomes completely superfluous. The evolution of its motion now occurs under necessarily different conditions; you now have to bring the physical forces arising due to the action of life, of consciousness, via those additional continuing conditions. Given these additional forces, the system evolution once again follows the laws of physics. The reason for that, in turn, is this: whether an elementary particle like the electron itself is conscious or not, a big entity (like a man) surely is conscious, and the extra physical effects generated by this consciousness do have to be taken into account.

An aside: Philosophy of mind is not a handmaiden to physics or its philosophy:

While on this topic, realize that you don’t have to ascribe consciousness to the electrons of a conscious (living) being. For all you know, there could perhaps be an entirely new kind of a field (or a particle) which completely explains the phenomenon of consciousness, and so, electrons (or other particles of the standard model) can continue to remain completely inanimate at all times. We don’t know if such a field exists or not.

However, my main point here is that we don’t have to exhaust this question without observation; we don’t have to pre-empt this possibility by arbitrarily choosing to hinge the entire debate only on the particles of the standard model of physics, and slapping consciousness onto them.

Realize that the abstraction of consciousness (and all matters pertaining to it or preceding it, like the soul), is fundamentally “orthogonal” to the abstractions of physics, of physical reality. (Here, see my last post.) You don’t commit the error of taking a model (even the most comprehensive model) of physics, and implicitly ask philosophy of mind to restrict its scope to this model (which itself may get revised later on!) Physics might not be a handmaiden to philosophy, but neither is philosophy a handmaiden to physics.

Finally coming to Schlafly‘s post, he too touches upon Hossenfelder’s post, but he covers it from the advance viewpoints of free-will, mind-body connection, Galen’s argument etc.[^]. I won’t discuss his post or positions in detail here because these considerations indeed are much more complicated and advanced.

Another aside: How Galen’s argument involves a superfluous consideration:

However, one point that can be noted here is that Galen fails to make the distinction of whether the atom he considers exists as a part of a conscious (living) being’s body, or whether it is a part of some inanimate object. In the former case, whether the electron itself is conscious or not (and whether there is an extra particle or field of consciousness or not, and whether there is yet another field or particle to explain the phenomenon of life or not), a description of the physical evolution of the system would still have to include the aforementioned life-physical force. Thus, the issue of whether the electron is conscious or not is a superfluous consideration. In other words, Galen’s argument involves a non-essential consideration, and therefore, it is not potent enough to settle the related issues.


Homework for you:

  • If panpsychism were to be true, your credit card, spectacles, or T-shirt would be conscious in some “elementary” sense, and so, they would have to be able to hold some “elementary” items of cognition. The question is, where and through what means do you suppose it might be keeping it? That is to say, what are the physical (or physico-electro-chemical-etc.) correlates for their content of consciousness? For instance, can a tape-recorder be taken to be conscious? Can the recording on the tape be taken as the storage of its “knowledge”? If you answer “yes,” then extend the question to the tape of the tape-recorder. Can it be said to be conscious?
  • Can there be a form of consciousness which does not carry a sense of self even in the implicit terms? As it so actually happens, i.e., in reality, a conscious being doesn’t have to be able to isolate and consciously hold that it has self; but it only has to act with a sense of its own life, its own consciousness. The question asks whether, hypothetically, we can do away with that implicit sense of its own life and consciousness itself, or not.
  • Can there be a form of consciousness which comes without any mind-body integrating mechanisms such as some kinesthetic senses of feedback, including some emotions (perhaps even just so simple emotions such as the pleasure-pain mechanism)? Should there be medical specializations for addressing the mental health issues of tables? of electric switches? of computers?
  • Could, by any stretch of imagination, the elementary consciousness (as proposed by panpsychists) be volitional in nature?
  • Should there be a law to protect the rights of your credit card? of your spectacles? of your T-shirt? of a tape-recorder? of your laptop? of an artificial neural network running on your laptop?
  • To those who are knowledgeable about ancient Indian wisdom regarding the spiritual matters, and wish to trace panpsychism to it: If a “yogi” could do “tapascharyaa” even while existing only as an “aatmaa” i.e. even when he is not actually alive, then why should he at all have to take a birth? Why do they say that even “deva”s also have to take a human birth in order to break the bonds of “karma” and thereby attain spiritual purity?

More than three thousand words (!!) but sometimes it is necessary. In any case, I just wanted to finish off this topic so that I could return full-time to Data Science. (I will, however, try to avoid this big a post the next time; cf. my NYRs—2019 edition [^].)


A song I like:
(Marathi) “santha vaahate krushNaa maai”
Lyrics: Ga. Di. Madgulkar
Music: Datta Davajekar
Singer: Sudhir Phadke

 

A bit on Panpsychism—part 1: what its basis possibly could be

Panpsychism is an interesting theory from the philosophy of the mind [^] . This topic has a long history, and it has recently been put forth in a very engaging form by an Australian-American professor, Dr. David Chalmers [^]. I gather that there also have been others like Prof. Giulio Tononi [^] and Dr. Kristoph Koch [^]. However, I have not yet read them or watched their videos. So,  my discussion of panpsychism is going to be limited to what I understand about this theory after listening to only Prof. Chalmers. Prof. Chalmers discusses panpsychism mainly in the context of “the hard problem of consciousness.”

I had last year (in 2018) listened to Prof. Chalmer’s TedX talks, and also had browsed through some of his writings. However, I didn’t think of writing a post about it. The reason I am now writing this post is that several physicist have recently come to discuss it. See: “Electrons don’t think” by Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder [^] ; “Panpsychism is needed to quantify consciousness” by Dr. Lubos(h) Motl [^] , and “The mind-body problems” by Dr. Roger Schlafly [^].

In these couple of posts (this one and the next), I am going to note a few points about panpsychism—what I think of it, based on just some surface reading (and watching videos) on the topic by Prof. David Chalmers. My write-up here is exploratory, and for that reason, a bit meandering.


Panpsychism says (going by the definition of the term thrown up by a Google search on the word) that “everything material, however small, has an element of individual consciousness.” For this post, we will assume that this definition correctly characterizes panpsychism. Also see the Google Ngram, at this link: [^]


The thesis of panpsychism seems to have the following two ideas at its base:

(i) What we perceive can cut across the entirety of the existence.

There are no sub-categories of beings (or parts of existence) that can in principle (i.e. directly or indirectly) remain permanently inaccessible to us, i.e., to our means and methods of cognition. For instance, consider the fact that a technique like SEM (scanning electron microscope) can bring certain spatial features of bacteria or of nano-scale structures to a high-fidelity representation that is within the range of our direct perception. Something similar, for the idiot box in your room—it brings a remote scene “to life” in your room.

Notice that this philosophical position means: a denial of a “second” (or “third” etc.) world that is permanently inaccessible to the rest of us, but one that is, somehow, definitely accessible to philosophers of mysticism such as Plato or Kant.

(ii) The idea that what we perceive includes both the realms: the physical realm, and the realm of the mind or consciousness.

Obviously, by the “realm” of consciousness, we don’t mean a separate world. We here take the word “realm” in the sense of just a collective noun for such things as: the contents of consciousnesses, their actions, the products of their processes, etc., as beings having consciousness are observed to exist and be conscious of this world (or take conscious actions in it).

By the idea of the two abstract realms—physical and consciousness-related—we mean a categorically improved version of the Cartesian division—which is to say that our realms have no connection whatsoever to the actual Cartesian division.

[I don’t know if all advocates of panpsychism accept the above two ideas or not. However, when I began wondering what could possibly be the theoretical bases of this idea (of panpsychism), these two seemed to be the right kind of bases.]


Given the above two ideas, the logic of panpsychism basically seems to go something like this:

Since the world we can directly or indirectly perceive is all there is to existence, and since our perception includes both the physical and the consciousness-related aspects, therefore, we should take a direct jump to the conclusion that any part of the existence must carry both kinds of attributes—physical, and the consciousness-pertaining.


If you ask me, there is a problem with this position (of panpsychism). I will cover it in a separate post later this week. I would like to see whether, knowing the fact that I find the logic problematic, you would want to give it a try as to what the reasoning could be like, so that we could cross-check our notes. … Happy thinking!

Bye for now… [The songs section will come back in the next part, to be posted soon enough.]


Originally published on 2019.01.06 14:59 IST. Slightly revised (without introducing any new point) on 2019.01.07 10:15 IST.

“The spiritual heritage of India”

I wrote a few comments at Prof. Scott Aaronson’s blog, in response to his post of the title: “30 of my favorite books”, here [^].

Let me give you the links to my comments: [^], [^], [^] and [^].


Let me reproduce the last one of my four comments, with just so slight bit of editing. [You know I couldn’t have resisted the opportunity, right?]:

Since I mentioned the “upnishad”s above (i.e. here [ ^]), and as far as this topic is concerned, since the ‘net is so full of the reading material on this topic which isn’t so suitable for this audience, let me leave you with a right kind of a reco.

If it has to be just one short book, then the one which I would pick up is this:

Swami Prabhavananda (with assistance of Frederick Manchester), “The Spiritual Heritage of India,” Doubleday, New York, 1963.

A few notes:

1. The usual qualifications apply. For instance, I of course don’t agree with everything that has been said in the book. And, more. I may not even agree that a summary of something provided here is, in fact, a good summary thereof.

2. I read it very late in life, when I was already past my 50. Wish I had laid my hands on it, say, in my late 20s, early 30s, or so. I simply didn’t happen to know about it, or run into a copy, back then.

3. Just one more thing: a tip on how to read the above book:

First, read the Preface. Go through it real fast. (Reading it faster than you read the newspapers would be perfectly OK—by me).

Then, if you are an American who has at least a smattering of a knowledge about Buddhism, then jump directly on to the chapter on Jainism. (Don’t worry, they both advocate not eating meat!) And, vice-versa!!

If you are not an American, or,  if you have never come across any deeper treatment on any Indian tradition before, then: still jump on to the chapter on Jainism. (It really is a very good summary of this tradition, IMHO.)

Then, browse through some more material.

Then, take a moment and think: if you have appreciated what you’ve just read, think of continuing with the rest of the text.

Else, simple: just call it a book! (It’s very inexpensive.)

 


No need to add anything, but looking at the tone of the comments (referring to the string “Ayn Rand”) that got generated on this above-mentioned thread, I find myself thinking that, may be, given my visitor-ship pattern (there are more Americans hits today to my blog than either Indian or British), I should explain a bit of a word-play which I attempted in that comment (and evidently, very poorly—i.e. non-noticeably). It comes near the end of my above-quoted reply.

“Let’s call it a day” is a very neat British expression. In case you don’t know its meaning, please look it up on the ‘net. Here’s my take on it (without looking it up):

Softly folding away a day, with a shade of an anticipation that a day even better might be about to arrive tomorrow, and so, softly reminding yourself that you better leave the party or the function for now, so as to be able to get ready for yet another party, yet another function, some other day, later…

A sense of something like that, is implied by that expression.

I just attempted a word-play, and so, substituted “book” for the “day”.

Anyway, good night. Do read my last post, the document attached to it, and the links therefrom.

Bye for now.


Oh, yes! There is a song that’s been playing off-and-on at the back of my mind for some time. Let me share it with you.


A Song I Like:

(Hindi) “dil kaa diyaa jala ke gayaa…”
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultaanpuri
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Chitragupt

[PS: The order of the listing of the credits, once again, is completely immaterial here.]


Anyway, enjoy the song, and the book mentioned in the quotes (and hopefully, also my past few posts and their attachments)… I should come back soon, with a maths-related puzzle/teaser/question. … Until then, take care and bye!

A year later

Yesterday was the वर्षश्राद्ध (i.e. the special first-year rites or memorial service) for my late mother. In Maharashtra, the calender we follow for any spiritual matters and festivals is one of the lunar ones, and so, for the first year, the anniversaries comes some 10-odd days earlier as compared to the modern (i.e. Gregorian) calender.

Last year, some time after my mother passed away, I had browsed Internet sites having Marathi poems and songs or so. I had saved a few pages. Today I browsed that folder and found this poem. It’s by the well-known Marathi poet: Kusumaagraj, i.e., V. V. Shirwadkar. He has penned some of my most favourite poems. Also, as a matter of trivia, he hailed from a village which was within some 30–40 km radius from my maternal grandfather’s place. You can find a few references to that region (i.e., Nasik, “Saptashringi gaD”etc.) slip in, a few rare times, in his poetry. That made him even more special than he even otherwise was, to my mother (who had a fine taste in Marathi poetry and songs), and for that matter, also to me.

So, let me share one of his poems—one of my most favorite poems, in fact. It, now, also is pretty well known poem because it comes as a recorded song (Singer: Shridhar Phadake, Music: Yashwant Deo). For my English readers, I will also jot down my attempt at a translation.

First, the original, Marathi version:

काही बोलायाचे आहे

काही बोलायाचे आहे, पण बोलणार नाही
देवळाच्या दारामध्ये, भक्‍ती तोलणार नाही

माझ्या अंतरात गंध कल्पकुसुमांचा दाटे
पण पाकळी तयाची, कधी फुलणार नाही

नक्षत्रांच्या गावातले मला गवसले गूज
परि अक्षरांचा संग त्याला मिळणार नाही

मेघ जांभळा एकला राहे नभाच्या कडेला
त्याचे रहस्य कोणाला कधी कळणार नाही

दूर बंदरात उभे एक गलबत रूपेरी
त्याचा कोष किनार्‍यास कधी लाभणार नाही

तुझ्या कृपाकटाक्षाने झालो वणव्याचा धनी
त्याच्या निखार्‍यात कधी तुला जाळणार नाही

–कुसुमाग्रज”


Now, my (as usual prosaic) attempt at the translation

Have something to say

[I] have something to say, but won’t say anything
At the doorway of the temple, won’t weigh with the scales [my] devotion

In my inner realm crowds the fragrance of the heavenly [or all-desires-fulfilling] flowers
But [even] a petal of it won’t flower, ever

I found [or ran into] the buzz from the town of the [unmoving] heavenly constellations
But it won’t get the company of the written [or the expressed] word

A deep purple-blue cloud lives alone [somewhere] at the edge of the sky
Its secret won’t be known, ever, by any one

In the distant port floats a silvery sailboat
Its hull wouldn’t be received, ever, by the shoreline

With one side-look [or a casual but sharp glance] of Your bliss-imparting eyes I became the owner of a wild-fire
In the coals left glowing, I won’t burn You down, ever”

—“Kusumaagraj”


* * * * *   * * * * *   * * * * *

[PS: If I happen to think of some better ways to translate the poem, I may come back and improve this post a bit. … But, in any case, as indicated in my last post, this year, or at least in the near future, I would continue to blog only sparsely.]

[E&OE]

Translation seen as an exacting process

You might have heard (or read) about this mantra from the Upanishads:

“असतोमा सद्गमय ।
तमसोमा ज्योतिर्गमय ।
मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय ॥”

It’s one of the most commonly known mantras. Typically, the second line, i.e. “tamaso maa jyotirgamay,” is often adopted as the motto of educational institutions in India. (One of the schools I attended had it, and so does the Department of Mechanical Engineering at COEP, where I did my PhD.)

How well do we (I mean the quoting Indians) know about the exact meaning of this mantra?

Here is a typical translation, coming from, what else, Wiki [^]:

“from the unreal lead me to the real,
from the darkness lead me to the light,
from the dead lead me to the immortal”

Here is another translation, with a write-up that serves to highlight the kind of trickiness that is involved in translating a brief gem like this [^]:

“Lead me from the asat to the sat.
Lead me from darkness to light.
Lead me from death to immortality.”

Here, Vedarat, the translator, simply refuses to translate the terms “sat” and “asat”! Apparently, he cannot make up his mind whether Yadnyavalkya (the Vedic seer who authored this mantra) meant “existence” or “truth” when he uttered “sat.”

It obviously would be “truth” here, but realize the extent to which an acceptance of philosophic fallacies such as the primacy of consciousness and intrinsicism [^][^] help muddy any honest attempts at proper translation.

It would be a different matter if Yadnyavalkya himself were to mean “existence” or “reality” instead of “truth.” But that’s not the case here. And, he also would not intend to deliberately keep the matter ambiguous here; no ancient Vedic sage ever did. … Yes, you can find a lot of mysticism in his other writings as well. Yet, judging from the context, it should be obvious to anyone that the meaning he clearly had in mind here was “truth,” and not “reality.”

Yet, the latter-day mystics confuse the issue.

Translation is a demanding process; it is an exacting process. It requires not just sensitivity to the various possible nuances of a word, but also the clarity of thought as to the exact shade that the original author might have meant. That kind of a clarity in turn requires, at least for translation of abstract statements or statements of general philosophic truth, a sufficient knowledge of the basic philosophical issues and ideas. Far too often, people carelessly bring their own assumptions into translations, and it is impossible to detect their insertions unless you do a bit of philosophic detection.

For example, I am sure that the above Wiki translation was done by some Western guy, not Indian. (Or at least, in case it was an Indian, he was one who had very heavy Western influence on him.) Why do I say so? Simple.

Look at the third line in his translation. The translator offers: “from the dead lead me to the immortal.” Implicit idea here is that there is a realm of the dead, and of the immortals. But this is a very Christian idea (and, possibly, Abrahamic in general).

The ancient Vedic sages never thought in terms of a soul going into a state of limbo after death, or its awaiting the day of the final judgement at the hands of a robes-wearing, electricity-carrying masculine God at some uncertain time in future. Theirs was a far more naturalistic viewpoint; sometimes, it can even be taken to be rather atheistic in nature. They did not necessarily believe in a human-like God dispensing out judgements and deciding on the fate of the soul.

The soul, to the ancient Vedic authors, was a natural phenomenon. The states of the soul, to them, were bound simply by a causal law (such as the law of karma). The very idea of some other consciousness or soul directly affecting even the future course for some time, let alone its fate for eternity, would be unacceptable to them. At the most fundamental level, nothing else in the universe, no other power in the universe except for the wilful soul itself could determine its own “gati” (progress/direction) and its own state, according to their typical viewpoint. (This does not mean that, in principle, prayers wouldn’t be useful. More on that, sometime later.)

Therefore, they simply wouldn’t think in terms such as the realm of the dead—which is, historically, a very, very  recent idea, and specifically Christian (or Abrahamic) in source. Not Vedic.

However, the point I wanted to make today was not about the meaning of “sat.” It was about the form of the statement that every English (or even Marathi/Hindi etc.) translation of this ancient Sanskrit mantra takes. It’s a very curious thing, all by itself. I mean, the form suggested by the part “lead me…”

Implicit in such a form is the idea that there is someone other than you in the picture. He would lead you from A to B, where A are all undesirable things, and B are the desirable ones. You thereby assume a more passive role. It’s his leadership that really counts. It’s almost as if your leader is capable of leading you from light to darkness, but since you have no power left over your own fate, you end up earnestly urging him to do otherwise, to lead you from darkness to light.

And that’s why, I often thought, that the prayer was laughable.

If you don’t have any independent means to figure out whether the journey is occurring from bad to good, and not from good to bad, and, further, if you also essentially need an external agency, a leadership, for that journey, then, these two facts put together, leave you completely at the mercy of the leader. Essentially, it makes a spiritual slave out of you.

From my readings of the Upanishads over the past decade or so, I knew that they could be sometimes completely mystic, but not always so. And, they could easily go to the highest reaches of abstraction, the most fundamental philosophic matters. But precisely because they are so abstract and so lofty in terms of the subject matter and the goals, they therefore wouldn’t be capable of creating a prayer of such a form, I thought. Certainly not when what they were aiming for was the “peace of the soul.”

After all, this is one of the Upanishadic “shaanti mantras”. It is not a mantra for propitiation of whimsical Gods as in the main Vedas; Upanishads come after the Vedas. And, this is one of the mantras that are supposed to be recited either before the commencement of studies or meditations, or at the end of it all—the rituals, or studies, or meditations, so as to consolidate it all, via a moment of peace.

And, so, I decided to look more closely at this mantra.

And, I figured out that my suspicion was right. There is no hint of someone else leading you at all, contained in that mantra. The whole idea is an extraneous, parasitical idea that some translator initially inserted, and then, all the latter-day translators picked up this habit. Obviously, out of some interesting underlying philosophic motivations!

Let me take just one line for illustration, viz., “tamaso maa jyotirgamay.”

First, let us split up the “sandhi” (or jointed) words into their components, and note the forms of the nouns and the verbs.

“tamas” means things such as the inactivity or dullness of the soul, or (the literal) darkness, or the darkness of the soul. “tamaso” has “tam” at its root, and “tam” means darkness. “tamas” is a derived word that means something that derives from or issues from or is a byproduct of, darkness. “tamaso,” in turn, is the modification to “tamas;” such a modification implies that a “from” kind of a relationship applies in this context. So, “tamaso” means: “from darkness dullness [literally, or from darkness or dullness of the soul].”

“maa” simply means “no” or “not”. Think of the modifiers like “un-” “non-“, “in-” etc. in English. They all are negators in various senses. Similar is the “maa” in sanskrit. It is a modifier that serves to negate. (And, if I recall my Sanskrit correctly, it is a strong form of a negation. “Don’t at all!” is the sense conveyed by “maa.”)

What is being negated here? Of course the “tamas.” No “tamas!” That’s what “tamaso maa” means.

The next word is “jyotirgamaya.” It’s a compound word made from two components: “jyoti” and “gamaya”.

When the form assumed by “jyoti” is such that it has the “visarg” (or what is denoted by a colon), resulting in “jyotihi”, and when it combines with something beginning with a vowel like “ga” then the “hi” is to be replaced by “r-.”

“jyoti” is a noun that means things such as: flame, light, brightness, etc. Now, “jyotihi” is the first person (or case) singular form of this noun which would makes “jyoti” the subject, or alternatively, “jyoteehee” would be the second case plural form, which would make it the object. I would rather rely on context than the knowledge of today’s Sankrit typists, and thereby conclude that here it is the first case singular, and so, the “jyot-” here has the “rhasva” (or short) “i”, not the “deergha” (or long) “ee”.

“gamay” is a modified form of the verb “gama.”

“gama” itself means: “to go.” The well-known usages of this root-verb appear in “gaman,” which means “departure” or “going away,” and “aagaman” which means “arrival.” (“aagaman,” literally speaking, only means: “anti-departure;” it is derived by applying the “a” modifier, another negator, to the more basic “gaman.” Now, anti-departure, of course, means: arrival. Sanskrit sometimes seems to work in a funny way, at least initially, but then, realize that if you keep man at the epistemological center of the universe, then from the viewpoint, going is more natural than coming. The actor in coming is someone else—not you. The actor in going, however can be you, yourself. And, thus, departure is not defined as anti-arrival; it is arrival that is defined as anti-departure.)

Now, the modification implicit in “gamay” is all that is left to discuss, and so, you can easily see that the particular form of this modification (as got after starting from the root “gama”) could be the real game-settler.

Unfortunately, my knowledge of Sanskrit is not at all good; in fact, it is barely elementary. (I just had two years of Sanskrit in the 8th and 9th standard, and that too, only as half of one language subject—the other half being Hindi.) And, unfortunately, I could not easily locate from an Internet search any easily traceable document or a text-book that shows a verb similar to “gama” going to the modified form “gamay.” A lot of material is easily found that shows “gama” –> “gachchati” etc., but not “gama” –> “gamaya.” The Spoken Sanskrit dictionary  [^] has “gamayati” but not “gamaya.”

From the best guess that I can make, “gamay” could be something like the “bhaave prayog” implied probably for the plural in Sanskrit, i.e. for many persons (more than two persons) in general. Or, it could be something like a “bhaave prayod” but for a single person. Thus, it would mean something like “may I/we go”

So, “jyotirgamay” simply means: “may I/we go towards brightness.”

Putting it all together, the translation should read something like:

“From darkness, may I/we go towards brightness.”

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. … There is no dark world let alone the world of the dead, and there is no bright world for eternity. And, there is no leader either, not even implicitly.

The words—the roots, their modifiers, the resultant modifications (i.e. the sense of the grammatical person, etc.) and the rules of “sandhi” i.e. of joining parts of words—all put together, go on to state only this much. “From darkness may I/we go towards brightness.” A sense of “being lead” is not even hinted at. There is no leader, not even implicitly, and there is no action of being lead—not even implicitly.

Yet, every English translation goes like “Lead me from…”

The psychology and philosophy of these translators might make for an interesting thought, wouldn’t it? They want to insert something that Yaadnyavalkya (or whoever first wrote that mantra) didn’t obviously have in mind, in the first place. And they do so with a philosophic viewpoint that is mystical, passiveness-primary, and implying of a leader—i.e. mystical, action-negating and therefore virtue-negating, and collectivist.

All the authors and commentators—whether Western or Indian—are guilty of exactly this crime. Via a faulty translation, they at least passively and implicitly further the axis of mysticism, amoralism and collectivism.

And, that kind of an interpretation is smeared on Yaadnyavalkya’s original hymn expressing the exalted human soul’s earnest desire for its own betterment—and, by implication, on its own.

On the occasion of this Diwali, let’s earnestly resolve to reach for the truth from any state of ignorance; to go towards the brightness of gaining knowledge from a state of the inactivity of the soul; and to go from every position or principle (or actions) that is destructible or un-maintenable in the long run (or any position that carries contradiction) towards the positions or principles that are insusceptible to destruction—the positions or principles that are enduring or permanent. Let’s resolve to do that.

And, let’s resolve to do it as a matter of our individual responsibility, and without being dependent on any other person—i.e. independently.

[For obvious reasons, there won’t be “A Song I Like” section—this prayer itself, if said with a proper understanding the meaning of its words, and with sufficient solemnity, is a song. And, it is a song that I do like.]

[E&OE]