Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The "lyre & harmony" analogy of Simmias

The scene is from Plato's dialogue "Phaedo". Phaedo who was present with Socrates on the day of his execution, narrates the events of that day to his friend Echechrates.

Socrates is condemned by the Athenian to be poisoned to death, on the false charges brought by the trio Anytus, Meletus & Lycon. But, Socrates is not at all worried about death, and converses calmly with his friends on various topics. The conversation inevitably moves onto topics like death, life after death, soul, etc.

Seeing that his friends are surprised at his calmness, Socrates says that "...he, who has the spirit of philosophy, will be willing to die; but he will not take his own life." Death is preferable to life because the true state of man is his soul, and his body and the soul's attachment to the body is only a temporary corrupted state. A man is not supposed to take his own life because, his life is not his own property but that of the gods. The philosopher prefers the true knowledge and wisdom of the uncorrupted soul to the illusions and sufferings of the body.

Having given the Soul a higher plane of existence than the Body, Socrates proceeds to clear the confusion of his friend Cebes that the Soul may perish along with the Body, by giving a set of arguments to prove the immortality of the Soul:

i) Cyclical Argument:
Like asleep-awake, hot-cold, odd-even, etc. opposites generally have a tendency to follow each other. Death & Life being opposites follow each other. From life to death and death to life runs the cycle.

ii) Recollection Argument: Many times one kind of information or knowledge may indirectly trigger the recollection of other kinds of information or knowledge. Also people tend to have knowledge about topics which they were unaware of before being questioned about (a priori knowledge). This kind of knowledge is nothing more than recollection, which is possible only due the fact that the knowledge was there in the Soul beforehand.The Soul is not a clean slate (Tabula Rasa) at birth, but has knowledge from its previous births, which could be recollected.

iii) Affinity Argument:
The soul resembles that which is invisible, immortal and divine, and the body resembles that which is visible, mortal and earthly. The soul is related to the divine whereas the body is related to the corporeal. Hence the soul and its existence is not limited to the body to which it is temporarily attached.

iv) Absolute Form Argument:
Every phenomenon on Earth is an corrupted subset of an absolute and perfect form of itself. The beautiful is a limited representation of the divine absolute beauty, worldly knowledge is a limited representation of divine absolute knowledge, etc. Similarly, the physical life of the body is a limited representation of the "Absolute Form of Life" the soul. Hence soul is immortal.

Everyone around are captivated by the logic of these arguments. But two people Simmias and Cebes are doubtful. Their objections are as follows:
Simmias:- The harmony (music) of the lyre perishes before the lyre itself. How can the soul (the harmony) continue to exist when the body(the lyre) is destroyed?
Cebes:- The Soul may not perish with the body, but that doesn't mean its immortal. A weaver may weave many coats and outlive most of them, but the last coat he weaves shortly before his death outlives the weaver. Similarly, the soul may outlive many bodies, but can get gradually worn out and finally its last body will outlive the soul.

The listeners are dumbstruck. Both are powerful objections in front of which the earlier arguments of Socrates looks invalid. However Socrates takes the arguments one by one and defends the immortality of the Soul.

Before going into the details of Socrates' defense of the Soul's immortality, it may be worthwhile to understand the exact nature in which Socrates understood the term "Soul". Socrates had a materialistic view of the Soul. For him and for most people of those times, heaven and supernatural were physical places. The soul was a material entity just like the body, the only difference being that it has a higher plane of existence, is divine, and immortal.

The following were the arguments Socrates brought forth against Simmias:
i) In case of lyre and harmony, the lyre always influences the harmony and its never the other way around, but the soul influences the body through its thought and will. Hence the analogy is not valid. The body follows the soul but the lyre never follows the harmony, hence lyre-harmony is not analogous to body-soul.
ii) There are different degrees of harmony. A harmony can be lesser or greater in degree than others, whereas there is no such distinction for the soul.
iii) Harmony is a compound composed of the sum of its constituent elements. The soul a single entity and is not a compound.

The argument of Simmias has much relevance today. It turns out the empirical evidence and modern Science favors Simmias than Socrates. Benjamin Libet (1916-2007) has shown that conscious volitional acts start with the body and not the mind. The brain activity leading to a thought impulse happens a split second before we actually become aware of it. If so the lyre-harmony analogy of Simmias holds, and Socrates was wrong in saying that the soul leads the body.

Modern science has irrefutably shown the material basis (in the brain) of mental activities like memory, learning, recollection, etc. Hence, most of the faculties of soul that Socrates identified with (like recollecting, correlating, etc.) are dependent on the material brain. Once again it looks like Simmias was right and Socrates was wrong.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Swamis, Gurus, Godmen

The "Swami Nithyananda Sex Scandal" is a major news item now-a-days. The poor Swamiji was unfortunate enough to have his LILA (divine play) with an actress captured on video, and watched by the public.

He is only the latest among a string of unfortunate Gurus and Swamis to get caught recently.

The newspapers as usual celebrate such sensational news. The responses are varied. The Guru's followers & well wishers would see it as a conspiracy by the enemies of truth. A few others who follow some other Guru or Mata would consider the culprit Swami as a fake Guru (their own Guru being the true one). The hard core atheist will consider it as another example of the evil called Religion.

But behind any fraud/crime by the so called Gurus or Babas,; what happens is nothing more than the act of a normal human being expressing his or her basal natures (be it lust, selfishness, greed, narcissism, or egoism). In that way the Gurus are no more evil than any average person. The real fault is not on the Guru who claimed to be enlightened or superhuman or divine, but with the followers who believed it.

What applies to Hindu Swamis would very well apply to many Christian faith healers, and to a lesser extent to some Muslim apologists and faith healers.

The number of such Gurus and Godmen all over India is staggering and would easily run into thousands. Only the most successful come on TVs and create web sites.

Does a Swami, Guru, Baba, Godman, Amma, or Faith Healer have to do something very seriously bad (like a sex scandal, murder, etc.) before we realize that they are nothing more than ordinary human beings (whatever be the spiritual state they claim, or whatever be the extra asanas they teach, or whatever direct contact they claim to have with God)?

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Early Church Fathers

The average Christian of today more or less takes it for granted that all that he/she believes in and all that is part of the Church today were there from the beginning of Christianity. But history shows that many of the core Christian ideas that we take for granted today, have an evolutionary history of their own. And The Early Church Fathers had a major role in that.

Understanding the ideas and times of the Early Fathers can give us a better view of why Christian theology is the way it is now. And without these great men, the history of Christianity and the World would have been very different.

Some of the important ones are:

Tertullian, (ca. 155–230)
He introduced the term Trinity the way it is accepted by the Church today. He defined the concept of Trinity with the term Consubstantiality (Tres Personae, Una Substantia - Three Persons, One Substance). Unlike the modern Christian belief, he held that all people (Christians & non-Christians) will be in harmony with God ultimately (the greek term is Apokatastasis).

St. Irenaeus (2nd Century)
A disciple of Polycarp, one of his major influences was his idealogical battle against Gnosticism.

Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 - ca.216)
With his emphasis on the importance of both knowledge and faith, he had a great impact on later Fathers like Origen, St. Jerome, etc. Like Tertullian, he believed in the Apokatastasis principle.

Origen (185–ca. 254)
A mystic and philosopher. His writings were perhaps the first intellectual attempt to describe and defend Christian principles. He mixed Platonism and Stoic philosphy with Christian principles, to give faith an intellectual basis. He too held the Apokatastasis principle of salvation for all irrespective of their religion.

Athanasius of Alexandria (293 – 373)
A contemporary of Arius. His defense of the official dogma against that of Arius and his followers, was the beginning of a long conflict with Arianism. Famous for the Athanasian Creed that rejected Arianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, and Macedonianism.

Basil of Caesarea (ca. 329 - 379)
Famous for his idealogical battles against Arianism and other heresies. He is well known for his charitable works as well.

Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (ca.337 – 397)
Played the decisive role in suppressing Arianism and pushing Roman paganism to the background, which would have had a phenomenal impact on the future of Christianity.

St. Jerome (ca. 342 - 419)
Translation of the entire Bible into Latin (Vulgate). The Vulgate was to have a major impact on the faith, art & culture of Christian Europe for more than 1000 years. Some scholars even hold that it had an important role in the development of many European languages.

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354 – 430)
An intellectual and philosophical giant both for Christianity and Western thought. And perhaps the most important person for Christianity after Jesus and Paul. Many of the popular Christian concepts today were either propounded or clarified by him. He expounded the concept of Original Sin as accepted by all major Churches today. Another important principle that came from him was the theory of Just War (fighting for a just cause), as opposed to the traditional "Turn the Other Cheek" principle. He also held that the Bible should be interpreted symbolically and not literally.

Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 604)
He had a major role in transforming the Papacy to a seat of real power.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Eric Brewer's CAP Theorem & Eventual Consistency

CAP theorem and the concept of "Eventually Consistent" has gained prominence over the last few years. The extreme scalability requirements for massive social networking and content sites has been one of the main driving factors for this.

Brewer's CAP Theorem: There are three core system requirements for designing and deploying data centric applications in a distributed environment; Consistency (C), Availability (A), and Partition Tolerance (P). At a given time a distributed system can guarantee only two of them, an not all the three.

In traditional RDBMS systems, transactional consistency is guaranteed by going for Consistency (C) and Availability (A) at the exclusion of Partition Tolerance (P).
In many non-RDBMS persistence mechanisms (particularly the highly scalable NoSQL variants like CouchDB, Voldemort, MongoDB, etc.), Availability (A) and Partition Tolerance (P) is guaranteed at the cost of Consistency (C).

ACID vs Eventually Consistent:
Traditional RDBMS systems can guarantee ACID (Atomicity, Consistency, Integrity, Durability), and in effect tries to ensure that the data is consistent at any given instant. But for most business systems instantaneous consistency is not a real requirement, and most of them can tolerate some time delay for data consistency.

The concept of being "Eventually Consistent", doesn't try to make the data instantaneously consistent but can guarantee that the data will be consistent eventually after a deterministic period of time.

This acceptable relaxation in consistency allows persistence systems like NoSQL to get the benefit of extreme scalability by going for A & P and relaxing the C in CAP.

Eric Brewer's Original Presentation can be found here.
A fairly detailed explanation of CAP by Julian Browne.

Simple, God fearing, Aristocratic Family & MNC

- He/she is simple, God fearing
- We hail from an aristocratic family from XXXX place
- Working in one of the top MNCs
- He/She excels in everything he/she does

Yes these are from matrimonial ads (Circumstantial pressures force me to see many of them as of recent).

"Simple, God fearing, Aristocratic Family & MNC". Are all of these words compatible with each other?

If a person is simple and God fearing (unless that means God Himself fears the person in question) why the claim of aristocratic (a meaningless term with roots in society's feudal past) and MNC (quite a nonsense in today's world of outsourcing, considering the maintainence type work and and the not so great salaries in most of the so called MNCs)?