• Recommended Posts

  • Browse By Category

  • Browse By Timeline

  • Advertisements

Everything is Same as Nothing.


Embed from Getty Images

I read an interesting article on a physics related website. About Scientists studying behavior of matter, atoms and such, at extremely high temperature. There is a way the atoms distribute themselves on different energy levels. A particular pattern called Boltzmann distribution.

A weird thing happens at infinitely high temperature. This distribution, this pattern gets inverted. And it almost looks like….. extremely low temperature.

So the matter, when heated to extremely high temperature looks like it is cooled to extremely low temperature.

A paradox indeed. But not infrequently this paradox morphs in our lives.

For example, sometimes I think, more is less. Or having everything is same as nothing. Or being richest person in the world might be in some ways similar to being poorest one.

Consider “more is less”. Say you own one object that provides pleasurable experience. You value that experience and thus your value of that object depends on the quality of experience it provides to you.

Now add another object. Adding one object adds positive value to your overall experience because you have one more way of enjoying life. But then there is added logistics that comes with every new object. Keeping them working, keeping them handy so you can find them when you desire, and so on. Work gets added. That is negative value.

As you go on adding objects faster and faster, any incremental positive value starts diminishing. Because there is only so much time you have in a day, so your positive experiences have upper limit. But your negative value, the overhead of maintaining and organizing all the objects goes on increasing exponentially.

In fact at some point the overhead starts taking so much of your time that you are not left with time to enjoy the objects you own.

And soon comes a point where you own everything but you enjoy nothing. It’s as if you don’t own any objects that can give you pleasure.

Not looking at the books and accounting, but if you looked at it from the point of cognitive impact, owning everything becomes same as owning nothing.

Sometimes I think life, more like the experience of life, is like a circle more than line.

Eternal life is same as eternal death. Owning everything is like owning nothing. Ultimate pain is ultimate joy. Infinity is same as zero. Perfect success is same as perfect failure.

Best to go on with an open mind.

Advertisements

Advaita Vedanta and Quantum Physics


Embed from Getty Images

Advaita Vedanta is a theory in Indian philosophy, literaly translated as Non Duality. The Sanskrit word Advaita is made of a two parts “dvaita’, meaning duality (notice the similarity between the words dvaita and duality, which points to relation of Sanskrit to Latin as part of Indo European family), and the negating prefix “A”.

At it’s core, the philosophy states that when the two beings, or two entities are deemed separate, the separation is only matter of perception. And the underlying entity that makes up both those things, and the forms the perception as well, is the same. The same entity, nameless, faceless, is responsible for all creation in this universe.

To put in sort of mathematical statement, when we think

1 + 1 = 2

Advaita says

1 entity + sense of being two = 2 entities

On a spiritual level, it means me and you and anyone, are animated by the same spiritual energy. Sort of like that spiritual energy having multiple personality disorder. However it would be wrong to use the word disorder here because disorder usually makes functional life impossible but in this case, this spiritual energy displaying multiple personalities makes the very life possible. Also unlike a human showing multiple personalities one after another, for this spiritual energy, multiple personalities can exist at the same time.

Advaita philosophy proposes a radical shift in perception. It moves, the very foundation  of humanity, the identity or the distinction between identities, into an abstract notion. So on some plane of existence, the differences between you and me are abstract, or a thought, or a dream, and you and me are one existence on that plane.

******************************

Quantum physics is the branch of science that deals with atomic and subatomic level. The more we are studying quantum physics, the more things we find that straight fly in face of our intuition. Take for example the phenomena of entanglement. If you take a bundle of energy and make two particles from it, those particles somehow show some relation to one another. When you do something to affect one particle, the other particle instantaneously shows a response. As if they have a connection.

What if we separate the particle? That does not seem to make difference. You can separate them by a large distance, but the connection remains. When you “tickle” one particle, the other one “giggles”. And the tickle and giggle seem to happen instantaneously.

This is impossible according to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Nothing in this universe should travel at a speed faster than light. If tomorrow moon suddenly doubles in size, it’s gravitational pull will increase on earth. But that gravitational impact will also travel at speed of light, not faster than that. It will take some time before earth feels increased gravity.

So what kind of communication signal is transmitted between the particles that travels faster than speed of light? Not just faster than speed of light, it seems to travel at infinite speed, many many times that of the light. The very best measurement instruments on earth tried to measure this speed and still they could not. The tickle and giggle happens at very exact same moment.

So could it be that on another level of existence, the energy that makes up these particles is concrete but the space around them is an abstraction? As if the particles are one on a level but then some abstraction manifests itself as space and shape the differentiation between the two particles? So in a nutshell,

1 entity + sense of spacial differentiation = 2 entities?

Could the Quantum physics and Advaita converge into similar insight, one from material world and another from spiritual world, that we are all one under the cloak of duality?

What Makes Something ‘A Medicine’?


Embed from Getty Images

I have been planing to write this post for a long time.

I belong to several Whatsapp groups of friends and families. Many messages get forwarded on Whatsapp. There is a specific type of messages that get a lot of momentum. Messages that claim something is a herbal, Ayurvedic medicine.

So far I have received messages claiming medicinal properties in several fruits, vegetables, herbs, tree leaves, roots, barks, seeds, some common, some exotic. I have been told that anything from lemon to clove oil can cure cancer.

But I can tell you that when my father had cancer, nothing helped him other than established medicine. We tried many things, we really did. And some things did more harm than good. But the only thing that made any difference was Chemotherapy.

And that’s what prompted me to write this article.

There is a widely accepted theory that there is a big giant cartel of Pharma companies and doctors that is out to rip patients. And there may be some truth in that, but on a large scale, there are more good people than bad. There are plenty of companies and scientists working hard to find medicines for diseases. There is a very structured drug development process.

Before I begin to tell you the process let me tell you one thing. Have you heard of a sentence “You can fool others but you cannot fool yourself?” That’s a lie. You can fool yourself. People do that all the time. Your mind can play tricks on you. Psychologists have done plenty of research on that. These tricks are called cognitive biases. Here are a couple important ones.

Confirmation bias – where people like to look for information that proves what they already believe and ignore the information that disproves their belief. This is why Republicans read only news supporting Republican views and so do Democrats. Or to put in Indian context, BJP supporters read only news that makes BJP look good and Congress supporters do the same for Congress. This can lead them away from a balanced view. Sometimes there is a necessary correction that happens when you read other person’s viewpoint, but when you read biased news, that correction does not happen.

Availability bias – people tend to overestimate the probability of events that have recently occurred. This is why a large number of people buy earthquake insurance just after earthquake. Ironically a second major earthquake is much less likely after one has already happened, but people believe it is more likely because they have just experienced it.

If you want to read about cognitive biases, which I recommend you should do because it is fascinating, the Wikipedia article is here. It will make you aware of your own biases and will improve your decision making ability.

Coming back to the medicine world. There are some mental traps that are super common to the medicine development.

One very common mental trap observed in the field of medicine is placebo effect. People just feel better with the thought that they have taken medicine. Often times the relief in symptoms such as headache, nausea, dizziness is very significant and pronounced. This effect can even be seen when false medicine given to the person. Because what is helping them is the thought, not the medicine.

Second mental trap is confounders. E.g. one time doctors observed that a group of people drinking a particular type of wine were living longer. But upon more analysis they found that it was just a costly wine and those who could afford it were rich and could afford better healthcare. So it was not the wine that was helping health, but it was the money, which happened to be the reason why people could afford that wine.

Over the years scientists have developed a very mature and thorough process of deciding whether something is medicine that has checks and guards for most of the mental traps, or cognitive biases.

In the first stage of medicine development, mostly a mechanism is identified. How a particular drug has some effect on particular molecules. If an experiment can be repeated, an hypothesis is built.

In second stage, trials are done in petri dish. Or on animals. If satisfactory results are obtained, then human trials are planned.

In third stage, a small dose escalation trial is conducted. Few people take the medicine and the dose is taken up to see how much dose can be tolerated. If people tolerate the dose well, then the next step.

In fourth step, a larger group of people is selected. IT is made sure that the selection is as diverse as possible for gender, race, age, etc. Typically the experiments at this and next stages are “double blind placebo controlled randomized “. Placebo controlled means a some people get something that looks like medicine, but is really a harmless substance. Some people get the real medicine. If the number of people showing benefit from placebo group is almost same as number of people from medicine group, then you know it’s not the medicine effect but placebo effect at play. Also neither the people themselves, nor the scientists observing the people know who is getting what. This is to avoid their own mental bias. Because if they know who is getting medicine, they might suffer from confirmation bias. I.e. they will tend to focus more on improvements in people who took medicine and report that more prominently. The word randomized means it is decided randomly who gets medicine and who gets placebo. Otherwise if only men get medicine and women get placebo, and men were to respond to medicine better, that would give us a skewed result of how effective the medicine really is.

In fifth step, even a large group, perhaps hundreds or sometimes thousands is selected and same, double blind placebo controlled randomized study is performed. Details records are kept. Approvals are filed.

If everything looks good, at this stage the drug becomes a medicine. But it does not end here. The doctors keep a keen eye on patients taking new drugs and report their findings. That includes side effects, improvements, everything. Sometimes if there are too many serious side effects, drugs are recalled and banned.

At each and every step, the reports of experiments are published in leading scientific journals and other scientists rip it apart to find faults in the theory, the experiment method etc. If the faults are serious, they are improved and experiments are repeated.

After such a long and arduous journey, something becomes a drug.

And when a drug goes through such a long process, we can trust it. That’s why Aspirin or Paracetamol works like clockwork for us. That’s why we know whether a drug is good for babies, or for pregnant women, or for old people. We know what are the most common side effects. We know what is the right dosage.

Now compare this to whatsapp message you received. Do you really think it has gone that much scrutiny? Just because it’s part of our folklore and tradition, should we let it escape all this scrutiny?

Believe me, I am not against herbal medicines. I personally have experience of one medicine that helps me when I have cough – Harad, or (Terminalia Chebula). However I think we should study them scientifically. I am not arguing against the type of medicine. I am arguing against the process by which we declare something a medicine. We have to perfect the process and rely on it. Not rely on personal opinions. Because? Persons have cognitive biases.

We should not just accept them because it’s mentioned in our old books. If it’s the truth, it will stand the scrutiny. If it’s not, we accept someone made a mistake in writing those books.

Often times I think people have cultural lines drawn in their mind. They think accepting superiority of Western medicine is accepting superiority of Western culture. Our culture has been wronged by Western culture, by colonialism specifically. And I get that. But nothing wrong or shameful in taking what’s right in the culture we have problems with. After all, we speak their language and wear their style of clothes.

Actually this type of rigorous examining, critical thinking was far too common in ancient India. They have entire field devoted to that called “Nyayashastra”.  It’s we who departed from our rich tradition of critical thought process  and logic.  We have given way to emotional reasoning. If it makes us feel bad, then it must be wrong. And this habit of reasoning is hurting us more than healing.

These messages and medicinal tips are always shared with good intentions. “May be it will help someone” is what we think. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Too many disasters caused in this world by good intentions that lack wisdom. Having too many medicinal suggestions but not knowing which one to put your confidence in, not knowing which one you can trust when your health is in delicate state, is not really helpful.

What’s most important is the truth. It’s the truth we need to make higher priority.And if we are not sure what is truth, then we must hold our good intentions in check till we find out what is the truth.

Next time if someone forward you a bunch of message describing something has medicinal properties, please forward them this article. Let’s educate ourselves and spread the truth.

Mind Shapes Words and Words Shape Mind


While walking in the park and trying to be mindful, I stumbled into the thoughtless, wordless state of mind. The engine that spewed out words just slowed down and stopped. At that point, the whole world around me remained just an endless stream of sensations. Breeze brushing against my skin, the sound of birds, the sight of trees and clouds, the road under my feet, all  were just there.

At that point I realized something. Not only the sensations shape the experience, but also the words we choose to describe the experience shape our experience . Calling weather “freezing” indeed makes it feel like a tad more cold than it is. When we utter or think of a word, all the previous memories of using that word are present and standing in the shadow of that word. We are so used to the endless  monologue going on in our mind that we don’t realize it’s power to shape our perception.

I had heard several spiritual speakers talking about this fact. But it’s always different when you experience it. I played with this while driving back. At the read light simply saying to myself “Oh, my luck is always so bad. I never get straight green lights.” indeed puts my mind in the victim mode. Or otherwise saying “I am not in a hurry anyway.” makes it not that big a deal.

Just like quantum particles exist as probabilities and collapse to concrete state at the moment of observation, the experience seems to be a set of probabilities collapsing into a structure, a narrative, the moment we use words to describe it.

According to Heisenberg uncertainty principle,  you can accurately determine either position of the particle or it’s velocity, but not both. The same way, we can either attend the sensations in the experience or attempt the capture in words. We can’t do both. It’s like at a tourist spot,  we can either look at  the beautiful mountains or try to get a good pictures so we can record it.

Just one more way our mind may possess quantum nature. It’s a mystery for sure.

 

Quantum Identity


Embed from Getty Images

Before some days I read about a quantum experiment. Scientists were able to separate a particle from it’s properties and send the particle via one route and the property via another route till they merged at some point again. The most commonly cited anology was that of a Cheshire cat from the story Alice in wonderland. In that story the cat vanishes but it’s smile remains visible.

Another poor anology was cited at some other places was that of an airline passenger being separated from his luggage. I don’t think that’s appropriate because luggage is not the property of the passenger.

I think the more appropriate example is, let’s say if someone was able to separate your height from you and pack it in a box. Until that box opened, no one would be able to know your height. You travel via some route and the box travels via another route. On the way, no one is able to measure your height until you are separated from the box. But once you reach the destination and the box arrives as well via different route, you open the box and voila! Now suddenly you and everyone around you can know your height.

That sounds bizzare, right? Welcome to the world of quantum mechanics.

Now that makes me think. What if we separate multiple properties of the particle. What if we separate all observable properties of the particle and send all the properties by route A and the particle without properties by route B. What is really traveling by route B? Does the particle have any existence without all it’s properties? What is a particle if it does not have mass, volume, density, speed, etc. etc.?

If I see one particle here and if I see another exactly same particle there, all I know is that they have same observable properties. But what is beyond these properties that is same or different?

Applying the same logic, if I see a friend pass me on my way to work, and if I see exactly the same person pass me again a little further down, I will conclude that the second one cannot be my friend. May be his look alike. Because my friends already passed by me some time back. But if I cannot rely on observable properties to be associated with their owner, what is really same in same things? And what is really different in different things? If a particle’s identity cannot be fixed, how can we fix the identity of things made of such particles?

I pin the external identity to observable properties. I pin the internal identity (which I am only able to experience for myself) on a state of consciousness that contains continuity of memories. Since I can never know anyone elses’ consciousness, what am I left with if I don’t have properties to rely on?

It’s just an identity crisis on a whole new dimension.

May be I understand quantum mechanics. Or may be I don’t. 🙂 🙂