A Gnostic's Notebook

Nothing Is for Your Eyes Only

Bibek Debroy is chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council
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Welcome to the world beyond human sensory organs

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey used to be a rage once. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke wrote the screenplay and after the film was released, Arthur C. Clarke wrote a book with the same title. (There was a short story by Arthur C Clarke that inspired the film, but that’s not what I want to bring up.) In both the film and the book, there is a character named Moon-watcher. He was a leader of the man-apes. Moon-watcher features prominently in the film too, but there is a quote that you will only find in the book: ‘Of all the creatures who had yet walked on Earth, the man-apes were the first to look steadfastly at the Moon. And though he could not remember it, when he was very young, Moon-Watcher would sometimes reach out and try to touch that ghostly face rising above the hills. He had never succeeded, and now he was old enough to understand why. For first, of course, he must find a high enough tree to climb.’ That quote, about Moon-watcher finding a high enough tree to touch the moon, has never left me.

In 1884, a school-teacher named Edwin Abbott Abbott published a book titled Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. This was social satire and Flatland was a 2-dimensional world. Women were straight lines. Men were polygons and their position in the social hierarchy determined how many sides the polygon possessed. A sphere arrives in this 2-dimensional world. There is a Square in this 2-dimensional world and encountering the Sphere, he refuses to believe there is a world of 3-dimensions. The Square becomes the Sphere’s student. Having studied from his teacher, the Square argues that, logically, there must be a 4-dimensional world, a 5-dimensional world and so on. Since the Sphere cannot comprehend a world of more than 3-dimenstions, he disowns his erstwhile student. By the way, not to be confused with Flatland, there is a Flat Earth Society (with a website and members). This believes the world is flat. Every statistician has heard of the philosopher and statistician Thomas Bayes (1701-1761). He is famous for Bayes’ Theorem, which enables you to work out the conditional probability of an event, when you know that some other event has occurred. That generalises into Bayesian statistics or Bayesian inference. This is really the domain of those who dabble in probability, but is sometimes used in a loose sense. The point is that our beliefs are shaped by our own subjective experiences and information. There is nothing objective about them.

There were six schools of दर्शन (darshana). Darshana is a philosophical system and these six were samkhya, yoga, nyaya, vaisheshika, mimamsa and vedanta. Nyaya is about logic and epistemology. The epistemology bit gives us four acceptable methods of proof (प्रमाण, pramana) or means of knowledge. (A word of caution, the nomenclature and acceptability varies across texts.) These four are प्रत्यक्ष (pratyaksha) or direct perception, अनुमान (anumana) or inference, उपमान (upamana) or comparison/analogy and शब्द (shabda) or verbal authority or evidence of acceptable experts. I don’t buy the simplistic antithetical portrayal of science versus the metaphysical/spiritual (I am deliberately not using the word religion) and the assumption that science is based on the empirical, while the metaphysical is based on faith. Mount Everest is the tallest mountain on earth. The acceleration due to gravity is 32 feet per second per second. Most of us (I don’t know about all) believe in such propositions. Are they based on our direct perception? No, they are based on shabda. Let’s not accept that everything we believe in is based on pratyaksha. You will instantly produce a counter-argument. True, such propositions are based on shabda. But should we so wish, we can subject them to the pratyaksha test. We can replicate the Radhanath Sikdar and Galileo/Newton experiments. Indeed, but metaphysical/spiritual is also about the empirical. Swami Vivekananda wrote/said this several times. Here is one quote, from the monograph Raja Yoga: ‘All our knowledge is based upon experience. What we call inferential knowledge, in which we go from the less to the more general, or from the general to the particular, has experience as its basis. In what are called the exact sciences, people easily find the truth, because it appeals to the particular experiences of every human being… The Christian asks you to believe in his religion, to believe in Christ and to believe in him as the incarnation of God, to believe in a God, in a soul, and in a better state of that soul. If I ask him for reason, he says he believes in them. But if you go to the fountain-head of Christianity, you will find that it is based upon experience. Christ said he saw God; the disciples said they felt God; and so forth. Similarly, in Buddhism, it is Buddha's experience. He experienced certain truths, saw them, came in contact with them, and preached them to the world. So with the Hindus. In their books the writers, who are called Rishis, or sages, declare they experienced certain truths, and these they preach. Thus it is clear that all the religions of the world have been built upon that one universal and adamantine foundation of all our knowledge—direct experience.’

We will return to the issues raised later. For the moment, what is pratyaksha, in the sense we usually understand it, based on? That direct perception is based on the five senses—hearing, sight, touch, smell and taste. And we place an inordinate amount of unwarranted trust on sight. Moon-watcher, the Sphere, the Square, all erred because they trusted sight. I have mentioned Richard Dawkins earlier, as a contemporary writer who is against religion. In a book on evolution, titled The Greatest Show on Earth, he refers to the Gorilla experiment. This was conducted in 1999 by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simmons and I might as well quote from the book they wrote, titled The Invisible Gorilla. The sub-title of this book is just as important, it says, ‘How our intuitions deceive us’. ‘With our students as actors and a temporarily vacant floor of the psychology building as a set, we made a short film of two teams of people moving around and passing basketballs. One team wore white shirts and the other wore black.’ Volunteers were sought next. ‘They (the students) asked volunteers to silently count the number of passes made by the players wearing white while ignoring any passes by the players wearing black. The video lasted less than a minute… Immediately after the video ended, our students asked the subjects to report how many passes they’d counted…The pass-counting task was intended to keep people engaged in doing something that demanded attention to the action on the screen, but we weren’t really interested in pass-counting ability. We were actually testing something else: Halfway through the video, a female student wearing a full-length gorilla suit walked into the scene, stopped in the middle of the players, faced the camera, thumped her chest, and then walked off, spending about nine seconds onscreen.’ None of the volunteers noticed the gorilla, the point of the experiment. There is a familiar expression, ‘Seeing is believing.’ Richard Dawkins uses the gorilla experiment to highlight that you should not trust your eyes.

We should certainly not trust our eyes. Magic/sorcery has a hoary origin and is associated with the supernatural/paranormal. Forget that kind of magic and think of entertainment magic, performed on stage or on streets. This is the world of magic tricks, illusions and deceptions. All of them thrive on our blind faith in our eyes and use misdirection. Think of the world of optical illusions. Think of evidence rendered by witnesses in criminal trials, ones that break down under cross-examination. Think of deductions based on the sight. ‘The sky is blue.’ That’s a deduction based on sight. But strictly speaking, and I am being pedantic, it is a fallacious deduction. This is because of the Raman effect, the scattering of light. The blue has been scattered away. Stated somewhat imprecisely, the sky is every colour but blue. The print in this magazine is not black. It seems black because all the light has been absorbed. If you are reading this on a computer screen, the screen isn’t in the shape of a rectangle. It is a rectangle only when it is seen from a certain angle, not otherwise. Had we blindly trusted our eyes, we wouldn’t have believed in infra-red and ultra-violet. I have abused sight, but that same point can be made about all the five senses. Many birds and animals possess senses that are keener than those of humans. For many birds and animals, I am not even sure that we can straitjacket them in those standard five senses. What about perceptions based on electrical and magnetic fields or water pressure and currents? Sensibility will be better served if we are sensible enough to accept that there is a world beyond human sensory organs.