Thursday, September 22, 2011

The beauty of faith and the wisdom of doubt

There’s a new study out in the latest issue of the journal Nature that says people are overconfident because it has evolutionary benefits. The study’s authors have stated, with confidence, that in the evolutionary scheme of things, in all competitive situations where there is doubt about the outcome of a contest, overconfidence is the best strategy.
I always take ‘studies’ with a pinch of salt. Given the right funding, I can confidently state that a study can prove anything. I’ve read studies that ‘prove’ that moderate drinking is good and bad, that vegetarianism is good and bad, that this food or that food makes us fat, or doesn’t, and so on.
Why, there are even studies that say human beings are responsible for global warming, and others that confidently say this is all hot air!
It seems to me that a lot of researchers are having a lot of fun proving everything and their opposites. I hope someone will fund me to study this hypothesis.
There may be something to this overconfidence study, though.
The key point in favour of overconfidence is that it propels people to attempt feats they would otherwise give up on even before starting. It makes people attempt the barely possible, and even the impossible. In many instances they perish in the attempt. In some, they succeed, and thereby make history.
The grandest stories of human achievement and endeavor are made of such stuff. If the adventurers and explorers of yore had not given in to overconfidence, they wouldn’t have pointed their rickety wooden ships at the open and uncharted seas, and set sail, guided by instinct and the stars.
That they did worked to their favour, and arguably, to ours.
A similar spirit, buoyed with a faith in divine powers, inspired and enabled our ancestors to build the great structures they did. It seems incredible to imagine that the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, and all the great cathedrals of Europe were built before machines as we know them had been invented. They were all made with human and animal labour, and the most basic tools.

Today we have so much by way of technology, but nowhere in the world do we see marvels of architecture like the ones of old. In India, especially, we only see variations of ugliness and mediocrity.
A part of the failing is because of lack of vision and imagination. A part is due to lack of the kind of royal purses that enabled those ventures. And a part is probably due to lack of that spirit of overconfidence, and an erosion of faith.
Anyone who so much as suggested building a new Taj Mahal in today’s day and age would be laughed at as mad, find NGOs campaigning against them for wastage of money, and wake up to find the Income Tax and CBI at their doors.
We live in practical times. Our thoughts are of taxes and hikes, not earth and heaven.
Even practical people, however, tend to suffer from a particular delusion that affects the majority of humankind.
It is well known that most people think they are right all the time. Psychologists have been noting this for years. They even have a word for it. It’s called ‘overestimation’.
Overestimation applies especially to beliefs. We all tend to believe that our views and values are the most correct, or the theories we subscribe to, the best.
This is where overconfidence can start to go seriously wrong. It’s one thing to build a Taj Mahal or set sail upon an unknown sea. It’s another to embark upon a witch hunt.
The people who wanted to burn Galileo Galilei at the stake (he was let off but spent his remaining life in house arrest) were probably good folks with firm conviction. They truly believed the earth was the centre of the universe, and decided that Galileo, who said the sun was the centre, was a heretic. Galileo made his own position worse by supporting his fellow scientist Nicholas Copernicus’ view that the earth moves around the sun.
In the event, it turned out that the folks who had such confidence in their beliefs - the same people who built the magnificent cathedrals and palaces of Florence, and supported artists from Michelangelo down - were wrong. 
And so it goes. Even today, most of the troubles in the world are on account of people’s certainty that they are right.
The worst examples of this can be seen in fundamentalists of all hues.
For example, Osama bin Laden was a good man in his own way. He followed a certain code of conduct and fought for it in his own way.
His problem was that he believed only his way was right, and every other way was wrong. He was prepared to kill or die for it.
That didn’t do the world, or him, much good.
There may be great value in confidence and overconfidence, but there is at least equal merit in doubt.

Honest doubt is what makes science possible. It enables questioning of strongly held beliefs, and allows for modification of those beliefs over time. In science, a theory is true only until it is proved false, or partially true. That happens with even the best of theories. For example, Newton’s theory of gravitation was held to be universally true, until Einstein’s came along.
The scientific way has brought us far. It has made life much, much better for most of humankind. It has literally brought us from darkness into light.
Yet there are unintended consequences.
The scientific worldview has diminished faith. A consequence of this is that it has diminished nearly all human endeavor to the utilitarian.
Our natural reflex now is to reduce all activity to accounts of profit and loss. We only do things for comfort and material gain.
And so we are left with a world that has all the beauty and grandeur of a balance sheet.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11: The long shadow in South Asia

Today is 9/11. It’s a date charged with meaning and history. Few of us who were old enough to remember the day will ever forget what we were doing when the two hijacked planes hit the twin towers in New York a decade ago. 

I used to work for India Today newsmagazine at the time. I remember hearing of the first plane hitting the towers, and heading towards the TV a floor below to see it. By the time I got there the second plane had hit. My hair stood on end, because I realised this could not be coincidence. 

Half an hour later, the Pentagon took a hit. The US president was rushed to a bomb shelter somewhere because the Americans realised they were under attack from an unidentified foe. They scrambled their fighter jets, but the jets didn’t really know what to shoot at.

In days that followed, it became clear that the attacks had been coordinated by a group named Al Qaeda, and the name of Osama bin Laden became synonymous with terrorism throughout the world.

In the decade that followed, a lot happened. The Americans invaded Afghanistan and found themselves battling Mujahideen forces they had helped arm and train. Pakistan was quickly drawn into the conflict, and had to choose between supporting the Americans or going to war against them, and possibly India. General Pervez Musharraf quickly decided that this was a losing proposition, and so Pakistan began a painful turnaround to confront its former protégés, including the Taliban, which was then in government in Kabul.

The Americans and their western allies have managed to knock the Taliban out of government. They eventually killed Osama bin Laden too, only a few months ago. They have used targeted assassination of key figures as part of the strategy to eliminate terror attacks directed against them. 

However, Afghanistan remains a mess, and its president Hamid Karzai is by all accounts little more than the mayor of Kabul. His control does not extend beyond the borders of the capital. The American plans to withdraw from Afghanistan have come to nought. They are stuck there in an expensive and apparently endless conflict, much as the Russians before them.

The American decision to stay on for another decade in Afghanistan may have come as something of a surprise to the Taliban. 

Friends visiting from there had mentioned that the Taliban were already wondering if China would be the next to attack them. They had written off the Americans as goners.

The Americans on their part were keen to depart, because they figured they could continue the war through drones and cruise missiles. No one can actually run a government in Kabul, or Baghdad, or anywhere else, unless they have the military hardware to stop cruise missiles and drones. 

The calculation was simple: the Taliban could either strike a deal with them, and share power in Afghanistan, or continue the fight and stew.

The Taliban have apparently chosen to stew, and keep the Americans in the pot with them. 

The other folks who feel the heat from this conflict are the Pakistanis, and to a lesser extent, the Indians. Pakistan suffers more than we do because they are the frontline state in this conflict. They’ve had a proper war going on in various parts of their country these last 10 years. Their internal convulsions from this war are continuing.

Both India and Pakistan have suffered grievously from terrorism. Yet there is an element of irony in the terror tragedies that befell Pakistan. 

Their military headquarters were attacked, a naval base in Karachi was attacked, the Marriott hotel in Islamabad was attacked, to name only a few. The attackers in every instance had earlier found shelter, and even support, from elements in the Pakistani state establishment.

A lot of the monsters they created have turned on them now. And yet, elements in the Pakistani state continue to harbour and protect many of these characters. The raid that got Osama proved this beyond any reasonable doubt.

Pakistani hawks keep their pet terrorists in their protection as weapons to be used as and when needed. Osama, of course, was also a blank cheque because in the name of the ‘war on terror’ the Pakistanis got billions of dollars from the Americans. 

The weapons are used to ensure that Pakistan has leverage in bargaining with India or Afghanistan or the US.

The strategic goals of Pakistan are at odds with those of the other countries. India will not give them all of Kashmir, however much they may want it. Nor will the Afghans and Americans give Pakistan’s cronies the keys to Kabul. 

The Pakistani state is therefore going to find itself in a bind as long as it continues to desire what it cannot realistically expect to get. 

Terrorism has escaped from the camps and spread through the country. The genie is out of the bottle, and will not hesitate to bite the hand that fed it.

India, which is a close neighbour, suffers along because of the conflicting ambitions of Pakistani hardliners. The problem for India is Kashmir. Indian ‘nationalists’ and Pakistani hawks both demand the entire state for themselves. Kashmiris from the valley generally demand freedom, azadi. They have a strong sense of a unique history and identity separate from that of India or Pakistan.

The situation is complicated because the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was not ethnically homogenous. There’s Jammu, with its largely Hindu Dogra population, the valley of Kashmir with its Kashmiri Muslim population, and Ladakh with its Tibetan Buddhist population. 

On the other side of the Line of Control, too, there are various peoples in the Pakistani administered part of Kashmir and in Gilgit-Baltiststan. Jats, Rajputs and various tribal groups speaking different languages live in those areas. 

It is unlikely that all of these peoples would choose to live under the rule of Kashmiris from the valley. The demand for a united and independent Kashmir must take this fact into account. Kashmiris have to recognise that Jammu & Kashmir is also a mini India in itself.

Pakistan’s demand for all of Kashmir is even more untenable. India cannot, and is not, going to hand Kashmir over, and that should be apparent by now. Nor does the Kashmiri demand for azadi translate into Pakistani rule. Freedom is presumably not the same as bondage under a different master. 

India is the status quoist power in the equation. The Indian government and people would, in all likelihood, settle for a peaceful and democratic administration in the part of Jammu and Kashmir now under Indian control. 

The only dispute here is over the extent of autonomy, and that is negotiable, as long as it stops short of secession. 

An honourable solution can be found that would end or diminish terror attacks in India, and the painful conflict in Kashmir, if all sides back away from their maximalist positions.