Saturday, June 8, 2019

My new blog

   My new blog on learning difficult skills, long-term:

   Free e-book, How to Discover and Do What You Love:

Monday, January 2, 2017

All models are wrong, but some are useful

Have you heard this statement,
All models are wrong, but some are useful?

You can check the Wikipedia for more details:

Peculiarly, as stated, this must be false, for reasons reminiscent of the Russell's paradox, Turing's Haling Problem, Kleene's Fixed Point Theorem and Gödel's incompleteness theorems. The very idea that there is reality and there are approximations or "models" of reality is itself a model. So if it were true, then it itself would have to also be wrong, albeit useful.

Technically, we could save the situation by calling models about models "class 2 models" and building a whole infinite hierarchy, and then merely saying that "all class 1 models are wrong", without mentioning models about models. But where exactly is the hole in the original statement? Is reality that mysterious that we can't describe it other than by calling it Zen or Dao, or is it just a limitation of our language, or perhaps of our thinking?

If reality can only be approximated, is there reality after all? Or is it just a convenient abstraction?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Grounded and ungrounded in reality

People, who are grounded in reality, often feel secure in life. They can have a big house and a lot of friends. They can appreciate good food. They can also have difficulty making changes in their lives, as they are prone to feeling "stuck". Here I am following the description of the Kapha dosha in ayurveda, though others suggested parallel definitions in e.g. psychoanalysis.

People, who are ungrounded in reality, may be prone to anxiety and, generally, not feeling at home anywhere. They insecure, think quickly - sometimes confusingly - but also faster to make changes in their lives. Here I am following the description of the Kapha dosha in ayurveda, in a very compressed format.

It has just occurred to me, by contrasting these notions with what I've learned from Vision Therapy, that those of the Kapha type are "just" more sensitive to the signals from the outside world than to their own internal experiences, and both are perceived as very real and solid. That is, when they see or touch or smell something, it feels much more real than their own thoughts. So money, food, sex also feel more real to them, hence greater desire to attain all of those, and greater attachment. At the same time, difficulty to change can be explained as follows: perhaps even internal assumptions seem to such people more real.

People of the Vata type, than, are rather distrustful of the general sensory experienced, and partially also of their own internal experiences. What they see, tough, or taste is perceived as more relative. This fruit tastes sweet, but - who knows - it might actually be bitter. This grass is green, but perhaps it is actually red. This is more or less how my mind works, hence the extrapolation. But then, we can see how change becomes much easier with this kind of mindset. Say, I believe that I am stupid, or unattractive. But then, - the mind says, - perhaps it is actually not the case, or it will be different tomorrow. That is, lack of security, lack of confidence, also opens a road to progress.

Through this framework we can see how some people believe more strongly in the reality of everything they perceive, and others less so. Similarly, years spent in the same routine move your nervous system closer to the Kapha end of the spectrum, whereas moving from place to place, or especially living in a war zone or in a location with constant earthquakes, move your nervous system closer to the Vata end of the spectrum. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The mirror effect

When we interact with another person, we are creating inside ourselves a little copy of this person. I noticed this effect when my mother was visiting me from Russia two months ago. After she left I noticed for a few days how I would sometimes speak in her voice, with her expressions, while literally feeling the same way as I was feeling when she was present, as if I was a medium for expressing her.

This explain why people so often advise to change yourself instead of trying to change somebody else. If you behave in a certain way, or if you are feeling about yourself in a certain way, other people interacting with you build copy of you inside themselves, so they also start to behave in a certain way or to feel about themselves in a certain way. On the other hand, if you try to make them to behave in a certain way, then via the mirror effect, they will... also start trying to make other people behave in certain ways.

If you sacrifice your happiness for the happiness of your own children, and they can feel that, they may well learn to sacrifice their happiness for somebody else's instead of actually being happy. On the other hand, if you try to make yourself happy, if you love yourself, people interacting with you pick up this attitude and start to feel happy and to love themselves. Since they feel happy in your presence, they come to love you as well.

I know, this idea to try to make other people happy sounds incredibly logical because we are so used to it. However, it is also counterintuitive. Why wouldn't you want to love yourself first? I know, we have all been told stories about selfish egoists, those mythical creatures who only care about themselves and do everything for themselves. I am yet to meet one of them.

The mirror effect is the strongest with children because they don't have any other patterns to react to you, so they end up internalizing whatever patterns you present. Yet I am sure that it operates at all levels. This is why it often, though not always, makes sense to meet violence with love and peaceful disobedience: love gets mirrored back, whereas disobedience helps to not reinforce the pattern of aggression while reflected love is doing its work. If you respond to violence with violence, you are in effect creating two mirrors aimed at each other, endlessly magnifying this energy.

So be the love. Embody compassion, happiness, and generosity. People will mirror these qualities from you, and then, naturally, direct these compassion and generosity towards you. There is no magic here, just a deeper understanding of the way human beings interact with one another. 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

On social justice and deeply ingrained patterns

I've been reflecting on two recent news event. One - the protests related to the death of Eric Garner who was essentially killed by a police officer. The officer put him in a chokehold during an attempt to arrest him for a suspected minor violation. The other - the recent protests of fast food workers demanding $15/hour pay and the right to unionize.

The first thing I realized is that people with higher income are less likely to engage in illegal activities. I am sure there is plenty of evidence in the data, though I'd be curious to check for myself. For one thing, if you are making a decent income, you have more to lose, and you have less of a reason to engage in something illegal. On the other hand, if you are not making enough money to make a decent living, you will probably give another thought to other available options.

I have definitely found out for myself that as my outer circumstances changed back and forth, my attitude to slightly illegal activities changed dramatically, and also back and forth. I have also met a number of people in New York who were engaged in somewhat illegal activities, or at least were emotionally prepared to do that, and VIRTUALLY ALL OF THEM HAD LOWER INCOME THAN THE PEOPLE I KNOW WHO DO NOT ENGAGE IN SEMI- OR SLIGHTLY ILLEGAL ACTIVITIES. In most cases it was fairly obvious: those with little money were looking for ways to make a better living, whereas those with more money were afraid of getting into trouble.

The other reason for that is that people with a lower income are likely to belong to a community where illegal activities are more acceptable, more common, and also easier to learn.

Of course, it is easy to say: change your situation. Change your pattern. Good luck with that! Can you stop drinking coffee every morning? Can you stop working so much and start spending more time with your spouse and your children? Can you start exercising regularly? See! Suddenly changing the patterns does not seem so easy any more, when those are your patterns.

Fine; let's move on to the Fast Food industry. If I think about it for a second,
there is no way I am going to accept a job at Mc'Donald's even for $30/hour, if I have any choice at all. Except, perhaps, for an interesting experience. Those 4 million fast-food workers in the United States accepted those jobs for a reason: they needed a job. Look around in NYC. Do you see teenagers working in Mc'Donalds for some extra cash? Clearly not. I have not seen a single teenager working at a fast food place in NYC in my several years here --- except for those helping their parents at Chinese and other Asian places.

You have to understand that different people have different reality, different perception of life. Try to grow up in a poor neighborhood with your parents screaming at you and kids doing drugs on the block. Do you know what kind of patterns it sets up in the subconsciousness? What kind of subconscious self-image?

Patterns, perceptions, childhood traumas take years  to heal, for those who are fortunate enough. It takes time, money, and a supportive environment. I've had the luxury to work through a lot of pain, loneliness, rejection, and humiliation that I had had in my life. Yet I've had the intelligence, the time, and the financial resources.

I am so acutely aware that it is easy to say "go and do something about your situation if you don't like it", yet it took me years to get to that place. For many people, this part of the soul, this part of the subconsciousness allowing one to change one's circumstances does not develop properly. We think we are bad, guilty, not worthy, incapable, whatever it is. And you just can't. Can't say that you disagree with your boss. Can't go and look for another option. Not that you were afraid; your subconsciousness may not even let you get to that point.

Similarly, if you grew up in a middle- or upper-class family, even the thought of something illegal may make you freak out. This is, however, just your perception. Had you been born in different circumstances, your life and your character would've been very different.

It is easy to talk about justice, about fairness, about responsibility for one's actions. Yet we just repeat the clichés we had received from the past generations. People are not born equal. They do not have equal circumstances. And because we take in our environment, we internalize what we receive from our lineage through our parents, what we receive from our culture and our country, we do not have the same possibilities, even before financial or legal circumstances are taken into account.

Thus, it is absurd to claim that fair justice is the same sentence to any person who commits a particular crime. This may be the most practical approach, but there is nothing particularly fair about it. Sometimes you can say at birth that this person, being a male born into this environment, already has a very high chance of committing a crime as a teenager.

Of course, a deeper insight is that there are no "bad" people: people commit crimes because of subconscious patterns and attitudes passed to them, because of need, or because they are crazy, or because something that is called a "crime" should not be considered as such. It is absurd to imagine normal a human being who would willingly, consciously hurt another human being or a group of human beings, and would do so with a clear understanding. Similarly, in the case of Mc'Donald's workers, it is absurd to imagine that people would go to the trouble of protesting out of vanity, laziness, or other bad traits.

Everyone does the best they can, and everyone's perception is so limited.

So let's forget this mythical ideas of "fairness" and even "justice".  These ideas are not completely useless, but they lead us into mental traps, into a world of concept and ideas that do not really exist.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Karma, state, causality

Your state includes the state of your nervous system, the state of your body, and your circumstances --- that is, the state of the rest of the world.

You do not observe all of these states in sufficient detail. Sometimes you observe virtually the same thing on several different occasions, but the real state of your nervous system, your body, or the rest of the world may be quite different. In this way, life is like a hidden Markov process. Of course, the state in life never repeats, so this is tautologically true, but don't take this analogy so literally.

The concept of karma was introduced to restore causality in what seems to be a random world. If you observe the same thing, but suddenly see different consequences, the concept of karma can be invoked to explain it. Karma simply accounts for the differences in the underlying state that is not observed, much like a hidden Markov model may be in different states while printing the same characters on the output for a long time.

There is no other concept of karma. If something can affect your life --- say, something in your DNA, some person who is looking for you, or a habit that you have --- then this is part of your karma. If something cannot affect your life, then it is not part of your karma; why would it be?!

If the Universe is capable of completely random, unpredictable, noncausal events, whether conceived of as God's will or as a random subatomic event, then such events are not part of your karma either. Though, of course, the idea of random, unpredictable events has been developed out of particular experiences where one was merely unable to explain some particular events. This is hardly sufficient for postulating the existence of such events, even just in principle.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Towards open-minded science education

I have been recently reading Dalai Lama's reflections on science and spirituality. In fact, I was so relieved to discover that his point of view is very close to mine, and I am so happy to see that he is also one those very few people who take science and spirituality equally seriously. Otherwise I sometimes feel a little bit alone in this respect.

For my spiritually- or religiously-minded friends, I feel that virtually all of you are too excited by the transformation that this or that religion or method of meditation has brought into your life. Just because you know of a few dozen cases where prayer cured somebody from a deadly disease or chanting a mantra brought you love or money, just because we know that things like that are possible, contrary to the "official scientific position" -- as if there were such a thing -- does not imply that everything that we associate with science and technology is necessarily wrong, or is somehow less reliable than your own religious or meditative experience. As Dalai Lama has explained, special states of mind in Buddhism have also been discovered and studied with a particular empirical method. It was only after a person could reproduce a specific state with a specific practice, and if many other experienced meditators could reproduce the same states with the same practices, that such states were taken to be objectively existing and universal, at least for the human beings. Many religious and spiritual traditions also recognize our individual limitations because of the subjectivity of our perception, and also emphasize the need to stay open-minded, and not just blindly trust what feels right or true, no matter how strongly.

For my scientifically-minded friends, I mean that despite the apparent successes of science; despite the existence of antibiotics, airplanes, the Internet, and so forth, spiritual traditions such as Buddhism provide a comparable amount of insight about the world that is different from the scientific insight. In fact, for a person without scientific training, insights from spiritual traditions may be more accessible than a caricatured version of the theory of relativity, stories about black holes, or even oversimplified explanations of entropy and electromagnetism.

That is, I am not talking about the incorrect ideas people had thousands of years ago that were called "the science of the day" - that everything was made of fire, air, earth, and water. I am talking about what spiritual traditions can do for us right here, right now, in this present day, and specifically about the knowledge we can obtain from them.

In fact, the reason that we have airplanes and antibiotics is not that the science is so great. The reason is that we live in a causal world. In this sense sense has no particular priority over anything else; the world belongs to everyone, and everyone has a right to explore it with any kind of tools. I suspect that it is because of the way science is taught that we, many of us, get an impression that it is the only correct way of thinking about the world. I remember, for example, how I was taught the Law of Gravity, or the First Law of Newton. I was taught them as the laws, as the truth. I was taught that this is just so. I was given no experience of reflection or discovery --- something that is, as I understand, an integral part of the Buddhist and Judaic, and some other intellectual traditions.

The irony is that the First Law of Newton, that any body without a net force acting on it will remain still or keep moving at a constant pace in the same direction, is not even an empirical statement. There is no way whatsoever to design an experiment to test it, even approximately, for we have no way of computing the net force acting on a given object from the entire Universe, and if something is not moving at a constant pace, we can always assume that there was some other force that we did not account for.

In the light of Einstein's discoveries, Newton's laws are not even true. I cannot stress this enough: we are teaching in schools a version of the worldview that, we are convinced, is not true, because the full version seems a little bit overwhelming, and because we don't know how to teach it without teaching Newton's laws first. Perhaps this is why we still struggle with Einstein's relativity and quantum physics, that everyone studying physics has to repeat the same past mistakes. Interestingly, Dalai Lama, who was not specifically trained in science, is free from this delusion. He probably knows more about relativity and quantum physics than about classical physics --- and those also make much more sense in the Buddhist framework.

I had the same problem when I learned about electricity. I remember, when they taught me in schools that electricity is balls with plus and minus signs moving around, I thought that that was an oversimplified version for us, the kids, but that the teachers actually knew, what electricity was. In fact, we don't know what it is. Why don't we communicate this fact in our education? Why, instead, do we teach those mindless formulas that most people don't ever understand and won't ever apply, and those who do will have to relearn anyway? I received a large part of my math and science education in a high school and a college that are supposedly some of the best in Russia and, given Russia's position in this field, some of the best in the world.  

Why didn't anyone there teach me to think critically about the laws of physics, chemistry or biology? Why did I have to read Feyerabend, Popper, and texts on yoga, Buddhism, Daoism, and other traditions, to understand that these laws were discovered by people and may, in fact, not be true?

Even when these laws do work, which is quite often, why can't we take them a little softer, with a little less dogmatism? Why can't we wonder at this cause-and-relationship effect every time we discover it?

One thing I gained from Dalai Lama's reflections is a deeper understanding of the role of examples and metaphors in education in the Buddhist tradition. For example, one is taught that when one sees smoke, one can infer a fire and, hence, that people live there, and one can get food and shelter. Reflecting on such examples builds cognitive structures that give one a deep appreciation of the causality in the world we live in -- an appreciation that is enjoyed only by scientists, engineers, and perhaps philosophers of science in the West. Instead of giving instructions on how to change one's mental state from A to B, or instead of giving direct explanations of what one's consciousness is, or how the world operates, students are given metaphors or examples to reflect on, and this reflection changes their thinking, and in this way learning happens. The way I see it, in order to teach people X you don't have to tell people "X"; it won't even work. If you try to express X, in words or in writing it will become Y, and people will interpret it as Z. Instead, you expose people to something completely different - to Q - that has the effect of creating X in their mind.

This is a bit similar to the Socratic tradition, where asking questions is also used to educate. This is also similar to dance education, which is very much built on metaphors. Now some people are trying to incorporate "scientific explanations" while forgetting to consider the effect of these explanations on the consciousness of the students.

The main problem with "scientific explanations" is that the form of these explanations is usually as follows...

  X is true. This is just how the world works.

 ...which, of course, has nothing to do with science, as I have already explained. It definitely helps one to quickly build a model of the world, to know that food is here and danger is there. I might consider the validity of this style in e.g. Thou shalt not steal, or perhaps in The Earth revolves around the Sun. But if this style is employed in science education, science becomes reduced to a set of "laws" that are just true --- until somebody else comes and concludes that they are false. Even some seemingly simple and natural statements such as the Law of Conservation of Energy, turn out, upon closer inspection, to be complex webs of concepts and ideas, and require a lot of training, and a lot of careful attention to use and apply them sensibly. There is an unending stream of patents for a perpetuum mobile, and the reason for that is not that most people are amusing idiots. It is that the Law of Conservation of Energy is not as natural as it seems, and is not as obvious as it seems. In fact, in the future it can well be replaced by some other framework, if we conclude that the concept of energy as we have it is not accurate enough to reflect reality. Instead we are teaching our students to laugh at the ignorance of those proposing another source of infinite energy. Who is more ignorant, after all?