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31st May 2011
My last testament
People make wills. I don't see the need for one, yet. But there is something I do want to leave behind: a few thoughts, for whatever these may be worth. The audience for this testament is: first, my family, for which a private section is included, and second, everyone else, particularly all children today and of the future.
Why this urge to write a last testament? I know that I might well live another fifty years or more. But it seemed important to say a few things in a timely manner, and what better time for that than now? Should opportunity permit, I will update this testament through later versions.
I’d like to add that my draft manuscript, Discovery of Freedom includes more extensive thoughts on broadly similar topics. Once finished, it should be appended to this testament.
* * *
Mine have been arduous enterprises, almost quixotic. My goal of promoting liberty in India and the world seems to be going nowhere, or at least has not gone anywhere far, so far. Spending effort on enterprises that yield no visible fruit perhaps calls for an explanation.
But as this testament will suggest, such explanation is strikingly simple. I seek two things above all: knowledge of the truth and the pursuit of the right action. These two lodestars have guided my free actions. This approach rules out compromise with falsehood and evil. Hence. I hope that’s all very clear now.
But let me elaborate.
1. One family
Let me at the outset confirm that you, my dear children, were not born for my sake – nor I born for yours (much as you might like to think that to be the case). My children by birth are inordinately dear to me, but I have never for once forgotten that we all – all of us – are the progeny of one common ancestor, the first human – whose uniquely human traits are encoded in each cell in our body. Each of us is connected in an unbroken chain that leads to that one ancestor. We are one family.
Your commonality with others far exceeds any possible difference. That is why a medicinal drug has the same effect on you as it has on any other human. That is why you experience the same emotion as others experience when you read a great novel or watch a great movie. Not just physically, therefore; we are virtually identical even mentally, with similar hopes and dreams. We should bear this in mind even as we (must) assert our individual sovereignty.
Because you, my children, are human (the highest being in the universe), I have never indoctrinated you in any religion or culture nor tried to give you an identity beyond what you are already born with. This foundational equality among all humans leads us to the concept of equal freedom in which none has claims to superiority over others, none has a ‘divine right’ to tell others what to say, do, or believe in.
In this world of equal humans, only our works and contributions distinguish us from others. These contributions are determined by our thoughts, and that’s what is so important. That’s what makes us achieve the true potential of being human.
Parents therefore have only one key role – to develop in their children a capacity to think. This is best done indirectly, preferably through example, but also by creating for them the opportunities to learn to think.
2. Critical thinking
You are fortunate, dear children, to be alive in a world where the risk of death from disease and war is much smaller than it ever was, before. While unknowns are increasing because we now have access to many instruments and tools that have both good and bad uses, the actual risks to life are actually reducing.
Unfortunately, we have not been able to deal effectively with a major source of uncertainty in human life: that which arises from human bigotry and ignorance. For instance, the catastrophic consequences of nuclear technology falling into the bigoted hands are too severe to mention. While having more tools to operate for our benefit is good, not being able to assure ourselves that these tools will only be used for the advancement of humanity, is a problem.
The continued existence of bigotry is attributable at least in part to the almost universal failure of our education systems which tend to load students with ‘knowledge’ but forget to teach them to think. Knowledge, however, no matter how useful, is only incidental to the fundamental purposes of education.
Most teachers have never learnt to think, so naturally they can’t teach others to think. Another problem is the increasing tendency to be politically correct, and thus to avoid hard questions. But in the search for the truth, nothing should be out of bounds. Education must fortify our minds and develop in us a capacity to question everyone, including ourselves. We must particularly welcome those who question us, for that’s yet another opportunity to review and assess the veracity of our ideas.
While it is relatively easy to question others, it is much harder to question ourselves, and to welcome – as our benefactors – those who question us. But adopting such an open approach is necessary in our search for the truth. Without hard questioning – often deemed by some to be disrespectful and disdainful of established ‘authorities’ – bigotry can’t be eliminated.
I’m not sure whether disregard for the truth is increasing, but there sure is great disregard, and impatience with those who ask questions. But just because someone has managed to obtain a particular formal qualification doesn’t make that person all-knowing. As such formal qualifications become more widespread, it seems that these ‘all-knowing’ people are less inclined to be questioned.
This open-minded approach has implications. It leads, for instance, to a view that everything is merely work in progress, not a finished product. This leads to freedom, humility, and tolerance, in which, given our limited mastery over the truth, we are willing to expose our ideas to perpetual scrutiny.
The nature of the truth
A truth must be self-evident upon the undertaking of appropriate analysis. It must be as inevitable as water flowing downhill. A genuine truth does not require ‘belief’. We don’t have to ‘believe’ in gravity, nor do we have to ‘believe’ in our own existence. Further, the truth is robust to any number of questions being asked about its nature. Questions don’t change its properties, no matter how many times it is tested.
This line of reasoning gives us the necessary tools to test claims about a truth, basically that it can be questioned from all possible angles, and always result in exactly the same properties. This applies to everything, including claims about God. The idea of God, for instance, should be possible to test from all angles, and we should come to exactly the same conclusion each time. (Since this hasn’t happened yet, something is amiss with the concept of God, but I’ll touch upon it later.)
Scientists advance the frontiers of human knowledge by proposing a range of plausible hypotheses (not ‘beliefs’) and testing these diligently for internal and empirical consistency. Thousands, if not millions of false hypotheses have fallen by the wayside over the centuries. When that happens, ‘extremist scientists’ don’t take out the sword and kill off those who don’t ‘believe’ in their failed hypotheses. When Einstein was proved wrong (he found the universe is expanding, contrary to his earlier suggestion), he did not take out his gun (if any) and shoot everyone who disagreed with him. He merely changed his mind.
Being only human, however, scientists are not exempt from an unconscious desire to distort the truth in their favour. Two areas come to mind: string theory and climate ‘science’. The common characteristics of these political areas, where the truth is often a casualty, are (a) the complexity involved, and (b) the absence of falsifiable hypotheses. Under these circumstances, speculation tends to parade as the ‘truth’. The truth, however, is not speculative. It is empirical, it can be repeatedly tested. It is eternal. Just because it is now discovered doesn’t mean it was not true prior to its discovery.
Further, the truth exists regardless of the number of people who ‘believe’ in it. Human belief doesn’t make a falsehood true. The seeker therefore does not count the number of his ‘followers’ (he needs none). All he wants is to incrementally advance his own understanding of the truth. The urge to indoctrinate anyone never crosses his mind. He is pretty relaxed for he knows that the truth will always win, being eternal, and that the untruth is only a transient error. Time is on his side. He doesn’t need a sword to prove his case. Not even a pen. All he carries about in his head is a critical, open, curious mind.
It is important to note that the seeker for the truth makes no claim about his own personal knowledge being either complete or final. He too is subject to ignorance and error. All he claims is to be searching for the truth, and hence willing to lay his knowledge to question, equally eager as others to find whether he is right. His ego is not wedded to his ‘beliefs’.
Given this lack of subservience to authority, disdain for unproven claims, disdain for proof through arrogance, disdain for insistence, disdain for trickery, disdain for coercion, and a quiet confidence in his own approach, the seeker of the truth is loved by few, particularly not by those in ‘high’ places. But there are many enemies of the truth.
Enemies of the truth
Despite possessing a fine machine (the brain) that could, if allowed to work freely, investigate almost anything that the universe throws at us, we seem to have a proclivity to latch on to beliefs, sometimes almost in desperation: as if the truth will disappear just because we don’t ‘believe’ in it. We seem to either not know, or forget, that the truth is eternal – and more importantly, that it doesn’t need our consent.
None of us is exempt from this tendency. We are particularly gullible under emotional distress, in pain, or when sleep-deprived. At such times we must avoid forming a view. And so by all means believe in yourself, believe in your capacity for incremental improvement, but be also aware that ninety per cent of the world's problems – including wars, poverty and misery – are caused by our urge to believe without first having carefully determined the truth. Belief short-circuits and effectively destroys our brain. We therefore become sub-human, and lose our claims to belong to this great family called humanity.
There are three enemies of truth.
a) Garden variety enemy
The garden variety enemy of the truth just hates the truth. He believes that something is true merely because he says so. Unable to argue and reason, he resorts to ad hominem attack. On the internet, he spits out vile language. At one time, such people would have cheered when you were being burnt at the stake for speaking out the truth.
Fortunately, we are able to ignore such people these days. The philosophers of classical liberalism have brought about a modicum of tolerance into this world, and most legal systems allow for at least some freedom of speech.
Magic is sleight of hand. When we go to a magic show, we expect to be fooled, and pay for the privilege. The better we are fooled by the magician the more we are willing to pay. The problem begins when someone acts as if he has real powers of magic.
Such fraudsters and tricksters generally seek to profit from human gullibility. They profit from the untruth. Many religious leaders fall into this category, having mastered the art of deception (not necessarily through magic), deftly blocking out any investigation of the truth.
Only our training in critical thinking can save us. If we don’t question these fraudsters and ensure that their claims are tested under controlled conditions, our money will be fleeced and we could well end up with delusions. Never let your guard down for a moment!
The third category is the most heinous of all. These are obnoxious people who split humanity into what they see as the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ categories. Not being satisfied with merely classifying people, they insist on ‘converting’ (or destroying) those in the wrong category. Thus, you may find yourself, for no fault of yours, belonging to the right or wrong ‘race’; right or wrong religion; right or wrong political philosophy; right or wrong ‘scientific’ belief.
These are the extremists and fundamentalists, who want to compel others to believe in their version of a ‘truth’. They are dangerous because not only do they hate the truth, they can’t tolerate the fact that others think they are wrong. They take resort to force.
But we know that the truth never requires the sword. From that we can see clearly that these extremists are engaged in compelling others to believe in falsehood. When such people impose upon us, we have no choice but to resist. Persuasion and explanation is the only civilised way to work towards the truth. If someone forces you to ‘convert’, be sure that you are being forced to accept the untruth. Let this knowledge act as a shield around you.
Fortunately, most extremists are intellectually feeble and have a weak sense of self. The absence of universal agreement to their beliefs (which their parents drilled into their silly little heads) makes them feel inadequate. Many find safety in numbers and take up the sword. Most of them, however don’t know the front of their hand from the back and will cut themselves with their own sword. They will fall into the traps they set for their ‘enemies’.
But there is, indeed, a genuinely dangerous breed of extremists, those who are intelligent. These people not only act upon their coercive ambitions, but exploit human weaknesses for personal gain. Some become dictators; others become nihilists who seek to take the entire world down with them. These we must identify, isolate, and bring to book. Never take such extremists lightly. They are not just bigoted, they can destroy the world.
The matter of God
What about God? Why have I not taught you about god or about religion?
Let me deal with religion first.
Given the requirements of truth outlined above, I have not yet found a shred of evidence to indicate that any religion is true. Instead, I have found the self-seeking fingerprints of man, the all too human urge for power and pelf, the ready exploitation of human gullibility, significant evidence of manipulation and choreography, and a range of other human shortcomings. Of the truth of their claims, I have not found a shred of evidence.
I resent their audacious claims about the truth, none of which have been established. They take me for a fool. That I’m not. Plenty of fools to go around, though; it would appear.
The stories of most religions are implausible to the extent of being absurd. This earth is smaller, in relation to the universe, than a single grain of sand on the combined beaches of the earth. God surely has better things to do with His time than to visit the earth to tell us things (about Himself and his Heaven) that can’t be empirically verified. Why are we, who are not even ants on the scale of the universe, so important? And can he please get His story right, for once. So much confusion. So many self-contradictory claims.
Religions tell us that God is omniscient and all powerful and has even created the universe. But when this God comes down to the earth (or sends His emissaries) he becomes impotent. Either He manages to get hung up on a cross, or He perpetrates cheap tricks of a standard worse than a common magician. He seems also to lack any capacity to influence us except through the sword, which He doesn’t use himself, but sends out droves of human squadrons to cause riot, burning to death innocent women and children. This feeble, cowardly creature surely can’t have created the universe! You’ll pardon me me if I’m not impressed. I need to see and understand true power, true knowledge, true purpose, true goodwill for life. Man-made religion doesn’t interest me, just as I’ve outgrown my interest in novels.
Let me leave aside the distraction of religions which are best spurned, and turn to the broader and more important question of God. This question is extremely pertinent. Not sullied by religion, it is amenable to objective investigation.
Now, much as I would have liked to tell you something useful, I don’t seem to have found much to say on this topic. One thing is becoming evident, though, that as scientific knowledge expands, the universe no longer (logically or empirically) requires a God in order to come into being. The zone of potential intervention of God is becoming increasingly smaller. There’s not much left for God (as we currently think of Him) to ‘do’.
While there remain many plausible hypotheses about God (and there may well be others we have not yet thought about), two characteristics seem most likely to be found in a God, if He does exist. First, He is likely to take the form of all-pervasive energy (noting that energy is never created nor destroyed). Second, God’s primary ‘job’ seems to be to establish the laws of nature, and to then let go. He never, ever, dabbles with the laws of Nature. It is increasingly harder to fit a human ‘soul’ into this picture, paricularly since nothing super-natural has ever been established.
But these are mere pointers. I have not closed my mind and suggest you don’t close yours. I continue to suggest (and this is a leap of faith, without empirical basis) that you maintain a plausible ‘faith’ in God, particularly if that helps you. Prayer has never harmed anyone (unless we pander to our brain’s ready capacity to invent delusions). There’s no harm in starting and keeping up a conversation with God, hoping one day that we will find the truth. Till that happens, let us create our own meaning in life. Let us search for the truth, follow the right path, and help this great family – one mankind – advance to unprecedented heights of wisdom.
The many benefits of critical thinking
A habit of critical thinking may be challenging, but it does lead to a huge personal dividend. There have been at least four major (very painful) health problems I’ve encountered which doctors and ‘experts’ have pathetically failed to solve. In each case I did not give up and took resort to my own thinking. Through diligent investigation, and by using myself as a ‘guinea pig’ to experiment with remedies (including some I’ve discovered myself), I have achieved highly satisfying results. Without this ability to think, I would have been in deep trouble.
That I have not only survived so far, but I am fit as a fiddle, is living proof of the benefits of critical thinking. (This doesn’t mean that nothing will go wrong with me in the future, but I do take great care to apply my mind on matters of personal health.)
And so, whether or not you find God through your open-minded approach and the use of the brain (the only thing that distinguishes us from animals), you will surely find many practical advantages.
Therefore have no heroes. Be confident in the use of your magic machine: the human brain. Use it fearlessly.
3. The right action
It is important to create a close consonance or alignment between the truth and what one does. Let me tell you a bit about right action.
The way to the right action is through applying the same blowtorch of critical thinking to one’s actions that one might apply to ideas. I question myself before doing something, and question myself after doing it. Often I fail to undertake the right action in the first go. The review informs a revised action that is often better than the first one. Trial and error and lots of questioning. Why am I doing something in a particular way? (Or not in another way?) That’s the question of interest.
You will all need to feed yourself and your family (may you prosper!). It is relatively easy to find a job after acquiring some bookish ‘education’. But is this enough? Is this the right action? Our work must be consistent with the truth. If one is required to compromise the truth in one’s job, or to glorify undeserving individuals, then one must withdraw support. I am not suggesting that we don’t look after ourselves and our family, but it is important to ensure self-respect and the primacy of the truth.
My work on India
A digression about my work on India will illustrate. But first, why do I focus on India? I am not parochial, nor xenophobic, nor jingoistic. I don’t glorify India or any other nation. So why is India such an big deal for me?
India is where I was born and grew up. I learnt a lot about life and society from India. I also started on a life-long search for good policy while I was in India, a search that led me through considerable reading, reflection and learning, to what I think is the truth about what works and why – in relation to matters of governance. There is a way by which everyone in India can live a decent life. Poor Indian children don’t need to scavenge in rubbish heaps for food.
Given this search was based primarily on investigations in relation to India, the right action (in my case) involves (a) offering the information about this truth to India, and (b) offering my services (at cost) to reform India’s governance. The latter, I believe, must be authorised through popular mandate.
I’m not in a hurry. The truth wins, so I know that what I have said (in Breaking Free of Nehru) will ultimately be accepted. I don’t have to use the sword to buttress the truth. The people of India are responsible for their lives. Let them decide whether they want my assistance in converting India from an underperforming and corrupt Third World country to a world-best economy and society.
Making such an offer is not enough. The right action also involves withdrawing support for wrong action. I therefore left the IAS (to enter which I had at one time spent considerable time and effort). I can’t possibly wage war against untruth (socialism) while supporting socialist misgovernance through the IAS.
Whether these actions yield fruit is irrelevant. The important thing is to do the right thing. With that I will die knowing that I did not support falsehood, and I tried to do the right thing for India. That’s more than most people will be able to say on their deathbed.
We must stoutly defend our freedom to search for the truth and to undertake the right action. Let’s all insist on being free to do what we think is the right thing. I trust you will become genuine seekers of the truth and maintain your self-respect and dignity by undertaking the right action.
Do find yourself a good partner, someone with openness of mind and willingness to give you some leeway. Give your partner the same leeway. Above all, feel good about being alive. There is so much negativity in this world, so many fanatics, so many bullies, so many paternalistic know-alls, so many haters of the truth, so many forceful preachers of falsehood.
The only way to maintain your spirits in the midst of such people who are intent on taking us back to the medieval era, is to maintain your health in the best condition. A life of pain, imposed upon the ceaseless interventions of knaves, will drive you to desperation. So take care of your body. Note that you can’t do that without understanding how it works. Ask questions.
I sincerely hope my journey continues a bit longer, many decades, but like all good things it will one day come to an end. It has been good sharing some time together. The ‘extra time’ I will now enjoy with you would be relieved of the apprehension that I did not get to say what I had to.
To those who have not yet been born, let me assure you that life as a human offers many challenges but its rewards are unparalleled. So do get born! (Everyone, please have plenty of children!) Let the world resonate with the joyful sounds of children. Let mankind squeal with delight at the discovery of new truths.
I want to thank everyone who has helped me grow (physically and mentally). I’ve not been particularly easy to live or work with, and your kindness in tolerating my quirks is highly appreciated. Many of my teachers from school onwards come to mind here, as well as my parents, brother and sister, and nuclear family. But also hundreds of others, both living and dead.
(The fact that so many people have been involved in my life – as surely in your life – confirms that the human family is indeed very close-knit, and deserves to live together in peace.)
Above all, I’d like to thank, although I don’t know whom, the random chance that brought me into existence. We have been blessed to have been alive.
This is Version 1.0 of my last testament, dated 31 May 2011. I will update it as time permits.
Stuff that might support some of the things I've noted above.