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A clock without a craftsman

Curiosity can be devastating on the pocket. Curiosity without complete awareness has the likelihood of turning fatal.

At first, for example, there was nothing. Then, there was a book called The Feynman Lectures on Physics (Vol. 3) (Rs. 214) in class XII. Then, there was great interest centered on the man named Richard Feynman, and so, another book followed: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Rs. 346) By the time I’d finished reading it, I was introduced to that argumentative British coot named David Hume, whose Selected Essays (Rs. 425) sparked my initial wonderment on logical positivism as well as torpor-inducing verbosity (in these terms, his only peer is Thomas Pynchon (Against the Day, Rs. 800), and I often wonder why many call for his nomination for a Nobel Prize in literature. The Prize is awarded to good writers, right? Sure, he writes grandiose stuff and explores sensations and times abstract to everyone else with heart-warming clarity, but by god do you have to have a big attention span to digest it! In contrast: Vargas Llosa!).

I realized that if I had to follow what Hume had to say, and then Rawls, and then Sen (The Idea of Justice, Rs. 374) and Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Rs. 169 – the subject of my PG-diploma’s thesis) and Kant, and then Schopenhauer, Berkeley and Wittgenstein, I’d either have to study philosophy after school and spend the rest of my days in penurate thought or I’d have to become rich and spend the rest of my days buying books while not focusing on work.

An optimum course of action presented itself. I had to specialize.

But how does one choose the title of that school of thought that one finds agreeable without perusing the doctrines of all the schools on offer? I was back to square one. Then, someone suggested reading The Story of Philosophy (Rs. 230) by Will Durant. When I picked up a copy at a roadside bookstore, I suspected its innards had been pirated, too: the book would have been more suited in the hands of one in need of a quick-reference tool; the book didn’t think; the book wasn’t the interlocutor I was hoping it would be.

I wanted dialogue, I wanted dialectic in the context of Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus‘ thesis (Systems of Speculative Ethics as translated by Alfred Edersheim, 1854 – corresponding to System of Speculative Philosophy by G.W.F. Hegel). I wanted the evolution of Plato (The Republic, Rs. 200), Aristotle (Poetics, Rs. 200), Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, Rs. 200). That was when I chanced upon George Berkeley’s Principles of Human Knowledge (Rs.225) and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous (Rs. 709). Epistemology began then to take shape; until that moment, however, it was difficult to understand the inherently understood element as anything but active-thought. It’s ontology started to become clear – and not like it did in the context of The Architecture of Language by A. Noam Chomsky (Rs. 175), which, to me, still was the crowning glory of naturalist thought.

Where does the knowledge, “the truth”, of law arise from? What is the modality within which it finds realization? Could there exist an epistemological variable (empirically speaking) the evaluation of which represents a difference between the cognitive value of a statement of truth and that of a statement of law? Are truths simply objective reasons whose truth-value may or may not be verifiable?

Upon the consumption of each book, a pattern became evident: all philosophers, and their every hypothesis, converged on some closely interrelated quantum mechanical concepts.

Are the mind and body one? Does there exist an absolute frame of reference? Is there a unified theory at all?

Around the same time, I came to the conclusion that advanced physics held the answers to most ontological questions – as I have come to understand it must. Somewhere-somewhen in the continuum, the observable and the unobservable have to converge, coalesce into a single proto-form, their constituents fuse in the environment afforded them to yield their proto-reactants. Otherwise, the first law of thermodynamics would stand violated!

However, keeping up with quantum mechanics would be difficult for one very obvious reason: I was a rookie, and it was a contemporary area of intense research. To solve for this, I started with studying the subject’s most pragmatic parts: Introduction to Quantum Mechanics by Powell & Crasemann (Rs. 220), Solid State Physics by Ashcroft & Mermin (Rs. 420), Quantum Electrodynamics by Richard Feynman (Rs. 266), and Electromagnetic Systems and Radiating Waves by Jordan & Balmain (Rs. 207) were handy viaducts. Not like there weren’t any terrors in between, such as Lecture Notes on Elementary Topology and Geometry by Singer & Thorpe.

At the same time, exotic discoveries were being made: at particle colliders, optical research facilities, within deep space by ground-based interstellar probes, within the minds of souls more curious than mine. Good for me, the literature corresponding to all these discoveries was to be found in one place: the arXiv pre-print servers (the access to which costs all of nothing). These discoveries included quantum teleportation, room-temperature superconductivity, supercomputers, metamaterials, and advancements in ferromagnetic storage systems.

(I also was responsible for discovering some phenomena exotic purely to me in this period: cellular automata and computation theory – which I experimented with using Golly and Mirek’s Cellebration, and fuzzy logic systems and their application in robotics – experimented with using the Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio.)

What did these discoveries have to do with Hume’s positivism? That I could stuff 1 gigabyte’s worth of data within an inch-long row of particles championed empiricism, I suppose, but beyond that, the concepts’ marriage seemed to demand the inception of a swath of interdisciplinary thought. I could not go back, however, so I ploughed on.

I was trapped in the spaces between books, between different moments in history, in time, a totalistic cellular automaton whose different avatars were simply different degrees of doubt.
Because of reality’s denial of accommodation to manifestations of tautologies and contradictions, so was I trapped within the shortcomings of all men and women.

A Brief History of Time (Rs. 245) did not help – Hawking succeeded splendidly in leaving me with more questions than answers – (Gravitation and Cosmology: Principles and Applications of the General Theory of Relativity by Steven Weinberg (Rs. 525) answered some of them), The Language Instinct by Harvard-boy Steven Pinker (Rs. 450) charted the better courses of rationality into sociology and anthropology (whereas my intuition that Arundhati Roy would reward governance with a similar fashion of rational unknotting was proved expensively very right: Algebra of Infinite Justice, at Rs. 302, lays bare all the paradoxes that make India India).

For literature, of course, there were Orhan Pamuk and Umberto Eco, Lord Tennyson and Sylvia Plath, de Beauvoir, le Guin and Abbott (My Name is Red (Rs. … Whatever, it doesn’t matter!), The Name of the Rose, and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana are to be cherished, especially the last for its non-linear narration and the strange parallels waiting to be drawn with hermeneutics, such as one delineated on by E.H. Carr in his What Is History?) to fall in love with (Plath’s works, of course, were an excursion into the unexplored… in a manner of speaking, just as le Guin’s imagination and Abbott’s commentary are labours unto the familiar).

Learn to like ebooks. Or turn poor.

Ultimately, that was all that I learnt. Quite romantic though that being an autodidact may sound, the assumption of its mantle involves the Herculean task of braiding all that one learns into a single spine of knowledge. The more you learn, the farther you are from where you started, the even more you have learnt, the more ambitious you get… I cannot foresee an end.

Currently, I am reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Soviet-era exile Alexander Solzhenitsyn (war-time dystopian fiction became a favourite along the way after reading a history of firearms in Russia, a history of science and technology in IslamHow Things Work gifted to me by my father when I was 11, and Science and Civilisation in China by Needham & Gwei-Djen (Rs. 6,374 – OK, now it matters)) and Current Trends in Science: Platinum Jubilee Edition – Indian Academy of Sciences, lent to me by Dr. G. Baskaran. At each stage, a lesson to be learnt about the universe is learnt, a minuscule piece told in the guise of one author’s experiences and deductions to fit into a supermassive framework of information that has to be used by another’s intelligence. A daunting task.

No wonder it doesn’t come cheap.

Or does it?