Friday, June 13, 2008

The small of God things

If ever one needs a mental punching bag, one of the most tempting options is the debate on faith vs. atheism. In this article, Jug Suriya tries his punches on this bag, from both sides, and ends up a bit bruised. Triggered by some apparent research on the relation between of belief (or lack of it) and intelligence, longevity etc..Jug tries landing various punches on the believers and the non-believers, mostly the non-believers.

Fact is belief is not rational and atheism, going by it's own standard practices, is not complete, consistent and cannot answer all the questions. And so, both of them are sitting ducks - for quacks on both sides to have a go at, and cry foul when they fail.

Often, it is cool strategy to not take sides, and let the battles go on, and when the end is apparent, sing songs about the emerging victor while being gracious towards the near vanquished. However, on the divine debate, the end is no where near. (Doomsday proponents, irrespective of which side of the divine debate they might be, will need to contend that the doomsday, if it ever happened, is likely the end of the earth - or something larger - but not necessarily the end of the divine debate. An idea can exist in nothingness.)

Given this fact that the divine debate is not likely to end sometime soon, sitting on the fence (like Jug) is likely to give you a sore bottom rather than strategic advantage. So, I'd take a side - the side of rationality, the side of intelligence, as against that of "intelligent design".

The believers often call into question the theory of evolution, citing the "million monkeys on a million keyboards, producing the works of Shakespeare" etc to cite that the universe is a carefully constructed entity, following principles that we often fail to understand, and is driven (as is every creature, living or not, within the universe) to a destiny as ordained by the omni-potent intelligent designer.

Methinks this is a lot of gibberish. Often one hears that "Belief begins where science ends" - fact is this statement implies the following:

a) Science has certain ends - but this is a temporal phenomenon. These limits of science are constantly pushed by mankind and never before have the limits been pushed as far away as they have been in the last 50 years. As Alvin Toffler, in a completely different context explains, 99% of all that we know has been discovered/invented in the last century. Given a few more centuries, who knows where the new limits of science will be?

b) Often, modern limits of science is far beyond the comprehension of most commoners. 99% of university graduates do not understand what a positron is. Nor do they understand what exactly is DNA. But the common man believes in the existence of DNA because he is aware of the applications related to it. Note that the common man does not need to understand DNA to believe in its existence. Applications drive belief. For pieces of science that have no immediate application value to the common man, they don't stand a chance of acceptance. This simply means that belief begins where demonstrated science ends. As time progresses, belief will be pushed farther away....

c) Looking at the million monkeys theory: For people who claim that the earth is not a result of order emerging from chaos, may I ask why is there no order - "earth-like" or otherwise on the moon or the mars? Modern biology has progressed far beyond Darwinism and succeeds in explaining (for the patient, intelligent, hard-working student) the theory of emergence - of emergent phenomenon - of how order emerges from chaos in case after case...There are scientists who, for various reasons, would like to take the route of mathematical induction (= supreme global generalisation of a concept based on a couple of local observations) and define grand theories of the universe. This is probably far-fetched for even a few hardcore scientists to accept. And the common-man, limited by lack of deep understanding, is confused by the disagreements between the knowledgeable. That apart, the theory of emergence is a honest theory, which can only grow in the years to come and will push the envelope of reason into the far recess of faith.

A nice way to end this is with an attempt to translate a part of a DVG kagga:
Devearembudenu kaggattaleya gaviye?
Naavarilaaradara ottu hesare?
---> transates to
Is God a dark, black cave?
Is it the name we give to all that we dont know?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Fuelling debate

The alchemists are giving the black gold a makeover- turning it to platinum or uranium or some such numbingly expensive substance. And for this substance-addicted societies in the west and the emerging ones of the east, the northward migration of the fuel prices is a subject of intense concern.

Swaminathan Aiyar (SA) writes in the STOI (admittedly one of my fav hunting grounds) that, amongst others, India is subsidizing the OPEC. Let's start with this point. India refuses to have an open market for fuel - for fear of uncontrolled prices and consequent impact on election results. Indian politicians prefer to take a seemingly virtuous position by subsidizing fuel in the interest of the weaker sections of the society. SA argues - with no underpinning - that the beneficiaries of the subsidy are indeed the rich - and hence there is no virtue in the subsidy. This is clearly is weak argument - and not merely for lack of underpinning. Fuel prices have a direct impact on the entire economy. On the face of it, a person using 100 liters of petrol a month benefits more (from the subsidy) than a person using 5. But look at the holistic picture- the entire country relies on goods and services which include a factor of fuel prices in their costs. Poorer people have little headroom in their monthly balance sheets. The richer you are, the more maneuverability you have with respect to your expenses.
SA further argues that if India stopped subsidizing fuel, then like with other goods, the law of demand and supply with catchup and soon there will be lesser demand. This claim requires serious underpinning. With other commodities, say onions, if the prices soar high, the market can correct itself - due to decreasing demand, but more so, due to improved yields, better rain cycles etc etc. In other words, the production of onions can be controlled by human intervention assuming cooperation of the divine. Note also that we can survive without onions. Also, onions donot impact a number of other commodities we use in our lives. Fuel is clearly a different type of commodity - one that fails to fit in the oversimplified laws of economics that SA tries to apply to commodities in general. Lets examine why.
a) We are no where close to finding an alternative to fossil fuels. All talk of green fuels, sustainability etc is just that - No more than 5% of human energy requirements are met by these green options. [The rest are met by a combination of fossil and nuclear sources]. So, human intervention in finding a technical alternative has not yet yielded results. Regarding human intervention for discovering new oil fields, this seems to be happening, but due to a combination of reasons (including the ones that follow), there is no let down of prices. The simple rationale is that fossil fuels are limited resources, and we will run out some time. The only discussion is when.
b) Fuel is an infrastructure commodity. Increase in fuel prices imply higher infrastructure costs, and this affects the entire economy - unlike increase in prices of standalone commodities.
The laws of supply and demand would still apply to fuel, but then one needs to make provisions for a number of special factors in the case of fuel - especially the TINA factor.

So, is there a solution to the fuel problem? A number of approaches are possible, but lacking a crystal ball, there can be no guarantees of success. But, there are a number of hurdles and the biggest is the acceptance of the problem - or the size of it. This should be the subject for another blog, unless I can relegate it to the impossibly small margin :-).