What advice may Einstein have to offer?13 min read . Updated: 30 Sep 2017, 11:26 PM IST
Is science the only truth you subscribe to? Does God exist? What place does religion hold in your life? If I abhor violence, is eating meat ethical?
This dispatch is being filed on the back of thoughts triggered by an interesting conversation with Shankar Maruwada, who co-founded the EkStep Foundation. The stated mission of the foundation is to find innovative ways to deliver learning opportunities for children who would otherwise not have access to them. “And how are you going about it now as opposed to how you went about implementing things in the past?" my colleague N. Ramnath and I asked the thoughtful gentleman, when we caught up last week.
The sum and substance of what he said was this: convention insists that when a problem emerges, a solution be found. Inevitably, these solutions emerge from existing frameworks. In turn, where do frameworks emerge from? Inevitably, from our understanding of how the world operates.
But we are finally coming around to accept the world we live in as a dynamic and complex one. It has a mind of its own and frustrates any framework our imaginations can think up. Is it possible, then, to stop thinking in the traditional, mechanistic way, like an engineer (or a physicist) who builds frames?
Why can’t we push ourselves to think dynamically and across disciplines instead? Why aren’t we synthesizing knowledge from the masters across fields as diverse as biology and the arts and philosophy, without discarding the fundamentals of physics and engineering? Is it possible to be somebody (or an entity, for that matter) that can move seamlessly between domains and synthesize all of what emerges to create a new frame?
Indeed! Maruwada has a point. For too long now, we have grown up thinking in silos. For instance, an engineer can imagine structures only in grids. A biologist insists on peering at everything from a microscope. A writer can describe the world only in a narrative. A religious teacher thinks there is nothing outside the boundaries of the scriptures he has been weaned on. And so on and so forth.
Imagine now: what may one of the finest minds us humans know—Albert Einstein—think of, if he were asked to ponder over this? All of us know of him as the man who shot into prominence after having demonstrated the temerity to further refine Isaac Newton’s Laws of Motion and come up with the General Theory of Relativity.
In our heads, he is a physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize. But there is no taking away from the fact that his was one of the most influential modern minds, dominating contemporary discourse. There was much else on Einstein’s mind then, most of which has not been done justice to in the public domain. All his life he grappled with multiple sets of questions. For instance:
• Does God exist? (At the time he died, he thought there is an incomprehensible force larger than him).
• Does religion have to exist? (He thought it unnecessary).
• Do I have to feel patriotic? (The idea was an abhorrent one to him).
• If I am a pacifist and abhor violence, how can I possibly eat meat? (He remained conflicted all his life).
• What is it about art that I can see beauty in, but cannot seem to re-create, much like a painter or a musician would? (He took to playing the violin with much joy—to the amusement of his friends, who thought him an awful player of the instrument).
These are questions of the kind that have occupied humans for centuries. Each of these questions can fill libraries. Me attempting to answer them is petulant. But how did Einstein attempt to answer these questions in his head? Often, in wrestling with these questions, he thought himself a lonely man because there were few people he could exchange notes with. That is why I started to pore over his many letters and writings and engage in a conversation with an old friend. He insists on being identified by his first name alone—Ashutosh.
During his day job, Ashutosh is designated as a master scientist at Agilent Technologies and is based out of Atlanta in the US. He holds a doctorate in physics. Over time, though, his trajectory has morphed and he now resides at the intersection of molecular biology, computing and physics and is deeply interested in history, philosophy, art and poetry, among other things. I know him as one of the finest connoisseur of Urdu poetry.
I called him to try and simulate what may have gone on in Einstein’s mind. The intent was to test, with a fertile mind like Ashutosh’s, if Maruwada’s line of thinking—that complex adaptive systems is where the future lies—holds merit. His immediate answer was that it does and these are the boundaries theoretical research is pushing.
Our conversation turned out to be an interesting one that challenged me at various levels. We touched upon pretty much all the questions I articulated above. The talking lasted a few hours. For the sake of this piece, though, I’ll stick to just a couple of themes we flirted with.
What is abhorrent about the idea of eating meat?
In my head, I am at a place now where I am deeply conflicted about it. Because when thought about, it does not sit well with my stated world view: abhor violence. Just that I may add some muscle to my argument, I will bring in some passages from a piece that I stumbled across in Aeon magazine on how much ought we worry about the death of what we squash without giving it a second thought—in this case, a fly.
“Now, I’m not a biologist, but I know that a fly is an animal, and more specifically, an insect. As such, it has (or had) wings, legs, eyes, antenna and a host of internal organs. Those parts are in turn made of cells, each one of which is hugely complex. And in those cells, among many other things, are—are were—the fly’s genes, which in turn embody an astonishing intricacy and an ancient, multi-million-year history, while in the fly’s gut would have been countless bacteria with their own genes, their own goals. Worlds within worlds, now squidged together into a single dark smudge that I am already finding it hard to pinpoint among the scratches and coffee rings. A history of life spread out before me, if only I were able to read it."
“At this point, I guess that readers will be dividing into two parties. One party, probably the majority, will be thinking, ‘Get over it, it’s a fly.’ This, it seems to me, is a very reasonable position. Flies die in large numbers all the time—some, indeed, at my hand, whether I intend it or not (and I sometimes do). And in the summer evenings, when I sit on our terrace and watch swifts in their spectacle of swooping and screeching, this beautiful display is, of course, at the same time an orgy of insect death."
“The other party of readers, probably the minority, will be horrified at my casual killing of this delicate life-form. They will be appalled at the waste and stupidity of my carelessness. To them, (I) must be an oaf; at best ignorant, at worst malevolent. And this, it seems to me, is also a very reasonable position. Even though I habitually write—sometimes about complex subjects—it is certain that with one mistimed finger-swipe I destroyed complexity and beauty many orders of magnitude greater than any I will ever create."
Since the time I read it, the piece continued to linger in my mind. When I squash a fly, I squash millions of years of history. And the passages replay themselves out every once in a while. A few months ago, for instance, I passed through Bhiwandi, a two-hour drive from Mumbai. What hits the eye soon after you turn off the highways are rows upon rows of meat shops—or abattoirs if you insist on calling them that. Filthy doesn’t begin to describe the gore, with carcasses of goats and chickens mounted one upon another. Their live counterparts were tethered close by, waiting their turn to be killed.
It is the kind of sight that can make you retch and want to give up eating meat of any kind. I have sworn many times I will. That I haven’t, at least yet, is another matter altogether. But it often compels me to ask questions us humans have asked of each other forever. Do animals have a soul? Do animals have a conscience? Do the wretched creatures lined up for slaughter next to their slaughtered brethren know they are next? Does it terrify them?
The various schools of thoughts that debate these are the ones I have pointed to in the passages quoted above. I asked Ashutosh about where he stands on this. His answer was a provocative one. Originally from Himachal Pradesh, he grew up as a vegetarian. In an act of rebellion, though, he took to eating meat. But as he started getting deeper into studying the various sciences—biology, philosophy, and how nature calibrates itself—all conflicts started to dissipate.
I asked him to offer perspective. He started asking me some questions.
1. How much thought have I put into what kind of resources it will take to sustain the world on an entirely vegetarian diet?
When I poked around a bit, I could see pointers to the problems that exist. While on paper it is possible to move towards a more cereal-based diet, it creates other problems. On the one hand, there is no taking away from the fact that protein is needed as well. On the other hand, while there is no denying that India has done much to increase the production of wheat, it has come at a dramatic cost in terms of the depletion of Indian rivers. The damage to the ecosystem is enormous and the magnitude is being acknowledged only now.
2. Then there is an economic argument. What happens to the ecosystem if I stop eating meat? When I looked that up, turns out India is home to the world’s largest livestock population. The most recent data has it that India has the world’s largest number of cattle and is the second-largest poultry market in the world.
This data raises other questions.
a) Is India equipped to deal with the livestock? There are people out there whose livelihood depends on culling livestock because that is how the ecosystem is. What happens to their livelihoods if I insist on imposing my morality upon them? How am I to compensate them for the losses and hunger that they will experience?
b) And if morality be a barometer, how did poultry get to be as big as it is? By any yardstick, the only reason poultry is reared anywhere in the world is so that it may yield either eggs or meat. To that extent, it is a source of cheap protein. So, if I were to turn militant about my morality, is it possible that I will forbid many people from access to the only food they can afford?
I must admit that these assertions had me stumped for a while. Even as I was beginning to ponder the consequences of that, Ashutosh threw yet another one at me.
3. “Did you know," he asked me, “the Buddha, whom you are now enamoured by and whose teachings you are inclined to follow, died because he consumed pork?"
Ashutosh’s readings suggest that at the time of Buddha’s death, his body was wracked by a disease that would not let it process meat. But his philosophical traditions also insisted that he ought not to refuse any food that has been offered to him as alms. My readings have not provided any conclusive evidence that he did consume meat. It suggests he may or may not have—the literature is very subjective and open to interpretation. But one thing is clear: Gautama Buddha did not forbid his monks from consuming meat. What he did offer them as a pointer, though, was that they take what is given to them by way of alms—and if that food be meat, then so be it. But he recommended refraining from killing wilfully or accepting meat that was cooked only for their consumption.
Between the both of us, on the one hand, we debated the morality of it all for a while. On the other hand, it threw up more questions.
4. Then there was no taking away from the fact that Ashutosh works at the frontiers of the sciences and states with much authority that animals have “feelings" in much the same way that humans do. There is documented evidence that proves consciousness is not just a human experience. If that be the case, Ashutosh prodded me to think along a few lines before we take the conversation any further:
a. Why is it that animals have no qualms in consuming other animals?
b. Is it in the moral order of the universe to eat what is available? Does that put into perspective Buddha’s instructions that you take only what is available—and if that be meat, so be it?
c. Have I noticed, though, that animals do not hunt for sport or breed other animals for consumption like humans do?
I hadn’t thought about all these. I have much to think about. Apparently, this is a theme around which Einstein was deeply conflicted as well and something he couldn’t quite come to terms with.
But Einstein thought it pertinent that he stay invested in his search for answers to questions like these. There are no frameworks he knew of to deploy to seek answers—he had to think up new possibilities. And these possibilities existed in domains where his expertise was either limited or non-existent.
I pushed Ashutosh to put some perspective forth on why this search for answers to seemingly irrelevant questions holds importance in the contemporary scheme of things. He offered me an interesting take.
He currently works at the intersection of multiple sciences. While he trained as a physicist, over time, he has acquired perspective on big data, biology, philosophy and literature, which compels him to think about the impact that the outcome of one decision can have on the ecosystem. This means he must get out of his comfort zone and work in ambiguous territory.
His mandate right now is to look for patterns in recurring forms of cancer. Will any cure come out of it? He has no clue. But what he does know is that in poking around multiple nooks and crannies, something may just emerge that may not have occurred to him. What he also knows now is that there is only so much he can know. He has made his peace with that.
I asked him to make it tangible for me.
“Do you think IBM worked on Deep Blue with the explicit intent to beat Gary Kasparov?"
That’s how I always thought it to be. His take was no. IBM didn’t know what the outcomes would be. Even if Deep Blue had lost all the matches against Kasparov, an entirely new set of learnings would have emerged for IBM on how the human mind works.
He asked me to think of Google in much the same way. But the way Ashutosh the scientist looks at the company is that when Google was restructured as an entity under Alphabet, Google could stick to what it is good at—refine its abilities to create a better search engine. Researchers within the larger ecosystem that is Alphabet can engage in everything from artificial intelligence to the life sciences. Who is to know what may emerge?
In doing that, Google is morphing from a fragile creature into an anti-fragile one. And what do I mean by anti-fragile? In my head, I think of anything that is rigid as fragile. Because anything that is rigid, when hit hard, can be fractured. But anti-fragile means when hit, it has the ability to absorb the impact and acquire a new shape.
To do that, though, much comfort is needed in places where there are no frameworks and confidence exists to work off just a hypothesis. That is what Maruwada was trying to say the world has come to. And that is what Einstein was at work on much before anyone else could see the potential of a complex, dynamic, adaptable system.
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