Wednesday, March 31, 2010

One for the Caste System

Here’s news that’s not quite news. India has once again backed away from attempts to classify the caste system as a type of discrimination.

“Inclusion of caste in the definition of racial discrimination is completely unacceptable. We reject the notion that caste falls under the rubric of racial discrimination”.

I agree with the sentiment here, I really do. Firstly, the notion of race is very difficult to define in reality. Perhaps Blacks and Whites have sufficient physical dissimilarity to skirt around these difficulties; what about Indians and Sri Lankans? How about racial differences between North Indians and South Indians? Or, to get to the point, what about people belonging to different castes? I agree that any position that maintains racial differences in these cases is biologically untenable. The interesting thing, if you read the article carefully, is that the issue is not about racial discrimination at all. The title of the UN report is “2009 Draft principles and Guidelines for the Effective Elimination of Discrimination based on Work and Descent”. It’s pretty long winded (but only middling in terms of the usual bureaucratic guff you see), but it doesn’t mention the word ‘race’ anywhere, does it? The Indian government played the oldest card in the warfare game – they picked the battleground. Going by that title, there is no way that the caste system cannot fall under the purview of the corresponding UN committee.

There was another thing I found disconcerting about that news article. We just sounded a lot like China in a few places! Here are a couple of relevant snippets:

“Besides how can anyone seriously suggest that India’s fight against caste based discrimination will be helped by international attention on the issue? Are we a closed country where debates do not take place and correctives not applied?’’

“It will just muddy the waters instead of helping us remove this evil. Imagine the reaction when U.N. bodies begin accusing India of being intolerant to the weaker castes. Progressive people who are working to end this will become sidelined if there is uproar against foreign advice.”

Now those are dubious statements. I’m sure it wouldn’t have escaped your notice that such a viewpoint can be easily extrapolated to justify several generally condemned ideas. The idea of a state controlled media, for instance. If we, as a nation, know that we are free and fair in our administration, why the hell should we let external opinion ‘muddy’ our internal affairs? Let us show the rest of the world that all is fine and dandy, and we’ll fix our own problems. That sounds almost exactly like a friendly nation we know. Besides, allowing the world to condemn the caste system would make many of our legislative achievements look like blinkered jokes. I’m talking about reservations of course; while their apparent usefulness is unquestionable, it would not be wrong to classify them as a form of reverse discrimination. That would really muddy some waters.

PS: The term racism has become an umbrella term for discrimination, a fact that the Indian government conveniently distorted to support their stance. Under this generalizing assumption, yes, the caste system is racism. Also, there's more I want to say about the deep-rooted Indian tendency to cling on to our 'culture' in totality, but that should be a post in itself. :)

Why I dislike the idea of Universals

I’ve been exploring a lot of classical philosophy lately, and I have been pleasantly surprised, repeatedly, to note the depth of learning and erudition of most of its practitioners. It seems to me that today’s perception of philosophy as a head-in-the-clouds occupation for vagabonds who can’t do much else cannot be further from the truth. The sheer logical elegance of many schools of philosophy completely belies the pre-scientific origins of their dictums. In modernity’s contempt of philosophy, I also see a touch of denial. Who would want to admit that such heady speculation is beyond his faculties? It would be much simpler to pretend to be the admirable Busy Man. Anyway, the unfair treatment of the noble art of philosophy is not quite what I had in mind for this post – it is the issue of Universals that I want to talk about.

The idea of universals is fundamental to Plato’s philosophy. Some schools of Indian philosophy that have strains of realism, like Vaisesika, have this idea too. What exactly are universals? To put it simply, if you see a monitor in front of you, the physical form of the monitor is not all that there is to this observation. There is an abstract notion of ‘monitor-ness’ that lies outside of the physical form you see; the real, tangible monitor you can see (and touch ,or smell, if you desire) is just a materialistic shadow of this ‘idea’. Plato also believed that all physical objects are fundamentally flawed. Your LCD monitor is different from my LCD monitor because both are different caricatures of the same idea. You can argue that the idea of universals is just that: an idea. A logically elegant and fascinating one, admittedly, but one that exists only in the mind of the philosopher. Here’s where realism stirs up the works. All universals, according to Plato, are real. They have an existence independent of their occurrence in our chain of thought, in some supra-universe that lies far beyond our powers of perception.

My grouse with the whole concept is that most illustrations of the existence of universals degenerate to comparisons of animals. The argument usually goes something like this: See that cow yonder? There is a fundamental bovinity to all creatures that look like that. Your mind captures this idea when you think of a generic cow, and not the specific cow chewing up your lawn. I smell something cyclic in this argument. The reason we call them cows in the first place, is because we perceive some physical similarities in certain animals. Arguing once again that cows share a certain abstract similarity is a tautology. One more key point that makes me critical of the notion of universals is the fact of evolution. Evolution tells us that physical similarities between animals are not discrete: apes and humans shared a common ancestor that looked a little bit like both, and a little bit like neither. So much for the universal idea of an ape. You can of course reopen the argument by claiming that every single animal in evolutionary history has a corresponding universal. If that is the case, why does the idea of extinct animal X always follow the empirical discovery of its fossils?

Application of the idea of universality to man-made objects is a little bit more perplexing. How’d the first person to make a chair come up with the idea? The problem here, again, is that realist philosophers see discreteness where there is none. Did humans just sit on the ground for centuries, until one fine day they discovered the magical chair in a flash of inspiration? Reality is less romantic. The modern lounge chair has progressively evolved from the piece of deadwood that seated Adam. I might be wrong here, but the theory of Universals, at least when applied to physical objects, is complete junk.

There are other aspects to the theory of Universals that are much harder to dispute - the neurological idea of qualia for instance. Is there redness because we label the colour of apples so? Or is there is an idea of redness that exists independently; something that a blind man who has never seen apples can perceive?