Terrestrial Science

Ocean clouds seen from space
Photographer: NASA | Source: Unsplash

Buddha before Theology

If you have read some of my other writing, you know that the Buddha fascinates me. I am not the first person to be so fascinated; after all, Buddhism was the first organized religion and until the mid-twentieth century, it was the world's largest religious tradition. That's almost two thousand years of spreading the Dharma in a mostly non-violent manner.

But it's not the Buddha as the Buddha who fascinates me as much as the Buddha as Siddhartha. The Buddha is the enlightened one who found the ANSWER. Siddhartha was the sensitive prince who left a comfortable life in search for answers. The Tathagatha worshipped by billions is cool, but not available in any creative sense. I mean, how can you draw inspiration from a semi-divinity? Like Jesus as Christ, it's possible to admire the son of god but it's harder to see how a human being could model her or his life on the one being who's both human and divine.

I am going to stick with the fully human pre-divinity instead. Looking at the afflictions of our age, I don't ask: what would the Buddha do. Instead, I ask: what would Siddhartha do? He was a clever guy, channeling the intellectual and spiritual currents of his time into a coherent view, and creating a social structure – the famous Sangha – that replicated his insights over generations.

Also, he wasn't a theist. He created a religion without belief in god. I got to say, the idea of a divine being separate from his creation doesn't appeal to me. In fact, the idea of a divine being doesn't appeal to me. Before we get all excited:

  1. That doesn't make me into an atheist. Atheism is structured around the refutation of the existence of divine beings, while I find divinity irrelevant to questions of religion. Strange, right?
  2. I am not an agnostic either, for an agnostic either ignores the question of divinity or is undecided about its merits.

What's left?

We can't stop asking ultimate questions, but we don't have to invoke a deity (or demolish one) in order to answer them. Isn't that what the Buddha did, charting a middle way between agreement and denial? If Siddhartha were to be born today, he would reject the pursuit of theology in both its religious and its scientific versions.

For much of the last two thousand years, theology was considered to be the first science, for the study of the divine being precedes the study of all his creations.

That was then.

Theology had a good run, first as religion and then its science (see below) but it has reached a creative dead end.

Why so? Read on….

Theological Science

All human societies are knowledge societies and our modern society is no different, but you have to be careful about how you count knowledge. Here's a common philosophical definition:

Knowledge is justified true belief.

Some beliefs are more justifiable than others. Open any science 1o1 book and it will tell you that the earth rotating around the sun is justifiable true belief while the sun going around the earth is not, even if it might have been the status quo for centuries. The Copernican shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism is considered to be the defining mark of the scientific revolution, with science replacing religion as the definitive source of knowledge.

I have a slightly different take: instead of marking the division between science and religion, the Copernican shift marks the division between Theological science and Theological religion.

Q: Isn't theology associated with religion by default? A: Yes, but I am playing with words, so humor me.

I am using 'theology' in a metaphysical manner, as a way of knowing ultimate and absolute truths. In this scheme, theological religion hypothesizes the divine as the ultimate basis of reality; theological science hypothesizes natural principles as the ultimate basis of reality. In other words, theology places itself at the roots of the tree of knowledge – god in religion, fundamental principles in science – and says everything else is an outgrowth of what's at the bottom.

But there are trees and there are trees. What if the tree of knowledge is a Banyan tree?

In contrast, there's everyday religion where a community might worship local deities and spirits without attributing any ultimate significance to those deities and spirits. Similarly, in everyday science I might investigate the medicinal value of a local herb without attributing ultimate significance to that herb.

Historically, Euclid's Elements is the archetype of theological science, since it develops geometry from a few self-evident principles. Never mind that one of those principles turns out to be not-so-evident, leading to the explosion of non-Euclidean geometries, and a theological style of writing that was copied by Newton in his Principia, Spinoza in his Ethics and even leaves its traces in the American Declaration of Independence which starts with "We hold these truths to be self-evident," about as Euclidean a framing as one might imagine.

Aside for another occasion: What is self-evidence?

In the modern era, physics is the theological science par excellence and the Copernican revolution followed by Kepler, Galileo and Newton firmly established the science of mechanics as the theological science of ultimate reality – the physicist's dream being the complete "theory of everything" that explains all natural phenomena as being the outcome of a few physical principles.

Lake Tekapo in New Zealand is one of the best places on Earth to see the night sky. Boy where we in for a surprise, with no clouds and sub-zero temperatures, the milky way just seemed to pop like I have never seen it before.
Photographer: Graham Holtshausen | Source: Unsplash

Theological religion is a faded carpet. Yes, there still are people writing books about the divine nature of reality but to a substantial extent, theological religion has lost its hold upon our sense of the ultimate. Especially among the elites who have always dominated theological activity, whether in science or in religion.

I wouldn't weep too much – theological religion had a long run; several thousand years in several civilizations. Not too shabby. What happened with religion is now happening with science. In my view, theological science is entering a period of terminal decline. Some signs of why the dark ages are imminent:

  • if the physicists arrive at a string-theoretic theory of everything the quest will end – no more work left to be done.
  • if the current debacle of "fundamental physics" continues the field will lose interest and funding.

Meanwhile, a terrestrial science is emerging as an alternate articulation of our deepest knowledge needs. Its conception of knowledge isn't justified true belief.

Brown and green fields
Photographer: elizabeth lies | Source: Unsplash

Terrestrial Science

Very few of us practice theological science or theological religion. They have always been a specialized fields of expertise. If you take theological investigation as your model of knowledge seeking, you will condemn most human activity as being inferior, or in Rutherford's infamous words "all science is either physics or stamp collecting."

By way of comparison, almost everyone practices everyday science, seeking answers to questions that range from "how do I make money by playing the stock market" to "what do I need to do lower my plastic consumption." These are practical questions with practical answers that can make you rich one day and ruin your retirement the next.

Until recently, these practices of everyday science were local: the herb that cures fevers in my village isn't the same as the root that cures fevers in yours. What's happened over the last two hundred years is the integration of these local practices into a global system of knowledge that's the beginning of terrestrial science.

The process by which local knowledges have been integrated into a global system goes by many names, but I will use the most provocative: capitalism. That name may not cover every mechanism through which knowledge is integrated (what would you call Wikipedia for example?) but it covers the most important cases and illuminates the underlying means of knowledge production and accumulation.

Ever since the industrial revolution, there's been a continuing process of capitalist integration through which local knowledge practices are absorbed within the capitalist system so that local Indian strains of rice become globalized and one Chinese breed of banana becomes the de-facto fruit everywhere in the world. As Branko Milanovic says in his important new book "Capitalism Alone," we now have a universal system of knowledge driven production with the only variations between liberal capitalist models of which the US is the most important exemplar and authoritarian capitalist models of which China is the most important exemplar.

Unlike the theological tree of knowledge that aims to be a pine, the capitalist tree of knowledge is a banyan tree, taking root in multiple places and bringing them into the orbit of the tree as a whole. No wonder, many people think capitalism is the ultimate answer to the questions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. State socialism certainly appears to be less efficient than market capitalism in providing those benefits. Of the various problems with state socialism, let me point out one: the Soviet Union was an exceptionally inefficient emitter of carbon, with its emissions per capita of GDP much greater than those of the US. The same pattern is replicated in China since state enterprises don't have the same incentive to be efficient as private enterprises.


I am reluctant to nominate capitalist modernity as the end of history. We make a mistake in thinking state socialism or socialism of any sort is the real challenger to capitalism as the most important system of terrestrial knowledge. The real challenge comes from ecology, not from economy. To give just one example: the mania for growth built into capitalism isn't compatible with the steady state nature of ecological systems as a whole.

The conflict between economy and ecology is a symptom of a bigger problem: capitalism is an anthropocentric discipline at its core. It's only concerned with human life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, humans aren't a divine abstraction unconcerned with the other beings on this planet – we are entangled with all of them.

Capitalism is fast approaching its Copernican moment: just as theological science replaced theological religion by rejecting geocentrism, I believe that a true terrestrial science will start with replacing anthropocentric capital with something else. For example, consider the rushing development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is likely to be one of the dominant forms of knowledge production in the near to middle term: what's the current "Holy Grail" of AI? It's Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI, i.e., a robot that's intelligent in the ways we are.

Isn't that anthropocentric? Why is intelligence synonymous with certain kinds of human cleverness?

This child was delighted when a butterfly landed in her hands.
Photographer: David Clode | Source: Unsplash

Instead, let's also note that AI might help us inhabit the minds of other creatures way better than we have been able to so far. In the famous Turing test, the Computer Science and AI pioneer Alan Turing imagined a world in which we won't be able to differentiate humans from computers if we only had access to their behaviors.

Instead, imagine a world in which we won't be able to tell the difference between a monarch butterfly and an artificial butterfly based on their behaviors. Even better, imagine a world in which monarch butterflies aren't able to tell the difference between other monarch butterflies and a robotic butterfly.

Popular Buddhism spread through stories as much as high minded philosophical doctrines. The Jatakas recount the previous lives of the Buddha. It's amazing how often that prior birth is as an animal; the literature of that time was keenly aware how human beings are deeply entangled with other creatures. What would a modern day Jataka look like? How can we travel in and out of the minds of other creatures? This strikes me as a pre-eminent problem for terrestrial science.

Of course, emulating the minds of other creatures will be one of many future challenges. Much more effort will be spent on ensuring the viability of the various ecologies that currently support life on earth and are increasingly under threat because of climate change and general ecological collapse. Also, the Turing test is too low a bar. We are easily convinced by seemingly trivial displays of intelligence. There's no reason why monarch butterflies are better than us: perhaps they too will be easily fooled into treating a robot as a conspecific, a fellow butterfly.

Those problems lie in the future – for now, let's just acknowledge that we need to imagine a new terrestrial science that embraces all the beings on this planet and launch a million speculations on what it's like to go beyond the human world.


Permanent Demonetization

It’s an error to compare today’s demonetization to what happened in 1946 and 1978, for those were simply cases of removal. What’s being attempted today is the wholesale replacement of one financial system — based on cash — with another financial system, based on credit and electronic trade. It’s not a surgical strike; it’s bypass surgery on an unwilling patient.

If we really want to understand what happens when you perform such surgery, we have to look back over two hundred years to the time when cash replaced kind as a form of taxation. In other words, the permanent settlement put into place by that great lover of India, Lord Cornwallis (I am being sarcastic in case you didn’t catch the irony).

First, a few links

The argument over demonetization continues to rage, though the bhakts aren’t as sure of their position as they were even a few days ago. We know for a fact that this will lead to a huge burden on the poor and also on small business. How will a factory owner pay his employees?

No one takes salary on credit.

Two interesting reads:

  1. Amit Varma makes an interesting analogy: that Modi’s demonetization is like Mao asking that all sparrows be killed, upon which the predator-less locusts ate the crops, leading to the disastrous famines during the Great Leap Forward. The analogy is worth reflecting upon. Varma’s libertarian analysis leaves much to be desired.
  2. Mihir Sharma’s analysis of why demonetization is a failure.


Much of the criticism of demonetization is over three things:

  1. Will it work, i.e., will it end black money and corruption? Is cash the primary instrument of corruption?
  2. Who will it hurt? Are the poor and the middle classes going to bear the downside while the richest stash their cash in offshore accounts?

I don’t doubt that demonetization will hurt the poor while the richest continue to find alternative ways of hoarding their wealth, but let’s take a different perspective for a moment:

What if we grant demonetization its claims. Let’s say it will end corruption and finish off the black economy. Will it still be a good thing? What are its intended and unintended consequences?

I see demonetization as a “rational” project, of making the economy more efficient, more transactional and ultimately, driven by finance. It will inevitably make banks more powerful, put data and information (via Aadhaar) at the heart of our society — no surprise that Nandan Nilekani came out strongly in favour of demonetization — and systematically shift economic control away from the corner store and the small business toward large Indian corporations and MNCs.

In fact, it’s explicitly designed to do so. Demonetization is part of making India into a “developed” society.

By the way, changes in finance have been at the heart of “development” for a long time — it was the preferred strategy of East India Company rule, starting with the permanent settlement. So if we want to understand what demonetization might, we should look at the previous abrupt transition in finance, when cash replaced kind as an instrument of taxation. Ironic isn’t it, when we consider that today cash is being set aside in favour of other financial instruments.

The Permanent Settlement

This is not a scholarly article, so I am not going to burden you with references. Here’s how Wikipedia introduces the problem:

The Court of Directors also hoped to guarantee the company’s income, which was constantly plagued by defaulting zamindars who fell into arrears, making it impossible for them to budget their spending accurately.

Yes, I know Wikipedia isn’t always the most accurate source. But if you accept the problem statement, it’s close to what the government defines as the problem today. Black money is an accounting problem. Back then, the accounting discrepancies arose because peasants were allowed to pay their zamindars in kind as well as cash and the zamindars didn’t report all their income. More cash in years of plenty and more kind in lean years when the crop failed.

Unfortunately, what was good for the peasant wasn’t good for the company. They had stockholders back in London looking for profit. The company’s solution: force everyone to pay in cash. That’s what Cornwallis did in 1793, justified then, as demonetization is being justified today, as a service to the people.

Why was the permanent settlement introduced? The way I see it, it was because of black money of those days, i.e., Zamindars weren’t reporting income because it was in kind. The East India Company’s solution: force everyone to pay in cash.

In other words, even two hundred years ago, the interests of financial capital drove monetary policy in India. We know the consequences of that shift. Let me just outline a few:

  1. The shift from subsistence crops to cash crops. Instead of growing food to maintain his family and community, the kisan was forced by his zamindar to grow food that could be sold in the market.
  2. A steady transfer of wealth from India to England. While it’s possible to transport the peacock throne to London, it’s a lot easier to transfer cash. Currency has always been an instrument of control.
  3. Famines: once financial considerations take precedence over sustenance, famines are a natural consequence, especially because monocultured cash crops are more likely to fail than a diverse basket of local grains and plants. There were several famines in the Victorian era, continuing all the way to the Bengal famine in the nineteen forties. Do remember that Bengal continued to export cash crops when peasants were starving to death in the streets of Kolkata.

Conclusion: Permanent Demonetization

Just as the transition from kind to cash was prompted by the interests of capital (industrial capital in 1793) and led to the permanent settlement, I am convinced that the interests of financial capital are at the core of the demonetization policy.

Financial capital wants access to every transaction of ours so that it can skim (or gouge) off the top. Demonetization is popular among the bureaucratic-technocratic class in exactly the same way that the permanent settlement was popular then — they stand to gain enormously!

What does it mean for the rest of us? Will there be new famines? Is this the end of the small kirana store owner? Again, let’s look to Wikipedia to see what the permanent settlement did:

Once the salient features of the Settlement were reproduced all over India, and indeed elsewhere in the Empire, including Kenya, the political structure was altered forever. The landlord class held much greater power than they had under the Mughals, who subjected them to oversight by a trained bureaucracy with the power to attenuate their tenure. The power of the landlord caste/class over smallholders was not diluted in India until the first efforts towards land reform in the 1950s, still incomplete everywhere except West Bengal.

Demonetization should really be called the Permanent Demonetization. It’s a new permanent settlement to completely alter the social and economic structure of India in favour of financial capital. We need a new politics to address these developments.


Knowledge Media

The Message is in the Medium

Scholars create and communicate knowledge in several ways. The most public media we create are papers and books that are published after review and editing. We also write in other venues: newspaper articles, blogs and other venues that don’t have the same formality or prestige as papers and books but that are part of the community of dialog. We also circulate drafts and preprints amongst colleagues, some of whom might be read at seminars and conferences.

Apart from our written work, we also give lectures when visiting other institutions and in conferences, participate in institutional (scholarly bodies, government, industry, civil society) committees that are tasked with summarizing a body of knowledge for the public good.Finally, we teach and mentor, and in that process we deliver lectures, write syllabi, grade and evaluate students and judge their work.

Every single one of these activities is an act of media production.

Yet, we don’t see ourselves as media professionals. For the most part, we leave the mechanics of media to others — editors and publishers. That’s an unfortunate situation in two ways: one, it encourages snobbery, so that the scholars who produce knowledge are superior to the editors and publishers who merely typeset the end result. At the same time, the balance of power has shifted; as scholarly jobs become scarce and publications are the gateway to success, the world of scholarly publishing is becoming a militarized zone. The relationship between labor and capital has asserted itself in the world of scholarship, except that it is immensely exploitative: scholars contribute unpaid labor as creators and editors in the hope of getting their work into prestigious publications and in return their host institutions have to buy those very same publications for immense amounts of money.

Far from being a respected class of society, scholarship is an exceptionally commoditized, hierarchical culture, much like the entertainment industry: a few scholars are prominent, either by becoming stars or by becoming management but most others are surviving on the sidelines.

There used to be a respectable middle class of scholars who shared their competence with their students and were neither flashy nor impecunious. That class is being demolished; most faculty are adjunct. Universities can pick and choose whom they hire and demand outrageous amounts of labor in the quest for tenure. In this time, it is important to use the new tools we have created with the advent of the internet to restore power in the hands of the scholar. In other words, they must have access to the means of knowledge production and a fair share of the fruit of their labor. That’s what I want to enable.

What is to be done?

We need create a hub for knowledge production that’s attached to the creator, so that all their activities — drafts, syllabi, talks, papers, books, collaboration, mentoring — are available to them in one space. In other words, a scholar should be able to teach a class, write a paper or book, exchange ideas with collaborators and mentor students all under one electronic roof.

When that happens, power will — at least temporarily — flow back to the creative knowledge worker and her/his students. For one, they will reap most of the financial benefits of their expertise, with very little in the way of administrative overhead. Second, they can create and join knowledge communities that match their interests, despite geographical dispersal. Third, an integrated media platform means that their own scholarly development will be greatly accelerated for the cycle of invention, feedback and critique is all located in one space.