Language Games in the Hyper-plane and Willful Human Suffering

If cyber-sphere is modeled as a hyper-plane, social media is essentially the hyper-reality. Our familiar, phenomenally well understood, mentally well characterized real world where we normally interact in variety of complex ways reduces itself to text and images in this hyper-plane. It can be mathematically understood as a unidirectional mapping where inverse transformation is never possible. Once joining the hyper-plane, each one of us is liable to undergo a reduction. Twitter reduces us to tweety, chirpy, usually shrill, spontaneous outburst; we are reduced to 140+ characters. Facebook works differently but still a reduction of sorts; for instance, you have to essentially model your liking as a binary choice; it is not possible to put forth an emotional response between a ‘like’ and a ‘ha ha’. No, you can’t just smile or pose as peeping and finally looking away after reading with approval or disapproval.

Most of our so-called quasi-ideological diatribes in this hyper-real world are merely childish indulgences because we are reduced to little bellicose automata by virtue of our simple presence in this hyper-plane. We froth and fulminate through text and emojis; arm-wrestle with words and phrases; use wordy arms to hug each other, wordy swords to cut through each other’s heart and wordy dark holes to throw each other in the dark depths of no return.

The key is in keep reminding ourselves that this is not the reality but a reduced hyper-plane; an inadvertent technological ploy to give us a semblance of extension, whereas, it is in fact a compromised reduction.

The so-called ‘impolite’, politically incorrect do not undergo much suffering since their ability to bluntly vent out is further enhanced in the hyper-plane, owing to reduced proximity and increased social disengagement with the real world objects of their critique.

Unfortunately, those coming here with their real worldly politically correct, always euphemising, normally-hypocritical otherwise ‘decent’ mannerism suffer more. They seldom loud-think in the real world; always psychologically aware of social bounds, always keeping thought a little inward, usually afraid of state’s tools of oppression against various kinds of dissent, trying hard not to loose their genteel demeanor, generally men and women donning various pretty masks. Hyper-reality forces them to remove their masks, their salesmanship demeanor, their bank manager smile, their one-window problem-solving agent’s to-the-point demand of concreteness, or their judicial or martial authoritativeness.

Although hyper-reality is a reduced language game, even if you belong to the latter group, you can play enjoyably by realizing that it is essentially a reduction where lots and lots of textual blocks can help you survive without existential suffering of no one paying heed to your genteel real-world pep talk. This meliorative frill borrowed from the real world becomes hogwash in hyper-plane if not supplied with exact amounts cut from or added into, thereby self-inducing a necessary transformation of your whole communicative self. The key is never to judge your interlocutor too much, too soon, and beyond the necessity of the immediate hyper-real social engagement.

Practically speaking, it is all about cognitive thresholds and skills to control ourselves in not reading too much or writing too obtusely. Both have serious implications in any conversation because interlocutors are not face to face as in the real world, there are no moderators, and there are not always and equally valid discernible points of argument. Discussions go round and round and automatically derail if one immediately calls something ‘uncivilized’ in the midst of an argument because then it is obvious that a definition of civilization is being implied by a belligerently disagreeing psychology speaking supposedly from a higher pedestal. The other equally belligerent automaton-like interlocutor is liable to wonder whether a discussion on verbiage and idiom is being invited. Hence, another derailleur, more cycling, incessant pedaling.

In a nutshell, ideology-laden adjectives or labels, unless supplied with lots of supporting textual chunks, prove too loaded for the hyper-plane.

Therefore, while coming across the psychologically uninitiated in the mannerism of language games, it is basically a service to use more direct, unambiguous, light and off-loaded genteel terms such as ‘ridiculous’, ‘delusional’, or simply ‘nonsense’. The uninitiated would cry ‘foul’, call it unjust, indecent, or over-intellectualizing snobbery without realizing that this is in fact a service to both parties. Everyone cannot participate equally well in potentially infinite language games and after all, hyper-plane does not come with infinite time anyway.

If these men and women with lovely masks are not fanatics, they would know when to disengage and move on to some other useless conversation taking place in cyber-nook somewhere else.

Always remember that here in this hyper-real language game, in this macro-cosmic psychological universe, in this microcosmic egoist cocoon, we are not forced with the liability of real engagement, the agony of actually seeing each other in real, personal spaces.

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Blood, Tears and Silence: The Infinite Loop

It is at the time of devastating existential tragedies that the question about the true nature of sympathy and empathy always comes up, and the emotional triggers that evoke responses based on them; the question of national cohesion and societal being, the communal, racial, geographical ‘other’; the question whether national boundaries do or do not overlap the ancient sociological boundaries.

In times such as these, this ‘other’ no more lurks in the timeworn verbal tunnels of sociological vocabularies but personifies itself, stands up and stare in your face.

What is wrong when you realize that the mere knowledge of the loss of two hundred odd lives is not enough to spark off the plumbing apparatus that produces the lachrymal secretions we otherwise call tears in the tradition of our remnant poetic state? Or has the relation between social events and wholesale collective emotive been permanently broken? The collective psychology no more drives the collective biology, or vice versa.

What is the mystery of feeling — or not-feeling — the extreme, heart-breaking pain in the suffering of ‘others’? Is it just another unsolved Darwinian riddle waiting for new anthropological paradigms, the paradigms of pain and suffering which only work in classrooms?

True that images and words, elegies and panegyrics can work wonders with collective emotional states since times immemorial but are these the necessary conditions to experience suffering? Why must we need images of pain and stories of suffering to evoke allegedly empathetic emotional outbursts? Isn’t the perennial discussion about priorities of media already become trite with repeated overuse? Why can’t we just reach out to the nearest person in the street and find a shoulder to cry on; or for that matter offer ours?

Can the difference between true absolute empathy and artificially induced one can be quantified concretely?

Doesn’t weeping just need solitude with oneself in the memory of those distant ones whom one has never met and there is no chance to meet? Isn’t it just enough to see the face of one’s own child and feel the pain of the one in a distant land who has just lost his parent?

So you look up and see a little innocent face who is super excited for the football match that is going to be telecast in a little more than 24 hours, while another leviathan going by the name of ISIS continues to knock the door outside, and would presumably keep doing so for the next decade. You ask yourself whether you are any different than this child and feel unable to gauge the exact degree of your nonchalance with respect to his innocence. Listlessly switching on the television, you scroll through social media in search of images of suffering and solemness, but instead find battlegrounds where factions of society are engaged in self-defeating duels and endless diatribes, labs where the ideals of virtue and justice are transformed into vengeance and nemesis, and markets where sociopolitical hatred is bought and sold as a civic passion.

You look around and ultimately realize that despite all the taxonomic transformations, there is still a hint of sorrow lurking deep inside many of your animal-kind; but then you skeptically revisit and wonder if it is really pain, that is, the heartache, the true primordial grief that binds us in what it means to be human, and at least reduces the distance of ‘this-self’ and the ‘other’, if not diminishes it completely?

You reflect on, go on round after round, and neither the ambivalence, nor the listlessness and nonchalance give the slightest hint to go away. Dreadfully, you ask yourself if you are still human and there is a deafening silence; not as much as a driblet drops inside you.

Borges and I, and Quite Possibly You

Reading Borges is a very strange loopy business; loopy in the sense of running over on an Escherian stairwell; over and over again.

The thing is that if you somehow share his dreamer’s soul, his magic would inevitably possess your imagination. Here is how it happens.

You start reading him as any other ordinary reader and your very first experience would be sheer amazement; it is not any ordinary sense of wonder which is usual with mystical, magical realism; it is rather an utterly  life-size astonishment, a sense of everything being taken up to another imaginative frame of reference. In other words, right from the onset, he overpowers you by drawing you into an imaginative labyrinth, a maze so to speak.

You immediately realize that he is unlike Gabriel Garcia; in a different league than Julio Cartazar; not like Philip Dick, jorge-luis-borges.jpgNeil Gaiman, Paul Auster either; not even Umberto Eco or Ryunosuke Akutagawa. But you can’t stop asking  yourself what kind of a writer he is?

Your reader’s proclivity for tagging desperately try to compartmentalize him in various traditions; you ask yourself if he is modern, post-modern, mystic-metaphysical, magical realist, detective classical, satirist and so on, but you miserably fail.

The question arises whether he is a writer at all, that is, writer in the sense of formally communicating authorial intention to a reader’s mind through a written word?

alephAt this point, you have to make an important decision, that is, do you want to find your way through this maze or turn back? The problem is that before even starting, right at the first step into the maze, your reader’s hunch tells you that it is probably a life-long journey. But if you are a constant-reader, you would brush aside this hunch; after all, you have seen many writers, your constant wayfaring has taken you through many other fantastic la la lands.

So you decide to stick with him and because of very short nature of his literary pieces, you would inevitably imbibe him not as a whole lot but in a more or less scattered fashion, just as if you are a cave-trooper or bird-watcher.

A little time passes and you finally realize that you are deep down into the maze; you look at your feet and wonder about that moment in the distant past when you have stopped walking and started running.

You would realize this eerie fact only if you are his soul-mate: all this time you are not craft of versereading a Writer, per se; you are, in fact, literally, reading a Reader. Can you ever finish reading a reader?

A reader, unlike a writer, has nothing to do with the so-called authorial landscapes of semiotics; the whole pragmatics are not only turned upside down, it is essentially transformed; or is it disfigured, in the popular literary sense? Not if you are his soul-mate, that is, you are truly a Borgesian reader. And that is what all this maze-running, path-finding, is about: it is all about finding our whether you are a true Borgesian reader, whether you belong to the Borgesian universe.

And herein lies the key question: are you a Borgesian reader? It is not about being ‘true’ Borgesian reader. There is no semblance to being a semi, pseudo or incomplete Borgesian reader. You simply are or you are not.

But what about Borges himself? Who is he in this reader’s universe? Does he really exist or is he — by his own standard of fiction being the ultimately precise description of reality — is a fictional by product of his own imagination? If you are a true Borgesian maze-runner, at some point of time while catching your breath, you are bound to wonder whether he exists at all. 

dream tigersHe is a magician who sees through his blindness and makes immortality as reasonable a fact as the very next moment after this one. Running hours and hours through his fictional labyrinths, you would later pass your days and nights carrying his non-fictional maps through these labyrinths. Read his fiction and you would desperately want to know the man, the illusionist supplying this sublime experience, you would wonder about the method behind this madness. Read his non-fiction and you would still want to know him; or you would ask if there is a method at all? After all, the question of method presumes an organisation, a concrete elaboration, a layout, innit?

You would wonder about this unique literary philosophy of taking innumerable metaphysical perplexities and just ordering them physically into tangible, readable, almost touchable words. Is there a name for it?

His short non-fictional pieces, like everything else he has written, are glimpses of his total library.jpginner dialogues. At times, the reader is forced to ask himself if these are monologues, mere soliloquies! But then one ultimately realizes that here is a definitive reader who is trying to speak during the gaps between his silent readings, a reader trying to write through his way into the wonderful universe of readings.

In the process, Borges would teach you a lot, and guide you towards many unknown places; places where he is almost sure that you would get lost. But then you realize that his ultimate aim is to let yourself loose into the darkness of mind and psyche, where the only illuminating lamps are those of myths.

Often he would make a subtle point by blending the world of here and now, and the world of there and then to such an extent that the blend is just enough; enough in a sense that he must not let you agree or disagree with him. At other times, you can agree or disagree but then when you are through with your own introspection, you are bound to come back to him and whisper very close to his ever-listening ear that you have finally realized; you have realized that agreements and disagreements do not matter for wayfarers of these mysterious worlds.

To pinpoint his philosophy is to try to delimit him into the same archetypal compartments which are reserved for Writers; but if it is still necessary, the only possible characterization of him would be a metaphysical trickster.  His metaphysical tricks are too diverse and complex to be understood in their totality; he refutes time, apply classical paradoxes of motion and space in amazing new ways, creates geometric and numeral puzzles, and supplies fresh perspectives to ways of questioning the objective reality. We can call him a prankster who likes to play practical jokes with the world around and within us, our spatio-temporal and atomistic conceptions of it, and finally our notions of destiny, life and death. Not a philosopher in any academic sense of the world, he seems like an idealist who finally decides to create a whole new world to play the biggest practical joke on nominalism in the history of philosophy.

All the usual border-lines belonging to our conceptual worlds eventually blur in his universe; he merges dream and reality;  he merges life and death; he merges the microcosm and macrocosm; and in the process his fiction and nonfiction. 

last interview borgesRunning through the maze, you finally reckon that the terminus is finally approaching. You almost completely finish his fictional, poetical and non fictional works, a sip at a time, not big gulps; you may take three to five years if you remain true to your wanderer’s self, belonging to many diverse textual universes at the same time. In these years, you would come across many keys to his labyrinths, his peculiar logico-mathematical indulgences, his diverse and at times, archaic sources, foreign unknown mythologies, words and terminologies whose meanings are not even turned up through wikipedia and google searches, Borgesian dictionaries patched up enthusiasts and much more. You would go through scores of movie reviews and prologues he has written, small fragments, interviews, conversations, lectures and even pick up and smell his posthumously translated course on English literature. If you are a translator, you would certainly feel compelled to translate him into your own local color and listen yourself loudly reading him in your own language.

But where do you end up after all this? Is there a way to get out of the maze with the mathematics babelintention of never looking back? To finally claim that you have finished reading Borges? The way you probably claim that you have read Kafka, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or scores of any other life-size writers for that matter!

No, you simply cannot. You must remember that this figure of language is only reserved for the writers. You can not just part with the only writing-reader in the whole world of textual adventure; you can’t just get of the maze which has pretty much become a part of you in all those years or incessant running.

You must remember that there is a reader’s universe, and there is a writer’s universe and then there is a hybrid, complexly intertwined, loopy universe where boundaries between reader and the writer blur, and finally diminish.

You must realize that all this time, you were not just running through the maze, you were, in fact, taking part in creating, procreating, extending it inwards as well as outwards.

You must realize that if you are a Borgesian reader (and there are not many), you would certainly reread, and reread, and keep on reading Borges in an infinite regression-progression; and hence, this Escherian loopy business. Remember that if you finally discover yourself as a Borgesian reader, rereading Borges is your ultimate yoga if you want to be immortal.

On Junaid Jamshed’s Death

Some of the most opinionated and self-righteous people on both sides of the spectrum have decided to pronounce harsh criticism instead of calm serenity, engulfing darkness instead of enshrouding light and hate that divides instead of love that gathers; all of that at a moment of tragedy that took away, among many others, a cultural icon whom all of us loved at one point of our lives or the other and only few of us ended up hating.

One wonders what is more harmful to the society in a broader perspective: self-righteous loudness of the puritans or the self-righteous grossness of their detractors?

Will JJ be remembered for being a musical icon who spread love with his beautiful melodies, a man who followed his heart in brave transformation into a preacher who used all his talents and energies to call humanity to what he considered to be truth, and expressed his love with melodious tunes praising God and Prophet? Or will he be remembered for his solitary, at times confused, at times deluded opinions which he visibly misinterpreted as religious injunctions?

Isn’t it too obvious what should be a more reasonable choice regarding what we should retain in our collective memories and what we should disregard as transient, unwanted noise?

Later nasheeds or earlier classic pop hits; its time to sing the legacy of JJ. As for the party-poopers, we can just quote Jesus: let him who has never sinned cast the first stone.

I criticized many of his opinions at the time they were proffered. But now when he met a tragic accident, it is very interesting to see some of the references to JJ’s alleged ‘bigotry’ and ‘misogyny’ as if there are some platonic supra-rational behavioristic ideals out there, and those mourning and remembering good things about him are somehow idolizing, or at least, condoning those not-so-bright peripheries of his public persona too.

Many of us might be indifferent but what is interesting here is the mysterious well intended inner trigger that provokes some to come out among the mourners and say that they are simply indifferent, as if keeping your indifference to yourself might be an ethical hypocrisy. It makes it more interestingly mysterious that it seems well intended.

But we must realize that in his death, we can be indifferent to his musically ethereal and spiritually enlightening memories or we can be indifferent to his delusions, (mis)interpretations, (mis)representations, and therefore the so-called bigotry or misogyny. Choice is pretty much binary. Do the cost-benefit analysis.

Coming back, what can be the name of this psychological attitude? Is it another form of puritanical zeal which is ambiguous enough to cause an inadvertent emotive outburst? Is it general misanthropy towards a cultural milieu, a sense of false belonging to somewhere else, a Utopian Weltanschauung out there in the depths of mind?

On a slightly different note, we criticize endlessly the world-views and opinions that we abhor for one reason or the other but ultimately it matters what we remember of each other, especially those of us who are gifted to create.

Is it too difficult to know ourselves?

All of us are empty at times, all of us struggle, find out ways to fill our inner voids; some of us write, some of us compose, some of us draw, and some of us choose to preach good; at times we fill ourselves with hate, at times with love, at times we are brimming with hope and at times there is nothing inside; not even dreams. We can be charming, reasonable, manic-depressive, irrational imbecile, intuitively incapacitated, superstitious and celestially enlightened at the same time.

Everyone of us have a dark side only visible from a bystander’s standpoint, and we are pathological rationalizers of our inners fantasms. But in the end, only the bits and pieces of memories we leave to the world matter.

What do we remember of John Lennon? His music or his abuse towards his wife and child? Now that he is a nanogenarian, what will be the ultimate legacy of Jerry Lewis? His comic creativity and the pleasure that he gave to generations of admirers or his occasional muscular spasms and pratfalls mocking people with disabilities? What do our memories pronounce of Frank Sinatra? His music, his acting or his frivolities and sideshow bagatelles?

Do we remember Aristotle, Darwin, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Rousseau and hundreds of others for their respective creative legacies or their alleged dark sides from our particular spatio-temporal and socio-psychological standpoints of antisemitism, anti-feminism, misogyny of sorts and what not in the contemporary lingua franca of how-to-be-a-rational-critical-humanoid?

Go get a life guys. Lets not invoke a judgmental meta-rationality that is never there and will never be. Let it go. Have a deep breath and exhale your partially ethico-elitist, partially pharisaic inflated egos outside. Its still possible, its always possible, until one step away from the terminus.

On Hope and Other Chic Ideals

Literally squeezing last drops of socio-political, historical, scientific and literary analysis coming out of global cyber industry since last decade now, I am pushed to share one humble bit of my personal lay-reader’s critical viewpoint on US Elections 2016.

Liberals in the USA, who are weeping as if a valuable ideal has lost, always have a way of rationalizing blood on their beloved African-American, or in fact any president’s hands; these are interesting times when we have even movies coming out of Hollywood rationalizing or at least problematizing the paradox of a drone operator’s choice; alien immigrants, who are in the long queues of naturalization and now chest-thumping for an allegedly lost compassionate ideal, have a way of forgetting how they support puritans, religious bigots and radical xenophobes back home; in short, all of us, somehow, ultimately end up settling over a subjective resolution of choice-paradox staring at our face.

There may be more humanistic exceptions but a closer inspection would certainly reveal deep crevices.

We must, at least, accept this double-standard as an apriori fact but unfortunately, it won’t happen since it has never happened in the past. It is what you call an outlier habit of mind, not even closer to the mean value, not within any standard deviation. Its fragments are scattered all over the pages of history of ideas.

Now, when the fun part seems finally over, Pakistani conservatives would start selling the same bull-crap aimed at rationalizing totalitarianism, secular or religious nationalism verging on the boundaries of soft-fascism, or at least, selectively biased populism. Understandably so, since Conservative right-wingers don’t need to be original; after all, they derive their lifeblood from an age-old xenophobic impulse with diverse manifestations. Social, religious or philosophical theories merely presume this impulse as a fact and try to channelize it.

Pakistani liberals will have nothing original to say as always. They are merely a manifestation of phantasmagorical reactive attitude that sparks off in response to an equally phantasmagorical conservative psychology rooted in the above mentioned fundamental impulse. There is no original Pakistani liberalism, as such, which really belongs to its own milieu. There are fragments of it but now they are considered a shade of conservatism since the liberal mean is shifted ahead, and will soon be completely lost with the coming generation.

So where do we go from here?

In fact, history has a way of reminding us incessantly that there is a lot of randomness that cannot be predicted in historical process. By lot of randomness, I mean so much that is beyond any rational models yet developed by human beings.

We must realize that ultimately, human beings are doomed to choose with every reconfiguration of a spatio-temporal continuum, and all such choices are justified as logically ‘reasonable’. As Camus said, it is always easy to be logical but it is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. I think he was too gracious to put that qualifier ‘almost’. It is perhaps simply impossible.

All the dialectics that arrive after the forced moment of choice just aim to pronounce one rationalization or the other. All religious, philosophical, or political views against an absolute justification of necessary relativisation of all values are merely an ameliorated bull-crap. The smell coming out of the rot underneath ideological paradigms of reason is too much to miss. Let us not fool ourselves with short bursts of one ideology or the other.

In a nutshell, our best analyses must aim to describe, again describe and continue completing the sketch, while always stopping just short of prediction. Prediction gives a false illusion of control. Prediction gives us more hope than is necessary. Hope is a drug that should be imbibed in infinitesimally small doses. Too much hope has a way of transforming itself into ideology.

All of us do have our socio-political sensibilities, religious or quasi-religious notions of morality, and plans to arrive in time at our Utopian destinations. We are doomed to travel toward the idealized terminus. But while doing so, we must not forget that we are collectively adrift within a chaotic flow of history, and there is no way to know whether this chaotic flow looks deterministic from some higher plane or not. As I said, any notion of control is merely an illusion.

If there is any least common idealistic denominator, it is flowing as close together as possible. Applying any conditions on this ideal of spatial close proximity would ultimately negate that ideal from within. This ideal seems necessary since we have an impulse to live and not kill ourselves.

But all of it, that is, realization of the flow, this strange presence we call life, is nevertheless very interesting; its so sedative and at the same time so tragicomic. As Vonnegut put it so bravely, life is no way to treat an animal.

Once looking back from somewhere ahead on the flow, all of it, the complexity of the process, the multitude of variable space seems so mesmerizing. Its sheer grandeur, beauty or nefariousness cannot be missed. Just like when you this 1987 flashback of Donald Trump interviewed by Larry King.

Certainly, there are more surprises awaiting the pundits still bent on predicting eventualities, one way or the other.

An Open Letter to a Private English-Medium School’s CEO

Dear Sir, assalamu alay’kum

It has been a while since I wanted to engage with you regarding an extremely important issue of both immediate as well as long-term importance. In fact, I carried fragments of this concern since I admitted my eldest children in your school a little more than eight years ago; however, I somehow kept procrastinating to indulge with you formally. This reasonably long period and my continuing diverse academic indulgences in philosophy, literature, social sciences and engineering gave me enough time to reflect incessantly and frame this problem in a somewhat befitting manner.

The issue at hand is complete disregard of pedagogical significance of Urdu language by your esteemed institution, and how it not only reduces functional capacity of a child’s imagination but also endangers its creative capacity to model complex spatio-temporal problems related to science and engineering, as well as humanities.

Guided by my experiences as an academician and a social critic of sorts, I have reasons to believe that in all good faith, you tend to fall prey to various post-colonial pedagogical sensibilities where not realizing the subtle distinctions between “learning a language” and “learning in a language” have already reduced the whole industry of education to a grim duality, that is, English medium vs Urdu medium. I do not wish to digress towards the adverse social effects of ascribing to such dualities in this space, however, you would perhaps agree that by promoting (read ‘enforcing’) English in school premises in such a manner that children and teachers are administratively discouraged to communicate in vernacular, negatively transforms young psychologies to consciously or subconsciously reduce Urdu to a so-called subaltern language in an otherwise supposedly anglicized atmosphere. However, this largely artificial Anglicization in a school which imparts education to predominantly middle-class strata of society cannot promise much except a generation feigning false elitist appearances with stilted pronunciations.

But I apologize for digressing into some unwarranted social criticism—since I understand the competitive marketing concerns for the contemporary private-sector education market which promises a constant supply of the so-called quality human resource to the modern world—in order to supply additional grounds for a point I am about to make. My primary concern is with the pedagogical and didactic compromises which need to be made in order to achieve objectives which are rooted in above mentioned sensibilities.

Find-XThat language is the key in elementary school class room scene is a fact far better known to you than me, since I am faced with a comparatively less difficult pedagogical challenge of teaching graduate and post-graduate students. Language, being the only mental tool to shape pointers for conceptualizing both abstract and concrete aspects of reality, is always firmly rooted in a complex and intricately rich milieu, the so-called Weltanschauung. It is certainly possible (and desirable) to acquire a foreign language, rather as many languages for utilitarian as well as aesthetical concerns, but it is impossible to train a mind to transform its mental habits according to a totally different milieu; and younger the mind, greater the degree of this  impossibility. In fact, there is a plethora of research supporting this claim, but since I do not intend to present my views as a technical paper, only drawing your attention to one of the recommendations (quoted here) of a British Council study titled, ‘Language in Education in Pakistan: Recommendations for Policy and Practice’ coauthored Hywel Coleman and Tony Capstick in 2010 should suffice:

“Early years’ education must be provided in a child’s home language. The dangers of not doing so include high dropout levels … poor educational achievement, poor acquisition of foreign languages (such as English), the long-term decline and death of indigenous languages, and ethnic marginalization leading to the growth of resentment among ethnic minorities.’’

Since my submittal may be construed as drawing you needlessly to a broad-spectrum ongoing debate in Pakistan in the wake of recent Supreme Court decision in favor of Urdu, I would like to clarify that I have no such intention to make a case for a sweeping shift to Urdu since it is your institutional prerogative as a private entity and I respect your right and judgment. Moreover, I fully understand that not all children in your school are native Urdu speakers belonging to various regional communities; in any case, it is not unreasonable to assume that a native young speaker of Pushto or Punjabi is still far more mentally accustomed to Urdu as compared to English.

This private engagement, therefore, is not from the perspective of an Urdu promoter or a literary enthusiast, but simply as a concerned parent and an academician. Take for instance, an extremely simple example from a 6th grade Mathematics textbook (Oxford D-1), I was just discussing the other evening with my son.

David was trying to sleep one night but there was too much noise around him. His clock ticked every 5 seconds; a tap was dripping every 7 seconds and his pet dog snored every 12 seconds. He noticed on his clock that all three things happened together on the stroke of midnight.

  • After how many seconds would all three things happen together again?

  • How many times would all three things happen together again between midnight and one o’clock?

I want to put a disclaimer that this problem is deliberately picked as the one with least degree of linguistic complexity in the problem narrative. The aim is to show how an ostensibly simplest narrative like this one carries various challenges for the student as well as teacher in the class room environment which is not conducive for a bilingual (or trilingual) interaction, rather forced against the native vernacular of speakers. I assume that the point being consistently ignored here while informing your decisions of enforcing English as instructional language is the whole image-creating nature of language in the mind of the young student who is trying to map an abstract concept—Least Common Multiple in this case—to a concrete problem situated in real world. A simple and direct utterance by a teacher in class room that,

ایک رات ڈیوڈ  سو نے کی کوشش کر رہا تھا لیکن اس کے آس پاس بہت  شور تھا۔ اس کی گھڑی   ہر پانچ سیکنڈ بعد ٹک ٹک کرتی تھی، پانی کا نلکا  سات سیکنڈ بعد ٹپ ٹپ کرتا تھا اوراس کا کتا بارہ سیکنڈ  بعد  خراٹے لیتا تھا۔  اس نے اپنی گھڑی پر دیکھا کہ رات  کے ٹھیک بارہ بجے  شور کی  یہ تینوں آوازیں اکٹھی آئیں۔ اب دوبارہ  یہ  تینوں آوازیں کب  ایک ساتھ آئیں گی؟ اور  بارہ سے ایک کے درمیان یعنی اگلے ایک گھنٹے میں ایسا کتنی بار  اکٹھے ہو گا؟

considerably reduces the burden of mind’s effort to make a mental picture corresponding to the problem at hand. Regardless of the question whether all the children in classroom are perfectly at ease with pictures of a ‘dripping tap’, ‘snoring dog’ and ‘ticking clock’, the real challenge faced by the teacher is linking the problem statement to the particular mathematical concept. Here the teacher is faced with the challenge of pushing students to discover that using the concept of Least Common Multiple solves an otherwise laborious real problem. As I see it, restricting the class room interaction to English language hampers the whole instructive process in two ways: one, it adds a completely needless extra layer in creating an adequate mental picture of the problem and two, it forces teacher to somehow resort to instructive approach—as far as imparting knowledge of a particular mathematical concept is concerned—rather than working with the young minds to discover the concepts themselves. The latter impediment to learning is simply introduced by unavoidably linking phrases such as together again to the concept of Least Common Multiple. We must understand that making these linkages are indeed widely accepted as an admissible pedagogical tool, but one that works differently for native speakers of a language than those who are already studying a text book in a foreign language that is English in this case. Even in case of native speakers these verbal-conceptual linkages work in collaboration with experimental or pictorial approaches, and employed diversely by teachers who are far well trained in advanced countries as compared to developing third world.

Concluding this missive, I would just reiterate that mandating the use of English as instructive and interactive language in class room for scientific subjects such as Mathematics or Physics is obviously at the cost of one additional layer of translation. Moreover a decision like this, motivated from some unfathomable slanted considerations, completely disregards the nature of language as a tool for learning, thereby rendering the whole instructive activity counter-productive. Lastly it adds complex, unpredictable and unique distortions in the whole instructive process since neither all the teachers, nor all the students share the same cognitive models when it comes to medium of class room communication. One can easily imagine the difficulty by reconstructing the famous TV show “Mind Your Language” in a class room for elementary mathematics, as a theoretical experiment.

I wish and pray that you take this criticism in positive spirit and can only hope that you end up agreeing with me after due reflection. I assure you that it would immensely improve the standard of comprehension as far as scientific subjects involving abstract thinking is concerned. By leaving the instructive atmosphere of the class room to the ease of students as well as teachers by not mandating the use of English language, you would not only help shedding the needlessly accrued mental burden but also gain benefits of a rich bilingual atmosphere, where both languages would augment the limitations of each other.

Yours sincerely,

Aasem D. Bakhshi

Among Dogmatic Slumberers (III): Quranic Contemplation into Universe, A Universally Communicable Experience of Ultimate Reality or Insistence on an Esoteric Mystic Consciousness?

A modified Urdu version of this essay is published in Al-Shariah (Aug, 2014), and can be accessed here

When a supposedly well-crafted exposition sets about by throwing a classical ad hominem, it defies the whole aura of academic critique. Besides adding a tinge of offensive posture, otherwise customary for social media brawls, it also lays bare the hidden biases which deform even a good and otherwise well-intended argument. This is what can be called a first reaction to Abdullah Shariq’s essay in a recent issue of Al-Shariah; needless to mention that his concern is well-intended and his argument is a reasonable representation of a complete strata of classical modern Islamic thought. Some readers might be amazed by my use of the word ‘modern’ but there are well grounded reasons to read these simplistic trends as modernist; since unlike the classical periods of theory-making, positions are taken here which are ostensibly oblivious to underlying philosophical standpoints regarding theory of knowledge, its cosmological underpinnings, and conception of God and human being. Or else, if these omissions are advertently intended, then the whole exposition can be labelled as a reductionist tirade.

To recapitulate, here is the crux of the argument: The kind of contemplation Quran, and therefore God, requires an individual to do regarding the universe is not ‘scientific contemplation‘ rather a ‘spiritual‘ one. Because the scientific contemplation is centered on materialistic, empirical enquiry, it cannot instill the desired religious experience bordering on an esoteric spiritual recognition of the majestic glory and presence of Allah Almighty. Scientific activity, even if an individual engages in it, is legally categorized by the author as Mubah. Simply speaking, God is indifferent if one undertakes scientific contemplation in the nature and working of universe. Consequently, as the desired religious experience is essentially a spiritual one, it is poles apart from any scientific enterprise in the name of exploring religious truth. Moreover, a pressing leading question, appealing to historicism from early generations of formative period of Islam, is raised: If scientific contemplation and an attitude of materialistic enquiry is appropriate, why wouldn’t Prophet encouraged it, and companions engaged themselves actively in it? As a corollary to this question, why would it took a century after first four caliphs before the so called translation movement from Greeks set off in the Abbasid dynasty? Why didn’t earlier Muslim invasion of Sassanian or Byzantium empire trigger the translation movement?

Interjecting it as a disclaimer, I must begin by appreciating that from the perspective of ongoing tussle between modern scientific materialism and classical religious spiritualism, the views expressed by the author have an element of genuine concern. The ‘scientific‘ education rooted in modern capitalist knowledge-based economy is giving way to epistemic attitudes, where a modern man’s thinking patterns are essentially dualistic, if not totally tilted on the side of various forms of materialism. It must also be noted that we are talking about a religious man since that is a necessary assumption of the whole dialogue. However, with all the good intention of reviving this balance in favor of transcendental spiritual element, the whole argument is questionable on number of accounts. Since the whole phenomenology of engaging with a text, which is in our case claimed to be Divine, is not the central issue of the dialogue we must proceed from a necessary presupposition, that is, the act of deliberation over Quran cannot situate itself extraneous to the individual who is engaging with the Divine text. In other words, we must agree from the onset that this act of contemplation, or to employ the exact Quranic terminology Tadabbur, is not orthogonal to the human experience, since we cannot possibly speak of an individual engaged with Quranic text without assuming something about his experience. Therefore, in order to move forward, we must agree that the enterprise of Tadabbur would necessarily vary from individual to individual, but the underlying aim is to guide towards a common transcendental Truth or Ultimate Reality.

Moving from this necessary agreement, various questions automatically pose themselves to a scientific temperament engaged with Divine truths. For instance, in the Quranic semantics, what constitutes an enterprise of contemplation into the universe? Is Quran indifferent to the questions regarding the ultimate nature and functioning of universe? What is the exact nomenclature of human experience of the external world? How is this experience related to the internal world of innumerable inspirations, attitudes, psychologies and temperaments? Is this internal psychology and external sensory experience closely entangled as a unified monolithic whole or can we necessarily identify one that triggers the other? Is it possible to speak of some psychological models that can characterize all individuals in terms of their experiences of transcendental truths asserted by the revelation forcefully and unequivocally, and the resulting fulfillment? What is the relationship between human knowledge and experience, in other words the perennial question of knowledge and being?

Most importantly, since the whole premise is basically the necessity of inward and outward contemplation to access the Ultimate Truth, is Quran only interested in making case for a higher-poetic experience, a kind of mystic union so to speak, or modern man’s concrete habits of thought can also result in the kind of knowledge which can make such a union possible?

The purpose obviously is not to supply exhaustive, satisfying answers to all these questions; since minds far better than us, belonging to diverse religious, scientific or philosophical domains, have been tackling these since the age of great sages and prophets of antiquity. However, the human consciousness and experience is continuously undergoing a process of enrichment and creativity, thereby supplying new answers and looking at the past in the light of new knowledge. Therefore, the present motivation is only to question the presented classical discourse and help framing questions which are meaningful to a mind of modernist as well as traditional bent.

Unlike the ostensible classical perception insinuated from the referred piece, the truth of Quran is essentially a monolith, the Ultimate Reality being essentially singular. The categories of knowledge such as physical, biological or psychological sciences are in fact meant to guide us towards exploring that singularity. A largely prevailing modern view in philosophy of science – one that is motivating research since almost last few centuries – that the whole universe is governed by a singular identifiable law [1] echoes reasonably well with the overall Quranic spirit. Moreover, since the cosmos also encompasses the world within, the singularity of its governing principle also entail singularity of human experience. Therefore, it becomes obvious that the same mind which is engaged with knowing the external world around him is capable of knowing the Ultimate Reality. In this regard, arguing for a mystic experience as something essentially in contrast with the more concrete intellectual, and thus scientific, experience may not be such a plausible idea. Here we can see this peculiar atomistic tendency of classical viewpoint in the central argument of the referred exposition. In an almost poetic prose with some mystic element, the author sets about explaining what Quran means by contemplation in universe,

It means contemplation which draws attention towards the creator of the universe and produces an attitude of attention towards God, the kind of contemplation which provokes him to see the light of God in each and every particle of the universe, and he finds himself completely immersed in this light; the kind of contemplative process, during which the individual finds himself absorbed in the Being of God, finds himself overpowered with the Divine power and glory, and attitude of closeness to God is instilled into him. [2]

The problem here is not the pattern of thinking where sensory experience of the universe is giving way to a kind of religious experience of transcendental reality, or existence of Divine presence in the macrocosm. That is obviously a given from any reading of the Quran including the one shared above, may it be scientific or otherwise. Rather the problem is the classical thought almost inadvertently pitting a mystic experience against a more concrete, so called scientific experience of reality. As I read it, this view is provoked by a largely mystic-pietistical understanding of human fulfillment through religious experience.

In one of the most original studies regarding nature of religious experience in modern times, William James shed some light on the nature of it varieties [3], and Iqbal discussed it in depth in his first lecture [4], explaining significance of Islamic doctrine, and placing its metaphysical element in the context of concrete rather than esoteric experience,

No doubt, religious beliefs and dogmas have a metaphysical significance; but it is obvious that they are not interpretations of those data of experience which are the subject of the science of Nature. Religion is not physics or chemistry seeking an explanation of Nature in terms of causation; it really aims at interpreting a totally different region of human experience – religious experience – the data of which cannot be reduced to the data of any other science. In fact, it must be said in justice to religion that it insisted on the necessity of concrete experience in religious life long before science learnt to do so. The conflict between the two is due not to the fact that the one is, and the other is not, based on concrete experience. Both seek concrete experience as a point of departure. Their conflict is due to the misapprehension that both interpret the same data of experience. We forget that religion aims at reaching the real significance of a special variety of human experience.

What does it mean therefore to say that contemplation in the universe, which is essentially a sensory experience interpreting some data immediately available to it, can guide me towards a higher reality?

It isn’t merely a spiritual catastrophe that doesn’t instigate a rich experience of highest truth, in other words an attention towards the glory of God almighty, in most modern temperaments. Of course, it has a lot to do with distorted modern human condition, regarding actual place of human self in the cosmic scheme, yet it will not be reversed simply by appealing to moral and practical aptitudes, since it has a lot to with transformation of human experience that has taken place since the so called age of enlightenment [5]. Such a reversal is only possible through studying the nature and historical context of cultural and philosophical factors that shaped such an experience and suggesting means to enrich it in modern settings. Indeed, the means of enrichment and the enrichment itself must only come about from a single source, that is, revelation.

The question about the nature of contemplation automatically presumes something about the object of contemplation. The Quran obviously presents the whole cosmos as an indirect pointer towards the Divine creativity. This teleological appeal contains in itself an inherent demand to know. The problem, therefore, boils down to the classical problem of knowledge, and this is the area where the intellect and the object it wishes to perceive necessarily interact.

We are not interested here in the epidemiological dimensions but a more simpler question, namely, how does the object of knowledge presents itself to a knower? Even a cursory reader of Quran would agree that revelation primarily addresses our intuitive capacities and then invites our ordinary sensory-experience to vindicate that intuition; after all, its the ordinary sensory-experience that is our sole universal possession. Besides breaking away from the classical esoteric traditions of perceiving higher reality, this novel aspect of Quran is also not contradictory to modern science. From a scientific perspective, Quran simply provides intuitive symbols towards an higher reality to an engaging mind, and motivates him to know the intricacies in the universe. For instance, when a reader is told that God sends rain (Luqman: 34), it is simply an intuitive knowledge to provoke further exploration for environmental regulatory mechanisms bringing about rain; when Quran says that man is created from a quintessence of clay (Al-Muminoon: 12), it provides the bare minimum knowledge serving intuitive thrust and motivating a biological academic quest; and when it contends that Kuffar are worst than animals (Al-Airaaf: 179), it doesn’t set about on a detailed theory of human nature and belief, thereby providing intuitive pointers for development of moral philosophy and psychology.

In this manner, since it moves forward from an assumption of Divine revelation from the mouth of Prophet, Quran suffices itself with more or less intuitive aspects of knowledge. To maintain that these intuitive aspects of knowledge are something distinct from Quranic contemplation is not only based on erroneous, insufficient or biased readings of Quran but also based on simplistic philosophical or scientific foundations. It is true that there are academic currents denying or questioning them, but from a sheer religious perspective the ultimate cornerstone of separating truth from falsehood is again revelation. Therefore, for a curious religious reader it is merely a preservation of faith in revelation that these intuitive and imaginative aspects, as well as metaphysical foundations, underlying scientific enterprise are being exhaustively explored by philosophers of science, for instance, Edwin Burtt [6] and Gerald Holten [7].

Consequently, if religious solace of recognizing a higher truth can just come about from staring at heavens, and feeling glory of God showering upon us, there is nothing objectionable in it, per se. However, its a kind of religious experience that cannot be concretely communicated as a universal truth statement, in other words, its a personal intuitive version of truth still demanding to be verified or falsified.

It is also correct that any such experience does not depend upon a particular academic position regarding the state of universe, such as earth being flat or universe being heliocentric. However, it is also a fact that besides inviting a reader to look up towards the skies and peep inwards into his heart, revelation continuously frames arguments which implicitly or explicitly force a reader towards envisioning a particular version of physical reality. As mentioned above, this aspect of revelation, however, is not an scientific-empirical judgement but necessarily an intuition about aspect of physical, or psychological reality – that is, signs in the outer as well as the inner world which are meant to be deciphered by the consciousness. Faith in an Ultimate Reality has therefore a necessary cognitive element to it. Being a byproduct of ethical, aesthetical and religious elements of consciousness, each of us, in at least some sense, do experience higher-reality in a unique way. Since immediacy of this experience lies in an individual’s interaction with the text, what we understand as expressions of knowledge or truth would greatly expand with the kind of meanings are intellects are capable of creating, being function of our present state of knowledge. Thus the appropriate Quranic promise: Soon will We show them our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth. Is it not enough that thy Lord doth witness all things? (Fussilat: 53)

For what is faith but our possession of truth, what kind of force it has if it cannot be expressed outside ourselves? If you insist that contemplating signs such as “He surrounds (all the mysteries) that are with them, and takes account of every single thing (Al-Jinn 28)” gives you a kind of overwhelming psychological feeling regarding presence of Lord and “there is not a thing but its treasures are with Us; but We only send down thereof in due and ascertainable measures (Al-Hijr 21)” gives you a taste of showering glory, I have a respect and reverence for your faith, and have no motivation to doubt its psychological element, but there is no way to express it beyond yourself as a sound knowledge because there are no universals principles that can judge its general relationship with all human beings. On the other hand, a logician, mathematician or scientist, while interacting with same components of text, would obviously get an intuitive motivation to explore the nature of infinities since he decipher those signs as assertive judgement regarding cosmic truths. Hence, to reduce the complex nomenclature of human consciousness to a mere psychological element is an ironical error of judgment. What is more ironical is to insist, to borrow words from Iqbal, that a purely psychological method can fully explain religious passion as a form of knowledge.

To reiterate, it can certainly give you a sense of individual fulfillment but its not a knowledge upon which you can insist with conviction and certainty outside yourself. On a generalized scale, this is complex and problematic since regardless of scientific, social or psychological dimensions, ultimate unison of knowledge and being is primarily a religious demand and a fundamental prerequisite for any possibility of arriving at a sustainable meta-theory.

We are now in a position to analyze the assumption regarding the early Prophetic community not engaging in a sustained empirical enquiry in a scientific contemplative fashion. Disregarding the socio-historical and cultural aspects, and what ‘scientific contemplation‘ may mean in the pre-medieval tribal societies, we can at least argue from the perspective of placing response of immediate Prophetic community to revelation and how they understood truth in relation to it. In this respect, Dr Muhammad Rafiuddin, a really imaginative philosopher and an interpreter of Iqbal, had some really interesting ideas to offer regarding putting the Prophetic mission in philosophical perspective. According to Rafiuddin, since human beings naturally have variety of intuitive ideas due to their different dispositions, Prophets are God’s way of intervening to sift right intuitions from the wrong ones [8]. We have already discussed above how revelation primarily serves with emphatic truth statements, leaving the aspects of rationalization or theory-construction to the intellects. In this regards, its the natural mode of perception which is first receptor of revelation before the subsequent take over by the somewhat artificial intellectual self. The immediate Prophetic community, by virtue of its interaction with the Prophet living among them, did not naturally have the need of enterprises like theory-formation, truth-construction and knowledge-production. Moreover, the challenge presented to their claim of truth was not primarily rational or intellectual but more of a skeptic bent, per se, regarding truthfulness of Prophet, who was essentially a person like them claiming to be sent from God and having unequivocal possession of truth. As soon as this early, enclosed society expanded and interacted with other rich cultures and scientific-philosophical traditions, the nature of challenges exponentially diversified. The culmination of creative potentiality of human intellect can be inferred directly from the fact Quran is the the last word of God and Prophet Muhammad is the last prophet. That creative potential, however, is still in the process of actualization and text of Quran subsequently has the potential to incessantly create new meanings and rich vocabularies of expressing truth.

Lastly, arguing for scientific or philosophical contemplation in universe to picture reality, is not in any way meant to down play the spiritual or psychological aspects of reality. Truth and consciousness do have a certain esoteric relation but insisting on a transcendental pattern without understanding that relationship is a dangerous tendency. Human beings, by virtue of diverse conscious make-ups would continue to envision and understand truth in innumerable fashions. But an inward possession and sustenance of truth does not automatically entail a meaningful, consistent expression. Since the time of Pythagorean tradition, human beings have tried to produce consistent, rigorous pictures of higher-reality employing abstract mathematical concepts. There have been many historical troughs later, yet it has been undoubtedly established that scientific exclamation and description of truth is one of the most cogent and sustainable approaches out there. On the other hand, spiritual and psychological aspects of the faith are related to our aesthetical selves. In that domain too, we have rich poetical and mystical traditions of the past, for instance the Greek tragedy.

Considering modern extension of scientific methods to linguistics, psychology and even theory-making in aesthetic creative disciplines, religion is being increasingly commented upon using scientific vocabularies. Religious temperament, being the proud possessor of Divinely sanctioned truth propositions, must naturally come out with universally convincing synthesis of knowledge and being. Rather than strictly reducing scientific enterprise to utilitarianism, and finding flimsy foundations in history, a religious mind must possess the right combination of intellect and spirituality, or materialistic and the ineffable. The act of contemplation is a deliberate intended activity desired out of any addressee of the Quran, regardless of her apriori leanings; however, only that manner of propounding truth would be considered universally meaningful and fulfilling which can claim to come from a universal body of principles and agreed upon methodologies of discourse. Otherwise, our insistence on possession of truth would not be more than a mere personal statement having no universal value whatsoever.

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Bibliography

  1. Edwin. A. Burtt, Religion In An Age Of Science (1930)
  2. Muhammad Abdullah Shariq, Tadabbur-e-Kainat Kay Qurani Fazail: Roohani Tadabbur Murad Hey Ya Sciencey, Al-Shariah (June, 2014)
  3. Muhammad Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1930)
  4. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (1902),
  5. John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1919)
  6. Edwin. A. Burtt,  The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science. A Historical and Critical Essay (1924)
  7. Gerald Holton, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought (1973) and The Scientific Imagination: Case Studies (1978)
  8. Muhammad Rafiuddin, Ideology of the Future (1946)