Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Reasonable Circumstance

Have you ever had the experience of listening to someone talk, or reading the words of a sage and feeling in the moment utterly convinced and in awe of the majesty of the idea that has engulfed you, only to wait for a few hours and realize you are unable to recount why you felt convinced, or what the person addressing you did to make you feel so? i.e. You are unable to recount what the person said, what it did to you such that it made you feel convinced.

The common explanation for an experience such as this is to resign the momentary clarity to the faculties of emotion, as opposed to reason. To argue that the argument you received appealed to the weaker of your two sensibilities, and made you feel something in the moment but was unsustainable – indicating that it did not stick in your mind and hence must have been unreasonable.

Reason trains us to unpack arguments to be able to judge the constituents that make up the arguments – premises, derived premises and the links between them. Through this deconstruction we are able not just to evaluate the argument but also to find the individual components to be able to reconstruct it again in the future. Reason gives us the ability to understand, record, and convey an argument. It is the fundamental modum of the transmission of human thought (where it is used both to filter out argument unworthy of transmission and then to propagate further that which passes the test).

Therefore, when we feel we are unable to explain why an argument convinced us (such in a political speech, or in a powerful religious experience), or what the argument was in the first place, we deduce that it must not have appealed to our faculty of reason.

But when an experience of the inability to recall and reevaluate and argument occurs in the case of reading certified argument (i.e. when you read the works of great philosophy that societal convention has certified for you as great example of the use of reason), one explains the inability to recall and explain initial conviction by virtue of the improper understanding i.e. a weak faculty of reason on the part of the student or addressee.

The fact is that society does not certify religion or politics or belief of any kind in a manner that it certifies science. And so while we are often comfortable finding solace in knowing that faculty of reason is weak when in the domain of science, it is the reputation of the argument that suffers (not of the student) when in the domain of belief.

But in the faculty of belief also, men have experiences which allow them to rekindle their faith in certain thought. They are able to find ways to understand the intuitive connection first felt, but never reproduced through action to augment or strengthen the faculties of man.

The idea being that whenever the experience occurs where any argument creates intuitive conviction, followed by failure of reason, it implies weakness in the faculty of reason of the adressee and not of the adresser. Thsi implies further that the Intuition is a human ability that surpasses Reason, for it is able to signal the presence of great thought before the presence of Reason. Reason is a technical skill, it is a fundamentally procedural, human faculty consisting of the deconstruction and reconstruction of the thought. Intuition, is an act of cognition of Divine quality, in a way that it is able to see through objects without actually having the procedural circumstances of ordinary, reasoned cognition.

When men are able to see through the thicket of signs around them and find profound truth (such as when a political pundit analyzes a situation and correctly predicts the outcome), we say that the man in question has great Vision. Whereby, even though this man cannot see with his senses the occurence of events he predicts, he sees through some other faculty beyond the human experience of judging events through the senses (which require specific worldy events to happen to trigger them: vibration to hear something, light to see something and so on.). Men of great vision rely not just on their senses but on an ability to see through a faculty that does not rely on incidence of suitable technical circumstance.

Similarly, Intuition is able to see things Reason cannot. For successful reasoning requires the skill of language and logic which define the technical, procedural circumstance needed. Intuition does not, it is a something we seem to be born with, and happens outside our control of worldly action. Therefore Intuition holds sway over Reason i.e it is a superior faculty as compared to Reason in some sense (especially in the realm of belief as opposed to science because society understands reason in science better that it understands reason in belief).


I used parts of these ideas in this little speech at a Friday sermon, which is based in being able to doubt yourself and your technical ability to reason.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

An Imagined Community

Published in the Daily Princetonian on April 25, 2013 as ‘An imagined community called Princeton’.

This was my last piece for the Prince, a publication I loved writing for. Really this isn’t meant to be about Princeton alone. It is what I feel someone might think when leaving any place of common experience, especially an institution of learning. Alas, Princeton is the experience I have known and loved.

Princeton is a strange place. For decades, thousands of people — graduates and undergraduates, staff and faculty, American and foreign — have descended upon this patch of land to learn and teach about themselves and the world. Princeton is a community of immigrants. Even as we are here, we are constantly moving offices, dorms, classrooms; and sometimes we just move on.

But all of us immigrate in some form to Princeton knowing that our time here is limited. Despite this seemingly predefined end to our experience, we find common purpose with a mass of people we’ve never met and perhaps may never meet in the future. We are here to move the world forward and to try and catch up as it does so. Somehow we form bonds that make us part of this congregation.

Princeton is an imagined community, to use author Benedict Anderson’s term. It is not about the buildings, and it is not built around face-to-face contact. It is a community built around something we believe in. Something we believe in strongly enough to leave our homes, leave the families that have raised us in the hope of understanding or fulfilling some higher cause. It’s all in our heads.

But being part of this intellectual, imagined community requires that you experience it in person first. Only when you see and live it can you believe in the spirit of the Princeton imagination. To get the real thing requires that you have lived in the rooms that many before you have occupied, to work with others who choose to also establish abode on this ground. This is akin to understanding gravity through a falling stone — what is intangible becomes clear through a lived event. We have to animalistically, physically experience this community to really get what it entails. Even if you feel unhappy or disillusioned, you decided to take the plunge with the rest of us. There must be something to that collective leap of faith; something to explain our shared delusion. Maybe we’re all mad.

The great thing about an imagined community is that it can be what we want it to be. We see Princeton as we want to see it, and it becomes a part of us the way we want it to be. No one may truly understand what Princeton means to us, or what we mean to Princeton. But this also means Princeton will form part of us in a way that it forms part of no one else. Princeton, in some ways, is a reflection of ourselves.

This also means that we may graduate, we may move somewhere else, but we never really leave. Princeton will continue to accompany us as long as we continue to imagine — continue to imagine that we are out to work for a higher cause, that we had the honor to meet great people who taught us how to do this in the first place and that it is our job to try and do the same. Implied in the constitution of this belief in moving the world forward is that we must move forward to make it happen — make our personal worlds bigger and contribute to humanity in some meaningful way. For all we know, that may bring us back to Princeton, as it has brought back many others. For the moment, however, this premise requires that “we have to go away and dream it all up again.“

I don’t like saying goodbye. There seems to be a finality attached to the act of saying goodbye that scares me. This presumed termination of common experience has a way to spark both sadness and existential crises that I like to avoid. As a kid I didn’t have the words to describe this feeling, so I would cry at airports instead. At some point I decided that I would protest to visiting family members returning to their homes by not dropping them off at the airport at all. I’ve gotten better at dealing with seeing people leave but conveniently still don’t drop people off at the airport.

It used to be different flying away myself — airports were places of wonder. I used to collect model airplanes, and airports were marvels of engineering and depots of exploration. There was an adventure waiting somewhere, and I got to fly there. But for the past few years airports have taken on a more grim existence. The memories now are of turning your head that one last time with tears in the ducts, to say goodbye.

To avoid this, I have almost convinced myself that there is no such thing as a final end to common experience. I like to believe that somewhere, someday we shall meet when our roads again connect. The experience continues in our imagination, till we see each other again, perhaps in Princeton, or maybe perhaps, in my Pakistan.