Realm Of Randomness

December 10, 2007

The Fountainhead

Filed under: Book,Opinion,Philosophy,Review — Randomizer @ 2:49 am

[Disclaimer: The following is a discussion on Ayn Rand’s book, the Fountainhead. For those who haven’t read it, and intend to, please come back once you have! ]

fountainhead.gif

So, finally, after years and years of being on my I-must-read-this-book-at-some-point-in-life list, I completed it, though admittedly over a period of 2 months of sporadic reading. While some of the pages at the half-point were a serious drag, I managed to get through them and was glad that I didn’t give up on it mid way. I totally enjoyed the second half of the book.

Critiquing this book, of course, is no easy task – for simply put, it was a literary masterpiece. Ayn Rand is a genius with words. Writing 700 pages worth of words, where every other sentence needed at least a moment or two to completely comprehend what was being spoken about, was surely an amazing feat, and I was completely bowled over by her writing – it was like watching an artist at work.

Some quotes I loved from the book

Gail Wynand, driving in his car and thinking to himself about how people his age (mid 50’s) are desperately searching for meaning in their life, but he is fully aware of what that is to him:

I am Gail Wynand, the man who has committed every crime except the foremost one: that of ascribing futility to the wonderful fact of existence and seeking justification beyond myself. This is my pride: that now, thinking of the end, I do not cry like all men of my age: but what was the use and the meaning? I was the use and meaning, I , Gail Wynand. That I lived and that I acted.

Gail Wynand again, in conversation with Dominique on their yacht, contemplating how ‘humbled’ they should feel looking at the vast, endless ocean around them..

Dominique: You’ve never felt how small you were when looking at the ocean.

Gail: Never. Nor looking at the planets. Nor at mountain peaks. Nor at the Grand Canyon. Why should I ? When I look at the ocean, I feel the greatness of man. I think of man’s magnificent capacity that created this ship to conquer all that senseless space.

Finally, nearing the conclusion of the book, a memorable line

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.

More memorable quotes from the fountainhead are available here and here.

My critique

Okay. So I expected The Fountainhead to be this book that would change me completely…. but to me, this book was more like poetry. I just kept going ‘wow’ at all her flowery prose, and the philosophy and content of her writing didn’t have as much of an impact as it probably would have had if I’d read this at 17 . Some things in the book I really didn’t like:

  • Roark had no competition: Roark was sold to the reader for free, like a mother spoon-feeding her baby. He was given great firm looks, and he was the best architect by far. Who was Howard’s competition? Was it Peter Keating – who right from page one is described as a good-for-nothing poser of an architect? Was it Elsworth Toohey, who is pure evil, throughout? Gail Wynand came close, but he is intimidated by even the sight of Roark, right from the first time they meet! Ayn Rand did *not* convince me that Howard Roark achieved success because of his individualism, and NOT his obvious expertise over everyone else in the realm of architecture. Had there been another character who was equally as good an architect , but who was not as individualistic, it would have given the reader at least the choice of deciding his/her preference. In this book, Peter Keating was not competition enough to convince me that individualism triumphed.
  • Roark did not seem real: For the first half of the book, Roark was described as someone whose mere sight made people around him feel humbled… like he was the embodiment of human existence – a life form in its purest state – like a walking, spiritual soul. Rand’s physical description of Roark – orange hair and so on – did not fit the meta-physical aura in which he is described throughout the book, and I found it extremely hard to visualize him when reading the book.
  • Dominique Francon was an alien, much like Roark. So in the first half of the book, she sacrifices herself to the ‘lowest man for the lowest possible motive’ by marrying Peter Keating … I cannot imagine any woman doing this – this simply wasn’t a woman. Nor can I imagine such a woman going on to marry Gail Wynand, either… when she is totally in love with Roark, right from day one. She becomes a lot more ‘human’ only towards the end. I totally disliked this character in the first half of the book, as I simply couldn’t imagine a real-life version of her.
  • Individualism for the cream of the crop: Howard Roark could afford sitting on his high horse throughout the book because of one simple fact – he was the best architect in New York, and his creations were described to be so magnificent that people wanted to destroy it just because such an amazing thing did not deserve to be seen by mere mortal men. Well, to this, all I say is – if you are the best anyway, you can afford to have this ‘my way or the highway’ attitude. Anything short of the best – and you will have an ending much, much different from that of Roark. There is no mention anywhere in the book, of the fate of the layman who is individualistic.
  • Not a word on compassion: So Altruism takes a beating in this book, and this is frankly one of the concepts that the author has definitely made me question. Unfortunately, the face of altruism in this book, is the Evil Elsworth Toohey, who is merely trying to feed altruism to the masses so he can ‘rule the world’ when everyone buys his socialistic agenda. But what of the compassion of man for his fellow man? Charity is what takes care of the world’s orphans, the old, and the crippled. This unnecessary attack on charity was a turnoff from an otherwise splendid book.

Overall, it was a fantastic read, and at an age like 1943, when these concepts were not mainstream, it was an amazing feat to have thought these thoughts and written them with such skill. The Fountainhead is definitely a tribute to the spirit of man, and it is a book I shall read again at some point in the future.

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June 18, 2007

Humbled

Filed under: Evolution,Philosophy,Science — Randomizer @ 5:52 am

There are a few moments in life when you feel that whoever you are and whatever you will ever be are so insignificant in the bigger scheme of things that you just ought to give up and stop trying! I had a moment like that this weekend when a long-time dream of mine finally came to life – not in flesh and blood, but bone.

T-Rex

It was the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Staring down at us with all its glory, towering over us as we admired its sharp claws and sturdy frame, not daring to imagine how it must have been when alive and breathing. The Houston Museum of Natural Sciences was a mind blowing experience indeed. Apart from having this lizard monster staring down at you, one gets to see fossils of dozens of other dinosaurs, each one creepier than the next. Woolly mammoths, Triceratops skulls, a pre-historic ancestor of the horse, a feathered dinosaur, the list went on.

But what really gave me the ‘shock’ moment was the fact that one of these dinosaur skeletons was actually retrieved from an excavation site just a few miles away from where I stood. ( The Dairy Ashford area, for those of you familiar with Houston ) .

Whenever we read about dinosaurs, we picture them in the distant past, in an age so different that we believe it was an alternate world in itself. But how many of us actually, actually appreciate the fact that these massive monsters lived, roamed, ate and died in exactly the spot we are standing on right now ?

When this monster of a million years ago stared down at me on Saturday, everything I held dear and important vanished in the blink of an eye, and I was humbled, stripped down to the bone, much like the Rex, struggling to balance my sense of self-importance with the fact that my ‘lifetime’ will not even be as significant as a speck of dust when compared to the trillions of lifetimes the Earth has and will continue to serve host to.

May 19, 2007

The Luck-ness Monster

Filed under: Philosophy,Rant,Religion — Randomizer @ 7:21 pm

Continuing with my posts related to belief systems, there is one belief system that I just couldn’t resist talking about, because though most of us almost immediately proclaim our disbelief in this particular ideology, a good portion of us secretly do harbour at least a certain amount of inherent faith in it – what I speak of here, is plain Luck.

And by Luck, I don’t mean ‘chance’. I mean the Luck that is implied in the sentence, ‘My Luck is bad this year’, which tends to mean that a certain force is working for or against you in your everyday life.

Picture yourself in the following scene: This is your big day, a big interview or a final exam. On your way though, a beggar comes by and asks you for some money. Will you give him some, or will you not ? On top of that what if he says, ‘If you help me today, great things will happen to you’ ? Are you more likely to succumb to this, especially now on your big day ? I won’t be surprised if 80-90% of us would hand him some change for ‘good luck’.

I would expect most people to be ‘extra nice’ and do ‘extra lucky’ things on big days like these – wear a ‘lucky pair of socks’, donate money to a charity , and so on. In some way or the other, we all believe in Luck, even for a second or two.

While Atheists believing in Luck is comparitively OK , since it does not conflict with religion, I find many, many religious people believing in Luck as well ! It seems like a different belief system is invoked for each event in their life, and this is, to put it bluntly, pretty stupid. What is the role of God when ‘Luck’ is doing things for you, or working against you ? What is the role of a ‘lucky shirt’ in the context of God ? If one is religious – stick to prayers, and leave Luck alone.

I have a confession to make about one of my own such rituals. I had a cream-colored shirt for many years, that I considered lucky because it was the shirt I had worn on my first successful job interview. Wearing it for big interviews made me secretly feel ‘secure’ – and I found nothing wrong with secretly harbouring this prize, as it made me feel more confident. But when the shirt could no longer be worn due to wear and tear, I felt myself feeling like I was going for a battle with no armour ! The *blue* shirt ? What good has the blue shirt ever done me ?

But for perhaps one of the first times in life, I’m feeling confident about living my life completely free of everything Supernatural. All I have is the real world, and I need nothing more.

I think we are more sensitive to avoiding BAD luck than we are to promoting GOOD luck. Take Horoscopes for example. As long as they tell you something nice or vague about your day, or something in general about incidents to occur, you are okay with them. Not too long ago, I read a horoscope that read , ‘This is not a good day for business deals. Postpone them’. Such horoscopes can be pretty damaging to one’s confidence, to be frank. This tendency to avoid bad luck is the very reason that people immediately forward mails that read ‘if you don’t forward this to 10 people, you will die’.

Here was the horoscope for Leo yesterday. I honestly hope people don’t follow advice such as the following:

While I will leave more of my thoughts on Astrology for a rainy day with writer’s block, I must say that I find it extremely disappointing that probably ALL Hindu arranged marriages , even today, classmates and like-minded educated young men and women, refer to star signs and sun signs to decide if their marriage is going to work or not. When the most revered role models of India like Aishwarya Rai marry trees to avoid bad luck, I do not know if India will ever move on from it’s superstitious roots…

… but one thing we can all do right now, is to start looking at all these small rituals we carry out on those big days of ours, and liberate ourselves from this ominous Luck-ness Monster. It is indeed high time that we see our ‘lucky shirt’ for exactly what it is and has always been – a piece of fabric.

April 30, 2007

What if you’re wrong ?

Filed under: Philosophy,Religion — Randomizer @ 5:15 pm

[ Note: The following is a frank, open-minded discussion on a few religious issues. If you are likely to get offended by such questioning, this is the point where I would advise you to stop reading. If you intend to continue reading, please make sure you have read my previous post – I intend to have this as a connected series ]

Now that you have guaranteed me an open-mind, this would be the right setting to introduce you to a man named Richard Dawkins, whose talks I have been following with utmost interest the past week.

Dawkins is, to the world, the face of Atheism today. But it is important to note that he is not just that . He is a Scientist first, and an Atheist second, the latter merely being a consequence of the former. A staunch defender of Darwin’s theory of Evolution, he is a very big contributor to the scientific world, but undoubtedly though, his popularity is due to his skills as an author and an orator, and as the voice for Atheism and Naturalism in the modern day world.

I have watched many of his videos on YouTube, but here is one of the finest. Please watch it. It comes after an hour long lecture on his book ‘The God Delusion’, where he explains why he believes God does not exist. A lady from the audience, quite presumably a Christian, asks him this ‘simple question’ during the Q&A session after this lecture:

“What if you’re wrong?”

[ The audience becomes noticeably silent and amused, eager to see how Dawkins would counter this. It seems like a debate-killing question – what if you’re wrong? How does one answer this? But Dawkins returns to the podium, and what follows is classic ]

” What if I’m wrong? …

You happened to have been brought up, I would presume, in the Christian faith. You know what it’s like not to believe in a particular faith because you’re not a Muslim, you’re not a Hindu. Why aren’t you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in America, not in India.

If you had been brought up in India, you’d have been a Hindu. If you had been brought up in Denmark in the time of the Vikings, you’d be believing in Wotan and Thor. If you had been brought up in Classical Greece, you’d be believing in Zeus. If you were brought up in Central Africa, you’d be believing in the Great Juju on the mountain.

There’s no particular reason to pick the Judeo-Christian God, in which, by the sheerest accident you happened to have been brought up, and ask me the question, “What if I’m wrong?” – What if you’re wrong about the Great Juju sitting in the bottom of the sea?”

A fitting response to a potentially debate-killing question. An answer that was delivered with as much arrogance as the question itself, and rightly so.

But this incident is more than just a stunning display of debating skills. His response describes what most religious people in the world do not want to think about at all : Is it a mere fluke that you were born into a family that followed the ‘right’ God?

Do the religious thank their stars every day that they were born into the family which taught the ‘correct religion’ and not the ‘wrong one’?

What is crystal clear to see, but blinding to most religious people all the time, is the fact that you would accept your family’s religion as the absolute correct truth, regardless of what it was… and that itself deals a severe blow to its credibility.

April 26, 2007

Coming to terms with our Universe

Filed under: Evolution,Intelligent Design,Philosophy — Randomizer @ 4:05 pm


I attended a very interesting lecture two days ago, a lecture that has since spiraled me down/up a road of Evolutionary theory, Atheism and Materialism. The last two days have been fueled by a burning curiosity towards the origins of life, and have left me, quite frankly – spellbound. I have decided to dedicate the next few posts to this current, fascinating phase of mine, and I hope that this passes on to you as well.

The lecture was by Simon Conway Morris, and was titled ‘Darwin’s Compass: How Evolution discovers the song of creation’. At first glance, I was worried that the lecture would try to attain middle-ground between the Theory of evolution, and the Creationist point of view, which is that God made the earth. However, I was relieved that no such attempt was made, and that Dr.Morris, much to my amusement, dismissed Intelligent Design as ‘Utter nonsense, if I may put it bluntly’ when asked his views about this during the Q&A session.

Intelligent Design – by the way, is very similar to ‘Creationism’, implying the belief that a Designer/God was involved in the creation of this Universe. As I later understood, Intelligent Design was merely a new name coined in 1987, when the courts in America ruled that ‘Creationism’ is not a science and cannot be taught as a science in schools. Apparently the religious then invented the ‘science’ of Intelligent design as they felt threatened by Evolution. I will dedicate a separate post to that later, for now let me speak of the lecture.

Evolution is generally thought of to be ‘Random’ first, and ‘Organized with a purpose’ next. This notion is quite understandable, considering that we believe that mere chance events along the long, evolutionary path led us to the way we are today, and that things would have been completely different had , say, the dinosaurs never got wiped out.

Dr.Morris’s point was simply this: Human-like intelligence was not a result of chance, but the solution to Nature’s problems. Put in other words, he implies that Human like intelligence would be attained eventually regardless of what happened along the way. If not evolving from monkeys, supremely intelligent, bi-pedal beings with two eyes and roughly the same brain size would have evolved from dinosaurs had they not gone extinct. The following is a hypothetical ‘Dinosauroid’ that might have evolved eventually.

If that sounded far-fetched, Dr.Morris carefully cited examples of behavior/features ranging from birds to flies to the octopus, that would be convincing enough, that human-like characteristics are the ‘best-fit’ to Nature’s problems, and that species would have eventually converged(definition in a minute) to a similar form of intelligent being.

A classic example of ‘Convergence’ is the Bat and the Dolphin. Both were separated out early in the evolution timeline, but both arrived at exactly the same solution to find their way around – Sonar senses. Giving out high frequency sound waves and judging obstacles by their echos. Was the solution a mere coincidence, or was it inevitable?

Similarly, the ‘Camera’ eyes that we humans have, have been arrived at innumerable times as the solution to the problem, in species ranging from fish to birds to mammals. Likewise, many solutions in nature , which as a result of my poor memory and fear of misinforming w.r.t. Biological terms I cannot cite, were arrived at independent of other species – i.e. it wasn’t a feature that was passed on from ancestors, rather it was a solution that was arrived at independently. As was meticulously explained in the lecture, the solutions are strikingly similar and are not the results of co-incidence.

So what does this all mean ? As species, we are like mathematical problems, searching for solutions. And Human-like traits, if not Human beings exactly, have been, by Darwinian theory, the best solution that has been evolved. If it did not occur as a result of Apes and monkeys, it would have been arrived at through some other means – maybe a million years late, or a million years early, but Human-like intelligence and Human-like beings were inevitable.

An even more fascinating bi-product of this theory: If there is life on another planet, and the assumption holds that the laws of nature are universal, i.e. across all planets, then the likelihood that there is human-like intelligence out there is almost certain.

[ For further reading, please read the book by this author, Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe ]

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