Sunday, August 16, 2015

PK and a peek into the assumptions of necessity

I enjoyed Amir Khan starrer PK. It depicts the struggle of an alien in trying to understand the culture in India. The film created a beautiful mirror to see how faith blinds us from seeing the reality. Whenever the topic of PK came up with my friends, it created two kinds of responses. There were some who laughed at the parody and there were others who felt that it hurt their feelings. Most of these responses were not surprising except for one category. These surprising category folks were staunch atheist and still they felt that their feelings were hurt by the movie. I began to wonder why?

Let’s visualize what a staunch atheist looks like first. He is very vocal about being atheist and at every opportunity he gets, he taunts at the so-called religious people. He says things like – “Look at these people worshipping God. They read religious scriptures, perform various rituals etc. See how ignorant they are” In fact, one of my friends keeps passing remarks on his wife who continues to perform Pooja etc. However, I was surprised to see him getting agitated about PK. Interestingly he had not seen PK and didn’t intend to see it as well. And yet, he knew that the movie is “bad”. What is going on here?

To say that this behaviour is irrational is like stating the obvious. But why does a staunch atheist get upset to see a movie making fun of the blind followers of a faith? To understand the answer, we need to understand how beliefs work. Most of our beliefs are tacit and are deeply ingrained in our memory. A belief is nothing but a set of assumptions – Hindu religion is good, if I pray to God, he will protect me etc. These assumptions are stored in the form of a set of neurological reflexes. Knee jerks automatically when tapped. Similarly, a reflex fires when it is touched by a thought or an image.  

Some of these assumptions carry a strong sense of necessity. E.g. It is absolutely necessary that Hindu religion is good. These assumptions of necessity are very powerful. A whole set of reflexes defending these assumptions are created. Whenever they get touched by a thought, it evokes a strong reaction. The interesting part is that we are mostly not aware of these assumptions of necessity. The only way we come to know that they exist is when we see ourselves reacting strongly to something e.g. a movie like PK.

An atheist may be outwardly mocking religious practices. However, it is possible that he carries assumptions of necessity such as “It is absolutely necessary that Hindu religion is good”. When he hears or reads about PK and how it makes fun of blind followers of Hindu religion, the reflexes related to the assumptions of necessity are fired. An internal conflict of thoughts arises and assumptions of necessity win the fight by evoking the angry reaction.

Do you want to learn about your assumptions of necessity? Then your best bet is the situations which create anger, frustration, and anxiety in you.  These situations provide opportunities to fish around and find out the assumptions of necessity which might have led to this reaction. If you “see” these assumptions of necessity, they might lose their grip and loosen up a bit. Why don’t you try and find out?

David Bohm presents “assumption of necessity” in great detail in the book “Thought as a system”, Routledge, 1994. The discussion happens while talking about the question: “Why do I get upset when someone yells at me?” (page 97-108). The discussion leads to finding an assumption of necessity, “Whenever anybody yells at me, it is absolutely necessary to feel that I’m bad.” (page 103).


  1. Are there necessities to correct/adapt the “assumption of necessity”? If yes, does that book talk about it?

  2. Good question, Sachin. Yes, typically there are necessities related to ambition or what we may call our need to become a better person (process of becoming). The book does discuss these and warns us against focusing on changing these. Why? Because (a) these might be quite deeply embedded in the neural reflexes and it is not obvious if we can change them but more importantly (b) unless we learn about the nature of this whole machinery of thought as a system of reflexes in action and how it works, the change mechanism may not work. For all you know, it may be perpetrating / strengthening another set of assumptions of necessities. The only approach the book advocates is to see / learn how this whole mechanism works. If some reflexes weaken in the process, treat that as a by-product. Perhaps we can discuss this further during our morning walk around Kaikondrahalli lake.

  3. Very insightful article. The “assumption of necessity” is such a trigger. At an organisation level to manage change found that by climbing their (leadership team) ladder step by step and seeing their perspective and then bring them down step by step and then take them up my ladder of assumptions has worked in some cases to intiative change management around engagement and performance. Would the "assumption of necessity" be relevent to this ladder of inference?

    1. Thanks Ramesh. Yes, it makes sense that if you want to bring about a change, then as a first step you would need at least one person to truly listen to you. And for the listening to happen, you should be able to connect him at a level where you understand his "assumptions of necessity" and begin to appreciate why the person behaves in a certain way. To see that he doesn't have a choice in that situation but to respond in a particular way because his neural reflexes are built this way. Perhaps empathizing is another name for going down this ladder of inferences. Why does a CEO talk about innovation in all-hands meeting and yet doesn't find any time for innovation review? May be there is an "assumption of necessity" which goes something like this - "Achieving quarterly targets is absolutely necessary and any activity that comes in the way of achieving those targets should get lower priority." This is just a guess :-) What do you think?