Sunday, January 17, 2016

The problem and the paradox of “becoming”

In a few months, our son Kabir will be appearing for one of the most fiercely competed exams in his life – the Joint Entrance Exam (JEE) that will decide his fate to enter IITs, India’s premier engineering institutes. Approximately 1.2 million students took it last year and less than 0.1% got an opportunity to choose a discipline of their choice. For many, it may be the turning point in their life, landing lucrative jobs after their graduation, some of them overseas. I have been through this myself close to thirty years ago though the fierceness of the competition was somewhat milder then. Hence, I can understand the anxiety the students go through along with their parents.

After I entered IIT, new goals appeared on the horizon – the most prominent being getting admission in a US graduate school along with a scholarship. Then it was getting a PhD and then getting a job. Somewhere in between was the marriage and that created more goals – things that will help our son become somebody etc. The goals kept shifting and they kept the process of becoming alive. Or perhaps it was the other way round. The process of becoming, like a computer program, kept generating the next goal. And then achieving that goal becomes the next problem to be solved. Sometime along the way, I began to wonder if there is a trap here. That started a different type of investigation journey. Did I ever find out if becoming is a trap? That is what I want to discuss in this article. It was inspired by an essay by David Bohm titled “The problem and the paradox”.

To understand the nature of the problem of becoming, we need to understand the difference between a problem and a paradox. A problem is called a paradox when it contains contradictory assumptions. In school, I remember reading about the perpetual motion machines - a machine that can go on forever without ever stopping and without needing any external source of energy. The picture above is that of one of the earliest documented illustration of a proposed perpetual motion machine known as Bhaskara wheel. In 19th century, scientists discovered the laws of thermodynamics which showed that it is impossible to build a perpetual machine because it assumes zero transfer of energy to the environment which violates the second law of thermodynamics. Thus the problem of building a perpetual machine is a paradox.

Note that a paradox can’t be solved the way we solve other problems such as fixing a car or treating a disease. The only way to resolve a paradox is to recognize it as a paradox. Until one sees the contradictory assumptions embedded in the problem statement, one can go on solving the problem without getting anywhere. That is exactly what many people have done spending years in building perpetual machines. You can see a brief history of perpetual machines here.

Now, let’s turn to the problem of “becoming”. Could the problem of becoming be a paradox? For example, I may define my problem as – “I want to become a leaner person” or “I want to become a wealthier person”. What is paradoxical about it? In fact, all of us would have experienced setting goals of these kinds and achieving at least some of them. In fact, one could question the reverse. How could I achieve anything meaningful unless I set out goals like these?

Let’s take the example of “becoming leaner” which is a difficult problem for many. People try new diets, new fitness programs year after year and yet they fail to sustain them. What’s happening here? To appreciate what’s happening, it helps to imagine thought as a network of reflexes which fire automatically when another related reflex is activated. Knee jerks when the bone gets tapped or foot presses the brake automatically when the car in front slows down. These are reflexes. Similarly, the impulse to overeat may come as a result of a set of reflexes getting fired perhaps when we are under stress (like the Panda in the movie Kung Fu Panda). Now, to reduce the intensity of this impulse or to eliminate this impulse would require a neuro-physiological change perhaps a neuro-surgery that would alter these reflexes. Unfortunately, nobody has figured out how to isolate such reflexes because the information about what belief a reflex stands for (e.g. if under stress, eat more) is embedded deeply in the neural network.

Now, you might say, “Well, we have friends who have become leaner, wealthier and so on. What about them?” The question is, “Has their becoming stopped after they became leaner?” Perhaps they have a new goal now – to run a marathon or to run a marathon within 4 hours. What if there is a program (or a set of reflexes) deeply embedded in the brain whose only job is to say, “You are still incomplete. Look at this guy, he is leaner. Look at her, she is more beautiful. Look at him, he is wealthier”? Then no matter what you become, this program is making sure that you feel a sense of incompleteness and a new goal is created in order to become more complete. So when you set out to solve the problem of becoming leaner, you still don’t address the core set of reflexes (the program) that is generating “you are incomplete” sense.  Thus there are two contradictory assumptions in action here: One, eat less to become leaner and the other one, perhaps a subconscious reflex, “eat more when you feel incomplete”. Thus the problem of “becoming” is a paradox. If “becoming” is really a paradox, what can be done?

Here is the bad news. The knowledge that “becoming” is a paradox does nothing to you. Unless you see it as a paradox in action yourself in your day-to-day living i.e. to see it contains contradictory assumptions as you try to become, you will be on a path similar to the perpetual machine builders. You need to see how as soon as the urge to become one thing subsides, something else pops up automatically. As Bohm says, it needs sustained attention on this process of becoming while it is in action.

The process of becoming is so deeply embedded in our culture that it is difficult to sustain the attention in the investigation. However, in case you are interested in investigating this further, the first step is skepticism. You need to ask the question, “Could this ‘becoming’ be a paradox?” You need to allow this question to take root in the mind like a virus.

What happens if you see the process of becoming as a paradox? Does it mean you stop taking exams like the JEE or stop enrolling in a new fitness program or stop making money? Not really. What changes is the “in order to” attitude. You stop doing things such as writing JEE exam “in order to” become somebody. You write an exam because that makes sense at that moment. Activity ceases to be a means to an end.

Image of Bhaskara wheel is from
If you are interested reading more about this topic, I would recommend David Bohm’s article – The problem and the paradox.
My first recollection of reading about the process of becoming is from the book “The ending of time” which is a dialog between Jiddu Krishnamurti and David Bohm.
Knowing about the existence of the cognitive illusions does nothing to you is articulated by Daniel Kahneman in his lecture titled “The science of decision” delivered at Pentagon (quote at 25:56)
“Thought as a reflex” is articulated in the book “Thought as a system” by David Bohm.


  1. Isn't this similar to concepts like "living in the present" and the Gita's message "work passionately without being worried about the results"? Excellent article. I can understand it intellectually, but sceptical about accepting the paradox.

    1. Yes RamP, it is similar to both the things you mentioned. I thought "paradox" gives a new a hook for inquiry. I feel skepticism is good enough to begin with. Even if one can entertain the idea that it *may* be a paradox, at least a window is open for the seed to flower. Beyond that who knows?

    2. Looks like "I want to live in the present moment" has the same paradox as "I want to become leaner". Not living in the present moment i.e. thinking about the past or a future state happens as a reflex to a painful state. More like "I am not happy right now, let me think of a future state when I will be happy." Just by saying "I want to live in the present moment" doesn't change the reflex because it is deeply embedded in the neural network and not accessible to us. Hence, "living in the present" is not something one can practice and get better. Because the core reflex is untouched and active, waiting for the right moment when it can spring to action.

  2. Appropriately articulated. needs no comments as a matter of fact.