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Adventures in Aipotu
By Sanat Mohanty
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Adventures in Aipotu: Episode 12, Part 1

Sophie and Sophism

Most of the walk back was a quiet one. As they neared the oasis, Damini asked, "How did you manage to turn that board, Filo?" "There are many powers in Aipotu", Filo replied, "powers that are drawn from human imagination." "Then you could have stopped the mob? You could have protected us?", Damini asked. "Yes, my dear friend", Filo replied. "But you did a much more effective job. By hurting them, or by intimidating them, I would have only stopped them temporarily. They would have come back again, and this time in larger numbers and greater resolve. You, by spreading the winds of love, have stopped this hatred forever. My methods would have been that of violence – yours were of love, of non-violence. I am so proud of you my friend. In the face of violence, it requires much greater fearlessness to use non-violence, to fight the hatred with love rather than fighting people with might. The latter only defeats the people while strengthening the hatred, the violence. The former destroys hatred while strengthening people. You, my friend, were stronger than I was." With that Filo hugged Damini.

"But what does non-violence mean?", Damini asked. "Is it just the absence of use of physical force?"

"Quite honestly, it means different things to different people", Filo replied. "To some it may just mean that physical force not be used. To others it may also include abstinence from verbal abuse. To yet others, it may imply the absence of hatred and anger. Every individual and every community needs to find out what non-violence means to them. It is a process of evolution, of greater understanding."

"But then, if there is no clear understanding of non-violence", Damini continued, "how can communities live non-violently?"

"Ah!", Filo exclaimed. "There is Sophie. She is waiting for us."

The sky had begun to lighten up again and all Damini could see was a silhouette of a woman in a long dress. She stood at the edge of the small garden in front of the house that Filo and Sophie lived in. Seeing her, Filo broke in to a run. He went up to Sophie and hugged her warmly. "Hello dear. Have you been waiting long?" Damini saw another woman with a feline face. She was very beautiful. Dressed in a brightly colored dress, she looked vibrant in the rising sun. Sophie made a face at Filo. "I am sorry Sophie. I wanted to see a town and we ran into some trouble there which delayed us. Its all my fault." Sophie smiled at Damini and then made a face at Filo, teasing him. "Don't worry dear", she said to Damini. "It is all right. But I can't possibly pass up an opportunity to tease my dear Filo, can I?" There was clearly a lot of love between the two. "Some people from nearby hamlets were planning to attack the residents of the Oasis of Sanity. Damini diffused the situation very effectively but we were delayed", Filo replied with a twinkle in his eye. Sophie knew that there was more than what Filo was letting on but she let it pass.

"Well, lets go and grab something to eat and then we should leave, Damini", Sophie said. All three walked into the hut. The door opened into one large room and Damini could see another door lead inside. The floor was wooden and was spotless clean. Along the walls were some cushions to sit on. In the center of the room was a short table and on the table was a plate with three cakes. One was red, one was green and the third was white. Sophie passed the plate to Damini. She looked at the three cakes. The red, with cherries and strawberries looked the most delicious. The white one had a cream topping while the green was only colored with food color perhaps. Damini picked the red and passed the plate to Filo who picked the cream and Sophie picked the green. The red cake was indeed delicious and a warm feeling spread through Damini as she bit into the cake. It was not a large cake but by the time she had eaten the cake, she was feeling completely stuffed. "All right, Damini. There is a lot we have to see today so lets bid good-bye to Filo and get going." "Already?", asked Damini. She had just stretched herself on the cushion and was not feeling like a nap. "Yes, we need to go", Sophie said rather urgently. Damini pulled herself back up on her feet. She turned to Filo and gave him a big hug. She felt rather grateful to him for having taught her so much. Then she turned and said, "I am ready to leave whenever you are, Sophie"

The two women walked out of the hut as Filo settled into a cushion for a short nap. This time they took a path directly opposite to the path that Filo and Damini had taken on the earlier occasion. "How did you like your visit to the Bishko settlement?", Sophie asked. "It bothered me immensely that they lived right next to the waste pits and that radioactive waste had been dumped into those pits. I do not know what but something needs to be done. I was amazed at the resilience and energy of the Bishko people. However, I did not quiet understand why the elders of the Bishko did not agree to take water from the tankers that were being sent to them in exchange for some land. I do agree that they had been treated unfairly but that land was a wasteland and they hardly got any water from it. In exchange for the land, they would be given water. I understood the arguments of the younger girls and I could identify with their feeling rebellious."

Sophie smiled. "It is important to first ask how we deal with problems, in general, before we can address this particular problem for the answer to any problem depends on the assumptions we make and the process we use to solve the problem. Do you agree with me so far?" Damini nodded her head.

By now they had crossed most of the oasis. On one corner of the oasis were a few windmills. There was a light breeze and the arms of the windmill turned slowly. Damini looked up and could almost imagine a Don Quixote battling the windmills. She smiled at the thought. "You could look at these giants and think of the romance associated with windmills or worry about their physics", Sophie said. "Let us say that you are interested in understanding how a windmill works, how would you go about doing so?"

The older woman and the younger girl had now come to a stop and were looking up at the giant. Damini thought about her basic science classes and tried to remember things she was supposed to have learnt about the pendulum. She did not remember too much. "Don't worry about the details", Sophie said. "Just think about the method."

"Well", Damini started tentatively, "you would first try to figure out how the wind affects the vanes and then how the turning of the vanes can be used to turn some mechanical device."

"That is correct. The broad method to solve any modern scientific problem is the same as are the general assumptions. One salient feature of any modern scientific experiment is that it is reproducible and independent of the person who is trying it. This is based on the assumption that the student studying the system of interest is completely distinct, unattached and unaffected by the system and the system is unaffected by the individual studying it. The second assumption is that the student can break up the system into smaller, less complex pieces, understand the working of the pieces and then put them back together to completely understand the system. Such a method is loosely termed mechanistic or reductionistic science. More specifically, reductionism claims that all knowledge can be obtained only by such methods of inquiry."

Damini concurred with Sophie's analysis. "Thus, one assumes that when I try to study the windmill, it will behave the same way whether I am studying it or you are. Besides, it will not behave differently when I am trying to study it than when I am not around. So, I take the system, which consists of the breeze, the windmill and the motor used to generate energy and break it up into smaller systems. I study the effect of the wind on each of the vanes, the effect of the turning vanes on all the gears and motors inside and by putting them all together I get a complete understanding of the windmill."

"That is correct", Sophie nodded. They began to walk on. "Based on this knowledge, you will attempt to predict how the windmill would behave when the breeze becomes stronger or when the gears wear out and are not performing as efficiently. And you will be pretty accurate. But based on this knowledge, can you tell me whether any random community will resist using such a windmill or whether they will accept it and use it efficiently?"

"Why would any community not want to use something that helps them harness energy?", Damini asked. Surely this was a stupid question.

"Well, for one", Sophie answered, "the gadget in question might require very specific technical know how or the cost of maintenance might be too high. Second, it might require the community to change their way of life in a manner that they do not like. Or it may just be on a whim. But, the question is, how does one know?"

"I see what you mean", Damini replied thoughtfully. "Knowledge of the behavior of the system is not enough to understand how any community will use it, how a society will relate to it, or how it will affect the society. And you are asking me to think about the kind of knowledge that can help us understand how a society will relate to this object."

"That is exactly right", Sophie said with a smile. "As you notice, when you have the right question, the answer becomes easier. To solve such problems, we are interested in the relationships between a community and this new gizmo. In general, we could be interested in the relationship between two communities or between a community and its environment. The problem is that the assumptions one uses in acquiring knowledge in this modern scientific way are not valid any more. The student cannot make himself or herself separate and distinct from the system he or she is studying."

"I understand", Damini replied. "When the system includes people and one is interested in the behavior of people and their relationships, one cannot separate oneself from the system. After all, one is part of a society and our backgrounds and histories will bias how we understand the system we are studying. Similarly, the society you are studying will also be affected by you studying them."

By now, the two had covered quite some distance. The road had broadened and they were on the outskirts of a large town. There were houses on both sides of the street. There was no traffic on the street though a few people walked by.

"Look at the boy there", Sophie said, pointing to a four year old who was trying to make some sort of column with flat stones. The column kept toppling but the boy persevered in trying to build the tallest column he could. As Damini looked towards the boy, the boy also felt their presence and looked up. Seeing two strangers staring at him and his work was enough to embarrass him and without a second look he got up and ran away.
 

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Adventures in Aipotu
By Sanat Mohanty
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