Brain fog

Published July 11, 2017
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

KANZI has a vocabulary of 3,000 words and has answered over 400 complex questions. Kanzi is a bonobo chimpanzee, a species that shares 99 per cent of genetic material with human beings. Interestingly, Kanzi has never asked any questions himself. Scientists suggest that the ability to ask questions is probably the central cognitive element that distinguishes humans from others.

While discussing the teaching of the two-nation theory, an associate professor condescended to explain to me, “We have to help them understand, teach them what happened, tell them what to think, not how to think. All that is not in the syllabus. I teach Pakistan Studies, not Arastu (Aristotle).”

If the education system was to tutor in how to process information into analysis, in Pakistan’s case its home could lie in civics. Maybe that is one way of disguising and infusing critical thinking, just like we have resorted to ‘stealth iodisation’ to circumvent rumours that iodised salt causes infertility, sneaking iodine into production to combat preventable mental retardation and birth defects.

Logical fallacies are thrown at us as camouflaged insults that we cannot recognise. Like the false dilemma fallacy of either supporting CPEC unconditionally or being against development and economic growth; the fallacious red herrings of Jewish machinations behind our monthly downfalls, or the fallacy of appeal to tradition, that Fata must remain the way it is because it has remained the way it is. Or the non sequitur where irrelevant conclusions are drawn — for instance, since the West is destroying political equilibrium in Muslim countries, there should be no madressah reforms. Or ad hominem attacks where arguments are countered not with content but by slurs about the person.

Good questions may be more important than good answers.

The stage for these is frequently the nightly congregations of pyromaniacs that many talk shows are. The examples are legion.

Meanwhile, it seems our rulers have resolved the quiddity question that has plagued philosophers from Mulla Sadra to Sartre, of whether there is some intrinsic feature or essence that qualifies a thing to be what it is. For the current government, soaring public debt has no intrinsic meaning as a borrowed amount to be paid back with high interest. They simply passed a law for redefinition, introducing a new formula for calculation to lower it.

Earlier, for the Musharraf regime, an excessive military budget indicated nothing in itself; they moved the pensions of retired army men to civilian expenditure and hence considered it curtailed. Or take the free-ranging identification of ‘threat to the state’, sliding from those who kill our children in schools and bazaars to those who write non-violent blogs. Freed from the need to be bound by benchmarks, we can now define things how we like, validating the mantra of self-help gurus: “It’s what you make of it.”

When questioning is portrayed as betrayal, whether of national interest, country, family, ideology, belief or culture, the capacity to learn is amputated. Every committed teacher, researcher and inventor knows constructing good questions is possibly more important than coming up with good answers.

We in Pakistan have been shaped by answers to some staggering questions. Consider the one posed by Gen Zia in his referendum to legitimise his hold on political power: “Do you endorse the process initiated by General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq, the President of Pakistan, to bring in laws in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and for the preservation of the ideology of Pakistan?”

In a televised address, Gen Zia said that a ‘yes’ vote would be a public call for him to stay in office. A government decree stated that advocating a boycott of the referendum would be a crime punishable by three years in prison — 98 per cent of the people who voted polled yes. We are still paying for the consequences.

I’ve asked people across the country if they think Pakistan should be a secular country, and given the planted misleading associations of the term with atheism, a substantial majority says it should not. But when I drop the word ‘secular’ and ask, ‘Do you think our given politicians, bureaucrats, courts, majors and salaried clerics should be trusted to interpret religion and run the country accordingly?’ most people are adamant in their ‘no’. Same answer when I ask two questions in rapid succession, ‘Do you think this state safeguards common people?’ followed by ‘Do you think this state should then decide how to safeguard religion?’

From the banal ‘What’s to become of this country?’ to the flowery ‘How long will the awam suffer?’ our questions are dreary. The go-to solution for social commentators is ‘change people’s mindsets’, and clichéd though that is, they may be on to something by signaling the difference between the brain and the mind. Apart from humans, no creatures ask questions because they lack metacognition, which is the awareness of one’s own thinking process. But then, we share about 50pc of DNA material with bananas.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in the social sector.

nazishbrohi.nb@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2017

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