I was reading something somewhere and came across a reference to a debate between Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins. I’ve seen enough of Dawkins lately but he usually grapples with Christians and creationists. Chopra is a different challenge and I heard it didn’t go very well.
Here’s Youtube link. The debate was for the Spanish speaking audience so the first part can be safely skipped. The moderator apparently wanted to make it into a show and had these big balls with questions and showman’s appeals to the crowd. He probably wanted it to be a lighthearted affair no one takes very seriously, people were supposed to enjoy it and then go back to the lives of taking pictures of their food and pointless sense enjoyment.
Neither of the debaters advocates for such an outcome, however. Chopra wants people to dabble in spirituality while Hawkins wants them to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of science, which is hard work requiring dedication and considerable sacrifices of personal comfort. Of course he doesn’t want everyone to become a scientist but he implores people to use their brains and weed out pretenders like Chopra, his is a battle cry, everyone must contribute whatever they can.
If the moderator thought it would all go down smoothly by setting the atmosphere for a not-so-serious affair he was mistaken. Thunderbolts started flying right from the beginning and didn’t stop.
First was Chopra’s turn to speak, he had three minutes, then Dawkins would issue a rebuttal, then Chopra would have had a final word. The question was picked and it was perfect for Chopra: “Is it ever enough simply not to believe? What else can one believe in?” I don’t know who selected it, to me it looks like they just chose whatever sounds meaningful and profound but makes no sense whatsoever. Some words pulled out of a confused person’s brain, totally mental. Chopra didn’t understand it either but he used it as a platform to present his views on psychological basis for beliefs.
In interactions like this it’s not the answer that people seek but comforting words on a same topic and Chopra didn’t disappoint. “All belief is a cover for insecurity”, he started… and ended it right there. “I’m not here to ask you to believe in anything, especially the supernatural, I’m here to ask you the most fundamental question…” And just like that he switched to the “purpose of the universe”.
Belief as a cover for insecurity was an interesting area to explore but it was dropped. The transition to studying spiritual science instead of talking about beliefs would have been done more forcefully by Śrīla Prabhupāda, but then Prabhupāda would have done a lot of things better than Chopra. Throughout the whole debate I couldn’t stop myself comparing Chopra to what Prabhupāda would have said.
Śrīla Prabhupāda, however, never participated in this kind of one on one moderated debates with thousands of people in attendance. Kṛṣṇa would have guided him just fine but it never happened, and it never happens to any of present ISKCON leaders either. Recently I’ve seen a mock up debate by one of our Svāmīs but instead of real atheists posing questions it was devotees playing devil’s advocate. It’s not the same thing.
Should we engage prominent atheists like that for real? I don’t think so, not at this point. When we are ready, have the same clarity as Śrīla Prabhupāda and the stomach to stand up to a hostile audience without losing our cool, then we can give it a try. It’s a long way to the top, though, we need to nurture and train master debaters and start at junior level first. By the time we are ready to debate someone like Dawkins he’d probably be dead, or converts to Christianity and joins a monastery.
In the absence of our own leaders it’s left to people like Chopra to present Eastern take on the spirituality. Unfortunately, Chopra is a windbag of no discernible origin. He mixes up everything that sounds remotely spiritual and is more “New Age” than Eastern, let alone Vedic scholar. This makes him an impersonalist, respecting all deities and worshiping none, and his views on soul and consciousness are only vaguely related to Bhagavad Gītā. Popular Vedic wisdom could have been a departing point in his journey but no one knows where he is now.
Still, he might be a bastard but he is our kind of bastard. We might disagree with practically everything he says but he is a genuine seeker of the truth and he has enough humility to deserve respect. He rejects the atheist position and wants to reclaim atheist monopoly on science. He firmly believes in transcendence and he believes that we should all seek self-realization. Well, maybe “believe” is not the word he would have used himself but anyway.
So Chopra went on to present his views on the purpose of the universe. Dawkins was given time for rebuttal, the mike was passed to Chopra, then they decided to continue talking on this topic, and twelve minutes into the debate Dawkins declared that “we’ve been subjected to a kind of a word salad of scientific jargon used out of context, inappropriately.., apparently uncomprehendingly.” That was basically the end of the civil part of the debate, but let’s see how they got there.
Chopra said that we can have two perspective on the universe. One is top down, as intelligent species observing other life forms. From there we can clearly see that biological organisms are purpose driven, even the simplest of life forms, it’s indisputable. Another way to look at it is from the bottom up, from the POV of individual particles. For them every change seems to be totally random and without any purpose. But if you look at the sum of their total activity you get a universe which is fine tuned, with precise laws of nature making sense to rational human beings, so even from that perspective the universe seems to be full of purpose.
“There’s an organizing intelligence, there’s deeper consciousness that throws out this universe at the speed of light..” He was stopped by the moderator. How he got from his two perspectives to assertion that there’s organizing intelligence was not quite clear and I thought Dawkins would reduce this argument to a watchmaker analogy he wrote a whole book about once, but he didn’t.
Dawkins’ response was that while biological organisms do have a purpose it doesn’t mean that the universe has a purpose. It’s a complete confusion of scale. Individual organisms have a purpose for reasons given by Darwin but it’s million miles away from saying that the universe has a purpose. Purpose came very late into the universe, when people got brains, and it’s brains that have purpose, pushing it back to the universe itself is a complete confusion.
I don’t get it. For starters, Dawkins admitted that living beings look as if they got a purpose, and he used “as if” all the time, implying that worms searching for food and hiding from predators do not actually have a purpose but only act as if they had one. He then stated: “That’s precisely the problem that Darwin solved – why do living things look as though they’ve got a purpose.” But Darwin didn’t solve this problem at all! His evolution and natural selection only shows how living things eventually solve problems in pursuit of their goals. “Survival of the species” is not an answer “why”, it’s just a definition of what the purpose is, which means that existence of the purpose itself is not in dispute.
Chopra didn’t pick up on that but the next step in Dawkins’ reasoning set the course of the rest of the debate.
Even though purpose has come late in the universe, as Dawkins’ said, why does he deny the connection between development of the universe and eventual development of life? Is he implying that life appeared contrary to universe’s natural course? That creation of stars and planets and fusion of molecules was not a natural precursor to emergence of life and “purpose”? That’s what Chopra said when talking about his bottom up approach – the whole universe seems to work towards production of life, gradually creating a suitable environment. Dawkins can question existence of intelligent design behind it but how can he deny the process itself?
That’s two errors in his application of his own paradigm here. One was not addressed and with the other he dug himself deeper and deeper, but I don’t have time for the rest of it today, sorry.