Vanity thought #1509. The dressing

Chopra’s word salad I wrote about yesterday needs a dressing, but it was a dressing down generously poured by Dawkins. I don’t know whether he had a bad day or if this was really the best he could offer, but it was ugly.

I tend to think that Dawkins simply didn’t get Chopra’s point, a somewhat loose way with words notwithstanding. Chopra preceded his presentation with establishing his credentials, that he is writing a book in corroboration with established scientists, and he spoke of a school of scientists that espouse these particular views.

Dawkins dismissed them all as not his kind of scientists. Chopra complained about ad hominem attacks and went on to defend the authority of his sources but this back and forth went on for a while, and for no good reason. Chopra brought out a quote that was never directly attributed to the scientist he quoted but it could have been interpreted in Chopra’s way. Dawkins said that either the quote is wrong or the scientist in question was wrong. In short, nothing good came out of that dispute, for both sides. At one point Chopra addressed the audience and asked how many people understood him, there was a significant response. “You’re lying”, Dawkins dismissed them, and he was only half joking.

Dawkins had made several major errors by my count there. First, he implied that Darwinism and laws of physics explain origin of life. Secondly, he stripped lower forms of life of purpose and consciousness, and, finally, he attributed purpose and consciousness solely to humans but failed to account for the transition itself. He also put us, humans, in a special place as opposed to the rest of the universe, and he argued that Chopra confuses things inside the universe with the universe itself.

That last point is totally strange – we ARE the universe, not the whole of it, of course, but we are not distinct from it either. It should be Dawkins the atheist reducing human consciousness to interaction of chemicals in the brain and Chopra the transcendentalist demanding special status for life but they inadvertently switched places here. I guess this is what happens when we try to prove God to atheists using their own logic – they don’t accept it and quietly slip into an irrational position typically reserved for believers.

There were some interesting philosophical points raised by Chopra, even though I can’t count how many problems he declared as “the most fundamental” there.

“Is awareness of the universe and the universe [itself] the same thing?” If there is universe outside of our awareness then for all practical purposes we would never know it. A bit like “Does a tree falling in the forest makes a sound when there’s no one around to hear it?” That question has been answered in multiple ways but Chopra is offering a serious perspective here – existence of reality outside of our perception. Can it be considered real if we will never be aware of it?

We say Kṛṣṇa is real and Vaikuṇṭhas are real but atheists reply that since they are “transcendental” they might as well be products of our imagination. They can also offer a few simple tests to prove transcendental experiences if we claim to have them. Basically, these tests involve passing “real” information via transcendental plane, like go five minutes forward in time, come back, and make correct predictions about the future. Or have two people meet in transcendental reality and exchange information that would otherwise be unknown to each one of them here.

Should be easy if you are a fully liberated person but since none of us are we can’t pass any of these tests. Whatever anecdotes we might have of such miracles will simply be dismissed until we can replicate them in the lab multiple times at will.

None of this was discussed, though, but Chopra pressed Dawkins on consciousness instead, an equally contentious topic. Dawkins ascribes consciousness only to fully evolved brains while Chopra says that it’s displayed even by the tiniest organisms (he couldn’t clarify the possible misquote about atoms having consciousness, though).

Chopra then said that evolution could actually be driven by consciousness, which is what I think we all see happening in the world around us. We all make improvements to our lives all the time, all the animals around us try to improve their lives, too, and so the need for longer legs or bigger muscles comes first. This can be disputed, I suppose, probably by saying that what we see now is not evolution of the species. It’s like chicken and egg problem – did the first fish walked on land because it wanted to be there or did it get legs first and then discovered they can be useful?

Chopra also reminded that evolution does not explain the origin of life but transformation of species. Dawkins, in turn, accused Chopra of changing the subject again, and not without a merit, because Chopra is all over the place here, no matter how right or wrong. This is just a debating skill we should be aware of, can’t really hold it against Chopra because we have the luxury of thinking things through while he didn’t, he was under considerable pressure there.

Dawkins challenged Chopra that a single cell can’t have consciousness. “It has awareness,” Chopra answered. “What do you mean by that?” That was a great opportunity for Chopra but he veered of course by talking about atoms getting together to create brains and this must have been done intelligently rather than randomly. Evolution doesn’t require intelligent design, though, so Dawkins was going to reject it outright.

In the end Chopra made it clearer – sentience lies in cell’s ability to respond to the environment and express its “biological autonomy”. I can guess what “biological autonomy” means but it’s not a well established concept yet. Another ingredient for the word salad but Dawkins allowed it.

Chopra pressed on wit this definition of consciousness, Dawkins disagreed again. He got very close to the problem of defining when exactly his version of consciousness actually emerge. Are babies conscious, in his view? Are their brains showing the required level of complexity yet? What about chimpanzees who are compared to five year olds? Are they conscious? Chopra should have nailed him for using this arbitrary and very fuzzy definition but instead he mixed up words and started lecturing Dawkins about difference between perception and awareness. More word salad, technically correct but not to the point.

Once again they wrestled with consciousness in cells and even atoms and ended up with Chopra repeatedly telling Dawkins to check out Freeman Dyson’s quote for himself. He most likely meant this one:

“In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call “chance” when they are made by electrons.”

Exactly what he meant by “mind” here is a matter of semantics. Chopra interpreted it his way, Dawkins’ position on this is unclear, he didn’t seem to know or couldn’t make a connection between consciousness and quantum particle “choices” when changing their states.

In my limited experience, this type of confusion is common in discussions with atheists. We assume that every living being has consciousness while they restrict it only to fully developed humans. Similarly, we have very different ideas of what the soul is from Christians who deny its presence in dogs, for example. When we want to debate these things we should settle on a definition first, Chopra and Dawkins didn’t, and the moderator had to cut them both short and ask the next question, and a very important one a that, but I should leave it for tomorrow.

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