I realize that these days one can’t use the word “trump” without acknowledging that orange haired buffoon leading presidential race in the US. Maybe one day I can think of some way to connect Trump phenomenon to Kṛṣṇa consciousness but nothing comes to mind yet. In the UK the entire election season is about six months. In the US Trump has been making waves for half a year already and there’s still more than a year to go. Is it an efficient way to select the government? It’s just crazy.
Anyway, I was talking about Chopra’s trump card to beat Dawkins with. He missed the opportunity with subject-object split and instead of pressing on with undermining “objective” position assumed by atheistic scientists he suddenly changed the course and asked the following question:
“Have you ever engaged in self-reflection or self-awareness? Have you ever experienced transcendence? Have you ever questioned that perceptual reality is different from fundamental reality? Have you ever questioned the idea that science does not examine reality but creates models of reality?… If you have never experienced a fundamental, unique experience that has existed throughout history, through antiquity, it’s called transcendence, it’s experiencing the self, and it’s the knowingness that the self of the individual is the self of the universe…”
It was a full blown assault on poor Dawkins, rapid fire questions that can’t be answered with a straight “no” but would require long interpretive conversations. I mean he started with “have you ever engaged in self-reflection?” – who’d ever say no to that? What is Chopra implying here? That Dawkins is incapable of self-reflection, like he is an animal or something? Or that there’s only one way of self-reflection and it leads to taking Chopra’s view of the universe?
“Have you ever engaged in self-awareness?” What? What exactly does it mean? Who will say that he is not aware of himself? “Have you ever experienced transcendence?” – define transcendence, the way Dawkins uses the word “experience”, transcendence can’t be experienced by definition – it’s supernatural, beyond our perception.
Is our perceptual reality different from fundamental reality? Obviously, and science goes to great lengths to minimize this subjectivity, this is also why they tell us to wait for the answers because they haven’t perfected their understanding of perceptual reality yet. Of course it’s different from fundamental reality, always was and always will be, speed of light was absolute forever, not only after Einstein postulated so. Same with the question about using models of reality – of course they use models, this “revelation” doesn’t mean to Dawkins what Chopra hoped it would mean.
And experience of the transcendence throughout history isn’t confined to “knowingness” that the self of the individual and the self of the universe are the same.
Chopra then rattled out a bunch of names who pursued this line of thinking and in that he is right – Dawkins’ claims that it’s just a word salad ignores the rich tradition of inquiry into “transcendence”.
“But if you have never had the experience of what people call non-symbolic awareness you have no right to comment on science being a complete way to understand reality,” Chopra concluded.
Why am I wasting time on going through all these details I won’t remember two hours from now? Because the question of transcendental experiences is a valid one. We accept that our authorities had them and passed down their observations to us – in the form of Vedas themselves, for example. It is a big gun argument against atheists but it has to be done right, and, I’m afraid, Chopra screwed it there by being vogue and all-inclusive.
What’s this “non-symbolic awareness”, for example? I had to google it up, turns out it’s a newfangled newagey thing that Dawkins had an absolute right to never had heard about. There’s a website dedicated to it and most of their publications are post-debate, which was in 2013. I’m tempted to look into their findings but don’t know where to start. Their list of experiences that qualify as non-symbolic ends with “shamanic ecstasy”, btw, and I have to google what “satori” and “flow experience” are. We, in our movement, wouldn’t take any of it seriously.
I understand what Chopra was trying to achieve here but since he didn’t qualify exactly what kind of experiences he meant and how to distinguish between legitimate and mental ones, Dawkins blew this argument away by using his feelings when looking at stars or listening to Schubert as equal to “transcendence”. He had them, he said, they are nice, but they are just neurons interacting in his brain, there’s nothing transcendental about it. He was actually open to sharing these experiences and they were very real to him, very moving and profound, but not transcendental at all.
The truth is that we all have been moved by one thing or another. Music, poetry, words of wisdom, stars – these are very common triggers for everyone, but it doesn’t mean they are transcendental. Most of us do not take them seriously even though we cherish these moments. As devotees we are usually dismissive, nothing short of Kṛṣṇa Himself showing up can impress us.
Chopra sensed he needed to qualify his questions, that Dawkins cheapened his “non-symoblic awareness” and, basically, said that Chopra is daydreaming as if he were a child and so should leave real science to grown ups. So Chopra brought in gratitude and “epistomological humility”. Need a dictionary here again, and not a regular one but a dictionary of postmodernism. As I understand, it means the realization that our knowledge is and forever will be limited, that we can’t possibly know it all and don’t have the tools to know it all. Dawkins had the right to dismiss this one as an ingredient to the word salad, too, and just speak of plain old humility instead, which he did.
Dawkins simply insisted that things like humility and gratitude are products of neural networks and he has no reason to feel otherwise, as Chopra begged him to admit. “Do you dismiss thousands and thousands of years of mystical experiences?”, Chopra asked. “I don’t dismiss it for one moment,” Dawkins countered, “I don’t dismiss it, I want to explain it.”
Getting nowhere Chopra tried to exploit who is “I” that will be doing the explaining. Good point in general but irrelevant to this particular line of thought, and when Dawkins said that by “I” he meant science Chopra dug himself even deeper.
Dawkins clarified that all these mystical experiences are real and they will be explained by science and he is confident they will be explained in terms of brain. “That’s a promissory note,” interrupted Chopra, “in this economy don’t trust a promissory note.” Good point in general but, again, not relevant here. Dawkins is not ashamed of issuing promises, science does it all the time and always keeps them. We need to keep this attitude in mind when telling atheists that we can’t take their promise of creating artificial life as an answer. They truly believe it will eventually happen, they don’t feel any shame in making promises like that.
“So you have supreme confidence in the way we do science, you are not open to consciousness driven science, consciousness based science?” – Chopra was trying to salvage at least something. “I don’t know what that word even means,” replied Dawkins. “Observer based science,” Chopra was trying to help. “Observer based science is another matter. Of course science is necessarily observer based,” – once again Dawkins was telling Chopra that words he uses mean something else in the scientific world. “Well, observer is consciousness”, observed Chopra. “You don’t have a monopoly of consciousness, we ALL have consciousness,” snapped Dawkins. Moderator interrupted the spat.
What’s important in this exchange is that Chopra clearly prepared his “have you ever experienced” argument but didn’t do any homework and wasn’t prepared for straightforward replies, he didn’t have a plan B, and it’s a shame. What can we expect from a transcendentalist like him, however? There’s a reason we are dismissive of stuff like this “non-symbolic awareness” – it’s a cheap, mental substitute for real transcendental visions and there are rules how those real visions can become possible. You don’t just put a form on a website and sift through applications to find “transcendentalists”.
Kṛṣṇa actually explains it in Bhagavad Gīta – how to spot a real transcendentalist. Arjuna asked him about it right from the start and Kṛṣṇa dedicated some twenty verses to answer this question – in the second chapter, starting with 2.54. One who is not disturbed in miseries and not elated in happiness, who is able to withdraw his senses from sense objects and so on.
Perhaps that non-symbolic website should put up a list of these requirements instead of asking people if they have experienced “shamanic ecstasy” for real. I don’t think Dawkins would have considered himself qualified by Kṛṣṇa’s standards, listening to Schubert and feeling awestruck is not it. Here it’s not the transcendental experiences themselves that are unbelievable to atheists but that there are people who are actually indifferent to happiness or misery or who have total control of their senses. Modern men can’t even imagine how it is possible, they have no experiences like this to relate to, and therefore they can’t honestly deny that for people like that transcendence could be reality, and they can’t equate our moments of wander or gratitude with how these people see the world ALL the time.
To sum it up – Chopra’s trump card was that transcendental experiences are special. Dawkins’ answer was that they are not, they are actually quite common. If we want to use this argument ourselves we have to insist that they are not common but restricted to people exhibiting certain characteristics, and these people are very hard to find, except in annals of history. And we won’t be able to prove it or demonstrate it, just open the possibility.