Vanity thought #1520. Judging History

Next in the animated short summary of the debate on the merits of the Catholic Church was Anne Widdecombe’s attack on the atheist historical perspective. I won’t go through all the accusations hurled the Catholics way, there was Inquisition, there were Crusades, there was destruction of Constantinople etc etc. Hitchens read the long list of these past crimes and it was a blood boiling stuff that the Church can’t deny, in fact it publicly apologized for it, as Hitchens noted. That is not the end of the story, though.

As I said a couple of days ago, bringing up past transgressions for which the guilty party has apologized is too vindictive to my taste. Hitchens could have said that the apology was not accepted so he is free to raise this subject again and again but these crimes weren’t committed against him, the apology wasn’t directed at him. Afaik, no one blames the current Church for the sins of their predecessors, most of the world realized that it’s time to move on.

Hitchens then would say that if we want to judge the overall merits of the Church then we have to consider history as well, it’s not like the Church has always been good until recent child abuse scandals came out. Fine, let’s look at history then, and that’s what Widdecombe’s argument was all about:

“If you are going to judge the Catholic Church at any given stage in history then you have to judge it against the standards that were prevailing at the time, and condemning the Inquisition, which was a horrible thing [condemning or Inquisition was horrible?]… Condemning the Inquisition in isolation from condemning just about the whole, in fact the whole of European society, which at that time rejoiced in punishment and torture as a means of dealing with criminality, and with treason, and with wrongdoing, to try and divorce the Catholic Church from that and say that it was uniquely guilty, under the inquisition, is simply trying to look back at centuries gone past and apply a standard that nobody applied at the time.”

Nice, even though somewhat imperfect. There was a little ambiguity in the middle and the end wasn’t as powerful as the build up suggested but it’s still a solid argument. I don’t know how to improve it, perhaps just add that we don’t apply laws retroactively, it something wasn’t a crime at the time it happened it can’t be judged as crime now. If we now think that torture was wrong but at the time of the Inquisition it wasn’t, then the Catholic contribution to the society wasn’t evil by that society’s standards. At the time it could have been seen as a force for good while still torturing the heretics, no one minded.

Or, put it another way, if contemporary society didn’t think that Inquisition was bad and rather thought that the Church was undeniably good, then that’s what we have to accept as evidence from history. Hitchens could have found some testimonies condemning the church but he didn’t and so we can assume everyone went along with the Inquisition just fine.

As an argument it was solid but as a means to win the debate it wasn’t, because by that time it was all about rhetoric and emotional appeals. Hitchens’ cries for justice were more appealing even if there were groundless so they counted while Widdecombe’s argument didn’t.

Fry also jumped in, and the animation editors made it sound as if he was directly addressing Widdecombe but he went precisely nowhere. No matter, he did in style, with audience drooling at every turn of his thought, so he “won”.

“Now all this is in the past and it’s irrelevant and I acceede to Anne Widdecombe how irrelevant it is, except in one thing. This Church is founded on the principle of intercession. Only through the apostolic succession, only through the laying on of hands, from this Galilean carpenter, who we can all admire, only from the laying on of hands from his apostles, to Saint Peter, to the other bishops, all the way down to everyone consecrated in this room [consecrated in THIS room?], anyone ordained here [here?] will know they are… they have this extraordinary power to change the molecules of wine into blood, literally, to change the molecules of paste bread into flesh, literally, and to forgive the sins of the peasants and the poor whom they routinely exploited around the planet. Only this Church has this extraordinary principle that it is through these male priests, and only male priests, that this is given. It is a doctrinal fact, it is more than a doctrinal fact, it is a dogma, “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”, outside the Church there’s no salvation.”

What has it got to do with history and Widdecombe’s argument against judging it my modern standards? Nothing whatsoever, the conclusion is an entirely different subject. I can’t be bothered to mark every word Fry stressed there with capitals, and despite a little ambiguity in the middle as well, the overall effect was in Fry’s favor because he is simply a better speaker with a better voice, and a better command of his voice.

Next time you hear atheists claim that they win with logic and reason remember that it’s not true, they are as reliant on flourish and rhetoric as any politician out there and logic and reason are often completely missing from their presentations, no matter how convincing they sound.

The animation moved on but there’s one more thing I think needs to be said about history. In the full version of the debate Widdecombe continued with the defense of child abuse, too – if judged from the perspective of that era, which wasn’t a long time ago but is still in the past. She was referring to the activities of Pedophile Information Exchange, a group that was disbanded only in 1984 and which was affiliated with UK’s Council for Civil Liberties and printed booklets on pedophilia sponsored by public funds. It wasn’t a big deal then, Widdecombe argued, we made it into a big deal much later. Respectable people who no one would ever accuse of child abuse supported that group and everyone was simply acting out the ignorance of that time.

She then also added that when they, the Church, learned of the abusive behavior they weren’t taught, because no one knew it at the time, that there’s no way that someone who abused would simply stop. I suppose she implied that punishing the priests was enough and there was no need to remove them from their positions. Punishment in those days was also light, it appears from her speech. The realization that sex offenders need to be registered and watched permanently didn’t occur to anyone until mid-nineties. In retrospect, she said, the Church should have acted differently, but so should have the magistrates, the courts, the Council for Civil Liberties etc etc.

This is the argument I heard from one ISKCON leader as well. At the time no one knew what to do and what the real dangers were, ISKCON acted as it would have been expected at the time, and it was only until much later that the world has realized it wasn’t enough. Neither we, nor the Catholic Church, had any unique insights into sex-offenders psychology at the time.

Could we have turned to Śrīla Prabhupāda or to śāstra on this? Nope, child abuse is such a low grade behavior that it goes beneath śāstra’s radar, and it didn’t even occur to Śrīla Prabhupāda.

Personally, I think the same argument can be made in defense of rape in our books. I don’t think Prabhupāda ever meant forcing oneself on a woman while she is screaming and fighting back with all her might. I don’t think “rape” in our books ever means sex without consent but a testament to the power of man’s persuasion. Some men are hard to refuse, like Rāvaṇa. He could have “raped” Sīta in the modern sense of the word but sex without consent didn’t occur to even demons like him, it’s such a low grade behavior and Rāvaṇa was an exemplary king in many respects, he wouldn’t have stooped so low.

This needs further investigation, though.

Edit:  Rāvana did rape a woman, though, and was cursed that he’d die if he ever tried it again. My bad. “Even Rāvana” part of the argument doesn’t hold.

Vanity thought #1519. Animated sex parts

No, I’m not talking about animated sex, I’m continuing with a shot animated summary of the debate about merits of the Catholic Church, the point where Stephen Fry turned to homosexuality. The speakers for the Church did not address this in the short and I don’t remember them saying anything particular in the rest of the debate either, so let’s try to make sense of it as presented. It’s not like Catholic Church has a definitive answer to homosexuality anyway .

Fry then quoted the then current Pope, Benedict XVI, who they, incidentally, always addressed by his civilian name, Joseph Ratzinger. Fry said the Pope called homosexuals disordered and morally evil while all he was trying to do was to fulfill his sexual destiny. He said that to achieve and receive love is a struggle and one certainly doesn’t need Pope to tell you how to do it and one certainly doesn’t need Pope to tell you that you are evil. With 6% of teenage suicides being gay teenage suicides we certainly don’t need stigmatization and victimization that leads to playground bullying when people tell you you are a disordered, morally evil individual. It isn’t nice.

Okay, sexual destiny is a powerful argument. Gays do feel natural attraction to people of their own gender, this has to be acknowledged, they are wired this way by their previous karma and they have to live it out. That does not describe the whole picture, though. First of all, only a small percentage of gays are truly hardwired, for most of them sexuality is fluid, most of them had times when they lived in heterosexual relationships, and then there are bisexuals, too. These people might object that their sexuality is a choice but the fact is that they can choose how to express it on each particular occasion. Most of the time people choose NOT to express it at all – on the streets or in the office, for example, and wait to the opportune moment instead. Eventually their sexuality would force them to act but they can always put up a struggle. To fight or not to fight is the choice, and they choose not to fight but embrace their sexuality instead.

This choice is morally evil – the choice to give up control over one’s sexual urges. Fry might say that he controls himself just fine and doesn’t masturbate in public but that is not enough, civilized human beings must impose tighter control over their sex lives, be they Catholics or Muslims or Hare Kṛṣṇas. Even procreation must have limits, as Śrīla Prabhupāda often mentioned “once a month”.

Sex orientation might be wired but sex indulgence is a habit, and it’s a bad and evil one. Fry might disagree but he is judging it by his experience, not by the Bible, and not by the standards of previous ages. He can, of course, find some examples of profligate kings and sexually uninhibited commoners in history but are they they examples we should aspire to? Why should the church look up to them instead of the lives of their saints? Fry himself, being a self-professed thinker, should probably choose better standards to aim for.

The point is that “morally evil” label is not spurious, people like Fry have to reflect on it and see whether it has any truth in it. Of course we know that in modern society homosexuality is not evil anymore, Popes, however, do not speak about modern norms but eternal spiritual obligations of every human being. There ARE standards by which homosexuality is evil and it’s not Fry’s place to impose his own instead.

The bit about receiving love is lost on me. Mundane love between two people probably doesn’t need Pope’s intervention but love as is understood in Christianity certainly needs a mediator – the Pope, your local priest – Catholics are big on proper succession, as Fry himself acknowledged. He can reject Pope’s authority, of course, but then he should also kiss good-bye to love of God and and not worry what Pope has said about people like him at all. Fry is an atheist so rejection of God is given but then what’s the point of him participating in this debate? If he rejects any spiritual dimension to Catholic contribution to the world then his view is incomplete. It’s like judging bank assets value by coins in bank teller’s drawer. Christians would also say that love of Christ enriches their love of their husbands and wives, as it should be.

The bit about teenage suicides is misguided. In modern society homosexuals comprise more than 6% of the population, that’s what they love to tell us, so it appears that proportionally speaking gays are less prone to suicides then straights. Probably a good point for homosexuality but that’s not how Fry presented it an no one called him on that, or simply didn’t have the time.

Schoolyard bullying is a problem and it is possible to blame it on the Pope but how many bullies cite Papal encyclicals in their taunts? Repulsion to homosexual behavior exists(ed) in every culture in the world regardless of their religion and it’s this repulsion that gives rise to bullying, ascribing it to the Catholic Church is simply intellectually dishonest on Fry’s part.

There was a part in the debate, not included in the short, where Fry defended his appeal to emotion, ie rhetoric, because the Church is all about saving souls and love, so emotional appeals are fair. Not true. When the Church debates atheists in public it does not preach love of God and does not try to open people’s hearts. It plays by the atheist rules – reason and logic. It’s a shame for atheists like Fry to abandon them then and battle for the hearts and minds instead. He just wants to be a better preacher, not a better thinker. He might have succeeded on this one occasion but that’s how he will be remembered and treated forever – as a shameless propagandist. Atheists would love to hear his propaganda, of course, but serious thinkers would never take him seriously, he is a bit of a clown. Of course serious thinking will not lead one to God realization but it’s the only thing going for atheism, really, Without commitment to logic and reason it has nothing, just a temporary sense indulgence, when things go bad it would be of no help whatsoever. It won’t be able to explain suffering and help people to get through, as true knowledge is expected to.

There were more arguments about sex in that debate, but use of condoms, for example, is better left for another day. I would just quote Catholic Anne Widdecombe on this:

“He [Fry] says that the Church is obsessed with sex. No, its critics are obsessed with sex. There’s no sex in the creed, there’s no sex in Lord’s prayer, there’s no sex in the liturgy, but when the critics start on the Catholic Church all they can talk about it sex.”

This is how atheists approached this debate in general – take a small part, blow it our of proportion, and declare the church evil. Intellectually dishonest? Yes, but what do they care as long as they win?

Hmm, there’s no honor among thieves, as they say, and all atheists are thieves by their very nature – īśāvāsyam idam sarvaṁ – everything in this universe belongs to the Lord (Iso 1), and there are more verses in Bhagavad Gīta describing the demoniac nature – pride, arrogance, conceit, etc. All we need to do is look beyond their veil of civility and realize that atheists can’t be trusted. People should know this, too, and exposing their devious thinking is our duty. Śrīla Prabhupāda never missed the opportunity and neither should we.

Vanity thought #1518. Debate Animated

As I said, I’m not going to go through the debate about Catholic Church word by word but the organizers kindly provided a short animation summarizing the best arguments from Anne Widdecombe for Catholics and Stephen Fry for atheists, so let’s cover that.

The two other speakers, an African bishop and Christopher Hitchens, were excluded but it’s not a big loss. Perhaps I could say a few words about the priest but Hitchens’ facts I covered yesterday, I don’t want to watch the whole two hour affair again to check if he said anything else of note.

If you watch this short it might appear disjointed, jumping from topic to topic, and it should be expected from this video because it’s made of selected clips, but the rest of the debate was the same, everybody was making himself heard all the time and no one was obliged to follow up on questions. Even when the speakers were answering questions from the audience they were free to pick and choose what to answer and what to ignore.

This was the fault of the organizers, it put too much unnecessary pressure on the speakers, giving them too many questions to juggle and too little time to respond. Half the questions from the audience were not even questions but personal comments and gripes. There was one guy who said he just returned from a UN conference and there he submitted a list of five transgressions by the Catholic Church and the Church admitted it hasn’t done anything about them. It was a one sided piece of information, no one knew what he was talking about and whether it was factually correct.

The debate was organized more like a court proceedings, with time allocated to the prosecution and the defense to make their statements and the audience acting as a jury, but a lot of what was heard would not have been permissible in court, like that guy’s “testimony”. If he was allowed to speak as a witness the defense would have been given time to cross examine him and bring their own witnesses and experts. Otherwise he just made an emotional appeal that manipulated the hearts and that’s all.

Anyway, the animation, it starts with Widdecombe asking us to imagine the world without Catholic Church giving billions to charity. Very easy. In my world I do not see Catholic Church charities at all, they are not collecting them where I can see, and they are not distributing them where I can see. They are also not in the news, my world is already is as if Catholic charities didn’t exist. No big loss.

There’s also the mercantile dimension to this argument that doesn’t do anything good to Catholic Church’s image. I get it that they were trying to speak the language atheists can understand and measure – money, but when you treat people like that, if you appeal to their lower nature, don’t expect them to respond any differently and appreciate unspoken spiritual arguments in your favor. If you talk to them as if they don’t understand anything but money they’ll repay in kind.

Anyway, Catholic Church apparently contributes more than any nation. Sounds nice, but it’s a somewhat dishonest argument. Catholic Church is bigger than any other nation, save for China, and all these other nations have to invest in defense and what not so the comparison is inappropriate. Makes for a good soundbite, though.

Thankfully, Widdecombe quickly switched to the message of the Catholic Church, and that is of hope and salvation it gives to more than a billion of people. She used their lives as testimony that the Church is the force for good, but, as I said a few days ago, atheists usually discount cumulative affect of individual lives and go for doctrine instead, and not for Church’s actual doctrine but their interpretation of it. If they manage to twist something and make it sound bad it outweighs experiences of those billions of people. Reasonable? No, but it wins debates such as this.

Next came Stephen Fry, and he started (the animation started) by saying that he is going to take great pleasure in castigating the church, though he put it a lot more eloquently, earning himself applause from the audience. Where did the virtue of being dispassionate and logical go to? Why do the atheists applaud departure from rationality and diving into pleasure seeking rhetoric? What sort of debate is this where one side abandons its proclaimed strength and goes for emotional feel instead? It’s not a debate, it’s a propaganda exercise.

Fry then reminded everyone that Catholic Church IS a nation state, contrary to what Widdecombe stated earlier. Well, of course the Pope is the head of Vatican but Widdecombe and her fellow Catholics are not Vatican’s citizens, why did he not acknowledge that? He moved on to some UN conference where the then current Pope (it was 2009) issued a statement together with Muslim nations led by Saudi Arabia on behalf of the revealed religions of the world… Pure rhetoric – all the emotional triggers are there – head of state, joined with backward, repressive Muslims like Saudis, speaking for religions of the world. And what did he say? Unclear, something about blocking women’s sexual freedom. Doesn’t matter, the outrage was already planted in the audience.

What kind of sexual freedom did the Vatican block? Unclear. How many people would argue against sexual freedom for their own wives? Seven and a half billion, I guess, but it’s the Church who is the culprit. And what can Vatican ever block in the UN? It’s not even a member! Fry doesn’t have a coherent argument here at all, but with emotional triggers he got the audience by its heart strings.

“The Islamic world AND the Catholic church have never been anything other than implacably opposed to women’s choice in their own bodies and their destinies,” concluded Fry, and applause followed. As I said, most husbands would also oppose to their wives exercising absolute freedom with their bodies and destinies, too. Even in the modern world all such decisions are taken together, that’s what marriage is. It’s just Fry’s flowery words with no substance, but people loved it.

Once again, it was debate organizer’s duty to prevent such blatant abuse of the audience. You can’t stop people from reacting to emotional appeals but you can stop speakers from making them. Not by taking away their mike, of course, but by setting the appropriate atmosphere and elevating the level of discussion. Once again, the woman in charge thought that if it sounded good and felt good then it was okay. It wasn’t.., will continue tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1517. It was a trap

That debate about merits of the Catholic Church was a setup from the get go, unfortunately no one realized that at the time. Yesterday I mentioned a couple of reasons why it couldn’t have worked and today I intend to continue exploring various ways why it really couldn’t have any other outcome but a sound defeat for the Church.

First of all, as I said yesterday, they framed it as a good vs bad issue, with atheists citing all the negative stuff. Psychologically, to counteract one negative impression one has to have seven good ones and the church had obviously no chance of providing that.

Secondly, they put a woman in charge of moderating. She was smart, intelligent, had good control of the proceedings, but it wasn’t enough because the fundamentals were all wrong. It looked like a debate but she didn’t realize it wasn’t one. She was doing something superficial and even if she was good at it but there was no substance there. At one point she did realize that comments from the audience were one sided and tried to correct it but it was too late. She should have thought of this first – the audience should have been more or less evenly divided so that both sides presented more or less the same number of arguments, never mind that negative ones need a bigger counterbalance anyway. By negative I mean emotionally charged stuff like child abuse, not the logical arguments against something.

Another way it was bound to fail was the cultural norms of the modern age. They might have called it a debate but it was actually more like public shaming. The only culturally acceptable reaction to accusations of bigotry, sexism, or racism is to admit one’s mistake and beg forgiveness. Trying to defend oneself will not work and arguing would only make it worse. The moment atheist speakers brought up child abuse the only course the church could have taken was unreserved public apology and begging for mercy. Then they should have joined the civilized society, wholeheartedly accepted their values, and never brought up the old stuff again – pretty much like Germany after WWII.

It didn’t happen, and I think it was actually a victory for the church rather than a defeat as the voting numbers would suggest. They stuck to their guns, they defended their values, they refused to admit guilt where they felt there was none, and they left with their heads held high.

What would have been the alternative? Cowering before the atheists and begging for their mercy would have been like being raped in prison – after the first time one would be doomed forever, his dignity completely gone and his reputation completely ruined. There’s no coming back from this, the relationships would be cast in stone and one would always be that rapist’s bitch, pardon my language.

If the Christians surrendered themselves to the atheists’ demands in hope of comfort and relief it would have made it even worse. They would have enjoyed the experience, they wouldn’t be considered victims but bitches in their own right, pardon me again. It would have been the biggest betrayal of their faith I could imagine and I don’t think there’s an easy comeback from this, their hearts would have been damaged forever.

I said I don’t want to go through this debate step by step but, in general, Hitchens and Fry, speaking for the atheists, brought up an uncountable number of charges. Hitchens was very detailed about it, and he specifically brought the number of apologies officially issued by the church for various wrongdoings on the eve of the millennium. He also cited other apologies issued at various times and always introduced them with “it was only in 1964 that the church admitted..” I’m sure he felt good about it and congratulated himself on being thorough but I don’t see this approach as acceptable.

The point of apology is that after it is accepted you can’t accuse the person of the stuff you have already forgiven. Even the most insufferable wives do not stoop so low and if they do bring up past transgressions they do not feel comfortable about it. Hitchens was worse than a vindictive woman in this case, but it’s a par for an atheist, I suppose, their civility is usually only skin deep.

In Hitchens defense, he cited all those old transgression as evidence of previous wrongdoing, not as evidence by which to judge the church now, but, if it was a real courtroom, most of it would have been objected by the opposing side and stricken out of the records. I suppose lawyers still go for this just to plant an impression in jury’s minds, the court clerk can’t strike it out from there, and Hitchens took full advantage of this opportunity. Debate rules were not broken, however, and it’s the fault of the organizers for not being prepared for this turn of the events.

The first speaker was also happen to be the Catholic, a priest from Africa. His English was okay but I don’t remember anything he said, except that he declared that the Church is a force for good because it is so, no doubt about it. I don’t remember the exact words but that was the gist of his presentation.

Next came Hitchens with all his facts about wrongdoings and apologies, then the woman MP, a well known Catholic Ann Widdecombe, who had her own speech prepared, meaning she had no chance to address Hitchens accusations in full, and then Stephen Fry ended the first round with even more anti-Church rhetoric. Then came questions and comments from the audience, they were mostly hostile, and Widdecombe got a chance to address them but the time given to her was clearly disproportionate to the amount of accusations she had to deal with. The African priest was basically a non-entity because no one in the audience asked him anything interesting.

This format was clearly not conducive to an illuminating debate. Was it fair? Yes, sort of, if it was a shouting match where time at the microphone was awarded proportionally to the number of representatives from each side. The speakers couldn’t address each other, too, so if Hitchens made some accusations Widdcombe wasn’t given a specific opportunity to answer them, she had to use her general time at the microphone. In the end she alone was debating Hitchens, Fry, and the audience.

It was all very civil and nice but the setup was just not conducive to a proper discussion, everybody was speaking to make himself heard, not to engage in a discourse, and the results reflected that. The more I think about it, it was the only possible outcome.

We should not fall into similar traps ourselves. I don’t see Catholics falling for this again either.

Vanity thought #1516. Debatable value

A few days ago I said, regarding Chopra-Dawkins debate, that these debates don’t change anybody’s opinion but only confirm one’s previously held biases. Actually, it was Chopra who said it, but I concurred. Checking with atheists, however, they quickly gave an example of the debate that worked – on the value of the Catholic Church.

The motion was that Catholic Church is a force for good and two sides argued for and against it. The audience was polled before the debate started and votes were collected at the end again. Here’s the link to the results. Roughly the third of the audience changed their minds, and if you look at the numbers closely, more “Catholics” changed their minds and voted against their church then undecideds. It was a clear victory for the atheism.

It is possible that some undecideds or those originally against switched to the Catholic side, too, but that would need even more Catholics to change their minds and vote against to balance them out. Some might have become newly undecided but the number of remaining undecideds was very insignificant, less that 1.5%, so it doesn’t change the overall result in any way.

So, what happened? Does it mean that mine and Chopra’s assertion that debates don’t work is wrong? Well, of course it’s not absolutely correct, the better wording would be “debates don’t show results instantly”. Some people fortify their positions, for some they start to erode and this process might take a very long time but some effect must be there, every action must bring some reaction. Even when we, as devotees, expose ourselves to atheistic arguments we must face some sort of contamination. We might feel like our Kṛṣṇa conscious arguments became validated but simple exposure to alternative views opens the possibility that they might be valid, too. Association matters, it affects us no matter what, so we should always be aware of the risk, and we can take it only in service to the mission of Lord Caitanya, not for any other reason.

Still, even in modified form the assertion doesn’t hold in this particular case. Is it an exception? Was it a particularly bad performance by the losing side? Or should my rule be modified? Well, obviously it needs modification to account for exceptions such as this. And it was an exception – it’s from six years ago, the only case that atheists could muster from hundreds if not thousands of debates widely available on youtube. In fact, when this discussion started, both atheists and believers agreed that we should not expect an instant change of mind, and no one could explain this case (or rather they didn’t even try).

Okay, it was an exception, exceptions are said to prove the rules, but the exact meaning of this saying can be contested. Originally, it was “to test the rule”, not prove it, and another meaning could that “proves that rule exists”, not that the rule is true. In any case, an exception is not a cause to freak out but rather an opportunity for deeper examination of the nature. So, what made this debate particularly bad for the Catholic Church?

One thing that needs to be mentioned that it’s possible the count was rigged. Not by the organizers but by the devious atheists (all atheists are devious by our definition). They could have known that “before and after” vote was going to take place and they could have initially stated their position as pro-Catholics only to change it to anti-Catholic later. It could have been as easy to organize as a flash mob. I don’t think these people were responsible for all the 700+ switched votes, though. Something else mush have gone very wrong for Catholics there.

Next question – how catholic were those Catholics to begin with? It is unthinkable that a person who dedicated his whole life to the church would, in just two hours, change his opinion on such a fundamental matter – is his church good or bad? And if they did change their minds so suddenly, was it a lasting change or only an instantaneous reflex to the mountain of accusations heaped on them during this debate? Would they change their minds back if they watched it again or thought deeply about it? Possibly.

Neither I nor Chopra nor numerous atheists and believers alike have any solid studies and numbers to support our view that debates don’t matter much in the short term but it doesn’t mean that we must accept any kind of quantified proof as an overriding evidence. It is evidence, we add it to the wealth of our experience, but don’t expect it to outweigh everything else that was stored there in the course of our lives. We can just dismiss it as a freaky accident and nether speak of it again – which would only confirm our rule – biases are extremely hard to overturn.

Speaking of numbers – there are studies showing that to overturn one bad impression one must counterbalance it with seven good ones. Applied to this particular debate every unpleasant fact about Catholic Church must have been given seven positive ones to balance it out, perhaps seven times more time must have been given to pro-Church speakers, but that was not the format, of course.

There’s another psychological fact that people tend to trust those saying negative things more, they assume that those criticizing are smarter than those praising. Psychologists might have explanations for this, too, but the fact stands, and it should have been accounted for by debate organizers.

The way the motion was put, “Is Catholic Church a force for good in the world?”, immediately made it into good vs bad argument, meaning making it emotionally charged and thus governed by rules other than reason and logic. It’s not what the organizers intended, of course, but something they clearly overlooked. Well, the moderator was a woman and no matter how smart they appear, they are not generally very intelligent. In this case the moderator was brilliant, witty, and had a very good control over the speakers and the audience, but this one slip on framing the discussion probably ruined it for all, and it seems for all eternity, too – since people still keep quoting it.

Would have a male moderator spotted it? Not guaranteed, of course, but in this case it was a female. Were there any males on the organizing committee – very likely, but since they gave the moderating job to a woman they were also very likely to have been captivated by her charms and considerable wit, and thus they lost their intelligence, too.

Here’s what I think we all miss about this “women have less intelligence” adage – men mixing with women are equally stupid, there’s no difference anymore. That’s why Lord Caitanya told us to avoid BOTH equally. In the contemporary society there are no independent men left, they are all willfully beholden to women, and so when feminists say that men’s superior intelligence is a myth they are absolutely right – as far as they can see.

The organizers of this debate should have stayed clear of inappropriate association with women but they probably didn’t and fell for the charms of their chosen moderator.

There was something else that I thought was odd about this debate but it escapes me now. I’m not going to dissect it statement by statement like I did with Chopra-Dawkins, it was two hours long, but I still want to cover important points, not necessarily in the content but implicitly assumed ones, like the unfortunate framing of the question or giving the moderating job to a woman. They all affected the outcome and if we continue to miss them they will affect the outcomes in the future, too. We should be able to spot and avoid such setups ourselves.

Vanity thought #1515. Is religion good or bad?

It’s a fairly popular question and it naturally follows the debates like the one between Chopra and Dawkins I have been writing about this whole week. Frustrated with the inability to find any common ground between two sides people try a different approach and instead of asking whether religion is right or wrong they want to know whether it’s good or bad. The assumption here is that it could be wrong but as long as it’s good then it doesn’t really matter.

Atheists and believers have their own answers, of course, but it’s the common folk who is the target here – can they be converted or not, can they be persuaded by the promised good or will they be warned off religion by its “inherent evil”? This leads to axillary questions about the place for religion in modern society, to its authority, to its relation with the secular state and so on. These are practical questions meant to extract the most good while filtering out all the bad. And then people negotiate the exact terms with each other, and the assumption here is that there’s no one right answer.

What is our position here? Is it practical? What should be our public position? But let’s start with Chopra-Dawkins.

The debate went into overtime but this question was one of the preconditions for participation and the moderator was obliged to ask it. Chopra went first and chopred up a little more of his word salad. He is more into consciousness based science of self-awareness than in worshiping any particular God so in his view as long as religion allows for this kind of self-realization it’s okay, and various excesses committed in the name of God is just collateral damage, can’t have an omelet without breaking eggs, sorry for disgusting metaphor. Chopra only prefers and recommends vegetarian diet, btw, he hasn’t publicly declared that he is a vegetarian himself.

We can’t really expect anything more from Chopra and “spiritualists” of the same persuasion. Absolute Truth for them is their topmost realization – universe, consciousness, self etc. They won’t take Kṛṣṇa as God unless they know Him personally, and whatever is said in the Vedic literature is not authoritative enough for them. They do not disapprove of our worship as long as it brings results they can appreciate – sense of unity with the universe, sense of epistemological humility, mysterious non-symbolic awareness etc. Devotion itself is not on the list but they’ll take it if it leads to those “higher” forms of realization. If we were to choose between these spiritualists and atheists we know which side to support but, if possible, we should avoid association with both because they are non-devotees and, therefore, asuric by nature. There’s a nice śloka to support this point but I don’t want to bring it today, it deserves a post on its own.

Dawkins, for his part, used a few of typical atheist tricks and I think we should be aware of them because they are being rehashed over and over again. I don’t know what would be the good answers to them but at least they shouldn’t confuse us by their simplicity.

Paraphrasing: “The question is not whether individual people who happen to be religious or not religious are good or bad, the question is whether religion itself is”. Posing it in this form immediately disassociates totality of individual behavior from religion and I don’t think there’s justification for this. It is certainly possible to discuss it under this condition but there will be too much loss in this approach and therefore I don’t think it should be acceptable. Let’s look at it closely.

The assumption here is that on their own and on average people are equally moral regardless of their stance on the religion. Their individual good or bad behavior, therefore, should not be attributed to religion or atheism, and neither should be the totality of the individuals who make up the society. I happen to strongly disagree here. What makes religion good or bad is the sum total of all the individuals practicing it. Every time their religion urged them to do the right thing should be counted as a point for religion. Equally, every time people’s atheism encourages them to act morally should be counted towards atheism. I’m talking about situations where people actually contemplate their course of action and are tempted to do a less moral thing, and I’m also talking about habits and reflexes.

It is impossible to calculate the value of religion this way, simply because there are billions of people of all kinds of faiths out there, but this is the only valid measurement. We can try to approximate it but we can’t substitute it with measuring anything else, as Dawkins proposed here.

For religious people the answer is self-obvious, they are usually aware of their sinful selfish nature and they attribute all their conscious moral decisions to influence of God and no one else. Atheists say they also act morally and give their own reasons, and they sometimes say that if religious people don’t rape women just because God forbids them to then there’s something seriously wrong with them. I don’t think there’s a simple answer here but let’s propose this one – religious people are in the clear and overwhelming majority in the world and they say religion makes them good. The argument that if they were all atheists instead they would just as much good is hypothetical. In their own experience relying on arguments other than religious prescriptions often leads them to committing sins. So, if they say that if not for religion holding them back they’d commit sins more often we should probably trust their judgment.

Dawkins’ approach, OTOH, discounts religion’s practical effects on individual behavior and offers to talk about blind faith and using religion to justify people doing bad things. Why is it even an issue? How big of an issue it really is? How important is it if put next to countless good deeds performed by every religious person and attributed to their religion?

“Many many good and righteous people … have done terrible things precisely because they believed that they are doing it for their god.” How many? How many of roughly six billion religious people currently living on this planet are doing terrible things because their religion tells them so? How many of them are doing bad things PRECISELY because their religion tells them so and not for multiple other reasons? I’m confident Dawkins can give a few examples but how should they stack against the six billion doing good things all the time? I mean his argument might be valid but not that important in the overall scheme of things.

Dawkins then added another reason – religion teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding, satisfied with pseudo explanations which are not really explanations at all. I suppose that happens, but I, personally, don’t know any devotee who is satisfied with not understanding. I don’t know any Christian who is satisfied with not understanding either. It’s a rather bad caricature of the religion. In fact, I’d argue that there are far more people who are perfectly satisfied with not understanding science, even grade school math. No one chases them for the rest of their lives berating them for not doing better at school and calling them stupid. Why is Dawkins singling out religion here? Shouldn’t he try and fix far bigger problems with understanding in his own camp?

As for pseudo explanations – sometimes it happens. Actually quite a lot, if you read students exam papers. It probably happens in religious communities, too, but, overall, I’d say that the standard of knowledge as measured in their own community is higher among Christians then among atheists. Christians all know the Bible and can offer all kinds of quotes on a variety of subjects. How many formulas an average atheist can recall on the spot?

The pseudo part that Dawkins had in mind is different, of course, but how much of that can be put down to ideological disagreements that can’t be reconciled simply by reasoning? Natural selection looks like a pseudo theory to creationists and creationism looks like a pseudo theory to Darwinists. Dawkins shouldn’t use the label “pseudo” for the cases where it is still disputed and where he can’t prove it to the other side. I suppose he can use it in cases where simple trickery is being passed as miracle making but how many of those are out there? How many religious people abandon all skepticism when they hear about miracles? How strict is the Catholic church in examining those claims? Are they really satisfied with what could be easily determined as pseudo explanations? I don’t think so.

Dawkins also talked about explanations that appeal to one’s emotions but I don’t see religion as being the main culprit there. Everyone is abusing people’s emotions these days for all sorts of reasons. In many cases, like in politics, the perpetrators are aware of what they are doing but they argue that they manipulate people’s emotions for the greater good. How’s that different from religions controlling their flock by hook or by crook?

The last bit was a veiled personal attack on Chopra and I don’t want to comment on that, as well as on Chopra’s partying statement that these two are very unlikely to talk to each other ever again. It’s the common arguments against religion that I want to remember today – excluding individual behavior of religious people from the debate on the value of religions, seriously overestimating terrible things done in the name of the religion, the false statement that religious people are satisfied with not understanding things, and labeling religious beliefs as pseudo knowledge in cases where atheists can’t prove it to anyone but themselves.

Vanity thought #1512. Trump card

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.

Vanity thought #1510. The Absolute position

There was a small fire in my street and it burned the internet cable. Most of my neighbours use ADSL, which also carries the phone signals, so it was the first one to be fixed. The cable company, however, has relatively few customers and it might take them a couple of days to show up and fix my internet.

I guess I could use my phone’s connection but it’s still inadequate for my use, so I just turned the computer off. I might use the phone to post this later on but there’s no rush. Also the phone itself doesn’t support diacritics, so no Kṛṣṇa, only Krishna, which I don’t feel comfortable with on this blog anymore.

Typing without internet also means that I don’t have access to google and can’t check quotes, facts, and ideas, I’m also too lazy to read my last entry on the phone and it would be too difficult to copy paste links, for example, so I’m going in blind.

The debate between Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins is about to turn nasty. They might have added some important points to consider but nothing stands out for me. Instead of moving on I’d like to take a step back and try to see their arguments from Kṛṣṇa conscious perspective.

One who knows Absolute Truth knows everything and so should be able to explain all existing phenomena without any contradictions. We know Absolute Truth to be Kṛṣṇa., Chopra and Dawkins have their own understanding of it. The question then becomes which understanding can explain all the others and explain all the interactions between them, which version of the Absolute Truth is really absolute. I hope it’s Kṛṣṇa, and by hope I mean my own meagre understanding of Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Kṛṣṇa is the Absolute by definition but what I imagine to be Kṛṣṇa might be not.

What if all three viewpoints explain everything perfectly, for example? Would it mean that they are all equally legitimate? Would it mean that the Absolute Truth is very flexible and Kṛṣṇa as we know Him is just one of many manifestations – that would be māyāvāda.

Here we have an atheist, Dawkins, and Chopra, basically a māyāvādī impersonalist, and they are not a good company. Lord Caitanya forbade us to listen to either of them but we also need to know our enemies in order to preach effectively. Most of the time we can’t rely on connecting to people through the Lord in their hearts, we still need to speak from a mundane platform, so we need to know how to do it effectively. We might not discover some magic argument to win them all but knowing why arguments don’t work is useful, too, and can spare us a lot of time.

Dawkins’ case is relatively easy – there’s science, we have evolved from material elements into complex beings, and we can now apply science to understand the world. It’s hard work but it must be done, and we don’t know all the answers but it’s not a problem, there’s always tomorrow.

Chopra caught him out there – Dawkins’ POV implies that we are qualitatively different from the world around us, that we are the observers and the world is there to be observed. We have independence and can use our superior resources at will. Several times Dawkins’ spoke about fundamental difference between things inside the universe and the universe itself. “Just because we have consciousness,” he said, “doesn’t mean that the universe has consciousness.”

This position hasn’t been thought through, at least not by Dawkins. We are not separate from the universe in any sense, we do not exist independently of the universe, we are, as Chopra put it, “an activity of the universe”, whatever that means. Dawkins’ view here is inconsistent with atheism itself – if we are nothing but atoms arranged in a certain way we can’t ascribe any extraordinary qualities to ourselves. Our consciousness, therefore, is not principally different from nuclear reactions within the stars, there’s nothing special about it. As I said a couple of days ago – it’s Dawkins here who takes the nominally religious position and argues that we are special and different from matter.

Atheists have constructed a thoroughly complete model of the universe but they still have gaps – stuff they admit they don’t know. This should disqualify them from holding the Absolute Truth. They say they will learn these things in the future but this makes time superior to their knowledge, and their science is still driven by circumstance and evolution, it’s not up to them whether they learn the origin of life or not. They can make promises today and be unable to keep them tomorrow. Who knows what’s in store for our planet and which direction evolution will take them in the next hundred years? We are on the precipice of a global catastrophe already, there’s no money to be made in the origin of life, so it might not be what science will even be doing in the foreseeable future, let alone finding a solution.

Chopra’s view is hard to explain in Dawkins’ framework, a lot of what Chopra said was incomprehensible to him, the atheistic paradigm is simply inadequate for this kind of talk, and dismissing it as “word salad” is only an admission of personal inadequacy because, as Chopra said, there are lots of scientists who don’t have a problem with it and can understand it perfectly fine. That’s another reason why atheism is not the Absolute Truth. Their paradigm is sufficient for third graders but it needs to evolve if it wants to deal with people like Chopra successfully.

I don’t know the full extent of Chopra’s spiritualism, in this particular debate he talked only about one aspect of it – our unity with the universe. It’s hard to deny and it fits perfectly well with our empiric perception of the world. Where third grade atheists assume some special position for themselves, Chopra says that our consciousness is the consciousness of the universe. We are not special, we are the eyes and brains of the universe as it starts to perceive itself.

The assumption here is that the universe has a purpose, that it evolves, but Chopra didn’t go any further than that, it was too much for Dawkins already.

We, of course, would immediately object that consciousness and life are distinct from matter. The universe evolves to provide us with suitable bodies to express our desires, and by “universe” we mean Lord Brahmā. We don’t see how he works so we might just as well label it “universe”. This way we can understand and explain Chopra’s reasoning without going against Vedic knowledge. Everything he says can be explained from Kṛṣna conscious POV – it’s just a combination of empirical perception with glimpses of self-realization.

Once again, I don’t know the extent of Chopra’s spirituality, maybe he does see himself as a spirit soul in eternal service to God, but within this debate he chose not to bring it up and restricted himself to what was supposed to be common ground with Dawkins. He failed, but he also had plenty of people in the audience who got it, so if we judge the success by the reaction of the public then Chopra did very well.

Seeing ourselves as “activity of the universe” is great, but it’s still seeing ourselves as our bodies, as our incarnations. “Unity” with the universe will eventually be replaced with liberation from it. Then the devotional service might start and one would finally know Kṛṣṇa, the real Absolute Truth. Chopra is on the right way, but we can’t take lessons from him even if we can appreciate his progress. There are still a few good things to say about him as debate continues, but let’s leave it for tomorrow.

PS. Posting this via phone connection, sorry if proof-reading is not up to scratch.

Vanity thought #1510. Subject-object disagreement

Can’t let go off that Chopra – Dawkins debate, this particular part I stopped on yesterday is precious. The moderator, however, had to stop it and take control of the situation. Well, not really take control. To me it looks as if he was completely out of his depth. Just this one exclamation, “Extraordinario!”, made it look like we were witnessing a eureka moment instead of a nasty troll battle. “You cannot prove it very well” verdict delivered in broken English didn’t add gravitas to his interruption either, it sounded like an easy cop out for someone who stopped following the conversation ten minutes ago. Nevertheless, it was time to move on, and the next question was to the point.

“How come that we share the same scientific background and/but …” – I can’t make what he was saying. “Are there two types of science? Did he go to a wrong school?” he asked Dawkins of Chopra and then Chopra of Dawkins. It’s a legitimate question – both men claim to speak for science and yet their views are diametrically opposite. Dawkins answered first.

“My attitude to science is that we are fundamentally trying to understand how things work. Science is very difficult, it’s very difficult to understand how things work..” Then he listed a few well known problems, the “hard questions” about origin of life, origin of universe, consciousness etc. “Scientific work consists of explaining complicated things in terms of interactions of their parts or of simpler things..”, he said, and then again ridiculed Chopra’s approach of using highfalutin words that don’t mean anything. “We use simple words that actually have meaning,” he said. “We don’t invent super-arching entities which have no explanation in themselves. We don’t invoke ideas like ‘universe has consciousness’, ‘universe has awareness’, ‘atoms have awareness’. If we have a difficult problem like awareness we explain it in terms of the interactions between small parts working together in ways that scientists understand…”

Chopra again said that he won’t respond to ad hominem attacks. Freeman Dyson said it, and so did Schroedinger, Max Planck and other widely accepted authorities – he was talking about consciousness and the universe, and these people, Chopra said, were compelled to include consciousness as a fundamental aspect of reality.

I don’t know what they said exactly. Freeman Dyson’s possible quote I gave yesterday, it’s open to interpretation. Schroedinger and others might have talked about consciousness, Schroedinger was very trippy this way, but science doesn’t remember him for this, nor does it remember Newton for alchemy. This is a phenomenon that deserves a deeper consideration – why does the science cherry picks ideas from scientists’ work? Why does it accept some of their theories as solid and reject others as totally absurd and not worthy of consideration? I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that Newton’s classical mechanics make more sense than his Bible studies, and at the same time I would object to citing Newton and others like him as examples of atheists, or at least rational thinkers who had led us to atheism. They had no such intention at all.

“Consciousness is a white elephant in the room,” continued Chopra. “You require consciousness to come up with a theory, you require consciousness to design an experiment” and so on. “Science is the offspring of consciousness. It is a product of consciousness.” Powerful stuff, but hard to see what it actually means. This is what I don’t like about Chopra – he opens lots of doors but never bothers to check if they actually lead anywhere and he never bothers to close them. It’s as if saying “Look, there are so many open doors, you can go anywhere from here,” but in reality they are not really doors and there’s nothing behind them, just hopes.

Still, in Chopra’s words: “If you want to understand science in its totality you have to bring consciousness into the equation, because, as we currently practice science, it’s based on what we call a subject-object split. There’s an observer involved in the observation. Science doesn’t ask who the observer is. Who is the observing self? Where is the observing self? But in the absence of the observing self there wouldn’t be any observation and there wouldn’t be any science. The observing self cannot be glimpsed by science and scientific methodology because it happens to be the observer. The observer cannot be observed, and that’s where spirituality comes in – if you define spirituality as self-awareness. Only consciousness can know consciousness, only consciousness can explain consciousness, only consciousness can understand consciousness. Any scientific understanding of consciousness through looking at the brain is at best inferential. You’re looking at correlations of experience conscious-indconsiousness through objective means…” He lost me there, but it started so promising.

Of course we might not understand how our own brains work but we can look at other people’s brainwaves, observe which areas of their brains are active when they are thinking or doing something, or even meditating. We can try and understand the consciousness of others as they go about their lives in the role of the observers, if the “observer” part is so important to Chopra. We also do not trust our own judgement absolutely and require others to observe our observation – scientific method takes care of that. I don’t know why Dawkins didn’t capitalize on it.

The end of Chopra’s speech was better: “Science is incomplete as a way of understanding fundamental reality. It’s based on the fragmented view of the reality – subject-object split (applause). Nature is one. The universe includes observers, modes of observation, and objects that are observed.”

And then Chopra added yet another thought: “Science, because it’s fragmented…, is capable of creating diabolical technologies. Everything that is wrong today in the world – from global warming to biological warfare [etc etc] is because science has evolved without evolution of spirituality.” His time was up.

I love that last argument, but I don’t think that it’s “fragmented” nature of science that is responsible for this. It could be simple ignorance, it could be simple short-sightedness, it could be desire for quick profits, it could be Kali yuga, it could be any number of things. “Subject-object” split would probably be very far down on the list.

It doesn’t mean that Chopra’s distinction is unimportant, I just don’t think this was the best way to illustrate its relevance. What I [diabolically] think is that Chopra prepared this sentence in advance and inserted it here because it felt like there was a connection, but the connection is flimsy and it takes the discourse in a different direction.

“I shall not make and argument ad hominem, my argument is ad bullshitem,” Dawkins injected himself. He then reduced study of consciousness to study of nervous systems, possibly of computer systems when the AI becomes developed enough. A good argument that deserves consideration but Chopra shifted to something else entirely and I’m not really sure why.

Subject-object split is a complex topic that I don’t even begin to understand. I don’t think Chopra understands its implications either, and Dawkins can’t comprehend it at all. He still thinks of himself, or of science, as an independent observer, a subject, and the universe as the object. Chopra just explained it to him that we are not separate from the universe, that our consciousness is not an external phenomena to the universe, and the universe in a way dictates what we perceive and how we interpret it. The subject-object split is artificial. Our brains, the seat of our consciousness, according to Dawkins, are also brains of the universe, it worked very hard and very long to create them, especially if we accept Darwinism. Our brains work according to the laws of nature, laws of the universe, they are not objective in their awareness, observation, and the thought process.

I suppose this can be understood and explained in any number of ways, some more favourable to an atheistic POV then others, but Dawkins didn’t even try. What a pity.

Perhaps it was the universe’s way to show us that even people like Dawkins are only marionettes incapable of understanding any more than they have been programmed to. Maybe he could be upgraded to Atheism 2.0, maybe not. Maybe we need a better hardware to truly challenge Chopra here.

Wait a minute! Why would we want to challenge Chopra? What should be our position on these issues? Shouldn’t we actually support Chopra as he gradually bends the discussion towards transcendentalism? Well, I think he is doing it wrong and an atheist 2.0 could easily crush him here. If we subscribe to his arguments we’d be crushed, too, and we don’t want that. We have our own way of arguing these points and we should stick to the method demonstrated by Śrīla Prabhupāda. Sometimes Chopra’s thinking would align with ours and sometimes it won’t, we should not become dependent on him in any way.

Maybe it’s time to explain this debate from Kṛṣṇa conscious POV, but, I’m afraid, this time is not today.

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.