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 #1514. Dawkins schooled

There was something new to learn about science in that Dawkins-Chopra debate and, as a bonus, Chopra put Dawkins down in his place. Ironically, it was in reply to Dawkins’ own challenge – he was given a chance to ask his own question by the moderator and Dawkins looked up a quote on his phone he wanted Chopra to explain.

There was a customary “Still learning my way around this” excuse which made Dawkins look slightly senile, especially in contrast with Chopra who showed multiple sensors on his wrists that feed his biological data to his iPhone and then onto a server that monitors these things for research purposes. It was 2013, there was no Apple watch then and so Chopra probably had the very first wearables around. Thumbs up for “spirituality”, and “science” appeared quite archaic by comparison, and it didn’t stop there.

I’m not going to type up the quote that interested Dawkins, it’s quite, long, but he asked for an explanation of quantum leaps in evolution, I assume he thought it was a heresy. Chopra actually loved this, he gave a couple of examples of what he had in mind – emergence of language and emergence of new species with nothing in between, but it’s his bio sensors that prompted him to add a new dimension to the discourse.

He used these sensors to monitor his physiological reactions to what happens in his mind, to explore mind-body connection. He said Dawkins’ blood pressure was visibly rising simply by hearing these things and then described how the body reacts to hearing in general, how it automatically produces certain chemicals depending on whether the news is good or bad. Same words, “I love you”, can produce pleasure giving dopamine and oxytocin if the words are welcome, but if one contemplates a divorce instead then his body would start pumping up adrenaline instead. Chopra said we don’t know how mind processes these things, to him it was a reaction lead by consciousness, not by chemicals, and it was a “quantum shift” in one’s biology. He was really exalted about this and Dawkins didn’t dispute this part of the answer.

Chopra then again mentioned evolutionary gaps between species and referred to the then current article in New Scientist, he gave a title wrong and New Scientist keeps it behind a paywall but someone put it on his blog and it can be read in full here.

It appears animals CAN guide their own evolution, even if the original Lamarck’s theory about it has long been disproved. Turns out animal behavior, which is purpose driven, can affect the genetic expression of the offspring via a process elsewhere called transgenerational epigenetics. It’s not that they can alter their genes but they can turn on the useful but dormant ones and these will stay turned on in the offspring, too. It’s a complex process and there’s neo-Lamarckism and epigenetic inheritance and possibly some other theories already build around it.

The author of that article contacted Dawkins for comments but Dawkins was dismissive. Now it came back to bite him. Not sensing the danger Dawkins insisted on trying to correct Chopra’s use of the phrase “quantum leap”, possibly because he wanted Chopra to pay for his earlier word salad, but it backfired spectacularly.

Chopra not only defended his metaphorical use but also rattled out names of journals and scientists who co-authored or published his articles on those same quantum leaps in biology Dawkins was trying to nail him on, proving that he is not as loose with his language and Dawkins alleged.

Btw, Chopra cited New England Journal of Medicine for giving his book Quantum Healing a favorable review, but he probably didn’t look past the first Google search result (which was Amazon), otherwise he’d discover that NEJM considered Ig Nobel award to this very same book quite appropriate, too.

To be fair, things have probably changed since then and at least some of Chopra’s ideas are finding legitimate place in science – like that behavior driven evolution. Dawkins has apparently completely missed that train, which has now gone mainstream.

Another case where Dawkins appeared outdated was his insistence that while we don’t have the intermediate stages between species we are certain that they were all there. He has no proof but he believes things happened his way. And he said the same thing about emergence of language – he doesn’t know how it happened but he is certain it happened according to his theory. “There’s no such thing as not passing through intermediate stages. There were intermediate stages, which just don’t know what they were.” At this point Chopra made a telling hand gesture regarding these endless promises and “don’t knows”. I mean, if you don’t know then don’t say anything with certainty. Why be so stubborn about other possibilities while professing ignorance? Is it rational?

There are other people out there who are not waiting for creation of life in a lab or for finding missing links, and they are pushing science without being hung up on Darwinian evolution, even though they are not challenging it openly. They simply discover other means by which evolution happens, random mutation and natural selection being only a part of it. That New Scientist article said that in some research about half the evolutionary changes were behavior, not gene driven. It’s the new reality in science and, as Chopra said, Dawkins need to catch up.

There was another point that Chopra made there but it went largely unnoticed. He was talking about quantum physics and, as an example of quantum leap, he used non-empirical state of subatomic particles that suddenly changes to empirical and then back to non-empirical again. I never thought of it this way. To me, non-empirical means transcendental, related to divinity and spiritual energy of the Lord. Chopra, however, used it to describe ordinary particles when they are not being observed.

In quantum physics observation is a very important process and, perhaps, in some cases we really have no idea what non-observed particles are doing, and whether they even stay as particles at all. Earlier on Chopra said that some 95% of all matter is non-empiric, iirc. It’s probably not important where he got this number and what it means exactly but he offers an entirely new perspective on the non-empiric world. I don’t think it agrees with ours, though, it needs further investigation.

When Dawkins mentioned quantum mechanics and quantum leaps he gave an example of information being passed to satellites. That’s just radio, it has very little to do with quantum mechanics and nothing to do with quantum leaps at all. Who’s using words that don’t mean what one wants them to mean now? Granted, it was just a bad example, but still, and it questions whether Dawkins simply erred or had absolutely no idea what he was talking about at all.

So, purpose driven evolution is science now, not just my wishful thinking, and non-empiric might mean something else entirely – two big topics to wrap my mind around today, and Dawkins has been shown as senile, stubborn, and outdated. Not bad, not bad.

Vanity thought #1513. Life moves on

The moderator of Chopra-Dawkins debate had to step in when Dawkins snapped about Chopra’s claimed monopoly on consciousness. Chopra felt like he won because Dawkins has abandoned rational arguments and lots his cool. I’m not sure everyone else agreed with his assessment, though.

As I mentioned yesterday, Chopra just used his trump card – the question about personal experiences of transcendence and whether Dawkins would dismiss them as simple neuro activity. Dawkins didn’t flinch – yes, they are wonderful experiences but it’s nothing but brains and one day we will explain how it happens.

Chopra then weaseled his way around the failure of his argument but Dawkins wasn’t moved. To Dawkins’ followers it was Chopra who was clearly losing, there’s no doubt about it. Over the past couple of days I gave plenty of examples of Chopra being very loose with words, which was construed by Dawkins as intellectual dishonesty. People who resort to this kind of tactics can’t win by definition.

In Chopra’s view Dawkins’ descent into personal offenses disqualifies him, too, and that’s how Chopra’s followers saw it and thought they were winning hands down. Chopra was opening their minds to new possibilities and Dawkins sounded like an old record, regurgitating arguments we remember from grade school, and throwing tantrums for no good reason.

When Chopra proposed transcendental experience as final resort and Dawkins dismissed it they thought Dawkins wasn’t intellectually honest, and rightly so, because plenty of very respectable scientists and individual were far more respectful of it and Dawkins was simply downgrading its value for selfish reasons, he sounded very dogmatic there.

If we were engaged in a similar debate we would make many of the same mistakes and run into very similar problems. Atheists are a generally abusive bunch, we would immediately dismiss them once they resort to insults, but they do not see it that way, they think insults are warranted, and the discussion must become heated to bring about any useful results anyway. Par for the course, they think, we should have a thicker skin if we want to debate in the scientific world.

Fair enough, this scientific world is quickly becoming the cesspit of humanity and we can only dream of good old times when people were too dignified to use personal insults. Actually, there was plenty of heat in good old times, too, in the history of science specifically. If we want to engage modern “scientists” that’s what we should expect. They won’t change our minds by being insulting, but we won’t change their minds either, so it’s the reality we need to learn to deal with if we want to succeed in our preaching.

Hmm, “preaching” probably doesn’t apply here. As soon as they sense any preachy attitude they’ll scream murder, they want only reason and logic and what’s we want to give them, too, hoping to defeat them on their ground. At best we can hope they’ll see logical errors in their thinking but, in my experience, it never works. Human nature is such that we can justify any logical lapses without ever admitting them. We just don’t see the error of our own ways, of our own logic. Hence there’s zero value in holding such debates, preaching means a change in one’s heart, not in one’s mind, we can’t reason people into Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

What usually happens is that we, as budding devotees, rely on the same faulty human nature to justify our own philosophy and childishly think that because we figured it all out we can easily convince everyone else, too. It has been tried millions of times and it doesn’t work. For one thing, we can’t see our own lapses of logic and we don’t know Kṛṣṇa consciousness deep enough, nor do we know how other people’s brains work well enough to exploit their weaknesses. And, as I said, we forget that Kṛṣṇa consciousness is a change of heart, it’s not a mental activity.

So, what’s the point of having these debates? Why can’t either side convince their opponents? This was the moderator’s next question, posed both to Chopra and to Dawkins. “If you claim to being able to direct this energy of consciousness to change things, how come you can’t Dawkins’ mind?”, he asked of Chopra.

Chopra’s answer was simple – people are conditioned by their upbringing, and by prevailing scientific paradigm, too, and so they don’t change their minds, they only confirm their biases. Followers of Dawkins would leave this debate even more convinced in their views and the same applies to those siding with Chopra. I don’t think this needs further explanation, this phenomenon can be observed in any debate on any topic, religious, scientific, political, whatever.

Then he asked Dawkins directly: “Do you believe in free will, sir?” Dawkins replied that free will is a very persuasive illusion and he is very pleased to have this illusion, too. Chopra pounced on this:”Well, then we might as well stop the debate right now. None of us has free will or a ability to make a choice right now.” I think it was a brilliant move which finally made use of subject-object split Chopra failed to capitalize on earlier.

Chopra developed it even further by saying that he believes all of us have intentions and that these intentions trigger neural networks, which adjust our behavior, then create habits, and cause what he called long-term potentiation (it’s actually a thing), and then this behavior influences the activity of the genes and they further reinforce it. He made a convincing argument for consciousness driving the evolution and not the other way around, as is argued by Darwinists like Dawkins.

The moderator then posed the same question to Dawkins – how do you explain millions of people who follow Chopra’s ideas? “I don’t know,” was the reply, given with visible frustration. I myself don’t know whether the following applause was in appreciation of his answer or in appreciation of Chopra’s accusation that science doesn’t know anything and only promises solutions being validated. Or maybe it was in appreciation of Dawkins’ sincerity.

Moderator then tried to test Chopra’s hypothesis that no one in the audience would change their minds by simply watching this debate. It wasn’t a scientific test, it’s how people judged dance-offs in disco times, and, as far as I can tell, his request was met with dead silence, though his “there are a few people” is a fair acknowledgement, too.

Keeping in mind what I said about preaching earlier, debates do change people, just not right away. New information and new arguments do register in their brains but they take time to internalize. People need confirmation, they need to have a few experiences that allow them to see the reality in a new way. The possibility of having an alternative explanation must become a reality, then it needs to be reinforced, and then you’ll have your new convert.

Right now I can’t remember a case of anyone who switched from religion to atheism or vice versa on the spot, it’s usually a decision that takes a lot of time, maybe even years. First they hear about an alternative, then they consider the possibility, then they wonder what it would feel like, then they might feel they need to experience it for themselves – it’s a slow process, epiphanies are rare, and even then they don’t happen out of the blue, I would argue.

Point to remember is that preaching, however imperfect, never goes in vain. We might not live long enough to see the results but it shouldn’t stop us, there’s a reason Kṛṣṇa tells us to perform our duties without attachment. Let life move on, with enough devotion we should also develop enough patience not to be swayed by temporary phenomena, and we should eventually learn to value our activities by the words of śāstra, not by our own observations.

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 #1511. Who’s the boss?

Trying to make sense of Chopra-Dawkins debate from Kṛṣṇa conscious POV we should definitely have another look at subject-object split, I think it’s a useful tool and it can pose insurmountable problems for atheistic scientists. Here’s the link to the video cued to the starting point.

Chopra brings up subject-object split as inherent to “scientific” observation of the world and, I think, he had the potential to kill Dawkins on the spot, metaphorically speaking. Unfortunately, he bungled this attempt by “chopring” it into his word salad, but it started with a promise.

The observing self cannot be glimpsed by science because it happens to be the observer. The observer cannot be observed, and that’s where spirituality comes in if we define spirituality as self-awareness. This last twist of thought was unnecessary, I think.

What does it mean “the observer cannot be observed”? If he means that us trying to understand ourselves is self-reflection then I guess it’s okay to call it spirituality, but scientists outsource this “self-reflection” to others, they never look at themselves, they ask others to appraise their state objectively and impartially. Chopra shouldn’t have jumped to the next step without answering this obvious objection. Dawkins didn’t have a chance to speak here but if pressed he would surely say something very similar.

Perhaps the answer lies in one of Chopra’s follow up slogans – “only consciousness can understand consciousness”. Scientists might object absolutism of this statement for a second but, if you think of it, we don’t see unconscious objects as capable of understanding anything so this proclamation is simply an inversion of what we all agree on. So, if only consciousness can understand consciousness then we cannot outsource self-reflection, which we think is subjective, to unconscious observers, which is what we expect from fellow scientists because we want to strip them of their subjectivity as precondition for observing us. In short, we want observing scientists to act as machines, we don’t even need people to be there, if we can program MRI to scan our brains on its own we can look at the results later on and consider the scans as objective evidence.

It could be said that entire science progress, their entire scientific method is based on stripping subjectivity from our observations, that is in trying to use unconscious instruments to understand consciousness, but only consciousness can understand consciousness, so this attempt will eventually fail.

There are probably loopholes somewhere in there, I’d have to outsource finding them to the atheistic community, they are very adept at that sort of thing. In general, though, I think it’s a fair argument – by being “objective” science tries to express consciousness through unconsciousness – sensors, data, etc. They might think there’s hope in this approach if consciousness itself is only a clever combination of unconscious parts, so trying to reduce consciousness back to data is simply reverse-engineering.

Still, they always rely on a conscious person to analyze and interpret this data, be it themselves looking at their MRI scans, or the peer review process. If one day we delegate this to AI we assume that AI would have all the signs of consciousness already, otherwise we still need living, conscious beings to do the actual understanding.

“Any understanding of consciousness through looking at the brain is at best inferential,” Chopra said instead, and as camera panned on Dawkins he completely lost him there, Dawkins carrying a look of incredulity on his face. “You looking at correlations of experiences consciousinconsciousness through objective means.” No idea what he meant, how to split that, and if it was an error he self-corrected.

It would have been better if Chopra explained “inferential” first. It could mean what I expressed in previous paragraphs – unconscious records themselves cannot understand consciousness, we need to interpret them in somebody else’s brain, which could be called “inference” here, but even then it would be subjective interpretation. Chopra didn’t explain it at all. Inference itself is a solid tool in logic but he made it sound as if it’s inadequate and Dawkins could have argued that it isn’t. In the absence of śāstra as a pramāṇa it’s really the best tool available, so without a proper explanation it’s just an empty, emotionally charged proclamation. The follow up sentence was incomprehensible, even though the general thrust of Chopra’s thought is rather clear.

Then Chopra went on to talk about science relying on “fragmented view of reality”, due to that subject-object split, and this needs some sitting down and digesting first. Science is against fragmented views, too, but it understands “fragmented” differently and hopes that more data would eliminate fragmentation. Chopra, however, isn’t talking about more data here, and when he compared fragmented science to fragmented religions he muddled the meaning even further. Not pausing here he jumped to science creating diabolical weapons and inflicting climate change.

No wonder Dawkins couldn’t resist the urge to call it all BS to Chopra’s face. There was a lot of truth in this judgment, but it refers only to the wording of Chopra’s presentation, not its substance. It was simply too much for Dawkins to process and try to find plausible meanings in Chopra’s gibberish. I have the luxury of time and rewinding and replaying the video until I finally get it, and still I can’t make out what Chopra said about “experiences consciousinconsciousness”. I don’t even want the challenge of deciphering it.

Lastly, we can’t leave the topic of subject-object split without mentioning our dṛg-dṛśya-vicāra, which was particularly illuminated by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī. We don’t talk about it too much but the idea that it’s the Lord who sees us and us being objects of His enjoyment is well-understood in our community.

This is how we can understand both Chopra’s and Dawkins positions within our framework. Dawkins’ is easier, because he is a gross materialist without any comprehension of transcendence. In the absence of any higher powers he really thinks he is the seer and the world around him is to be seen. In his experience there’s nothing superior to human consciousness so he is being true to his perception of reality. He also angrily rejects any notion of God so it’s possible it would take him multiple lifetimes to calm down and accept the possibility of not being the boss. He already cedes superiority to other humans, he knows a lot of theoretical stuff about God, it’s just one small step left and it will come in due time.

When one knows the Lord he knows that he is not the boss, he is not the seer, that it’s only an illusion, but until that moment comes illusion is the only reality. Dawkins is simply being honest, though ignorant.

Chopra’s position is complicated because we don’t know what he actually thinks, how much of his actual worldview he let on in this debate. It will become clearer as I get to his trump card he prepared to hit Dawkins with, so tomorrow.

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.

Vanity thought #1508. Word salad

Continuing with the debate I started looking into yesterday. I’m getting to the point where Chopra “dazzled” Dawkins with his “eloquence”, which prompted Dawkins classify Chopra’s speech as incomprehensible word salad of scientific jargon. That was harsh, but what is justified? TBH, Chopra does love to throw around words and ideas he thinks support his view but which could also easily be challenged. This time, however, Dawkins was unfair, I think, and he didn’t fully grasp Chopra’s main thrust even when explained in easy to understand language either.

To recap, at this point Chopra argued that while individual atoms and particles don’t seem to have any purpose behind changes in their states, when taken as a whole it looks as if the universe works towards creating conditions for emergence of biological organisms which are clearly purpose driven. This, in Chopra’s view, means the universe works towards a visible and purposeful goal.

Why Dawkins didn’t get it is a mystery. “Brains have purpose”, he said, “To push purpose back into the universe itself is to make a complete confusion.” It’s as if saying that when you are building a computer this activity has no purpose because purpose manifests only when computer is finished and is connected to the internet.

Dawkins would probably argue that computer has a designer but the universe doesn’t. To which we could reply that this is the whole point of the argument – it seems as if the universe is being assembled by a designer so that biological organisms, and particularly us, humans, can finally come online and express ourselves. The fact that this final purpose stays invisible while all the parts are being collected is irrelevant – we already agree that the designer is invisible, we are trying to judge his presence but what we can observe, and it looks like the universe works with a purpose in mind.

This is a matter of interpretation, if Dawkins interprets it differently he should say so, simply stating that designer doesn’t exist and there’s no visible purpose in the early stages is not enough. Unfortunately, there’s even bigger, more fundamental difference at play here and Chopra is starting to get into it.

As the argument for universe having a purpose he mentioned the idea of fine tuning. To get the universe just right so that life eventually emerges all the physical constants need to be exactly as they are, a little deviation here or there and the Earth wouldn’t even exist or at least wouldn’t be able to support carbon based life, the only one we know. Dawkins, however, have surely heard this argument many times before and gave a standard response – some physicists support fine tuning, some don’t, others say we don’t understand enough about these fundamental constants to speculate about their origin, or, indeed, “fine tuning”, and yet there are others who propose multiverse theory where we just happen to live in a universe where life is possible while there’s an untold number of completely dead universes in that “multiverse” place. I don’t think it’s a satisfactory answer in a sense that it doesn’t explain the perception of fine tuning and instead proposes existence of yet unknown and speculative theories that could answer this question in the future, all because he doesn’t like the theory that answers it right now.

Even if Dawkins had a prepared response to fine tuning question he still went all wrong about it. In Chopra’s thinking fine tuning leads to creation of life and therefore purpose, that’s what universe is tuned for. Dawkins again can’t see this connection, can’t see life as a consequence of this fine tuning. This inability to get this simple point is incomprehensible. And then he completely screws up Darwinism.

Normally, atheists wouldn’t accept us lecturing them on understanding natural selection but look at what Dawkins said: “Darwin explained how starting with no purpose at all … laws of physics working through this remarkable process called evolution by natural selection gave rise to cells, to nervous systems, to brains, to the illusion of purpose. Indeed very genuine purpose because for living things purpose is a very genuine phenomenon.”

First of all, Darwin didn’t explain how laws of physics created life. I’ve also already said that natural selection is driven by the need for survival. Atheists would reply that “natural” here means it’s not driven by anything, it just happens and better fit individuals last longer. This argument, however, goes against everything we experience and observe in the living world around us. No living being is indifferent to death. Survival is a purpose, we all feel it. See how Dawkins himself stumbled there between “illusion of purpose” and “genuine purpose”. Natural selection would give us only illusion of it, because it’s “natural”, not purpose driven, not an expression of each living being’s will, and yet even Dawkins himself accepts that for us the purpose is genuine, not illusory.

This sudden jump from illusion of purpose to a real one would later give an echo in a sudden jump from non-conscious living beings, in Dawkins’ classification, to conscious ones.

He also missed a simple Chopra’s point – we are part of the universe, we are not special, not separate, not fundamentally different. We are an “activity” of the universe. We can’t say that there’s universe and there’s us. How can Dawkins ignore this while harping on about universal laws giving birth to our consciousness is beyond me.

And then came the “word salad”. It was prefaced by establishing Chopra’s credentials in a scientific world, and here’s what followed, with minor omissions:

“There’s a school of scientists who believe that if you look across the universe it shows the following properties – sentience at all levels.., complimentarity at all levels, which means that the universe is empirical but most of it is actually non-empirical, non-observable. It is wavelike when you don’t know where these waves are, that have no units of mass and energy, and it is particlelike which have units of mass and energy, so it gets weird at this level. But it also seems to be self-organizing, it seems to be self-regulating, it seems to be self-evolving…

I think yes, evolution has a purpose, it’s evolution itself! Evolution is guided by awareness, by consciousness, and the purpose of evolution is maximum diversity.

What we experience as perceptual phenomena are not fundamental reality at all because every species has its own perceptual experience of the universe. These scientists that I work with say that awareness is a singularity, perceptual experiences are many, and evolution of species is actually the evolution of consciousness to express itself as multiple observers, multiple modes of observation and multiple objects of observation. We are the eyes of the universe looking at itself. This brain is the observation deck for the universe to experience itself.”

Granted it covers a lot of ground. “Units of mass and energy” should be replaced with “measurements of mass and energy” and “awareness is singularity” probably needs an explanation, but otherwise it’s a rather coherent presentation. “We are the eyes of the universe” might be a bold and far out statement but it does make a lot of sense if you think about it. I mean it is possible to see our human consciousness as a product of the universe, a product that is meant to understand the universe itself. In Chopra’s view, as I said, we are a part of the universe, and we are a part of the universe that is capable not only of self-awareness but of the awareness of the rest of the universe, too.

Ironically, it is Chopra who is being atheistic here, insisting that consciousness is a natural, mechanic phenomenon (save for treating awareness as singularity where all laws break down), while Dawkins can’t accept it and demands a special status for himself and for the science. Has Dawkins ever listened to Neil deGrasse Tyson going on about how we are made of space dust from billions of years ago? How can he not get that his dear “natural selection without purpose” must lead to us becoming the self-aware brains of the universe? I mean our noses are not self aware and neither are planets, so what? Without a nose and other organs devoid of awareness our brains wouldn’t work. Likewise we, the humans, need existence of stars and planets and all the lower species, too.

If it reminds of you puruṣa sūkta then great, I think Chopra loves this connection, too, even if he didn’t mention it here.

Did Dawkins really not get it? If he didn’t he shouldn’t have called it an incomprehensible word salad, and if he did he… Wait, let’s talk about his reaction tomorrow.

Vanity thought #1507. Deepak thoughts

I was reading something somewhere and came across a reference to a debate between Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins. I’ve seen enough of Dawkins lately but he usually grapples with Christians and creationists. Chopra is a different challenge and I heard it didn’t go very well.

Here’s Youtube link. The debate was for the Spanish speaking audience so the first part can be safely skipped. The moderator apparently wanted to make it into a show and had these big balls with questions and showman’s appeals to the crowd. He probably wanted it to be a lighthearted affair no one takes very seriously, people were supposed to enjoy it and then go back to the lives of taking pictures of their food and pointless sense enjoyment.

Neither of the debaters advocates for such an outcome, however. Chopra wants people to dabble in spirituality while Hawkins wants them to dedicate themselves to the pursuit of science, which is hard work requiring dedication and considerable sacrifices of personal comfort. Of course he doesn’t want everyone to become a scientist but he implores people to use their brains and weed out pretenders like Chopra, his is a battle cry, everyone must contribute whatever they can.

If the moderator thought it would all go down smoothly by setting the atmosphere for a not-so-serious affair he was mistaken. Thunderbolts started flying right from the beginning and didn’t stop.

First was Chopra’s turn to speak, he had three minutes, then Dawkins would issue a rebuttal, then Chopra would have had a final word. The question was picked and it was perfect for Chopra: “Is it ever enough simply not to believe? What else can one believe in?” I don’t know who selected it, to me it looks like they just chose whatever sounds meaningful and profound but makes no sense whatsoever. Some words pulled out of a confused person’s brain, totally mental. Chopra didn’t understand it either but he used it as a platform to present his views on psychological basis for beliefs.

In interactions like this it’s not the answer that people seek but comforting words on a same topic and Chopra didn’t disappoint. “All belief is a cover for insecurity”, he started… and ended it right there. “I’m not here to ask you to believe in anything, especially the supernatural, I’m here to ask you the most fundamental question…” And just like that he switched to the “purpose of the universe”.

Belief as a cover for insecurity was an interesting area to explore but it was dropped. The transition to studying spiritual science instead of talking about beliefs would have been done more forcefully by Śrīla Prabhupāda, but then Prabhupāda would have done a lot of things better than Chopra. Throughout the whole debate I couldn’t stop myself comparing Chopra to what Prabhupāda would have said.

Śrīla Prabhupāda, however, never participated in this kind of one on one moderated debates with thousands of people in attendance. Kṛṣṇa would have guided him just fine but it never happened, and it never happens to any of present ISKCON leaders either. Recently I’ve seen a mock up debate by one of our Svāmīs but instead of real atheists posing questions it was devotees playing devil’s advocate. It’s not the same thing.

Should we engage prominent atheists like that for real? I don’t think so, not at this point. When we are ready, have the same clarity as Śrīla Prabhupāda and the stomach to stand up to a hostile audience without losing our cool, then we can give it a try. It’s a long way to the top, though, we need to nurture and train master debaters and start at junior level first. By the time we are ready to debate someone like Dawkins he’d probably be dead, or converts to Christianity and joins a monastery.

In the absence of our own leaders it’s left to people like Chopra to present Eastern take on the spirituality. Unfortunately, Chopra is a windbag of no discernible origin. He mixes up everything that sounds remotely spiritual and is more “New Age” than Eastern, let alone Vedic scholar. This makes him an impersonalist, respecting all deities and worshiping none, and his views on soul and consciousness are only vaguely related to Bhagavad Gītā. Popular Vedic wisdom could have been a departing point in his journey but no one knows where he is now.

Still, he might be a bastard but he is our kind of bastard. We might disagree with practically everything he says but he is a genuine seeker of the truth and he has enough humility to deserve respect. He rejects the atheist position and wants to reclaim atheist monopoly on science. He firmly believes in transcendence and he believes that we should all seek self-realization. Well, maybe “believe” is not the word he would have used himself but anyway.

So Chopra went on to present his views on the purpose of the universe. Dawkins was given time for rebuttal, the mike was passed to Chopra, then they decided to continue talking on this topic, and twelve minutes into the debate Dawkins declared that “we’ve been subjected to a kind of a word salad of scientific jargon used out of context, inappropriately.., apparently uncomprehendingly.” That was basically the end of the civil part of the debate, but let’s see how they got there.

Chopra said that we can have two perspective on the universe. One is top down, as intelligent species observing other life forms. From there we can clearly see that biological organisms are purpose driven, even the simplest of life forms, it’s indisputable. Another way to look at it is from the bottom up, from the POV of individual particles. For them every change seems to be totally random and without any purpose. But if you look at the sum of their total activity you get a universe which is fine tuned, with precise laws of nature making sense to rational human beings, so even from that perspective the universe seems to be full of purpose.

“There’s an organizing intelligence, there’s deeper consciousness that throws out this universe at the speed of light..” He was stopped by the moderator. How he got from his two perspectives to assertion that there’s organizing intelligence was not quite clear and I thought Dawkins would reduce this argument to a watchmaker analogy he wrote a whole book about once, but he didn’t.

Dawkins’ response was that while biological organisms do have a purpose it doesn’t mean that the universe has a purpose. It’s a complete confusion of scale. Individual organisms have a purpose for reasons given by Darwin but it’s million miles away from saying that the universe has a purpose. Purpose came very late into the universe, when people got brains, and it’s brains that have purpose, pushing it back to the universe itself is a complete confusion.

I don’t get it. For starters, Dawkins admitted that living beings look as if they got a purpose, and he used “as if” all the time, implying that worms searching for food and hiding from predators do not actually have a purpose but only act as if they had one. He then stated: “That’s precisely the problem that Darwin solved – why do living things look as though they’ve got a purpose.” But Darwin didn’t solve this problem at all! His evolution and natural selection only shows how living things eventually solve problems in pursuit of their goals. “Survival of the species” is not an answer “why”, it’s just a definition of what the purpose is, which means that existence of the purpose itself is not in dispute.

Chopra didn’t pick up on that but the next step in Dawkins’ reasoning set the course of the rest of the debate.

Even though purpose has come late in the universe, as Dawkins’ said, why does he deny the connection between development of the universe and eventual development of life? Is he implying that life appeared contrary to universe’s natural course? That creation of stars and planets and fusion of molecules was not a natural precursor to emergence of life and “purpose”? That’s what Chopra said when talking about his bottom up approach – the whole universe seems to work towards production of life, gradually creating a suitable environment. Dawkins can question existence of intelligent design behind it but how can he deny the process itself?

That’s two errors in his application of his own paradigm here. One was not addressed and with the other he dug himself deeper and deeper, but I don’t have time for the rest of it today, sorry.