Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Lunch with Deepak II: Hawking, Synesthesia, and Scientism

A skeptic and a mystic seek common ground. Part two of four.

This is part 2 of 4. Here are parts 1 , 3 , and 4 .

Deepak: I don’t know if you’ve read Sapiens , this book by Harari?

Matt: I read his second one, Homo Deus . [ And reviewed it. ]

Deepak: In the first book he talks about the cognitive revolution. By the way I don’t agree with him. He says—and there are a lot of critics of him but I like his style and I think he’s very smart. He says that until say 50, 70 thousand years ago there were eight different types of humans at war. Homo sapiens, the wise ones, which is the name we gave to ourselves, but then you had all these Homo habilis, Homo erectus. There were eight or nine different types of humans. But they moved in packs like wolves or other mammals. And they could never get, the leader of the pack, which is usually a male, could never get more than 100 people to follow him. Until one species developed a language for telling stories. And the more outrageous the story, the bigger the following. And he says in his book you’ll never be able to convince a monkey to give up his banana in the hope that in monkey heaven he’ll get a million bananas. But you can do that with humans [laughter]. So that was very insightful to me what he said. Because storytelling and model making ultimately created what we call the human civilization, right? Everything. From empires to commerce to nation states, is all the result of modeling experience and telling a story. And ultimately 500 years ago we have the scientific revolution. Which was the most sophisticated story that humans have every told. And we have faith in that story because it works.

I gave a lecture in Sweden a few years ago with my co-author Leonard Mlodinow, who had written the book The Grand Design with Steven Hawking. And I can tell you this in confidence now because I don’t care and Steven Hawking is dead, but when he decided to collaborate with me, although we don’t agree with each other, we became very good friends. Dawkins called him and said "You’re collaborating with a charlatan. And you’re going to ruin your reputation because you worked with Hawking." But he said, "No, I don’t agree with Deepak on anything, but he’s not a charlatan, and we are friends." Then Dawkins had—I don’t care now anymore— Dawkins had Stephen Hawking’s daughter call Leonard and say, "You’re doing a dangerous thing collaborating with Deepak . Even if you don’t agree, Stephen is going to have his 70th birthday party, and we want you to be there but you’re hanging out with the wrong crowd." And Leonard still collaborated. We ended up writing this book called War of the Worldviews , and I have a copy upstairs, maybe I can give it to you. We didn’t agree on anything but had a good time and then we toured. And he and I are now almost best friends. I mean he gave a talk recently at one of the museums locally, and we talked almost regularly, and we support each other’s work. We still don’t agree. But that’s the kind of strident fundamentalism that I saw in Dawkins, who also blocked me on Twitter, because I used to needle him a little bit. [Laughter.] Okay, so he blocked me on Twitter.

So that’s my problem between science and scientism. I think science is the best adventure human beings have taken, but it’s still modelmaking without knowing what reality is. And in order to make a model you need consciousness. You need something there, whatever you want to call it. Call it some fundamental reality, but this right now is a human construct and a human experience and a human creation. Is this a human construct? Yes. Is this a human creation? No. It’s a human experience. A snake would experience this in infrared. I don’t know what that experience is. A bat would experience this as the echo of ultrasound. I don’t know what that experience is. A chameleon’s eyeballs swivel on two different axes. I can’t even remotely imagine what this looks like to a chameleon. So, what is reality? Reality is that in which we make constructs. Last month I met a young guy, he must be 30, from Britain, who is the first cyborg. He was born colorblind.

Matt: With the antenna? [ Neil Harbisson .]

Deepak: Yeah, yeah, so he basically hears colors. But he didn’t stop there. He created sound experience from infrared, from ultraviolet, from microwaves, from radio waves, from cosmic waves. He can hear sounds. I asked him, I said, "Are you having the experience of a snake when you sense infrared?" He said, "I don’t think so because I don’t have a snake consciousness. I don’t know what a snake would experience but I experience as sound infrared. It’s a new experience that no other human being has." So that is where I am right now, that consciousness, or whatever you want to call it, as a possibility field is ultimate reality, and that each species has its own experience in consciousness, which is perceptual. But humans create models around that experience. And they call it mind, body, universe, God, whatever. But there is something that is inconceivable. Why? Because if it’s infinite, it’s by definition not conceivable.

Matt: All models have limits.

Deepak: All models have limits. Except mathematicians. They do this: [traces infinity symbol in air with finger]. Right?

Matt: Sort of a shortcut.

Deepak: Yeah. They do this, and then they go on. [Laughter.] 10 to the power of 500 universes. This is what Steven Hawking’s book proposes. That’s more mythical than any religious heaven or hell that I’ve heard of or purgatory that I’ve heard of. Ten to the power of 500 universes. Right now, the current estimate, two trillion galaxies, 700 sextillion stars. Uncountable trillions of planets. Sixty billion possible habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy, which we never see because they are light years away, billions of light years away. All in mathematical imagination.

Matt: But all those concepts or constructs are consistent with more everyday things that we can verify.

Deepak: Yep, that’s why they’re useful. They’re useful.

Matt: Whereas a lot of religious concepts like angels and things, I don’t know if they are more or less wild than the idea of two trillion galaxies but they’re inconsistent with other models.

Deepak: Leonard doesn’t believe in God. He doesn’t believe in angels. But he does believe in—he says, I don’t know why, but I think because there are planets with different laws of the universe that there could be other beings there.

Matt: Makes sense.

Deepak: Right? I think science is the best model we have, but it’s dangerous to not understand it as a useful fiction. Just the same way as your body is a useful fiction. When you say this body, which body? Embryo? Fetus? Toddler? Child? Teenager? Adult? Alzheimer’s? Which body? There’s no such thing. It’s a construct. It’s a human construct.

Matt: You’ve gotten into trouble for saying things that don’t fit into the scientific model.

Deepak: Correct. But I also, you know what I do? I got in trouble mainly because of Twitter, because I usually—Twitter used to be one sentence, two sentences. And what I would do is I would translate a verse in Sanskrit that, taken out of context, can be meaningless. But those people who are practicing transcendence every day, this is what I do every morning, it’s not so crazy.

Matt: What about things like alternative medicine?

Deepak: Okay, that’s the other word I don’t like. Integrative medicine, which this book is about which I just gave you, and which, by the way, when I started speaking about epigenetics, Dawkins said it’s just the fashion of the day. You know, and 10 years later now it’s thething in genetics. When I started speaking, or when I had a debate with Dawkins, I did use the word panpsychism, but I quoted Freeman Dyson from his—by the way have you seen his new book? It’s amazing. It’s all about his life. But he uses in his book, Infinite in all Directions, there’s a phrase at the end, he says every quantum experiment forces the atom to make a choice, in that book, which implies panpsychism, by the way.

Matt: I think he’s using that metaphorically.

Deepak: Okay, anyway, I quoted him, and Dawkins, we were having a debate, in Mexico. First, he refused to debate me because he thinks I’m a charlatan, and it would diminish his stature in the scientific world to debate a charlatan. But then somebody paid him like $150,000 and he showed up. [Laughs.]

Matt: That’s hilarious.

Deepak: So I quoted Dyson , metaphorically or otherwise, and he screamed at me. He said, "Dyson would have never said that, if he said it he was wrong, and he should sue you ." So of course that’s now public, right, it’s on the Internet. So I wrote to Dyson. I said Dr. Dawkins wants you to sue me because I quoted this from your book. What’s your take on it? And surprisingly Dyson responded to both of us. I have the email, which I’ll leave in my will for my grandchildren . He said, "Three riddles have occupied"—[We order food.] So then I wrote to Dyson. This is not public. I’m sharing with you some very private things, including Leonard almost not getting invited to the birthday party from Stephen Hawking [laughter] because of his association with me. He’s now in England attending the funeral and he’s giving a lot of talks there. As I said, we don’t agree on anything but we are friends. So Dyson wrote the following. He said, "First of all, I’m too old to sue anyone and I have no intention. But three riddles have occupied me all my life. The first is the unpredictable movement of atoms." By the way, which is a very good phrase. He didn’t say random. He said unpredictable.

Matt: There might be hidden variables. [This is the notion that quantum behavior isn't random but obeys unseen rules.]

Deepak: That’s right. Unpredictable to me right? "The second is a universe fine-tuned for mind and consciousness. And the third is our own consciousness. Three riddles have occupied me all my life. The unpredictable movement of atoms, a universe fine-tuned for mind and consciousness, and our own consciousness. I don’t have the answers to these riddles but something in me says they’re connected. Yours truly, Freeman Dyson."

Matt: Those are good riddles. I don’t know if we will ever solve any of them. That brings up a critique of quantum consciousness theories, which is that [they're based on a naïve notion that] quantum mechanics is a mystery, consciousness is a mystery, and so they must be connected somehow.

Deepak: Yeah, I’ve been through the route now where I don’t believe that quantum consciousness is legit. I used to. It’s just another model.

Matt: The Hameroff-Penrose model. [This is the proposal that consciousness results from quantum behavior in the microtubules of the brain's neurons.]

Deepak: Hameroff is very close to me, we are friends, we argue about this all the time. Hameroff—off the record [later put on the record]—he’s so close now to Roger Penrose, who is a legend in his own right. Roger Penrose, according to a lot of people, was one of the thesis advisors of Stephen Hawking. And so Roger Penrose proposed the whole idea of quantum collapse. And Hameroff convinced him that it’s in the microtubules. The microtubule itself is a model, right? So I don’t buy that at all anymore. I used to.I think we keep refining our models. We never ask, What is the source of the model? Where is the model constructed other than in human consciousness?

Matt: Is anyone arguing otherwise? That our models are not models? It’s sort of in the definition of models.

Deepak: People who are apostles of scientism, they mistake the models for the reality.

Matt: So given that all we experience is experience, the question of whether there’s anything outside of that is metaphysics, and there’s no way to test it. Idealism might be true. There’s no way to know. Non-dualism might be true. There’s no way to know. And whether it is or is not true, I can’t see how that would have any bearing on any models that we construct within consciousness.

Deepak: So one of the tenets of science is, as you know, falsifiability, right? Correct?

Matt: Yeah.

Deepak: Either you verify it through experiments or you falsify it. A consciousness-independent universe is neither verifiable nor falsifiable. Or observer-independent. And yet all of science is based on that. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.

Matt: I feel like that’s a conflation of two separate debates.

Deepak: No, because those of us who are very involved in spiritual experience and transcendence and what we call self-realization, and that’s what tonight‘s meditation is about. Rupert Spira, he’s a non-dualist by the way. He’s from England. He knows nothing about science, so we can’t even go there with him. He’s a pure non-dualist through techniques of self-reflection. Those of us who are involved in those practices, I called them contemplative practices, they’re mostly Eastern but there are Western versions of it in various religions, including Christianity, where you actually have the knowingness—I won’t say experience—but that knowingness of inseparability of existence, where you have the intuition or knowingness that what we are experiencing right now is a human construct in a species of consciousness that we call human beings, that other species have experiences unknowable to us, but there is a common source for all these experiences, which is pure consciousness without any constructs. And when we have that experience, we feel reverence, we feel humility, we feel wonder, and we will not engage in science that is diabolical, that is create atom bombs or biological warfare or ecodestruction or climate change. We will not participate in that kind of science. Because science lends itself—[We receive a dish complements of the kitchen.] So we will not engage in science that is diabolical. And whether we like it or not the next extinction of human beings will be unaware human beings using science, whether it’s Kim Jong or whoever. We’re doing it already. I mean I don’t think the human species is going to last.

Matt: Using science and technology to do bad deeds, that’s a separate issue from the question of whether there is reality outside of consciousness.

Deepak: I think the only reality is consciousness. Period.

Matt: That’s a separate issue from what people do with technology.

Deepak: Science is a great adventure in human consciousness. Where do we come up with experiments? In consciousness. Where do we make observations? In consciousness. Where do we construct theories? In consciousness.

Matt: Yeah.

Deepak: It’s the elephant in the room.

Matt: I think people accept that as a premise and get beyond that. They say, okay, given that all of this is in consciousness, let’s play with different constructs within our consciousness. The construct of reality, the construct of the brain.

Deepak: We really need a merging of the scientific method with spiritual practice. Otherwise we will not get close to what we call reality, fundamental reality. I think subjective and objective are correlates of something much more fundamental, which is not in space-time. Now if you choose you can call it God, but that’s such a loaded word and such a dangerous word that you get in trouble, as I did .