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Lunch with Deepak III: Bullsh*t, Dawkins, and Watson

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

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

Matt: Going back to that debate , so, you obviously understand the construct of—you may not agree with it—but you understand the construct of a mythical God.

Deepak: I don’t even want to address it.

Matt: But that’s what the debate—

Deepak: Why would you have a debate with rational modern or post-modern scientists about a bronze age mythology?

Matt: Why did you agree to the debate if you didn’t want to debate that?

Deepak: Because I objected to it, and they kept changing the title but they wanted to keep the word God . And we said, "We do not define God as a mythical figure." And they said, "That’s fine, say that right up front."

Matt: You don’t have to believe that that is what God is to understand that there are people in the world who have that construct. And for those people who have that construct, does it help them or hurt them? I think that’s with the debate was supposed to be about.

Deepak: What I also realized, this was very interesting to me. I mean we had, the people for the motion were 20% [ 41% ] more than against the motion. But the fact that there were some people who agreed with us [laughter], even if there were 10% or 20% [26%], felt very good , that there are people who are willing to look beyond the constructs of both mythology and science. That felt very good. You know, because there are some people in the world who are willing to look beyond mythical constructs and the latest mythology that we call science—a useful mythology. I gave a talk with Leonard in Sweden in the room where they give the Nobel prizes out, and I knew I was causing a lot of high blood pressure in the room. [Laughter.] People were getting inflamed just by my words, and there was one scientist in the front, and he said, "I have a question. How did you get here?" I said, "On a plane." He said, "So you trust science with your life, but you don’t believe in it?" And people clapped, you know, because it was a very good remark. But where I am is, this is a construct, the plane is a human construct, Sweden is a human construct, the Nobel prize is a human construct, and science is the best adventure, but don’t mistake it for reality. But they’re not willing to talk about it. So yes, it’s like two trains passing in the night.

Matt: So the issue that you were addressing, about whether there’s anything other than consciousness, is definitely an interesting debate, but that’s not the one that everyone else was expecting.

Deepak: That’s because the organizers insisted on using "God" or "religion." Not even religious experience, which I asked for.

Matt: Did everyone go into the debate knowing that you would be speaking two different languages?

Deepak: They said they were having a conversation with Michael [Shermer] and Heather [Berlin], but that was a private conversation, just like the conversation they had with us was a private conversation.

Matt: So you didn’t agree on terms with Michael and Heather beforehand?

Deepak: They were not aware of what we were going to say. Okay? Because the organizers felt very strongly that either God or religion should be in the title of the debate. As a compromise, I was willing to say religious experience, because religious experience I believe is very universal and powerful. Those who don’t buy the ideology, I mean I feel humbled and more bewildered and more astonishment at the fact that we exist and that we have awareness of existence, and that brings me to almost reverence, which is religion, by definition.

Matt: I might call it spiritual. I don’t know if I’d call it religious.

Deepak: Okay, fine, well, I use the word spiritual, but some people don’t know what that means. As a compromise, spiritual, religious, religion, God.

Matt: Or awe-inspiring .

Deepak: Yeah, but where does the awe occur? In a neural network?

Matt: Yep.

Deepak: The neural network itself is an experience.

Matt: Sure. I’m still going to use that model, knowing it’s a model.

Deepak: Well you’re way ahead of a lot of people in this room who don’t understand that science is a model. Ask anyone in this room, other than philosophers of science. Even scientists in that room: "You took a plane, you trusted your life.”

Matt: I think people understand that science progresses, evolves, that models change.

Deepak: In consciousness.

Matt: Yeah. I think people have at least an implicit understanding of that.

Deepak: You can’t get behind consciousness.

Matt: Yeah. [Where we really disagree is that Deepak seems certain that because we can't know what's outside consciousness, nothing exists outside consciousness. To me it seems logical that because we can't know what's outside consciousness, we can't know if anything exists outside consciousness. My conscious construct of a physical reality outside my own mind—filled with planets and brains and such—may or may not indicate a true physical reality.]

Deepak: Well then that’s enough. That for me is God. You cannot explain consciousness other than to model it, created in consciousness. The inscrutable mystery of existence.

Matt: It’s constructs all the way down.

Deepak: Yeah. It’s the inscrutable mystery of existence and awareness of existence. Now, in Eastern wisdom traditions, awareness of existence and existence are synonymous. So awareness, existence, and consciousness are interchangeable. That’s all I wanted to share with you. [Laughs.]

Matt: That’s a good summary of idealism, non-dualism.

Deepak: If you come tonight [to Rupert Spira's meditation] you’ll enjoy it, if you have the time, but remember, the person who is coming tonight knows no science. So he’s a purely spiritual teacher.

Matt: He could learn some new models. That might help him at some point. Understanding science is helpful.

Deepak: Oh sure, but it’s also helpful for scientists to understand spiritual experience.”

Matt: So in my blog post I mention this psychological study on bullshit. [It showed that people find jumbles of mystical words almost as profound as Deepak's tweets.]

Deepak: It’s been reported everywhere.

Matt: I know that you take a lot of criticism of your writing and ideas—”

Deepak: Fifty years. I’m 71.

Matt: Does any of it still sting?

Deepak: No. In fact it expands the conversation. And I like that, because you go to these sites, Wisdom of Chopra, there are a bunch of them, right? They have 100 people following those sites, right? But they get a lot of attention, and it expands the conversation. And I’m sure the test was valid. They asked people, "Do you understand Chopra’s statements as [well as] these randomly generated aphorisms?" And people couldn’t tell the difference, and I totally get that. I mean, nobody in this room would understand what we’re talking about right now, unless they are interested in it. So a layperson, I totally get that. They would not be able to tell the difference between what I say and what is in this study generated by a random generator. But it expands the conversation.I’ve now been the subject of what I used to think is mean-spirited attacks.

Now my history with Dawkins, the year 2002. I was giving a TED talk. The big TED talk. TED was still in Monterey at that time. And I got there just before I was supposed to speak. Who was on the stage but Richard Dawkins. He had not written his book yet at the moment, which is called The God Delusion, and you can record this if you are, that’s fine. And he was on the stage, very condescending, very British. I don’t know why American audiences are intimidated by a British accent. I grew up in India, I understand that, but at least we were under colonial rule. Current Americans are still intimidated by British accents. And he was not only condescending, he showed a note, a dollar sign which said In God We Trust. Then he showed a British pound and it didn’t have the Queen’s picture, it had a picture of Darwin. He said, "See how smart we guys are and how stupid you are?" Almost words to that effect. And then he said, he even went on to say not only do you have to be an atheist, you have to be a militant atheist, otherwise you’re stupid. I had a talk prepared on creativity. But I scrapped it. I went on the stage and my first words were, "Richard Dawkins"—he was there in the audience—"you’re a bigot, you’re a fundamentalist." And the audience went, Ooh. And then for 18 minutes, in 2002, maybe not so clear as I’m clear in myself right now, but I thought I deconstructed everything he said. I got a standing ovation, I became a persona non-grata at TED. Because he was on their science board and he said charlatan.

Then I was in Oxford a few years later doing something else. Got a call from channel 4 that "We want to do an interview." I said, "Sure, where do we do it?" "We’ll come to your hotel." We set up the interview on the terrace. I had a busy day so I said, "How about really early morning, like 7 o’clock in the morning?" "We’ll be there." They’re all set up for the interview. Dawkins is a big deal at Oxford. So, "When do we start?" "We’re waiting for our interviewer." So 20 minutes later the interview shows up on a bicycle. It’s Richard Dawkins. We do a two-hour interview. I’m a little nervous, because I’m in the lion’s den, right? And he can be very disdainful. But overall, I was very happy with the interview. It shows up in a film called Enemies of Reason. Three minutes. And it does make me look like an ass. And it was watched by millions of people. Meanwhile, my video disappears from the TED site. Until I think 2012, when Rupert Sheldrake did a talk in England on TEDx. So his video disappears from the TED site, and TED sends out a circular to all their affiliates all over the world saying there are a lot of pseudoscientists, and before you invite them to your talks, check with us. And basically our videos disappeared. So I have a column at The San Francisco Chronicle and I used to write for Huffington, etc., so I got a bunch of scientists and I helped co-write a letter by many scientists. "TED is not about spreading ideas but about suppressing ideas." So then I get a response from Chris Anderson [the owner of TED], very angry. We went back-and-forth in the media, and finally my video shows up, the original one, but with a big red cross on it, censored. It’s still there. But then somebody, I don’t know who, found the original Dawkins interview, the whole thing, uncensored, and it’s also on the Internet now. So it’s been a very interesting history right now because I am seeing all these scientists talk about panpsychism now. They’re getting pretty close, right? I mean, David Chalmers, all these guys, even Christof Koch. Max Tegmark, all talking about panpsychism. Still not there because for them matter is still real.

Matt: Yeah, I see panpsychism as a form of dualism. Property dualism as opposed to substance dualism.

Deepak: It’s fine that we don’t know. It’s certainly fine that we are bewildered or astonished or feel wonder and curiosity, but even those are traits of human consciousness. Even model making is a trait. And it’s very useful. We are eating lunch, we have to pay a bill. It’s perfectly fine. But it’s not reality. It’s the human experience a reality.

Matt: Did you say at some point that you disagree with Darwin?

Deepak: Yes. I said that—first of all, do remember, Darwin was long before DNA or genetics, right? Long before epigenetics. Long before all these discussions we have. He did speak about the evolution of species in a way that makes great sense to the rational mind. But I think unless you bring consciousness into the equation, you don’t even seriously address evolution. So again, coming from the tradition that I come from, biological species are called species of consciousness. So, an insect with multiple eyes is having an experience unknowable to me but in something that we could say is a particular species of consciousness. Right? So yes, I gave a talk in India where I said, I may have said—I may have said—that Darwin was wrong. I shouldn’t have said that. I should have said that Darwin’s model is not satisfactory. To me. Because without explaining consciousness you cannot explain evolution. In that particular talk I said that evolution is guided by consciousness.

Matt: Teleology?

Deepak: In a sense, yeah.

Matt: Hmmm. [Skeptical.]

Deepak: Which is again having a comeback. I mean if you’ve read these weak experiments by Aharonov. He’san Israeli. He’s very old now. He’s a quantum physicist. I can send you his links. But basically, what he says is that you think what he calls weak experiments, which are getting a lot of attention right now by the way, it suggests that the wave function collapse is determined by a future event horizon. So the wave function is determined by a future event horizon, which is teleological. You could say it’s teleological quantum mechanics. But again, these are models. You know.

Matt: And you think that implicates consciousness?

Deepak: Yeah. But again, Aharonovwas given the highest award that America gives, the President’s [National] Medal of Science. He’s between Israel and Chapman University. Chapman is in California but he also goes back and forth and his weak experiments are getting a lot of attention. The collapse of the wave function is determined by a future event horizon. So that’s teleological. And in fact, David Bohm’s hidden variables is kind of suggestive of that too. So, David Bohm, one of his collaborators, is still alive in England. I met him a few years ago at The Science of Consciousness. They’re still hanging onto the hidden variables as determining the wave collapse, and this guy is now bringing this whole teleological explanation. The point is we don’t know. I mean, who knows what reality is.

Matt: And you think those hidden variables in the wave function collapse might be enough to drive biological evolution?

Deepak: That’s what these guys have said. They’re not saying evolution, I’m saying evolution. But nobody listens to me. [Laughs.] I’m not an academic.

Matt: It is kind of a leap.

Deepak: Yeah. Yeah it is. So these guys are not saying that. These guys are sticking with strict math. But where is math? That’s the other thing, right?

Matt: [On cue:] Math is a construct of consciousness.

Deepak: Yeah! And why infinity? Why so many infinities in math? You can’t do math these days without infinity. Right? Let’s replace the word with God, with infinite being, and let’s replace the word being with infinite nothingness, which is the only invariable in every experience.

Matt: So you want to replace the word God with infinite nothingness ?

Deepak: Which is also infinite everythingness.

Matt: [Pause.] So these kinds of ideas are fun to toy with, but for most people that’s about it. Like, what does it even mean to say that infinite everythingness is infinite nothingness?

Deepak: Okay, for me what it is, I don’t identify while I play in this world and make a good living and write books. My internal life has no belief in constructs like mind, body, universe, birth, or death. Because once you have a construct, you go all the way, and birth and death is also a construct, right? What happened in that room upstairs before we came here, that experience is dead. It no longer exists.

Matt: Right.

Deepak: As soon as we leave here this experience is dead. It no longer exists. But so is your body. This body that you identify with is just your present experience. It’s not the body you had even a year ago, even at the level of molecules or atoms or particles or wave functions or whatever. So death happens to an experience. Experience is in time. Everything that you look at is relative to another experience. Is there an absolute reality? Is there an invariant in every experience, and I would say yes, it’s consciousness. Because consciousness was there when you were a baby. It was there when you were a toddler. It’s there now. And consciousness, not personal consciousness, but consciousness that at the moment is identifying itself as this construct, will remain because it’s not in time. Space-time, energy, information, matter, gluons, particles, force fields, are constructs in consciousness. Very useful but gives me no solace to my existence which is not in space or time. And now of course everybody is saying space-time is probably emergent, right? Space-time and matter are emergent, even within the construct.

Matt: From random fluctuations.

Deepak: Yeah. The Big Bang. What existed before time began, it doesn’t make sense, right? It doesn’t make sense.

Matt: Because time is a construct, and like any other construct it has limits.

Deepak: Yeah, so in my personal life I’m not wedded to any construct, scientific or otherwise. I enjoy life. For the little spark that it is, but I also know that what I call the true self, not the constructed self, but the true self was never born, and has no death. The question is irrelevant. It’s timeless, and it’s unimaginable, and it’s inconceivable, but without it I would not be having this experience.

Matt: Are you wedded to the construct that there’s nothing outside of consciousness?

Deepak: [Long pause.] I am agreeing with the, with the, I’ll rephrase the, that, uh, that question by saying that our everyday reality is filtered through constructs. You know, I cannot help calling this salad or this a glass or this water, okay? So my everyday reality, everyday reality is a specific experience in an unimaginable, inconceivable, infinite, dimensionless or infinitely dimensional—choose whatever—so if you want to call it Hilbert space that’s fine, but that again is in imagination. What is the source of imagination? I am committed in my personal life, along with many others by the way, in knowing what is real beyond consciousness. And that’s for lack of a better word, it’s a wonderful experience of delightful, love, compassion, joy, mystery, astonishment, everything that I call spiritual, wonder, these are not created by neural networks. When I was standing next to, the other day at Gerry’s house, what’s his name was there.

Matt: Jim Watson.

Deepak: Jim Watson. So I met Jim Watson about 30 years ago when he was much more sharp and we were both guests of the Microsoft guy, Paul Allen, in St. Petersburg, and Paul Allen used to have these big lavish parties. He would invite interesting people so I was invited a few years till my reputation started going down [laughs] and I was standing next to Jim Watson, who was my hero. You know in medical school, I want to medical school in 1962. DNA was discovered in 1952 or 1954. So for me as a medical student, there couldn’t be a bigger person than Jim Watson, Darwin, and Einstein, you know? So for me he was a big hero. I almost worshiped him. So I’m standing next to him in front of a piece of awe-inspiring art at some museum in St. Petersburg. And I turn to him and I say, "That was programmed in a double helix, was it?" He said, "Yes," and then he walked away with utter distain [laughs] and, you know, I still respect him, I mean he’s a giant right? But that to me is getting so bamboozled by your constructs that you don’t address reality.