Saturday, 15 October 2016

Deepak Chopra - 3rd Global Conference on World Religions September 15 2016

On September 15, 2016, the 3rd Global Conference on World Religions after September 11 took place and a delegate from the Montreal Theosophy Project was duly dispatched to report on this momentous occasion. Despite the fact that scheduled Buddhist speaker Robert Thurman had to cancel as did  Native American speaker Phil Fontaine, all other speakers gave interesting talks and a refreshing theosophical spirit of open, eclectic, tolerant altruism was palpable throughout the day; we will be posting lecture reviews over the next few months...

Deepak Chopra on Science and Spirituality

Deepak Chopra gave a talk comparing and contrasting modern science and Advaita Vedanta philosophy with erudition, charm, wit, and warmth. He began sketching out the field of astrophysics and electro-chemistry, outlining the theories of dark energy and dark matter, particle and wave theory, poetically quoting Rumi:''We come spinning out of nothingness, gathering stars like dust.''

He then proceeded to question these fields by raising questions pertaining to cognitive science and theory of mind, stating that modern scientific fields are still struggling with what he terms the hard problem of consciousness: ''We do not know how we have mental and perceptual experiences'', adding, ''don't let science fool you just because it is very successful in creating technology''.
He then embarked on a summary sketch of the progress of science since the enlightenment period, ending with the quantum theories of Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Schrodinger, Dirac, Heisenberg as well as super-string theory. Musing on the immense progress in our understanding of the infinite expanses of astrophysics and the equally infinite minuteness of micro-chemistry, he wonders how we are to ''reconcile the micro to the macro''.

Making the interesting observation how modern scientific astrophysics theories on the fundamental causes of the formation of the universe seem to resolve into constructs that suspiciously resemble creation myths, he conclues that ''everything I told you doe not explain experience, which is all we have'' and ''we cannot explain consciousness on the basis of biology''.

Changing the focus at this point, he observes that ''if we start to reverse the way we think, if we change our ontological perspective, seeing consciousness as the fundamental experience, then we can begin to solve the problem'' and proceeded to embark on an accessible explanation of Advaita Vedanta philosophy, presenting such notions as ''we don't experience the body, we experience sensations, Tanmatras, in Vedantic terminology''; ''thought is a modification of consciousness''; ''the universe is what absolute consciousness looks like to itself when observed as a perceptual subject''. Quoting another poet, Tagore:''in this playhouse of infinite forms, I caught sight of the formless and so my life is blessed'' and again Rumi: ''Look at your eyes, they are so small and yet they see the whole galaxy''.

He notes that this transcendant reality can be grasped through self-reflection, with practices such as yoga. Returning to science, comparing theories of matter with Advaita notions of Maya,  he observes that ''we are the victims of the superstition of matter - no one has ever shown the existence of a substance called matter''.He pointed  out the limits of language using the example of the Buddhist Flower Sermon. Arriving at the crux of his argument, he observes how modern science balks at explaining the nature of thinking, cognition and consciousness, noting that this entails two possibilities: (either thinking, cognition and consciousness are) a hallucination, and that doesn't seem right; then if not a hallucination then they can't be material; therefore they must be out of space and time''. Hence, (referencing the Baghavad Gita), ''the real you is unborn and cannot die''.

Quoting the Vedic phrase ''Aham Brahmsi'', I am that I am, he later added that we are not the ego that the culture of narcissism  places so much value on and that we tend to sacrifice our souls for the sake of this selfish ego. As a remedy to this he proposes to listen to one's inner being and pay attention to who is listening, ''the presence you feel is the presence of your spirit or soul'', which is not the mind, and ''this presence that you feel is the presence that connects you with God''.

Chopra's lecture admirably succeeded in presenting the intricacies of modern science and ancient Indian philosophy in a contemporary language in a way that was understandable, interesting, and thought-provoking.