Friday, April 29, 2011

Swamis talking science

Every morning on my commute to work, I pass by a giant electronic billboard situated just a few miles straight north of the Stanford campus.  It's one of those where the ad changes on regular intervals, so that as you drive by, from the moment you first see it, you'll see at least 3 different advertisements.  Unsurprisingly, there's always at least one ad for some hocus-pocus "spiritual" leader or some psychobabble swami peddling more of his nonsense.  Not that long ago, the inimitably crazy "Sri Sri Ravi Shankar" was up there.  A while before him, there was someone speaking on behalf of (I wish I was making that up).  Prior to that, there was some lecture series featuring Sri Sakthi Amma (someone who is such a great humanitarian that he built a temple complex wider than the friggin' Tevatron at Fermilab and covered it in 1.5 metric tonnes of gold).  Now, for the past month or so, it's been advertising Sadhguru Jagadish (or Jaggi, as if it makes him more 'hip') Vasudev and his "Inner Engineering" program.

Many of these people sell the allure of having some sort of profoundly insightful philosophy which will awaken an instant and measurable change in your life...  for the low price of $500 per session.  The kinds of nonsensical babbling reaches levels of outstanding obfuscation at some points.  One occasionally hears things about some sort of "ultimate truth" which is not attainable through visual means, but through visualization of elements beyond the basal truth of fact which is discovered through spiritually dead modes of exploration...  what?

Beyond the fleecing, though, one of the most insulting and unforgivable common veins to all these swamis is whenever they get on the topic of science.  The kind of disdain they express for science, technology, and even the human intellect is not merely disingenuous, but downright vile.  It is indeed a valid point that the pace of the work-a-day world is a major source of stress for a lot of us when we face the pressures of our jobs, the pressures of financial troubles, the work involved in keeping our day-to-day lives at a stable quality of life...  and on top of it all, we keep our social networks actively up to date, or write more and more on our blog pages...  and being in a modern age has also yielded the reality that there are many more of us experiencing this sort of lifestyle for a longer time.  So what do our brilliant spiritual gurus do?  They put all the blame for all this squarely on science and technology.  The bane of our contemporary lives apparently lies in Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, and the Internet.  The very same Internet that allows swamis to deliver their messages of spiritual growth on Youtube.

I find a large part of the disingenuous nature of this practice lies in the need for these charlatans to sell their snake oil.  There is no point to simply declaring modern medicine to be a sham.  But when you declare modern medicine to be a sham and that true healing can be found on a spiritual plane, urging people to dismiss the value of scientific veracity in favor of yogic awareness of some unconfirmed (and unconfirmable) alternate reality, you can give weight to your own notions.  Selling the message of spiritual "truths" as a higher form of truth depends on the ability to trivialize science, technology, and the intellectual age that gave rise to them as very shallow avenues of inquiry.  When you do that, you are trivializing everything that gave us the modern lives we have today.

There is a general lack of understanding of what science really is among the general public, and swamis reinforce the average person's misconceptions.  Science is a method, and the technology which has become so endemic to our daily lives is a product of that method.  There is nothing innately evil or good about it.  It is about the choices we make in how we handle these tools we are given.  If you discount medical science in favor of spiritual yoga practices and unverified curative tinctures of nondescript composition, you are devaluing everything which has allowed us to live over 2 decades longer, and has increased the survival rate of all our children.  When you conflate something like the internet with the science and technology that brought us nuclear warheads, you are doing a disservice to all of humanity with your fallacious thinking.  Dismissing scientists as vain characters wrapped up in their own intellects who decipher only trivial realizations about nature, you sweep under the rug all the advancements that moved us from an age of geocentrism to an age of understanding dark matter and black holes;  from an age that treated by bloodletting to an age where we actually understand microbes and parasites and cancer.  It betrays a stunning ignorance about what value has come about not only by the methodical study of the world around us, but the ability to move that knowledge and all its fruits throughout humanity.  Perpetuating that ignorance throughout the people who follow you is nothing short of an egregious crime, and I find it a pity that there is no hell for you to burn in for that crime.

The other fallacy you commit in order to sell your philosophies that the human intellect and even logic itself are bad things which we must eradicate from our lives...  is this rosy retrospection bias.  This irrational belief in the "good old days" before we had Google and Microsoft...  back when taxes weren't among the certainties of "death and taxes."...  back when caste bigotry was the status quo and infant mortality rates exceeded 50%.  Oh wait, never mind that last one.  I'm sorry, but any notion of the "good old days" are based on days that never actually existed.  The ancient times were not some prosperous paradise where people rode flying chariots on a daily basis and were graced by the presence of deities walking the Earth and filling the lives of everyone with boundless splendor, while a benevolent king ruled justly for 60,000 years as the epic tales might tell in their glorifications of their characters.  It was a cruel and harsh time where people died young and struggled and toiled in horrible living conditions, suffered debilitating illness, and violent conquest was the most common means to every end.

At the same time, most of these swamis genuinely believe that faith in the mysterious spiritual realm is a path to a deeper understanding.  It is because of the fact that scientists and scientific thinkers generally reject the spiritual realm as an unproven and baseless assertion that it is seen as adversarial.  The fact that basic logic shows holes and flaws in their thinking is why spiritual figureheads must train people to ignore fact and logic and bask in wonder at mysteries which are seemingly illogical by nature and should be accepted as beyond understanding, at least through intellectual means.  This is nothing more than a philosophy of ignorance, and it is something that is inexcusable.  It leads in a vicious cycle where a stronger phobia unto intellectualism leads them to be more ignorant of it and breed more ignorance based on suppositions about the reality of science and technology.  But ignorance is important to spiritual leaders because it is only through ignorance that they have business.  So yeah, cast aside your intellect, your technology, and your material wealth and let the swamis who taught you to do so broadcast their message of anti-thought across "teh interwebs" from a gold-plated temple lit with 5700K spectrum fluorescent bulbs talking into a wireless condenser microphone with a Photoshopped background printed on a woven vinyl sheet.  No irony here.