Susan Blackmore – In Search of the Light

December 15, 2006

Sue Blackmore is a psychologist and writer whose research on consciousness, memes, and the paranormal has been published in over sixty academic papers, as well as book chapters, reviews and popular articles. She regularly writes in The Guardian, and often appears on radio and television in the United States and the United Kingdom. She spent two decades early in her career investigating psychic phenomena, following an out-of-body experience she had as a student at Oxford. She is the author of a number of books, including Dying to Live (on near-death experiences), In Search of the Light, and Test Your Psychic Powers (with Adam Hart-Davis). The Meme Machine (1999) has been widely acclaimed, and translated into 13 other languages. Her highly praised textbook, Consciousness: An Introduction, and A Very Short Introduction to Consciousness are both published by Oxford University Press, as is her most recent Conversations on Consciousness.

In this far-ranging discussion with D.J. Grothe, Susan Blackmore talks about her research into the paranormal and near death experiences and why she left that field of study, memetics and religion as a meme, free will and the question of moral responsibility, consciousness and the illusory nature of the self, and Zen Buddhism and meditative practice, among other topics. She also explores why is it more important than ever for scientists to speak out about important issues of concern in the world today.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Friday, December 15th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and Washington, D.C., in addition to 14 other cities around the world. Every week on this show, we look at the central beliefs of our society through the lens of science and reason, focusing mostly on three research areas. First, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. Third, secularism and religion. We look at these three research areas by drawing on the Center for Inquiries relationship with the leading lights of the day, including Nobel Prize-Winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before we get to this week’s guest, I want to welcome a new CFI campus group that’s affiliated with us this week at Seattle Community College. If you’d like to work with us to start a campus group at your school, advancing science and reason, working with us, availing yourself of the free resources we make available, you can do so through our Web site. Campus Inquirer dot org. And now a word for our sponsor. Then we’ll get to this week’s guest. 

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I’m pleased to be joined by our guest today on the phone from the United Kingdom, Sue Blackmore. She’s a parapsychologist and a psychologist, a writer whose research on consciousness, Meems and the paranormal has been published in over 60 academic papers, as well as book chapters, reviews and popular articles. She regularly writes in The Guardian and often appears on radio and television in the United States and the United Kingdom. She spent two decades earlier on investigating psychic phenomena following an out of body experience she herself had. Her other research interests include Meems evolutionary theory, consciousness and meditation. She’s been practicing Zen meditation for 20 years. Her books include Beyond the Body Dying to Live in Search of the Light and Test Your Own Psychic Powers. The meme machine. Another book she wrote about the philosophy and science of memetics has been translated into 13 other languages. Her highly praised text book, Consciousness and Introduction, appeared in June 2003. And a very short introduction to consciousness came out last year. Both of these published by Oxford University Press. Her latest book is Conversations on Consciousness Out this Year, also from Oxford University Press. It’s a collection of her lively conversations with 21 of the world’s leading neuroscientists and philosophers. She’s exploring with them what they really think about the mind, brain and consciousness. She joins me on point of inquiry today to talk about her research into the paranormal and near-death experiences, to talk about religion, maybe even to talk about freewill and scientific naturalism as a world view. Welcome, Sue Blackmore at a point of inquiry. 

Oh, thank you for inviting me on. It’s great to be on such an interesting show. 

Let’s start by treating a subject we haven’t much explored on point of inquiry, out of body experiences. You had one you had an out of body experience. 

I had a really dramatic one. I was a student at just starting my degree in physiology and psychology at Oxford, and I was loving it. I was doing the sorts of things, including I joined the Psychical Research Society. I had a sort of idle interest in in the paranormal and psychic claims and things. And one night we were having a Ouija board session and we were late and getting to early morning lectures and very tired. And after the Ouija board thing, we went back to a friend’s room, smoked some dough, sitting around listening to music. And I seemed to be in this music going down a dark tunnel with a bright light at the end. And one of my friends must’ve thought I looked a bit weird because I said, Where are you, Sue? You know, I really struggled to think in that room. Blah, blah, blah. And suddenly everything became clear. It was as though I was on the ceiling looking down and I could see my own body down there talking and my friend sitting in the room and I said, I’m on the ceiling. And my friends, all I hear is astral projection. And I think that helped it to carry on because he talked to me and I could look down and watch the my own mouth opening and him talking and everything. And I went flying off and went around the world. It lasted about two and a half hours. It was extremely realistic and bright and vivid. 

Extraordinary things happen. It ended up really being a kind of mystical experience of of oneness with the universe. Disintegration of self. Loss of self and the universe, if you like, a really profound experience in the end. 

And it sent you off in a in a research trajectory. You got into this subject academically. 

Yeah. I mean, it seemed to me that I was studying supposedly studying the mind and actually cutting up rats and making them run mazes and learning about experimental methods when here was this extraordinary world of the mind, that experience that seemed to be completely inexplicable by the tutors and lecturers that I had in Oxford. And I thought, you know, I would approve all those lectures. 

A wrong you know, there was like minded. They think it’s not possible. I know there’s more on Earth than instrumental in your philosophy. 

That kind of attitude. And I decided that from then on that I wanted to become a parapsychologists, which eventually I did. But it didn’t quite work out as I had expected. 

Let’s talk about that. You became a parapsychologists. What’s that mean? 

You studied these phenomena in the laboratory, in the laboratory, in the real world, at home, all over the place. I think what makes you a parapsychologist is nobody’s in the lab, but that you apply scientific methods, scientific thinking to paranormal claims. You see, I started out as a complete believer. I spent the rest of my time at Oxford Road deeply in the Psychical Asset Society after this experience. And I met psychics and mediums and the red tarot cards and trained to the witch. And I did all sorts of things. And I was absolutely convinced that telepathy, clairvoyant people, mission, all these things were true and that my soul had left my body during the experience. And so I wanted to find out. And the way I did that all through its system in Britain is very different from yours in the States. In order to get a P.H. deal or doctorate in Britain, you simply have to do three or four years of your own original research supervised within a university. But it can be on anything you like. And I managed to persuade a university department to sorry to take me on to do a project on telepathy. And I spent three and a half years doing research on that. 

And that’s what changed my mind, because what really happened was I put all my own beliefs. I won most of the scientists. I put my own beliefs up to be tested. I tested them and I found out I was wrong, wrong, big time. 

So to back up a bit. You you studied all of these claims scientifically and you found no evidence for those claims. 

Yes, I did lots of experiments on telepathy with ordinary students, and they didn’t work. So I tried. Young children who are supposed to be most I. I did experiments with twins. I had a whole lot of people who claim to have out of the body experiences frequently in their lives, had them try to visit a special location. I hit something for them and they came along and said they saw it, but they didn’t get it right. I went and tested mediums. I did all sorts of things. I mean, every time something failed. I kept thinking, well, maybe something else will work. And I kept going and kept going. 

And eventually you left the field of parapsychology. 

Yes. That took a long time because although I became pretty skeptical within a couple of years of starting my research, it was a long, long time before I finally decided there really is no point carrying on. I’m part of that reason was not just because scientifically, you know, you don’t want to waste your entire life looking into something which you no longer think is going to pay off scientifically and teach you anything about the universe. But I got so fed up with the media for many years, I enjoyed being what’s called rent a skeptic. You know, there’d be a TV program with 100 people who’ve seen a ghost and see black models that thought in mind. 

All right. Random people who’ve had near-death experiences. Then Stube, like Mulder, say it’s a, you know, stress in the dying brain or whatever. 

And it was fun and it was exciting. And I felt I was doing some good. But in the end, people won’t change their minds. You know, people have very, very entrenched views about the paranormal. They have had some apparently psychic experience with that dog or somebody phoned them just when they were thinking of me or whatever. It was something more profound. They’ve had a near-death experience himself, but they will not, on the whole, be prepared to do what I had to do because of my research, which is actually change your mind. And that is very hard. But you know, myself, having done it in such a big way, I to change my mind completely from being totally committed to this stuff, to to becoming skeptical. 

I know that actually there is life after changing your mind. So it’s well worth going through the trauma coming out the other side with a better view of how the universe works. 

All right. Carl Sagan in his book about the paranormal, The Demon Haunted World talks about you and this Deek conversion, this process you went from kind of a true believer in the paranormal to an ardent skeptic, still open minded. You’re not close minded that these things won’t exist or couldn’t exist, but you just haven’t found any evidence for it. 

Yes. And I have found a lot of evidence of why people believe in things that are true. But more interestingly, a lot of evidence that people do have out of body experiences. I had one meaning an experience in which you feel as though you’re out of your body and they can be quite profound. They can’t be life changing. They can reduce the fear of death. They can make you have a different attitude towards other people. They’re important and interesting experiences. So I spent a lot of time investigating those kinds of things and near-death experiences and so on to try and understand these very human peculiar experiences. But they’re not paranormal. You know, the more I investigated them, the more I was able to understand what’s happening in the brain and why we have them, but not in terms of finding anything paranormal or psychic in them. 

Are these phenomena still interesting to you? As explained? Naturally, according to The Worldview, a scientific naturalism. Are they still interesting or they something that scientists start to just dismiss out of hand? 

Oh, definitely. They shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, though. They’re important to experience it. I mean, anyone who’s had a near-death experience will tell you that it was important to them. Many will say it was the most vivid and important experience in my life. Now, you don’t just dismiss something like that. You have to understand it and understand it. Think logically what’s happening in people’s brain psychologically, how it affects their lives sociologically, how it affects culture and society. These are important experiences. So I get really frustrated again by the media, but also by some scientists who say, well, maybe that’s true. And people have them, you know, in which case, you know, we ought to investigate them all. All there’s no like it’s anonymous said we shouldn’t investigate them. No, it’s not a black and white yes or no thing. Yes. Did the experiences happen? No, they’re not evidence of life after death or spirits or souls or whatever, and they deserve proper scientific scrutiny. So that’s what I tried to give them for for a long time. 

I got somewhere with it. Unfortunately, there aren’t many scientists out there who actually want to investigate these things. 

And so I was pretty much working on my own. 

A lot of the time, I’d like to let our listeners know that Sue Blackmore’s books, including In Search of the Light, her autobiographical account of this deep conversion and dying to live about near-death experiences, both can be ordered through our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Sue, switching gears, let’s talk about the idea of Meems, first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his book Selfish Gene. You wrote the meme machine, which is widely regarded as one of the definitive treatises on the science and the philosophy of memetics. First off, what’s a meme? 

I mean, is any information copied from person to person or persons to Berkel book to computer or computer to person? So names are words and stories. Songs and even things like scientific theories, even chairs and tables. It may sound odd to need a special word like meme to describe these things, but the point is that you look at culture, human culture as an evolutionary system. So there’s a fairly close comparison with evolution and biology. You know, as Darwin saw, all you need to get evolution off the ground is that something is copied. Variations of the thing are made, and only a very few of those variants survive. And if you keep on doing that long enough, you just must get evolution apparently out of nowhere. Design out of nowhere. So the same, Richard Dawkins says, applies in culture. We humans, unlike every other species on the planet. We humans are very good at imitating. We copy each other. You know, you can sing me a song and I’ll sing it back to you or I can tell you an idea and you’ll pass it on. And so that is the opportunity for another evolutionary system. So the Syrian genetics is really to see culture as an evolving system and to look at humans as mean machines. Hence my books. I mean, we humans are mimicking who copy on stuff. Now, the interesting thing is a lot of the stuff we copy is really useful means. I mean, we copy ways of building houses, for example, or electricity supplies or kinds of computers or interesting books. We copy the things that are useful for us. But we also inadvertently copy all kinds of viruses, all kinds of viral names and awful ideas that are actually bad for us and bad for the people we pass them onto because we are not perfect at choosing, which means good for us and which aren’t. 

Let’s talk about religion in this context. Is religion a meme, a collection of memes? 

Absolutely. I would say so. If you think about religion there. Absolutely. What I’ve just described ideas copied from person to person. And it’s an obvious fact. But worth thinking about that very, very few people on the planet have really chosen their religion. They get infected with a religion when they’re very young. Past fronton, usually from their parents and encouraged by their parents, friends in their schools and so on. And they get landed with really pernicious means that way. And one of the awful tricks that the religious means play is that they tell you that if you are religious, you’re a good person. And I think I call that the altruism trick. I think it’s the nastiest trick that religions pay because they somehow you’re not supposed to question religions. You’re not supposed to tell religious people that actually they’re doing something bad. And this helped them get away with it and keep infecting more people. I mean, I think religious means taxes are really among the Nazi authorities we have on the planet. 

You just used the phrase nasty, infected, pernicious. Those words. Aren’t there good things about this virus of the mind? Doesn’t religion help people as it’s spread? Isn’t that why it’s been so successful? 

No, I don’t think that’s why it’s been so successful. No, I think religious means almost entirely. The major religions, particularly the Judeo Christian religions, Islam and Christianity and so on, are largely spread not because they are good for anybody. They’re largely spread because they are very, very cleverly designed by thousands of years of unconscious evolution to use an awful lot of tricks. I mean, the basic structure of these religions is a whole lot of otherwise unbelievable things. I mean, you know, miracle virgin birth three and one. You know, heaven, hallelujah for things. I mean, nobody would would easily take on these rather peculiar ideas if it weren’t for the fact that they were all packaged up, passed on in one go and wrapped up with a kind of coating, if you like, like a virus’s coating of threats and promises. So you are told from a very early age that you must believe these things if you do believe them, and if you pass them on to other people, you will go to heaven and you’ll have so many virgins, rather, or you’ll live in a beautiful land of milk and honey or whatever. And if you don’t believe these things or in Islam, if you actually stop believing it’s even worse than you will be born forever, you should being thrown into pits and sulfur and poacher’s with boiling hot iron and and pitchforks and what I mean often cost. I think it’s awful that you think it’s terrible that our children are actually taught those things and do things like going around wearing a cross on the neck, which is a symbol of one of the nastiest methods of torture that you can ever have. Well, so I think that’s why religions are passed on, because the religions themselves are a crafty package of tricks. But you ask that the religions do any good for people. Some good. But we’re beginning to do the research now that is beginning to put the weights to the pros and cons of the good and bad that religions do. There is some evidence that religion makes people less frightened of death. These social aspects of religion, the fact that people get together in groups and so on, is certainly good for people, but not because it’s particularly. Religious on some evidence that people who have faith recover slightly better from certain kinds of illnesses. But that’s nothing, I would say, to set against the misery caused by all the rules and regulations, by the wars that are started, by the bigotry, overwhelming. It’s all I can see from my perspective. It’s overwhelmingly a very sad thing that we’re so easily infected with these suit. 

So if religion is a meme, a virus of the mind, what’s the best way to inoculate yourself against it’s more virulent strains? What’s what’s the way to guard yourself from that virus? 

To some extent, science in general, can connectivity activity document? But the most interesting thing I’ve noticed, and this is a comparison between Britain and the United States, here in Britain, every child has compulsory religious education almost right the way through their schooling from very early on when I was a kid, it was it was all Christianity and it was you know, that was the religion you were going to learn. But as the years have gone by, we have lots of immigrants. We have lots of different religions in the country. And so it’s turned into comparative religion. And I so well remember my kids coming home from school when they were aged about, I think six and eight, that sort of age. And my little boy said to me, oh, this week we learned about Sikhism a lot. Next week we’re going to the Hindu. And I think, you know what the Hindu believes? They believe in all this stuff and all the kids start laughing about it. It does not take a genius kid. In fact, you know, lots of the kids will simply work out for themselves very early on. They can’t all be true. And one of the few worked out the Kontorovich. And once you have this education in the context of, you know, you’ve got science at eleven o’clock and religion at twelve o’clock and English at one o’clock or whatever, in a context in which you’re evaluating things, writing about them. It ceases to have its power very quickly and I can’t prove it. But I think that’s one of the reasons why here in Britain there are really very few people, very few people go to church and really rather few people believe in God. 

I remember you saying that to me years ago, and it’s really stuck with me that the study of religion, not indoctrination in a religion, inoculates you from the worst aspects of religion. Daniel Dennett, if he makes only one proposal in his recent book, Breaking the Spell, it’s that children should learn about religion, not be indoctrinated in it, but learn about it. I think there’s nothing more fascinating than the study of religion, partly for that reason. 

I’ve done about that quite a lot. In fact, he probably got the idea from me, I think, because he was quite surprised to hear that that’s what happens in Britain, you know, and wrote him about it. 

Right. In fact, you have collaborated together on consciousness work and so many other things as well. I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get Sue Blackmore’s books, including The Meme Machine, through our website point of inquiry dot org. Sue. Now that we’ve dealt with that big sacred cow religion, let’s move on to another. You contributed a section to this fun book edited by John Brockman, What We Believe But Cannot Prove today’s leading thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty. What a great title. And you chose to write about freewill. You don’t believe in freewill? 

No, I don’t. It’s something that bothered me as far as I can remember, since I was a teenager. I remember one of my friends when I was at Oxford writing a thesis on the weakness of the. And I said, there’s no such thing. I now think there is well, but no freewill. If you think about the way the brain loves the brains, amazingly complex machines, that what information comes in the chemical maybe around, you know, there’s not happens. It’s all. Everything happens because of what happened before. If you look at the way the world works, it’s like that two things happen. They cause other things. They cause other thing. There’s no room for some kind of magic, maybe random processes. But what we mean by freewill. I think what most people mean by Freebo is that all by my little self in here, my conscious self, 10 consciously have a thought. Decide to do something. And because of that conscious thought, this thing happens like I consciously decide to raise my hand. And it raises. But that doesn’t make sense. You know, it really doesn’t. The brain is doing its stuff. The reasons why I chose to raise my hand. Then we’ll be in the past of what’s happening in the environment around me when something somebody said or in some previous thought operating as a chemistry in my brain. So once you realize that, then you have to think, well, how come I feel as though I’ve got free will? And that’s led me to be fascinated as indeed done. Anything you just mentioned is in how we come to have a delusion of freewill. I really think it’s a delusion. The tricky thing is giving up a delusion. But I’ve worked on it for a very long time. And finally, I’ve just got to the point now where I don’t think that even full faith anymore. I just don’t feel as though I have free will anymore. But that took me quite a long, long time of racking my brains and really getting bothered about it. But now the problem for me at least, seems to have gone away. I just accept that this body here will do what it does. There’s no room for freewill in the Jim Underdown. 

You’ve set yourself against the biggest, the most central beliefs of society, religion, belief in God free will. Without these beliefs, that society fall apart. Let me ask you specifically. You say it’s possible to live happily and morally without freewill. But don’t you need freewill to be responsible, to be a responsible moral agent? 

No, I think you need responsibility. I think in some sense you have to take responsibility for the things that your body does. You think we even do that with accidental things? I mean, if you go into a shop and crash into a vase and break it on the floor, you know, you didn’t do that of your own free will, but you will take responsibility because you know that. Well, it was the fault of of that body. And I kind of think we have to do that with everything. You have to think, you know, I I brought up my kids this way. I chose to live in this house. I chose not to take that job, but to write this book, whatever it might be. I can accept that the reason that I this body did those things are unknown to me in conscious terms. I can’t I can’t know them all. I can say some of them. I can invent stories about them. But basically, that’s what this person did in this life. And I will take responsibility for those. I will accept punishment. I will accept praise. But knowing that, that’s simply what this body did. So I do think it’s possible to have responsibility. And obviously, you’re right that society would fall apart if people didn’t take responsibility. It would fall apart if we didn’t punish wrongdoing. Rewards good and helpful things that people do and hard work and so on. We couldn’t have a society without that. But you don’t need to base that on the fourth concept of free will. And there were lots of people trying to work that out. And the Center for Naturalism is one other example. People lots of people trying to work out how we could basis society more truthfully on what we know scientifically about the way the world works. 

You mentioned that center out of Boston Center for Naturalism. We’ll have a link to that on our Web site, in fact. Also, your book, Conversations on Consciousness, I’d like to let our listeners know can be gotten through our website as well. 

In that book, I ask lots of different scientists and philosophers. A series of questions, one of which we do have free will. And to my amazement, most of them said yes. And the ones who said no. On the whole set. But I never if I have free will. So I appear to be rather alone in going to the extreme of saying, well, if I can’t believe it intellectually, I’m not going to live with it either. 

Jim Underdown, that sounds a little like someone who says, yes, I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God, but I live as if there is one. 

Yes. Yes, exactly. And I. I don’t think it makes no difference to you. 

Well, okay. I’ll share my hand. Yes. I tend not to believe in freewill either. But don’t tell anyone. I want to have your conclusions about freeworld grown directly out of your research into consciousness, or do you have other reasons why you’re so dead set against the notion of dead set against death? 

And I can understand why people believe in it. No, I think my my doubts about Freewheel started very early on. You know, my interest in science began as far as I can remember, when I was very young indeed. And then, like so many teenagers, I wondered about who am I? And what’s it all about? And so on. I think my doubts about Freewheel started very early. I think they must for any scientist, you must have doubts about freewill because you start to learn how the world works and you see that there’s no room for the magic of some sort of intervention by some little self. But they came to a head. Certainly when I began studying consciousness, having done all this paranormal stuff, I kind of came full circle and thought, well, what is it? That really is the heart of what I’m trying to understand. And in the end, the heart of that is consciousness. I think all my explorations into near-death experiences and so on, really what I wanted to know was what is constants at all. And when you start thinking about that great mystery, you inevitably hit up against things like the nature cells, the nature of freewill and so on. 

But in a sense, you don’t even seem to believe in consciousness. You argue that it itself is an illusion, an illusion constructed by Meems, right? 

I do, yes. But be careful with the word illusion. If you look it up in the dictionary, it doesn’t mean something that doesn’t exist. When I say when I say consciousness is an illusion. I don’t mean it doesn’t exist. I mean that it’s not what we think it is. 

If you think that consciousness is something of special power, that somewhere it’s special in our brain, it is of a special consciousness bit and some things are in our consciousness and some aren’t. And we have experienced it consciously and other things go on unconsciously in my brain. Then I think you’re wrong in that sense. I think it’s an illusion. I don’t think consciousness is like that. Now, just what it is like and how to understand it, I don’t know. It’s a real mystery. I can be pretty firm in some of the things I would say. I would say for sure astrology doesn’t fulfill its claims. I would say for sure. Homeopathy does not kill people other than by placebo effect. I’d say I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as telepathy. But I’ll let you know, I’m open minded to the extent that I could change my mind when it comes to consciousness. 

I. Baffled, baffled. All I’m trying to do is say, well, let’s have a look at what we think about consciousness, because if we’re starting with the wrong premises, we’re never going to get anywhere. So let’s try and pull it apart. And when I say it’s an illusion, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to say we have all these false ideas about a little inner self and the consciousness of the power. Let’s try and get rid of those illusions and see what’s left. And what’s left is deeply mysterious. I mean, here I am sitting in my kitchen looking at a whole lot of glasses and things on the on the Welsh dresser, on the wall, very pretty and shining in the light. And, you know, the experience that my subjective experience of what it’s like to sit here now. How does the brain do that? How does the brain, you know, neurons firing and everything result in this experience? I don’t know. It’s a mystery, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t do it by kind of exuding consciousness like like the liver exude bile or something of that kind. But it’s fascinating. 

I mean, what could be more wonderful in life, and especially to spend your time wondering about the feel like that I’m lucky to be to be doing that. 

Well. Point of departure. You say you’re lucky to be doing that. Do you think it’s something about you that’s making you do that? Or is it luck? Fate? 

What this funny little kid got born with, you know, an obsessive kind of inquiring mind and, you know, went through the school the way it did and went to Oxford and got really good training and and lived in a society where these things happen. All those reasons have contributed to this person being obsessed with consciousness. 

So I’m not going to attribute it to the free world of a little in itself. I don’t think there is such a thing. 

So back to consciousness before we begin to finish up here. The notion that it itself is an illusion is compatible with some Eastern philosophical traditions, especially Zen Buddhism, which you practiced for over 20 years. But you don’t call yourself a Buddhist? 

No, I don’t call myself a Buddhist because I think to be a Buddhist means that you have to you have to take certain vows. And I’m not prepared to do that. And I just don’t want to get into that whole thing. I might break them and then I don’t want to feel guilty and everything else. I’m not taking a part of that. And I’m not also prepared to just believe things because they’re written down as a doctrine in any kind of a religion. 

And as you can imagine, I don’t really want to be a part of something that Buddhism doesn’t have a god. It’s still religious in many respects. And I don’t want to sign up to any of that. 

Nevertheless, I have enormous respect for some of the things that the Buddha said to do with that self is not as we think it is. In other words, it’s an illusion. So this is not some kind of persisting entity. And also the methods, particularly in Zen seed Zen, is of all kinds of Buddhism. Zen is very stark and simple. Basically, it says, sit down, look at the white world, shut up and you will see the nature of the universe. You will see through the illusion of self. You will see through a whole lot of illusions that you had to begin with. It’s a tough method. You know, when I say I’ve been doing it 20 years, I’ve been on lots, not retreats. I meditate every day, really. As a way of looking directly into the mind. And it seems to me that we need to do something like that. Not necessarily that particular version, but in the science of consciousness. I think we not only need to get on with a wonderful neuroscience that’s going on now, but also actually look at our own experience, because that’s what we’re trying to explain. So I find that my Buddhist practice is not only helpful in life, you know, calming the mind and coping with life, but training me to pay attention and concentrate and look in to the nature of mind and see what that kind of curious when you do that with the way the world seems to be different from before you, you start. 

And you find this practice of Zen, the meditative practice, completely compatible with your lack of theism. You’re atheist. 

Oh, yes. I mean, there is no God in Buddhism, in Zen Buddhism. There’s no God in any Buddhism. Not in Tibetan Buddhism. It kind of looks as though there are lots of gods, but that they’re very different from a theistic kind of God. Right. They’re more like sort of spirits or, you know, ancestor worship, et cetera, that sort of thing. 

And, um, spirit worship and so on. Which is why I prefer them, which doesn’t have any any of those in it. Said Zen is really more of a practice than a set of beliefs you really don’t have to believe in. I think one of my favorite books is by Stephen Batchelor. It’s called Buddhism Without Beliefs. I do think this kind of practice is compatible with some. One main reason is if you look into the brain, you don’t find a little self in that. That’s a fundamentally weird fact. We feel as though we are a little selves inside our brain looking out through the eyes. But you know that there’s just neurons in that that kind of center itself. 

Jim Underdown the mind is what the brain does. 

Yes. Yes, you could say that. Now, that’s eminently compatible with the Buddhist idea of annatto or no self, which is that there’s nobody in that. There’s just stuff happening. Everything is caused by something else. And things just happen. And there isn’t a little self who’s going to go on and live forever or anything like that. It’s very sad and rather amusing, I suppose, that people associate Buddhism. With reincarnation. Because if if the Buddha saw that there’s no persisting self that cannot be reincarnated in a personal sense of, you know, something’s going on to live another life, and I certainly don’t believe in that. Absolutely not. Rather, I think that the idea of a self is sort of recreated every moment as soon as you think of yourself as a self. 

Hope, there it is. And then it kind of goes away and there it is again. And it does not really a continuing self. That’s what comes out of both Buddhism and science. And I think that’s that’s one of the main reasons why I find both of them helping the other. 

Susan, we’ve talked about seemingly very unrelated fields. Your research interests seem to not really touch into one another, but in the course of our conversation, we see how, in fact, they are so related. And you look at all all of them through a thoroughly naturalistic, a scientific, naturalistic point of view. You mentioned earlier that people aren’t going to change their minds about the paranormal, and that’s one of your frustrations. Got you out of parapsychological research. If you’re a thoroughgoing naturalist, why bother? Why engage people who don’t believe like you? Isn’t it just that some people will believe in the little man inside them or the big man in the clouds? Or are any of these other sacred cows that you’ve set yourself up against? 

Yes, it is very interesting question that if I take the whole business of free will until I really don’t want to go and persuade anybody, you know, ordinary people out there, I’m struggling with this myself. I’m delighted that other people are interested. And if they want to hear about it, I’m happy to talk about it. But it’s a tricky thing and I don’t really know where it’s going. You know, let’s all explore it together. But it’s rather different when you come to the paranormal and religion, because I have seen through all these decades of doing research the harm that these things do. I have seen people harmed by psychics. I’ve seen people who can’t afford it, pouring money into into psychics and mediums and spiritualists and and clairvoyance and all of these things. I’ve seen people make appalling decisions because that horoscope told them something. And I’ve seen, you know, what’s the news they’re going to say? I see the wars fueled by religion. I see intolerance and bigotry and racial strife that is exaggerated by religion. So those are the ones that I can actively want to do something about, because I feel if I’m in a position to do so, then then I should help because I feel, you know, I care about other people. 

And then you can say, well, why if you don’t believe in freewill logic, I won’t pay. You know, I’m a human being. Human beings actually do care about each other, thank goodness. 

And I guess I’m just like any other human being if I can help. All right. 

Thank you very much for joining me on point of inquiry, Susan. 

Not at all. I’ve enjoyed it very much. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Pointed inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Palin. Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan Debbie Goddard and Thomas Donnally. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.