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Interview with Dr. David Lane reexamines Dr. Patricia Churchland’s Skeptiko interview, and the implications of near-death experience science for academia.

exposing-cultsJoin Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Mt. San Antonio College Professor of Philosophy, Dr. David Lane. During the interview Lane offers a different perspective on Dr. Churchland’s materialistic explanation of the mind:

Alex Tsakiris: I am having an interview with her to expose how ridiculous it is for this person to be writing books on consciousness. To be teaching our children these ridiculous ideas that she can’t defend in the most basic way. I am just calling, “the emperor has no clothes” on the entire idea that  consciousness is an illusion. It is just silliness that gets perpetuated and never gets challenged in any meaningful way.

Dr. David Lane: And that’s fine, that’s fair game. But, when I go to the dentist do I want him to think that the pain that I have from my wisdom tooth is part and parcel with my brain? Or part of my peripheral nervous system? The answer is yes.  So on one level, here’s a different way of putting this — if we are matter, what is the matter? My point being is what is the problem if we are just the brain? Physics itself, like matter itself, is more mysterious in a weird way than spirit even describes. 

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Original essay by Dr. David Lane:

 THE MATERIAL BASIS OF NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCES — Exploring the Patricia Churchland and Alex Tsakiris

Follow-up essay after our interview:

BEING SKEPTICAL OF SKEPTICS

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Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Dr. David C. Lane to Skeptiko. Dr. Lane is professor of philosophy at Mount San Antonio college in the LA area, and a lecturer in religious studies at Cal State Long Beach. He hosts the Neural Surfer website, a site that has the tagline ‘where the skeptical meets the mystical.’ And we are going to have to ask more about that. And he has done some amazing work exposing new-age cults – the kind of work that made him a target for those groups where he was getting death threats at night. So this is another interesting thing we can talk about. And then the real main reason I wanted to have Dave on is because he recently posted an essay defending his friend Dr. Patricia Churchland, who as many of you know appeared on Skeptiko a few episodes ago and had some interesting things to say about near-death experience science. So we have a lot to talk about. I think it ought to be really fun and interesting. I have had a nice email exchange with Dr. Lane. He seems like a really nice guy who I like, but we are probably going to butt heads on some of these issues as well. I first want to start just by thanking you, Dave, so much for joining me and coming on Skeptiko.

Dr. David Lane: Thank you, and also thank you for reading the article because it is always kind of nice to get feedback. So I appreciate you doing that.

Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely. I love the internet and the community that we create and being able to link up with people that you didn’t know. And suddenly you are reading each other’s stuff and getting into each other’s world a little bit. It’s a wonderful world we live in. So I tell you what – let’s start with this. Why don’t you fill in some of the details of your bio  that I just sketched out and kind of flesh that out for people a little bit.

Dr. David Lane: Well I have been a professor of philosophy at Mount San Antonio College for about 25 – I may be going for my 26th year. Prior to that I used to teach at the University of California at San Diego at Warren College. There are a number of colleges at UCSD and I was at Warren College teaching writing – English 1A, 1B. And at the time I was getting my PhD in the sociology of knowledge and my interest has always been, interestingly enough, in Indian philosophy or Indian religions. And so after that I had a number of teaching jobs. I taught at the California School of Professional Psychology, Palomar College, and also at Cal State Long Beach. And you may remember this in Delmar, but perhaps not – about 20 years ago, there used to be a little kind of a funky school called the University of Humanistic studies, which was really about parapsychology and the paranormal. And people got their MAs or PhDs there. I taught there in the latter part of the late 80s, early part of the 1990s. And my wife Andrea is also a professor of philosophy. She got her PhD at UC Santa Barbara although she did her undergraduate – you will find this interesting – at UCSD, and used to be a research assistant to VS Ramachandran, a very famous neuroscientist.

Alex Tsakiris: Wow, quite a lot of brain power in that family.

Dr. David Lane: Yeah, but my wife is definitely smarter than I am.

Alex Tsakiris: Well, played, whether it is true or not.

Dr. David Lane: There you go, you know what’s going on there.

Alex Tsakiris: Tell us a little bit about this tagline, where the skeptical meets the mystical.

Dr. David Lane: When I was young, about 10 or 11 years old, I was really into baseball. And it must have been the early 1960s and I walked into the North Hollywood public library. And I wanted to read about Yogi Berra. Now to show you how stupid I was I saw this book called Autobiography of the Yogi, and I thought well maybe it is about Yogi Berra. Until I saw the cover of course, and it is about Yogananda. So at a very young age I got interested in alternative spirituality, different that the Roman-Catholic faith that I was brought up into. So I read that book when I was 11 and I got very interested on a spiritual quest. So I read every single thing I could possibly read in high school or whatever and then eventually what happened was I spoke in tongues, of all things – glossolalia when I was 15 years old. And it was such a transformative experience that it kind of opened my eyes up to alternative realities. Even if I have a different neurological explanation of speaking in tongues later, at the time it was very mystical. So I then eventually get interested in India. I go on a research project at the age of 22 with professor Juergensmeyer out of Berkeley, to go study north India gurus. And my job, because I was pretty good at baseball cards, I just transferred it over to guru cards if you get my drift here, was I developed a huge genealogical tree of these gurus who practiced literally conscious near-death experiences.

So they do a technique called shabd yoga. I had to go track these guys down, interview them. It is fascinating stuff. But right prior to doing that in my undergraduate days at Cal State Northridge I did a term paper, and you may have known about this, about Eckankar, which is a group founded by Paul Twitchell back in 1965.

Alex Tsakiris: So how old are you now David? You are a graduate student?

Dr. David Lane: What happened was when I did the paper on Eckankar I was 20, I would say. By the time I am 22 I have been invited to go to India. I have been going to Berkeley to get my Master’s degree under Juergensmeyer at the graduate theological union. I go to India at the age of 22, is what happens. So I am really interested in spirituality, really interested in this kind of stuff. But you can imagine a good analogy or metaphor is the Wizard of Oz. You really believe the wizard, you really think he has the power, and then all of a sudden because you get an inside glimpse you start to pull the curtain and you see that there are more mundane things happening. And so when I did this guru study in India, and I have been to India eight times, I saw behind the curtain. And I saw a lot of things that a lot of people didn’t know. So it made me almost much more skeptical as the years progressed, if that makes any sense.

But I am kind of a contradiction of terms to quote Errol Flynn, who happens to be one of my favorite movie stars, in a wonderful book called My Wicked, Wicked Ways. He says, “I am an octagon of contradictions, which in itself may be no contradiction.” And I am kind of the same way because people get irritated with me. On one side I am still that young boy who is seeking and then on the other side I am kind of that jaded skeptic who has seen too much.

Alex Tsakiris: Very good, very good. I kind of directed you away from this other interesting topic that I want you to talk about a little bit – your book, Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical. And it is quite a story, right?

Dr. David Lane: Yeah, because what happens is that at the age of 20 I do a term paper on Eckankar and it is supposed to be 10 pages but it balloons up to about 120 to 150 pages because I find out that Paul Twitchell had plagiarized his sacred writings.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, can you back up and tell people who he is how prominent he still is today?

Dr. David Lane: Right, Paul Twitchell was kind of a religious seeker. He is from Paducah, Kentucky. In the early 1960s he starts this group called Eckankar. Now Eckankar is a Punjabi word which really means ‘one God’ but he will change that later. He starts his group in the 60s, where a lot of groups were started. And he starts it actually in San Diego and then he eventually moves it to Las Vegas. What’s the goal of the group? To have conscious out-of-body experiences. He was influenced, or we think he was influenced, by four major factors. He used to be a press agent from L. Ron Hubbard in scientology. He was associated with self-realization fellowship Yogananda. He was also a member of Kirpal Singh’s group Ruhani Satsang, and he was also connected to theosophy or at least influence by theosophy. So when I did my term paper I found out a lot of things that people didn’t know. I am kind of really naïve at the time, so I do the term paper and I send it to Eckankar’s headquarters, which used to be Menlo Park. Twitchell is now dead, he died in 1971. So they write me back a couple months later and my mom is kind of teary because she gets this registered letter from the San Francisco attorney saying they are going to sue me.

Alex Tsakiris: Because you have exposed just blatant plagiarism here that is kind of undeniable at this point, right?

Dr. David Lane: You would think so. And also he had lied about his life. He claimed he was born in 1922. He had a young wife and as far as we could tell he was born in 1909. He also claims to have traveled to India and there is no evidence that he actually did. He claims that he meets [inaudible – 00:08:31], a 500-year old Tibetan monk. There is no evidence that exists. So he kind of creates a religious mythology, if you get my drift, to kind of hide his real theopneusty or his real past. And so I tried to uncover that to show what his historical life was really like versus his mythology that he has created. And because I did that Eckankar was really irritated. And what happened is some guy got hold of my term paper and then bicycled it or copied it throughout the United States and Europe. And it caused a huge stir and I got death threats and people wanted to kill me and sue me and blah, blah, blah. So that is what stated it and then of course there are all these other groups that happen later on.

Alex Tsakiris: Amazing, that really does kind of fill in the background. Quite a unique perspective you bring to this, as you said. So I don’t know, we could talk about that for a long time. I did send you a link to another show I have done on the cult phenomena. I think it is fascinating and I think the intersection with a lot of the consciousness research that I have been looking at is undeniable, unexplored, and kind of this dark little alley that nobody quite wants to go down no matter which side you’re on. But I do want to move off of that if I can because in the time we have I really want to focus in on this essay that you posted on the integralworld.net website titled ‘The Material Basis of Near-Death Experiences.’ And it is a direct kind of – I don’t know, it is a summation and a rebuttal to this interview that I had with Patricia Churchland about near-death experiences and your understanding of how that kind of went off the rails or whatever it did. Tell us why you wrote it and what you think about it.

Dr. David Lane: That’s good. Let me give you a little background because that will kind of help. When I went to UCSD I had a regent’s fellowship to get my PhD in 84 and they also gave me a teaching job. I think that same year, if I am not mistaken, Patricia Churchland and Paul Churchland came to UCSD. They were considered really hot professors. And remember I am just in graduate school trying to get my PhD. Well I am teaching this writing class and I have a friend of mine who I have met who was a surfer, but he is now in Australia, named Tom Wegener. He was taking my class and Patricia Churchland’s class at the same time. And he would come in and tell me about her neural philosophy. A couple of years later she would write that very famous textbook called Neural Philosophy because she is basically the progenitor of this idea that you can’t do philosophy without studying the brain. Well, watch where I am coming from. I am coming from a Ramana Maharshi consciousness-first principle and you can’t understand consciousness without being conscious, if you get my drift. It is almost John Searle’s notion that you have to do first-person subjectivity and a third person analysis will just not capture it.

So he comes in and tells me that Churchland says, ‘You’re just three pounds of glorious wonder meat – you’re just a brain.’ And I’m an arrogant SOB at the time and think that’s bullshit. Go tell her this – so I tell him the Ramana Maharshi about who is asking the question, where is consciousness, and all that. And he would come back and I don’t know if he told Churchland who I was – I would imagine he didn’t. he probably just raised his head and said he has some nutty English teacher saying there is something more, beyond the brain. And she would just lacerate my response. This would go back and forth during the whole quarter at UCSD. So I knew about her work and I was just fascinated. And I had this kind of perverse mentality of wanting to understand the opposite of what I believe. So when she came out with neural philosophy and Paul Churchland came out with matter and consciousness and the engine to see the soul and all of that, I just became obsessed with reading their books.

So in 1990, and this will all set up why I responded the way I did, a student of mine Meredith Doren who is now a professor of French literature at Penn State – real bright student. And interested in spiritual realities. She wanted to interview because we were doing a thing called Plato’s cave, which was a journal on philosopher. She wanted to interview a female philosopher and as you know they are relatively rare – famous ones. So I said, ‘Hey, interview Patricia Churchland.’ So she calls her on the phone and they have a long interview. It is published and I think it is on integralworld.net as well. It was called The Neural Basis of Consciousness, a Glorious Piece of Meat, and the Dalai Lama. And she does a really nice interview because Churchland is a hardcore materialist. And she takes [inaudible – 00:13:02] materialism and reduces it down to the brain. So we published that and I thought it was a good interview. So what happens is I become kind of a Churchland aficionado because I study all her stuff and read her books and all that. So it must have been about two weeks ago – when did your interview come out?

Alex Tsakiris: At the end of January, beginning of February, 2014.

Dr. David Lane: Fair enough. I hadn’t even heard of it but what happened is I started getting flooded with people telling me about this interview and people irritated with me because I had quoted Churchland and I have made a couple of movies related to her philosophy. And one guy in particular – I think this guy is from Germany – goes, ‘You should never quote Churchland again, read this interview.’ And then I got somebody on Radhasoami studies, which is a Yahoo! forum that we do. And this is a good guy, a guy I highly respect, Manjet is his user name – he says, ‘You’ve got to check this thing out.’ So I looked at the interview and I said, ‘Oh, wow.’ I think when you first posted the interview the transcript wasn’t fully there, if I’m not mistaken, or maybe it was. But I wanted to listen to the interview. So I did that and I got excited and thought this was an interesting thing. Then I realized I better go read – is it Pim Van Lommel?

Alex Tsakiris: Pim Van Lommel.

Dr. David Lane: Lommel, okay. I said I have to go read his original study because that’s what she quotes. So I did that and then I analyzed it and thought what really goes on here, was she really scared of Alex? Which I can’t imagine she would be – she would have to expect that people would be doubtful that we’re just the brain and these are just the brain. So I did my little analysis and that was the reason I did it. I got kin dof excited and thought it was fun.

Alex Tsakiris: Awesome. Like I said at the beginning, the opportunity to engage a guy like you and meet you is super, so whatever comes out of it I am all ready for the better. But I want to dig into that. I think we can have a real productive, interesting discussion about what you’ve written. Early on in the essay you write this – Churchland’s materialistic view that consciousness is a product of the brain was touching a very sensitive nerve amongst those who hold that consciousness cannot be materially reduced to the substratum of our central nervous system. Now, I find this fascinating because I hear this kind of thing sometimes and it seems to me like a very strange reformulation of the issue. I mean, I think we all understand what is at stake here. Near-death experiences seem to be evidence the consciousness is not a product of the brain. I mean, that’s what’s on the table. So it is a really big deal. It would not only totally revolutionize philosophy but science and western thought in its entirety would be shaken up if that was true. So it is not a matter of touching a nerve it is about trying to answer one of the most important scientific questions we could answer. And the problem with the interview is that Churchland is such a total lightweight when it comes to near-death experience research. She is just over her head from the beginning. Now, Dave, you’re kind of open enough to admit that you can’t even Dr. Pim Van Lommel’s name. She is quoting him and doesn’t know his work, doesn’t understand his work. She doesn’t understand near-death experience science and the published research in general. So I see somebody who likes to come on strong with these ideas but as soon as you push back a little bit she just looks rather ridiculous and I think that’s what happened.

Dr. David Lane: The way I looked at it, Alex, and I concede that you’re totally correct and I don’t think she has a wide range of materials understanding NDEs. I think that is obviously. For instance, just this morning I watched one of the interviews with Van Lommel. And I was fascinated becuase it was a wonderful interview. And he is very clear that he believes that NDEs are transneural. He does not believe that they are part and parcel of the brain. You are absolutely correct on that; however, looking at Churchland’s book – because I had read Touching a Nerve – I noticed that she only cites one study by him and his colleagues as you know, and that is in Lancet. If you look purely at the Lancet study you can see where she is going. I am not trying to justify her.

Alex Tsakiris: You can’t justify it. Come on, let’s be intellectually honest. That is the problem. Let me back up and fill in the details there for you, and for our listeners because you have already gone down this path. And for those who don’t know, this guy Dr. Pim Van Lommel is a very highly-regarded cardiologist in the Netherlands who really kind of stumbled across this near-death experience stuff early in his professional career. And he has said since then that many cardiologists stumble across this. There are people who have a heart attack and they wake up the next day and say, ‘Doc, you won’t believe what I saw. I was over the bed and you were resuscitating me.’ And they tell the whole story and it happens a lot. But this is a guy who, for whatever reason, just became fascinated with this. And you can related to this based on your story. He just became fascinated with this and he said, ‘Wait a minute. We got this as potentially earth-shattering and we have to dig into this.’ And he started studying it very comprehensively. He spent 20 years at a bunch of hospitals that he linked together across the Netherlands. Then as you alluded to, he published this groundbreaking studies in the Lancet, one of the most respected medical journals in the world. And he concluded and said in very kind of proper scientific terms that basically everything I have seen about near-death experiences says that they are highly suggestive that consciousness is not purely a function of the brain.

But here is the point that I guess you were kind of alluding to. And I feel like we’re kind of apologizing for Churchland in a way that we just can’t do. And that is that if you are going to engage in the near-death experience science you have to know that. You can’t say, ‘Oh, I picked a little phrase out of his Lancet study,’ when the guy has written all these books. As you just said he has all these Google videos you can watch. It is clearly in this camp – not in this camp. Here is a guy who has studied it for 20 years as a professional and said, ‘Here is the only conclusion that is reasonable to come to. Sorry, end of story.’ You can’t get this wrong if you are Patricia Churchland and you claim to be saying anything meaningful about near-death experiences. You can’t blow it like she did.

Dr. David Lane: Well watch where I am coming from, or how I was looking at this just so you will understand. I was trying to look at what Churchland was doing. So what I did was I went through the Lancet study and I go how in the hell could she have come up with this quote? Remember she makes this argument that it is the contentious quote of there is a neurological basis to NDEs. And when I read this study you will see where she did the page before – she takes his study almost word by word. Remember if you look at the page I think it is on page 70. She takes word by word the summation of the guy’s study. She then says – and this is the contentious line – that the Lancet study says, ‘And yet neurophysiological processes must place some part in NDEs.’ So this is where I think if she only looked at the Lancet study what happens is that she then over-exaggerates from that sentence. That is where you and I agree. Where I disagree is I think she just looked at the Lancet study – do you understand what I am trying to say? I mean, that’s what I think she did. And you are correct to criticize her for not doing a wider range of materials but you can see that is what I think you notice on my addendum on the article I wrote. Did you see how somebody is trying to justify that she misquoted him? Do you remember this? And do you remember that she has this quote where somebody is mentioning and saying that I think this woman said it was really Dean Mobs that she claims that she was quoting. I don’t know if Churchland wrote that letter or not. If she did – I will be on your side on this one. If she says that and I don’t know if it was her or a fake letter, but let’s say it is. But if Churchland says that she made that mistake she just went from the frying pan into the fire because that’s ridiculous because it is not true. As I analyze this and you can see in my study that I did a whole analysis and it is clear that she is based on his Lancet study, don’t you think? Would you agree with that?

Alex Tsakiris: Well I would conclude that she is just a lightweight and she is confused and she doesn’t know what she is talking about. But to fill people in a little so it is not total inside baseball here, after I published the Churchland interview – fortunately for me on Skeptiko I have a wide variety of viewpoints represented in my listenership. So a lot of people are very skeptical. They jumped on this interview and were really trying to defend Churchland. And one of those skeptical listeners – and actually it was a couple of them – sent her an email and said, ‘Hey, I heard this and I think you made a simple mistake. I think you were quoting the Dean Mobs, Carolyn Watt paper, and that’s the confusion.’ And then Dr. Churchland emailed her back and said, ‘Oh, you’re right. Gosh dang.’ And she says dang. ‘I hate when that happens.’ I mean this is just mind-blowing.

Dr. David Lane: That’s a mistake. She needs to go back to her book, look at the Lancet study, and look how she almost – now, I am not saying plagiarism but she gets close to doing word by word from his study. Then you can almost see why she does it because remember she then tries to explain the transformative experience in her own words. Because remember his study argues that the transformative experiences of NDEs are different than drug-induced experienced. And remember she was trying to correlate drug-induced experiences with NDEs. He makes a very clear distinction between those things. So if she is going to do this it is going to look a lot worse on her because it is obvious she used his study, as I pointed out in my analysis.

Alex Tsakiris: I think you do a fair job of that, a good job of that, and a fair-minded job of that. But Dr. Lane, let’s move off of near-death experience for a minute and kind of in the same ballpark let’s talk about consciousness science in general. Because one of my frustrations is that sometimes we get into all this focus about near-death experience science and it can leave the impression that it is the main thing, that’s what we’re really interested in, and it’s not for me. For me it is about the implication of near-death experience science for understanding this question that you have studied it sounds like your whole professional life, really, or your whole adult life, and that is consciousness. And the reason we are so interested in near-death experience science is because we have real science that comes back and is providing hard evidence that this assumption we have been making that consciousness is purely a product of the brain, that somehow that is not correct. Somehow there is more. And even if we don’t want to speculate how much more or global consciousness or big mind or any spiritual thing we have to confront the data that suggests hey, there is more. So first off, let me stop there and tell me what you think. Do you ascribe to the idea that consciousness is 100% brain-based? Mind equals brain.

Dr. David Lane: Honestly I am too stupid to make that kind of absolute conclusion. I want to keep an open mind but I will tell you my bias. My bias is that Skeptics, including people like Daniel Dennet and Dawkins and the hardcores, I think they are really doing us a huge favor. What they do – and not all the time, granted they are going to make huge mistakes and blunders, I am not arguing that – and what they are basically saying is, ‘Give me more evidence.’ And I know in my own life that when people are skeptical, like the Eckankar or the John-Roger Hinkins thing, or the Sathya Sai Baba thing that happened, people got pissed at me. As you know I got death threats and everything and they said, ‘We want more evidence.’ They don’t even believe the plagiarism. And instead of seeing that as a negative I see it as a positive because if consciousness indeed transcends the brain then no materialistic explanation will be sufficient to explain it. Therefore neuroscience is going to end up heading into an epistemological cul de sac and get their ass kicked, which is really good. But if we don’t let them place skepticism to their full arena then there is a danger. Because believers, pardon my language, as cheap sluts for the paranormal. I am sure you are aware that some people will believe anything. Like Sathya Sai Baba is probably the best example I can think of. For 30 to 40 years I dealt with people telling me he had paranormal powers and you perhaps have seen the study. It turns out he was a bad sleight of hand magician. Or John-Roger Hinkins, the founder of MSIA, who robbed my house but we won’t go into detail there. He was apparently psychic. I knew the guy and he was telling me things I was thinking about in the bathroom because I was kind of talking out loud. Well it turns out he wired his entire house. So the skeptic is good in this sense –

Alex Tsakiris: In this sense, in this neuro sense.

Dr. David Lane: Yes, within that parameter they are saying, ‘Up your game.’ And I think that what is exciting about this is that you are getting these neurosurgeons like that new book that has been out for a while called Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. You have people with incredible, interesting reputations and credentials, smart people who are basically saying that consciousness transcends the brain. Well even Sam Harris who has a new book coming out called Waking Up, in which he is talking about meditation and things of that nature. He even argues against Dennet and Churchland and says you cannot explain consciousness the way you think you are. He argues they are not. Consciousness is almost an evitable thing even though he  may say it is part of the brain.

Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, but he is trying to slide into this middle position. I had quite an exchange with him that is a nowhere position. It is like I am not a Christian, I am not an atheist, I will be an agnostic – which is nothing. No one lays their head on the pillow at night and goes, ‘I don’t believe anything.’ You go one way or the other. The famous South Park episode captured that.

Dr. David Lane: Maybe though, and I was thinking of Edward O. Wilson, and it is kind of an exaggeration. He wrote a very famous book called Consilience. He is the Emeritus professor of biology at Harvard and he argued about the triune brain. Now obviously the triune brain is kind of an overstated reductionism but I kind of noticed the same thing in myself. There is this top part of my brain – he called it the heartless part of yourself, the cerebral cortex, and it is kind of rational and kind of skeptical. The mid part of my brain is the emotional mammalian structure. And then of course the lower part of the brain, which is probably the most powerful, is the reptilian stem. And I noticed with myself that there is this emotional side who really thinks there might be something beyond the body and the mind and is open to it. Then there is that Spock part of my data side that goes, oh bullshit, we kind of know you’re just a brain Dave. That’s why nobody hits themselves with a hammer or why you go to the doctor or a dentist and you have a root canal problem. You think pain is really located in the brain. So I can understand why somebody could be of two minds. Does that make sense? Do you see where I’m going with this?

Alex Tsakiris: It does, but that’s why we need the rigor of science and we need to level the playing field. Part of the problem with the up your game kind of position that you’re taking is that at this point the game has been so rigged against anyone who challenges this scientific materialism that it is essentially impossible for anyone to go forward in any meaningful way on that. Now I have 250 shows to back up what I am talking about there so I will just kind of leave it at that. But as a way of reinforcing that I guess I can come back to your article and maybe dig into this consciousness thing. Because another interesting quote from there that I was going to beat you up a little bit about is you suggest that I conflate Churchland’s nuanced understanding of consciousness with my own caricatures of Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins. Explain to me what you think are the nuances of that consciousness that I am not getting from Daniel Dennet, who famously said that consciousness is an illusion, and Richard Dawkins, who famously said that we’re biological robots. I don’t think those are caricatures, I think that is what those guys really think.

Dr. David Lane: Well they might but remember you were interviewing Churchland. And if you remember Churchland corrects you at that point and says, ‘Well that’s not my view.’ Regardless of whether we accept her view, I think if I you really wanted to understand her view it is almost like giving somebody a long noose around their neck or a long rope. That was what I was commenting on. I am not arguing that Dawkins doesn’t say [inaudible – 00:30:50], I was simply saying that Churchland corrects that view.

Alex Tsakiris: What I was pointing out Dave, and we were talking about this with Sam Harris a minute ago, but these guys like Churchland who we have already said is a lightweight and doesn’t know what she is talking about on this topic is trying to slither her way into this emergent property of consciousness without any clue of what that means. So as soon as she is pressed with what does emergent property of the brain mean, Dr Churchland? When does consciousness begin? When does it end? What is necessary and sufficient to cause consciousness? Are dogs conscious? Are these cats who are running around my office and causing all this commotion, are they conscious? Is a rock conscious? She doesn’t even have the beginnings of an answer to that and yet she wants to put forward this idea that she has somehow moved past Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins? In what way have you moved past?

Dr. David Lane: Well it comes down to a question – are you doing an interview to kind of have a debate with her or are you having an interview for her to elaborate her viewpoint. Do you see where I am going with this?

Alex Tsakiris: I am having an interview with her to expose how ridiculous it is for this person to be writing books on consciousness. To be teaching our children these ridiculous ideas that she can’t defend in even the most basic way. I am just calling it the emperor has no clothes for the entire idea that this consciousness is an illusion. It is just silliness that gets perpetuated and never gets challenged in any meaningful way.

Dr. David Lane: But you have got to be careful though because the key with me is you just want to be accurate to what she said. Did she really say consciousness was an illusion herself?

Alex Tsakiris: She said that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain and I called her on what does that mean?

Dr. David Lane: And that’s fine, that’s fair game. But what I’m saying is you just want to be accurate to what she says, not trying to create these caricatures that she can knock down as strong men. Your argument will be stronger if you just take her own words. That was really my analysis that I was giving in the paper. But let me push this a little differently. Let’s just keep an open mind. Now would you agree, and I think we would agree, that certain parts of our consciousness clearly have some neurological correlations. Would you agree with that?

Alex Tsakiris: It certainly seems so.

Dr. David Lane: Doesn’t it seem that way? So watch how I am going to go with this. This is kind of the way I do it. When I go to the dentist do I want him to think that the pain that I have from my wisdom tooth is part and parcel with my brain? Or part of my peripheral nervous system? The answer is yes. When I have eye surgery, let’s say, do I want him to be thinking that this eyeball is connected to my brain? Well yeah, and the same thing with my hearing. I recently had nasal surgery because I surf too much and I couldn’t smell for like four or five years. And I got this surgery and I could smell again. And he is a neurosurgeon. He is a very smart guy and he knows how the brain works. So on one level here comes a different way of putting this. It is kind of a pun and I think I posted it on Facebook. If we are matter, what is the matter? My point being is what is the problem if we are just the brain? Physics itself, like matter itself, is more mysterious in a weird way than spirit even describes. Because think about it – you have a level of a tree, then you have the level of cells, then you have the level of molecules, the level of atoms. You break it all the way down and you get down to the nucleus of the atom, you have the protons, you have electrons manifesting, and quarks. Then you get down to super string and as Sir Arthur Eddington pointed out – he was a famous astronomer who more or less confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity back in 1919 – and he said, and I quote him exactly, ‘Something unknown is doing what I don’t know.’ So watch the Trojan horse here. Let’s just say it is all matter. That doesn’t explain it because matter itself is mystical and saying it is all spirit.

I gave this talk in India, and actually it was a video conference because I couldn’t go to India to do it, at the Dayalbagh Educational Institute and I made this real simple point. I said if we were in heaven, you and I Alex – let’s imagine we’re in heaven and we’re having this conversation and you said, ‘What are we made out of?’ And you say, ‘Dave, we’re made out of light. We’re radiant beings of light.’ I wouldn’t get depressed. I would go, ‘Well, that’s cool.’ That’s really neat. But here on terra firma when we find out that somebody says you’re just matter we get depressed. I suggest that we get depressed because we have a bad definition of what matter actually is. Because given E=MC squared by Einstein, matter is energy and matter is light. You and I are congealed particles of light. We are frozen popsicles of light. So on one level you give them the materialist argument and it is going to bite them in the posterior because nobody knows what matter ultimately is, if that makes any sense.

Alex Tsakiris: It does in a very interesting – and I mean that sincerely – philosophical kind of way. I mean that sincerely. But it gets back to your work and the body of your work that you have created in some way in that if there is this larger reality of consciousness, of spirituality. Let’s put that term out there because that’s where things really head if you go down that path very far. Then you can pretty quickly come to this realization that this reality isn’t reality. This isn’t real and therefore anything that we might postulate or kind of speculate about just really kind of doesn’t matter anyway. And anyone in these cults or in these new-age religious movements that you have studied so well could say the same thing. They could say, ‘Dave, you don’t realize it doesn’t matter if I am doing sleight of hand because it’s all the same, buddy. We’re all getting to the same place. And instead you have stepped in there and said well, wait a minute. In this terra firma, in this reality, or I would like to say in this consensus reality where we can say yeah, there is a wave out there and I surfed it this morning. In this consensus reality does make a difference. You’re a fraud. You’re injuring people. You shouldn’t do that and I am going to stop you. In the same way I think we have to use the best means we have to be precise here and to say that is not good enough. Consciousness if it is established, as I think it clearly is, that consciousness cannot be explained purely by the biological function in your brain, that we just have to buck it up and deal with that. And now try and find a trick back door as to why that might be okay. We have to do our best and see it is either real or it isn’t.

Dr. David Lane: Again, I kind of have this thing on it and I posted it this morning where we can do a two-pronged approach. We can both be skeptical. The most famous story I have related to this is a guy named Faqir Chand who was pretty famous. He has been dead since 1981 and he meditated or tried to induce a conscious near-death experience his whole life. And he did it. He became very successful at having conscious OOBs. And he did this practice called Surat Shabd yoga. And he did it for like 70 years, a very interesting guy. And he had this ability to leave his body and go to different realms of consciousness. Exactly the point that you are trying to make. Eventually he gets spiritual. What is so interesting about him is that he began to doubt the explanations of what was happening in those out of body experiences. So in 1919 he was Baghdad right after World War I and he thinks he is going to be killed. He thinks he is going to die with these patriots and he has a vision of this guru, [inaudible – 00:38:48]. And the guru says, ‘Don’t shoot the enemy, they have just come to take away their dead.’ Well Faqir Chand then follows the instructions, tells the supervising major, and everybody’s life is saved. But around the same time, however, as he goes back to Baghdad, he sees his old friends from India. And they start to bow and worship. And he goes, ‘Why are you worshipping me?’ They said, ‘Don’t you know? We were in the battlefield and we prayed for our guru. But he didn’t show up. You showed up, Faqir Chand, and saved our lives.’ And Faqir Chand looked at me – he was smoking a hookah pipe and I checked that it was tobacco – and he goes, ‘David, I didn’t know anything about it! Who appeared to them?’ So he starts showing me these letters about all these people having these incredible miracles and visions about him and he goes, ‘I didn’t know anything about it.’ So he began to doubt the explanation. He didn’t doubt the experience but he doubted the interpretation of what was occurring. So he later radically said, ‘This is all a projection of my own mind.’

Now, Faqir Chand did believe that consciousness may transcend the body but the only reason I mention this to you is I think we could take a two-pronged approach. It doesn’t have to be one versus the other. I meditate, not just between you and me but also the whole world, and I meditate every day for maybe an hour and a half, two hours a day – a lot. My kids think I meditate too much. And I love that feeling, that sensation of meditation. Because it feels spiritual, right? But maybe later on that afternoon I could read a lot of Dawkins and Harris or the late Christopher Hitchens or Daniel Dennet or Gerald Edelman, and I take on my skeptical hat. But I like it. I just enjoy doing that. I think it is fun because as F. Scott Fitzgerald, to quote from his famous essay for Esquire called The Crackup back in the 1930s, he said, ‘The sign of an intelligent mind is the ability to have two opposing ideas at the same time and not go nuts or be unable to function.’ So I think what you have done, and I will give you a real kudos here, but you have become the skeptic of the Skeptic and that is important because what it does is it forces the Skeptic, remember I said game on? It forces the Skeptic to raise their stakes. And with Churchland I think you do clearly point out she did not do enough background research. And just to quote Lancet enough is insufficient. That I would agree with you.

Alex Tsakiris: You know the only problem with that is that what I have found in this journey of mind through the skeptical community is that it is not two opinions. There is another force at play. There is a power structure there that is self-perpetuating. Skeptics are the tip of the spear for scientific materialism. And scientific materialism is fundamental to our way of life. You can’t go drop bombs on people and shoot depleted uranium from your tanks at the Iraqis unless you have a scientific, materialistic world view. It’s not possible. You can’t grab all the world’s water and say, ‘Hey, if you’re thirsty, too bad.’ You can’t do that if we’re all really connected. I’m not trying to be spiritual here, I’m just trying to be practical. So there are some major forces at play here and we don’t know. I am not smart enough, savvy enough, or connected enough to know the extent to which they are at play. But they are sure as hell at play here. So these Skeptics are allowed to run out their jackals and jesters and play these dirty tricks because again they are the tip of the spear for a scientific establishment who needs that kind of mischief-making so that they can keep business as usual.

Dr. David Lane: One point on that – having gone through a fairly rigorous program at UCSD and knowing lots of scientific friends of mine, I’m not sure that is true. I mean, I agree with you that the overarching paradigm is to reduce things to material structure. I agree with that. But I am obviously against the Iraq war, I think it is ridiculous, but my sense of it is that it has more to do with capitalism and not necessarily science, even though I quite agree that the capitalism can sabotage it here.

Alex Tsakiris: Oh, totally. It’s not like some professor at UCSD has signed some secret document that links him to supporting any of this stuff. The system becomes institutionalized and it becomes systemic where this is what you do just to get to the next cookie crumb that’s on the ground. You never see the big picture. There are very few people that see the big picture. You know, here is what I was going to bring back – one last point and I appreciate your openness and awesome discussion dialogue here. But I do have to mention this guy because he is just a pain in the butt. You know who I am talking about, because you talk a little bit about Jerry Coyne and repeat some of the gibberish that he has posted. And I say gibberish because the stuff he said about me is totally baseless. I don’t even have to go into it because any fair-minded person can just listen to the interview and the followup interview that I did with him. And it is obvious, anyone will see it. But let me back up for a minute. For folks who don’t know, Dr. Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago is an over-the-top atheist who loves getting into these obscene-filled rants about religion and he is supposed to be somewhat of an expert on evolutionary theory and Darwin, so I just have to throw this in there because you did mention the article. He came on my show and as he says it was quite contentious and anyone who knows this guy knows that is the way he loves it. So for him to play like, ‘Oh man, it was so contentious,’ that was his game all the way.

So one of the questions I was able to get through to him on, and it has to do with the history of the theory of evolution and the relationship between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. And to anyone who knows this history is a fascinating little story. So in particular, Jerry was emphatic about claiming that Alfred Russell Wallace never connected biogeography to evolution. This was actually his quote – ‘Wallace did not use biogeography as evidence of evolution. I mean never.’ So he was emphatic about this point and he went on and on and on about it, and of course I don’t even know this stuff, Dave. This is so outside of my field. But I knew this was a completely absurd thing to say. So I had it in the back of my head that Wallace was considered the father of biogeography. So I interviewed Michael Flannery, who is an author. He is a biographer of Wallace. He wrote a book about him, I think called The Rediscovered Life, and he just exposes Coyne for the loudmouth ignoramus that he is. And it is game over if anyone just listens or does just a basic search on it. So this is the kind of scientific establishment, the loony fringe of it that I say is the tip of the spear. Really they let these people run out there because it kind of stirs up all this stuff and then people just turn the other way because it is like, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t even want to get into that. It is another debate. There must be two sides of it and we must get to the bottom of it.’ And again, as I think is evidenced by all your work that is a good strategy to obscure the truth. I am sure you have run into that with cults because I have seen it a little bit. It is like scientology – if they can just kind of muddy the waters a little bit and throw this out there and throw that out there, they can get most people to drive by and say, ‘Well, it is just another fight. Don’t worry about it.’

Dr. David Lane: But the good news, because I did see the followup study and I did see you tag him on that because I did see the other interview, and the good news is that you got him on it. Do you understand? Allowing him to speak like that is that you now have evidence where you can say –

Alex Tsakiris: It makes no dent in the machinery. It marches on.

Dr. David Lane: Well yes and no. You say that but I kind of have a feeling it doesn’t. I think, for instance, because in light of the internet and so many different sources of information, as you know you have a lot of fans. You have a lot of people who believe the position you have taken. So I have a feeling that the discussion has opened up more. For instance, I will give you one example from a skeptical textbook. The skeptical textbook is called How to Think About Weird Things. I don’t know if you have ever seen it – it’s not by Michael Sherman, it is a different book. And at the very end of it – you’re going to like this – it makes the argument that the Ganzfeld experiments actually have evidence to support them. And I will just read you the quote – it is Theodore Schick – and this is a textbook that is used across the country in critical thinking classes. And what is really quite interesting about it is he actually admits that the Ganzfeld experiments have some evidence. Let me see if I can get the exact quote for you so I don’t sound like an idiot. Here it goes – ‘Stokes has calculated that only 62% unreported studies at below the chance level are needed to nullify original results and that number is not outside the case. The Ganzfeld procedure remains the most promising way to demonstrate the existence of psi. [inaudible – 00:48:46] and other well-respected psychologists remain convinced that these studies identify an exception that has not yet been explained.’ That is a positive sign. They are basically opening up that there is a great scientific study out there that might survive skepticism. It might survive, God forbid, amazing Randi.

Alex Tsakiris: Oh my, oh my. Well, I will tell you what. Let me ask you this final question – were you sandbagged here?

Dr. David Lane: Not at all. You know, Alex, the minute I found out that you were from Del Mar I knew you were my kind of guy.

Alex Tsakiris: Hey, I do have to mention this sandbagging thing because it has been kind of a joke for me now. It has become a euphemism for a Skeptic or atheist who got asked some tough questions and couldn’t answer them. So I throw that out all the time. I might even title this ‘Dr. David Lane wasn’t sandbagged by questions’ because it is just ridiculous for these people to claim that they were sandbagged. So Dave it has been a great pleasure.

Dr. David Lane: Thanks, and I wanted to compliment you in this sense – you have made me rethink. You make me think differently and that’s a fantastic thing. So be a Skeptic of the Skeptics because the Skeptics need it.

Alex Tsakiris: Tell us a little bit about what is coming up for you? What are you doing?

Dr. David Lane: Well kind of exciting news. I got a really nice invitation from the Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, India. I can’t believe this, they must be going low ball – they want to pay my way to India and have me be the key note speaker on a conference on consciousness. Consciousness and materialism and I think they even had Roger Penrose there. They have a Noble Prize winner who worked on the Coby experiment coming out. So that is coming up in November. I am really excited to try to come up with some kind of interesting film and book related to this debate like what you’re doing about consciousness, and can it be reduced to just neurons or is there something transcendent to it? So it is going to be kind of fun.

Alex Tsakiris: Awesome, well I hope people do check out theneuralsurfer.com and also if they just Google your name they can find a lot of your really interesting essays. I do have to commend you that they are well-written and well-produced for the web. You also have some kind of interesting videos that you have sent me as well. So there is a lot there for people to check out and explore and I hope they do. Dr. Lane it has been great having you on Skeptiko, thanks again.

Dr. David Lane: Hey thanks, Alex. I really appreciate it. It was a wonderful interview.

[End of Audio]

 

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