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High Profile

Do We Copy?

Interview by Pete Moore

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The (ex-para)psychologist Dr Susan Blackmore no longer looks for ghosts - least of all in the 'meme machine'. Third Way spent an animated few hours at her house in deepest Devon. (At least, that's how it seemed…)

You began your academic career in psychical research as a result of an experience you had yourself, is that right?
Yes. It was my first term at Oxford. I'd gone there to study physiology and psychology but I was interested in psychic phenomena, so I joined the Psychical Res­earch Soc­iety and we used to do all sorts of things.

One even­ing, after a ouija board session, I went up to a friend's room and we were smoking dope - this is 1970 - and listening to Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd or some­thing. And suddenly I found myself going down a narrow road through a tunnel of trees towards a bright light. I remember a great whirring noise, but I could still hear the music and my friend Vicky asking me, 'Would you like some coffee?' - and I couldn't answer.

The other guy who was there, Kevin, said: 'Where are you?' He could see that something was happening, and I - 'Where am I? Where am I?' - you know, I'm try­ing to think. And it was as though everything became clear and I was looking down at us sat there and I said, 'Oh my God, I'm on the ceiling!' - and I could see my mouth down there making the words. Then I seemed to travel off across Oxford, over the roofs of the colleg­es, across the sea to Europe - all over the place.

The whole thing lasted more than two hours. At the time, [Raymond] Moody hadn't yet written his famous book,1 so I didn't realise that what I had gone through was a classic near-death ex­per­ience.

How did the experience end?
I tried to get back to my body but instead seemed to go inside and get smaller and smaller. And then I ex­pand­ed until I seemed to be­­come one with the universe. Any sense of a separate self completely left me - I was every­thing that was. Time and space ceased to exist in any or­dinary sense. At some point I wondered if this was all there was. I thought, 'It can't be' - and at that I seemed to climb up through a mass of clouds or some­thing into a vast space, in which I was being observed by some­thing. Some­thing kind. And that was the end of that.

That experience seemed more vivid and more real than anything I had ever experienced in normal waking life, and it really made me want to know what was going on. I assumed that my soul had left my body; I thought it proved that we are more than our bodies, that there is life after death, a whole lot of things. And I decided I was going to devote my life to parapsychology, to proving to all my closed-minded lecturers that they were wrong and 'there is more in heaven and earth' and all that. Imagine me in my hippy clothes, getting carried away: 'I know the truth and everybody else is wrong!'

Does that experience still influence you today?
Oh, in a way those few hours 40 years ago are still driving - I wouldn't say everything I do, but my intellectual quest. My spiritual quest. The way I live my life. That experience was absolutely crucial.

Had your upbringing been religious in any way?
My mother was quite a committed Christian - C of E, which was normal in the Fifties. My dad was never par­ticu­larly keen, but he certainly believed in life after death and some sort of idea of God, I suppose.

Did you agree more with your mum or your dad?
Oh, I had wonderful arguments with my mother. It's terribly hard to remember - although I have written a diary every day since I was 13 - but I certainly had an atheist phase in my teens and another in my twenties.

I also went to a Methodist boarding school. Wretch­ed, wretched, wretched years I spent there - absol­utely miserable! We had to go to church twice on Sun­days and once on normal days, but the only purpose for the chapel, as far as I was concerned, was as a place where you could go and cry without anybody discovering you. But it does mean I have a pretty fair Christian education. I can still almost recite the communion service by heart.

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How does one do research into the paranormal?
Oh, there are lots of ways. The simplest kinds of experiments are on various kinds of extrasensory perception: telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition. When I was do­ing my PhD, I was lucky enough to be asked to teach parapsychology to more than 100 students and I used them as my subjects. Typically, I would have one person in a faraway building looking at one of (let's say) five pictures and all the people back in the lecture theatre would have to guess which one they were looking at.

Did you establish any kind of connection?
No, never. For my PhD alone I did more than 30 quite large-scale experiments, some of them with hundreds of subjects, some with young children, some with twins, some with people who claimed a special connection with each other - and everything just fell to chance.

Is absence of evidence the same as evidence of absence?
It's a good question, and no, it's not, they're different - which is why I kept going for so long doing the experiments. I slept in loads of haunted houses where no one had dared to sleep for 20 years, I investigated poltergeists, I visited mediums and spiritualists and psychics, I trained as a witch and learnt to read Tarot cards, I got a crystal ball and the I Ching, and I kept thinking: Some­­­where there has got to be something. I was obsessed.

Eventually, after several years, there came a point when I thought: 'I don't think there are any paranormal phenomena.' It was a really difficult admission. I mean, to have thrown myself - everything that I was - into proving these things to be true and then find that they're not… I then became rather a sceptic.

But then I thought: Well, I did have this amazing ex­perience and I should try to understand it in some other way. And that led to a whole new phase of my life.

Do you regret the time you devoted to parapsychology?
No, absolutely not. One of the things I researched was why people believe in the paranormal, and that led to all sorts of interesting work on out-of-the-body exper­iences, alien-abduction ex­periences, sleep paralysis… Most people have lots of odd experiences they don't talk about, part­ly because they don't really have the words for them, partly because they're em­bar­rassed - and sometimes be­cause they're absol­utely terrified.

Some people do talk about them, perhaps, and call them 'spiritual experiences'.
Yes, but then what do you mean by 'spiritual'? Because I consider that I have a spiritual life, I am on some sort of spiritual path; but I don't believe in spirits and I don't believe in God and I don't believe in life after death. So, what am I talking about? Spirituality without spirit?

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That brings us to Zen Buddhism…
Of all the things I tried in my youth, Zen meditation was the only one I really stuck with, and eventually I be­came a serious student. I have meditated every day for over 20 years, I have been on many, many intensive retreats; I have a Zen teacher, who has been very helpful, and I have trained with other Zen masters as well.

I'm not a Buddhist: I have not signed up to anything or taken any vows. Zen training entails practising be­ing mindful in everyday life - not wandering off into thoughts of the past, or what you want or don't want and all of that stuff. And it involves very, very simple meditation: bas­ically you sit down, shut up, don't think and look into the mind as it arises.

It means becoming acquainted with all the foibles of your own mind - which include wonderful things, terrifying things, things that make you angry, regrets, hopes… And you find as you practise that you're con­stantly clinging on­to these things or else pushing them away - you know, 'I don't want that thought, I want this one.' And all of these things in Zen are considered to be traps that lead you into constructing a false idea of yourself. Really, there isn't a thing called 'the self', and a lot of it is about getting used to that idea and letting go of everything. Which can be a lifetime's work.

Is there any empirical evidence that supports Zen?
In a very broad sense. I love one of the Buddha's fundamental teachings, which is 'dependent arising': the idea that everything that happens - including one's own ac­tions - happens because of what happened before. This was a stunning thing to be saying two-and-a-half thousand years ago, when most people believed that spirits of various kinds ran the world, or that gods in­ter­vened or whatever. But of course that is how we now know it to be: the law of cause and effect is just physics. So, this is a really, to me, encouraging commonality be­tween basic science and Buddhism.

(What amazes me is how there can be scientists who are Christians or Mus­lims. I mean, I just don't get it.)

Could you be accused of cherrypicking from Zen?
Yes, I suppose I could be. I mean, take reincarnation. One of the central insights that the Buddha had under the Bodhi tree was that, like everything else, the self arises and falls away and arises and falls away. Well, if that's true, there can't be reincarnation in the popular sense of, you know, when you die you will be reborn as a frog or whatever. I mean, what is the 'you'? This is the problem. If I have understood the Buddhist teaching at all - and it's difficult, so I might not have - it's that the self is not something that continues, even in one life. I'm not the same self that I was 20 years ago, or even a few minutes ago at the start of this interview.

Putting it in neuroscientific terms, the brain is constantly building up a story about itself, so 'I' am just a story built by a brain - and the brain changes all the time. Suddenly it switches attention and a different self arises. We take the self to be a permanent thing, but it is impermanent like everything else.

Isn't it strange that a materialist who believes that we are nothing but active atoms -
I don't call myself a materialist. I would say I'm some kind of monist, but I don't know what kind. I am not saying that all the world is material and there's nothing else, and I am not saying that all the world is thought and there's nothing else. Neither of those works.

So, you're not a 'nothing-butterer'?
People always say I am, but no, I just think - there are many, many reasons dualism doesn't work. If you follow Descartes and you believe in a separate mind and a separate body, how do they relate to each other? You can't explain in that way what needs to be explained: how it is that we are conscious, how I can be aware of the col­our of those beautiful trees out there.

And this is one of many reasons that I find Zen so en­couraging, because non-duality is right at the heart of it. Indeed, although very often in Zen one is taught that there is no path and nowhere to go, that when you reach enlightenment you will realise that it just is how it always was, nevertheless they still say one can realise - make real - non-duality.

And this makes such a lot of sense to me, because sit­ting in meditation, particularly on a solitary retreat up in the Welsh mountains, it's relatively easy to drop into a state in which self and other become one. Not in the dramatic way that I first experienced it, but in a more natural way - it just seems ob­vious that the self is not separate from the world. Which I think is fundamental.


A lot of Christians would reject dualism, too…
But if you believe in another world, a world inhabited by angels, the world to which we go after death, you've got a problem. I think it is totally wrong to say: Here's this material world that we see, but all around us are other realms and higher vibrations and all of that stuff.

Not all Christians take those ideas literally.

But why be a Christian, then? Doesn't being a Christian mean actually believing that [the Bible] was written by God, even though it is riddled with inconsistencies and actually has vile things in it? If you don't believe this obvious rubbish - and I know lots of people who call themselves Chris­tians and don't - in what sense are you a Chris­tian? It's so dishonest!

You sometimes seem to feel angry at religion.
Yes. Well, I do! I do!

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In the Guardian recently,2 you wrote that religion is costly and harmful because it demands a lot of time. But Zen meditation seems to demand quite a lot of your time. Why is that a good use of time but praying is not?
Oh, good question! I do ask that myself. I go on a re­treat where you are cut off from the world completely for a week, you're not allowed to speak, your identity is es­sentially taken away from you, because you wear very simple clothes, you don't look at anybody and they're not supposed to look at you. It's very similar to brainwashing and so I'm thinking: 'Uh-oh, that's really bad.'

But let me say something about that Guardian piece. I have for a long time, in following [Richard] Dawkins' work and writing about memes, thought of religions as viruses of the mind. Now, I know it's only a metaphor, but if it means anything it means that religions are dam­aging and are 'selfishly' using human bodies and brains to get themselves copied - for their own advantage, not for ours or the advantage of our genes. How­ever, I rec­ently went to a conference and heard a lot of evidence that was new to me - and overwhelming - that showed that, in the three ways that matter, being religious ac­tually has positive effects.

I'd already read quite a lot of research that said that people claim to be happier and healthier if they're religious. There's also a lot of new evidence now that people are more co-operative and altruistic, even if only to the in group. And, finally, the overwhelming evidence is that religious people have more children - and not in just one religion, or just one country or just one age, but all over the place.

So, I've made a shift from saying that religions are viruses of the mind to saying that religion is costly and damaging - no question! - and untruthful but it works. The cost is worth paying from the gene's point of view. So, we have a situation in which untruthful ideas are thriving, and will go on thriving, because they have all these positive effects on people. I find that extremely uncomfortable.

I wish that some Christians or Mus­lims or whatever would be a bit more honest and say: 'Giv­en that the idea of God doesn't make sense' - I mean, we got here by evolution and we have no ulti­mate purpose - 'what else is av­ailable?' Why don't you join those of us who are atheists who would love to develop a spirituality without spirit: something that encourages us to try to under­stand the world in ways that are not pure­ly mat­erialist and self-centred but take one beyond oneself, a way of growing as human beings in empathy and compassion and openness and awareness and self-awareness which doesn't need to involve ludicrous ideas such as that God created us for a purpose. We have these spiritual yearnings, but I think religion holds us back.

Dawkins talks about the harm the fundamentalists do, but I agree with Sam Harris3 that nice, liberal religious people are as much of a problem, be­cause they are saying that faith (which means believing in something even if there isn't any evidence for it) is a good thing. Of course, even as a scientist you've got to have faith - for example, that the basic laws of physics are not go­ing to change tomorrow. But I think that's very different from the faith you get in religion, which says al­most 'It's good to believe something without evidence.'
But I think that most of my anger comes from the wickedness and cruelty promulgated by religion - particularly by Catholicism at the moment.

But wickedness and cruelty are not unique to religion -
No, indeed. Maybe I'm just a really angry person.

Sometimes you come across as an angry person; at other times you come across as really warm.
Well, you can be warm and angry, can't you? I admit to being passionate.

You have said several times that we have no purpose…
It seems to me that, as far as I can tell, the universe has no ultimate purpose - it's pointless. We are here just because it so happens the laws of physics are the way they are and evolution is inevitable given the way it is.

In that case, why are you so passionate about things?
I just am a passionate person.

But are you also pointless?
Yes, utterly.

You were so indignant when the Pope came, because of all the things the Roman Catholic Church has done to people. But so what, if those people are pointless, too?
Indeed. I suppose one could simply say I'm not enlightened. OK, if I really, really, really took all this on board and saw everything as just empty stuff happening, no­thing more important than anything else, how would I then behave? I think, given that I am an ordinary hum­an being with a brain and emotions - and dead parents and alive children and all the other things that make up my life - I just would respond this way.

I know that ultim­ately there's no point to it, I know that all that I do is simply because I have invented some temporary purpose for do­ing things; but when I see somebody suffering, I want to help. When I see somebody being horrible, I want to shout at them. I mean, these are just natural human re­sponses, aren't they?

Let's talk about consciousness.
Ah, the great mystery! It is a great mystery. It is a phenomenally great mystery as far as science is concerned. That's why it's so exciting.


HP5.jpg So, where does it reside?
It's a mystery! The mystery is about dualism. It ap­pears to be the case that there is a physical world - I can hit it and feel it, I can hit you and you will agree that you felt it. There is undoubtedly my experience of the de­light­ful turquoise colour of your socks, and I know enough about how the brain works to know that other people looking at those socks will call them 'green' and others will call them 'blue', because we all have different visual systems. Private subjective experiences seem to be a very different kind of thing from the physical world.
Look inside the skull and what have you got? You've got a brain made of billions of neurons, and all those neurons are doing is shunting electrical impulses and little molecules of chemicals here and there, back and forth. That's all they're doing. How can that be, or give rise to, or be responsible for - I don't even know what the right word is! - the experience of that turquoise?

That is the mystery and it's all around us. I cannot honestly deny that I seem to be having an experience of turquoise. There seems to be a me over here and there seems to be a sock over there. Nor can I deny that if we chop open a brain in the lab we will see all these neurons and everything. But these two things seem completely in­commensurable.

So, if we don't have a spirit but we're more than a mass of molecules…?
I don't know. There's something fundamental that we don't understand about the universe that gives rise to this dualism. It seems to me that the self is an illusion. Consciousness seems to be all sorts of things we know it can't be. So, I think the question that is pushing me now is something like: How do these illusions come about? Why is it that a brain and a body in a world like this give rise to all these false intuitions about what's going on?

Such as…?
I am not my body, I'm something that in­habits my body. I am something separate from the world - over here, experiencing the world over there. We make that fundamental break between self and the world very early on in life - and think of other people as being like that, too. And also that I have free will. The normal, everyday idea of free will is that somehow my consciousness, my mind, my spirit, whatever you think it is, can choose to do things regardless, not as an inevitable consequence of events in the brain but in some kind of magical way. That's another one of these interlinked illusions.

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Can we get any empirical evidence either way?
There is plenty of evidence that suggests that, for ex­ample, in many supposedly free decisions the brain has made up its mind before the person is aware that they have decided what to do. And we are coming to understand more and more how the brain makes its decis­ions - and, as time goes on, there's less and less room for a self or a soul or any other kind of magical thing in there.
But, as we were saying about the paranormal, if you are looking for some magic in the brain and you don't immediately find it, that doesn't prove it's not there.

Let's talk about memes. Is meme theory itself a meme?
Yes. The idea of memes is simply that all of the masses and masses of inform­ation that makes up our culture is competing to get itself copied, using our brains. Memes can be words, songs, stories, designs, sci­entific the­­ories, monet­ary systems, tech­nologies, re­ligions or just ways of do­ing things. Normally, we think that we design our culture for our own benefit. The memetic way of looking at it is that we are participants in a huge evolu­tion­ary process. And things succeed in being copied for all sorts of different reasons - and this is where 'viruses of the mind' comes in, because bad things can succeed be­cause they trick you, just as good things can fail because people don't realise that they're good.

So, atheism, too, would be a meme?
Yeah. But some 'memeplexes' contain in­structions to copy them - you know, 'Go and spread the good news of Jesus!' So, memeplexes like that do better than others not because they're better for you, not because they're truer, not because they make you happier or for any other reason than that they are pac­kaged in such a way that they encourage their bearers to spread them.

So, the fact that the Church of England has far more members than the British Humanist Society…
Humanism does not include the in­struction 'You must try and make everybody else be humanists.' It teaches freedom of thought and tolerance of different ideas, which isn't terribly successful as a meme. Humanists are kind of nice and laid-back, whereas people who are infected with Christianity be­come Christianity-spread­ing meme-machines.

At present, meme theory is not a successful meme, is it?
No. The term is becoming more common, but there are no departments of memetics, and very few books on it. On the whole, scientists don't like the word 'memes'.

Why do you think that is?
Sometimes, I think, people feel that it would be harder to get published. Sometimes, I think, people have simply not understood. I think it's partly because they're frightened of the potential consequences. I mean, if you push memetics far enough you see all of us as little copying machines doing our best to copy the memes we think are good for us but actually being tricked endlessly by ones that aren't and floundering in this massive overload of memes. And it suggests that our selves are part of this whole thing: they are memeplexes constructed within the brain to create an illusion of self. And all of these ideas are a bit unsettling.

Above all, it's terribly hard to think of ways of testing this kind of theory. I don't think it's untestable, but I think it's a bit like evolutionary theory a hundred years ago. And we haven't yet found what it can be useful for, though I think somebody will. But, you know, I'll just have to wait and see. I have been wrong so many times before, I can easily be wrong again.

You have shown a willingness to change your mind -
You have to do that in science.

What would it take to convince you there was a God?
Well, I suppose if he looked in the window and looked like the traditional picture of God and went, 'Hello. I'm here,' that would convince me.

I suppose it is possible that something might come out of cosmology or physics that suggested that this world could not have come about without some kind of weird thing. But what sort of weird thing? I wouldn't just go - as an awful lot of people do - 'Oh, it's God,' end of story. That's a vacuous thought.

Comments

Robert Parsons

Susan Balckmore attacks a caricature of Christianity in saying "Doesn't being a Christian mean actually believing that [the Bible] was written by God" and by suggesting that we believe things for which there is no evidence. The evidence for the historical Jesus is very strong; I don't understand why intelligent people sweep it aside.

Posted: 15 October 2010


Bart

Sue, if something cannot be named, measured or confirmed experimentally through the senses or an intellect, that doesn't imply it's nonsensical or non-existing, right? So make this distinction between things that can be given a name (measured, checked) and something that cannot. Otherwise you confuse finger with the moon. There is a spirit, one spirit but different names and forms of it. One substance different viewpoints.

Posted: 24 October 2010


Bart

Sue, if something cannot be named, measured or confirmed experimentally through the senses or an intellect, that doesn't imply it's nonsensical or non-existing, right? So make this distinction between things that can be given a name (measured, checked) and something that cannot. Otherwise you confuse finger with the moon. There is a spirit, one spirit but different names and forms of it. One substance different viewpoints.

Posted: 24 October 2010


David Heywood

I'm puzzled really about why a Christian magazine would give such coverage to an interview like this. A highly intelligent person can get themsleves thoroughly confused and locked in contradictions because of their determination to avoid believing in God the creator - exactly the point Paul makes in Romans 1. But the intelligent Christian already knows this - he or she meets it everywhere. Are we supposed to give any kind of credence to Blackmore's beliefs, non-sensical though they are, or to feel smug, or to feel compassion, or what?

Posted: 02 November 2010


Woodrow

Why puzzled David? If you feel they deserve credence, give them credence. If they make you feel smug, feel smug. If you feel compassion, feel compassion. There surely is no 'supposed'. It's just an interview with a high-profile scientist with lots to say about the nature of belief. It strikes me as cobblers, but that's interesting to me in itself.

Posted: 02 November 2010


Thalia Vitali

Considering Ms. Blackmore's long Zen Buddhist discipleship, combined with her illustrious academic career, I find it remarkable that she, too, falls prey (meme victim??) to infantile attacks on crudely creationist ideas of "God" without at least doing religion the courtesy of examining it at a deeper level than Sunday School stories. She might then find that no self-respecting theologian entertained the simplistic concepts of the divine which she feistily antagonises, along the lines of her mentor Richard Dawkins. To whet her appetite, I would refer her first to novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, who said that "No existing thing could be what we have meant by God. An existing God would be less than God. An existent God would be an idol or a demon". If Ms. Blackmore were able to move beyond the concept of God as an entity or object - a "something" with spatial extension or qualities - competing with other objects for our attention, she might, with luck, awake from her dream of discontent and "hear the sound of one hand clapping".

Posted: 04 November 2010


Andy L

Mr. Heywood - Your comment hints at fear of your own thoughts and what the "all-loving" God might do to you after learning of them. That seems a pitiable mindset. Mr. Parsons - A few items of undetermined relevance and/or provenance should not be called "very strong evidence". Please critically evaluate your sources.

Posted: 11 November 2010


Dimitris

Dear Robert, You write: "the evidence for the historical Jesus is very strong; I don't understand why intelligent people sweep it aside." The "evidence" for the historical Jesus is actually very close to zero. Jesus is mentioned in a single contemporary literary work, and that is the New Testament - no other book, ever. EVERY other reference to Jesus is through a reference to this same book. NO historical work has ever mentioned Jesus outside of the context of the New Testament. EVER. So, in this sense, the evidence for the existence of Jesus is exactly the same as for the existence of Medusa. Besides that, even if you had actual evidence that someone that went by the name Jesus ever lived in that specific time and place, how does this actually prove that he had any sort of supernatural powers? I don't understand why intelligent people will accept a single literary work that was written by stone-age shepherds as defining the way the universe works!

Posted: 12 November 2010


Jussie

To all my religious friends:If the triangles made a god they would give him three sides.Nothing can convince your lot that religion is a substitute for utter ignorance.Your fears and intellect and conjured up a magical entity that explains everything. That is pinnacle of your thought process. A very big zero.

Posted: 14 November 2010


Nik

Mr Parsons - accepting the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus is not the same thing as believing everything in the Bible is true and/or that the Bible was written by God. I doubt if anyone has ever said the whole Bible is pure fiction, whoever wrote it.

Posted: 21 November 2010


Tyler

Mr. Parsons--I don't think she meant that everything in the Bible cannot be proved with evidence and must rely on faith. It is possible to prove Joshua bar Joseph of Nazareth existed using evidence. The problem is, the aspects that form the core of belief in any religion by definition cannot be empirically demonstrated. How would you prove Jesus performed Miracles or is/was the Son of God?

Posted: 26 November 2010


Cam C

Second Andy L's comments. Sue Blackmore may be one of the most open-minded scientists existing today. It would be worth noting what she has come to believe and what she has not.

Posted: 01 December 2010


Roy Waidler

I think that this article has caused me to fall in love with Dr. Blackmore. I've been reading her material for a long time, and like her am an atheist who believes that our lives are open to a spiritual dimension - one without deity or structured afterlife. The mystery of what constitutes human consciousness is the mystery worth pursuing - even if it might ultimately be pointless. Kudos to Peter Moore for an excellent interview!

Posted: 05 March 2011


Lodewijk Langeweg

It is surprising that no mention has been made so far that nine secular, non-Christian sources mention Jesus. On YouTube watch "How can atheists ignore historians during the time of JESUS?"

Posted: 02 March 2012


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