Richard G. Epstein
The Sentinel-Observer's Public Affairs
Eric Steinberg Discusses
Karma Kleanser and
the Meaning of Technology
Hank Morgan, Moderator: Welcome to another episode of In-Depth, the Silicon Valley Sentinel-Observer's public affairs television program. This morning's guest is Eric Steinberg, world famous author and a Professor of Technology and Philosophy at Loyola University in Chicago. Before I introduce our guest, I would like to make a personal statement.
If you are like me, you know at least one person who is a user of Karma Kleanser, the virtual reality product whose informercials are now flooding the Global Landscape and commercial television. I personally know five people, relatives and friends, who use this product, including, well, this is almost difficult for me to say, including my own mother.
This subject gets really personal when I call up my mom and invite her out to dinner at her favorite restaurant for Mother's Day, and she says, "I can't son, I'm punishing myself for saying something mean to your Aunt Florence." Florence is my mother's sister. Apparently, twenty years ago, my mother said something mean or spiteful to my Aunt Florence and now my mother has decided to use Karma Kleanser to punish herself - on Mother's Day no less. Tens of millions of people are punishing themselves using Karma Kleanser, a product developed by the so-called "Hasidic rabbi", Sajit Ashrami.
Which brings me to another aspect of how personal this gets. About a week ago, in preparing for this morning's interview with Eric Steinberg, I was reviewing the latest Karma Kleanser infomercial, starring Rabbi Ashrami. My wife viewed the infomercial with me. When the infomercial came to an end, I said, in disgust, "That Ashrami is a charlatan!" Sometimes we say something that is completely obvious just to say something, just to express a strong emotion.
What my wife then said shook me to the core. Indeed, after she said it, I could feel my entire world view crumbling into dust. I told you this would be very personal. She said, "Are you sure?"
Her words went through me like a knife. But, she didn't stop there. I suppose a wife can sense when her husband's arrogance is about to take a gigantic dive into the bottomless abyss. She said, "Are you sure that Karma Kleanser doesn't work? And if it works, then how can you say that Rabbi Ashrami is a charlatan? And, I have one more question to ask you, dearest: If you do not order Karma Kleanser right now, is that because of your evil karma, as the infomercial suggests?"
Thank you, Sally, my beloved wife, for once again turning my entire view of the universe upside down. What if Karma Kleanser does work? Is Rabbi Ashrami really a fake or is he actually helping people? And, if a person uses Karma Kleanser, is that the result of that person's good karma or bad karma?
It struck me that my wife was really asking a more general question about virtual reality and its social implications, its meaning, if you will. When the new self-projection technology was introduced, it revolutionized everything, like the Web did for my parent's generation in the 1990s. Perhaps you think that there is not much more that can be said about virtual reality and its meaning, but I feel there is hardly a more important subject for us to discuss. Virtual reality has become a pervasive reality, supplanting conventional reality for many people in many contexts. There is hardly an area of human endeavor that has not been influenced by virtual reality and, more recently, self-projection technology or true cyberspace.
If Karma Kleanser actually works, if karmic retribution can actually occur in virtual reality and in cyberspace, then that raises some fundamental questions concerning the nature of reality and the relationships between conventional reality and virtual reality. In other words, if Karma Kleanser actually works, then virtual reality is not, well, is not entirely virtual.
I am hoping that my guest, Professor Eric Steinberg, can throw some much needed light on this subject.
Welcome, Professor Steinberg.
Eric Steinberg: That was some introduction!
Morgan: Professor Steinberg has many accomplishments in the spheres of Religion and Philosophy. His numerous books on the social, spiritual, and philosophical implications of technology have helped to shape the public debate in our time. His now famous book, Reality as a Language from Harvard University Press, has been influential in getting people to think about the meaning of technology. This book, with its famous dictum, "Reality is a language that speaks directly to the heart" has had a profound influence on psychologists, theologians, and philosophers who are trying to come to terms with the vast technological revolution that continues unabated and is continuously transforming the human reality.
Steinberg: You forgot to mention that I bowl in the 180s.
Morgan: Well, bowling is considered an almost revolutionary act these days! It's so -
Morgan: Professor Steinberg, you've seen the Karma Kleanser infomercial. What do you think? Is Rabbi Ashrami a charlatan?
Steinberg: I'd rather not answer that question right now. Rabbi Ashrami is a popular topic of discussion these days and it seems that the focus is on Rabbi Ashrami the charlatan. Regardless of whether Rabbi Ashrami is a charlatan or not, Karma Kleanser is an interesting technology that deserves our attention.
Morgan: You are not going to tell us whether Rabbi Ashrami is a charlatan?
Steinberg: Ashrami is simply a businessman. He is selling a product. He is dressing up as a rabbi, he has grown side-curls, he is doing all of these things because that's good for business. Ashrami is quite up front that Karma Kleanser has made him filthy rich.
Morgan: Okay, so Ashrami is a businessman. But, is he a fraud?
Steinberg: He's a businessman. He is selling a product that apparently meets some deep need that tens of millions of people have, the need to cleanse themselves of the guilt that they feel. He is a businessman who is selling something like any other businessman.
Morgan: So, you are saying that people have this need, this need to be cleansed of their guilt. They have done some pretty nasty and unethical things in their lives, and they want to be cleansed of the guilt that they feel. Rabbi Ashrami has merely created a product that responds to this need.
Steinberg: Like any other genius in the field of technology, Rabbi Ashrami perceived a need, he created a technology that responds to that need, and he became filthy rich doing this, to use his own words.
Morgan: But, is this ethical?
Steinberg: Ah ha! Is this ethical? Well, my friend, this is where the karma comes in. Suppose you sell someone a house with a lot of serious problems, bad plumbing, dangerous wiring, and all of the rest, but you mislead the buyer into believing that the house is in mint condition. Now, some years later, you feel guilty about this, so you buy Karma Kleanser to punish yourself because of your unethical behavior. Is it Rabbi Ashrami's fault that you have lost your wisdom, because of your unethical behavior, and that you want to punish yourself for what you did? No, the very fact that you have lost your wisdom is one aspect of karmic retribution.
Rabbi Ashrami seems to be fully cognizant of this. If we behave unethically or immorally or with hardness of heart, and if we do not make amends for the damage that we have caused, then that will cause us to lose our wisdom, our discernment. Rabbi Ashrami's informercials say this right up front. An important aspect of karmic retribution for unethical behavior and for hardness of heart is that we become stupid.
Morgan: But, Rabbi Ashrami is taking advantage of these people!
Steinberg: Is he?
Morgan: Yes, because he could take a more honest approach. He could teach people how to make amends for the wrongs that they have done. For example, when my mother told me that she was punishing herself for the mean things that she said to her sister twenty years ago, I said, "Mom, why don't you just call Aunt Florence and apologize for what you said? Tell her how much you love her, then join me for diner."
Steinberg: Well, if Rabbi Ashrami had taken that approach, neither you nor I would be talking about him right now, would we? He would be a nobody. He would not be filthy rich.
Morgan: But, he would be ethical.
Steinberg: But, he wouldn't be Rabbi Ashrami. The point is that the tens of millions of people who are buying Karma Kleanser have this need to cleanse their karma, because they have done things that were wrong. Because of the things that they have done, they no longer have the wisdom to see that all that is needed is to pick up the phone and apologize to Aunt Florence, or to make amends to the people who bought the house with the bad plumbing and the bad wiring. You see, because of their evil karma, they no longer have the option to do the right thing, to make amends on a personal, human level. Consequently, they will punish themselves one way or the other.
This is how the cosmic karma cleanser works, in reality, in truth. Rabbi Ashrami's virtual reality, Karma Kleanser, is just one small aspect of the cosmic karma cleanser that we call reality.
Morgan: In other words, even if these people weren't buying Rabbi Ashrami's Karma Kleanser, their evil karma would be catching up with them in some other way.
Morgan: But, as you yourself just said, there is a better way to clean up one's karma. One can make amends. So, Rabbi Ashrami is being dishonest in that he is not informing people that they have other options.
Steinberg: But, Rabbi Ashrami is a businessman. If I want to sell you a Chevy, I'm not going to tell you that a Mercedes is a better car. More to the point, even if I tell you that a Mercedes is a better car, you won't understand what I am saying, because, to your level of wisdom, a Chevy seems like a better car than a Mercedes. Furthermore, you may not have the sufficient spiritual capital, if you understand my meaning, to buy yourself a Mercedes. It may be your karma to end up with a Chevy.
Morgan: So, it is almost inevitable that these people will punish themselves because of their bad karma.
Steinberg: To some extent.
Morgan: If Rabbi Ashrami were not the instrument of their punishment and their humiliation, then someone else or something else would be.
Steinberg: It is possible that people who punish themselves in virtual reality, using Karma Kleanser, are avoiding a car accident or some other catastrophe in the long run. This is because, after all, virtual reality is an aspect of reality.
People who buy Karma Kleanser no longer have the option of doing the right thing, from the highest moral perspective, which is to make amends for their unethical and immoral actions. They no longer have a connection with truth. It is inevitable that they will punish themselves in some way, and that is what Karma Kleanser is, a punishment.
Morgan: So, Karma Kleanser does work.
Steinberg: Yes. Karmic retribution is karmic cleansing. Once karmic seeds have ripened, they have fulfilled their purpose, and they will not manifest again.
Those people who are using Karma Kleanser are punishing themselves. In the end, they will feel humiliated, but cleansed. This means, in the end, they will not be angry at Rabbi Ashrami. They will understand the whole mechanism of karmic retribution that brought them this form of punishment because of their unethical and immoral actions. They cannot blame Rabbi Ashrami for this punishment. They brought it upon themselves.
Morgan: So, Karma Kleanser does clean karma, as Rabbi Ashrami says in his infomercial, so Rabbi Ashrami is not a charlatan.
Steinberg: That's what I've been trying to say. He's just a businessman who is selling a product that does what its creator says it does. It cleans karma. We cannot charge Rabbi Ashrami with false advertising.
Morgan: And if people buy Karma Kleanser, that is because of their bad karma?
Steinberg: Well, it can also be an aspect of their good karma, since Karma Kleanser actually works. In other words, anything that cleans our karma is a blessing in disguise. If you actually buy Karma Kleanser in order to clean your karma, then that is because of your bad karma, since you no longer have the wisdom to do the right thing, which is to make amends for your evil actions, and to correct the damage that you have caused. But, on the other hand, since Karma Kleanser actually works, your good karma, your sincere desire for the truth may also be at work.
Suppose you use Karma Kleanser over a period of time. You miss out on a lot of fun and wonderful experiences, because you are too busy using Karma Kleanser to punish yourself. Then, all of a sudden, you understand how stupid you have been. You didn't need to punish yourself with Karma Kleanser, you could have done good deeds to make amends for the bad things that you did. When this realization strikes, you might get angry at Rabbi Ashrami for ripping you off, but, because of the clarity that you have attained, you really can't say that Rabbi Ashrami ripped you off, because indeed, his product has cleansed you of your karma, and you have attained to a state of clear wisdom. Furthermore, because of your previous state of confusion, which was the result of your previous karma, you could not have made your amends in any other way. But, now you have some clarity. Now you know that the best way to cleanse your karma is to make amends and to repair the damage that you have done.
Morgan: Does Rabbi Ashrami know what he is doing?
Steinberg: Well, that would just be speculation on my part, but I think he leaves some clues in his infomercial that he knows exactly what he is doing. Rabbi Ashrami almost seems like a self-conscious parody of the religious charlatan. I would say that he is completely aware that he is an instrument that God is using to punish his customers. He tells them right to their faces that they are stupid and that this stupidity is a form of karmic retribution. But, that is just speculation. Only Rabbi Ashrami and God know the truth.
Morgan: You have written so much about virtual reality and the tendency that people have to avoid conventional reality in favor of the virtual.
Steinberg: Isn't it sad, indeed, tragic, that we need to use the adjective "conventional" when we want to refer to reality? We are talking about reality, which is a language, a poem, a work of art filled with glory. That reality is now just "conventional". It is no longer reality as reality. It needs to be qualified.
Morgan: Yes, it is sad. What else can I say?
Steinberg: I didn't mean to interrupt your question.
Morgan: You have written that it is dangerous for people to avoid reality, because "reality is a language that speaks directly to the heart", quoting your famous dictum. How would you apply this framework to Karma Kleanser?
Steinberg: I think that if we can understand Karma Kleanser, we can understand technology in its entirety, because every technology that we create that diminishes human being, that detracts from life, is just Karma Kleanser in another form. It is a kind of karmic retribution that is only possible because human beings have damaged their wisdom, their rootedness in reality, their ability to understand reality as a language. Do you see what I am trying to say?
Morgan: I think so.
Steinberg: The appeal of the virtual, of the unreal, is itself a form of karmic retribution.
I have written, over and over again, citing many examples, that reality is a language that speaks directly to the heart. Reality is the language of the heart and space and time consists of messages that the heart must understand. If I do something unethical, if I insult my sister Florence, if I sell someone a house, trying to hide its defects, then I am not acting in accordance with truthful reality. If I insult someone, and I see the hurt in their face, then that look of hurt is a message, that I must make amends. If I do not respond to that message, then I will generate what is called "bad karma". That is, I will generate the mechanisms for my own punishment. The most dangerous aspect of this punishment is the loss of clarity and wisdom.
It is foolish to say that we are creating all of these forms of dehumanizing technology out of our own free will. Karmic retribution is not free will. We are not choosing to lose touch with reality. Our losing touch with reality is a form of karmic retribution for the trillions upon trillions of mindless acts of cruelty and deception that are the fabric of human life since the dawn of time. In some sense you can say that reality is choosing to lose contact with us.
Morgan: That's quite a statement.
Steinberg: The gist of what I am saying is this: Technology is Karma Kleanser writ large. The negative aspects of technology are a form of karmic retribution. Because we have lost sight of basic human values and ethics, we are punishing ourselves with the negative aspects of technology. This is what I meant when I said that technology is Karma Kleanser writ large.
Morgan: An awesome assertion. We are punishing ourselves with technology?
Steinberg: Well, let's explore this further. Maybe I'm just crazy. We need to look at this matter carefully.
You see, people are buying into virtual reality and people prefer the virtual to the real because their wisdom has been damaged and this damage is the result of their past evil actions. Wisdom, happiness, unity, and harmony are the natural state, the original state of reality. Evil actions destroy this natural state, creating violence, stupidity and human suffering.
Now, perhaps I should not be using the word evil here, because I am not just talking about evil on the scale of murder and genocide, which the average person does not commit. I am talking about all of those little life-destroying acts by which we demonize the other, or diminish their integrity, or shunt others aside, or see them as less important then ourselves. I am talking about all of those unethical acts, those little acts of cheating, of lying, of back-biting, of being faithless and lacking integrity. Each of these small acts creates bad karma. The act of abandoning the real is our punishment for these mindless actions that are the fabric of human life.
Morgan: So, technology is a form of karmic retribution. It is our bad karma coming back to haunt us.
Steinberg: It is the natural consequence, if you will, of a civilization that has lost its groundedness in Reality, in Wisdom, and in Compassion.
Morgan: But, technology has many positive consequences. I find it hard to characterize technology as punishment because there are many positive aspects.
Steinberg: I am talking about the negative aspects of technology, which is no trifling matter. I am talking about the dehumanizing aspects of technology, the way technology is used either to replace reality or to mediate human interactions that used to be based upon personal contact, appreciation, and respect. There are aspects of technology that are positive, but I would say, in these times, with more and more people losing themselves in the virtual, in the unreal, that technology is mostly a negative force. I think if you look at just about any virtual reality system that one reads about these days, you will see the element of karmic retribution at play. And I also see karmic retribution at play in other technologies, like expert systems, and those horrible cognitive and perceptual prostheses, not to mentioned automated airplanes and juries.
Morgan: When computers steal from us, when they take away our passion and the specific skills that make us human, then this is a form of karmic retribution?
Steinberg: Yes. We are punishing ourselves for not appreciating the glory of this human birth, the opportunity for expressing the truth that this human birth represents.
Morgan: What about systems that help human beings overcome their psychological problems, systems that are devoted to healing the human psyche? These seem to represent a promising application of technology. You certainly cannot cast these systems in terms of karmic retribution, can you?
Steinberg: These systems exist because human beings are no longer in touch with the natural healer, the healer within, that could just as well cure these psychological problems as any virtual reality system. To depend upon a virtual reality system to perform the work that should be the work of the human imagination, of the self, is just a form of laziness, and laziness has karmic consequences.
Morgan: The vendors of these systems say that virtual reality can cure pschological problems without any side effects.
Steinberg: But, virtual reality systems do have side effects. They make people lazy.
Morgan: Lazy in what sense?
Steinberg: Lazy in the sense that they are not developing their own imagination to the fullest. You see, the imagination, per se, is a wonderful, natural healing system, especially in the psychological and spiritual spheres.
Morgan: So, you are opposed to the use of virtual reality for the healing of psychological problems?
Steinberg: Much more could be achieved using traditional methods, such as meditation, writing, painting, music, and introspection.
As I have written previously, virtual reality is becoming a kind of artificial imagination. It is replacing the natural imagination. Consequently, the imagination is atrophying in the masses, and the imagination among so-called creative people is being channeled almost completely into the development of these new virtual reality systems and other forms of technology.
So, the atrophying of the imagination in the masses is a grave concern of mine, for the imagination is sacred. All of Creation is imagination, reality is ultimately imagination. It is poetry and art, and human beings are allowing their imaginations to atrophy.
If the human imagination were to atrophy, that would be the end of human vitality. Human life would lose its purpose, which is to know God and to embody the truth. Dissolution and chaos would follow.
Morgan: Are expert systems a form of karmic retribution? We see that they are surpassing human performance in so many domains.
Steinberg: Absolutely. We human beings have been given enormous gifts, gifts that were intended for the glorification of human being, to enhance human life. These include poetry, art, music, science, and all forms of human knowledge and creativity. The fact that these activities are being increasingly performed by computers, that computers are now surpassing human performance in many fields, is definitely a form of karmic retribution. Because we did not develop these gifts for the perfection of civilization, for the glory of God, these gifts are being stolen from us. This is a form of karmic retribution if there ever was one.
Morgan: Are we punishing ourselves or is God punishing us?
Steinberg: They are one and the same. There is just one truth, one reality.
Morgan: How can we stop punishing ourselves?
Steinberg: We need to make great efforts to achieve mindfulness, to reach out to the other in a loving way, to appreciate all of life, to make amends for the unethical things that we have done. We need to replace the messages of virtual reality with the messages of reality, reality, not conventional reality, but reality - unqualified and stark naked! We need to take off our virtual reality suits and we need to contact nature, the flowers, the sunshine, the human face, the warmth of human companionship.
Morgan: When I first heard about Karma Kleanser, I thought, "This is outrageous!" But, now I see that it is actually quite profound.
Steinberg: Everything is intrinsically profound, don't you think? Reality is a language that speaks directly to the heart. Technology is an aspect of that language, and therefore, technology is meaningful. It is up to us to understand what technology is trying to tell us.
Morgan: Thanks so much for being with us this morning.
Steinberg: Well, I would like to say, as a matter of public record, that I do consider Rabbi Ashrami a charlatan of sorts. As a businessman, he is a businessman, but as a rabbi, as a religious teacher, he is a fake. The man of God needs to speak from that point of truth, the original mind, the mind that is unconditioned, the mind that has not been damaged by its own evil actions and thoughts.
Morgan: Is Rabbi Ashrami aware of this original mind, the mind that has absolute integrity?
Steinberg: I think that a person who has that kind of awareness can only act with integrity, so I suppose that the manner in which Rabbi Ashrami is marketing himself is just the result of his own evil karma, the damage that he himself has done to that original mind. Perhaps it is greed that damaged that original clarity in his case. It is always some kind of karmic damage that forces a man to deviate from the truth.
Morgan: Thank you again for appearing on this program.
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