Deepak Chopra has a surprisingly antagonistic article up (at the usual place) entitled Woo Woo Is a Step Ahead of (Bad) Science. In it he calls out Michael Shermer for… well take a look. Chopra is referring to a recent Larry King Live show where the two clashed:
Afterwards, however, I had an unpredictable reaction. I realized that I would much rather expound woo woo than the kind of bad science Shermer stands behind. He has made skepticism his personal brand, more or less, sitting by the side of the road to denigrate "those people who believe in spirituality, ghosts, and so on," as he says on a YouTube video. No matter that this broad brush would tar not just the Pope, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Teresa of Avila, Buddha, and countless scientists who happen to recognize a reality that transcends space and time. All are deemed irrational by the skeptical crowd. You would think that skeptics as a class have made significant contributions to science or the quality of life in their own right. Uh oh. No, they haven't. Their principal job is to reinforce the great ideas of yesterday while suppressing the great ideas of tomorrow.
At least he admits he expounds woo – by definition, extraordinary beliefs for which there is insufficient extraordinary evidence. He also claims Shermer stands behind bad science, except he gives no evidence that Shermer supports bad science. (In reality, he just doesn’t support Chopra’s pseudoscience.) Chopra follows with a lame appeal to authority (the Pope, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Teresa of Avila, Buddha, etc), and the claim that skeptics, by rejecting false ideas, are somehow suppressing great ideas. Seriously. Chopra’s grasp of logic clearly hasn’t improved any.
For we have reached the state where Shermer's tired, out-of-date, utterly mediocre science is far in arrears of the best, most open scientific thinkers -- actually, we reached that point 60 years ago when eminent physicists like Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger applied quantum theory to deep spiritual questions. The arrogance of skeptics is both high-handed and rusty. It is high-handed because they lump brilliant speculative thinkers into one black box known as woo woo. It is rusty because Shermer doesn't even bother to keep up with the latest findings in neuroscience, medicine, genetics, physics, and evolutionary biology. All of these fields have opened fascinating new ground for speculation and imagination.
Yes – speculation. Chopra gets close, but then misses completely. Speculation is great for forming hypotheses to test. Chopra, though, treats these speculations as though they were already successfully tested and were now proven facts. They’re not.
Skeptics feel that they have won the high ground in matters concerning consciousness, mind, the origins of life, evolutionary theory, and brain science. This is far from the case. What they cling to is 19th Century materialism, packaged with a screeching hysteria about God and religion that is so passé it has become quaint. To suggest that Darwinian theory is incomplete and full of unproven hypotheses causes Shermer, who takes Darwin as purely as a fundamentalist takes scripture, to see God everywhere in the enemy camp.
I don’t think that any evolutionary scientist would argue that the the theory of evolution is complete – if it were, there would be no need for anyone do do evolutionary science any more because we'd already know everything. (So that’s a straw man, for those who are counting.) But “full of unproven hypotheses”? Really? “Full” of them? If there are so many, why doesn’t Chopra list a couple? Talk about “screeching hysteria.”
Anyway, this shrill screed made me want to see what he was talking about – so I looked up the transcript of the Larry King show in question (which also included Dinesh D’Souza – so you know it’s going to be good. And by “good,” you know I mean “bad”). Here are some examples:
CHOPRA: First of all, there's a lot of interesting science now that is suggesting -- and by no means is this clear. There's a lot of controversy of -- about this. There's a lot of interesting science that our consciousness, which is the place where we perceive, think, emote, imagine, have insight, intuition, choice-making -- that this part of us is not a product of our brain.
Chopra admits the science just “suggests” this, and that the evidence “by no means is this clear.” You wouldn’t believe this though from what follows, or from his HuffPo article. Note how all the “not clear” and only “suggesting” references disappear in what follows:
Yes. The -- the -- the mind, that consciousness, the one I'm talking to right now is not a product of the brain, but is localizing itself through the brain, just like people who are seeing us right now on their screens, you know, we're not in their television boxes. We are coming through these airwaves and they are perceiving us. But if they open the box, they wouldn't find Deepak or Jeff or anyone there.
So if I look inside you, I won't find your soul because it's not there. In fact, your body is experienced in your consciousness. Your mind is experienced in your consciousness. And the evidence is pointing out that this consciousness is non-local, which means it exists outside of space-time and therefore, mathematically, it's impossible to destroy this consciousness.
Typical Chopra bait and switch. The doubt from the bait section is gone, and the switch is in to “…is not a product of the brain.” No doubts, no suggestions, no unclearedness – the mind just isn’t a product of the brain any more. Period. It is now also “impossible” to destroy consciousness. Note – impossible. No doubt any more, no mere “suggesting.” And it must be so because Chopra tells us it is. Even though (also according to Chopra) the science is by no means this clear and is only suggesting of these things.
Also note another favorite argument of the woo – argument by analogy. I’ve heard this analogy to the TV set before – our brain is like the TV set but our mind is somewhere else (by analogy, the TV signal). But the analogy fails. In fact, it’s more than that, if anything the analogy demonstrates the mind is not like the TV signal. We know that if you damage part of the brain, the functions associated with the damaged sections of the brain will be reduced or disappear altogether. This is not like a TV at all. If you damage part of your TV set you won’t find that you now only get the commercials but not the programs, or that you get game shows but not documentaries. That would be a true analog of what happens when the brain is damaged. No. If you damage your TV set, either it still works (you didn’t damage anything significant) or it stops working altogether.
(For the most part, anyway.) And if you disrupt the signal, by disconnecting the cable box, or by shielding the aerial, again the TV again stops working completely. You don’t find that you now get the programs but the remote doesn’t work any more.
Chopra follows this with an old chestnut you will recognize if you have ever tried to debate idealists or dualists:
But if I ask you to imagine the color red or look at the color red, there's no red in your brain. There's just electrical firings.
True but irrelevant. Yes, your brain interprets certain visible light wavelengths as “red” and yes I don’t know if what you see as “red” is what I see as “red.” But show me a red card and (in a separate room) show Chopra a red card and we’ll both say it’s “red” (assuming neither of us is color blind), and we’ll do that because there is a real external phenomenon in the physical world that our brains see and interpret as “red”; it doesn’t mean there is a non-material mind signaling the brain.
Well, I have to say of Michael that he is very superstitious. He's addicted to the superstition of materialism. The first thing he said about the brain, you know, that you destroy a certain part of the brain and that function will not come back -- he hasn't kept up with the literature. There's a whole phenomenon called neural plasticity. There's gene regulation.
Chopra massively overreaches. Yes, neural plasticity means the brain can re-wire itself, given time, to perform some of the functions it lost when it was damaged. But it takes time, and while it’s doing so the brain doesn’t have the functions it lost. This is not evidence for a non-material mind; it is evidence that the physical brain can eventually repair itself to some limited extent. I’m not sure what gene regulation has to do with this, but that also has a material explanation and doesn’t require a non-material mind to function. As Steven Novella wrote:
…all the evidence we have suggests that the mind is a product of the brain. There is no mind without the brain (despite the unsubstantiated claims of paranormalists). If the brain is not biologically active, there is no consciousness. If the brain is damaged, the mind is altered. As brain function changes through drugs, lack of sleep, fever, or some metabolic derangement – so changes the mind. No reliable observation or experiment has been able to separate the mind as a phenomenon from the brain.
Throughout this whole thing, Chopra keeps asking Shermer what he clearly thinks is a killer question:
CHOPRA: ...are we talking to you, Michael, or to your networks right now?
CHOPRA: OK. When you said you'd like to believe in an after- death, was that your synaptic network speaking or was it you?
CHOPRA: OK. So what -- you know, when you say I'm skeptical about this, who's the "I" that's skeptical?
CHOPRA: I know it doesn't work for you. Who's the you that's talking to me right now?
CHOPRA: You are saying that's the way our synaptic networks should -- who's you?
I could ask Chopra the same question, and Chopra wouldn’t know the answer either. Although that wouldn’t stop him making one up. Of course, the sensible answer is that as far as we know, the “I” that we all feel we are is an emergent property of the neurons firing in our extremely complex brains. Or as Steven Novella wrote:
I would describe the subjective sense of self, of existence, as the real-time processing of the brain that is constantly taking in external stimuli while engaging in an internal conversation – generating thoughts and feelings and comparing those processes to memory and sensory input. We know that in order to be awake the brain needs to be constantly activated (a process of the brainstem activating system), which suggests that this constant brain activity is necessary for consciousness, probably because it is consciousness.
Admittedly, Chopra’s brain might not be complex enough to accomplish that task, but that’s no reason to suppose the rest of us need a non-material mind to get the same feeling.
The host (who despite the name of the show, was not Larry King) asked one sensible question (although he also tried to answer it himself in a less sensible way):
PROBST: Why not believe?
Why -- why are you focusing so much -- because if you're wrong...
The answer is, that we should reject ideas that are wrong, because it is only by rejecting ideas that are wrong that correct ideas will flourish. I was reminded here of the words of Antony Hoare (senior researcher at Microsoft Corporation), who explained what he though was the one thing everyone should learn about science:
…scientists start by trying very hard to disprove what they hope is true. When they fail, they have a good reason for believing what they hope is true, and can even convince others of its truth.
Do you imagine that Chopra has ever tried (very hard or even not so hard) to prove that the mind is not a separate entity from the brain? Would he even consider doing that? He gave us the TV set analogy – the brain is like the TV set but the mind is like the signal. Do you think he has ever thought of testing this to see if he could prove it false – by shutting off the signal (analogous to disconnecting the cable box) or disrupting it (by analogy, putting the TV aerial inside a Faraday cage), to see if the brain stops providing consciousness when the signal from the mind is disrupted? Has he even thought of doing this? You know the answer – of course he hasn’t. He never would. He isn’t interested in trying to prove his pet theory wrong; he’s only interested in posturing on the Larry King Show and on the pages of the Huffington Post.
Chopra called for a formal debate with Shermer, a debate he claims Shermer has avoided. Funny, I seem to remember they already had a debate, and that Chopra’s arguments were the usual weak logical fallacies that he always trots out. (Click that link and you’ll see that Chopra’s arguments haven’t improved any.) Should Shermer agree to debate him? Well, that’s up to Shermer, but science isn’t decided by debates, even among scientists (which Chopra isn't), and we know from debating creationists that the woo side has the advantage in that they don’t have to restrict themselves to facts, good scientific evidence or valid logic. Still, if he does, Chopra’s side of the debate is sure to give me material for some more blog posts.