Deepak Chopra reviews Dawkins’ God Delusion. Quantum Physics spotted fleeing the scene!

Deepak Chopra, master of pseudoscientific woo, is getting his rather belated licks in on Richard Dawkins at the unlikely venue of Skeptic Magazine. There’s not much to say about the bulk of Chopra’s book review. Like many reviewers, Chopra insists that Dawkins’ God Delusion is attacking straw man versions of God. And like many reviewers, making this accusation involves glibly ignoring Dawkins’ repeated caveats about how and why he’s narrowed his focus away from things like Einstein’s “God,” discounted rarefied theologies that few believers believe in or have even heard of, and picked the particular targets of undeniable unreason that he has.

But Deepak being Deepak, you know where this discussion will end up: trying to rope his half-baked understanding of Quantum Physics into theories of universal consciousness that supposedly explain things that mere science will never be able to. There is a heck of a lot to criticize here, and I hope others will give it the ribbing it deserves from all angles.

For now though, I just want to point out how colossally crummy and unsatisfying Chopra’s supposed “alternative” model of consciousness is, even on its own terms.

Let me first say that I at least share Chopra’s awe about the issue in question (and in fact, I’m pretty sure that Dawkins, Dennet, and others do as well). We don’t know what conscious experience is, how to characterize it, what it would even mean to explain it. It’s a fascinating philosophical problem.

But any meaningful explanations of consciousness are inevitably going to involve describing some underlying mechanism to it: it has to function in some way that is distinct from a lack of consciousness. There ultimately has to be a descriptive reason why functional brains are related to conscious experience and temporarily drugged or damaged ones are not: why, as far as we know, people are conscious, but rocks are not (and if you want to believe that rocks are conscious, you might as well believe anything at all and not pretend to be explaining anything in specific).

Chopra is no exception here. When he tries to hijack Quantum Mechanics to provide some sort of justification for his views, he’s inevitably implying that doing so measurably improves our understanding of conscious experiences and intelligence as phenomenons. It has to in some way help us describe things better. Otherwise, why bring it up at all?

The problem is simply how unbelievably lame and uninformative those descriptions are.

Quite simply, Chopra’s explanations of consciousness don’t seem to involve providing any insight on any particular process at all! Instead of shedding some light on the mystery, he basically just suggests that the secret is… some things randomly touching other things and just generally being randomly distributed all over the place. I’m not kidding:

  • Events at opposite ends of the universe are paired with each other, so that a change in the spin of one electron immediately produces a twin effect in another electron. This ability to communicate instantly across millions of light years cannot be explained by materialism. It defies all notions of cause and effect. it defies chance.
  • Every electron in the universe exists as a wave function that is everywhere at once. When this wave function collapses, we observe a specific isolated electron. Before the wave collapses, however, matter is non-local.

The ability of objects and events to be everywhere at once seems like an attribute of God–omnipresence. The ability of electrons separated by millions of light years to ‘talk’ to each other seems like another attribute of God–omniscience.

Never mind the clumsy conflation of probability functions with the phenomenon of paired particles (or the idea that any two random particles in the universe can just somehow end up being paired for no historical reason): just think about what Chopra is implying: that somehow all the fabled weirdness of Quantum Physics just “works out” just so to provide the definitive explanation for our conscious minds. How? He never says.

I can’t for the life of me figure out how this has even surface plausibility to anyone, even Chopra. If you took your brain (the particular structure of which surely even supernaturalists would agree has some relation to thoughts and consciousness) and stuck it in a blender, would you expect it to still work?

Alternatively, if you could somehow wire up every single neuron in your brain so that it contacted every single other neuron, making all the particular structure and organization of the brain irrelevant, would you expect that state of affairs to be consistent with producing conscious experience?

If not, then how does merely noting that ordinary causality seems to break down sometimes, or that particles can be non-locally paired, or that they can be non-local in general, explain anything? All that introduces to the picture is more noise: more ways for weird and ultimately random things to happen. It offers more dimensions of randomness, not a cure for it. Despite all the noise about Dawkins neglecting a great insight, Chopra never gets around to even attempting a “spiritual” explanation for how conscious thought works.

And who knows: quantum effects may one day be shown to play a role in subjective experience. But unceremoniously dumping a poorly written physics textbook in our laps isn’t the same thing as demonstrating it or explaining how!

Ironically, on top of all of this, Chopra actually chides “materialists” for supposedly claiming that “randomness” can explain order and structure in the universe (we don’t claim that, and we aren’t really “materialists” in his sense either, but whatever). But his apparently all-too sincere dabbling in Quantum Mechanics is even worse than his straw man pictures of science. At least real scientific explanations, even if they haven’t cracked the core mysteries of subjective thought, explain bits and pieces of the problem in coherent and intelligible ways. They don’t do it by appeals to pure randomness either: they do it by examining the particulars: the laws, the regularities, the interactions between complex parts, and so on.

Chopra, on the other hand, offers us nothing more than a universal blender full of quantum foam. Even if I believed all his woo in the first place, even if I completely rejected empiricism as the best guide to weeding out unjustified ideas… how is that even remotely insightful or informative? Consciousness remains a mystery, and worse, Chopra still hasn’t justified why his process of “making stuff up” is a better than the scientific approach of “testing claims against the best evidence we have.”

It isn’t just that he’s pushing bad ideas about quantum physics. There just aren’t any coherent ideas here at all.

Bonus babbling:

When you get to the primal state of the universe, what is it? A universal field that encloses all matter and energy. This field is everywhere, but it also localizes itself. A molecule in the brain is one expression of the field, so is a thought. If a molecule isn’t an object but a collapsed quantum wave, then that holds true for the whole brain. The field turns out to be the common ground of both the inner and outer world.

Compare that to the sort of word-salad technobabble gobbledygook you find in comic books:

“I isolated its frequency and created a neural net that replicates your pheromone-based defenses!”

[I'm] trying to stabilize her vital signs through a series of homeopathic enchantment spells!

Chopra may be hopeless when it comes to coherent science and philosophy, but he’s got a bright career in superhero comics!

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14 Responses to Deepak Chopra reviews Dawkins’ God Delusion. Quantum Physics spotted fleeing the scene!

  1. owen59 says:

    Yeh, I have my own problems with Dawkins work, including that it’s not very scientific from the point of view of what anthropologists, or sociologists migth think of as science. At least in his interviews, Dawkins has presented a very ideologically driven proposal around banning parents from teaching their children religion. Well, we know where that has taken a few nations in the 21st century which indicates that dawkins is probably not the big thinker he is touted in some quarters. I think h holds a few memes that are doomed to the evolutionary cul-de-sac.
    But the solution to both Dawkins and Deepak is education of the next generation in regard to ethical and critical thinking. Let the religions and the gurus find their place in the discussion about how to educate children to support an equitable and progressive civilisation. Oh, and why do I suggest that this last is the goal – got it from a religion.

  2. Bad says:

    I don’t think Dawkins has ever advocated banning parents from raising their kids in a religion. He’s pointed out the absurdity of officially labeling children “Christian” or “Muslim” long before they are even capable of knowing what those things are. And he’s advocated that the government not be involved in this sort of thing (as it is moreso in England). But he very vocally and specifically rejected a petition proposal to that someone informed him could be interpreted to call for government action.

    So I think you are rather misrepresenting him here, and if your implication is that he’s even pushing for any kind of government imposition on the rights of freedom of religion, let alone are trying to compare him to Stalin, I think you are way, way off base.

    The rest of your criticisms seem too vague to know quite what you mean by them: what is “not very scientific from the “point of view of what anthropologists, or sociologists”?

  3. anxiousmofo says:

    That’s a pretty strong dollop of woo. If there’s one thing I dislike even more than nonsense, it’s nonsense which wraps itself in scientific terminology.

  4. [...] any case, go read. I may have gotten all worked up about Chopra’s inane musings on Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness, but those sorts of bad ideas are ultimately pretty harmless. Chopra’s rambling diatribes [...]

  5. Dennis says:

    Not to fiercely denigrate anyone’s critique of Chopra’s approach to consciousness, but I find it amusing to read scientists’, or any subscribers to this lineage, interpretations of spirituality, mysticism, and the like. Granted, examining his ideas from the criteria constructed by materialists, then the criticisms you have are quite valid. But the one thing that should be emphasized here is that Chopra is attempting to understand the universe from a perspective of a sage: A phenomenological insight to the ‘nature’ of reality. What this entails is interweaving science, philosophy, and eastern mysticism–to take reality as a process ontology. This suggests viewing life as a continuum of consciousness. Is a rock conscious? Well, if you want to believe that consciousness is exclusively defined by self-awareness, then you are right, only a few animal species exhibit these traits. But consciousness is a continuum of subjective awareness. In that case, if a rock does interact with other like ‘things’ operative at that level–such as chemical and physical processes that do in fact affect its form and behavior, then yes, there is a degree of consciousness. It is just not as deep as it is in Homo Sapiens Sapiens. A rock does not move or transform unless forced by weather or dissolved by chemicals! But those changes the rock undergoes exemplifies a behavior that articulates a particular level of consciousness. We will never be able to know the ‘subjective experience of a rock’ because such could not be possible, but we could understand the objective behavior of it–such as studying the empirical behavior of it. Such is also the case with humans. We can understand our behavior ‘objectively’–by focusing in on the structures or institutions of our actions, but that does not eliminate the subjective experiences we have. Furthermore, we move through transformation as we get older. We become wiser and wiser, through experience, and we deepen our understanding of life and we begin to identify with other things outside of our internal consciousness–our ego for instance. That is what Chopra is getting at.

    It is often the case that scientists takes spirituality as too literal. Their primary interest is in analytical parsing, to the point that viewing life is not understood as a continuum, but as compartments or fragments that are reducible. Remember, mysticism and spirituality is not about using rational thought or reason/intellectual mind to grasp the form(s) of reality, it is a modality that uses techniques to transcend thought–to become detached from the ego that in itself represents this materialistic intellectual approach. With that, one cannot understand spirituality unless one PRACTICES this ego detachment. Thought cannot exist without consciousness, but consciousness can exist without thought.

  6. Bad says:

    See, the thing is, I think you’re wrong about. I’m not closed off to the idea that there are deep insights that cannot be verified by science, presently, or ever. But by and large, when people claim that such insights exist, and then set about to explain them, I’m profoundly disappointed.

    Misusing scientific terms and ideas is not, for instance, a useful exercise: for deep insight or otherwise. Scientific terms are meant to be precise: to convey a specific meaning so that everyone can be on the same page. There is the illusion of meaning and concepts being conveyed, but the actual expressions are so ambiguous, confused, and interpretative that it’s never clear exactly what is being claimed.

    Your talk on rocks, for instance, has not as far as I can tell told me much of anything about rocks. I know no more (or less) about them than before you started. I’m not even, as is often the case, sure I know what you think you mean. When you say that “But those changes the rock undergoes exemplifies a behavior that articulates a particular level of consciousness.” I’m not sure that this conveys any real sense of what you think is going on. How does it exemplify anything more than what is already described by it being chemically altered or moved? How does calling anything related to it “consciousness” add to our understanding of rocks? We can of course imagine rocks having subjective experiences, but again: we can imagine lots of things. So what? How is this “understanding” anything?

    It is often the case that scientists takes spirituality as too literal.

    The problem with hiding in poetry, however, is that you never end up committing yourself to any particular assertion. The result is often rambling mush that SOUNDS like definitive assertions, but really doesn’t mean much for certain at all.

    Their primary interest is in analytical parsing, to the point that viewing life is not understood as a continuum, but as compartments or fragments that are reducible.

    This seems like a very unfair charge to me. Scientists more than anyone are the folks who have eradicated omnipresent assumptions of essentialism. We talk about the reality of continuums all the time: indeed, most of the major critics of science are basically pushing a black and white vision of things while scientists try to demonstrate that things are much more complicated and ambiguous.

    Thought cannot exist without consciousness, but consciousness can exist without thought.

    This sounds like a pretty strong assertion. How are you going to go about proving or defending it? Or will you just going to retreat into calling it poetry?

  7. Dennis says:

    There is a lot to respond to in your paragraph. I want to focus on your last three comments for now. First of all, I think you misunderstand spirituality by associating it with poetry. If you have read any Sri Ramana Maharshi, he even states explicitly, that what he is presenting is NOT poetry. It is a description of the reality of life–Brahman. He uses mystical self-inquiry, or contemplation, to understand the illusions of reality. Now, the problem is, I think gurus and mystics have a difficult time translating their language to individuals who have not experienced the same thing, so the insight and ontological descriptions they offer seems like poetic mush. I am personally in the business of forming a bridge to this mystical worldview–that is, by using science and analysis to explain and understand mysticism so that the general person can begin to understand (and therefore practice) this. I am half philosopher and half ‘seer.’ I do the practices of spirituality as well as the philosophical-scientific analyses.

    Secondly, I would agree that the West has done a wonderful job in (eradicate? I dont know about that) pointing out the fallacies of essentialism. However, it also the case that essentialism comes right back into place by the mere act of viewing the world as ‘objective’ or an a priori structure that is being activated as an autocatalytic cycle. Isn’t it the case, then, that the ‘essence’ of life is a process, and that the problem is not with viewing life as an essence but with the moral inferences drawn from simplistic explanations that we have created to understand a particular phenomenon. I have more to say about this but that is a full book in itself. True: science attempts to flush away black and white views, and it attempts to take life as ambiguous while situating it along a continuum. However, the attempt often proves to be a failure in the very analyses they are making because they find that more and more categories are needed to represent and understand the complexity of the universe. To simplify the universe, then, they try reduce the language so that certain concepts are embodied by other concepts that are more enveloping. But doing this is interesting because then they often find out that many concepts are not reducible–such as, culture not being able to be reduced to biology. But then, what would a reduction say to that? Well, you are reducing collective symbolic behavior to culture (instead of being reduced to the biological). Kroeber was just as much a reductionist as say Spencer was. To avoid reductionism, one has to make distinctions and highlight the interactions between these two domains, but yet, each domain are somewhat autonomous–owning a particular ‘essence’ to it, with that ‘essence’ forever eluding our grasp. That is my goal: To distinguish between what is mystical and what is material, while, paying homage to both. That is what Chopra is attempting to do. The problem is, to many scientists who do not understand the language of seers, misinterprets the experience, and relegates it to ‘poetic ramblings.’ But what is considered mystical is not deemed science; hence, why science is still in the business of reducing their language to compartments–to the material or symbolic reality for instance. There are other approaches that need to be considered. In short, science seems to be reducible their language to the material reality, and furthermore, the attempt to escape essentialism seems to reproduce that very problem when we parse reality with our language. That is why language is limited in understanding the mystical ‘nature’ of life.

    So in a sense, you are right, science does a great job in illuminating the fallacy that nothing is reducible (while yet often reducing their knowledge to the established consensus of scientific knowledge–weeding out mystical knowledge). But at the same time, science, although claiming to be not essentialistic, often recurs to essentialism by assuming that the material reality is itself the ontology of the universe (or ideas in the case of Plato–actually, Plato took his ideas from the mystic Socrates). Perhaps reductionism, of some sort, is inevitable. I don’t know.

    The mystics are not interested in creating a black and white world; in fact, I would argue the reverse: That they simplify language to the point that it is useful in most contexts. As I see myself, I noticed that attachment is my problem. I can become attached anything, including attachment itself. Simple language, but useful. Does this demonstrate a black and white view? It does if you are using knowledge as a map to understand the entire world. But it is not if you are using this insight as a truth to relieve yourself from suffering in each moment to moment encounter.

    Finally, when I say thought cannot exist consciousness but consciousness can exist without thought, this is an insight most mystics would agree with. What this means is that consciousness still operates whether or not thinking occurs. We often dont think and then act. We often act without thinking–using intuition as our guide. But many of us identify with our ego as the source for answers. So when we begin to identify less with our ego, we become more detached from thinking at all. We begin to become comfortable with complete silence; we become observers of all objects (including our ego–that is an object!). At that level, we operating mostly on intuition, not thought. That is what they mean when they say, ‘thought cannot exist without consciousness, but consciousness can exist without thought.’

    I am not a critic of science, I am a critic of anything that attempts to exclude possibilities. I used to be a hardcore critic of spirituality until I started practicing. The language made no sense to me whatsoever at first. I thought it was utter nonsense. After I got into the practices, and noticed what they call ‘the Witness’ as the seeing of all observable reality–all objects outside consciousness–I began to notice that some of what they are saying is in fact very useful and true. If you are a scientist, then I would recommend taking up the experiment to test whether it is not true. The only way I know how to do this is by adopting the requisite practices to determine its veracity. The mystics understand and agree with this; that is why there are so many schools around (Vendanta, Buddhism, Christian Mysticism, Sufism, and so on).

  8. Bad says:

    The problem is that you start out with the pre-established assumption that there is clearly something to understand: that there really is meaning behind the mush. I’m skeptical of this to begin with.

    I still have a hard time understanding how it is that you can claim it is science, and not mystics, who are the simplifiers. Science is often incredibly complicated: dealing with realities that are far more intricate and interrelated than any single person can delve or imagine by themselves. Mystics, on the other hand, always seem to pushing pithy sayings and claimed insights in which the actual details never really seem to matter.

    Again, I’m not ruling out the possibility that mystics have something to offer that science cannot capture. I’m just saying that I’ve been so far unconvinced and unimpressed. I don’t see insights: I see obfuscation and linguistic confusion, not clarity. You think you see them, but it seems to me what you describe is that you experience the feeling of finding insight. But that’s not the same thing, I think. It’s like when people smoke pot and think they are having all sorts of great ideas, and they write them down furiously… and then when they sober up, it turns out to be gobbledygook or really simple stuff.

    Chopra’s writings are particularly suspect, and I think I explain why in my above article. They misuse scientific concepts he clearly has not taken the time to understand fully. And really, it’s very, very hard to get away from the feeling that he’s just making stuff up as he goes along: that he could say one thing if the whim takes him, but say another completely contradictory thing if not.

  9. Dennis says:

    I must admit, I am failing to reach you here. I must be mispresenting my thoughts because I did not mean for you to think that I suggesting that science is simplifying the world more than say the mystics do. In fact, Im not sure where you are getting this notion. If I stated that, my apologies. That is not what I am saying. First of all, I think that science and mystics (I prefer the term seers) are studying different domains. The former–material reality–and the latter–spiritual reality. I think both are doing the best they can to explain the ontology of their experience. What I am saying, however, is that science can be very reductionistic, to the point that many of their concepts are reifications. There isn’t a market in the empirical world but for a long time, economists really believed there was one. The idea that there is some essence to our behaviors, as assumed in formal economics, is gobbledygook to me. The mystics would never say this. Sure, the word ‘essence’ is used but this is an abstract description of the process of reality, not an entity that can be objectively known. They aren’t interested in finding the essence of material reality, that is for the scientists. They are interested, depending on the tradition, to find the truth in their own life. In fact, one of the buddhist I work with says over and over again, ‘we dont know the answers and we never will.’ Interestingly, that was the motivation for her to take up buddhism, because it is allows one to become ‘comfortable with uncertainty,’ as Pema Chodron says. Since we can’t know the world in its entirely, we find truth for ourselves and to live in that truth so we can live without the fear of not knowing.

    Science–intellectualism–is a defense mechanism. It is a collective symbol that represents the denial of who we really are. “Who am I?” ask Sr Ramana Maharshi. That became the aim of his quest in life, as a Vedanta mystic. His journey was to strip away the illusions of the material world and find his peace within the ever changing universe. Using thought or reason furthered him away from locating this source of truth. Once you let go of thought being the ultimate source for answers, you begin to see another world open up because you are not attached to the ego. If you don’t want to see this point via experience, understand it from a psychoanalytic point of view. See it as moving beyond the fixation of a defense mechanism (since attachment to denial or intellectualism is), that is, a particular stage in development, and to move into a realm where you become ‘more self actualized.’

    I think the reason why you dont see insights is because you have never practiced them. Again, you recur to reason mind and not wise mind. You are attached to reason as an instrument for knowledge, and have not cleared your mind so that a deeper truth of ‘who you are’ flows through. You are trying to find meaning in reason where there is none. You know that we will never find the truth of anything, only partial truths, so the raison d’etre of many mystical practices is to accept and love the inevitable fate of our lives of not knowing. If that is not truth, then what is?

    Im not sure why you dont think mystical knowledge doesnt offer meaning? We are all searching for our own meaning in life. Do you have meaning in life? I have meaning in my life. And certaintly, they have meaning in their lives. So of course there is, to use your words, ‘meaning behind the mush.’ We are all trying to find meaning in our lives, and that is what mysticism is about: To find your own personal meaning. In the grand scheme of things, isn’t that the most important? Is it really that important to find the truth of say, what a gene does? Mysticism does not rule out the practice of understanding the world as a science. It is just ruling out the exclusion of perspectives–hence the term ‘duality in unity’ to describe their worldview at the top rung of consciousness.

    The language they do use has a lot of meaning and many individuals understand them. I, in fact, understand them. The problem is that it is like physics. I dont understand physics that much, but it is because I havent studied it. The same thing goes here. If you study the material, through spiritual practice, then you would understand the language. Think of it as a culture and you as an ethographer whose attempting to understand their worldview. When you become a part of that group, learn the language and practices, you begin to understand what they are talking about. That is why there isn’t any meaning behind it for you. There is meaning to it for me, but that is only because I started to practice it and the learned the terms they use to describe their ontic reality. It is hard to conceptualize what they mean until it is experienced first hand. For a skeptic, of course, this seems like one is pulling the wool over their eyes, but if you want to live in a world where fear is the dominant feeling, then you have only reattached yourself to a worldview that prevents you from seeing greater insight into the truth of life.

  10. William Pinn says:

    I am not familiar with Chopra’s work, but based on what I have read here, I think he is hypothesizing that the particles that make up the self are only the self when the self observes and experiences the self. It is then that the wave function of each particle colapses. The rest of the time the particles of the self are free to randomly mingle with outside particles. Become one with the universe and all that metaphysical stuff. I am not positive but I think that is what he means by a “field.”

  11. Michael says:

    Please inform yourself before you dismiss the idea of a connection between conciousness and quantum physics.

    Quantum measurement paradox, von Neumann chain, goedel´s theorem are the key words.

    Books by Roger Penrose and Amit Goswami are recommended to read. Especially Goswami does provide the link between those fields.

    Dawkins approach is narrow minded and naive, not even scientific, as his materialist paradigm is a dogma as well.

  12. Robert says:

    so materialist = bad? short sighted?

    spiritualist = good? isn’t it just faith based but using a different term?

    claiming something without proof.

    saying there is value without having materialist value doesn’t mean much. it’s just more hocus pocus. but whatever makes you guys feel better i guess!

  13. Brian says:

    man, reading soe of these comments is like reading Deepak himself. Mumbo Jumbo and nonsense utterly devoid of meaning. The subjective conciousness of a rock? Really? What does any of that ramble even mean. Are you saying that the moloten lava currently spewing forth from Iceland is aware? Would that be self-aware or just aware of things outside of itself? And if a puddle of lava gets seperated from the main flow does it take on a new, seperate identity, becoming Mini-Lava? Or perhaps only solid rocks are aware, and lava is in a state akin to a brain in a blender? As you can clearly make out, all of these things that I am asserting are utter nonsense, complete barmy bullsh1t. I am of course trying to make a point, I hope it’s not lost on you. If you’re going to make asertions about rocks being concious, you can’t be so vague as to leave nothing coherent to actually respond to. Hell, it’s not that I don’t understand you, it’s that there is nothing to understand in what you say, you say nothing that means anything (in the classical sense of the word ‘mean’ that is. In the sense of the meaning of the word ‘mean’ that means anything, i guess you mean everything).

    Epic fail, fool.

  14. wie leckt man eine frau…

    [...]Deepak Chopra reviews Dawkins’ God Delusion. Quantum Physics spotted fleeing the scene! « The Bad Idea Blog[...]…

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