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