Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Deepak, Deepak, Deepak..... *sigh*

More Chopra voodoo....
Category: Religion and Philosophy

I'll admit it. I have absolutely no patience for any spiritual (in PZ's vernacular, 'woo-woo') crap. This incluces (maybe especially) the junk that Deepak Chopra spouts. This is a six part response to Deepak Chopra's 'debunking' of the Richard Dawkins' God Delusion. Chopra goes through each of what he feels are the main points (some of which he gets totally wrong) and attempts to refute each, sometimes seemingly without any logic at all. The first:

Science is the only valid way to gain knowledge. Nothing about God is needed to explain the world. Eventually science will uncover all mysteries. Those that it can't explain don't exist.

Chopra believes that non-empirical data is as valuable as empirical data and that Science is not the only path to Truth. He gives examples of non-empirical knowledge, such as "I know that my mother loved me all her life, as I love my own children. I feel genius in great works of art. I have seen medical cures that science can't explain, some seemingly triggered by faith." The last one I call bullshit on. Faith healing has been debunked so many times that any belief in its efficacy is simple lunacy. But let's look at the first one. (I'll take his word that his mother loved him.) Is this some kind of inner knowledge inaccessible by any logical means? No. He has simply never asked the right question: How do I know? If Deepak's mother acts in a caring manner towards him then such actions are evidence that his mother loves him. He may not have thought about it consciously, but somewhere in the background he made the connection. Certainly, this is not some 'inner knowledge'. There are many examples of such unconscious calculations, like morality and ethics described so well in Marc Hauser's "Moral Minds".

But remember, feelings evolved. They are a means for enhancing our social behavior, which in turn enhanced our survival as a species. They are constructs of Evolution, not undeniable truths. We feel what we call fear so that we may deal with danger, we feel lust so that we may pass on our genes, we feel what we call love so that we can rear a child to adulthood and so continue to pass on genetic material to the next generation. These facts do not in any way take from the experience of each. But feelings can never replace logic, reasoning and solid empirical evidence in explaining Nature. To use yesterday's David Hume quote, "When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion." Amen.

"For thousands of years human beings have been obsessed with beauty, truth, love, honor, altruism, courage, social relationships, art, and God. They all go together as subjective experiences, and it's a straw man to set God up as the delusion. If he is, then so is truth itself or beauty itself. God stands for the perfection of both, and even if you think truth and beauty (along with love, justice, forgiveness, compassion, and other divine qualities) can never be perfect, to say that they are fantasies makes no sense." The universe does not care about beauty, truth, love, honor, altruism, courage, social relationships, art, and God. The universe just is. While these things are not delusions, they are all human constructs. They are byproducts of our higher brain functions. That they are not purposeful constructs is irrelevant. Deepak seems to think they are inherent properties of the universe. Bullocks.

"Science knows about objective reality, the mask of matter that our five senses detects. But the mind goes beyond the five senses, and it does Dawkins no good to lump the two worlds of inner and outer together. In fact, insofar as brain research can locate centers of activity that light up whenever a person feels love or pleasure or sexual arousal, these subjective states leave objective traces behind. That makes them more real, not less. In the same way, the brain lights up when a person feels inspired or close to God; therefore, we may be getting closer to the connection between inner and outer states, not further away." Inner and outer states? What the hell? The mind does NOT go beyond the five senses. There is no evidence that there is any other input than taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing. If a schizophrenic 'hears' voices, that is the schizophrenic's reality. Are these voices real? This is one of the reasons that so-called 'inner knowing' is meaningless without independent corroboration.

Deepak seems to think that materialists such as Dawkins try to break everything down to its smallest components; that if you can know where every atom is you know everything about a system. Such reductionism is silly and Richard Dawkins proposes no such thing. Consciousness is a prime example. We do not fully understand it yet, but we are beginning to build simple models of consciousness that have nothing to do with knowing where every molecule is situated.

Chopra looks, but does not see. How does Chopra explain changes in personality that result from brain injury? Instead, consciousness is some mystical entity. But this seems to be another form of the false dichotomy. Science hasn't explained consciousness fully therefore it must be something metaphysical. Not much of an argument. Without empirical evidence I will never be convinced, or even interested, in his position.

"A materialist could conceivably analyze the brain functions of a Mozart or Beethoven down to the last synaptic firing, but that would tell us nothing about why music exists, why it is beautiful, where great symphonies come from, why inspiration uplifts the listener, or in fact any relevant thing about the meaning of music." He's right. But again Chopra makes the mistake of thinking Science as totally reductionist. To paraphrase the old saying, if you want to study forest ecology you don't look just at the individual trees. I think that his myopic view of materialism stems from this misconception that by dissecting Nature Science removes the inherent beauty of it. Poppycock! Without Science how would any of us ever know the beauty of celestial objects that the Hubble Telescope brings us, the symmetry of the mathematics that rules the mechanics of the universe, or the amazing natural history of our planet? Scientists are not robots.

The last point that he makes, that if Science can't explain it then it doesn't exist, is a strawman. Materialism says no such thing. When we scientists can't explain something, we tell the truth: we don't know. There's no shame in that. The shame comes (or should) when we say something idiotic like "We don't know, therefore it must be magic." What Science does say is anything (like god) not required to explain a set of observations should be removed from our hypotheses. Otherwise its inclusion is arbitrary and superfluous. This is Ockham's Razor.

Chopra's position is a dangerous one. His mystical baloney relies heavily on Science never being able to explain fully the areas in which he makes his attacks. In this he posits nothing more than the God of the Gaps. What a rube.

Part II tomorrow....

1 comment:

Matt said...


I really think that with some practice, anyone could be as good at the woo-woo crap as Deepak Chopra. I've taken courses in quantum mechanics; I just need to go to Nepal for a spiritual retreat for a year, and I could come back and stand a good chance of selling a book about my "insights" into the nature of the universe.

I wish we could just ignore people like Chopra, but inevitably I'll end up having to refute his writings at a dinner party or a wedding or something...