Nov 12 2013

Chopra Skepticism Fail Part 2

As promised, Deepak Chopra has written a follow up article about what he calls The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism. As we saw in part 1, Chopra remains consistent with his reputation for being intellectually superficial and careless, more interested in propping up his particular brand of mysticism than genuinely engaging with his critics.

In part 2 Chopra also continues his practice of erecting massive strawmen, consistent with the narrative standard in his corner of the wooniverse. He begins by once again conflating atheism with skepticism. Clearly he did not read or comprehend any of the skeptical responses to his first post. Now he trots out the tired claim that skeptics are negative and want to kill curiosity – it’s all just so tedious.

He also uses a strategy that I see increasingly within the subculture of many pseudosciences, specifically trying to adopt the language of skeptics but turning that language back against skeptics, as if they thought of in the first place.

Chopra writes:

None of this is news. The fate of militant skepticism, whatever it may be, will drift apart from the serious business of doing science. After all, no scientific discovery was ever made by negative thinking. There has to be an open-minded curiosity and a willingness to break new ground, while the militant skeptics represent the exact opposite: they are dedicated to the suppression of curiosity and protecting rigid boundaries of “real” science.

Every statement in that paragraph is wrong. Skepticism is about the serious business of doing science, which combines open-minded curiosity with rigorous methodology. Of course what happens is that whenever skeptics point out a lack of rigorous methodology the true believer claims that we are trying to kill their curiosity. At least Chopra spared us the standard comparison to Galileo.

Skeptics are not about defending any arbitrary boundaries of the content of science. Rather, we are trying to explore and define how to maximize the quality and reliability of the process of science and apply it to popular areas of belief where a proper process is lacking. Skepticism is about process, not conclusions.

Strawmen having been dutifully slain, Chopra moves on to the meat of his current essay, which is little more than a summary of the standard modern justifications for mysticism:

But by a strange and unexpected chain of events, real science finds itself at a turning point where skepticism itself is proving to be a dubious attitude. The standby of the scientific method – gathering objective data to prove objective facts – has been undermined. The reason for this cannot be stated in a single sentence, because too many shadowy findings, suppositions, and theoretical conundrums are woven together.

Chopra goes on to outline the four pillars of “What the Bleep do we Know,” “The Secret” and any brand of “quantum” nonsense you ever heard: The first two pillars essentially amount to, “quantum mechanics is weird, therefore science is bunk and my mysticism is true.” Specifically, the observer effect – making an observation of a system influences the behavior of the system. Also the uncertainty principle – at its most fundamental level, particles are not fixed objects but are waves of probability.

Of course it was rigorous science that identified the problems with classical physics and then discovered quantum effects as a potential solution. We have not drilled to the bottom of this well as yet. None of this undermined the process of science. Further, these weird quantum effects have essentially no effect on the macroscopic world, which behaves classically.

What Chopra is doing is what cranks have been doing since there was science – looking beyond the fringe of science and declaring, “here there be dragons.”

Pillar three is:

“The emergence of time and space, either through the Big Bang or at this very moment, remains mysterious. The pre-created state of the universe is a deep mystery.”

I’m not even sure how this supports Chopra’s dubious point. He’s just pointing to something science has not yet figured out. It is possible that we may never know how space and time came about. So what? It seems that Chopra is making the absurd argument that because science does not currently know everything, or may not be able to explain everything, there is something wrong with science as it is currently practiced.

Of course this is what the mystics want – science cannot explain X because it is too rigid and narrow. But, if we expand science to include my mysticism, then we can explain everything. Never mind that we will have to abandon the very principles of science in the process, and ignore those nasty skeptics who are pointing this out. They just want to kill my curiosity because…Hmmm, let’s see. They’re afraid. They lack imagination. Oh, because they are all really militant atheists. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Pillar number four is, of course, consciousness.

The whole issue of consciousness, long ignored because of science’s aversion to subjectivity, has become a major concern, principally for two reasons. The assumption that the brain is the producer of the mind has never been proved; therefore, it presents the possibility of being wrong. Second, if consciousness is more like a field effect than a unique human trait, the universe itself could be conscious, or at least possess the qualities of proto-consciousness, just as DNA possesses the possibility for Homo sapiens even at the stage when life forms were only single-celled organisms.

The “assumption” that the brain causes the mind is really a hypothesis, and to say that it has not been proven is to misrepresent both the process and findings of science. Of course, this goes to the heart of Chopra’s Eastern mysticism regarding a universal consciousness. This is his creationism.

There are multiple lines of evidence that support the hypothesis that the mind is the biological functioning of the brain. As I have written before:

For example, if the brain causes the mind then: there will be no documented mental function in the absence of brain function; altering the brain biologically will alter the mind functionally; mental development will correlate with brain development; and mental activity will correlate with brain activity (this holds up no matter what method we use to look at brain activity – EEG to look at electrical activity, PET scanning to look at metabolic activity, SPECT scanning to look at blood flow, and functional MRI to look at metabolic and neuronal activity).

The arrow of causation clearly goes from the brain to the mind. There does not appear to be any functional limit to how the mind can be altered by altering the brain. Of course we do not understand everything about how brain function manifests as mental function. But that it does is solid and uncontroversial.

Chopra’s premise is therefore wrong, but he goes onto say, essentially – if I am right, then I am right. If consciousness is a field effect (something for which there is absolutely no evidence), then my consciousness mysticism may be true.

This also is a common fallacy of true-believers – present minor unknowns or even problems with a standard scientific explanation, exaggerate them as much as possible, and then substitute pure speculation that has far deeper and even fatal problems. This is all a great example of motivated reasoning.

Before you read further you have to turn off your irony meters. Don’t turn down the gain, turn them completely off. Chopra writes:

These four mysteries or problems, whatever you label them, undercut skepticism – and more or less demolish militant skepticism – because they make science question its belief in such things as materialism, reductionism, and objectivity.

Here Chopra makes his agenda clear – undermining the philosophical basic of science itself. He wants to change the rules of science in order to allow in his pseudoscience. The mystics will be declaring the deaths of materialism, reductionism, and objectivity indefinitely, while proper science marches on unperturbed.

I make a habit of asking every neuroscientist I encounter, for example, what they think about the notion that brain function is the mind. Their response has always been the equivalent of, “well, duh!” They laugh off any dualistic notion or quantum consciousness nonsense, and then proceed to find more neuroanatomical correlates of mind and behavior. The materialist, reductionist paradigm is working just fine.

Further, while objective outcomes are always preferred, scientific methods can be turned to subjective phenomena – just very carefully.

He goes on:

Let’s drop the bugaboo about metaphysics and look with open eyes at two critical aspects of philosophy that can come to the aid of science at this moment. One is ontology, which asks what is reality? or how can we discover the difference between reality and illusion? The other is epistemology, which asks what is knowledge? and how do we come to know about the world?  Neither looks like a burning issue in everyday life, but they are, because each has a positive and negative pole.

This is where Chopra ironically is trying to sound like a skeptic. The whole point of skepticism is to explore what is real and how do we know. The idea that Chopra is trying to steal the philosophical high ground is just laughable.

Then he leaps off the cliff:

The negative pole is found with militant skeptics, who are wedded to an outmoded belief that the five senses are basically reliable, that only physical things are real, and that “pure” objectivity is possible, with the corollary that subjectivity will always be the enemy of real science. This last belief totally ignores the indisputable fact that every experience, including the experience of doing science, is subjective. Militant skepticism blocks the way to an expanded science that is trying to grapple with the issue of how the observer is woven into the object he observes.

I invite Chopra to read my article describing what skepticism is, and focus his attention on the section about neuropsychological humility. Skeptics have been writing, lecturing, and talking about the limits of human objectivity for years, the challenges of doing science, and how our brains construct reality. Chopra appears to be completely out of touch with his subject matter.

Also, the statement that “only physical things are real” is so vague as to be meaningless. How do you define “physical?” Energy and space-time are not matter, but they are real. Perhaps by physical he means part of the universe, in which case the sentence becomes, “only real things are real.” Otherwise he is getting into the thorny issue of how to define the supernatural.

Conclusion

Not only does Chopra mischaracterize the issues about which he presumes to write, he does not even demonstrate that he knows what the issues are. He erects one massive strawman after another about what skepticism is, relying upon long debunked false tropes, and clearly has never engaged meaningfully with skeptics.

His entire edifice can be summarized as – science doesn’t know everything, and skeptics are negative, therefore we have to change science, abandon its core principles and methodology, to allow for my cultural brand of mysticism, of which I am a very profitable guru.

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