Jun 17 2014

Deepak Challenge to Skeptics

Deepak Chopra doesn’t appear to like skeptics much, or understand them. He just put out a YouTube video challenging “Randi and his cronies” to his own fake version of the million dollar challenge.

All we have to do, apparently, is make 50-100 years of scientific advance in neuroscience in a single peer-reviewed paper. I’ll get started on that right away.

Actually, even that probably would not be sufficient. The whole point of pseudoscientific goal-post moving is to keep forever out of reach of current scientific evidence. It doesn’t matter how much progress science makes, there will always be gaps and limitations to our knowledge. Chopra lives in the gaps.

Here is his exact challenge:

Dear Randi: Before you go around debunking the so-called “paranormal,” please explain the so-called “normal.” How does the electricity going into the brain become the experience of a three dimensional world in space and time. If you can explain that, then you get a million dollars from me. Explain and solve the hard problem of consciousness in a peer-reviewed journal, offer a theory that is falsifiable, and you get the prize.

The challenge is absurd because it is completely undefined. “Explain” to what degree? Science often advances by developing theories that are progressively deeper. Obviously we can explain consciousness on some level, and just as obviously Chopra would not accept that level as sufficient, but he gives absolutely no indication of how much deeper an explanation he would require.

A challenge without a clear way of judging the outcome is worthless. This is very different than the JREF’s million dollar challenge (now supervised by Banachek) which negotiates a very specific protocol with clear outcomes and a clear threshold for what will be considered success.

The vacuous nature of Chopra’s challenge reveals it for what it is – an insincere stunt that Chopra no doubt wishes to use for rhetorical purposes.

If you listen to the rest of the video challenge it is also clear that Chopra likes to operate in the gaps – he is making a massive argument from ignorance, or “god-of-the-gaps” type argument. In essence he is saying that because neuroscientists cannot now explain consciousness to an arbitrary level of detail (determined at will by Chopra, with an endless option to revise), therefore magic.

He does specifically state that simply pointing to neuroanatomical correlates is not enough (because that is evidence we already have). In other words, he is saying that because a particular pattern of brain activity correlates with a specific conscious experience, that does not demonstrate that the brain activity causes the experience. Well, not by itself, but if you add it to all the other evidence – changing the brain changes the experience, etc., then it all adds up to a pretty solid scientific conclusion.

Chopra wants more than just demonstrating that the brain causes consciousness, he wants to know how. He wants us to solve the hard problem of consciousness. This is a tough one, as philosophers of consciousness cannot even agree that the hard problem exists. We may never objectively solve the hard problem, which is why, exactly, we have a subjective experience of our own existence.

I agree with Daniel Dennett who essentially says there is no hard problem. The brain doing everything it demonstrably does – all the easy problems – adds up to consciousness. There isn’t necessarily anything extra. But even if there is, there is every reason to believe it has something to do with brain function – the way it processes information.

So, to recap, all Chopra wants us to do is solve a problem that is simultaneously one of the most difficult scientific and philosophical questions of our time. Advances that we have already made are not enough,. and he is entirely vague on how much further advance is required. He can endlessly redefine what “explain” means as needed. Those goalposts are on wheels.

I always find it is important to put such “gap” arguments into context. If such a challenge were made over a hundred years ago, you can imagine a 19th century Chopra demanding the sort of evidence for the brain function paradigm of consciousness that we currently have today – show me clear neuroanatomical correlates, show that you can alter the mind by altering the brain, show that brain function precedes mental phenomena, etc. Such a challenge would have been impossible a century ago, but now it is a routine part of modern neuroscience, and of course this is not enough evidence for the gap dwellers. They want more.

Another way to look at this is that the best way to evaluate the strength of a scientific theory is not by taking a snap shot of what is currently explained by the theory, but how has it fared over time. Has the theory been successful in making progress? Is it useful? Has it run into any anomalies that seem fatal for the underlying theory? The materialist theory of neuroscience, that the mind as a phenomenon is brain function, has been as successful as evolutionary theory in driving productive research and making successful predictions. Scientists are quite content to ignore this entire debate while they continue to make progress deepening our understanding of the brain and its function.

Denial of neuroscience and exaggeration of our ignorance is all very important to Chopra because he wishes to insert his mysticism into the gaps of our current knowledge, and he wants skeptics to leave him alone as he does so. I guess he is not interested in public intellectual discourse. Part of that mystical insertion is to argue that “intention” is primary, it is what really exists. The physical universe is not real.

His standard evidence for this, which he repeats in his video, is to say that a thought somehow magically happens by itself, and then affects the brain, although he’s a bit vague on this. He says in the video to think of a sunset. That will have a neuroanatomical correlate in your brain, but so what. It could happen before, during, or after the thought, which Chopra thinks does not matter. This is somehow evidence that thoughts (intention) are separate from the brain.

However, if we were to actually look at what was going on we would see that your ears produced signals that your brain translates into Chopra’s voice asking you to think of a sunset. Then this would be communicated to the visual part of your cortex, which would fire in a pattern that matches whatever image of a sunset you imagined. If you look at a painting, and them remember that painting, the pattern of firing in your brain will be the same.

This is all just the brain talking to itself and processing information from various sources of sensory input. There is nothing going on here that isn’t just more brain function. Chopra does not have a coherent (let alone compelling) argument for how intention is separate from brain activity.

Further, research into subjects with disruptions in brain circuits, such as the split-brain experiments, show that people’s responses to such things as the request to imagine a sunset are entirely dependent on intact circuits in the brain. Disrupt those circuits and the relevant mental activity is also disrupted.

To make matters worse, Chopra doesn’t seem to have bothered to learn the first thing about the skeptical community. I know that Randi still has celebrity status in our community, because he is an actual celebrity and deserves respect for a lifetime of activism promoting science and critical thinking. But to equate the movement, comprised of many scientists and educators engaging with the public and professionals on many levels and in many ways, with just one person is frankly clueless.

We are not just Randi’s “cronies,” we are a rather vibrant intellectual community with many people and many facets. We are not, as Chopra apparently believes, vigilantes out to kill curiosity and legitimate science. We promote legitimate science and curiosity, leavened with critical thinking. If Chopra had any actual curiosity it would not be difficult for him to find this out for himself.

Conclusion

Chopra’s challenge is a transparent farce. I suggest that if he wishes to truly engage with skeptics in the future, even if just to challenge them, he first learn something about our actual process and positions. Otherwise he is condemned to attack his imaginary straw men and open himself up to further justified ridicule.

I will, in fact, offer a counter challenge to Chopra. This one is easy – come to TAM. I invite you as my personal guest. I will even give you an SGU T-shirt. We can sit down and have a pleasant interview.

Come with an open mind and listen to what skeptics actually have to say. You might just be surprised.

 

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