Jul 18 2008

Deepak Chopra – More Woo from the Master

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Comments: 44

Writing for the Huffington Post (an online news outlet that regularly hosts pseudoscience and anti-vaccinationist ravings), Deepak Chopra seeks to inform us: Why the Paranormal is Normal. What he actually demonstrates is his ability to twist and abuse language in an attempt to distract and confuse his reader. At this verbal deception Chopra is truly the master.

Language is important- words matter. Anyone who has studied a technical field should appreciate the need to use precise and unambiguous terminology. Good writers will also carefully choose words to illuminate, rather than obfuscate, what they wish to convey. It is also true that humans generally think in words. Language is closely tied to conscious thought. We therefore need clear language in order to think clearly. Words are also handle-bars with which we can grab hold of concepts – therefore by expanding our vocabulary we can expand our intellectual horizons.

Those who wish to push a claim or point of view that is illogical, at odds with reality, or simply does not make sense will often use language to force-fit their ideas to reality. They will use ambiguous terms, or will shift the definition of terms as needed, for example. This is exactly what Chopra does in order to make his dubious point.

He writes:

In general, it’s fair to say that the popular belief in the paranormal falls outside the official picture of reality. The official picture is grounded in science, rationalism, and materialism. It takes a definition of “natural,” after all, before “supernatural” can exist. God was natural in the medieval world, and thus miracles, healings, apparitions of the Virgin Mary, stigmatics, and so on, were considered natural.

What exactly is the “official picture of reality?” Official according to whom? All we can infer from this statement is that it is not a popular vote. With the use of the word “official” Chopra is painting a picture of a conspiracy of sorts – vague “powers that be” who can dictate what is officially deemed “reality.” This degrades the position he is about to argue against into a dogma, rather than a rational position based upon logic and evidence. It is a strawman strategy.

Next he plays off two meanings of the word “natural.” The philosophical meaning of the word is anything rooted in the physical world, the laws that govern how the universe operates, that follows the rules of cause and effect. This is the meaning of “natural” he uses when he says that science “takes a definition of ‘natural.'” Then he says “God was natural in the medieval world…” using a different definition of “natural.” Here he uses natural to mean familiar, easy or comfortable. At least that is what I think he means. It certainly doesn’t make sense the other way – that God was physical and governed by the laws of the universe.

He continues:

Until the official picture changes, astrology is bogus, astronomy is legitimate. Ghosts are bogus, apparitions of the Virgin Mary are — well, that’s the rub. Religious people are allowed to cling to a different model of reality, tolerated by the official gatekeepers but not believed in.

Here he continues the false dichotomy of official vs popular – as if that is the only thing that determines that astrology is bogus and astronomy legitimate. How about the fact that astrology is made-up superstition that has no basis in reality. Astrology does not even make internal sense, it has no plausible mechanism of action, and it cannot produce reliable results. Astrologers rely upon sloppy thinking, magical thinking, and logical fallacies to arrive at their conclusions. When they have ventured into science to search for support for astrology – they have completely failed.

Astronomy, on the other hand, is an empirical discipline that has produced dramatically successful results. As an explanatory approach to the cosmos is has produced a steady stream of ever-improving explanatory and predictive models. Astronomers can predict solar eclipses, the return of comets, and the movements of planets.

Chopra then give us another false dichotomy – between religion and other forms of paranormal belief. It is true that various cultures view different paranormal beliefs differently. Most beliefs are accepted in one culture but thought of as silly superstitions in another. One person’s sacred religion is another person’s primitive delusion.

But Chopra would have us believe that such historically determined cultural beliefs are a matter of “official gatekeepers.” Again – who are these people. Of course, I am talking about the US and other open societies (as is Chopra). There are countries with state-sponsored religions, and therefore they do have belief gatekeepers. This is not what Chopra is talking about. He is vaguely referring to the scientific community.

He completely misses the real dichotomy – that between science and non-science. The scientific community can only determine what qualifies as science – and not through back room secret meetings, but in the open, transparent, and universal world of public science. Beliefs outside the realm of science are not science and are of no concern professionally to scientists – whether they are part of a popular religion, imported from the religion of another culture, or are recent or isolated paranormal beliefs. But Chopra apparently thinks that the powers that be officially tolerate certain religions but persecute his paranormal beliefs.

He goes on:

Any of us can hold conflicting viewpoints at the same time — it’s called compartmentalization. If the various compartments are tight enough and separated by thick walls, a whole range of phenomena can be believed in without making them consistent. I can imagine a cell biologist who is Catholic, has seen a UFO, reads the astrology column in the newspaper, and hopes to go to Heaven when he dies. It would be far better, however, to promote a consistent worldview, one that allows the walls to come down so that official reality might open up to unofficial reality.

It’s interesting that he seems to understand the nature of compartmentalization, but he derives the wrong conclusion from this understanding. I also encourage people not to compartmentalize their beliefs – to subject everything they believe to critical analysis, to logic and evidence. This way we can tell which of our beliefs are valid and which ones are the product of sloppy thinking or misinformation. If we keep beliefs separate, we miss the opportunity to compare them for internal consistency.

Chopra, however, concludes that we should reject compartmentalization and embrace rationalization. Rather than using sound astronomical knowledge and valid logic to conclude that astrology is probably a load of hogwash, Chopra wants us to blur the edges of reason, to make astronomy and other sciences so soft and our logic so squishy that we actually conclude in the end that both astronomy and astrology are valid in the same universe. I think he is trading down – he wants to go from merely deluded to utterly confused.

Chopra then offers us a way out of the confused world of official denial he thinks we live in.

The only consistent worldview that I’ve ever discovered places all phenomena, natural and supernatural, on the ground of consciousness. The noted Australian neurologist Sir John Eccles pointed out a truth that materialists, including both scientists and ordinary people, don’t remotely grasp. There is no sight or sound ‘out there’ in the world, Eccles declared, no touch or taste, no beauty or ugliness, no sensation of light or objects. All these things are created in subjectivity, which is to say, they exist only in consciousness.

You just knew he was going to throw consciousness in there, didn’t you. Next he’ll probably invoke some quantum woo.

First of all, I have a completely 100% consistent worldview based exclusively on materialism, thank you. This does not mean we have explained everything – it just means that there are no established phenomena that demand the rejection of materialism, despite the premature declarations of woo-masters.

Chopra then chastises materialists and scientists for not remotely grasping John Eccles’ view that everything we perceive is a subjective experience of our brains. That’s one high horse he needs to be knocked off of. The notion that our brains create an internal model of reality based upon sensory input and internal processing is the generally accepted paradigm. We don’t need Chopra to tell us this. What Chopra does is completely misinterpret the implications of Eccles – who is talking about “sight” and “sound” – he is not talking about photons and vibrating air molecules. In other words – Eccles is saying that our sensations are internal and subjective, not that there is no physical reality outside our brains.

Without further explanation of Eccles, Chopra writes:

The fact that your hand seems solid is an illusion. A neutrino passes through the entire Earth without encountering an obstacle. Every atom in your hand is 99.9999% empty space. Measured in proportion, the distance between the electrons and nucleus of an atom is greater than the distance between the Earth and the sun. At the next level of reality, atoms disappear into energy waves and then into pure potential, the ghostly state of so-called virtual reality. Only perception makes a hand solid. and perceptions are interlinked to create the world you and I inhabit, so that color, light, sound, smell, solidity, etc. all fit together.

Aha – I knew it (OK, I did read the whole article first – but I knew it anyway). What Chopra is doing is just trying to dazzle and confuse the reader with vague references to neuroscience and quantum mechanics. The universe is weird – therefore I can justify all of my own weird beliefs while simultaneously whining about the fact that they are not “officially” accepted. Wah!!!

Only perception makes a hand solid? Really? Chopra is borrowing a fact that scientist use to illuminate one aspect of nature at the atomic scale and then abusing it to confuse his readers and support his woo. What the emptiness of space at the atomic scale tells us about reality is that the everyday forces we feel from solid objects are not caused by actual physical matter touching, but rather by electromagnetic forces repelling each other. The atoms in your hand feel solid against the atoms in the top of your desk not because they are touching but because the electromagetic fields of all those atoms repel each other. Unconscious inanimate objects also interact in this way. When a rock tumbles down the side of a hill it bounces along the ground because of these forces – no perception is required.

Now that the reader is sufficiently distracted and confused (Chopra hopes), he goes in for the coupe de grace:

In my view, paranormal events are neither fringe nor unreal. They are simply things not yet admitted into consciousness by our official belief system. Reality has this curious habit of keeping certain things under wraps until the human mind is willing to look at them, and then all at once they appear, changing the world when they do. Germs and gravity were once waiting in the wings but now stand center stage. In ancient India, astrology was center stage and now has retreated again, for the coming and going of phenomena works both ways.

Right – the only difference between astronomy and astrology is that the former is official and the latter isn’t. But never fear – reality has a consciousness of its own, and it will change once we are willing to accept the change. As evidence for this Chopra points to germs and gravity – because germs didn’t exist before we discovered them. All those plagues throughout history must have been caused by something other than germs, because germs were not yet part of official reality. And how did we ever get by without gravity before Newton?

But wait – is Chopra really saying this? I’m not sure. Does he really think that germs and gravity were being held “at bay” by reality until we accepted their existence? What does that even mean? And how is this in any way an argument for the reality of things that are not “officially” accepted? Does that mean that there is an ether, that illness is caused by miasms and the imbalance of humors, that the liver is the seat of consciousness, and that the earth is the center of the universe? No? Then does it mean that we should just accept Chopra’s superstitions without questioning them or subjecting them to critical analysis? I guess that’s what he means.

He concludes:

Even so, consciousness never retreats. In the darkest ages, people know that they are aware, and from that basic premise they create a personal reality, and when enough individuals agree, then collective reality comes about. Trying to base common reality sheerly on material objects has been wildly successful in the West, but that means little about ultimate reality, which transcends individuals and groups. In the ultimate reality there is only pure consciousness, which can be conceived of as the modeling clay or box of paints that Nature provides, adding the simple instruction: Use as you please.

This is The Secret meets the collective unconscious. But there is a glaring contradiction to Chopra’s tripe. He argues that belief in the paranormal is popular, but not official, Now he is saying that when such beliefs become popular enough they become reality. So if these beliefs are already popular why are they not manifest reality? Does that mean that the few chosen “official gatekeepers” can trump popular reality making? Wow – that’s power.

Then he makes a back-handed compliment to “base common reality sheerly on material objects” (hint – he’s talking about science) which he says is “wildly successful in the West.” He should have just stopped after “wildly successful.” He has to admit that science is a successful explanatory paradigm. The fruits are undeniable to all but the most self-deluded. So he denigrates science by another false dichotomy – West vs East. Science is successful enough – for you suckers in the West, stuck in “reality.” Meanwhile, we in the East can make our own reality with our universal consciousness.

This, of course, is anti-scientific nonsense. Science is not “Western,” it is universal. If scientists in Japan use the same methods as scientists in Canada to examine the same question, they will come up with the same answer. Reality is reality.

Chopra’s philosophy amounts to nothing more than sophisticated wishful thinking. He uses language to make his ideas seem like more than what they are – childish magical thinking. He seems upset that thousands of years of trying to change reality solely with the mind has not yielded anything tangible or verifiable – while a couple centuries of science has transformed civilization.

Science won, fair and square, but now Chopra wants to whine like John McEnroe – he would have us believe it’s all a conspiracy of the line judges.

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