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Deepak Chopra: Who Is This Idiot?

After reading Deepak Chopra’s discussion of Dawkin’s The God Delusion all I can conclude is that he’s an idiot who knows jack shit about science. OR, he’s a liar who is purposefully twisting the facts.

On some level, I sometimes feel like the biggest war going on right now is one that has been going on, constantly, for ages: between reason and superstition. Don’t get me wrong: I can respect and care about religious people. But it comes back to me, from the television program “Root of All Evil”, that some religionists are so quick to say to atheists, “Don’t be arrogant!” This strikes me as the height of arrogance, because, of all people, shouldn’t the theists who purport to know the demands and expectations of an invisible deity, who claim to know secrets of an afterlife that none have seen, who claim to know the truth of the world — shouldn’t the mystical conspiracy leaders be the ones accused of arrogance?

For example, Chopra writes of Dawkins that he “represents an old paradigm that is reductionist in its insistence on limiting science to materialism, a model that is quickly crumbling.” If that is the case, why is modern medicine succeeding in ways that nobody could ever have imagined one or two hundred years ago? Take, for example, the EKG tests I’ve had in the last few days. Three hundred years ago, doctors would simply have had to say, “Uh, we don’t know. Let’s see what happens next.” A thousand years ago, I would have been taken off to the church to pray and hope. Ten thousand years ago, I’d probably be dead of other causes. A millions years ago, I would never have lived to my current age. So how is that not progress? Now, we can look at peoples’ genes and see whether they’re predisposed to all kinds of things. We understand medical histories and heredity. This is the backwards materialist heresy that Dawkins espouses? Gee, doesn’t seem to be crumbling to me.

Chopra also mischaracterizes the assertion that God isn’t necessary for a full appreciation of the universe. When commenters argue that one needn’t rely on a deity in order to be wowed by the universe, Chopra replies:

I find it confusing that Smith and Dawkins are so quick to praise science and to condemn other qualities of the human mind. The same person can be rational and yet love art, music, truth, beauty, etc. If we see this as a whole, we don’t have to resort to ad hominem attacks on the weak who “need” God and the strong who don’t. But the real point is that human intelligence and creativity have to have a source. Dawkins cannot locate one; therefore the question of a higher intelligence hasn’t been resolved.

But wait, they do have a source, for Dawkins. Their source is evolution. Why does Chopra assert that Dawkins cannot locate one? Ah, because Chopra wants to assert that it must be a supernatural, invisible, magical, divine source. He’s relying on a fallacy that all this wonderful stuff must come from a God. And the interesting thing is, this is where Dawkins’ own theory bears out: people who had never encountered the idea of a god would not naturally assume that all things had to come from one. It’s another piece of evidence in Dawkins’ favor that religious beliefs are, in fact, the product of youthful encounters with infectious ideas. In other words, Chopra’s hidden assumption is that there is a deity, and his claim that all this wonderful stuff around us must have come from it is post-facto.

Oh, and then there’s the question of identity: Chopra seems to think that the idea that consciousness is a process of the brain is hogwash, and that rather the brain is just some kind of trace receptacle or something that captures traces of thought.

Currently most neurologists and philosophers contend that the brain produces consciousness. For them, wanting to eat a banana is a subjective impulse that is responding to brain activity. This defies common sense, of course. To say that my brain is making me eat a banana seems absurd. I want to eat a banana, and once I do, my brain carries out the necessary action (buying a banana, peeling it, putting it in my mouth, etc.) Mundane as this example may be, it’s actually an astonishing feat of mind over matter. How in the world do our thoughts manage to move the molecules in our brain?

The idiocy here is simply astonishing. No, the brain is not making you want something: the brain contains the whole function of I, including the desire to eat a banana. Chopra misrepresents Penfield, who surely would have acknowledged that. After all, Penfield was the guy who did all those tests poking bits of brain and noting the sensory effect, like the experience in the patient of the scent of smoke, or the taste of cherry ice cream. Penfield probably could have touched some spot in the brain that makes one crave bananas, too, for all we know. Even worse, silly old Chopra seems to miss the point that cravings for bananas, and any other food, necessarily are biological in nature, since they’re food, related to the energy used to run our bodies. Yes, they also taste good, and this makes us want to eat bananas more. But why do they taste good? Why do we experience the sugars in bananas as “tasting good”? Certain insects eat dung and, we can assume, experience some limited pleasure in doing so. Why the difference? Ah, it’s Dawkins’ heresy: evolution by natural selection.

This might be a good place to argue that current breakthroughs in imaging techniques are limited in showing us what the mind is doing. Finding the location in Michelangelo’s brain that lights up when he is inspired to paint may be impressive, but it says nothing about art. By analogy, I may be able to follow how electricity gets to the Museum of Modern Art, but just because the building lights up doesn’t mean I’ve discovered the secret of art.

Someone please hit this man. In the teeth, please.

Yes, neuroscience is limited. Neuroscience admits its limitations, unlike most mystical supernatural mumbo-jumbo which ignores the idea of limitations of human knowledge and posits totalizing theories about reality. Acknowledging limits in science is in science’s favour, as it makes it harder to present bullshit as truth than among mystics and other charlatans of Chopra’s ilk. Such charlatans are without exception clever, and one of their favorite tools is the false analogy, which often mixes up people who haven’t studied logic or learned to pull apart arguments critically, a skill which unfortunately is not much taught in schools these days.

So let’s look at this:

Finding the location in Michaelangelo’s brain that lights up when he is inspired to paint may be impressive, but it says nothing about art.

Really? That’s an interesting — though stupid — assertion, because of the number of assumptions underlying it.

  1. Brain acitivity in itself is meaningless. This discounts the fact we know the brain is a highly modular system, with different areas focused on different task and skill-sets. It ignores that we can correlate activity with different parts of the brain that partake of some activity. If a painter painting a human subject displays activity in one part of the brain, we can see how the brain’s geometry and color modules are being used. If the mirror neurons are firing, we can also know the painter is emoting with some model of a person, whether the subject of the painting or an imaging viewer. Sorry, Deepak, but brain activity can tell us a lot about painters and how they do their work.
  2. Art in general is transcendant somehow. Finding a blinking light will not tell us about the greater system of art. Of course, if we do brain scans on people appreciating art, as well as people producing it, we’ll notice which bits of the brain are working in each, and learn about whether the viewer and the creator have fundamentally similar, different, or comparable experiences. We’ll learn about how art is experienced on a neurological level, and in what ways we perceive landscapes differently from paintings of landscapes. We’ll learn about how people process different kinds of communication, since art can involve such things as homage, or emulation of style. If someone works in the style of Michaelangelo, and we recognize that, how are we doing it? A brain scan can tell us a whole hell of a lot more than some airy-fairy ignorantist blather that Chopra has on offer.

Right, let’s move on:

By analogy, I may be able to follow how electricity gets to the Museum of Modern Art, but just because the building lights up doesn’t mean I’ve discovered the secret of art.

Except of course that this analogy is utter crap. For one thing, the electrical circuitry that involves lighting up a museum isn’t actually involved in the production of art, the way that the circuitry in the brain is. He’s thrown in the notion that the electricity is lighting up a museum just to throw us off the weakness of the analogy. (Or he’s failed to perceive it himself, perhaps.) If the electricity that lit up the Museum of Modern Art somehow also caused the museum of modern art to spontaneously create modern art… and if similar electrical structures had, for millions of years, caused the spontaneous production of art in places all over the world… and if we also found relatively simpler (though still profoundly complex) electrical systems lighting buildings with lower ceilings producing art as well — the way some primates and elephants produce art — then this would be a workable analogy. But it’s not. The brain is an electrical system like the lighting system of a museum, but it’s also utterly unlike the lighting system in a building in that its relationship to art is wholly different. It’s like claiming that the interaction of human “plumbing systems” cannot explain life, because after all, the pipes bringing water to one’s house don’t cause pregnancy. It’s literally an idiocy of that level.

As for the last bit, where Chopra offers Ervin Laszlo as a “progressive” scientist, that’s a laugh.

I spent relatively little time scolding Dawkins for his unfairness toward religion, but it’s a serious flaw.

Try being an atheist, Deepak. That’s where people are profoundly unfair. Even worse than the demonizations of one anothers’ religions, it seems, all religionists are quite comfortable mischaracterizing atheists. The kind of crap that people spout about atheism, and the assumptions and claims about how morality comes from religion — utter hogwash to anyone who’s looked at the study of altruism in primates and humans, or the exploitative, bloody, and violent history of the world’s religions — is enough to make an atheist want to fight back. I don’t much blame Dawkins, even if I think his methods are likely to garner more hostility. But the thing is, with atheists, no matter what you do or say, there’s hostility directed towards you if atheism comes up. It’s a bigotry that an overt atheist could never become a major political leader in North America or Britain, for example.

Religion is always demanding atheists be fair towards it. I think the fact is, they’re just stinging from unfettered criticism. Atheists are the only people in the world who are universally fair towards all religions, and in this definition of “fair”, I include fairly criticising all of them. When Chopra talks of “fairness” what he means is niceness and an accepting attitude, instead of harsh, blunt criticism and honesty. In this era, where politicians are manipulating religion to justify wars, atheists are noting how similar things look on both sides of thre divide, at least in terms of manipulation and propaganda. They’re noting how irrational some religious beliefs around the world are. They’re warning us that there is no good reason to believe a lot of notions that are present in the world, and reminding us that some of those notions in fact are contradicted by the same scientific knowledge that lets us transfer information around the world in an eyeblink, transplant hearts, and launch ourselves into the air and even into space.

Anyway, after this analysis, I am sure of one thing: Deepak Chopra is either woefully ignorant of science (and deserving of being ignored on the subject, because unfortunately he’s failed to heed Socrates’ injunction that a thinker be aware of his own ignorance), or an opportunistic charlatan who makes his living foisting false analogies and mischaracterizations upon those who unfortunately don’t know enough to catch him out.

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