In a post called "The Common-Sense World" Deepak Chopra put aside his mind-out-of-body series to attempt a complaint about me, or so it seems. Also, when I tried to comment on his blog it never showed up. It seems I'm censored now. (Perhaps some reader out there will try linking this post on the comments section of Deepak's blog? You'd have my thanks.)
Here's some of what Deepak wrote:
I've been offering evidence of the possibility that the mind exists outside the brain. This isn't a concept that pleases materialists and skeptics of various stripes. The cruder ones complain that this is all "woo woo." The ad hominem ones deride my inability to understand basic science...
Hey, I'm one of the people calling Chopra's views woo-woo and I've also been saying he doesn't understand some basic science, like what a field is. This is not entirely an "ad hominem" attack because science is what Chopra is writing about and I offer evidence that he doesn't understand some very basic concepts. This time around he botches it on describing neurons.
(this isn't to be taken personally--I assume anyone who thinks outside their rigid parameters would be equally scorned).
Rigid parameters? Are logic, reason and common sense rigid parameters? Apparently, yes, that common sense thing is bothering Deepak, so are logic and reason.
The sophisticated ones invoke statistical errors and dubious research methods.
That's me too -- I am legion! Or at least a member of three of the groups that Deepak tries to criticize here.
But in essence the basis of skepticism comes down to a single claim that must be true and can never be violated. This is the claim that we live in a common-sense world.
Now take that statement and sip it slowly, savor it and roll it around your tongue and palate for a while until you've grasped its full flavor. I told you he had a problem with common sense. Now, lets parse and ponder the claim that lies underneath, which is: "we don't live in the common sense world those skeptics think we do."
It's not entirely wrong to say that we don't live in a "common sense" world, but the essence of Deepak's complaint is his attempt to read the minds of the skeptics who find fault with his solipsist views. Common sense is more of a tool than a description of the world. It's less about what the world is than how we should approach it.
Common sense if viewed as a description of the world is a moving target. In past ages it was common sense to think the sun moved around the Earth because that's what our senses told us. Today common sense has the Earth orbiting the sun because science has proved this.
The rules of the common-sense world are reassuring, and if skeptics are right, it is the role of science not to overturn such a world but to reinforce it.
Wrong! Science has overturned the common-sense world of our ancestors several times. Anyone aware of science's history expects more such revolutions. This is not why we dump on Deepak.
In the common-sense world things have to make sense, obviously. So what makes sense? If you can see something, it makes sense. If you can touch, smell, taste, or hear it, it makes sense. Time runs by the clock, not in some corkscrew Alice-in-Wonderland fashion. Space is mere emptiness, like the space inside the walls of a pickle jar.
Chopra is claiming that the skeptics who argue against him live with some 18th century view of the world. It's a straw-man. None of his critics I've seen has argued for that. I admit that the universe described by modern physics is weird and complex.
Modern science and skepticism are not trying to reinforce some old and dated notion of "common sense." It's more a case of Chopra attempting to confirm his own pre-conceived notions of Hindu mysticism and this can be demonstrated by taking Chopra's writings apart.
Deepak then goes on and on about the weirdest elements of quantum physics saying things like:
In the quantum domain the entire universe winks in and out of existence thousands of times per second.
Well, I guess Deepak read some sort of book on Quantum theory.
But Deepak plunges into the weirdness of quantum physics not to explain or add clarity to it but to intimidate and bullshit you. He's not trying to explain quantum theory. He's trying to use it as an excuse for believing what it is he wants to believe. In essence he's saying "see how weird this stuff is, you shouldn't poo-poo my ideas because they're weird." It's not the weirdness Deepak, it's the ignorance of your subject: what is intelligence and consciousness.
Quantum physics and Einstein's relativity would have never come into existence without the approaches Deepak dismisses, including skepticism, argument, observations and experiments which were all employed before these theories were accepted. Add to that also mathematical models, because that's what quantum mechanics is, a detailed mathematical model and description of what appears to be happening in the subatomic realm. And that's what Deepak's ideas are not, for there is no real math, no model and no sensible explanation.
None of this matters to the common-sense skeptic, who is blindly certain that an iron wall separates the quantum domain form ordinary existence.
No. Not exactly an iron wall, but there is something called "levels of explanation" that separates different fields of science. Quantum mechanics is the appropriate level of explanation for the behavior of subatomic particles and radiation but it is not the appropriate level of explanation for explaining intelligence or consciousness.
Consider what it is we're talking about when we talk of intelligence and consciousness. To be intelligent means you have knowledge, memory, and certain mental abilities that allow you to use this information to solve problems. To be conscious means to be aware, to understand yourself to some extent, to know you know -- or think you know something about yourself, which would be self-awareness.
We do not create systems that have such intelligence capabilities with explanations designed to handle subatomic particles. Subatomic particles, however weird, exhibit no signs of the problem solving or self awareness we see in people and animals.
The abilities we want are information processing abilities and that's what computers do, not what subatomic particles do.
There is a sense in which the different levels of explanation can be in conflict. For example, Brian Greene in his book, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory described the conflict between quantum mechanics and general relativity saying, "as they are currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right." Each is accurate in its own domain. General relativity described the universe at very large scales, while quantum mechanics describes the behavior of subatomic particles. But the theories came into conflict in extreme conditions, such as with black holes or at the big bang. To reconcile the theories a new theory, superstring theory, then later M theory, was needed.
Different levels of explanation do not always imply conflict though. Consider how differently neurophysiologists and neuropharmachologists would think about neural nets when compared to a programmer working on artificial intelligence. A neuropharmachologists is going to deal with chemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin when describing how human neural nets work, but an AI programmer working on arificial neural nets doesn't need that level of explanation. The programmer can say what French physicist Pierre Simon de Laplace said to Napoleon, after Napoleon asked, "Where does God fit into your theory?" to which Laplace replied, "I have no need of that hypothesis."
"Where does serotonin fit into your theory, programmer?"
"I have no need of that hypothesis. My theory is a functionalist theory. The computer takes care of those details and I am free to work with a much simpler model."
And such functionalist theories will also free the programmer from quantum mechanics probably even after we have quantum computers.
Over the years it has shocked me how many renowned skeptics, up to and including the highly publicized Richard Dawkins, evince a complete lack of interest in science post Einstein.
Science post Einstein still isn't Chopra woo-woo. In spite of Deepak's attempt to equate his views with those of Einstein and quantum mechanics, Deepak's position is distinctly different, it's not a mathematical model like Einstein's theory or quantum mechanics and it's not science. It is religion and mysticism decked out in pseudo-scientific terminology.
... the brain is made of atoms, atoms are quantum mechanisms, and therefore the existence of any thought--even a skeptical one--is a quantum operation planted firmly in quantum spacetime.
Yes, but let's get back to the concept of levels of explanation to see why this is both an irrelevant and invalid criticism. As I stated above, when it comes to AI the level of explanation is functional. Computers and brains are two very different systems, the brain is made of cells and proteins and works through a flow of complex chemicals, the computer is made of silicon chips and magnetic memories, and yet computers are learning to do what humans do. We don't have to model every aspect of how the brain works to get a functional equivalent.
Neuroscientists and neuropharmacologists might eventually model the quantum mechanical aspect of drug interactions but it need not bother the AI programmer unless some new ability of brains is discovered.
Now we come to the point where Deepak reveals he knows nothing of neurons, for he says:
The ability of two brain cells to "talk" to each other from opposite sides of the cortex involves the same enigma as two electrons talking at opposite sides of the cosmos.
This statement is where Deepak reveals his ignorance most profoundly. Neurons are connected by dendrites. Dendritic connections are the basic receiving stations by which neurons form the signaling networks that constitute the brain's circuitry. There is no enigma or mystery here. Our neurons are as connected as we are through our social net works, that's why Marvin Minsky calls the brain a society of mind. While the dendrite of one neuron may not connect directly to a dendrite on a neuron on the other side of the cortex it will connect to neurons that do ultimately reach it. It's much like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon trivia game.
This isn't some counter theory to Chopra, it's an established fact that Chopra knows nothing about. We know how to store information in live neurons.
Deepak simply isn't scientifically literate in the field he needs to know in order to speculate on such things. He has only an illusion of understanding.
This irrefutable fact gets ignored by skeptics all the way up the ladder.
That "fact" above is not only quite refutable, Deepak is just dead wrong. Just look at a neuron and its intricate tracery of branches called dendrites. Read up on how neurons connect and communicate with other neurons. You don't need the spooky quantum connection.
It seems to me that skepticism isn't a viable response to quantum reality.
But it is a viable response to Chopra's woo-woo. What you're getting from Deepak isn't really quantum mechanics, it's his Hindu religious mysticism dressed up in pseudo-scientific terms that he looted from some pop science book on quantum physics.
Ultimately Deepak's is a kind of "god of the gaps" argument. But in this case the gap is more in Deepak's knowledge of what is already known than in science's current understanding.
There is merit in attacking bogus science and holding researchers to high standards of truth. (Thanks to the common practice of peer review, we don't really need professional skeptics for this purpose, but let that pass.)
Peer review journals do not protect the public from charlatans like Deepak. Deepak isn't here to solve scientific problems, he's here to sell his books and lectures.
Neuropharmachologists do things like design drugs to manage schizophrenia, depression and other mental illnesses. Computer programmers are creating AI systems that can drive cars and learn to recognize human faces. Deepak wants to sell you bogus miraculous promises in books like "Creating Affluence: Wealth Consciousness in the Field of All Possibilities" and "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success."
His goal appears to be to create the illusion in the minds of Huffpo readers that he sounds like he knows what he's talking about, so maybe he's right. But he doesn't know. Think about what he is saying -- there is a mind outside the body, or at least part of one. What exactly does this "mind outside the body" do? What does it explain? Does it contain your memories? Does it know your name? Does it want to have sex? Does it have the ability to solve problems? If these things are explained by something outside the brain then why do people with brain damage lose some of these functions?