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The Woo of Creation:
My evening with Deepak Chopra

by Michael Shermer, Apr 05 2011
Shermer and Deepak

On Thursday, March 31, Deepak Chopra and I squared off for a second time in person in a public venue, this time accompanied by the physicist Leonard Mlodinow on my side and Stuart Hameroff on his side (along with other panelists). The question on the table was this:

“Is there an Ultimate Reality?” and if yes, “Can it be accounted for by science such as mathematics, biology and physics?”

My answers: YES and YES

I explained that I am a Materialist and a Monist. I do not believe that there is a body and a soul, there is just a body. There is no brain and mind, just brain. The mind is just a word we use to describe what the brain does. I said, “you know I’m right” (which got a surprising laugh from the audience) because of the evidence from strokes, tumors, brain damage, senility, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, all of which kill brain cells, and along with the loss of brain comes the loss of mind. I asked Deepak and Stuart where Aunt Millie’s mind goes when her brain slowly disappears from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

I noted that consciousness is just a word we use to describe our inner thoughts about the workings of the brain, and that our “soul” is just a pattern of information stored in our genes and our brains. Consciousness is just an emergent property of integrated brain modules and patterned firing of neural networks.

By contrast, I believe that Deepak’s use of the word “consciousness” is very anthropocentric, once again returning humans to a central place in the cosmos as the “observers” who, in quantum mechanics, brings things into existence. If Deepak is right then the moon doesn’t exist unless it is observed, and yet, quoting that great scientist Bill O’Reilly, “times come in, tides go out—never a missed communication—and they would do so whether or not humans, or any other conscious (or unconscious) being existed.

In fact, I said, Deepak’s quantum consciousness is not holistic but reductionistic in the extreme. We don’t need to go down that far. Quantum mechanics is not needed to explain brain functions: the neuron is the individual unit of thought, the “atom” of mind. I then worked in a little joke I wrote earlier in the day:

Quantum mechanics is spooky and weird.
Consciousness is spooky and weird.
So what? Charlie Sheen is spooky and weird, but we don’t need quantum mechanics to explain his behavior. His “tiger blood” theory works just fine.

Haha.

In Deepak’s worldview, everything is conscious, which means that there is no way to distinguish between consciousness and unconsciousness, which is how I often feel when I listen to Deepak.

Thought Experiment:

  • If humans went extinct instead of Neanderthals, how does that effect the universe?
  • What if the Earth were suddenly demolished by a rogue planet (as in 2012)? Would that mean the end of the universe because observers would disappear?
  • Are whales, dolphins, gorillas and chimps conscious and therefore integral to the universe?
  • What can it possibly mean to say that the universe is conscious? If you will pardon the nerd science pun, that is such a vacuous concept!

Before the debate Deepak asked me to read a paper by himself and Menas Kafatos and Rudolph Tanzi published in the Journal of Cosmology, entitled: “How Consciousness Becomes the Physical Universe.” Deepak asked me to comment on it, which I did in the second half of the debate. I noted that given the prominence of “consciousness” to the central theme of the paper that one might expect it to be defined with semantic precision. Nope. Here is what the authors write:

“We will sidestep any precise definition of consciousness, limiting ourselves for now to willful actions on the part of the observer.”

What can it possibly mean for the universe to be conscious in the sense of having willful actions? The universe behaves with willful action? The universe is an observer? As well, quantum mechanics only requires an observation of any kind: an electron microscope will do. Is an electron microscope willful? Does an electron microscope take action? The authors of this paper write:

Werner Heisenberg concluded that the atom “has no immediate and direct physical properties at all.” If the universe’s basic building block isn’t physical, then the same must hold true in some way for the whole. The universe was doing a vanishing act in Heisenberg’s day, and it certainly hasn’t become more solid since. And Heisenberg again: “The atoms or elementary particles themselves … form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”

No, sorry, these are different levels of analysis. To prove it I challenge Deepak to climb to the top of this building and jump off and see if the ground is a potentiality or a thing! They also write:

Heisenberg: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Reality, it seems, shifts according to the observer’s conscious intent.

Once again, NO! This would imply that anyone’s method of questioning is just as valid as anyone else’s, which would mean that the way astrologers question the universe is just as valid as that of astronomers. I concluded by saying that if you want to get a spacecraft to Mars the questions that astronomers ask are absolutely objectively really better than those of astrologers. Q.E.D.!

In Deepak’s rebuttal, in discussing quantum mechanics, he actually used the phrase “the womb of creation.” Nice. It’s that sort of precise language that makes people all gushy and mushy about science. I pressed him for a definition of consciousness, which he gave me as “consciousness is the ground of existence.” I replied that this sounded tautological to me: since reality needs consciousness to come into existence, this means that reality = consciousness = existence; or existence = existence. A is A. Very Aristotelian. But what does that really tell us?

In the end I pressed both Deepak and Stuart Hameroff for an answer as to where Aunt Millie’s mind goes during the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Stuart’s answer was so rapid fire and jargon laden (something about the collapse of the wave function inside the microtubules in the neurons inside Aunt Millie’s brain) that I couldn’t quite get an answer, so Deepak clarified it for me later: Aunt Millie’s mind is in the matrix. Okay, I asked, how does poor Aunt Millie access the matrix. “We’re working on that,” was the reply. Okay, fine, and if our memories really are stored somewhere outside of our brains, then that would indeed be one of the greatest discoveries ever made in the history of science: Nobel worthy. But, until that is proven, I remain … skeptical.

Post Script

I am often asked if I believe that Deepak believes what he says, with an underlying assumption behind the question that Deepak is knowingly selling snake oil and doesn’t really believe his public patter. Having gotten to know Deepak over the years I can assure you that he absolutely positively believes what he says, and that while he may make a lot of money in the process of writing books, giving lectures, hosting radio and television shows, and running his various business enterprises (but, hey, that’s not exactly something anathema in America), this fact is quite orthogonal to his deeper mission in life: to shift the Western worldview Eastward.

I had never met Stuart Hameroff before, but I liked him as well, sharing a beer after the debate while watching a Laker game and schmoozing about science. Although I do not accept his theory of consciousness (most neuroscientists are skeptical as well), it would be fun to engage him again in a spirited debate over the brain and the mind.

Recommended Reading

67 Responses to “The Woo of Creation:
My evening with Deepak Chopra”

  1. I would love to see the Saturday Night Live crew do a sketch on the debate you and Sam Harris had with Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston. It would be comedy gold.

    It might be a good time to start taking bets on how long it will take Dr. Oz to have Deepak on his show. Let’s map out the weekdays over the next year and sell them like football squares with a portion of the proceeds going to the Skeptic Society.

  2. John says:

    Perhaps Depak is disguising a desire to do stand up comedy instead of serious debate.

    • 5secular4umanist says:

      A comedian, maybe, or is Deepak Chopra just winding us all up? (and making a packet while doing so)

  3. quentin says:

    1. Physicalism is not as obvious as it seems (see for example Chalmer’s arguments). Obviously, a physical description does not contain any reference to a subjective awareness, except the one from which the description is made. Subjective awareness cannot emerge from a physical description: assembling elements that are not aware will not make the system aware (in other words, subjective awareness is a qualitative aspect that cannot be expressed in physical terms). Moreover, a physical description cannot account for a finite inseparable macroscopic system (except with quantum entanglement): the frontiers of a system are always arbitrary, they depends on the choice of the observer. The frontiers of consciousness are not arbitrary.

    I don’t know about Deepak’s solution to these problems, but it seems to me that physicalism is a poor solution. Opposing physicalism to dualism is also too simple. Other options exist (Russel’s neutral monism, dual aspect monism, panpsychism, etc.). Quantum panpsychism, for example, which might be close to Deepak’s views, does not entail that the moon would disappear without observer. It could imply (depending on the version) that the constitutive elements of the world are physical and mental, but that the mental aspec remains microscopic and undetectable, except inside central nervous systems of living creatures.

    2. “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” does not necessarily imply the kind of relativism that would place astrology and science at the same level. There is no doubt that unlike astrology, scientific inquiry converge toward a universal knowledge, something we all can agree on. The question is: what is the nature of this knowledge? Is it exactly what nature is in itself, or is it the best possible representation of its regularities? The second answer is wiser. As philosophers have shown, we have no way to go outside our own mental representation of the world (e.g. Kant, or Peirce pragmatism). What we call “reality” is actually a representation. I guess the first answer would seem naive to most modern philosophers.

    • Jim says:

      Chalmers’ arguments have been hammered hard, and that position is now often seen as a losing battle. I’m not even talking about just by people like Dennett, the Churchlands, and Block. Even Frank Jackson, one of the old big opponents of physicalism, has relented and said that arguments of the type on which Chalmers relies are mistaken in their conclusions. In his now-famous essay “Mind and Illusion” Jackson writes,
      “Most contemporary philosophers given a choice between going with science and going with intuitions, go with science. Although I once dissented from the majority, I have capitulated and now see the interesting issue as being where the arguments from the intuitions against physicalism—the arguments that seem so compelling—go wrong.”
      In contemporary philosophy the sway of the anti-physicalists is waning. Even intuitively, for a great many of us who came up in the academy after the big Mary and zombie debates had been formulated, the non-physicalist thought experiments simply do not have the pull that is presumed by the proponents of those arguments.

      • Max says:

        Has anyone suggested that a simulation of the brain on a standard computer would be equivalent to Chalmers’ zombie?

      • quentin says:

        It probably would, but first, one should prove that this is feasible… Besides the physical reality drawn by science is not precisely an algorithm.

      • Max says:

        If the brain is just a network of neurons firing in a predictable way, then it can be simulated.

        If the brain can be simulated, then with a fast enough computer we can actually make the zombie or the Chinese room, which will behave just like a human, but won’t be conscious.

      • Jim says:

        How do you know the computer wouldn’t be conscious?

      • Max says:

        Because all it does is add two numbers at a time and store the result in a memory cell, the same thing it does when simulating a pendulum. The 1’s and 0’s in memory just sit there like letters in a book. Do you really think it would be conscious? I think the Internet has a better chance of being conscious.

      • Jim says:

        Max, the quip about the internet strikes me as odd. Are you suggesting that the internet is doing exactly the same processing as a human brain?
        If the computer is doing exactly what a human brain is doing (that’s a big if, as there are all sorts of questions at issue, such as whether or not the difference between analog and digital matters, serial vs parallel processing, etc), then the question would be what ground you have for saying that it isn’t conscious in just the same the brain it is copying is.

      • Max says:

        I find it hard to believe that a machine that adds one pair of numbers per clock cycle can be conscious. It’s definitely not conscious at any point in time. If you take a snapshot, it’s adding a pair of numbers, and it has a bunch of 1’s and 0’s sitting in memory. All the instructions and neuron states are stored in memory like words in a book, but that’s not conscious, just as a book isn’t conscious.

        The computer simulates the brain, but it’s not implemented like a brain. The brain is a network of neurons firing in parallel, and I suspect that this architecture is necessary for consciousness. Although the Internet doesn’t simulate a brain, its architecture is closer to that of the brain than a computer’s architecture is.

      • Max says:

        And I am assuming a standard, digital, single processor. It can simulate physical processes like the weather, so I’m sure it can simulate a neural network like the brain. It doesn’t have to be exact, just realistic.

      • Max says:

        Even if we can’t model the brain, suppose we can measure the state of every neuron in a real brain, record it, and play it back on a standard computer. Now it’s not even doing any arithmetic, it’s just displaying numbers stored in memory, like printing out a book. Again, not conscious.

      • quentin says:

        It’s easier than you think: no need to record every neuron’s firing, just make a movie of someone.
        Again, not conscious…

      • quentin says:

        A movie, if not conscious, is the trace of a consciousness, and so would be your brain record: the trace of a past consciousness stored in the memory of a computer. But an actual consciousness is not a trace, it’s always located in present (by definition).

        A simulation would be closer to a genuine consciousness, since it would be able to react to new present events, but the problems lie in your “if”. Neuron’s firing are not fully predictable, they are chaotic, and the brain itself is chaotic, which means that it is unpredictable, and that any computer model would diverge exponentially from reality. Moreover, chemistry plays a crucial role. I am not sure we can understand the difference between sleep and wakefullness without brain’s chemistry…. And when we sleep, we are not really conscious…

      • Jim says:

        Max and Quentin,
        The concern you both describe suggests to me that the computer you have in mind isn’t really simulating the activity found within a conscious brain. Max says “The brain is a network of neurons firing in parallel, and I suspect that this architecture is necessary for consciousness.” You might well be right. But then it just turns out that you’re wrong when you next say “I’m sure [a simple single processor digital computer] can simulate a neural network like the brain. It doesn’t have to be exact, just realistic.” Apparently, the computer you have in mind is NOT able to accurately simulate a brain, and that’s the source of the issue. So just change the architecture of the computer in question, and, shazam, problem solved.
        As far as Quentin’s concern that the brain is unpredictable, I don’t really know what that means. Do you mean in principle or in practice? If it’s the latter, then that’s just a technological issue and needn’t concern us at all. If it’s the former, then I’m puzzled. Are you suggesting that the brain isn’t determined by and doesn’t act according to the same physical laws as everything else? The brain, as a physical thing, has to be at least as predictable as any computer is, at least in principle. So I’m not at all clear what you mean by that statement.
        As far as the issue about us not being “conscious” when we’re asleep, I worry that you’re beginning to equivocate on what you mean by ‘conscious’, slipping from talking about phenomenal consciousness to something more like awareness. Maybe not (is there something it is like to be asleep?), but focusing on sleep is slippery enough to cause concern.

      • Max says:

        An exact replica of a brain’s neural network would effectively BE a brain, so it would be conscious like a brain. The interesting part is simulating it on a standard computer. For this thought experiment, we can imagine having a perfect mathematical model of the brain and infinite precision. That makes the chaos issue go away.
        But really chaos isn’t a problem. Even if our initial conditions are a little off, the simulation will still behave like a real brain, just not some specific brain.

      • Jim says:

        Max,
        But the problem just is that we might not be able to model a brain to “infinite precision” unless we are constructing a computer with the same capabilities as a brain. The problem is that it looks like the hardware might matter, and it might matter because of the precision of the modeling in question. So if the brain is analog and the computer in question is digital, there is always going to be some degree of difference in the computations performed. It’s basically a problem of rounding numbers. Each calculation is very, very close, but each one is rounded at some point. The issue is the number of calculations dependent on prior calculations. If each calculation is rounded, then, at some point, you reach a calculation where the error bars are so great that you’re no longer sure you’re doing the same thing.
        I’m not suggesting that an analog computer actually is necessary for consciousness; I’m just pointing out one potential issue.
        Honestly, for me, the notion of zombies doesn’t have any intuitive pull at all. I’m with Dennett on that one (http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/unzombie.htm). It always seems that people who posit zombies are attempting to cheat in order to get the thought experiment off the ground.

      • quentin says:

        As far as I know, laws of physics are not calculable nor deterministic. For me, that’s “in principle”…

        Max, I am just saying that we do not know if a computer can simulate a whole conscious brain (personnally I doubt it). Your claim is a pure speculation. Maybe chaos is not an issue, maybe it is and the “different brain” you’d get would be the one of someone sleeping, or someone responding poorly, as if under drugs, or any of the infinite possibilities you could get by simulating the exact same brain…

      • quentin says:

        You could argue that someone under drug is still conscious, but maybe the sub-set of behavior you could get by computer simulation would not remotely achieve such a state. My point is that stating that it is feasible is speculative.

      • Max says:

        I don’t think that a lack of infinite precision would be significant because the brain is not a precise instrument. It has all kinds of noise and interference, so I doubt that an arbitrarily small amount of round-off error would completely change its behavior. For this thought experiment, we can even make the precision infinite, so it really is an exact simulation of a brain.

      • quentin says:

        Ok let’s be very concrete. By stating that we could, in principle, build a computational model of the mind with sufficient precision to have a conscious behavior, you simply dismiss quantum mind hypothesis (you take the hypothesis that quantum physics is irrelevant regarding consciousness).

        That is an option, and there are arguments that support it. However it is still an option, not a “fact”.

      • Somite says:

        There is no evidence that any quantum effects, besides brownian motion, are important to any extent in the brain. Once you have to have a physical connection (axons) with mechanisms to transmit information (synapses) between neurons it tells you that only classical phenomena are in effect.

        Everything in biology is to avoid uncertainty. Consider the retina where photons are translated to neuronal firing. The activation of retinal ganglion cells by photoreceptors is a chemical process that requires understood signal transduction. No uncertainty involved.

      • quentin says:

        As I said there are arguments… Pro and con.

      • quentin says:

        Here are a few pro.

        Neuron firing is not fully predictable, since the neuron potential is a chaotic system driven by ionic streams at atomic scale http://dynamicbrain.neuroinf.jp/modules/mediawiki/index.php/Chaos_in_neurons,_in_the_brain,_and_sequential_learning

        Loosely speaking, chaos amplify microscopic fluctuations on the global state of a system. It follows that brownian noise is all but negligeable in neurons firing (depending on the neural network they are involved in, that can stabilize them – or not…).

        My retina is certainly not conscious… When I learn to drive a car, automatic tasks become more automatic (stabilized by reinforcing connections), and also more unconscious: it seems that predictability and unconsciousness are associated.

        Recent studies have shown that living organisms can use quantum coherence (e.g. a microscopic algae for light harvesting), which tend to show, IMO, that the role of quantum effects have been underestimated in biology.

        Quantum mind hypothesis are also interesting in that they explain the irreducibility of our conscious experience (the fact that we experience consciousness as single) with quantum coherence. This is a big lack of other theories, whose ontology is inherently separable, which fails to account for a unity at a macroscopic scale.

        The main problem is that they are highly speculative, but how not be speculative regarding consciousness? Do we have a simple solution? Of course, all this has to be discussed, but I don’t think they can be discarded so easily.

      • Max says:

        We can model random processes statistically. If you need truly random noise, we can hook up a random number generator to our hypothetical brain simulator.

        Remember, what I’m trying to show is that the simulation would be equivalent to Chalmers’ zombie, which behaves like a human, but lacks consciousness. It sounds like you don’t agree that it’ll behave like a human, but I don’t see why not.

      • quentin says:

        In quantum physics, even simple atoms are not calculable. You’d probably need to use a quantum computer (and maybe in that case it would be conscious?).

      • quentin says:

        I gave Chalmers’ argument as an example. Maybe not the best example, but still, I don’t think physicalism is the dominant position in philosophy. My personal opinion is that it uncritically accept that a representation of reality can be just reality itself, which is a naive position, since a representation always implicitely has a cognitive subject.

      • Jim says:

        There’s so much to say here that it would be unfeasible to go through it all. Suffice to say that one cannot brutely state that a representational theory of consciousness is correct or even generally accepted. There are issues surrounding intentionality, qualia, and even what we mean by ‘consciousness’ with which one has to deal before that position can get off the ground. I have no desire to get into a battle on all these subjects here, so I’ll just leave it at saying that I’m not a representationalist, so your concerns aren’t a concern for me.
        Also, I just don’t think it’s the case that physicalism isn’t the dominant position in contemporary phil of mind. On the contary, I think it clearly is. It’s definitely some version of materialism, and the biggest competitor to physicalism, property dualism, is losing ground with every new grad student that joins a program. As Jackson says in the quote provided above, not the position of “Most contemporary philosophers given a choice between going with science and going with intuitions, go with science,” and even the intuitional pull that fueled the arguments of the anti-physicalists is felt less and less as people become more comfortable with saying that they’re just this stuff.

      • quentin says:

        You cannot simply oppose physicalism/science to anti-physicalism/intuition. Physicalism, anti-physicalism and even science are all grounded in both intuition and reason, and “going with science” does not mean “being a physicalist” at all, as far as adopting the most naive ontology at our disposal regarding science is not a prerequisite for accepting its results.

      • Jim says:

        In context, Jackson clearly meant physicalism, and, since that’s the quote in question, then you have Jackson saying that most contemporary philosophers are physicalists. I’m inclined to agree. It just turns out that most contemporary philosophers do not at all agree that physicalism is “the most naive ontology at our disposal.”

  4. quentin – I agree with point #2, and that is how I interpreted that Heisenberg quote. Our science is a representation of reality, not reality itself, and we have to acknowledge that this partly depends on the assumptions and biases that go into our investigations. But this view also needs to be tempered with the fact that there can be objective outcomes (like sending a probe to Jupiter and getting back pictures of Jupiter) and so we can infer that our representation of reality is at least functional and not arbitrary.

    I disagree with point #1 (probably because I disagree with Chalmer). I tend to agree with Dennett that consciousness is really a non-problem. The mind can come from purely physical processes of the brain – it is the brain communicating with itself. There does not need to be anything more.

  5. quentin says:

    I agree, on point #2, that there can be objective outcome. However, while this remain true on a large scale, the pretention to have an absolutely objective and complete representation of reality is deeply questioned by Quantum physics… Loosely speaking, it rather seems that objectivity emerges with decoherence from a non-objectivable substrate (at a very small scale). As quantum physics deeply question epistemology, and as epistemology is tightly related to cognition and consciousness, I would not simply dismiss quantum-mind hypothesis as something irrelevant. Unlike Charlie Sheen, both QM interpretation and the mind-body problem concern the relations between what exists and how it is physically represented.

    At least we shall agree (on point #1) that this is still an open question.

  6. jrpowell says:

    Wow, a video of this conference would be skeptical gold. Way to go Mr. Shermer!

  7. Marcus says:

    Fascinating. Chopra is a charlatan, pure and simple.

    Speaking of debates, I would highly recommend the one between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on the nature of morality from Notre Dame. I believe it will be streamed live.

    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/Calendar/756710097?view=Detail&id=103126&whence=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.reasonablefaith.org%2Fsite%2FPageServer%3Fpagename%3DRF_calendar

  8. Max says:

    “There is no brain and mind, just brain. The mind is just a word we use to describe what the brain does.”

    Digestion is what your digestive system does, but that doesn’t mean there’s no digestion.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      That comparison is out of context, it would be like saying that digestion exists without the digestive system as Deepak claims with the mind and brain.

      Although he is still writing books, so one day we might end up reading Shermer debunking quantum poop.

  9. Beelzebud says:

    I think Shermer and Chopra should co-author a paper. It could be about how the mind interfaces with the market at a quantum level.

  10. Chris Terry says:

    Is it the Woo of Creation? Or are we witnessing the Creation of Woo?

  11. Marnie says:

    I believe that Deepak is emotionally invested in the stance he has taken. Without it, everything he has done with his career and all the people who lavish him with adoration and all his books and lectures are meaningless.

    But I also believe that he is intellectually dishonest. He uses the same sorts of logical fallacies that creationists use, arguing about the limits of human understanding; how if we cannot explain X the answer is therefore “magic” and finding bits of science that can be twisted around to give the answer he has already decided is true. He was a man of science, he is clearly very intelligent, but he willfully chooses to ignore information that doesn’t support his hypothesis and he uses a lot of esoteric scientific jargon to obfuscate his message and give it the appearance of legitimacy where none exists.

    In his quest for “truth” he has lead himself down a road where the repercussions of admitting fault are worse for him than the benefits of accepting fact.

  12. CrookedTimber says:

    Thanks for the synopsis Mr. Shermer
    I would be very interested to hear what Mr. Mlodinow had to say as well. I’m surprised they stuck to their usual quantum shtick with a world renowned expert in the field there to (I would hope and assume) shred their inappropriate uses of the field.

  13. Charlie says:

    It’s hard to see such delicate ideas handled so crudely. Chopra has a spiritual axe to grind and is diverted by pseudo-scientific b.s. so doesn’t offer pure arguments to challenge materialist assertions, leaving Shermer with much too easy a job dissecting the vague arguments he does provide. The two don’t even use language the same way. Ugh! It’s a shame because Eastern philosophy does have so much to offer the Western student. People like Chopra are a diversion. Debate must be structured meticulously in order to yield useful information. In situations such as this, it too often deteriorates into mindless arguing.

  14. Jim Hull says:

    I noticed an unusual amount of ire in Dr. Shermer’s normally peaceful approach to these questions. With, e.g., evangelicals, he is tirelessly patient, but with Dr. Chopra, he gets his ire up. I wondered why, until it hit me that both he and Chopra were touching on an essential, unsolved mystery for science: how can the distinct realms of consciousness and hard reality exist simultaneously? Isn’t one a ghost inside the other? Chopra, in his struggling way, seems to have touched a nerve that hangs out, swollen and inflamed, in most people’s philosophies — even those of scientists.

    Chopra’s metaphysical difficulty is that he assumes there’s a universe that exists separately from, and is brought about by, “consciousness”. Most scientists believe the other way around, that there’s a separate universe that generates instances of consciousness. Either position assumes two qualitatively distinct entities, namely, “consciousness” and “a universe”. Both beliefs require what I call “philosophical epicycles” — elaborate explanations for beliefs that presuppose that our consciousness exists as a kind of weird spirit floating within a hard, eternal physical realm. Religionists usually have crackpot notions about awareness that involve a mysterious “spirit”, whereas scientists tend to ignore consciousness. Yet the notion sits squarely in the midst of both belief systems, and it makes for one of the central puzzles of quantum mechanics — namely, “How can subatomic phenomena become so qualitatively different when we merely look at them differently?”

    Both world views can benefit by a good shave from Occam’s Razor. Instead of two realms — consciousness and physical reality — perhaps it’s possible to have one realm that manages to include the effects of the other.

    A more robust version of Chopra’s viewpoint comes from what, in Western thought, is called “Subjective Idealism”: that there is no universe but only consciousness. If this is true, then all consciousness can do is make maps of itself, one of which it calls “the universe”. In that sense, the universe is merely a mental construct made up of sensations and connecting thoughts. (Instead of saying, “My car is in the garage,” one would more accurately say, “If I go to the garage, I will see my car.” Whether the car “exists” separately or not is irrelevant.) This viewpoint allows for the discoveries of science without invoking two separate universes, one of ghostly consciousness and one of hard physical reality.

    It would appear that Subjective Idealism creates billions of separate awarenesses without a central organizing principle — where scientists would instead invoke a hard physical universe — so how can my awareness be congruent with yours? But the scientific viewpoint begs the question by ignoring how those zillions of consciousnesses are connected to a physical realm. With Subjective Idealism, the problem gets solved in much the same way that a mathematician solves an equation by manipulating the variables and coefficients: every instance of awareness is a transposed version of every other one. Thus, if I hold up my hand, you see the palm and I see the back, but it’s the same hand — not a separate hand that we both witness, but one hand that exists in transposed versions of consciousness. Each instance of awareness, then, is equivalent to every other one, the way an equation can be written in many different ways.

    With a little work, we can flesh out this concept to help explain why we witness the vagaries of quantum uncertainty — slit screens and interference patterns and photoelectric effects, etc. — so they continue to comport with science without invoking “awareness ghosts” that invade a separate, hard physical reality. But that’s for another essay.

    Here’s a way to get to the nub of the problem: When you dream and then wake up, what happens to the universe of your dream? Did it ever really exist? That world depends on the dream taking place; it exists entirely, and only, within your consciousness. In that respect, there never was such a separate realm to begin with; it was all part of the dream. The problem is: can you prove you’re not dreaming your entire life?

    Awareness or consciousness (I’ve been using the terms interchangeably) isn’t a “thing” with a fence around it; it has no border, and thus can’t be located anywhere. Nothing can exist “outside” it; hence, no separate universe can exist beyond this conscious realm that has no edge. In that sense, it really IS all a dream.

    Whether your fellow explorers actually have feelings, and aren’t simply props in your dream, is ultimately imponderable. Most people shy away from this idea because it implies that the observer might be totally alone, unable to share feelings with similar beings who also feel. But which is worse from a scientific viewpoint — the possibility that you’re alone, or the possibility that your awareness is an unexplainable ghost that floats in parallel with some sort of physical universe?

    None of this is to deny the power of science — which, at the very least, increases the accuracy of the maps we make of our own awareness. Science is about truth, though not necessarily about “a universe” (whose independent existence might well be a topic for scientific scrutiny).

    Meanwhile, please don’t scoff at me too much for bringing up these uncomfortable questions. I’m a big fan of science and skepticism, agnostic in spiritual matters … but also skeptical of our too-easy assumption that there’s a separate universe out there, floating somehow beyond our awareness.

  15. Mustang says:

    Deepak and like thinkers seem to have a problem with distinguishing between material and materialism. They think if they deem things physical, we’re being materialists in some form or another, and therefore missing the point, the subtle, hidden aspects of things which is just aether of consciousness. Okay. Um… all he can do is make assumptions based on what he wants to see. This is an old human skill: filling in the gaps with our imagination. Only now we have science to help fill in the gaps. Deepak says he knows, but that we can’t really know, but he does know what that all is, the great mystery. It’s consciousness. Duh! Scientists say we could know, but we don’t know right now. Maybe we never will. Maybe it’s beyond scientific discovery, or beyond our capabilities for a long time yet. Again, just because science hasn’t figured it out, doesn’t mean you have Deepak, even though you haven’t… though you have…

  16. Dan says:

    Jim,

    I agree with you that Dr. Shermer seems more frustrated in these debates than when he debates others (although he’s much more patient than I would be), but I disagree that this is because somehow Chopra’s views “touch a nerve.” I think the main frustration is that Chopra just throws out phrases that sound deep, but that when honestly considered are often just ill-defined spiritual word salads. I consider myself reasonably well-read and not below normal intelligence, but often times during Chopra’s debates I have no clue what he is claiming.

    While people like Dinesh d’Souza, Kent Hovind, Hugh Ross, or Ray Comfort made numerous claims about reality that are just crazy, at least you can understand what they are saying and correct their errors. I’ve thought many times that Chopra is simultaneously the absolute worst and best debater I have ever heard. He uses all these spiritual terms and sounds deep, which in itself is often enough to sway people who have a desire for the supernatural to be real, but in reality often what he says isn’t even remotely coherent, and thus is extremely hard to debunk because it isn’t even wrong.

    I’m also amused that Chopra points to his medical school training in the 60s to imply that he understands quantom mechanics and modern physics so well and thus shouldn’t be called out for his deep misunderstandings on the subject (see his recent debate with Harris and Shermer). I’m starting medical school this fall and I have absolutely zero expectations of becoming an expert on quantom mechanics during the next four years. My knowledgable of modern physics is extremely basic, but I have read general-level books on the subject by Hawking, Greene, Stenger, and Mlodinow and it really seems that Chopra has no idea what he is talking about.

    I love watching debates, but I’ve almost decided to stop listening to Chopra’s because I can’t follow most of his word salad arguments and what I can understand disagrees with just about everything I know about science.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      To really understand Chopra, you need the secret Duality Decoder Ring, which can be found at the bottom of a random box of FlimFlam.

    • BillG says:

      I think Chopra’s evasiveness is by design. While Shermer thinks Chopra’s is authentic about his quantum solipism, I have doubts and it could be he’s suffering a kind of “Stockholm syndrome” of profess ideas – starts off as a con and morphs into a quasi belief, perhaps for some self protection and career justification.

  17. Buck Chell says:

    I was in the audience and was lucky in that I submitted what turned out to be the final question during the Q&A regarding the Heisenberg quote, “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”.

    The final question asked the opinions of Stuart Hameroff & Deepak, and then Michael Shermer and Henry Stapp regarding whether or not they agreed with the Heisenberg quote.

    I think a lot of people use that particular Heisenberg quote to argue for their own personal worldviews. Deepak’s response illustrated that: “How do you get outside of nature to observe…science is a method for exploring a particular map of the truth”.

    Michael Shermer’s response was concise and witty: If you want to get a rocket to Mars, astronomers obviously ask much better questions than astrologers, by any objective standard.

    I personally never had a good understanding of where Heisenberg was going with the quote – until Henry’s response to the question.

    Henry Stapp, worked directly with Heisenberg and authored “The Copenhagen Interpretation” so he arguably has the best understanding of where Heisenberg was going with the statement “what we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”.

    Below are bulleted notes I took down from Henry Stapp’s closing response regarding the Heisenberg quote:

    • Stapp said Heisenberg was referring to quantum theory with the quote
    • The way that quantum theory works, you actually have three processes going on
    • One of these processes is physical, which generates a gigantic world of possibilities
    • In order to get your theory to eventually agree with experience, you have to have two more stages that bring you up to agreement with experience
    • The first of these stages is that the observer has to pose a specific question
    • Some sort of experience happens – and what causes that particular question to come into being?
    • The observer/experimenter has to pose a particular question of nature – and nature responds in a non-gullible way
    • In order to have an understanding of nature as it was revealed to us by the experiments – the understanding provided by quantum mechanics involves these three stages, and one stage was somehow a question…and this question was not determined in any way by the underlying deterministic laws of motions
    • So you have this question that seems to be needed in order to make quantum mechanics work, and you don’t have a real understanding of where it comes from – and so, its nature exposed to our questioning of it.

  18. Patricia says:

    and this leads us back to DOE

  19. todd saalman says:

    Michael,

    I love the way you parse rubbish to the root. When you’re done with your brain, may I have it?

    Thanks,
    Todd

  20. jt512 says:

    I just finished watching this debate, and was very disappointed. First of all, the format was terrible: there were far two many discussants (9) for the alloted time, negating any chance to have a deep discussion.

    The panel was loaded in favor of woo. Of course there was Chopra and a member of Chapman’s religion faculty; but there was also a guy named Walsh, who was Charirman of the Board of Human Energy System Alliance, whatever that is; an inarticulate Lawrence Livermore Lab physicist named Stapp who kept making vague allusions to how our consciousness affects quantum mechanics. Whether he meant it to or not, this fed right into Chopra’s own woo-woo.

    Then there was a Chapman physicist (and Dean!) named Kafatos who has actually co-authored “papers” with Chopra; a Chapman biologist, Wright, who was basically the science version of Jean Houston, relating a nice, but irrelevant, story about slugs; and an MD named Hameroff, who was basically Chopra at 78 rpm. Caltech physicist Mlodinov was only slightly helpful, missing many opportunities to correct the other discussants’ misinterpretations of quantum mechanics.

    Shermer was by far the most lucid speaker, but given the format, only had about 10 total minutes to talk.

    Toward the end, another Chapman physicist was plucked from the audience to explain the quantum concept of non-locality. He appeared to be completely out of his depth, and stuttered and babbled around the question for five minutes without coming close to answering it. Mlodinov then succinctly answered the question in a couple of sentences.

    The whole fiasco reflects terribly on Chapman University, and the main takeaway was don’t send your kids there to study science.

  21. Andrew Jarvis says:

    If Chopra believes what he says then what is he doing to provide hard evidence behind his supposed medical cures, which include that he knows how to reverse aging? Wouldn’t he want more evidence to get more people to use them if they really worked?

    I’ve been to India, and I failed to see what we have to learn from them. Why was it that 50 000 British could rule over 400 million Indians?

    • Kali says:

      Simple, they are unconscious that the British were only 50,000 in number compared to their own 400 million. Still to the basis of conscious and unconscious!

  22. Matthias says:

    Sorry, but with respect to consciousness, I think, Shermer is on the wrong track. He writes that consciousness is just “a word we use to describe our inner thoughts about the workings of the brain”. This obviously contrasts with the realism with which Shermer approaches other objects such as the moon (does exist even if not observed). I like Shermer’s realism and I take it he will never define “moon” with a phrase like “moon is just a word we use to describe…”. So, why is consciousness “just a word…”? Is consciousness less real than the moon? To my eyes, Shermer makes things worse by adding this recursive element to his definition of consciousness (WE describe OUR thoughts about OUR brain). Here, I second with Stuart Hameroff. An anesthesiologist certainly knows that the experience of pain is conscious independent of the patient’s ability to reason about himself. I wouldn’t buy everything Stuart is saying about microtubules, but criticising him for lack of a clear definition of consciousness is not fair. It is also not fair to accuse him of not knowing what a wavefunction is. He developed his theory together with Roger Penrose and that guy damn well knows what a wavefunction is. And the question of the mind of Aunt Millie was – to my eyes – strange. While Alzheimer patients do loose their ability to participate in philosophical debates about consciousness, they still can be very conscious. Their toothache is as real as that of any nobel prize winner, so their consciousness isn’t going away during the dementive process. And after death, well, I don’t know, but if Aunt Millie’s soul was to survive, than there is at least one person who will be able to notice that. Aunt Millie herself.

    • Ian says:

      Shermer is not saying that consciousness is not real. Read to the end of that very same paragraph: “Consciousness is just an emergent property of integrated brain modules and patterned firing of neural networks.” As opposed to Chopra who sees it as some seperate thing that exists even without a brain to generate it. Stephen Novella put it nicely above: “the brain communicating with itself.” Apart from “reflecting”, consciousness also acts as the interface between the outside world and the inside brain. It would be hard for a human to communicate (above the level of pheromones) with another human without consciousness.

      • Matthias says:

        OK, but with “emergent property”, we already have one leg outside orthodox natural science, at least if we understand “emergence” in the sense of Chalmer’s “strong emergence”.

        From the brain, provided its neurons are firing the right way, a new entity called consciousness arises… Isn’t this just as spooky as the notion that we cannot rule out that this mysterious entity may exist in some form even without brain activity?

        I don’t know which notion is better, emergentism or interactionism. I personally regard the former as a special case of the latter. And I think one should not ridicule someone who considers the latter.

      • Matthias says:

        And, yes, consciousness acts as an interface between the outside and the inside. So what? Such an interface could also be unconscious. The difference between conscious and unconscious information processing cannot be understood in functional terms. Computers can communicate with computers, that doesn’t make them conscious.

  23. Elton Johnson says:

    As someone who has had sex with both Michael Shermer and Deepak Chopra, let me just point out two aspects of these men that most people don’t know. Michaels’s post-coital conversation and logic are hands down superior to Deepak’s, no contest. However, sadly, Michael is hung like a quantum partical and is nowhere near the gentle satisfying lover Deepak is. Also, Deepak is hung like a cosmic elephant-trunk. I have no doubt that Michael is correct about the after-life and frankly his intellect is seriously sexy. That said, once you’ve seen Deepak naked by candle light and you’ve experienced his warm soft hands and his sensual kisses, you realise that when it comes to material existence, Deepak is the life of the party.

  24. Elton Johnson says:

    Let me just point out two aspects of these men that most people don’t know. Michaels’s post-coital conversation and logic are hands down superior to Deepak’s, no contest. However, sadly, Michael is hung like a quantum partical and is nowhere near the gentle satisfying lover Deepak is. Also, Deepak is hung like a cosmic elephant-trunk. I have no doubt that Michael is correct about the after-life and frankly his intellect is seriously sexy. That said, once you’ve seen Deepak naked by candle light and you’ve experienced his warm soft hands and his sensual kisses, you realise that when it comes to material existence, Deepak is the life of the party.

  25. dennis trouble says:

    I happened across a PBS tv event hawking a product called “Super Brain” being impressed by its claims and the credentials of Rudy Tanzi I hurried to the keyboard to make an investment. Soon however the name Chopra came up and along with it a big red flag. A little further investigation led me here. I have enjoyed reading the comments and have a few observations to offer which may or may not be of value.

    “esoteric scientific jargon to obfuscate his message and give it the appearance of legitimacy where none exists.” Out here in silly-con valley where I live we call this tactic “bafflegab”. Bafflegab is often used when pitching for generous amounts of money from venture capitalists or the Fed’s whom are anxious to squander millions on most any whacky scheme that is touted to be ‘green energy’.

    Tanzi and Chopra appear to be advancing old arguments like those
    Proposed by George Berkeley and C C Jung which sound warm and fuzzy but lack a single shred of evidence. As the Russians say “more of the same soup”. If there is a mind of god or a collective unconscious we should, by now, be able to measure some aspect of it’s existence.

    “Chopra just throws out phrases that sound deep, but that when honestly considered are often just ill-defined spiritual word salads. I consider myself reasonably well-read and not below normal intelligence, but often times during Chopra’s debates I have no clue what he is claiming.” Amen brother and thanks for making me feel less stupid. Chopra is a master of bafflegab.

    “He uses all these spiritual terms and sounds deep, which in itself is often enough to sway people who have a desire for the supernatural to be real, but in reality often what he says isn’t even remotely coherent, and thus is extremely hard to debunk because it isn’t even wrong.” There is a sucker born every minute…………

    Descartes walks into a bar, the bartender says “Would you like a beer?” Descartes says “I think not.” and ‘poof’ he disappears.

    Honey Oats FlimFLam, or regular? No matter; either way it is generously laced with a laxative.

    Perhaps one day we will all enjoy a banquet of crow and toast Chopra and company for their successes in proving us wrong
    however it appears unlikely.

    Gentlepersons all I wish to thank you all for saving me $144.

    Dennis T