Fresh off of parting suckers from their money by peddling third rate video games (hint: when the review says “breathtaking landscapes… augmented by cutting-edge 3D scenes, video and an original music soundtrack”, what they really mean is “we use a lot of quicktime animation and hired a wannabe New Age musician with some synthesizer software”), everyone’s favorite pseudo-science huckster, Deepak Chopra, is back… and this time, he’s pissed.
The esteemed Mr. Chopra is upset, it seems, by the existence of “skeptics,” who he says “denigrate” people who believe in spirituality and ghosts and the like — people like “the Pope, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Teresa of Avila, Buddha, and countless scientists who happen to recognize a reality that transcends space and time.”
And, presumably, Deepak Chopra.
In particular, he calls out one Michael Shermer, a columnist for Scientific American and the editor of the magazine Skeptic, with whom he had a “spirited exchange” on an episode of Larry King Live dealing with reincarnation and near-death experiences and all that sort of thing (video file here, if you’re interested… but this is less a case of “I do the watching so you don’t have to!” and more one of “I do the watching because you really, really don’t want to.”), and whom Chopra accuses of being an “out-of-date, utterly mediocre” scientist.
On the show, Chopra expounds for awhile about how “scientists” are discovering “evidence” that the “soul” is “non-local” and exists outside the body, the host interviews a family who claim their son was a reincarnated World War 2 fighter pilot (how come no one is ever a plumber, sweat shop worker, or methamphetamine addict reincarnate?) and talks to a guy who purports to have had a near-death experience after cardiac arrest. Finally, around 13:00 into the program, they bring on Shermer, who, nasty “skeptic” that he is, proceeds to dismiss all the talk of near-death experiences tapping into other dimensions and universes by declaring that “before we say something is out of this world, that first we haven’t got a worldly explanation… Deepak, I can’t explain everything naturally… so what? That doesn’t mean there’s a supernatural force.”
Out-dated and mediocre science indeed! At any rate, Chopra responds by saying that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural and goes on to explain how in “some traditions” the “in-body experience” is a “socially-induced collective hallucination” and then some other guy talks about how caterpillars can’t conceive of life as a butterfly. Well then.
To me, everything Chopra and his cohorts said on the show sounded like rhetorical questions and attractive metaphors designed to sound like common sense and appeal to the “science is hard” and “I want to believe!” crowds, but maybe my sense of science is mediocre and outdated. So never mind what I think.
In any case, Chopra seems to have interpreted his “spirited exchange” with Michael Shermer, which couldn’t have lasted more than a minute, as a “barrage of name-calling” and decided to use his column on the Huffington Post to retaliate and challenge Shermer to a debate:
With the slate clear, I’d like to see if Shermer will accept the offer to debate me at length on such profound questions as the following:
• Is there evidence for creativity and intelligence in the cosmos?
• What is consciousness?
• Do we have a core identity beyond our biology, mind, and ego?
• Is there life after death? Does this identity outlive the molecules through which it expresses itself?
The rules will be simple. He can argue from any basis he chooses, and I will confine myself entirely to science.
Sadly for Shermer, the only “science” that Deepak Chopra accepts as legitimate is the sort that agrees with his beliefs:
[W]e have reached the state where Shermer’s tired, out-of-date, utterly mediocre science is far in arrears of the best, most open scientific thinkers — actually, we reached that point 60 years ago when eminent physicists like Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger applied quantum theory to deep spiritual questions. The arrogance of skeptics is both high-handed and rusty. It is high-handed because they lump brilliant speculative thinkers into one black box known as woo woo. It is rusty because Shermer doesn’t even bother to keep up with the latest findings in neuroscience, medicine, genetics, physics, and evolutionary biology. All of these fields have opened fascinating new ground for speculation and imagination. But the king of pooh-pooh is too busy chasing down imaginary woo woo.
I’ll confess, all this talk of “pooh-pooh” and “woo woo” is making me feel a little uncomfortable. Anyways, “skeptics,” according to Chopra, are stuck in the 19th Century and approach Darwin the same way fundamentalists approach scripture. I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean, but I guess that’s because I haven’t spent a wad of cash at Chopra’s eponymous “Center for Wellbeing”, where I might “experience physical healing, emotional freedom, and higher states of consciousness.”
Still, “On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection-thumping” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “Bible-thumping,” in any case.
After declaring that he’s not going to sink to the level of ad-hominem attacks (*cough*), Chopra delivers his coup-de-grace, a quote from one Sir John Maddox, former editor-in-chief of Nature, wherein Maddox says:
Nobody understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free. What consciousness consists of, or how it should be defined, is equally puzzling. Despite the marvelous success of neuroscience in the past century, we seem as far from understanding cognitive processes as we were a century ago.
Now, how this is supposed to be interpreted as a refutation of the hated 19th Century “materialist” dogma, I don’t quite understand. To me, it looks like a simple admission that science hasn’t yet explained everything. Evidently, however, Shermer will now be forced to avoid grappling with Sir Maddox’s irrefutable argument and somehow “find an artful way of slithering to higher ground where all the other skeptics are huddled.”
And huddle they must! for Chopra has declared that “skeptics” (read: people who don’t believe in the things he believes in) have contributed little of value to science:
You would think that skeptics as a class have made significant contributions to science or the quality of life in their own right. Uh oh. No, they haven’t. Their principal job is to reinforce the great ideas of yesterday while suppressing the great ideas of tomorrow.
That groaning noise you hear is Zombie Carl Sagan stirring in his grave, preparing to walk once again among the living, and feast on what decomposing brains he can find puddled in the base of Deepak Chopra’s skull.
By happenstance, I got a used copy of Sagan’s book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark in the mail yesterday. After seeing the ridiculous “reincarnation” circus in the Larry King Live clip, I looked up what Sagan might have to say on the subject were he still alive (no doubt huddled up on that higher ground with the rest of the “skeptics.”) His answer? “If some good evidence for life after death were announced, I’d be eager to examine it; but it would have to be real scientific data, not mere anecdote. (emphasis added)
Now, if you subjected yourself to the Larry King Live clip, think back to how the proponents of “reincarnation” and “near-death experiences” and all the rest of it kept arguing their case. You’ll notice that not once did any of them actually cite any real scientific studies or refer to any data whatsoever. Everything was purely anecdotal, rhetorical, or metaphorical. Sure, they invoked “science” every chance they got. Deepak Chopra fancies himself a “scientist” and derides people like Shermer who insist on seeing actual, scientific proof for such phenomena, even if, like Carl Sagan, they want to believe they’re real. In fact, that’s the whole basis of the scam: passing off what amounts to little more than standard New Age claptrap as “mysterious science” in order to lend it some sort of intellectual authority.
But the argument that Sir John Maddox, Carl Sagan and, I suspect, Michael Shermer are making is not that science has explained everything or that there’s no room for speculation and imagination in the sciences — Albert Einstein was, of course, famous for his thought experiments, as are many other scientists — it’s that, “science,” in the absence of evidence, experimentation, or verifiable results, cannot properly be called science.
Deepak Chopra and his ilk are certainly free to speculate on whatever they please. They’re free to make whatever wild claims about near-death experiences and reincarnation that they want to. But the moment that they confidently declare that there is scientific evidence for a soul and thereby put a white lab coat on the frame of their metaphysical beliefs is the moment they attempt to defraud the public.
Unfortunately, the public seems happy to give the Deepak Chopras of the world millions of dollars a year — even a cursory glance through the Eugene Weekly will turn up ads for “urban shamans” and mystical healers of all sorts. Sometimes, such attitudes can morph into outright anti-scientism — witness the anti-vaccination “movement” — that can have frankly deadly results like a resurgence in polio, measles, and whooping cough, which science had essentially defeated decades ago. Far be it from me to resort to a “won’t someone please think of the children!?” appeal, but the fact of the matter is that children are dying because idiotic, anti-scientific buffoons have convinced themselves that “Western medicine” is a sham.
Deepak Chopra’s ridiculous broadsides against “skeptical fundamentalists” contributes directly to that mindset. After all, if “skeptics” can’t be trusted to “even bother to keep up with the latest findings in neuroscience, medicine, genetics, physics, and evolutionary biology,” how can they be trusted with vaccinating our children?
Then you start reading about his lunatic belief in “intelligent design without the Bible” (WARNING: clicking on this link has been known to cause people with at least three functioning brain cells to spontaneously combust):
[A] fascinating theory called the anthropic principle has been seriously considered by Stephen Hawking, among others. The anthropic principle tries to understand how a random universe could evolve to produce DNA, and ultimately human intelligence. To say the DNA happened randomly is like saying that a hurricane could blow through a junk yard and produce a jet plane.
A better discussion of the “anthropic principle” can be found here.
After reading through the “intelligent design” article and Mr. Chopra’s angry HuffPo screed, it’s hard not to be struck by this passage from A Demon-Haunted World:
Pseudoscience differs from erroneous science. Science thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one. False conclusions are drawn all the time, but they are drawn tentatively. Hypotheses are framed so they are capable of being disproved… Science gropes and staggers toward improved understanding. Proprietary feelings are of course offended when a scientific hypothesis is disproved, but such disproofs are recognized as central to the scientific enterprise.
Pseudoscience is just the opposite. Hypothesis are framed precisely so they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated. Practitioners are defensive and wary. Skeptical scrutiny is opposed. When the pseudoscientific hypothesis fails to catch fire with scientists, conspiracies to suppress it are deduced.
Meh. Just more of that out-dated and mediocre 19th Century Darwin-thumping materialist dogma, I expect…