Respectful Insolence

There I was, puttering around the Internet trying to procrastinate while writing yet another grant, when I came across a truly inane article by Scott Adams arguing that the entire universe must be intelligent because processes that lead to products of intelligent (machines, books, etc., made by us) must also be intelligent. (At least I think that’s what he was arguing; the argument was so poorly constructed and circular that it was hard to tell. No doubt Adams will retreat to his “I was only joking” or “I was only playing with your mind” defense.) I thought of having a little fun with it, but unfortunately for me, Omni Brain and PZ had already mentioned it, and, worse for me, PZ and The Questionable Authority have left only tiny scraps too little for me to have much interest in taking on. However, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of a familiar woo in Adams’ words, echoes of a woo-meister so dedicated to arguing that the universe must have “consciousness” that produced human consciousness, that the “randomness” of evolution and biological nature of the brain can never explain consciousness.

Yes, I’m referring to Deepak Chopra.

Now, I hate to reward the bad behavior of one of Chopra’s “admirers” showing up on this blog. I really do. And linking to the latest bit of Choprawoo, which was brought to my attention by the usual suspect who has periodically infested the comments of my blog ever since I first coined the term “Choprawoo” to describe the typical combination of New Age fluff combined with logical fallacies that is the phenomenon known as Deepak Chopra and his persistently annoying brand of woo, would be doing exactly that. (The commenter in question clearly wanted a link from me.) I also realize that, as some have said, the term “Choprawoo” is redundant, given that almost everything that flows from Chopra’s keyboard is nothing but grade A woo. Nonetheless, I like the term and plan on continuing to use it.

In any case, after being widely and deservedly smacked down over the absolutely idiotic Choprawoo he spewed about Richard Dawkins, complete with woo about the “consciousness of the universe” creating our consciousness and mischaracterizations of evolution as random. I was tempted to refer my readers back to the only response ever needed to Choprawoo and leave it at that, but what the heck? Every so often we need to be reminded of the depths of silliness that Dr. Chopra is capable of descending into, and so here he is:

Recently the New York Times ran a front-age article on the phenomenon of magical thinking. Originally this was a fairly narrow psychological term, applied to schizophrenics and other mentally disturbed patients who believed that their thoughts could alter reality. In its most abnormal form, magical thinking makes paranoids believe that they rule the world or that if they fall asleep space aliens will invade the earth. More harmlessly, magical thinking gives rise to lucky rabbit’s feet, game-day shirts, and small rituals of protection like knocking on wood.

The Times article centered on psychologists and anthropologists who are curious about why magical thinking survives among modern people. It is prevalent even when a person has no religious beliefs. “…and for good reason,” the article’s writer declares. “The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. . . . This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.” By clear implication, magical thinking is a holdover, a nuisance soon to be eradicated once we get our wires straight.

It’s a wonder the Huffington Post still publishes Chopra’s woo. Unfortunately for me, Dr. Chopra’s usual brand of woo irritates me more than most New Age woo. Whether or not this reaction is “deterministic” according to Chopra’s straw man version of neurobiology and evolution or whether it’s just my free will deciding that Chopra’s a twit, I suspect my reaction is because he so transparently wraps his woo in “sciencey”-sounding gibberish that reveals a profound and willful misunderstanding of the scientific principles he claims to be discussing, often with words like “quantum” thrown in for good measure. I also find it rather fascinating to contrast the reaction of his readers, depending upon where he posts his woo. On Chopra’s own blog entry of this, the commenters are, as Curtis Sliwa would put it, almost entirely “sycophants, toadies, and lackeys,” whereas in response to the Huffington Post version of this same article, the responses are–shall we say?–considerably less congenial, but, sadly, there are still plenty of sycophants posting there too to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Be that as it may, this is the New York Times article to which (I think) Dr. Chopra refers, and it’s actually quite an interesting read, discussing how and why magical and superstitious thinking persists in adults and what adaptive advantage from it there might be that kept it from being lost during evolution. One possible explanation is that it helps us deal with periods of time when we are helpless:

Magical thinking is most evident precisely when people feel most helpless. Giora Keinan, a professor at Tel Aviv University, sent questionnaires to 174 Israelis after the Iraqi Scud missile attacks of the 1991 gulf war. Those who reported the highest level of stress were also the most likely to endorse magical beliefs, like “I have the feeling that the chances of being hit during a missile attack are greater if a person whose house was attacked is present in the sealed room,” or “To be on the safe side, it is best to step into the sealed room right foot first.”

Much of the rest of the article speculates on possible adaptive advantages that magical thinking and superstition may have that they persist in intellectually mature adults.

Basically, Chopra’s complaint about this sort of scientific examination of magical thinking boils down to his old and worn complaint that human consciousness is apparently too complex for science ever to understand, a position not unlike that taken by “intelligent design” creationists with respect to evolution:

This whole [mechanistic] world view continues to expand confidently, but one can’t help wondering. At some point the line between hard and soft wiring must be drawn, and it’s enormously over-simple to keep favoring the hard side of the equation because the soft side won’t fit easily into laboratory experiments. Behaviorists need to be reminded that Jesus, Socrates, St. Paul and Augustine, Isaac Newton, and Shakespeare all exhibited some form of magical thinking. Writing them off categorically as evolutionary puppets of biology is more than foolish. It discards an enormous part of life’s meaning. Do you worship God? Take a pill. But what if I worship art and music? Is there a pill for that?

Let’s boil the Choprawoo to its essence: Because great philosophers, scientists, and writers all produced highly complex thought, some of which might be considered magical thinking, we can never understand the biological mechanisms of consciousness. (Yes, I’m combining this Choprawoo with previous Choprawoo about “universal consciousness”; it all blends together, you know.) And, of course, it’s strange that he lumped Isaac Newton into this group. Whether or not he exhibited “magical thinking” in other areas of his life, he was a great scientist, and science is the antithesis of magical thinking. But that’s not all:

The bald fact is that human beings aren’t machines, and as detailed as MRIs and genome maps may get one day, they will never explain the meaning of existence. They will only reduce it to mechanisms that apply to tissues and cells, not to the whole person. We know that human beings aren’t deterministic, which is where all this hard-wiring speculation is leading. Put into stressful situations, some people fall apart, others grow angry, still others escape, or go into a dozen patterns of response, ranging from delusion to imagination to profound reflection on the human condition. No one can deny this kind of diversity, nor can it be denied that machines have no interest in meaning, whereas we do. To call our craving for beauty, love, spiritual significance, and self-worth an evolutionary trait or the result of a genetic imprint is extremely foolish.

I’ll boil this Choprawoo down to its essence as well into two points: First, people are different and respond differently to different stimuli and actions; therefore human beings aren’t “deterministic” can’t understand the biological mechanisms behind consciousness and behavior. This is obviously silly; there is great diversity in many areas of nature, and that doesn’t stop us from being able to approach these phenomena scientifically. The diversity of life itself is an example, but no one would say that we shouldn’t study biology. Second, Chopra seems to be saying that trying to understand the evolutionary basis of human behavior and consciousness precludes meaning in life, beauty, love and art. Of course, neither of these views, I daresay, are held by the scientists, and Chopra is positing a false dichotomy. Understanding the biology behind the function of our brains and that our thoughts and actions are in essence the result of a highly complex mixture of chemical reactions does not prevent us as human beings from valuing all of these things. That Dr. Chopra seems stubbornly unable to understand that reveals his limitations, not the limitations of science.

You know, now that I think of it, there’s quite a bit of similarity between Deepak Chopra and Scott Adams when they start discussing “intelligence” and evolution, and that is not a compliment to either of them.

Comments

  1. #1 zilch
    January 31, 2007

    Hey, what’s the problem here? Everyone knows that science is cold and mechanical, and holism is warm and living. What would you rather be?

  2. #2 josh
    January 31, 2007

    well zilch, I’d rather be correct. Science is a tool for finding information, and like all tools, is cold and mechanical. So are a hammer and a pair of pliers, but the sculpture they produce is not. Holism is not living, its an idea, and as warm as it may seem, what it produces is ignorance.

  3. #3 Ruth
    January 31, 2007

    Working out the perspective for a complex drawing is a cold, mechanical process. My high school art teacher used to say that creativity could only be achieved by rigor and discipline. Approaching the total synthesis of a complex molecule requires rationality and creativity. We construct a model of the universe in our head-science tries to check back to see if it jibes with the reality ‘out there’(and sometimes our prejudice prevents this). Woo only wants to see what fits the constructed reality.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    January 31, 2007

    Chopra gives a laundry list of highly accomplished human beings:

    Behaviorists need to be reminded that Jesus, Socrates, St. Paul and Augustine, Isaac Newton, and Shakespeare all exhibited some form of magical thinking.

    This is horribly muddled. Does he mean that these Highly Effective People thought about “magical things” — the ineffable spirit, and so forth — or that their thought processes were in themselves somehow “magical”? These are two very different things. I could program a computer to do a statistical analysis of all the world’s holy scriptures and brilliant poetry. Would that computer be thinking magical thoughts? For that matter, Google’s servers must be having a hundred million magical dreams every day.

    Newton, of course, is renowned for the products of his rationalism. (Only academics remember the alchemy and Biblical lore in which he indulged, and even then, one could say that Newton believed those problems too should be investigated through hard work and empirical methods. Take his letter to John Locke about the Comma Johanneum, for example.) You might call Newton’s moments of inspiration — say, the afternoon of the apple — some kind of “magical” events. But this broadens the definition of magic beyond all sensible use. A key component of Newton’s revelation was that he could transmit its contents to others. Did Newton use up all the magic, or is each student’s first encounter with Newtonian mechanics equally magical?

    Shakespeare poses the same problem. Listen to the Queen Mab speech:

    And in this state she gallops night by night
    Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love;
    O’er courtiers’ knees, that dream on court’sies straight,
    O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees,
    O’er ladies ‘ lips, who straight on kisses dream,
    Which oft the angry Mab with blisters plagues,
    Because their breaths with sweetmeats tainted are:
    Sometime she gallops o’er a courtier’s nose,
    And then dreams he of smelling out a suit;
    And sometime comes she with a tithe-pig’s tail
    Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep,
    Then dreams, he of another benefice:
    Sometime she driveth o’er a soldier’s neck,
    And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats,
    Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades,
    Of healths five-fathom deep; and then anon
    Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes,
    And being thus frighted swears a prayer or two
    And sleeps again.

    Lovers dream of love, lawyers of fees, and soldiers of cutting throats? Sounds like rationalism, albeit in magical language, to me.

  5. #5 indrakaran
    January 31, 2007

    Who is Orac- A person totally devoured by magical thinking.
    The problem with Mr orac’s understanding of Dr .Chopra’ s efforts to bridge the gap between science and spirituality is often as it seems gets clotted by his Zeal and a subsequent effort to package human understanding with in the frame work of science as one gathers in his SATIRE.
    I for one would like to quote that science attempt at presenting knowledge with in a finite framework is very well accepted, but when Dr. Chopra tries to enlighten us that Science as of now and times to come might not be able to explain away every doubt or understanding due to its limitations of framework. While Chopra points that human mind and intelligence is far more complex which is intrinsically equipped to reach higher levels of understanding and insight at an individual level, which often might or need not be justified with in the frame work of science, hence the question of validity of such phenomenon or the human minds ability to go beyond the phenomenon it self is a never ending process, which might exhaust every possible dialog.
    So at times the self which alone is equipped with the unique experience and insight might arrive at an understanding which makes meaning only when is willing to go beyond skepticism or abandon such and sometimes closed approach and embrace the other beyond any prejudice or even rigidly holding on to science etc.
    Yes it is likely that Dr. Chopra time and again makes an effort to overwhelm the science frame work with his positions, insight and understanding more so because he makes an extended effort to reach out, which sometimes not so scussefully.
    So the fact that Dr.Chopra tries to through some light by igniting a debate or a dialog in itself is with in the realm of Intelligent frame work which has a purpose of enriching the science as central discipline where all other alternative spiritual and philosophical frame works can transcend the barriers of individual and cultural differences.
    A state of secular spiritual frame work is so unique that in which the Intelligence and the being can find highest rational ground and understanding of reality, which is a realm beyond skepticism,doubt or intellect and even presumably science, if it confines to rigid frame work western standards of understanding.When it comes to Intelligence, it could employ dynamics beyond the known and explored but can be with in the realms of awareness provided one does not fall in to the trap of method or finite with in the infinite.

  6. #6 Amy Alkon
    January 31, 2007

    I posted your link on the Scott Adams piece and suggested he pop over.

  7. #7 NJ
    January 31, 2007

    When it comes to Intelligence, it could employ dynamics beyond the known and explored but can be with in the realms of awareness provided one does not fall in to the trap of method or finite with in the infinite.

    Paging Louis Carroll…

    When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,’ it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’

  8. #8 khan
    January 31, 2007

    Sounds like someone through a thesaurus into a blender.

  9. #9 khan
    January 31, 2007

    “threw”

  10. #10 Emilie S
    January 31, 2007

    Orac,

    I know there wasn’t much left for you after PZ and company were done with Adams today, but if you’re still in the mood for some of his woo, I would suggest that you look at the last chapter of The Dilbert Future. It’s been several years since I read it, but I do seem to recall him using your favorite word “quantum”…

  11. #11 Blake Stacey
    January 31, 2007

    Emilie S.,

    I remember that chapter in The Dilbert Future — it was horrible! Unless my memory is completely mistaken, he used quantum mechanics like a springboard into solipsism and mind-over-matter gobbledygook. It couldn’t have been long after that book came out that I stopped finding Dilbert very funny, but that’s just correlation, not necessarily causation.

    Hey, I keep telling you people: you want a comic strip which respects your intellect, Sinfest is there for you.

  12. #12 Ahistoricality
    January 31, 2007

    The false dichotomy of determinism vs. woo with regard to human behavior reminds me a great deal of the “irreducible complexity” argument of ID: we can’t figure out the mechanisms (even though other people can) and therefore we need magic — pardon me, God — to make it all work.

  13. #13 George
    January 31, 2007

    A Deepak video was played on our local public broadcasting station a while back during their pledge drive week. Needless to say they lost my pledge. The small bit of the video I saw was absolutely silly with Deepak making noises on gongs and glass in some weird notion of resonance with as otherwise unseen, untouchable aspect of nature… okay who really knows what he is saying its gibberish.

    However, as bad as that was, the host for Oregon Public Broadcasting interviewed Deepak. She actually made the statement that she was amazed that we did not teach Deepak’s “science” in our schools… wow.

  14. #14 Greg
    January 31, 2007

    I used to take advantage of magical thinking as a crew coach. In rowing particularly skulling there is a complex set of maneuvers that would be best done instantaneously – and if you thought about the different steps it would go real slow. So I would tell them how it should feel and tell them what you did was magic. It often work with kids – it never work with adults – they had to know what they were doing.

    The difference was I never claimed it was due to a pseudo-science effect. And the kids knew it wasn’t supernatural. They did know what magic is: doing something that works even if you don’t understand it and you don’t have a cognitive framework available to understand how you would understand it. Sometimes a useful thing if you want to get something done. And its good to have a label for it outside of science.

  15. #15 Lucas McCarty
    January 31, 2007

    ” While Chopra points that human mind and intelligence is far more complex which is intrinsically equipped to reach higher levels of understanding and insight at an individual level, which often might or need not be justified with in the frame work of science, hence the question of validity of such phenomenon or the human minds ability to go beyond the phenomenon it self is a never ending process, which might exhaust every possible dialog. ”

    Bury your feelings Luke. They do you credit, but they could be made to serve the Emperor.

  16. #16 Mithrandir
    January 31, 2007

    Minor point: “Choprawoo” is not redundant. There is no such thing as Chopra non-woo, but there’s plenty of non-Chopra woo out there, and it’s sometimes useful to distinguish Choprawoo from other woo.

  17. #17 Coin
    January 31, 2007

    Minor point: “Choprawoo” is not redundant. There is no such thing as Chopra non-woo…

    Well, this may be a bit hasty of a generalization. Though no details are given, Wikipedia claims that Chopra did once write a book about golf.

  18. #18 Michael Ralston
    February 1, 2007

    I suspect Chopra does write some things that aren’t woo.
    He’s got to have people he sends Christmas cards to, right?

  19. #19 Kristjan Wager
    February 1, 2007

    Until proven otherwise, I will assume that any golf book or Christmas card written by Chopra contains woo. I am sure he spews woo while snoring.

  20. #20 Coin
    February 1, 2007

    The assumption is most likely a safe one.

  21. #21 Yoj
    February 1, 2007

    Mr. Chopra’s comments must be profound – he has “Deep” in his name.

  22. #22 zilch
    February 2, 2007

    well zilch, I’d rather be correct.

    Josh, speaking as someone who uses hammers and pliers daily, so would I. Either I was too plausible, or your irony meter needs recalibration. :lol:

  23. #23 typhonwoo
    February 3, 2007

    “In any case, after being widely and deservedly smacked down over the absolutely idiotic Choprawoo he spewed about Richard Dawkins, complete with woo about the “consciousness of the universe” creating our consciousness and mischaracterizations of evolution as random.”

    Hmm… so evolution *isn’t* random?

  24. #24 Christophe Thill
    February 5, 2007

    Chopra doesn’t understand science (well, big surprise here). To him, “science” means the hard approach of physical sciences or neurobiology. I can understand why he calls it “deterministic”, although he gets this completely wrong: quantum physics can allow itself to be non-deterministic, because this aspect is woven into the theory. But if any science dealing with our macroscopic level tried to be so, it would have a few problems (non-determinitic geology or immunology, anyone?)
    And of course, our friend has absolutely no clue concerning the social sciences, that try to use a scientific approach in the study of human society. To him, they don’t exist. It’s either reduction to the molecular or cell level, or spiritualistic woo. Can I suggest him to read some books?