Respectful Insolence

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgUnfortunately, as we have been dreading for the last four months or so since her relapse was diagnosed, my mother-in-law passed away from breast cancer in hospice. She died peacefully, with my wife and the rest of her family at her side. As you might expect, I do not much feel like blogging, and even if I did my wife needs me more. Because I foresaw this coming, however, I do have a series of “Best of” reposts lined up. If you’ve been reading less than a year or two, they’re new to you. If not, I hope you enjoy them again. I don’t know when I’ll be back, other than maybe a brief update or two. It could be a couple of days; it could be a couple of weeks. Right now I just don’t know. This post originally appeared two years ago.

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 davea0511
    February 21, 2009

    Scott Adams doesn’t believe in intelligent design or evolution. I guess that makes him agnostic because when I read his stuff his main point is that most things look like crap and both religionists and scientists are just a bunch of conniving politicians vying for acceptance of their inane theories.

    I think it healthy to admit we don’t know what the hell is going on, that at best we have some kind of vague idea. Then again, I don’t think it’s useful to disparage those who think they do have it all figured out. Somewhere in the middle you find that stage called “healthy skepticism”, but I think Scott Adams errs a bit on the side of “unhealthy skepticism”.

    Still I like him, even if some of the things he says really offends me (and that’s happened more than once). I like him because he has the balls to admit skepticism of ANYONE regardless of their pedigree. That’s something the really pisses me off about academics … pedigree is everything to them.

    As for Chopra … don’t know much about him, but it sounds like he’s saying we can’t fully understand human consciousness because in doing so we loose our humanity … or something new-agey like that. A kind of uncertainly principle regarding consciousness saying something about how our understandings affect reality. Yeah … sounds like that weird belief in magic the NYT mentioned that thoughts shape reality.

    Adams however seems to say our understanding is merely a reflection of our capacity to understand … that our understandings don’t define reality at all. We’ll always think we understand reality, but at best we interpret what happens around us and we form opinions that may or may not be true. If they seem to be true all the time we accept them as true but that doesn’t meant it’s true.

    Maybe I’m giving Adams too much credit though. He has said some pretty stupid stuff before.

  2. #2 Robster, FCD
    February 21, 2009

    Dave, skepticism isn’t about politeness, it is about a fair examination of the evidence.

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