Pharyngula

This could be a lively free-for-all: we’ve got one commenter who was visited by Steve Irwin’s ghost, another who believes in astral projection, and now Deepak Chopra claims to have ‘proof’ of an afterlife. I think that, by the mystic Rule of Threes, that requires that I respond, so let’s take a look at Chopra’s seven pieces of evidence for an afterlife.

1. Near-death experiences. Thousands of patients have died, almost always from heart attacks, and then been resuscitated who experience some aspect of the afterlife. One Dutch study put the percentage at around 20% of all such cases. Amazingly, these patients were brain dead, showing no electrical activity in the cortex while they were dead. Yet they experienced sights and sounds, met deceased relatives, felt deep emotions, etc.

NDEs are utterly meaningless. Humans are good at interpolating and constructing mental experiences to fill in gaps; when someone dies and is resuscitated, all we have are accounts generated after the fact of what happened. Also, Chopra’s second point actually invalidates his first claim.

2. Near-death experiences in traditional cultures. The most famous of these are the delogs of Tibet, people who die and come back to life with detailed descriptions of the Bardo, the intricate Buddhist realm of heavens and hells.

Whereas Americans who die confabulate memories of meeting family and Jesus. Isn’t it obvious that this is a culture-dependent ‘memory’ generated by dreams of wish-fulfillment?

3. Children who remember their past lives have now been studied in detail at the Univ. of Virginia. In some of the most striking cases, the child was born with a birthmark that matched the way he had died in the previous life (for example, entry and exit wounds from a bullet). The number of cases is now over 2,500.

This is the Stevenson bunk. It’s simply not credible, and the investigator has the same supernaturalist biases Chopra has. And can someone please explain how an immaterial spirit transports the damage from its previous physical body to a birthmark in its new body?

4. Evidence of mind outside the brain. If consciousness is created by brain chemistry, there is little likelihood of a conscious afterlife. However, many intriguing experiments now exist to show that a person’s thoughts can move beyond the brain. Besides the various experiments in telepathy and ‘remote viewing,’ which are much more credible than skeptics will admit, there is a replicated study from the engineering department at Princeton in which ordinary people could will a computer to generate a certain pattern of numbers. They did this through thought alone, having no contact with the machine itself.

His evidence for duality is telepathy and remote viewing, a couple of phenomena which have not held up under any kind of scientific scrutiny?

The random number stuff is an exaggerated version of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research experiments. They showed that ordinary people couldn’t do what he claims, but one person who was not only a participant but also a researcher in the work could somehow be responsible for the bulk of the positive hits. I don’t think it shows any mysterious mental powers; I suspect something more mundane.

5. In the area of information theory, a rising body of evidence suggests that Nature preserves data in the form of information fields. The most basic units of creation, such as quarks and gravity, may be interrelated through information that cannot be created or destroyed, only recombined into new patterns. If this is true, then it may be that what we call the soul is a complex package of information that survives death as well as precedes birth.

New Age quantum crap. This is not evidence, this is Chopra waving his hands and babbling.

6. Then there are mysteries that no scientific theory can explain without consciousness. Foremost among these is consciousness itself. Inside the brain a hundred billion neurons register chemical and electrical signals. The brain contains no sights, sounds, smells, or tastes. It is a dark, semi-solid mass about the consistency of cold oatmeal. And yet this conglomeration of inert atoms somehow produces the entire visible, tangible world. If this metamorphosis can be explained, then we may find out how the brain might create subtler worlds, the kind traditionally known as heaven. If the secret lies not in brain chemistry but in awareness itself, the afterlife may turn out to be an extension of our present life, not a faraway mystical world.

Maybe Chopra’s brain is like cold oatmeal and is made up of inert atoms, but mine isn’t. I do believe we can now diagnose his problem.

Again, this isn’t evidence for anything. Chopra has merely made up an improbable rationale, and is now asking us all to assume it is correct.

Note the weird game he plays, too. The brain isn’t an organ that responds to stimuli from the external world, oh no…it creates the world. That’s more New Age nonsense.

7. Finally, there are traditions of spirituality–going far beyond organized religion–that tell us about consciousness from the viewpoint of wisdom. Science isn’t the only valid way to extract knowledge from nature. The ancient Vedic rishis of India provided a clear, coherent worldview that fits perfectly into advanced concepts from quantum theory. The merging of wisdom and science has much to offer.

A New Age triple whammy: ancient, revealed wisdom + quantum abuse + a claim that his view is a synthesis of science and mysticism. Nope, sorry, Deepak old boy…there isn’t a speck of science in what you say.

Comments

  1. #1 Sastra
    November 14, 2006

    Deepak Chopra’s form of “science” appeals strongly to the many people who think science means “verify through experience.” The fact that the scientists themselves are not impressed with the level of evidence means nothing — this is all about personal validation, and being able to overlay it with just enough scientific veneer to think that spirituality is now consistent with and supported by reason.

    Like Blake Stacey, Meera Nanda is one of my personal heroes. I actually got her “Prophets Facing Backwards” book in my Christmas stocking one year (how cool is that?) She writes on postmodernism and the so-called convergence of Hindu mysticism and modern science. Debunking Eastern forms of “holistic” science not only addresses New Agers like Chopra, it also seems to explain some of the higher, vaguer forms of traditional theism as well.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    November 14, 2006

    You ‘scientists’ tell us that we humans use only…what….7% of our brains? 4%? That includes scientists.

    Actually, we all use all of our brains all of the time. We don’t always use them well, but that’s part and parcel of being human. The story that we only use 10% (or whatever figure you pick) probably started with Dale Carnegie, the guy who wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s a motivational ploy, sort of like “be all you can be” or “there’s no I in team”. It’s true that we seldom live up to our full potential, but to dress this commonly known fact up with figures and percentage points is just wrong. It’s not science; it’s not even really meaningful.

    Ironically, the main result of stock phrases like “we only use 10% of our brains” is to let people speak and write without thinking.

    Sastra wrote:

    Like Blake Stacey, Meera Nanda is one of my personal heroes. I actually got her “Prophets Facing Backwards” book in my Christmas stocking one year (how cool is that?) She writes on postmodernism and the so-called convergence of Hindu mysticism and modern science.

    Hooray, I’m somebody’s hero! Oh, wait, I’m just the victim of a misplaced modifier. Sigh. ;-)

    To answer your question, though, it’s very cool. I found my way to Meera Nanda via Alan “the joke’s on you, lit crit” Sokal, and in particular his essay “Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?” (PDF link). It’s a good piece of writing.

  3. #3 Steve Watson
    November 15, 2006

    Orac writes:

    While we’re on the subject of the after-life: am I the only one to notice that in The End of Faith, Sam Harris claims there is evidence for psychic phenomena and reincarnation?

    Yes, he does. It’s mostly in the last chapter. It was very jarring after the rest of his book and left me scratching my head.

    Oh gods, you mean there’s worse to come? I’m only in chapter 2, thus so far all I’ve seen is one passing reference around page 40, plus the associated end-note. This is what all the vague references to “spirituality” are leading up to?

    Anton Mates writes:

    ….Harris certainly seems to believe Buddhism happens to have an exceptionally accurate understanding of the world. And he’s much more open to Buddhist-associated supernaturalism than to that associated with any other religion.)

    So, his message boils down to: Western theist woo is silly and threatens to destroy civilization, but I’ve got The Woo That Is True? Rather than being a skeptic, he’s just another myth-pedlar?

    I’m reading this book because of Harris’ claim that religious moderates are part of the problem — that they in some way aid and abet the extremists. A serious charge, and I want to see him make his case (or not). This is not the controversy I was expecting ;-). I’ll try to finish the book with an open mind, but I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy fisking Harris at book club next month. Well, it would be really boring if we all just sat around nodding our heads in agreement with Dawkins, Shermer, Harris et al….

  4. #4 Jeff
    November 15, 2006

    Chopra takes on Dawkins.

    The God Delusion? Part 1

    Deepak Chopra says:

    Since this is such an important issue,I want to argue against him( Dr. dawkins) point by point in some detail.

    1. Science is the only valid way to gain knowledge. Nothing about God is needed to explain the world. Eventually science will uncover all mysteries. Those that it can’t explain don’t exist.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deepak-chopra/the-god-delusion-part-1_b_34200.html

    http://www.intentblog.com/archives/2006/11/the_god_delusio.html

  5. #5 Keith Douglas
    November 16, 2006

    “inert atoms” – note once again, a (metaphysical) idealist who has no understanding of matter. Surprise, surprise.

    Peter Scott: The (bad) reasoning goes something like this, no doubt – quantum mechanics is weird, my own craziness is weird, so my own weirdness must have something to do with quantum mechanics. The other influence is, sad to say, likely to be physicists themselves. The “Copenhagen (mis)interpretation” of quantum mechanics is completely subjectivist. That this view is provably wrong (and has been realized since Einstein (*) is, of course, ignored studiously by quantum quacks, and indeed, popularizing physicists who repeat such wrong headed statements as “the Born rule gives the probability of finding such and such a state” when it should be “… being in such and such a state” and so on. [(*) Einstein’s debate with Bohr was inconclusive because it conflated two issues: realism and the question of objective chance. Einstein was right about realism, wrong about objective chance, as far as I can tell.]

    Blake Stacey: I haven’t read PFB, but I can endorse Nanda’s work generally. Her paper “The Epistemic Charity of the Social Constructivist Critics of Science and why the Third World Should Refuse the Offer” should be read by all people who think somehow science is “colonialist”, or “racist”, or other such things.

    Zuckerfrosch: Although he is rather inconsistent, Chopra seems to sometimes suggest that he’s actually a complete subjective idealist – namely that there really isn’t any such thing as matter at all, only mindstuff, whatever that is. So, no problem about your rabbit.

    stand: Bunge makes the same joke somewhere, saying that by reading his books you are reading some of his thoughts … I

    DominEditrix: No, especially after seeing what a trainwreck of human misery Scientology is.

    Bryn: Dunno, but a reasonably nonreligious (certainly atheistic) friend of mine also had an NDE, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. She just thought “cool, I’m having an NDE!” (I guess sort of like how one can dream, “cool, I’m dreaming!”)

    George: Berkeley at least was honest with his subjectivism. Chopra is … well …

    bibi: I have the greatest respect for India’s intellectual accomplishments, but Chopra’s musings (such as they are) are not amongst them. Did you know, for example, that there were materialists amongst the ancient Indian philosophers, and they seem to have been vilified as much as their European counterparts. As for the 10% (4%? 7%???) of our brain thing, it simply isn’t true. Consult any neuroanatomy textbook and look at the drawings (or photographs) of blood circulation, for example.

    Sastra: You’re quite right. I have long said that it is a great danger to ignore the “rationalist” aspect of science and stress only the “empiricist” aspect. Someone else mentioned Berkeley – he’s what happens if you take empiricism to its logical conclusion. Science needs the generation of hypotheses in order to function, and these hypotheses have to be carefully fitted into existing knowledge – but not completely.

    Claire: Daniel Dennett and the Churchlands have written some synthetic work on the evolution of consciousness. There is a lot of other work in this area, by both psychologists and philosophers, but it still is waiting for some “good ideas” – which isn’t surprising given the over-empirical attitude (see above) taken by many psychologists.

  6. #6 jerry
    April 4, 2009

    Chopra’s an idiot. How do these idiots get soo rich?

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