The Trouble with Deepak Chopra, Part 3: More Choprawoo

It seems like only yesterday that I was fisking yet another piece of seriously irritating woo from that expert purveyor of woo, Deepak Chopra. In fact, it was only yesterday that I was fisking part two of Chopra's woo-filled The Trouble With Genes series. As I mentioned in my previous fisking, I had thought that Dr. Chopra might lay low for a while, and was surprised that he popped up again so soon.

So color me even more surprised that Chopra wasted no time in wading back in again with yet more of his tradmark brand of woo (which I like to call Choprawoo) in a post entitled The Trouble With Genes, Part 3 (and here). Given that, I thought it best simply to title this piece as part 3. Don't worry, I don't plan on wasting too much more time examining the pseudoscientific mystical blather of Chopra. After all, Chopra provides so much material that I could devote the entire blog to fisking his nonsense, but I suspect that such an endeavor would rapidly become tiresome, causing my visit count to plunge like a stone tossed off the Empire State Building. But, for whatever perverse reason, I feel like plunging once more into the breech and looking at this third part of Chopra's "speculations" because once again he makes me wonder if he actually learned anything in medical school. I promise to try to lay off for a while after this.

Chopra has clearly been stung by a lot of the criticism that has come his way regarding his misunderstandings of science and genetics. He was quite testy in an earlier post (before part 2) in which he served up howlers of straw men like claiming that genetics states that:

Genes are fixed, deterministic agents that do not respond to the immediate environment, bodily functions, or thoughts.

Uh, no, Dr. Chopra. No geneticist that I'm aware of makes the claim that genes do not respond to the immediate evironment or bodily functions. That's utterly ridiculous. Genes are regulated by changes in hormones, changes in the cellular milieu due to environment, and to many foods that we ingest and substances to which we are exposed. In fact, complex gene networks are known to be regulated by many of these things. (Again, I have to wonder whether Chopra was paying attention in medical school or whether he understood all these scientific papers he claims to have read. Maybe in a future post, I'll list some examples of genes that are regulated by environment.) Whether they respond to thoughts or not depends on whether you consider responding to the changes in neurochemical activity in the brain to be the equivalent to thoughts. Most neuroscientists would; Dr. Chopra clearly doesn't and feels obligated to invoke some sort of mystic "consciousness" that is not entirely explained by the biological structure and activities of the brain. In part 3, he returns to such dubious scientific understanding:

Although genes are incapable of explaining human intelligence, or the intricately organized operations within cells, they must be included in any final explanation. We can't call genes themselves intelligent because that leads us to say that molecules are intelligent, and then there's no reason not to say that atoms are intelligent, or quarks.

Each step takes us further away from a plausible answer.

Number one, Chopra has shown no evidence that "the intricately organized operations within cells" aren't enough to explain intelligence. In multiple points in his three articles, he simply dismisses this possibility as being against "common sense" or simply unbelievable (to him). Sorry, Deepak, but things don't work that way in science. For one thing "common sense" is a poor guide to what is true in science. Just look at quantum mechanics if you don't believe me. For another thing, you need to provide evidence to support that claim. Chopra also seems to be repeating his straw man claim that geneticists somehow ascribe intelligence to genes. I wish he would tell me who these scientists arguing for the existence of intelligent genes are! I could then look up their work and see if it has value. And, as always, Chopra is maddeningly vague in describing what else other than the cells of the brain could be responsible for human intelligence:

Can we claim that intelligence is simply an illusion? This sounds absurd, but it seems to be a prevailing attitude among certain philosophers and many neuroscientists. Their notion is that consciousness has no ultimate reality but is instead a property thrown off by brain chemicals--the way heat is thrown off by a car engine--creating the illusion of a mind simply because the processes involved are so complex.

I don't think this theory can stand the test of common sense, because human intelligence is millions of times too complex to be generated by random chemical interactions. Also, as one respondent pointed out, the Cartesian split between mind and body is no longer tenable. The mistake this responder makes, however, is to believe I uphold such a split. I don't. I am looking for a fusion of ideas that will allow us to have a single brain-mind system. Chemicals can't give us one, but consciousness can. If the entire universe is an arena of consciousness, there is no need to isolate human intelligence or to argue futilely if genes are smart. By analogy, when a radio plays Mozart, we don't have to claim that the radio is Mozart, or that Mozart is the radio. The two are meshed--machine and genius find a meeting ground.

Instead of a mind-matter split, we have a hierarchy of domains, each with its own flavor or quality of consciousness. Already there are intriguing theories about a self-aware universe, which is self-organized and coherent from top to bottom. Information theory over the past few decades has postulated that information fields may exist in Nature, and the information they contain may precede matter and energy while being as indestructible as both. This puts a new twist on the age-old religious concept that the universe is happening in God's mind.

Gee, does this sound at all similar to the concept of "irreducible complexity"? Basically it's one big argument from incredulity. Chopra seems to think that the utter complexity of human intelligence can't possibly have arisen from natural "random" processes simply because he can't conceive of how it might have. Do I have to bring up the example of evolution again? Evolution is anything but random. The raw material it works on is the random variation in the genome that leads to differences in phenotype that may result in advantages or disadvantages to the organism in reproducing, but natural selection harnesses this randomness to a distinctly nonrandom process. Again, the brain is made up of cells that are in essence binary on/off switches. Either a neuron fires or it doesn't. What determines if an individual neuron fires is the integration of all the incoming signals, both excitatory and inhibitory, from all the other neurons that are signaling to it. Again, millions of what are in essence simple binary switches can result in the complexity of the brain's activity. As for Chopra's analogy to a radio playing Mozart, I would simply point out that you don't have to claim that the radio is Mozart if you believe that intelligence derives from the physical function of the brain. A radio is simply an electromechanical device designed to reproduce as faithfully as possible recorded sound transmitted through radio waves. It is nothing more than a transducer. Is Chopra claiming that the "materialistic" view of the brain is that it is nothing more than a transducer? No, that sounds more like what Chopra is arguing when he implies that the brain is simply the tool for the "consciousness" of the universe to make itself known.

But Chopra's not done yet:

In medicine it was long considered absolute that the brain is the seat of intelligence, but now we find extraordinary intelligence in the immune system, not to mention neuronal activity in such diverse places as the heart and digestive tract (there's a sound physiological reason for why gut feelings can be so accurate). In other words, bit by bit a unified theory of consciousness may be evolving to forge a mind-body link far more satisfying that mind and body on their own.

When I read this, I find it difficult to believe that Chopra ever went to medical school. "Intelligence" in the immune system? The immune system is a beautifully evolved system, an exquisitely self-regulated system, with finely tuned feedback loops, amplification cascades, and inhibitory mechanisms to turn off immune responses when no longer needed. But "intelligent"? Only if you broaden the definition of "intelligence" to the point of meaninglessness. (Is Chopra implying that the immune system has some sort of self-awareness?) But even sillier is his attribution of intelligence or consciousness to the heart and the gut on the basis of the neuronal activity there. Jumpin' Jesus on a pogo stick! Did he fall asleep during the lectures on the autonomic nervous system in medical school? For one thing, the heart is capable of contracting on its own, without any nervous input. Its rate is regulated by excitatory input from the sympathetic nervous system that can speed it up and inhibitory input from the parasympathetic system via the vagus nerves that can slow it down, as well as messengers in the blood, like epinephrine, but the heart does not require such input to beat. If it were otherwise, transplanted hearts wouldn't work. As for the gut, the peristalsis that propels food through the intestines is the result of a reflex that results in the activation of the gut's intrinsic autonomic nervous system, resulting in peristalsis. As the heart can contract without any nervous input, the gut can undergo peristalsis quite happily without any input from the nervous system. Is Chopra attributing "intelligence" to these autonomic systems because they can function in a reflex manner without any input from the brain? Never mind that intelligence implies adaptability, learning, and multiple activities and these systems can do in essence one thing each. Chopra's implication that there is a "sound physiological reason" for the "accurateness" of "gut feelings" as a possible indication of "consciousness" is nothing short of ridiculous.

Once again, Chopra finishes with yet another fluorish of woo. After promising a future post with "a consciousness-based argument for life after death" (oh, goody, I can hardly wait) he leaves us with this:

As for genes, one can predict that their interface with intelligence is fast approaching. Each of us is ultimately an activity of the universe, and the genetic code embodies eons of memory and evolution. We are self-conscious beings, and there is a strong implication that genes also represent a way for life to examine itself, to remember what it has learned, and to move forward into the unknown. Nature wears a mask of matter, but when it comes down to it, it's truer to say that thoughts learned to build a physical body than the opposite, that a physical body invented thinking. The universe is thinking us at every moment, and in return we constantly think about it.

All I could do after reading this was to pick my jaw up off the floor and shake my head. That is truly an amazingly concentrated bit of woo. I really don't know what to make of it. He seems to be confusing metaphors with reality or, if he isn't, claiming that the universe is really is "thinking us." To me this is little different from concepts that existence is nothing but a dream of God or similar ideas. Chopra's woo is far more religion or mysticism than science. It assumes, a priori, that the universe has some sort of intelligence or consciousness. It may, but he presents no evidence other than his assertion that it does. His concepts provide no testable hypotheses and make no useful predictions, as a good scientific theory should. If you don't believe that what Chopra is about is far more about some sort of pseudomystical religious concepts involving Eastern mysticism than any sort of science, look at his "rebuttal" to a dissenter tacked on to the version of this essay posted at his own blog:

I would assert further that cause is a tricky business because there's a tangled scheme of genes, personal predilection, family influence, social conditioning, inherited beliefs, and as yet unexplained ingredients (the X factor denoted by the Sanskrit terms, Karma and Dharma) that creates any complex behavior. Karma and Dharma aren't outmoded Indian religious concepts but keys to how the individual fits into a larger scheme of human evolution and behavior. In the course of twenty years I've tried to seriously examine all these factors. Thangaraj believes he can trump the whole lot with chemicals in a test tube.

I rest my case.


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Yeesh! Anybody who has read Larry Gonick's Cartoon Guide to Genetics could call BS on that first claim. "Genes are fixed, deterministic agents" — I'm glad I finished my breakfast soda before reading that, or else the office would have been treated to a glorious spit take, and my laptop would need a good cleaning.

Well, Orac, clearly you forgot that all this is in perfect agreement with TwoPac's Jungian training. I am only surprised that he didn't talk about the genetic "architype" or advocate LSD for future non-evolutionary progress in the brain.I think sometimes we go way too far in using the term, "intelligent life".

Are we SURE Chopra isnt really a talking jellyfish? Because if a creature with no brain could talk, it seems they would sound like Chopra.

Are we SURE Chopra isnt really a talking jellyfish? Because if a creature with no brain could talk, it seems they would sound like Chopra.

I'm feeling very woo-zy now-no more Chopra until my intelligent proprioceptive system is back in tune with the universe.

He must've been a really shitty doctor. I sure wouldn't want him diagnosing me!

Chopra wrote, quoted by Orac, "The universe is thinking us at every moment,..."

ooOOOOoooo We are but thoughts in the mind of Vishnu. ooOOOoooo

Wow, that takes me back to my high school days when as a pimply, angst-filled, D&D playing, computer geek I got interested in eastern mysticism for a bit.

Those were heady days. The afternoons spent slaying gigantic T-cells our dungeon master created as monsters during the initial AIDS scare. Evenings spent reading Lovecraft, Adam Watts, Salinger, and the Rig Veda (to name only a few). Going to see movies like Heavy Metal and Liquid Sky. Dreaming of rips in the fabric of space-time or alternative universes where magic works.

Luckily for me I stumbled across Spinoza's Ethics in my junior year. That brought me right back to reality.

I still greatly enjoy fantasy novels and eclectic movies, but I no longer confuse reality with wishful thinking. Chopra's appeal has always seemed to me to be limited to a certain mental window that opens during adolescence, and closes for most of us by our twenties.

Thanks for the trip down memory lane.


P.S. As I think of it, I'm still fond of the question, "Who is dreaming, Alice or the Red King?"

All of Chopra's stuff makes perfect sense if (a) you don't know much about genetics and (b) you're on LSD at the time.

I'm not kidding about the latter. All that shazbat concerning the Universe inventing life and intelligence in order to watch itself? Been there, done that, stared into the face of the mighty alien god. It's awesome. And when it wears off, you're left with the memory of how it was to actually not just believe, but KNOW that it's all truer than anything you've ever mistakenly thought you've known before.

That's a funky perspective, one I can recommend to anyone who likes getting out and seeing how the other half thinks. Do your research first, though, find out about set and setting...

Unforch, when you do calm down a little, get your sleep cycle back on track and finally lose those odd sworls that catch you unaware late at night, you realise that despite having been in communion with the mightiest forces of awareness, love and intelligence in the cosmos, they didn't tell you anything new, practicable, testable or useful.

In the same way that I would have found the Bible more believable if Jehovah had told his people to boil their water because of the germ theory of disease, rather than go on and ON about golden calves and not lusting after your neighbour's arse or whatever, I'd be more convinced of the actual truth of cosmic mind-warping mystic revelations if they said stuff about making better room temperature semiconductors, or FTL comms - hell, even making LiIon batteries twenty percent more efficient or aspirin twenty percent less toxic would be nice. Or even where I left that set of spectacles. Not much to ask from the Creator Spirit who Loves Us All? Too much, apparently.

You can get good stuff from strange states of mind - Kekule wasn't the first or the last, and there are plenty of really respectable scientists who have and do get inspiration and other stuff from setting the old cogs spinning in unorthodox ways. But darn it if that old empirical, pragmatic, logical objective approach doesn't need the upper hand if what you come up with is to be more than what you Earthlings call 'woo'.

By Syd's Other Half (not verified) on 17 Oct 2006 #permalink

Nice post Orac.

THE TROUBLE WITH GENES ( Part 3, A Response)

"I am thrilled to be able to share ideas on the leading edge of speculative thinking. Unlike Thangaraj, who shows not the slightest acquaintance with my writings or hundreds of other titles in the field, I am fascinated by genetics and its implication for consciousness in general."

"In the course of twenty years I've tried to seriously examine all these factors. Thangaraj believes he can trump the whole lot with chemicals in a test tube."

~Deepak Chopra

For twenty years I have been
Doing speculative thinking,
And sharing ideas on the leading edge
Ending into the world of souls and ghouls.

I remind you, all speculative thinking,
All speculative ideas, all speculative
Conclusions no ground to stand on.
But my musings on Vedas and gods.

I do not care to give you
Any evidence of what I say.
I do not have to prove anything
For speculative thinking is in my soul.

Now I see a raja of thugs
Bringing me down with his
Wishful thuggery showing me
Chemical reactions in test tubes.

I have my gloves on.
Put your gloves on.
Sand is not shifting under my feet
I am praying sweating in Indian heat

Standing on solid har ki pauri
Taking to my shrine in Hardwar.
I would leash on you demons and ghouls
To burn to ashes your miserable soul,

Like Lord Krishna did in Kurukshetra war.

I have seen life after death
I have seen life before death
I am a holy avatar in this birth.
With your genie genes, you'll

Rot in hell, never a chance for rebirth.

Notes: Har ki pauri are the steps leading to the
temple of holy gods on the banks of river Ganges
in Hardwar in India. Raja is a king in Hindi/Urdu.

~White Wings

"White Wings" blog at Sulekha:…

I really appreciate these fiskings of Chopra. He and others like him are frequently brought up as counterexamples to those bad Fundamentalists, who try to mix religion up with science and fail. Chopra, on the other hand, is someone who *successfuly* manages to bring together science and spirituality.

Nonsense. His science is not cutting edge, it is not mainstream, and someone needs to point it out because this view is just as "anti-science" as Creationism. It doesn't simply go against modern findings: the process itself is corrupt, as you say.

It's interesting to note that once again he likes to pretend he's renounced "dualism." There is no mind-matter split, he agrees. But instead of going along with mainstream neuroscience, he simply pronounces that Idealism is true, and everything is made up of Consciousness. While that may be a technical way of dodging an untenable "dualism," it's not some sort of scientifically-friendly version of religion.

@Syd's Other Half, Sastra et al.:

If you want an example of somebody mixing science and drugs and getting it right, check out this fellow at Erowid.

'At one point, he was looking at a bud of ridiculously high-grade marijuana under a microscope. The weed, and all its bulging resin glands, was a beautiful thing to look at. But what eventually caught his attention was the plastic jar the bud was in. The lip of the jar had a thin layer of residue on it, and when he looked at this area under the microscope, it exploded into a swirling multicolor field of diffraction fringes. The residue was a thin enough film that it acted as a thin-film diffraction element, selectively emphasizing and annulling different wavelengths in different regions. Now, my friend is a smart scientist, so he know why diffraction happens like this. But he only understands it on a theoretical level. Electromagnetic waves and the wave/particle duality of light make sense to him, but they're constructs to be manipulated mathematically. But when he saw this happening through the microscope, he instantly and completely grasped the entire gamut of electromagnetic wave propagation, interference, reflection, refraction and diffraction. The relations between energy and wavelength, and wavelength and optical resolving power, and wavelength and shadows, were as clear as day.

'He looked around himself and felt his environment saturated with electromagnetism. He could see it radiating from the lights and being absorbed by his skin, and he could feel radio waves penetrating the building and his body. He looked out the window and saw the buildings casting blurry, diffracted shadows of UHF television signals. My friend told me that he was absolutely floored by how much he 'got' it. He said he thought he could go back to his college physics class and score an 'A' with almost no effort. Maybe he was deluding himself a bit there, but it gives you an idea how much this blew his mind.

'This sort of established the final motif that would stick with him for the rest of the trip. Waves and frequencies and the time domain. As the trip went on he felt the boundaries of his three dimensions of space and one dimension of time start to warp. He began to think of a 'thing' or an 'event' less as a unique entity in spacetime, and more as a confluence of waves in any number of dimensions whose Fourier transform created the 'thing' in another set of dimensions.

'He saw how a square wave in the time domain is equivalent to a broad spectrum of frequencies in the frequency domain, and a square wave in the frequency domain is equal to a broad range of temporal events in the time domain, and he saw that neither time nor space need to be involved in either domain. Fourier transforms can move from any one set of dimensions to any other.

'And then he saw how, if he fiddled with the spectrum of a Fourier transform to remove some frequency information, he blurred and distorted the resulting time-domain image. Just as if he had played with the electromagnetic waves he used to illuminate something he was viewing, he could blur and confound the image he could produce.

'And then, he thought about resonant electrical circuits and their parallels in resonant mechanical assemblies. Start them going and they emit energy at a certain frequency or wavelength, and drive them with certain frequencies and they respond and absorb the energy.

'And what is wavelength, anyway? It depends on a definition of space as a dimension, and a definition of time as a dimension. Wavelength and/or frequency and/or energy is a concept that is utterly independent of any of the dimensions we understand and is universally applicable to essentially any problem.'

Crazy hippie scientists. . . .

Can we claim that intelligence is simply an illusion?
Well, maybe in Chopra's case . . .
(sorry, I couldn't help it)

Great- another woo based idea that certain organizations can use to deny care based on bs and nonsense. Let me ask you---- How many idiots does it take to change health care back into witchdoctoring, based on belief and not empirical evidence?

This line of crap, with the immune system having intellignece, is called psychoneuroimmunology- or PNI. Gabor Mate is a believer, so is Chopra and many other Christian evangelists. Basically, what it says is that your thoughts and experiences are attacked by your immune system, because your bad thoughts build into cancer and heart disease and MS and the common cold and Lou Gehrig's disease. Your faith will make you well. You just have to believe.

This abuse of science by idiots must be challenged. Except it won't be. Major hospitals in the US and all over the world are buying into the bull poopy that is this, and are opening all sorts of alternative medical practices. They are insiduously and insistently filtering into most people's minds as good alternatives. Healing with touch therapy is practiced by nurses all over North America and Europe. (think Reiki). There is money to by made by joining the dark side, even under the clever auspices of RESEARCH. Yes- and look at the outcomes of the prayer studies....

Folk medicine being investigated THOROUGHLY by extensive research is something I support. I would not be alive without digoxin, which has its roots in a common plant. BUT...... I do think that the mindset that we control our bodies through our minds is a bunch of hooey. And it is idiots like Chopra that continue to make me think that we will be back in the Dark Ages before we know it if we do not defend science and reason against superstition and crap dressed up in fancy words.

By anon 6:29 (not verified) on 17 Oct 2006 #permalink

There is something about Deepak's writings that resembles word-salad. He is stringing together a mix of terminologies from science, religion, mysticism, and some thoughts of his that are unique to him (as opposed to sentient beings).

I'm not sure how one can comment about it, since it's gobbledygook.

Blake -

That's the fun you get when your mind's pre-loaded with the good stuff to start off with. It's also the sort of thing that triggers genuine, useful insight - the parallel of what happens when a mathematician realises that theorem X maps onto hypothesis Y from a completely different part of the forest, and if that's the case then... ka-pow. Just make sure it still holds up the morning after.

Clearly, this isn't the sort of thing that gets taught: it's the way that genius habitually works, and the sort of experience that the rest of us may get a handful of times if we're lucky - although I do think that whatever it is that is the intense emotional experience triggered by discovery, of creativity, may also be triggered by some drug experiences or spiritual events, which may be a potential explanation of why people find the associated thoughts so compelling even if they're not that hot by themselves.

Fortune favours the prepared, and certain psychoactive compounds do favour the generation of unexpected perspectives. Get the mix right, and it's valuable.

Not quite sure I'm ready to accept the theory that noshing magic mushrooms potentiated consciousness itself among our ancestors, but I do find the whole area rich and interesting.


By Syd's Other Half (not verified) on 18 Oct 2006 #permalink

(there's a sound physiological reason for why gut feelings can be so accurate).

Wrong. GWB. 'Nuff said.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 18 Oct 2006 #permalink

You should check out the just released book by Deepak Chopra, "Life After Death: The Burden of Proof", where he used science and reason rather than faith to prove the exsistence of afterlife.

Oct. 17: The "Today" show's Ann Curry talks with spiritual guru Deepak Chopra about his new book, "Life After Death."
Today Show Books:

Watch the video:

In 'Life After Death,' Deepak Chopra draws on scientific discoveries and wisdom traditions to provide a map of the afterlife.

"World renowned spiritual guru Deepak Chopra has worked for years on teaching the mind-body connection. His books have sold over 20 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 35 languages, and he also guides Sirius satellite radio listeners on a weekly journey into wellness and spiritual health. In "Life After Death: The Burden of Proof," the best-selling author turns his attention to a subject we often fear."

Choprafan: You probably don't want me to comment on the link you provided. For one thing, I'm tired of Chopra's drivel for the moment. Two days in a row of it are just too much. For another thing, there's no reason for me to believe that it'll be any better than the two fallacy-filled articles that I already deconstructed.

ChopraFan wrote as follows:

You should check out the just released book by Deepak Chopra, "Life After Death: The Burden of Proof", where he used science and reason rather than faith to prove the exsistence of afterlife.

In other words, he lies through his teeth. For the length of a book. Cool. I'll have to check that out.

It's interesting you should say that, Bronze Dog. I'm immediately suspicious of anyone who claims to be refuting something says by skeptics, but insists on charging for the information. Think Kevin Trudeau's "books" or Jason Gastrich's "Skeptic's Annotated Bible Corrected and Explained" -- if what they have to say is so important, why are they trying to make money off of it rather than get it out to the world at large?