Sunday, December 03, 2006

Taking Deepak Chopra Seriously (no, seriously!)

Deepak Chopra has been making an ass of himself attacking Richard Dawkins in a lengthy series of blog posts. He's been roundly mocked by various sciencebloggers, many of whom have given up in disgust.

For some contrarian reason I feel like coming to the guy's defense. Why on earth? Despite the fact that he probably pulls down $5M a year and has a staff managing his blog for him, I feel sorry for him. He's clearly the underdog in a battle of wits, being beaten up by the bullies of science.

I wish I remembered where I heard of this trick: there is an intellectual practice which is the opposite of argument -- it involves listening to someone who seems to have a profoundly diverging viewpoint, and instead of arguing against them, tentatively assume that what they are saying is "true" and try to figure out what it could be true of. Can we apply this technique to Chopra. Instead of flaming him -- is there any way to make any sense of what he's saying?

Where he violates NOMA by attacking science he is generally foolish. So toss out all the nonsense about evolution being a random process, and DNA decaying by entropy, or anything else that actually impinges on material reality.

What's left? There are some stale philosophical points, expressed poorly. His shtick on yellow flowers is just the problem of qualia. But it does point to a real problem in naturalistic metaphysics -- it's based on objectivity, the world as seen from the outside, and does not treat subjective experience very well. Despite efforts of cognitive science and philosophers to ground consciousness in the material functioning of the brain, something seems to get left out.

That something can be glossed over as epiphenomenal, or (if you are someone like Chopra) used as a lever to try and overthrow materialism entirely and postulate a metaphysics where consciousness is somehow prior to the material world. In other words, it's philosophical idealism.

Elsewhere he writes:
Science knows about objective reality, the mask of matter that our five senses detects.

intelligence is innate in nature. It gives rise to consciousness in myriad forms. The brain--and DNA--are agents of this underlying intelligence. They embody it, give it flesh and physical experience, carry out its activity mechanically, and so forth. The materialistic worldview rejects such assumptions categorically, but in doing so, it turns life into a random chemical reaction, which will never suffice.
So he is an idealist who believes that consciousness is foundationally prior to matter, and permeates space somehow. OK. That at least is a coherent philosophical position, with a long lineage. It's seems wrong to me, and vacuous, but it at least makes a certain kind of sense.

More:
The universe is a complex machine whose workings are steadily being demystified by science. Any other way of viewing the world is superstitious and reactionary....What is so strange about this argument is that Dawkins himself is totally reactionary. His defense of a material universe revealing its secrets ignores the total overthrow of materialism in modern physics. There is no world of solid objects; space-time itself depends upon shaping forces beyond both space and time.
He actually has a point here. Don't take "shaping forces" too literally -- it is the case that modern physics has a worldview that views the universe as something close to pure mathematics, with the solid material world as somehow emergent from the mathematical structure. Of course, this does nothing to the truth claims of sciences that work with the more mundane plumbing-level world (like biology). But it does mean we should take common-sensical materialism with at least a grain of salt.

The problem is that none of the weirdness of modern physics can be used to prove anything about God, as most physicists will tell you.

More Chopra:
God, on the other hand, is merely inferred. He's an invisible supposition, and who needs one when we have fossils? The flaw here is subtle, for Dawkins is imagining God in advance and then claiming that what he imagines has little chance of existing. That's perfectly true, but why should God be what Dawkins imagines--a superhuman Creator making life the way a watchmaker makes a watch? Let's say God is closer to being a field of consciousness that pervades the universe.
OK, so God isn't an anthropomorphic person, but some impersonal "field". That's a little bit interesting, but of course Dawkins in his book says he has no problem with an impersonal God that is identical with the laws of nature (the God of Einstein and Spinoza). This isn't quite what Chopra is putting forward -- there's that word "consciousness" confusing things -- but it's close.
Let's say that this field keeps creating new forms within itself. These forms swirl and mix with each other, finding more combinations and complexities as time unfolds. Such a God couldn't be imagined because a field is infinite, and there's nowhere it isn't. Thus trying to talk about God is like a fish trying to talk about wetness. A fish is immersed in wetness; it has nothing to compare water to, and the same is true of consciousness. We are conscious and intelligent, and it does no good to talk about the probability of not being conscious and intelligent.
Woo. Let's say this. OK, the universe certainly is full of mixing and swirling forms. Fair enough. Call the totality of these forms "God". OK, why not? And such a God couldn't be imagined. Fine, I'm still with him here, barely. But then why has Chopra just made six long blog posts that purport to imagine the unimaginable? Does he have superfish powers that let him see the water?

I must say though, this is the point where Chopra's thinking starts to appeal to my own kind of woo. There is something about the universe that makes it structured, orderly, comprehensible and livable, and this "something" seems to elude ordinary science. Thinkers much deeper than Chopra have suggested that space itself is "alive" in some way -- I'm thinking of architect Christopher Alexander, who has published a maddening and fascinating 4-volume treatment of this idea, The Nature of Order. I should be reviewing that, that is the kind of woo that actually might be worth something.

Oh well, onwards with the current project. Here's a cheap rhetorical trick Chopra uses:
For thousands of years human beings have been obsessed by beauty, truth, love, honor, altruism, courage, social relationships, art, and God. They all go together as subjective experiences, and it's a straw man to set God up as the delusion. If he is, then so is truth itself or beauty itself. God stands for the perfection of both, and even if you think truth and beauty (along with love, justice, forgiveness, compassion, and other divine qualities) can never be perfect, to say that they are fantasies makes no sense.
Chopra lumps together a bunch of stuff that seem to him to be somehow above or beyond the material world. He says it's a "straw man to set God up as the delusion" -- not sure what that means, I suspect he is misusing the term "straw man". In fact, it's his concept of materialism that is the straw man -- his materialism is inherently blind, cold, random, and meaningless, so all his good stuff has to come from somewhere else.

Let's look at that list: beauty, truth, love, honor, altruism, courage, social relationships, art, and God. What a mixed bag! They all involve subjective experience, but what doesn't? Denying the existence of God does not imply the existence of art. Biology has quite a bit to say about altruism and social relationships as objective facts. Argh.

You know, I give up. There may be nuggets of truth in all this, but I feel like a street sparrow trying to peck seeds from a steaming pile of horse manure.

This was a failed experiment. Damn. Sorry I wasted my time (and yours).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another obsessed Dawkins robot.