Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Chopra v. Dawkins

Here is an interesting commentary on Richard Dawkins by Deepak Chopra, and the following is my take on where and how Chopra gets it wrong.

For starters, Chopra gives a poor and tendentious rendering of Dawkins' view of 'randomness' -- Dawkins does not imply or assert that the universe or humans exist because we (in effect) beat the odds against a 747 assembling from the stirring of a gigantic vat of junkyard refuse. Dawkins has refuted this caricature of evolution science countless times in print, including in his latest book, The God Delusion, and once in book length, with Climbing Mount Improbable. This is not his view; the theory of natural selection depends on the opposite of 'randomness.' But I won't belabor that.

Chopra also understates how many and with what earnestness people the world over -- not just Christian fundamentalists but Islamic fundamentalists and exacting adherents of Judaism -- believe in a 'personal god.' They may drop that phrasing when decked in their best philosophical finery, so as not to be embarrassed by their more sophisticated associates in the faculty lounge, but that's the belief system. Jesus, Allah, Muhammad, Jehovah, Buddha, Vishnu, Krishna, Zeus and the rest are gods-as-men or men-as-gods, notwithstanding the dust kicked up under the rubrics of theology, apologetics, commentaries, and tradition. This is how their most fervent devotees conceive these beings, and how they come out upon any fair reading of their background works. The being labeled god (and variants) is a very person-like one who makes demands and proclamations that resonate on an everyday human level -- love thy neighbor, don't disbelieve, don't practice witchcraft, don't fornicate, don't eat pigs, don’t eat cows, treat others as you would be treated, etc. These instructions do not come from a 'field' or an 'emergent consciousness' but a rule-making king or father figure.

Fundamentally, Chopra is playing a game of equivocation with the word 'consciousness', using it to carry the same weight of ineffable mystery for which previous thinkers have used words like 'transcendence,' 'logos,' 'karma,' and 'holy spirit' and the like. Substitute 'holy spirit' everywhere Chopra uses 'consciousness,' and it will not alter the substance of what he's saying (and failing to spell out), although it will layer on Christian connotations he does not intend. Into the gaps he wants to insert 'consciousness' rather than 'god' or 'fate' or 'the flying spaghetti monster,' but the move is no less arbitrary and empty.

I agree with Chopra that it seems reductionist (in some nasty sense of the term) to pare human thought and feeling to the motions of particles. For whatever it's worth, Dawkins does not do this -- he's a zoologist, not a particle physicist. But the disquieting feelings created by materialistic reductionism don't make it false. Chopra points out that atoms are almost 100% empty space. Does it follow that a baseball is not made of atoms since a baseball is not (in any apparent or practical sense) almost 100% empty space? Does it follow that we should look to empty space as the best working model of the physical properties of a baseball? No and No! Once we depart from our world of human-scale phenomena and engage this sort of question -- how does what I observe about X boil down to the motions of subatomic particles? -- we enter very shaky ground, because intuition and our relative lack of understanding of subatomic particles leaves a lot of room for speculation and mystery. Tiny particles are extremely weird! It is a fallacy to expect subatomic particles to fit our intuitions in the same way that breadbox-sized items do, and when they do not, to declare that subatomic particles can't possibly be at the root of things. (Whether explanations need to go all the way to the subatomic level to validate materialism is a further question. I say this demand is made in bad faith.)

Dawkins directly addresses this fallacy of scale in, among other works, The God Delusion, supposedly the book to which Chopra is responding. Chopra is offering nothing more than a bias here, a well-traveled one that has interfered with scientific insight time and time again, other clear examples being heliocentrism and plate techtonics. These scientific theories are bodies of counterintuitive claims belied by commonplace, straight observation. And yet they're true, and we know it to be so. One day, thanks to the same kind of rigorous scientific work that has brought us all of our "streak of lightning cars and fancy clothes" -- not to mention the internets, air travel, cures for diseases, and the unweaving of genomes -- we will crack the mind-body relationship, and maybe with that will come a real purchase on what we mean by the word 'consciousness.' The end result may prove to be beyond the grasp (not to say the reach) of non-specialists, and more likely, will strike most non-specialists as spectacularly arcane and boring in the same way as the most advanced forms of math and physics. But if humankind gets there, it will be via the scientific method, not through hand-waving about mysteries and certainly not through prayer. If we do discover that consciousness turns out to be the fundamental unit of everything in the cosmos, then Chopra will be credited, rightly, for having somehow seen this in advance of the science.

Incidentally, as I read him, Chopra would agree with much of what I've said above. He does not dismiss science in favor of muddy mysticism, and I credit him for that. But he does create space for that kind of thinking.

By way of further reading, it is worth noting that David Hume long ago did away with the hypothesis that consciousness precedes all existence -- if not falsifying it outright, doing it irreversible damage as a notion that can help anyone understand anything. He did so in depth; it was the view of Demea, one of the three personas in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. You can still read that without being hanged these days, and you should!


Levi said...

Well said. I've been having friendly conversations about religion with a friend at work who is a Chopra fan. He knows I was into The God Delusion, so he asked if I had read Chopra's refutation. I found it, printed out all 12 pages, and covered them with red ink. It's child's play to dismantle all the New Age b.s. It's also pretty fun.

I'll give it to my friend and see where the conversation goes from there.

Dale said...

Thanks for stopping by, Levi. Let me know if anything interesting comes out of it.