I tried not to do it. I really did.
I tried to resist the temptation to respond to Deepak Chopra’s latest incursions into woo as he flailed futilely at Richard Dawkins’ arguments for science. Fortunately, PZ Myers and MarkCC have been around to take down his idiocy. But then I thought about it Why should they have all the fun? Besides, the discussion I’ve been having over the last week or so about the infiltration of pseudoscientific woo into the nation’s medical schools and its promotion by medical students is just way too depressing. I needed to switch topics, although I’m not sure that wading through the idiocy that is a typical Chopra “argument” will do anything to lift my spirits. (It’s almost as depressing to see such a panoply of bad arguments, straw men, and brain dead logic as it is to see medical schools, which should be bastions of scientific and evidence-based medicine, being infiltrated with woo.)
And, then, wouldn’t you know it? Deepak Chopra goes and flings a lot more Choprawoo all over the place. This time, the woo comes in the form of part 3 of his squeaking at Dawkins, a little piece called The God Delusion? Part 3 (also here). I don’t know how Chopra is capable of so many strawmen and so much bad reasoning while at the same time being able to speak and write semicoherently, but somehow he pulls it off. Naturally, he begins with a big fat, well-stuffed straw man:
This bring us to another major point for Dawkins.
3. 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. The notion that Dawkins stands for progress while religion stands for anti-progress may be true in a broad social sense. Nobody would pick a Baptist preacher to lead the human genome project.
But arch materialism is just as superstitious as religion. Someone like Dawkins still believes there are solid objects randomly colliding to haphazardly form more and more complex objects, until over the course of billions of years the universe produced human DNA with its billions of genetic bits.
Ack! How many times can Chopra misstate what evolutionary theory is? Repeat after me, Deepak, yet one more time:
EVOLUTION IS NOT RANDOM!
I have to wonder if Chopra even bothered to read The God Delusion. Evolution may rely on randomness as the raw material upon which natural selection and other selective forces act, but as Dawkins tries to explain time and time again in his book, natural selection provides the direction to evolution. Heck, he even wrote a book called Climbing Mount Improbable, which was dedicated to explaining how natural selection can, through the selection for tiny changes over many generations, overcome improbability and lead to complexity, and he discusses this very concept extensively in The God Delusion. The fact that Chopra keeps repeating such strawmen about Dawkins’ viewpoint tells me one of two things: Either he hasn’t bothered to read The God Delusion, or he has read it and he’s just dumb as a rock and unable to understand what was in it. (The two are not mutually exclusive, of course.)
Nor has modern physics “overthrown materialism.” Far from it. To interpret quantum mechanics and modern physics that way is ridiculous. Physics still relies upon the observation of natural phenomena to develop theories that allow physicists to predict their behavior. Indeed, one of the biggest criticisms of string theory, for instance, is that it’s not really testable by measuring natural phenomena (at least not yet). Referring to materialism (arch or otherwise) as being as “superstitious as religion” is a classic example of the tu quoque fallacy, except that Chopra doesn’t even have a point when he labels materialism as a superstition.
The Choprawoo gets worse, though. Much worse:
What’s wrong with this argument is that if you trace DNA down to its individual atoms, each is more than 99.9999% empty space. If you take an individual electron, it has no fixed position in either time or space. Rather, ghostly vibrations wink in and out of the universe thousands of times per second, and what lies beyond the boundary of the five senses holds enormous mysteries.
Enough mysteries, in fact, to be consistent with God. I don’t mean a personal God or a mythic one or any God with a human face. Set aside all images of God. What we observe once we get over the superstition of materialism (a superstition Dawkins defends to the last degree) is that random chance is one of the worst ways to explain how the universe evolved.
Great. It’s another God of the Gaps argument, except this time the “gaps” include both gaps in our knowledge and the “gap” of the empty space between electrons and nuclei. (Maybe we should add to that the gaps between Chopra’s few remaining neurons.) Yep, because most atoms are mostly empty space, because electrons travel in waves around atoms, and because there are a lot of “mysteries” out there, that means the explanation for those mysteries must be some sort of “God.” Only it’s not the traditional Christian God that we’re all used to hearing the religious invoke as the “Designer” who guided evolution. Oh, no. Chopra’s too “sophisticated” in his woo to settle for an anthropomorphic God like Jehovah, Allah, or Jesus. Rather, it’s Chopra’s version of “God,” which, apparently, is is some sort of vague and indescribable (at least by Chopra) “consciousness of the universe.” After abusing science, such as the anthropic principle, fallacious uses of quantum theory, and the wave function of electrons, Chopra concludes with a truly astounding flourish of ignorant twaddle:
The ability of objects and events to be everywhere at once seems like an attribute of God–omnipresence. The ability of electrons separated by millions of light years to ‘talk’ to each other seems like another attribute of God–omniscience. This doesn’t mean that God explains the universe. It means that there may be governing forces at work which allow the existence of universal consciousness. The self-aware universe is a plausible theory. Many writers have described it, although Dawkins disdains such theories.
If the universe is self-aware, it would explain the formation of a self-replicating molecule like DNA far more elegantly than the clumsy, crude mechanism of random chance. As the astronomer Fred Hoyle declared (Hoyle was one of the first to seize on the notion of an expanding universe in the 1950s), the probability that random chance created life is roughly the same as the probability that a hurricane could blow through a junkyard and create a Boeing 707.
Don’t you get it? Because objects and events are, like, everywhere, man and because matter is made up of, like, mostly empty space, man, the universe must be self-aware! (Pass another joint, please.) Give me a break. It’s possible that it could mean that, but far more likely it’s just a manifestation of physical forces that we haven’t yet figured out, just like so many other natural phenomena that we once ascribed to God or magic. And, gee, Chopra credulously regurgitates one of the grandest, oldest, biggest, and most idiotic misrepresentations of evolutionary theory there is, the old “hurricane blowing through a junkyard and creating a 707” canard about abiogenesis and evolution. It’s a canard that’s so painfully easy to debunk that Chopra should hide his head in shame for daring to repeat it.
Except that, as we now know, Chopra has no shame.
What’s so irritating is that Chopra’s concept of God (or God-like universal consciousness) seems so vague and ill-defined as to be utterly irrelevant to the study of physical phenomena, since there appears to be no way ever to prove or disprove its existence. Moreover, unlike the Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim God, it doesn’t care about us, doesn’t answer prayers, and apparently, after somehow having mysteriously caused the formation of matter and DNA, just sits there doing, in essence, nothing. The “consciousness” that Chopra invokes is nothing more than a woo-filled pseudoscientific construct designed to make Chopra and like-minded New Agers feel better about themselves and their place in the universe. Whether or not such a God (or “consciousness”) actually exists, invoking it to explain, for example, evolution or quantum mechanical effects that we can’t yet explain fully, is, in practical terms at least, a useless exercise, because it won’t help us to understand the universe any better than good, old-fashioned science.
That it regularly grants woo-meisters like Deepak Chopra and mercury militia enablers like David Kirby and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (both of whom push the now scientifically discredited notion that mercury in the thimerosal preservative used in childhood vaccines causes autism) a prominent forum to spout their pseudoscience is the main reason that I have little but contempt for The Huffington Post.