The Trouble with Deepak Chopra, Part 3: More Choprawoo

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgAs I mentioned on Friday, I’m in Chicago right now attending the American College of Surgeons annual meeting, where I’ll be until Wednesday afternoon, and may not be able to post anything new before Thursday afternoon or Friday. If there are any of my readers who happen to be surgeons attending the meeting, drop me a line and maybe we can get together. In the meantime, here’s a blast from the past from the past. This post first reared its ugly head almost exactly three years ago; so if you haven’t been reading at least three years, it’s new to you.

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.