UPDATE: Write-up of the event and pictures are now posted.
On Friday, June 4th, our fair city of Vancouver will receive author and spiritual guru Dr. Deepak Chopra, speaking at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre downtown. Vancouver’s Centre for Inquiry will be present before Dr. Chopra’s show on Friday to encourage audience members to think carefully about the claims that Dr. Chopra makes. We will be handing out flyers with some specific information to help get the wheels of thought turning, and answering any questions that we can. Here’s a few answers to questions you might have:
Who is Deepak Chopra?
Dr. Chopra is a trained medical doctor who began practicing transcendental mediation in the 1980s and since then has become a prolific writer and speaker. Some of his favourite topics of discussion are supernatural claims about the human mind, the intelligence of DNA, and the philosophy of “quantum consciousnes” – an attempt to introduce mysticism and metaphysical concepts into quantum physics. As someone with a background in medicine, Dr. Chopra spends a great deal of time discussing how his ideas are applied to human health, including the power of positive belief and the harmonizing of multiple “selves”.
Why are Deepak Chopra’s ideas wrong?
It is important to make the point that not all of Dr. Chopra’s ideas are “wrong” as such. Dr. Chopra advocates expanding human awareness to include the interactions between the body and the mind. Dr. Chopra says that the world is made up of interconnected systems that cannot be fully understood by just looking at one piece of the puzzle. These are perfectly reasonable ideas – human existence and the world in general are more complicated than can be explained by looking at only one facet. However, Dr. Chopra takes these ideas and stretches them far beyond reason, creating entirely unobserved (and indeed, fundamentally unobservable) forces and phenomena. To give credibility to these ideas, he borrows phrases from various scientific and pseudo-scientific concepts and attempts to explain them that way.
- Quantum consciousness
“If you go to the very fundamental levels of activity in nature, you find that nature is a discontinuity; and even though our perception of the universe is that it is continuous, it is in fact going on and off at the speed of light.” – D. Chopra
Dr. Chopra is a great fan of quantum physics, due to its central tenet of uncertainty. Basically, quantum physics posits that at the atomic level it is not possible to determine the absolute position of an electron (incredibly tiny packets of energy that orbit around the nucleus of an atom), only the probability that it will occupy a given space. Furthermore, subatomic particles like electrons seem to “disappear” and “reappear” at different points in their orbits. From this phenomenon (observed, incidentally, using the scientific method), Dr. Chopra concludes that human consciousness exists independently of the “off and on”, and that explanations using forces in the observed world (the “on”) neglect the influence of unobserved things (the “off”). While it sounds like a nice idea, Dr. Chopra is conducting what is known as an “argument from ignorance” – we don’t know how something works, so we bring in supernatural forces as an attempt to “explain” it. The problem with this type of thinking is that any made up idea is equally possible, since there is no way to test it. Is Dr. Chopra’s theory about consciousness correct? We have no way of knowing, since his explanation invents forces that are by definition unknowable. However, in creating a theory for thought and existence based on a flawed understanding of the subatomic world (somewhat similar to saying that we can’t trust election results because we didn’t look at all the brain cells of the individual voters), we can be reasonably sure that whatever the answer to the question of consciousness is, Deepak Chopra doesn’t have it.
- Biological science
“But arch materialism is just as superstitious as religion. Someone like (Richard) 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.” – D. Chopra
Dr. Chopra is deeply misinformed when it comes to biology and evolution. Evolution is not the random collision of solid objects, nor is it the random progression from lower levels of complexity to increased levels of complexity. Evolution refers to the process by which forces in the external environment (for example, food shortages or changes in weather patterns) seem to “favour” certain expression of genetic mutations in a species’ population, leading to increased reproductive success of some individuals. Evolution is a process which has been observed in daily life (for example, antibiotic-resistant bacteria), in human history (the selective breeding of certain types of plants to make hardier fruits and vegetables, the domestication of dogs from the wolf), and natural history (patterns of types of life seen in fossil records). Since we know evolution to be certainly true, it is a useful way to hypothesize the origins of life on Earth without needing to rely on other explanations for which there is less (or no) empirical proof.
- The human mind
“It’s my personal conviction that the brain was created by consciousness. There is no other viable explanation, because our current explanation, that the human brain evolved through random mutations, simply doesn’t hold water.” – D. Chopra
Once again, Dr. Chopra is deeply misinformed about the way that the brain and mind work. While he holds personal convictions that the brain is the creation of a “mind” process, he offers no evidence to support it other than the fact that it’s more complicated than he can understand. The problem with using the argument from ignorance is that you’re not allowed to simply invent whatever explanation you want. Most of us don’t know (in fullness) how the stock market works. We are more than happy to accept our ignorance and talk about the actions of “the market”, which is a euphamism for an incredibly complicated system. Many would agree that nobody really knows why “the market” does what it does. We are happy to use this slang term, understanding that it stands for the input of millions of people operating for any number of different reasons. Dr. Chopra would have us believe that “the market” is a real entity that exists beyond the observable world and influences the price of stocks. Would you trust an investment broker who told you that concentrating your positive thoughts on “the market” will cause your stock prices to change? Probably not. Once again, Deepak Chopra doesn’t have real answers to the complicated questions that make up the universe.
Why do we care about Deepak Chopra?
If he’s just another kook with wacky ideas, why bother paying him any attention at all? Why not just let him sell his books and have his talks? The problem is, he’s not just another kook. Deepak Chopra’s books sell millions of copies. He is featured frequently on the Huffington Post and on Oprah’s website. Tickets for this Friday’s event range from $115 to $200 per person. He is taking millions of dollars from people and giving them falsehoods in return. He is taking the hard work of dedicated scientists, doctors, and legitimate philosophers and distorting them to sell merchandise. In any other field we would call such a practice fraud. However, because of his high profile and the elusive nature of his claims, we instead call it “alternative medicine” or “mysticism”.
Because of his celebrity, people trust Deepak Chopra without closely examining the things he says. Since most people don’t completely understand quantum physics, biology, neurology, or medicine, they fail to see the glaring holes in the logic of Dr. Chopra’s claims. When he tells people that their bodies are products of their consciousness, that disease is an imbalance between the consciousness and the body, and that problems like cancer can be fixed with positive thinking, people trust that he knows what he is talking about. However, Dr. Chopra has no evidence whatsoever that the things he says are true. They might be (although with his flawed understanding of science, they likely aren’t), but he has offered no reasons to support them, merely relying on the fact that “we don’t know everything”. People abandon the treatments where the risks and benefits are known and have been tested for a system of thought which makes it your fault if you are sick and don’t get better. This is wildly unethical and totally ineffective.
Deepak Chopra in Vancouver
As skeptics, we think it’s important to challenge the pseudoscience and outright falsehoods that will be foisted on the audience on Friday. While Dr. Chopra has made his dislike for skeptics and scientific inquiry quite clear, on more than one occasion in fact, it is clear that like quantum physics, biology, neurology, and human physiology, Dr. Chopra is profoundly mistaken (or indeed misinformed) about what skepticism actually is. Far from merely being nay-sayers who villify those who “peer into the unknown” (many skeptics are astronomers, the archetype for peering into the unknown), skeptics are those who encourage the deliberate and careful appraisal of things we see in the world.
Skeptics know that the universe is a complex and beautiful place, filled with profound questions and mysteries. Human beings are curious and want real answers to those questions, and have discovered a method for discovering useful and practical explanations for many of these quandaries. It is by the application of this method, for example, that we know the cause of infectious disease isn’t an imbalance of bile; or a flux of “humours”; or the will of the wrathful gods. This method allowed us to travel to the moon, rather than seeing it as a giant eye that opens and closes once a month. This method produced computers, medicine, electricity, food, and any number of the things we take for granted that make our daily lives possible. It is by this method, and by this method alone, that we can separate facts from fiction. We observe, we test, we try to disprove, and at the end of this process we make our decisions based on what we see to be true. It is the skeptical position that claims about the universe, about the mind, about human health, about anything in the natural world should be subject to the same type of scrutiny that we use for anything else.
If, like us, you believe that science and medicine get the best results when they are based on evidence, not simply ideas dressed up in “sciency” clothes; if you want to see people given real answers to the fundamental questions of the universe; if you think that people with flawed ideas shouldn’t be allowed to take money from unsuspecting people, please join us on Friday as we try to encourage people to THINK about what’s being said. We’re starting at the Vancouver Public Library, and will be passing out flyers and answering questions between 6:00 and 7:30 as people arrive for the show.