Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Deepak Chopra's Challenge

Deepak Chopra, a well-known spiritualist, does not like physicalism. Physicalism says that everything is physical and can be entirely explained in non-mental terms.  So, according to physicalism, consciousness can ultimately be explained in physical, non-mental terms.  Chopra says this view is an unreasonable dogma, and that it makes much more sense to believe that thoughts are non-physical.  When we think, he says, non-physical phenomena affect the workings of the brain.  To add muscle to his position, he has issued a challenge:  According to the New Statesman, he will award a prize of $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate, in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, that human consciousness is created by the brain.   This is not a challenge to demonstrate that Chopra has misunderstood physics, nor is it an invitation to critique his own arguments about consciousness.  The challenge is to scientifically demonstrate that brains create consciousness.  That's it.  If we cannot meet that challenge, he says, then physicalism is unreasonable.  The supposition is that, if his challenge cannot be met, then his spiritualist view is more reasonable than physicalism.  In fact, Chopra thinks it is more reasonable from a scientific point of view.  He makes two arguments to this effect, but neither of them works.

First, he makes an argument appealing to neuroscience.  He says that we have no evidence of brains creating thought, but we do have evidence of thoughts affecting our brains:  "our thoughts are creating molecules all the time - the chemical makeup of the brain is altered with every thought, feeling, and sensation. That is indisputable."  It is a given that thinking alters brain chemistry.  That does that mean that thought creates molecules.  In any case, despite Chopra's assertion to the contrary, there is evidence of neurological events affecting how we think:  Just notice the effects of drinking a few glasses of wine, or the power of anesthesia.  If anything is indisputable, it is that chemical processes affect our thoughts and can dramatically alter our ability to think clearly, or even at all.  It would be great if Chopra had evidence of non-physical stuff affecting the workings of the brain, but he doesn't.  So why not think that thinking just is electrochemical reactions in the brain?  The physicalist position seems like the simplest explanation and Chopra hasn't given any reason to think it comes up short.

Though the neurological evidence is not on Chopra's side, he also claims to have evidence from physics. His second argument for spiritualism relies on what that New Statesman article describes as "the observer effect":  'Quantum physics's observer effect - whereby observing an event at the quantum level changes the outcome of the event - is taken by Chopra to be proof that he's right about consciousness . . ."  Scientists have questioned his understanding of the physics (e.g., see the article in the link above), but that is not necessary.  Even if we suppose he has correctly understood the physics, his argument does not work.  It is inconsistent.

Chopra claims that non-physical consciousness is responsible for the observer effect.  He denies that the brain, or any other complex physical system, is responsible.  For, if some complex physical system were responsible, then the effect would not be proof of non-physical consciousness.  Chopra would need some additional evidence that it was non-physical consciousness, and not any complex physical system, which was responsible for the observer effect.  Since Chopra has no evidence, he must be assuming that complex physical systems are not necessary for the observer effect.  Thus, Chopra's argument requires the following claim:

          (1) Complex physical systems are not necessary for the observer effect.

The observer effect is the result of the role of the observer in an experimental setting.  Thus,

          (2) Experimental observation is necessary for the observer effect.

Complex physical systems are necessary to make observations in experimental settings.  In addition to the physical properties of the experimental setting, there are also the physical properties of the observer.  So (3) must also be true:

          (3) Complex physical systems are necessary for experimental observation.

From (2) and (3), we can conclude:

          (4) Complex physical systems are necessary for the observer effect.

This contradicts (1).  If we accept that the observer effect is a real phenomenon that occurs when observations are made in experimental settings, then (1) is false.  Chopra must acknowledge that complex physical systems are necessary for the observer effect.  And in that case, he has no reason to think that the observer effect is the result of non-physical causes.  Thus, the argument does not work.

The bottom line is, without evidence of non-physical causes, Chopra's view is not more scientifically reasonable than physicalism.  It is quite possible that physicalism is the simplest option on the table.  This does not prove that physicalism is true.  It does not show how brains or any other complex physical systems might create consciousness, either.  However, it does show that Chopra does not have an argumentative leg to stand on.