Deepak Chopra and Intent

Deepak Chopra and Intent

Getting Real About Brain Science—A Challenge to the Current Model

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By Deepak Chopra, MD and Bernardo Kastrup, PhD

 

It’s time to make up our minds about the brain.  Every day, it seems, neuroscience announces new findings that uncover more and more of the brain’s secrets. The day cannot be far off, we are told, when the deepest mystery of all—how the brain produces consciousness—will be solved. At the risk of raining on everyone’s parade, such a claim may be entirely wrong. Let’s see why.

 

A recent paper, published in the prestigious journal Cell , poses a central question: “Why does a relentless stream of experiences normally fill your mind?” No one in neuroscience claims to have the answer—yet.  This is a very familiar “yet,” a promissory note that says, “Stay tuned. Once we have enough data, consciousness will be explained once and for all.” This promise is the whole point of the Cell article, which sets its sights against the notion that consciousness is a “miracle” whose explanation is ultimately outside scientific investigation. It argues that by using a more sophisticated understanding of brain function, today’s progress will turn into tomorrow’s solution (the authors speak, for example, of awareness arising as the product of “a reciprocal exchange of information across multiple areas in the cerebral cortex.”)

 

If such steady progress is being made, why was it necessary to write an article defending the whole area of brain research as the key to unraveling the mind? Because the most basic assumption of neuroscience, the platform that supports all the talk about information, neuronal signals, activity in the cortex—literally the whole shebang—is wobbly. Everyone is assuming that the brain produces the mind in the first place. Knocking down this assumption isn’t likely to be funded by the federal government the way it is funneling $100 million into the Brain Activity Map. The only proof that the brain=mind assumption is wrong comes from philosophy, which most scientists, including brain scientists, dismiss out of hand.

 

How can thinking about the mind be better than gathering hard facts about the brain? Because data only has meaning given a certain way of seeing it. This point was made in the one book almost every college student reads (if they read any) in the philosophy of science, Thomas J. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962. Kuhn shattered the notion of objective progress in science by arguing that given their starting assumptions, every scientific scheme for explaining Nature—what he called a paradigm—is right on its own terms.

 

This seminal insight went back to 1947 when Kuhn, then a graduate student at Harvard, was wrestling with how wrong Aristotle had been. Aristotelian physics was the first systematic explanation of Nature in mechanical terms, the cornerstone of Western science that made Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein possible. And yet a brilliant mind like Aristotle’s arrived at completely wrong conclusions about such basic things as why objects fall to earth or what heat is. Suddenly Kuhn had an epiphany: what we call Aristotle’s mistakes in fact weren’t mistakes. If you accept the starting assumptions behind Aristotelian physics, its description of Nature was valid.

 

Kuhn seemed to be saying that Aristotle was just as right as Newton, which to most people, including probably every scientist, makes no sense. In our time, the acceptance of scientific progress is all but universal, and the triumphs of modern technology are undeniable. Yet no one has rebutted Kuhn’s point that we view Nature through our own paradigm, our worldview, and that the history of science is a constant stream of shifting paradigms, one after another.  There is no way to step outside the paradigm you totally believe in.

 

But what if our current paradigm happens to be absolutely right? A Theory of Everything has been on the horizon for decades, and we are told that it’s only a matter of time before the theory is complete. Kuhn’s point is that an absolutely correct theory, no matter how much data you feed into it, cannot be achieved. All you can achieve is the fulfillment of the paradigm you believe in. Eventually problems will arise that cannot be solved without shattering the present paradigm so that a new one can be formed.

 

The authors of the Cell article, along with the entire field of neuroscience, anchor their faith on the starting assumption that the mind must be explainable through the brain.  They are turning their backs, then, on what the philosophy of science teaches.

  1. Theories are right about what they include and wrong about what they exclude.
  2. There is no such thing as direct, objective proof about any theory of existence (known in philosophy as ontology).
  3. Data has no meaning unless it is interpreted, and interpretations are bound by the observer’s starting assumptions.

These three points are enough to level the playing field when it comes to competing worldviews and scientific paradigms. In a word, everyone has a story, and everyone believes their story. Even contradictory stories can be valid and fit the same data. This startling conclusion applies to any situation where competing stories are told: marriages when they break apart, defendants protesting their innocence in court, and the most sophisticated theories in science. Sticking to your story convinces you that you’re telling the truth when in fact you are just defending a way of seeing.

 

The starting assumption of neuroscience, that brain=mind, is particularly weak, but that’s the nature of paradigms as they start to crumble around the edges. Their proponents defend them more stoutly. There is absolutely no data to indicate that neurons can think; they merely light up on an fMRI as thinking occurs, which isn’t the same thing. You could construct a setup so that a 100-watt bulb lights up over your head every time you have a bright idea, but that doesn’t mean the light bulb caused the idea. Neuroscience ignores this obvious flaw when it arrives at the same false conclusion, using neurons instead of a light bulb.

 

The current state of confidence in neuroscience powerfully illustrates the inability of many scientists to step out of a particular way of seeing, regardless of how limited or problematic it may have become. Has science been making progress in understanding consciousness as an outcome of brain function? The authors of the Cell article think so, pointing to promising recent empirical results, all the while ignoring the fact that their interpretation of these results is entirely based on assumptions about the underlying nature of matter, metabolism, and consciousness itself. Thus the authors appear to take for granted that matter exists fundamentally outside consciousness; that metabolism is a purely material process; and that consciousness is somehow generated by metabolism. Were they to set aside their hidden assumptions and look again at the very same results, very different – and no less valid – conclusions could be extracted.

 

To give a simple example: It is assumed that when a person sees a red apple, the red light is real, in the sense that it exists outside our awareness. Moreover, one can point to activity in the visual cortex when the wavelengths of light corresponding to red strike the retina and get transmitted along the optic nerve. With precise, minute examination, the specific neurons that process color can be described in detail.  And there you have it, a red apple is seen as a red apple.

 

It would baffle many neuroscientists to be told that nothing in this chain of reasoning actually tells us how the color red is perceived in our minds. To begin with, the redness of an apple doesn’t exist independently in Nature. To quote the eminent British neurologist Sir John Eccles, “I want you to realize that there exists no color in the natural world, and no sound – nothing of this kind; no textures, no patterns, no beauty, no scent.” Without a human observer, redness has no existence, nor any other quality we perceive “out there” in the world. This criticism of materialism is bolstered by another realization: No one has made the slightest progress in showing how the brain, a totally dark place filled with electrical and chemical activity, produces the sensation of light, including its colors. Photons are invisible. The quality of brightness is a mental creation. The brain isn’t bright; the visual cortex doesn’t contain a photo album of the images you see; the movie in your mind is projected on no physical screen.

 

The only thing that keeps alive the promise that the brain will one day explain consciousness is neuroscience’s blindness to any explanation other than the one assumed to be true in advance.  The latest experiments in quantum physics have rendered all but untenable the notion that reality exists outside consciousness. (See Kim, Y.-H. et al. (2000) “A Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser,” described in detail in a Wikipedia entry devoted to it. An even stronger stand is taken by Gröblacher, S. et al. in “An experimental test of non-local realism,” which physicsworld.com discussed under the header “quantum physics says goodbye to reality.”). If all of reality is in consciousness, then obviously the brain – as part of reality – is also in consciousness, not consciousness in the brain. As such, a different way of seeing is required under which the brain is merely the image of particular processes in consciousness;the brain is not the generator of consciousness.

 

We said that the same data about the brain can be fruitfully interpreted through a new way of seeing, or what Kuhn would call a new paradigm. The next post in this series will explain how a new interpretation might work.  Until mind comes first, neuroscience is like a car speeding downhill, exhilarated by the ride but not seeing the brick wall it’s heading toward around the next bend.

 

(To be cont.)

 

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing.

 

Bernardo Kastrup has a Ph.D. in Computer Engineering and has worked as a scientist in some of the world’s foremost research laboratories, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Philips Research Laboratories (where the “Casimir Effect” of Quantum Field Theory was discovered). He has authored many scientific papers and four philosophy books: Rationalist Spirituality, Dreamed up Reality, Meaning in Absurdity, and Why Materialism Is Baloney. This latter book is a grand synthesis of his metaphysical views. Bernardo has also been an entrepreneur and founder of two high-tech businesses. Today, he holds a managerial position in the high-tech industry. In parallel, he maintains a philosophy blog, an audio/video podcast, and continues to develop his ideas about the nature of reality. Bernardo has lived and worked in four different countries across continents. He currently resides in the Netherlands.

A Better Way to Approach Pain, and America’s Pain-Pill Epidemic

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By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP, and P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina

 

You may have noticed headlines about the rise of prescription drugs as a major cause of addiction and death by overdose. Pain pills are overshadowed by illegal drugs like heroin and their dangers masked by a certain air of respectability. Yet America is in the midst of an epidemic of painkiller overuse as well as addiction. As a nation we constitute only about 5% of the world’s population, but we consume some 80% of the prescription drugs called opioids, the strongest and most addictive pain pills, that go by names like Vicodin, OxyContin, Dilaudid, codeine, and Percocet. We consume 99% of the global supply of a particular opioid called hydrocodone, which is used in combination with other drugs for pain relief but also cough suppression. In 2014 the FDA approved a new version of a pure hydrocodone despite the objections of its own medical advisory panel (which voted 12 to 2 against approval) and 30 states. Today opioid overdose deaths (one every 30 minutes) exceed deaths from motor vehicle accidents as well as the combined total of deaths by heroin or cocaine overdose.

How did we get here? The pain-relieving properties of opium have been known for thousands of years, but because of its dangerous side effects and addictive properties, it has generally been reserved for more severe forms of acute pain. This changed in the mid-90s when doctors became more lax about prescribing opioids over a longer period of time. Pharmaceutical companies launched marketing campaigns, and medical use of opioids in the US increased tenfold over the next two decades. This was a gamble between relieving the pain of patients and the risk of overuse, a gamble that obviously hasn’t paid off. Mounting evidence suggests that long-term opioid drug use triggers a vicious circle of continued pain and addiction. Citing the predictability of such an outcome, some counties in California and Illinois have sued the makers of opioid drugs for misinformation campaigns.

Pain has become the most common reason that people see doctors–more than 100 million Americans are reported to suffer from chronic pain, a number that exceeds the combined total of people suffering from diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia and stroke. Is there another way to resolve chronic pain besides the disastrous course we’re on?

The first step toward an alternative is to view pain as a mind-body experience that is highly subjective. As such it can often be approached through a phenomenon called “self-efficacy.” The brain contains many pain-relieving chemicals, and these can be triggered mentally, which is why taking a placebo leads to pain relief in a significant proportion of people. (The reverse is also true through the nocebo effect, where a harmless substance induces pain or fails to relieve it when the subject is told that this is the expected outcome.)

In a related example, people who thought they were getting expensive pain pills reported more pain relief than those who thought they were getting generic drugs even though both groups were given the same inactive placebo. Likewise, bigger placebo pills work better than smaller ones, and injected placebos work better than oral ones. In all of these findings, subjects are unwittingly calling upon the self-regulation of pain.

Nor is this just the mind playing a trick of us. Brain scans show that a placebo, when effective, changes the brain in the same way as do active pills, and these changes can be found in the spinal cord, not just the brain. The implications are strong for chronic pain over an extended period, too. Studies in arthritis patients have shown that the placebo effect can last over two years. In sum, self-efficacy is more powerful and more long-lasting than is generally realized, even among physicians.

If you suffer from chronic pain, where did it originate? Our latest understanding is that about half of our pain sensitivity is thought to be genetically determined and the other half by a mixture of variables: cultural and religious background, mood, past experiences with pain, and the surroundings (e.g. having a good support structure or not). Women feel pain differently from men, even as newborns, and are more likely to report painful medical conditions. African Americans tolerate experimental pain less than Whites, perhaps due to greater vigilance.

Some astonishing recent experiments at Oxford University have shown us a new way to treat pain using the inverted microscope, an instrument makes objects look smaller. The researchers showed that when people viewed their injured hands through an inverted microscope, they experienced less pain and even reduced swelling. What we see modulates how much pain we feel, more evidence that pain originates in the mind.

The point is that subjectivity plays a key role in the degree of pain each of us feels from the same stimulus. As the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius noted in the second century A.D., “if you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” That’s why a child who’s about to have some blood drawn can be distracted with a new toy and feel no pain, and why long-distance runners can work through their pain from a desire to win. Pain can thus serve as a strengthening activity, the “no pain, no gain” motto of athletes.

Religion and spiritual background play their part, too. Researchers at Oxford University used brain scans to study how religious beliefs affect the pain response. Subjects were shown either an image of the Virgin Mary by a 17th-century Italian painter or a nonreligious painting by Da Vinci (Lady with an Ermine). After looking at each image for half a minute, they were given mild electric shocks and asked to rate their pain. Devout Catholics and atheists responded to pain similarly after seeing the Da Vinci painting, but devout believers rated their pain lower after seeing the Virgin Mary. Brain scans showed that the devout Catholics were engaging more of their ventromedial cortex, a brain region known to be involved in the placebo effect, which apparently made their pain less threatening.

In Hinduism pain affects the body, arising from a person’s karma, but it doesn’t touch the soul or higher self. In the Bhagavad-Gita Lord Krishna tells the warrior Arjuna that “weapons do not cut it, fire does not burn it…the self is indestructible and timeless.” An understanding that all pain is temporary gives believers mental strength to put it in proper context and to cope without falling into depression or self-blame. The nonreligious can achieve similar levels of coping through mindfulness, yoga or various forms of meditation. A 2011 randomized controlled three-month study of Iyengar yoga in 313 patients with back pain showed that how their backs functioned at 3, 6, and 12 months was superior to the usual medical-care group if they took up yoga.

Love is another potent pain reliever. Studies have shown that a 20-second hug can relieve pain and stress as effectively as prescription drugs; it also acts on nerve cells to release pain-relieving brain chemicals such as oxytocin and endorphins.

The upshot is that pain management has come a long way since the era when the placebo effect was shrugged off by most doctors as “not real medicine.” Placebos trigger a person’s own brain to relieve pain, but this happens unwittingly–the element of self-deception is present. Removing this element ruins the placebo effect, but it opens the way for conscious, self-aware techniques. Clearly we are not suggesting that anyone should take pain lightly or that you should treat any medical pain entirely on your own. No one should stop taking prescription opioid painkillers abruptly, either. What we are suggesting is that the long-term solution to America’s opioid drug epidemic lies in changing the self-efficacy environment. Painkillers should come after a patient has explored the power of the mind-body connection, keeping up the search for the best and most efficacious techniques. The field of self-care is burgeoning, and pain should become a central part of that if we want to end our dependency on drugs whose prolonged overuse is so dire.

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing.

Take a moment to check out ‘Self Directed Biological Transformation Initiative – SBTI’ on Indiegogo and share it with your friends. Get perks, make a contribution, or simply follow updates. If enough of us get behind it, we can make ‘Self Directed Biological Transformation Initiative - SBTI happen!

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Naïve Realism, Or the Strange Case of Physics and Fake Philosophers (Part 2)

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By Deepak Chopra, MD and Menas Kafatos,PhD

 

Scientists have assigned  the role of Mister Answer to science, the source of knowledge on every subject. This is peculiar because science does not accept a complete body of knowledge at any one time as final, therefore no answer can be final. This is how science progresses. Scientists though often forget that and they go on as if their current knowledge is all there is to know. By the very nature of science, some subjects are beyond science. Does this mean they are beyond knowing? That’s a tricky and at times disturbing question.  Doubts arise on many fronts. Can science tell us what it means to be human, or how molecules developed the ability to think, as they seem to do in the brain? These are questions that science was never meant to be able to answer. It does not mean they are not valid and fundamental. However, the most troubling issue is whether science can continue to perform its most basic function, describing the nature of reality. As we saw in the first post of this series, there’s every indication that reality is becoming more mysterious, not less, as one probes deeper into it.

 

Some leading scientists are on record dismissing philosophy as “junk,” “useless,” and “an obstacle to progress,” because philosophy consists purely of thinking while science produces hard facts, experiments, and provable findings. Yet in its disdain for so-called “metaphysics,” these scientists  have become over confident. It turns out that there are three areas where philosophy is likely to resurge in a new guise, bringing answers about reality that all of us need to know, including the most advanced scientists.

 

The first area has to do with how we know what we know, which is called epistemology. How do you know a rock is hard and heavy, the sun is hot, and a red rose is red? You use the five senses, which seem to be trustworthy in the everyday world.  This trust is called naïve realism, and as the first post revealed, the five senses are totally untrustworthy in the quantum domain.  The fact that a rock can be reduced to a cloud of vibrating energy that in turn is only describable as a smear of probabilities knocks naïve realism off its pedestal.  Even more devastating is the fact that the brain, which we rely on to know everything about the world, isn’t a privileged object. Like a rock, it too can also ultimately be reduced to a smear of probabilities, undercutting our assumption that what the brain reports is true knowledge.

 

Neuroscience is entirely based on the premise that the brain can do things a rock cannot do, yet if the brain and a rock are embedded in the same quantum domain, where did the brain acquire its ability to know anything? What is the difference between the elementary particles in a rock from the elementary particles in a brain? None whatsoever. Brain scientists would argue that it is the incredible complexity of the brain that makes it different but incredible complexity in machines created by man does not make them capable of even the tiniest of thought, or feeling for that matter. Science has offered no credible answer, and the vast majority of scientists would be baffled by the possibility that the brain doesn’t in fact know anything, any more than a rock does. Rather, it’s the mind, using the brain to express itself, that knows, just as Mozart, knowing music, used the piano to express himself.

 

The second area where philosophy can guide future science is ontology, the study of existence itself. To be or not to be isn’t just Hamlet’s dilemma as he contemplates suicide. What it means to be has challenged great philosophes for centuries. Naïve realism tries to cut the Gordian knot by declaring that ontology is dead simple: What you see is what exists. End of story. But just as with epistemology, this position is untenable, using the findings of science itself and in particular quantum physics, which has shown conclusively that the visible universe emerged from a pre-created and unknown state. This state contains nothing, if what we mean by “something” is physical objects in time and space.

 

Because the human brain operates in time and space, not to mention that it is a physical object, there seems to be no way to reach the pre-created state of the universe where time and space did not exist. Science faces the prospect of a dead end, even as news reports about the so-called God particle trumpet that Nature is on the verge of revealing its deepest secrets. The truth is that quantum theory, along with the mystery  of dark matter and energy, calls ordinary existence into question. (In the case of dark matter and energy, the problems are twofold. First, there is so much of it, amounting, perhaps, to 96% of everything in creation. Second, “darkness” is related to  the quantum vacuum from which the universe arises but in no relation to the familiar scheme that builds the cosmos out of waves and particles.)

 

Philosophy long ago encountered the mystery of existence. An idea arose that can be of immense help to modern science. This is the notion that the void—the nothing from which everything arose—isn’t alien to us. It may exist beyond time and space but not beyond consciousness. In our own awareness we meet the primal “stuff” of creation, which is mind. A cosmic mind wouldn’t be like an individual mind. It wouldn’t think one thought at a time; it wouldn’t identify with a separate ego; it wouldn’t be limited by the abilities of the brain (which after all, is constantly evolving).

 

Instead, the cosmic mind would be consciousness itself, a field of infinite possibilities. Among these possibilities is the emergence of time, space, matter, and energy. This idea is actually not against quantum field theory. But a cosmologist can counter with a purely physical theory, such as the multiverse, which has no need for God, mind, or metaphysics. The multiverse, in a word, states that if you have nearly an infinite number of universes bubbling up, the odds eventually favor the birth of our universe (akin to the notion that a thousand monkeys typing randomly on a thousand computers will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare). This is a clever end run, but the multiverse isn’t open to experimentation, so it holds no advantage over metaphysics. And, ultimately, it really answers nothing about the real universe where we all live and die. This looks like a stalemate, with some people believing in mind and others believing in matter.

 

What breaks the stalemate, if metaphysics can do it, is the existence of some very mind-like aspects embedded in the fabric of reality. A number of these aspects are complex, such as so-called non-locality, by which two particles communicate instantaneously, no matter how far apart they are in space, thus disobeying the limit fixed by Einstein that nothing can happen faster than the speed of light. For some theorists, this alone is enough to throw all standard materialist explanations out the window.

 

But on a simpler basis, we can look at the human mind in everyday operation. It is markedly creative, intelligent, self-aware, and open to new possibilities.  Where did these properties come from? Physicalists maintain that they emerged through random chance, which seems more and more unlikely. Metaphysics (principally in the Indian tradition known as Vedanta) declares that the properties of mind are universal. The pre-created state may be inconceivable, but everything conceivable was born there. By employing our own awareness we are actually in contact with awareness itself. Your mind may be smaller than the cosmic mind, but both have the same essence, as a drop of water has the same essence as the ocean. This solves the mystery of existence far better than any physical explanation.

 

The third area where philosophy has immense value is the vexing question of duality. It’s very hard to see how mind grew out of matter, or vice versa. Thinking about a rose isn’t the same as an actual rose. A mathematical formulation of the nuclear reactions inside the sun isn’t the same as lying on a beach feeling the sun’s warmth. There is no obvious way to stitch mind and matter together so that duality goes away, and yet it’s totally unsatisfactory to let them live apart, either.

 

To see this, consider a common experience like feeling elated when you hear the words “I love you” whispered in your ear. The words produce a physical state in the brain, measurable as chemical reactions. But words are mental. How do they turn into, trigger, or even connect with chemicals? Is your brain happy? If so, are neurons happy? Not likely, since by reductio ad absurdum, molecules and atoms can’t be happy, yet the brain is nothing but atoms and molecules. We are back to the old problem, how can inert particles that make up everything be capable of feeling in one case but not in another case?

 

In some way “I love you” belongs in the same scheme as the hormones and neurotransmitters associated with feeling happy. To keep them separate won’t work. Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, along with every other great philosopher, had no idea of how the human brain processes input, and in turn neuroscience, despite its exciting discoveries, cannot explain how experience arises.  Both modes of explanation have something to offer, out of which a credible view of reality is possible.

 

Why is this whole argument important in everyday life? Think of a friend who has fallen in love and is about to get married. At one time or other in history, the explanation for his behavior could be any of the following:

God told him what to do.

                It was destined for him to find this particular woman.

                It was his karma—he loved her in a past life.

                Brain chemistry produced the sensations he mistakes for love.

                Love is a mystery. Who knows why two people experience it?

These are contradictory explanations, and all can be found, not just historically, but alive in people’s minds today. The beauty of metaphysics is that it makes room for all of them, sorted out into specific categories (myth, psychology, neuroscience, etc.) while giving a privileged position to none. The privileged position belongs to the only thing that unites all explanations, models, theories, and stories: they arise in the mind. Ultimately, consciousness allows these apparently contradictory statements to hold part of the whole truth. But not the total truth.

 

A mind-based understanding of reality has been the province of philosophy, but now science is having to confront mind at the core of reality. This is actually the view of many of the founders of modern quantum physics. Without philosophy to save us from naïve realism, science will be stuck defending the indefensible.  Fairy tales about atoms randomly colliding to eventually form DNA and after more collisions, the human brain will persist. To use an old analogy, this is like saying that a hurricane blowing through a scrapyard can build a 747. That’s why the pretense that molecules can think, feel, create, love, dream, and be self-aware—the very things that humans do with the mind—is collapsing.

 

Until human experience is taken into account, we remain like children with our noses pressed against the bakeshop window.  Far better to recognize that this is a participatory universe, and the way we participate is through an infinite variety of experiences—including the experience of doing science—that must be explained before anything else is explainable.

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Join him at The Chopra Foundation Sages and Scientists Symposium 2014.www.choprafoundation.org

Take a moment to check out ‘Self Directed Biological Transformation Initiative – SBTI’ on Indiegogo and share it with your friends. Get perks, make a contribution, or simply follow updates. If enough of us get behind it, we can make ‘Self Directed Biological Transformation Initiative – SBTI’ happen!

 

Menas C. Kafatos, is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor of Computational Physics, at Chapman University. He is a quantum physicist, cosmologist, and climate change researcher and works extensively on consciousness. He has authored about 300 articles, is author, co-author or editor of 14 books, including “The Conscious Universe” (Springer), and is co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, “Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles” (Harmony).

 

 

Naïve Realism, Or the Strange Case of Physics and Fake Philosophers

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In a most unexpected way, physics has started to criticize its own sense of reality. Noted figures are speaking out against other noted figures, and heads are being knocked. A prime example: In the blog section of Scientific American, the highly respected South African physicist and cosmologist George Ellis says, quite bluntly, “The belief that all of reality can be fully comprehended in terms of physics and the equations of physics is a fantasy.” In the same vein, the esteemed British physicist Sir Martin Rees made a headline in 2010 that read “We shouldn’t attach any weight to what Hawking says about God.”

 

Stephen Hawking has been quoted around the world for saying that God isn’t necessary to our understanding of creation. Lord Rees, former president of the Royal Society and sometimes labeled “Britain’s greatest scientist,” expressed himself pointedly: “I know Stephen Hawking well enough to know that he has read very little philosophy and even less theology, so I don’t think we should attach any weight to his views on this topic.”

 

But physics has long disdained philosophy. The prominent PBS personality, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently called philosophy useless, asserting, as countless scientists do, the superiority of science in answering the big questions about existence. Richard Dawkins feels qualified to show the falseness of all theological ideas back to the beginning, ridiculing them without actually examining them. Ellis singles out a staunch Dawkins ally, physicist Lawrence Krauss, for making statements about the source of the universe without benefit of experiments or data. In other words, Krauss feels free to foist off his own philosophical baggage under the guise of being scientific.

 

He’s hardly alone in this. Ellis is one of the few famous physicists with a strong background in philosophy, and he shakes his head over scientists like Krauss who are faking their way through the field of great ideas: “It’s very ironic when he says philosophy is bunk and then himself engages in this kind of attempt at philosophy. It seems that science education should include some basic modules on Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, and the other great philosophers…” DeGrasse Tyson wouldn’t be on board with this suggestion, since he calls philosophical questioning “a pointless delay in our progress.”

 

Behind the physics versus philosophy debate lie some crucial issues that impinge on everyone’s life. The discussion can become very arcane, but the questions being tackled aren’t: What is the nature of reality? Where did the universe come from? What place do humans have in the cosmos? It’s probably safe to say that 90% of people look to science to answer these questions, yet if science itself is feeling wobbly about finding the answers, that’s an important shift, perhaps a seismic one.

 

So let’s examine the wobbliest issue of all: What is reality?  If you toss out thousands of years of philosophy, what you’re left with is what you see with your own eyes: a world of physical objects. These objects—trees, mountains, houses, cats– look real. In everyday life we move through the world on the assumption that the five senses are delivering reality to us. The fact that this assumption, known as naïve realism, is completely false is what modern physics is all about, from Einstein’s proof that time and space are relative to quantum mechanics’ proof that physical objects are essentially clouds of energy, and this energy emerges from a “bubbling vacuum.”

 

If it’s ironic that some overly cocky physicists practice fake philosophy (an accusation that most people outside the field would shrug off as in-fighting), the double irony is that so many prominent physicists practice naïve realism. Their graduate-school training dismantled any faith they might have had in the five senses, yet their notions about reality stubbornly adhere to such faith, in subtle ways.

 

Examples abound: There is the naïve belief that the brain, a solid, tangible object, produces the mind. To believe anything else would place mind or consciousness squarely at the heart of creation, which is anathema to the vast majority of scientists. Second, there’s the belief that cosmologists and high-speed particle physicists will discover what came before the Big Bang.  Ellis is quick to puncture this fantasy: “How indeed can you test what existed before the universe existed? You can’t.”  Third, there’s the belief that with enough time and thought, a model of the universe will be completed, the famed Theory of Everything.  Such a belief crashes when you realize that “everything” includes subjective experience, love, God, the soul, the purpose of existence, meaning, and the behavior of consciousness—none of these things, grappled with by philosophy for centuries, can be understood through physics.

 

(For background, see the three-part post co-authored by the eminent physicist Henry Stapp that precisely describes why the universe behaves more like an idea than like anything purely physical. Part 1, part 2, part 3.

 

The danger here is that we, meaning all of us, will get backed into a corner. With philosophy dismissed as useless, and science promising to answer questions that it is actually incapable of answering, what happens to reality?  It will remain a mystery smothered by pseudo answers, until one day more people wake up to realize that Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and so on were wrestling with the meaning of human existence, and that’s very, very important.

 

At the level of educated popular culture (i.e., people who watch science programming on PBs or the BBC), naïve realism, backed by casual atheism and unspoken scorn for metaphysics, is the order of the day. Appealing presenters like deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox in Britain smile their way through issues that have challenged the world’s wisdom traditions, as if a dose of basic science mixed with good old-fashioned rationality will tell us everything we need to know.

 

But in the background there is an acknowledgment, not only that naïve realism is false but that nobody can agree on a viable alternative.  A single example will show what’s at stake: Imagine that you are looking at a chair. Apparently one physical object—the brain—is taking in true knowledge about another physical object, the chair. But that’s impossible. Both objects are made up of atoms that aren’t objects at all, according to quantum theory, but a set of invisible waves whose position can be known only as a smear of probabilities. As the chair vanishes into the quantum vacuum, so does the brain.

 

This is a devastating challenge to naïve realism, the belief that what you see is real. In fact, what you see is an image of your brain’s perceptual mechanism. Such images are severely limited, since your brain operates in linear time and perceives actions as cause and effect. In the quantum domain, time isn’t linear and cause and effect dissolves. Since we have no scientific explanation for perceptual experience it is unscientific to assume that what we perceive is real. Gazing out at the world, you are actually gazing at your brain’s imaging capacity.  It may turn out, as the ancient Vedic sages held, that what the brain reports is a kind of neurological dream that we all inhabit.

 

The comfy certainty of Cox and deGrasse Tyson, like the skeptical hectoring of Dawkins and Krauss, gives a false sense of “everything’s okay, we’ll have all the answers shortly.” In fact, reality has become more mysterious than ever, and yet there is a viable alternative to naïve realism after all, as we’ll explore in the next post. Here’s a preview: Metaphysics counts, and it counts a great deal.

(To be cont.)

 

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 80 books with twenty-two New York Times bestsellers including Super Brain, co-authored with Rudi Tanzi, PhD. He serves as the founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing. Join him at The Chopra Foundation Sages and Scientists Symposium 2014.www.choprafoundation.org

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