Deepak Chopra and Intent

Deepak Chopra and Intent

“I am the master of my fate”: A New Take on Free Will

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Back when schoolchildren regularly read uplifting poetry, there was a famous Victorian poem that affirmed the human birthright of free will. It was “Invictus,” by W. E. Henley and began:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

The sentiment being expressed is more than empty piousness. Henley had grown up in poverty, and when he was 29 one of his legs had to be amputated as a consequence of tuberculosis. The other leg was saved only after many surgeries, and while he was recovering, Henley was inspired to write his poem, which ended on a triumphant note: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”


On many grounds this anthem to free will can be refuted.  There is no proof you have a soul, if you are a materialist. There is ample proof, on the other hand, that deterministic forces are at work inside us. A generation ago human behavior was largely attributed to genes, although the fashion today is to claim that the brain is the major controller of what we think, say, and do. The average person finds the free will vs. determinism debate totally academic–in everyday life we all proceed as if our choices and decisions are our own.  This has created a serious mismatch between experience and theory, because science, after all, is supposed to settle difficult questions with data, experiments, and facts.


The free will camp has been short of data and facts for a long time, but no more. Instead of working out the problem of free will largely by logical reasoning (which rarely succeeds, since your opponent calls upon the opposite logic), supporters of free will can point to genetics and neuroscience, the very areas that strongly suggest that determinism is at work. This sounds like a paradox. How can genes both control us and allow for free choice? How can the brain produce thought but also be affected by thinking?


Here is where a new view of free will is needed. The paradox is real. Genes determine the color of your hair and eyes, but thanks to the emerging science of epigenetics, we now know that genes are also fluid, malleable, and in fact responsive to everything we experience in the world. The same is true of the brain. Its processes follow strict laws of physics and chemistry, yet neurons, synapses, and brain circuitry are open to change simply by the way we lead our lives.


Suddenly the free will vs. determinism debate is no longer theoretical. The two extremes are complementary; opposites coexist and cooperate.  Consider how you control the temperature in your house. Once the thermostat is set, the house’s heating system must follow its fixed instructions. But you can alter these instructions by turning the thermostat up and down. In the same way, if you eat a charbroiled steak for dinner, your digestive tract will follow fixed physiological processes, but you can choose to eat salmon instead. In turn, the brain that makes this choice can be conditioned by habit (there are people who only eat meat and potatoes, and that’s that) or it can be influenced by new thinking (after reading an article about the benefits of eating fish, for example).


So the real issue, which overturns the old dichotomy between free will and determinism, is how to find the switches that control genes and neurons. A flood of research findings is emerging around this.  Quite recently, for example, an article in the New York Times posed the startling question, “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?”   the focus of the article was the pioneering work of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, who as far back as 1981 was testing the possibility that aging has a major mental component. (The notion is actually ancient in origin. The medieval Indian philosopher and sage Adi Shankara declared that people grow old and die because they see other people grow old and die.)


In 1981 Langer took eight men in their seventies, all in good health but exhibiting signs of age, and immersed them for five days in an environment that was like time travel going back to 1959, including the music and television of the period, along with the movies and events in the news.  The men were told to act as if they were their younger selves, because Langer had already done experiments in which memory loss in the elderly could sometimes be reversed by giving subjects an incentive to remember. In other words, the mind was being motivated to affect the body.


Before entering the time-capsule environment, the men were tested on various markers of aging such as grip strength, dexterity, and how well they could hear and see. At the end of the five days, the group improved on seven out of eight measures, including better vision, a startling finding. They looked younger as assessed by outside judges. Thirty-three years ago Prof. Langer was proceeding more or less intuitively, without the knowledge into gene expression and neuroplasticity that we can turn to today.  Mental causes need to have a parallel in physiology, and now it has been proven that they do.


What is the limit to free will as mediated by genes and neurons? This is a thorny question. Since 1981, there has been a massive change in attitude towards aging, so that 75, which seemed very old three decades ago, is the new 55. Collective consciousness combined with medical advances made the “new old age” a reality. But aging eventually must set in, progress, and lead to death. The battle between free will and determinism cannot be definitely declared a truce.


Yet on the whole evolution is winning out over entropy, which would have stunned scientists in the past, and even more stunning, the force that pushing evolution forward is a conscious choice. If the lines “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” sound completely outdated in their language, Henley’s declaration of free will is turning into cutting-edge science. We should proceed with the following principles in mind:


  1. Mind comes before brain.
  2. Mental choices originate the messages that change organs, tissues, and cells.
  3. The body is fluid and dynamic, not fixed and determined.
  4. Genes express whatever a person desires. They operate through switches that the mind can access.
  5. The mind-body system is a feedback loop where input and output have many determinants, including lifestyle, environment, behavior, beliefs, and past conditioning.
  6. Through self-care, a higher state of well-being is attainable. Self-care makes daily use of the mind-body feedback loop.
  7. Ultimately, the evolution of future humanity depends on internal balance (homeostasis) that is balanced with the whole ecology of the planet.


What these principles have in common is their emphasis on individual choice as the key to conscious evolution. Without knowing how much of your destiny you can master, it’s best to assume that your potential for mastery is much greater than anyone now supposes.



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. Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)

Memo to Neuroscience: “We Are Not Brain Puppets”

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The notion that human beings walk, talk, think, and do things because our brains control us is a fringe idea, easily refuted with a few moment’s thought and rarely taken seriously. But it got a boost from an Op-ed piece in the New York Times last week under the title, “Are We Really Conscious?” Thousands of readers were exposed to an argument that has been around for decades, holding that the brain is a machine analogous to a computer, and its working parts (neurons) operate through strict cause and effect. Therefore, when we believe that we have free will, we are as mistaken as marionettes controlled by invisible strings.


The author of the Op-ed piece, a Princeton psychology professor named Michael S. A. Graziano, states the extreme case for brain-as-machine: We are fooling ourselves to believe we are conscious. He also states, quite falsely, that this mechanistic view is the only viable explanation for consciousness currently to be found in science. Actually, there are a number of annual conferences on the topic of science and consciousness, and it’s fair to say that Graziano’s strict materialistic view, although a pet theory in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI), rarely comes up in these conferences. But with the name of a prestigious university attached, his Op-ed piece will start a discussion, so here’s my contribution.


Here are five points made in the piece and why they’re wrong:

  1. “Biologically speaking, we’re not a special act of creation. We’re a twig on the tree of evolution.”


Actually, human beings are neither of these. Our nervous system makes us unique on the evolutionary ladder, which is more than being a twig. Yet we are biological creatures, as if this needs stating.


  1. Graziano points out that a camera attached to a computer can determine that grass is green, but we humans believe we experiencegreenness. “What is this mysterious aspect of ourselves? Many theories have been proposed, but none has passed scientific muster.”


It’s quite true that a scientific explanation for subjective experience has yet to be successfully formulated, but the very worst theory is the one Graziano favors, that consciousness is an illusion, the only reality being electrical and chemical activity in the brain.


It’s obvious at face value that human beings have a mind while the molecules of water and organic chemicals that make up the brain do not. Creating a bridge from neural activity to mind is very difficult, but to say “Wait, I have the answer. The conscious mind isn’t real,” is nonsense.  This is like solving the question of gender equality by saying that women don’t exist.


Even the statement that a camera-plus-computer setup can determine that grass is green is flat wrong. The wavelength of light that falls into the spectrum of green doesn’t become a color until processed by a nervous system. Photons have no color. Indeed, we have no idea if other creatures see green as green. What we do know for certain is that a camera and computer have no perceptual ability whatever.


  1. “We don’t actually have inner feelings in the way that most of us think we do.”


To be accurate, all of us think we have inner feelings, not most of us, and this includes Prof. Graziano when he burns himself at the BBQ, finds out that a loved one has died, or got an appointment at Princeton.  He calls the refutation of inner feelings “skeptical,” but he might want to consult arch-skeptic Sam Harris, whose new book, Waking Up, is entirely devoted to the validity of subjective feelings.


  1. “The brain builds up models (or complex bundles of information) about items in the world, and these models are often not accurate.”


This point is flogged to death by similar thinkers like Daniel Dennett who somehow believe they can accuse the brain of being faulty, fallacious, and unreliable while with the other hand relying on the brain and nothing but the brain for the existence of mind. Leaving that aside, the brain doesn’t build up models of anything.


Imagine a CD-ROM as it stores the symphonies of Mozart through the processing of digitized information. A mind has to create the storage, decided what to select, etc. The brain without instruction is as mindless as a CD-ROM, and to say that the world we perceive amounts to stored information is a sleight of hand—it skips the part where a mind actually understands and experiences the world. Again, neurons are made of molecules, and molecules don’t create or listen to music. They don’t create any experience of the world, any more than the wood and ivory in a piano experience music even though music is played on a piano.


  1. When speaking of why subjectivity is false, Graziano says, “. . . there is only information in a data-processing device.”


This notion that mind = information is at the heart of AI, but even if we throw out all counter-arguments and accept the premise, it falls apart immediately, because “information” as such requires a mind. Without a mind, zeros and ones have no meaning. Only mind can turn digits into a language. To take the position that the brain is all that’s needed to build a model of the world would mean that zeros and ones figured themselves out and turned themselves into a mathematical language all on their own –absurd.


Prof. Graziano goes on to describe his own laboratory work in developing an “attention schema,” which would make attention a process involved in the coding and decoding of information, while awareness is the brain’s inaccurate version of attention, which a computer would do better because it can be built with better computing chips than the brain possesses.


The intellectual vacuity of this line of thinking would cause despair but for one thing. Neuroscience knows what it’s doing technically, like a piano tuner called in to fix a piano. Many human ills and difficulties can be traced to brain processes gone awry. There is great good to be achieved by delving into the physiology of the brain.


If Graziano and other technical-minded types believe that human beings are brain puppets, no harm done. It’s a bizarre, self-contradictory, empty notion. Meanwhile, the ability of the mind to alter the brain, create new neural pathways, break old conditioning, generate new brain cells, promote well-being, and even direct gene expression forms the true frontier of neuroscience. The mind-body connection has never been as promising as it is today. If Graziano is facing in the opposite direction, that’s his right.  One wishes that his brain cells would create a different and better illusion for him, though.


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. Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)

A Science of Miracles–No Longer Optional? (Part 2)

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For most people, miracles are something left behind in childhood. They require innocent belief, not adult rationality. The camp of vocal skeptics and atheists provide a crossroads, in fact, where one way leads to irrationality, the other to rationality, as if this definitively defines where the truth lies. If you don’t take the way of rationality, you will wind up in the realm of superstition, primitive myths, magical thinking, and bogus miracles.

Why, then, did Einstein make his famous remark that either nothing is a miracle or everything is a miracle? Because he saw deeper into reality than the simplistic either/or of skeptics and atheists. As we saw in Part 1 of this series, there is no credible scientific theory that describes how the mind interfaces with reality. This means that there is no theory that proves the existence of miracles or disproves it. Until we can fully explain consciousness, we can’t fully explain the events that occur in consciousness.

It sounds startling, but science can’t explain ordinary experiences, much less supernatural experiences. No one knows how thoughts arise, why intuition exists, where creativity comes form, or most important of all, how the porridgy gray matter of the brain, which is totally dark and silent, produces the sights and sounds of the three-dimensional world. The simplest and most profound miracle that everyone encounters every day is this miracle.

So, if everyday sights and sounds are totally inexplicable, the possibility of miracles can’t be dismissed. That’s different, however, from saying that they do exist. What kind of reality would allow for them? One that is both ancient and cutting edge. In the ancient Vedanta of India, the physical world was seen as a projection of consciousness. This is also the best explanation that modern scientific thinking has proposed, although Vedanta is a fully formed view of reality while scientific theories about consciousness are still tentative and speculative.

What binds the two is this: The universe is being created beyond spacetime. This act of creation is going on right this minute. Vedanta says that you and I are part of the creative process. We are more than the body and mind that has emerged into the three-dimensional world. Our source is beyond spacetime, in the realm of pure consciousness. There would be no body, mind, or world for any of us if we weren’t connected to the source.

Miracles, then, are events that exist closer to the source than events we tag as normal and natural. Science gets us closer to the source all the time, which is why yesterday’s miracles routinely turn into today’s technology–someone had to dive deeper into the nature of reality to create transistors, airplane travel, television and radio. With current experiments in reverse causation, nonlocality, and antigravity, there’s every likelihood that so-called paranormal experiences will become normal in the future.

Ancient sages got close to the source in a way different from science. They did it through consciousness. Shifting reality through consciousness is called a miracle if someone appears in two places at once. Yet every time you have a thought, the electrical and chemical activity in your brain shifts, which amounts to the same thing. In meditation a person transcends the superficial activity of the mind to go deeper, and according to the world’s wisdom traditions, this journey toward the source has no limits–you can transcend the physical universe completely.

At that point reality shifts completely at the same time, for unknown to us in our everyday lives, the body, mind, and world are products of our state of awareness. The reason that Vedanta calls the everyday world a dream or illusion is that once you get to the source, you find that you change any aspect of reality as easily as in a dream. You have reached the womb of creation. There is no longer any doubt that you exist beyond spacetime–and always have.

This truth was self-evident in the experiences of the sages of Vedanta. God consciousness is human consciousness that has arrived at the source. In God consciousness you don’t become the God of religion, whose identity is clouded by centuries of dogma and belief. In a sense, God consciousness has nothing to do with that God. It’s actually a creative state that operates from the source.

Let’s accept, then, that it’s possible for miracles to exist. Proving it leads in two directions. Either you accumulate enough data through scientific means that no doubt remains about miraculous occurrences, or you take the journey personally to discover if God consciousness is real. That’s the actual fork in the road, not the rational/irrational fork of skeptics and atheists. Future science will have to explain consciousness in order to understand the universe; there’s no escaping the challenge. So it may turn out that either road, scientific or personal, will arrive at the same destination.

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. Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)

A Science of Miracles—No Longer Optional?

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In its ambition to explain every aspect of the natural world, modern science has sidestepped very few problems. Some mysteries are so difficult that they defy the scientific method. It’s hard to conceive of experiments that will tell us what happened before time and space emerged, for example. But two mysteries have been consistently sidestepped for decades out of prejudice. One is the nature of consciousness, the other the reality of phenomena loosely categorized as mystical or supernatural.

However, now that there is a burgeoning science of consciousness, fermenting with much theorizing, arguments, and controversies, it may be necessary to solve all kinds of fringe phenomena, in particular miracles, that have long been considered the province of superstition, credulity, and outright fraud. (This is the hardened position of the vocal skeptics’ camp, but their impact on the practice of science is too minimal to deal with here.)

If you look upon the physical world as a given—what you see is what you get—governed by fixed mathematical laws of nature, the whole domain of wonders and miracles poses no problems. Levitation, bilocation, psychic healing, clairvoyance, near-death experiences, and all the miracles related in the Bible can be dismissed out of hand.  Accepting the physical world “as it is” constitutes naïve realism, which all of us depend upon in our everyday lives. As I’ve pointed out in many previous posts, consistently co-authored with a physicist, geneticist, biologist, cosmologist, or philosopher, naïve realism hasn’t been scientifically tenable for at least a century, ever since the quantum era began.

If we can’t accept the physical world as it is, a level playing field can be posited that includes both the natural and supernatural. The two categories are no longer divided from each other by an impenetrable wall. There are several completely cogent reasons for making such a statement.

  1. All experience occurs in consciousness.
  2. Consciousness is the meeting place between perception and reality.
  3. This meeting place is inexplicable at present. There is no scientific explanation for everyday experience, much less the so-called mystical.
  4. The materialistic assumptions of science as it’s currently practiced have made no headway in explaining how the brain’s electrochemical activity produces the sights, sounds, textures, and smells of a three-dimensional world.
  5. What is known with certainty, however, is that the brain filters and reduces the input it receives.

The last point needs expanding. If you insist upon being a staunch physicalist, someone who refuses to accept any explanation outside materialism, the brain must be the seat of mind, and the world we perceive must be registered faithfully by the brain.  But there’s no doubt that the brain is fallible. Its mechanisms are easily fooled, by optical illusions, for example. Its fixed neural pathways constantly distort even basic perceptions, as when a person suffering from anorexia looks at her starved and wasted body but sees it as “too fat.”

Leaving aside its fallibility, the human brain processes only a fraction of the billions of bits of sensory data bombarding it every day. Through a process of filtering and reduction, it creates an image of the world that is acceptable for everyday navigation, nothing more. It’s been rightly said that the “real world” is actually a reflected image of how the brain works.  It’s an abstraction built up from mechanical manipulation at the neural level.

To simplify, the real world is like a fenced-in corral that includes only what is acceptable and permissible while shutting out what isn’t. Acceptable and permissible are personal terms—we all know people who are blind to aspects of their lives that are glaringly obvious to others. But these are also social and cultural terms. The brain can shut out what society refuses to see. Sometimes this refusal runs deep into the unconscious. The historical denigration of women and blacks, for example, was created by a complex mélange of beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, received opinions, and willful blindness. All of these ingredients changed the brains of the people who participated in them, including the victims.

A science of consciousness must reach beyond the conventions of acceptable and permissible reality that are brain-based. Physicalists find this impossible to do except in a limited way. They insist that the brain must be delivering reality because for them there’s no other alternative. Thus the brain is given a privileged position. Rocks, trees, clouds, hydrogen atoms, and quarks aren’t conscious, but even as it sits in the middle of the scene, with no qualities to distinguish its “thingness” from the “thingness” around it, we are supposed to view the brain as totally unique.  This is pure animism, the belief that spirits live inside material objects, verging close to religiosity, turning the brain into a three-pound god.

By abandoning physicalism, we wouldn’t be returning to an age of superstition (the favorite straw man of the skeptical camp). We would be expanding the fence, allowing in more of reality.  Until there is an understanding of how the mind interfaces with reality, no viable explanation exists for any experience, much less the mystical.

All I’ve done in this post is to propose a level playing field for all experiences, and that’s only a start, obviously. Saying that miracles aren’t totally excluded isn’t the same as proving that they exist, or even might exist. Having opened the door, we’ll see if miracles can walk through it, which is the topic of the next post.  It was Einstein, not a shaman, yogi, New Age devotee, or charlatan, who famously said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

(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. Coming soon, The Future of God (Harmony, November 11, 2014)

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