Deepak Chopra and Intent

Deepak Chopra and Intent

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)

Can Sam Harris Wake Us Up? (Part 2)

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Most of us recognized ourselves in the mirror this morning.  The person looking back at us has a familiar name, a family, a job.  He (or she) carries around a long menu of likes and dislikes, along with a personal history from the moment we emerged from the womb. It would amaze the vast majority of the human race to be told that this person in the mirror is an illusion. Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up, delivers this startling notion loud and clear, and his aim, in a nutshell, is to debunk the illusion of the personal self, which he says is the key to becoming real.

No one can predict if the message will stick. “No self” has been around for centuries as a basic tenet of Buddhism. (Refer to Part 1 of this post for more details.) Harris dresses it up in brain science, but looking for Buddha in the brain is as futile as looking for Mozart in a piano. It’s obviously specious reasoning, but in Harris’s profession of neuroscience, everything comes down to the brain. Devout Christians find sermons in the stones; brain scientists find them in the anterior cingulate.

Harris would be a more persuasive thinker if he weren’t so dogmatically a materialist. His biases make Waking Up a troubling read at times:

“It has long been obvious that traditional approaches to spirituality [are] based, to one or another degree, on religious myths and superstition.” (p. 62)

“Neuroscience has also produced results that are equally hostile to the traditional idea of souls.” (p. 62)

“Some people are so desperate to interpret the [Near Death Experience] as proof of an afterlife that even those whom one would expect to have a strong commitment to scientific reasoning toss their better judgment out the window.” (p. 186)

None of these haughty opinions is good science. And it’s ironic that someone with such a closed mind is now in favor of unbounded awareness.

As for his area of expertise Harris is quite impressive. He makes much of intriguing findings on the brain’s unreliability, wandering thoughts, and confused perceptions. Some of this is over-interpreted. Harris states, for example, that “There is no region of the brain that can be the seat of a soul” (p. 116), but there is no region of the brain that tells us where experience comes from, why the color red is red, how one thought is connected to the next, or how electrical activity in the neuron produces the sight, sound, and texture of the three-dimensional world. Until these basic problems are solved, assertions about higher reality based on neuroscience, whether pro or con, are meaningless.

Yet there’s no getting around the fact that the illusion of “I, me, and mine” lies at the heart of Eastern spirituality.  It’s not the special province of Buddhism. Harris’s challenge to the personal self, which is the best part of his book, would be echoed by a Taoist, a Hindu, a Jain, and countless other varieties of Eastern belief. They all hold that you cannot be enlightened as long as you have a personal stake in the world. This is a radical claim, all but unknown in the Christian West, and the Buddhist strategy of “ego death” is possibly the most radical of all.

The reason for such strong common agreement is this: suffering, ignorance, and self-destructive behavior are the product of the conditioned mind. It’s not the brain that forces us to feel pain and sorrow, to act out of anger, to possess low self-esteem. It’s how the brain got trained. Who did this bad training? The mind. Therefore, the mind must find a way out. Only through self-awareness can old conditioning be confronted. The job isn’t done overnight, yet thousands of years of spiritual experience attest to the possibility of waking up.

Viewed sympathetically, Harris’ book gives the reader many good reasons to step on to the spiritual path.  If the path leads you to God or the soul, Harris holds that you’re a fool. If it leads you to the purity of perfect detachment, he holds that you’ve won the golden ring.  Either way, the personal self isn’t going down without a fight. While neuroscience is busy drawing better brain maps, life goes on, enticing us to be good and bad, loving and hateful, real and deluded. The allure of “I, me, and mine” is very strong, always present, and nearly impossible to resist.

I believe something a medical school professor used to tell his students: “If you want to understand consciousness, don’t go into neuroscience.” Otherwise, you’ll mistake the map is the territory. God isn’t in our neurons, but neither is Nirvana.  The fact that Harris is standing by the side of the road shouting “No Self!” actually compounds the problem. If “I, me, and mine” is a trick of brain training, who is to say that “no self” isn’t just another trick? Harris turns the brain into the villain of one story (my self is real) and the hero of another (my self is an illusion). He wants to have his cake and eat it too.

Here we get to the heart of the matter. Buddhism, contra Sam Harris, will never be about the brain. Buddhism is about the mind beyond the brain. Transcendence is the key. It has to be. As long as mind = brain, we are trapped. The same would be true if music = piano.  Obviously you could destroy all the pianos in the world and music would still exist. What Harris believes, along with neuroscience in general, is that if every brain was destroyed, mind would no longer exist. The Buddha taught the exact opposite. Mind is universal. Awareness is the foundation of reality. Worlds come and go, but mind remains unchanged.

Harris doesn’t address the most crucial fact about enlightenment: In order for the mind to transform itself, reality must change altogether.  If “I” is unreal, so is the world that “I” believes in.  A materialist view is lost before it even begins, because it forces you to accept the physical world as a given.  Harris relies heavily on the unreliability of perception. But the brain can’t unravel our mistaken perceptions because the brain is itself a perception—it’s caught in the very net it wants to untangle.

Each of us will have to choose our own way, of course. For the moment, skewed science and half-digested spirituality are serving Sam Harris well. He is as partisan, strong-minded, and absolute as ever. Despite its lack of even-handedness, though, this stimulating book is worth reading whether you agree with it or not.  Harris has crossed a divide and now has more in common with spiritual seekers than he does with noisy atheists.

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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