October 28, 2007

Deepak Chopra is a Fire Hazard

Deepak Chopra is clearly a fire hazard. Anyone who surrounds himself with so many straw men is liable to catch fire at any moment and char to a cinder all that surrounds him. This, I think, is what Chopra frequently does to people's minds.

Because his particular brand of woo is so often embraced by political liberals, I suppose, he has a regular column in The Huffington Post. Chopra is analogous to Pat Robertson on the extreme right, I suppose. They both base their world views on religiously-grounded nonsense and so come up with equally ludicrous lines of blather. Chopra recently wrote something so blatantly silly that I had to whip out my handy-dandy razor of reason and go about slicing it to shreds. I'll post some excerpts and responses below; those who are so inclined can read Chopra's woo-fu in full by clicking on the link in the title.

Genes and the Black Box (Part 3)

To date, genetics has been acclaimed for discovering "the code of life," and by taking significant steps like mapping the human genome, every detail of the code will inevitably come into view. However, one crucial link remains almost completely unexplained. That link connects the material and the intangible. On one plane of exploration science can delve into the molecular and sub-molecular structure of DNA. But life proceeds on another plane, marked by intelligence, beauty inspiration, art, love, and truth -- things impalpable and invisible, seemingly disconnected from DNA. To claim that genes are the controllers of everything, which amounts to meta-materialism, is willy-nilly, crude reasoning.
Try making some knockout organism that lack the genes for producing things like dopamine and serotonin and then get back to us on this, Deepak. Life doesn't proceed anywhere without its genetic basis. Now, science doesn't claim that every individual's particular experiences are engendered by genes, and I would defy you, O Master of Woo, to point out anyone who does. Any number of other factors are involved with how an individual perceives and analyzes a given experience, and much of this is based on particular previous experience. However, even the ability to recall those prior experiences have a genetic basis. This is why some forms of mental illness appear to have a major heritable component (e.g., bipolar disorder, schizophrenia). The genes create a predisposition; external factors provide stimuli that can alter gene expression. I'm not aware of anyone who says otherwise. Chopra, however, is concluding here that "life proceeds on another plane" than genetics. He's claiming that there is some aspect of the human mind which is "seemingly" entirely separate from a genetic basis. That's every bit as much nonsense as would be the claim that he's putting in scientists' mouths in the first place.
Consider the invisible connections between twins. Recently a TV news magazine told the story of two women, identical twins separated at birth, who found each other decades later. They felt an immediate kinship at the emotional level, which isn't a surprise. But how do you account for the fact that both had gone to graduate school in film? In other twin studies it's common to find that twins separated at birth wind up marrying women with the same name, have the same number of children, and pass through various life stages, such as graduation from college or getting married, on the very same day? Getting down to tiny details, how can two people with the same genes have different fingerprints, a trait that twins never share? Separated twins show enough similarities in likes and dislikes to indicate that genes are involved, but which of us thinks we like baseball as opposed to football because our genes pre-ordained it?
Well, that was pretty self-contradictory, wasn't it? Everything he says at the beginning of this passage is a good indication for a genetic basis for everything he claims. If they're true (and I would love to see some numbers that demonstrate statistical significance for this; it could all be a few coincidences, which I suspect that it is), they would indicate that twins raised in different circumstances still exhibit similarities — which means they have some inherent common basis for their predilections. Genetics comes up as a very strong basis for these similarities.

As far as fingerprints go, there's a good reason that twins don't have the same prints. Fingerprints aren't determined by genes, they're determined by prenatal conditions during the 10th to 16th weeks of pregnancy. A paper demonstrating how fingerprints are formed was published in 2005, for example. There is a subtle interplay of elements that goes beyond the genetic basis, as Chopra might have noted had he bothered to look at this paper before making assertions about some supernatural agency carving fingerprints onto our volar pads. It's the same mechanism whereby two people who have the same genes usually won't have the same scars if they both get into an accident in the same car at the same time. Ah, the might Chopra-woo-fu, so blatant and yet so ignorantly nonsensical.

And of course nobody thinks that football or baseball fandom is a genetic trait. Please, by all means, guru-ji, point us to something in a scientific journal that makes such a claim! However, there is a demonstrable genetic basis for things like being predisposed to risk-taking, seeking out excitement, etc. Is you're predisposed genetically to enjoying more aggressive behavior and you grow up in an environment wherein you are exposed to more violent sports, you're more likely to get more enjoyment from football than from baseball. These predispositions are not absolutes, however, just as height isn't an absolute. These are cumulative traits and are influenced by a greater or lesser extent by environmental factors. Honestly, for a guy who bleats about scientists being too reductionist in their thinking, Chopra seems like an extreme reductionist himself. After all, it's him who's coming up with these arguments, not biologists. He is truly a master builder of straw men!
Right now the connections between the visible and invisible domain remain sealed inside the black box. I doubt that anyone will seriously investigate this mystery until there is a practical application...
The black box would appear to be covering Chopra's eyes, not the answer to this "question." In fact, such investigations have been ongoing for decades. This is one of the fundamental areas of inquiry in developmental psychology, certainly, which has been a field that has been at work for decades trying to solve this very quandary of "nature vs. nurture." I suppose Chopra has missed all of this... or has ignored it, because he makes a living by pretending to his fans that things are not as they really are.
...For centuries in India the contents of the black box have gone under the label of karma. Karma is an invisible explanation for why things happen the way they do. In many ways the doctrine of Karma has been of practical use. It maintains that the universe exists in a balanced state, that every action leads to a reaction, and that cause and effect come under human control. As you sow, so shall you reap is elevated to a spiritual law. In addition, karma holds that your present actions are guided by actions from the past and that memory plays a huge part in your construct of reality. Almost all of these things are attributed to genes in the Western scientific model.
Pardon my language here, but I find no adequate way to address this garbage without the use of an expletive. What the fuck is Chopra talking about? That every action engenders a reaction has nothing to do with genetics; that's a law of thermodynamics and falls squarely in the domain of physics. As for the rest of it, karma was a topic that Indian religious authors argued, and still argue, about endlessly. They disagree about what actions and circumstances create it, how it might be gotten rid of, and whether one can be free of it while still living or whether it can only happen after death. It's a bone of contention that has been the source of major splits in Indian religions; anyone who has read both the Bhagavad Gita and Kularnava Tantra can readily see that for him/herself. The point is that karma is an old concept that was created to address the concept of cause-and-effect overall, and those who did so made the assumption that moral and physical events were of the same nature. They witnessed a physical phenomenon, in other words, and then made an understandable category error, given the tools available to them at the time, of applying the same principle to purely social constructs. We know better today (with the exception of Chopra and his fellow woo-meisters). We understand that not passing the drinking-cup around the table in the appropriate direction (cf., Kularnava Tantra) isn't the same sort of thing as the forces exerted by rolling a big ball into a small one.
Yet for all that, karma hasn't emerged from the black box any more than genes have. Karma is individual, unpredictable, seemingly mechanical in its operation yet radically uncertain when thousands of karmic influences are mixed together. As with genes, some aspects of karma seem totally fixed (predeterminism); other aspects are changeable (free will and choice), while a final portion is so hidden and uncertain that nothing reliable can be said about it (accident and chance). Whatever the final tale turns out to be, genetics is going to have to enter the field of karma, each explanation learning form the other, because the need to explain free will, determinism, and chance won't go away.
Ah, another one of these problems that exists in Chopra's head. Why does genetics have to explain free will? Genetics talks about predispositions in all but the most basic of physical traits. There is nothing in the field which negates the possibility of individuals making choices about their actions anymore than there is anything there that says that people born with black hair can't decide to bleach it. In fact, if genetics explains where these predispositions come from (analogous to Chopra's "predeterminism," I suppose), why is it that genetics has to enter the "field of karma." It seems to me just the other way around; science has come up with a solution to the the material basis of predetermination that Chopra's notion of karma implies. Mathematically, we have laws of probability that explain the "accident and chance" bit, and we have behavioral psychology and neuroscience that unravel the "free will and choice" portion. It seems it's Chopra who has the problem here, and it's not the job of science to rephrase entire disciplines into terminology acceptable to Chopra's ideology. Instead, it is incumbent upon Chopra to educate himself as to what the rest of the world is doing in these fields. Science doesn't need to "enter the field of karma," Deepak Chopra needs to enter the modern era and stop giving his fans a load of nonsense about how his woo demands answers that have already been given.
To claim that invisible connections don't exist is unacceptable. To claim that life cannot be fundamentally understood violates the human urge to know who we really are.
Who, besides Chopra, is claiming this? Why is claiming that invisible connections exist unacceptable and to whom are such claims unacceptable besides Chopra and his archaic religious notions? In fact, the life sciences make no claim that life cannot be fundamentally understood; if anything, we can understand it at a molecular level, something that was far beyond the scope of the inventors of Chopra's beloved karma. Then again, Chopra has contradicted his own nonsense again here; if he insists that "invisible connections" exist, then we can never hope to "fundamentally" understand life, since there will always be, by his own definition, part of it that remains unrevealed and undetectable. How can a man who so "fundamentally" talks out of both sides of his mouth be given any credence by thinking human beings? Nobody capable of rational thought should be placing any stock in this gibbering ninny's nonsense. Nobody.
For the moment, excitement over genes is justified in that the urge for self-understanding has found a new source of satisfaction. But the urge isn't quenched, and one can predict that genes must merge with mind before the next great leap is made. Our source in consciousness and our source in genes must find a common ground.
Uh, yeah, that's called "the brain." Perhaps instead of deceiving people with this particular offensive and clearly ridiculous sort of woo-ish, hand-waving nonsense, Chopra might try leading people toward some real enlightenment on these matters. He won't, of course, because the moment people understand things like genetics and neuroscience, they see Chopra for the deceptive snake-oil salesman he is. Then he'll be out of a job and have to do something that actually contributes to the betterment of humanity in some way rather than simply acting as a sponge to soak up money given him by the credulous.
Deepak Chopra is absolutely no better in any way than the lowliest, most vile of televangelists. Who cares whether the nonsense being foisted off to dupe the ignorant is Christ or karma? Fraud is fraud, and Chopra here demonstrates that he is a man of Fraud with a capital wtF.

Sphere: Related Content