War of the Worldviews (Chopra and Mlidonow)

Can skeptics and scientists learn anything from reading a Deepak Chopra book? In this case I think they can. It helps that this book is co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow, Ph.D. physicist, screenwriter, and co-author with Stephen Hawking of the bestseller The Grand Design.

Science or Religion

The book is formatted as a debate, each author setting out his side and responding to the other. It covers all the big questions: cosmology, life and evolution, the mind and brain, and God. Chopra advocates his own brand of spirituality, claiming that the universe is conscious and evolving. He presents his spirituality as the reasonable alternative to the soulless materialism of his critics. Mlodinow acts as the spokesman for science, countering Chopra's expansive claims and giving very clear explanations of conventional scientific knowledge.

The title invites us to read the book as documenting a struggle between science and spirituality, but Chopra clearly loves science, and vies with Mlodinow to explain topics like the history of the cosmos and the role of DNA. In some cases Chopra misstates the content of scientific knowledge, and Mlodinow corrects him, but in many cases Chopra and Mlodinow agree on the content of our scientific knowledge of the world.

Their disagreement is over a question that is not itself scientific: what deep truth does science tell us about the world? Does it tell us that there is a universal consciousness that we can access by going to a special place where it will be drawn to your side (Chopra, p251)? Or does it tell us that understanding one's essence means to think of myself as a biological machine governed by the same laws that govern Pluto (Mlodinow, p133)? This is a difference of two worldviews, but they are both metaphysical extensions of what science itself tells us.

The proper skeptical answer, I would argue, is a third view, none of the above: science doesn't tell us deep truths about the world. Chopra goes beyond science in one direction, using it as a springboard to launch his inspirational metaphysics. Mlodinow, in his statement quoted above, jumps in another direction, espousing philosophical materialism, which, as Chopra says, is also a form of metaphysics. The skeptic rejects both spiritualistic and materialistic metaphysics. We don't have evidence that there is a universal consciousness with which we can commune; nor does science tell us the essence of anything.

Metaphysics vs Science

From this point of view, the crucial division is not a battle line between science and spirituality, but a different line, more like a geographical boundary, that separates science from metaphysics. Mlodinow steps over this line when he argues against Chopra's metaphysical castle-building by offering a competing metaphysical picture that says No, the evolution of the universe isn't guided by a universal consciousness: it evolves through physical law, and has no guiding purpose (see p62). The problem with this is that it goes beyond what science tells us. Science does not measure the amount of purpose in the universe. I found myself agreeing with Chopra when he described such claims as philosophical materialism. By representing metaphysical overstatements as being part of the scientific worldview one puts real science in danger of being discredited. The proper scientific response to Chopra's spiritualistic metaphysics is to confine oneself to Laplace's admirably minimal comment, We have no need of that hypothesis.

To be fair to Mlodinow, his metaphysical overstatements are much rarer than those of other popular writers such as Richard Dawkins. At various points in the book he clearly states the limits of science. He acknowledges that Science does not address the meaning of life... and science will never be able to explain why the universe follows laws. (p256). Concerning the soul, he says that science does not claim to have proved that there is no such thing, only that there is no credible evidence for it (p131). He nicely summarizes the role of science as follows: when [a] particular belief does not lead to conflict with what we observe in the physical world, there is nothing science says to oppose it, [my emphasis]. The crucial point, which he doesn't state explicitly, is that there may indeed be arguments against it, but rather than being scientific they will be of a more general logical or philosophical nature.

Chopra's central claim provides an immediate example. What he advocates is a form of panpsychism, the proposition that mind is a fundamental feature of the world, and exists throughout the universe. There is a lively ongoing debate concerning panpsychism, not among scientists but among philosophers. Reputable figures such as Galen Strawson and Timothy Sprigge argue in favor of panpsychism, though not anything like Chopra's ornate version, while others such as John Searle and Colin McGinn refute it (see Panpsychism, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Fall 2010 Edition).

The antidote

Chopra and Mlodinow's book is a wide-ranging and stimulating read. The presence of two perspectives, that of an insider and of an outsider, gives stereoscopic depth to the explanations of the science. But by framing the debate as Science vs. Spirituality, I think the book blurs an essential point. The counterpoint to Chopra's speculations is not science, with its complicated structure of facts, theories, and hypotheses, but something much more basic. The antidote to Chopra is Occam.

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