Stop him before he assaults his readers’ minds again: Chopra babbles about consciousness and the brain. Supposedly, this is a response to something in The God Delusion, but Dawkins really doesn’t discuss mechanisms of consciousness much at all (the book is a little bit excessively broad as it is, so I’m relieved he didn’t try to throw that bit of the kitchen sink in there). The most appropriate section I could find in the book was this one:
Human thoughts and emotions emerge from exceedingly complex interconnections of physical entities within the brain. An atheist in this sense of philosophical naturalist is somebody who believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world, no supernatural creative intelligence lurking behind the observable universe, no soul that outlasts the body and no miracles— except in the sense of natural phenomena that we don’t yet understand. If there is something that appears to lie beyond the natural world as it is now imperfectly understood, we hope eventually to understand it and embrace it within the natural. As ever when we unweave a rainbow, it will not become less wonderful.
So Dawkins’ position is that thoughts emerge from complex interconnections in the brain—I’d agree with that. What is Chopra’s interpretation of Dawkins’ words?
Dawkins holds that humans are conscious because chemicals randomly collide in the brain to produce a phantom we ignorantly call the mind. This is a fashionable view and in fact is the logical outcome of arch materialism. Where else could mind come from if not molecules, assuming that molecules are the basis of the brain and therefore of reality itself?
Common sense finds it hard to take this argument seriously, because it leads to nonsense. The brain contains an enormous amount of water and salt. Are we to assume that water is intelligent, or salt is conscious? If they aren’t, then we must assume that throwing water and salt together–along with about six other basic building blocks of organic chemicals–suddenly makes them intelligent. The bald fact is that Dawkins defends an absurd position because he can’t make the leap to a different set of assumptions.
That isn’t even close to what Dawkins said anywhere in the book.
Neuroscience does not propose that molecules merely combine randomly in the brain. There’s also the additional element of organization. A cellular resting potential, for example, is the result of an electrochemical equilibrium of all of the permeant ions (salts in water) across a membrane, and an action potential is the consequence of a change in ion permeabilities, leading to a new equilibrium. The salt and water and membrane aren’t conscious, but they do generate patterns of activity that contribute to that property of the whole brain, consciousness. Throwing salt and water in a bucket doesn’t set up the non-random distribution of ions that is essential for the process to work.
I presume the six other building blocks he’s talking about are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. He’s right that just mixing these molecules in a bucket doesn’t spontaneously generate a living, thinking being, but human brains aren’t just a mixture of atoms whisked together (well, most human brains…I’m not so sure about Deepak Chopra’s). What we have is all those atoms linked into complex macromolecules—proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and carbohydrates—assembled into organelles and cells and wonderfully connected tissues. There’s nothing random about it.
Now at this point we could just say Chopra is merely grossly ignorant, and mistaking his foolish assumptions for a reasonable reflection of the modern understanding of what’s going on in the brain. This is Chopra, though…he has to transcend the trivially stupid to reach new heights of lunacy, and he does not disappoint.
Note his argument so far: Dawkins is wrong because he defends this “absurd position” that a bucket of salt water should be conscious (setting aside the truth of the matter, that Dawkins makes no such claim). What a fool! Only an idiot could believe such nonsense! So what is Chopra’s explanation?
That salt and water are conscious.
–Consciousness is part of existence. It wasn’t created by molecules.
–Intelligence is an aspect of consciousness.
–Intelligence grows as life grows. Both evolve from within.
–The universe evolved along intelligent lines.
You see, the whole universe is permeated with consciousness, and in his wacky ideas, you don’t need those complicated macromolecules and levels of organization—it’s an intrinsic part of all of existence.
I think we can now make alternative predictions from the materialist hypothesis and the Chopra-woo hypothesis. According to us materialists, a bucket of salt water is a bucket of saltwater, with certain physical and chemical properties. According to Chopra-woo, a bucket of salt water is conscious and aware. Unfortunately, I can’t think of any way to test the conscious water bucket hypothesis—it seems to be unresponsive. I don’t see any indications of organized activity in the bucket, either, since it does seem to be the domain of random interactions, with ions and water molecules bouncing off one another and so forth. I think we can safely say that Chopra does not regard random collisions of molecules as elements of consciousness, so at least on the level of internal consistency, Chopra-woo fails.
I wouldn’t put it past him to call in a medium to channel the thoughts of the water bucket, though. Chopra does give me the impression of a man who will spend hours talking to his nightstand, at least, so I can’t be too surprised at anything he might suggest.
By the way, we also get that standard hallmark of a Chopra article, the closing plea for support from his readers.
First I’d like to hear responders’ views. Do you think you are conscious and intelligent, or are you being fooled by random chemical reactions inside your skull?
Silly false dichotomy. I am conscious and intelligent, but those properties of my brain are not the product of random collisions, nor are they the result of magic consciousness molecules. Most of his readers over there aren’t falling for it. The flim-flam artist is losing his magic—I’m beginning to think his exposure at the Huffington Post might not be such a bad thing after all.