Since I won’t be invited back on the Deepak Chopra show…
Last year, I agreed to be on the Chopra Well, Deepak Chopra’s YouTube channel. Many of my colleagues derided me for it. After all, Chopra is famous for popularizing “quantum healing,” which can only be described as bullshit. So, why would I lend any credibility to his platform?
Well, on the one hand, I had to spruik my own book (consumerism, baby!), but, on the other hand, I thought I could actually teach him and his many followers something. In hindsight, though, this was the wrong question. In fact, it was Chopra who taught me something very important, which leads to a vastly more interesting question — what, exactly, is Deepak Chopra?
You see, Chopra is either caricatured as a smooth-talking alternative medicine guru or a rambling idiot with an accidental following. In either case, the perception is that he knows nothing about the metaphysical concepts he tries to connect to his own worldview, which presumably revolves around some mystical philosophy.
In preparing for the interview, I fully anticipated the conversation revolving around “spirituality” or some other vaguely defined concept forcing me to respond to pseudo-profound bullshit. But it didn’t. And, here’s the thing, he is no fool.
After our brief conversation, it was crystal clear to me how I would characterize him. He is insatiably curious. He is desperate to know “the answer,” assuming there’s a simple one for, well, everything. He is incredibly well-versed at the most superficial level but unwilling to take the time to go deeper. This ultimately leaves him deeply confused. He is constantly grasping at straws, hoping to find one he can suck the truth serum of the universe out of.
As I spoke with him, it became clear that he is not alone in this mode of learning. There are many people out there looking for simple answers or some ah-ha moment that will suddenly make everything clear. He doesn’t realize that such a thing does not exist. True understanding takes time, and you will always be wrong — there is no final answer.
Since Chopra defied my expectations to derail the conversation completely, I was unable to express some ideas I wanted to share with his audience about his usual hobby horses. I’ll do that here since, after my latest book, I’m pretty sure I’ll not be invited back on the show.
Spirituality and science
Pop culture spirituality is a load of bullshit. Let’s get that out of the way first. The commercialization of spirituality, which often comes at the expense of vulnerable people, is deplorable. Indeed, the claims that modern science supports or provides evidence for claims made about products and services offered by spiritual guides are deeply offensive.
Spirituality itself is completely disjoint from science. Science has nothing to say about proper claims in spirituality. For example, the belief in some higher power, such as God or a Universal Consciousness, can neither be proven nor disproven with logic, reason, or experimental test. In some sense, then, you have a choice — you can believe things other people tell you that you have no way of verifying the veracity of, or you can follow the scientific route and give yourself intellectual tools to explore the world.
You can have personal beliefs about topics in science, and some of those can have the same unverifiable character as spiritual claims. For example, the idea of a multiverse suggests that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes, each with its own physical laws and properties. This concept is based on theoretical physics and cosmology, but it remains unverifiable as there is, by definition, no way to test it.
But you can’t have coherent personal beliefs about the connection between science and spirituality. Spirituality rejects science. Any supposed connection is bullshit, which is too often said for the purpose of misleading people into false hope or an empty bank account.
People often “turn to” spirituality for comfort — be it physical or emotional. If you require physical comfort, science — particularly medical science — has you covered. That’s not my area of expertise, so I won’t say more. If you are looking for emotional comfort and turning to spiritual leaders, then it would seem to me, from what is on offer, that you are looking for a feeling of connectedness. Well, guess what? Science has you covered there too.
Science starts with observation. We pick out some pattern in the world and decide that is worth explaining and perhaps even controlling. Then we create mathematical models that caricature the thing so we can study and understand it, as well as simplify it so that we can communicate with each other about it. Eventually, we may even be able to simulate that part of the world with our models and learn to control and manipulate it. The crucial thing here is that the patterns we seek to explain and control are shared among all people, as are the findings of the scientific community. Science is the ultimate tool that drives the connectedness not only of society but also of humanity to the natural world.
Consciousness and science
Consciousness is everything and nothing. It’s everything to me. All I know is my own experience. That includes perception and the inferences I make about what lies outside my body. For all I can be absolutely certain of, there is nothing else. So what can we say about consciousness? Not much, really. Consciousness is indeed closer to spirituality than it is to science.
That means everything I said above about spirituality can be applied to consciousness, with a few caveats. First, when I use the word “consciousness” here, I’m using it in the same way as Chopra. It’s a word as vaguely defined and used as spirituality. Thus claims that consciousness is in any way related to concepts in science are bullshit. For example, you might hear that consciousness is the fundamental reality of the universe, and everything — including matter and energy — emerges from it. That’s just vacuous bullshit. It has no meaning whatsoever.
The other caveat is that there are actual branches of science that use the word consciousness differently. It is a multi-disciplinary field of study, and scientists from various fields like neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science have different perspectives on the definition of consciousness. So even in the context of science, one must be careful in using the word.
Neuroscience, for example, tends to define consciousness as the neural activity that occurs in the brain and nervous system, which is associated with the ability to perceive, think, and feel. This perspective tends to focus on the biological and physical aspects of consciousness, such as the neural processes that underlie perception and cognition. While much progress has been made, it will never be able to explain our broader experience, and I’m 100% sure neuroscientists do not feel closer to spiritual enlightenment with every academic paper they publish.
The nature of reality
Both spiritualism and science claim to have windows on reality, so this is a tricky one. The short answer is again that there is no connection between the concepts of spirituality and science in regard to reality, even though they tend to use the same words. For example, even in classical physics, the force of gravity has an infinite extent. That means that everything “feels” everything else. But this “interconnectedness” is not the same as the spiritual concept by the same name. For one, it’s not instantaneous. In physics, yes, I can influence something on the other side of the galaxy, but it will take 100,000 years to do so. That certainly does not align with the spiritual idea that we all share some deep connection with the universe. (And, no, quantum entanglement isn’t relevant here.)
Most notions of reality in spiritual traditions revolve around some creation myth, and modern pseudo-scientific spiritualism is no different. Chopra suggests that reality is a projection of consciousness and that consciousness is the source of creation. But that clearly begs the question if we are to take it seriously at all. Circular definitions with profound-sounding prose get us no closer even to the apparent goal of achieving enlightenment — unless, of course, enlightenment means having a closed set of definitions of things that sound important but only take you in circles.
Science, on the other hand, fares no better when it comes to reality. Remember that science is about creating models of reality. We have remarkably good models — ones that make accurate predictions — but they do not replicate reality. If a scientific model were not simpler than what it is meant to represent, it would be useless — a mere duplication of the thing. Thus, we derive understanding from our pictures of a toy world, not reality itself. What we can say at all is also temporary, as paradigm shifts in science drastically change the models we use to derive meaning from.
But the moral of the story is consistent with science — don’t hold convictions about things you don’t fully understand, and certainly don’t make confident statements about them from positions of authority. This is the irony of popular science. The problem created by popularizers of science and philosophy (not discounting myself here!) is the perception that there are simple answers. Those mesmerized by it are like those who pay to enter the Money Tornado carnival game. It looks like you can step in and grab a million dollars out of thin air, but instead, you just end up flailing around with nothing to show for it.