Saturday, January 9, 2010

Shermer and Chopra- A Love Affair

I read the transcript of the recent debate between Deepak Chopra, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Dinesh D'Souza and Michael Shermer (I was unfortunately unable to watch the debate on Larry King Live).  The subject of the debate was ‘Near Death Experience’ and the possibility of an afterlife. This is by no means the first debate on the subject. In fact, Michael Shermer has previously debated Chopra before on the topic of an afterlife.
I think in each debate Shermer misses the target. I agree with his aim, but I disagree with his approach. I don’t want to say that Shermer routinely brings a knife to a gun fight, because that’s giving Chopra too much credit. I’d rather say Shermer routinely brings a knife to a rubber chicken fight.
Regardless of how articulate or well thought-out Shermer’s arguments are, he just can’t keep pace with Chopra’s vague soliloquies. Shermer accurately observes that Chopra talks in Deepakese, a language which seems to be constructed to say as little as possible about anything. Shermer offered some genuinely hilarious examples on his True/Slant page, like this pearl of convolution:

“Birth and death are space-time events in the continuum of life. So the opposite of life is not death. The opposite of death is birth. And the opposite of birth is death. And life is the continuum of birth and death, which goes on and on.”

(A comment which tells us absolutely nothing useful about life, death, or Chopra’s take on it. Though I believe most people would answer, if asked what the opposite of life was, would answer ‘death’, I think the question is flawed. If being dead is not the opposite of being alive, then what objectively is? That’s the opening that Chopra uses to insert his opinions of what life after death consists of, but whatever ‘being dead’ may entail to each individual it still amounts to the same condition of not being alive in one‘s current incarnation. Technically birth and death are events at the opposite end of life, but pointing this out underscores no important truth since everyone generally gets the idea in the first place. It’s just exploiting a syntactical oversight that gives the impression of depth when there is none. The next important component in this statement is Chopra‘s assertion that the cycle of life and death goes ‘on and on‘- a fact which Chopra has no way of knowing or confirming without relying on foggy recollections of persons in an altered state of mind. This habit of attaching an unconfirmed theory to a proven fact is another nasty habit of Chopra‘s which I‘ll get into later…)

Shermer points out another interesting example of Deepakese:

“There are traditions that say the in-body experience is a socially induced collective hallucination. We do not exist in the body. The body exists in us. We do not exist in the world. The world exists in us.”

Simply stating that traditions exists that supports your beliefs does not really mean that those beliefs are accurate. Cross-culturally hundreds of ‘traditions’ exist, many which blatantly contradict others. Are all of the traditions are right? Well they can’t be, obviously. The only reason a person would point out the existence of a ‘tradition’ would be to make an argument to authority, a sort of modified, specialized ad populum fallacy. Because a lot of people believed it, and believed it for a long time as indicated by the word ‘tradition’, it must be correct.

It’s correct unless you consult someone from a different tradition…
That statement also makes a claim that, at the outset, cannot be proven or disproven. How could we prove that we are not a collective hallucination?

(I think, therefore I am. Or nowadays, I blog, therefore I am. But how couldI know I am not hallucinating that thought? Maybe we all live in the Matrix…)

The problem with arguments like this is that when you reduce them to their simplest parts, nothing is real- and that idea is simply useless. Whether we’re a collective hallucination or not we will eventually starve to death if we don’t eat  (and while the length of time may vary greatly from individual to individual, as mystics claim, and no one may necessarily agree on what happens after the fact) the fact remains that you physically die if you don’t eat. The same goes for meeting other biological needs. That underscores the necessity of having an agreed upon reality, whether that reality exists solely because we’re the hallucination of a Martian  that’s dreaming and he made these rules up, or whatever silliness you want to substitute.

As I’ve said before, Dr. Chopra’s ideas about reincarnation and life after death could be correct, I can’t disprove them, however I can point out that he completely lacks any objective evidence to support them. Regardless of the reasons Chopra can’t produce evidence to support his claims, Agent Smith, gremlins, aliens, Shermer, it doesn’t change the fact that the only person who can validate Chopra’s claim is Chopra- and we can’t really expect him to have an objective opinion on the topic. No matter what the reason is, if information can’t be validated then it has no basis in this reality, however valid it might be in the multiple realities that exist in Chopra’s head.

Beyond life and death, some of what Chopra says is just nutty. Here is one Shermer omitted, that I found stupid.

“One very important phrase there: existing scientific knowledge. I don't think science and spirituality are things that are enemies. You know? Science has always looked at the world objectively. When we're looking at consciousness, it is our consciousness that's looking at consciousness.”

Hey guys… I’m going to impart to you a revelation here… if  I’m looking at the mirror evaluating myself, then it’s only me evaluating the self that I’m looking at. You feel me? That’s a big funking duh! Thanks for that because I know I never could have pieced that together Chopra…

I can’t take the time to point out every silly thing Chopra says, because nearly every that comes out of his mouth is silly. Aside from silliness, Chopra’s primary endeavor was making fun of Shermer by repeatedly asking stupid questions “Is it your networks we’re talking to?” “Is it your neurons?” Even by my standards, it was juvenile bullying at it’s worst, and Shermer was scarcely able to get a word in.  When he did get a chance to be heard, the response was typically laughter from the three (stooges) in the studio.

Later Chopra followed the debate up with a bloggish entry about how much he dislikes the term ‘woo woo’ (a derogatory term used by ‘skeptics’ and one that wasn’t used in the debate) and went on to say how little anything skeptics called him mattered and how nothing Shermer said really bugged him. (And that's only his trillionth entry about how little he cares what skeptics think about his woo woo... and I meant absolutely nothing dirty by that!) I find it unusual to devote such a volume of words to telling the world precisely how little you noticed whatever you’re writing at length about.

The fact that Shermer and Chopra continue to debate one another, then promptly complain about the debate, seems reminiscent of an old married couple. In the strangest way, the two seem meant for each other.

(And if I had any sense of timing, I would have written this for Valentine’s Day…. Damn it!)

The bigger problem is that it points to a willingness to substitute depth for convolution. Anything that rings of spirituality, however hollow, is followed with a nigh religious zeal.

Well, at least there's some good news for Chopra... even is he loses debates to Shermer for the rest of his life he can always try again in his next life... that is.... assuming his theories are correct.


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