On Deepak Chopra’s Absurd Challenge to Skeptics
Scientifically-informed questioners and doubters who are not easily taken in by extraordinary and unverifiable spiritual claims are clearly getting under the skin of Deepak Chopra. The man has issued a challenge to James Randi and his “so-called militant atheist friends” (whom he also refers to as Randi’s “cronies”) in a recent YouTube video. Chopra, the popular New Age guru and purveyor of all things woo, has been getting very uppity about skeptics in the last few years. He has been taking potshots at such skeptics multiple times in recent years, and his challenge to skeptics is just the latest in a long series of these shots.
And yet Chopra does not seem to know the first thing about what skepticism or the skeptical movement is all about. At most, he knows who James Randi is and a few other prominent names in the movement. He seems to believe that skepticism is a small-minded cult of people who follow Randi as a leader. The fact is that the skeptical movement is a large, diverse, and growing community made up of scientists, philosophers, and people from all walks of life and areas of expertise.
Chopra’s challenge is a mocking imitation of the standing “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge” offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). Chopra will give one million dollars to anyone who successfully meets his challenge. All you need to do is this: In a single peer-reviewed paper, advance the field of neuroscience by about a century by solving what may be the hardest problem in the philosophy of mind that exists. Following is the challenge in Chopra’s own words from his YouTube video:
Dear Randi: Before you go around debunking the so-called “paranormal,” please explain the so-called “normal.” How does electricity going into the brain become the experience of a three dimensional world in space and time? If you can explain that, then you get a million dollars from me. Explain and solve the hard problem of consciousness in a peer-reviewed journal, offer a theory that is falsifiable, and you get the prize [. . .]
So if you can give a scientifically viable falsifiable theory published in a peer-reviewed journal, you or any of your cronies, including Dawkins, Shermer, and the whole gang, then you get a million dollars from me, and I’ll be happy to present you the check on television, on national media.
The “hard problem of consciousness” is an issue of concern primarily to philosophers of mind. The easy problem is coming to an understanding of how the human brain processes external stimuli such as sounds and images, how it produces movement in the muscles, and how it performs all the other mundane tasks we take for granted. The hard problem has to do with what is called qualia, or the nature of subjective conscious experience. Why do we consciously experience our own existence? How do we scientifically account for the subjective experience of our individual streams of consciousness?
However, philosophers are not even in agreement as to whether or not a hard problem even exists, let alone a need to solve it as Chopra wants us to do. For example, philosopher Daniel Dennett has argued that once all the easy problems of consciousness have been solved, it follows that the Hard Problem has been solved as well:
Is there really a Hard Problem? Or is what appears to be the Hard Problem simply the large bag of tricks that constitute [what has been called] the Easy Problems of Consciousness? These all have mundane explanations, requiring no revolution in physics, no emergent novelties. They succumb, with much effort, to the standard methods of cognitive science.
[Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking (New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), p. 316]
In other words, Dennett’s argument is that the solution to the hard problem of consciousness is the sum of all solutions to the easy problems. Our subjective conscious experience is simply the result of brain processing. Consciousness in this account is an emergent, bottom-up phenomenon.
The incoherency of Chopra’s challenge extends far beyond his unsupported assumption that a hard problem of consciousness necessarily confronts scientists. Nowhere in his spoken challenge does Chopra establish any clear criteria by which to determine whether an applicant to his challenge has satisfied the conditions. What does Chopra mean by “explain” in the context of accounting for consciousness, and to what depth of reductionism? Any student of neuroscience could “explain” consciousness to Chopra on some level, in terms of neuronal firing and neuroanatomical correlates. But this will not satisfy Chopra, as he himself states in his challenge:
Don’t just give me a neural correlate, or NCC as it’s called. Neural correlates of consciousness are well known, but they’re not a good enough explanation for how we experience the world, how we experience color, taste, sound, form, any perception. You can’t explain it. Texture, solidity, we cannot explain that. We can’t even explain how we have the perception experience of our own body, all our thoughts, intuition, insight, imagination, creativity, cognition, self-reflection. And once again, neural correlates are not causation.
Chopra here sounds like a New Age version of conservative talk-show pundit Bill O’Reilly arguing for the existence of his Christian god with the idiotic line, “Tide goes in, tide goes out. You can’t explain that.”
I suspect the reason Chopra will not accept the neural correlates as a materialistic explanation of consciousness is because even he must realize on some level that these well-established correlates constitute a natural explanation that we already have at our disposal. If he allowed skeptics to invoke the correlates, he knows he would end up having to give away his million dollars in a very short time. Chopra is effectively choosing to ignore all the evidence of a materialistic account of consciousness that already exists, demanding instead some ill-defined “other” solution that he does not bother specifying. This is Chopra’s signature “dualism-of-the-gaps” methodology. His modus operandi is to actively seek out any and all gaps that currently exist in our scientific understanding of consciousness and prematurely fill them with unsubstantiated claims about mysticism and a spiritual side to human nature.
In his critical takedown of Chopra’s challenge, posted on the NeuroLogica blog, Yale neurologist Steven Novella presents a very good analogy to pseudoscientific gap-dwellers of a hundred years ago:
I always find it is important to put such “gap” arguments into context. If such a challenge were made over a hundred years ago, you can imagine a 19th century Chopra demanding the sort of evidence for the brain function paradigm of consciousness that we currently have today – show me clear neuroanatomical correlates, show that you can alter the mind by altering the brain, show that brain function precedes mental phenomena, etc. Such a challenge would have been impossible a century ago, but now it is a routine part of modern neuroscience, and of course this is not enough evidence for the gap dwellers. They want more.
Because science is an ongoing effort to understand and construct models of reality through observation and experiment, rather than a program of disseminating dogmatic truth claims, there will always be gaps in scientific knowledge. Undoubtedly, there will be Deepak Chopras running around one hundred years from now in the early 22nd century demanding that scientists provide them with an explanation for some aspect of physical nature that we will still not have at that time.
Even if someone did manage to meet and satisfy the challenge as given, it would not be enough for Chopra. The fuzziness of his conditions would enable him to simply declare any explanation of or solution to the hard problem of consciousness to be insufficient. Chopra is essentially asking skeptics to convince him that there is no magic involved in consciousness. And we all know, as does Chopra himself, that this is never going to happen. “To many people,” writes Daniel Dennett, “consciousness is ‘real magic.’ If you’re not talking about something that is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, then you’re not talking about consciousness, the Mystery Beyond All Understanding” [Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 313]. Chopra is one of these people, which is why his challenge is a farce. Chopra has seen to it that there is no way for anyone to actually satisfy it.
In stark contrast to Chopra’s million-dollar challenge, James Randi’s “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge” establishes clear rules and conditions at the outset for all interested applicants. For instance, every aspect of Randi’s test must be agreed upon in advance between the individual being tested and those who are doing the testing. Most importantly, applicants to Randi’s challenge must meet a visible goal and produce a tangible outcome which they themselves specify. Applicants are challenged to manifest whatever abilities they already claim they possess, not to accomplish something they believe is unachievable. For example, if an applicant to Randi’s challenge says she can use telekinesis to move a key suspended from a string, the challenge simply asks her to do so to the satisfaction of conditions which must be agreed to in advance by the applicant before the test is commenced. Chopra’s new challenge, by contrast, inappropriately shifts the burden of proof by asking skeptics to explain neuroscience to him to some arbitrary level of reductionist detail that he does not specify.
The closest Chopra comes in his video to making a positive truth-claim (as opposed to merely spouting negations of the scientific consensus) is his assertion, commonly made by dualists, that intention constitutes evidence that the mind is operating independently of the physical brain:
If I ask you to imagine a sunset on the ocean right now and you have the experience somewhere, then explain to me where that picture is. [. . .]
When I asked you to think of that sunset, there was a neural correlate. But it wasn’t there until you had the experience, or you had them simultaneously or one before the other. It doesn’t matter. You had intention. Explain to me intention.
Chopra is here claiming that when he asks me to think of a sunset on the ocean, a mental image of that sunset is responsible for triggering the subsequent firing of the appropriate neurons in my brain. In other words, Chopra is claiming that the thought of the sunset comes first. This makes no sense whatsoever. The thought of a sunset on the ocean comes from my brain, not from some “intention” originating outside of it. Upon hearing the words “imagine a sunset on the ocean right now,” my brain communicates with itself, triggering an internal conversation that is fed by external stimuli and maintained by a continuous feedback loop of activity.
There exists a copious amount of neuroscientific research demonstrating conclusively that neuronal firings within the brain occur prior to any communication from an individual that he or she experienced or acted upon any stimuli. It has been clearly established that the neuronal brain firings happen first, before any so-called “intention” or subjective experience.
If the opposite was discovered to be the case, the entire state of modern neuroscience would be turned on its head. If neuroscientists found through observation and experiment that qualia precedes brain activity, this discovery would constitute the single biggest anomaly in the history of science to date. It would be analogous to finding rabbit fossils in Precambrian rock strata, which would effectively falsify evolutionary theory. In this sense, Chopra is the New Age equivalent of the young-earth creationist who denies the fact that a multitude of transitional fossil forms exist whilst at the same time demanding to be shown them.
What we consistently find instead of neuroscience’s “rabbit in the Precambrian” is that the field of purely materialistic neuroscience is just as safe and well-corroborated as is the theory of unguided and natural evolution. The arrow of cause and effect from the material brain to what we call “mind” is well established. In fact, the “mind” is not even an entity or phenomenon created by the brain. The mind is the brain, or more accurately the functioning of the brain. Based upon all the neuroscientific evidence we have so far accumulated, the only conclusion any reasonable and intellectually honest person can come to is that when the physical brain dies, so does the mind, and with it dies the consciousness of the individual who used that physical brain. The link between the functioning of the brain and mental experience is so well established that it cannot be dismissed as a mere correlation. The findings of neuroscience are exactly what we would expect to find if the mind is nothing more than brain function.
In closing, I wish to turn Chopra’s challenge around on himself and ask him to prove the truth of anything he has ever said in his hundreds of seminars and interviews or written in his several dozen books. For starters, I would ask Chopra to demonstrate the truth of the following claim, made early on in the challenge video we have been considering: “The problem with you [James Randi] and your cronies is that you’re bamboozled by the superstition of matter.”
I invite Chopra to have some integrity and test for himself how much of a “superstition” matter really is by trying to walk through a brick wall. The burden of proof is on him to show that magic is involved in human consciousness, not on skeptics to explain the whole of neuroscience to him in a single paper. Until Chopra walks through a brick wall, no one should take his challenge seriously.