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Shermer Tries, And Fails, To Take Down Chopra

Aurora last night masked by clouds. Saw plenty of bats. Here is a review of another article you might like to read.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, tried to take apart Deepak Chopra’s mystical nonsense at Big Questions Online.

Ordinarily, as the cliche goes, this would be like shootin’ fish in a barrel. Chopra, true to the nature of discrete mechanics, sprinkles the words “quantum” (i.e. “discrete), “non-local”, and “wave/particle duality” randomly like magical fairy dust throughout his writings, hoping the very bizarreness and unfamiliarity of modern physics will be enough to mystify and, thus, through his apparent but false facility with the words, be enough to convince uninformed readers that he should be appointed Official Demystifier.

But Shermer was loaded with blanks, and, as long as we’re dragging out the cliches, only manages to plug himself in the foot. Chopra’s meanderings into physics never quite reaches the level of gibberish—a claim I will, if there is sufficient demand, be happy to justify in the future. Yet Shermer—our real subject—only manages to make himself look goofy in the same way as his target.

In an attempt to summarize Roger Penrose’s theory of quantum consciousness, Shermer says,

Inside our neurons are tiny hollow microtubules that act like structural scaffolding. Penrose and Hameroff conjecture that something inside the microtubules may initiate a wave-function collapse that leads to the quantum coherence of atoms, causing neurotransmitters to be released into the synapses between neurons. This, in turn, triggers the neurons to fire in a uniform pattern, thereby creating thought and consciousness.

Our tautology for today: Penrose’s claim might be true, and again it might be false. But it is at least comprehensible, and open to verification. And, whatever other benefits it has, it is, at a minimum, intriguing.

Yet Shermer dismisses Penrose with a wave, troting out a musing from his pal, physicist Victor Stenger:

[F]or a system to be described in terms of quantum mechanics, its typical mass m, speed v, and distance d must be on the order of Planck’s constant h. “If mvd is much greater than h, then the system probably can be treated classically,”…Stenger computed the mass of neural transmitter molecules and their speed across the distance of a synapse, and he concluded that both are about three orders of magnitude too large for quantum effects to be influential.

Evidently, Shermer missed Stenger’s use of the word “probably”, which means, of course, that sometimes systems larger than mvd must be treated using the math of quantum (i.e. discrete) mechanics. And anyway, the activity of our neurons should obviously be treated quantum mechanically, as everything should be, at base. The only question is to what level of approximation are we satisfied?

Shermer, and perhaps Stenger, dismiss Penrose too quickly, because they are anxious to toss out all attempts of explaining consciousness in terms of quantum mechanical effects. Their reasoning, I suppose, goes like this: if Chopra uses it, it must be false.

Shermer tries it more than once, too. He says, “But the world of subatomic particles has no correspondence with the world of Newtonian mechanics”, a statement as accurate and as useful as anything Chopra ever wrote.

But our man doesn’t only have trouble with physics—which is, let us admit, difficult—he’s not doing too well with logic, either.

At the beginning of his piece, he tells us that he is convinced that various arguments for God’s existence—the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, the argument from design, etc.—are “all reasons to believe in God only if you already believe.” He also says that these arguments have “been refuted over the ages by philosophers from David Hume to Daniel Dennett.”

“Refute” is a strong word, one of the best. It means to demonstrate logically that some idea or hypothesis is false. Merely casting suspicion on an argument is as far away from “refute” as Daniel Dennett is to sanity when that man proposes that parents who raise their children within a religious faith should be charged with child abuse.

It is false to claim that every argument for God’s existence has been refuted—Shermer’s statement is itself refuted by empirical observation. As is his own empirical so-called observation that arguments for God’s existence are only convincing “if you already believe.” We have the sworn testimony of history that contradicts directly that statement.

All Shermer has left is his opening joke—and his best argument—which I will leave for you to discover.

7 thoughts on “Shermer Tries, And Fails, To Take Down Chopra Leave a comment

  1. Their reasoning, I suppose, goes like this: if Chopra uses it, it must be false.

    Perhaps it is, but it seems that you fall into the same trap. If Shermer or Dennett say it, it must be false :).

    His argument of the difference of orders of magnitude is very compelling, or at least builds up a credible barrier to overcome. Not by the likes of Chopra, who are fundamentally uninterested in truth, rather on metaphysics, but by the neuro-scientists of this century to unravel.

    Searle points out that the only non-deterministic place left is the quantum world, “therefore”, any consciousness explanation must have something to do with it. And yet, he admits to great shame and discomfort by offering such a cop out, a modern version of the god of the gaps, the “Free-Will-of-The-Gaps”.

    Chopra’s problem is different. He cares nothing about the truthfulness of his remarks, only about the mystic around it. He is trying to create a religion, a purpose, a narrative of metaphysics out of the more authoritive narratives in our modern world, which are undoubtedly, particle physics. So he doesn’t really care if he’s on the right scientific track or not, he only cares of the existence of said Gap.

    And then, if it is possible, then it is necessarily possible, and by s5, possibly necessary. And if it is possibly necessary in any given possible world, it is necessary in all possible worlds. (I think that one of the more hilarious “proofs” of god goes something like that).

    IOW, if it’s possible, he’s happy. And the stupid atheist who is trying to say how completely unreasonable Chopra is being, only suffers for lack of faith and an irritating amount of arrogant snobbism.

  2. It is possible, indeed likely, that Shermer and Chopra are both wrong.

    One trick pseudo-debaters use is to pre-select their opponents. In this case both men have chosen a moron for their opponent, which equals the playing field but does not make for a good game.

  3. RE: Chopra’s meanderings into physics never quite reaches the level of gibberish—a claim I will, if there is sufficient demand, be happy to justify in the future.

    PLEASE DO write out why Chopra’s remarks do not reach the level of gibberish — and as part of that exercise also explain if/why you dis/agree that they stoop to the level of “cosmic flapdoodle” (referenced in the referenced article).

    A blog distinguishing the finer distinctions between “gibberish” and “quantum flapdoodle” (or any kind of flapdoodle for that matter), along with whatever other terms of art that would be invoked, would be fun to read.

  4. I thought that opening joke was one of the more preposterous atheist cliches. For the record, I believe in God and Allah and the First Cause and that Existence exists … and I also believe they are the same entity.

  5. Shermer makes me skeptical about people who label themselves skeptics.

    As a general rule if someone other than a physicist uses the term quantum you can substitute “bullshit” without changing the information content of the sentence.

  6. Evidently, Shermer missed Stenger’s use of the word “probably”, which means, of course, that sometimes systems larger than mvd must be treated using the math of quantum (i.e. discrete) mechanics. And anyway, the activity of our neurons should obviously be treated quantum mechanically, as everything should be, at base. The only question is to what level of approximation are we satisfied?
    .
    WOW William that is a real (quantum mechanical) man’s talk 🙂
    Did you hide to us a degree in QM ?

    I have read and reread Penrose’s thesis and would say exactly what you did – it may but must not be true .
    For me the principal consciousness problem is the apparent man’s liberty . Our brains really don’t work strictly deterministically .
    So if we look as we must for very basic physical processes at microscopical level that are NOT deterministic then there are only 2 possibilities :
    – if the process is on the classical level then it must be chaotic (here is meant Lorenz deterministic chaos in non linear systems)
    – if the process is on the QM level then it is self explaining because the QM world only knows probabilities

    Personnally I favour the first possibility because it is already a semi known (e.g strongly suggested) fact that the epilepsy phenomenon exhibits deterministic chaos features .
    To go farther one would have to generalise to spatio temporal chaos (Lorenz treats only temporal chaos) because the brain has a spatial dimension but there is no spatio-temporal chaos theory sofar .
    I don’t expect that there will be one anytime soon and this point has additional spice because when/if the spatio-temporal chaos theory exists then we will know everything about the climate too because weather and climate are also governed by spatio-temporal chaos .

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