File from Wikimedia Commons
Date: 13 November 2011
I really don't know much about Deepak Chopra except that I remember having seen his books on spirituality and faith healing ever since I was a boy. As far as I am concerned, faith healing really means nothing more than quackery or shamanism and of course shamanism is just a longer word for the more familiar "sham".
PZ Myers puts it very well. I couldn't help laughing when I read Myers description of Deepak Chopra as a quantum quack. I'm inclined to think that term suits Chopra admirably because he does try to insert quantum physics into his mumbo-jumbo jargon of faith healing. If you want to read PZ Myers' well-written post in his blog, there are two places in which his post appears: here and here. They are identical and it's prudent of him to have his blog in two places. If one site shuts down, there's still the other site and we won't be deprived of his wisdom.
Myers is laughing at Chopra's review of Dawkins' book, The Magic of Reality. In his review, according to PZ Myers and I have to depend on what Myers says since I make it a point never to read books written by witch-doctors, Chopra uses words such as "obnoxious" and "ignorant" in his tirade against Dawkins' book.
Having long ago seen a video of an interview of Chopra by Richard Dawkins, I can easily understand the reason for Chopra's burning anger for Dawkins. You see, Dawkins exposed Chopra in an interview a couple of years ago and held him up as a charlatan and fraud. If you are interested in seeing the interview, click here.
Observe how Chopra is very careful when he talks to Dawkins, a real scientist, about quantum physics. He begins by saying that he employs the term "quantum physics" merely as a metaphor. But when Dawkins is about to seize on that (presumably because Chopra claims to "use" quantum physics in his "healing"), Chopra immediately talks about some disagreement among physicists. This is a common ploy used by faith-based people who try to find fault with science - they harp on the lack of consensus among experts in some esoteric scientific field (and there is always some area of science which is in dispute) and somehow they appropriate for themselves a vague validation of their faith even though the dispute among the experts may have nothing to do with the claim of their faith.
Jumping on the bandwagon of science's uncertainty is not uncommon for "spiritual" people. Some New Age devotees make constant references to quantum physics and Schrodinger's Cat as some kind of validation for their New Age belief but in very vague terms of course. Apart from quantum physics, astronomy is another fertile ground for faith believers. The origin of the universe is an exceptionally good area to go into. I've heard an argument that the String Theory proves the existence of God. My own bishop once mentioned dark matter in his sermon.
I have often wondered why religious apologists don't really make it clear how an uncertainty in science can possibly prove the truth of their beliefs. Perhaps they can't afford to be any clearer because clarity on such a subject can make their whole argument appear ludicrous. For us believers, ambiguity and haziness work to our advantage. For example, my bishop did not explain how the postulation of dark matter by scientists can in any way forward the religious claims of the church. If he were to say that scientists had to postulate the existence of dark matter to account for the mass in the universe when this mass is actually the mass of God himself, that would certainly make his point clearer but it would also at the same time elicit laughter from the congregation. Perhaps my bishop meant to point out the fact that scientists were uncertain of many things in the universe and so it's not implausible that they might have overlooked God lurking somewhere in the background. It is no good making any reference to science unless one shows clearly how that can affirm the truth of religious claims. Chopra, at the start of the interview, claims he uses quantum physics as a metaphor for his faith healing. What good is a metaphor to prove the efficacy of faith healing? Anyone can use scientific metaphor but that means nothing. A voodoo magician can call his needle a laser beam or a nuclear bomb but that won't change the fact that his voodoo needle has no effect at all. But there is some good in making references to science even if one doesn't show how that can advance the religious cause. Using scientific jargon in a sermon does lend some respectability to a mindless belief system that is not backed by evidence. Parishioners usually don't pay close attention to a sermon anyway and there is no time given for questions and answers after a sermon. Bear in mind that I am not for a moment saying that a mindless belief system that is not backed by evidence is necessarily false and untrue. I make no pronouncement on its truth; I'm merely explaining the reason for this need to make allusions, however vague and unrelated, to the more difficult aspects of science.
I was once approached by a polite chap while I was walking on the Millennium Bridge and he invited me to see a short movie. Now, at that time, what I really needed most was the toilet and as any Singaporean knows, as long as you are out of Singapore, it's very hard to find available toilets anywhere outside your hotel. I thought to myself that if there was a movie, there ought to be a toilet too. The chap led me to a plush and stately building not far from the Millennium Bridge and St Paul's Cathedral. It was a building owned by the Church of Scientology. The toilet was just as opulent as the rest of the building and having visited it, I thought it would have been churlish to just leave the building without at least obliging the guy by watching his movie. The movie was screened in a small but well-furnished hall and although there were many seats, the only audience consisted of me and a Canadian man who was similarly accosted on the street.
The film with the preposterous title of "Dianetics" was hilarious and silly and it was all about the Church of Scientology's belief in faith healing. The choice of the word "dianetics" is obvious. It has a scientific ring to it. Even the name of the church is calculated to give it a veneer of science. But the film was far from scientific; it made medical doctors appear like conspirators who were out to harm patients. The teaching behind the film was simply not to have faith in medical science but rather, to trust in "dianetics", ie their brand of faith healing. At the end of the screening, the Canadian man and I were invited to buy a book on Dianetics which we of course politely declined.
Pedlars of superstition and faith healing usually resort to masking the silliness of their superstition with science. They may use names which sound scientific but people should be on the alert when they see mumbo-jumbo dressed in sci-fi garb. The New Age beliefs draw heavily on such scientific-sounding words. Whether they advocate the use of the mind to make things happen by magic or they talk about being in direct contact with intelligent beings from other planets - the contact is always a human channeller who endeavours to speak in a strange voice that can be pretty hilarious to the uninitiated - the names and ideas are almost always identical with what you find in science fiction. Older beliefs aren't so fortunate. They are stuck to ancient and sometimes barbaric concepts such as the propitiation of a God by blood sacrifice but these older religions too do not let the scientific grass grow under their feet - their defenders and apologists tap deeply into the more difficult and less settled areas of science such as the String Theory and dark matter as I've mentioned above.
If I may go back to the video of the interview of Chopra by Dawkins, notice how Chopra moves from saying that he uses quantum physics as a metaphor for his faith healing to his direct attack on science as "arrogant". It is clear to any viewer of the video that Chopra starts out intending to accord to his faith healing the respectability of science. But when Dawkins makes it hard for him to carry on with this charade, he takes a different stance and attacks science with a viciousness that shows quite unmistakeably that his faith healing and science are really poles apart.
A charlatan though he may be, Chopra is probably an honest man. This is my view of faith-based people. They genuinely believe the truth of their belief system. What has Chopra to gain by cooking up a false belief system if he doesn't himself believe in it? These faith-based people are truly sincere and well-meaning and while they may cloak their beliefs with the respectability of science and may make allusions to science or use scientific jargon as a metaphor, they will not hesitate to attack science altogether if it stands in the way of their faith.
Chopra was a medical doctor before he went into faith healing. Non-medical people are often of the mistaken notion that medical doctors are scientists with a scientific frame of mind. Time and time again, we see medical doctors believing in ludicrous superstitions and faith healing. If you scour through this blog, you will see a few examples that I have brought up including that of a brain surgeon who came up with the most nonsensical statement about life after death. See this. It is not that medical doctors are more susceptible to believing in nonsense; they are just no different from the average person when it comes to falling prey to evidence-less belief.
I know a medical doctor who is a fervent advocate of creationism including the belief that the earth is only 6000 years old. Actually, young-earth creationists (as they are called) believe in more than just a 6000-year-old earth. They believe in a 6000-year-old universe! All I had to do was to show her the compelling evidence for evolution and for an earth that exceeds 4.5 billion years in age and she immediately accepted the obvious truth. But not everyone is willing to abandon their cherished belief in creationism even a whole universe of evidence is shown to them.
Some features of the human anatomy mirror the truth of evolution. To believe that a Divine Being created humans out of nothing or, as Genesis tells us in its allegorical language, out of the soil of the earth is to believe that this Divine Being was guilty of a bad design. What I find incomprehensible is the fact that medical doctors who are students of anatomy do know all about these anatomical flaws that are perfectly consistent with and explicable by evolutionary theory. How then can these doctors abandon their knowledge and insist on being creationists? Her reply was interesting - a doctor's main goal is to heal the body. When you look at the flaws in the "design" of the human body, you do not ask philosophical questions like "Is there really a Divine Maker who is guilty for such architectural and design flaws?" but rather you address your mind purely to the treatment of the body bearing in mind at all times the flaws that are inherent in our bodies. They have too much to think of in the treatment of the human body to bother about our origin and to link what they know of the anatomy to evolution or to see the implausibility of creationism.
For Christians who can't read books written by atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne, both of whom are evolutionary biologists, a good book to recommend to them is Francis Collins' The Language of God. Collins is a devout Christian who accepts the truth of evolution. He's of course the greatest genetic scientist and is the first person to have mapped out the whole of the human genome and his book shows from a genetic standpoint why evolution is absolutely true.
This dissociation of one's knowledge from one's belief is something I have observed for a long time. When I was a student living on campus, the student in the room next to mine read what was then called "Double Physics". That means he majored in Physics and did some other Physics course so he was to all intents and purposes an expert in Physics. One evening, I got a friend of mine who was an expert in Chinese calligraphy to write for me poems for the dead that were used in Chinese funerals and I pasted them on my door. Now, this Physics student was a Malaysian Chinese and he could not read a word of Mandarin but when he was told the significance of the poems pasted on my door, he was livid. He told me that I would bring bad luck to my neighbours and since he was just next door to me, he would be the target of the evil one. I reasoned with him that as a Double Physics student, surely he wasn't superstitious? He looked startled and confused when he replied, "What has Physics got to do with the evil forces?"
I removed the poems from my door and pasted them on my desk in my room. Well-meaning friends told me I would fail my exams because of that. And mind you, they were not joking! They truly believed that some funereal poem pasted at one's door or desk could attract evil forces.
I really don't know what Deepak Chopra teaches nor do I care. Those who argue that you must examine in detail a belief before dismissing it are wrong. I can't examine the teachings of all the 20 million shamans, witch-doctors, bomohs, tang kees, snake-oil pedlars, charlatans and faith healers in order to dismiss each and every one of them. It's enough for me to dismiss them all unless they can produce reasonable evidence to support their claim of healing through supernatural means. Give me the evidence for the efficacy of your snake oil and until you do that, have the decency not to align yourself with real scientists or use their terminology or a tacky imitation of it.