Deepak Chopra: “Skeptics trust in nothing”

December 2, 2009

The Huffington Post is a paper that I came across quite a bit in 2008.  Though it had many interesting articles during the 2008 US Election, it’s leftish slant still left a lot to be desired.  In particular, the Huffington Post has run articles and op-eds supporting a lot of junk medicine, including homeopathy and the anti-vaccination perspective.  So it was no surprise when they published an article where Deepak Chopra, a true master of “woo,” complained about how skeptics are, in essence, pathetic nihilists who’ve never been ahead of the curve.

First, it stands to reason that Deepak Chopra has a very rational reason why he dislikes skeptics: Chopra firmly believes in the New Age mystic principle of what he calls “Quantum Healing.”  Put simply, it says that the mind can heal the body.  Take no need of any medicine; you have all that you need sloshing around in your skull.  Chopra makes use of the randomness seen in Quantum Mechanics at the sub-atomic level to suggest that there is also something going on between the mind and the body which is beyond our senses.  Touting this principle has led to a fair amount of success for Chopra, who gets his fair share of recognition for his philosophical outlook.  The only catch: there is, of course, no evidence for such a thing.

It is here where the rubber meets the road.  Skeptics such as myself pride themselves in a certain standard of evidence; anyone who ignores claims with significant supporting evidence is adhering to it dogmatically, and something certainly frowned upon within the skeptic community.  Indeed, the skeptic who acknowledges strong evidence quickly is the strongest of the bunch.  Chopra, though, sees things quite differently:

It never occurs to skeptics that a sense of wonder is paramount, even for scientists. Especially for scientists. Einstein insisted, in fact, that no great discovery can be made without a sense of awe before the mysteries of the universe. Skeptics know in advance — or think they know — what right thought is. Right thought is materialistic, statistical, data-driven, and always, always, conformist. Wrong thought is imaginative, provisional, often fantastic, and no respecter of fixed beliefs.

Here I think Chopra is heading down the completely wrong path.  Practical skeptics embrace the wonder of science, and have reverence and wonder for that which is unknown.  Our sense of awe is fully engaged by the natural, empirical world without ascribing it to something undemonstrated; it is enough for me to look into the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and feel an incredible sense of unity and solidarity simultaneously.  When I look into the sky, I see my connection to the universe and find it unfathomable in a way Carl Sagan might have described: I’m but a mote of dust in the wind, yet I’m made of the same starry stuff that everything else is.  There is real awe in such a moment which need not be answered by mystical claims.  I think, on the other hand, it is perfectly sufficient to give a natural account of what we know, and remain humbled by our ignorance of that which we don’t know.

Contrary to Chopra’s assertion, skeptics do not think they know in advance what right thought is: they simply believe what the strongest evidence indicates.  When the evidence changes to support a different opinion or hypothesis, the skeptic community goes along with it.  As an example, I think here of the large number of skeptics who came to accept Global Warming due to a preponderence of evidence in support of it.  Interestingly enough, the recent emails leaked from the Climate Research Unit in the UK are sparking new arguments in the skeptic community about the validity of Global Warming.  So clearly, skeptics are open to new ways of thinking about things and are, in this particular case, very non-conformist.

The problem here is not one of being ideologically driven; it is a question of standards of evidence.  By all means, a skeptic will accept a principle like quantum healing, but you must be able to demonstrate such a thing.  It is only by providing positive evidence for our claims that we are able to deduce the real from the non-real.  An idea that is wonderfully imaginative is only useful if it advances our understanding of the way the world really works; whether it is the product of fantasy or not is irrelevant.  So here comes the final blow from Chopra:

So whenever I find myself labeled the emperor of woo-woo, I pull out the poison dart and offer thanks that wrong thinking has gotten us so far. Thirty years ago no right-thinking physician accepted the mind-body connection as a valid, powerful mode of treatment. Today, no right-thinking physician (or very few) would trace physical illness to sickness of the soul, or accept that the body is a creation of consciousness, or tell a patient to change the expression of his genes. But soon these forms of wrong thinking will lose their stigma, despite the best efforts of those professional stigmatizers, the skeptics.

I hope it is immediately clear how flawed such an argument was.  Chopra feels that if he can just show one instance where people thought wrongly in the past, it can support his assertion that people are thinking wrongly now.  Yet this method of equivocation is invalid here, since there are two separate claims.  The reason physicians came to accept that the mind played a role in treatment (noticeably the placebo effect) was because the preponderence of evidence supported such an assertion.  Case studies were put forth in medical and psychological journals that showed the relationship between a positive outlook and positive outcomes.  Of course, the evidence didn’t demonstrate that one could be healed just by having the right state of mind, but that doesn’t stop Chopra.  No, it is we skeptics who hold evidence in the highest regard that are of wrong thought.  If only we would stop subjecting his ideas to the same burden of proof that allows us to ensure the highest degree of reliability in our personal beliefs, we’d get to the same “ahead of the curve” type of thinking that Chopra is espousing.

By all means, skeptics will ride the wave at the front of the curve side-by-side with Chopra, but we’ll wait until we’ve got good, reliable reasons to do so first.  It is in that which we trust: that the best evidence will ultimately rise to the top, and by proportioning our beliefs to the amount of evidence that supports them, we can be reasonably sure that our actions are justified.

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Evolution, Morality, Atheism, and Invoking Godwin’s Law

November 29, 2009

Undoubtedly one of the most frustrating arguments I engage in with the discussion of atheism is that of how one finds (or knows) their moral compass. Almost every religious apologist (William Lane Craig, being a prime example), seeks to undermine natural morality because it supposedly leaves only one alternative: religion and, more specifically, god provide us our morality. This claim, I think, is false on its face. Looking at most cultures, we see morality that converges on a common principle: do onto others as you would have them do onto you. I think the general perception in the West is that this sort of wisdom was given to us divinely by Christ, but I find it more compelling that the Chinese philosopher Confucius espoused this principle 500 years before Christ, without resorting to god or organized religion to develop such an idea:

“Adept Kung asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”
The Master replied: “How about ‘shu’ [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?””
– Analects XV.24

Still, the argument often goes that not believing in god but believing in evolution will lead to doing things we would consider immoral. To support such a point, it is often said that Hitler was an atheist, and that his practice of Eugenics (artificially selecting the “lesser” individuals to permit reproduction amongst only the “finest” humans with the purpose of creating a “better” human species) was directly tied to his belief in evolution. Thus, it follows that atheism and evolution can be seen as intellectual positions that in some way endorse or promote immorality.  Personally, I am of the opinion that those who are using Hitler as a key part to their argument are not only mischaracterizing the position they are challenging, but also reducing the real evil committed by Hitler.  Interesting though this argument may seem (and perhaps even plausible to some), I think a careful look at facts, not hyperbole, best explains why this is simply incorrect.

First, let’s speculate a moment on whether or not Hitler believed in evolution. One wonders why, if Hitler believed in evolution and was an atheist, the Nazis adhered to the following guidelines in book banning:

When Books Burn: Lists of Banned Books, 1933-1939

“6. Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism”

“c) All writings that ridicule, belittle or besmirch the Christian religion and its institution, faith in God, or other things that are holy to the healthy sentiments of the Volk.”

Hitler’s literary work, Mein Kampf, also has a similar leaning:

“Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”

“What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people, . . . so that our people may mature for the fulfillment of the mission allotted it by the creator of the universe.”

“The undermining of the existence of human culture by the destruction of its bearer seems in the eyes of a folkish philosophy the most execrable crime. Anyone who dares to lay hands on the highest image of the Lord commits sacrilege against the benevolent Creator of this miracle and contributes to the expulsion from paradise.”

The faith of Hitler has long been a matter of debate because parties generally assume that if we can put Hitler on the other party’s side, we have won the argument.  The general consensus among historians is that Hitler was probably an atheist who manipulated the religious devotion of the German citizens, while presenting himself as a sort of Messiah, to achieve his goals.  Some consider that a “win” for theistic morality, though I think it speaks more to the manner in which adherence to irrational religion can be manipulated; in other words, it speaks to the element of danger involved in forming beliefs that aren’t grounded in reason or science.

But let’s consider exactly what is being suggested here: if person P believes claim C and claim D, does it follow that every person who believes claim C also believes claim D? On the contrary, I think it is clear that we develop our beliefs for a wide range of reasons, and this often creates an asymmetry between multiple claims. It doesn’t take much work for us to discover some beliefs at which we arrived for reasons we would discard immediately for other claims. In the context of this conversation, I think it can be said that we should assess claims not by comparing the actions of others who believed that claim, but by assessing the claim itself. Thus, if we want to determine whether atheism or evolution leads to immorality, we should be assessing atheism and evolution, not the behaviour of those who professed belief. After all, it is perfectly possible for us to take factual information and distort it to support irrational actions or conclusions; in fact, this is the usual religious explanation for why so many bad things, historically speaking, have been done in the name of god.

So now, let’s actually assess whether or not it is possible to be moral without god if we are the products of evolution rather than a divine plan.

It is pretty obvious that most atheists are perfectly able to reconcile their lack of belief with a desire to be good to other people. That is a simple fact borne out by interacting with people of such disbelief. Being a young, white male living in the Western world, I am a part of the largest growing group in religious polling: those who check “None of the above.” Yet, we see that people you know are atheists, and people who are closet atheists, are certainly capable of functioning morally in society.

Of course, it is completely possible that these people are acting irrationally; perhaps their lack of belief really does mean that they should rape, pillage, and plunder, but they have been coerced by the religious aspects of society to behave in what is typically considered a moral manner. Nonetheless, I think understanding our evolutionary background doesn’t hinder us from being moral; it gives a real account of why we are good to others.

I will now pose a hypothesis; I call it a hypothesis simply because I’m not current enough on the literature to claim authority, though I know much of this hypothesis has been advanced successfully in the past, and I believe that evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology supports such a hypothesis.

Many moons ago, we were tribal animals. With scarce resources and high competition, we learned that we could be more successful hunter-gatherers if we pooled our skills with others and worked as a team. As one group formed, so did another, and instead of a battle of the individual, we had battles between tribes. This was the first step in developing our moral sense. Within each group, a certain type of conduct was necessary; failing to behave in a way that was condoned by the rest of the group would result in you being ousted, now having to fend against competition with groups as a lonely individual. I would consider this the beginning of codefied rules, as informal as they may have been. Having established that a group code would have inevitably formed, we must wonder how they came up with rules we generally consider to be good or moral. Here, I think the answer is obvious: any actions that are detrimental to the group’s success would be considered wrong. So murder within the group goes out the window; killing off your group members would defeat the purpose of forming the group in the first place. We can also extrapolate our desire to remain in the group to a more individual perspective as well: staying within the group will result in our personal success; we are more likely to stay in the group if none of the members of the group dislike us; and the members of the group are unlikely to dislike you if you do nothing to warrant it. Initially, this was likely a reactive position: we weren’t able to reason it out in advance, but discovered it after a multitude of bad “social experiments.” It wasn’t until much later that we were able to determine such things proactively using our limited intellect, prior to taking action.

So within the group, I think we’ve established that there were good reasons for being moral. A common question is: why would we extend the same rules to those out of our group, particularly to those who are not of our lineage? The answer here is actually a little disappointing. First, we don’t do this very well; humans are very ethnocentric and often cave to in-group thinking. Still, our social nature that was established in our more primitive times encourages us to extend morality and general decency to those who we interact with. The field of neuroscience, where the brain is scanned and images are generated highlighting areas of activity, have shown repeatedly that we respond very well to doing altruistic acts: when we do something for someone else, the areas of the brain associated with satisfaction and pleasure “light up.” We see similar behaviour in other social species as well.

Aside from that, we have some very real evidence that tells us that behaving in what is considered a moral manner is a beneficial plan for us to be successful, and not just pleasing to us personally. Many game theory experiments have shown that a Tit for Tat method, or generally being altruistic until you get burned, will, over the long haul, provide you with greater success, even if we define success in terms of acquiring resources. I think we can go out on a day-to-day basis and experience the same thing: people will generally do better by you if you do better by them. Certainly, there are those who “get away with it”, but that is rarely a good plan for long-term success. What is often called Karma is nothing other than our inability to escape from our past misdeeds; it is the deserved punishment from society for abandoning what is ultimately the best course of action for all of us.

So it seems clear to me that atheism and evolution are perfectly congruent with being a moral person. Our ability to survive and pass on our DNA is better advanced by behaving morally in society than it would be to behave immorally. Still, three issues seem to me to be on the table.

1. Haven’t we made mistakes in the past? Hasn’t our moral sense misguided us many, many times throughout history? If specific morality hasn’t been revealed to us divinely in a simple set of rules (say, the Ten Commandments), how do we determine what is right? Though I think we can argue that the following the golden rule or perhaps John Stuart Mill’s “harm-principle” is something we can intuitively agree on, I want to question whether the divine revelation of moral principles has actually been practiced, or if it works any better. Is it not true that there are extraordinary disagreements on what constitutes morality amongst the religious, even within a particular sect? Is it not true that what is considered moral has changed over time even within a particular sect? I think here of the abolition of slavery, which has significant support from the Bible but was discarded because we discovered it to be immoral. Or, more recently, I think the unfortunately gradual shift on the morality of same-sex attraction, particularly in liberal Christianity, shows the same thing. My point is that even the most steadfast rules asserted by the religious require interpretation and value judgements. We are always discovering more about what works best in a moral sense, and we are always re-evaluating whether our rules and goals are consistent with what we see to be true in natural reality. This is why morality, whether secular or religious, has always been evolving, and will continue to do so in the future. It is up to us as a species to recognize our commonality with all other homo sapiens sapiens, and rationally determine what is the best moral approach for ensuring the best opportunity for success for all.

2. Was Darwin’s theory (though it should rightly be credited to Alfred Russell Wallace as well) really the catalyst for Eugenics? Though I have already argued that in the case of Hitler this is untrue, I would also say that Darwin’s theory had nothing to do with Eugenics whatsoever. Eugenics is the practice of artificial selection (as opposed to Darwin’s theory of natural selection) and this concept is something we understood long before Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. In fact, it was how we were able to domesticate dogs from wolves. Where Darwin changed our understanding was in how the constant tinkering and refining of natural selection produced all species, whereas Eugenics suggests that artifical selection will produce a more successful single species. These are two very different things.

3. If evolution is real (which I believe the evidence supports), wasn’t Hitler still justified in practicing Eugenics? Though we may have disagreed with his stance on a personal basis, could it not be argued that he is attempting to do what is ultimately best for all of us? I say, emphatically, that he could not be more wrong. Our knowledge of nature and of ourselves is incredibly insufficient. We are not in a position to know what is best now or will continue to be best in the future; that is something that remains to be seen. Suppose, for example, that we killed all people with a certain genetic defect. Suppose, however, that a future mutation of that specific gene would allow us to survive through unprecedented changes in our environment. Exaptation and adaptation have shown us again and again that how old parts can be cobbled together to serve new, important purposes. Indeed, I think the best way of ensuring the continued success of the human species is to maintain as diverse a gene pool as is reasonably possible; only by having many alternatives for nature to select from can we be certain that we can respond, in some way, to changing environmental conditions and stave off our own extinction.

It seems quite clear to me that the arguments put forth to discredit atheism do not only a poor job of its stated goal, but fail to put forth a positive argument for theistic morality (such as properly answering the Problem of Evil or Euthyphro’s Dilemma, or the misguidance given in many passages of divine text, whether its the New Testament, Old Testament, Koran, etc). To those who are moral and feel that their morality was only discovered through divine text, I encourage you to give yourself more credit, but I have no quarry with anyone who seeks only to be a good person. It is only when one attempts to take a moral high ground without justification that disagreements will arise, and hopefully that is something we can escape when we look at the evidence and arguments for each position through the shining light of reason.

The Value of Skepticism

November 27, 2009

When we look at the whole of human history, there is no doubt that we can find a plethora of beliefs that were held by a majority which proved themselves to be false upon closer inspection.  I think here of some very obvious examples: that the Sun went round the Earth, that illnesses could be relieved by bloodletting, or that enslaving another human being was a moral action.  In recent history, claims of paranormal or supernatural experience, dubious claims of alternative medicine, or even simple things like a fear of going into the basement, should give us pause to wonder if the beliefs on which we are taking our actions are reasonably true.  I doubt very seriously that any reasonable person wants to take an action that is unjustified, and I am sure you are in agreement when I say that we want to believe things because we have our own reasons for believing them, rather than accepting those ideas that are passed on to us by our social environment without critical analysis.

The best way to accomplish these two goals is to apply critical thinking and skepticism to all claims put forth.  Here I think of the 17th Century French philosopher René Descartes, who brought about a revival in skepticism when he sought to establish truths in life that were indubitable; that is, ideas that could not be doubted.  Though I think in practice we need not subscribe to a form of radical skepticism that would leave us in a state of complete lack of knowledge (a state of epistemological darkness), I think the best way to ascertain truth is to withhold assenting to a claim until we have been presented with supporting arguments or evidence that we consider sufficient.

This question of sufficiency is a tough one to answer, as it relies on a subjective view of what constitutes as good evidence, and the grey area between certain knowledge and complete lack of knowledge leaves a lot of room for each of us to determine what is sufficient for us to believe.  Still, I think there are tools we can use to prevent ourselves from being deceived by other people and our own internal biases and psychological make-up.

Namely, I think understanding what constitutes good science and what constitutes good reason will allow us to separate the wheat from the chaff.  When assessing arguments, it is important to be able to identify logical fallacies and poor evidence.  If we can use these tools to determine what arguments are good and what arguments are poor, we can proportion our beliefs to the evidence and reason that warrants such a belief.  By doing so, we can be relatively confident that our beliefs are our own, that they are reasonably true, and that any action we take based on those beliefs is justified and rational.