The etymology of the word “science” – to know – is befittingly simple. It is the quest for information about the universe around us. It’s the search for objective truth.
That is why, when Deepak Chopra M.D. – a trained endocrinologist, writer, speaker, and prominent alternative medicine advocate – tells IFLScience that he dislikes the truth, it strikes us as a little odd.
“I prefer those who are looking for the truth, and I’ve run away from those that have found it.” Questions, not answers, are this man’s cup of tea.
We were a little surprised that Chopra got in touch with us at all, actually. He wanted to have a chat about his new book, You Are The Universe, in which he and theoretical physicist Menas Kafatos suggest, in a slight twist on the Copernican principle, that our very own species are the central masters of the universe – the architects of the material world around us.
Chopra has courted controversy for many reasons, and many have claimed that he uses highly dubious scientific language in order to sell New Age doctrines to his impressively large worldwide following. Intrigued to see how a conversation would develop between ourselves and Chopra’s beliefs, we accepted his invite to talk about his new book and his life’s work.
It was, to summarize, an adventure in semantics.
It’s Not A Crocodile Universe
“I’ll speak slowly because it’s kind of a complex idea,” Chopra said as he prepared to explain the grand concept behind his latest work. “The universe that we experience is a human construct. And the science is the measurement of that.”
This is undoubtedly true – we perceive the universe through our neurological processes. So far, so good. Noting there is only one reality – which there is – Chopra repeatedly emphasized that the universe is a human one, “not a crocodile, bat, dolphin or insect-with-100-eyes universe.”
Chopra and Kafatos promoting their new book this February in New York City. Donna Ward/Getty Images
This, however, is when things started to go a little off-piste. Bringing up the wave-particle duality, the scientific concept that every particle can be described as both a wave and a particle, Chopra explained that these were actually “waves of possibility in mathematical space, in mathematical imagination.”
“So the answer to the question ‘what is the universe made of’ is: it’s made of nothing.”
I’m sure most scientists, particularly those that study matter, would disagree with that. Just as they’d disagree with the oft-stated idea in the book that the ever-elusive dark matter, a key enigma in physics, is akin to a mythical monster – we can’t directly see it, so it’s just as likely to be there as a minotaur.
Liberally peppered throughout the book, and Chopra’s writings in general, are metaphors, things that scientists tend to avoid in their work so as not to oversimplify or obscure the underlying empirical evidence.
We know dark matter exists because of the way detectable matter behaves around it. Slightly cheekily, we used a metaphor of an incomplete jigsaw to illustrate the point to Chopra that we know what fits in a missing section because of the shape of the pieces around it. Each piece added gets us a little closer to the truth.
Chopra agreed that scientists are working very hard to solve the mysteries of physics, but says they’re missing the overarching question, which also happens to be a recurring theme of his book. “The question is who or what is it that is working on it, right?”
Well, that’s certainly a question – but it won’t help solve the riddle of dark matter any more than it would have helped Galileo understand that humans are not at the center of the universe after all.
The mythical monster metaphor may sound good on paper, but it’s an example of why it’s not good to do what Chopra’s book does in spades – to mix in purple prose with technical nomenclature when arguing something purporting to be scientific.
You Are The Universe introduction. The Chopra Well via YouTube
In a particularly peculiar example from several years back, Chopra said that the AIDS virus emits "a sound that lures DNA to its destruction.” This doesn’t sound very scientific, especially as HIV is the virus that causes AIDS – so we asked Chopra if this was indeed a metaphor or if he meant it literally.
“Now we have experiments with intracranial ultrasound that actually validates that,” he replied.
Most medical experts would say that HIV binds to receptors on the surface of cells in order to infect them, with no siren’s call required.
“What I said back then was basically the idea of vibrations as it relates to physical matter – as a metaphor, yes,” he clarified, before adding, confidently: “But all of science is a metaphor.”
Prompted to expand on that grand statement, Chopra claimed that “science is a metaphoric explanation for interpreting experience.” When we give names to things, like the Higgs boson, we are engaging in metaphors, apparently, because the famous particle does not – as it turns out – technically refer to itself as the Higgs boson.
“What we call the scientific method is a human construct in human consciousness,” Chopra said, bookending that thought.
It’s A Trap
This use of language is very distinct to Chopra.
A recent academic study compared the quotes of Chopra to those put together by a random word generator to see if subjects could tell the difference. Many rated the generator’s mumble of adjectives and nouns as being just as “profound” as Chopra’s quotes, which suggests that there may not be as much substance to them as he’d like to have you believe.
“The true self is non-local. It is nowhere, and now here at the same time” and “consciousness consists of chaos driven reactions of quantum energy” both sound like Chopra passages, but only the first actually is. The generator came up with the second.
Conjuring up a little linguistic trap, we put these two quotes to Chopra himself, asking him if they both had definitive meanings as opposed to being open to interpretation.
“Absolutely they have fixed meanings,” he said without hesitation, despite later claiming the second “quote” was taken out of context. We suggest that if he couldn’t tell the difference between the two, doesn’t that suggest there's a problem?
An Incomplete Picture
The book brings up consciousness like it’s going out of fashion. He certainly asks a lot of questions about it (“If nothing, it’ll add to the discussion”). Without answering the questions about consciousness – where is it and where does it come from – our understanding of the universe is incomplete, Chopra argues.
We don’t think anyone would argue that we don’t need to know about consciousness at all, but we did wonder how much this gap in our knowledge is actually affecting our understanding of the rest of the universe in a way that we might not understand.
Of course, planes fly, nuclear fusion reactors spark into life, diseases are cured, and humans land on other worlds because of the immutable nature of the scientific method, the cornerstone of all human advancement. Challenging orthodoxies is great, but the laws of physics change for no man, woman, or child.
“For research, we need consciousness,” Chopra told IFLScience. “The brain is an experience in consciousness. So no experience in consciousness can be the source of consciousness.”
Great – but how does saying this help science improve itself? This was a question that we never received an answer to, a problem that the book also has. Questions are brought up but the replies are smothered with jargon, as if just asking the question is enough.
A debate between Chopra, Kafatos, and a mixture of academics and scientists back in 2011 on the nature of existence. Chapman University via YouTube
Even the key theory in his book – that without us, the universe could not be experienced – doesn’t really provide us with any new scientific information. If we weren’t around, how would we know there’s a universe to be experienced, after all?
It’s been demonstrably clear for centuries that we are not at the center of everything. In fact, knowing that we are not makes us humble, and makes us strive to keep finding out what is true and what is not.
You Are The Universe seems to think it’s found a way to explain how we might be in the middle of everything after all – that there’s some new form of truth that almost all scientists are missing.
“Get An Education”
Implying that Chopra’s writing doesn’t sound very scientific turned out to be something that aggrieved him.
Rapidly citing his extensive medical background (“I’m a full professor at UC Medical School, I teach at Harvard Medical School once a year”), the credentials of his physicist co-author, and the scientific repertoires of his colleagues, he claims that there isn’t a single scientific statement in his book that’s inaccurate – and anyone that claims otherwise, in any manner, “hasn’t done their research.”
“An emerging view, alternate to Darwin's random mutations & natural selection is that consciousness may be the driver of complexity/evolution,” was something Chopra tweeted back in 2014. So it seems that a quick bit of research appeared to have brought up an inaccurate “scientific” statement after all.
(By the way, throwing out all of Darwin’s rock-solid science and supplanting it with the word “consciousness” does not a theory make. It’s the equivalent of saying that magnetism is driven by consciousness. It is not.)
Trying to decipher what is a purported fact from You Are The Universe’s forest of metaphors makes verifying this statement about accuracy somewhat difficult. Either way, we ponder aloud, if he’s confident in the theories, why not stick to more rigorous, clearly-defined scientific terminology and build his ideas off those?
Once again, he claims that his critics, and IFLScience, have not looked at his work (spoiler alert: we have been following his work for some time now.)
“All I can say to those critics is that they are frozen in an obsolete worldview,” Chopra said. “Get an education. You’ve just read what’s in the blogosphere which is full of idiots.”
He sounds confident in his own work’s veracity at this point, but later in the conversation, Chopra himself admitted he has no idea whether anything he has said or written is true at all.
“I’m not confident at all that I’m right. If you think you’re right, that’s the end of the story – you’re doomed,” he declared. “I’m saying don’t worry about the answers, keep asking the questions. If you’ve found the truth, then I would run away from you.”
When prompted with the fact that scientists are literally truth-seekers – the sort of people that answer (arguably) the grandest questions in life – Chopra claimed they get tied “to their dogmas and habitual ways of thinking.”
Chopra described unnamed scientists as being “very cocky,” while denouncing most as “mere technicians” who aren’t asking all the right questions.
The Mere Technicians
It’s worth highlighting that, among millions of other things, these “technicians” with their “obsolete worldviews” managed to take photographs of Pluto’s heart and saved the lives of 122 million children since 1990 through medical advancements – all without answering the question of consciousness.
At the end of our conversation, thoughts of the oppression of knowledge taking place in parts of the Western World came up. Thanks to the rise of nationalism, populism, and “alternative facts,” science is genuinely under threat.
We ask Chopra if his writing is adding to this climate or helping to mitigate it.
“I hope that it’s helping,” he concludes. “I think right now we are in a very dark place. I think we do have to look at facts which are eco-destruction, mechanized death, atomic weapons, climate change – these are very important things to look at, and if we don’t, we risk our extinction.”
On this second point, we agree – we do need to take these threats seriously – but aren’t scientists the best people to address this?
“Yes, scientists but… a tinge of the philosophy of science will take science a long way.”
Chopra will no doubt continue to ponder on the nature of consciousness, asking question after question about where it comes from.
In the meantime, engineers will ask themselves what’s the best way humans can get to Mars, neuroscientists will wonder how they can make quadriplegics move their arms and legs again, and cosmologists will attempt to capture the mythical beast of dark matter.
The power, we argue, lies in not asking questions, but answering them. That’s actually the hard part.
Hey there, little one. Pluto, as seen by New Horizons. NASA