A response to Deepak Chopra

by Neil Rickert

In a recent post at his web site, Jerry Coyne reports that he has received a request from an assistant to Deepak Chopra:

I have not received my own copy of this request, nor do I expect one.  But I will comment anyway.

You can read the full document at by following the link above.  I’ll quote parts and respond to those.

We are concerned, however, that the old scientific paradigm is not adequate to provide answers to either question. The old paradigm, under which we were trained, along with every working scientist, reduces difficult problems to smaller, more manageable parts. Experiments are conducted, data is collected, and findings are reached. In this way objective knowledge emerges that a consensus can accept, whether it concerns the behavior of moving bodies in Newton’s time or the existence of the Higgs boson in ours.

No, this so-called “old paradigm” is not how science works, though it might be close to how some philosophers of science say that it works.  You need only look to Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962, 1970, University of Chicago Press) to see an analysis of where science fails to fit that description.

A better account of how science works, would be that scientists follow their curiosity where it leads them, devising rigorous experimental tests as they proceed so as to ensure that their discoveries are real and not merely imagined.

Reality has led us to the point where reductionism, a “bottom up” approach that seeks to build reality up from its smallest constituents, must give way to holism, a “top down” approach that accepts an undeniable fact: Reality is one thing.

As best I can tell, “reductionism” is a term that comes from philosophy, though it has been accepted by some scientists.  Other scientists reject the idea.

If science were bottom up, building from the smallest constituency, then we might expect Aristotle to have been studying quarks, and modern scientists only beginning to notice that there is a sun.  It’s nonsense.  Science has never worked that way.  Scientific thought often involves a complex mixture of top down thinking and bottom up thinking.  It does not fit the simplistic picture that you have chosen to criticize.

There is an implicit disdain for philosophy among even elite scientists, who are on public record calling philosophy useless, pointless, and an obstacle to the progress of science.

Perhaps this disdain has something to do with the way that philosophy misdescribes science.

By taking consciousness for granted, or shunting it aside, the old paradigm assumed that perception is an adequate match for reality–this despite the obvious fact that science distrusts the report of the five senses.

That’s a pretty good criticism of philosophy that you are yourself making.  You perhaps think you are criticizing science, but the criticism does not fit.  Science has been very careful to not rely on trusting perception.  That’s why scientists devise a lot of their own instrumentation.

My response

As you might guess, I will not be signing on to the proposal, which I see as misguided.  The best way to scientifically investigate consciousness is to allow researchers to follow their curiosity where it leads.  An attempt to dictate how it should be done will only be a distraction.


4 Comments to “A response to Deepak Chopra”

  1. “Science has been very careful to not rely on trusting perception. That’s why scientists devise a lot of their own instrumentation.”

    Wouldn’t you need to trust your own perception in order to devise an instrument that you can, in turn, trust? Or at least, trust the perception of whoever did devise the instrument? Wouldn’t they need to trust their perception in order to read the instrument in question accurately?

    It seems at some point you would have to be able to trust your own perception, wouldn’t you?


    • Yes, I’ll grant that we cannot completely eliminate our dependence on perception. And we cannot completely eliminate our dependence on an underlying folk knowledge.

      The Chopra statement questioned whether “perception is an adequate match for reality”. Scientific instrumentation goes far beyond perception, giving us access to information about reality that is not available from perception. So science does deal with that adequacy question, even if it cannot completely eliminate dependence on perception.


      • I’m no fan of Chopra either. It may not be kosher but I would probably reject any recommendation of his a priori.

        “Scientific instrumentation goes far beyond perception…” My take would be that scientific instrumentation enhances perception. With instrumentation we see more than we could, hear more than we could, detect (feel) more than we could, etc.

        Thanks for the article it was thought provoking.


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