Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Stay classy Deepak

So Deepak Chopra has issued (an insult laden, hence the title of this post) challenge, which he sees as a parallel to James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge. As Jerry Coyne has pointed out, it is not in parallel, as he is asking for an explanation of quite a complex problem (the Hard Problem of consciousness), whereas all Randi asks for is a demonstration with no explanation required (someone backing up their claim to paranormal abilities in a controlled environment). However, I thought I'd add it to the blog, as it gives me an excuse to highlight some pretty cool things.

Chopra says:  "If I ask you to imagine a sunset on the ocean right now, and we have the experience somewhere then explain to me where that picture is, and don't just give me a neural correlate or NCC as it's called. Neural Correlates of Consciousness are well known. They are not a good enough explanation for how we experience the world, how we experience colour, taste, sound, form, any perception."

Well, NCCs may not offer the actual solution for the Hard Problem of consciousness, but they certainly seem to point in the right direction. Consider this:

"So do imagery and vision share space in the brain? The neuropsychologists Edoardo Bisiach and Claudio Luzzatti studied two Milanese patients with damage to their right parietal lobes that left them with visual neglect syndrome. Their eyes register the whole visual field, but they attend only to the right half: they ignore the cutlery to the left of the plate, draw a face with no left eye or nostril, and when describing a room, ignore large details - like a piano - on their left. Bisiach and Luzzatti asked the patients to imagine standing in the Piazza del Duomo in Milan facing the cathedral and to name the buildings in the piazza. The patients named only the buildings that would be visible on the right - neglecting the left half of imaginary space! Then the patients were asked to mentally walk across the square and stand on the cathedral steps facing the piazza and describe what was in it. They mentioned the buildings that they had left out the first time, and left out the buildings that they had mentioned. Each mental image depicted the scene from one vantage point, and the patients' lopsided window f attention examined the image exactly as it examined real visual inputs."
Pinker, S (1997). How the Mind Works. St Ives: Penguin Books. p288 - 289.

Chopra asked where an imaginary picture sits, and it must obviously be within the brain. When certain neurons are damaged, even our mental imagery gets affected! So whilst we can't explain how the image got there, we can at least conclude it is in the brain.

Chopra's followed up his challenge with a second video, in which he explains his idea of consciousness: that instead of consciousness being produced by the matter of the brain, it is instead top down, with consciousness being fundamental, and it is this that creates the material world we see.

This idea is the same kind of problem that comes about when discussing the soul - why is it that consciousness is so tied to the brain if it is fundamental? If it is consciousness itself that produces qualia in our brains, why do some of these get affected after brain damage, as we have just seen?

In his second video Chopra also says that we (as skeptics): "Do not understand that we do not have access to reality but only to our perceptions, that whatever we experience as reality is the contents of our mind". We clearly do, and this also links into his comments about colour perception in the first video. Optical illusions demonstrate this:

I've posted this optical illusion before:

The blue and green are the same colour. If you look closely, what does change is the lines in between the "blue" and "green", which are either pink or orange. Our perception of the colour is influenced by the colours around it. We cannot escape it, much like another favourite illusion:

The square labelled A is the same colour as the square labelled B.

We may not have sussed how qualia arise, but we do know what causes these illusions (the world map is explained here, and the here, the checker board illusion). All these optical illusions happened because they exploit short cuts our brains take as they have evolved to work out what the world around them is like.

On top of that, colour is an illusion any way. Consider this from the Oatmeal (and do go and read the whole strip, really do, I'll not be offended if you don't bother reading the rest of this post. Go):

We may be able to wax philosophical about whether my blue is the same as your blue, but the mantis shrimp can see the world in a glorious technicolour that we can't hope to imagine.

The exploration of how we, and other organisms, perceive the world is still ongoing. The fact that science hasn't explained it all is not a problem!

When Chopra said "[How we perceive] ..any perception. You can't explain it. Texture, solidity. You can't explain that." I was reminded of these two things:

Bill O'Reilly's infamous "Tide goes in, tide goes out, you can't explain that" and also the Insane Clown Posse's lyric - "f***ing magents, how do they work?" (you can see this wonderful Veritasium and MinutePhysics collaboration if you're curious). Now it's true that in Chopra's case he's picked up on something that, as yet, has not been fully explained. But this is a strength for science - saying "I don't know" is a perfectly respectable answer, especially when it's followed by "Let's try and find out".

This challenge is just fluff (though it would be interesting to see how seriously Chopra takes it, is it possible to see his bank statements proving the money's there for example?). Whilst he may not have ring fenced this money, it is a shame that he has amassed so much from his pseudoscience and platitudes that he himself does not always follow. However, as Haldane said "Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose", and quantum mechanics of the real sort do seem to back him up.

It's ok that science hasn't explained "the normal" yet because scientists, and those like me that enjoying reading about the fruits of their labour, get a thrill from the sentiment of this not-actually-Carl-Sagan quote  "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known".

1 comment:

  1. Dear Dr. Chopra, I accept your challenge. The 6-minute explainer video is at, and I have a fully-researched paper to back it up.


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