I realize now that Chopra’s affliction with Maru’s Syndrome—the condition described by Dr. Maru as “When I see a box, I cannot help but enter”—is a chronic condition. Although Chopra feints at friendliness, enticing me to his fancy conference with a big honorarium, and trying to pal around with Michael Shermer (who, I suspect, doesn’t like Chopra), in reality he’s as thin-skinned as ever. What has really wounded Deepakity is the intimation by people like Shermer, Dawkins, Sam Harris, and me, that he is not a scientist. After all, the old Woomeister makes his millions by putting on a veneer of science, bandying about nonsense phrases like “quantum consciousness” that bamboozle those who are impressed by science, but don’t understand it. Were they to understand that there is no hard science behind Chopra’s claims, perhaps they’d be less likely to open their wallets.
At any rate, the video below is one more sign of Chopra’s butthurt. In response to James Randi’s famous “million-dollar challenge,” in which the magician has a standing offer of a million dollars to anyone who can produce a convincing demonstration of the paranormal, Chopra has issued his own challenge.
You probably know Randi’s challenge: if anyone can produce a convincing demonstration of the paranormal under conditions specified and controlled by Randi and his colleagues, that person wins a million bucks. But nobody’s ever won it. Every year, some sap tries for the prize with a demonstration at Randi’s “The Amazing Meeting” (TAM), and every year the sap fails. Last year, when I was there, someone claimed to have the power of remote viewing. But he couldn’t reproduce it under strictly controlled conditions. The provisional explanation for all the failures is that there are no paranormal phenomena.
Deepak offers his own challenge in the first 55 seconds of the 5.5 minute video:
“Please explain the so-called ‘normal’: how does electricity going to the brain become the experience of a three-dimensional world of space and time. If you can explain that, then you get a million dollars from me. Explain and solve the hard problem of consciousness in a peer-reviewed journal; offer a theory that is falsifiable—and you get the prize.”
(Thanks to Sharon Hill at Doubtful News for calling this to my attention.)’
Chopra spends the remaining 4.5 minutes insulting skeptics—calling us “naive realists,” “superstitious,” and “bamboozled by matter,” —and saying that he won’t accept neural correlates of consciousness as its explanation. (In the end, though, that’s how the problem will be cracked, if it is cracked.) He’s so eager to parade his “clever” challenge that he simply repeats it over and over again, interspersed with nasty cracks about how self-congratulatory we skeptics are in our rejection of the paranormal.
Watch this embarrassing demonstration of Maru’s Syndrome:
Now the “Hard Problem” of consciousness is the problem of qualia—subjective sensation. The Hard Problem, then, is to show how the electrical impulses of our brain, generated by the environment or our inner workings, give rise to sensations of pain, of beauty, of pleasure, and so on. While, contra Chopra, we know some things about consciousness—that it can be removed with anesthesia, that it can be altered in predicted directions with chemicals, and we know some things about where it sits in the brain—the “Hard Problem” is hard because while one can experience qualia, it’s hard to demonstrate them in others, and so to know when they’ve arisen. After all, I know I’m conscious, but you might be a zombie.
In a 2007 piece in Time Magazine, one of the best things I’ve read about consciousness (read it!), Steve Pinker first distinguishes the Hard from the “Easy” Problem of consciousness, and then talks about why the hard problem is hard:
What exactly is the Easy Problem? It’s the one that Freud made famous, the difference between conscious and unconscious thoughts. Some kinds of information in the brain–such as the surfaces in front of you, your daydreams, your plans for the day, your pleasures and peeves–are conscious. You can ponder them, discuss them and let them guide your behavior. Other kinds, like the control of your heart rate, the rules that order the words as you speak and the sequence of muscle contractions that allow you to hold a pencil, are unconscious. They must be in the brain somewhere because you couldn’t walk and talk and see without them, but they are sealed off from your planning and reasoning circuits, and you can’t say a thing about them.
The Easy Problem, then, is to distinguish conscious from unconscious mental computation, identify its correlates in the brain and explain why it evolved.
The Hard Problem, on the other hand, is why it feels like something to have a conscious process going on in one’s head–why there is first-person, subjective experience. Not only does a green thing look different from a red thing, remind us of other green things and inspire us to say, “That’s green” (the Easy Problem), but it also actually looks green: it produces an experience of sheer greenness that isn’t reducible to anything else. As Louis Armstrong said in response to a request to define jazz, “When you got to ask what it is, you never get to know.”
The Hard Problem is explaining how subjective experience arises from neural computation. The problem is hard because no one knows what a solution might look like or even whether it is a genuine scientific problem in the first place. And not surprisingly, everyone agrees that the hard problem (if it is a problem) remains a mystery.
. . . Many philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, deny that the Hard Problem exists at all. Speculating about zombies and inverted colors is a waste of time, they say, because nothing could ever settle the issue one way or another. Anything you could do to understand consciousness–like finding out what wavelengths make people see green or how similar they say it is to blue, or what emotions they associate with it–boils down to information processing in the brain and thus gets sucked back into the Easy Problem, leaving nothing else to explain. Most people react to this argument with incredulity because it seems to deny the ultimate undeniable fact: our own experience.
The most popular attitude to the Hard Problem among neuroscientists is that it remains unsolved for now but will eventually succumb to research that chips away at the Easy Problem. Others are skeptical about this cheery optimism because none of the inroads into the Easy Problem brings a solution to the Hard Problem even a bit closer. Identifying awareness with brain physiology, they say, is a kind of “meat chauvinism” that would dogmatically deny consciousness to Lieut. Commander Data just because he doesn’t have the soft tissue of a human brain. Identifying it with information processing would go too far in the other direction and grant a simple consciousness to thermostats and calculators–a leap that most people find hard to stomach. Some mavericks, like the mathematician Roger Penrose, suggest the answer might someday be found in quantum mechanics. But to my ear, this amounts to the feeling that quantum mechanics sure is weird, and consciousness sure is weird, so maybe quantum mechanics can explain consciousness.
And then there is the theory put forward by philosopher Colin McGinn that our vertigo when pondering the Hard Problem is itself a quirk of our brains. The brain is a product of evolution, and just as animal brains have their limitations, we have ours. Our brains can’t hold a hundred numbers in memory, can’t visualize seven-dimensional space and perhaps can’t intuitively grasp why neural information processing observed from the outside should give rise to subjective experience on the inside. This is where I place my bet, though I admit that the theory could be demolished when an unborn genius–a Darwin or Einstein of consciousness–comes up with a flabbergasting new idea that suddenly makes it all clear to us.
The Hard Problem, then, is to demonstrate when you’ve produced subjective sensations, and to distinguish that from simple input-output dynamics that, for instance, can occur in computers or zombies. But I don’t think a solution is beyond our ken. Perhaps there are brain interventions in an individual that can eliminate parts of subjective sensation, and which can then feed into a general and perhaps testable theory of how we get sensations.
But perhaps the problem will remain unsolved, or, as Dennett thinks, isn’t a problem at all (I disagree).
That, however, is completely irrelevant to Chopra’s “challenge” for two reasons. First, his challenge implicitly thinks that our failure to understand consciousness means that it has a paranormal explanation. This is really a “woo of the gaps” approach, whereby any scientific problem that has defied explanation must have a paranormal or supernatural solution. This is of course analogous to “God of the gaps” arguments, in which anything we don’t understand is imputed to God. Theologians often suggest supernatural solutions to difficult problems like consciousness, morality, and the laws of physics. They once suggested them for things like lightning and evolution, too—until science filled the gaps with naturalistic explanations. Chopra is simply a Theologian of Woo, and his mistake is the one identified by Robert G. Ingersoll in one of my favorite quotes:
“No one infers a god from the simple, from the known, from what is understood, but from the complex, from the unknown, and incomprehensible. Our ignorance is God; what we know is science.”
In this case, Chopra infers not a god but woo: immaterial and non-naturalistic forces beyond our ken—the stuff he makes his living touting. And why not offer a million dollars for other hard questions, like why the constants of physics are what they are instead of something else?
Second, Chopra’s challenge fails to parallel Randi’s in an important way. Randi is simply asking for someone to demonstrate paranormal phenomena like ESP, telekinesis, or remote viewing. He’s not asking their advocates to explain them. It’s a lot easier to demonstrate ESP than to explain it, although neither ESP nor other paranormal phenomena have been demonstrated. Chopra, on the other hand, asks for an explanation of consciousness, though a demonstration of it (all of our individual experiences) is dead easy. The latter is already at hand; the former may take decades to work out.
But this is all persiflage on Chopra’s part. If he wants to explain the “normal,” there are lots of questions he can ask. Why does mathematics work? Why are the speed of light in a vacuum and the force of gravity constants rather than variables? Does that constancy prove something about the paranormal?
Chopra’s little demonstration is not only misguided, but embarrassing. He gives away the game when he bashes skeptics over and over again, chastising them for their “arrogance.” But who is more arrogant than Chopra, a man who constantly makes statements that either have no scientific basis or (as in his claim that we can permanently change our genes by changing our experience) are dead wrong? Real scientists like Rudolph Tanzi should be embarrassed to be associated with Chopra.
My message to Chopra, who will be reading this for sure, is this: Deepak, you’re 66 years old, but in this video you act like a butthurt teenager. Your challenge is ridiculous, and not worthy of consideration for even a second. After all, neuroscientists are already working on consciousness, and they don’t need your jibes to prompt them. If the paranormal does exist, as you implictly and explicitly claim over and over again, why hasn’t Randi demonstrated it? Why haven’t you won Randi’s prize?