Brian Cox and the idolatry of nerds
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
|Jeroboam's Idolatry. Source: Wikimedia Commons.|
A couple of weeks ago, a Twitter war broke out between Deepak Chopra, a well-known proponent of integrative medicine, and Brian Cox, a physicist and TV-star who is famous for science documentaries on UK television. The war was covered in a highly tendentious way in an article in the New Statesman. Here, however, I want to focus on what the Twitter exchange seems to reveal about the appalling state of our culture. To give you a flavor of the exchange, I want to start with specifics. Then, I will move to broader, more generalized commentary.
The contentious part of the discussion seems to have started with the exchange illustrated in the figure below. Chopra’s point is philosophically sound and quite easy to understand. As Bertrand Russell stated, science can only explain one thing in terms of another thing [Russell, B. (2007). The Analysis of Matter. Nottingham: Spokesman Books]. This way, one can never scientifically explain the primary creation event, for there would be, by definition, nothing else in terms of which to explain it. For example: we can scientifically explain the human body in terms of tissues; tissues in terms of cells; cells in terms of molecules; molecules in terms of atoms; atoms in terms of subatomic particles; and subatomic particles – tentatively – in terms of an imagined Big Bang. But we cannot explain the Big Bang, or whatever else science considers the primary creation event, in terms of anything else. After all, by definition, nothing else existed. Chopra’s intent is clear: with the term ‘Big Bang’ he is actually referring to the primary creation event, whatever that may be called in today’s cosmology. In his necessarily-short Twitter message, he says ‘Big Bang’ simply because that is popularly understood to mean the primary creation event.
Yet, Cox replies to Chopra’s statement as if it had been false and naïve. That he felt the need to add an infantile hashtag is as disturbing as it is revealing but, for the sake of substance, let’s leave that silly detail aside for now. In his reply, Cox refers to the theory of eternal inflation, clearly suggesting that it offers a scientific cause for the Big bang. It’s outside the scope of this essay to elaborate on the theory, but the essential point is this: eternal inflation only offers a scientific cause for the Big Bang if we drop the notion that the Big Bang was the primary creation event; that is, if we assume that there was something else prior to the Big Bang. Indeed, eternal inflation simply pushes the primary creation event further into the past [Linde, A. D. (1986). Eternally Existing Self-Reproducing Chaotic Inflationary Universe. Physics Letters B, 175 (4), pp. 395–400]. It leaves the epistemic hole pointed out by Chopra completely intact. As such, Cox’s reply doesn’t at all refute the essence of Chopra’s message and Cox obviously knows this. Yet, he seems to have willfully chosen to use his authority to – there is no other way to say it – mislead his Twitter audience for the sake of making someone else look like a fool. What can possibly motivate such behavior from a scientist and public educator? Answers later. For now, bear with me.
Cox goes on to throw highly-specialized scientific literature at Chopra. Under different circumstances, this would be an entirely valid attempt to claim the scientific high-ground. But, in this case, Cox obviously already had the scientific high-ground to begin with, for he is the physicist in the discussion. So what is he trying to accomplish? The implicit but clear message seems to be this: because Chopra is not a physicist, he is not qualified to conclude anything from physics in order to interpret the broader aspects of reality. Only physicists, as the new priesthood of modern culture, are supposedly qualified to do that. Yet, this contradicts Cox’s own outreach efforts to explain physics to the common men and women on the streets. The whole point of that effort can only be to equip people to interpret their broader reality on the basis of physics. That Chopra does precisely this is either entirely legitimate or Cox should give up his TV-star role as science educator for the masses. One can’t have it both ways.
I am sure Cox would react to what I just said above by claiming that Chopra’s understanding of physics is simply wrong. He would claim that his reference to technical papers makes this clear. Peer-reviewed scientific papers, as such, seem to be considered by Cox as sufficient to give legitimacy to an ontological position, even if they don’t necessarily prove it. Are there, then, peer-reviewed scientific papers corroborating Chopra’s main claim that reality is not objective but, instead, entirely in consciousness? There are plenty. Here are just some, all of which have been published in the most respected scientific journals in the world:
- Kim, Y.-H. et al. (2000). A Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser. Physical Review Letters 84, pp. 1–5. The authors show that observation not only determines the reality observed at present, but also retroactively changes the history of what is observed accordingly. This is entirely consistent with the notion that reality is fundamentally a story playing itself out in mind.
- Gröblacher , S. et al. (2007). An experimental test of non-local realism. Nature 446, pp. 871-875. The authors show that reality is either entirely in consciousness or we must abandon our strongest intuitions about what objectivity means. As far as the practical applications of Chopra’s claims are concerned, the differences between these two alternatives are not so significant. Physicsworld.com, in a related article, went as far as to claim that ‘quantum physics says goodbye to reality.’
- Lapkiewicz, R. et al. (2011). Experimental non-classicality of an indivisible quantum system. Nature 474, pp. 490–493. The authors show that, unlike what one would expect if reality were independent of mind, the properties of a quantum system do not exist prior to observation. Renowned physicist Anton Zeilinger, in a related New Scientist article suitably titled “Quantum magic trick shows reality is what you make it,” is quoted as saying that “there is no sense in assuming that what we do not measure about a system has [an independent] reality.”
- Xiao-song Ma et al. (2013). Quantum erasure with causally disconnected choice. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 110, pp. 1221-1226. Again, the authors show that no naively objective view of reality can be true, which is consistent with Chopra’s claim that reality is fundamentally subjective. A less-technical explanation of the experiment in this paper, as well as its results, can be found here.
- A bunch of others, too numerous to comment on individually:
Aspect, A. et al. (1981). Experimental Tests of Realistic Local Theories via Bell’s Theorem. Physical Review Letters 47(460).
Aspect, A. et al. (1982). Experimental Realization of Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen-Bohm Gedankenexperiment: A New Violation of Bell’s Inequalities. Physical Review Letters 49(91).
Aspect, A. et al. (1982). Experimental Test of Bell’s Inequalities Using Time-Varying Analyzers. Physical Review Letters 49(1804).
Tittel, W. et al. (1998). Violation of Bell Inequalities by Photons More Than 10 km Apart. Physical Review Letters 81(17).
Weihs, G. et al. (1998). Violation of Bell’s Inequality under Strict Einstein Locality Conditions. Physical Review Letters 81(23).
So where does this leave us? The conclusion is inescapable: according to Cox’s own values, Chopra’s key message that reality is in consciousness cannot be cavalierly dismissed as New Age woo or nonsense. Rigorous science lends more than merely suggestive support to it. What motivates Cox’s behavior then? Answers shortly. For now, I want to beat this dead horse a little more.
As Carl Jung put it, consciousness – that is, subjective experience itself – is the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know. The very act of knowing is an act of consciousness. Can you know what you aren’t, have never been, and will never be, conscious of? Materialist scientists like Cox infer a fundamentally unknowable, unprovable and abstract universe outside consciousness because they believe that this is the only way to explain empirical reality. If reality is fundamentally subjective, like a dream, how do we then explain the fact that we all seem to share the same reality – that is, the same ‘dream’? How do we explain the undeniable correlations between brain activity and subjective experience? How do we explain the effect of psychotropic drugs or physical trauma to the head, both of which undeniably and reliably alter consciousness? How do we explain the undeniable fact that the laws of physics are utterly independent from our egoic volition? After all, if you jump off of a building you will fall, whether you change your mind about it during the fall or not. How do we explain the fact that the world goes merrily on while we sleep in apparent unconsciousness? Etc.
These are all valid questions. The thing, however, is that they have been answered. The latest, most contemporary set of answers to these questions is in my own book, Why Materialism Is Baloney, where I take pains in 250 pages to tackle each of these points logically, rigorously, and with plenty of empirical substantiation. But I haven’t been the first one to do this. Already in the early 18th century philosopher George Berkeley did it. To this day, he remains a respected figure in philosophy. It’s true that many non-philosophers are put off by Berkeley’s use of the concept of ‘God’ in his argument, which was an entirely legitimate move in his own time. However, as I elaborate upon in the video below, we can very clearly and logically articulate and defend the notion that all reality is in consciousness – a notion called ‘Idealism’ in philosophy – without using the concept of a deity.
Now, the moment we can show that Idealism has enough explanatory power to make sense of all reality, including scientific observations, it must be accepted as the preferred, default ontology. The reason is as simple as it is irrefutable: consciousness is the primary datum of existence; it is the one undeniable element of reality and necessary precondition for all knowledge. If one can explain everything without postulating anything beyond consciousness itself, parsimony comes into play and we must refrain from multiplying hypotheses unnecessarily. Postulating a universe outside consciousness when reality can be explained entirely as complex excitations of consciousness is akin to believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And if Brian Cox thinks that I am deluded in claiming this, I herewith challenge him to debate me publicly on the matter. Since he is gutsy enough to call Deepak Chopra a “whining teenager” while referring to himself as a “rational grown-up,” he should have no problem accepting this challenge and proving to the world that I am a fool.
The apparent counter-intuitiveness of Idealism is merely a reflection of deeply-ingrained, hardly-conscious prejudices embedded in our culture. Often, as I illustrate in the video below, materialists beg the question when disputing Idealism. In other words, they assume materialism in their argument to defend it, which is obviously a fallacy.
Our culture, somehow, has come to completely invert the situation: when we say that all reality is in consciousness, most people believe it to mean that reality is inside our heads. In fact, it is materialism that says that the reality we experience is entirely inside our skulls, since experience is supposedly generated by our brains. If, instead, reality is in consciousness, then our heads are in consciousness – not the other way around – and the world we experience around us is, indeed, outside our heads. Idealism, in other words, grants reality to be exactly what it seems to be. But our culture, somehow, has come to attribute to materialism the intuitiveness of Idealism, while attributing to Idealism the absurd implications of materialism. See the video below.
It is this inversion that allows Brian Cox, and others in science, to get away with the dangerous combination of narrow-mindedness and hubris that he displayed in his exchange with Chopra. As I discussed in an earlier essay, science-as-you-know-it has come to deface reason by uncritically co-opting the metaphysics of materialism. By turning itself into a church of materialism, science-as-you-know-it no longer represents an unbiased and ontologically neutral method of investigation. And because our culture mistakenly takes technological success to be evidence for a deep understanding of the nature of reality, we are all guilty, at least by omission, of allowing the new priesthood of science to appoint themselves arbiters of ontological truth. This is as insane as appointing a 5-year-old kid, who happens to break records playing computer games, chief architect at Apple Inc. because the kid’s game-playing prowess must imply deep understanding of computer engineering. Or must it not? The fact that one has figured out, through trial and error, how to play the game of technology does not imply any deep understanding of the nature of reality.
Because of our growing cynicism as a culture, long ago has wisdom been abandoned by our value systems. We have given up on the idea of elders: those who, irrespective of formal education, are firmly in touch with the full spectrum of their humanity and its intimate connection to the universe at large. We have given up on our poets, artists, healers and philosophers as guides. But the archetypal human need to receive guidance and reassurance from an external source remains intact. We naturally need to place our projections of wisdom and superior knowledge onto something or someone else. The gap left had to be filled. And in our technology-obsessed culture, we tragically filled the gap with the spokespeople of science. Having done so, we now find ourselves in the insane position of expecting wisdom and guidance from – pardon my blatant sincerity – semi-conscious nerds; intellectual specialists who can solve abstract mathematical puzzles but are largely disconnected from life and the depths of their own psyche. No teenager would make this silly mistake among his or her own circle of friends, as a visit to any schoolyard will show you. Yet we, as a culture, do it all the time.
Why do we behave like this? What are we getting from this insane projection of wisdom onto some of the least sighted amongst us? A cogent analysis of none other than Brian Cox himself, by James Sheils, helps shed some light on the question. Sheils argues that “Cox’s science documentaries stupefy the public into remembering disconnected and obscure ideas they do not understand.” Yet, the public is fascinated by these documentaries because the obscure mysteries they hint at instigate a misplaced sense of amazement and awe. This “amazement and awe,” Sheils continues, “do not advance a person’s understanding of scientific ideas. And to settle for this response is to encourage your audience to be satisfied with feeling bewildered and overwhelmed.”
Shiels is on to something here. Our progressive abandonment of our relationship with the mysteries of transcendence since the Enlightenment has left a gaping hole in the human psyche. Our culture is desperate to get intellectual permission to believe something else instead, to peek into some new and obscure mystery, so long as it inspires the same amazement and awe previously reserved for transcendence. The new priesthood of science sensed an opportunity and rushed to fill the gap not with real science, but with the science fiction of parallel universes and the like that Brian Cox is so fond of. Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Laurence Krauss, Richard Dawkins: scientists or TV stars? Men of wisdom or priests of misplaced wonder? Here is Brian Cox – whose lectures discuss “obscure quantum mechanical assumptions used to introduce counter-intuitive effects and explain obscure astronomy,” to quote Shiels again – arrogantly blasting Deepak Chopra because of the latter’s obscure appeal to quantum mechanics. How ironic. And here is Neil deGrasse Tyson preposterously suggesting that science has rendered philosophy redundant, a position whose absurdity and danger has been made painfully clear by Prof. Austin Hughes. And they all get away with it! What’s going on?
It is we, as a culture, who project onto figures like Brian Cox maturity, authority and wisdom they’ve never had. And, as any psychologist will tell you, those who receive such projections begin to believe them themselves, in a process sometimes called inflation (no pun intended). They then take their preferred methods, values and particular way of thinking to be the only valid ones, snubbing all others. As a consequence, true intuition, imagination and direct experiential knowledge are disregarded today in favor of purely conceptual exercises in abstraction. Our projections have given semi-conscious nerds the power to impose their idiosyncratic values and dominant psychic functions onto the rest of us. This has been costing more to our culture than we can imagine today, but will realize one day with jaw-dropping horror.
All this said, we can also withdraw our projections and change this tragic state of affairs rather quickly. In doing so, we need not give in to woo, hysteria, intellectual nonsense, or any such drivel. We only need to learn and separate style from substance, personal taste from content, argument from conclusion. Personally, I also have distaste for New Age jargon and style. I’ve always had it and never made a secret of it. I also think that a lot of the New Age ideas and theories are complete and utter bunk; even dangerous bunk. You will find in me no sympathy for lack of intellectual rigor or lack of skepticism; much to the contrary. But my idiosyncratic taste and preferences are no basis for dismissing Chopra’s claim that reality is in consciousness, because that simply is the best explanation around. My idiosyncratic taste and preferences are no basis for dismissing Chopra’s claim that our psychic state is directly related to our physical health because, as I articulated in an earlier essay, that is also quite likely and reasonable. He was saying these things before I ever had the maturity to even contemplate them as possibilities, so I can only respect him despite any difference in style or values. The fact that Chopra may have never articulated his positions with the degree of thoroughness and rigor that I personally require does not mean that he is wrong. By pre-judging the claim based largely on his distaste of the claimant’s style and way of communicating, Cox is committing an ad hominen fallacy whose cost is enormous: he is desensitizing his large audience to hypotheses about the nature of reality that aren’t only very likely to be true, but also essential to our physical, psychological, and spiritual advancement as a civilization.
Finally, if Brian Cox thinks I am foolish or in any way wrong, the least he can do is to accept my challenge for a public debate. Please wipe the floor with me, Brian, if you can. Or, to paraphrase your comment to Chopra, just “shut up.”