If you follow the literature of scientific research in medicine, you may have raised your eyebrows at the list of authors credited in an article that came out in the October, 2016, issue of the journal Scientific Reports. With the arcane title “Identification of altered metabolomic profiles following a Panchakarma-based Ayurvedic intervention in healthy subjects: the Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative (SBTI),” the article named 13 of them. They included Eric Schadt, who founded the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, and Harvard professor Rudolph Tanzi, co-discoverer of all three familial early-onset Alzheimer’s disease genes, who is said to be a serious candidate for a Nobel Prize. Seeing names like that on a paper describing serious scientific research wouldn’t budge anyone’s brow, but those who read further down the author list could be excused if they did a double-take: included at the end of the list of accomplished scientists was one Deepak Chopra.
Yes, this Dr. Chopra was indeed the same Dr. Chopra who has on many occasions been roundly criticized in the pages of Skeptic magazine, and on many other occasions by those who consider their mission to be that of defending science from myth and misunderstanding. So what to make of this involvement in serious research, and his acceptance by serious researchers? The dictionary defines a skeptic as “a person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others.” But a true skeptic doesn’t just challenge the views of others. He or she also challenges the views of him- or herself. And so it was with an open mind that we read You Are the Universe, another collaboration between Chopra and a scientist, this time Chapman University physicist Menas Kafatos. In the book, the authors offer what they purport to be a scientific argument for what they call the “participatory universe,” the proposition that the universe and human consciousness are inextricably linked.
The message of their book is encapsulated in their title. The assertion means that we humans, or we who are conscious beings, are significantly intertwined with what physicists call the physical universe, which they assert is “living” and “conscious,” and responds to human minds. That “the universe” affects humans is of course indisputable, but that human existence changes the universe in some significant manner is not an idea most scientists would accept.
This is not a new idea—as the authors point out, it dates back at least to the Vedic sages of ancient India. Those ancient scholars came to their conclusion, the authors tell us, “by diving deep into their own awareness.” In their day, in the search for truth there wasn’t much more one could do but meditate on such problems. Ever since the scientific revolution, however, we have had available powerful tools for understanding the physical world. As for the mind, “introspection” fell into disuse in the late 19th century as we began to uncover the role of the unconscious, which is inaccessible to introspection. Today, we have powerful brain imaging technologies that more than take up the slack. The authors promise in a sense to update the old Vedic arguments in light of these intellectual advances by employing the ideas and methods of modern science to offer evidence to support their point of view.
The first problem with that promise is that by “support,” the authors don’t mean what scientists usually mean when making that claim about a theory—that it makes predictions that may (or may not) be verified through experiment. Rather, the evidence they propose to offer is that the human universe is better than traditional science at answering nine “ultimate mysteries” offered in the form of chapter title questions: What came before the big bang? Why does the universe fit together so perfectly? Where did time come from? What is the universe made of? Is there design in the universe? Is the quantum world linked to everyday life? Do we live in a conscious universe? How did life first begin? Does the brain create the mind?
If we accept this approach, we face another issue: although some of these mysteries are addressed by science (How did life first begin?), some are not (Why does the universe fit together so perfectly?). Some are even, to a scientist, too vaguely posed to even consider (they ask Do we live in a conscious universe? but provide no clear and verifiable definition of what that means.)
The bulk of the book is a discussion of these nine ultimate mysteries. The objections we just raised aside, in these chapters they generally do a good job of presenting what is known and not known by modern science. The discussion ranges over a wide swath of material, from the intricacies of genetics, to the details of various theories of cosmic inflation. And they rightfully point out some of the limitations of current science. They criticize, for example, the confidence in the validity of string theory that many theoretical physicists hold despite a lack of evidence—a good point. In fact, the large hadron collider in Geneva, where the Higgs boson was discovered, had offered the best and perhaps only (at least for now) possibility of experimental support for the theory, and found none.
And then there is the “fine tuning problem.” That’s the issue that if many of the parameters that appear in our theories are altered by just a percent or so, calculations show that the universe would have evolved quite differently, and in a manner that would not have led to the possibility of life as we know it. That’s not really an issue for physics—the physicist’s job is to figure out and validate the laws, not to worry about what would happen if they were different. But it does present quite a puzzle for the scientific worldview.
The authors also present several phenomena as troubling for science, when in truth they aren’t. They spend much time arguing that something random cannot, without the guidance of a conscious universe, become something “nonrandom.” How could the planet earth, and the life upon it, which is quite ordered, arise from the chaos of space? The problem is presented as if it stumps scientists, but actually there is an easy answer. The second law of thermodynamics says that the disorder of an isolated system can never decrease, but the earth is not isolated. The sun pours energy into it and the earth sends its excess entropy (disorder) into the heavens through the photons that it radiates into space every night, and so its orderliness is not a mystery.
In another criticism of science the authors state that, “to be brutally frank life is a major inconvenience for physics. Biology doesn’t fit into abstract equations.” It’s not clear what the embarrassment is, but in any case, it is not the charge of physics to explain life. Physics is not about biology. There is another science that handles that. It is called…biology. And biology does just fine without abstract equations.
In the era of President Trump and fake news reports it is ironic that the authors offer statements such as “general agreement [in science] is reached by studying the facts and nothing but the facts,” as a criticism rather than a compliment.
When discussing the origins of life, the authors also overlook some interesting recent experiments on the topic, and criticize science for ignoring the question. They present an imaginary molecular biologist who dismisses their ideas with the words, “These kinds of speculations are closer to science fiction than science. They have no evidence to back them up. Sorry.” They imply that the biologist is being closed-minded, but is it closed-minded to reject an idea that is not supported by evidence? In the era of President Trump and fake news reports it is ironic that the authors offer statements such as “general agreement [in science] is reached by studying the facts and nothing but the facts,” as a criticism rather than a compliment.
That brings us to what, from a scientific perspective, we consider to be a central weakness of the book: in their search for truth the authors are clearly biased by their agenda to debunk the view that the laws of nature are not driven by some higher purpose. They make little effort to hide this, saying, for example, “We believe that the human universe must prevail.” (Italics are theirs.) Elsewhere they write, “It is very hard to get the human mind to accept that absolutely everything in nature is meaningless, but that’s what Darwinism, the big bang, cosmic inflation, and the formation of the solar system are all about—stripping creation of human notions like purpose and meaning.” It is ironic that, with that choice of words, the authors, who are themselves biased, seem to be criticizing science for having an agenda. In truth, however, Darwin and the physicists who developed cosmology were not “all about” creating theories in which deeper human meaning plays no role. Instead, they were led, by their experiments and observation, to discover the laws they formulated. Darwin, in particular, started out a religious man, and created his theory while still believing in the Christian God. His wife was also deeply religious. He would certainly have been more comfortable with a theory of evolution that was consistent with that belief than one in which randomness plays such a large role. But good scientists don’t seek to “prove” pre-existing beliefs, they seek to discover the truth.
The point of view regarding the universe that the authors are promoting is nicely summarized by a series of tenets that Chopra often quotes in his public lectures, interviews, and social media tweets and videos (the authors provide a much longer and detailed list in an appendix to the book):
- Whenever we use the word “we” or “I” it is consciousness that is being referred to.
- Mind/Body/Universe are experiences in consciousness.
- Consciousness is that in which all experience occurs, all experience is known, and out of which all experience is made. It is the knowing element in every experience.
- Fundamental experience is in the form of sensations, images, feelings, thoughts, perceptions.
- Experiences are modifications of consciousness—thoughts and perceptions are modified forms of consciousness.
- You cannot separate an object from the perception of it.
- Consciousness is non local and therefore formless, timeless, and spaceless.
- Humans are a species of consciousness that have created models out of basic experiences or qualia (sensations, images, feelings, thoughts, perceptions).
- The real You is not the Body/Mind/Universe (they go together) but the formless being who experiences Body/Mind/Universe as an intermittent stream of sensations images feelings thoughts perceptions.
- By objectifying experience we created an external world, learned to quantify it, measure it, tabulate it, create phyla, etc., all human constructs around raw experience.
- The goal of existence is to know who we are.
- This understanding and experience could lead to a more peaceful, just, sustainable, healthier, and happier world.
It’s hard to argue with such lofty goals. But are we “the universe?” There is very strong evidence that mind and consciousness have nothing to do with the cosmos, but rather are emergent properties of neural activity in the brain. For example, changes in conscious experience can be directly measured by fMRI, EEG, and single-neuron recordings. Neuroscientists can predict human choices from brain scan activity before the subject is even consciously aware of the decisions made. Using brain scans alone, neuroscientists have even been able to reconstruct on a computer screen what someone is seeing. Stroke-caused damage to the visual cortex region called V1 leads to loss of conscious visual perception. Thousands of lab experiments, in conjunction with naturally occurring experiments in the form of brain tumors, strokes, accidents and injuries, confirm the hypothesis that neurochemical processes produce subjective experiences. That is, brain activity equals consciousness. The fact that neuroscientists are not in agreement over which physicalist theory best accounts for mind and consciousness does not mean that alternative theories hold equal standing. And the fact that science doesn’t address some question, or hasn’t yet found answers to certain ultimate questions, is not “proof” of anything.
You Are the Universe contains uplifting prose that may make the deepest pessimist feel like there is hope for our future, and if you want a single highly readable summation of the worldview that Chopra characterizes as the Eastern Wisdom Traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc.) and how these relate to modern science, this book should be on your short list. But from a purely scientific perspective we feel that the book’s thesis goes against the grain of the Copernican Principle. Ever since Copernicus knocked us off our cosmic pedestal half a millennium ago, science has demonstrated that the Earth is not the center of the solar system, the solar system is not the center of our galaxy, our galaxy is not the center of the universe, humans are not specially created apart from all other animals, we are not living in the most important time in history, and we are not the be-all and end-all of creation. You Are the Universe seeks to put humans back into prominence. Call it the Ptolemy Principle, the belief, after its namesake, that we are not only at the center of the universe, but that we are, in fact, the universe itself!
The fact that science doesn’t address some question, or hasn’t yet found answers to certain ultimate questions, is not “proof” of anything.
If anything, what science compels us to conclude is that we are not special. In fact, we are just one among perhaps a billion species that evolved over billions of years on one tiny planet among billions of planets circling hundreds of billions of stars in a galaxy that is just one among hundreds of billions of galaxies that, for all we know contain billions of other life forms, all located in an expanding cosmic bubble universe that very possibly is only one among an enormous number of bubble universes. Is it really possible that this entire cosmological multiverse is the result of this one species of conscious creatures? It seems unlikely.
Chopra and Kafatos have made great strides in support of Chopra’s quest to apply science to his worldview. The book is a coherent argument for his point of view and it is informed by much knowledge of cutting edge science. Those who are interested in Eastern philosophy will appreciate the arguments. But those who are closer to the outlook of science will likely conclude that the authors have not made their case. We still believe that we are not the universe. But we are optimistic that science can continue to enlighten us about the universe, and everything in it, including us.
About the Authors
Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist and best-selling author of Euclid’s Window, Feynman’s Rainbow, The Drunkard’s Walk, Subliminal, and The Upright Thinkers. He co-authored The Grand Design and A Briefer History of Time with Stephen Hawking, and The War of the Worldviews with Deepak Chopra.
Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and a Presidential Fellow at Chapman University where he teaches Skepticism 101. He is the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Science of Good and Evil, and The Moral Arc. His next book is Heavens on Earth: The Quest for Immortality and Perfectibility.