My Debate Date with Deepak (and friends)
Sunday, March 14, 2:00 pm, Caltech—the big showdown, the great debate, the tag-team wrestling match of the century finally happened: Shermer/Harris v. Chopra/Houston, and the hyperbole was warranted as the sparks were flying. You can watch the edited edition of “Does God Have a Future?” next Tuesday night, March 23, on ABC Nightline (11:30 pm, 10:30 central; check your local listings), and the complete unedited version on ABC.com after the show airs. There were 1,100 people in Beckman Auditorium, and apparently another 4 million will watch the debate on television and the Internet.
You won’t want to miss this show because my “wingman” Sam Harris (as he was introduced by the ABC moderator but who is in reality no one’s wingman) was stunningly brilliant. He came up with some of the best one-liners I’ve ever heard in a debate. To wit: after I challenged Deepak on what I consider to be his misuse of quantum mechanics, and Sam followed up by noting that none of us were really qualified to speak with authority on quantum mechanics, Deepak fired back louder and with more enthusiasm his previous point about quantum consciousness and nonlocality proving the existence of mind separate from brain. Sam rejoined: “Deepak, repeating a statement louder and with more emphasis does not make it any less false.”
I would like to thank Deepak for bringing ABC Nightline into what would otherwise have been just he and I in a Skeptics Society sponsored event, and I must say that both he and Jean Houston were exceptionally polite and warm before and after the debate, and although Deepak got pretty heated early in the debate over my calling his approach “woo woo”, I too was emotional in emphasizing my points because, after all, this was not suppose to be a love fest—if we did not disagree on many important points there would be no point in calling it a debate.
On the “woo woo” issue to which Deepak took much exception, he fired back at me fairly aggressively, which I pointed out was not very “spiritual” of him, to which he said “you bring out the worst in me Michael.” I don’t mean to bring out the worst in anyone; that would be counter to a scientific approach to analyzing claims, and believe it or not I actually like Deepak as a person.
So allow me to offer just one point here on a very specific claim about micro quantum effects applying to macro world events. Deepak believes that the weirdness of the quantum world (such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that the more precisely you know a particle’s position, the less precisely you know its speed, and vice versa) can be linked to mysteries of the macro world (such as consciousness). This is based on the work of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, whose theory of quantum consciousness has generated much heat but little light in scientific circles. Here is the theory.
Inside our neurons are tiny hollow microtubules that act like structural scaffolding. The conjecture (and that’s all it is) is that something inside the microtubules may initiate a wave function collapse that leads to the quantum coherence of atoms, causing neurotransmitters to be released into the synapses between neurons and thus triggering them to fire in a uniform pattern, thereby creating thought and consciousness. Since a wave function collapse can only come about when an atom is “observed” (i.e., affected in any way by something else), neuroscientist Sir John Eccles, another proponent of the idea, even suggests that “mind” may be the observer in a recursive loop from atoms to molecules to neurons to thought to consciousness to mind to atoms to molecules to neurons to….
In reality, the gap between sub-atomic quantum effects and large-scale macro systems is too large to bridge. In his book The Unconscious Quantum, the University of Colorado particle physicist Victor Stenger demonstrates that for a system to be described quantum mechanically the system’s typical mass m, speed v, and distance d must be on the order of Planck’s constant h. “If mvd is much greater than h, then the system probably can be treated classically.” Stenger computes that the mass of neural transmitter molecules, and their speed across the distance of the synapse, are about three orders of magnitude too large for quantum effects to be influential. There is no micro-macro connection.
During the debate Deepak claimed that the moon is nothing more than a soup of teeming quantum uncertainty. No. Subatomic particles may be altered when they are observed, but the moon is there even if no one looks at it.
More to come on the debate in days to come. Stay tuned, and in the meantime tell me what you think about the work of Deepak Chopra and Jean Houston.