Deepak Chopra: Reply to Chris Anderson, TED and Claims of “Pseudoscience” (Part 3)

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Part 3 of this letter is in response to the recent letter to all the TEDx organizers, posted by Chris Anderson, the head of TED. The original letter proposed certain “red flag” topics, among them health hoaxes and the medicinal value of food but also the general area of pseudoscience.

Please read the following responses from accredited scientists and others in the consciousness communities, who have their own responses to the issues at hand:

The accusation that the work of researchers including Rupert Sheldrake, Russell Targ and others is ‘pseudo-scientific,’ and that accordingly their presentations should be removed from TEDx, is one that is unjustifiable. As with any branch of science, their studies should be subject to intense scrutiny, and it may be that future work would reveal limitations in their approaches. Such is the core of the scientific enterprise. Nevertheless, the ideas they articulate have not been compromised by substantive scientific evidence, and casting aspersions on the integrity of their work is therefore tantamount to prejudice. Removing their talks is out-and-out censorship.

The deeper issue here concerns the challenge to understand consciousness, and the interplay between belief and methodology involved in meeting that challenge. Whilst the notion of ‘belief’ seems opposed to scientific advance as popularly construed, unsubstantiated assumptions frequently influence the kinds of hypotheses advanced and the lenses through which data are interpreted in the scientific world. In the case of consciousness the notion that its full causation will be found in the arena of neuronal processing is one such unsubstantiated assumption. There is no definitive evidence that such neurophysicalism is sustainable. There may be non-cerebral, and even non-physical (as currently understood), aspects to the basis of consciousness; we simply do not have the evidence to draw firm conclusions. The dominant paradigm entails assumptions drawn from the success in ascribing physical causation to other features of our world. But consciousness may be of a different order; it may not capable of analysis on the basis of such comparisons. Again, we simply do not know, and to castigate researchers for their openness to changing the paradigm ranks alongside the darker examples of prejudice that haunt human history.

The way in which we view consciousness has huge implications for our culture. To cite but one glaring example, a society that assumes that complex biological computation is the sole causal determinant of consciousness may rapidly decide that complex computation itself – as in computers of the future – is responsible for consciousness. Such a society will have squeezed the human spirit from its worldview, reducing what it is to be human to the level of what it is to be a super-computer. Is this a world we would wish to bequeath to our children? Too often the scientific community ignores the moral implications of stances it adopts. In cases where definitive evidence drives the stance, well and good; but where the stance stands on unfounded assumptions we are right to question it. The predominant scientific stance in the area of consciousness research is one that many of us wish to challenge. Let there be solid argument in the debate; not feeble accusations – such as that of ‘pseudoscience.’

Brian L Lancaster PhD
Emeritus Professor of Transpersonal Psychology
Liverpool John Moores University, UK.

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Thank you for your thoughtful reply. The consciousness studies community, made up of members from nearly every branch of science and academia, would like TED’s anonymous scientific advisory board to be aware that the study of consciousness requires a new form of consideration: unlike traditional scientific subject matter we are obliged to look at awareness and experience as non-reductive processes, and this requires an openness to exploring new methodologies, new forms of logic, new truth claims, and a different understanding of what constitutes proof. Additionally, we are finding it necessary to embrace the notion that many different perspectives and ideologies may be harboring a portion of the truth about consciousness. We find it necessary to be ideologically open to a variety of perspectives and approaches, and we hope that TED will be able to partner with us in this important exploration. Rupert Sheldrake is a respected expert on the necessity of new forms of analysis, so we were understandably shocked to see his work deemed unfit for the TED venue. Experiential approaches, including Graham Hancock’s exploration of alternative states, represent an important aspect of our subject matter, and therefore of our research. We are saddened to see his brave and very personal contribution disparaged as ‘pseudo-science.’

Perhaps TED would consider including members of our community on its advisory panel so as not to repeat the current misunderstanding and discord.

Respectfully,

Christopher Holvenstot
Independent Researcher
Editorial Advisor: The Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research
Founding Member: The Society for Consciousness Studies

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As a psychologist and professor who has spent years studying and teaching about consciousness at a public research university, I am alternately shocked and amused at the lengths people will travel to preserve an outmoded, materialist belief system in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I have colleagues who know nothing about the complexities of consciousness studies yet who, in their ignorance and arrogance, snidely condemn it as “pseudoscience”, much as TED and its “anonymous” scientific advisory board have done. In response I have trained myself and my students to ask “What specific studies and data are you troubled by? What experimental procedures are you questioning? Have you read Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of a Scientific Revolution?” Invariably the answer is silence.

The kind of backlash exemplified by TED has occurred again and again since Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for proposing what astrophysicists now call “the multiple worlds theory”, and it is always at its most vociferous and vicious as a new way of thinking is emerging. But, as Thomas Kuhn reminds us, the old guard eventually and inevitably gives way to the new. I am currently teaching an upper-division undergraduate course entitled “Consciousness, Ethics, and the Natural World.” Among other works that we are reading is Rupert Sheldrake’s “Dogs that Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home.” Yesterday I asked my students what they thought about TED’s censuring of Sheldrake. Here are some of their thoughts:

“TED is starting to exclude the very minds that it was created to gather.”
“TED is behaving in a very immature way….just like middle school cliques.”
“TED has become a synonym for censure.”
“To which special interests will TED bow before next”?
“The scientists who pressured TED into censuring Sheldrake are afraid that accepting his perspective invalidates their own work and that they’ll be pushed aside. They don’t realize that there’s room for everyone in the Multiverse.”

These are students at a mainstream research university for whom Sheldrake’s ideas are common sense rather than “pseudoscience.” Clearly, this latest scientific revolution is upon us.

Kathleen D. Noble, Ph.D.
Professor of Consciousness
School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math
University of Washington – Bothell

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In the TED reply they say:

“Nothing would excite us more than to include talks which offer a credible contribution to understanding [consciousness] better. Such talks could use the third person language of neuroscience, the first person language of experience or spirituality. We’ve carried plenty of each. We’re hungry for more.”

Yet in their guidelines to their TEDx organizers regarding the “Red Flags” of “Pseudo-science” topics to watch out for they specifically list:

  • The neuroscience of [fill in the blank] — not saying this will all be non-legitimate, but that it’s a field where a lot of goofballs are right now
  • The fusion of science and spirituality. Be especially careful of anyone trying to prove the validity of their religious beliefs and practices by using science

“Goofballs” is a rather demeaning and judgmentally charged word. And aren’t they contradicting themselves here? If they truly believe they are “hungry for more” credible talks on consciousness and are open to the neuroscience field, then perhaps they should change their guidelines letter to TEDx organizers and clarify these “red flags” more, and clean up their choice of words.

I’ve already made a contribution to the reply, but perhaps it might be worth pointing out TED’s inconsistency in the overall group response somewhere.

I just want to take a moment to acknowledge this group. It is great to see such active collaboration and contributions from everyone. Such a united effort is what is needed to really get this field more on a level playing field with mainstream science, and it is rather fortunate timing that this TED debate is arising now to bring this topic more into the spotlight.

Cheers,

Theresa Bullard, Ph.D in Physics

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