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The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism (Part 4)

resilience-1Click here for part 3

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP and Jordan Flesher, BA Psychology

Most of us take perception for granted as a photograph – in five sensory dimensions – of the real world. If you walk past the house where you were born, however, you won’t see it the way a camera would. You can’t help  but see it as a personal  part of your life. A termite inspector would see it a different way, as would a zoning official, an architect, a landscaper, and so on. The fact is that we can take any perspective we want on any object in the universe. No one disputes this fact, but it can’t be taken for granted, because there’s a deep mystery about how we apply mental models to the reality that spreads out before us.  The application of this mystery to the rise and fall of skepticism will become evident in a minute.

Increasing attention is being paid to the late Polish-American mathematician Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), who has lent a popular phrase to this whole problem of what we see and what is real: “The map is not the territory.” In a nutshell it captures the problem of believing in maps – or models – created by the human mind. It’s obvious when you walk past the house where you were born that your mind creates the memory of growing up there. But some models are so convincing that we forget how we made them. Or we think the map is the territory, and then many missteps can arise. If you own a lovely house but all you can think of is that it might have termites or that burglars are waiting to rob you in the night, mounting anxiety can take over to the extent that you are ruled by your fixation. To someone with claustrophobia, an elevator is never neutral – it’s the source of fear.

Skeptics are perfectly entitled to create and enjoy their own model of the world, but when it becomes a fixation, a valid aspect of the scientific method – demanding verification of facts – becomes a source of bullying, disdain, ad hominem attacks, and in the worst cases, blindness to reality.  But since militant skepticism is essentially a nuisance born on the blogosphere, it wouldn’t be a serious impediment to scientific thinking any more than booing fans cause a football team to march off the field. The importance of dismantling militant skepticism is minimal except when it comes to the kind of deeper investigation that Korzybski was interested in.

He devised mathematical theorems and non-Aristotelian logic to demonstrate that the neurological system of a scientist is engaging in a highly selective process – it consists of selecting out some information and omitting the remaining. This is the very essence of making a map, or a model. When you look at the house where you were born, there are literally thousands of facts about it that you ignore anytime you think about the house. How many nails have gone into the wooden framing? How many microbes and mold spores live behind the sheet rock? Who lives there now, and what are their lives like? Somewhere in the world somebody makes it their business to collect data on such questions and countless more, because our ability to select and discard is infinite. The skeptics’ movement makes the mistake of giving certain models – basically their own, which is based on mistrust – a privileged position, when the truth is that all models have some advantages and some disadvantages.

The scientific model is abstract and reductionist. It isolates certain data (which are abstract) and organizes them to arrive at the essential qualities of an object (reducing it to pertinent facts).  This is a fluid, dynamic, and subjective activity. But it’s not the same as perceiving reality. Going to the most basic level of logic, one must concede that the human brain processes only the tiniest fraction of the billions of bits of sensory data that bombard us every day. We each have established our own filters for what we select and what we discard. If you are having chest pains and jump into your car to get to the emergency room, it won’t matter to you what the scenery is like along the way. Expanded to the activity of science, what this says is that every one of us is participating in the universe in a personal, creative way. There is no fixed reality “out there.”

So, how much weight should we give to how models differ from reality? Korzybski realized that there is an indefinite number of characteristics making up the physical environment that a scientist is unavoidably embedded within. He calculated the physical-energetic data impinging upon the sensory receptors of the scientist’s neurological system before the system engages in further levels of abstraction.  In other words, the threshold of data the your brain can process, is already an abstraction (a map) before you, or a scientist, starts to come up with newly created maps and models. For example, the simple fact that you can’t hear frequencies as high as what a dog hears, means that your threshold for perception isn’t perfect, complete, or even true. “This room is nice and quiet” isn’t true for a dog being tormented by a persistent shrill noise in its ear that doesn’t exist for you.

Science prides itself on investigating all kinds of things that the five senses don’t pick up. But this extension of perception, astonishing as it is when the Hubble telescope images distant galaxies, still doesn’t mean that science is viewing reality. Instead, it is expanding a map, putting in more detail.  As Korzybski might point out, there is no way to NOT be embedded in the universe we observe.  Here’s the pathway that maps take before anyone engages with the universe: Physical-energetic data is conveyed by our sense organs and transduced (transformed) into electro-chemical nerve impulses, which are themselves even further decoded (translated) by other higher order levels of the brain into conceptual-linguistic (thought) interpretations of what is then experienced as “real.”

If you suppose, as skeptics do, that science somehow transcends this intricate pathway, delivering “just the facts and only the facts,” you are being naive. Take just one mystery, that of dark matter and energy. By current calculations, which are very imprecise, 96% of the universe may be composed of dark matter and energy, which no one can see or measure. The visible universe, which we rely upon as the very foundation of reality, amounts to 4% of what’s out there. At the very least this means that the threshold of what the brain processes is a minuscule portion of the totality. If it turns out, as some theorists suspect, that dark matter isn’t even based on atoms and molecules, how can the brain, itself composed of atoms and molecules, conceive of reality to begin with?

These are the kinds of mysteries that militant skepticism rails against when someone tries to deviate from the dogma of “the facts and nothing but the facts.” It’s not easy to come to terms with the interface between brain, mind, and reality. But to ridicule the investigation, as militant skeptics do, to denigrate someone else’s model because you are the privileged keeper of truth, to shrug of advanced theories as pseudoscience – in other words, to own allegiance to the skeptical model – is pure ignorance.

Korzybski confronts us with a sobering but undeniable fact: As each level of abstraction occurs in the brain, more and more information is omitted. A scientist, like all of us, is both objectively and subjectively placed further and further away from what could be termed “really real reality.”  So what is that reality? As Korzybski pointed out, whatever reality might be, it transcends the confined, limited, and anthropomorphic point of view that we are tied to, because of the neurological system and its constructed map. Reality must be accounted for in its totality before any wide-scale truth claim, reality-claim, or thesis regarding morality and consciousness can be considered mildly sufficient — no matter what field of study the claim is constructed within, whether that field is science, psychology, or philosophy. Until then, the Dawkins-Harris-Dennett movement, despite its noisiness, should take a lesson from Korzybski and realize that the map is not the territory.

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The Rise and Fall of Militant Skepticism (Part 3)

god-and-scienceClick here for Part 2

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., FACP and Jordan Flesher, BA Psychology

The bond between militant atheism and militant skepticism has been unusually strong, to the point where attacks on religion are delivered as if no rational, science-mined person could object. In two posts the argument was laid out about how shaky militant skepticism really is in the light of current physics and cosmology. So that the discussion won’t seem too arcane and removed from everyday life, this post will examine the fallacies that undermine the skeptical position of two popular skeptics, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.

Since both have scientific credentials, readers of their books should have confidence that Harris and Dawkins are getting their science right. But it takes only a slightly deeper examination to raise doubts. In his book for young adults, The Magic of Reality, Dawkins provides a subtitle: How we know what is really true. It turns out, on reading what he has to say about truth and reality, that Dawkins believes firmly in the truth presented by the five senses, along with the scientific instruments, like telescopes and microscopes, that extend our senses. But reliance on the five senses is the exact opposite of what modern science has been doing for centuries, as far back as Copernicus’s discovery that our eyes lie to us when they see the sun rise in the East and set in the West.

The evident reason for Dawkins to make such an elementary mistake lies in his agenda (another thing science isn’t supposed to have), which is to discredit all subjective states as unreliable, leading to superstition, credulity, myths, charlatanism (which he intimates is the basis of Jesus’s miracles, although a loophole is left open in case Jesus was merely self-deluded), and the ultimate form of deception, belief in God. To date, Dawkins has offered no ontology (theory of reality) that corrects his mistake. Despite a fifteen-minute TED talk on quantum physics, he seems totally ignorant of current theories of perception, consciousness, the mind-body problem, or the observer effect, all of which grew out of the quantum revolution a century ago. In a word, he has made himself irrelevant by his crude linkage of his personal atheism and a fumbling defense of “real” science that was outmoded long ago.

Sam Harris presents a more sophisticated example because, to begin with, he claims a background in philosophy and a long-standing interest in Buddhism. Both areas are deeply concerned with what is real, how we know things, what constitutes the truth, and so on.  In his atheist mode Harris is nastier and more strident even than Dawkins (for example, he sees all of Islam as a threat and a present danger, since even “good” Muslims are infected with the inherent violence of their religion). But in various footnotes and passing asides, Harris concedes that subjectivity isn’t always the enemy of science.  There are medical states, for instance, where the patients self-report of pain, depression, anxiety, etc. are the basis of reality. If a patient says “I’m in pain” or “I’m depressed,” no brain scan is sufficient to say authoritatively, “No, you’re not.”

Harris came a cropper, however, in his last book, The Moral Landscape, when he made basic mistakes that a beginner in philosophy would be warned again.  His errors earned the book scathing and dismissive reviews. Stung, he added a long appendix to the second edition defending himself, and when that made no dent, he offered a standing prize to anyone who could convince him that he was in fact wrong.

The thesis of The Moral Landscape is that “conscious minds… are… fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever those laws eventually turn out to be).” As it stands, the statement is recklessly absolutist, since it assumes that the operations of the cosmos, extending to an infinite horizon, are understandable by the human mind. Leaving that aside, Harris felt on safe ground because current scientific assumptions identify mind as brain, and there is no doubt that the brain is, indeed, constrained by the laws of nature. But reviewers balked when Harris attempted to firmly prove that morality has its basis in scientific principles operating over the course of evolution.  He had made a shaky truce with subjectivity in the past. Now he wanted to bury subjectivity in an area, morality, where scientism is weak at best. Natural laws don’t explain why humans are altruistic or love one another, much less do they explain our divided nature, where good and evil contend in an intractable, wholly inexplicable way.

Harris’s boldness exposes his allegiance to bad thinking about what is real and how we know the truth. Specifically, this is the misunderstanding that follows from fusing ontology (what may be ‘real’) with epistemology (what may be ‘true’) without first making sure that one’s apparent epistemological ‘truths’ are, in actuality, even real.   To arrive at a ‘truth-claim’ in regards to consciousness and morality via the scientific method, without first understanding the fundamental subjective nature of either consciousness or morality, Harris cannot be certain that his claims are based in reality. For all truth-claims, are made by the human neurological system, and the human brain is not a reliable or valid guide to the actual ‘reality of things’.

In a word, while Dawkins makes a crude claim that the five senses are reliable indicators of what is real, Harris makes a sophisticated claim in the same area, by assuming that the human brain, a physical object that evolved over millennia, is reliable as the model for everything that happens inside our minds. But if the five senses can’t be trusted, neither can the brain, which processes the input of our sense organs and fashions them into a three-dimensional model of the world. The model isn’t the same as reality. At best it is only provisional; at worst it may be very far from the truth, as witness hundreds of models from the past that have been thoroughly exploded (e.g., the Earth is the center of creation,  blood washes back and forth in the body like the tide, etc.)

Harris may argue that the scientific method can “stand on its own” apart from the nervous system of the experimenter via the use of technological systems that run on the logic and language of mathematics, etc. However, the data which computers churn out still has to come in contact with the nervous system of the scientist in order for a theory of morality and human consciousness to be constructed. (The deep question of whether mathematics is universal or somehow mediated by the human nervous system has yet to be answered with any certainty.)

If Harris hadn’t stretched his assumptions to the breaking point, he wouldn’t have revealed that he was making the same mistakes when arguing against God. For God, of all things, exists on the cusp between what we know, what we think we know, and what is indisputably real. An arthritis patient’s pain is indisputably real, even though subjective – in fact, it is real because it is subjective.  There is no scientific proof that a report by a mystic that she feels the presence of God isn’t real, and the subjectivity of the experience is the measure of its realness, not the measure of its illusory quality.

In a word, Harris and Dawkins, by turning their backs and scorning subjectivity, have fallen into traps of their own devising. Militant skepticism builds upon their mistakes, amplifies them, and employs scurrilous personal attacks to cover over their own intellectual flaws. In the end, the militant movement will collapse, not because the people who like God outnumber the people who dislike fear, and are suspicious of God. Skepticism’s agenda is doomed because its thinking is basically unsound.

***

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Can the Truth Come Back With a Capital “T”? (Part 8)

Butterfly flying free from cupped handsClick here to read part 7!

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Neil Theise, MD

To salvage cause and effect, the “brain first” camp usually resorts to the notion that indeterminacy occurs at the quantum level but not in the world of everyday events. This sort of sequestration has no basis in truth. Whatever the brain is doing, its roots are in the quantum realm. In fact, the brain’s ability to express new ideas, new works of art, and imaginative thinking in general is proof positive that indeterminacy is fundamental to life, not a quirk of quark behavior. If Hamlet were lost for a hundred years and suddenly rediscovered, a crowd would gather to see the legendary play. Imagine that the actor playing Hamlet arrives at the line, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Does anyone suppose that a neuroscientist, even with total knowledge of every firing of every neuron, could finish the soliloquy? No matter how closely you examine the brain – including Shakespeare’s brain – the rest of “to be or not to be’ is undetermined until creative inspiration finishes it.

A solution to this either/or dilemma is to say that neither brain nor mind, “came first.” Michael Pollan, in “The Botany of Desire”, describes how apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes did not appear as the seductively pleasing plants we see before us to day – nor were we humans, a priori, the perfect propagators of these species – we shaped each other, intimately, simultaneously, mutually. These plants seduced us (with their sweetness, beauty, intoxication and nourishment) into nurturing, feeding and propagating them. Likewise how humans came to depend upon and their dogs, as dogs (previously wolves!) came to depend upon and love their humans. These are examples of co-arising or co-evolution.

Likewise, Hamlet is a perfect example of brain and mind co-arising. The words and the brain activity that brings the words into the physical world can’t be separated. But neither can any word you think now or have ever thought. One can argue that the brain and mind comprise a self-organizing system within consciousness. As brain activity modifies mind, the activity of the mind physically reshapes the neural networks of the brain. A universal consciousness, beyond our own, individual minds and brains, is the only thing that can unite our concepts of mind and brain. Consciousness is at the universal level existing everywhere, and it gives rise to countless beings, some of them with higher thinking abilities and rational experiences, giving rise to “minds”. But it also gives rise to countless physical bodies and corresponding brains, primitive or more advanced as the case may be. Once this truth is accepted, our worldview must change forever.

Here are some statements that directly follow from taking consciousness to be the absolute ground of existence.

  • Your body and the world you inhabit are projections of your perception. They are not “out there” but exist within consciousness.
  • Your true self is the potential for creating a body, brain, and the world around it.
  • Naming and describing something – a plant, animal, person, or even an inanimate object – camouflages the great mystery and majesty of existence. Reality cannot be named, described, or measured; these are only ever approximations. Reality lies beyond words or mathematical descriptions.
  • Your true self is not the fictional character you play on the stage of time and space. Your true self is the timeless awareness from which fictional characters spring, as Hamlet and King Lear sprang from Shakespeare’s awareness.
  • The fictional character you are playing does not belong to you. It is the recycling of unreliable wisps of memory and flimsy threads of desire.
  • Truth cannot be known or experienced by a system of thought, be it scientific or philosophical. Specific thoughts tied to experience of space and time are tied to the mechanics of the brain, which are enmeshed in space and time, not beyond them. But thought can also contemplate the end of space and time, the beginning of space and time. This is the paradox of reality, demonstrated by quantum mechanics already 100 years ago. Consciousness pervades the cosmos but cannot be contained there, because it is the source, the womb from which all things arise.

Such statements are logical conclusions based on taking consciousness seriously. If they seem preposterous to many orthodox scientists, this reflects the limitation of present-day science, not the ridiculousness of the statements. Science exists for the purpose of making sense of the universe, to understand the components that comprise the universe through quantitative means, and to produce self-consistent theories that can be tested and, potentially, disproven. Here we are making qualitative statements, which means one of two things: either science must concede that it is helpless to measure meaning or meaning must give rise to a new, expanded science. In both cases, crude materialism plays no role.

We believe that a science of consciousness is possible, as called for in an astute and intelligent TED talk by the eminent philosopher John Searle (it can be viewed on YouTube). Searle makes all the salient points:

  1. A science of consciousness has been long ignored but is not crucial.
  2. Consciousness is irreducible; it cannot be described as the outcome of physical processes.
  3. The world “out there” is the product of our perception.
  4. Consciousness is a field, akin to but not the same as the quantum field. It pervades everything.
  5. Subjective events can be objectively studied (as the sensation of pain, which is subjective, can be linked to inflammation and the activity of nerves).
  6. In fifteen minutes, you can see for yourself how thoroughly the superstition of materialism can be demolished.

What remains is to demolish subtle materialism, which claims, among other things, that a finer and finer exploration of the human nervous system will one day reveal where consciousness comes from. Searle himself is a subtle materialist, since he says that consciousness is a “low-level neuro-biological activity.” But that’s like saying that music can be understood if you get to the molecular level of a piano or clarinet or that radio. In reality, you can’t get there from here.

This leads to our final point. There are only two paths to follow if you want to understand reality. One is relative, the other absolute. The relative path – currently taken by Searle and almost every neuroscientist – is to study brain phenomena until you arrive at such a fine level that you observe the birth of awareness. This is like salmon following a river until it leads to the sea. The absolute path begins with the ocean of consciousness as all-embracing. Relative things (all the salmon and all the rivers they swim in) arise from this source; they display its characteristics. The advantage of the absolute path is that the hardest things to explain – mind, love, truth, intelligence, creativity, evolution – are a given. We can take for granted that the universe is the play of consciousness as it unfolds in space and time. What we are left to explore is the depth and richness of these qualities (indeed, whether they admit it or not, even crude materialists are exploring their own creativity and intelligence).

Even though reality is inconceivable, born somewhere beyond space and time, the beauty and paradox of existence is that we are participating in the mystery. As we participate, we co-evolve unceasingly. We can’t predict where human evolution will go, but we are confident that it will happen in Consciousness. The process of awakening is inherit is self-awareness; therefore, it cannot be stopped. The universe, as viewed from consciousness, is not a place in which we live, it is not an empty box or a cold void shot through with random events. We don’t live in the universe, we are the universe, arising from its fundamental nature with every other element, co-arising together. Then true self-knowledge will flourish, not instead of current science, but containing it and further transcending its limits, because no description of reality is ever the actual reality, just as the map is never the landscape. With such understanding we will take for granted the following, because we will directly experience them, not merely think them:

Peace is not a state of mind. Peace is our very being.
Joy, equanimity, and freedom are not things you work towards; they are qualities you already possess right now, in this present moment.
The point of arrival is now. The end of struggling is now. Being is now.
The only truth is existence itself, in the ever unfurling, co-evolving now. This is Truth with a capital T.

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Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 70 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers, including co-author with Sanjiv Chopra, MD of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and The American Dream, and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation and host of Sages and Scientists Symposium – August 16-18, 2013 at La Costa Resort and Spa.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra ofSuper Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony)

Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.www.neiltheise.com

Can the Truth Come Back With a Capital “T”? (Part 7)

Mahatma GandhiClick here to read part 6!

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Neil Theise, MD

Telling someone that Truth exists with a capital T may seem like a quixotic crusade. We have raised a new absolute – universal consciousness (or pure awareness) – to the level once occupied by God, an all-pervasive, all-powerful agent who is secretly in charge of everything. But reality has led us to this conclusion and, by any definition, science is an activity that must follow wherever reality leads it.

The oldest and most sacrosanct assumption of science – that reality exists “out there,” independent of consciousness – has reached the end of its usefulness. The time for a paradigm shift is long overdue. Quantum physics sniffed around the importance of the observer a century ago, and now the tide has come in. Without an observer, so-called physical reality cannot be perceived in any way, either through validation and measurement by experiments or through theoretical, mathematical calculations. Moreover, a reality existing “out there”, devoid of consciousness, is, ultimately, not possible.

Our final task is to show why any of this matters in the real world of everyday experiences. After all, if we are right in saying that consciousness is the absolute upon which everything is based, reality must agree. There is no court of higher opinion than reality itself. Mainstream science has proved wildly successful despite its setting a low priority for pursuing the nature of consciousness as a major force. What kind of success can we point to for this newer paradigm? Subjectivity is anathema to the scientific method. What perversity impels us to suddenly elevate it? We’d like to sketch in plausible answers to both questions.

To begin, the bugaboo of subjectivity has always been a fairy tale. All experience is subjective, including the experience of doing science. The human mind is capable of separating subjectivity into various compartments, one of which is rational thought. You don’t buy a new car because you like how shiny the metal gleams in the sun or how smooth it feels under your touch. You can separate those sensations from rational considerations about price, reliability, style, safety, etc.

Science takes one aspect of reality – that it can be measured in bits of data – and runs with it. But it never runs so far that subjectivity is left behind. In fact, theories, to which all measurements of data must eventually lead and from which they originate, are, in the words of Einstein, “free inventions of the mind”. And beyond theories, all experience happens in consciousness, which means that if you want to get at the source of love, truth, beauty, hope, aspirations, art, insight, intuition, and scientific hypothesizing itself, the proper field to explore is consciousness itself. Consciousness gives you the answers to questions about meaning and purpose, such as “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” Asking science to answer these questions is pointless.

Despite the proliferating number of brain imaging studies with press releases depicting colorful hotspots, neuroscience is not much closer to discovering why we love one another or where God resides in the brain. While fMRI and EEG studies are helpful to diagnose brain death and map the activation of high level circuits associated with self-awareness or decision making, our current imaging tools still do not, in fact, answer fundamental cause and effect questions about mind or consciousness. When science gets away with confusing data with meaning, philosophers squawk, but philosophy is in the same position as the hapless Bart Simpson confronting the cynical Krusty the Clown:

Krusty: What have you done for me lately?
Bart: I got you that danish.
Krusty: And I’ll never forget it.

Philosophy can plead for science to acknowledge what great thinkers and wisdom traditions have accomplished, but Science (capital S, the institutional reifications of scientific activities) is currently all-powerful and can choose to ignore it as irrelevant. As a result of this often willful amnesia, we have been saddled with the crude assumptions of materialism. It’s as if someone went to Detroit and said, “You build such fantastic cars. Tell me where I should take my next vacation.” The ability to arrive at incredibly sophisticated technology doesn’t remotely give science the right to speak about meaning and purpose.

In fact most scientists shy away from doing that. They correctly point out that present day science is neutral on such human constructs and values. But the new science of Consciousness will be able to at least put in the right tools, the experiences would be an integral part of what is being observed. Although “metaphysics” remains a term of dismissal among scientists, the hardest problem in metaphysics, the relation between mind and brain, has become a hot topic in recent years, largely because of advances in neuroscience. Here is the one place where consciousness can clearly make a difference to science, since understanding the brain in all its complexity will tell us a great deal about the mind if only the conversation goes both ways and science is willing to see the brain in terms of the mind.

The urgency of solving the mind-brain problem (or the mind-body problem, as it was stated in philosophy for many centuries) is greater than ever. Two partial answers exist, each with its own partisans. One camp holds that brain is the creator of mind. To have any thought or sensation, there must be a corresponding brain process that “lights up” with fMRI. These processes are fascinating in their complexity, but this is a mechanistic metaphor and does not actually answer the question of whether the mind creates brain.

In our prior metaphor of music and the radio, showing the structural and functional behaviors of the radio’s individual antennas, circuitry, and speakers, does not reveal how it “made the music” because it didn’t make the music – such analysis only reveals how the radio detected radio waves and transformed them into something a human ear could comprehend as music. Beethoven, the Beatles, and Beyoncé still made the music. Will an fMRI ever reveal how Shakespeare wrote, how Leonardo invented, or how Michelangelo painted? We think not. So the other partial answer is that the brain transduces forms of communication between humans – like plays, music, technology, and art – from their creative source in an all pervasive, pre-existing consciousness.

The events in consciousness include all experiences, including the experience of having a brain. When the word “hippopotamus” pops into your head, that’s an experience. When you isolate the exact set of neurons that triggered the word, that too is an experience. One didn’t cause the other; they arose together. Does this defy the Newtonian world view in which every effect must have a cause? Yes, but that demolition job was done a hundred years ago when the pioneers of quantum physics dealt with the behavior of subatomic particles, which obey “quantum indeterminacy,” a probabilistic way of looking at reality, wherein two events are linked by probability not by certainty. Yet this probabilistic view of reality is incredibly accurate. Quantum mechanics predicts parameters to one part over one followed by 16 zeroes! This quantum reality of indeterminacy has to be taken seriously, if we are to be self-consistent in our own science.

Stay tuned for part 8!

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Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 70 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers, including co-author with Sanjiv Chopra, MD of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and The American Dream, and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation and host of Sages and Scientists Symposium – August 16-18, 2013 at La Costa Resort and Spa.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra ofSuper Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony)

Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.www.neiltheise.com

Can the Truth Come Back With a Capital “T”? (Part 4)

klanggabe

Click here for Part 3!

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Neil Theise, MD

Working physicists, including some of the most eminent, believe that they are merely completing a very complex jigsaw puzzle, although most acknowledge that our theories are also incomplete and need more creativity. But that won’t really suffice: the universe will be radically incomplete if that big unexplained chunk – the mind – is left out, along with the vast array of inner experiences – love, joy, hope, sorrow – that comes with the mind. The subjective world is where our lives are actually lived. To exclude it in favor of only objective data gather through the senses, is like collecting every message ever sent over the telegraph without knowing Morse code. You will have a complete set of dots and dashes, but the meaning of the messages hasn’t even been touched. Likewise, our scientific theories are radically incomplete.

Especially among the younger generation of scientists, the questions left to answer aren’t just a mopping-up operation. Far from it. This next generation is more willing to confront the kind of incompleteness that potentially can alter the course of science itself. They are likely to not just continue doing the same things over and over again, just to remain in the comfort zone of “acceptable” science. This can happen once we begin viewing consciousness as a fundamental aspect of existence, not a byproduct.

Consciousness seems to be the simplest starting point for a science that could be complete. If consciousness is inseparable from existence, then so are the qualities of consciousness. The universe exhibited creativity, intelligence, evolution, and sentience, not because God breathed these qualities into Adam or because prehistoric hominids evolved in time from some far distant past to acquire them. In a very real sense, the universe has always been “thinking.” Mind didn’t begin with the arrival of the human brain or the brains of the most ancient species that roamed the earth. (The reason to favor the simplest explanation is that otherwise, if one ponders the question of origins of the mind, one gets into convoluted logical dead ends. We smile at the Medieval controversy over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, because it so obviously defies logic and in fact it seems comic. Future generations will surely smile at our insistence that neurochemicals in the brain create thought.)

Humans have exhausted the old paradigm of science, in which data-collecting and mathematical formulas according to some fixed “laws of Nature” were privileged while everyday experience was too messy to contend with. The new paradigm can’t simply patch up the holes in the old one. It begins instead with a single game-changing premise: the most fundamental fact of existence is our awareness that we exist. Several of the greatest quantum pioneers, including Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, and Erwin Schrodinger, were astute enough to foretell the key role of consciousness. To them, it was never irrelevant. It was something science cannot detour around, to paraphrase Planck.

In some sense it’s a paradox that we award Nobel Prizes for eminent discoveries about the early phases of time, space, subatomic particles, weak interactions and “standard particle models” and so on, only to face the possibility that these are all mental constructs, for that is the implication of a fully developed consciousness theory. In place of the quantum field from which matter and energy arise, our spiritual traditions – through deep, persistent training of the mind to perceive the world in far greater detail and depth than is our habit – reveal a field of consciousness from which everything arises. The speck on the horizon is about to fill the whole sky.

The assumption by neuroscience that the brain creates the mind is seductive but has far less basis in actual proof. Yes, damage to specific brain circuits can cause people to not recognize faces or even go into a coma, but nevertheless no fMRI or PET scan or lesion study has answered the question of where in the brain does the mind reside. One informative example is a beautiful study from the University of Iowa of a patient named “R” who suffered damage to three brain regions – insular cortex, medial prefrontal and anterior cingulate – due to a viral encephalitis. These regions are critical for human self-awareness in modern neuroscience theory and patients with damage to these areas should essentially become zombies. Yet, despite memory deficits from the lesions, R remained self-aware. Likewise, the notion that the mind exists separate from the brain has no actual hard proof in the laboratory, though, for example, increasingly detailed documentation of near death experiences by clinicians such as Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist in the Netherlands, and Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychologist in the United Kingdom, strongly raise this possibility.

Yet, neuroscience has not revealed the “location” of the mind anywhere in the brain, or for that matter anywhere in the physical body of humans. Mind is simply assumed to be there, for no better reason than that the brain controls the central nervous system. This is like saying that music is located in a radio. There’s no doubt that radios transmit music. If you lived on a planet devoid of music and a radio fell from the sky blasting the 1812 Overture, you could claim that the radio is solely responsible for music. But that’s the very same kind of radical incompleteness that current day neuroscience suffers from. Having no other source for mind, they stick it into a physical object.

Everything we call real is created in our perception. There is no evidence that the world “out there” exists independently of what we perceive. (Even an arch physicalist like Hawking admits that science tells us nothing about reality itself.) The physical brain would have to exist outside space and time to “see” its own origins. Only consciousness qualifies as Point Zero, the origin of all experience. It doesn’t need time and space. It doesn’t need the laws that govern matter and energy. Consciousness, as opposed to pure awareness, only needs an object, that object can only be itself. In a word, to find out the truth about the universe and the life that flourishes on our plant, only an absolute – truth with a capital T – answers everything we want answered.

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Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 70 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers, including co-author with Sanjiv Chopra, MD of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and The American Dream, and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation and host of Sages and Scientists Symposium – August 16-18, 2013 at La Costa Resort and Spa.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.www.neiltheise.com

Can the Truth Come Back With a Capital “T”? (Part 3)

I miss you my master........Click here to read Part 2!

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Neil Theise, MD

If you propose that Truth with a capital T might return into our lives, like a speck on the horizon that gets bigger and bigger, many would prefer to swat the speck away. For one thing, Truth veers uncomfortably close to God. When Stephen Hawking was promoting his most recent book, The Grand Design, he held a press conference that created a headline shot around the world: “Science Makes God Unnecessary.” Hawking’s popular authority gave weight to a common sentiment. Even among scientists who are devoutly religious, nobody claims that God is necessary when it comes to doing science. (This assumes, as many religions do, that God is an external being, in essence an independent force outside the forces that physics study.)

But ruling out an independent, controlling Creator God-in-the-Sky doesn’t keep the speck on the horizon from steadily getting bigger. The speck is consciousness, which will become the basis of Truth with a capital T if human knowledge keeps unfolding as it has been. Science at its core is a mental activity, but scientists traditionally have shown a persistent aversion to discussing the mind, relegating the topic to philosophers and, most recently, to brain researchers, who claim that they are examining what appears to be the physical vessel of mind.

Physicists make theories about and measure external reality as such; for them, the “real” begins with the observable and quantifiable universe. Measurable physical quantities exist within space and time, into which are embedded all manner of things, such as elementary particles. They of course hold the view that physical universe won’t evaporate into clouds of fantasy or metaphysics. The constituents of the physical universe don’t depend on what you or I think. But, you might counter, isn’t thinking what consciousness is all about?

Not really.

There’s a sound reason for why the speck on the horizon showed up in the first place. The universe, like a comic-book superhero, needs an origins story. God once provided the best possible origins story, since an omniscient Creator in the sky could explain not just the beginning of the universe, but good and evil, life after death, reward and punishment, and why sex causes problems. For modern science, an origins story isn’t remotely so thorough. It is actually just one piece in a jigsaw puzzle. A host of other pieces are already in place, specifically the mathematics that explains electromagnetism and the strong and weak force – three of the four fundamental forces in nature, awaiting only gravity to complete the picture. As these calculations were being refined – a century’s worth of brilliant work – the origins story of the cosmos was jiggered to fit.

So far, consciousness still remains out of the picture of a physical universe, which most scientists are willing to consider. The evidence for the Big Bang (as a theory to how the universe began) is overwhelming, and even though we don’t have good evidence regarding the exact instant of the expansion, its beginning – currently held to be 13.7 billion years ago – set the cosmic clock ticking. There’s your origins story, an unimaginable explosion of space-time, in Einstein’s general relativity, that started the mighty expansion that created all matter and energy.

In any case, modern cosmology, a branch of physics, has been triumphant in telling the story of creation, so with a little patience researchers using billion-dollar machines will accumulate more data like the highly publicized proof of the Higgs boson, or “God particle,” hoping that, then, the picture will be complete. But this begs the question of what came before the Big Bang – a topic, like consciousness, that most scientists relegate to being inappropriate for study by others than philosophers. But shouldn’t scientists themselves be intensely curious to find out what happened before time and space began?

For some far-seeing thinkers, however, this is a “not so fast” moment. What does it mean to complete our picture of the universe? Are we simply missing a few pieces of a largely completed jigsaw puzzle? Have we reached the end of science where everything but a couple of nagging questions remain? Or have we actually failed to account for a vast and significant piece of the universe – consciousness – because the topic wasn’t placed on the scientific “to do” list? Perhaps their difficulty arises because consciousness and “what came before the Big Bang” might be related subjects.
Stay tuned for Part 4!

* * *

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 70 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers, including co-author with Sanjiv Chopra, MD of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and The American Dream, and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation and host of Sages and Scientists Symposium – August 16-18, 2013 at La Costa Resort and Spa.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center — Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York.www.neiltheise.com

Can the Truth Come Back With a Capital “T”? (Part 1)

Screen Shot 2013-07-08 at 3.57.19 PMBy Deepak Chopra, M.D., Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D.

In a sense, the modern world was created with a simple editing stroke when Truth lost its capital “T.” Instead of pursuing the Truth, along a hundred paths stemming from philosophy and religion, the rise of Newtonian science and the Age of Reason taught us to seek lower-case truth, which consists of a body of verifiable facts. We have inherited a suspicion about absolute Truth that can be heard in everyday speech. How often do people say, “Well, it’s all relative” and “There’s no such thing as truth with a capital ‘T’.” Between them, relativism and the mountain of empirical data assembled by science have suffocated the notion of Truth. Many truths have emerged, truth about the best form of government, about the value of free markets, etc.

The search for lower-case truth is no less ambitious than the search for God, the soul, higher consciousness, and a transcendent reality that lies beyond the physical world. Those were the basic elements of Truth as it was revered in the past but repudiated by science. We think it’s valuable to try and reconcile science and spirituality, but let’s skip over that for the moment. The truly important issue is to know if we should be going after truths or the Truth. It’s a question that touches everyone’s life personally, because in hidden ways our whole lives are governed by what we believe about truth. Is it just a mass of verifiable facts? Or are facts secondary to an overarching truth that people should live by as they once lived by faith in God an adherence to religious rules?

We’re not proposing the return of religion in its former guise, or making a back-door argument for a new kind of worship. (Ironically, many of the old religious views held that God is an external fact, as the universe is held to be external now.) When it had a capital “T”, truth defined the essence of reality. To say, “God created the world in seven days” was a foundation of reality, an absolute that was superior to everything else that might be observed in the physical world. This literal interpretation was of course contradicted by the findings of science. To a religionist, however, if a fossil dating back a hundred million years contradicted the Book of Genesis, faith required an argument that preserved the absolute Truth, no matter what the cost in rationality.

It hardly needs saying that science turned this scheme on its head, and now we know better than to accept any absolutes about the nature of reality. Not only have God, the soul, and higher worlds flown the coop, when science itself proposes to formulate laws of nature, such as gravity and the speed of light, these new absolutes are open to question. Time and space were absolutes in Newton’s classical physics until Einstein proposed his General Theory of Relativity. Now, at the cutting edge of cosmology research, the discovery that dark matter and dark energy may exist, and if so, they constitute 96% of the creation that emerged after the Big Bang, threatens to overturn the apple cart once again. It has raised doubts, for example, about the accepted truth that gravity dominates the universe and that energy only has positive values.

At first glance, the toppling of old verities seems merely technical. Ordinary life isn’t impacted by contending theories of quantum gravity and superstrings. Dark energy, if indeed it exists, is pulling the expanding universe apart at an accelerating rate, a startling finding that has profound consequences for how the cosmos might end, but who will be around billions of years from now when the end-point arrives? Anyway, quantum physics, which replaced Newtonian mechanics in the great quantum revolution of the early twentieth century, basically states that what the senses perceive is not reality itself, reinforcing the view that the Truth either doesn’t exist or is inaccessible. In a word, there is no place in a sea of constant change for anything absolute.

Despite the profoundly different world view that quantum mechanics ushered in, most scientists still practice science as conceived by the now outdated classical physics, believing resolutely that their task is to gather facts about fixed objects, akin to Newton’s falling apple or billiard balls bouncing off one another in a dance of cause and effect. This kind of science finds itself in a troubling place when it comes to explaining reality, however. New findings about the very early phases of the universe are already nibbling away at the edges of the three foundational principles that all of science is based on:

  1. There is an objective universe “out there,” external to observers.
  2. The universe reveals itself through the collecting of facts, measurements, and data.
  3. Once enough objective data has been assembled, we will understand the universe completely, which is the same as saying that we will understand reality.

These statements are the equivalent of holy writ for scientists; they are assumed without question to be valid, and as anyone can attest who has mounted an argument that doesn’t depend upon these principles, cries of heresy arise. It is strange that these cries of heresy seem to ignore quantum theory and its profoundly different world view. Rational researchers suddenly become hot-headed and ad hominem. One is quickly branded an enemy of science. When tempers cool, personal hostility turns into a more rational dismissal: To speak of a reality beyond the physical universe, one that isn’t known by collecting data, is simply “not science,” “metaphysics,” or even worse, “pseudoscience.”

In this series of posts we’d like to formulate a new picture of truth that replaces the flawed principles of science as it exists today. What is needed is an expanded science that grows out of facing – and correcting – some mistaken beliefs. Science follows wherever reality leads it. We think that reality has led to a place that isn’t explained by quantum mechanics alone. A new set of principles is needed to replace the current ones.

(To be continued.)

* * *

Deepak Chopra , MD is the author of more than 70 books with twenty-one New York Times bestsellers, including co-author with Sanjiv Chopra, MD of Brotherhood: Dharma, Destiny, and The American Dream, and co-author with Rudolph Tanzi of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being (Harmony). Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation and host of Sages and Scientists Symposium – August 16-18, 2013 at La Costa Resort and Spa.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, is co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), is co-author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

Deepak Chopra: What Is Ultimate Reality?

It is an interesting paradox that science finds itself in. Science says that there is an observer-independent reality and you do not need a conscious observer to manifest reality. At the same time without an observer this reality is not testable, so it cannot exist. In this episode of “Ask Deepak” on The Chopra Well, Deepak discusses scientific contradiction of ultimate reality.

In science, anything that is not testable is considered invalid. Science depends on empirical facts based on observations. If we propose an observer-independent reality, we must realize that an observer-independent reality is not testable. So according to the current principles of science, we cannot say it exists. A scientific conclusion would be that an observer-independent reality does not exist. But is this really the case?

Subscribe to The Chopra Well and let’s keep this discussion going!

Health Benefits of the “Mildly Overweight”: Can We Handle Subtlety in Scientific Reporting?

Screen Shot 2013-05-31 at 11.34.57 AMIf researchers discovered that, contrary to popular belief, carrying a few extra pounds might not actually be that bad for our health – that it could in fact be better for long-term health than being a size zero – would you want to know? Our guess is: Yes, absolutely.

Now imagine a doctor who has worked all his life to combat obesity and promote healthy lifestyles, who has tirelessly preached the dangers of excess weight throughout his career. You can understand that a new report such as this would deeply trouble him – that he might even take steps to prevent its dispersal to the general public.

This is not a theoretical tale from some overly dramatic medical soap opera. The report is real: A review of 97 independent studies, including nearly 3 million people, headed by Katherine Flegal, an epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics. Published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Flegal’s study revealed the surprising news that what is medically classified as “overweight” is actually associated to lower mortality rates than both obesity and normal weight.

This of course challenges basically everything we thought we knew about weight and health (apart from the consensus that obesity unhealthy.) And this is where Walter Willett, chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s nutrition department, enters the picture. A highly quoted nutrition expert, Willett’s research focuses on diet and lifestyle habits (namely alcohol, red meat, birth control pills, and artificial sweeteners, among others) and their correlations with different forms of cancer. Willett is now the subject of considerable public scrutiny for expressing some less-than-professional opinions on Flegal’s report. In an interview with NPR, Willett commented, “This study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it.”

Unfortunately, dismissing such a comprehensive report as Flegal’s as “a pile of rubbish” might have been the worst move of Willett’s career. Science is, by definition, a critical and collaborative field. Its findings have power and influence in our society because we trust the scientific method; and we trust it because, presumably, the research is tested, challenged, and peer-reviewed. Willett’s comment reveals a fundamental disregard for this equilibrium, no matter how noble his intentions.

There is certainly something to be said for simplicity in scientific reporting. If the general public needs to hear that excess weight leads to heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illness in order to adopt healthy eating and lifestyle habits, then maybe we can believe that’s all researchers are responsible for reporting. If, on the other hand, we trust that the general public is thoughtful and discerning enough to consider shades of grey and make informed lifestyle decisions, then it would be dangerously irresponsible for scientists to censor their findings. The obsession with weight in our culture has undermined the promotion of healthy body image, self-esteem, and eating habits, particularly among teenagers and women. If Flegal’s report could introduce a bit of breathing room, then it is worth the effort that may need to go into explaining and elaborating on those pesky shades of grey.

What do you think? Can we handle subtlety in scientific reporting? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below!

Watch Out, The Truth Is Slipping Away

However you define it, the truth implies a connection to reality that can be tested. It’s true that helium is lighter than air and that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Science depends on being able to revisit those facts over and over without getting strangely ambiguous results. Yet things are shifting in stranger ways than anyone ever expected, as one discovers in an eye-opening article that appeared around Christmas in The New Yorker. Everyone who is interested in how truth works should read Jonah Lehrer’s troubling "The Truth Wears Off," which can still be found online.

What Lehrer is primarily concerned with is replicability, the term scientists use for repeating an experiment and arriving at the same result. Certainly the most important findings in science have been repeated many times over. Not necessarily. Some results, particularly in medicine, are not holding up at all. This "decline effect" forms the central mystery, because no accepted reason has been found for why a treatment should suddenly begin to dwindle in its effectiveness. Lehrer cites three prominent examples: antipsychotic drugs, hormone replacement therapy for women past menopause, and the use of aspirin to prevent heart attacks. In all three, the treatments are still widely endorsed in the medical literature, ignoring the fact that the decline effect is in full swing, meaning that the original results expected from these treatments are simply not there anymore or have declined to a fraction of what they once were.

Lehrer offers detailed, cogent factors behind this mystery. A big part is that drug companies don’t want to hear about bad results, which leads to the suppression of negative studies and the boosting of positive ones. Another reason is faddism: scientists are quick to jump on the bandwagon of a new discovery. But there are cases where a researcher is brave enough to go public and admit that he himself couldn’t replicate his own original findings — this takes courage when your whole career is based on that discovery.

For me, the most distressing aspect of the decline effect is how widely it is being ignored, not just in medicine but everywhere that bad news is unwelcome. Is any physicist going to welcome a well-funded complex study, recently published, that found discrepancies in gravity, of all things? But it is medicine that touches most people’s lives most closely in science. A 2005 review article in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association examined the forty-nine most cited articles in leading medical journals. Lehrer writes, "…of the thirty-four claims that had been subject to replication, forty-one per cent had either been directly contradicted or had their effect sizes significantly downgraded."

If that isn’t troubling enough, there is the huge problem, also widely ignored, of results that get accepted without being replicated either enough or at all. For example, there has been a widespread fad for claiming that genetic differences between men and women account for differing risks in acquiring disorders as various as schizophrenia and high blood pressure. Yet a probe of the underlying research found serious flaws in the vast majority of the studies. And worse was to come: "…out of four hundred and thirty-two claims, only a single one was consistently replicable." One! Yet textbooks have been written citing these studies, and just as the ordinary layman still believes in taking aspirin every day to prevent a heart attack or undergoing hormone replacement therapy, so do doctors and medical students who are relying on false, misleading, or outdated information.

I am not offering an answer about the mystery of the decline effect, and I have no ax to grind, even though it needs to be common knowledge when drugs stop working — the debunking of the science behind popular antidepressants was just one recent example. Ultimately, our addiction as a society to silver bullets makes us vulnerable to wishful thinking, so it is public demand that is fueling errant science. The decline effect, according to Lehrer, is much more widespread than anyone wants to admit. Be that as it may, science must be acknowledged for its many, vast strides. But as long as people ignore prevention and positive lifestyle changes as the best approach to health, they will be forced to fall back upon drug therapies and the glaring drawbacks involved in that.

Read more in Jonah Lehrer’s The Truth Wears Off.

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