Sunday, April 03, 2005

Deepak Chopra - voice of reason?

I am typically fairly critical of New Age movements, but I must give credit where credit is due, as amidst the horible debate surrounding the death of Terry Schiavo, Deepak Chopra stands out in my mind as one of the most level headed voices to speak on the subject. From last Thursday's episode of Scarborough County:

CHOPRA: Well, life begins when your father has a gleam in his eye for your mother, goes for a picnic, and you come back. You know, today it all depends on our culture, it depends on our religious beliefs, it depends on the hypnosis of social conditioning, it depends on our mythology. There‘s no clear-cut answer. Biologically, life is always there, even in the sperm. You know, the sperm is a living structure, a living cell. It is moving. It takes in nutrition. Life is there when the ovum is fertilized. Life is there when the fetus is born. Ultimately, I think for practical purposes, we have to define life as consciousness, consciousness which is awareness, which is also perception, which is cognition, which is moods, feelings, emotions, social interactions, relationships, behavior, and biology. When you put all of that together, we have a living being that can express their consciousness through the five senses and respond to the world. And that‘s the only definition we can go by because otherwise we will be arguing forever.

I think we go into a deep self-examination. That‘s her legacy. Are we going to collectively, honestly examine these issues? What is life? What is quality of life? What is quality of death? What is dignity in living and dying?


John Lombard said...

Well, to be honest, I don't see anything special in Chopra's comments. But perhaps my deep dislike of Chopra and Ayurvedic medicine has jaded me.

Look -- here's something he said on Larry King about the tsunami:

"One of the very interesting things that happened with the tsunami was, no animal died. The elephants. The monkeys. The rabbits. The birds. They were so tuned in to the forces of nature that they escaped."

Never mind that his claim is false -- thousands of animals did in fact die in the tsunami. (The smell was awful.) Chopra, without knowing what he's talking about, uses tragedy to plug his teachings and make money.

Like many health gurus, Chopra is incoherent: he says "We are each a localized field of energy and information with cybernetic feedback loops interacting within a nonlocal field of energy and information." The politest thing I can say about that is that it doesn't mean anything. That people take it to be esoteric wisdom is saddening. That journalists don't go after him for statements like that says a lot about our culture.

But is he hurting anyone? Yes -- if someone takes him seriously and forgoes treatment that might help them for his claptrap. His diet program won't hurt you -- but, of course, it won't do more for you than diet and exercise. But he did something truly shameful when he claimed that you wouldn't age if you followed his diet. Of course, Chopra has not been able to stop his own aging, so he now only claims you can slow the aging process.

Why does he do it? I don't know if he's a fraud or he thinks he's helping people. I know he has a shop where you can buy books and products -- so perhaps he has enough reason to convince himself.

There aren't many people I'd say this of, but Deepak Chopra has nothing to contribute on any subject -- except, perhaps, on grifting people with false hope.

Hume's Ghost said...

You're right, I should have made it clear that I do not in any way endorse or approve of his New Age beliefs, but I stand by my original assesment of the comments I linked. The reason I posted them was that I was actually suprised to hear something this reasonable coming from him, and it was also a subtle nod to the fact that the coverage of the case was so bad that a quack like Chopra would emerge as a voice of reason.

Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens both made tv appearances where they made similar comments, but I expect such from them.

John Lombard said...

Well, I thought Chopra's comments were vapid -- it's not like he added anything new to the discourse.

Actually, I hate Christopher Hitchens. I think he's a pretty writer but over-rated as an academic and "contrarian". He was vicious with Clinton: "Mr. Clinton fired his surgeon general, Joycelyn Elders...for mentioning the word "masturbation" in a discussion of adolescent sexual health. He's imposed warrantless searches of public housing. He's throwing women off welfare because their moral standards don't meet what he says they ought to be. He's a zero-tolerance, law- and-order Democrat who now, suddenly, has turned into a civil libertarian, you'll notice....He has to be commander in chief of armed forces, where adultery is a punishable crime. He says that homosexuals do not have the right to wear the American uniform, unless they're prepared to lie about it-"don't ask, don't tell." This is an extraordinary record of hypocrisy and very reactionary hypocrisy, too....the most startling thing in this whole business is the willingness of liberals to carry water for someone who does not give a damn for them and who's betrayed them at every turn....I think he should be cuffed. I think he should be cuffed and taken downtown..."

But with Bush, there's been barely a peep -- you'd think someone deeply concerned about gays having to lie about their sexuality would have more qualms about Bush. I just hate pundits who hold Democrats to different standards than Republicans.

Hume's Ghost said...

Other than his views on the Iraq I respect the writing of Hitchens a great deal, especially his less partisan and more humanist writings such as the ones that are featured in Free Inquiry. And even though I disagree with him on the war in Iraq, I still respect his difference of opinion because I feel that he is wrong for the right reasons.

For example, how many other neo-cons would have written this piece?

I think that post 9/11 his priorities shifted to stopping the spread of Islamic terrorism to such an extent that he now overlooks other issues which he once would have been more vocal about.

Take this pre-9/11 piece on Bush for example
Even so, Hitchens still brings this up, as he did recently during an appearance on Hardball.

Scott said...

In Chopras comments, "...we have to define life as consciousness, consciousness which is awareness, which is also perception, which is cognition...", he is postulating such a wildly existential point of view that can never be calculated scientifically, and even more dangerous--to consider a dictum of this nature enforced by the state (his usage of the word "we" I find particularly bothersome).

In this world there are the temporarily incongnizant, the insane, and the inarticulate. Consider a sick, elderly woman in a nursing home. Does her mental capacity, loneliness, or lack of emotion lessen her "life quotient"? According to Chopra, "When you put all that together," it defines life.

Neuroscience has not reached the level of providing definitive answers--illustrated in the case of Terry Schaivo. Medical science is still grappling with the biology of the brain, let alone the subjective consciousness of the human mind.

I shudder to think of a world where others make judgements based on Chopra's "definition of life". If someday you are incapacitated, permanently or temporarily, the decision to terminate or extend life is ultimately yours to make.

Hume's Ghost said...

I don't think that Chopra's point was that the state should be given ultimate say over the right to live or die or that he was advocating a legal imperative. The point I think he was making is that what we value about life is the person that is comprised by their thoughts and memories and self-awareness. When the mind is damaged to such an extent that thought is permanently no longer possible, as in the Schiavo case, that person ceases to exist and it does not make sense to extend that life indefinitely.

The elderly, the disabled, and such, who are usually cited as those that whose lives would be without value in a sort of slippery slope argument against euthanasia, can still communicate their wishes to us and are at the least self-aware.

I believe that a person's communicated wishes should always be respected so long as they do not interfere with anyone else. But at the same time I think that it would be immoral for someone to ask others to keep their body alive long after the mind has passed. If someone wanted to do it fine, but I still feel it is an unfair request given that it diverts resources from the living to the non-existent.

Also, although given Chopra's beliefs his sentiments may have been existential in nature, what he said can be grounded in a material definition. At one end of the spectrum we know at what point the brain develops and at which stage thought becomes possible, and at the other end of the spectrum we can know when thought has ceased by various other techniques.

Despite the terrible job of covering the story that the media did, we know that the Terri Schiavo's mind was irreversibly damaged to the point that thought was no longer possible when her cerebral cortex was replaced with spinal fluid. EEG's showed no brain activity and CAT scans showed that the brain had atrophied. Recovery from such a state is not just unlikely, it is impossible.

And I agree, a person should have final say over whether they live or die, but in the event that a person can not or will not (in the future) ever be able to decide for themselves then it becomes necessary for someone to make that choice, and that choice must be grounded in some sort of reasoning. Hence the need to consider the value of life, which is the ultimate point of Chopra's comments.

"A social consensus needs to be reached as to where we decide that medical care might be ethically withheld or withdrawn from a human being. Not everyone will necessarily agree, but some level of mutual satisfaction is required due to the very difficult and contentious issues involved."

John Lombard said...

I think Chopra's comments are vague enough that they can be taken to mean whatever you want. And I still think it's a disgrace that people give him the time of day.