Deepak Chopra attends The Chopra Well Launch Event at Espace on July 18, 2012 in New York City. Photo: Getty Images
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Deepak Chopra doesn't understand quantum physics, so Brian Cox wants $1,000,000 from him

Sometimes, when it feels like putting your money where you mouth is feels like it can't fail, it's worth stepping back and reconsidering. Just in case.

Last week something of a kerfuffle broke out on Twitter between physicist-slash-TV presenter Brian Cox and self-help guru Deepak Chopra over the issue of quantum physics. Chopra made a particularly ill-advised offer of a large amount of money to anyone who could prove his understanding of the issue was incorrect, to the delight of those who are well aware that his understanding of the issue has long been incorrect.

For those unfamiliar with Chopra, he is one of the world's best-selling authors - a respected endocrinologist who, in the 1980s, discovered mysticism, and philosophies of healing and consciousness. He has authored dozens of books, founded his own "Centre for Wellbeing" and, after appearing on Oprah with his friend Michael Jackson, became a bona fide celebrity in his own right. His acolytes think him a genius, or even a prophet; his detractors believe him to be a danger to public health for pushing alternative medicine (with no experimental proof of effectiveness beyond the placebo effect) as an option for dangerous diseases like cancer or Aids.

The former magician James Randi has made debunking paranormal and pseudoscientific claims - which he calls "woo" - into a career, and famously offers a $1m prize for anyone who comes forward with such claims so they can be proven under experimental conditions. Since it began in 1996, hundreds have entered, and nobody has won. To that end (and fed up of what he sees as disrespect towards the world's ancient belief systems from "militant atheists"), Chopra issued his own "one million dollar challenge to the skeptics" last month:

Before you go around debunking the so-called paranormal, please explain the normal. How does electricity going into the brain become the experience of a three-dimensional world in space and time? If you can explain that you get a million dollars from me. Explain and solve the hard problem of consciousness in a peer-reviewed journal, offer a theory that is falsifiable and you get the prize."

He also penned a column for the Huffington Post, going into more detail about his issue with Randi and his "cronies":

Skepticism, as a gadfly movement, consists of angry people who play "gotcha," adopt an air of smug superiority, and generally alienate anyone who comes close to them.  So why confront them in the first place?

As one of the major confronters, I'd say that my primary goal is to defend the truth of spirituality. The world's wisdom traditions are just as precious as science. To lump them together as arrant charlatanism (as if Buddha and Jesus stand on the same level as a stage magician or con man) is grossly misleading. To dress up this hostile attitude as scientific and rational only deepens the deception. In the familiar metaphor of Elmer Gantry, the fire and brimstone preacher who was a greater sinner than those he preached to, the skeptical movement is much more close-minded and blindly irrational than anyone they expose.

...

Sane people stay away from dogfights, and for years I stayed away. But it turns out that a positive good can be achieved by going after the skeptics. Let's leave aside the whole question of God, faith, miracles, and the so-called supernatural. These things have been incendiary for a long time and arouse stubborn resistance on both sides. The real issue is exactly what my offer focuses on: What is consciousness, how does it create reality, and how far does this reality extend?

It is worth stating here that I actually agree with Chopra when it comes to big-A Atheism, which has become more than merely a rational response to a culture of evangelical anti-science Christianity - instead it is now a vociferous and furious anti-religious movement, and often a home for those with anti-Semitic and Islamophobic views. I also, as an atheist, do not deny that there is value in spiritual belief and practice.

But come on, you're fooling nobody here.

Chopra's long believed that the universe as we perceive it is really just a manifestation of consciousness. That is, consciousness existed before anything else, and it creates reality through the act of seeing. He calls it "Cosmic Consciousness", and it comes about because Chopra is fervently anti-reductionist - he believes that reducing human brains to their constituent cells, or even atoms, and understanding their structure and how they interact, does nothing to explain the mind. It is a dualist approach, a separation of body and soul, spirit, mind, whatever you wish to call it. We could build a computer that recreates the physical reality of a human brain exactly, but it would not be simulating consciousness because that is an essence that is anti-material.

Descartes had this problem in the 17th century, settling on philosophical dualism because he refused to accept the impossibility of the non-existence of the Christian soul; Chopra, similarly, believes that consciousness creates matter because it then means that consciousness is a thing beyond the physical world, and therefore a belief in the paranormal and the mystical can be justified. He's written in defence of this belief many, many times - as in a follow-up column in HuffPo:

If the materialists are correct, there has to be a way for matter to learn to think, which has never been proven. If the consciousness camp is right, mind has to find a way to create molecules. The reason that the second position makes sense is that our thoughts are creating molecules all the time - the chemical makeup of the brain is altered with every thought, feeling, and sensation. That is indisputable. But the bias in favor of materialism is strong, upheld mainly by inertia. Why bother to re-examine the entire creation when it's obvious, we are told, that we live in a physical universe?

The answer is this: We don't live in a physical universe as defined by rocks, trees, mountains, and Chinese porcelain. The quantum revolution long ago unmasked the illusion of physicality, proving with exact mathematical certainty that matter consists of waves in an infinite quantum field. How these waves transform into material objects remains one of the two greatest questions facing physics. (The math is there, but not the actual process.) The other great unsolved mystery is to find the biological basis of mind.

Or here, on his own website, when defining Cosmic Consciousness:

Quantum theory has reached the point where the source of all matter and energy is a vacuum, a nothingness that contains all the possibilities of everything that has ever existed or could exist. These possibilities then emerge as probabilities before “collapsing” into localized quanta, manifesting as the particles in space and time that are the building blocks of atoms and molecules.

...

The entire universe is a matter of transformation whereby something is available to be turned into perception. We’ve proposed that consciousness is that something - if there’s another candidate, we’re not aware of one that can pass the acid test: Make it turn into thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations. Science isn’t remotely close to turning the sugar in a sugar bowl into the music of Mozart or the plays of Shakespeare. Randomness will not give you any of that. Your brain converts blood sugar into words and music, not by some trick of the molecules in the brain, since they are in no way special or privileged. Rather, your consciousness is using the brain as a processing device, moving the molecules where they are needed in order to create the sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell of the world.

Quantum physics's observer effect - whereby observing an event at the quantum level changes the outcome of the event - is taken by Chopra to be proof that he's right about consciousness, and in turn that then lets him get away with describing lots of other banal phenomena as imbued with mystical meaning. He looks at a brain, sees molecules being moved and changed during thought, and interprets it as consciousness "turning into" thought; quite why he thinks that thought couldn't just be what happens when molecules move around inside the brain is never interrogated. By his definition, food breaking down in the stomach and intestines is also consciousness manifesting as mind - though of an altogether different sort.

Which brings us to Brian Cox, who couldn't stand by and say nothing as Chopra tweeted about #CosmicConsciousness last week:

Eternal inflation is one of many theories that seek to explain the Big Bang, its cause and its aftermath. Cox is well aware that Chopra is cobbling together a nonsense belief system from half-understood fragments of actual science, and that there is science out there that explains what Chopra considers to be a mystery.

Eventually Cox gets bored, and goes for the coup de grace:

...which Chopra studiously ignores, instead switching tactic and going for Cox's ego, passive-aggressively retweeting a funny video and asking him to come speak at his upcoming conference:

Eventually, Cox and Chopra left it - or so it seemed, because today Chopra couldn't help but get one final subtweet in:

...and neither could Cox:

Chopra will probably be able to get out of paying Cox any money because, technically, what the physicist did was show that the premise of the question was incorrect, not provide a solution - but it would be cute to see him try.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile