The March issue of National Geographic has a featured article entitled “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?” The article points to the organized and often furious opposition of scientific knowledge. “Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts.” This quote captures the essence of the article and the menacing truth of a society immersed in a new dark age of irrationality.
In an unbridled consumerist society, ignorance grows exponentially. The public is attracted to information that fits their limited, erroneous, and often irrational perception of reality. Publishing companies and the media, seeking to maximize their profits, disseminate popular misinformation, reinforcing and spreading the misguided perception of the public and giving legitimacy to irrationality. Out of this morass of error, ignorance, and exploitation emerge leaders and prophets, to whom the public turns for assurance and confirmation of their misplaced beliefs. The king of the leaders of ignorance and the unquestioned “prophet” of irrationality is Deepak Chopra.
Deepak Chopra abuses science, especially modern physics, to give credence to his own mystical, unfounded, and irrational ideas, coaxing his followers into believing that his teachings have scientific basis. It is therefore worthwhile to give a detailed scientific analysis of his teachings. One of the recent posts on his website is entitled “Synchronicity, Evolution, and Your Genes (Part 1),” in which one reads:
The materialist explanation is filled with philosophical flaws, … Synchronicity is the commonly used term for a meaningful coincidence, such as thinking someone’s name and having that person telephone a few seconds later, …The spiritual link involves how to explain a meaningful coincidence. … The term synchronicity was coined by the eminent Swiss psychologist Carl Jung …. He [described] synchronicity as an “acausal connecting principle”. By using the word acausal he is pointing to the non-local nature of synchronicity. Non-locality is one of the major principles in quantum physics. Non-locality refers to behavior between particles that doesn’t need a specific cause or location in spacetime. … In the everyday world, however, non-locality is about people, not particles.
This quote sets the record for the largest number of scientific errors in the shortest number of lines! It is a treasure trove of incomprehension and misrepresentation of science, and begs a critical analysis in which the science is elucidated and the anti-science is laid bare.
Chopra starts with synchronicity, then goes to the related notion of acausality; from there he arrives at non-locality, which is a quantum phenomenon. I’ll tackle each of these separately, starting with synchronicity in this first of a series of posts to appear later. But first let me say a few words about the sentence at the very beginning of the quote.
By stating that “the materialist explanation is filled with philosophical flaws,” Chopra is implying that philosophy trumps science. That there is something wrong with science if it does not fit our philosophical beliefs. I could just as well say that the statement “moon has craters” has aesthetic flaws, because craters destroy the aesthetically appealing notion of a perfect sphere, and therefore the statement is unacceptable. Even if we accept the primacy of philosophy over science, we have to deal with the fact that there are many schools of philosophy, some of which completely oppose others. So, to which school is Chopra referring? Is he talking about the school of materialism with well-known philosophers like Pierre Gassendi, Julien Offray de La Mettrie, Baron d’Holbach, and Ludwig Feuerbach, or the opposing school of spiritualism with equally well-known philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, Rene Descartes, and F. H. Bradley?
If anything, it is science that influences philosophy, because it opens new windows into the previously unknown worlds about which philosophers can contemplate.
Suppose I tell you the following story: “I had a young woman patient who, in spite of efforts made on both sides, proved to be psychologically inaccessible. The difficulty lay in the fact that she always knew better about everything. Her excellent education had provided her with a weapon ideally suited to this purpose, namely a highly polished Cartesian rationalism with an impeccably “geometrical” idea of reality. After several fruitless attempts to sweeten her rationalism with a somewhat more human understanding, I had to confine myself to the hope that something unexpected and irrational would turn up, something that would burst the intellectual retort into which she had sealed herself. Well, I was sitting opposite her one day, with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric. She had an impressive dream the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab — a costly piece of jewellery. While she was still telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window. I turned round and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window-pane from outside in the obvious effort to get into the dark room. This seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose chafer, whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, ‘Here is your scarab.’ This experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results.”
Suppose now that I tell you that that is how I discovered synchronicity, an all embracing law governing all phenomena that are not causally connected, yet seem to be “meaningfully connected.” I would then argue that there is no such thing as coincidence when two very unlikely things happen at the same time, and that my principle of “acausal connectedness” is proposed for handling precisely these unlikely coincidences.
If you have a basic familiarity with science and probability, you’ll probably laugh at me and think that I am either joking or crazy. You would invoke your science and say that scientific principles don’t come out of a single or a few personal observations that cannot be repeated by fellow scientists. You would invoke your probability and say rare coincidences can happen and you don’t need a principle for that. … Yet that single experience – and perhaps a few more – is exactly how Carl Jung “discovered” the all embracing principle of “acausal connectedness.”
A hypothetical world of a single activity
Our day-to-day activities are too numerous and complicated to submit to a probability-based calculation of coincidences in an easy and understandable way. But let me take you to a simpler world to see if a principle of “acausal connectedness” is needed. In this world, whose population is completely ignorant of probabilities, there is only one activity: tossing coins. Everybody in this world goes to work only to toss 40 coins using a machine that can toss them 200 times per hour. All they have to do is to see if they get all heads (H) or all tails (T), knowing well that such an outcome is next to impossible.
Now suppose that an office worker is celebrating his birthday in the office and suddenly sees that his machine hits the jackpot! He thinks, “OMG! On my birthday? There must be a connection; a meaningful connection, because there is no such thing as random events.” He discovers the principle of “acausal connection!” Imagine the strength of the principle if the day is not just any birthday, but his 40th birthday – still a not-so-unlikely event!
Looking at the uni-activity world from the outside, and knowing something about probability theory, we can calculate the odds. The probability of getting two Hs or two Ts when you toss two coins is 0.5. This is because two out of the four possible outcomes are two Hs or two Ts. So the probability is 2/(2×2) or 2/4=0.5 (or 50%). If you toss three coins, the probability is 2/(2x2x2), or 2/8=0.25 (or 25%); for 4 coins, the probability of getting all Hs or Ts is 2/(2x2x2x2)=2/16, for 5 coins it is 2/(2x2x2x2x2) or 2/32, and so on. So for 40 coins it is 2 divided by 2 multiplied by itself 40 times. This probability is 0.00000000000182. Very small indeed!
Now suppose that the adult population of the uni-activity world is 5 billion. To find the actual occurrence of the events in which we are interested, we multiply the probability by the number of times the experiment is performed. If the working day is 8 hours, each person performs the experiment 1600 times per day or, for a 5-day week, 8000 times per week. Let’s run the experiment for one year (52 weeks). Then each person performs the experiment 416000 times. And the entire world performs the experiment 416000 time 5 billion or 2080 trillion times. So the number of successes is 2080 trillion times the probability, or about 3785. Since there are about 260 working days per year, the number of jackpots is more than 14 per day! It is very likely that one worker hits the jackpot on his birthday, and the principle of “acausal coincidence” is not needed!
The real world is of course more complicated involving hundreds of activities rather than one. But the underlying idea of probability and the possibility of the occurrence of extremely rare events is the same. In fact, the law of large numbers in probability theory very generally states that when the size of a sample grows, so does the number of occurrences of a random outcome. Therefore, even extremely rare events (very small probabilities, smaller than the coin experiment above) in the real world do occur, because with thousands of years behind us, we have had a much larger sample in which to observe them.