Thursday, June 2, 2011

Feeling Over Fact

Deepak Chopra sickens me almost all the time.  Well, the feeling is mutual, or so I'm told.  When he posts things on his Twitter feed that he somehow caused some disastrous earthquake by way of the power of his meditation, it's easy to laugh it off and presume he's just babbling towards the goal of selling something.  If he was serious, I'd be glad to blame him for that rib I fractured during an earthquake not that long ago.  When he posts things on HuffPo about how skepticism itself is morally evil and bad for your health, I find myself unable to contain my anger.  Chopra values the emotional because he knows it is an easy avenue by which his brand of woo-woo hocus-pocus littered with criminal misuse of "quantum" terminology can be effectively sold to the unwashed masses.  Again, he's relying on the same old misrepresentation that every other anti-science moron spouts, but he goes to the further step that irrational thinking should be considered equally valid.

Even among the responses I got to my previous post on vegetarianism was that the emotional value is something that should not be discounted;  That because it is so fundamental to the nature of being human, we should seriously consider it and not brush it aside.  Now I'd like to know...  among any of the people who read that entry...  where did I actually say that?  I specifically spoke first about the moral arguments being divorced from reason.  I also got into the point about a simple fact that gets overlooked and how there is more than one way to address the issues.  Where the line gets drawn here is the end effect that listening to one's feelings on that matter could not have found you all the ways to skin a cat.

This is why I cannot possibly offer the slightest assent to Chopra's notion that emotional values and experiences should be considered equally valid.

There is a simple reality that I think everybody accepts with regards to emotions -- they are personal.  They are part of the fabric of individual experiences.  How this differs from rationality and reason is that reason does not try to write the description of truth on an individual level.  Because of this simple distinction, the two are not only different, but undeniably unequal.

In one of Richard Dawkins' appearances on the insipid O'Reilly Factor, one of Bill O'Reilly's arguments was that because he personally believed in the Christian god, the claim of his imaginary god's existence was "true for [him]." The very idea that something can be true exclusively for somebody is an unforgivable mutilation of the very idea of truth itself.  One could argue that he confuses the idea of something (namely, the fact that he believes in the Christian god) being true about him with actually being true.  I doubt it was an unintentional slip on his part, but rather, that he actually thinks there is such a thing as "true for me."  After all, this is the man who thinks that scientists have yet to explain sunrises, sunsets, and tides, for crying out loud.

There is no "true for you" or "true for me."  Truth is something that is independent of the individual, and is not contingent upon any of our feelings, hopes, or wishes.

This is not to say that there is no such thing as "experiential truths," but that the truth value of even those things is not personal.  To give you an example, the highlighted text in this sentence probably appears to be red to most of you (colorblindness notwithstanding).  Well, due to the various differences in the qualities of every individual's eyes and visual cortices, the varying states of rhodopsins and iodopsins, to say nothing of the differences in everybody's screens and viewing conditions, no two people are going to see the same shade of red.  Relatively few people may even notice that the two separate instances of the word "red" were in fact two different shades of red.  The fact that that happens, or even why it happens, is not at all personal.  Only the qualitative aspect of the experience is personal, and while that shapes your own perspective, it does not speak to any truth which is on an even level with objective truths.  Your experience of the color is not relevant to anybody else, nor could you ever make it so.

I can feel a variety of things when I look at an awe-inspiring piece of architecture, or listen to great music, but what someone else experiences would be completely different, even if those feelings might find some partial apparent common ground.  The mistake that most people make, and Chopra especially, is the idea that all these different experiences are equally true.  In reality, they're all equally real, equally genuine or sincere, but not equally true.  True is a question of reality, and the nature of reality is not a question of experience, but of fact.  That in turn means that we don't, as individuals, have a clear picture of reality, but only our colored perceptions thereof, and it is necessarily the case that some are going to be more colored than others.

Where Chopra is absolutely wrong is his idea that certain reactions of the populace, like being unable to cope with and unable to accept what science has to say, is a very natural thing for people, and is therefore valid.  Well, he is correct in saying that it is very natural, but being natural doesn't make it valid.  Violent conflict, xenophobia, greed, envy, rape, etc. are all technically natural components of the profile of humanity, but I don't see anyone (non-Republican) claiming that these are every bit as valid as anything science has to offer.  Just as personal feelings towards one's religion can make someone sincerely reject the scientific theory of biological evolution, it doesn't mean that person is even slightly correct in his idea.  They are not equally valid.

Deepak Chopra, ever the enemy of reason, argues that if you don't pay attention to emotion and have a world ruled by science, you end up with nuclear warfare, mechanized death in wartime, and basically more and more creative ways to systematically kill people.  Yeah, Deepak...  that's really the one and only thing science does.  I always avoid Nobel Laureates because they're far more dangerous to me than some uneducated hillbilly who thinks the universe was created 6,000 years ago.  He seems to forget that science is not a person or a community -- it's a tool.  The scientific method is not about inventing new things...  it's a means of inquiring, studying, and answering questions about the world around us.  What you do with those developments is a whole other question.  He conveniently leaves out that people who have used the fruits of science to do harm didn't do so for anything that was cold and impersonal, but on account of their specific, largely emotional and irrational, convictions.  Science gave us skyscrapers and aircraft, but there is nothing intrinsic to reason and rationalism that meant for the two to meet up.  That took religious conviction and emotion.  Wonder how Deepak forgot that little bit.  Nuclear weapons seems to be his favorite example, but he fails to mention where the demand for warheads came from.

I also wonder how on earth Deepak Chopra ever managed to get a traditional medical degree (this was prior to his inane allegiance to Ayurveda), when he gets even the most fundamental facts about the nature of medicine wrong.  One of his quips in his HuffPo blog entry about the disparity between public opinion and scientific consensus was that doctors don't want to take responsibility for things like drug side effects, iatrogenic disease, the rise of resistant strains of pathogens.  Well, there's a word for this sort of statement -- it's called a LIE.  Drug side effects are known because drugs go through extensive trials and testing to determine what those effects are.  The nature of our body chemistry also elucidates why side effects occur in the first place.  While a prescribing doctor doesn't really have anything to do with those effects per se, he/she must be aware of them before prescribing them, and a good doctor always takes care to inform the patient of those risks, and in some cases even do simple blood tests ahead of time to determine if you're at greater risk for any of those side effects.  Woo-woo alt-med physicians never do this, nor do they bother to even determine what sort of effects their prescribed "medicines" actually do have.  All science-based doctors are already fully aware of the existence and risks of iatrogenic diseases and resistant strains like MRSA and the ever-mutating strains of the herpes family...  that is why diagnostics of complex cases involves several cycles of testing and clinics have strict rules and process controls.  The idea is to minimize these risks.  Even if he was right in his statement, he would be overlooking the fact that the motivations for not wanting to accept responsibility would, in fact, be emotional.

Yes, we tend to care more in science about the big picture, because that is what gives us a more accurate and clear vision of the true nature of what is happening.  It is why repeatability is so integral to ensuring that our results are not biased by some uncontrolled variable.  We cannot fix everything, but we can maximize what we do.  Chopra, sadly, seems to consider this a bad thing.  This is a man who actually scoffs at the idea of oncologists focusing on that end goal of bringing cancer mortality rates down by that extra 0.1% because it doesn't acknowledge what the patient goes through in chemo and radiation.  I don't think there's a single doctor out there who doesn't realize how much people suffer through that (and also how many more people go through it without so much difficulty...  funny how kind-hearted Deepak forgot that).  But what I don't get is why he seems to imply that bringing down the mortality rates shouldn't be considered of greater importance.  0.1% is pretty generous, since that speaks for thousands of people.  I don't think anybody would consider saving the lives of an extra few thousand people to be a bad thing.  It's one thing to say that the experience of chemo and radiation can be agonizing.  It's another thing to say that it doesn't break even with the chance to live on a few extra decades.

Lastly, Deepak makes yet another criminal error blaming science-based medicine for all the false hope of cures for this and that.  He seems to forget the fact that scientists and real doctors do not say these things.  Journalists who don't understand the situation do this.  Anybody remember the article I linked to in my blog post on DCA and cancer?  Back in 2007, when the doctor heading up the DCA research (Dr. Angelos Michelakis) was interviewed on Glenn Beck's program, he actually spoke very honestly about the state of research, and how it is, at best, showing promising potential for further study, especially as an augmentative therapy.  At no point did the doctor actually claim that it can it is an outright cure for cancer.  At no point did he recommend that anybody try it or that it is shown to be a safe form of treatment.  It was the Lord of Morons, Glenn Beck, who shouted that it's a cure, vilified pharmaceuticals, gave people false hope that it was some sort of miracle that can't possibly harm healthy cells, and even went so far as to advocate self-medicating.  But no...  it's the scientist who stated without waffling that it is not yet appropriate to call it a cure, and that Beck's excitement should be tempered who is the problem.

Deepak Chopra, for all his babbling is writing this sort of nonsense because he realizes something that makes it necessary.  He can't really valuate emotion as a window to truths about reality if he includes all expressions of emotion or even any of its weaknesses into the picture.  He also can't devalue reason or science if he is to include everything it has brought to humanity.  Either way, you have to say things which either aren't true, or don't look at the full picture.  But then, looking at the big picture is the realm of science, and that's exactly what he hates most of all.  Emotions have their place, particularly when you are dealing with matters that are entirely personal, but they cannot offer a path to objective truth, short of by sheer dumb luck.  The only way to valuate emotions as an important window into reality that ought to be considered equal to reason and rationality is to impugn reason.