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Richard Dawkins Demonstrates His Fundamentalism

thoughts & comment — 02 Feb 2010

IN THIS VIDEO, Dawkins interviews Deepak Chopra:

There is nothing more embarrassing than seeing a leading scientist have to resort to ridicule and emotional appeals in order to dismiss a world view. And this is exactly what Dawkins does when he interviews Chopra on the latter's healing paradigms.

Whilst Dawkins is right that quantum physics is being used by many New Age teachers to justify all sorts of crazy looking theories, this does not mean that it does not have a legitimate scientific place in theories of how consciousness works. Dawkins must know this, but he is so emotionally determined in his crusade again anything remotely threatening to the materialism he so obviously cherishes that his technique of defence, like that of many scientific fundamentalists, is to build up a series of Aunt Sallies using what he perceives as the easy target of New Age spirituality, and then takes great delight in triumphantly smashing them to pieces.

Dawkins shows his ignorance of quantum theory when he describes it as "notoriously difficult to grasp" and quotes physicist Richard Feynman as saying: "If you think you understand quantum theory, you don't understand quantum theory." Quantum theory is only notoriously difficult to grasp philosophically; the mathematics can and is grasped by the many thousands of physics students at university each year.

The reason that it is difficult to grasp philosophically is that it is paradoxical — particles can be in two places at once, for example, and the act of measurement seems to have some effect on what is being measured. So when Feynman is talking about understanding quantum theory, he is most certainly talking about understanding it philosophically. (After all, you can't really "understand" the mathematics of a physics theory… you can follow it, you can apply it, you can pick holes in it, but you can't understand it because the very term "understand" implies that you are translating the language of mathematics into the language of everyday spacial-temporal reasoning.) Most working physicists give up trying to understand quantum theory and merely use it as a mathematical tool to predict particle behaviour.

So from Dawkins' perspective, just because Chopra has a worldview that freely incorporates some of the philosophy of quantum theory, that worldview can be dismissed because quantum theory cannot be understood, ergo, Chopra is speaking nonsense — QED.

Dawkins tries later to dismiss Chopra for using quantum theory both as a metaphor and as a possible literal justification for his theories. But why? As mentioned above, quantum theory is at the heart of some very serious scientific theories of how consciousness works, and as Chopra is dealing with consciousness then there is no reason why quantum theory might not have direct relevance to his work. But Dawkins cannot see that because he is blinded by his own blind dismissal of any theory that questions the reductionism to which he clings.

Finally, when Chopra talks about "fundamentalists in science" Dawkins angrily dismisses this with a non-sequitur saying that "science's role is to sort out, tease out those bits that we don't understand…" Fortunately, Chopra shoots straight back about the arrogance of science in its insistence of a mechanistic approach to everything, an arrogance so clearly displayed by Dawkins himself in this interview.

As a fundamentalist, Dawkins should stick to biology as he clearly does not have the capacity to understand other branches of science, let alone completely different systems of knowledge such as spirituality. Fundamentalists are only able to attack anything that threatens their own world view.

Update 9 Feb 10:

Applying quantum theory to biological systems, and including consciousness, looks a lot less controversial now quantum biological effects are starting to be taken more seriously by mainstream science. Just read the following in the latest New Scientist editorial in the 6th Feb edition:

"Quantum biology has come in from the cold. First came news that birds may see magnetic fields, thanks to quantum effects. Now it seems that pigments used in photosynthesis use quantum calculations to harness light. Physicists had ruled this out at life-friendly temperatures because heat disrupts an effect called quantum coherence. The implication is that we, too, could possess quantum computers. We may only need to look into our own eyes to find the evidence, in the form of the pigment rhodopsin."

Now New Scientist is a conservative and mainstream popular science magazine, so for the editor to be writing about quantum biology means that it really has, in their own words, "come in from the cold". So Dawkins' criticism of Chopra for applying quantum theory in areas where it is generally thought not to apply is starting to look increasingly shaky. Sure, quantum theories of consciousness (involving microtubules) are just postulates, but only a fundamentalist like Dawkins could completely dismiss this quantum application on the grounds that… well, it just does not support Dawkins' narrow and compartmentalized view of the world.

To quote Wikipedia on the front-runner quantum theory of consciousness involving microtubules: "In their controversial Orch-OR theory of consciousness, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff postulate that microtubules in neurons conduct quantum-level manipulations of matter which produces consciousness, based partially on widely recorded observations of Gamma Synchrony that indicate that information may propagate through the brain much faster than a chemically mediated neural network would physically permit. Max Tegmark disputes the relevance of these observations, and the matter remains open to debate."

As quantum biology takes root, you will see the word "controversial" dropped from the above paragraph as the Penrose and Hameroff theory is no longer rejected merely for the reason that functional quantum effects are wrongly believed to be impossible in biological systems.