So, about a month ago an article by Deepak Chopra came to my attention and I vowed that I would immediately do up a blog post about it. Evidently, that plan fell through, but because I’m nothing if not an ineffably stubborn bastard, I’ve decided to inflict this late article on you anyway. It’s called Which Is Real, the Moon or God? and it manages to be even dumber than its name suggests.
Most people have spent at least a few minutes pondering a famous riddle, although they may not know that it originated in Zen Buddhism: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Strangely, this turns out to be a pivotal question if you want to prove that God exists, or doesn’t.
I’m pretty sure that as a child I was able to figure out the answer to this riddle — that Chopra still thinks it is worth pondering places him firmly in the remedial class for insufferably smug people. For those of you who are wondering, the answer is ‘yes’, unless the tree is falling in a vacuum in which case a better riddle to ponder might be, “How the hell did this tree manage to grow in a fucking vacuum?”
Really, this has been sorted out ever since we realised that, far from being mystical or mysterious, sound is just the propagation of compression waves through a medium — thus the very act of falling requires the production of sound provided there is a medium for the waves to propagate through. Not for Chopra of course — compression waves just aren’t Zen enough for him, apparently, and so he continues to ask a question which, while perfectly fine for a pre-scientific culture to ask, is a bit embarrassing to keep asking in this day and age.
That’s not even the finest Choprawoo in the article though. For example:
What you think about reality depends on quantum physics, and since God is the ultimate reality, His existence hinges on such things as waves and particles.
Holy meaningless blather, Batman! You’d think that writing pseudo-scientific drivel for years would have honed Chopra’s skill somewhat, but apparently not. Here’s a hint for you — “God is the ultimate reality” is not profound, it is bullshit wrapped in a homily. And if you’re going to talk about physics, as least try to make an effort…
Here, the discussion gets rather technical, but let’s venture forward on a basic question. Does the moon exist if no one is there to see it?
…maybe take an undergraduate physics course…
The common sense notion is that of course the moon exists without human beings to look at it. It existed long before life on Earth; it will be around if human folly wipes out our species in some possible future. People aren’t going to be argued out of common sense, no matter how tricky your science or philosophy. Yet, surprisingly, physics starts to fall apart if you cling too stubbornly to common sense.
…or even just crack open a physics textbook? I mean, really — I’m embarrased for you.
It would be consistent with common sense if these particles, and the subatomic particles that they can be broken down into, were solid and stable in spacetime. But they aren’t. Thanks to two breakthrough ideas — the Uncertainty Principle and the Observer Effect — nothing in Nature can be seen as solid and fixed in spacetime.
Rampant capitalization aside, what’s going on here is a classic case of the old adage, “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Evidently, Deepak once had someone describe the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (HUP) to him down a noisy phone line and he never bothered to follow up on any of the information.
The HUP essentially states that, for any two related quantities, you can’t measure both with arbitrary precision. Most famously, we have the relationship
which states that the uncertainty in the position of a particle times the uncertainty in the momentum of a particle has to be greater than or equal to . So at a first glance it might seem that Deepak is right after all.
But, inquiring minds might say, how big exactly is this minimum value of ? Well, to start with we have
which for those of you who aren’t au fait with scientific exponential notation is a zero, followed by a decimal point, followed by 33 zeroes before the rest of the number starts. That is clearly an extremely small number — so much so that at the macroscopic scale the HUP is all but worthless. There’s just no way possible to measure macroscopic objects with high enough precision for the HUP to matter.
If you had a basketball, and you measured its mass accurate to the nearest milligram, its position accurate to the nearest micrometre, and its velocity to the nearest micrometre per second, you’d still have a product of uncertainties around 15 orders of magnitude too large for the HUP to come into play.
This subtlety of quantum mechanics — namely, that the reason it doesn’t apply on the macro-level is not some scientific decree or consensus but is a direct consequence of the maths involved — is entirely lost on Chopra, and he continues on through the rest of the article applying the same types of misunderstanding to various aspects of quantum mechanics, mincing it all in with a good ol’ dose of word salad. If you want a good example of his pseudo-profundity masquerading as wisdom, you need only take a look at the end of his article:
Consciousness observes itself, and it observes its creations. God does the same thing, which is why sages have wondered if everything doesn’t take place in God’s mind. Ultimately, it does. But you have to adopt a new model of God that is consciousness-based. Once you do, a host of issues becomes clear. Not just about the moon, but about human beings and what our own future will be like.
That clears things up nicely, then, doesn’t it Deepak. Deepak? Deepak? Stop rolling in that pile of money, goddamn it Deepak, there’s work to be done and this bullshit won’t write itself…