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Discussion on science vs. spirituality.

November 29, 2011 1:29 p.m.

GUEST

Deepak Chopra, renowned spiritual leader and best-selling author.

Leonard Mlodinow, esteemed Caltech physicist and best-selling author.

Related Story: Science Vs. Spirituality: An Interview With Deepak Chopra And Leonard Mlodinow

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Science and spirituality are often thought to exist in two different realms. This way of thinking says science explains how the universe works while spirituality attempts to explain why. But it's becoming increasingly clear that science and spirituality as we now understand them are advocating incompatible world views. A book called war of the world views faces up to this challenge while giving tantalizing suggestions of a possible reconciliation. Doctor Depak Chopra is an internationally known speaker and author in the field of emerging spiritual. Thank you so much for being here.

CHOPRA: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be on your show.

CAVANAUGH: Mr. Leonard Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist, he teaches at cal tech. He recently collaborated with Steven Hawking on the book, the grand design. And thank you for being here

MLODINOW: Happy to be here too.

CAVANAUGH: We invite our listeners to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. Dr. Chopra, I have to ask you first off, why did you want to have this discussion about world views and create this book?

CHOPRA: Well, it started, actually, accidentally. I was at a debate in cal tech with Michael Sharma, the head of the skeptic society.

CAVANAUGH: He's been on this show.

CHOPRA: Yes. And so Leonard was in the audience. And the debate of being filmed by ABC, nightline. And at the end of the debate, the moderator pulled out Leonard, he recognized him as a physicist and said what do you think of all that Depak is saying? And Leonard objected to my use of quantum physics in many instances that I -- you know, the way I had used it. And that got a lot of play, by the way, in the media. And after that, Leonard and I started communicating. And I thought to myself maybe he can teach me physics, and maybe I can -- that was, in turn, teach him a little bit about consciousness, as seen through spirituality, not as seen through the lens of science. So we started talking to each other. And so the book came about. But I think it's a very worthwhile book because it does show that we all have cognitive bias, whether we're scientists or in any other field. We see the world through a particular lens. In the larger scheme, there is no such thing as a world. It's just a world view.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Mlodinow, doctor Chopra as hesays, through the years has used the language from quantum physics to support and explain some of his spiritual ideas. And I got the distinct impression from that clip from the ABC show that that irritates you and other scientists. Can you tell us why?

MLODINOW: Well, I don't know if it irritate is the right word. But the thing about physics is that one understands it at different levels. You can understand physics at the level in which we write books like the grand design or other popular science books, and then there are deeper levels of understanding, which are more technical but really closer to what physics is really about. And it's difficult if you're not trained in physics to use the terminology to make new pronouncements or your own theories. And even though I think it's tempting to do that. And so I think that this is the thing that I stood up and wanted to combat. But I have to say in Depak, the science that there are certain physicists who don't quite use the terms in the way he was using them, because they know what they mean in a more mathematical and technical specific way, but there are a handful of physicists who fix physics and consciousness, and I think that I've learned in developing my friendship with Depak that a lot of his ideas aren't just thought up out of thin air, but they come from these other people who use some of those technical ideas in certain ways. And I think if you're not a physicist, you can -- well, I think first of all that I don't agree with what they're saying, but I can see if you're not a physicist, you can take it from there, and it's a dangerous turf to go on and advocate those ideas yourself.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let's get into this dangerous turf, as you put it. And let me ask you, doctor Chopra, one of the debates that goes on in this book is what is the fundamental problem as you see it in a scientific idea that the brain creates the mind?

CHOPRA: The fundamental problem in the idea that the brain creates the mind is that as of now, no physical laws as we know them, all the physical laws as we know them, explain how we could experience subjective consciousness. There aren't any explanations for that. There are all kinds of suggestions. Hypothetical. And so unless we have answered this very fundamental question of where is consciousness arising from, is it a brain phenomenon, if it is then how? That question remains unanswered. Subjective experience, any subjective experience, the experience of an emotion, an idea, a color, a texture, we dent know how that happens. What is the relationship between electrochemistry and the subjective experience? It's quite a hard problem. And there may never be an answer to that. And even Kristof, by the way, I read up on him, a remarkable scientist.

MLODINOW: Yeah.

CHOPRA: A friend of Leonard. But even he says in one of his recent pronouncements, and I happened to read his book, that as of yet, we don't have an explanation from physical laws, and in fact we may have to have a reenvisioning of these physical laws. He is on Leonard's camp. There's probably a material explanation. But no proof. So that's one very, very fundamental dilemma that we have at the moment. And yet there's a body of knowledge that comes from the subjective experience of consciousness itself. Because consciousness being the observer it can't be examined objectively. It's always the observer. Any objective validation of consciousness is inferential. Many spirit yell traditions examine consciousness through self awareness, consciousness looking back upon itself through various techniques, reflection, meditation, contemplation, etc. So there's a whole body of that literature that says you will only understand it subjectively because it's you. And therefore self awareness is a science. It's called spirituality. And that's where our differences are, basically.

CAVANAUGH: And doctor Mlodinow, you can see that science does not know how consciousness arises. So I'm wondering why engage in this argument that it's not where doctor Chopra says it is, that it is not perhaps part of a universal mind? What's the scientific basis for your argument that it's not that?

MLODINOW: Well, really at the base of the book is what we know and what is knowledge and how do we attain it. And one of the points that I make is that wee learned a lot over the past couple thousand years. We used to have mythological explanations, religious explanations for natural phenomenon. And a couple hundred years ago, we started developing the scientific method for investigating these questions. And we've answered many, many questions of nature that people used to wonder where eclipses came from, wonder about earthquake, wonder about the tides. We've answered many questions but we haven't answered all the questions yet. One thing we don't know how to explain, which I agree with, and of course Kristoff is the first to say, and he studies consciousness from a scientific point of view is that we can't explain consciousness now. But the real question is do living things follow the same laws of physics that the planets follow and protons and rocks? Or do they not? Are there other laws for life? And there's a long history through an intellectual thought saying there are other laws for life, there is a life force, living things are special, the earth is special, but as a physicist, I believe and other scientists in other fields believe that there's one set of laws of nature, and they apply to everything. So where Depak and I clash is the question of whether this other kind of life force or consciousness in the universe is outside the laws of physics or is it solved by the laws of physics? And if it is followed by the same laws of nature that everything else follows, what are the implications of that? And one of the implications is that there is no mind brain split, that the mind and brain are the same thing. They all follow from the fundamental laws, and the mind is a phenomenon of the physical brain. And we just have to understand and learn how to define what consciousness is learn about it.

CAVANAUGH: And doctor Chopra?

CHOPRA: From a practical standpoint, from a very practical standpoint, Leonard is 100% right. From an existential standpoint, when we ask the deeper question, who am I, what is the deeper nature of reality, including the universe, there's a dilemma here. Because when I say facts, events, evidence, I assume as do most scientists -- and having travelled with Leonard, he's not that dogmatic. And in fact, he's sympathetic to the point that I'm going to make right now. What we call reality out there and facts and evidence and events and objects, in other words so called reality, these are really not the attributes of the universe. They are modes of perception of the human mind as it operates through the human nervous system. Once we get that, then we are open to a bigger reality that modes of perception, they work. We can use the same -- just like latitude and long tude are not realities but by using them, I can meet you in Timbuctu or wherever. I can say to you meet me at the corner of 54th and Broadway in New York, and we know what that means. But that's not reality. These are conceptions, conceptual frameworks that we have exposed upon reality. Reality is bigger. Heisenberg, a well known quote, is nature reveals itself not to us as it is but to the questions we ask of it. I would even go further to the questions we ask of it through a limited human nervous system with limited apparatus of the five senses. And of course, where is science done? It's done in consciousness. Where are measurements made in consciousness? Where are theories conceived in consciousness? Where are experiments designed in consciousness? And we don't have an answer to this what this consciousness is in science. So we need to look at other modes of examining reality. Reality is subject to many modes of examination.

CAVANAUGH: I am looking at the clock, and I cannot believe that we're almost out of time. But I -- in reading the book, I just wanted to make this one point to both of you. It seems that neither of you when talking about spirituality are defending the major religions of the world. And I'm wondering iffed in especially you, doctor Chopra, isn't your argument really for a new concept of religion instead of a new concept of science?

CHOPRA: It is, unfortunately religious dogma has not revised its basic assumptions. And science keeps doing that. So science is always ahead in its understanding of reality. But what I'm saying is also part of the perennial philosophy traditions. Aldous Huxley, you name it, Emerson, Thoreau, Emanuel Kant, you can go down the list all the way back to Socrates and m, and then the sages and great teachers of the east, Lao Tzu, and Confucius. They hint at what they call the perennial philosophy where they define consciousness and an evolving consciousness as the ultimate reality.

CAVANAUGH: Do you see an evolving consciousness, doctor Mlodinow as an aid to science?

MLODINOW: Well, I see -- I don't see a universal consciousness that connects us all in some very tight fashion. But I think using the term loosely, the more evolved, the more advanced, the more humanistic spiritual and sophisticated human thinking gets, the better it will not only our science but the way we apply our science, and the way society chooses to apply what we learn about the universe through science

CAVANAUGH: You almost sound pained when you talk about this a little bit. Is this a painful experience that you've gone through?

MLODINOW: Well, I get pained when I'm using terms that I don't -- that are vague to me. You know, universal consciousness, or even conscious -- I'll tell you what scientists Saturday consciousness, what we do is define a very specific aspect of it, say, visual perception or the perception of movement, and study how the brain produces that. And to try to get -- one of the difficulties in this whole field is no one really knows how to define consciousness in a very concrete, precise manner. You can say vaguely it's self awareness, terms like that. But that's one of the issues. So I do feel a little uncomfortable, yes.

CHOPRA: You've noticed how many times Leonard has used the word universal consciousness and I haven't used it once. So you can see the cognitive bias. The other thing is, yes, consciousness is more than visual perception. It's insight, intuition, creativity, it's choice, it's imagination, it is self understanding, it is meaning.

MLODINOW: Of course. And I recognize that. I didn't mean to limit it to that. I think I chose that particular aspect because that's what Kristoff studies and we were talking about it.

CHOPRA: I agree.

CAVANAUGH: And now I am out of time. I've been speaking with doctor Depak Chopra, and doctor Leonard Mlodinow. They are coauthors of the book war of the world views, science versus spirituality. That has really been a treat for our listeners. Thank you both so much.

MLODINOW: Thank you

CHOPRA: Thank you. And thanks Leonard.

MLODINOW: Yeah, nice chatting.