Tag Archives: cosmos

Plains, Rocks & Cosmos

In anticipation of a summer touring the Great Plains, I took some time off from the blog to immerse myself in a surprisingly rich literature on the subject, which of course has nothing to do with religion. I will say, however, that anyone who has yet to discover this richness or is thinking about exploring the Plains should consider reading some of the books listed at the end of this post. Having just read each in succession, the immersive effect is pronounced and I’m ready to go but the weather is not yet cooperating. While waiting, and in anticipation of the anthropology of religion course I will be teaching in the middle of the summer, it’s time to round back toward religion.

The good news is that in doing so, I won’t run the risk of being brutally murdered. For the third time this year, a “secular” Bangladeshi blogger has been hacked to death by irate religionists. These three blasphemous bloggers were writing on subjects and topics similar to those that appear here, but were doing so knowing they would be targeted. Talk about courage.

Here in the United States, we fortunately do not have to confront this sort of thing, though we do have young earth Creationists who are relatively harmless. While I have never paid them much mind because arguing with them is futile, a geology professor thinks that the rocks disprove creationism. He apparently does not know that young earth Creationists have considered his argument and flatly rejected it. They are not interested in science and accept it only when it suits their psychological needs or religious purposes. But having said this, I was a bit shocked to encounter the following sentence in the professor’s piece:

“Embracing young Earth creationism means you have to abandon faith in the story told by the rocks themselves.”

This is an unfortunate choice of words. Why should we have faith in a story told by rocks? Rocks don’t tell stories. Geologists provide us with theory and data based narratives about rocks. These “stories” are subject to challenge, revision, and reversal. This method has nothing to do with faith.

From rocks to the cosmos, which is timely for anyone who has recently seen “Interstellar,” a movie with some brilliant science marred by metaphysical speculations about trans-dimensional love tunnels. It was marred even further by Matthew McConaughey’s overwrought acting, but that is another story. The main story here is the science based on Kip Thorne’s work and book, Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. Though I am only about halfway through and not sure I understand everything, it is great for bending the mind. The cosmos is stranger than fiction and perhaps even myth.

Finally, the cosmos — and cosmological theories — are the subject of this dense piece by Ross Andersen over at Aeon. Cosmology, it appears, is in crisis and may stay that way for quite some time, perhaps forever. While this may unsettle some, I find it invigorating. When it comes to large and perhaps intractable subjects like this, I always find it helpful to read a good history of the field, so thanks to Andersen for recommending Helge Kragh’s Conceptions of Cosmos: From Myths to the Accelerating Universe: A History of Cosmology. It’s next on my list.

And speaking of lists, here is the one I promised at the beginning of this post, for all lovers of the Great Plains:

Great Plains by Ian Frazier
The Great Plains by Walter Prescott Webb
Love Song to the Plains by Mari Sandoz
Prehistoric Man on the Great Plains by Waldo Wedel
The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal by Stephen R. Jones
Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the Great Plains by William Ashworth
Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains by Jack Brink

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Deepak Chopra’s “Theory”: Consciousness as Godhead

Over at HuffPo Religion, Deepak Chopra opines on the non-existent “war between science and religion.”  Religion is of course being investigated by scientists and examined by historians, but this does not make the interrogation a war.  Religion is simply another object or category of positivist inquiry.

Chopra’s piece begins with some surprising concessions:

What is the war about? Fact beat out faith long ago. When Darwin’s theory of evolution replaced Genesis to explain the appearance of human beings, which was in the middle of the 19th century, the trend away from faith was already old. The world had been remade as material, governed by natural laws, random in its effects, and immune to divine intervention. Not just science but thousands of unanswered prayers did their part to dethrone God.

Next, Chopra praises science for its willingness to ask foundational questions:

There should be renewed admiration for science’s attempts to answer the fundamental mysteries. These are well known by now:

  • How did the universe come about?
  • What caused life to emerge from a soup of inorganic chemicals?
  • Can evolution explain all of human development?
  • What are the basic forces in Nature?
  • How does the brain produce intelligence?
  • What place do human beings occupy in the cosmos?

Continuing with his scientific prelude, Chopra correctly observes that science “advances through data and experiments, but those in turn depend upon theory.  Theory is the flashlight that tells an experimenter where to look, and without it, he wanders at random.  His data don’t fit into a worldview.  I consider myself scientific at heart, and so I depend upon a theory as well.”

Incredible — it appears that Chopra the new age mystic has had a conversion experience, and has become Chopra the scientist, positivist, and empiricist.  Could it be so?

As Chopra admits, he too depends on a theory.  So without further ado, here is Chopra’s theory:

* We live in a universe that exhibits intelligence, self-regulation, and creativity.

* Consciousness preceded the brain. It created life and went on to create the brain itself.

* Consciousness is primary in the world; matter is secondary.

* Evolution is conscious and therefore creative. It isn’t random.

* At the source of creation one finds a field of pure awareness.

* Pure awareness is the source of every manifest quality in the universe.

Do Chopra’s premises constitute a “theory”?  Theories are built on collections of facts, which are verifiable observations that do not change depending on who is doing the observing.  To have a theory, in other words, you must have a corpus of facts that cohere around an explanation; that explanation is the theory.

F. Steiger explicates “theory” in this way:

[A] theory is an explanation or model based on observation, experimentation, and reasoning, especially one that has been tested and confirmed as a general principle helping to explain and predict natural phenomena.

Any theory must be based on a careful examination of the facts. A clear distinction needs to be made between facts (things which can be observed and/or measured) and theories (explanations which correlate and interpret the facts).

A fact is something that is supported by unmistakeable evidence [or replicated by others through experiment]. For example, the Grand Canyon cuts through layers of different kinds of rock, such as the Coconino sandstone, Hermit shale, and Redwall limestone. These rock layers often contain fossils that are found only in certain layers. Those are the facts.

Facts may be interpreted in different ways by different individuals, but that doesn’t change the facts themselves.

Theories may be good, bad, or indifferent. They may be well established by the factual evidence, or they may lack credibility.

With these distinctions in mind, how does Chopra’s “theory” fare?  Not well.  Let’s look at each premise.

1.  “We live in a universe that exhibits intelligence, self-regulation, and creativity.”  Intelligence does in fact exist in at least one place in the universe: animals and humans on earth are intelligent organisms.  This fact, however, does not lead to the much larger inference — for which we have no evidence — that the universe itself is intelligent.  We are not even sure what the universe is, so calling it intelligent requires a leap of faith.  As for self-regulation, there are aspects of the universe that have orderly and predictable qualities.  On earth, the same is true and there also is a creative aspect to the evolution of life.  So we can grant Chopra these last two points.

2.  “Consciousness preceded the brain. It created life and went on to create the brain itself.”  This assertion is rank speculation for which there is not a scintilla of evidence.  The only consciousness for which we have any evidence — indeed, the very idea of consciousness — comes from brains.  Brains, in other words, produce consciousness.  You therefore cannot have consciousness before brains.

3.  “Consciousness is primary in the world; matter is secondary.”  Chopra would not be conscious, or aware of consciousness, if he did not eat every day and shelter himself from the elements.  He also would not be conscious or aware if he was not living matter.  Given these facts, I cannot see how Chopra’s physical matter is not primary.  His matter is the foundation from which his consciousness arises.  This particular assertion is nothing more than a value judgment, steeped in mysticism.

4.  “Evolution is conscious and therefore creative. It isn’t random.”  Evolution is not a thing or a force — it is a description of a process.  That process is change.  It cannot, therefore, be conscious.  The change that evolution describes can, however, be creative.  Life on earth demonstrates that fact.  There is a limited sense in which evolutionary change is not random — there are genomic constraints on the kinds of organisms that can result from mutations.

5.  “At the source of creation one finds a field of pure awareness.”  We have no evidence or data regarding the “source of creation,” so any assertions regarding that source are pure speculation.  The same can be said of a “field of pure awareness.”  No one has ever identified such a field or awareness.  Such a field of awareness exists only in the minds of people who have brains that enable such thoughts.

6.  “Pure awareness is the source of every manifest quality in the universe.”  What?  This is an assertion of faith; it is pure speculation.

What I find most interesting here is that Chopra obviously feels the need to couch his consciousness/awareness arguments in the language of science; he uses scientific terms to legitimate his beliefs.  Chopra feels no need, however, to go any further and actually apply the precepts and principles of science to his non-theory.

Chopra’s premises — and therefore his “theory” — cannot be observed, measured, quantified, or verified by others.  What Chopra calls a “theory” does not explain any facts or cause any facts to cohere.  His theory does not generate any hypotheses or predictions.  His theory is not testable.  There are no facts for his theory.  If there were, surely someone would conduct experiments, the results of which could be replicated by others.

Where does this leave Chopra and his acolytes?  With a fuzzy faith which speculates that consciousness and awareness are the sources of the universe and life — the Godhead in other words.  This sounds much like spirituality and religion — terms which Chopra says he wants to avoid.  Chopra has not experienced any kind of conversion and his non-theory lacks credibility.


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