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on 30 October 2011
In Plato's Allegory of the cave human beings live confined and restricted in a subterranean cave which has a mouth open at one end to the light outside. The human occupants of this cave have been there since childhood and are shackled in such a way that there heads are immobile, with there gaze constantly fixed on the back of the cave, opposite the opening, upon which are projected shadows. Knowing no different, the constrained humans take the shadows on the cave wall to be reality. Some of the cave dwellers, being of a scientific disposition, spend their whole lives studying the movement of the shadows, recognising regularities and patterns, speculating as to their origins. Some shadows exhibit such regularity that laws of shadow behaviour are developed. So hypnotised by the shadow play are these cave dwellers that they little suspect the reason for there being any shadows at all is due to the light - that non of them have ever directly seen - coming from the mouth of the cave.

This scenario pretty much sums up the theme of this book. Deepak Chopra considers materialistic science to be engaged in the study of shadows. At the same time he feels science is ignoring, and indeed hostile to, the very thing that gives the shadows any reality at all, the light i.e. consciousness or spirit (both words are used interchangeably by Deepak as pointers to THAT which is itself formless and empty but which gives rise to all forms and potential).

Leonard Mlidinow argues that, without good reason to think otherwise, we must confine our interests, our studies, our investigations and inquiries to the shadows (the material world), limiting our hopes, dreams and desires to the shadow world. It is a naïve and vain hope to think there is anything else. Besides, the shadows are infinitely fascinating, varied and awe inspiring and offer the prospect of beguiling us for many years to come. By contrast, Deepak argues, to limit our gaze to the shadows is to limit the potential for greater discovery.

The book is essentially about knowledge, the different ways of knowing, and how we can be certain that our claims to knowledge are true. Leonard comes from the perspective of radical empiricism in which only that which is amenable to the senses (and their extensions), and that which can be measured, quantified, predicted and verified through third person confirmation, can be considered a legitimate truth claim. Deepak considers that science, technology and the media have conspired to produce a view of the world that is profoundly materialistic and competitive and which claims exclusive rights to being "right". Deepak argues that the scientific worldview is missing an essential ingredient i.e. spirit. However, Deepak is at pains to distance his version of spirituality from religion. He writes: "Organised religion may have discredited itself, but spirituality has suffered no such defeat." He then contrasts organised religions with the "profound views of life" propounded by spiritual teachers such as the Buddha, Jesus and Lao-tzu who pointed to a "transcendent domain", beyond the reach of the five senses, "mysterious, unseen" but which could be known by diving deep into one's own awareness, to the source of both the inner and outer reality.

Thus, in essence, Deepak's spiritual perspective is one in which he equates spirituality with consciousness. Deepak believes that "consciousness" is the ordering, creative and intelligent principle at the heart of reality, without which there would be no reality at all (the light at the mouth of the cave). "We need to go back to the source of religion. That source isn't God. It's consciousness". Deepak breaks down his spiritual perspective into three parts:

1. There is an unseen reality that is the source of all visible things.
2. This unseen reality is knowable through our own awareness.
3. Intelligence, creativity, and organising power are embedded in the cosmos.

Deepak argues for a worldview in which consciousness and the material universe are seen as two aspects of an indivisible whole. He writes: "Reality is reality. There is only one and it is permanent. This means that at some point the inner and outer must meet; we won't have to choose between them". This desire to unite science and spirituality through a grand synthesis is at the heart of Deepak's philosophy. The main obstacles to this synthesis, in Deepak's view, are religion and materialism. Most religions (mainly the monotheistic western religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity) posit an extra-cosmic God who "tinkers" with reality as and when it suits Him, judges, condemns or loves you (depending on what mood He's in) and is completely "other" and unknowable, revealed to us solely through "sacred" texts which must be believed unquestioningly if one is to achieve salvation. Such a view of the world, Deepak argues, is rightly shunned by all reasonable and thinking individuals. Similarly, he argues, the "superstition of materialism", the belief that only the world revealed to us via our five senses is real, is hostile to the "inner journey". Deepak perceives science as aiding and abetting this materialistic worldview as it reduces the universe to a closed physical system of purely physical cause and effect, ungoverned by anything other than blind purposeless laws of nature. The question for Deepak is fundamentally: "What is reality? Is it the result of natural laws rigorously operating through cause and effect, or is it something else?"

Leonard writes: "We would all like to be immortal. We'd like to believe that good triumphs over evil, that a greater power watches over us, that we are part of something bigger, that we have been put here for a reason. We'd like to believe that our lives have an intrinsic meaning." Leonard recognises these as legitimate human concerns. He views the answers that religion provides as mankind's earliest attempt to address these concerns within the limits of incomplete knowledge. "Today science can answer many of the most fundamental questions of existence. Science's answers spring from observation and experiment rather than from human bias or desire. Science offers answers in harmony with nature as it is, rather than nature as we'd like it to be." In terms of inspiring awe and wonderment as well as addressing questions of ultimate concern Leonard believes science, despite its limitations, to be the "triumph of humanity" and of our "capacity to understand". He resents Deepak's implication that scientific explanations are "sterile and reductive". He goes on: "Scientists are often guided by their intuition and subjective feelings but they recognise the need for another step: verification." He then loosely outlines the "scientific method" with its emphasis on observation and experimentation; and, while acknowledging the part spirituality has to play "regarding human aspirations and the meaning of our lives", he highlights the lack of verifiable evidence as being the main reason religion and spirituality are excluded from scientific consideration; or, more to the point, religious and spiritual doctrine make "pronouncements about the physical universe that contradict what we actually observe to be true." So Leonard's view is that the knowledge claims of science are open to verification, refutation and testing and as such we have every right to place our confidence in science as opposed to religion/spirituality when it comes to our understanding of the world and our place in it.

As much as I enjoyed the exchanges between Leonard and Deepak, and as much as I commend Leonard for engaging in communication with someone I'm sure many of his colleagues would run a mile from, I found the book on the whole disappointing (hence the three stars). Essential to a debate such as this is the necessity of defining terms explicitly and to the satisfaction of both parties. The problem with this book is that terms are so sloppily defined (if at all) and so ambiguously employed, that both Deepak and Leonard spend a great deal of their time talking passed each other. Deepak uses terms such as "spirit", "consciousness", "mind" etc so loosely and vaguely as to render them meaningless at times, while Leonard, though more diligent in his effort to define terms, is similarly guilty of obfuscation (this is to be expected from someone who co-authored "The Grand Design" with Stephen Hawkin in which it is claimed, Nietzschian like, "philosophy is dead". It was premature of Leonard to bury philosophy because philosophy, at the very least, is the art of conceptual clarification). In fairness to Deepak, terms such as spirit, consciousness and mind are notoriously slippery and science has yet to agree on a working definition of consciousness. Notwithstanding, I feel Deepak could have made a greater effort to be more precise in his definition of these terms, if for no other reason than, by not doing so, Leonard had all the ammunition he needed to dismiss many of Deepak's arguments on the grounds of ill-defined terminology. Leonard, too, would have aided the reader had he more specifically defined what he meant by "science". To make claims about a "scientific worldview" already obfuscates because science is not philosophy, it is a method of inquiring into the physical world (methodological naturalism). Science should be philosophically neutral. To talk of a "scientific worldview" in the manner in which Leonard does is to conflate science (the study of the physical world) with the philosophy of physical naturalism (which states that the physical world is all there is). If, however, Leonard means something more by the term "science", then he should have made it clear in what sense he was using the term.

The level of argument was also unsatisfactory. One example will suffice. Deepak writes: "Creation without consciousness is like the fabled roomful of monkeys randomly striking the keys on a typewriter...No matter how small the scale or how large, the cosmos is seamlessly exact in a way that randomness cannot account for. Something must have caused this, and it must exist beyond the physical universe." Simply insisting that something "must" be the case does not make it so and Deepak is intelligent enough to realise that to employ such language is to weaken his case. To address this "random-typing" argument of Deepak's, Leonard invokes the computer "selection" programme from Richard Dawkins' book The Blind Watchmaker in which "a mechanism analogous to natural selection" is used to arrive at Shakespeare's phrase "Methinks it is like a weasel". Through the random typing of letters that is believed to imitate the evolutionary process, this programme supposedly demonstrates how the process of natural selection mitigates randomness. But this does no such thing! The very fact that the programme "chooses" letters in keeping with the "target" phrase shows the programme to be governed by a purpose i.e. achieving the target phrase. Thus "design" is written into the programme in a way that is supposedly absent in nature. So this is a rather weak argument and shows Leonard to be unaware of the more sophisticated challenges to Dawkins's "Darwinian gradualism". As Stephen Jay Gould wrote: "Natural selection might explain the survival of the fittest, but not the arrival of the fittest".

Throughout the ages there have been individuals who have broken free of their cave bound condition and "seen the light" and who have used that insight to inform the rest of us of our cave dwelling, shadow beguiled existence. Such individuals are the great sages, rishis and mystics of history. There insight is as uncompromising as it is consistent: We are not who we think we are and the world is not as it seems. Unfortunately, the word "Mysticism", through loose popular usage, has become synonymous with magic, mystification and even self-delusion and it is this debased usage of the term that falls so readily from the lips of both Deepak and Leonard (Deepak preferring the word "spiritual" to "mystical" and Leonard not showing any evidence that he's given the true meaning of mysticism any serious consideration whatsoever). The rationalistic bias of contemporary science, which equates the verifiable with the true, links the "mystical" with superstition, self-delusion and the avoidance of life. But Mystics ask you to take nothing on faith. Even Sam Harris acknowledges this. In The End Of Faith he writes:

"Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. The mystic has recognised something about the nature of consciousness prior to thought, and this recognition is susceptible to rational discussion. The mystic has reasons for what he believes, and these reasons are empirical. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time" The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason

Science is the study of the world employing the formidable resources of the mind and human ingenuity. There is nothing wrong with this knowledge and it has indeed rewarded us in the West with unparalleled and privileged lives. However, it is in the nature of the mind to categorise, differentiate, bifurcate, dissect, intellectualise, separate, limit, demarcate etc. Thus, approaching the world with the mind condemns us to viewing the world through an opaque screen of concepts, dualistically splitting the world into that which is seen and that which is doing the seeing. Similar to Plato's cave, we become hypnotised by the shadow play of our abstract knowledge, mistaking our conceptual knowledge for the way things really are. But mysticism offers us an alternative and complementary way of knowing the world, directly, unmediated by any conceptual abstractions, intimate and non-dual. Reality is what is revealed from this non-dual level of knowing. Concepts can no more encapsulate Reality than notes on manuscript paper can encapsulate what it is to listen to a symphony. We can study the shadows on the cave wall all we like but until we break the hypnotic trance, turn around and look, we'll never "see the light".
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on 14 November 2011
This is a great book which I believe to be very important. It is interesting and readable, and I highly recommend it. It is a discussion from two contrary viewpoints about some of the basic questions of existence, as how the universe and life as we know it came about and what we are as living beings. It gives an overview of the current scientific view on these questions, and at the same time presents an alternative spiritual view. The two participants of the debate are Deepak Chopra, whose viewpoint is considered spiritual, and Leonard Mlodinow, whose position is that of common objective science. Their disagreements and different approaches to the basic questions of existence really made me think deeply on them, and that is what I believe is the real value of the book.

In earlier history, mans view of life was very much dominated by religion. In the latter decades, a more materialistic and atheistic scientific position has gained ground. It is based on actual observations and measurements of animate and inanimate physical objects, such as cells and structures of living organisms. Contrary to religion, it is considered by its proponents to be a purely rational approach to reality, as it is based on observable facts and not on religious dogmas.

The question is, however, if the materialistic science that Leonard and many other prominent scientists represent actually is as rational as they claim it to be. For instance, if I interpret Leonard correctly, it is a common view among scientists that creation could have sprung from a state of nothingness, and thus that life could have sprung from non-life, that intelligence, purpose and the laws of nature could have sprung from non-intelligence and that consciousness could have sprung from non-consciousness? But is this really logical?

Chopra argues that consciousness is the basis of creation. That it constitutes an eternal transcendental reality that is imbued with an organizing, creative intelligence that manifests, sustains and coordinates the innumerable factors that coincide to make our life possible. Leonard, however, refutes this on the grounds that it is not proven. Though, he seems less particular about offering evidence for some of his own views. He argues keenly for the viewpoint that mind and consciousness only are products of the physical brain, and that the brain is only created and governed by physical laws. Yet, he admits that the science he represents doesn't know what consciousness is, doesn't know what the actual connection between the physical brain and the mind is and doesn't know where the physical laws come from. So how can one believe such a theory to be based on anything more than speculation and guesswork? Yet, it is a view that seems to have become dominant in our modern society and in academia.

Modern science has a very strong authority in our western society. When you ask people why, they will probably point to all the achievements of modern technology, like cars, telephones, space rockets etc. But I think it is a very different thing to understand parts of nature, and to utilize some of its laws, than to understand the wholeness of it.

If one should accept the view that the inner being of man is only a product of a physical brain, it has quite dramatic implications. First of all, there would be no room for any free will. Secondly, all the people of the past that have been considered truly wise, like Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, Plato etc. must all be reconsidered to have been totally deluded. Thirdly, life would not have any deeper meaning or higher purpose, and what we do in this life and how we behave would have no consequence for ourselves as soon as our soulless physical body ceases to function. However, if Chopra's view of consciousness being the fundamental reality should be right, would it at all be possible to prove it? And how can we possibly understand and describe it?

The problem with pure consciousness from a scientific point of view is that it is not an observable object, as it by nature is totally abstract. It doesn't have a form or a color. It can't be observed in a microscope or by the help of an x-ray. It can't be measured or weighed and can't be dissected. So how shall a science that is based on observation and measurement of physical objects relate to such a concept? Well, as it seems obvious from the discourse in the book, it doesn't relate to it at all. Rather, they strive to exclude all elements of subjectivity and achieve some kind of pure objectivity. But is this really possible? For how can we escape the reality of consciousness?

Everything we experience, we experience in consciousness. Everything we observe, we observe in consciousness. Everything we think and understand, takes place in consciousness. How can we even possibly confirm if there exists a reality outside or independent of consciousness? Accordingly, the idea of pure objectivity seems illusory. One person measures gravity in China, another in California. By the common language of mathematics, they are able to give the same description of their observations - the same mathematical equation. This is what modern science call objectivity, but it is still based on subjectivity.

Furthermore, how can we take for granted that the senses deliver the truth of reality? When we go to a cinema, we can see people walking about, people riding on horses, trees and mountains etc. For an ignorant person, it would all be considered real - real people and real sceneries - for a knowable person, however, it is just shadows on a silver screen. How is it possible to know if something like this is not applicable to the physical reality of the universe? That the physical reality that we think is out there, that we think exists independently from an observer, only exists in consciousness?

Because of the abstract nature of consciousness, I believe Chopra's task to explain his position is much more difficult than what it is for Leonard. It is probably more difficult to understand the abstract nature of consciousness than to relate to and understand observable physical objects, even if they can be very complex and minute. Leonard insists that serious science can only be based on what can be proven. But what if it simply is not possible to prove an independent transcendental reality of consciousness the way he demands it to be done, even if it should be the truth? This is one of the great dilemmas raised by the book, and which poses one of the important, delightful and meaningful intellectual challenges it gives to the reader.
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on 30 June 2013
This book presents a lively and engaging discussion that will hold something for most people interested in this debate. However - although this may just be a symptom of my own intellectual bias - I have to confess to yawning and/or despairing through much of Chopra's musings. I think it is a fair criticism of the book - rather than just of Chopra - that it wasn't so much a battle between `Science' and `Spirituality', but between `Science' and Deepak Chopra. By and large I feel Mlodinow succeeded in presenting an erudite and skilled overview of the scientific worldview, as understood and espoused by scientists. Chopra on the other hand uses `spirituality' as a vessel to promote his own particular brand of belief, that rejects much of organised religion, and embraces ideas of a universal quantum consciousness and thinking universe - which may well have succeeded in recruiting some agnostics to the Chopra Centre. I therefore expect many towards the spiritual/religious end of the spectrum will feel unrepresented by Chopra's arguments, and, in this format, would need to see a whole series of discussions to have their worldview adequately represented. So maybe this should be seen more as "War of the Worldviews: Science vs Chopra" and we should look forward to "Science vs Gellar", "Science vs Icke", "Science vs Scientology" in due course ...or at least until a proponent can be sought to represent spirituality in a less parochial and self-interested way?
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on 16 January 2017
I would agree that the sections written by Mlodinov are well structured and interesting. However the whole project is polluted by Chopra's brand of religion. I found reading his sections frustrating, due mostly to his tin hat waffling. This book would have been far more interesting as an exploration of the impact of science on society as a whole and the erosion of religion in our daily lives. The arrogant assumption by Deepak Chopra that he alone represents modern spirituality, or has anything of real relevance to contribute here will anger those from a religious background and irritate those from a scientific one. Avoid this book.
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on 17 June 2012
"War of the Worldviews" contains a debate on science and spirituality between Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow. Chopra is a neo-Hindu/New Age self-help writer with at least one foot in Hollywood. Mlodinow is a quantum physicist who co-authored several books with Stephen Hawking. Subjects covered in the book include Darwinism, the mind-body problem and the future of religious belief.

Despite all the hype (both Larry King and the Dalai Lama recommends the book), "War of the worldviews" is incredibly boring. Both Deepak and Leonard - they use their first names throughout - pull a few verbal punches, but these sound contrived in the extreme. War? What war? At bottom, both writers agree that somehow science and spirituality can or should be harmonized, and both reject creationism or the hard line ID position. This, of course, narrows the battlefield considerably. Besides, Chopra and Mlodinow apparently worked together on their book, making the war metaphor even more contrived. If you want a real war, let Dawkins argue with Ted Haggard or Yousef al-Khattab!

Personally, I wish to declare neutrality in this war. I suppose I "should" support Deepak, but many of his concrete arguments are quite bad. Thus, I'm sceptical to the idea that quantum physics "prove" spirituality. At best, it suggests that a certain kind of crude materialism simply can't be the whole picture. However, I fail to see how a wave function is spiritual? Chopra's arguments against Neo-Darwinism also miss the mark (and no, I don't consider myself Neo-Darwinist). Thus, he doesn't make a clear distinction between genetic and reciprocal altruism, which Neo-Darwinism can explain, and "real" altruism, which it arguably cannot. It's also unclear why Chopra sees the intelligence of Border Collies as mysterious? Another problem is that Chopra constantly attempts to portray his teachings as an ancient Indian philosophy confirmed by modern science, when it's really a very modern self-help technique not yet confirmed by science.

But Mlodinow also stumbles rather badly. In fact, he is forced to concede that things such as meaning, love, ethics and even "spirituality" are immensely important, but he can't explain why this is the case, since his fundamental worldview is based on reductionist materialism. At one point, he comes close to denying the existence of free will, although he admits that we can't live without assuming that we really are free: "I admit it feels strange to think of myself as a biological machine governed by the same laws that govern Pluto. But understanding my essence doesn't diminish my appreciation for the gift of being alive; it makes me appreciate it even more. That's not a scientific principle. It's just the way I feel". Since Mlodinow believes that science tells us have the world *really* works, he is essentially suggesting that our human dignity is simply an irrational feeling, but since we can't let it go, we might as well stay with it. Why not accept religion, then? It too is "irrational" but seems to be working. At one point Mlodinow actually comes very close to conceding this (see ppg. 284-285). He constantly rejects metaphysics as unreliable, but his own anti-metaphysical position turns out to be a strange form of dualism, with the "real" world in one compartment and everything that really matters in quite another.

Incidentally, I'm sceptical to Chopra's strictly impersonalist view of the Divine, but I can hardly fault him from defending his own metaphysics...

"War of the Worldviews", then, is a major disappointment. Boring, bland, bad arguments and constant concessions from the guy supposed to be the Robocop of materialism redux...

Still, it's fascinating that so many people seem to like this book... What did they see, which I did not?

Two stars.
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on 18 June 2012
An excellent and thought provoking selection. Puts firmly into place those many 'sceptics' books on subject; a book for an enquiring and open mind.
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