Mystics’ Mutilation of Quantum Theory (2): Serpent-King Shesha’s “Science”

Quantum theory was born in a period when some significant social upheavals were taking place. 1920’s were the years, in which the Bolshevik revolution had just succeeded in establishing the Soviet Union as an alternative socioeconomic system which was foreseen by the believers to eventually replace capitalism. They were also the years in which Freud was enjoying the credit of another kind of revolution: a revolution in the “science” of the mind. These two revolutions offered alternatives for the beliefs of the Ayurvedaexisting society, and many, including some physicists, found it quite natural to offer theirs. These beliefs, plus the physicists’ desire to communicate the excitement of their discoveries to the public, and the mythically enchanting flavor that quantum theory could add to this communication, made the situation ripe for disaster. It is unfortunate that some of the grossest abuses of the quantum theory were initiated by the very people who created it. Max Born comes up with an equation of uncertainty principle involving communism and capitalism; Wolfgang Pauli associates a universal soul with the wave function of the Schroedinger equation; and Werner Heisenberg hints at an observer-created reality! Such absurd ideas coming from great physicists create a golden opportunity for mystics to dress their equally absurd ideas with scientific attire. The word “quantum” has been so trivialized that now you can find books on quantum angel healingquantum touch therapyquantum alternative to growing old, quantum weight loss approach, and dozen other such titles. But the leader of the pack is the book by Deepak Chopra, an expert in mind-body medicine.

Quantum Healing begins with a sentimental report on one of Chopra’s cancer patients, who had been treated by conventional medicine for breast cancer with little results. When she turned to Chopra, he referred her to Ayurveda Health Center located in Lancaster, Massachusetts, where she was put on a treatment that included a certain Ayurvedic herb diet, yoga exercises, and Transcendental Meditation. (In the earlier printings, Chopra gives the name of the clinic as the Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center. However, Maharishi’s name is removed in the later printings!) He also advised her to follow the chemotherapy prescribed by her doctor. After a year of both treatments, she developed a fever, and had to be hospitalized. Surprisingly, a few days after her arrival in the hospital and being on antibiotics, her fever was gone … and so was her cancer. Her conventional doctor thought that chemotherapy was behind her cure. Chopra thought that his Ayurvedic treatment was the real cause of the disappearance of cancer, but he did not want to risk the life of the patient by advising her to quit the chemotherapy. She eventually died, and Chopra concludes that “she was the victim not of her cancer, but of her treatment.” He shows remorse for not giving her full Ayurvedic treatment but instead advising her to continue the chemotherapy.

Ayurveda  is a system of Indian traditional medicine evolving throughout South Asia during the span of about two millennia. The Sushruta Samhita and the Charaka Samhita are the two authoritative encyclopedias of medicine compiled from diverse sources from the mid-first millennium BCE to about 500 CE.  According to legend, the serpent-king Shesha, the recipient of Ayurveda, once visited the earth. As he wandered over the planet and found it full of sickness, he became heartbroken and determined to incarnate himself in the son of a Muni for alleviating disease. And part of the task with which Maharishi charged Chopra was to find a scientific explanation of how and why the serpent-king Shesha’s medicine works. He decides that the explanation ought to be microscopic. And since quantum theory is the theory of atoms and molecules, the explanation must be there!

Chopra claims that research on spontaneous remission of cancer in the US and Japan has shown that just before the appearance of the cure, “almost every patient experiences a dramatic shift in awareness. He knows that he will be healed, and he feels that the force responsible is inside himself but not limited to him – it extends beyond his personal boundaries, throughout all of nature.'”(p. 17) What kind of research can show that the force “extends throughout all of nature”? What measuring instrument does the researcher use to measure the entire nature? Did the researcher know which patients were going to be cured to measure all of this – which were all happening “just before the cure”? Chopra gives no references to the research; no details of what the “dramatic shift in awareness” is; no explanation of what exactly the “force” is. It is a pity that hundreds of thousands of adult US citizens – and by mindless emulation, the world – read books like Quantum Healing and shoot them up the scale in the New York Times’ best selling list, only to attract even more citizens to such nonsense. All this said, let’s see what the dramatic shift has to do with quantum healing anyway. The layman uses “quantum” to describe a “leap.” Chopra interprets the presumed shift in awareness of the patients as “apparently jump[ing] to a new level of consciousness. The word that comes to mind when a scientist thinks of such sudden changes is quantum. The word denotes a discrete jump from one level of functioning to a higher level – the quantum leap. Therefore, I would like to introduce the term quantum healing … .”(pp. 17-18) So, Chopra with an MD can call himself a scientist feel qualified to invent quantum healing. I hold a PhD in physics. Therefore,  I believe that I am as qualified – if not more so – to invent my own quantum disciplines. Are there any other occasions on which the word quantum may come to mind? Let’s see. Bursting into laughter is a jump in the volume of our voice. Therefore, I would like to introduce the term quantum laughing. Burping is a jump in the level of air released through the mouth. Therefore, I would like to introduce the term quantum burping. And what about that sudden release of gas accompanied by a loud noise that many times goes out of control and causes embarrassment? I would like to introduce the term quantum farting. … Is this how “scientific” explanations come about? Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – if he had any rational thinking in him –  must have been very disappointed in Chopra!

Chopra gets it wrong even in his motivation for choosing the word “quantum.” The jump that he identifies as a definition of quantum is actually to a lower level. This jump – which is explained in any introductory chemistry or physics book –  occurs in atoms, as a result of which they emit light, and it is well known and well established that the emission of light takes away some of the energy of an atom, causing it to end up at a lower level of energy. But Chopra doesn’t want the consciousness of his patients to jump to a lower level. So, he reverses nature’s usual direction of a quantum jump!

Since he has learned from scientific medicine that to understand medical and physiological phenomena one has to grasp what happens at the cellular and sub-cellular level, Chopra is looking for a microscopic explanation. So, he introduces the “junction point between mind and matter” and places it at a level “so deep that you cannot go any deeper.” It is at this “deeper core” of the mind-body system that healing begins. However, as in his alleged research in US and Japan, he doesn’t tell us what he means by “deep” and at what part of the patient’s body or mind (brain) should one measure the depth. If this core is the center of healing such incurable diseases as cancer, shouldn’t Chopra tell us, and the medical community, how to get there, in practice? When pseudoscience talks about location, it is deliberately imprecise, vague, metaphorical, and wishy-washy. A mind-body doctor tells his patient to go on a diet of herbs, fruits, vegetables, and practice yoga and “very deep” meditation to cure her cancer. If the treatment fails, the patient is advised to increase her concentration in her practice of yoga and to meditate “deeper.” And if the patient asks, “How do I know if I have reached the desired depth of meditation?”, the reply will usually be an answer-dodging statement like “You‘ll know!” The procedure and the doctor are never questioned. After all, how can a procedure that has survived hundreds of years be wrong? And how can a doctor, who follows the “book” word for word, be wrong? So, it is the patient who is not mediating “deep” enough! On the other hand, if the cancer remits (and there is always a chance – an unpredictable  probability – for remission), the patient becomes a priceless testimony for the “miracle of the mind-body medicine” and an instrument for attracting new patients and wealth!

Molecular neuro-biologists have in the past few decades begun to investigate the physical and chemical processes through which thought and memory are formed. They have found that impulses are passed from one neuron (a brain cell) to the neighboring neuron by the exchange of chemicals called neurotransmitters. And there is a long way between understanding these impulses and extending that understanding to the explanation of feelings, emotions, and thoughts. To Chopra this lack of knowledge is a great opportunity to embark on his ungrateful antipathy to science:

I see too many flaws in the argument that a deeper knowledge of body chemistry is all we need – the body has too many chemicals (literally thousands of them), they are produced in bewilderingly complex patterns, and they come and go too fast, often in fractions of a second. What controls this constant flux? We cannot leave the mind out of the mind-body connection altogether. To say that the body heals itself using only chemicals is like saying that a car shifts gears using only the transmission. Clearly it takes a driver who knows what he is doing.(p. 36)

What Chopra identifies as a “flaw” is, in reality, the very essence of the scientific method! It is precisely because there are thousands of chemicals produced in complex patterns moving in fractions of a second that science picks a part of this complex system and focuses on that part. To appreciate the fault in the attribution of “too many flaws” to the scientific method, let us consider the solar system, and see how the quote above applies to that system:

I see too many flaws in the argument that a deeper knowledge of gravity is all we need to understand the solar system – the system has too many planets, moons, and asteroids (literally thousands of them), they are moving in bewilderingly complex patterns, and they come and go too fast. What controls this constant flux? We cannot leave the mind of the solar system out of the mind-body connection altogether. To say that the system moves only under the influence of gravity is like saying that a car shifts gears using only the transmission. Clearly it takes a driver who knows what he is doing.

In order to discover gravity, Newton had to focus on a very small part of this huge system: the earth, the moon, and an apple! He would never, ever have discovered the law of gravity had he insisted on looking at the entire complex system at the same time. And it is safe to say that if we insist on looking at the entire “bewilderingly complex patterns,” without first isolating parts of it and focusing on those parts, in other words, if we insist on studying our body based on the recommendation of mind-body physicians, we will never understand either our body or our mind.

As for the mind-driver analogy, it is obvious what Chopra is driving at (yes, pun!): there has to be a mind to drive the body. But does a car really need a driver? Google announced in October 2010 that it had been building robotic cars that had been driving themselves around California – down curvy Lombard Street in San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge, along the Pacific Coast Highway, around Lake Tahoe and from Google’s Mountain View headquarters to Santa Monica (a 350-mile trip), … over 140,000 miles in total! On May 7, 2012, Google received the first license from the state of Nevada to test its driverless vehicles in cities across the state. And in the not-so-distant future, we will see driverless cars on every street and highway. So Chopra’s “driver” is not needed for driving the body! [To be continued …]

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