War of the Worldviews: Science vs. Spirituality,

Deepak
Chopra
and
Leonard
Mlodinow
,
Harmony Books
, New York, 2011. $26.00 (336 pp.). ISBN 978-0-307-88688-0

Deepak Chopra, a bestselling author of books on spirituality and health, is regarded by many scientists as a guru of pseudoscience. Leonard Mlodinow is a physicist, a screenwriter, and the author of popular science books, including The Grand Design coauthored with Stephen Hawking (and reviewed in PHYSICS TODAY, January 2011, page 58). Now Chopra and Mlodinow have collaborated on War of the Worldviews: Science vs. Spirituality.

The book gives each author the chance to speak to a wider audience than either could attract on his own. Each author responds to his counterpart’s arguments and thereby forces the other to explain clearly to the reader what he thinks. That debate format engages the reader well: It allows the scientifically inclined skeptic to relax and read each Chopra chapter with an open mind, knowing that a critical analysis from Mlodinow will follow. The book will also expose some of Chopra’s supporters to orthodox interpretations of science.

War of the Worldviews covers cosmology, life and evolution, the mind and brain, and God. Throughout, Chopra advocates his own brand of spirituality, a worldview in which the universe is an evolving consciousness. He states that “to arrive at DNA, life on Earth, and the human mind, the universe was self-aware and could understand what it was doing.” He also suggests that by going deeply into your own awareness, you will find a special place where the consciousness of the universe will be “drawn to your side.” Mlodinow, the spokesman for science and a deflationary critic of Chopra’s work, does an expert job of responding to Chopra’s expansive claims with the scientific perspective. He points out that “to gain acceptance in science [an] idea must have testable implications, and this concept of universal consciousness doesn’t seem to.”

The book’s sensational title implies that the debate is a war. It also assumes that science is a worldview, a natural counterpoint to Chopra’s spirituality. But Chopra clearly loves science, and he even competes with Mlodinow to explain such issues as the history of the cosmos and the role of DNA. The issues underlying the Chopra–Mlodinow debate extend beyond science and into philosophy. Chopra emphasizes that his real disagreement is not with science per se. Rather, it is with “materialism,” by which he means physicalism, the philosophical assertion that physics provides not just a good description, but a full account of all that there is to the universe. Chopra goes beyond science in one direction, using it as a jumping-off point for his inspirational metaphysics. But, as Chopra points out, the materialism that lies in the opposite direction is also a form of metaphysics.

In some places Mlodinow counters Chopra’s speculations in a suitably non-metaphysical way. Concerning the soul, Mlodinow says that science does not claim to have disproved the existence of a soul, only that there is no credible evidence for it. However, in other places he seems to embrace physicalism, as when he says that “the universe evolved through physical law, and has no guiding purpose,” and that “understanding my essence” means “to think of myself as a biological machine governed by the same laws that govern Pluto.”

Those unguarded overstatements, made on behalf of science, feed the misconceptions of those who, like Chopra, have the impression that science is a vendor of deep metaphysical claims, to be competed with or perhaps co-opted. I’m sure Mlodinow knows that science does not measure the amount of purpose in the universe, and it does not answer questions about essences. As he demonstrated with his statements on the soul, a simple comment on the evidence is sufficient to make the essential scientific point.

The authors leave room for further debate, which is more philosophical than scientific. And that is where the question of worldviews really arises. Chopra’s spirituality is a variant of panpsychism, the proposition that “mind” is a fundamental aspect of the universe. This is a live issue in philosophy, with at least one reputable modern philosopher, Galen Strawson, arguing that our experience of consciousness is strong evidence for panpsychism (though not for Chopra’s specific version).

Should scientists, even those with little interest in esoteric ideas, read this book? We may disagree with many of Chopra’s conclusions or harbor doubts about whether science is a worldview. But the issues explored are basic ones that come up repeatedly in discussions of the importance of science in our understanding of the world. The presence of two perspectives, one of a scientific insider and the other of an outsider, gives depth to the explanations of the science; it also provides concrete examples of how scientific ideas are interpreted and sometimes misinterpreted by nonexperts.

For anyone who wants to speak effectively on behalf of science, War of the Worldviews is an engaging and useful resource.