In most surveys, nine out of ten Americans respond in the affirmative to the question “Do you believe in God?” The other 10 percent provide a variety of answers, including a favorite among skeptics and atheists: “Which god do you mean?” And then they offer a litany of classical and non-Western deities: Aphrodite, Amon Ra, Apollo, Baal, Brahma, Ganesha, Isis, Mithras, Osiris, Shiva, Thor, Vishnu, Wotan, and Zeus. “We’re all atheists of these gods,” the stock reply concludes, “but some of us go one god further.”
I have debated many theologians who make the traditional arguments for God’s existence: the cosmological argument (prime mover, first cause), the teleological argument (the order and design of the universe), the ontological argument (if it is logically possible for God to exist, then God exists), the anthropic argument (the fine-tuned characteristics of nature, making human life possible), the moral argument (awareness of right and wrong), and others. These are all reasons to believe in God only if you already believe. If you do not already believe, these arguments ring hollow, having been refuted over the ages by philosophers from David Hume to Daniel Dennett.
This past spring, however, I participated in a debate with a theologian of a different stripe, the New Age spiritualist Deepak Chopra. His arguments for the existence of a deity take a radically new tack. During our exchange, which was taped by ABC’s Nightline and viewed by millions, Chopra set out a series of scientific-sounding arguments for the existence of a divine quantum force capable of nonlocal “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein famously described quantum entanglement. Call this new theology God 2.0.
Chopra provided a preview of these arguments in his 2006 book Life After Death. Consider this passage:
The mind is like an electron cloud surrounding the nucleus of an atom. Until an observer appears, electrons have no physical identity in the world; there is only the amorphous cloud. In the same way, imagine that there is a cloud of possibilities open to the brain at every moment (consisting of words, memories, ideas, and images I could choose from). When the mind gives a signal, one of these possibilities coalesces from the cloud and becomes a thought in the brain, just as an energy wave collapses into an electron. …
Chopra believes that the weirdness of the quantum world (such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) can be linked to certain mysteries of the macro world (such as consciousness). This supposition is based on the work of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, whose theory of quantum consciousness has generated much heat but little light in scientific circles.
Inside our neurons are tiny hollow microtubules that act like structural scaffolding. Penrose and Hameroff conjecture that something inside the microtubules may initiate a wave-function collapse that leads to the quantum coherence of atoms, causing neurotransmitters to be released into the synapses between neurons. This, in turn, triggers the neurons to fire in a uniform pattern, thereby creating thought and consciousness. Since a wave-function collapse can only come about when an atom is “observed” (that is, affected in any way by something else), “mind” may be the observer in a recursive loop from atoms to molecules to neurons to thought to consciousness to mind to atoms to molecules to neurons . . . and so on.
Shermer discredits this idea as does Murray Gell-Mann:
Chopra’s use and abuse of quantum physics is what the Caltech quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann calls “quantum flapdoodle,” which consists of stringing together a series of terms and phrases from quantum physics and asserting that they explain something in our daily experience. But the world of subatomic particles has no correspondence with the world of Newtonian mechanics. They are two different physical systems at two different scales, and they are described by two different types of mathematics. …
It seems our desire to be immortal leads many to speculate that the brain is not responsible, by itself, for our experience of consciousness.