Spiritual, scientific writers engage in ‘War of Worldviews’

Robert Starr

Fairness isn’t always fair, but sometimes it can be interesting. “War of the Worldviews” pits two writers against each other, each with a different idea of what reality means and how to investigate it. On the side of spirituality, we have Deepak Chopra, author or co-author of more than 65 books, and on the side of materialistic science, there’s Leonard Mlodinow, a mathematical physicist who’s worked with Stephen Hawking, among others.

The book offers them various topics, such as “What is the nature of time?” and allows one of the authors to spend a chapter offering his position on the topic while the other author is given the following chapter to offer his position and rebuttal. The structure works well, and at least as far as presentation is concerned, neither Chopra nor Mlodinow is given an unfair advantage.

The major problem with the book, however, and what gives Mlodinow’s opinion more credence, is that he represents the specific views of a large body of people — in other words, while scientific knowledge constantly changes and heated debates occur within the community, the overall worldview is fairly consistent compared to that of all of the people who fall under the “spiritual” umbrella.

Chopra has a specific idea of what spirituality is to him (though it’s never clearly defined on the page), and takes stances that many other spiritualists will dismiss as being silly and not accurately representing their beliefs. So even if one comes away from the booking thinking that Mlodinow successfully defended the scientific worldview against Chopra’s spiritualism, it says nothing about how it would fare against the beliefs of the guy down the street.

Chopra also has difficulty with clearly defining what he’s talking about in general. He dismisses formal religion and embraces spirituality but never explains how they differ. In addition, he redefines words on the fly to mean whatever he feels like they should, often saying things that sound more like poetry than a consistent belief system.

There’s certainly a place for poetry in life, but in science, as well as formal debates, we assign a specific meaning to the word “alive” to distinguish certain things from others. There may be some gray area when considering things like viruses, but there’s no argument that a grazing deer is alive, while the rock beside it is not. At one point in “War of the Worldviews,” Chopra argues that not only is a rock alive but so is everything else in the universe as well as the universe itself. If you’re going to let a word mean something so broad that it literally describes everything, then there’s not much point using it in the first place.

As such, Chopra’s position is unclear and often full of hand waving, distorting scientific theories to mean things that their authors couldn’t possibly have meant. His inability to commit to anything other than vague assertions (such as the consciousness of the universe) makes Mlodinow’s defense all the more admirable. Firing a gun at a bullseye can be tricky enough without the target fluttering in the wind.

However, one who subscribes to Chopra’s beliefs, whatever they may be, will likely come away from this book with a completely different opinion, complaining about the scientific rigidity and closed-mindedness of Mlodinow. And that’s perhaps the most frustrating element of this book (as well as others like it): it’s unlikely to change the minds of anyone already set in his or her ways. And though it’d be nice to think that fence sitters may be swayed one way or another, the book asks big questions that demand outside research and contemplation, and 300 or so pages only scratch the surface.

Though not mentioned within the pages, the book itself suggests something of a philosophical thought experiment. Imagine every copy of this book is destroyed except for the table of contents, which is translated and sent to some alien civilization. How many of their answers would match Chopra’s and how many would match Mlodinow’s?

If scientists are on the right track, Mlodinow’s responses should be compatible with the aliens’ in chapters such as “What is the nature of time?” and “Is there design in the universe?” Other chapters likely offer too vague of questions to have a genuine scientific answer such as “What is the future of belief?” or “Is the universe evolving?” However, it seems unlikely that any of their answers would coincide with Chopra’s. Science isn’t just a collection of facts — it’s a process for investigating ideas. And Chopra never offers any way to test his claims. As a result, none of his ideas have even made it as far as the hypothesis stage.

“War of the Worldviews” is a frustrating book from the scientific point of view, but it’s not a boring one and does provide insight into the battle of ideas being fought in coffee shops across the nation. Though the book probably won’t win any converts to either side, it’s interesting and sometimes entertaining to read the two writers argue past each other.