Friday, February 16, 2007

Deepak Chopra is no Ernst Mayr

I've never been a Deepak Chopra fan, but I always thought that was because New Age-y stuff tends to annoy me in general. I wouldn't have said that Chopra was stupid, or a fool, though. But that was before I read this:

Recently quite a few stories have appeared in the media touting new explanations for such diverse things as altruism, generosity, and music. These complex matters, we are told, can be traced to the brain, which is dependent upon genes, and genes in turn dependent upon evolutionary biology. Thus one reads articles with headlines like "Are You a Giving Person?

Your Brain Tells Why" and "Music on the Brain: Why We Are Hard-Wired to Rock." There's a great air of confidence in these stories, generated by new developments in the related sciences being covered. What's left untold is how atrophied the opposite worldview is becoming. Explaining why someone is a giving person used to come down to culture, human values, religion, and philosophy.

As someone who cherishes that endangered worldview, but who at the same time wants to see valid scientific progress, let me take one issue, the claim of evolutionary biology to explain something as complex as generosity, altruism, or music. Such claims are thoroughly bogus. They do not invalidate the whole field of evolutionary biology. They simply step over the boundary of believable explanations.

What evolutionary biology and genetics cannot deal with is the philosophical order of explanation. You cannot obtain a true answer to any question unless you know the proper category of explanation. Let's say a stray cat comes to my door, and my wife asks me what it wants. If I say "world peace," my order of explanation is skewed. That seems simple enough. Now let's say that a man loses his job, becomes depressed, and wants a prescription for Prozac. What made him depressed isn't the imbalance of serotonin in his brain but the loss of his job. Yet science continues to offer this kind of wrong explanation all the time. It mistakes agency for cause. The brain is serving as the agent of the mind, it isn't causing mind. The primordial soup served as the agent for creating life, it didn't cause life.

This is as far as I got. As Carly Simon wrote in a different context, "I couldn't stand to hear this anymore." Tristero is disgusted, too, and he writes exactly what I would have written, so I'm going to give the microphone to him:

This is woo-woo hoo-hah. ...
Where to start? Chopra confuses anger, sadness, and possibly guiilt with what is clearly a medical condition. Or he confuses the colloquial use of the word "depressed" with the medical term "depressed." Either way, he fails to recognize that there is a difference between the state of serious depression - which requires clinical treatment and shouldn't rule out medication - and the complex of emotions felt normally when one loses a job - which doesn't rise to the level of clinical seriousness. Those of us who either know someone who has clinical depression or who have personally suffered depression - perhaps most of us fall into one or other, if not both, categories - know that the depth of major depression and its very real dangers goes far beyond a mere reaction to the vicissitudes of life. In regulating emotion during depression, clearly the brain is badly misfiring, and that misfiring is indeed the cause of the disorder, among other causes.

I am one of those who falls into both categories (have suffered from depression; know others who have suffered from depression), and I can tell you one thing for sure: Anyone who has this shallow an understanding of what clinical depression is, almost certainly has never had more than a passing acquaintance with any person suffering from depression -- and certainly has never experienced it himself.


Joan said...

Hey Kathy!

Geez, just when we were all in the spirit of agreeing with one another, you put out this one! LOL! First of all I have to tell you I am not a new age person either and I am not a Chopra fan. But he did not say what you attributed to him. There is indeed a difference between one who has an illness called depression and someone who is depressed because of a specific unpleasant incident, such as the loss of a job.

Chopra is not saying they are they same. He is merely addressing the case of someone who fits into the latter category. He seems to be saying that a scientist or doctor usually deals with a patients' problem from the point of view of the specialty of the doctor. So a person who is depressed because they lost their job is no longer depressed because of a serious life event that happened to them. It has become a pathology. The person now has a seratonin problem. The doctor then deals with the seratonin problem rather than the obvious issue which is the loss of the job which has made the patient depressed. Chopra does not talk about people with a life long clinical depression, in this piece. I read the original from the link you gave. I guess you owe the guy an apology.

Take Care

Kathy said...


I do not owe Deepak Chopra an apology. But if you can find a place in Chopra's post where he says that he is talking about normal sadness in response to an event that is part of the expected ups and downs of life; and that he is not conflating that kind of sadness, which some people colloquially refer to as "being depressed," with clinical depression, which is a recognized medical condition with biological roots, among others; then I will post a correction.

Joan, I will also tell you that the major reason we disagree so much is not that your beliefs are so different from mine; it's rather that you are very literal-minded, and truly believe, taking this instance as an example, that because Deepak Chopra did not state in so many words, "There is no such thing as clinical depression which is a medical condition caused, among other things, by chemical imbalances in the brain," that he was not saying that at all. The fact that he uses the example of a person "depressed" because he lost a job, to argue that depression is not caused by chemical imbalance, but rather by distressing life events, and does not say anything to indicate there is any other condition to which people refer when they use the term "depression," does not convey to you that Chopra is ignoring the reality of clinical depression as a medical condition. Rather, Chopra is "merely addressing the case of someone who fits into" the case of someone who has the blues because he lost a job.

You were being just as literal-minded when you initially objected to my post about women in Iraq searching among body parts while members of Congress dither about nonbinding resolutions. Because I did not state, outright, that Congress is doing nothing to change the horror in Iraq and because I did not state outright, "I am writing this post so other people can see and maybe be persuaded to take truly meaningful action that will end the suffering we see in Iraq, instead of dithering about nonbinding resolutions," you failed to see that I was saying exactly that by implication. "Show, don't tell" is not a concept your mind can grasp.

Joan said...

Hey kathy!

Call me "literal minded" if you like, but that gives me the up side of not attributing thoughts, feelings and hidden agendas to the words of others. Look at the overall topic of Chopra's piece. He is talking about single mindedness in specialists, not depression. He also uses an example of a drunk driver. But that does not mean his piece is about drunk drivers and the myriad of reasons why people drink, why people drink and drive and so on. He also does not say that he is against drunk driving, but we cannot assume he is in favour of it just because he neglects to mention it. And in this case there would be no point in mentioning it because the pros and cons of drunk driving is not the point of that example.

If he digressed to say "and by the way I am not saying there is not an illness called depresseion, but just that in this case, the guy is bummed because he lost his job" that would be completely irrelevant to his point and put him on a tangent.

The subject matter of an essay guides a person to what the purpose of an example used in the essay is. I really think you off the beaten path on this one.

With repsect to your second example, you must admit you have conflicting ideas about Democrats in gov't. When they were first elected you called it "democracy at work" or something like that. My point is Democrat or Republican, both parties are of the same mind when it comes to protecting corporate interests in the middle east. Therefore both parties of are one mind when it comes to this war, women searching for body parts be damned.

You have said that people who refuse to vote Democrat because the Democrat party is too much like the Republicans are "self indulgent". You have said Ralph Nader who truly does try to change things is self indulgent.

This current dithering of the Democratic controlled legislature is a prime example of how these people are not going rock the boat when it comes to protecting American business interests in the Middle East.

Literal minded, I truly may be. But I think I like it. Show, don't tell leads to too many different interpretations. I would make a lousy conspiracy nut.

Take Care

Kathy said...


The flaw in your argument (one of them) is that Deepak Chopra is responding to the argument that a major cause of depression is chemical imbalance. If he were not responding to that argument, what would be the point in even bringing up the issue of serotonin as a cause of depression? Why would he even mention it?

The only problem here is that there actually, in reality, IS no one who claims that situational depression (having the blues because you were fired, or lost your girlfriend, or whatever) is caused by or linked to chemical imbalance. No one argues that. By definition, the idea that depression is caused, in part, by chemical imbalance refers to major, clinical, depression.

By arguing that depression is caused by stressful life events and not chemical imbalance, and by using a scientific term for a specific medical condition, Chopra IS implying that sadness in response to a stressful life event IS the medical condition known as depression.

That is false. And the fact that he uses language in a sloppy way and does not acknowledge the actual scientific meaning of the word "depression" makes his argument dishonest and shallow.

Quite simply, you are wrong.

As to your reference to my "second example" of Democrats winning elections, I haven't a clue what you're talking about. There was no second example about Democrats in this post.

Kathy said...

One more thought:

The term for the kind of argument Deepak Chopra used in this post is 'strawman argument.' Chopra used a strawman argument to posit a position, or point of view, that no one actually stated or believes, and then tried to knock it down. But the belief he knocked down doesn't exist to begin with, so his entire argument is invalid.

Joan said...

Hey kathy!

Chopra is not much of a writer, I will grant you. But I still think you do not have enough evidence to attribute the position to him you have. First of all, people ARE often given prescriptions for drugs like Paxal and so on even though they have no histroy of clinical depression, and have come to the doctor after experiencing some kind of tragedy. Hence there is no straw man here. Many health professionals do not understand the difference between depression that occurs as a result of a bad experience and clinical depression. I once met a guy who was given prozac after his daughter died, even though he had no previous history of depression in his life.

The mere fact that Chopra raises the example of depression does not mean he is attacking the notion of clincal depression, at best you could question why he raised it, but you've made a huge leap.

With repsect to your second point, I think now you are being literal minded. I was speaking of comments you had made in other posts regarding Ralph Nader splitting the Democrat vote, and the post you printed ater the Democrats won back the House. You have been very clear that you think the Democrats are a better choice than the Republicans even though they have not shown themselves to be so. I still maintain if it is change you are looking for, you are barking up the wrong tree when you vote Democrat or Republican for that matter.

Take Care

Kathy said...

Joan, your position is just bizarre. Normally, I just stop the back and forth when I start to feel this way, but this time the lack of common sense is so astounding that I cannot let it go.

It's not I who needs to "present evidence" that Deepak Chopra conflates normal sadness with clinical depression; it's you who needs to present evidence that he *isn't* conflating the two. You are assuming that Chopra knows there is such a thing as clinical depression, which is not the same things as being sad after losing a job. You are presuming an understanding on Chopra's part that he does not give any sign or evidence of possessing. It is YOU, not I, who makes the huge leap.

"With repsect to your second point, I think now you are being literal minded. I was speaking of comments you had made in other posts ..."

My apologies then; it did not occur to me that "your second example" meant "other posts that you wrote in the past." You had been commenting on my Chopra post, and so I thought that when you said, "your second example," you were referring to an actual second example in the Chopra post. I didn't realize you were talking about "several other comments you made on a different topic in different posts."

Kathy said...

Oh, I forgot to respond to your interpretation of my position to which you referred in your comment about the "second example" I gave in posts I wrote in the past about Ralph Nader and the Democrats.

I do indeed think the Democrats are a better choice than the Republicans in the 2008 election. You are correct that the Democrats have not shown they will be better, but it does not follow that voting for the party that I know for a fact will continue the same policies is a better choice.

As for Ralph Nader, his policies would certainly be better than the Republicans, but here's the problem: No matter how wonderful, progressive, and forward-looking a candidate's positions are, it's not going to do us a bit of good if that candidate is unelectable under the U.S. electoral system. I'm not willing to vote for Nader knowing he will not and cannot win the election, simply to "make a statement." Plus, voting for Nader knowing for a fact he will not be elected is exactly the same as voting for the Republican candidate. So, that being the case, if I want to elect the Republican candidate, why wouldn't I just vote for the Republican candidate?