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Deepak Chopra has been an advocate for spirituality and alternative health for decades. In the new book You Are the Universe, Chopra and physicist Menas C. Kafatos argue that humanity and the cosmos are intimately connected — and may not be separate at all. In this interview, Chopra and Kafatos talk about what such a thing might mean for all of us.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: You describe a 1930 meeting between physicist Albert Einstein and poet Rabindranath Tagore. How did you learn about this, and why did you choose to include it in the book?
CHOPRA and KAFATOS: The encounter made worldwide news at the time, with reporters literally perched on the doorstep to get news of what Einstein and Tagore said to each other. In India, where Tagore is revered, this incident is still remembered. We make this the starting point of our book for two reasons. First, Tagore uses the phrase “the human universe,” which is the central thesis of the book. Second, Tagore confronted Einstein with the possibility of a hidden reality, and unknown to most people, Einstein was quite intrigued by this alternative to quantum physics.
PRH: What exactly is a participatory universe? There are those who believe that the universe is indifferent to human life; that we have no special role to play in it. How do you respond?
CaK: The term “participatory universe” was coined by a great American physicist, John Archibald Wheeler, for a simple reason. He said that science acts as if we are children with our noses pressed against a bakeshop window. The universe is “out there,” separated from the observer by a wall fixed between objective facts and our inner, subjective life. Wheeler countered by saying that we in fact participate in reality — in fact, the only things we can call real are the things we experience. Therefore, consciousness must be part of every observer’s role. This gets into technicalities, but everyone can understand the metaphor of children with their noses pressed against a window as an unsatisfactory experience of reality.
As for the universe being indifferent to human beings, which we know is standard fare among many scientists, there’s a huge problem with that view. The universe is simply too perfectly organized as a home for human beings — and life in general — for randomness to be the best explanation.
PRH: How does one explain consciousness? Is there an alternative to the idea of it being the result of organic and entirely mechanistic interactions within the human body?
CaK: All attempts to explain consciousness have failed, because it’s too intrinsic to our everyday experience. You can’t explain the wetness of water. Wetness comes with water, and that’s that. Likewise, consciousness comes with being human. The assumption that physical processes somehow pile up to produce consciousness is quite far-fetched once you look closer. The brain is made of the same basic chemicals (such as hydrogen, carbon, water, sugar) as the rest of the body. It’s unlikely that these chemicals, once they enter the brain, somehow learn to think. But that’s the very assumption that the physical explanation of consciousness depends upon, a very weak and unproven assumption.
PRH: In a participatory universe, how do I know that other people actually exist? Further, how do I know that they’re conscious in the same way that I am?
CaK: This has always been considered a tricky question among philosophers, and it’s been updated to somehow “prove” that being conscious is just an illusion of brain chemistry. In our view, there is no trick and no problem. If consciousness is primary in nature, it levels the playing field. We can find varieties of consciousness everywhere. The only reason this isn’t common knowledge is that humans like to feel special, believing that unless there are words and thoughts (preferably in English!), consciousness doesn’t exist. In our book, we go to great lengths to explode this prejudice.
PRH: In a matter-based, impersonal universe, human suffering is a matter of chance: If I get hit by a car and die, then it’s just how things go sometimes. How is the question of human pain and suffering addressed in the participatory model you describe? Should this change the way that we practice medicine?
CaK: Deepak has spent thirty years describing how medicine radically changes once the mind-body connection is taken into account, and there’s now a huge amount of medical evidence to support this view. Our book addresses randomness as the denial of consciousness. When that mistake is corrected, human pain and suffering becomes a different question. It involves how much of life we can control and create, as opposed to how much of life is subject to other forces “out there.” The important thing isn’t to give a pat answer about pain and suffering but to place consciousness where it belongs, at the very heart of human potential. Then and only then can we meaningfully talk about pain and suffering. Otherwise, all the talk is conjecture, as it has to be until humans know who they really are.
PRH: If the world accepted the idea of a participatory universe, what kinds of implications would that hold for relations between nations? Would we still go to war?
CaK: War is an extension of violence and ignorance. It ultimately comes down to human nature. If you feel that human nature must have a dark side and always will, then there is no solution to ignorance, violence, and war. Our book, by defining the universe as human, radically expands what it means to be human. This would actually be a huge shift in our identity, both as individuals and as nations. Just as Cro-Magnon man had a sense of self that is far removed from the modern technological age, our current self-conception is just a way station. The human self continues to evolve, and as it does, this thing called human nature doesn’t turn out to be so fixed and destined for disaster.
PRH: Do you believe that these ideas will gain a stronger hold in the future?
CaK: Absolutely. What gives us confidence is Tagore’s remark to Einstein that the human universe “must” be true, just as water must be wet. He wasn’t being arrogant. Instead, the proposition is a simple either/or. Either the universe is a conscious activity in which we play a central role, or it isn’t. As for what the future will bring, our book doesn’t make predictions. We only ask that the blinders be taken off so that readers can judge for themselves what kind of reality they actually are living in.
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