We're used to scientists telling us that the universe is inert matter, that we lack free will, and that our ideas, beliefs and goals are just 'folk psychology'. To voice dissent is to invite sharp correction or be denounced as a follower of pseudoscience. So for those of us who are suspicious of the claims of materialism it's astonishing, and also heartening, to hear a scientist agree that it's a hidebound ideology, dismiss the belief in determinism as a 'delusion' and call on the 'high priests' of science to abandon their 'fantasy of omniscience'.
All this sounds rather rhetorical, and the title of The Science Delusion seems to have been chosen as a counterblast to the Great Panjandrum of scientific orthodoxy himself. But Rupert Sheldrake is not Richard Dawkins, and this is as coloured as his language gets; the book certainly has little about religion. For the most part it's a dispassionate expose of materialism's failures and a plea for scientists to open up to new thinking. The sciences are being held back by 'assumptions that have hardened into dogmas, maintained by powerful taboos', he argues. Not only have the most fundamental questions not been answered for all time, they can all be replaced by more interesting and fruitful ones.
Provoking stuff, but despite his reputation as a heretic, gained from his controversial theory of morphic resonance and his psychic research, Sheldrake has impeccable credentials as a biochemist - Cambridge, Harvard, ground-breaking research and a stint in India helping to develop high-yield crops - that demand respect.
Sheldrake identifies ten core beliefs that scientists take for granted: that people and animals are complex mechanisms rather than goal-driven organisms; that matter is unconscious and human consciousness an illusion; that the laws of nature are fixed; that nature is purposeless; that all biological inheritance is carried via material structures like genes, and so on. Each is the basis of a chapter in which he draws attention to unresolved tensions, problems and dilemmas. Most scientists think these will eventually be ironed out. However Sheldrake argues they are symptoms of a deeper malaise, and that the failure of the materialist model to make good on its predictions will eventually lead to its demise.
A key idea for Sheldrake is the existence of information fields that act as a kind of universal memory. Once a form or activity has come into being it provides the blueprint for other similar effects, which may then multiply with ease. The classic example is the formation of crystals, for which Sheldrake has elsewhere provided evidence, but in principle he thinks it can apply to anything, from the development of new organisms to the acquisition of new skills.
This has implications for cosmology, he believes. Far from being set in stone since the Big Bang, nature's laws should be considered as evolving habits that grow stronger through repetition; the universe is an ongoing creative process, of which human creativity is part. He questions the belief in the absolute equivalence of energy and matter, arguing instead that new energy may be coming into the universe all the time. If that's so, then the idea of a perpetual motion machine - a guarantee of crackpot status to anyone bold enough to propose it - could indeed be possible. But how will we know if scientists lack the confidence to strike out in bold new directions?
Modern science claims to have vanquished vitalism - the idea of a living force and purposive vital factors in animals an plants - as long ago as the nineteenth century. In practice it has simply reinvented it in molecular guises, Sheldrake argues. Dawkins justifies his idea of the selfish gene as a metaphor, but other neo-Darwinists like Daniel Dennett appear to take it literally, as if genes have a conscious interest in their future state. In reality, Sheldrake insists, genes are not 'selfish and ruthless, as if they contained gangster homunculi'; there's no evidence that they do anything more than make proteins. They don't carry the instructions for the development of embryos, let alone the intensely goal-directed behaviour demonstrated, for instance, by the wasps who successfully build and repair complex nesting structures no matter what obstacles are put in their way.
The machine metaphors beloved of materialist thinkers are misleading, he insists. No machine starts from small beginnings, grows, forms new structures within itself and then reproduces itself. Yet plants and animals do this all the time and to many people - especially those like pet owners and gardeners who deal with them on a daily basis - it's 'blindingly obvious' that they are living organisms. For scientists to see them as machines propelled only by ordinary physics and chemistry is an act of faith. Sheldrake believes instead that the development of organisms, and animal behaviour, are controlled by 'attractors' in morphogenetic fields, that exert a causal influence and draw the organism towards its goal.
Sheldrake has a lot to say about the unfulfilled promises of molecular biology. For all the excitement over gene science in the past two decades, and the $100 billion biotechnology boom that it fuelled, only a very limited genetic basis has been discovered for human disease. Biologists are drowning in data but can't make much sense of it. The genes associated with development have turned out to be almost identical in mice, humans, flies and reptiles, offering no insights as to why these forms differ so dramatically. In short, he says, it's time to look elsewhere for the causes of biological formation.
On the subject of consciousness Sheldrake points out that even materialists can't decide what causes it, which is why there are so many rival theories. He quotes Galen Strawson, himself a materialist, who is scathing about the way fellow philosophers are willing to deny the reality of their own experience - testament to the power of the materialist faith. He approves Strawson's interest in panspychism, the doctrine that all matter is invested with mental as well as physical aspects. That same conclusion was reached nearly a century ago by the philosophers Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead, based on quantum mechanics: that matter is not timeless, and that all physical objects are entities or events that have an inner duration.
There is just one chapter on psychic research: this covers telepathy and precognition, with especial focus on animal telepathy and Sheldrake's own experiments with animals, also telephone telepathy. (The sense of being stared at is covered in a chapter on consciousness.) Sheldrake urges that science pay more attention to animal premonitions of disasters, and describes his 840-strong collection of anecdotal accounts of premonitions in humans, of which 70 per cent are about dangers, disasters or deaths. There is little on sceptics, apart from details of public encounters with two who dismissed his arguments while amply demonstrating they knew nothing about his research, and with Dawkins, who tried unsuccessfully to lure him into a debunking television interview. There follows also a chapter on mechanistic medicine, in which he acknowledges its record of success, but questions whether it is the only kind that works.
Materialists argue that their model has proved so durable, and so resistant to challenge, that there can no longer be any doubt that it is true. Sheldrake argues by contrast that the model is simply reinforcing itself by its expectations. Psychologists and medical researchers know only too well how experimenters' beliefs can influence outcomes. However this is not at all understood in the hard sciences, which as a result hardly at all use blind methods in their experiments. The assumption is that there is a 'correct' outcome, and if you don't get it you're not doing it properly. It would be easy enough to test for experimenter bias in a biochemical experiment on enzymes, for instance, Sheldrake says, but so far no one has taken him up on the idea. One British science teacher agreed that students are influenced by their expectations, but said that was 'what science education is all about' and he certainly wasn't going to open up that particular can of worms in his school.
If psychic phenomena is real, there is even the possibility that scientists can affect the outcomes of experiments psychically. Indeed the belief in mind over matter - so furiously denounced by professional sceptics - has been observed in the physics lab. Wolfgang Pauli was believed by his colleagues - and by himself - to unwittingly interfere with sensitive lab equipment by his mere presence. And remarkably, a biochemistry professor at a major US university even boasted to Sheldrake about his ability to get better results than his colleagues by 'willing' the system to work.
This is a superb and timely book and one for which in a way I have been waiting for the last twenty years. My own academic research has convinced me that psychic phenomena genuinely occur, and that the rejection of it is driven largely by ideology and personal antipathy. That being the case, it's hard to conceive that the materialist model is the whole story - for all its dramatic successes, which of course Sheldrake fully acknowledges. I can't judge how solid the case is for morphic resonance, but there seems to be at least some evidence for it and in theory it helps resolve some major dilemmas. Of course the book won't find favour with most scientists, who will brush it off as a persistence of discredited vitalism. But it may encourage some to be open about the more adventurous views that Sheldrake claims they often express to him in private.
Perhaps more to the point, there's a need for a book like this that's authoritative, wide ranging and accessible, and that challenges the prevailing paradigm for a wider audience. That applies especially to young people whose ideas have not yet been shaped by it, and their curiosity dulled as a result. The publishers were kind enough to send me two hardback copies - an error, no doubt, but I have put it to good use, giving the extra one to my eighteen-year old nephew, who is brimming with curiosity and questions about nature. I'd like to think that his generation have a greater opportunity to question the prevailing dogmas and will eventually forge a new science, one that describes more closely what humans observe and feel about their world.