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Book Review: Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion

Science delusion

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.

Comments

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*Excellent* review, Robert!

I listened to Rupert's interview on BBC Radio 3 the other day in which he talked about this book. As always, he was simply fascinating. But I can't help wondering whether this new 'gloves-off' approach is really his style, and whether it will only engage him more directly with the 'Dawkins' mindset and their below-the-belt, street-fighter, modus operandi.

Anyway, good luck Rupert, we're all batting your corner!

Robert, thank you very much for this review. I will definitely order the book.

I must admit to a small amount of discomfort, specifically with his theory of morphic resonance as what actually guides the growth of developing organisms. That is what he claims, isn't it? I find the existence of morphogenetic fields to be perfectly natural. My problem is that I just can't imagine that sort of field exerting a strong and reliable enough influence to actually be responsible for the way organisms develop. I find it more natural to imagine that, in fact, the genes are doing that guiding. And haven't they started confirming this, with the discovery of switching genes?

I admit to knowing very little about Sheldrake's theory and about biology and genetics. My comments may have amply showed that already! The upside is that I am very teachable and flexible on that level. My discomfort, then, is not a final conclusion. I'm happy to be set straight.

'can't help wondering whether this new 'gloves-off' approach is really his style...'

Good point, but he's always been quite outspoken, so I don't necessarily see a big change there. He's also had a lot of experience dealing with sceptics, and can be quite combatative when the need arises. I don't suppose he'll pay much attention to the snarky types.

'I just can't imagine that sort of field exerting a strong and reliable enough influence to actually be responsible for the way organisms develop'

Robert, the detail about Sheldrake's theory is in A New Science of Life, along with the evidence for it. Well worth a look.

I don't think we should let ourselves be restricted by what we can or can't imagination. Gravitational fields pretty much hold the universe together, so no lack of power there!

"'can't help wondering whether this new 'gloves-off' approach is really his style...'

Good point, but he's always been quite outspoken, so I don't necessarily see a big change there. He's also had a lot of experience dealing with sceptics, and can be quite combatative when the need arises."

I wasn't for one moment suggesting that Rupert is in any way weak, Robert. I just wonder (in accordance with Selye's model) how much energy he - and sincere people like him - should waste on this kind of combat.


Hi --
Just got a copy of the book, and i'm looking forward to reading it. A think that Rupert makes a range of important observations, but I do have some serious theoretical issues with his morphic fields theory. These are exposed in an essay by Stephen Braude, entitled 'Radical Provincialism in the life sciences,' which is on this page;
http://userpages.umbc.edu/~braude/articles.htm
I agree with Braude that these difficulties are probably fatal to Sheldrake's theory in its current form, and probably explains the poor replicability of alleged effects in behavioural experiments. On the other hand, it maybe that a more coherent re-formulation is possible, and I agree with a lot of the more general points Sheldrake makes.

"He's also had a lot of experience dealing with sceptics, and can be quite combatative when the need arises."
Right now, I believe that we need more assertive spokespeople. No one is suggesting fisticuffs, but standing up with a confident, witty and forceful response to pseudo-scepticism is the only way to start turning the tide of the discussion. It gets the fence-sitters' attention, and the confidence can be contagious.

"I don't think we should let ourselves be restricted by what we can or can't imagine."
I agree. Whether Rupert's morphogenetic fields idea is right or wrong, the reductionist/materialist standard model isn't working. New intellectual life spawned by open minds is desperately needed right now.

Great post! The more books like this that come out, the more people might start to look into and consider ideas like these and the reality of psychic phenomenon. What would be helpful would be a good spokesperson, does anyone know if George Clooney's busy?

I just ordered the book. I agree with Braude, though(and Matt Colborn),that there are serious flaws in Sheldrakes morphic field theory. It has always seemed to me to be a theory of psi, clothed in materialistic terminology, to make it sound "scientific". Still I believe he is on to something, and would love to see how it could be somehow married to, or informed by, for example the buddhist madyamika theory of interdependent co-origination.

Matt re your remarks on Braude's criticisms of Sheldrake's morphic resonance hypothesis/theory. I am familiar with it. Certainly it is the most intelligent and thoughtful criticism of Sheldrake's work here, and not from a pseudoskeptic neither, but a heavyweight philosopher, writer and researcher on psi. However it is easy to misunderstand Braude's critique.

The amusing irony here is that Braude is criticizing Sheldrake for not going far enough. Morphic resonance is not radical enough, well not for Braude! It's not morphic resonance that Braude is dismissive of per se, not at all. It's more to do with the explanatory reach and power of morphic fields, as Sheldrake describes them. To Braude morphic fields are a step in the right direction in explaining the nature of nature, yet to Braude - if I am understanding him right - Sheldrake conflates frequency of physical changes and behaviour as the case may be via the hypothesized morphic fields with the origin and *explanation* of physical change, modifications and behaviour itself. They are not the same thing, yet Sheldrake - according to Braude - tends to muddle them together.

An example - the rapid and widespread adoption of the new behaviour of blue tits in Engand in tearing off the tops of milk bottle caps and drinking the cream off the top has been postulated as being accounted for by morphic fields. To Braude the morphic fields (of blue tit behaviour or whatever else) may account for the frequency of the change, the rapid adoption of the behaviour, but not the behaviour itself. The difference is subtle, yet crucial.

This subtle difference is more obviously seen with human behaviour given the complexity and mystery of human consciousness. Morphic fields may be part of the mystery in accounting for the rapid adoption of new skills and aptitudes in human societies and the frequency of this adoption. Morphic fields do not and cannot account for the cognitive factors necessary for the development of these skills per se. This is not splitting hairs. These are crucial differences.

The irony of Braude's critique is that the mysteries and conundrums of nature and the evolution of life go even further than non-local morphic fields and their putative properties. To Braude, Sheldrake overreaches. This is why Braude's critique is ignored by materialists who dismiss morphic resonance on materialist and reductionist grounds. It isn't what they want to hear.

I cannot do justice to this complex and difficult topic in a comment to a blog, so this will have to do. In closing Braude's criticisms recognize that the mysteries of nature, its evolution and adaptations go further than even enthusiastic supporters of Sheldrake's morphic fields realize!

Go figure, The Science Delusion isn't available in the U.S., although a "used" copy was available briefly for $34.00. It sold overnight. Amazon's Whispernet doesn't convert USD to British Pounds, so downloading to my Kindle isn't an option.
The good news is that all of Sheldrake's other books are available in the U.S., so I guess it's just a matter of time.

*Sigh* - I'm waiting. (RabbitDawg tail thumping impatiently)

Oh, and I doubt it's available in the rest of Europe as well, but with the Euro being like it is lately... :-)

RabbitDawg, if you check with Sheldrake's website, you will see it's being published stateside in May by Random House under the title Science Set Free.

"Go figure, The Science Delusion isn't available in the U.S., although a "used" copy was available briefly for $34.00."

Hey, Rabbitdawg. I just ordered my copy from Amazon UK. Including delivery, it comes to about $33 for a new hardback. So if you were ready to plunk down $34 for a used one, this may be the way to go.

Correction: 31.15 was the total cost.

Thanx Bruce - BTW, good to see ya! (so to speak)
Right now I'm catching up on Christmas gift reading, although I would grab this immediately if it were available over here.
I see that Chris Carter, Nancy Evans-Bush and Dr. Eben Alexander are coming out with books at about the same time that The Science Delusion will be available. I'll follow Lawrence's advice 'n get it then.

In the rumour mill, there's talk about some guy named McLuhan who may be popping something out soon after that, as well... :-)
Plus, I think the AWARE Study should be posting preliminary results sometime in the Spring. It's shaping up to be a good year for continuation of consciousness fans.

"Right now I'm catching up on Christmas gift reading, although I would grab this immediately if it were available over here."

It IS available here--that's what I was trying to tell you. I live in the States, like you. I thought you knew that. Do I really write with an English accent? I'm flattered. :o)

I'm looking forward to the Eben Alexander book, in particular. I just love it when scientists get "converted".

It just dawned on me that you said Robert is coming out with a book this year. That's good news!

What's it about, Robert?

Thanks for the interest but alas no, it's still in the very early stages, and won't be done until the end of the year, at the soonest. It will be a fuller consideration of some of the points I wrote about in the last chapter of Randi's Prize, ie. the clash of worldviews, psi in the wider context of secular society, etc.

What I plan to do in the meantime is make some of early primary sources available as free e-books (Kindle and perhaps also iPad). My hunch is that if these are better known it might raise the level of debate.

I've got a collection of poltergeist narratives ready to put out, and if that goes OK will get on with a bunch of other stuff: the Leonora Piper research, Charles Richet, etc.

Bruce said:
"Do I really write with an English accent? I'm flattered. :o)"
I respond:
No Bruce, when I come over here, I read in a British accent. :-)

Which is my opening for...A European joke! -

In Heaven, the cops are British, the cooks are French, the engineers are German, the lovers are Italian, and it’s all organized by the Swiss.
In Hell, the cops are German, the cooks are British, the engineers are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it’s all organized by the Italians.

I thought you kids would like it. :D

LOL! You tell it well, Rabbitdawg. Interestingly, I first heard that joke in the 70's, believe it or not, with all the same specifics. Which just goes to show how indelible these national traits are.

All of which reminds me of what some spiritually-oriented writer said. (Can't remember who.) He made the point that just as each person is a facet of God, and each embodies a specific strength better than anyone else, the same is true of the various races or nationalities of man.


I like English food :)

Paul, it's good old hearty stuff isn't it? It's a shame most of it is meat based.

I take it ur a veggie David? :)
Actually a lot of it would be equally ok with soya based stuff.
I love cauliflower cheese and chips but that's probably not specific to England lol

Hi Lawrence -- thanks for your instructive comments on Braude's critique. I've been discussing it with Rupert and he has actually corresponded with Braude on it a while back. I also think that alot depends upon the notion of similarity, and whether one can call a given similarity in the world a natural kind or whether it's just in the eye of the observer. My suggestion: in view of Braude's critique it would be better to look for resonance effects between simple systems or patterns (e.g. newly formed compounds) than do behavioural experiments, where these issues complicate matters most significantly.

"Wolfgang Pauli was believed by his colleagues - and by himself - to unwittingly interfere with sensitive lab equipment by his mere presence"

This is well known to be an inside joke between theoretical and experimental physicists. The idea being you can measure which side a physicist is by how badly they do in experimental situations. The joke was that Pauli was so theoretical that he "destroyed" experiments if he was near them.

It was a joke and if this is an example of Sheldrake's research then I guess the rest of the book is made up of strawmen and anecdotes as facts.

It's a little late to be commenting in this post, as a new one is up already, but...
"The joke was that Pauli was so theoretical that he "destroyed" experiments if he was near them."
Ian, it sounds like a Physicist's way of trying to rationalize and cope with a paranormal effect.

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