June 24, 2013
I went to Rupert Sheldrake’s lecture about The Science Delusion at the SPR recently. I’ve read the book, and heard/read/seen various interviews, etc, so I’m familiar with the ideas. But it was worth hearing him speak in person. Considering his reputation as a heretic I’m struck by how relaxed and confident he seems. He’s not at all the ranting type; on the contrary, he comes across as reasonable and utterly convinced – with good reason, as he has so much actual evidence to back up his claims.
So it didn’t surprise me when he said that he talks to sceptics, and that they seem to be genuinely interested. There’s apparently a regular Sunday ‘service’ for atheists at Conway Hall in London. It sounds rather dull; obviously atheists don’t go in for dressing up and singing, so it’s just a sermon on the evils of superstition, and suchlike. When they billed a talk on telepathy and how it doesn’t really exist Sheldrake sneaked in and sat at the back. People in the audience started whispering and turning round, and eventually the speaker invited him up to make some remarks of his own. This sounds absurd – try imagining a bishop stepping down from the pulpit and asking Richard Dawkins to take his place - but Sheldrake says he got a receptive response. And indeed, once you start talking about actual experiences, and actual scientific research, why would anyone not be interested?
Earlier he’d been talking at the Hay-on-Wye book festival, debating with Nicolas Humphrey (ubersceptic psychologist) and Julian Baggini (atheist philosopher). He told us that he’d bumped into Daniel Dennett there, and took the opportunity to ask him whether he thought parapsychology was a pseudo-science. Of course it’s a pseudo-science, Dennett replied gruffly. However, pressed by Sheldrake, he declined to defend that assertion in a public debate – unsurprisingly, as I don’t think he knows much about it. Sheldrake now wants to put the same question to other sceptics, to get them to define their position. He says he has already asked Professor Chris French who, by contrast, thinks parapsychology is a genuine science.
After the talk at Hay-on-Wye he says he was buttonholed by Bronwen Maddox, the daughter of the late John Maddox – the editor of Nature who made him famous by denouncing his book on morphogenesis as ‘fit for burning’. The family were having guests round to their home nearby, to which Dennett had been invited, and they insisted he join them. Not altogether as one might expect, the Maddoxes were friendly and genuinely interested in his ideas. Bronwen’s brother Bruno remarked that Sheldrake had been a big name in their household when they were growing up – they were used to hearing him being discussed over breakfast.
That’s the thing about militant sceptics. When someone comes up with something they really really don’t like, what they ought to do is to keep quiet and let it pass. But they can’t help themselves – they get all excited and start shouting and gesticulating, so that the people they want to defend from such evil nonsense wake up and start to take an interest. Maddox did Sheldrake a big favour with his public rant. Now the same thing has happened with the TED controversy. Far from being downcast by his talk being bumped, Sheldrake was delighted with the result. Traffic to his website has soared, and all kinds of people have got in touch with him, never having heard of him before.
Oh those silly little skeptics...
Posted by: Robbie | June 24, 2013 at 08:53 PM
Silly indeed young Robbie. ;-)
Posted by: Michael Duggan | June 24, 2013 at 09:34 PM
I am enjoying The Science Delusion. I'm not qualified to judge the science but to me Rupert Sheldrake seems logical, rational and engaging. It's hard work in places but worth the effort.
I suspect some of the high-profile skeptics hold more moderate views in private.
Posted by: Paul | June 25, 2013 at 04:58 PM
I've done professional research in physics and amateur research in parapsychology and have read The Science Delusion so perhaps I can comment on some issues.
Sheldrake, in his banned TED talk, discussed his hypothesis that perhaps physical constants aren't really constant. The data he refers to are published in physics data books for all to see, for example, here:
I actually think Sheldrake's interpretation of the data is much less embarrassing to the scientific community than the mainstream one since the mainstream interpretation consists of data fudging and publication biases. I think the mainstream interpretation in this case is true but it just reveals how intense peer pressure can distort scientific results.
Which brings me to the next point that psi is definitely real but the psi taboo prevents general knowledge of this fact. Since career incentives heavily go against publication of positive psi effects, I think there is actually a reverse file drawer effect. I am sitting on unpublished significant positive psi data... and there are rumors of other who are, too. I'm still trying to decide how to get the data out there.
Energy conservation is a tricky issue. Of course, all experiments show it conserved in normal physical situations. However, cosmologists then put an asterisk on this with their concept of dark energy. Dark energy is not conserved. So, in fact, this particular dogma is already violated in mainstream science. I still don't know how psychokinesis relates to energy conservation so there may be another violation lurking there.
But I think Sheldrake's main thesis of dogmatic science is very valid. Intense competition for funds and positions combined with a bureaucratic funding structure has created a conservative environment hostile to radical ideas. I know of well-respected, well-published senior professors who can't get grants for ideas which are "too innovative". Additionally, "skeptical" groups act as dogma-enforcers.
I think ultimately taxpayers need to put pressure on the institutional science they fund in order to demand money be reallocated to what the public is interested in, like parapsychology, rather than to arcane topics just to pad the resumes of academics. If I asked Joe Taxpayer whether he wants to fund research into whether the afterlife exists or not or into the mating habits of banana slugs, what do you think he would say?
Posted by: Stephen | June 25, 2013 at 06:54 PM
Thanks Stephen your comments are very interesting - not to mention amusing :)
Although I definitely wouldn't describe myself as a scientist, I do have a science degree although it is in a mathematical discipline, so your input from the physics angle is interesting and I can understand the points you made.
The other impression I get is that scientific research can be very competitive and reputation-based. One has a lot to lose by embracing research in psi. I particularly liked Gary Schwarz's research as, IMHO, his scientific credentials are very strong and (unlike Lodge etc) he is still alive :)
The Dark Matter idea I find most interesting. As I read it, it brought to my (admittedly untutored) mind the old idea of an Aether, which until the mid 20th century seemed to have established itself. Any thoughts?
Posted by: Paul | June 25, 2013 at 07:44 PM
In standard cosmology there is both dark matter and dark energy, which are different phenomena. Dark matter is generally thought to be a particle which interacts only gravitationally or only gravitationally + weak nuclear with other matter. A leading candidate is the "WIMP" - weakly interacting massive particle. Currently cosmologists favor the particulate model of dark matter, though Earth-based experiments have not conclusively detected anything yet. For a while, many physicist thought dark matter would consist of one of the lightest supersymmetric particles but the non-discovery of supersymmetry at the LHC is putting a damper on these hopes.
Dark energy is much stranger. It permeates all space evenly, causing the acceleration of the expansion of the Universe. It is generally assumed to be due to vacuum energy (kind of like an aether, maybe?). However, the vacuum energy calculated from quantum field theory (VEV, i.e., "Vacuum Expectation Value") differs from the cosmological result by 120 orders of magnitude. Yikes. The joke among physicists is "at least it has the right sign...".
For both dark phenomena, empirical evidence exists but the theoretical nature of the phenomena remains guesswork. Just like psi, in fact. The fact that there is a psi taboo but no dark matter/energy taboo points to external, non-scientific factors being the source of the taboo.
Posted by: Stephen | June 25, 2013 at 08:38 PM
Posted by: Paul | June 25, 2013 at 08:50 PM
Stephen said:"The fact that there is a psi taboo but no dark matter/energy taboo points to external, non-scientific factors being the source of the taboo".
Would it be possible to give examples of those non-scientific factors?
Posted by: Llewellyn James | June 27, 2013 at 12:18 AM
As Stephen hasn't replied as yet I would venture to suggest that he may mean the following:
The existence of dark matter / dark energy carries no "spiritual" implications and hence is not a taboo subject amongst materialists.
The existence of psi, however - if shown to be valid - would imply that the mind operates beyond the brain. This poses all sorts of problems, because it might imply the existence of a "soul" or non-material aspect of the mind.
For materialists this is taboo.
I personally like the statement by Richard Conn Henry, Professor of Physics & Astronomy at Johns Hopkins, that after 40 years of teaching physics he realised he could no longer remain a materialist, for the simple reason that there is no material! (See his essay 'The Mental Universe' - published in 'Nature', no less - available online.) In Henry's view, the universe is entirely mental. This was also the opinion of his scientific hero Sir Arthur Eddington.
Professor Henry has said much the same as Stephen's comment - he said that quantum physics shows the universe to be wholly mental in character, (a Great Thought rather than a Great Machine, in Eddington's phrase) and that the failure of most scientists to accept this is a psychological problem, not a physics problem. In other words, "non-scientific factors" influence scientists' beliefs.
See also the books of scientist/philosopher Bernardo Kastrup for a similar explanation of our "dreamed-up reality".
Posted by: Rupert McWiseman | June 28, 2013 at 09:55 PM
"The existence of psi, however - if shown to be valid - ..."
has the existence of psi then not been proven ? or is validity a shorthand for political acceptance ?
Posted by: Billy Mavreas | June 28, 2013 at 10:38 PM
Sorry to not reply to you. I've been busy with job applications (I am at the postdoctoral level) and trying to fix my experimental setup (darn electrical noise!). Yes, Rupert McWiseman is right. Dogmatic materialists are the atheistic counterpart to young-Earth creationists. They simply close their eyes to data which go against cherished beliefs.
Posted by: Stephen | June 28, 2013 at 11:42 PM
The existence (or otherwise) of psi depends upon who you ask, how familiar they are with the published evidence, and whether or not they have a metaphysical agenda.
Thus, for example, "skeptic" Professor Richard Wiseman admits that by the standard of evidence acceptable to any other field of science, psi is proven.
Yet, he says, this is not good enough, and we have to invent a whole new standard of evidence - "extraordinary evidence" - with which to examine any phenomenon whose existence might threaten materialism.
"Extraordinary evidence" is, of course, not required by science at all. At no time in the history of science has the notion of "extraordinary evidence" ever been found to be necessary. But it IS required for the mental comfort of materialist scientists.
Hence, once again, we see attitudes to evidence being shaped by factors other than scientific ones.
Posted by: Rupert McWiseman | June 29, 2013 at 05:22 PM
Cheers Roger and All,
I highly recommend a wonderful book by Curtis White "The ScienceDelusion".http://www.amazon.com/The-Science-Delusion-Questions-Culture/dp/1612192009/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1372526506&sr=8-1&keywords=the+science+delusion
It is an excellent, literate book that deconstructs materialist scientism and brings back the Idealism of Schelling, Bergson, Schiller, Fichte, Whitman, Blake, Coleridge,and modern thinkers such as Robert Bellah, Bernardo Kastrup, Roland Barthes. He skewers the shallow TED presentation of Jonah Lehrer, "Imagine How Creativity Works" and the prominent neurophilosopher Daniel Dennet the current research of Antonio Damasio's book "Self Comes to Mind".
Well worth a good read.
Be Well Robert,
Rick Stuart (available for Skype anytime since I've cut down my private practice at age 64 and have more time to pursue these interests)
Posted by: Richard Stuart | June 29, 2013 at 06:33 PM
Apologies for calling you Roger at the beginning of my post above, Robert. At least I signed off correctly ;>)
Posted by: Richard Stuart | June 29, 2013 at 06:35 PM
Hello Richard - good to hear from you, and hope you're keeping well. Thanks for the link - this Science Delusion thing seems to be catching on - I'll have a look at it.
Guys, thanks for the dark stuff comments, which is a subject I'd been wondering about myself.
Posted by: Robert McLuhan | June 29, 2013 at 07:07 PM
A few links on the psi "energy conservation" issue (important for "dualists"). Robert's review of Science and the Near Death Experience (Carter), search under Henry Stapp,
and the "Irreducible Mind" (Kelly, Kelly, Crabtree, Gauld, Grosso, Greyson) book:
This paper by Hiley/Pylkkanen also addresses this using Bohm's idea of "active information",
Didn't quite get what you meant on dark energy not being conserved? - obviously a different issue. I remember that energy non-conservation came up in black hole physics in that an object disappears into it and all "information" about the object disappears. But then it was found to actually be on the event horizon surface in terms of Planck areas.
So really energy (and information) never gets lost...
Posted by: Alan | June 30, 2013 at 02:36 PM
thanks for the response rupert
perhaps the liminal state psi rests in with regards to across-the-board acceptance will change once science truly internationalizes and dominant british/american modalities give way to japanese/russian/etc voices.
just a simple, perhaps naive thought
in any case, this site and the discussions emergent in the commentary sections, are inspiring.
Posted by: Billy Mavreas | June 30, 2013 at 05:29 PM
I've had similar thoughts myself. The Old World Order is too dominated by Corporate Science, materialist agendas and dogma-defending "skeptics" to maintain its hegemony in scientific matters.
I think the torch of 21st century science will be passed to emerging superpowers such as India and China.
Posted by: Rupert McWiseman | June 30, 2013 at 08:04 PM
it'll be amazing to watch that unfold !
another thought or three, and i'm casting a wide net here for everyone
how much of what is happening vis-a-vis psi, parapsychology, skeptics, 'skeptics', etc
is little more than 'scene' political games as you'd witness in any sub-culture ?
doesn't the actuality of global consolidated science (the sum total of what is known to date - if such a thing could be organised and analysed) leave standing cold and naked all the petty professional grudges, status games, media events that make up the details of contemporary public opinion in regards to science ?
total science VS perceived science gets my head spinning.
and on the note of media events, i'll get fanciful here :
first off, sheldrake, i gotta say, since he and his work is the topic of roberts post, always comes off as an affable guy who knows his sh*t, excuse my language.
i'm waiting for his next move because reminding academe of its responsibilities must get dreary for him.
IMHO, he should go all-out pop culture with ball caps and t-shirts, rake in some coin with his brand.
a recent talk between deepak & shermer wearing their youth culture street gear and making me wince with their tennis match of god and cash, made me think that if this was a rap battle, and sheldrake busted in there, he would blow both those guys out of the water. and that video would get a million views !
keep up the good work, all ! and forgive my bluster
Posted by: Billy Mavreas | June 30, 2013 at 09:38 PM
Dark energy is not conserved because new dark energy is created as the Universe expands. A few theoretical physicists claim that eventually the new dark energy will cause new Big Bangs to occur but I do not understand the complicated physics behinds this.
Posted by: Stephen | June 30, 2013 at 09:43 PM
I think Japan and India may become the new centers of psi research in the 21st century. I'm not so sure about China. The Chinese Communist Party seems to view anything to do with spirituality as competition to their own nationalistic ideology. But similar concerns didn't stop the USSR from conducting official psi research before the USA.
If I was a national security planner I'd be really worried about "psi gaps" developing between the USA and other countries. There are so few parapsychologists in the world and so little funding that God only knows what a fully funded and staffed lab is capable of coming up with. In my amateur work over half a year with no funding, I think I may have found a way to reverse the decline effect (at least in a special case). If a government had been secretly researching psi with a fully funded lab for the past few decades, it's possible they could be light-years ahead of what we know publicly.
Posted by: Stephen | June 30, 2013 at 10:12 PM