Robert Sheldrake: The Science Delusion


Following up on my post yesterday about the need to move Scientific paradigms away from a materialism centered view toward a potentiality view, I want to draw your attention to this review of Sheldrake’s new book (which was at the core of yesterday’s post too). While I tend to think of science in terms of physical phenomenon, the transformation that Physics is undergoing is being paralleled in Biology. In that case it’s a drifting away from evolution as the singular focus to one that speaks of emergence. Though just as “potentialities” are a bit hazy in their conception at this point, so too is emergence – it’s one of those “I’ll know it when I see it terms”

Mary Midgley writes in review of Sheldrake’s book:

“The unlucky fact that our current form of mechanistic materialism rests on muddled, outdated notions of matter isn’t often mentioned today. It’s a mess that can be ignored for everyday scientific purposes, but for our wider thinking it is getting very destructive. We can’t approach important mind-body topics such as consciousness or the origins of life while we still treat matter in 17th-century style as if it were dead, inert stuff, incapable of producing life. And we certainly can’t go on pretending to believe that our own experience – the source of all our thought – is just an illusion, which it would have to be if that dead, alien stuff were indeed the only reality.

We need a new mind-body paradigm, a map that acknowledges the many kinds of things there are in the world and the continuity of evolution. We must somehow find different, more realistic ways of understanding human beings – and indeed other animals – as the active wholes that they are, rather than pretending to see them as meaningless consignments of chemicals.

Rupert Sheldrake, who has long called for this development, spells out this need forcibly in his new book. He shows how materialism has gradually hardened into a kind of anti-Christian faith, an ideology rather than a scientific principle, claiming authority to dictate theories and to veto inquiries on topics that don’t suit it, such as unorthodox medicine, let alone religion. He shows how completely alien this static materialism is to modern physics, where matter is dynamic. And, to mark the strange dilemmas that this perverse fashion poses for us, he ends each chapter with some very intriguing “Questions for Materialists”, questions such as “Have you been programmed to believe in materialism?”, “If there are no purposes in nature, how can you have purposes yourself?”, “How do you explain the placebo response?” and so on.”

The essay goes on to describe some of Sheldrake’s proposed solutions to the problem. Essentially he’s casting about for the next paradigm in a Kuhnsian sort of way that will allow us to break through to the next big organizing metaphor of scientific thought. None of the ones listed seem very compelling to me, but most of them coming out of biological imagery are not familiar to me, so I suppose that’s the reason I don’t warm to them.

I do rather like his idea that we move from the idea of regularities of behavior to habits. Apparently Sheldrake cites Neitsche, Whitehead and James (among others) as proponents of the idea. If I understand it, at least in terms of Whitehead’s thought, it’s sort of similar to moving from localized views of matter to process views of matter. Or thinking about momentum rather than location in a Heisenberg sort of formulation. (Or Hilbert space I suppose.)

But the key take away remains, what we call “facts” are actually much less well defined than we tend to imagine in the common mind. And that’s worth hammering on again and again. That’s the delusion that Sheldrake seems to be pointing out.

A friend pointed out to me that the state of the art thinking about DNA and the genome is that they’re less the blueprints of life as they are the poems from which life emerges. There’s a lot more improvisation going on than we expected. Life is not encoded, it is invoked – would be a way to say it I guess.

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Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. Have you ever looked into Goethe’s approach to scientific knowledge? See, for instance The Wholeness of Nature by Henri Bortoft or Goethe’s Way of Science, edited by David Seamon. Then have a look at The Metamorphosis of Plants by Goethe (there’s a new edition with beautiful photographs that complement Goethe’s original work). I found a link to your site via Mark Harris’ site (Mark’s a close, long-time friend).

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