Rupert Sheldrake’s new book: dogs know when their owners are coming home, ergo Jesus

When a new book gets rave reviews by both Mary Midgley and Mark Vernon at the Guardian, you know it has to be pretty dreadful. And so we have their take on The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake, apparently a strong attack on materialism.

This stance seems strange given that Sheldrake was trained in botany and biochemistry at  Harvard and Cambridge, but lately he seems more into woo:

While in India, he also lived for a year and a half at the ashram of Fr Bede Griffiths in Tamil Nadu, where he wrote his first book, A New Science of Life.

From 2005-2010 he was the Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, funded from Trinity College,Cambridge. He is also a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, near San Francisco, and a Visiting Professor and Academic Director of the Holistic Thinking Program at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut.

I don’t know of Sheldrake or his books, which include Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, but I suspect that my readers do. Nor have I read his latest, but it gets encomiums from both Vernon and Midgley.

Midgley’s review first. She gives her own views before launching into her review:

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.

You know where she’s going here: straight into the bosom of Jesus:

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.

First of all, materialism is not a “faith,” it’s a working principle (appropriately turned into a supporting worldview) that the only way we progress in understanding the universe is through assuming that matter and energy are all there is. Call philosophical materialism an “ideology,” if you will, but it’s by no means a “faith,” for that “ideology” has made enormous progress in understanding our universe.  There is plenty of evidence for the efficacy of materialism as a “way of knowing,” and no such evidence for faith. Faith is an ideology that doesn’t answer any questions. And yes, science does have the authority to pronounce on the evidence for God, and certainly has the authority to investigate the claims of alternative medicine.

Further, everything we know about how the “active wholes” of humans and animals work has been achieved through the naturalistic methods of science. Where, Dr. Midgley, is the evidence for a “soul”?

Finally, since when has science been based on “static materialism”? What does that mean, anyway: that we assume things don’t move? Surely she realizes, even in her dotage, that every advance in modern physics has also come from materialism. There’s no invocation of God in quantum mechanics. Yes, it’s weird, but nobody (or at least nobody who’s sane) sees quantum entanglement as evidence for God.

The problem comes when Sheldrake has to propose an alternative paradigm.  And it’s not heartening:

Sheldrake’s proposal that we should think of natural regularities as habits rather than as laws is not just an arbitrary fantasy. It is a new analogy, brought in to correct what he sees as a chronic exaggeration of regularity in current science. He shows how carefully research conventions are tailored to smooth out the data, obscuring wide variations by averaging many results, and, in general, how readily scientists accept results that fit in with their conception of eternal laws.

Habits? Really? The speed of light and the inverse-square laws are “habits”? Does she—and Sheldrake—really think that physical laws are conspiracies constructed by scientists to hide the messiness of real data? Has she not considered that it may be the data themselves that are messy—that there are always errors in measurement—rather than the underlying principles? If what Sheldrake says is true, we’d never be able to get people to the Moon.

Clearly, Sheldrake’s thesis has been enormously influenced by his pathbreaking work on dogs expecting their owners to come home:

Whether or no we want to follow Sheldrake’s further speculations on topics such as morphic resonance, his insistence on the need to attend to possible wider ways of thinking is surely right. And he has been applying it lately in fields that might get him an even wider public. He has been making claims about two forms of perception that are widely reported to work but which mechanists hold to be impossible: a person’s sense of being looked at by somebody behind them, and the power of animals – dogs, say – to anticipate their owners’ return. Do these things really happen?

Sheldrake handles his enquiries soberly. People and animals do, it seems, quite often perform these unexpected feats, and some of them regularly perform them much better than others, which is perhaps not surprising. He simply concludes that we need to think much harder about such things.

What she means, of course, is that these aren’t materialistic phenomena, but somehow reflect the hand of Baby Jesus. But I’m dumbfounded. Why do these behaviors defy materialism? Dogs can learn lots of things: the sound of cars and can openers, what the sight of a leash means, and many other things.  Why shouldn’t they be able to sense the passage of time, and anticipate their owners’ return? And of course we’re evolved to be wary, and so can often sense that someone is looking at us when we can’t see them, especially if there are people around.  Sometimes, of course, that feeling might be wrong, but it’s better to have it misfire than not to have it at all, because when an enemy or a predator is around, it’s better to err on the side of caution. I’m a mechanist, and I don’t deem these two behaviors impossible (Midgley says that Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert are two of the miscreants who unfairly attack Sheldrake’s work.)

But enough. Ever since Midgley mounted an attack on The Selfish Gene that was as ascerbic as it was misguided, we know she’s a bit mush-brained on the issue of evolution.

Things are just as bad with Mark Vernon’s review, “It’s time for science to move on from materialism.”   Here, for example, is how both Sheldrake and Vernon (an ex Anglican priest), make a hash of protein evolution and structure—if that’s what this is about, since it’s hard to tell.

This is designed to account for, say, the enormously complex structure of proteins. A conventional approach, which might be described as bottom-up, has protein molecules “exploring” all possible patterns until settling on one with a minimum energy. This explanation works well for simple molecules, like carbon dioxide. However, proteins are large and complicated. As Sheldrake notes: “It would take a small protein about 1026 years to do this, far longer than the age of the universe.”

As a result, some scientists are proposing top-down, holistic explanations. Sheldrake’s particular proposal is that such self-organising systems exist in fields of memory or habit. These contain the information required to make the structure.

Fearlessly, he extends the speculation to embrace a range of phenomena that many people experience. Telephone telepathy is one, when you are thinking about someone just as they phone. Or the sense of being stared at. The idea, roughly, is that our intentions can be communicated across mental fields that are like morphogenetic fields. They connect us – though in the modern world, with its ideological and technological distractions, we are not very good at noticing them.

At least Vernon doesn’t mention the dogs!  But the idea of physical laws as “memory and habit”, though dumb, don’t even give credibility to views like telepathy.  Further, science doesn’t dismiss these phenomena a priori: we doubt them on two grounds:  1) there is no evidence for them, and 2) we know of no physical mechanism to communicate telepathically. Indeed, Vernon notes that absence of evidence:

Whether or not his own theories will stand the test of time is another question. In a paper published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in November 2011, Fraser Watts examines them at face value and, broadly, finds them suggestive but wanting. For example, Sheldrake conceives of mental fields via the analogy of an amoeba: as an amoeba extends its pseudopodia and touches the environment around it, similarly telepathy and the like would be the result of “mental pseudopodia” extended into the world around us.

This shows two things. First, despite the assertion of accommodationists, science can investigate the supernatural, and those claims have come up empty.  Second, Vernon himself shows that the way to test those theories is using the naturalism-based methods of science.  Claims about real phenomena in the world, whether they be about telepathy or the existence of a god who interacts with the universe, are not recalcitrant to the methods of science.

Sadly for Vernon and Midgley, they have no examples showing that science is impotent at investigating real phenomena in the world.  They decry materialism and naturalism simply because they don’t like it.  It doesn’t support their beliefs in the supernatural, so they simply criticize the methods of science.  But science is the only way to determine if such phenomena really exist.

You can’t believe in something simply because it makes you feel better, and that is the overarching tenet of New Atheism.  When we were young, we had no problem discarding the idea of Santa Claus because there was an alternative and naturalistic explanation for the mysterious appearance of presents on Christmas morn.  Yet Midgley and Vernon still cling to the idea of a Super-Santa—someone who makes them feel good not just on Christmas Day, but every day of the year.  It’s time to put away that childish thing, too.  If they really wanted to use their imaginations in a productive way, they might ponder the methods science could use to determine how dogs know when their owners are coming home.


  1. Posted February 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    From the Skeptic Dictionary website:

    “The James Randi Educational Foundation offers a prize of $1,000,000 to anyone who can prove he or she has a psychic ability.”

    Bottom line: This challenge has never been met.

    Also, there has been about 100 years of attempts to establish the reality of this phenomenon without any real conclusive evidence. In addition, virtually all the above-cited studies have significant methodological flaws.

    Why has Massimo allowed this thread to go on as long as it has?

  2. Eddie Whorl
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Most of these commenters clearly haven’t bothered to read any of Sheldrake’s work, and have skipped straight to the ‘debunking’ so that they don’t need to think.

    Folks, if you want to know the real truth, I suggest you start with the actual scientific papers, and proceed from there.

    They have not been debunked.

    • Andrew Metcalfe
      Posted May 4, 2012 at 4:01 am | Permalink

      Eddie Whorl, Sheldrake hasn’t bothered to check up on what real scientists think, before he criticised a straw man of what he thinks science is. He went straight to the debunking without needing to face the real world.
      Sheldrakes methods have been critiqued here:

  3. JXS
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    I generally don’t waste my time on religious threads, but I was bored today and most of the responses on here are so pathetic and uninformed that I just couldn’t help it. Why not actually read the case, along with the experiments which were conducted. Here, try this:

    I can also add that no I’m not a religionist or a creationist, and I don’t believe in evolution, but rather I accept the evidence for it. It is the same thing here, I don’t believe in an afterlife or some other type of paranormal phenomena, rather I accept the collective evidence for it. Why not research things for yourselves people before posting irrelevant material or just taking your anti-paranormal heroes words for it.

    • John Denby
      Posted July 5, 2014 at 5:26 am | Permalink

      “Why not research things for yourselves people before posting irrelevant material or just taking your anti-paranormal heroes words for it.” I have done extensive reading about so called paranormal events, and always they’re anecdotal, with little decent evidence, and no scientific evidence in their favour, and mounds of scientific evidence against them. Those who uncritically and gullibly believe such guff are invariably ignorant of the scientific evidence against supernatural explanations, such as there being no supernatural explanation that ever became a working scientific theory. Sheldrake and Midgley et all are miffed that science does not support their religious fantasies. They’re the close minded ones.

  4. Alexander Hellemans
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t read the 150 + responses (I will), but my experience with (2) dogs is quite simple:

    1)Their hearing is quite sensitive to very low frequencies, much below 40 Hz (our limit). My dog recognizes the engine noise of my car as soon I turn the corner into our street. She (and my previous dog) also recognizes the stepping of my wife as soon she enters our street (at a distance of 100 feet).

    2)I think it might be possible that they feel low frequency sound waves transmitted through the ground with sensors in their feet (has to be tested scientifically, I’m not aware of any proof). This would explain why dogs apparently feel precursors of oncoming earthquakes in some cases (and thunderstorms at quite long distances).

    3) Dogs adhere to strict time schemes, so my dog (and my previous dog) comes to me exactly at the same time when she has to get her daily medication for the treatment of a tropical disease she caught in Italy (Leichsmania).

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