It’s one thing for the Guardian to get two muddleheaded critics of materialism to review Rupert Sheldrake’s new book on woo, The Science Delusion, but it’s another when the paper’s science section writes a laudatory piece about him. Have a look at Saturday’s piece by Tim Adams, “Rupert Sheldrake: the ‘heretic’ at odds with scientific dogma.” The whole tenor of the article seems to be that the world is hungry for a palliative to science—exemplified by the Demon Dawkins—and Sheldrake’s book is that nostrum:
Sheldrake is a brilliant polemicist if nothing else and he skilfully marshals all the current thinking that undermines these tenets – from apparent telepathy in animals, to crystals having to “learn” how to grow, to some of the more fantastical notions of theoretical physics. On the morning I meet him, his book is sitting near the top of the science bestseller list on Amazon. It has also, unlike most of his previous work – Seven Experiments That Could Change the World, Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home – been generally reviewed respectfully. Perhaps it is something in the air.
I just checked Amazon in the U.S. and U.K.: The Science Delusion is at 214,584 at the former and 56 at the latter. So yes, it is selling well over there.
Anyway, Dawkins, who apparently stands for scientism, is dragged in; he must be getting tired of this.
One of the habits in nature that Sheldrake is interested in is polarity, and if he has a natural nemesis then it is Richard Dawkins, arch materialist and former professor of public understanding of science at Oxford. The title of his book seems to take direct aim at Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Was that, I wonder, his express intention in writing it?
“Slightly,” he suggests. But the title was really his publisher’s idea. “It is dealing with a much bigger issue. But Richard Dawkins is a symptom of the dogmatism of science. He crystallises that approach in the public mind, so to that extent, yes, it is a pointed title.”
Although Dawkins is accused of dogmatism, Sheldrake’s thesis is far more ambitious, and far less evidenced:
What we have in common,” Sheldrake says, “is that we are both certain that evolution is the central feature of nature. But I would say his theory of evolution stops at biology. When it comes to cosmology, for example, he has little to say. I would take the evolutionary principle there, too. I think that the ‘laws of nature’ are also prone to evolve; I think they are more like habits than laws. Much of what we are beginning to understand is that they clearly have evolved differently in different parts of the universe.”
Sheldrake talks a good deal of the fact that, as all good Brian Cox viewers know, 83% of the universe is now thought to be “dark matter” and subject to “dark energy” forces that “nothing in our science can begin to explain”.
And he thinks it never will? Even to “begin” to explain? At any rate, the accusation of scientism—or materialism—is explicit.
Despite this, he suggests, scientists are prone to “the recurrent fantasy of omniscience”. The science delusion, in these terms, consists in the faith that we already understand the nature of reality, in principle, and that all that is left to do is to fill in the details. “In this book, I am just trying to blow the whistle on that attitude which I think is bad for science,” he says. In America, the book is called Science Set Free, which he thinks is probably a better title. “They were aware that if they called it The Science Delusion it would be seen as a rightwing tract that was anti-evolution and anti-climate change. And I want no part of that.”
I’m not sure where Sheldrake gets his idea that we already understand most of reality, and the rest is details. Who thinks that? The history of science tells us otherwise: new pardigms are opening up constantly. Yes, we understand much of reality, but think of all the new things that have arisen just in my lifetime: plate tectonics, The Big Bang, the structure of DNA (not long before I was born, the “hereditary molecule” was thought to be proteins), black holes, string theory, and the possibility of multiple universes. There are endless wonders, and endless forms most wonderful, still to be found, and that’s the fun of science. Nobody except for Sheldrake and his woo-laden audience thinks that all we’re doing is just “filling in the details.” In this connection I always think of the statement by evolutionist J.B.S. Haldane:
“Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
But for Sheldrake, materialism is not the way to go here:
Over a period, he found the materialist view of the universe – that matter was all that life consisted of, that human beings were in Dawkins’s term “lumbering robots” – did not accord with his own experience of it. Sheldrake was a gifted musician and “electrical changes in the cortex didn’t seem able to fully explain Bach”. Likewise: “To describe the overwhelming life of a tropical forest just in terms of inert biochemistry and DNA didn’t seem to give a very full picture of the world.”
Well, of course you have to add natural selection to that mix. The missing ingredient for Sheldrake is, of course, God. But if you add God (and psychedelic drugs) to the mix, your understanding of the universe doesn’t get any fuller—it just gets fuzzier, with some pretty colors around the edges.
“At around the same time,” he recalls, “I had some exposure to psychedelics, and that opened me up to the idea that consciousness was much richer than anything my physiology lecturers had ever described. Then I came across transcendental meditation, which seemed to give some access to that without drugs.” Alongside that, to his surprise, Sheldrake began to realise that there was “a lot more in my makeup that was ‘Christian’ than I cared to admit. I started praying and going to church.”
Did he pray with a sense of its efficacy?
“Well,” he says, “I still say the Lord’s Prayer every day. It covers a lot of ground in our relation to the world. ‘Thy will be done’, that sense that we are part of a larger process that is unfolding that we do not comprehend.” By the time Sheldrake went to live at the ashram of the exiled Christian holy man, Father Bede Griffiths, he had been confirmed in the Church of South India and was the organist of St George’s, Hyderabad. It was at about that time, “living in a palm-fringed hut under a banyan tree”, that Sheldrake decided to set out his decade’s worth of thinking about memory being a function of time, not matter, shared by all living things, that he called “morphogenetics”.
That reminds me of the old Jim Ringer song with the lyric, “He used to take acid, and now he loves God, but he’s still got that look in his eye.”
What I think we can take from the Guardian article is that we, or at least the Brits, who are buying this book like hotcakes, shouldn’t be so complacent about the triumph of science. There’s a lot of anti-science pushback out there, a lot of hunger for things that science supposedly can’t explain—and that means God and religion.
Though he remains at best a contentious figure, and to some an irredeemable charlatan, Sheldrake sees some evidence that this old opposition is breaking down, that doubt and wonder might be returning to science.
“I think one of the reasons why my book has – so far – been well received is that times are changing,” he suggests. “A lot of our old certainties, not least neoliberal capitalism, have been turned on their head. The atheist revival movement of Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett is for many people just too narrow and dogmatic. I think it is a uniquely open moment…”
His hope is that there will be a “coming out” moment in science. “It’s like gays in the 1950s,” he suggests. “I think if people in the realm of science and medicine came out and talked about the limitations of purely mechanistic and reductive approaches it would be much more fun…”
But what are those limitations? That we can’t understand why dogs know when their owners are coming home? Give me a break! One Big Mystery Sheldrake drags in this time is pigeon navigation (Darwin, a pigeon fancier, would be appalled).
The other thing that troubled him about scientific orthodoxy might be condensed into a single word: pigeons. As a boy in Newark-on-Trent, Sheldrake had kept animals – a dog, a jackdaw and some homing pigeons. He would place these pigeons in a cardboard box and cycle all morning with them and then release them to marvel how they would always beat him home. Newark happened to be a hub of pigeon racing. “Every weekend in the season, people would bring piles and piles of wicker baskets containing their birds; my father would take me there and the porters would let me help release the pigeons. Hundreds would fly up and circle round, then you would see them form into little groups and head off around Britain, back home. Pigeon fanciers were mostly plain working men, but they were fascinated by this mystery, which they did not understand.”
We still don’t know how pigeons navigate. There have been many suggestions, including using the Earth’s magnetic field, odors, landmarks, the Sun, or a combination of factors. But if we’re going to clear up this mystery, how would Sheldrake suggest we do it? The only way I see is to do experiments using varying cues (these are hard with free-flying birds), and this of course is just pure materialistic science. The alternative, which is apparently Sheldrake’s way, is to say “Baby Jesus guides the little birdies home.” That isn’t understanding at all: it’s simply an untestable assertion without an iota of evidence to back it up.
In the end, Sheldrake holds out the invidious possibility that there’s some sort of afterlife for believers in woo like himself, but not for atheists!
“I’ve always thought death would be like dreaming,” he says, “but without the possibility of waking up. And in those dreams, as in our dreams in life, everyone will get what they want to some degree. For the atheists convinced everything will go blank, maybe it will.” He trusts in a more colourful future for himself.
The only things that leaven this dire puff-piece are the readers’ comments, which seem pretty uniformly against Sheldrake’s thesis. A sample of those comments:
“Sheldrake sees some evidence that this old opposition is breaking down, that doubt and wonder might be returning to science. What are we supposed to make of rubbish like this? Doubt and wonder are the wellspring of science and never left, thanks.
Christ not Ruper “Morphnance” Sheldrake again.
Is he paying you to push his profile in your paper or something?
Could we not have some opinions from some scientists instead – y’know people who might have at least some idea what they’re on about and who might provide a mildly more interesting insight into the world and its workings than gazing at goat’s entrails?
You really shouldn’t let anyone but your science bloggers write science articles, otherwise you just get mess like this.
A transparent attempt to provoke a bunfight, very little substance or depth. [JAC: I'm not familiar with the British term "bunfight." Is it like a food fight?]
Sounds thicker the more you read about him. I wish they were made to define science before banging on about it so much. So much dislike what is ultimately the realm of researching, testing and understanding.
The most likely people to admit they’re wrong as scientists. That’s the job, that’s the study. You test everything, there’s not a preferred answer, just a quest for knowledge. So where does ‘delusion’ come in? Testing, following evidence and being open to changing opinion based on new evidence and so on. Delusional???? It just seems a contradiction when talking about science.
Purely aimed to market himself as some anti-Dawkins and sell some books, but it’s instantly set itself up as a poorly thought out argument merely from the title.
Never ceases to amaze me how many go with ‘science thinks it knows everything’ or science is arrogant, when the very notion of science is going into areas we don’t understand, researching what we don’t know. Science = curiosity. Science isn’t a person, it’s a process, it’s education. The only arrogance comes from those claiming knowledge based on no evidence and refusing to alter their opinion regardless of research etc. Not all religious people, not at all, but many, are particularly those attacking this ‘science’ creature they’ve created, are just depressingly narrow-minded, incurious contradictory morons. No offence.