Where else but at PuffHo, the bailiwick of Chopra and Jenny McCarthy? You do remember Rupert Sheldrake, right? He’s a woo-meister, like Chopra, but even worse since he pretends to be a good scientist. Indeed, he was trained as one, though he seems to have gone off the rails.
Author of The Science Delusion (endorsed by both Mary Midgley and Mark Vernon!), Sheldrake thinks that the facts that dogs and pigeons can find their way home is evidence for God. Other evidence for God includes his “demonstration” (not substantiated by other workers) that people know when other people are looking at their backs. His Big Theory is that organisms have “morphic resonance,” a kind of inherited species memory (think Jung) that helps shape their bodies and behaviors. When others have tried to repeat his experiments demonstrating “morphic resonance,” they’ve also failed. He’s a pseudoscientist with scientific credentials.
Sheldrake also sees genes as being of minor importance in shaping bodies and behaviors, and, above all, decries naturalism and materialism as the proper way to do science. He prefers nebulous forms of woo, and that’s what The Science Delusion is about. It’s now been issued in the U.S. under the irritating title of Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery.
For some reason the Brits love Sheldrake (not all of them!), and he’s far more popular in the U.K. than the U.S., proving that Brit(on)s are not immune to woo.
To remedy this situation, and flog his book to Americans, Sheldrake has written a mooshy piece at PuffHo, “Why bad science is like bad religion.” (At least it’s in PuffHo‘s “Religion” section instead of the “Science” section.) I haven’t read his book, and won’t, for I need to read more substantive stuff—like theology. But I’ll reprise Sheldrake’s antimaterialistic contentions in the PuffHo piece. It all comes down to the contention that while a lot of religion is “bad” (Sheldrake cites fundamentalism), a lot of science is even worse.
What does Sheldrake mean by “bad science”? He means materialistic science:
Science at its best is an open-minded method of inquiry, not a belief system. But the “scientific worldview,” based on the materialist philosophy, is enormously prestigious because science has been so successful. . .
Science has been successful because it has been open to new discoveries. By contrast, committed materialists have made science into a kind of religion. They believe that there is no reality but material or physical reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Nature is mechanical. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.
There’s that perennial equation of science with religion. (Don’t these people know that when they make this comparison to debase science, they’re implicitly debasing religion as well?) But we don’t, of course, have faith that there is no reality but material reality: that attitude is simply a good working assumption, and, as Laplace affirmed, we haven’t seen the need to assume otherwise. And if there were evidence for “nonmaterial” phenomena, like ESP or telekinesis, I’d be glad to consider it. In contrast, the Pope won’t consider embracing Islam.
According to Sheldrake, who really wants to believe in woo, science is actually being impeded by its commitment to naturalism:
As I show in my new book, “Science Set Free,” unexpected problems are disrupting the sciences from within. Many scientists prefer to think that these problems will eventually be solved by more research along established lines, but some, including myself, think that they are symptoms of a deeper malaise. Science is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas.
How have we hobbled ourselves by being naturalists? What are the problems that only woo can solve? Here’s his list:
- We don’t understand organismal development, which, according to Dr. Sheldrake has made no progress. Anybody who has followed the field will simply guffaw at words like these:
“Despite the confident claim in the late 20th century that genes and molecular biology would soon explain the nature of life, the problems of biological development remain unsolved. No one knows how plants and animals develop from fertilized eggs. Many details have been discovered, hundreds of genomes have been sequenced, but there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone.”
That’s either sheer ignorance or, more probably, a lie. We’re beginning to understand development in a big way, and it’s materialism (and genetics!) that have helped. Hox genes, anyone? Of course we’re a long way from understanding how one goes from a DNA recipe to an organism, but it’s early days yet. Sheldrake prefers not to ponder the exciting path ahead, and fob our ignorance off on God (he’s an Anglican).
- We don’t understand the brain or consciousness.
“Despite the brilliant technical achievements of neuroscience, like brain scanning, there is still no proof that consciousness is merely brain activity. Leading journals such as Behavioural and Brain Sciences and the Journal of Consciousness Studies publish many articles that reveal deep problems with the materialist doctrine. The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the “hard problem.” It is hard because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experience of redness is not accounted for.”
This is again a woo-of-the-gaps stance. It will take us decades and decades to understand the brain, for that’s one of the hardest problems of biology (if not the hardest), but the materialist program has already made substantial progress. As for consciousness not being a product of brain activity, that’s hogwash. You can alter consciousness with material drugs. You can remove it by removing brain activity, like killing someone (and there’s no evidence of consciousness with brain death!). You can temporarily remove consciousness with anesthetics, and restore it by removing them. Disease or brain lesions alter consciousness, often in predictable ways. Yes, we don’t yet know the mechanism of consciousness, or how we perceive “qualia” like redness, but should we throw up our hands and cry “God did it!,” or should we get to work?
- We don’t understand cosmology.
“In physics, too, the problems are multiplying. Since the beginning of the 21st century, it has become apparent that known kinds of matter and energy make up only about 4 percent of the universe. The rest consists of “dark matter” and “dark energy.” The nature of 96 percent of physical reality is literally obscure.
Contemporary theoretical physics is dominated by superstring and M theories, with 10 and 11 dimensions respectively, which remain untestable. The multiverse theory, which asserts that there are trillions of universes besides our own, is popular among cosmologists in the absence of any experimental evidence. These are interesting speculations, but they are not hard science. They are a shaky foundation for the materialist claim that everything can be explained in terms of physics.”
Yep, physics is full of exciting puzzles, and the answers will no doubt be counterintuitive and a cause of great wonder. But think of all the progress that physics has made using the materialist paradigm! Just to name a recent one, physicists predicted the existence of the Higgs boson and then found evidence for it. The Standard Model of particle physics is a pretty good paradigm. We now know that the universe is about 14 billion years ago and originated in a huge expansion event.
Yes, dark matter and dark energy remain puzzles, but is that a reason to accept God?
In the end, of course, Sheldrake is simply relying on god-of-the-gaps arguments. Because we don’t understand everything at present—and if we did we wouldn’t need science!—there must be a Big Anglican Father in the Sky who does things like create consciousness and dark matter. What a crock! The history of science has been filling in the gaps, one after the other, that used to constitute evidence for God. And that caulking has all been done by materialism. Doesn’t that suggest that materialism will fill the gaps that remain? We haven’t understood a whit more about the universe by relying on deities and spiritualism.
And, OMG, he ends with such a trite admonition:
Good science, like good religion, is a journey of discovery, a quest. It builds on traditions from the past. But it is most effective when it recognizes how much we do not know, when it is not arrogant but humble.
As if we don’t recognize what we don’t know! Every working scientist implicitly admits that, for science is based on ignorance. It is not the scientists who are arrogant, but the faithful, who assert things about the existence and nature of God for which there’s not the slightest evidence. When you see an accommodationist calling for scientists to be “humble,” you know that they have no other cards to play.
Yes, dogs can find their way home, and so can pigeons. And, at least for pigeons, we’re starting to understand how they do it. But I wish Sheldrake would find his way home, to a church instead of science. I despise his ill-conceived incursions into science, for they have no evidential basis and only serve to succor who believe that there is Something Out There besides material stuff. He’s worse than a creationist, because he’s a faith-head in scientist’s clothing, but, unlike Francis Collins, keeps that to himself.
The Argument from Lost Dogs