Rupert Sheldrake on "Science Set Free"

April 21, 2013

Is science really the realm of free inquiry, open to every good idea?  Controversial biologist Rupert Sheldrake says modern science is mired in various dogmas - boundaries you're not supposed to cross, at least if you value your job and your reputation. 



Rupert Sheldrake argues that the mechanistic view of the world is a delusion, yet one has to only look at the products of science like lasers, optical communication, wireless communication, airplanes, space rockets, mind-controlled artificial limbs etc etc to realize that what we know about the mechanics of the world is not a delusion, we got it quite right, and the scientific progress continues. I think that Rupert Sheldrake makes a great disservice to the scientific community and the society in general spreading pseudo-scientific theories (about consciousness of atoms and stars) and distrust for science.

I don't think you got the point of this segment. It's not about the mechanistic view of the world, but scientific dogmatism, which is not open to hearing evidence that doesn't support the views it already holds. It's about a fundamentalism that opposes what the scientific method is all about.

Sheldrake's main issue is with the mechanistic view of the world and the materialists. The rest is just a smokescreen.

Have you read enough of Sheldrake to know what is and isn't smokescreen? I encountered him in my Ph.D. program in the late '70s and have a great deal of respect for him and his fertile scientific mind. I love how some detractor who probably has never heard of him until this article can so glibly dismiss his half century of work and influence.

Or you're simply defending him, because you met him?

I don't dismiss his "half century of work" - I'm simply exposing his religious sentiments ...

We invented things. Airplanes fly. So what? That proves only that airplanes fly. Nowhere does Sheldrake suggest that mechanistic science got it wrong and therefore airplanes shouldn't fly!

Read Tom Campbell's "My Big TOE", in there he speaks about "sets" and how within certain subsets of rules, airplanes fly etc. But those sets of rules only apply to that subset.

This is out of my league to even summarize, but I do know that Campbell addresses just what you are talking about. I think you are just honestly misunderstanding Sheldrake in a fundemental way, and I certainly can't defend him but I know he could. Have you read his books, by the way?

For some reason he seems to abhor scientists, it's really hard to read this stuff.

"We invented things. Airplanes fly. So what? That proves only that airplanes fly."

That actually proves that science isn't a delusion.

Science is not a delusion. But he's not saying that. He's saying that there are TWO (2) perspectives which which to approach any topic of inquiry: the objective and the subjective. The objective one is the one that most scientists assert is the ONLY one. This one-sidedness is the delusion. Ironically enough, objective scientists insistence on the objective POV for very subjective reasonings. Both are valid perspectivees. Both have valid uses. Someone can be one-sidedly attached to their subjective point of view. In that case, it would be wise counself to suggest to the individual that they take a step back, and look at their position more objectively. Sheldrake is counseling the same to the scientific community. Insistence on one side, to the exclusion (and even denial!) of the validity of the other is... well, its not scientific. In fact, its objectively insane.

"Science is not a delusion."

I'm glad that we can at least agree on that.

"Mechanistic science in itself gives no reason to suppose that there is any point in life, or purpose in humanity, or that progress is inevitable. Instead it asserts that the universe is ultimately purposeless, and so is human life. A consistent atheism stripped of the humanist faith paints a bleak picture with little ground for hope..."

So, is it all about hope?

and one more:

"Secular humanism makes atheism palatable because it surrounds it with a reassuring faith in progress rather than provable collection of facts"

Is more "palatable" and "reassuring" better?

Come on, that's not what science is about. Science isn't here to provide consolation and reassurance.

Wow. That's just amazing. What you've expressed is utter nonsense. All the "products of science" (not a correct summation either) that you mention do nothing to validate the concept of materialism. Nor do they provide any evidence that "we" (as if you'd contributed) got it correct.

Just because matter exists does not prove that matter is all or is even primary. And please don't use the term scientific because you don't seem to have a clue as to what it really means. The term you seek is status-quo. Sheldrake - like many of the scientists whose work people like you gloom onto years after it is no longer seen as heresy - is a visionary. A genuine scientist. Not one of the pedestrian drones who are called that simply because they managed to get a job in one of the fields classed as science.

" The term you seek is status-quo. "

Don't know how you come up with that. Science is all about progress (and that often involves changing the status-quo), and I'm all for it.

What I'm trying to convey is that magical thinking based on religious beliefs doesn't constitute progress in science. On the contrary, it's regress, taking us back to the middle ages.

Your comments here actually demonstrate Sheldrake's thesis: that strict materialists are so wedded to their world view that they are deaf to arguments that challenge their assumptions. You write:

"one has to only look at the products of science like lasers, optical communication, wireless communication, airplanes, space rockets, mind-controlled artificial limbs etc etc to realize that what we know about the mechanics of the world is not a delusion,"

That has nothing whatsoever to do with Sheldrake's work or point of view. It seems you haven't heard what he said because you think you already know what he means.

The scientists who brought you this modern technology were also people who believed in the consciousness of also. Ck your scientific hermetic and quantum physics books...from Picino thru Bruno, Galileo, Newton, Einstien, etc. There comes a point when scientists cannot avoid the evidence...this is a thoughtful universe, and you, too, can be thoughtful.

I'd listen to the interview again or read about some of his works. His issue isn't with the mechanistic view of the world; it's simply that he believes there might be more to it than just that.

Science is not about anybody's beliefs.

This book describes my husband. He became an atheist about 10 years ago and has become increasing dedicated to science and evidence. Yet, I feel that his dedication to science has become similar to some followers of religion. If a study goes against what he thinks, he questions the methods, personal motives of the scientists, etc..... He bristles when I mention that science has become his religion. He lets his personal beliefs color his view of what "scientific evidence" he is willing to accept.

Valid point. I have had a similar experience with my college age son. The more he learned about science, the less willing he has become to consider the existence of anything scientifically unproven. At one time, a scientist would've been considered a heretic to propose that the air consisted of invisible molecules.

"The more he learned about science, the less willing he has become to consider the existence of anything scientifically unproven"

Would anyone want to use scientifically unproven medications for instance?

Yes, this is a very bad thing, when considering the higher goal of "collective truth acquisition". The scientific method can and has verified many great truths about reality -- but it is likely true that not all of reality can be verified using the scientific method (especially when dealing with social and mental phenomena). However, the question this raises is -- are such aspects of reality then unworthy of inquiry by other means? Are they "not real" because they cannot be quantified by current methods in science? Does their unverifiability in the lab make them dangerous or wrong?

Speculation, metaphor, and intuition -- vital tools in many traditional scientific breakthroughs throughout history -- should not be discounted as means for producing useful hypotheses, even if there is no immediately clear way to test them. But today, hypotheses that might not yet be testable are rejected as automatically untrue, reactively and dogmatically rejected by scientific materialists, solely on the grounds that the technology and techniques of institutionalized science has not yet found a way to verify with certainty what the imagination, intuition, speculation, and insights of those investigating the unverifiable might produce.

Accepting that a thesis is only a probable or useful map of reality has been a tenet of science for some time. And yet the ideological zealotry of the materialist paradigm refutes efforts to broaden the map, insisting on utter verifiability about phenomena that are complexly woven into the nature of reality, and include the minds of those trying to peer into that reality as part of that reality. The fear comes in the end from the terror incognito, as well it might. Believers in consciousness studies and the complex subtle interplay, evolution and involution of energy fields hinted at by esoteric religions and studied are not toys to mess around with, but the very stuff we're made in that sense, the materialists might be providing us a helpful reminder to tread carefully and lightly, and to take as much of the good from the scientific method and its emphasis on verifiability as we can -- without remaining its prisoner in the face of discovery. A good scientist would encourage caution -- not scoff and turn away in the face of the unknown.

"But today, hypotheses that might not yet be testable are rejected as automatically untrue, reactively and dogmatically rejected by scientific materialists"

That's simply not true. String Theory isn't testable, for example, and it isn't dogmatically rejected by scientific materialists (scientists, for short). Sheldrake's argument has nothing to do with science, he preaches about "God", "angels" and "supernatural agencies". When he writes about "Atheists beliefs" he only uses the term to dilute its meaning. Atheists don't believe in any unprovable stuff, they are unbelievers. When he says that scientific beliefs and dogmas are religion-like or worse he's plainly delusional.

Physicist Lawrence Krauss argues that "Scientists Need to Throw Out Ideas Like Yesterday's Newspaper"

Please show me one Christian priest saying that the Christian Church needs to be prepared to throw out Christian beliefs and dogmas like yesterday's newspaper.

Let me repeat, the arguments advanced by Rupert Sheldrake have nothing to do with science. He's on some sort of crusade against scientists who focus on doing science, and not on "Gods", "angels" and "supernatural agencies".

Just because there is dogmatism in organized religion does not justify dogmatism elsewhere, first off. Secondly, I think the point that thinkers like Sheldrake make is not for the legitimacy of religious truth-claims, but of the validity of considering them as a potentially legitimate kind of data about reality. What does it mean that these mythemes were generated, that these rituals were practiced, that these energies are experienced in such and such a way? Laboratory science is often not well suited to exploring these questions. Which is not to say that one should blindly accept anyone's interpretation of what that data might represent. Especially not dogmatic Christian theologians (though there are sensitive nuanced Christian thinkers with very interesting insights into the nature of reality, consciousness, society, and dare I say it...spirit). What troubles me about some atheists is not that they are open-minded about any meta-physical, ontological possibility, but rather how often they seemed closed to any possibility that does not immediately strike them as the most likely, simple, stipped-down, and meaningless. Obviously it's good to maintain skepticism, but at its extreme this can stray into close-mindedness, dogmatism, and even a kind of wacked out doppelganger of religious fundamentalism (as seen in Dawkins et al) wherein a great deal of religious, spiritual, metaphysical, and ontological hypotheses, experiences, and data (pretty much all phenomenology in other words) are reduced to the same level as biblical literalism, or rejected on the grounds that they "support" fundamentalist religion by refusing to take a stand against it. That's my problem with some radical atheists. Back to the original issue --

As for String Theory being testable -- true enough, it's a mathematical dream more than anything right now...and many scientists are wary of it as a result. The reason I draw a distinction between pure materialists and scientists in general is because I do believe in the value and legitimacy and tremendous importance of the scientific method and the scientific endeavor. But I view it as a domain, like many others (such as government, religion, law) that can overreach. Kuhn offered a valuable critique of science and its reluctance to shift its lenses, and I think Sheldrake is making an important point as well about science's limitations to address questions of transpersonal phenomena, non-local consciousness, the possibilities of parapsychology, and of non-human sentiences. I'm not claiming that these are "real", I'm, just like Sheldrake noting that there is a virulent and vocal portion of the scientific and atheist community that is practicing the opposite of science when they propose these phenomena to be mystical mumbo-jumbo unworthy of legitimate investigation, simply on the basis of their own materialist biases.

"Just because there is dogmatism in organized religion"

Are there any religions free of dogmatism and beliefs?

"I think the point that thinkers like Sheldrake make is not for the legitimacy of religious truth-claims, but of the validity of considering them as a potentially legitimate kind of data about reality."

You mean we should consider religious creation myths as a potentially legitimate kind of data about reality?? For God's sake they have nothing to do with reality, they are just myths.

okay, so I think that's a little like asking is there any university free of plagiarism and sophistry. I respect that there's a massive historical difference between academia and religion (though the whole medieval scholastic period was the clear-cut birthing point of the former in the latter), and that organized religious systems veil a lot more truth these days than most academic institutions (though there are plenty of dogmatisms in the humanities for instance these days). But your question is a straw-man any other way you cut it.

No, there are probably no religions that have never been abused in some form or another (though you deal with the question in absolute terms -- you think Ba'Hai or Wicca has dealt as much damage as authoritarian power-structures in patriarchal religions??) . But likewise, almost every single religion has in it a set of principles, images, ideas, values, and ways of relating to reality, community, self, and nature that can be varying degrees of harmful or helpful depending on the user's selectivity from the components of that system. You don't hear about too many Jews, for instance, obeying all 613 Mitzvot these days. No. Most will select those which fit their own lifestyle and personal proclivities. Which are often completely nuts -- but that's beside the point (yes, I'm Jewish).

Your aspersion against "beliefs" as a general category seems silly to me too - I assume you mean...*false* beliefs. but again, "religions" don't force people to do or believe anything - people force each other to do things, often and usually parents, but also of course clergy and politicians. Religious truth-claims when believed literally and uncritically often represent gross distortions of reality. And a scientific/skeptical attitude is a healthy corrective for is a poetic, historical, literary education too...

And yet...maybe there is more to some aspects of these mythic stories than we automatically assume (what is happening during theophany? are there sentient non-human entities that exist autonomously in the collective unconscious that sometimes communicate with individual human egos? is there a radically altered state of being that is free from suffering that can be attained after a great deal of deep spiritual inquiry/practice?). To assume one knows for certain there aren't again strikes me as non-scientific. Occam's Razor, which you seem to value, was a tool of the Scholastic Christian school of thought (which again, helped birth modern academic thought), and as we step into the worlds of quantum physics, string theory, cosmology, and consciousness-studies -- "the simplest explanation" has not always proven the case. "Multiplication of entities" can be interpreted in many ways....

I'm probably not convincing you here. But I'll just address your last point, because from my vantage it really demonstrates how silly and reductive your way of defining "reality" can be.

"[myths] have nothing to do with reality. they are just myths"

Don't you see how unscientific a claim this is? Of course they're a legitimate form of data about reality! That does not in any way mean they have ANYTHING valuable to tell us about astronomy, cosmology, zoology, or biology -- but they do have a tremendous amount to tell us about psychology, anthropology, sociology, human development, neuro-science, and cultural evolution. Saying "they are just myths" is a lot like someone whining to an archeologist or paleontologist that "they are just rocks".

And I could delve deeper, because if one examines the poetics, the actual motifs and symbology of myths (like the late Joseph Campbell) one might discover there are astounding patterns, structures, coincidences, allusions, metaphors, and more that can be gleaned there, as well as, for many, a sense of the deep orders and echoes of cosmic creativity, complexity, and intelligibility.

You seem to be arguing for non-overlapping magisteria like CP Snow did (and Gould in another way), between the humanities and the hard sciences. But I think at some point those two spheres do touch, and we have to at least not be afraid to see what we'll see.

To scoff in the face of such things, and reduce them all to "just myths" is honestly sad (all of literature is just "words" all of art is "just colored pigments on paper" etc.). And the collective Ginsbergian HOWWWWL you hear from so many spiritual metaphysicians who are light-years beyond biblical literalism yet get so reductively swept into the same dustbin by pure materialists and angry self-styled atheists these days is simply the desire to engage with a more beautiful, humanistic, and creative vision of life and the cosmos -- something a great many scientific luminaries, from Newton to Einstein to Sagan did not take for granted.

I think Sheldrake is particularly in the crosshairs, because his research goes right for the jugular of the notion that consciousness is purely localized to the brain, and never transmittable at a distance (and of course for his ideological critique of institutionalized science, which I share with him). If he's right, it's obviously an important and fascinating aspect of reality to explore and understand better -- which could also, potentially, help us understand much better the function and logic behind religious ideas and stories...I would never call myself scientifically certain about what the results will be or mean -- before serious rigorous scientific inquiry is conducted. But to resist that research, and denounce it as pseudo-science automatically, strikes me as anti-science...all in the name of "preserving science".

you have actually proved my point here:

"[myths] have nothing to do with reality. they are just myths"

"Of course they're a legitimate form of data about reality! That does not in any way mean they have ANYTHING valuable to tell us about astronomy, cosmology, zoology, or biology"

Your point is just that mythic literalism is stupid?

Well, if that's your whole argument against Sheldrake's critique of institutionalized science...I don't see how you're really using your brain at all.

That science debunked countless religious myths is not my argument at all.

Ben, I'm glad you brought Kuhn into the discussion. Sheldrake was at Harvard when The Structure of Scientific Revolutions came out and when he returned to Cambridge to finish his Ph.D., he took Kuhn's ideas back with him. As for many of us, Kuhn had a great influence on Sheldrake's scientific philosophy and subsequent work.

It is my understanding that the majority (all?) of meds are not "proven" at all. They pass the FDA etc because they pass certain measures (often quite abitrary). This doesn't at ALL mean that the mechanism for how they "work" has been found, discovered, or proven. Science does not understand how the body works, to put it simply. This would hold true for herbs etc, also.

It is delusional to depend on science proving something before trusting its efficacy, or safety etc.

Do you breathe air? Do you drink water? Your mental mind ("rational") does not have to understand something in order for your BEING to be quite fine with it.

"It is my understanding that the majority (all?) of meds are not "proven" at all. They pass the FDA etc because they pass certain measures (often quite abitrary)"

It's the very measurements that tell us if a given drug has a desired effect and can benefit the patient (ease pain, lower pressure, etc).

"Science does not understand how the body works, to put it simply."

Science is the reason why human lifespan skyrocketed!

...infant mortality decreased by 90% in the 20th century, maternal mortality by 99% etc etc

Science by its own nature has a confined views existence. Many scientists through their own work and research become narrow minded and prejudice. They fail to acknowledge what is beyond their abilities and comprehension and are attached to their rigid perspectives. Intelligence does not mean wisdom. History has proven many well known scientist to be utterly wrong/ignorant. Discovery can only be made when one's attachments to one rigid ignorant views are removed. Modern science is plaque with self interest and ego. You think that you know yet little do you know that you know little. If 1000 years ago the idea of atomic particle was presented, the scientist community would have you throw in jail.

only ~0,0000000001% of human population is involved in science, I would argue, that the progress we've have already made is impressive.

Thanks to materialist scientists humanity has made the biggest progress in history.

Yes what is called science today is much akin to a religion. Contrary to popular belief, many establishment scientists hoe carefully to the existent canon. People seem to think that getting a degree in a field of the sciences confers a noble open-mindedness and dedication to unbiased exploration. It doesn't. There are such people working in the sciences but - as in in all walks of life - they are the minority.

Science is based on evidence; religion on wishful thinking and (long debunked) myths.

His main point that science is a belief system is downright hilarious.

Science relies on observation and proof. Without the openness to new ideas we wouldn't be able to make any progress in science. We would still be stuck in the XVII century, believing in the never changing materialist dogmas. But that just isn't the case; our understanding of the universe, its age, origins and structure has been turned on its head not once, but many times since the 1600s. The advancements we've made in the fields of biology, chemistry, physics, etc in the same period have been equally revolutionary.

We should set ourselves free from the anti-science rhetoric.

The point is that many scientists become closed to considering and pursuing scientific thought outside the accepted paradigms. Thomas Khun's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions discusses this in detail.

Scientists are pursuing all kinds of inquiries and subjects, no matter how weird or spooky, from the multiverses, time traveling, quantum teleportation, mind-controlled artificial limbs, to conscious machines.

Sheldrake was at Harvard when The Structure of Scientific Revolutions came out and Sheldrake has said many times that when he returned to Cambridge Kuhn was a major force in the foundation of his thinking, as it has been for many of us. For you to suggest otherwise is naive.

Because Sheldrake's agenda is motivated by his religious beliefs.

Yes, but interpretation and meaning of those observations is not Science. Science can not offer meaning or purpose or Inspriration, but great scientists act in these realms not as scientists but as humans — artistic, creative, inspired. Certainly some scientists take these ideas to their logical conclusions using the Scientific Method, but that Method and the innovations that science amplifies and refines is not a result of Science, but of consciousness.

It interesting to point out that while some spiritualists call for science to be "set free" others want to put in the chains of their religious dogmas and beliefs. That we're playing gods making use of stem cells, in vitro fertilization, trying to grow organs in the labs, making brain-computer interfaces, mapping the structure of the brain, analyzing the functioning of our genes, experimenting with quantum teleportation, sending satellites into space to spot earth-like planets etc etc

"Is science really the realm of free inquiry, open to every good idea? "

Science is the mechanism by which we verify ideas. It lets us sift the good ideas (like the big bang theory) from the bad ones (see faster than light neutrinos). The very process allow us to move forward.

Without science all we are left with are our beliefs and rhetoric.

I do not quite agree... that the role of science is to "verify ideas". Rather, i see science as the mechanism for disproving incorrect ideas... theories which are shown to be in conflict with our natural human experience. A mountain of data will help to hold my interest in an idea... but can never prove it right... never VERIFY it. One counter-example, however... perhaps with one or two repetitions for good measure... can prove an idea WRONG in the sense that it is counter to the collective experience of mankind. The longer an Idea stands... under a genuine assault... and yet the idea is NOT proven wrong... the more i am inclined toward the possibility that perhaps it is true. In my view, this is the Scientific Method of moving toward the truth of things: Create the IDEA out of the whole cloth of Imagination... and then use evidence and experiments in a good faith, determined attempt to prove that the idea is rubbish! Failing that... we welcome the New Idea to the table.

Sheldrake should set himself free from his anthropocentric beliefs because they are inhibiting and coloring his understanding of the world. Here's how writes about the supposed "scientific beliefs" in his book: "even people are machines...", "even human consciousness is..."

The anthropocentric sentiments imprison his imagination and skew his scientific enquiry.

He then uses a rhetorical argument that "for more than 200 years, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry" and therefore they must be wrong.

Well, we heard declarations that we would send humans to Mars by 2010 and we didn't. Does that mean humans will never go there?

If you define a machine as an entity has is controlled by another then some times people are machine in their consciousness. Think about this- Habits are programs. You think you have control of your actions and your life but do you really? Only when you are conscious and how much are you conscious, 5% of the time?

"In biology and psychology the credibility rating of materialism is falling" - Science Set Free

DNA testing is a growing field of biology. Only 2 weeks ago we traced the root genetic cause of leukemia (ETV6-RUNX1). Human Brain Project received 1 billion euros from the European Commission at the beginning of 2013. At the beginning of this month, Obama unveiled a plan to invest $100m in the 'brain mapping' initiative. Both projects aim to advance our understanding of Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other psychological conditions.

The biggest letdown of the Science Set Free book is not even the author's anthropocentric bias, but his God delusion. The Science Set Free reads like a religious text and not a science book. I wouldn't expect to find quotations from Bible in a text on Oncology or Quantum (God forbid) Mechanics, so why are they here? I don't understand why anyone would call Rupert Sheldrake a heretic. An ardent priest, yes. A heretic, not by any means.

Would anyone want oncologists to stop working on a cure for cancer, because they haven't succeeded so far? Or would anyone want any scientist to stop pursuing his subject of choice saying "I give up, it's just too complicated for me, I am not omniscient, and will never be, only God can be omniscient, we should stop asking and answering further questions about the mechanics of the world, omniscience is a fantasy (at least for us), omniscience is an attribute peculiar to God, we have just reached the limit of our ken"

Clergymen like Rupert Sheldrake forget that we are a very young civilization. And the materialist science is younger still. With only 200 years of enquiry we can't say there's anything inherently stopping us from knowing more in 200 years, or 300k years or 500m years. Can we know it all at some point? Again, I don't see anything, in principle, stopping us from achieving the goal, despite this or another religious book might say.

I'm a scientist.
I'm prepared to explore the evidence (outside of work, of course !)

Consciousness seems not to be a product of a brain (cf. brain death research/ NDE research)..

And anyway, is there any proof that consciousness is produced by a brain ?