‘The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry’ by Rupert Sheldrake, Coronet 2012
Review by Robert M Ellis (written in 2012)
To launch the Reformation of Christianity, Luther nailed ninety-five theses to a church door. To reform science, Rupert Sheldrake identifies ten dogmas of modern science and explains why they are limiting and rigidifying scientific investigation. Tellingly, it is no longer new ‘truths’, but ways of escaping from the net of assumed ones that are now the instruments of reform. However, this book ought to be just as influential as Luther’s theses in reshaping a great Western tradition. Written by an experienced scientist with a string of establishment credentials, its importance lies not so much in the scientific evidence it puts forward (though there is plenty of this) as in the philosophical possibilities it opens. As I shall explain, I think these possibilities are very much in harmony with Middle Way Philosophy.
The book offers a central challenge to the way that the mechanistic model has continued to dominate Western science, despite that model’s inability to explain a wide range of evidence. Sheldrake offers a striking variety of evidence of what the mechanistic model cannot explain. There is our inability to explain ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’. There are the mysterious patterns of crystal formation. There are the limitations of genes or even of epigenesis to fully explain inheritance. There is the lack of evidence for memory as a material trace in the brain, and the degree of evidence for both human and animal telepathy.
In relation to these phenomena Sheldrake distinguishes scientific method, which would openly investigate the grounds for any fruitful theory that could explain them, from mechanistic assumptions, which constrain scientists from any investigation that does not fit their metaphysical scheme. There is no necessity for science to adopt mechanistic assumptions, and it seems to be now reaching the edges of ways that it can fruitfully investigate whilst tied to them. For example, Sheldrake explains how physics is getting increasingly speculative, genetic technology is no longer considered a strong investment, and neuroscience has yet to convincingly explain the relationship between mind and brain.
Of course, we would only be justified in switching from one base theory to another if there is a new theory that explains the evidence better than the old. Sheldrake offers such a theory in the form of morphic resonance. Morphic resonance is his term for the way in which self-organising systems (e.g. crystals, cells, plants, animals) tend to influence each others’ form. The greater the similarity of form to start with, the greater the influence, regardless of distance in space or time. He suggests that genetic similarity is dependent on this process, and that memory amounts to morphic resonance between our minds at different times. It explains, for example, why rats who have learnt to run a maze in one place appear to make it easier for other rats elsewhere to run the same maze, and why the ability to do IQ tests is steadily rising. It also explains why closely linked people can have telepathic contact, and how we feel a sense of being watched when we cannot observe the observer.
Morphic resonance appears to be an interesting and fruitful hypothesis. Sheldrake does not call it any more than a hypothesis, and certainly does not claim it is proven. His book is thus primarily a protest against a widespread refusal amongst scientists to take such a hypothesis seriously because it conflicts with mechanistic assumptions. Sometimes such hypotheses are just ignored, at others a selective scepticism is used to dismiss them, applying exacting standards far beyond those applied to mainstream materialist theories, and at other times they are just dismissed on a priori grounds rather than examined.
I found it easy to sympathise with Sheldrake’s position, because I have had very similar experiences putting forward, not scientific, but philosophical theories which challenge widespread assumptions. Some people do not examine your work at all because they immediately assume you are a crank, even if you can offer academic credentials. Others dismiss it at the first difficulty using selective scepticism, setting the bar far higher than they would with a conventional theory: “Extraordinary theories demand extraordinary evidence” Sheldrake was told. But to demand (ill-defined) “extraordinary” evidence is pretty much tantamount to rejecting the theory outright whilst keeping its advocate stringing along out of politeness. Whatever evidence is offered, it is very unlikely to ever be “extraordinary” enough, so the goalposts just keep moving. Just as even the voice of God booming from the heavens would not necessarily convince an atheist of his existence, no amount of evidence about unexplained effects will ever be enough to shake mechanistic science when it is actually held as a metaphysical commitment rather than as a provisional basis of investigation.
Sheldrake’s approach to this situation for the most part is to insist on the primacy of evidence, with relatively little discussion of the philosophical issues it raises, and whilst I wish him luck with this approach, I also think that it is only really with philosophical change that the method of science will be made more amenable to evidence. Quite what Sheldrake is up against is illustrated by a couple of stories he tells about Richard Dawkins (neither of which are to Dawkins’ credit). In one, Dawkins states dogmatically “Morphic fields are not material and therefore they don’t exist” (p.184), and in another Dawkins refuses to discuss evidence when interviewing Sheldrake for a TV programme about telepathy (p.256).
As I have been arguing in the Middle Way Philosophy I have been developing, there is only one way of overcoming dogmatism, and that is with provisionality. Provisionality is incompatible with metaphysical positions, because such positions exclude a priori any recognition of their own fallibility. Denying a metaphysical position (i.e. asserting it to be false) does not avoid dogmatism, because metaphysical theories are not amenable to evidence either way. Mechanistic physicalism is such a metaphysical theory, so merely offering counter-theories, however well evidenced, will not convince people of its falsity, given that they can always interpret the evidence offered in terms of a mechanistic model. Just as any state of affairs, including the worst imaginable evil, can be explained by theologians in a way that is compatible with God’s existence, so the most apparently bizarre evidence about dark matter or telepathy can be explained by mechanistic scientists in a way that is compatible with a mechanistic model by extensive confirmation bias.
As with any metaphysical belief, if you look closely and critically at physicalism it becomes difficult to explain why anyone believes in it other than for dogmatic purposes. It is not even as though physicists have a clear understanding of what matter consists in, but they have evaded this difficulty by distinguishing between materialism (belief that everything can be understood in terms of material stuff) and physicalism (belief that everything is subject to observable physical laws). Physicalism consists more of an attachment to mathematical models which are believed to explain the underlying processes of the universe than to a belief in a certain kind of stuff. Yet mathematical models can only be applied to the physical universe on the basis of fallible measurements and philosophical assumptions about the significance of those measurements. So-called physical constants, as Sheldrake shows, are actually variables which scientists regularly shove into the constancy they assume they ought to have (p.88-93). The most consistent mathematical model may turn out to have little or no relationship to reality, if one first allows oneself to consider the apparently unimaginable possibility that it might not.
Phenomena such as gravity and electro-magnetism are just as mysterious as matter – so why is morphic resonance so difficult to stomach? Pace Richard Dawkins, nobody knows what gravity is or that it is ‘material’: it is just a label that helps us to explain observed processes according to consistent physical laws. Gravity, like other such forces, can only be detected or measured by its effects. It seems odd, then, that when scientists like Sheldrake hypothesise about other kinds of forces that are also not directly observable but which help to explain available evidence better than previously available explanations, they are apparently so often dismissed out of hand.
Perhaps morphic resonance is so quickly rejected because of the threat it poses of a Luther-like overthrow of the papal authority of mechanistic neo-platonism. Perhaps, too, we should remember the ways that metaphysical beliefs form dualistic pairs, and gain a lot of their currency by merely denying the opposing view. Physicalism, despite its theoretical claims not to be mere materialism appealing to a final definite stuff, gets a lot of its appeal from its denial of the possibility of immaterial stuff. Neuroscientists, despite not knowing what the brain is made out of, often assert with conviction that minds are made out of whatever it is that brains are made out of and not the opposite, whatever that they take that to be – souls and spirits and suchlike. They assert that minds must be subject to physical laws as we understand them, despite the fact that physical laws as we understand them are inconsistent (still divided between Newtonian physics, relativity and quantum physics) and the brain is such an incredibly complex and little-understood manifestation of any kind of physical process. As Sheldrake points out, no biologists actually put their biological theory in terms of chemistry and physics. The reducibility of one level of explanation to another, and thus the supposed unity of mechanistic science, is purely theoretical and not at all helpful in practice, for we can prove neither reducibility nor supervenience.
So, Sheldrake’s book is immensely valuable as a critique of mechanism in science, and a necessary reminder that science can become dogmatic just as religion can, for those who are inclined to be lop-sided in their scepticism. It is also very interesting as a source of new alternative hypotheses, centered around morphic resonance. Those who react against Sheldrake often seem to be taking these hypotheses too strongly as rival dogmatic claims, but Sheldrake is very careful not to make exaggerated claims for his hypotheses.
I did find the hypothesis of morphic resonance a very fruitful one, though, in potentially helping to explain the nature of integration and objectivity. One conceptual problem that can be found in the theory of integration is that of what exactly is being integrated. If one puts Sheldrake’s morphic resonance together with Iain McGilchrist’s work on the right and left hemispheres of the brain, however, one could suggest that although it is the right brain that is much more sensitive to morphic resonance, it is the degree to which the left brain can participate in this resonance that enables integration of desires, meanings and beliefs. The left brain left to itself is liable to use representational, mechanistic, and generally metaphysical ways of understanding and interpreting experience, but if the right brain can communicate its more holistic understanding of form to the left, then the left brain is able to modify its understanding through greater connectivity of ideas.
Whether or not this idea turns out to work as an explanation on closer investigation, the whole concept of morphic resonance seems an extremely rich one. It explains how our apparent selves at different times are unified by memory. It explains our sense of empathy, which is greater for those things that are closer to us in form but less for those things that are very different. It also explains our objectivity, as the adequacy of our experience in examining the world is broadened by our openness to morphic resonance rather than a mere representational model. Obviously it does not provide a complete explanation for any of these phenomena, but it does potentially provide another piece in the jigsaw. For example, if ourselves at different times are unified by morphic resonance in providing memory (as well as, Sheldrake suggests, anticipation) then we also need a recognition of the necessary role of the brain in picking up such resonance.
There are a number of limitations in this book, but then one would expect limitations and approximations in a book that breaks new ground. To expect a perfect account is to raise the bar unrealistically high. I felt that the main lacuna in Sheldrake’s book was philosophical. He does not explore the immense epistemological implications either of moving beyond the mechanistic scientific world-view or of adopting the hypothesis of morphic resonance.
What are the philosophical grounds on which we should accept or reject a new hypothesis of this kind? It is not enough to put all the emphasis on evidence, given that evidence is usually interpreted in relation to pre-conceived theories. Nor is it enough to merely insist dogmatically on a theory. As I have argued in my writings on Middle Way Philosophy, justification arises not just from coherence with existing beliefs and with evidence, but from a recognition of the fallibility of the theory. Sheldrake makes it clear that mechanistic science often does not recognise its own fallibility, and to that extent lacks justification. On the other hand, Sheldrake’s hypothesis of morphic resonance is only put forward as a hypothesis with a good deal more provisionality, so it passes that test. The arguments for how well justified it is will depend more on aspects of its coherence.
One thing that seems missing from Sheldrake’s account of morphic resonance is an explanation of when it doesn’t happen. For example, if morphic resonance accounts for memory by linking our selves at different times, what accounts for the failure of morphic resonance when we forget? The mechanism for not connecting may, as I have already suggested, involve some kind of interference from the left hemisphere of the brain, but Sheldrake does not attempt to clarify this point. Without an idea of when it should or should not happen, the hypothesis becomes scientifically unfalsifiable.
It may well be the kind of hypothesis that is better tested by individuals in experience than in a formal scientific context. In a formal scientific context, falsifiability has to consist of specific predictions that can be publically and preferably repeatedly observed that would disconfirm the theory. It may well be that morphic resonance cannot be falsified in this way, because the conditions when it would not occur cannot be fully specified. For example, in trying to account for telepathy, it is not enough to use morphic resonance to account for inexplicable cases. If morphic resonance is to advance from being a hypothesis into being a theory it will need to explain in what circumstances telepathy does not occur. Why, for example, am I not aware my wife’s thoughts and feelings at this moment, when she is in another room out of sight and earshot? In the cases that Sheldrake offers, when he says that telepathy occurs in a statistically significant number of cases (which prevent us from dismissing telepathically transmitted ideas as merely held coincidentally by both parties), why does it only occur on those occasions rather than all or most of the time?
However, if morphic resonance remains the best available explanation for such phenomena as telepathy, when they do occur, we can simply recognise as individuals that we have no clear idea of the principles of falsification that would apply to them. We can nevertheless apply a requirement of falsifiability for ourselves as individuals, by maintaining our own expectations of how that theory will prove useful to us in experience, within a certain time-frame that we define for ourselves. The theory would be falsified in this instance if it ceased to provide fruitful explanations for experience, or if it was superseded by a better theory.
Many of Sheldrake’s critics appear to have made a philosophical misjudgement about the kind of theory he is putting forward. It is not an alternative mechanistic theory, so it is not fair to judge it by mechanistic standards. On the other hand it is not pseudoscience: it is not a matter of wishful thinking, or ad hoc hypotheses, or appeals to traditional authority. Homeopathy could aptly be described as pseudoscience because it makes specific predictions which are not disconfirmed when its sugar-pills perform no better than placebo. Creationism is a pseudoscience because it persists in offering unfalsifiable alternatives to the better-evidenced and more coherent theories offered by evolutionary biology. Morphic resonance is not a theory that should be lumped in with such bad company, because it does not make such precise claims, because it is pursued without metaphysical certainties, and because it recognises its own fallibilities. It is a hypothesis that opens up new possibilities for exploration, both scientific and philosophical.
One example of the narrow expectations of some of Sheldrake’s critics is found in Richard Wiseman’s comments on the Jaytee experiments conducted by Sheldrake[i]. Wiseman argues that there are other possible hypotheses that could explain the frequency of the dog returning to the porch, such as the dog’s increasing anxiety after the owner has been away for some time. There are similar objections to Sheldrake’s experiments on people’s ability to detect when they are being stared at, again based on the possibility of alternative hypotheses. However, all this shows is that Sheldrake’s case is not fully proven. From a philosophical point of view, no scientific case is fully proven – there are just some cases better evidenced than others. Alternative hypotheses are always possible: the question is whether these hypotheses are intended mainly as ad hoc attempts to defend mainstream theory, or whether they offer fruitful further predictions. The value of Sheldrake’s experiments, as Sheldrake himself seems to acknowledge, lies in showing the need for further investigation by opening up matters that many scientists seem to have considered closed.
The arguments between Sheldrake and his critics particularly seem to indicate to me the importance of psychological criteria of objectivity. Sheldrake’s scientific objectivity does not consist in the details of his investigatory technique in particular cases, but in the balance he manages to strike between putting a coherent case for his interpretation of the evidence and recognising the fallibility of his hypotheses. As far as I can judge – from a standpoint that is, of course, mainly philosophical rather than scientific in any technical sense – Sheldrake tends to strike that balance much better than many of his critics do.