30 March 2013


Rupert Sheldrake. The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry. Coronet, 2013.

Lawrence M Krauss. A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. With an afterword by Richard Dawkins. Simon and Schuster, 2012.

These books are excellent examples of how science can become caught up in culture wars. Even though he was trained as a naturalist, Rupert Sheldrake does not really like modern science at all. This is because he sees it as materialistic and atheistic. Lawrence Krauss represents just that sort of atheistic science that Sheldrake deplores.
The science in Krauss’s book is fine, and presents modern cosmological ideas in a way open to the lay person, and shows some considerable scepticism towards string theory and the like. The problem is that it is used to bolster a personal ideological position, anti-theism. In itself the latter is also fine, it is the linking of the two together, so that science becomes a battering ram against ideas the author disapproves of that creates problems.

Equally there are aspects of Sheldrake’s arguments which are (at least to me) unexceptional, for example the possibly that physical ‘constants’ may actually fluctuate over time, and how standardisation of definitions may prevent this being detected. He is surely right in arguing that sceptics should not dismiss possible new phenomena on purely metaphysical grounds. The interesting thing is that in mainstream science, scientists don’t actually do this; when reliable claims for compounds for what were then called the ‘inert gases’ came in the 1960s they were taken up not suppressed. The claims for cold fusion and faster than light neutrinos both led to races to replicate the experiments not to suppress them; mainstream palaeoanthropology took the ‘hobbit’ in its stride, and now has taken ‘modern’ human/Neanderthal interbreeding on board. Physicists in Germany have now found a ‘trick’ to get a gas below absolute zero (at least on one metric), which is about as ‘impossible’ as it comes.

If science can entertain the possibility of faster than light neutrinos and below zero gases (regardless as to whether the claims will eventually pan out) then why do the claims advanced by people like Sheldrake lead to such ire? You might think it as something to do with evidence, but I suspect it is more to do with the fact that these claims are advanced by people like Sheldrake, who advance them not because they have an interest in the anomalies as a means of advancing mainstream scientific knowledge, but in order to subvert the whole scientific world view.

The particular claims advanced by Sheldrake may or may not be true, whether dogs can know when their owners are coming home, whether animal behaviour can predict earthquakes or people can tell when someone is staring at them, and so on, but they would not be any more ‘impossible’ than some other things that science has found an acceptance for, however difficult their explanation might be. The real problem is that he, and others like him, are not really interested in the anomalous ‘facts’ themselves, but as weapons in the ideological struggle against ‘materialism’.

The first problem is the use of that word ‘materialism’, actually Sheldrake means ‘physicalism’ or more generally ‘scientific naturalism’. Sheldrake says he uses the word ‘materialism’ because it is better known, I suspect he is being disingenuous here, and uses ‘materialism’ because it sounds more pejorative.

Now he is perfectly free to reject ‘naturalism’ as an absolute metaphysical truth, but not to reject ‘operative scientific naturalism’, because that is the rule of the game called science, a rule (with very few exceptions) accepted by theists, deists, agnostics and atheists alike when doing science, it allows people with very different religious and philosophical backgrounds to work together with a common language.

Despite his Jeremiads against ‘materialist’ science, and for a naturalist he gives me the impression of not actually liking the messy world of plain natural stuff very much, his own theories really do not make much actual difference. ‘Morphic fields’ if they exist are part of the natural, physical world, they must be to have an impact on the physical world, if some influence causes people to be aware they are being stared at, then this influence must be part of the physical world. Indeed the strange quasi-Platonic theory of vision that Sheldrake advances seems to be to be more materialistic than anything in the mainstream.

Add to that his wholesale rejection of much of modern biology and empirical experience, it seems there is little room for dialogue. Those with radical ideas, who tend to argue that everyone else is wrong fall into two classes; visionaries and cranks. The former come up with genuinely new ideas that no-one has thought of before, they are few and far between, and a fair proportion are genuinely mad. Cranks on the other hand look backwards to past ideas and the day before yesterday’s orthodoxy, they recycle old ideas, cite old sources and quote old authorities. I rather fear that Sheldrake is closer to the latter than the former.

That said there is no doubt that the kind of quasi-religious scientism increasingly promoted by Dawkins and his allies does science no real good. The strange fact is that Sheldrake and Dawkins come from rather similar backgrounds, middle class, religiously orientated boarding school educated, English naturalists and appear to have come to diametrically opposed world views, yet perhaps share a common intolerance of views other than their own, and quite impressive sense of self confidence. -- Peter Rogerson


Pavel Chichikov said...

Rupert Sheldrake is not a "naturalist". He is a biologist with excellent credentials.

He states that he is in favor of advancing science, not of opposing its advancement. His book is partly a critique of Hume's materialism and exaggerated skepticism, and that of his followers and intellectual allies.

I do not understand why you lean towards describing Sheldrake as a crank.

His critique of the materialist notion of mind as an epiphenomenon of the three and a half pound wet cell battery called the brain is incisive and at times funny.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand this argument of yours:

"real problem is that he, and others like him, are not really interested in the anomalous ‘facts’ themselves"

He has spend more than two decades EMPIRICALLY researching the aforementioned anomalies and has additionally tried to build a hypothesis (morphic fields) which might account for some of these effects. Of course it's not a scientifically falsiable theory yet. Not enough data to go around for that. But it is a decent working hypothesis.

So, I think you've got it TOTALLY backwards.

Sheldrake is PRIMARILY interested in studying and understanding the aforementioned anomalies.

He is only wanting to attack materialistic positivism, BECAUSE it's most ardent supporters are using scientism and dogma to try and prevent him from even voicing his hypotheses, not to mention of getting actual grant money to to scientific experiments.

If the idiots like [names withheld to protect the guilty] left him alone, he'd be quite happy studying away experimentally and not boterhing in all this metaphysical argumentation.

But he is being prevented, ridiculed and scorned by people who should know better (i.e. use the scientific method, and not ad hominem sophistry), so what does he have left as options? To defend the search for truth via experimental science, wherever it may lead us.

Swiftsure said...

If Rupert Sheldrake has spent more than two decades failing to build a hypothesis that is scientifically falsifiable, then whatever he is doing, it is not science.

A "morphic field" is as decent (and testable) a hypothesis as the tooth fairy theory of dentistry.

Lawrence said...

Actually the morphic resonance/field theory of Sheldrake's is falsifiable, whether one thinks it bunk or otherwise. That is why there have been a series of experiments to test for it, over the last three decades (since the initial publication of 'A New Science of Life') and doubtless more experiments to come. Just do some cursory research there...

Sheldrake is a very competent, experienced and innovative scientist, even if one doesn't always agree with him. Cambridge trained and with a background in plant physiology and plant breeding, he has made important contributions on that front. He is also very knowledgeable on the history and philosophy of science. His contributions to parapsychology cannot be dismissed lightly, except by people whose minds are already made up.

Rogerson taking Sheldrake to task for using the term 'materialism', rather than 'physicalism', is simply laughable. The term 'scientific materialism' is the most commonly used among the general public, and God forbid, even among scientists, historians and philosophers of science and academics, in articles and books, the term 'scientific materialism' is routinely used. Really it is.

I'll give Rogerson something: he is so predictable.

Swiftsure said...

What, exactly, would falsify the morphic resonance/field hypothesis? (It is still a hypothesis, by the way, and not a theory in the scientific sense.)

Anonymous said...

What a ridiculous hit piece