Rupert Sheldrake, a Cambridge-trained biochemist and plant physiologist, is a prominent public intellectual critical of the authoritarianism and closed-mindedness that he finds increasingly typical of mainstream science.
Sheldrake is the author of numerous best-selling books, including A New Science of Life (1981), The Rebirth of Nature (1990), The Presence of the Past (1988), Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999), The Sense of Being Stared At (2003), and, most recently, Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery (2012). This interview will focus especially on Science Set Free (titled The Science Delusion in the U.K.), which concentrates on the scientific enterprise as such and the obstacles to its proper pursuit.
Sheldrake has taken on the role of scientific “gadfly” in the proud tradition of Socrates, urging scientists to question received wisdom and to remove ideological blinders. More information about Rupert Sheldrake may be found on his website.
▶ Be sure to follow Dr. Sheldrake’s dialogue with skeptic Michael Shermer on the nature of science.
Rupert Sheldrake Interview
Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview with TheBestSchools.org. Would you begin by giving us a quick sketch of your background? When and where you were born? What were your family’s circumstances? What was your religious upbringing, if any? And please describe your education and early career.
I was born on June 28, 1942, in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, in the English Midlands, and was brought up there. My family were devout Methodists. I went to a high church Anglican boarding school. I was for a while torn between these two very different traditions—one Protestant and the other Anglo-Catholic with incense and all the trappings of Catholicism.
From a very early age I was interested in plants and animals. My father was an amateur naturalist, microscopist, and pharmacist and he encouraged this interest. My mother put up with it. I kept lots of animals at home.
I knew from quite an early age that I wanted to do biology, and I specialized in science at school. Then I went to Cambridge where I studied biology and biochemistry. However, as I proceeded in my studies, a great gulf opened between my original inspiration—namely an interest in actual living organisms—and the kind of biology I was taught: orthodox, mechanistic biology which essentially denies the life of organisms, but instead treats them as machines.
There seemed to be very little connection between the direct experience of animals and plants and the way I was learning about them, manipulating them, dissecting them into smaller and smaller bits, getting down to the molecular level, and seeing them as evolving by blind chance and the blind forces of natural selection.
I felt more and more that there was something wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. No one else seemed to think there was anything wrong. Then a friend who was studying literature lent me a book on German philosophy containing an essay on the writings of Goethe, the poet and botanist.
I discovered that Goethe, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, had a vision of a different kind of science—a holistic science that integrated direct experience and understanding. It didn’t involve breaking everything down into pieces and denying the evidence of one’s senses.
This discovery—the idea that there could be a different kind of natural science—filled me with great excitement. So invigorated was I by this prospect that I wanted to find out why science had become so mechanistic. I was fortunate to get a fellowship at Harvard where I spent a year studying history and philosophy of science.
Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1962) had recently come out, and it had a big influence on me, gave me a new perspective. It made me realize that the mechanistic theory of life was what Kuhn called a “paradigm”—a collectively held model of reality, a belief system.
He showed that periods of revolutionary change involved the replacement of old scientific paradigms by new ones. If science had changed radically in the past, then perhaps it could change again in the future. I was very excited by that.
When I got back to Cambridge, England, I did a Ph.D. on how plants develop, particularly working on the hormones within plants. I went on with my research on plant development and became a Research Fellow of Clare College in Cambridge and also a Research Fellow of the Royal Society, which gave me tremendous freedom, for which I’m very grateful.
For seven years I lived in seventeenth-century rooms in a beautiful courtyard. I had all my meals provided. All I had to do was wait for a bell to ring and I just walked across the courtyard, put on my academic gown, and at “high table” I was served delicious meals, with vintage wine from the well-stocked college cellars. After dinner we drank port in a paneled common room, called a “combination room,” and talked for hours. Since the fellows of the colleges are from all different subjects, I had many valuable opportunities for interdisciplinary discussion.
I was free to do whatever research I liked. The first year, I went off to Malaya because I wanted to study plants in rainforests. I traveled through India and Sri Lanka on the way, and that was a real eye-opener. Being in Asia showed me totally different ways of looking at the world.
When I got back to Cambridge, I went on with my work on plant development. As I did so, I became more and more convinced that the mechanistic approach simply could not work in understanding the development of living organisms.
Spirituality, mysticism, and Christianity have played a prominent role in your life. From your writings, one gets the sense that you are on a pilgrimage or quest. Could you elaborate on this aspect of your life? Was there a point in your life where you experienced what might be called a “religious conversion” (or perhaps several)?
With regard to your Christian faith, how would you characterize it? Is it broadly orthodox—do you, for instance, accept the Virgin Birth and bodily Resurrection of Christ? Can you forthrightly affirm the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed? Where might fundamentalists and evangelicals part company with you?
During the course of my scientific education at school, and then at Cambridge, I quickly realized that several of my science teachers were atheists, and that they regarded atheism as the normal position to have if you’re a scientist. It was just part of the standard scientific worldview; at least in Britain, science and atheism went together. I wanted to be a scientist, so it was part of a package deal, which I simply accepted.
I was the only boy in my school who refused to get confirmed at the age of 14, and when I went to Cambridge as an undergraduate I joined the Cambridge Humanist Association. However, after going to a few meetings I began to find it all a bit dull. Although I wanted to believe that there was no God and impersonal laws and blind chance had given rise to everything, I found it a strain.
When I received a grant in 1968 from the Royal Society to go and study tropical plants in Malaysia, at the University of Malaya, I traveled through India on the way there. I found India a very exciting place to be, and as I traveled through that country I encountered gurus and ashrams and temples, which opened my eyes to a range of phenomena I was completely unfamiliar with.
When I got back to England I got interested in exploring consciousness, and I had various psychedelic experiences, which convinced me that the mind was vastly greater than anything I’d been told about in my scientific education.
Then, I got interested in transcendental meditation because I wanted to be able to explore consciousness without drugs. I was increasingly intrigued by India, by yoga, and by meditation, and in 1974 I had a chance to go and work in India as Principal Plant Physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad.
I was thrilled by the idea of immersing myself in this exotic and fascinating culture. While I was in India, I visited temples and ashrams and I attended discourses by gurus and holy men. I also took up Sufism, and had a Sufi teacher in Hyderabad, who was the grandfather of a friend of mine. He gave me a Sufi mantra, a wazifa, which for about a year I practiced in a Sufi form of meditation. But I didn’t want to become a Sufi because in India to become a Sufi, you have to be a Muslim first and foremost, and that would have been too much of a stretch.
Then, an original idea crossed my mind: What about the Christian tradition? I hadn’t given it a thought. I spoke to a Hindu guru, and he said, “All paths lead to God. You come from a Christian family so you should follow a Christian path.”
The more I thought about it, the more sense it made, and I began to pray with the Lord’s Prayer, and I started going to church at the Anglican Church, St. John’s, Secunderabad. After a while I was confirmed, at the age of 34, by an Indian bishop in the Church of South India (an ecumenical church formed by the coming together of Anglicans and Methodists). I felt very happy to be reconnected with the Christian tradition.
I still felt a huge tension between the Hindu wisdom, which I felt was so deep, and the Christian tradition that seemed a bit shallow on the spirituality side. I then discovered a wonderful teacher, Father Bede Griffiths, who had a Christian ashram in South India. He was an English Benedictine monk who had lived there for 25 years when I met him. His ashram combined many aspects of Indian culture with Christian tradition. I wrote my first book, A New Science of Life, in his ashram.
When I got back to England, after a long period in India, I had a wonderful time rediscovering the English tradition. I rediscovered sacred places—England is full of them, great cathedrals and churches—and I started going to my local parish church in Newark-on-Trent and to cathedrals, where there is marvelous singing.
Instead of just seeing it as an aesthetic experience as I had done before, I now felt part of it and was very, very moved by it and felt privileged to be part of this tradition. So, since then it’s been my practice to go to church on Sundays whenever I can. I see the creeds first and foremost as statements of belief in God’s threefold nature. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity makes great sense to me. No doubt I differ from some people in my interpretation of the details. But probably even the most unbending literalists do not accept every part of it without some qualifications. For example, in the Apostle’s Creed when it says of Jesus Christ that “he sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” is he really sitting? And are God the Father and Jesus located in a particular place, a celestial throne-room? And does God the Father have right and left hands?
To what extent do you think the maverick path you ended up taking was forced on you by the empirical data themselves, and to what extent was it contingent on your being exposed to alternative ways of thinking in India and elsewhere? In other words, do you think you would have become the Rupert Sheldrake of today without the experience of living and working in a radically different cultural environment?
When I was 17, in the gap between leaving school and going to study at Cambridge, I worked as a temporary lab technician in a pharmaceutical laboratory, because I wanted to get some research experience. What I didn’t know when I took the job was that it was a vivisection facility.
Working there made me ask some deep questions about animals, animal suffering, scientific objectivity, and mechanistic attitudes to nature, which were put into practice on a daily basis in this laboratory, which was a kind of death camp for animals.
By the time I was studying biology as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I was already very doubtful about the reductionist and mechanist approach, which is why I welcomed the opportunity to study history and philosophy of science at Harvard after I graduated—to get a bigger perspective.
After Harvard, when I returned to Cambridge in 1964 and was doing research on plant development, I became convinced the molecular and reductionist approach would never enable us to understand the development of form. I became interested in the morphogenetic field concept, first put forward in the 1920s. Although I traveled in India and lived in Malaysia in 1968–9, it was reading books on theoretical biology and philosophy—especially the philosophy of Henri Bergson in his book Matter and Memory (1896)—that led to my developing the hypothesis of morphic resonance.
This was in 1973, while I was still in Cambridge, before I went to live and work in India in agricultural research. I continued to develop these ideas, and India was a good place to do this. After all, in Hindu philosophy the idea of a kind of memory in nature is commonplace, as it is in Buddhist philosophy.
My idea of an inherent memory in nature through morphic resonance did not seem weird to most of my Indian colleagues and friends. India provided a friendly environment for writing my first book, A New Science of Life (Blond & Briggs, 1981). But the basic ideas came from Western science and Western philosophy.
On p. 93 of your new book, Science Set Free (Deepak Chopra, 2012), you speak of the “intellectual phase-locking”—that is, the “group think” or herd mentality—that clearly plagues mainstream science today. We were wondering whether this was mainly due to the hubris that comes from the unprecedented social prestige scientists now enjoy, or whether it might not be more a matter of the metaphysical commitment to materialism that has been deeply ingrained in the scientific community for the past 400 years.
In other words, is the intellectual phase-locking of scientists more about arrogance and turf-protecting? Or is it more about their being in the grip of a misguided ideology? Or both? Please elaborate.
The materialist ideology promotes a high degree of conformity in scientific thinking because it is indeed ideological, and materialists are unforgiving towards heretical deviations from this belief system.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the atmosphere within biology became increasingly intolerant, at the same time as physics opened up a wider range of possibilities. There are still great limitations on what professional physicists can think, but there is a toleration of alternative interpretations of quantum mechanics, divergent interpretations of cosmology, the question of whether there is one universe or many, and so on.
Another reason for the greater uniformity of thinking is the professionalization of science. In the nineteenth century, many of the most creative scientists were not professionals. For example, Charles Darwin was an amateur naturalist living on a private income, with no academic post or government grant. He was much freer as a result.
Now, the vast majority of scientists rely on salaries and are far more aware of peer-group pressure. In fact, the peer-review system for jobs, grant applications, and publication of papers in journals means that peer pressure dominates their lives. In the nineteenth century, there were fewer constraints on creative and independent thinking.
Recently, summarizing your book Science Set Free at a TED talk, you addressed the problem of dogmatic materialism in science, only to have your TED talk banned because of pressure from, ahem, dogmatic materialists. The irony here is rich, with you becoming the victim of the very motions in science that you were criticizing. What’s up with that?
Yes, it is indeed ironic. Before it was banned, my TED talk had had about 35,000 views. Now it is all over the internet and has had at least 1.5 million views. The talk as well as my reaction to the controversy are covered in the following two YouTube videos:
One particularly enjoyable portion of your new book is the elegant way you take apart well-known “New Atheist” philosopher Anthony Grayling’s claim that religion is “hard-wired” in the human brain (pp. 35–36). You rightly raise the point that if this sort of reductionist-materialism were true, then Grayling’s thought itself would be hard-wired, and hence we would have no rational reason to believe it—or anything else he says.
But surely Grayling must know this argument very well already. So, what can he be thinking? Does he exempt himself from his own metaphysics? Or might such a performance by a world-renowned professor be due to narcissism—he says it because he is famous and can get away with it? What do you think is going on in the minds of people who say things like that—and unfortunately they are legion—when many of them must know better?
Anthony Grayling, like other materialists, seems to think that he is somehow exempt from the normal limitations of human thought, and free from the biases built into human minds through belief systems. Many materialists believe that they know the truth, while other people, particularly those who belong to religious traditions, are simply motivated by dogmatic beliefs.
For example, in his book Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), the atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that religious beliefs are like viruses of the brain. He proposes that religions involve units of cultural inheritance—for which he uses Richard Dawkins’s word “meme.” According to him, religions are “meme-complexes” that leap from brain to brain.
It does not seem to occur to Grayling that his own worldview is a meme-complex and that his own brain is heavily infected. If he were consistent, he would have to admit that this atheist meme-complex is manipulating his behavior, so that it might spread from his brain to other people’s brains.
But materialists cannot possibly be consistent. They believe that minds are nothing but the activity of brains and the activity of brains can ultimately be completely explained in terms of physical and chemical causation, together with blind chance. In other words, free will is an illusion.
This must mean that the materialist belief-system is self-refuting. If a materialist were consistent, he or she would have to believe that his or her own beliefs were caused by brain activity alone. Materialists’ brains make them believe in materialism. But, then, how can they try to persuade others to adopt this belief on the basis of science, reason, and evidence, if no one has free choice?
By their own account, materialists cannot have adopted their materialist belief system by rational choice—their brains make them believe it. And they cannot persuade others to believe it by science and reason—they can only pass on an infection.
Another important issue you raise in Science Set Free is the fact that “science” is not just one thing (p. 319). Rather, the sciences differ greatly from each other, especially with respect to the accuracy and reliability of their findings.
On p. 147, you cite the late, great French mathematician René Thom to the effect that the life sciences simply cannot be placed on an epistemic par with physics—a fact that completely undercuts the intellectual pretensions of reductionist-materialists like Grayling. Others, such as Nobel Prize—winning condensed matter physicist Robert B. Laughlin, have said similar things.
Here is our question: Why do you think the Steven Weinbergs and Stephen Hawkings of the world (who support Grayling) get all the attention, while the René Thoms and Robert Laughlins are ignored?
In the hierarchy of science, physicists are at the top. Think of the great founding fathers of mechanistic science in the seventeenth century: Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton. All were physicists and mathematicians.
The Enlightenment idea of reason was thought to be embodied in people like Newton. Biology was, until the nineteenth century, on a much lower rung of the scientific hierarchy, less a matter of discovering universal principles than of cataloguing and describing vast amounts of natural history. In the twentieth century, Einstein became the icon of scientific genius, and Stephen Hawking the closest that any scientist has ever come to fitting into the scientific mythology of scientists as disembodied minds.
In biology, Darwin did of course become an iconic figure, as did molecular biologists like Watson and Crick; but they were still engaged in a science that seems extremely provincial, confined to one planet in a vast universe, while physicists dealt with the universe itself and universal principles that govern matter, including living organisms.
And mechanistic biologists themselves support this way of thinking: the goal of reductionist biology is to turn life into a branch of physics, explaining organisms in terms of molecules, and then molecules in terms of atomic and subatomic physics.
The media pick up on this hierarchy and give far more prominence to physicists and physics than to the other sciences. So, it’s more about a human tendency to respond to power elites and social prestige than about a thoughtful discussion of open questions.
Like you, we at TBS are very much interested in doing what we can to help “extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable,” as Thomas Nagel put it in his recent book, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford University Press, 2012; p. 127). The reasons are many, but the overriding one is the danger we believe scientism poses to human freedom and dignity, as well as to morality and limited self-government.
At the same time, we believe that the most obvious way to reform science is by demonstrating a better way forward that is recognizable as such to scientists themselves. In other words, give scientists a better way of doing science and let them vote with their feet.
Therefore, we are leery of anything that smacks too much of so-called “New Age” thinking. Accordingly, we would like to devote a good part of this interview to pressing you on a number of scientific points, teasing apart what seem to us to be your most promising hypotheses and speculations, using your new book, Science Set Free (2013), as a constant point of reference. So, here goes.
First, let’s discuss “morphic resonance,” which appears to be your most widely discussed contribution. Could you begin by giving our readers a thumbnail sketch of the theory?
I completely agree that the best way to reform science is to demonstrate a better way forward, and to make science more interesting. My own critique of scientism has always been coupled with an attempt to provide alternative theories and practices, not only through my hypothesis of morphic resonance, but also through simple but radical experiments, as described in my books Seven Experiments That Could Change the World (Fourth Estate, 1994), Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (Crown, 1999), and The Sense of Being Stared At (Harmony, 2003).
In brief, morphic resonance is the hypothesis that there is a kind of inherent memory in nature. In the most general terms, the “laws of nature” are more like habits. Within each species, each individual draws upon a collective memory and in turn contributes to it. My proposal is that this works on the basis of similarity: the similarity of three-dimensional vibratory patterns in self-organizing systems.
Self-organizing systems include atoms, molecules, cells, organs, organisms, societies of organisms (like flocks of birds), solar systems, and galaxies. This definition excludes systems that do not organize themselves, like tables, chairs, and machines, which are put together according to external designs, to serve external purposes.
The hypothesis of morphic resonance predicts that new chemicals should get easier to crystallize as time goes on because the crystal forms become increasingly habitual, sustained by morphic resonance from increasing numbers of previous crystals of that type. Likewise, if animals, such as rats, learn a new trick in one place, rats all over the world should be able to learn it quicker. There is already evidence that these effects occur.
In a recent interview, you wrote: “The idea that animals and plants are machines is really Dogma Number One.” To which we can only say: “Amen!”
We, too, feel that it is in the arena of rethinking the fundamental nature of living systems—in “seeing past Darwin,” as we like to put it—that the fight to defend the human spirit against scientism can be most effectively joined. And that is one reason why we are so interested in your morphic resonance hypothesis.
In Science Set Free, you characterize this idea in a number of different ways. One—which is of particular interest to us—is in connection with the idea of virtual, phase-space attractors borrowed from the field of mathematics known as “dynamical systems theory” (AKA as “nonlinear dynamics” or, colloquially, “chaos theory”).
We see the Darwinian, reductionist approach to teleology, or goal-directedness—a property that is manifest in all living systems—as lying at the intellectual root of scientism, and we see nonlinear dynamics as a very fruitful way of tackling the problem of teleology head-on, by plowing straight through the Darwinian roadblock.
Would you agree? Or does your interest in nonlinear dynamics lie in a different direction from ours?
Dynamics is a branch of mathematical theory dealing with change, and a central concept in dynamics is that of the attractor. Instead of modelling what happens to a system by considering only the way it is pushed from behind, attractors in mathematical models provide an explanation in terms of a kind of pull from the future.
The principal metaphor is that of a basin of attraction, like a large basin into which small balls are thrown. It would be very complicated to work out the trajectory of each individual ball starting from its initial velocity and angle at which it hit the basin; but a simpler way of modelling the system is to treat the bottom of the basin as an attractor: balls thrown in from any angle and at any speed will end up at the bottom of the basin.
In the 1950s, the British embryologist C.H. Waddington proposed that morphogenetic fields (which he called “chreodes,” Greek for “necessary paths”) channeled developing organs and embryos towards attractors, understood as the form of the mature organ or organism. He compared organs developing under the influence of these fields to balls rolling down valleys.
Later, more technical mathematical models of morphogenetic fields and dynamical attractors were developed by René Thom and others. “Strange” or “chaotic” attractors, as they are called, are just one kind of attractor in dynamical systems theory.
The attractors within morphic fields are more complex, and perhaps less “chaotic.” The word “morphic” comes from the Greek word morphē, meaning “form,” and expresses the idea that morphic attractors pull developing systems towards them, and that the form of the attractor depends on a kind of memory given by morphic resonance.
Thus, for example, an oak seedling is attracted towards the mature form of an oak tree through the morphic attractor in its morphogenetic field. These attractors act as ends or goals, and in that sense are teleological, where “teleology” is the subject of ends or goals or purposes (from the Greek word telos meaning “end” or “goal”).
The idea of virtual, phase-space attractors has been developed by the American mathematician, Ralph H. Abraham, among others. You have collaborated with Abraham on three books. We are curious: Did your acquaintance with Abraham directly inspire the morphic resonance hypothesis? Or did you first develop your theory, and then see the relevance of Abraham’s work to yours only afterward?
I thought of the idea of morphic resonance in Cambridge in 1973. My first book, setting out this hypothesis, was published in 1981.
I first met Ralph Abraham in California in 1982 because he and his friend Terence McKenna had read my book and were interested in my work. At our first meeting, we found a great deal in common and had some extremely stimulating conversations.
The three of us continued to meet at least once a year until soon before Terence McKenna’s death in 2000. We published two books on the basis of our “trialogues.” Ralph and I remain good friends and continue to meet at least once a year. His insights into mathematics and the nature of attractors have influenced my own thinking considerably, but the basic idea of morphic resonance and morphic attractors was already there before I met him.
Many would say that the whole point of the concept of a virtual, phase-space attractor is that it helps us conceive of teleological or goal-directed action in living systems in a way that does not require us to say that there is “backwards causation” of the future on the past. And yet you are not bashful about invoking backwards causation in your work (e.g., p. 141). Why is that? Wouldn’t it be preferable to avoid backwards causation, if possible?
Attractors attract. In that sense they imply teleology or final causation, or the pull of ends or goals. So, there is a kind of virtual backwards causation from virtual ends or goals.
If I decide to visit San Francisco in six months’ time, that acts as a kind of virtual attractor: I book my airline tickets and make my arrangements in accordance with this plan, directed towards a future which does not yet exist.
I am not saying that all this is caused by my future stay in San Francisco, because all sorts of unforeseen circumstances could prevent my actually getting there. Nevertheless, I think in some situations there is a kind of backwards causation.
This is because I take seriously research within parapsychology. I think there is good evidence for precognitive dreams, and also for presentiment, whereby an emotional arousal can have a physiological arousing effect five or six seconds in advance.
Perhaps the intellectual world would be a neater place if we disregarded this evidence; but it can’t be disregarded just because it does not fit into a particular theory of time and causation.
So, in summary, I think that ends or goals are given by virtual futures that pull organisms towards them, but sometimes there are influences from actual futures, rather like occasional memories of the future.
Virtual attractors are purely mathematical concepts. The real question is: What type of physical field underlies the goal-directed behavior of living systems—including that of human beings—which then shows up as a closed, phase-space trajectory? Here, you speak of “morphic fields.” Fair enough. But what is a morphic field, exactly?
Fields are most generally defined as regions of influence. A magnetic field is within a magnet and is also a region of magnetic influence around it. The earth’s gravitational field is within the earth and stretches out invisibly far beyond it keeping the moon in its orbit.
Morphic fields are within and around self-organizing systems and contain attractors towards which the system develops. When a system has reached its final form—for example, in an insulin molecule or a Paramecium cell—its morphic field helps to stabilize its form and restore it after disturbances.
It’s hard to say exactly what a morphic field is. There are mathematical theories, such as those of René Thom, but these are models in multi-dimensional phase space, which is a specialized mathematical concept utterly obscure to everyone except professional mathematicians.
So, does this tell us what the fields are? Not really. But what is the exact nature of an electromagnetic field? Electrical and magnetic fields were first proposed by Michael Faraday in the 1830s, and he was unsure as to their nature. He put forward two possibilities. First, that they consist of strains and patterns in subtle matter, called the “ether.” Or, second, they were modifications of “mere space.”
James Clerk Maxwell took up the ether hypothesis in the 1860s in his famous equations of electromagnetism, but Einstein dropped the idea of the ether and reverted to something closer to Faraday’s idea of fields as modifications of mere space. Gravitational fields are also patterns in space. The gravitational field is not in spacetime, according to Einstein, it is spacetime.
Modern superstring theory tries to account for the physical fields of nature in terms of a 10- or 11-dimensional proto-field, in which the extra dimensions “curl up” to give the fields of nature as we know them.
So what, exactly, is any field?
When one posits a novel field, one ordinarily ties it in to a known phenomenon of some sort. For example, Herbert Fröhlich proposed a field for individual proteins (considered as electric dipoles), Mae-Wan Ho and Gerald H. Pollack have proposed fields for cytoplasm (considered as liquid crystals or gels), and Walter J. Freeman and Giuseppe Vitiello have proposed fields for the brain (considered as a collection “nerve cell assemblies” operating as coupled nonlinear oscillators).
What do you think of such proposals? Is this sort of work of potential use in developing the morphic field hypothesis? Or are these scientists doing something different from what you feel needs to happen?
When morphogenetic fields were first proposed in the early twentieth century, they were tied to known phenomena such as the growth of mushrooms or the development of embryos. They are fields underlying the development of form (from the Greek words morphē [form] and genesis [coming into being]).
According to my own hypothesis, individual proteins do indeed have morphogenetic fields and these may correspond with Fröhlich’s proposal, the morphogenetic field of cytoplasm may fit with Ho and Pollack’s proposals, and my idea of organizing morphic fields for brain activity may well correspond closely to Freeman and Vitiello’s proposal.
But if these scientists imply that the fields are somehow nothing but protein, cytoplasm, or brains, then they are using the term field in a misleading way. Fields are different from material objects. They are within and around them. A magnetic field does not stop at the surface of a magnet, and I would not expect a protein field or a cytoplasmic field to stop at the surface of a protein molecule or a cell.
As we read your work, the morphic fields you posit seem to be located in past states of the universe, so that the past is directly influencing the present. This is a very bold, and in some ways attractive, hypothesis. However, it seems to underwrite the “block universe” view of time (also known as “eternalism”), in which all times—the future, the present, and the past—are equally real.
If one combines your “presence of the past” hypothesis with what you say about backwards causation—which implies the reality and hence the fixity of the future—it seems you are committed to eternalism. But most would say that eternalism—which many reductionist-materialist physicists and philosophers favor—is inconsistent with free will, which you also say you believe in.
The “growing block” picture—in which the present and the past, but not the future, are real—might be one way out. But many would say it is ad hoc. The “presentist” intuition that the past no longer exists, the future does not yet exist, and only the present is real is very robust. Could you speak to these concerns?
The “block universe” theory seems to me completely untenable precisely because it treats the future as fixed. But apart from common sense or logical objections, it is also in severe conflict with quantum physics, which treats the future as open and describable only in terms of probabilities.
The entire morphic field hypothesis depends on this openness and indeterminism of systems at all levels of complexity, from electrons to molecules to brains to flocks of birds. In this sense it is far more compatible with quantum physics than with a block universe. And insofar as there can be an influence from the future to the past, as in precognition, this does not imply that the entire universe is fixed.
The evidence from psychic research and parapsychology suggests that people can only have precognitions of things they themselves experience in the future. It’s like a memory of their own future, just as normal memory is a memory from their own past. And such influences from the future are rare and would give no ground for thinking that the entire future of the whole universe is fixed in every respect.
The “growing block” or “presentist” pictures are more plausible. But I’m not sure that they are radically different from each other. It’s true that in the presentist picture, the past may no longer exist in the same sense that the present exists, but it continues to exert a huge influence on the present, both through memory and through causal connections.
The fact that Mount Everest continues to be where it is depends on causal influences in the past that pushed it up and on the persistence of matter through the past being carried over into the present continuously, which I interpret as a kind of self-resonance whereby in any given system, the continuation of that system depends on a resonance from its own past.
But presentism and a growing block picture must both include virtual futures. The development of plants and the behavior of animals and of human beings are incomprehensible if one leaves virtual futures out of the picture. These include goals, probabilities, and possibilities.
It does not seem to me at all ad hoc to suppose that the past and the future are not symmetrical. The past influences the present through causal chains and through memories, and the future influences the present through virtual futures and choices among them. This corresponds with our own experience and seems to be quite generally the case in nature.
Only an obsession with the supremacy of mathematics and the assumption of complete symmetry between past and future can make one arrive at the block universe view, which so defies common sense and our own experience, as well as quantum physics.
One approach to combatting scientism would be to develop the notions of “emergence” and “top-down causation” in a more rigorous way. It is true that many thinkers dismiss “emergence” as unintelligible—little better than “pixie dust,” as one philosopher once put it. But can it be put on a firmer conceptual foundation by being tied to such relatively well-established physical concepts as symmetry breaking, the renormalization group, phase transitions, and effective field theories.
You mention “emergence” here and there, but do not do much with the idea. What is your conception of emergence? Do you think it is a helpful notion? Or do you find it impossibly vague or ambiguous?
I take it as axiomatic that nature is organized in many levels, and at each level there is a wholeness that includes parts, which are themselves wholes containing parts, and so on.
Thus, crystals are wholes with their own pattern of organization containing parts, which are molecules with their own structures and organization, which contain atoms of different kinds with their own quantum mechanical structures, and these in turn contain electrons and nuclei, and nuclei are made up of subatomic particles such as protons and neutrons, held together by other particles, and so on.
Or flocks of birds made up of individual birds which contain organs, which contain tissues, which contain cells, which contain organelles, which contain molecules . . .
This is just the way the world is. Attempts to justify emergence, or the appearance of higher-level wholes from lower-level ones, based on physical or mathematical principles like phase transitions and symmetry-breaking seem to concede a reductionist approach from the outset: all appearance of higher-levels of organization ultimately needs to be explained in terms of fundamental physical particles.
I don’t agree with that. Physicists know very little about biology or psychology, and there’s no reason to assume that quantum principles that have a limited utility in explaining, say, the chemistry of simple molecules will explain the rest of nature.
Also, the usual use of the word “emergence” treats it as if more complex systems have emerged from simpler ones in a temporal sequence, so that larger wholes are always derived from smaller ones. But according to physics itself, this is not always the case. Modern big-bang cosmology starts from an initial cosmic singularity that contains all potentialities. As the universe grows, new forms and patterns emerge within it, including atoms, molecules, galaxies, and stars. But there is always a higher-level whole within which these lower-level wholes come into being, namely, the entire universe and the universal gravitational field.
Likewise, the evolution of life on earth has taken place within the larger field of our solar system, and that in turn is located within the larger fields of the galaxy. So, it’s always possible to see both top-down appearance of lower-level wholes from higher-level wholes, and the emergence of higher-level wholes from lower level wholes. I see no reason to give a special privilege to the physics of the microscopic or to physical principles that were developed with no reference to living organisms or minds.
I do not often use the word “emergence” because it carries with it so much baggage, especially the attempt to explain wholes in terms of parts in a kind of historical sequence. But, of course, I agree with the idea of higher-level wholes, which I think of as “holons” or morphic units.
Another crucial idea on the contemporary intellectual scene is “information.” You recently endorsed a book by our colleague William A. Dembski on the subject (Being as Communion [Ashgate, 2014]), which in effect develops John Archibald Wheeler’s notion of “its from bits”—that is, that matter/energy (“its”) derive from information (“bits”), information itself being viewed as a primitive physical concept that cannot be further reduced.
Some object to this idea on the ground that “information” is an inherently semantic and intentional concept. On this view, Wheeler and Dembski are trading on an equivocation between Claude Shannon’s mathematical treatment of the carrying capacity of a communication channel—which considers “information” from a purely syntactical point of view—and “information” in the ordinary sense of the word in which the meaning of a message is of the essence. If that is true, then to posit “information” as a physical primitive is in effect to sneak mind into matter by the back door.
What is your view on this dispute? Do you think that Wheeler and Dembski are on to something important? If so, how would you respond to the criticism that they are simply begging the question of the origin of mind?
I myself prefer to avoid using the word “information” precisely because of the ambiguity between its technical meaning in information theory, and its everyday meanings. Instead, I prefer more general term “form.”
It’s obvious when we look around us that the world is full of forms: beech tress, hyacinths, cats, cars, people, planets—and the study of chemistry and physics has revealed many more forms at the microscopic level, like the forms of crystals, molecules, and atoms.
To talk of these forms as “patterns of information” adds nothing, but causes a fog of confusion and ambiguity. “In-form-ation” is that which puts form into things, and in that sense morphic fields are information, but calling them “information” evokes an inappropriate kind of scientific jargon. No one has specified the information in, say, a giraffe or a palm tree in mathematical terms, and it doesn’t help much to pretend that this could be done in principle.
I think that the phrase “its from bits” prioritizes a kind of atomistic view of information which is inappropriate for biological forms. I do, however, think that matter/energy consists of energy bound within fields which give form and pattern to the energy, and that these fields themselves have forms that depend on morphic resonance. Here, the morphic fields are primitive physical concepts that cannot be further reduced, and I think this is clearer and less ambiguous than attributing these properties to information conceived of as “bits.” The most important point about morphic fields is that they are not “bits” at all: they are wholes.
I don’t think the idea of forms and morphic fields begs the question of the origin of minds. Plants had forms before animals had eyes to see them, and no one usually thinks of plants as having minds—unless such minds are conceived of in an Aristotelian sense, as teleological organizing principles, for which Aristotle used the word psychē, or soul. But he was not suggesting the souls of plants were conscious.
Here is a related question. On pp. 286–287 of Science Set Free, in connection with the failings of materialist-mechanistic biology and medicine, you discuss Ray Kurzweil’s obsessive interest in cryogenics as a way of “cheating death.” But there is a sense in which Kurzweil is no materialist. After all, he is also famous for wanting to “upload” his mind into “better hardware.” And if “information” is what is really fundamental—if “its” really are derived from “bits”—then maybe Kurzweil is not as crazy as he sounds.
What do you think of the underlying idea that the human mind is just “software” running on the “hardware” of the brain? How does this idea—which is quite popular, perhaps even the consensus view—comport with your idea of morphic fields and morphic resonance?
The software/hardware duality is indeed a very popular modern metaphor for the relation of mind and body. But it is of course inherently dualistic. The hardware is thought of as like the machinery of the body and the software as like the purposive intelligence of minds.
Most people who claim to be mechanistic are in fact crypto-dualists. When the materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett uses this hardware/software duality, he thinks he is being hard-nosed and mechanistic, but he’s actually promoting a dualistic metaphor not unlike the Cartesian dualism of soul and body.
One of the attractions of old-style dualism was that the soul could survive the death of the body. And, interestingly, the founding father of modern computing theory, Alan Turing, was obsessed with this duality precisely because he wanted to have a model for understanding how the soul could survive bodily death. If the software could be taken from one computer and put into another, he had a good analogy for survival and reincarnation. He was very preoccupied with this issue because he was so grief-stricken after the death of his boyfriend, Christopher. So, Ray Kurzweil is simply following a well-established dualistic tradition.
The idea of minds as made up of morphic fields is less dualistic than a hardware/software model, because in brains there is no mechanical hardware from this point of view. The morphic fields of minds work on the activity of brains, and the fields of brains work on the fields of the tissues within them, which in turn work on the morphic fields of the cells. It’s morphic fields all the way down—not morphic fields, and then some kind of material machinery that works on purely mechanical principles.
In chapter 10 of Science Set Free you discuss alternative medicine. For the sake of our readers, how do you distinguish alternative from mainstream medicine? How do you see them as relating to and complementing/supplementing each other? Are there some physical problems for which you would rule out alternative medicine and look exclusively to mainstream medicine (such as, perhaps, setting a broken bone or vaccination for rabies)? Are there other physical and emotional problems where you would look to alternative therapies? What would be examples of the latter?
Are there some alternative therapies that you regard as especially effective? If so, which ones? What have you personally witnessed that, to you, provides convincing evidence of the effectiveness of alternative therapies?
Your wife Jill Purce, a renowned voice teacher, is herself a professional alternative therapist, working in Bert Hellinger’s Family Constellation therapy. How has her work as a therapist affected your view of alternative medicine?
All forms of medicine depend on some degree on the body’s own capacity to heal itself. Long before modern surgery was invented, people were using splints and bandages to help keep broken bones in position so they could set, through the self-healing powers of the body.
Most mainstream modern medicine is based on physical and chemical interventions through surgery and drugs, but even in conventional medicine it is widely recognized that a patient’s hopes, fears, expectations, and beliefs affect the healing process. Depressed people generally have less effective immune systems, for example, and people who believe they are getting a new wonder drug are often cured by it, even if it’s a sugar pill. Placebo effects occur in both mainstream and alternative medicine.
Complementary and alternative medical systems involve a very varied range of treatments, some of Western origin, like homeopathy, and some derived from other cultures, like acupuncture and ayurvedic medicine.
The definition of where mainstream medicine ends and alternative medicine begins is not particularly watertight: it depends partly on current fashions and practices within medical schools, doctors’ clinics, and hospitals. But many alternative therapies claim success in treating some of the people some of the time, and so does mainstream medicine.
I don’t doubt that some alternative therapies can be very effective for some conditions and what I advocate in Science Set Free is a program of comparative effectiveness research, where people suffering from conditions like chronic back pain or cold sores are allocated at random to practitioners of a variety of therapies that claim to be able to cure these problems, including some who are sent to regular orthodox general practitioners.
Then, the question would be: Which treatment works best for which conditions? If an alternative therapy turned out to be best for some condition, skeptics might say this is just because it involved a bigger placebo effect. But in a pragmatic evaluation of treatment methods, it would not matter how it was explained. There is nothing wrong with an enhanced placebo effect. The point of this research is simply to find out what works, and also what works in the most cost-effective manner.
If through such research it turns out that for some conditions alternative or complementary therapies are better than orthodox medicine, then health insurance companies and national health services could probably become more effective and cheaper to run, while still being evidence-based. I think it’s quite likely that for back pain, for example, osteopathy, acupuncture, and chiropraxis are effective, while for some chronic skin conditions homeopathy or ayurvedic medicine may be especially effective.
When I lived in India, there was a general consensus that for certain diseases one would go to see a homeopath, for others, like jaundice, an unani (Muslim) practitioner, because unani doctors, or hakims, had a particularly effective herbal cure for jaundice. For acute infections, most people would go to see a regular doctor and get antibiotics. I like this pragmatic, non-ideological approach and I think we need more of it in the West.
Family Constellation therapy has more to do with emotional and psychological conditions, including patterns of relationship within families, and emphasizes the role of patterns in the previous generations of the family, many of which are unconscious. I think this form of work can be very effective, and I think of the field of the family as a morphic field, inheriting by morphic resonance patterns set up in previous generations, of which present members of family may be unaware, even though these patterns are influencing their own behavior unconsciously.
You accept that psi phenomena (telepathy, ESP, paranormal activity, etc.) are real. What convinces you of their reality? And why do skeptics like James Randi, who make it their livelihood debunking psi phenomena, remain so unconvinced?
According to Dean Radin, psi phenomena have extremely strong statistical backing (with significance levels better than one in a billion), and yet they are weak in the sense that they don’t permit anyone to beat the lottery or win consistently in Las Vegas. Do you agree?
If you wanted to convince, not a hardened skeptic like Randi, but someone who was open to psi phenomena but currently unpersuaded, what resources would you recommend that he or she should consult (books, videos, organizations, etc.)?
I think that phenomena like telepathy are real because they happen spontaneously in the course of normal life, and also they are supported by a great deal of experimental evidence.
I have had many dealings with self-proclaimed skeptics and it has become obvious to me that their opposition to these phenomena is not based on a careful study of the evidence, but rather on materialist ideology, which says that minds are nothing but brains, and so if all mental activity is located inside the head, it cannot possibly have effects at a distance.
Therefore, psychic phenomena like telepathy are impossible. And therefore all the evidence for them must be flawed or fraudulent, and people who believe in these things are subject to delusions.
In my various encounters with skeptics like Richard Dawkins, James Randi, Daniel Dennett, and Michael Shermer, I have found that they have no interest in looking at the evidence because they know in advance it must be false. In other words, their position is one of prejudice rather than open-minded scientific enquiry. In that sense, I think they are deeply anti-scientific.
Some of the phenomena studied under rather artificial conditions by parapsychologists show only fairly weak effects, but in the real world telepathy may operate much more reliably. For example, I have done studies on telepathy between mothers and their babies, and the mothers often know quite accurately when their baby needs them even when they are miles away. Similarly, many dogs and cats seem to know when their owners are coming home and wait for them at a door or window in a reliable and repeatable way.
I agree that psychic abilities may be much weaker when it comes to winning lotteries or beating the casino in Las Vegas, but these are not the kinds of situations in which psi is expressed in the real world. In my own research, I have concentrated on common, everyday psi phenomena that most people have personally experienced, like the sense of being stared at, pets knowing when their owners are coming home, telepathic bonds between mothers and children, and telephone telepathy (thinking of someone for no apparent reason who then calls).
For anyone interested in reading more about these subjects, I would recommend my own books Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals, and The Sense of Being Stared At, and Other Unexplained Powers of Human Minds, already mentioned above. I would also recommend Dean Radin’s book Entangled Minds (Paraview, 2006).
On my own website, there are more than 40 of my own papers on these kinds of phenomena in peer-reviewed journals, as well as several videos showing experiments with animals and people. There are also several experiments that people can try for themselves.
For anyone who thinks that the self-proclaimed skeptics are coming from a rigorously scientific position, I would recommend taking a look at an excellent website called Skeptical About Skeptics, which examines skeptics’ claims and shows how most skeptics who are prominent in the media have a decidedly unscientific approach to evidence. They are deniers rather than genuine skeptics.
In Chapter 11 of Science Set Free, regarding the objectivity of science, you mention the very many ways in which scientists—who are after all only fallible human beings—may fall short of the ideal of objectivity. No one can quarrel with this. But then you make a pretty strong claim: “The supposed objectivity of the ‘hard sciences’ is an untested hypothesis” (p. 307).
We would like to say in reply that science is a normative enterprise, meaning that it can be done well or badly. The norms or ideals that govern—or ought to govern—scientific practice were summarized by Robert K. Merton long ago: disinterestedness; organized skepticism; transparency; and universality; among others. To which, of course, must be added the ordinary, everyday virtues of diligence, honesty, fairness, and so forth.
The question, then, is this: Are the authoritarianism and closed-mindedness that are increasingly plaguing science today a result of the inherent subjectivity of all human knowledge? Or are they not rather the result of the progressive breakdown of the traditional Mertonian norms due to new temptations (power, greed, ideology, fashion, etc.) that have arisen due to Big Science, and which are posing an unprecedented challenge to the ordinary fallen human nature of scientists?
In other words, is science really irremediably subjective? Or is it being corrupted (which implies it has fallen away from the ideal of objectivity)?
I am all in favor of the scientific ideals enunciated by Robert Merton and by others. But in science, as in any other human endeavor, there is an enormous gap between the ideals and reality.
For example, Christians would presumably all subscribe to a belief in the importance of lovingkindness and forgiveness, and yet many Christians have taken part in wars that involve mass slaughter and great cruelty.
Everyone can see that there is a gulf between ideals and reality in ordinary life, without rejecting the ideals. But in the sciences, there has been a remarkable degree of self-deception through scientists’ believing their own rhetoric about objectivity.
I’m not suggesting that most scientists are behaving fraudulently or deceitfully. But it has become increasingly apparent in the past few years that much of established science is a house of cards. For instance, recently a high proportion—more than 80 percent—of the key papers in biomedical science have turned out not to be replicable.
The same has become apparent in the realms of psychology and other sciences, too. The main reason for this unreliability seems to be that scientists publish only a small proportion of their data, usually the proportion that shows the most impressive results, namely, results that agree with their hypothesis. As much as 80 percent of the data may not be published because it does not fit in with the experimenters’ expectations, or it does not make sense. This inevitably imparts a major bias to papers published in scientific journals.
For years, defenders of scientific orthodoxy have argued that the objectivity of science is guaranteed by replication and the peer-review process. But it has become glaringly obvious within the scientific world that this is not the case. First of all, scientists get very little credit for replicating other people’s results. Such research is regarded as unoriginal and is generally discouraged. And even if scientists do carry out replications of other people’s research, scientific journals will often refuse to publish them on the grounds they are not original. Journals also have a strong bias against publishing negative results.
Meanwhile, peer review is not necessarily a guarantee of quality. Moreover, it can militate against originality because peer reviewers, who operate anonymously, tend to defend the status quo. And many of them simply don’t have time to read very thoroughly the papers they are asked to review. Recently, in an experiment on peer reviewing, dozens of nonsense papers, generated by computers, were submitted to peer-reviewed journals and more than half of them were accepted!
A new mood of humility is apparent within the sciences, and the complacency that for decades has enabled scientists to imagine that just because they were scientists they were objective is melting away. Discussion of questionable research practices is going on throughout the scientific world at present, and hopefully will lead to better research procedures.
It has struck us that many of the best-known critics of reductionism in biology (Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose) are “men of the left.” We don’t know your politics, but we have two questions in this connection.
First, is it correct to say that, generally speaking, there is a left-wing flavor to the opposition to reductionist science? If so, why do you think that is?
While it is of course true that there is even more opposition to scientism on the political right (where it is predominantly religious in inspiration), why could one not—at least in principle—take the sort of scientific approach you take to anti-reductionism, and yet be a classical liberal in politics, rejecting collectivism, Big Government, and technocratic control of society by a managerial elite?
Philosophical materialism contains several schools of thought. The kind we are most familiar with in the West is reductive materialism, based on the idea that the best explanations are those in terms of the smallest particles, so that physical systems should ultimately be explained in terms of subatomic particles, living organisms in terms of molecules, minds in terms of nerve activity, and so on.
But until the 1980s there was a major alternative kind of materialism in the form of Marxism. The entire Soviet Empire and indeed Communist China were officially based upon this philosophy. The dialectical materialism of Marx was, by his own account, based on the German philosopher Hegel’s philosophical system, but whereas Hegel talked in terms of the evolution of spirit, Marx thought in terms of the evolution of matter.
Hegel’s “dialectic” had it that a thesis would be opposed by an antithesis, which would then result in a new, higher-level synthesis, which included both of the previous steps within a larger whole. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels applied these principles to matter, and argued in terms of the appearance of new higher-level wholes through a process that would now be called “emergence.” There was therefore a holistic aspect to Marxist materialism that Western reductive materialism lacked, and I think this played a part in the thinking of Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, both of whom were influenced by Marxism.
In the present context, mapping holism onto politics is not a straightforward matter. The political categories in Europe and the U.S. are completely different. The religious right does not really exist as a phenomenon in Europe. Partly, this is because religion is much weaker in most parts of Europe than in the United States, and also because, at least in Britain, socialist movements have had a strong religious influence.
Many people in the Labour Movement came from Methodist and other Protestant backgrounds, and most Roman Catholics have come from immigrant groups, such as the Irish, and tended to be more on the left of the political spectrum than the right. Moreover, in the context of Britain, right-wing politics include old-style Tory principles, which treat the state as an organism and the monarch as the head of an organically-conceived state in which collectivism is seen as normal, though not in a socialist sense.
But the present Conservative Party also includes strong neo-Liberal elements that are more historically rooted in the Liberal Party than the Conservative Party. So, I do not think that holistic ideas of the kind I’m putting forward map very easily onto any particular part of the political spectrum, either in Britain or in the United States.
In some countries, like the U.S., there is a sharp division between churches and state. In other countries, like the United Kingdom, there is not. We have an established church—the Church of England—and bishops from the Church of England (as well as representatives of other religions) sit in the upper house of Parliament, the House of Lords. This entire upper chamber of our parliament is unelected. Our monarch, Queen Elizabeth, is both head of the Church of England and head of state.
The second question we wanted to raise in this vicinity was this: It seems clear that one of the main problems with science today is its corruption by various temptations as discussed above. This is primarily due to the growth of Big Science—that is, state-supported science—over the past 60 or 70 years.
Now, the problem is no longer just government-dominated science, but also science-dominated government. In the U.S. a few years back, as I’m sure you know, a judge ruled that it is illegal to “disparage or denigrate” neo-Darwinism in the public schools! How is this different from such state-enforced ideologies by dictatorships of the past, such as Lysenkoism in the USSR?
Even worse, scientistic precepts and pseudo-findings are now regularly being used to disparage and denigrate the human spirit in the public square. The government now wants to “nudge” us into doing what it thinks is best for us, in all areas of life. Big Science and its philosophical junior partner—scientism—are now undermining the very notions of morality, autonomy, and self-government.
What say you to all of this? In short, should the world be run by the experts—the scientists? If not, how do we stop it from happening?
While there is a difference between countries in the question of separation of churches and state, in all modern countries there is very little separation between science and state, as you point out. All modern countries empower scientific academies and scientific expertise, and fund enormous amounts of scientific research—in the defense sector, above all.
Because modern states rely so much on science as the basis of technology, innovation, and high-technology businesses, and because most politicians know very little about science, scientific experts and advisers can have a very large influence, causing governments to spend billions of dollars that they might not otherwise have done. The Star Wars program in the United States—very actively promoted by Edward Teller, the “father of the hydrogen bomb”—was one example.
It is probably inevitable that governments will be influenced by experts, including educational experts. Presidents, prime ministers, and ministers cannot know everything and have to rely on advisers in all sorts of different areas, including science, technology, security, business, banking, medicine, and so on.
The big problem with science at the moment is its pretention to a unified authority, for example in evolutionary theory. One way forward would be to recognize a plurality of scientific approaches, rather than just empowering a single one. After all, we are used to a plurality in politics itself, with a variety of parties competing for our attention and our votes.
Similarly, there is a plurality in the arts with different schools of art and different arts competing for our attention, as there is in religion, with many different religions coexisting in almost all modern states—as well as within each religion, in the form of a variety of churches, sects, and schools of thought.
But science is usually treated as if it’s a single source of authority. It would be much healthier for the sciences, and for society, if we had a plurality of funding sources and a variety of scientific approaches. We already see this situation in medicine with different kinds of coexisting medical systems, although, as we have just seen, one particular kind—mechanistic medicine—is given a supremely privileged status by governments.
In some ways, your book is very optimistic. You seem convinced that the days of materialism and reductionism in the sciences are numbered. One of the main reasons you cite (e.g., in Chapter 2) is the fact that the revolutionary discoveries of the twentieth century—relativity theory and quantum mechanics—move us in the opposite direction, toward a non-material and non-reductionist (or holistic) understanding of nature.
Of course, you are quite right that they do, and we share your hope that that fact will eventually become generally appreciated. But in that case, future historians of science will have to explain a very strange phenomenon: Why did it take so long (nearly 100 years) for the relativistic and quantum revolutions to sink in and undermine the materialist-reductionist credo? And what does this say about the widely touted ability of science to correct itself? Your thoughts?
You are right to raise this interesting question about the persistence of the materialist ideology despite the twentieth century revolutions in physics. I don’t think there’s a single answer for this. There are several different forces at play here.
One is that Enlightenment rationalism—with its belief in science, technology, and progress from the eighteenth century onwards—seemed to be confirmed by the transformation of society through science and its applications in technology. In the U.S. and in Europe, this ideology seemed to be reinforced by the development of steam power, the Industrial Revolution, and the continual appearance of ever more impressive technologies like airplanes, radio, television, computers, the internet, mobile phones, and all the triumphs of modern medicine and dentistry.
Most people believe in the power of science, and support its enormous prestige because these technological advances have such a large impact on their lives and are undeniably new, not being present in traditional pre-scientific societies. So, when the sciences appear to be so successful, there is little motive for questioning their ideological foundations.
Second—in Europe more so than in the United States—scientific materialism was taken to support an atheist worldview, and the motives for a mass adoption of this worldview were partly political. In nineteenth-century Europe, in Catholic countries the Roman Church was often allied with reactionary political regimes, and people who sought to overthrow the established order also wanted to overthrow the influence of the Church. Scientific materialism provided a very effective way of doing this. If scientific materialism can explain the world without the need for God, then it justified atheism, and atheism justified a complete rejection of the power of the churches as without any foundation other than dogma and illusion.
Once these habits of thought became well established in Europe—and also among the academic and intellectual elites in the U.S.—there was not much incentive for quibbling over the details of recent scientific discoveries. The general materialist picture was by then widely taken for granted.
Third, it’s an interesting paradox that while in the twentieth century physics became broader and more pluralistic, with different interpretations of cosmology and quantum theory, biology became narrower and more dogmatically materialist, particularly with the development of molecular biology in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Twentieth-century psychology was also heavily materialist, and in the United States the behaviorist school dominated the universities until the 1980s. It was then superseded by cognitive psychology, which treats the brain as a kind of computer, which is still mechanistic and materialist, but seemingly more plausible.
When combined with the enormous power and prestige that accrued to the sciences after the Second World War through massive government investment in the U.S. and elsewhere, there was little incentive for members of the scientific establishment to question or upset a convenient consensus that saw hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into the scientific enterprise, and sustaining very large numbers of scientific jobs. And that is still the situation today.
Finally, dogmatic materialists have effectively dominated the educational agenda and have had a strong influence on the media. First, they have promoted the idea that that any genuinely educated person must be a materialist, and anyone who isn’t must be superstitious, or stupid, or deluded. Secondly, skeptic and militant atheist organizations have mounted very effective, proactive, public relations campaigns, a contemporary example being the influence on the media by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. For a discussion of these organizations, see the Skeptical About Skeptics web site.
Once a vast system is in place, on which many careers and a lot of personal prestige depend, it’s very difficult to change it quickly, just as an ocean liner cannot suddenly change direction. I think the best way to free up this system is to have several alternative sources of funding that enable different scientific approaches to be pursued, introducing pluralism into scientific research and education.
Many would regard you as a scientific heretic. Your principal heresy (in which we support you) seems to consist in regarding nature as a richer set of possibilities than scientific materialism would allow. Thus, you allow for teleology in biological evolution, the reality of psychic phenomena, and the validity of alternative medicine, among other things.
But how far does your scientific heresy extend? Science is rife with controversies in which those on one side of a dispute are regarded as “mainstream” and those on the other are marginalized. Where do you fall, for instance, on the controversy over climate change (formerly “global warming”)? Are there any other scientific controversies, not covered in this interview, in which you fall on “the wrong side of the fence”? If so, which ones, and, briefly, why?
As you say, in several areas of science my own views would be regarded at heretical by the conventional mainstream.
However, in relation to climate change, I think the evidence is persuasive that climate change is happening and that much of it depends on human activity.
There are also areas of alternative science in which I take very little interest, for example UFOs.
You end your new book with the wonderful line: “Much remains to be discovered and rediscovered, including wisdom” (p. 342). In your view, what is wisdom?
Knowledge is about information, but wisdom is more about seeing patterns and the way in which things interact. It also involves taking a long-term perspective.
Unfortunately, in the modern world our perspectives are often very short-term, driven by daily news agendas, four- or five-year electoral cycles, and annual or quarterly profit reports. Investors on the Stock Market now make decisions on timescales of fractions of a second.
Wisdom involves looking at the bigger picture—taking a more holistic view—and it cannot easily be taught because in part it depends on experience, and often on intuition, as well—a direct knowing that is not reducible to textbook facts or statistical procedures.
Thank you very much for your time and your insights! Are there any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers? What changes in the scientific world would you like to see in the next five to ten years? What is needed for these changes to be realized?
As I argue in my book Science Set Free, I am convinced that the sciences are being imprisoned by the outmoded ideology of materialism. I show how each of the 10 dogmas of materialism can be turned into a question, treated as a scientific hypothesis, and evaluated scientifically. None of these dogmas turns out to be valid or persuasive. In every case, new questions open up, along with new possibilities for scientific research.
I would like to see these possibilities explored. There are already many open-minded scientists working within universities and other scientific institutions, but most of them are unable to follow unconventional lines of research because they’re afraid these would not be funded. I would like to see a plurality of sources for funding in science that enable different approaches to be explored. This is unlikely to happen through government funding agencies, which are dominated by the science establishment, but there are many private foundations that could fund alternative scientific and medical research and I hope that some of them will do so.
I also hope that non-materialist scientists will feel able to meet up with other like-minded professionals and work together to change the sciences from within. And I hope that these open questions will become more widely known to students at schools through the educational system. For anyone interested in these possibilities, I recommend a new website, OpenSciences.org, that is a portal for the post-materialist sciences.
I am delighted that TBS is exploring these issues and hope that students in schools colleges and universities will be able to have some influence over what they are taught through making their interests known and through not blindly accepting the dogmas that are presented to them. Students need to learn, but they should also have some influence over what they are taught.
1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Elective Affinities, Wilhelm Meister, Poetry and Truth, East-West Divan, Faust (Parts I and II), and many other works in prose and verse. Goethe was very interested in the natural sciences, conducting his own observations and experiments. He published many works on scientific subjects, including The Metamorphosis of Plants (1790) and Theory of Color (1810), as well as numerous shorter scientific studies.
2. See Donna J. Haraway, Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors of Organicism in Twentieth-Century Developmental Biology (Yale University Press, 1976); and Erik Peterson, “The Conquest of Vitalism or the Eclipse of Organicism? The 1930s Cambridge Organizer Project and the Social Network of Mid-Twentieth-Century Biology,” British Journal for the History of Science, 2014, 47: 281–304.
3. First U.S. ed.: J.P. Tarcher, 1982; second U.S. ed.: Park Street Press, 1999; third U.S. ed. (retitled Morphic Resonance: The Nature of Formative Causation): Park Street Press, 2009.
4. Henri Poincaré invented nonlinear or “qualitative” dynamics in the 1890s, while working on the so-called “three-body problem” in celestial mechanics. James Barham’s “A Poincaréan Approach to Evolutionary Epistemology” (Journal of Social and Biological Structures, 1990, 13: 193–258) was one of the first articles in English to explicitly defend solving the philosophical problem of teleology in biology by means of “Poincaréan dynamics.”
5. Ralph Abraham, Terence McKenna, and Rupert Sheldrake, Trialogues at the Edge of the West (Bear & Co., 1992; second ed.: Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness, Park Street Press, 2001) and idem, The Evolutionary Mind: Trialogues at the Edge of the Unthinkable (Dakota Books, 1998; second ed.: The Evolutionary Mind: Conversations on Science, Imagination, and Spirit, Monkfish Book Publishing, 2005).
6. See Margaret Morrison, “Emergence, Reduction, and Theoretical Principles: Rethinking Fundamentalism,” Philosophy of Science, 2006, 73: 876–887.
7. See Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine (Hutchinson, 1967).