We view science as a winnower of dogmas - evidentially unfounded belief systems. When it works well this is what it does, but no human institution can be truly free of human weaknesses. Many scientists also cling to dogmatic beliefs and their work is hindered by this. Materialism (the belief that everything can be explained in terms of matter and known forms of energy), reductionism (the belief that complex phenomena can be understood by reducing them to their constituent parts) and mechanism (the belief that living systems can best be understood by analogy to machines) are dogmas. These are a priori assumptions not based on any evidence. Enquiries undertaken on the basis of these assumptions have sometimes provided useful information, but they have also hindered open-minded exploration.
Sheldrake looks at ten specific dogmas which may be holding back the progress of science. Most of them arise from a tendency to cling to the concept of materialism. Dogma is a barrier against free thought. The key that opens the door to free thought is the question, and so it is appropriate that Sheldrake examines these dogmas through a series of questions : "Is Nature Mechanical?", "Is the Total Amount of Matter and Energy Always the Same?", "Are the Laws of Nature Fixed?", "Is Matter Unconscious?", "Is Nature Purposeless?", "Is All Biological Inheritance Material?", "Are Memories Stored as Material Traces?", "Are Minds Confined to Brains?", "Are Psychic Phenomena Illusory?", "Is Mechanistic Medicine the Only Kind that Works?". Even if we don't agree with Sheldrake's own views, he raises many questions which need to be answered.
Of course Sheldrake has his own position on these questions. Back in the late Seventies he came up with the theory of morphic resonance. This is a theory which posits that the forms of nature can be understood as habits or accumulating memories connected by a resonance of similarity which is not limited by time and space. At first this seems crazy. It is so far outside of our conventional ways of viewing reality. But those ways of viewing reality are based on what we have been taught. I can't see that this theory is any stranger than some of the theories of quantum physics. And there is evidence for it. It takes a while for new compounds to form into crystals, but when they do the same compound in other parts of the world will be able to crystallise very quickly. And when rats learn a trick in labs in one part of the world, rats in other parts of the world will be able to do it as well. Morphic resonance might also explain why results from intelligence tests are increasing - the more people who take the tests the easier they become for people generally. It would also back up Carl Jung's theories for a collective unconscious and provide an explanation for the strange relationship between many identical twins who have been separated at birth. When it comes to the question of resonance itself, Sheldrake points out that the porn industry wouldn't exist without it - to get erotic pleasure out of simply watching someone else have sex there has to be some form of resonance between us and them.
Sheldrake is also a researcher into psychic phenomena, from the ability of animals to predict earthquakes or their owner's arrival home to the ability to predict who is on the other end when the phone rings or sense that someone is staring at the back of our neck. I've never been a believer in these kinds of phenomena. I can't remember having had such experiences myself. I experience what Jung called synchronicity - a coincidence between something external and what I'm thinking - quite frequently, but that is not the same as a psychic connection with another person or an animal. But I find Sheldrake's presentation of the evidence for such phenomena compelling. The evidence is strong outside of the laboratory - e.g. large populations of animals migrating several days before an earthquake or tsunami and individuals with an apparent ability to transmit information telepathically with a loved one when there is a strong need to do so. In laboratory experiments the results tend to be significantly over the level of chance, but people will still tend to get things wrong more than right. These more modest results can be explained by the fact that the tests are done with strangers and there is no great emotional impetus to form a connection. But how can the greater than chance results be explained if one takes the opposite view? These studies have often been subjected to intense scrutiny by skeptics. Sometimes they can point out flaws in the experiments. When they can't they often just assume there are flaws that they can't identify. Sheldrake gives examples of critics who have simply refused to look at any of the evidence. He tells the story of how Richard Dawkins wanted to interview him for his documentary program Enemies of Reason and quite explicitly stated he had no interest in looking at Sheldrake's evidence. Often when we set out to do battle with someone in the world we are doing battle with the projection of our own disowned self. Such, I would suggest, is the case with Richard Dawkins. He quite rightly criticises the irrational dogmas of religion, but the driving force behind his crusade is his own unwillingness to face the fact that he himself is a dogmatist, wedded to materialism and not interested in even looking at the evidence against his "religion". If Sheldrake's research is unfounded then there is no danger involved in taking a close look at it. The only real danger for the materialist lies in not being able to rationally discredit it.
Each of the chapters places its discussion within the context of the history of science and is full of remarkable information. Did you know that there is a single-celled organism that can learn? Did you know that humans have less genes then rice plants? Did you know that a pharmaceutical company got caught out faking reports on the effectiveness of its drugs and paying scientists to present those reports as their own work and get them published in peer reviewed journals?
This is an important book. If one agrees with Sheldrake then it is a brilliantly articulated critique which could become a rallying point for those who want to see science set free to pursue a truly holistic understanding of natural phenomena. If one disagrees with Sheldrake and views him as a practitioner of pseudoscience then it will be the alternative answers to the questions he raises in this book which will be the key to discrediting him and those like him. At the end of the book he talks about the value of scientific debates. I would love to see a live debate on the issues raised in this book between Sheldrake and Dawkins. I won't hold my breath.
|The book has a different title in the U.S.|