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Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion/Science Set Free

Posted on 16 October 2012, 20:01

The sciences as we know them are weakest when they are dealing with or trying to avoid, the subjective aspects of reality. Our own experience of qualities like the smell of a rose or the sound of the band has been stripped away, leaving only odourless molecular structures and the physics of vibrations. The sciences have tried to confine themselves to I-it relationships, a third-person view of the world.

They have done their best to leave out I-you relationships, second person experiences, as well as first-person experiences, our personal experiences. Our inner life, including our dreams, hopes, loves, hates, pains, excitements, intentions, joys and sorrows, is reduced to charts of readings from electrodes, and is in electroencephalograms (EEGs) or changes in the levels of the chemicals at nerve endings, or 2-D brain scans on computer screens. By these means a mind becomes an “it,” an object. But instead of trying to reduce minds to objects, what if all self-organising systems are subjects?”  [my emphasis] [p.334 Science Set Free Rupert Sheldrake, 2012]

Sheldrake (below) puts into words a kind of civil war what has been going on in me all my adult life. My clergyman father was moved by mystics such as Evelyn Underhill, Meister Eckhardt, Martin Buber, and the scientist mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  I caught some of his enthusiasm. I was interested in science, but I wrote my philosophy thesis on Martin Buber and I-you, or I-Thou, where I (any “I”) encounter the spiritual, the essential You, where I find God in You.  I can see a cat as such a You, recognising in the cat a centre of consciousness with feelings similar to my own. I can see a tree as such a You, an entity in its own right, with some kind sacredness of its own. You my friend, You the cat, You the tree, are all essentially subjects, not objects. I see through You to see the Universe. (I understand Sheldrake to be suggesting this.) The problem with materialism is that it denies the reality of the You, turning everything into Its.


(The civil war in me was occasioned by the materialistic world view implied in my philosophic and psychological studies, and of course accepted by so much of modern society.)

But if we are all Subjects, things fall into place. I, myself the Subject can relate to You as a Subject.  I am a centre of consciousness, and of mind. (The clergyman in me would like to say that I am an eternal spirit.) As a centre of consciousness, there are many ways available of relating to the world around me that have been invented by the society in which I live, over the hundreds of years that it has been in existence. I can use the language and grammar that my society has developed, I can use my rational mind with the scientific methods that my society has worked out, I can use the technology that my society has created, I can dance and sing, extend my experiences through the printed and other media, I can fall in love and raise a family… 

The dogma of materialism does its utmost to deny my reality as a Subject by treating my consciousness as if it were a mere by-product of electrochemical activity in the brain; whereas the truth is that each of us are spiritual beings, centres of consciousness who seek to expand our awareness of our own nature, and to create new dimensions of experience . We interact with other centres of consciousness from the past and present, to be channels of creativity and love.  It is when we forget who we truly are, that terrible things happen.  The open minded science that humanity has developed has done some wonderful things – this we must acknowledge. The dogma of materialism, on the other hand, has caused immense harm. 
Rupert Sheldrake’s book is very important, so important that some day it may perhaps be seen to rank alongside Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and I want to review it more fully on another occasion. In the US the book is called Setting Science Free, whereas in the UK it is called The Science Delusion. In this book he tackles ten unprovable dogmas of materialism: he does this by turning the dogmas into questions.

1. Is Nature Mechanical?
2. Is the Total Amount of Matter and Energy Always the Same?
3. Are the Laws of Nature Fixed?
4. Is Matter Unconscious?
5. Is Nature Purposeless?
6. Is All Biological Inheritance Material?
7.  Are Memories Stored as Material Traces?
8. Are Minds Confined to Brains?
9.  Are Psychic Phenomena Illusory?
10. Is Mechanistic Medicine the Only Kind That Really Works?

Sheldrake adds question number
11. Is Science Always Objective?

The short answer to all these questions would be, “No.”  These questions form the chapter headings of Sheldrake’s book, and at the end of each chapter has Questions for Materialists.

At the end of Chapter 1: “Is Nature Mechanical?” he poses Questions for materialists:

“Is the mechanistic worldview a testable scientific theory, or a metaphor?

If it is a metaphor, why is the machine metaphor better in every respect than the organism metaphor? If it is a scientific theory, how could it be tested or refuted?

Do you think that you yourself are nothing but a complex machine?

Have you been programmed to believe in materialism?”

Questions on similar lines are found at the end of each chapter.

Sheldrake provides a coherent critique of Materialism; he also provides a testable falsifiable theory of morphogenetic fields which also function as a kind of general theory to explain how
we retain our identity after the death of our bodies; how complicated instinctual patterns are stored and remembered, how the coding of the DNA is translated into physical forms.

At the moment I am writing a book in which I show how Sheldrake’s theories are consistent with those of a number of other reputable scientists.

I have said what I wanted to say in this present blog, but for those who are interested, I now quote two pages from my forthcoming book:

Rupert Sheldrake, biologist and philosopher

Alfred Rupert Sheldrake (born 1942) is an English scientist and author. He is known for having proposed a non-genetic account of morphogenesis and for his research into parapsychology. His books and papers stem from his theory of morphic resonance, and cover topics such as animal and plant development and behaviour, memory, telepathy, perception and cognition in general. His publications include A New Science of Life (1981), Seven Experiments That Could Change the World (1995), Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999), The Sense of Being Stared At (2003)

In 2012 Sheldrake published what many will consider to be a landmark book called The Science Delusion in the UK and Science Set Free in the USA. If one examines what he has to say, one will find it to be consistent in a general way with the thoughts of the other scholars to whom we have referred.  A key idea for Sheldrake is the existence of information fields that act as a kind of universal memory. He sees them as parallel to physical force fields, gravitational fields, and magnetic fields.

These information fields he calls morphogentic fields, fields that establish form, the form of a memory, a bodily structure, an instinct, even what we consider to be scientific laws. Memory is an aspect of the fundamental nature of things and it exists in a non-physical dimension that is presupposed by other writers quoted in this book. David Bohm called it the Implicate Order, Sheldrake, the Morphogenetic Fields. Both interact with thoughts and events in the Explicate or physical world. (A parallel idea is the Hindu belief in the Akashic Records or Carl Jung’s archetypes of the collective unconscious.) Sheldrake does not suggest this, but it would be very plausible to understand synchronicities as being outpicturings of such fields. 

Once a form or activity has come into being it provides the blueprint for other similar effects, which may then multiply with ease. The classic example he gives is the formation of new crystals,  difficult often for the first time, but easier when formation is later attempted in other parts of the world.

Sheldrake has elsewhere provided evidence for the reality of this particular effect, and has also tested his theory in other ways. In principle he thinks it can apply to anything, from the development of new organisms to the acquisition of new skills. He has involved large numbers of people in a variety of experiments that do suggest the reality of such morphic or memory fields, which may lie at the basis of a theory of the evolution of both living and inanimate forms, and the development of consciousness.

This has implications for cosmology, he believes. Far from being set in stone since the Big Bang, nature’s laws should be considered as evolving habits that grow stronger through repetition; the universe is an ongoing creative process, of which human creativity is part.

The machine metaphors beloved of materialist thinkers are misleading, he insists. No machine starts from small beginnings, grows, forms new structures within itself and then reproduces itself. Yet plants and animals do this all the time and to many people - especially those like pet owners and gardeners who deal with them on a daily basis - it’s ‘blindingly obvious’ that they are living organisms. For scientists to see them as machines propelled only by ordinary physics and chemistry is an act of faith.

Sheldrake believes instead that the development of organisms, and animal behaviour, are controlled by ‘attractors’ in morphogenetic fields, that exert a causal influence and draw the organism towards its goal.

Remembering for him existed from the beginning of all that is.

Sheldrake thinks that any event is remembered in what he calls a morphic field, a field which creates “morphe” or “form.” The more often the same event occurs, the stronger, more powerful, and more permanent becomes the morphic (or morphogenetic) field. Indeed he says that in fact there are no “natural laws” ordained by some great cosmic lawgiver, but merely very ingrained habits, or almost unchangeable morphic fields. Such fields are created by thought, language, actions, habits, and indeed are the mechanism by which we remember.  This implies that memory, instincts, behavioral tendencies are located, shall we say, beyond space-time.  Sheldrake, who discussed his theories in detail with Bohm, agreed that they could be located (if that is the right word) in the Implicate order. If Plato’s Ideal Forms came to mind, then we would have to say that they were morphic fields “placed” so to speak into the Implicate. But like the Ideal Forms, the morphic fields “project” into what we see as physical reality, creating physical forms, mental and behavioral tendencies, creating all things, which in turn being totally conscious, and mind stuff, “place” back into the Implicate.

The Science Delusion & Science Set Free by Rupert Sheldrake are available from Amazon.

Sheldrake on Morphic Fields

Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.

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Afterlife Teaching from Stephen the Martyr - Michael Cocks

Next blog October 30


You know me, of course. Just one comment, and unfortunately it is a critique, but I think I need to footnote this for any readers coming from computer science. The statement “No machine starts from small beginnings, grows, forms new structures within itself and then reproduces itself.” isn’t actually true of, and hasn’t been since the invention of the von Neumann architecture digital computer in the late 1940s.

Recursive programs are very common in programming. And they do in fact exhibit exactly this “organic” character: they start from small fixed kernels of code, they grow by allocating and copying new objects in the form of memory spaces or threads of execution, and they most certainly can and do reproduce themselves. That self-replicating nature is why worms, viruses botnets and the other “malware” that plagues the Net are so troublesome.

It’s true that software machines require a basline prebuilt infrastructure (a CPU and storage space) to exist, and that we can’t yet build a purely *physical* machine which can restructure itself out of raw atoms like plants and animals do. But you would not, I think argue that software programs are not machines. And since machines can self-replicate in software, there seems no particularly good reason why it should be impossible to do it in hardware.

John von Neumann himself proposed this idea around the same time as he designed the digital computer;  Google for “von Neumann machine”, “replicator” or “nanoassembler” (even “3d printer”) and you’ll see the more than half-century scientific discussion about this idea.

I suspect that recursion itself is not quite sufficient to explain all the behaviour of organic lifeforms. But to claim that recursion and self-replication are exclusively organic abilities is overstretching, and if Sheldrake indeed is claiming this, then I’m very disappointed in him.

Nate, Tue 27 Nov, 11:21

Thx for your post, I really enjoy your blog. Long time lurker, first time commenter, you know the drill. I tried to share this one time before, I don’t think it posted correctly…hopefully it will this time!

John Michael Sheehan, Tue 6 Nov, 12:30

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Excerpt from A Course in Miracles. IX. The “Hero” of the Dream – 74 The body is the central figure in the dreaming of the world. There is no dream without it, nor does it exist without the dream in which it acts as if it were a person, to be seen and be believed. Read here
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