A Skeptic in the Heart of Science

What would you conclude about a book named “The Science Delusion”? I suspect most would assume it was 1) a response to Richard Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion” and 2) a religious attack on science. Rupert Sheldrake’s impressive new book is neither, (though he certainly takes some good shots at Dawkins). That is why I’m glad the American edition of the book has a different name than the UK version. “Science Set Free” is its moniker, which expresses more accurately the spirit of this important new work by the English biologist who is perhaps science’s most controversial and credentialed gadfly. As Sheldrake explained the name change in a recent Guardian interview, “[The American publishers] were aware that if they called it The Science Delusion it would be seen as a right-wing tract that was anti-evolution and anti-climate change. And I want no part of that.” In fact, the book is a significant summation of his novel approach to science, theories of nature, and concerns about the state of whole enterprise of scientific inquiry. Well-argued and well-written, Sheldrake’s new work is a sure-to-be-controversial critique of some of the pillars of science as we know it today.

I prefer the title “Science Set Free,” not just because it is provocative, but because there is something genuinely liberating about Sheldrake’s work. He is working to decouple science itself from a particular restrictive brand of science—a largely unquestioned reductionist, mechanistic, materialistic belief system that he feels has become almost synonymous with science. He suggests that even the data coming from science itself strains against these often unseen conclusions. “Contemporary science is being held back, he writes, by the claim that “there is no reality but material reality.” Sheldrake feels that this conclusion naturally gives rise to a whole series of assumptions about the nature of life and the universe that too often go unquestioned.” These beliefs are powerful”, he explains, “not because most scientists think about them critically, but because they don’t.”

The impetus for this scientific worldview is as much in history as a whole as it is in science. One might even argue its tenets provided an important bulwark in the scientific struggle to establish a protected secular space in society, walled off against the encroachment of traditional religious authorities. But what was once a set of assumptions designed to keep at bay certain superstitions and religious orthodoxies, has now, Sheldrake writes, hardened into an ideology. And like any strongly felt belief system, it rushes to discredit activity seen as outside the in-group fold. Sheldrake is one of those targets and he has certainly felt the wrath of the protectors of establishment science. A highly trained Cambridge biochemist, he was labeled as an enemy of reason by Dawkins, and his book A New Science of Life, was castigated, by reviews in the magazine Nature, that suggested the book might be best fit for burning (as if to underline the point about ideology).

But such polemics seem absurdly overwrought, especially when one reads Sheldrake’s book itself and encounters the way he thinks about the world. Granted, he is an out-of-the box thinker, interested in questioning some fundamental assumptions, and he liberally intersperses his science with insights from philosophy, Eastern and Western (not unlike many of science’s brightest lights past and present). But he is first and foremost a scientist, one who has the spirit of an innovator and experimenter, passionately curious and unwilling to simply take the conventional consensus as unabridged fact. In the first chapter, he lists 10 core beliefs that he feels science would be better served by questioning rather than assuming. An inquiry into each of these ten subjects forms the better part of the book. They include the ideas “everything is essentially mechanical,” “the total amount of matter and energy is always the same,” “the laws of nature are fixed,” “memories are stored as material traces in the brain and wiped out at death,” “minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activity of the brain,” and “Nature is purposeless and evolution has no goal or direction.”

Sheldrake doesn’t have replacements for each of these assumptions, but he marshals interesting evidence and arguments against each position that will make you think in new ways about both large-scale realities like the nature of the universe, and everyday realities like the way in which vision works. Indeed, the book is first and foremost a scientific exploration and I often found myself deep in thought while reading, provoked by his words to question my own assumptions and think in new ways about the world I live in. Sheldrake draws on a great number of thinkers to make his point, including several of the great evolutionary philosophers, in particular, Henri Bergson’s ideas on memory and Alfred North Whitehead’s perspective on subjectivity. His discussion of Whitehead in the chapter, “Is Matter Unconscious” was particular enlightening, as he explored Whitehead’s thoughts on time and causality, suggesting an alternate explanation for some very influential experiments in neuroscience.

It was also interesting to me that Sheldrake really sees Darwin as one of his heroes, not just for his theory of natural selection, but for his reliance on data from the everyday world around him, and as someone who did “provocatively original work” with simple tools, without relying on grants and the largess of big science institutions that have come to so dominate the 21st century landscape. That spirit has informed Sheldrake’s own work in all kinds of unconventional areas, from his ideas about developmental biology to his thoughts about homing pigeons, to his research on animals who express an uncanny ability to know when their owners are coming home. Sheldrake certainly has his own conclusions to add to the mix and his ideas about “morphic resonance,” a theory about the way in which habits, such as developmental patterns in biology or crystal formation in chemistry, can be transferred over time play a role in the book. But his primary point is to pry open the scientific door to fresh, new thinking, not to insert his own.

By the end of the book, I found myself thinking that science needs people like Rupert Sheldrake. Not because his theories are all correct or his critiques are perfectly spot on. In fact, there were certainly parts of his books that I disagreed with, areas where I felt his questioning of convention strayed into areas that strained my own sense of credibility.  But the overall open spirit of his inquiry shines through, and I hope that it will help inspire the right kind of questioning, and encourage more open forms of science.  And Sheldrake’s message is not just for scientists; it is for all of us. He cautions that we should be careful about investing the institution of science with too much authority. It provides a powerful perspective, but it is shaped by human beings. We must be responsible for it, not the other way around. And therefore, we cannot uncritically hand it the keys to our minds. If there are false assumptions and conclusions embedded in the enterprise, we should be willing to ask questions. To do so is not to question science itself or to inevitably fall back into some pre-rational, superstitious state of being. Yes, we must always guard against tendencies to irresponsibly undermine the great positives of the scientific age, but the best way to do that is to improve science itself. In the right hands, these kinds of questions open up potential new frontiers and move the whole project of human knowledge forward in history. “I’m in favor of science and reason,” Sheldrake declares at the end of the book, but then adds an important caveat, “if they are scientific and reasonable…I’m against granting scientists and the materialist worldview an exemption from critical thinking and skeptical investigation. We need an enlightenment of the Enlightenment.”