Rupert Sheldrake — Science and Spiritual Practices
Author and biologist Rupert Sheldrake has courted considerable controversy during his long career. Perhaps best known for his hypothesis of morphic resonance (that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits subject to change), his tussles with the scientific establishment say a great deal about how dogmatic mainstream science has become. Beginning with A New Science of Life — published in 1981 — his many books about science also include Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, The Sense of Being Stared At, and The Science Delusion, a powerful and compelling response to Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and materialist reductionist thinking in general. Sheldrake’s work often explores what he has referred to as ‘the extended mind’, the idea that the mind is more than just the brain and that it has the power to affect both the body, and by extension, the external environment. There is also evidence to suggest that one mind can affect another, and that all minds are somehow linked. Our individual minds may even be individuated, seemingly-isolated nodes of a much greater mind, or overmind. We are the rain and the overmind is the sea.
These ideas, far from being new, are in fact ancient and reflected in many belief systems, world-views, and cosmologies whose origins reach into high antiquity, and perhaps beyond. But Sheldrake is among a pioneering group of researchers from many fields and diverse disciplines working doggedly to deepen our understanding of the world around us and account for the many phenomena of both our inner and outer world which science alone simply cannot explain. The response from mainstream science and mainstream media has thus far been, for the most part, wearily predictable. Derision and condescension have been combined with censorship and ad hominem attacks, although as already suggested, such tactics tell their own story, not least that the work of so-called ‘mavericks’ such as Sheldrake is becoming increasingly difficult to ridicule or ignore. The scientific thought police famously blew a gasket and showed their true colours when Sheldrake addressed an event organised by TED spin-off TEDx. Recorded in 2013, Sheldrake’s talk — simply entitled The Science Delusion — proved enormously popular with viewers when the video was posted online, but TED’s administrators quickly pulled the video from their official outlets claiming that Sheldrake’s presentation “crossed the line into pseudoscience”, contained ”serious factual errors” and made “many misleading statements.” The ensuing public backlash, however, was swift and severe and TED found itself charged with attempting to shut-down freedom of speech.
At the root of the problem here is a tendency or desire — perhaps even a need — among many mainstream scientists to deny their own subjective experience and inner life, the source of some of most profound human experiences possible whose implications are widely ignored. Despite the fact that many scientists claim to be religious, especially in the US, the official stance is that scientists should effectively all be materialist atheists — dispassionate, detached and thoroughly objective observers of a mechanistic and meaningless universe.
“There are two or three different issues here,” says Sheldrake. “One is that of course scientists are people, but since the 19th century they’ve tried to pretend, at least in their writing style, that they’re not people. That’s why there was a fashion for a long time of the passive voice. Instead of saying, ‘I took a test tube’ they’d write ‘A test tube was taken’, as if all these things were just unfolding in front of the scientist who was a detached observer. I think now there’s the sociology of science, the philosophy of science, and science and technology studies have all shown what’s obvious, that scientists are people. They have prejudices, they have emotions, they have ambitions, they have fears, they have rivalries, and so on. So that’s just saying scientists are human, which is of course obvious. But it does rather dent this idea that scientists are completely objective, like automata, just simply registering facts. They’re not. They have ideas, they have hypotheses, they want things to be true, they tend to notice things that fit their beliefs more than those that don’t. And recently it’s turned out that a great deal of the scientific literature, at least half of published papers in those subjects, turn out not to be replicable because what scientists do is publish their best results which fit their theory best and tend to ignore the results that don’t.
“All of this leads to a very subjective element to science. But the point that I’m more concerned with in The Science Delusion is the kind of dogmatic framework which is not just in individual scientists, it’s institutionalised. The official doctrine of science at the moment is the materialist world-view. The doctrine that the only reality is matter, and that matter’s unconscious. So the universe is made up of unconscious matter which has no purpose or direction, and evolution is just blind chance and necessity. And this world-view, the materialist world-view, is not something that’s proved by science, it’s something assumed. It’s part of the standard paradigm or assumption on which science is currently based. A lot of scientists don’t actually believe it, but they usually have to pretend to believe it when they’re at work just to fit in and to make sure they get their career advancement and grants and that kind of thing.”
THE DAWKINS DELUSION
Although Sheldrake has met self-styled nemesis Richard Dawkins several times (on one occasion Dawkins even visited Sheldrake’s home accompanied by a film crew), the pair have never really moved beyond superficial skirmishes to engage in a serious dialogue about the actual science of their respective world-views.
“Richard Dawkins personifies this kind of particularly dogmatic materialist atheist view,” says Sheldrake. “I know a lot of atheists and many of them are good people. So the problem isn’t that he’s an atheist, the problem is that he thinks other scientists ought to be atheists too, and that isn’t science, it’s his personal opinion. He is also a so-called sceptic. I would say a dogmatic sceptic. Scepticism is a good thing, but dogmatic scepticism is the intent to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit with your view of the world. And he has a view of the world, the materialist view, that the mind is nothing but the brain, it’s inside the head, and is nothing but the activity of the brain. Therefore things like telepathy, psychic phenomena, are impossible because if your mind is nothing but something happening in your brain then your thoughts can’t possibly affect someone hundreds of miles away as they seem to in telepathy.
“So [Dawkins] asked to come and interview me, or at least a TV company asked to come and interview me about my research on telepathy, particularly telephone telepathy on which I had done many experiments which show that people really can tell when someone’s about to ring them. In our tests they have four potential callers, one of them selected at random, and each test they have to guess who’s calling, and they score well above the chance level of 25%. Anyway, the TV company asked if they could come and interview me about this research. I had seen his previous Channel 4 programme called The Root of All Evil? [later re-titled The God Delusion] which was against religion. It was extremely polemical, completely one-sided, and so I said to them ‘No, I don’t really want to take part in another of his debunking programmes. It’s completely polemical, it’s one-sided. Why would I want to be part of that?’ And so they said ‘Oh, well he’s changed, he’s really interested in the evidence. He wants to discuss the evidence with you.’ So I said ‘Well, if that’s the case, he really wants to talk about evidence, then put that in writing, and I’ll agree to see him.’ So they put it in writing, came to see me and when he arrived it turned out he wasn’t in the slightest interested in the evidence. He wanted to trap me into saying something silly so he could put it on his programme and debunk me in my research. So when I said to him ‘Let’s just look at the evidence, that’s what we’ve met to do’, he said ‘No, that’s not what we’re here for. I don’t want to discuss the evidence.’ So I said ‘Well why not?’ He said ‘It’s too difficult’ and I said ‘Well most people can understand it.’ He said ‘It’d take too long’ and I said ‘A few minutes’ and he said ‘Anyway, it’s not what this programme’s about.’ So then the director said ‘Cut!’ and the cameras stopped. So I said ‘Well what is it about? I made it very clear I didn’t want to be part of another low-grade debunking programme’ and he said ‘It’s not a low-grade debunking programme, it’s a high-grade debunking programme.’
“So it turned out it was another of his polemics and I’d been severely mislead. I had only agreed to see him on the grounds it was a discussion of evidence. And when he told me he wasn’t interested in the evidence, which I think is a very unscientific attitude, I said ‘Well, then in that case you’re here under false pretences,’ so I had to ask him and the TV crew to leave. It was a shame in a way. I’d be very happy to have a proper discussion with Richard Dawkins about evidence, but on the few occasions we’ve met and the possibility has been there he’s refused to do it. So I think in this example you see someone for whom science is a matter of prejudice and dogma, and that’s not the way science ought to be. It’s particularly bad in the sense that he was Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford. He was not professor of biology. And I think this dogmatism gives completely the wrong view about science. It’s counterproductive.”
SCIENCE AND THE SPIRITUAL
If we choose to oppose the religious, we should not become too religious in our opposition.
Sheldrake’s latest book Science and Spiritual Practices explores the extent to which science itself can actually help validate the efficacy of various spiritual practices including meditation, rituals, singing and chanting, pilgrimage, and reconnecting with nature. Such practices generally make people happier and healthier, and the possible science behind this is now being researched as never before, despite mainstream antipathy. We live in a world where stress, anxiety, and depression are on the increase, particularly in modern industrial nations, so any insights that can help us become more balanced and fulfilled, individually and collectively, are to be welcomed.
“If we have a world-view that says the universe is unconscious, meaningless, and when we die that’s it and there’s nothing beyond, and that all legends, all spiritual paths are pointless and illusory, it’s a deeply depressing point of view,” says Sheldrake. “It’s not surprising that in modern societies, which have become very secularised and very influenced by this materialist world-view, that depression is the commonest form of mental illness. It’s endemic. And it’s an isolating view. We’re all isolated in the privacy of our skulls, we’re separated from each other. It’s a deeply depressing world-view that often goes hand in hand with a progressive world-view, the idea that we’re a part of progress driven by science and technology, which gives a somewhat more optimistic tinge to the whole thing. But I think without a sense of purpose and meaning in life, without a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, it’s difficult for humans to thrive. And that’s exactly why I think spiritual practices are so important.”
Since the wholesale exportation of Eastern philosophies to the West began in earnest with the emergence of spiritual teachers and gurus such as Alan Watts, there have been many attempts at restoring balance in industrial societies suffering serious side-effects from the secularisation of almost every aspect of life. Many of the billions chasing happiness and fulfilment in hedonistic consumerism found only fleeting pleasure, discovering to their cost that the best things in life aren’t things. From Zen to the power of positive thinking, the response has varied from the re-introduction of religion by the back door to the re-branding of religious practices in pop-science books about everything from psychology to quantum physics.
“Positive thinking is really a form of secularised prayer,” says Sheldrake. “In prayer — which I don’t discuss in this book, I discuss meditation which is a separate activity — in most religious traditions the prayer is, if it’s praying for something, petitionary prayer, and then it’s put in the context of the greater good. In the prototypic Christian prayer it says ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done’ and then it goes on to other things. But it’s put in the context of the kingdom of God coming first, the reign of peace, brotherhood and love. But positive thinking is mostly about getting something for yourself, success in love and business. It’s not based on the idea the power is coming from God, it’s coming from one’s own mind. So in that sense it’s a reduced form of prayer. I think that it can work, it can have effects. We know that the mind affects the body, and this is the basis of the placebo effect. In the chapter in my book on pilgrimage, I’m talking about some of the benefits, the healing effects of pilgrimage that it can have. For example, at Lourdes in France where the famous healing shrine and healing well are, a lot of people go there and some of them are cured of severe diseases in a way that appears miraculous. Now the sceptics say ‘Well that’s nothing but the placebo effect.’ But really the point is, what’s the difference? The placebo effect happens when somebody hopes they’re going to get better, they believe that they’re doing something that will make them get better, and when they’re surrounded by supportive people who want them to get better. Those are the conditions under which the placebo effect happens in clinical trials. The placebo effect means that our attitudes and our expectations can affect our health and the healing process.”
SEPARATION FROM NATURE
One particularly egregious side-effect of the Western industrial lifestyle which Science and Spiritual Practices directly addresses is our separation from nature. Combined with our growing separation from each other and ultimately from ourselves, it does much to explain the mounting destruction and degradation we witness all around us. Events in the wider world simply reflect our inner world. They are a projection of collective consciousness.
“Our whole culture is split,” says Sheldrake. “There’s a sense in which many of us have connections with nature as children. This is a theme that the romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote about in his famous poem Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, the sense of connection with nature, of being part of something much bigger than ourselves. Then we become more and more separated from it. And our scientific world-view is imparted to people in the course of their education, that nature’s nothing but inanimate mechanisms made up of unconscious matter — the official world-view of our whole civilization at school, at university, in work, in industry, in business, in the media, in politics. Nature’s just there as raw materials for us to exploit for economic growth and human progress. And there are now lots of children who hardly ever go outdoors because they’re on screens all the time.
“Most people go along with the mechanistic world-view because that’s the official orthodoxy and that’s what business and education are all about. But especially at weekends and in the evenings and on holidays people revert to a completely different view of nature, seeing it as alive and themselves connected with it, the more romantic view of nature. Which is why the great cities of the western world are clogged with cars on Friday evenings as millions of people try to get back to nature in a car. A lot of people who spend their lives exploiting nature trying to get rich don’t want to get rich because they hate nature, they want to get rich because they love nature. They think if they make enough money they can buy a little place in the country away from it all and go on retreats to a beautiful cottage in an unspoiled village with their family and friends. It’s a kind of crisis in our civilization.
“I think losing connection with spiritual practices impoverishes life, and regaining that connection conversely enriches life, and as I show in my book, it’s quite easy to do. And most of these practices cost nothing. So I feel that all our lives can become better, more satisfying. And through feeling more connected we can also do more for other people. It makes us feel more generous if we feel ourselves to be more connected. And the common feature of all these practices — meditation, gratitude, connecting with more-than-human nature, relating to plants, singing and chanting, ritual, and pilgrimage — they’re all about creating a greater sense of connection with that which is greater than ourselves, and with each other. That is something that makes us happier and healthier and more able to help other people.”
And that, ultimately, is the message of Science and Spiritual Practices — restore balance, heal yourself, help others, renew the world. Science relating to neuroplasticity and Sheldrake’s morphic resonance shows that our minds are malleable, even at the physical level. So-called ‘human nature’ appears more like a work in progress. This is not a road of no return; the future is what we make it. From timeless spiritual teachings to cutting-edge science, it is clear — or at least very strongly suggested — that everyone and everything is interconnected, interdependent, and from a single source. The implications of this are vast and cannot be ignored. When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.
Originally published in New Dawn magazine, July / August 2018.