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Rupert Sheldrake

The Science Delusion

Category: Science | Published: 2012 | Review Added: 05-03-2012

Rating: 4 - A top read

This book is long overdue: a high-level critique of scientific dogmatism by a scientist of impeccable credentials. (Rupert Sheldrake has been a Research Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge.)

Sheldrake's method in this book is simple, but highly effective: to take what he calls "the ten dogmas of modern science", and turn them into questions: to ask whether, on the basis of scientific evidence, we are right to take them as assumptions. The assumptions are as follows, and they are challenged successively through the book's main chapters:

  • Nature is mechanical.
  • The total amount of matter and energy is always the same.
  • The laws of nature are fixed.
  • Matter is unconscious.
  • Nature is purposeless.
  • All biological inheritance is material.
  • Memories are stored as material traces.
  • Minds are confined to brains.
  • Psychic phenomena are illusory.
  • Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works.

The essential question is, in each case, whether the assumption is logically valid, or whether on the contrary it is taken as an a priori truth, needless of analysis. Sheldrake concludes the latter, and his thinking is more than philosophical: the sciences, he argues, have been hamstrung by rejection of evidence that contradicts the dogmas; he augments his epistemological arguments with empirical evidence that is usually either rejected, swept under the carpet, or, at best, quietly acknowledged but coyly dismissed as irrelevant.

As a biologist, Sheldrake draws largely on his own field; a minor criticism of the book is that its examples are weighted toward biology and away from physics. Nevertheless, there are some fascinating nuggets from all the sciences in here: that the gravitational constant, and the speed of light in a vacuum, are not constants at all but fluctuate; that the results of identical chemical experiments have changed over time; that there are people with 95% of their brains missing who function perfectly normally.

Sheldrake's notoriety is due largely to his publicly-professed belief in psychic phenomena - the guaranteed death-knell to a high-flying career in the scientific establishment. He plugs his own hypothesis of "morphic resonance": organisms, he suggests, are linked to each other in space and time via similarity of their "morphogenic fields". Thoughts and ideas are disembodied; the more similar an organism to that which originated the idea, the easier its access to it; animals of the same species display similar patterns of behaviour not because this behaviour is hard-coded into their genes, but because their genes produce nervous systems that give them access to the content of particular fields. Individual memories, Sheldrake argues, are essentially instincts specific to a particular member of a species because each of us is more similar to our "past selves" than to anything else.

I am predisposed to credit Sheldrake's ideas, which I found more lucidly presented here than in the earlier, more anecdotally-based The Sense of Being Stared At. It would have been a little more satisfying if he were able to posit some physical basis for the hypothesis of morphogenic fields: from other books I've read it seems that electromagnetism might play a crucial role in them. Still, it's wise of Sheldrake not to push his idea further into a specificity his own expertise can't support.

The most incendiary chapter comes towards the end of the book. Titled "Illusions of Objectivity", it is a coruscating exposé of scientific malpractice: tweaked results, sloppy peer review, conspiracies of silence over awkward data, the vulnerabilty of scientists to the motives - ambition, greed, malice, self-deception - that corrode integrity in every other aspect of human endeavour. The argument is, of course, that science is "above" human motivation; but as Sheldrake neatly summarises:

Scientists usually assume that fraud is rare and unimportant because science is self-correcting. Ironically, this complacent belief produces an environment in which deception can flourish.

I was heartened and surprised to see The Science Delusion receive considerable critical acclaim. I suppose its provocative title - not Sheldrake's choice - was bound to pull it into the centre of the fasionable "Dawkins vs. religion" debate, but I say it is a good thing when fashion moves onto books as thought-provoking, well-structured, and well-argued as this.

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