“Is Matter Unconscious?” “Is Nature Purposeless?” “Is All Biological Inheritance Material?” “Are Minds Confined to Brains?” “Are Psychic Phenomena Illusory?” “Is Mechanistic Medicine the Only Kind that Really Works?” These are some of the questions addressed by Rupert Sheldrake in his book, “Science Set Free.”
Science Set Free
A Review by Joseph Dillard
I approached Dr. Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance, which this book attempts to substantiate, as something of a skeptic. This is not because I have been an advocate of the prevailing scientific materialistic worldview, but quite on the contrary, because I have been, during a previous long period of my life, an advocate of New Age alternatives. In time, with much confusion and soul-searching, I found them shallow, misleading, and lacking. Therefore, I have become a skeptic toward appeals to “energy,” “fields,” and “quantum everything.” These words are red flags to me, making me wonder if people who are not scientists are trying to gain credibility by sounding scientific while talking far out of their fields of expertise. Generally speaking, I find that this is indeed the case regarding the popular use of these words, and so I habitually approach them with great caution, and attempt to avoid using them when I can, as my strengths lie in human relations and the evolution of consciousness, not the sciences.
Another bias or prejudice which I bring to this review is that while I find the evidence for psychic phenomena strong, both statistically and in terms of personal believability, the data also indicates that it is extraordinarily rare and almost impossible to either develop or control. For example, we now have millions of serious meditators, many of whom took up the practice based on claims that they would become psychic. How many have done so? Blaming the teacher, the method, or a lack of perseverance on the part of meditators simply will not do; TM meditators do not levitate and Buddhist meditators do not develop psychic abilities, although discrete, amazing controls over the autonomic nervous system, such as Tibetan Tummo, or the practice of imperviousness to cold, are real. Due to the rarity and inherent difficulties in duplicating psychic phenomena, and the inability to subject the supernatural to experimentation, if Sheldrake’s fields do exist, they are highly unlikely to be either supernatural or mysterious, but pervasive and so under our noses that we overlook them, similar to not seeing the space between our eyes and the print on this page.
Sheldrake’s book, released in 2012 in the U.S. as Science Set Free, and earlier that same year in the UK as The Science Delusion, lays out ten fundamental assumptions of science that he believes are not only false but which harm the growth of science and human knowledge. His questions are not only important to science, but how we understand the meaning and purpose of life in the 21st century. They are treated individually in chapters: “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 Really Works?”
That Sheldrake answers “No” to each of these questions tells you a great deal about who he is and what he is not. Essentially, his worldview is rational, empirical, holistic and integral, not religious, mystical, New Age or metaphysical. He has not written a book for believers in theism, deism, souls, karma, reincarnation, religion, or life after death. What he has done is much more important: he has challenged the assumptions that close the door on such possibilities in the name of objectivity. At the same time Sheldrake has not claimed their reality, also in the name of objectivity. He has not confronted common delusions of the current scientific worldview in order to proclaim the reality of other equally dogmatic beliefs. To do so would allow him to be written off by scientists, on the one hand, and on the other allow those inclined toward the religious, mystical, New Age, and metaphysical to rest smugly in their blind faith, without needing to think, reason, or challenge their own equally dogmatic assumptions.
In Science Set Free the reader is treated to an interesting and imminently readable overview of the history of science and scientific theory, ideas that not only reflect the mindset of previous eras, but which massively shape our times, in which they continue to predominate. Learning about them provides us with important objectivity regarding the world views that are ascendant in today’s culture and which shape the assumptions that guide social policy and personal choices.
We will take each chapter in turn and outline why Sheldrake thinks it is an important issue, what the problem is with the current scientific worldview on the matter, and what Sheldrake believes is a more helpful, rational, and defensible approach to the issue. Afterward, we will comment on Sheldrake’s important concluding chapters, on scientific objectivity and public participation in science education and experimentation. While I will attempt to represent Sheldrake’s perspective, my biases and interpretations will inevitably come into play, and I can only hope that these remarks will stimulate you to read Sheldrake and draw your own conclusions. This is important, because this summary is largely an attempt to clarify theoretical principles that are not clearly grasped without having read Sheldrake’s many excellent examples.
“Is Nature Mechanical?”
Animism and vitalism, beliefs and theories that nature is alive, were replaced in Enlightenment Europe with a nature that functions like a machine, in that it is subject to mathematically-founded laws and principles. Although the laws differ among the realms of atomic and sub-atomic particles, human physiology, and the working of galaxies, those who understand the mathematics behind these laws form the high priesthood of science. Initially, in the 1700’s, the designer of this machine was deistic; God was the creator of the universe but thereafter he left it alone to work according to His laws. More recently, scientists like Richard Dawkins in biology and Francis Crick, who mapped the human genome, have been staunch atheists. This has created the impression that atheists are materialists when many are not. For example Buddhists and scientists with Buddhist beliefs are atheists. It has also created the impression that non-atheists are not scientists, when on the contrary, some scientists are fervent believers in the Gods of Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Sheldrake repeatedly remarks that there is a schism within scientists between a professional persona of non-belief and materialism, on the one hand, and their personal lives, which challenge and contradict those beliefs, on the other, because they are controlled by passionate, subjective minds that make independent and free choices. Sheldrake also believes that most scientists never address this cognitive dissonance because their professional lives require belief in one set of delusions (public rationalism) while their personal lives require belief in another (private romanticism). Sheldrake points out how scientific descriptions of things typically smuggle consciousness back into them, as indicated by the title of Dawkin’s famous book, The Selfish Gene.
In this as well as almost all his arguments, Sheldrake agrees with Ken Wilber, the leading philosopher of integral psychology and spirituality, and takes a holistic stance. For example, he says that the mechanistic approach is essentially reductionist in that it collapses consciousness, purpose, and values into observable “its.” This stance is convenient for science, because such objectivity makes exploitation for personal or societal gain much more palatable. If animals and things are mechanical “its,” they can be more easily manipulated for purposes of curiosity, recreation, capitalism, and conquest, and it is much easier for scientists to receive funding from sources whose primary interest is financial gain through commercial exploitation.
In contrast to mechanistic, reductionistic explanations of reality, Sheldrake proposes an integral model of the cosmos as a developing organism comprised of “nested hierarchies” of organic “holons,” or part-wholes, that exist as quarks within atomic nuclei, or as those nuclei within atoms, or as collections of atoms within molecules, or as molecules within crystals and cells.
“Is the Total Amount of Matter and Energy Always the Same?”
Because the universe is mechanistic and operates according to natural laws, neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed, but only transferred from one form, state, or place to another. This principle follows from the equivalencies of calculus which are fundamental to explaining and describing the laws that undermine nature. Without the balancing of variables on either side of the “equals” sign, you cannot solve mathematical problems. This leads to the question, “Is the mathematical model of the universe fundamental to science an artifact of the means used to perceive it?”
Sheldrake points out that matter makes up only about 4% of the universe and the other 94% is made up of “dark matter” (23%) and “dark energy” (73%) about which science knows next to nothing, including whether the principle of conservation of energy even applies to them. They have no idea how dark matter and dark energy relate to either matter or the “quantum vacuum,” also known as the “zero point energy field” which quantum mechanics claims underlies all energies and matter.
The theories of quantum electrodynamics put forth by physicist Richard Feynman turns things into processes and makes matter and energy, time and space, interchangeable, so that it is no longer possible to talk either about “things,” such as “matter” or “subjects,” or even about definite outcomes. Instead, the universe is full of indeterminate processes that are waves of “probability,” that can be located either in time or space, but not both. Science, religion, and spirituality have only begun to grapple with the implications of these new theoretical models.
Sheldrake points out that assuming that mathematical laws, such as the conservation of energy, generated the Big Bang, only generates an infinite regress by implying that someone or something was responsible for those mathematical laws “before eternity.” He cites research into well-documented cases of “Inedia,” or survival for long periods of time without eating or drinking, to infer that there are sources of organismic nourishment that are non-caloric, which in turn challenges prevailing assumptions about sources of biological energy and its conservation. While various traditions use words like “spirit,” “chi,” and “prana” to describe non-material sources of energy, Sheldrake does not indicate a belief in any of them. Instead, he holds out the possibility that there are sources of motivation, energy, and action that are unknown, as is implied by dark matter, dark energy, and the zero-point energy field. Science would be better served if scientists would remain open to such possibilities and devise experiments to either demonstrate or eliminate the possibility of such influences.
“Are the Laws of Nature Fixed?”
Sheldrake asks, “If everything else evolves, why don’t the laws of nature evolve along with nature?” Certainly man’s understanding of natural law not only evolves, but has done so rapidly in the last two hundred years, with relativity placing practical limits of usefulness on Newtonian mechanics only to have quantum mechanics demonstrate limits within relativity theory as well. Sheldrake points out that the concept of “natural law” is anthropocentric, in that nature does not have laws; humans have laws and project them onto nature, deifying them by making them omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.
These “natural laws” find their roots in the “Forms” of Plato, which are idealized, unchanging templates that exist beyond and before space and time, and which provide the patterns for all natural things, such as horses and humans. As such, Sheldrake views the assumptions of contemporary mainstream science, including a belief in multiple and parallel universes, as fundamentally Platonic, a belief in a disembodied, mental, programming reality. This is not only compatible with a belief in God, but is fundamentally metaphysical, in that it is untestable, because it exists prior to matter and nature. Consequently, Sheldrake believes that this basic principle that underlies materialistic science is fundamentally unscientific.
In the place of laws Sheldrake proposes that the universe creates itself through the repetition of sequences of processes that become habitual. These routine and regularized “habits” of nature are then taken to be “laws.” The difference is that a habit can be changed; it is not immutable. Rather, it is an expression based on preferences, which are themselves the result of prevailing conditions in a particular context. Change the context and the conditions change. An example would be the human body in outer space. Almost every “law” that generates and maintains human bodies ceases to exist beyond the gravitational field of the earth; either new physiological “habits” have to be developed or, far more likely, earth-like conditions must be exported so the illusion of Earth’s “laws” remains, or the body will not and cannot adapt, and dies.
Regarding the idea of “temporary habits of nature,” Sheldrake places himself in a tradition from the American philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, William James, and the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred Lord Whitehead. However, he goes beyond them by expositing a theory that explains natural habits, calling it “morphic resonance.” Sheldrake believes this resonance is a field that permeates and surrounds all holons and which interacts with electromagnetic and quantum fields. Any preference, action, or possibility that occurs is more likely to be repeated, regardless of time or space. Morphic resonance is therefore “non-local,” unlike matter and the laws of non-quantum physics, although morphic fields themselves are local and relate to particular holons. Sheldrake uses examples of crystal formation as well as the isolation of new substances in laboratories to illustrate how this happens, and he believes that it explains aspects of biological development that current scientific models do not.
Morphic fields do not merely “push” development as “habits” and “laws” do; they pull development by serving as “attractors” or potentials and “pathways” called “chreodes” which are “paths of least resistance” toward some goal state of balance or homeostasis. Morphic fields are “fields of probability” and morphic resonance transfers information, not energy.
Sheldrake thinks morphic resonance may work via David Bohm’s “implicate order” or the “quantum-vacuum field.” I think it may be simpler than that, based on my experience for over thirty years with something that on the surface seems disconnected – interviewing dream characters and life issues in a process called “Integral Deep Listening,” which is a form of dream yoga. These interviewed perspectives, called “emerging potentials,” consistently present perspectives that include, yet transcend the subject’s frame of reference. As such, they contain the habits, or suppositions of mind, feeling, and action that generate reality for the individual, yet they add a context that acts as what Sheldrake calls an “attractor,” or as an “emerging potential” for possibilities that are not yet clear or prioritized by the individual. These interviewed emerging potentials are clearly not “things” or “entities;” how could a dream screwdriver or an imaginary animal be anything more than a metaphor for the perspective which it personifies? Such perspectives are both processes and contexts; using the holonic model referred to above, they are wholes that contain your waking worldview, as well as the innumerable habits that exist in and out of your awareness, as parts. These broader perspectives are both attractors and chreodes, since their recommendations lay out pathways of least resistance to priorities that are in closer alignment with qualities of enlightenment than you yourself are.
These exist and do their work without appeal to quantum anything. They provide an opportunity on a granular level to get a sense of and a feel for what it means for a potential to draw some holon into a state of higher integration and balance. One troubling dissimilarity is the totally optional nature of these interviewed emerging potentials. They have none of the compelling and almost predestined nature of say, morphic resonance in ontogeny, or the development of sophisticated living beings from one cell. I chalk this up to the newness of these interviewed emerging potentials; their “take it or leave it” nature is similar to the indeterminate nature of chreodes or chosen pathways for new elements, created in laboratories and new crystalline forms. Repetition is required for that sense of “law” or “inevitability of choice” to set in.
While it is obvious that nothing metaphorical is at work on an atomic or molecular level, what may be similar to the metaphorical nature of an interviewed remora or cloud are underlying intentional processes like potential, quality, and value. These are the internal dimensions of holons, which intrinsically provide an equal and opposite force to bring balance to the evolution of a holon into a greater, higher, broader state of equilibrium. Both an “implicate order” and appeal to some “quantum-vacuum field” appear to make a Platonic move to something outside the natural order, instead of recognizing a natural process that exists within the context of nature. The reason such a natural process is not seen and is overlooked is simply because the teleological aspect of all holons is ignored or disregarded. But what is inherently metaphysical, spiritual, or “prior” about potential? To say that wider contexts exist that shape narrower, contained contexts is not a statement that requires the positing of gods, spirits, transcendent cosmic laws, souls, or beings. To note that wider contexts draw those narrower contexts that they contain into harmony with themselves is both rational and obvious. The more defined and formed those potential contexts are, the more powerful is their draw, while less defined and formed contexts are weaker, allowing for more choice, creativity, and error.
“Is Matter Unconscious?”
Sheldrake states, “Materialism’s biggest problem is that consciousness does exist.” “Even to discuss consciousness presupposes that consciousness exists.” This is a problem for materialists because if consciousness exists it must either be explainable as derived from matter, or else two uncomfortable alternatives arise: there is a dualism of matter and consciousness, or matter is an illusion and only consciousness exists. Everyone basically subscribes to one of these three positions, although most avoid admitting it, because each position has implications that most of us do not want to face. To follow Descartes and believe that both mind and matter exist means that reality is basically dualistic rather than a unity. The consequence of this position is that conflict between mind and body, heaven and earth, soul and body, God and man, is real and unavoidable. The only thing to do then is to create a system of thought in which the conflict is good, right, and healthy, following the Zoroastrians, Mithrians, Christians, Manicheans, as well as modernist proponents of homeostasis and stress management such as Walter Cannon and Hans Selye. To take the third choice and believe that only consciousness is real and that matter is an illusion, is in the tradition of Hinduism, Buddhism, Plato, and the Scottish bishop George Berkeley. The problem with this viewpoint is that it discounts the reality of matter, physical embodiment, life, and reality, in favor of some other state in some other place and time. Earth basically becomes a prison from which escape is the goal, as is famously illustrated by Plato in the Republic in his “Myth of the Cave.”
Sheldrake points out that “the strongest argument in favor of materialism is the failure of dualism to explain how immaterial minds work and how they interact with brains. The strongest argument in favor of dualism is the implausibility and self-contradictory nature of materialism.” Sheldrake views the entire enterprise of materialism as a project by minds to deny their own reality. This he views as absurd and a fool’s errand, although he does not say so. “…to say that consciousness is an illusion does not explain consciousness; it presupposes it. Illusion is a mode of consciousness.”
The way that Sheldrake attempts to square this circle, that is, to resolve the inherent contradictions in all three of these worldviews, is through panpsychism, which is a variation of idealism. Even quarks and atoms possess sentience in a universe of “self-organizing systems” in which “complex forms of experience emerge spontaneously.” This is indeed an integral view, shared by Wilber, who views consciousness and contexts, as well as behavior and relationships, as fundamental, indivisible characteristics that go “all the way up and all the way down” in the nested hierarchy of holarchies, from quarks to universes.
It is important to differentiate this view from animism, the naively realistic view of hunter-gatherers, shamans, and pre-agrarian peoples everywhere. It is also important to distinguish it from the hylozoists among the early Greek philosophers, who viewed all things as to some degree alive without necessarily granting them sensations or experiences. It needs also to be differentiated from the pantheism of Baruch Spinoza and the monism of Gottfried Leibniz, although all of these approaches wrestled with the presence of consciousness and intentionality in matter. In a somewhat technical but important section, Sheldrake discusses the contributions of Bergson and Whitehead to our understanding not only to the intentionality of matter but of its relationship to time, which points to a fundamental polarity within matter that includes consciousness: “The direction of physical causation is from the past to the present, but the direction of mental activity runs the other way, from the present into the past through prehension, and from potential futures into the present. There is thus a time-polarity between the mental and physical poles of an event: physical causation from past to present, and mental causation from present to past.” Sheldrake ties this into experimental studies that have demonstrated that sensory prehension of stimuli, occur before the wish to push a button or move a finger, indicating that sensory consciousness precedes waking consciousness in a way that “works backward in time:” “Mental causation would work from the future toward the past.” “Electrons are physical in that they reenact elements of their past; but they also have a mental pole in that they relate this reenactment of their past to their future potentialities, which in some sense work backward in time.”
What Sheldrake is attempting to do here is make the case that consciousness not only is an intrinsic aspect of matter but that it is purposive, in that it pulls matter forward toward potential states of being. “Minds choose among possible futures, and mental causation runs in the opposite direction from energetic causation, from virtual futures toward the past, rather than from the past toward the future.”
I would be more skeptical of this principle if I did not have over thirty years of observing it at work in Integral Deep Listening. In this process, the perspectives of interviewed emerging potentials include, yet transcend the world view and consciousness of the interviewed subject. The result is that the broader context it represents acts like a magnet, gravity, or a field of morphic resonance pulling the subject into a broader self-definition with expanded possibilities for creation and choice. This appears to be a depiction of morphic resonance, or something like it, not so much on a biological or social level, but on an intrasocial and intrapsychic level, that is half-way between macrocosm and microcosm. In cannot be defined as internal to the individual, as these potentials transcend it, yet it cannot be defined as external to the individual either, because these potentials are intrinsic to contexts associated with the individual, although those contexts can extend far beyond him, just as social and cultural contexts do for all of us.
Sheldrake contrasts consciousness with unconsciousness, which can mean either totally devoid of mind, experience, and feeling, as the materialists would have it, or more correctly, simply out of awareness, as are the vast majority of our habits. In this sense, the unconscious refers to the realm of habit. Integral Deep Listening prefers to avoid these ambiguities by using “awareness” and “unawareness” instead, in the recognition that awareness can exist without implying mind, and unawareness can exist without implying unconsciousness. Mind is thereby viewed as an illusory substance abstracted from the flow of experiential process, and unconsciousness becomes relative to your context, or level of development. What is “conscious” when you are learning to ride a bicycle becomes “unconscious,” when it becomes habit. That is, what required awareness now does not, but that does not mean that awareness has stopped; it simply has become habitual where bicycle riding is concerned. This not only eliminates the mystery, but also helps us to deal with experience without positing a dualism between two imaginary substances, mind and body. This dualism is an example of a problem created by language, not by experience. If Sheldrake avoided words that imply substances and entities instead of processes, such as mind and the “unconscious,” he would be clearer and his explanations would be more effective.
Sheldrake believes that the materialist belief in causal determination is a delusion and that the existence of consciousness, intention, and potentialities means that freedom of choice really does exist. “It makes a big difference whether you think of yourself as a zombie-like mechanism in an unconscious mechanical world, or as a truly conscious being capable of making choices, living among other beings with sensations, experiences and desires.” Integral Deep Listening validates this perspective, in that interviewed squids, toilet brushes, and monsters routinely express remarkable autonomy, showing little hesitancy when it comes to disagreeing with the world view of the subject of the interview.
At the end of each chapter Sheldrake asks challenging questions of materialists. Two that he asks regarding unconscious matter are, “If consciousness does nothing, why has it evolved as an evolutionary adaptation?” “Is your own belief in materialism determined by unconscious processes in your brain rather than reason, evidence and choice?”
“Is Nature Purposeless?”
In this chapter Sheldrake makes the case that intention or telos, is intrinsic to life at all levels. He does so by describing intention with a term taken from mathematics and particularly chaos theory, attractors. “Purposes or motives are causes, but they work by pulling toward a virtual future rather than pushing from an actual past.” In this regard, Sheldrake is echoing Aristotle’s model of causation, which includes a “final cause,” or the end toward which a thing is directed. Sheldrake differentiates between the purposes within organismic development and the much larger question as to whether evolution and life itself has a purpose. Regarding the first definition, Sheldrake gives a series of very interesting examples of how organisms, even when deprived of DNA, will reproduce themselves, indicating that “morphogenesis is goal-directed and moves toward a morphic attractor even in the absence of genes.” “The influence of virtual futures or potentialities is of central importance in all developing patterns of organization, including molecules.” “Goal-directedness allows animals to reach their goals in spite of unexpected disturbances.” This goal-directedness needs to be understood as something that is innate on a cellular level, not as something that implies “will,” “consciousness,” or “mind,” as commonly understood. When we use such terms we project human intelligence and sentience onto component holons. Such characteristics evolve with sophisticated relationships of collections of nested hierarchies of holons; to assume that they exist in pre-linguistic holons is anthropomorphism, the projection of human qualities onto that which has not yet evolved self-identity as a thinking, linguistically-capable human.
Sheldrake provides another powerful biological example of the purposefulness of nature in his explanation of how the structures of protein enzymes within molecules are stable and resist disruption because they are “minimal energy structures;” they fold into forms and return to shapes that are attractors because they represent states of minimal energy. Just as “taking the path of least resistance” is attractive to us in our waking life, so all levels of matter are drawn toward states of minimal energy expenditure. These states are not, however, entropic, but homeostatic – they are not states devoid of energy, by any means, but rather states representing the most efficient use of energy for a particular, specific organismic state. Sheldrake’s wording for this is, “The folding pathway (of a protein enzyme) can be thought of as a chreode (habitual pathway) in the morphogenetic field of the protein, and the final three-dimensional structure an attractor.”
Sheldrake points out that a major reason why materialism fails is due to the complexity of living systems. With each successive level of nested hierarchy the possible combinations of outcomes increases astronomically, outpacing the ability of mathematics to compute and time to contain. He calls these unavoidable complexities “combinatorial explosions.” “One example is the failure of attempts to predict the three-dimensional structure of proteins by assuming that they explore all possible folding patterns at random until they find a stable minimum energy structure…it would take a small protein about 1026 years.” This means that the explanatory power of mathematics fails as systems, even simple systems, like proteins, become more complex.
At this point Sheldrake summarizes what he has said so far about the nature of morphogenetic fields, which contain “properties that go beyond the familiar forces and fields of physics.” They are causal and include chreodes (habitual pathways) and attractors. “They have time within them; they contain a memory of previous similar systems given by morphic resonance, and they attract organisms toward ends or goals through a kind of causation working ‘backward’ in time.”
While the standard, materialist view is that evolution and life themselves are purposeless, Sheldrake points out that gravity itself attracts toward future ends. “An object in the gravitational field is pulled toward the future. In this sense, it works backward in time.” Since the entire universe exists within the universal gravitational field, it follows that the principle of purposeful causation applies to the universe as a whole. “All organisms within the universe are like scaled-down versions of this cosmic process: unifying fields pull them toward attractors in the future, and energy flowing from the past propels them forward.” “All living organisms show goal-directed development and behavior.”
For me, this example de-mystifies morphic resonance. When I think of the ability of the gravitational field of the moon to create the massive tidal surges on all the oceans of the world, I recognize that I am experiencing morphic resonance on a macrocosmic level. The moon is an attractor for the water and gravity the chreode that water follows naturally and inevitably. While Newton explains this process in terms of natural law, that explanation does not recognize the obvious field effect of the moon’s gravity on the Earth’s oceans. Like cellular morphic resonance, we do not measure gravity directly, but only in terms of transformation in the masses of objects it effects. Approached in this way, morphic resonance does not require quantum fields or any “implicate order.” It does not have to imply a system of law or mathematics exterior to itself, as mechanistic science does.
“Is All Biological Inheritance Material?”
According to current science, biological inheritance is almost entirely due to DNA, but some cell characteristics are directly inherited from mother cells without the mediation of DNA. Epigenesis is another form of transmission that is due to chemical changes that do not affect the underlying genetic code. However, the inheritance of adaptive traits, called “acquired characteristics,” such as the long neck and legs of giraffes, as believed by Lamarck and Darwin, has been dismissed by neo-Darwinists.
Sheldrake believes that the influence of genes in human evolution is highly over-rated. Genes “code for the sequences of amino acids that are strung together in polypeptide chains, which then fold up into protein molecules…they are not ‘determinants’ of particular structures such as genes ‘for’ curly hair or ‘for’ nest-building behavior in sparrows…nor are they plans or instructions for organisms. They merely code for the sequence of amino acids in protein molecules.”
To substantiate his claims Sheldrake points to the unfulfilled promise of the genetic revolution of the last decade of the last century, with something like a trillion dollars in investment capital up in smoke. Why? “In 2009, twenty-seven prominent geneticists…published a paper in Nature…in which they acknowledged that, despite more that seven hundred genome-scanning publications and an expense of more than one hundred billion, geneticists had found only a very limited genetic basis for human diseases.” There was also the matter of the “missing heredity problem,” a term used in the scientific literature to address the fact that genes have not been shown to account for well over half of inherited characteristics. For example, in the case of height, related genes only predict with 5% accuracy the height of an adult, with 75 to 85% of height unaccounted for by genetics. In the opinion of one source cited by Sheldrake, “The most likely explanation for why genes for common diseases have not been found is that, with few exceptions, they do not exist…” It was also shocking for geneticists to find that genes controlling development in species are very similar across species and phyla. For example, “Since the genes are so similar in fruit flies and in us, they cannot explain the differences between fruit flies and humans.” This is based on evaluation of Homeobox genes. “Genes enable organisms to make proteins but do not explain the development of embryos.” The question becomes, if genes cannot explain a large portion of heredity, what does?
There is now a growing awareness that some acquired characteristics, or habits, can indeed be inherited, in a process called “epigenetic inheritance.” After the massive failures of genetic research and biotechnology, biology is swinging back toward Lamarck and acquired habits, which is much more in alignment with Sheldrake’s views regarding morphic resonance. In order to explain its operation he uses the analogy of the function of a TV set. You can change the reception of a signal on a television by manipulating its controls or altering its internal workings, but this has no effect whatsoever on the signal itself. This is because the signal does not reside in the television, which acts as a receiver. “Likewise, genetic mutations may affect an animal’s form and behavior, but this does not prove that form and behavior are programmed in the genes. They are inherited by morphic resonance, an invisible influence on the organism coming from outside it, just as TV sets are resonantly tuned to transmissions that originate elsewhere.”
From the perspective of Integral Deep Listening, this analogy is problematic because it posits a disembodied and separate source for morphogenesis: something analogous to a TV broadcasting station. A thoroughly holistic and integral model will view the source of the signal as intrinsic to the organism, as if the TV contained the station that was generating the signal with which it resonates. Or, one might say the “station” and signal contain the TV. From an integral point of view these factors and functions are interdependent and co-create one another, unlike a TV, which is completely dependent on the station and its signal for its usefulness. Returning to our analogy to the moon and the resonant response of the Earth’s tides, the moon “station” and gravitational “signal” do not lie outside the Earth “TV;” rather the moon and its gravitational resonant activity are parts of an Earth-Moon holon; the morphic field exists within this system, not outside it.
Sheldrake believes that “morphogenetic fields are inherited by morphic resonance from previous similar organisms, together with their chreodes and attractors…(morphic resonance) does not fall off with distance but works on the basis of similarity: the more similar, the more resonant.” He cites studies of separated identical twins to support the inheritance of characteristics and preferences that cannot be explained through genetic or normal biological inheritance, and which perpetuate without regard to space or time. In this regard, Sheldrake regards the inheritance of culture as due to differences in degree, not of kind, in that morphic resonance works similarly to its function in organisms in order to duplicate and spread information.
“Are Memories Stored as Material Traces?”
It is difficult to imagine identity without memory. Eliminate memory and you eliminate identity. It is in the exploration of memory that Sheldrake provides perhaps his strongest arguments for morphic resonance and the most powerful evidence against the current materialist-reductionistic scientific worldview. In this chapter, Sheldrake provides many examples of the failure to locate memory in neurological structures and presents considerable evidence that it is a field phenomena analogous to holographic interference patterns. The conclusion is that “memory is everywhere and nowhere in particular.” In one fascinating example, Sheldrake shares research that demonstrates that moths can remember stimuli that they learned as caterpillars, although during metamorphosis almost all tissue is dissolved, implying there is no DNA or neuronal material to transmit memory.
Sheldrake explains his view, which is called the “resonance theory,” that “memories are transferred by resonance from similar patterns of activity in the past. We tune in to ourselves in the past; we do not carry our memories around inside our heads.” He then reviews five kinds of memory, habituation, sensitization, behavioral memory, recognition, and recalling, providing interesting biological examples of how these types of memory work in the context of morphic resonance. He then cites studies of rats learning to escape from a water maze. “The more (rats) that learned to escape from a water maze, the easier it became for the others to do so…All similar rats learned quicker, just as the hypothesis of morphic resonance would predict.” Sheldrake also cites “the Flynn Effect,” which is the ability for succeeding generations to perform better on standardized IQ tests, using data from 1918 to 1989.
Regarding life after death, Sheldrake states, “memories themselves do not decay at death, but can continue to act by resonance, as long as there is a vibratory system that they can resonate with. They contribute to the collective memory of the species.” Notice that Sheldrake is not positing an immortal soul or a spirit that survives death. Instead, he is speaking about the existence of a “signal” independent of a sending “station” and which can be detected if there is a suitable “television.” This reminds me of interesting anecdotal accounts of people who have received heart transplants who began to act in highly atypical ways by suddenly expressing new preferences, tastes, and habits. When the origin of the donor was discovered and their history reviewed, these “new” preferences in the organ recipient were found to be preferences of the donor. For instance, an article in Medical Daily is entitled, “Can An Organ Transplant Change a Recipient’s Personality? Cell Memory Theory Affirms ‘Yes.’” In one study, a patient received a heart transplant from a man who was killed by a gunshot to the face, and the organ recipient then reported having dreams of seeing hot flashes of light directly on his face. A patient who received a liver transplant changed blood type. “In effect she had had a bone marrow transplant. The majority of her immune system had also switched over to that of the donor.” The Cell Memory theory believes that the acquired donor memories are transmitted through the neuronal tissue in the new organ, a theory that Sheldrake believes has been disproven by research into memory that removed associated neurons in brain and organ tissues without destroying memory.
Regarding cellular and tissue regeneration, normal tissues, unlike cancerous cells, know when to stop duplicating. Why? How? Clearly, a latent plan is activated that implies the storage of memories. If these reconstruction templates are not stored in neurons, or DNA, and if memory is non-local, but generalized, what other possibilities exist besides that of a field of some sort?
“Are Minds Confined to Brains?”
A common materialist attack on alternative positions is that “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” In response, Sheldrake asks, “Where is the extraordinary evidence for the materialist claim that the mind is nothing but the activity of the brain?” Sheldrake uses vision and the location of mental images to make a case that reality is not created inside our heads but that our normal experience of an exterior reality is much more likely to be what is actually occurring. He shares research on the detection of stares, showing that people respond above chance to staring even over closed circuit TV, to provide evidence that the mind exists as a field that extends outside the body, not only in space, but in time. “What we see around us is in our minds but not in our brains.”
Integral Deep Listening views Sheldrake’s choice of “mind” as unfortunate, because it implies a separate substance or “entity” instead of a process. Nature provides enormous evidence for processes, or the flow of one state into another, but very little evidence for permanent “things,” “beings,” or “substances” with definite ontological status. Use of the term “minds” tends to unnecessarily perpetuate a dualism between mind and body, a distinction that is more readily attributable to linguistic distinctions rather than to anything that exists in the natural world.
“Are Psychic Phenomena Illusory?”
The main thing to know about psychic phenomena is that they have been proven to be statistically real but at a very low rate of occurrence, meaning they are very, very rare and difficult to reproduce. Those who do not accept one or both parts of the above statement carry the burden of proof. The largest problem for psi research from the perspective of materialist science is its association with all sorts of groundless or unprovable claims, which end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. For example, when you claim the existence of miracles you automatically give your listener a good excuse for ignore everything else you say, regardless of how true it is, based on a preset assumption that you are a nutcase. If you value your credibility, refrain from making statements or claims, particularly about psychic phenomena, that you cannot back up with good research. However, know that if you believe in psychic phenomena, there is no position that you can take that will be credible to a materialistically brainwashed scientist.
Sheldrake explains how he became interested in psychical research as a graduate student at Cambridge and then summarizes some of the research in the field. He reports on his own studies, particularly with animals that seem able to anticipate the return of their owners. He believes that distress, death, or crisis increases incidence of psi among both humans and animals. “On my database there are accounts of 177 dogs apparently responding to the death or distress of their human companions, most by howling, whining, or whimpering, and 62 accounts of cats showing signs of distress. Conversely, in 32 instances, people knew when their pet had died or was in dire need.” He has also investigated “telephone telepathy,” or the ability of people to accurately guess who is calling. “By guessing at random, subjects would have been right one time in four, or 25 percent. In fact, the average hit rate was 45 percent, very significantly above the chance level.” Sheldrake also conducted research into physiological responses in lactating mothers when their distant babies were in distress. “The statistical odds against their occurring was a billion to one…it was highly unlikely that the mother’s responses were random coincidences.” In addition, Sheldrake shares cases of animal premonition of earthquakes and recommends that science consider ways to use animals to help in prediction. Sheldrake provides several anecdotal examples of human precognition before explaining “presentiment,” or the ability to physiologically register an event before it actually occurs. This research implies that most psi occurs out of awareness; it does not break through into conscious awareness. This assumption is further supported by the fact that most people are more likely to support psychic experiences in recalled dreams than from waking life, implying that there may be many more instances occurring in dreams that are not recalled.
Regarding the skeptical response to these various types of psi and research into them, Sheldrake considers them dogmatic, uninterested in objective enquiry, and aggressive, based on personal experiences, three of which he recounts. His questions for skeptics sum up his position: “If you think telepathy and precognition are theoretically impossible, or very improbable, can you explain why?” “Have you ever looked at the evidence for psychic phenomena? If so, can you summarize it and explain what is wrong with it?” “Have you yourself ever had a seemingly telepathic experience?” “What might persuade you to change your mind?”
“Is Mechanistic Medicine the Only Kind that Really Works?”
“The belief that only mechanistic medicine is truly effective has enormous economic and political consequences. In most countries, funding for medical research, totaling many billions of dollars, is exclusively confined to mechanistic medicine.” By “mechanistic,” Sheldrake is referring to the allopathic medical model that views humans as “physico-chemical machines, or ‘lumbering robots.’ Hence a materialist medical system confines its attention to the physical and chemical aspects of human beings, treating them through surgery and drugs, while ignoring anything that does not fit in.” “The failure to recognize the power of minds means that it is weakest when dealing with the healing effects of beliefs, expectations, social relationships, and religious faith.”
Sheldrake emphasizes the natural ability of the body to regenerate and provide immunity from disease. After explaining the benefits bestowed on humanity by allopathic medicine through hygiene, cures for infections, and the creation of new drugs, such as penicillin, Sheldrake describes the corruption of the for-profit pharmaceutical industry and how it falsifies research in order to make huge profits while over-representing the benefits of drugs such as Prozac. Sheldrake describes how difficult it is to find drugs that perform better than placebos and in fact makes the case that in at least some cases placebo treatment is more effective, particularly considering that it does not involve the side effects that accompany most drugs. He cites the power of the mind in hypnosis to create skin blisters and other physiological changes and the ability of folk cures to remove warts. Lifestyle, social networks, and spiritual practices are additional examples of the importance of both belief and application in any holistic approach to medicine.
Sheldrake notes that the medical model is slowly shifting to include such factors. Reasons not mentioned by Sheldrake include the loss of income due to patients preferring non-traditional therapists and also the unwillingness of some patients to share information about unorthodox treatments because they fear the validity of those treatments, and therefore their own personal judgment, will be dismissed or discounted. The result is an increasing marginalization of allopathic medicine and a diminishing of its control of national health systems and the health decisions of individual patients.
Sheldrake recommends that all treatments, allopathic, complementary and alternative, should be evaluated on an equal basis with what is called ‘Comparative Effectiveness Research.’ “The question would be purely pragmatic: what works? …equal numbers of sufferers with lower back pain could be allocated at random to a range of treatment methods, including physiotherapy, osteopathy, chiropractic, acupuncture, and any other therapeutic methods that claim to be able to treat this condition; there would also be a group that is given no treatment at all, by being put on a waiting list. Within each treatment group, there would be several different practitioners, so that not only could the different treatments be compared, but also the variability between practitioners of any particular method.”
“The outcomes would be assessed in the same way for all patients at regular intervals after the treatment. The relevant outcome measures would be agreed in advance in consultation with the therapists involved. The data would be evaluated statistically to find out
- Which treatment, if any, worked best.
- Which treatment methods had the greatest treatment variability between practitioners.
- Which methods were the most cost-effective.”
Why hasn’t this imminently sensible proposal been embraced and utilized? Clearly, those who have power do not want to share it any more than they are compelled. In this regard, public ignorance is an ally.
Sheldrake views the quest for immortality with a jaundiced eye and attempts to prolong the quality of life at the expense of its quality as a poor choice for both psychological and financial reasons.
Sheldrake concludes with two chapters. The first challenges the myth of scientific objectivity and the way that bias and subjectivity inevitably color both what findings are published in medical and scientific journals as well as how results are presented. Experimenter effects, that is, the effects of experimenters on their experiments, are under-estimated and typically not taken into account in the sciences, with the notable exception of parapsychology.
While Sheldrake views skepticism as having a legitimate place in science, he sees materialists as using it “as a weapon to defend their beliefs by attacking their opponents.” He describes how skepticism is an important tool in the defense of commercial self-interest, citing the use of skepticism by the tobacco industry, at the cost of millions of lives lost, and its current use to slow the adoption of responses to the catastrophe of global warming. “In fact, the goal of skepticism is not the discovery of truth but the exposure of other people’s errors.” Sheldrake then innumerates his reasons for doubting the sustainability of the current scientific world view and the way it addresses funding, experimentation, publication, and public relations.
In his final chapter, Sheldrake shares his prescription for science, or the medicine that it needs to take to return it to health. He first describes the fragmentation of science and its over-reliance on physics to set the tone and methodologies for all things “scientific.” His solutions are essentially holistic: an understanding of holons and nested hierarchies from quarks through universes, and the role morphic resonance plays in the development, maintenance, and regeneration of all systems, whether biological or social. He also emphasizes the freedom and individuality of nature, implying that the determinism of universal laws insisted on by materialists creates disastrous imbalances. Sheldrake compares the authoritarian nature of contemporary science to political dictatorship, in which dissent and debate is dangerous. “This authoritarian mentality is most obvious in relationship to psychic phenomena and alternative medicine. These are treated as heresies rather than as valid areas for rational enquiry.” “Fair public debates are alien to the cultures of the sciences.”
One important social solution to these problems is to include public participation in science funding by asking, “What questions capable of being answered by scientific research are of public interest?” One percent of national science budgets would be dedicated to funding projects that were found to be of broad public interest. This would not only provide money for socially relevant research that was not motivated by corporate or political interests, but would engage the public in science in an immediate and relevant way. “…it would make the sciences more attractive to young people, stimulate public interest in scientific thinking, and help break down the depressing alienation many people feel from the sciences.”
Sheldrake also believes science needs to lay aside its arrogance, superiority, and sense of exceptionalism in order to learn from other cultures, most of which have been around much longer than it has. In this regard, Sheldrake thinks that science can learn a lot about the healing power of belief from religions, noting that the life expectancies for those who pray or meditate have been shown to be 55 to 65 percent higher.
Sheldrake’s book is also important for what he does not claim. Not wishing to destroy his credibility by making claims that are more marginal, more difficult to defend, and less relevant to the points that he wants to emphasize, he does not affirm a belief in God, religion, souls, karma, reincarnation, chakras, energy medicine, channeling, or life after death. Those who read him and either assume that he does make such endorsements, or use his work to justify such beliefs, are doing both Sheldrake and the cause of evolution of science toward rationality a disservice.
Regarding his central claim, of the existence of resonant fields that shape the development and regeneration of both biological and social systems, I am at a loss to come up with a more rational solution to these questions. Clearly, these issues are not explained by DNA, neuronal memory, or chance mutation. Despite massive efforts by a well-funded scientific establishment, in thousands of detailed experiments, they have failed to demonstrate the credibility of any of these explanations. However, the fact that resonant fields on an organic level are so far directly unobservable, implies both their non-existence and that they are supernatural, opening the floodgates to all sorts of irrational belief systems. If such fields exist, they may be completely natural, but means have as yet not been discovered to observe and quantify them. When direct observation occurs, or the inferred existence becomes as well established as that of the moon’s gravitational effect on the Earth’s tides, it will be a key to drive a fundamental reappraisal of just about every supposition, principle, and law of science pronounced over the last three hundred years. It is therefore no surprise that such strong resistance exists to Sheldrake and his views.
I advise you to read the criticisms of Sheldrake in the literature. As you do so, see if you do not observe the following patterns:
Regardless of what evidence Sheldrake presents, it is never good enough; it is always flawed in some way;
Sheldrake’s work is held to a higher standard of proof than that of the views of its critics;
There are irrational or distorted claims about what his position actually is, which betray a willful unfamiliarity with it;
Criticism of his work serves to deflect the absence of proof for the skeptic’s own position;
Critics often have unspoken vested interests in their position, interests that keep them in denial regardless of the evidence.
Critics generally are oblivious to their true motivations for the defense of their position. A rule of thumb is that the greater the defense the more likely a person is to be ignoring something about their own position they don’t want to look at.
To the extent that you encounter such factors, I recommend that you respond as Sheldrake does. If the critic shows an openness to facts, present evidence; if they do not, ask questions, as Sheldrake does at the end of each chapter. For example, regarding the above patterns, questions might be:
“What evidence would convince you of Sheldrake’s position?”
“Is your work and your specialization held to the same standard of proof that you require of Sheldrake?”
“Where is the proof of your own position?”
“What vested interests might you have for maintaining your own position?”
“In what ways might you be trapped in your own world view?”
Dr. Sheldrake is what a scientist should be: challenging of the prevailing theoretical orthodoxy, intellectually curious, willing to subject his own theories to testing and peer review, and a balance of rationality and passion. The strength of his conviction and his ability to remain committed to a middle road of reason puts Sheldrake in a very rarefied category of humanity, containing Edward Snowden in the political realm and perhaps Paul Watson in defense of the world’s oceans and its irreplaceable web of life.