Sheldrake’s Science Delusion
Rupert Sheldrake The Science Delusion Coronet 2012
Sheldrake aims to debunk mainstream ‘scientific’ dogmas, but is widely regarded as a heretic, or at best as someone who can be ignored.
The Ten Dogmas of Modern Science
The scientific creed
Sheldrake lists ten dogmas, starting with ‘everything is mechanical’. I agree that these are all issues that ought to be debated, and that most people – even perhaps most people with science degrees – have firm views that are not entirely justified by ‘the facts’ of experimentation. But whereas Sheldrake is supposedly criticising the quality of reasoning in contemporary science, he fails to make it clear what exactly he is criticising. Thus whereas I accept that many important things are not ‘mechanical’ in the narrow sense, I am generally comfortable talking about the brain as if it were a mechanism, albeit in a broader sense.
Is Nature Mechanical?
Sheldrake seems to be contradicting the view that nature can be reduced to explicit mechanisms, as if it had a classical design. In which case, I agree. He advocates the views of Whitehead, which I tend to go along with. But, like Whitehead, Sheldrake uses a language which seems to me unnecessarily spooky.
Are the Laws of Nature Fixed?
Clearly, what we think are fixed laws of nature and universal constants might be only more local and temporary. I tend to think that since physicists and chemists are always repeating experiments it is reasonably pragmatic to take universality as a working hypothesis, and only question it when one has anomalies. My problem is when people suppose that society, for example, has similarly fixed laws.
This is the heart of Sheldrake’s views. He believes that there are significant influences between things that are not fully explained by contemporary science, and thus that we have not reached ‘the end of science’. Whatever one believes, it would certainly be unscientific, illogical and unreasonable to suppose that Sheldrake was definitely wrong in this.
Sheldrake breaks his more detailed views into 7 propositions, which make specific claims, contradicting to what he regards as the current mainstream view. Many of his propositions resemble the British Association for the Advancement of Science view of the late 1920s. These challenge previous conceptualisations, and it is perhaps fair to say that many of those who currently hold science degrees, and even many respected practitioners, do not appreciate this type of thinking. But it seems to me that Sheldrake adds a certain ‘spookiness’ of his own, which I find unnecessary.
While Sheldrake rejects the notion of universal laws of nature, his notion of morphic fields differs from that of the 1920s in that his fields are universal in space and cover the whole past, and hence gives rise to ‘spooky action at a distance’. The 1920s view is more general, in that morphic fields could be more local, and it was supposed that they often were. It seems to me a good idea to employ a heuristic something like Occam’s razor, and try to minimise the spookiness in one’s hypotheses. One is then left with the view that much of nature is ’emergent’ in some sense, rather than appearing to be the unfolding of pre-ordained grand design. Such emergence need only be a tiny bit spooky: for example, a gardener cannot completely control nature, and has to work with it. Thus a typical English garden is emergent, and some people appreciated such gardens more than formally designed ones.
Much of this, Sheldrake’s conclusion, are advocating research into his ‘spooky’ ideas and the potential benefits. I find this more appealing as a critique of an ossified status-quo than as a technical manifesto.
Science debates and dialogues
Sheldrake, rightly, Ricky Gervais’s view that:
Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence.
Possibly Ricky was joking, but – sadly – this ill-educated view, that science is ‘authoritative’, seems all too common. Sheldrake notes that some areas of science have a culture that is strongly anti-reason, which seeks to ridicule dissent and quash debate. He recommends improvements in debate. I would also suggest that much of what Sheldrake says about the nature and limitations of science are well established, and ought to be restored as part of the education of all scientists, if only so that they acknowledge that there are limitations!
Public participation in science funding
Sheldrake, as an outsider, acknowledges that in the 2000s the UK government moved aware from attempts to educate the public about the findings of science, towards more meaningful engagement, but is dismissive of the results., except in medicine. My own view is that there are some core ideas, which Sheldrake touches on, in which education is appropriate. In practice such education would necessitate a degree of engagement: it cannot be delivered via a packaged ‘message’. In this context education has a bad name, since it has become devalued into the teaching of ‘facts’. But the core ideas are not of this form: they are about understanding (as in this blog).
If we set aside Sheldrake’s spookiness one has something like Smut’s Holism and Evolution. It is clearly possible to couch a general notion of science in these terms. It may be that mainstream physics and chemistry have interpreted this general view satisfactorily, or it may be that there is merit in reconsidering fundamentals occasionally, such as when new types of ‘particle’ are discovered. But I think the real pay-off in this ‘less mechanistic’ view of science is in biology, psychology, sociology etc.
It may be that a mechanistic view is adequate for the ‘practical natural scientist’, but we shouldn’t extrapolate too far from there. Policy-makers and the public need to understand these limitations.