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bobnotes Older Sheldrake-Shermer Dialogs SHELDRAKE-Shermer 1st

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Sheldrake Opening Statement

Dear Michael,

We agree about many things. We both think that scientific research and the scientific method are of enormous importance. We both believe in evolution. We share an interest in the history of science. And we are both in favor of skepticism.

Where we differ is in our degree of skepticism. I am more radical than you. I think we need to question the dogmas of science itself. As the physicist Richard Feynman observed, scientists need to find out not only what might be right about their theories, but also what might be wrong with them.

For more than 150 years, scientific orthodoxy has been based on the philosophy of materialism, the claim that all reality is material or physical. All our own experiences are by-products of physical and chemical activities in our brains. Even God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads. Brains are made up of unconscious matter and governed only by impersonal physical and chemical laws. Like all other features of living organisms, they have evolved through chance mutations and natural selection, without any purpose or direction.

These beliefs are powerful not because most scientists think about them critically, but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough, and so are the techniques that scientists use, and so are the technologies based on them. But the beliefs that govern conventional scientific thinking are an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology.

Contemporary scientific orthodoxy rests on the following assumptions:

    Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, “lumbering robots,” in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.

    All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the physical activities of brains.

    The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).

    The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same forever.

    Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.

    All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.

    Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.

    Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not “out there,” where it seems to be, but inside your brain.

    Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.

    Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Many people are unaware that these doctrines are assumptions; they think of them as science, or simply believe that they are true. They absorb them by a kind of intellectual osmosis.

In my recent book, Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery (Deepak Chopra, 2012), I tried the experiment of turning these assumptions into questions, treating them as testable scientific hypotheses rather than dogmas. None stood up very well to the evidence. And all led to further questions, some of which I would like to ask you, Michael. My questions are in italics.

1. Is nature mechanical?

The mechanistic theory of nature gives a supreme privilege to machine metaphors. The genes are programs; the heart is a pump; the brain is a computer. But many aspects of nature are not machine-like, including the entire universe. The theory that everything started in a Big Bang resembles ancient myths of the hatching of the cosmic egg. Ever since it hatched, the universe has been growing and developing ever more form and diversity; it seems much more like a developing organism than a machine. And developing plants and animals themselves, like oak trees or cats, are more like true organisms, with their own goals and purposes, than purposeless machines.

Michael, do you think of yourself as a complex machine or as a conscious living organism?

2. Is matter unconscious?

The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century gave birth to modern science by creating a radical dualism between unconscious matter and conscious, non-material minds possessed only by humans, angels, and God. This duality was mirrored in the more or less peaceful coexistence of religion, the arts, and the sciences from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Religion and the arts were concerned with conscious experience, while the realm of science was the physical universe.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many people reacted against the power of churches by becoming atheists, especially in countries like France and Russia, where the established churches were allied with reactionary, authoritarian governments. Materialism provided arguments in support of atheism, and gave it scientific credibility. By denying the existence of immaterial consciousness, atheistic materialists got rid of God and angels at one stroke. There were no longer two realms of reality, matter and consciousness; there was only one reality, matter.

Materialism became the predominant orthodoxy of science by the end of the nineteenth century. Materialists got rid of God, or at least confined him to the brains of believers, but they were left with the “hard problem” of explaining how unconscious matter becomes conscious within human brains. This problem continues to haunt the neurosciences and the philosophy of mind. If consciousness is an illusion, or nothing but a by-product of brain activity, it cannot actually do anything, and hence we cannot make free choices.

Do you believe that you have free will?

3. Is the total amount of matter and energy always the same?

The constancy of the total amount of matter and energy made sense in the eternal universe of nineteenth-century physics, when eternal laws of nature governed an eternal physical reality. Most materialists still believe in changeless laws of nature and constant amounts of matter and energy, with one exception: all the matter and energy in the universe sprang from nothing at the moment of the Big Bang. Leaving aside this miraculous origin, the nature of matter and energy is not straightforward. Physicists now postulate that about 96% of reality is made up of dark matter and dark energy, whose nature is literally obscure.

Do you believe that the total amount of dark matter and dark energy is always the same (except at the moment of the Big Bang)?

4. Are the laws of nature fixed?

The idea of fixed “laws of nature” is a hangover from pre-evolutionary cosmology, which prevailed until the Big Bang theory became orthodox in 1966. In an evolving universe the laws themselves may evolve, or they may be more like habits — as I think myself, as the American philosopher C.S. Peirce suggested in the early twentieth century, and as the contemporary cosmologist Lee Smolin also proposes.

If you believe that all the laws and constants of nature came into being fully formed at the moment of the Big Bang, how does the universe remember them? Where are they imprinted?

5. Is nature purposeless?

The assumption that nature is purposeless follows from the machine metaphor. Machines have no purposes of their own, but only those imposed upon them or programmed into them, to serve human purposes. If the universe is mechanical, then evolution is purposeless: it has no goals, intentions, or direction.

Is the purposelessness of evolution a testable hypothesis?

6. Is all biological inheritance material?

Genes have been greatly overrated. They do not “code for” or “program” the form and behavior of organisms, like the shape of an orchid flower or the nest-building instincts of a weaverbird. They specify the sequence of amino acids in protein molecules, and some genes are involved in the control of the activity of other genes.

The Human Genome Project has been disappointing because it was based on a false conception of what genes do. The “missing heritability problem” is now provoking a crisis in modern biology, because it turns out that as much as 70% of inheritance does not appear to be explained by genes. Also, the recognition of the epigenetic inheritance at the beginning of this century means that the inheritance of acquired characteristics, once taboo, is now mainstream. For example, recent experiments have shown that mice can inherit the fears of their fathers. Male mice were made averse to the smell of a synthetic chemical, acetophenone, by being given electric shocks while they smelled it. Their sperm were used to fertilize female mice, and their children and grandchildren were terrified of the smell of acetophenone (see here).

Findings of this kind mean we need to modify Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, which was based on the primacy of genes and a denial of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Neo-Darwinism assigned creativity to random mutations of genes. But if organisms can learn and adapt to their environments, and pass on adaptations to their offspring, then evolution is affected by organisms’ own abilities to learn and adapt.

How have your views of evolution changed in the light of epigenetic inheritance?

7. Are memories stored as material traces?

The assumption that memories are stored as material traces in brains has dominated scientific research for more than a century, but the hypothetical memory traces have proved surprisingly elusive. There is plenty of evidence that particular parts of the brain become active when memories are being laid down and retrieved, but where they exist in between is mysterious. As I suggest in Science Set Free, memories may depend on a kind of resonance across time. Brains may be more like TV receivers, tuning into memories transmitted from their own past, than like video-recorders. Brain damage can affect the retrieval of memories, just as damage to a TV set can affect the sounds or pictures it produces, but this does not prove the damage has destroyed a storage system.

There is also a philosophical problem: the theory that memories are stored in material traces means there must be a retrieval system that recognizes the memories it is trying to retrieve. To recognize the memories, the retrieval system must itself have a memory. And if it has a material memory, then the retrieval system itself needs a retrieval system, and so on.

Doesn’t this standard explanation of memory either presuppose memory, or fall into an infinite regress?

8. Are minds confined to brains?

If minds are nothing but the activity of brains, then they must be confined to the inside of heads. But when I look at a tree, I do not experience the image of the tree inside my head; I experience it where the tree is. My image of the tree is in my mind, but it is not inside my head. Our minds may be extended beyond our brains every time we look at something.

Everyone agrees that vision involves light coming into eyes, causing activity in the retina, impulses up the optic nerves, and specific patterns of activity in brains. Most materialists assume that the nervous tissue then somehow generates a 3-D, full-color virtual reality display inside the skull. But since these virtual reality displays are invisible to objective observers, how do we know they are inside skulls? Instead, we may generate images that are projected out to where they seem to be. Our minds may reach out to touch what we are seeing — for example, a tree. We may affect what we are looking at. That may be why many people and animals often sense when they are being watched, even when looked at from behind. And, in my opinion, there is good evidence for the reality of the sense of being stared at, which we will probably discuss in our dialogue next month.

Meanwhile, Michael, how do you interpret your own experience of seeing? When you look at the sky, do you think that you are seeing the sky inside your skull?

9. Are unexplained phenomena like telepathy illusory?

We will be discussing telepathy and other psychic phenomena in our next dialogue.

10. Is mechanistic medicine the only kind that really works?

I think the best way of evaluating different kinds of therapy is through comparative effectiveness research, pragmatically finding out which therapeutic systems work best for common problems like lower back pain or migraine headaches. Some patients, selected at random, would be sent to regular physicians, others to acupuncturists, chiropractors, osteopaths, homeopaths, and practitioners of other systems that claim to offer cures. Which systems work best? And which are most cost-effective? Through pragmatic research, we can have an evidence-based approach to medicine without a commitment to one particular system or ideology.

Do you think that governments and health insurance companies should fund research comparing the effectiveness of different kinds of therapy, including alternative therapies?


Like you, Michael, I am pro-science. But we have different ways of expressing our enthusiasm. I think the interests of the sciences are best served by exploring what we do not understand, even if that leads us beyond the limitations imposed by the materialist philosophy. My scientific allegiance is not to a particular worldview, materialism, but to science as a method of inquiry, open to new possibilities.

Some atheists fear that if they let go of materialism they will allow back religion, and set off a tsunami of superstition. Therefore, materialism must be defended at all costs. But this fear is exaggerated. Atheists need not be shackled to materialism; they can move beyond it and still remain atheists. For example, the distinguished American philosopher Thomas Nagel rejects materialism in favour of panpsychism in his recent book Mind And Cosmos: Why the Materialist, Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford UP, 2012). He proposes that there are aspects of mind throughout the natural world, even in the chemical elements. He also argues that evolution is purposive. But he remains an atheist.

Whether God exists or not is a different question, which we will discuss in our third dialogue. Our present discussion is about the whether the sciences ought to remain within the materialist paradigm, or whether scientists should be free to range more widely.


Shermer Response

Dear Rupert,

Scientists in general, and myself in particular, are not materialists because of historical contingencies related to French and Russian reactionary governments, or because we’re afraid that if we give up materialism religion and belief in God will come roaring back. Last time I checked the polls, in fact, religion and belief in God seemed to be doing just fine in this age of scientific materialism, although I am encouraged by the recent increase in the number of people with no religious affiliation. But my desire to see the power of religion attenuated has nothing to do with scientific materialism and everything to do with human rights and moral progress (which I claim is primarily driven by science and reason and Enlightenment humanism). And I am an atheist not because I am a materialist, but because I do not believe there is sufficient evidence for the existence of God.

Materialism became the predominant worldview of science by the end of the nineteenth century because it works — it enables scientists to search for and find mechanistic explanations for a wide spread of phenomena, from atoms and molecules to ecologies and economies. This is not an act of faith, as you say, but of confidence built over centuries of data-gathering, hypothesis-testing, and theory-building, all contested through the competitive enterprise of science in which skeptics have, as you note in quoting Feynman, tried to find out what might be wrong with their own and especially others’ ideas.

Neither is materialism an ideology, as you also suggest. An ideology is a set of beliefs about how society should be structured, and traditionally those beliefs have had less to do with science and more to do with preconceived notions of the proper place of people in a society (usually held by the dominant group as a way of keeping minority groups in their place — or eliminating them altogether). Communism and National Socialism, for example, were not scientific societies (as often claimed by theists in their eagerness to indict atheism by linking it to science and materialism), but utopian societies grounded in the faux religions of Marxism (for Communist states) and nationalism (for the Nazis). Also — in the case of the Nazis — their eugenics program had nothing to do with scientific materialism or atheism, and their science was (as I write in The Moral Arc [p. 137]) “a thin patina covering a deep layer of counter-Enlightenment, pastoral, paradisiacal fantasies of racial ideology grounded in ethnicity and geography.”

As seen in these examples, much of our dialogue turns on the meaning of words. My example from my first letter about the discovery of the material mechanism of the nerve impulse illustrates the point. And just as we no longer have to depend on fuzzy phrases like “nervous energy” or force mentale (because we now understand the underlying molecular process), we should be cautious when we employ fuzzy words like “thought” or “mind” so as not to reify them into causal explanations. It’s okay to say “I think” or “my mind” in conversation, as long as we all understand that these are just linguistic place-fillers for a complex electro-chemical exchange going on inside our brains.

Such linguistic clarification goes a long way to answering your many questions. “Is nature mechanical?” As opposed to what . . . non-mechanical? What would that mean? What would be an example of a non-mechanical system? Yes, scientists use metaphors like the heart as a pump or the brain as a computer, but metaphors are just a way of talking and thinking about something with the end goal of understanding the underlying mechanical processes. Communication is easier when I say “my heart pumps blood” or “my brain computes the consequences,” instead of a long description of muscle contractions and nerve impulses.

You ask do I see myself as a complex machine or as a conscious living organism? Yes. Both. But, again, these are just words, and you have used them in a manner that implies one can’t be both. A conscious living organism is a complex machine — very complex. As well, being a “complex machine” in no way detracts from the elegance and beauty of being a “living organism”; it only adds to it. This reminds me of the nineteenth-century English poet John Keats, who once bemoaned that Isaac Newton had “destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism.” Natural philosophy, he lamented in his 1820 poem “Lamia,”

    …will clip an Angel’s wings

    Conquer all mysteries by rule and line

    Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine —

    Unweave a rainbow . . .

Richard Feynman gave as good a response as anyone to Keats in his 1988 book, What do YOU Care What Other People Think?, in his contemplation of a flower:

    The beauty that is there for you is also available for me, too. But I see a deeper beauty that isn’t so readily available to others. I can see the complicated interactions of the flower. The color of the flower is red. Does the fact that the plant has color mean that it evolved to attract insects? This adds a further question. Can insects see color? Do they have an aesthetic sense? And so on. I don’t see how studying a flower ever detracts from its beauty. It only adds.

The sense I get from your work — and that of many others who harbor some reservations about science under the rubric of “scientism” — is that the reductionistic, mechanistic worldview somehow detracts from both the beauty and understanding of nature. It doesn’t, it only adds by giving us a deeper understanding of it.

You ask if matter is unconscious. The answer depends on the meaning of the word “conscious.” If you mean something akin to what you and I are doing here — consciously thinking and experiencing and communicating — then what matter are we talking about? Is an apple (the fruit, not the computer) conscious? If you mean to ask if apples can think, experience, and communicate, then obviously not. But I wouldn’t even say that apples are unconscious because that implies that they have a temporary suspension of consciousness, like when we are put under anesthesia. Consciousness is not part of an apple’s essence, so it can’t even be unconscious, and neither can the molecules with which it is made.

You ask if I have free will. I do. I have an entire chapter in The Moral Arc explaining why, but in brief I present four ways around the paradox of retaining freedom and moral responsibility in a determined universe:

But the free will issue also turns on how we define these terms. I’m guessing that you too believe in free will, but probably for different reasons involving something akin to a conscious or spiritual or nonmaterial soul or entity or substance that represents “you” that is making choices. But this doesn’t give you free will. It just means something else is making the decision for “you,” unless you think that this other entity is you and the physical entity called Rupert Sheldrake is something else.

You ask about matter, energy, and the laws of nature. I’m not a physicist and am not qualified or even sufficiently read to offer a proper response. My friend and colleague Lawrence Krauss, a highly respected cosmologist and physicist, tells me (in an email dated May 1), “we know that over cosmic time the fine structure constant has been constant by at least 1 part in 100,000 or so, and the gravitational constant hasn’t changed by more than 40% at most since the universe was one second old. The latter comes from BBN limits, and the former from measuring the spectrum of light emitted by atoms in galaxies at high redshift.” Lawrence’s book, A Universe from Nothing, along with Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s book, The Grand Design, both present materialist/mechanistic models by which a universe can come into existence and sustain itself without the necessity of a higher intelligence or outside creative force of any kind.

As for “laws of nature,” again, linguistic precision is helpful here. “Laws” are the linguistic and mathematical descriptions we humans give to naturally occurring repeating phenomena. There are no laws of nature “out there.” Nature just is. Stars, for example, convert hydrogen into helium in a well-defined manner dependent on temperature and pressure. We can write out the mathematical equations that tell us how this happens, how fast, how much, and so on. But there are no “laws” inside stars; just material stuff doing what it must do under those conditions.

And this answers your next question, “Is nature purposeless?” What do you mean by purpose? If you mean that the purpose of stars is to convert hydrogen into helium under certain temperatures and pressures, then yes, nature has purpose. Stars are fulfilling their “destiny” in this sense. But if you mean by purpose some outside transcendent source that grants or directs purpose, or that acknowledges or rewards purpose fulfilled, then no such source exists. There is no Archimedean point from which we can lever into our lives some external purpose. We have to create our own purpose, and we do this by fulfilling our nature, by living according to our essence, by being true to ourselves.

    This above all: to thine own self be true,

    And it must follow, as the night the day,

    Thou canst not then be false to any man.


Sheldrake Reply

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your Response to the questions I asked in my Opening Statement.

At first I was puzzled by the contradictions in your positions. But then I read your chapter on free will in The Moral Arc (Henry Holt, 2015). I was struck by your endorsement of the theory of modular minds, according to which we have many different compartmentalized brain functions, or mental apps (as on a smart phone). As you put it, “There is no unified ‘self’ that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs devoid of conflict. . . . Instead, we are a collection of distinct but interacting modules that are often at odds with one another” (p. 338). Suddenly, your inconsistencies became easier to understand. There are several different Shermer modules that predominate in different contexts:

I agree. But other Shermer modules pull your brain in different directions:

Luckily, when your libertarian module is uppermost, we agree that scientific inquiry should be free, and not constrained by dogma. We will return to this subject next month.