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bobnotes Older Sheldrake-Shermer Dialogs SHERMER-Sheldrake 1st

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Shermer Opening Statement

Dear Rupert,

We have never met in person but I have been following your work ever since your book, The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (Times Books, 1988), was published. I was in a doctoral program in the history of science at the time and recall being intrigued with your thesis that the past’s influence on the present goes beyond the usual socio-cultural effects that historians track (such as political, economic, and cultural forces that carry across the centuries — the longue durée, as the French Annales school of historians call it). Clearly, you meant something more than the strict materialist forces at work that scientists study (including historical scientists, under which heading I include historians along with archaeologists), and this is where my skeptical alarm went off as I tried to understand what mechanism within the known laws of nature could possibly be at work for the present to be influenced by the past in ways that you suggest.

As you know and have been critical of — most recently in your book The Science Delusion (Coronet, 2012; titled Science Set Free here in the colonies — why do publishers rename books?!) — most scientists (myself included) adopt the materialist position of methodological naturalism, which I take to mean: life is the result of a natural and purposeless process in a system of material causes and effects that does not allow, or need, supernatural forces. In my public talks I often illustrate the principle with the famous Sidney Harris cartoon of two scientists at a blackboard filled with equations in which the words “Then a miracle occurs” appear in the middle of the mathematical sequence. The caption has one scientist saying to the other: “I think you need to be more explicit here in step two.”

This is sometimes called the “God of the gaps” argument — wherever an apparent gap exists in scientific knowledge, this is where we interject a miracle from God as an explanation. It works something like this, when dealing with certain biological features of organisms, in which “X” may be the eye or DNA or some other feature:

1. X looks designed

2. I can’t think of how X was designed naturally

3. Therefore X was designed supernaturally

This fallacy reminds me of the “plane problem” of Isaac Newton’s time: the planets all lie approximately in a plane (known as the ecliptic). Newton found this arrangement to be so improbable that he invoked God as an explanation in Principia Mathematica: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” Since Newton’s time, however, that gap has been filled in with natural explanations that involve how stars and solar systems are formed from condensing clouds of interstellar gas in which eddies of material conglomerate into a central star (or two, in the case of binary stars) and multiple smaller planets (Kant was the first to propose this “nebular hypothesis”). Creationists do not cite this problem or quote Newton because the gap has now been filled in with a natural explanation by scientists.

The materialism of methodological naturalism also bothers the Intelligent Design movement because of their desire to introduce supernaturalism into the system of the world. For example, in his book, Darwin on Trial (Regnery, 1991), the University of California-Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson — one of the founders of the Intelligent Design movement — accused scientists of unfairly defining God out of the picture by limiting the search to only natural causes. He charged that scientists who postulate that there are non-natural or supernatural forces or interventions at work in the natural world are being pushed out of the scientific arena on the basis of nothing more than a fundamental rule of the game. Like you, Johnson and his Intelligent Design colleagues such as William Dembski, Paul Nelson, and Stephen Meyer want the rules of the game changed to allow methodological supernaturalism.

Let’s play out that scenario and imagine what methodological supernaturalism would look like in science, and how it would work. (I did this in my book, Why Darwin Matters [Times Books, 2006].) For the sake of argument let’s assume that Intelligent Design theorists have discovered a new force of nature that accounts for the apparent design in such features as the eye or DNA. How will they identify it? Will it be considered a new natural force, or a new supernatural force? By what criteria will they discriminate between the natural and the supernatural? How can one tell?

For example, in the early 20th century the British biologist Julian Huxley parodied the French philosopher Henry Bergson’s fuzzy explanation for life as being caused by an élan vital (vital force), which Huxley said was like explaining a railroad steam engine as being driven by its élan locomotif (locomotive force). In his book, The Ancestor’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), Richard Dawkins employed a similar analogy to parody Intelligent Design explanations for life. To say that the eye or DNA are “designed” tells us nothing. Scientists want to know how they were designed, what forces were at work, how the process of development unfolded, etc. Dawkins imagined a counterfactual history in which Andrew Huxley and Alan Hodgkin, winners of the Nobel prize for figuring out the molecular biophysics of the nerve impulse, in a creationist frame of mind attribute it instead to “nervous energy.”

Along these same lines (inspired by Dawkins’s analogy that I first employed in my book, The Believing Brain [Times Books, 2011]), imagine if David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel — winners of the 1959 Nobel Prize for their pioneering research in brain circuitry and determining the neurochemistry of vision — had, instead of spending years getting down to the cellular and molecular level of understanding how the brain converts photons of light into neural impulses, simply attributed the process to a force mentale.

    Now see here, Hubel, this business about how photons of light are transduced into neural activity is a dreadfully thorny problem. I just can’t understand how it works, can you?

    No, my dear Wiesel, I can’t, and implanting those electrodes into monkeys’ brains is truly unpleasant and messy, and I have the hardest time getting the electrode into the right spot. Why don’t we just say that the light is converted into a nerve impulse by a force mentale?

What does invoking a concept like force mentale explain? Nothing. It would be like describing your automobile’s engine as operating by a “combustive force,” which fails to capture what is actually going on inside the cylinders of an internal combustion engine: a piston compresses a vaporous mixture of gasoline and air that is ignited by a spark plug causing an explosion that drives the piston down thereby turning a crank arm that is connected to a drive shaft that is linked to a differential that rotates the wheels. Giving something a label like “nervous energy,” force mentale, or “combustive force” is not an explanation. It is just a label to talk about something material that is at work that we want to try to understand with natural forces.

In this sense, then — as I’ve mentioned many times in my critique of theories about Psi, ESP, miracles, and the like — there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural. These words “paranormal” and “supernatural” are precisely parallel to “nervous energy” and force mentale: just linguistic placeholders to talk about something for which we do not as yet have a normal or natural explanation.

Analogously, when cosmologists talk about “dark energy” and “dark matter,” they don’t mean those words to be an explanation, only linguistic placeholders until they figure out what exactly is causing such as-yet unsolved mysteries such as the rotation of galaxies and the accelerating expansion of the cosmos. Whereas cosmologists do not stop searching for the underlying mechanisms of the observed phenomena just because they have a label, however, paranormalists and supernaturalists treat words like “paranormal” and “supernatural” as if they were causal explanations. They’re not.

Turning to your area of research, Rupert, if it turned out that, say, people really could read other people’s minds and that they were able to do so because (pace Roger Penrose’s and Stuart Hameroff’s theory) inside our neurons are tiny microtubules in which quantum effects happen that allow thoughts (patterns of neural firing) to be transferred from one skull to another at any distance (like the “spooky action at a distance” effects that quantum physicists have measured in experiments), that would not be ESP or Psi, and we would not need to call it a “paranormal” effect, because we would then know that the ability to read minds was due to the properties of neurons and atoms. If this turned out to be true (I’m skeptical), this new theory would be subsumed under the sciences of neuroscience and/or quantum physics (quantum neuroscience?) and would no longer be studied under the umbrella of, say, parapsychology.

This is not a new problem. Scientists and philosophers of science have long struggled with defining what constitutes legitimate scientific knowledge, and no less a mind than the great British astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington chimed in on the debate in his 1939 classic work, The Philosophy of Physical Science (recall that it was Eddington who successfully tested Einstein’s theory of relativity by measuring the bending of starlight by the sun during a solar eclipse in 1919). Eddington made this analogy that I use in my critical thinking course (and in my book, Why People Believe Weird Things [Mjf Books, 1997]), which I think has some relevance to our discussion on the nature of science:

    Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematize what it reveals. He arrives at two generalizations:

    1. No sea-creature is less than two inches long.

    2. All sea-creatures have gills.

    …In applying this analogy, the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it. The casting of the net corresponds to observation…

    An onlooker may object that the first generalization is wrong. “There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.” The ichthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. “Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of ichthyological knowledge.” In short, “what my net can’t catch isn’t fish.”

Extending the analogy beyond the physical sciences to all fields: regardless of what forces may be at work in our world, if they can be measured by our scientific instruments (or by our senses), then by definition they must be natural forces (regardless of what you call them). In other words, what our senses and scientific nets catch are natural fish.

Later, we will be discussing God, but in this context, let me note that if one were to argue that God exists outside of our world (or outside of the universe, or outside of nature), and that God’s forces are non-natural (or supernatural) and they can still affect the world but in a non-measurable way (because our scientific nets only catch natural fish), then what’s the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God?

And if God (or some creative force — it need not be the creator Judeo-Christian-Muslim God) exists outside of nature, but periodically reaches into our world to change it in some manner (such as answering prayers or performing miracles), then, in principle, there should be some way to measure such effects (e.g., patients who are prayed for heal faster, or a physically impossible feat occurs, such as the regrowth of an amputated human limb) and deduce that the source of the effects is outside of all known natural forces. In that case, in principle, such a God (or force) would simply become part of the natural world (at least when He/It operates on it).

Thus, it seems to me that once we have carefully defined our terms, it is clear that there really is only the material world, methodological naturalism is the only means to understand it, and science is the only form of reliable knowledge that we have.


Sheldrake Response

Dear Michael,

I agree with you that science is not about the supernatural. If things can be investigated by the natural sciences, they are part of nature. I support the principle of methodological naturalism, and in my own research have always worked within it.

In relation to psychic phenomena, like you, I have long argued that if they occur (which I think they do), they are natural, not supernatural; normal not paranormal. I also consider morphic resonance — which I suggest underlies memory in nature — to be normal, not paranormal; natural, not supernatural.

Also, like you, I’m against the concept of intelligent design, but for different reasons. I think the word “design” has misleading mechanistic implications. The old version of intelligent design was that God was outside of nature, and designed the machinery of the world, like an engineer designing a machine, or a watchmaker designing a watch. To say that living organisms are “designed” implies that they are complex machines. New versions of intelligent design are subtler, but still imply that living organisms are machines, and that their complexity is designed by a supernatural mind or minds outside nature. I agree with advocates of intelligent design in thinking that evolutionary creativity goes beyond blind chance, but I see living organisms as organisms, not machines, and I think that creativity is inherent in nature, rather than being imposed upon it from outside.

I also agree with you in rejecting “God of the gaps” arguments for the existence of God. We will return to a discussion of God in our third dialogue. But, unlike you, I am skeptical of “materialism of the gaps” arguments. Instead of invoking God, many materialists try to solve problems by making scientific promises. For example:

Empty phrases such as “genetic programs” and “brain mechanisms” are used to explain almost everything. They imply that the answers are known in principle, leaving only the details to be worked out, with the answers only a few years (or decades) away. Committed materialists are committed precisely because they believe that materialistic explanations will be found in the future. They put their trust in what they hope for — in what is not yet known. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this attitude “promissory materialism,” because it involves issuing undated promissory notes for future discoveries. Promissory materialism is a faith.

In the nineteenth century, materialism seemed quite straightforward. Old-style materialists thought that matter was made up of hard, enduring stuff, with atoms like little billiard balls, pushed around by known forms of energy. But the nature of physical reality — which materialists think of as the only reality — is much more problematic today. Quantum theory has dissolved matter into vibratory patterns of activity within fields. And most cosmologists and astronomers believe that about 96% of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy, whose nature is literally obscure. These names may be placeholders, but what they mean is that 96% of what materialists or physicalists believe in is unknown. How can we be sure that dark matter and dark energy — the basis for the existence of galaxies and the evolution of the universe — are completely mindless and unconscious?

The most interesting contemporary debate within the materialist community is between conservative materialists — among whom I think you, Michael, are numbered — and animistic materialists, who propose that there are mind-like properties throughout the natural world, even in electrons. As you know, this position is usually called “panpsychism” (from the Greek words pan [“all” or “everything”] and psuchē [“soul”] — meaning “all or everything is soul”). For example, the philosopher Galen Strawson argues that materialism itself implies panpsychism. He is a panpsychist, but still thinks of himself as a materialist or physicalist. The neuroscientist Christof Koch has recently come to the conclusion that a version of panpsychism modified for the 21st century is “the single most elegant and parsimonious explanation for the universe.” The philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his book Mind and Cosmos, is another eminent proponent of the idea that there is psyche or mind throughout nature. None of these panpsychists proposes that psyches or minds are supernatural, but rather that they are aspects of nature. I agree with them.

I myself think that part of the mental aspect of nature is memory. My own particular hypothesis is that memory depends on the process I call morphic resonance, an influence of similar patterns of activity on subsequent similar patterns of activity, resonating through or across space and time. This resonance occurs in self-organizing systems, which include molecules, crystals, plants, animals, social groups, planets, solar systems, and galaxies. Similar self-organising patterns of activity resonate across time, from the past to the present. Each species has a kind of collective memory. Every individual both taps into this collective memory and contributes to it. By contrast, human-made objects like chairs, cars, computers, and other machines are not self-organizing. They are designed and made by people, or through computer programs designed by human computer programmers. They are not subject to morphic resonance from past chairs, cars, etc., although the molecules and crystals within them are.

Morphic resonance is a hypothesis, not an accepted scientific fact. But the progress of science depends on exploring hypotheses, and testing them empirically. The hypothesis of morphic resonance leads to many testable predictions. For example, if rats learn a new trick in New York, rats in London and Sydney should learn the same trick quicker, even in the absence of any conventional means of communication. There is already evidence that this effect occurs. There are many other lines of evidence that seem to support this hypothesis, as summarized in the third edition of my book A New Science of Life (London: Icon Books, 2009; re-titled Morphic Resonance in the USA). I have also suggested several new tests [PDF] in the realms of low temperature physics, crystallography, developmental biology, animal behavior, and human psychology. In biology, this hypothesis implies that the inheritance of form and behavior depends largely on morphic resonance, rather than on genes, which code for the sequence of amino acids in proteins. Genes are not “programs” for development or for instincts. Indeed, it turns out that about 70% of human heritability is not explicable in terms of genes. This is called the “missing heritability problem.”

One of the most striking implications of morphic resonance concerns memory. Morphic resonance depends on similarity. The greater the similarity, the stronger the resonance. Think about yourself. Which organism in the past was most similar to you? Surely you yourself! Self-resonance is the most powerful resonance working on any self-organising system. In living organisms, self-resonance helps maintain their form, even though the chemicals and cells within them are continually turned over and replaced.

In the realms of learning and mental activity, self-resonance underlies memory. In other words, memories may not be stored in brains. Brains may be more like TV receivers than video recorders. TV receivers tune in to invisible resonances across space, transmitted through invisible radio waves. Your memories may depend on a resonance with yourself in the past, transmitted across time by morphic resonance. The standard assumption is, of course, that memories are stored as material traces inside brains. But after 100 years of intensive research, these traces have proved extraordinarily elusive, perhaps because they are not there. If I came to your house and analysed the wires and transistors of your TV set to try and find out what you were watching last week, I would be disappointed; I would find no material traces.

But doesn’t the fact that brain damage can lead to loss of memory prove that memories are stored in brains? No. It only shows that properly functioning brains are necessary for the retrieval of memories. Damage to a TV set can lead to changes in the sounds or the pictures, but this does not prove that what you are seeing and hearing is stored inside the set.

I suppose in the end that most of our disagreements about science come down to our different agendas. I am a research scientist, and I like exploring new possibilities. You are a leader of the organized skeptic movement, many of whose members are conservative materialists, dedicated to maintaining materialist law and order, patrolling the frontiers of science, and ringing alarm bells. These differences divide us. But what may bring us closer is a belief in free inquiry. I was interested to read in your TBS interview about your libertarian sympathies, which presumably include a belief in the freedom of the sciences from authoritarianism and dogma.


Shermer Reply

Dear Rupert,

In response to your second letter, and your point about seeing living organisms as “organisms, not machines,” again I ask: why can’t they be both? An organism is a living machine, and a complex enough machine can become a living organism! Proponents of Artificial Intelligence would likely agree for future machines that reach a certain level of intelligence—the singularity, say—at which point these machines will be indistinguishable from living organisms in their actions and cognitions, even though we could lift the hood and see that they are just complex machines. So we’re really talking about degrees of complexity here, and at some point a machine can become so complex that it appears for all intents and purposes to be alive and organic, as our intuitions understand those concepts. (And future AI will force us to revise those intuitions, along with our legal and moral systems about what constitutes a sentient being deserving of rights and personhood.)

Now, we both agree that these complex organic machines were not designed from the top down (or from the outside by an intelligent designer), so the problem to explain is the source of the complexity, the creative spark behind the complex design. Stephen Hawking once famously asked, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations?” And he equally famously answered “no one”—the universe comes equipped with fire already built into the equations. You and I seem to agree that there is no “who” on the outside breathing life into inorganic matter, so the answer to the question about the source of life’s fire must come from within.

You argue that “creativity is inherent in nature.” I agree, if by creativity you mean that certain laws of nature—in particular those laws governing biology, embryology, epigenetics, genetics, etc.—lead organisms to unfold embryologically from a tiny cluster of cells into a full-fledged organism (e.g., a mammal), and for species to evolve from simple to complex (and even for the evolution of evolvability). That is, inherent in what Aristotle called the “final cause” of a thing (in this case an organism) is what it is, by nature, destined to be—a seed to become a plant, a human embryo a human being—under the right conditions. Just as a star is destined to convert hydrogen into helium under the right conditions of heat and pressure, a seed or an embryo must become a plant or human under the right conditions that allow the processes of genetics, epigenetics, embryological development, and the like to unfold as they are destined to do by the laws governing the actions of their molecules.

As you know, the great German philosopher and writer Goethe developed a biological theory of morphology (he invented the word!) based on the formalist idea that the wide diversity of plant and animal complexity can be reduced to single archetypes or forms—a “leaflike” form for leaves, for example. But Goethe’s formalist morphological theory never panned out because no underlying mechanism to drive it was ever found, much less the source of the archetype in the first place. Darwin’s genius was to turn this theory on its head by showing how all current forms are derived from prior forms, modified by natural selection to be adaptive to current environments. Thus, the “archetype” of our arms and hands—the tetrapod forelimb with a humerus, ulna, and radius, and carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges bones—evolved in fish 375 million years ago as an adaptation for transitioning from the water onto the land (amphibians), most famously in the Tiktaalik fossil discovered by Neil Shubin in 2004. And fossils before and after that type (see the Wikipedia entry for “transitional fossils”) show no “archetype” at all, only local adaptations to local environments all the way back and forward from that particular type.

So we already have a purely materialist explanation for the diversity of types in nature without the need to invoke the “memory” of forms (in your theory) that guide molecules toward them (if I’m understanding your theory correctly), but if you are right in your claim that “genetic programs” do not explain forms, body types, anatomy, or physiology, then I have three questions:

  1.     What do you think DNA is for and what is it doing, if not what geneticists think it is doing?
  2.     Where is the “memory” for forms (say, the tetrapod forelimb) stored?
  3.     How does this memory act on physical systems, such as the molecules that make up cells or organs or (in keeping with my example) tetrapod forelimbs?

I think the reason your theory of morphic resonance has not gained acceptance within the scientific community is the same as why Goethe’s formalist theory of morphology never succeeded: in science we need both theory and mechanism. Alfred Wegener had a theory of drifting continents but no mechanism that could drive plates around the globe. Once that mechanism was found in the 1960s in the form of plate tectonics, the theory gained acceptance. It’s true that Darwin didn’t have an understanding of genetics as a mechanism for natural selection, but the evidence for his theory was so overwhelming from so many different lines of inquiry that it gained acceptance despite this shortcoming. And of course after 1953, genetics synthesized the theory of evolution into the fully mature science it is today.

For your theory to follow a similar trajectory, you would need to:

  1.     provide more reliable and consistent (i.e., replicable) evidence that such memory in nature exists;
  2.     explain where this memory is stored (i.e., what’s the mechanism of storage); and
  3.     explain how morphic memories affect physical systems (e.g., molecules)

If you were able to do these things, then I and most everyone else in science would change our minds and accept your theory.

Until then, it is reasonable to be skeptical.