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bobnotes Sheldrake-Shermer Dialogs SHELDRAKE-Shermer 3rd

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Sheldrake Opening Statement [3]

Dear Michael,

I believe in God, and I am a church-going Christian, an Anglican (Episcopalian in the United States). You are a materialist, atheist, and secular humanist. I think faith in God and the practice of science are compatible and mutually enhancing. I dare say you disagree.

Nevertheless, we probably agree about many things. First, we both believe that the universe has a unity that makes science possible. This belief is shared by Christians, atheists, and by followers of other faiths. Second, we both agree that the universe is intelligible, at least in part—otherwise, science and reason would be futile.

For those who believe in God, the intelligibility of nature and the ability of human minds to understand some aspects of the natural world make sense because they have a common source, namely God. God’s consciousness is the ultimate source of human consciousness, and all other forms of consciousness in the universe.

Most atheists and materialists also believe in something like the mind of God, but stripped down to mathematical principles, or “the laws of physics,” which were there from the beginning, and are changeless, universal, and omnipotent. This seems to be the opinion of your friend Lawrence Krauss, for example. The main difference is that in Christian theology, the ordering principles of the universe are aspects of God, whereas for an atheist the laws of nature sprang into being miraculously at the moment of the Big Bang, or exist in a transcendent Platonic realm, from which they somehow gave rise to the universe.

If these laws are explained in terms of yet more fundamental laws, as in M-theory, or superstring theory, then where do those ultimate laws come from? Just like the woman who thought the world rested on a turtle, and that turtle on another turtle, and so on all the way down, in modern physics, mathematical laws rest on mathematical laws all the way down.

You will argue that to say that the ordering principles of nature have their ultimate source in God adds nothing simply to saying there are laws. But it does add something. God is by definition a conscious being, and divine consciousness permeates the universe, and is also the ultimate source of human consciousness. By contrast, materialists believe that the universe is unconscious, governed by unconscious laws, and made up of unconscious matter. These assumptions make human consciousness problematic, which is why philosophers of mind call the very existence of consciousness “the hard problem.”

A third area in which we agree is evolution. We both believe in evolution, not only at the biological level, but also at the cosmic level. The whole universe has been expanding and developing for billions of years, forming ever more varied structures within it, including galaxies, solar systems, and biological life, at least on this planet. All the new forms that come into being, including the forms of molecules, crystals, plants, and animals, require some kind of creativity. Like you, I think that creativity is inherent in nature, and I do not think that the universe is designed by an external engineering-type God. Also, like you, I do not think that the bible, or any other sacred book, is a scientific, historical record to be taken literally.

Some biblical fundamentalists think of God as an engineer who designed and created species of animals and plants like a watchmaker designing a watch. Ironically, this God of the world machine has more to do with science than with the bible or traditional Christian doctrines. When the machine model of nature took hold in seventeenth-century science, a new image of God came into being as a supernatural engineer, a machine-maker separate from nature.

You don’t believe in this kind of God, and neither do I. In traditional Christian theology, God is not a kind of craftsman, or demiurge, who makes the world in the first place and then retires, leaving it to work automatically, except for occasional interventions when he arbitrarily suspends the laws of nature. God is not a demiurge, and not a meddler with machinery. According to the traditional understanding in Christian and other theologies, God is the ground of all being, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. He sustains the world in its existence from moment to moment, and is doing so now.[1]

In any case, the biblical account of creation does not see nature as mechanical, or God as an engineer. Plants and animals were not invented by God in a kind of celestial workshop. The Creation account in the book of Genesis (1.11) reads, “Then God said, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so.”[2] Likewise, God empowered the seas and the earth to bring forth marine, terrestrial, and flying animals (Gn. 1.20–24). In theology this is called “mediate creation.” God did not create plants and animals directly, micromanaging their details, but endowed Nature with an inherent creativity.

Spiritual traditions in general, and religions in particular, were not founded on irrational propositions, or on blind faith, or on dogma, or on fear. They arose from states of consciousness that go beyond normal everyday experience. Shamans, Indian rishis, the Buddha, the Jewish prophets, Jesus and Muhammad spoke from their direct experiences of connection to a greater consciousness.

In your opening statement in May, you remarked that “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 . . . then, in principle, there should be some way to measure the effect.”

I do not believe that God “periodically reaches in.” He is continuously present throughout all of nature. But if you want evidence of the effects of God, or a creative force, then look at the way great religious leaders have changed the course of human evolution; if you want material evidence, then look at temples, cathedrals, and mosques.

Throughout the history of humanity, some people have connected with realms of consciousness beyond the human level, and many still do so today. Some people have spontaneous mystical experiences; some have their minds opened by psychedelics; some connect with God, or saints, or angels, or ancestors, through prayer; some meditate; some connect to spiritual realms in other ways. The British biologist Sir Alister Hardy studied the natural history of religious experiences in the modern world, and found that they were far more common than most people assumed.[3]

Not all religious people have had such experiences themselves, just as not all people who believe in a scientific worldview have experienced working in a research laboratory or in an institute of theoretical physics. Many religious and scientific beliefs are accepted second-hand or third-hand on the basis of religious or scientific authority.

I agree with you that the direct experience of divine presence is not a conclusive argument for the existence of God, however convincing it seems to people who experience it. After all, some atheists who have taken psychedelics remain atheists, and see their mind-expanding experiences as nothing more than chemical disturbances of normal brain functioning, rather opening the doors of perception. Anti-psychedelic religious people agree. Some atheists practice meditation and experience expanded states of mind while remaining atheists, including Susan Blackmore and Sam Harris. They—and probably you, too—would no doubt explain these experiences as being produced inside the brain as a result of physiological changes in the nervous system, proving nothing about consciousness beyond human brains. But this interpretation is itself a product of belief. If you are committed to the materialist worldview, it is an article of faith that the mind is confined to the brain and cannot connect with a greater mind that pervades the universe, because such a mind does not exist.

Our differences are not simply about beliefs. These beliefs have effects in practice and affect the way we lead our lives. The materialist doctrine that all conscious experience is nothing but the activity of the brain has an isolating effect, pulling people back into our own separate skulls. By contrast, for those who accept the reality of consciousness beyond our own, such experiences open channels of communication that can be pursued through meditation, prayer, rituals, festivals, worship, and thanksgiving—through many of the traditional practices of religion.

This experience of connection with the spiritual realm affects people’s physical and mental health, as well. Numerous studies in the United States and elsewhere have shown that people who are religious, especially those who regularly attend religious services, live significantly longer, enjoy better health, and suffer less depression than people without religious practices. Both Christian and non-Christian groups showed these effects.[4]

In other studies, people who prayed or meditated were compared with similar people who did not. These studies were prospective, as opposed to retrospective: the people under observation were identified at the start of the study, and then watched over a period of years to see if their health and mortality turned out differently. They did. On average those who prayed or meditated remained healthier and survived longer than those who did not. In one study in North Carolina, Harold Koenig and his colleagues tracked 1,793 subjects over 65 years old who had no physical impairments at the beginning of the study. Six years later, those who prayed survived 66 percent more than those who did not pray.[5]

In our first dialogue, you wrote, “I’m encouraged by the recent increase in the number of people with no religious affiliation.” From the point of view of evangelical atheism, this must be an encouraging sign. But will it benefit those who have abandoned religion? Some people brought up in a religious atmosphere find atheism liberating, at least for a while. I did myself, and for more than 10 years, I identified myself as an atheist. But I then came to see the atheist worldview as narrowly dogmatic, especially when it denied the value of spiritual experiences that I found enriching and enlivening. Moving beyond atheism to an acceptance of the spiritual realm felt like leaving a two-dimensional, black-and-white intellectual world for a full-color, three-dimensional reality.

If religious practices can lead to better health, then, as a corollary, the loss of faith and the cessation of religious practices can damage health and well-being. Atheism is not just about intellectual theories and the denunciation of religion. It can have serious adverse effects. Like smoking, it should carry a health warning.

The British philosopher Alain de Botton, a second-generation atheist, thinks much the same. In his bestselling book Religion for Atheists (Vintage, 2013), he argues that an atheist or agnostic lifestyle is severely impoverished, and suggests that non-believers should learn from religions “how to build a sense of community, make our relationships last, overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy, escape from the twenty-four hour media world and get more out of art, literature and music.” His practical suggestions include atheist festivals, atheist temples, atheist sermons, and atheist Sunday assemblies. I agree with his analysis of the needs unsatisfied by atheism and agnosticism, but see no need to reinvent religion when we have plenty already, and are spoilt for choice.

Michael, I agree with you that some religious people have done terrible things in the past, and some still do so. A notorious example was the Spanish Inquisition, which operated from 1478 to 1834 and was responsible for as many as 5,000 executions.

Many anti-religious people have also behaved murderously, including Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot, all of whom were atheists and believers in science and reason, following Karl Marx. Together, these communist regimes led to at least 20 million deaths. I know that you are trying to rebrand communism as a “faux religion” to avoid acknowledging that atheists have caused human misery on a vast scale. But the fact is that some people are capable of doing very bad things to other people using religion, atheism, nationalism, ideology, profit, or even reason as their justification. Reason was a major inspiration for the French Revolution, and in 1793, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was converted into a Temple of Reason, and the Cult of Reason was proclaimed the state religion. At the same time, at least 40,000 people were executed in the Reign of Terror (1793–4), and the guillotine became a symbol of the revolutionary cause.

Finally, you and I probably agree that a great deal of religion is culturally determined and subject to human limitations. You may see this as another refutation of religion, but I see it differently. The core of all religions is the experience of connecting with the ground of being, or the mind of God, or ultimate consciousness, but when these experiences are talked about and interpreted, they are refracted through human languages and cultural traditions that are necessarily limited, and inevitably different from one another.

If I had been born to Sinhalese parents in Sri Lanka I would probably be a Buddhist today. If I had been born to Muslim parents in Egypt, I would probably be a Muslim. In fact, I was born to Christian parents in England, and the form of religion that I find most congenial is the Christian faith, and in particular the Anglican form of Christianity. This does not mean I believe other Christian churches are in error, and that other religions are wrong. It does not mean that I think that people who are spiritual but not religious are lost. There are different paths to God, or to ultimate reality, and all have their strengths and weaknesses.

I see faith in God and the practice of science as complementary, not contradictory. Conflicts arise from dogmas on both sides. Religious and scientific fundamentalists are still locked in old battles, and some people on both sides relish the fighting. Fortunately, the sciences themselves are moving beyond the dogmas of materialism, and new possibilities for dialogue between the sciences and religious traditions are opening up.


(view Shermer’s Response to Sheldrake’s Opening Statement)

Notes to Sheldrake’s Opening Statement

1. For an illuminating discussion of the traditional understanding of God in the Christian and other religious traditions, see David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013.

2. New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

3. Alister Hardy, The Spiritual Nature of Man. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

4. Harold G. Koenig, Medicine, Religion and Health: Where Science and Spirituality Meet. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008.

5. Ibid.; p. 143.


Shermer Response

Dear Rupert,

You are correct, I do not believe that “faith in God and the practice of science are compatible and mutually enhancing.” In fact, when phrased this way they are completely different things: non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) in the memorable description of my late friend Stephen Jay Gould. In no way is science based on faith—and this fact puts the lie to the fatuous claim by anti-scientism folks that science is a religion, or that it is just another way of knowing, no better than any other. Faith, in the biblical meaning, has nothing to do with science. It is, as famously defined in Hebrews 11:1, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Science rests on the assurance of things predicted, the conviction of things previously seen. Although scientists, being human, may hope that their unseen convictions are supported by the data, as a system of knowledge the practice of science has more in common with plumbing than it does religion, in the sense that at least plumbers test hypotheses when they attempt to discover and fix leaky pipes, clogged toilets, plugged sinks, and the like. Reason, logic, empiricism, mathematics, and experimentation—the core tools in the practice of science—are the exact opposite of faith in the biblical sense. Having faith in things is most assuredly a human trait, but it is not a part of the scientific method because it is not a reliable epistemology.

You assert: “God’s consciousness is the ultimate source of human consciousness.” Where is the evidence for this claim? As I challenged you previously with regard to the resurrection of Jesus, where’s your control group? In any case, if human consciousness comes from God’s consciousness, what is the source of God’s consciousness? If you argue that you have to stop the causal chain somewhere, why stop at God? If there’s a chain of being from lower to higher consciousness, why would there not be an über-God consciousness? If you believe that consciousness is a property of the universe (which you seem to argue in your theory of morphic resonance), then why do you need God at all? It seems entirely reasonable to me to argue (along these lines) that if consciousness exists itself separate from any entities, then there is no need for God. If God is necessary for the existence of consciousness, then once again I would challenge you to go one step further in inquiring into the source of God and God’s consciousness.

You ask where the laws of nature come from without postulating God as the source; that is, in a purely materialistic naturalistic worldview. As you know, this is one of the biggest questions in the philosophy of science. No one knows for sure, but I am encouraged by the work of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, outlined in their book, The Grand Design (Bantam, 2010), that certain configurations of the laws of nature inevitably lead to the spontaneous creation of universes. They show how the laws underlying quantum mechanics and relativity, for example, could lead to universes being formed out of nothing. They write:

    Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

Another explanation is the multiverse theory. In his book, God: The Failed Hypothesis (Prometheus Books, 2007), the late physicist Victor Stenger shows how there could be as many as 10^500 possible universes. Those universes with the laws of nature that lead to the production of atoms and molecules and life and sentient beings who inquire as to their source, will naturally seem almost miraculously designed by those fortunate sentient beings, but with that many universes there was bound to be some configured purely by chance to be conducive to the evolution of life and sentient beings, but there’s nothing designed about it.

In any case, science is young—just a few centuries old—and there is much we do not know, so before we speculate about such ultimate questions as where the laws of nature came from, let’s wait to see what science comes up with in the next couple of centuries before we postulate a divine being as the source. In the meantime, it’s okay to say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. Humans have always filled in such gaps in our knowledge with gods, and it never leads to any useful or productive theory. Let’s try to overcome this psychological propensity to fill in the gaps with supernatural forces and follow the path of science in searching for natural forces.

You write: “God is by definition a conscious being.” How do you know? Whose definition? Sources and evidence, please.

You claim that “divine consciousness permeates the universe” and that we materialists “believe that the universe is unconscious, governed by unconscious laws, and made up of unconscious matter.” First, where is divine consciousness in the universe? In what way are, say, stars conscious? Stars are massive collections of hydrogen atoms being converted to helium atoms through nuclear fusion. In what way is this process “conscious”? Are galaxies conscious? Is gravity conscious? Are planets, moons, and comets conscious? What do you mean by consciousness here? Clearly this has no resemblance to human consciousness—the phenomenon of being aware and self-aware—so it would be helpful to operationally define consciousness.

Your idea about what God is seems to differ dramatically from that of most Christians (a cosmic engineer or divine craftsman), and you reject the idea that God reaches into the world to stir the particles now and then. Instead, you invoke the unhelpful phrase “ground of being” as your definition of God, and you claim that “he sustains the world in its existence from moment to moment, and is doing so now.” I presume you mean that God does so through the laws of nature—he forms solar systems through the force of gravity, he forms stars through the nuclear forces, etc. I fail to see how this is any different from just saying that the universe itself is the “ground of being” and that it sustains itself from moment to moment through the laws of nature.

What’s the difference between an invisible God that is indistinguishable from nature and a nonexistent God?



Sheldrake Reply

Dear Michael,

You believe that an unconscious, purposeless universe produced minds in human brains after about 14 billion years of mindless mechanical activity. You trust that science will eventually justify this belief. I believe that consciousness comes first, and is the source of nature and of minds within nature.

You ask me how I know that God is conscious, and ask for “sources and evidence.” There are many religious sources. In the Old Testament, for example, in Exodus 3:14, Moses asks God for his name and God replies, “I am who I am” (English Standard Version). God defines himself as subjective conscious being, in the present. As I mentioned previously, one of the Indian names for ultimate reality is satchitananda, being-consciousness-bliss, again emphasizing conscious being. Evidence comes from mystical experiences and through moments of illumination, in which people feel themselves in the presence of a greater consciousness than their own. Evidence of consciousness comes through conscious experiences, not from physical measurements.

You propose that the source and sustainer of all things is not God, but the “laws of nature.” However, this conception of natural laws is not as atheistic as it seems, because it builds on the belief that the laws of nature are aspects of the mind of God, a belief shared by the founding fathers of modern science in the seventeenth century, including Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, and Newton. But laws are ideas rather than material objects, and they make no sense without a mind to think them.

You endorse the speculations of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow that “Certain configurations of the laws of nature inevitably lead to the spontaneous creation of universes.” Somehow, these laws “could lead to universes being formed out of nothing.” This is again very like seventeenth-century theology, but less coherent, because you imagine that timeless laws exist in a free-floating, transcendent realm—God’s mind without God—and generate a universe without a source of energy or activity. In the seventeenth century, God was seen as the source of all activity, as well as the basis of cosmic law and order.

Nevertheless, you often contradict yourself. In our first dialogue you wrote, “‘Laws’ are the linguistic and mathematical descriptions we humans give to naturally occurring repeating phenomena. There are no laws of nature ‘out there.’” But if they are merely descriptions of the regularities of nature, how can laws precede the universe and give rise to it? Before the origin of the universe there were no regularities of nature and no humans to describe them.

And why are these hypothetical laws just right for our universe, enabling it to produce life and ultimately humans? Here, you fall back on the speculations of Victor Stenger, who argues that we happen to be in the only universe just right for us, out of 10^500 universes. He and other cosmologists avoid awkward problems by Quantitative Easing, conjuring up myriad universes, just as the Federal Reserve Bank conjured up trillions of dollars. It may be easier to proliferate universes than to reconsider the existence of God. But, as philosophers point out, an infinite God could be the God of an infinite number of universes. The multiverse gambit fails to get rid of God, and it is the ultimate violation of Ockham’s Razor, the principle that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.”

You contradict yourself again. In some paragraphs, you see science “as the conviction of things previously seen,” and the practice of science like plumbing, fixing leaky pipes and clogged toilets, based on hard facts. You see this as “the exact opposite of faith in the biblical sense.” But a belief in 10^500 unobserved universes is not a hard fact. Nor is promissory materialism. If science cannot explain something, no problem! Just give us time, you say, “Let’s wait to see what science comes up with in the next couple of centuries before we postulate a divine being as the source.” This is faith as described in Hebrews 11:1, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

I think God is within nature, and nature within God. You think the universe is purposeless and unconscious, and that it originated from mindless yet immaterial laws.

For me, God comes before humanity; for you, as a secular humanist, humanity comes before God, who is a delusion in human minds, and hence in human brains.

Our beliefs affect our lives. No one can wait 200 years to make a choice.