Rupert Sheldrake is a heretic, and he has the second-degree burns to prove it. On January 13, Sheldrake, a research biochemist trained at Cambridge, gave a TEDx talk at Whitechapel where he proposed to turn what he calls the “ten core beliefs” of science from assumed dogmas into questions. His talk was rapidly attacked as unscientific, and, after review by anonymous science advisors, TED pulled the video from its website.
Sheldrake is an eccentric, for sure. He investigates parapsychology and designs experiments to test animal telepathy. Visual images, he says, are not in our brains but “out there.” Our eyes are not merely receivers of light but senders, and they reach across space to “touch” the stars in the sky. He’s impossible to classify. An Anglican, he talks easily about God, but he rejects Intelligent Design because it assumes a mechanistic view of nature. After his TEDx talk, some compared him to creationists, but he is a convinced, radical Darwinist. Sheldrake relishes the contrarian mantle he has assumed. He thinks that the furor over his lecture vindicates his claims about scientific dogmatism. Scars notwithstanding, he seems a happy heretic.
Sheldrake is best known for his notion of “morphic resonance.” According to the theory, patterns of behavior resonate across time and space between similar organisms. Habits and skills learned by one organism or person become easier for later members of the species to learn because a habit learned by one individual becomes part of the species’ form, embedded in something like a collective mind. Once one rat learns his way through a maze, other rats have an easier time figuring out the same maze; once one human masters snowboarding, others do so more rapidly.
Morphogenesis, Sheldrake thinks, is also habitual. Apple seeds grow into apple trees because of accumulated habits of many generations of apple-seed growth. Morphic resonance explains memories and premonitions. When we remember, past events resonate in the present, and premonitions occur because the future resonates backwards. Natural laws are, for Sheldrake, nature’s evolved and evolving habits.
These eccentricities don’t by themselves make Sheldrake a scientific heretic. His main heresy is his thoroughgoing rejection of the materialist belief that “everything is essentially material or physical, even minds.” Scientists and non-scientists frequently equate the materialist worldview with science itself, but Sheldrake argues that much of our everyday experience, not to mention recent scientific research, points in the opposite direction. Materialism still holds sway, but it is increasingly old-fashioned.
Materialism entails a number of beliefs about the way the world works. Science has long assumed that the world and its components function like machines, that matter is purposeless and unconscious, that the laws of nature are fixed, that memories lodge as material traces in brains. It would be more scientific, Sheldrake suggests, if these claims were not accepted as received or proven truths but instead became research questions requiring investigation.
He questions, for instance, whether the laws of nature and natural constants are, as most believe, fixed. He points to fluctuations in the measurement of the speed of light and the Universal Gravitational Constant (“Big G”) and wonders whether these are real fluctuations. If “constants” do change, what does that tell us about the nature of the universe? Sheldrake offers the radically evolutionary hypothesis that physical and chemical processes evolve as biological forms do.
A mechanistic universe has no final goal, and consistent materialists have tried for generations to reduce even human purpose to physical and chemical causes. As Francis Crick put it, “‘You,’ your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions . . . are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Try as they might, materialists haven’t been able to purge purpose. It keeps coming back in the guise of selfish genes and the like.
Sheldrake is not satisfied by the Kantian solution that carves out space for human consciousness and purpose in an otherwise mechanistic universe. If the world is not a machine, then perhaps we can observe goal-directed behavior at the simplest levels of physical nature. “Even single cells,” he points out, “have astonishing regenerative abilities,” which he takes as evidence not of “Intelligent Design” but of inherent creativity and purposiveness. Maybe, down to the microscopic level, all material reality, not just higher forms, has the primal form of aims, goals, and experiences.
Sheldrake’s assault on materialism involves some sleight of hand. He says that “science” holds to ten core beliefs, but then he cites innumerable scientists and scientific studies to support his attacks on these core beliefs. What he calls “science” seems mainly represented by a few well-known targets: outspoken materialists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Francis Crick.
Sheldrake’s own theories might prove to be every bit the hokum that his critics claim. I have the impression that he wouldn’t much care. If experiment and argument prove him wrong, well, that’s the way science is supposed to work. What he objects to—and quite rightly—is a commitment to materialism that determines what kinds of answers are possible before questions are ever asked and before any evidence is examined. And along the way he gives a tantalizing, mind-altering taste of what science might look like once materialist assumptions are shed.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
“The Gospel of Scientific Materialism,” R. R. Reno
“The Atheism of the Gaps,” Stephen M. Barr