September 28, 2012
Three decades ago, few scientists were courageous enough to break ranks and question their own belief system. Even calling science a belief system sounded outrageous — religion is a matter of belief, science a matter of facts. The most far-seeing scientist who was willing to break ranks then, as now, was Rupert Sheldrake, who risked his impeccable credentials as a Cambridge biochemist with real joy, like a man suddenly able to breathe. Thirty years after his first heretical books, Sheldrake’s new one, Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery, is a landmark achievement. No science writing has inspired me more.
Sheldrake’s essential point is that science needs setting free from ten blind dogmas. These dogmas embrace a true belief system as much as Roman Catholicism or any other faith. Behind the daily activity of gathering data, science assumes certain things about reality that, according to Sheldrake, are unsupportable. The first dogma, for example, holds that the universe is mechanical. If that is so, then everything in the universe is also mechanical, including human beings — or to use a phrase from the noted atheist Richard Dawkins, we are “lumbering robots.” From a scientist’s perspective, to understand everything that you need to know about human beings, you only have to tinker with all the mechanical parts of genes and the brain until there are no more secrets left.
Clearly such a view leaves no room for the soul, which becomes a wispy illusion that needs to be swept away. But then, so does the self, because there is no region of the brain that contains “I,” a person. As long as “I” is a hallucination formed by complex neural circuitry, one can throw out — or reduce to mechanical operations — love, beauty, truth, compassion, honor, devotion, faith, and so on, the whole apparatus that makes a person’s life feel valuable. A random universe has no purpose; therefore, giving lumbering robots a purpose is dubious.
Sheldrake offers an alternative to the mechanistic dogma, but let me mention a few other dogmas first. The second dogma he overturns is the belief that matter is unconscious. The whole universe is filled with atoms and molecules that have no connection to intelligence, creativity, or meaning. The problem here is that nobody can explain how atoms and molecules learned to think. No matter how closely you examine the water, glucose, and electrolyte salts in the human brain, you can’t find the point where these molecules became conscious. How come the sugar water in a can of Coke isn’t thinking and feeling while the sugar water in your cerebral cortex is? For science to brush this problem aside as mere metaphysics doesn’t make it go away.
The third dogma is that the laws of nature are fixed and haven’t changed since the Big Bang. The fourth is that the amount of matter and energy in the cosmos is always the same. And so the list grows, building toward a shocking conclusion: Science has been explaining a mirage and calling it reality. Sheldrake isn’t speaking as a mystic or an enemy of science — far from it. He has kept up with the most current findings in physics and biology. Among these findings are some shattering discoveries, as far as rigid dogmas are concerned:
- The universe operates more like a living organism than a machine.
- The existence of dark matter and dark energy topples the conservation of matter and energy. Because the “dark” dimension operates outside the visible universe, the notion of fixed laws of nature suddenly looks wobbly, too.
- Purpose-driven evolution may explain life better than the random mutation of classic Darwinism.
- Genes, far from being fixed and deterministic, are involved in a far more fluid interaction than anyone ever supposed.
Sheldrake works with many more intriguing discoveries; he has a delightfully inquisitive, penetrating mind. He also seems unflappable in the face of the howling protests he has raised for thirty years, beginning when none of the above findings was even suspected.
If science weren’t a dogmatic belief system, there would be rational responses to his challenges rather than scorn from true believers. But a major shift is occurring. Under its title in the UK, The Science Delusion (playing off Dawkins’ best-selling The God Delusion) Sheldrake’s new book is getting positive reviews in high places. Even more promising, a new generation of younger scientists, who are trained (unlike Dawkins) in the shifting new realities of physics, biology, and genetics, is actually intrigued by a universe permeated with consciousness, intelligence, and meaning.
The irony in Sheldrake’s career is that he has been a peacemaker all along, not an iconoclast. He wants to end the breach between science and religion. For that to happen, two dogmatic systems must reexamine their beliefs. It will never happen, as each side fantasizes, that faith will win out over science or science over faith. There is only one reality. It has been explored from inner space by great spiritual minds; it has been explored from the physical world by great scientists. Now we need synthesizers from both camps, which is what Sheldrake is. “Gene” and “soul” are comfortable words for him, because he began his quest by tearing down walls and barriers in his own world view.