Rupert Sheldrake on The Science Delusion at TED Talk (Full Transcript)

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Rupert Sheldrake – Biologist and Author

The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in. This is a very widespread belief in our society. It’s the kind of belief system of people who say “I don’t believe in God, I believe in science.” It’s a belief system which has now been spread to the entire world.

But there’s a conflict in the heart of science between science as a method of inquiry based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system or a world view. And unfortunately the world view aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free inquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavor.

Since the late 19th century, science has been conducted under the aspect of a belief system or a world view which is essentially that of materialism — philosophical materialism. And the sciences are now wholly owned subsidiaries of the materialist worldview. I think that as we break out of it, the sciences will be regenerated.

What I do in my book The Science Delusion, which is called Science Set Free in the United States, is take the ten dogmas, or assumptions of science, and turn them into questions. Seeing how well they stand up if you look at them scientifically. None of them stand up very well.

What I’m going to do is first run through what these ten dogmas are. And then I’ll only have time to discuss one or two of them in a bit more detail. But essentially the ten dogmas, which are the default worldview of most educated people all over the world are: First, that nature’s mechanical or machine-like. The universe is like a machine, animals and plants are like machines, we’re like machines. In fact, we are machines. We are lumbering robots, in Richard Dawkins’ vivid phrase. With brains that are genetically programmed computers.

Second, matter is unconscious. The whole universe is made up of unconscious matter. There’s no consciousness in stars, in galaxies, in planets, in animals, in plants, and there ought not in any of us either, if this theory’s true. So a lot of the philosophy of mind over the last 100 years has been trying to prove that we’re not really conscious at all. So the matter’s unconscious, then the laws of nature are fixed. This is dogma three. The laws of nature are the same now as they were at the time of the Big Bang and they’ll be the same forever. Not just the laws; but the constants of nature are fixed, which is why they are called constants.

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Dogma four: The total amount of matter and energy is always the same. It never changes in total quantity, except at the moment of the Big Bang when it all sprang into existence from nowhere in a single instant.

The fifth dogma is that nature’s purposeless. There are no purposes in all nature and the evolutionary process has no purpose or direction.

Dogma six, the biological hereditary is material. Everything you inherit is in your genes, or in epigenetic modifications of the genes, or in cytoplasmic inheritance. It’s material.

Dogma seven, memories are stored inside your brain as material traces. Somehow everything you remember is in your brain in modified nerve endings, phosphorylated proteins, no one knows how it works. But nevertheless almost everyone in the scientific world believes it must be in the brain.

Dogma eight, your mind is inside your head. All your consciousness is the activity of your brain, and nothing more.

Dogma nine, which follows from dogma eight, psychic phenomena like telepathy are impossible. Your thoughts and intentions cannot have any effect at a distance because your mind’s inside your head. Therefore all the apparent evidence for telepathy and other psychic phenomena is illusory. People believe these things happen, but it’s just because they don’t know enough about statistics, or they’re deceived by coincidences, or it’s wishful thinking.

And dogma ten, mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works. That’s why governments only fund research into mechanistic medicine and ignore complementary and alternative therapies. Those can’t possibly really work because they’re not mechanistic. They may appear to work because people would have got better anyway, or because of the placebo effect. But the only kind that really works is mechanistic medicine.

Well this is the default worldview which is held by almost all educated people all over the world. It’s the basis of the educational system, the national health service, the medical research council, governments and it’s just the default worldview of educated people.

But I think every one of these dogmas is very, very questionable. And when you look at it, they fall apart. I’m going to take first the idea that the laws of nature are fixed. This is a hangover from an older worldview, before the 1960s, when the Big Bang Theory came in. People thought that the whole universe was eternal, governed by eternal mathematical laws. When the Big Bang came in, then that assumption continued, even though the Big Bang revealed a universe that’s radically evolutionary, about 14 billion years old. Growing and developing and evolving, for 14 billion years. Growing and cooling and more structures and patterns appear within it.

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But the idea is all the laws of nature were completely fixed at the moment of the Big Bang like a cosmic Napoleonic code. As my friend Terrence McKenna used to say that modern science is based upon the principle “give us one free miracle, and we’ll explain the rest”. And the one free miracle is the appearance of all the matter and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it, from nothing, in a single instant.

Well, in an evolutionary universe, why shouldn’t the laws themselves evolve? After all, human laws do, and the idea of laws of nature is based on a metaphor with human laws. It’s a very anthropocentric metaphor; only humans have laws. In fact, only civilized societies have laws. As C.S. Lewis once said, to say that a stone falls to earth because it’s obeying a law makes it a man, and even a citizen. It’s a metaphor that we’ve got so used to we forget it’s a metaphor.

In an evolving universe, I think a much better idea is the idea of habits. I think the habits of nature evolve; the regularities of nature are essentially habitual. This was an idea put forward at the beginning of the 20th century by the American philosopher C.S. Pierce, and it’s an idea which various other philosophers have entertained, and it’s one which I, myself have developed into a scientific hypothesis; the hypothesis of Morphic Resonance, which is the basis of these evolving habits. According to this hypothesis, everything in nature has a kind of collective memory, resonance occurs on the basis of similarity. As a young giraffe embryo grows in its mother’s womb, it tunes in to the morphic resonance of previous giraffes. It draws on that collective memory, grows like a giraffe, and it behaves like a giraffe, because it’s drawing on this collective memory. It has to have the right genes to make the right proteins. But genes in my view are grossly overrated. They only account for the proteins that the organism can make, not the shape or the form or the behavior.

Every species has a kind of collective memory. Even crystals do. This theory predicts that if you make a new kind of crystal for the first time, the very first time you make it, it won’t have an existing habit. But once it crystallizes, then the next time you make it, there’ll be an influence from the first crystals to the second ones, all over the world by morphic resonance, it’ll crystallize a bit easier. The third time, there’ll be an influence from the first and second crystals. There is, in fact, good evidence that new compounds get easier to crystallize all round the world, just as this theory would predict.