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

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.

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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.

It also predicts that if you train animals to learn a new trick, for example rats learn a new trick in London, then all round the world rats of the same breed should learn the same trick quicker just because the rats had learned it here. And surprisingly, there’s already evidence that this actually happens.

Anyway, that’s my own hypothesis in a nutshell of morphic resonance. Everything depends on evolving habits not on fixed laws. But I want to spend a few moments on the constants of nature too. Because these are, again, assumed to be constant. Things like the gravitational constant, the speed of light are called the fundamental constants.

Are they really constant? Well, when I got interested in this question, I tried to find out. They’re given in physics handbooks. Handbooks of physics list the existing fundamental constants, tell you their value. But I wanted to see if they’d changed, so I got the old volumes of physical handbooks. I went to the patent office library here in London – they’re the only place I could find that kept the old volumes. Normally people throw them away when the new values come out, they throw away the old ones.

When I did this I found that the speed of light dropped between 1928 and 1945 by about 20 kilometers per second. It’s a huge drop because they’re given with errors of any fractions of a second/decimal points of error. And yet, all over the world, it dropped, and they were all getting very similar values to each other with tiny errors. Then in 1948, it went up again. And then people started getting very similar values again. I was very intrigued by this and I couldn’t make sense of it, so I went to see the head of metrology at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington. Metrology is the science in which people measure constants.

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And I asked him about this, I said “What do you make of this drop in the speed of light between 1928 and 1945?”

And he said “Oh dear”, he said “you’ve uncovered the most embarrassing episode in the history of our science.”

So I said “Well, could the speed of light have actually dropped? And that would have amazing implications if so.”

He said “No, no, of course it couldn’t have actually dropped. It’s a constant!”

“Oh, well then how do you explain the fact that everyone was finding it going much slower during that period? Is it because they were fudging their results to get what they thought other people should be getting and the whole thing was just produced in the minds of physicists?”

“We don’t like to use the word ‘fudge’.”

I said “Well, so what do you prefer?”

He said “Well, we prefer to call it ‘intellectual phase-locking’.”

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