Rupert Sheldrake on The Science Delusion at TED Talk Conference – TEDxWhitechapel Transcript
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.”
So I said “Well if it was going on then, how can you be so sure it’s not going on today? And the present values produced are by intellectual phase-locking?”
And he said “Oh we know that’s not the case.”
And I said “How do we know?”
He said “Well”, he said “we’ve solved the problem.”
And I said “Well how?”
And he said “Well we fixed the speed of light by definition in 1972.”
So I said “But it might still change.”
He said “Yes, but we’d never know it, because we’ve defined the meter in terms of the speed of light, so the units would change with it!”
So he looked very pleased about that, they’d fixed that problem.
But I said “Well, then what about big G?” The gravitational constant, known in the trade as “big G”, it was written with a capital G. Newton’s universal gravitational constant. “That’s varied by more than 1.3% in recent years. And it seems to vary from place to place and from time to time.”
And he said “Oh well, those are just errors. And unfortunately there are quite big errors with big G.”
So I said “Well, what if it’s really changing? I mean, perhaps it is really changing.”
And then I looked at how they do it, what happens is they measure it in different labs, they get different values on different days, and then they average them. And then other labs around the world do the same, they come out usually with a rather different average. And then the international committee of metrology meets every ten years or so and average the ones from labs all around the world to come up with the value of big G.
But what if G were actually fluctuating? What if it changed? There’s already evidence actually that it changes throughout the day and throughout the year. What if the earth, as it moves through the galactic environment went through patches of dark matter or other environmental factors that could alter it? Maybe they all change together. What if these errors are going up together and down together? For more than ten years I’ve been trying to persuade metrologists to look at the raw data. In fact, I’m now trying to persuade them to put it up online, on the internet with the dates, and the actual measurements, and see if they’re correlated. To see if they’re all up at one time, all down at another. If so, they might be fluctuating together. And that would tell us something very, very interesting. But no-one has done this, they haven’t done it because G is a constant. There’s no point looking for changes.
You see, here’s a very simple example of where a dogmatic assumption actually inhibits enquiry. I, myself think that the constants may vary quite considerably. Well, within narrow limits. But they may all be varying, and I think the day will come when scientific journals like Nature have a weekly report on the constants, like stock-market reports in the newspapers. You know, “this week, big G was slightly up, the charge on the electron was down, the speed of light held steady, and so on.” So that’s one area where I think thinking less dogmatically could open things up.
One of the biggest areas is the nature of the mind. This is the most unsolved problem as Graham just said, that science simply can’t deal with the fact we’re conscious. And it can’t deal with the fact that our thoughts don’t seem to be inside our brains. Our experiences don’t all seem to be inside our brain. Your image of me now doesn’t seem to be inside your brain, yet the official view is that there’s a little Rupert somewhere inside your head. And everything else in this room is inside your head; your experience is inside your brain. I’m suggesting actually that vision involves an outward projection of images, what you’re seeing is inside your mind but not inside your head. Our minds are extended beyond our brains in the simplest act of perception.
I think that we project out the images we’re seeing, and these images touch what we’re looking at. If I look at you from behind, you don’t know I’m there. Could I affect you? Could you feel my gaze? There’s a great deal of evidence that people can. The sense of being stared at is an extremely common experience, and recent experimental evidence actually suggests it’s real. Animals seem to have it too, I think it probably evolved in the context of predator/prey relationships. Prey animals that could feel the gaze of a predator would survive better than those that couldn’t. This would lead to a whole new way of thinking about ecological relationships between predators and prey.
Also about the extent of our minds. If we look at distant stars, I think our minds reach out in a sense to touch those stars, and literally extend out over astronomical distances. They’re not just inside our heads. Now it may seem astonishing that this is a topic of debate in the twenty-first century. We know so little about our own minds that where our images are is a hot topic of debate within consciousness studies right now.
I don’t have time to deal with any more of these dogmas, but every single one of them is questionable. If one questions it, new forms of research, new possibilities open up. And I think as we question these dogmas that have held back science so long, science will undergo a reflowering, a renaissance. I’m a total believer in the importance of science. I’ve spent my whole life as a research scientist, my whole career. But I think by moving beyond these dogmas, it can be regenerated. Once again, it can become interesting, and I hope, life-affirming.