Science Set Free,
10 Paths to New Discovery

by Rupert Sheldrake,
Deepak Chopra Books, Crown Publishing, 2012

When published in Britain, the title of this book was The Science Delusion. That was not quite right. Rupert Sheldrake does not believe that science is a delusion, although he thinks that there is a fair amount of dogma that underlies the current practice of science. So the new title is appropriate. Sheldrake does want science "set free" to investigate things that currently it doesn't want to, or doesn't believe can be investigated, because they are fictions.

The major dogma that Sheldrake wishes to identify and overthrow is materialism, which comes with an essentially "mechanistic" view of reality that he traces back to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. This is all for the best. As a metaphysical doctrine, materialism is not necessary to science, and it is a means of smuggling into "science" things that are irrlevant to it and that are misconceptions imposed on other areas of human life, like ethics and religion.

Unfortunately, Sheldrake targets one kind of materialism just to promote another kind. He is a materialist himself, although perhaps not of the "mechanistic" variety. Sheldrake's materialism is expanded over that of the received kind by, in the first place, reviving "vitalism," the theory that life involves a kind "life force" that constitutes a physical reality in addition to the other acknowledged forces, such as gravity, electromagetism, etc. This "life force" can supply energy to living things quite apart from the forms of energy currently recognized by science.

This is an old theory, rejected by science before the turn of the 20th century, but still promoted by some, like the philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941), who is constantly invoked by Sheldrake. Since there is no hint of the slightest formal or mathematical theory behind this "life force," Sheldrake decides that mathematical science is "Platonism," whose sin seems to be the idea of objective truth. He thus disparages the original source and inspiration of all of modern science in Galileo's application of mathematics to physics, Newton's development of calculus, and Einstein's use of tensor calculus. Sheldrake, with no mathematical theory of the "life force," should not be surprised if he is then not taken seriously in science [note].

Sheldrake, in the second place, adds something else along with his vitalism, and that is "panpsychism," the theory that all things, and not just living things, have some kind of mind or consciousness, which can extend beyond the body and does not necessarily depend on a nervous system or organs like the brain. Our own consciousness extends into the past and future, as well as outward to contact consciousness that may inhabit astronomical or cosmological entities. In the history of philosophy, this sounds the most like Leibniz, whose "monads" all have some degree of representation.

But can we meaningfully say that electrons have experiences, feelings and motivations? Can they be attracted towards one possible future, or repelled by another? The answer is yes. [p.126]

Athough sounding very silly, this could be said, to an extent, by Leibniz (whose monads do not always have full consciousness, let alone human psychological states); but it violates a couple of key principles of quantum mechanics. One is "no hidden variables," which was confirmed by Bell's Theorem. The "experiences" or "feelings" of electrons would indeed be things outside the measured variables of electrons. Since we would expect "experiences, feelings and motvations" to involve some kind of mental structure and process, which electrons don't have (unlike, say, nervous systems), Sheldrake must think that these are produced by some kind of magic. A Dirac point particle, with no parts or internal movement, but just some fixed quantum numbers, is like nothing so much as the soul according to St. Thomas Aquinas, a "simple substance." This is supposed to be science?

The other problem about Sheldrake's statement is the randomness of the collapse of the wave function. This means that electrons are not "attracted towards one possible future," but that they are "attracted" to the normal distribution of a Bell Curve. This is in itself a curious matter, as is all probablity, but not in a way that interests Sheldrake. This may be like what followers of the Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi claimed, that "Transcendental Meditation" could skew the collapse of the wave function in some desired, non-random, direction. If this is what Sheldrake has in mind, he doesn't say so; and he doesn't explain, in any direct fashion, this "attracted towards one possible future" business. Sheldrake expresses some respect for quantum mechanics, but he may not understand it very well.

There is an near equivalent to Leinbiz and his monads in Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), whose "actual entities" sound quite like the monads, but are momentary, like the dharmas in Buddhism. With Bergson, Whitehead is the philosopher the most frequently invoked by Sheldrake, who also seems to regard him as an expert on Relativity, which he isn't.

What makes mechanism plus vitalism plus panpsychism all actually a kind of materialism is that Sheldrake thinks that it is all amenable to empirical scientific investigation. He gives away the game in more than one place, but characteristic is a statement on page 185: "This resonance is physical, but not material." No, if it is "physical" in the sense that it can be investigated by scientific methods, then it is material. Of course, if we want to make science metaphysically neutral, and classify its method as "naturalistic" but not materialistic in an ontological sense, Sheldrake is still caught, since he himself does not seem to regard science as metaphysically neutral. That is not part of his critique of science, and he is perfectly comfortable with the ontological reality of all the forces, psyches, and everything else he discusses. If he separtated metaphysics from science, we would have a very different kind of book.

Thus, there is not a distinction that makes a difference between "physical" and "material" except for the arbitrary stipulation that his "material" means "mechanistic." But he does not deny that mechanistic things happen in the world. Newton and Einstein did not get it wrong in that sense. It is just that he thinks there is more. When we add in the "more," meaning the vitalism and panpsychism, the "physical" reality he ends up with, with an ontological claim, cannot meaningfully be said not to be a kind of materialism. It excludes actual transcendence.

Noteworthy in the brief quote I have, about the physical and the material, is the use of "resonance." Sheldrake is big on "resonances," which are a feature of wave phenomena. Since resonances involve waves, this calls for some consideration of the nature of waves in fundamental physics. We don't get that. And although Sheldrake mentions the wave/particle duality, we get no discussion of what this does to his theory, where "resonances" seem to persist in circumstances where the quantum wave function would have collapsed into particles. But that is not actually the most serious problem with his "resonances."

Before looking at more of that, I want to consider how Sheldrake's rejection of (a kind of) materialism allows for a rapprochement with religion. Towards the end of the book, we get a section labeled "New dialogues with religion" [pp.338-340]. This is a deeply disappointing and revealing treatment. What it shows is that Sheldrake is only interested in bits and pieces of certain religions, cherry-picked to suit his own theories and metaphysics. Thus, he seems about as uninterested in the monotheistic religions as Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). Neither the God of the Bible nor of the Qurʾân created the universe as a living, conscious entity. Yet this is what Sheldrake requires, and he says so:

The universe is evolving and is the arena of continuing creativity. Creativity is not confined to the origin of the universe, as in deism (see Chapter 1), but is an ongoing part of the evolutionary process, expressed in all realms of nature, including human societies, cultures and minds. Although the creativity expressed in all these realms may have an ultimately divine source, there is no need to think of God as an external designing mind. [p.339, boldface added]

No need, that is, except that it is the orthodox doctrine of Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm, or Dvaita Vedanta Hinduism. The reference to "deism" betrays Sheldrake's theological or philosophical naïveté, or confusion, since God creating the world at a point in time is an essential feature of all theism. The main difference between deism and theism is that deism rules out miracles -- as Sheldrake appears to do himself. Sheldrake tries to subvert this by saying that God "imbued the natural world with creativity" [ibid.], but this is a distortion. God does not endow inanimate things with consciousness or creativity. Thus, Sheldrake confuses the role of miracles in theism for his own idea that miracles are unnecessary because the universe is alive and creative in its own right.

If human minds, individually and collectively, make contact with higher-level minds, including the ultimate consciousness of God... [p.340]

Sheldrake's "higher-level minds" seem to mean the consciousnesses of planets, galaxies, and who knows what else. The idea of human minds existing "collectively" also isn't part of monotheistic religion. And the "higher-level minds" probably do not mean angels, who, like God, simply sometimes appear to people in Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm. Instead, Sheldrake is certainly thinking of mystics, who, like Joseph Campbell, he takes as paradigmatic [note].

Thus, when Sheldrake says "religion," he means things that can be found some places (not everywhere) in Indian religion -- perhaps the imprimatur of "Deepak Chopra Books" gives this away -- but that are generally at odds with Western monotheism, except at the Neoplatonic fringe, such as I have had to deal with in Lenn Goodman's critique of Rudolf Otto. He thinks that religions will evolve like sciences. I think so too. But what Sheldrake means by it is that religions will end up assimilating to his idea of science and the metaphysics that he promotes. This is not a "dialogue" with religion. It is more like a continuation of the secularist and materialist attack on religion. When we realize that Sheldrake is a materialist himself, this is perhaps not so surprising. A transcendent, creator God is the opposite of where Sheldrake wants to go. The real rejection of theism is also typical of what we find in philosophy of religion, where philosophers decide what they want religion to be like, and then ignore what it actually is.

We see how Sheldrake may not even understand monotheistic theology in the Prologue to the book [pp.13-27]. In a section called "Science and Christianity" he says:

Until the seventeenth century, university scholars and Christian theologians taught that the universe was alive, pervaded by the Spirit of God, the divine breath of life. All plants, animals and people had souls. The stars, the planets and the earth were living beings, guided by angelic intelligences. [p.21]

This is deeply preposterous. The Christian universe is not alive. The stars, planets, and the earth are not living things in Mediaeval Christian theology. The "Spirit of God" is transcendent. Since God is omnipresent, the universe can be said to be "pervaded" by God, but God is ontologically separate from it, even as he existed prior to its creation, and would continue to exist were he to destroy it. What may confuse or deceive Sheldrake is that "university" Christian theologians, apart from the Nominalists, were Aristotelians. In Aristotle's metaphysics, everything consists of form and matter, and the "form" of a living thing is its soul. For Christians, the difference between plants and animals and people is that people have immortal souls, while plants and animals do not. This is different. To be sure, it is not quite the mechanistic materialism Sheldrake pins on the likes of Descartes. But if Sheldrake understands Aristotelian metaphysics, he does not favor the reader with any explanation. Instead, he leaves us with the impression that Christians believed that animal (and plant?) souls were like human souls. Perhaps many Christians now actually do believe that animals have immortal souls (with pet cemeteries and everything), but no Christian denomination asserts, as far as I know, that animals (or plants) can accept Christ and be saved, like humans.

Sheldrake has picked up the idea that there are "angelic intelligences" in the heavens. For Mediaeval astronomy, this is correct. However, these intelligences only belong to the planets, not the stars or earth, because their only function is to explain the proper motion of each planet (whose name means "wanderers"), which move independently of the general motion of the heavens. Since stars and the earth have no independent motion, angels don't need to be associated with them. At the same time, associating angels with the planets does not mean that an angelic intelligence is the "soul" of the planet. Planets are not living things, as Sheldrake wants to take it. Like God, angels are transcendent beings. Today, when the motion of planets is explained by a simple law of gravity, angels are no longer needed to explain their motion. Sheldrake doesn't seem to understand this, and so he takes away from it a doctrine that conforms, indeed, to his metaphysics, but has nothing to do with Mediaeval "university scholars" or "Christian theologians." His ignorance may be based on lack of interest in true Christian theology, or he may be blinded in his reading and his understanding by his own desire to make the theology conform to his own expectations. Either way, this is not an impressive performance.

Sheldrake goes on to rake atheists over the coals. This they richly deserve, but Sheldrake's critique is undermined by the idiosyncratic character of his own system. As I have indicated, Sheldrake is not interested in the theism of a transcendent God, which is the ancient and orthodox doctrine of Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm. He likes something else, and has his own ideas about it all, something that goes along with his own panpsychism and revised materialism. A religion that is beyond the reach of science is not a topic in his book.

An interesting feature of Sheldrake's treatment is the way he questions some basic results or assumptions of science, for instance that all constants of nature actually are constant, or that some basic laws of nature are unchanging themselves. These sorts of things merit investigation, and it looks like Sheldrake puts his finger on some sore points. However, it is worrisome that Sheldrake seems to confuse force with energy. Historically, this may be true, but as Sheldrake does note when the distinction was clearly made ("Indeed, force or energy was causation," p.57), it is not clear that he does not continue confusing them himself to some extent. He never clarifies the basic meaning of causation, even for Aristotle. Hume goes unmentioned.

One point that Sheldrake goes after in some depth is the principle of the conservation of energy. This is pretty fundamental in physics, but we find out why Sheldrake has a problem with it. Difficulties in mainstream science that he mentions include the inability of investigators to match the energy use of human bodies with the amount of energy that we apparently take in from nutrition. We might think, as Sheldrake actually does, that we derive energy from some other source than nutrition.

Sheldrake jumps the rails of conventional science when he brings up cases of people who apparently are able to live without eating ("Inedia," pp.77-81). Ordinarily, this sort of thing would fall under the category of "miraculous." But Sheldrake does not even consider that they might be miracles. He wants them to fit into his science. That can be done, as it happens, with his vitalism. The "life force" supplies energy to these people who don't need to eat. And he has already prepared the way by opening the possibility that all of us already use more energy than can be accounted for from nutrition.

Sheldrake's idea, however, opens many problems. Nutrition does not just mean energy. It supplies the chemical inputs that are used by the body to build its structure and to catalyze chemical reactions. The human body does not synthesize Vitamin C. We need our vitamins and minerals. And protein. Energy alone is not going to help there, unless our bodies are Star Trek replicators that turn energy into matter. For all I know, Sheldrake might want to claim that, but he doesn't seem to be aware of the problem for the question to arise.

Next, there is a problem about how otherwise the "life force" works. This is where Sheldrake may confuse a force with energy. If the "life force" moves our bodies, then it is exerting a force, and is not just energy. Gravity exerts a force, but this only happens in circumstances where the potential energy of a gravitational field can be converted into kinetic energy. In the operation of gravity, this is called "falling." A magnetic field exerts a force only on objects that are "magnetized," i.e. possess magnetic poles. If the "life force" is some kind of field, and not a science fiction "force field," something must turn the potential energy of the field into kinetic energy, which can actually exert a force. Again, Sheldrake doesn't seem to be aware of this issue and devotes no discussion to it whatsoever. Looking ahead, we could imagine him supplying what is missing here with his panpsychism. After all, we use our "life force" to exert a force when we want to, as when we decide to walk. So consciousness must somehow trip the life field into transferring its potential energy into the specific kinetic energy of certain objects. I move.

Sheldrake could make such a claim, but he doesn't because he seems to be unaware that it is an issue. And if he were to make such a claim, he provides nothing in the book to provide any explanation for how it would work. That is the same problem with the "life force" itself. Like the "Force" in Star Wars, Sheldrake's life force appears to infuse the entire universe. But I must have some kind of individual access to it, since sometimes I run out of energy, or don't have enough energy to move mountains, which every owner of a construction company would like to have. In Sheldrake's book, we have no clue how that would all be arranged. Perhaps he just expects that science will figure it out eventually. Fair enough, but this may begin to violate Ockham's Razor more than a little. The simpler theory is that there is no life force, and that, if some people really live without eating, this is what people have always thought about it, i.e. it is a miracle. I get my vitamins and minerals from God, not from the Star Trek replicator.

Next, if the life force enables people to live without eating, while all of us already draw on some sort of life energy already, why have there ever been famines or, for that matter, anorexia? Why could Count Ugolino have not just lived happily in his prison, without starving to death? Was Gandhi just faking it during his fasts, while he actually didn't need to eat at all?

Well, I suppose we would need to say that "inedia" is a skill, a technique, that one must learn. However, the cases that Sheldrake considers seem to involve people who have just done it, without any study or learning. It is spontaneous. And where one might think it really could be learned, in India -- where Sheldrake appars to head in a lot of these things -- we know that historically there have nevertheless been periodic famines. Why could not the sâdhus have just done mass instruction, the way the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught "Transcendental Meditation," and saved hundreds or thousands, at least, from starvation? But this has never happened. So if Sheldrake's idea is for real, there has never been any real practical benefit from it, which means that the question he regularly asks, "What difference does it make?" is properly answered with "None." The sâdhus never delivered.

This also raises a stark question about Jainism. The ultimate Jain practice is self-starvation. Yet the reason for this is that nutrition always involves taking life from some living thing, even including plants, which the Jains regard as an ultimate evil, generating the karma that causes rebirth. If the monks could just live without nutrition, this would solve their problem. But I have never heard of that happening, or being explained as an alternative. Perhaps Sheldrake should travel to India and enlighten the Jains. They can live without deriving any karma from nutrition; and Sheldrake could become a Jain Saint. They're waiting for you, Rupert.

Sheldrake thinks that the laws of nature can and will change because they are just habits. These habits develop because of what he calls a "morphic field":

This field is within and around the system it organizes, and is a vibratory pattern of activity that interacts with electromagnetic and quantum fields of the system...

Morphic fields are shaped by morphic resonance from all similar past systems, and thus contain a cumulative collective memory. Morphic resonance depends on similarity, and is not attenuated by distance in space or time. Morphic fields are local, within and around the systems they organize, but morphic resonance is non-local. [p.100]

In traditional physics, fields exist because of and in terms of the laws of nature. Gravity, electromagnetism, and other forces with "quantum fields," exist because of the forms of interaction they embody. But Sheldrake thinks that the fields create the laws, not just embody them, because of this "morphic resonance." This is all profoundly vague, although Sheldrake tries connecting it to David Bohm's "implicate order," which I have considered elsewhere. I any case, what a "morphic field" with its "vibratory pattern of activity" would need to be goes far beyond what physics has tolerated for a long time, and it requires, like Bohm's physics, a very large helping of metaphysics, whose requirements and implications Sheldrake does not consider.

Thus, the morphic field "is not attenuated by distance in space or time." How non-local quantum interactions can ignore spatial distance, and violate Special Relativity, is a good question for current physics. I have tried to answer it with Kantian Quantum Mechanics. Sheldrake proposes nothing to explain it. But this is relatively trival compared to what Sheldrake entertains about time. What happens now, he appears to claim, interacts with events in the past and events in the future. Later in the book, he adds features of consciousness into the business, so that memories that we have are not stored in the brain but involve a direct causal connection with events of the past that we are remembering. With the future, he is sometimes a little more careful, saying that it may only be a "virtual" future that we interact with. However, he does not explain what "virtual" would mean, either in terms of its actual use in current physics, where the future isn't involved, or in the way he uses it in reference to a "physical" (but not material!) future.

This opens exciting possibilities. We will not need archaeology or historical texts when researchers can just "remember" events of the past or what may have been present at certain places in the past. Perhaps Sheldrake would want to limit memory to things that one experienced in the past; but it is not clear either that he can do that, without an arbitrary stipulation, or that he wants to. If, after all, his "vibrations" are not limited by space or time, then our minds can interact with anything, anywhere, at any time. This is not something Sheldrake has overloooked. It sounds like he is eager over this possibility. Also, as a thought experiment, we get science fiction accounts like the movie Arrival [2016], where we see the consequences of random access to any points in time, including the future.

Einstein's "spooky action at a distance" comes nowhere near the weirdness of Sheldrake's theory. Like Einstein, Sheldrake would believe that, unlike most of our ordinary understanding of time, past and future actually exist, as much as the present. Time is just another dimension like space, where every point in time has the same reality as any other. Everything that has or will ever exist, does already exist, just as it has and will always be. That we find ourselves at a particular moment is accidental and, really, inexplicable. The profound fatalism inherent in this view was actually used by Einstein to comfort people in grief. Similarly, Amy Adams in Arrival can experience and enjoy the company of her daughter, who has actually died years earlier.

But Einsein's fatalism isn't exactly Sheldrake's theory. There is a causal interaction between objects at different points in time, just as there is causal interaction between objects in space. But where physics now doesn't like Newton's "action at a distance," and postulates media of interaction, such as virtual particles in quantum mechanics, Sheldrake's causal interactions entirely ignore temporal separation -- "not attenuated by distance in space or time," he says. For good measure, this applies to space itself, where consciousness is by no means confined to the body, neurology, or the brain, and can literally reach out to the stars. This is action at a distance with a vengeance, and it reopens the paradox of Newtonian physics that 20th century science thought it had left behind. But Sheldrake doesn't seem to realize that there is an issue there. Newton thought that gravity, acting at infinite distance cross the Void, was mediated by the Will of God. Sheldrake does not favor us with even such a speculation.

He does give us interaction by a "vibratory pattern" of "resonances." This is the language of wave mechanics, but Sheldrake does not consider any of the metaphysical issues involved with waves. Where 19th century physics clearly understood that waves were the deformation of a medium, 20th century physics took Einstein's theory that such a medium could not be detected, to mean that a medium (the ether) did not exist. Nevertheless, 20th century physics was still comfortable with fields, and no one has ever rejected Maxwell's construction that electromagnetic radiation, which is a wave, is the oscillation of a magnetic field perpendicular to that of an electrical field. While we have seen Richard Feynman assert that the wave theory was abandoned after Einstein analyzed the "photoelectric effect" in terms of particles, waves were restored in the "wave/particle duality" of quantum mechanics, which is puzzling but entrenched.

The upshot of all this is that someone needs to explain what a field is. Physics is stuck with not being able to choose between Einstein's idea of a field as a deformation of space-time and a field in quantum mechanics as an exchange of virtual paticles. What Rupert Sheldrake needs to explain with his "morphic fields" is considerably more daunting, and he doesn't even need to offer a theory with any mathematical structure to it. Mathematics, apparently, is "Platonism," and Sheldrake has appreciated, in his own mind, the lack of any real need for that. So his "morphic fields" are pure metaphysics, without any actual metaphysical detail. Unlimited by space, time, or tangible matter, "vibratory resonances" echo around the universe through all of its history.

What Sheldrake's theory would seem to allow, but that he does not consider, is how the past could be changed through a causal interaction with the present. Thus, in his own theory of memory, we call up a memory by interacting with the actual events we are remembering, perhaps by sending them a "vibration" through the "morphic field" of consciousness. To get an answer, the events need to send back another vibration. So we have affected things in the past, and they have affected us. What is to stop us from sending back vibrations that would make those events different? We have already affected them in one way, even as the vibration coming back changes us by giving us the memory. Who needs time travel when, after a fashion, we are already there? But as a result, we would get all the paradoxes of time travel, even without the travel. Kind of disappointing.

Sheldrake needs some kind of arbitrary stipulation. The Universe does not allow us to change the past, but it does allow us to solicit messages from it. This is bizarre. But not the most bizarre thing. Physical interactions involve time. I decide at some moment to remember something, and then I send back my inquiry, which, perhaps after an interval, is returned. Times passes in such an interaction. But this is with things in time. So we interact with things in time just like we would with things in space. Thus, where time originally has been reduced to another dimension of space, with actually existing things in it, we still need time to interact with those things. So there is one time, like space, and another time, which is like time.

Since Sheldrake doesn't seem to realize that issues like this will come up, for which he has no answers, I must conclude that he is totally at sea and clueless, both by not having answers and by not realizing that, sooner or later, some answers will be called for. So perhaps it is not accidental that all his talk about "vibrations" starts sounding like 19th century spiritualism. This may be his tradition, which takes phenomena that, if they are real, sound like a side of reality hidden to science, and yet wants to make it "scientific" with the language, but not much else, of science. This is then called "pseudo-science." That may be exactly what he achieves.

To be fair to Sheldrake, and to recollect that I am not unsympathetic with many of his concerns, he does cite empirical evidence that, even if his theories are not the only explanation, nevertheless is anomalous in terms of "normal" science and the assumptions or prejudices that go with it. Thus, he says that researchers have found that once new chemical compounds are synthesized, or new kinds of crystals grown, the process of producing them, or growing them, seems to become easier. This adds to his arguments that physical processes like this "resonate" with each other and communicate and learn from each other across space and time. But, of course, the big enchilada in all this business concerns "psychic phenomena," to which Sheldrake devotes an entire chapter.

Is there extra-sensory perception, telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and other such pheneomena? One certainly hears a lot about them. I hear of people who can touch objects and say where they have been and what events and people have been involved with them. I hear of others who do "past life readings," and tell people who they actually were in former lives. Sometimes this discredits what people already think about themselves, for instance that they had been a historically famous person in the past.

Sheldrake takes a moment to complain about the term "parapsychology," where psychic phenomena get legitimate study, to the extent that anyone takes parapsychology seriously. He says, "the term 'parapsychology' means 'beyond psychology' and implies that is not part of normal psychology" [p.233]. However, Greek terms are often mistranslated, and in this case παρά, a preposition, means "beside," not "beyond." A "paralegal" is a legitimate specialist in the law and is "beside," in a sense, regular lawyers. Parapsychology is certainly something "beside" normal psychology, in that its possibility is generally precluded by "normal" science. Sheldrake doesn't have to be happy about that, but psychic phenomena indeed would require the existence of forces and interactions, as Sheldrake knows well, that are not recognized by established science. Sheldrake may have his own explanations, but these are not generally accepted and, as we have seen, are often incoherent.

Pride of place may be the experiments carried out at what Sheldrake calls "the famous parapsychology laboratory at Duke University" [p.236], run by Joseph B. Rhine, who for some reason Sheldrake does not name. Even if we accept the reality of Rhine's results, and they seem honest, the psychic effects were marginal, and we have always been left with Sheldrake's own question, "What difference does it make?" Psychics still have not found the body of Jimmy Hoffa; and most practicing psychics are either obvious charlatans, or use techniques that are easily reproduced and debunked by the sort of Skeptics, including magicians, with whom Sheldrake is impatient to hostile. Indeed, from his accounts, Sheldrake has clashed with Skeptics and atheists who in debate themselves are often obviously dishonest, close minded, and intolerant. However, Sheldrake doesn't mention Harry Houdini (1874-1926), who made a career of debunking spiritualists, even though he would have been more than delighted to find a legitimate one. He didn't. But then Sheldrake, for all that he often sounds like them, doesn't devote attention to spiritualists in his book.

Nor does he mention something else that might help him. This is Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation by the late Ian Stevenson (1918-2007). Stevenson was not a parapsychologist, but a psychiatrist. Yet his research was very much "para" and also chillingly meticulous and, I must say, persuasive (although, of course, criticized). It may be that the continuation of individual consciousness after death isn't the biggest blip on Sheldrake's radar. After all, it can be explained with a lot of traditional metaphysics, including that in Indian and Buddhist philosophy (despite John Seale's dismissive statement that no one takes it seriously anymore). It certainly doesn't need Sheldrake's own system.

A general problem with psychic phenomena is something I have separately noted with respect to miracles, and that is its elusiveness. If I am willing to believe that there are genuine psychics out there -- and for me it has been a matter of hearing about them rather than meeting them -- it is certain that for every single honest and genuine one, there are literally hundreds of fakes and crooks. Rhine's marginal results, or Stevenson's reincarnation subjects, could never have been taken to encourage people to send money to the (defunct) Psychic Friends Network. People who are vicimized and robbed by charlatans vastely outnumber the people actually helped by psychics -- by, for example, finding the lost will of the rich relative. And I have never seen serious claims of psychics having powers like those displayed by Anthony Hopkins in the previously referenced movie Solace, even though psychics sometimes have figured on documentaries like Cold Case Files [1999-2006]. Hopkins can see everything that has happened in a previous event, where real psychics usually speak only in terms of vague and ambiguous clues and associations.

It would also be nice if faith healing worked a bit more reliably. The evangelists who pull people out of their wheelchairs on television don't seem to go around to emergency rooms and aleviate the suffering there. Jesus could and would have done that. Yet Sheldrake points out that the "placebo effect" means that people can be healed of disease just by believing that they will be. But the usefulness and effectiveness of this undoubted truth appears to be gravely limited.

I had a friend who had actually worked as a psychic. Although I never doubted her honesty, I never had a clue about the genuineness or reliability of her abilities or results. So I'm not sure I want to use her as an example of my knowing an actual psychic. But one day she stopped my hickups just by placing her hand on my stomach. I was impressed. It wasn't long, however, before she died, rather quickly, of cancer. Some indeed might say, that by doing things like healing minor ailments in me, she had drained herself of her own defenses.

Thus, there may be an lesson in the elusiveness of all this. If faith healing is indeed a matter of faith, it would be paradoxical if it simply became a matter of science. And if we could just call up miracles at will, then hospitals would actually be unnecessary -- just as, as I have noted above, the ability to live without eating would eliminate famine and anorexia. A proper miracle worker, indeed, could go around and cure anorexics by eliminating their need to eat. But I don't even see televangelists heal anorexics by giving them back a healthy appetite. Shouldn't be that hard. There must be hunger in there somewhere.

So, my basic response to Rupert Sheldrake may be:  Science cannot be "set free" to deal with many of the things he would like. Psychic phenomena and miracles remain elusive because they escape what science can ever grasp. I am even willing to accept phenomena that ignore space and time, because, as was once said on Saturday Night Live, for "Immanuel Kant of Germany," "space and time are empirically real," but do not reach to things-in-themselves. C.G. Jung tried to take advantage of Kantian metaphyiscs by introducing the idea of "synchronicity," which he called an "acausal connecting principle." He was disappointed in his results, which he tried applying to astrology; but he made a couple of mistakes along the way.

One mistake was hoping for empirical verification, which would make "synchronicity" part of "normal" science. But if synchronicity depends on the nature of things-in-themselves, then it can never be part of empirical science. The other mistake was to imagine that synchronicity would need to be "acausal," for the Kantian principle is not that causality doesn't exist among things-in-themselves, but that exists in a way different from that grasped, not just by science, but as it can be understood by us at all -- as in the case of free will, whose requirements generate, as Kant knew, Antinomies. When Richard Feynman saw that the nearby clock stopped when his wife died, he wanted an empirical explanation. There may have been one; but he was, for a while, unsettled. And these things do happen.

As in his obvious lack of interest in the transcendent God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islâm, Rupert Sheldrake does not see a universe where science has limits. And the metaphysics he proposes, without calling it that or perhaps even realizing what he is doing, is suitable to the kind of universe he would like, where psychic phenomena and (his idea of) religion are actually open to scientific investigation. We might ask him to chew on the Incarnation -- whether of Jesus or Vishnu, I'll allow either.

Sheldrake's chapter on purpose is another case where his heart is close to being in the right place, but then his solutions again involve the maw of empirical science reaching out to things that are not suited to it. Aristotelian metaphysics, where all substances have final causes, would suit Sheldrake's requirements just fine. But he doesn't want Aristotelian metaphysics; he wants 21st century science. Yet for the latter to do the job of the former there still must be an "entelechy," ἐντελέχεια, an "end within," that holds the future of the present object. Since Sheldrake does not adopt the Aristotelian substantial "form" to hold the entelechy, he resorts to the idea that the future itself, whether real or "virtual," holds the end towards which the object aims, by mutual interaction across time. This either activities the paradoxes of his metaphysic of time, or it involves taking a term of quantum mechanics, i.e. "virtual," and using for a purpose unrelated to quantum mechanics, without explanation of what this means or how it works. I don't think this is going to impress any serious person in science.

My view is that purpose is severed from efficient causation as part of the metaphysics of transcendence, with blind causation in external reality, and purposive existence in internal reality, as I have treated elsewhere. There is no reason why Rupert Sheldrake should pay any attention to that, but then he provides multiple reasons why conscientious scientists might not pay any attention to him. Issues like purpose and free will are part of metaphysics, not science; and our general problem is that philosophers in the 20th century largely decided that metaphysics was illegitimate, with the irony that they often took the work of philosophers who were essentially metaphysicians, like Hegel and Heidegger, and did their best to produce readings of them in conformity to the anti-metaphysical nihilism of Wittgenstein, if not the Positivists, who were the principal inspiration of the whole business. As Raymond Chandler's Hollywood detective Philip Marlowe comments on a chess problem, this is the most elaborate waste of human intelligence outside an adverising agency.

Sheldrake's final substantive chapter is titled "Illusions of Objectivity." The paradox of this is close to comical, since all of Sheldrake's criticisms of established science depend on the objectivity of his own arguments and evidence. If they are just the subjectivity of how Sheldrake feels, no one needs to care. Just how muddled this is we can see in a comment about quantum mechanics, which has been a rich field of misuse all through the book:

Observations require observers, and the way in which experiments are done affects the results they give. This is obvious, but until the development of quantum theory, physicists tried to pretend that they were not involved in their own experiments. [p.295]

The only "obvious" thing is that, if a scientist understands how the way in which an experiment is done effects the results, then the experiment is redesigned or its biases taken into account. This is what Sheldrake has been asking them to do. To then claim that it cannot or should not be done renders Sheldrake's own advice pointless. And the appeal to "quantum theory" simply means that Sheldrake doesn't know what he is talking about. What the "observer" does to a quantum interaction is very limited and very specific. There is a mathematical theory to both the wave function of a quantum system and its collapse into particles. Whatever Sheldrake wants to do with his subjectivism, there is no mathematical theory to it -- which to scientists is going to mean that what he is doing is just "philosophical." Scientitists being "involved in their own experiments" is not a license to say anything.

Indeed. That we have a wave function in the absence of observation and particles in its presence does raise philosophical questions, especially when we see a collapse of the wave function when observers do not physically affect the experiment but simply know about it by inference. But Sheldrake treats it as an opening to drive a whole horse team and wagon of subjectivism into science. But the only thing allowed through the gap in actual quantum mechanics is the random distribution of particles precipitated by the collapse of the wave function. This is as strict and determined, in its own way, as any table of Newtonian billiard balls. But I gather from various hints and assertions by Sheldrake that he would sign on with the Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi that the collapse of the wave function is not random, but can be determined by consciousness, if not Cosmic Consciousness. At the very least, this is something that can be determined by experiment. The Yogi should be able to make particles go through one slot, but not the other, in Thomas Young's experiment demonstrating the wave nature of light. Such a forced preference, indeed, would disprove the wave nature of light and undermine the whole foundation of quantum mechanics. So, ironically, by appealing to quantum mechanics, Sheldrake may hope for results that discredit it.

The paradox of Sheldrake's "Illusions of Objectivity" could serve to discredit his own book. His project of bringing paranormal phenomena into science, from changeable constants and laws of nature to psychic powers, depends on evidence and argument, which would be meaningless if not logical, coherent, objective, and demonstrable. He labors intensely (of not always adequately) to meet these criteria, but then turns around and dismisses just such efforts as illusory. He needs to get his story straight and his act together. But what he wants is inherently misconceived. His own materialism, with vitalism and panpsychism added to the physics of Newton, Einstein, and Bohr, is still an insult and an attack on religion, and it continues the neglect and contempt for metphysics in 20th century philosophy.

The Fortunes of Materialism

Scientific Naturalism and Intelligent Design

Death, Light, and Black Holes

The Metaphysics of Possibility

Childhood's End, the Mystery of Order


Philosophy of Science


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Science Set Free, 10 Paths to New Discovery; Note 1

The idea of a life force remains common in popular culture and literature. The loopy 1985 British science fiction movie Lifeforce, with alien vampires and a non-existent British space program, is mainly memorable for its level of nudity. The lovely Mathilda May (b.1965) spends most of her screen time naked. Unfortunately, this would not become common in later movies, and May herself is subsequently to be found in mainly unremarkable French films. A fair amount of nudity, including some of the best καλλίπυγος of Blair Brown, was removed from Altered States [1980] after its release. The best nude scene I've seen recently was in the interesting but unsuccessful movie Solace [2015], with Anthony Hopkins -- although it was not Sir Anthony, mercifully, who did the nudity. That would be the elegant Brazilian beauty, Luisa Moraes, who is not only nude, but is so during revealing movements to enter a bathtub. It is done tastefully enough, however, that it would not satisfy Larry Flynt.

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Science Set Free, 10 Paths to New Discovery; Note 2

In ancient Greece, philosophers were preoccupied with the idea that behind the changing world of experience there was changeless eternal reality, or an original unity. This conviction probably originated in mystical experiences, which appeared to reveal the existence of an ultimate reality or truth behind space and time. The philosopher Parmenides tried to form an intellectual conception of an ultimate changeless being, and concluded that that being must be a changeless, undifferentiated sphere. [p.57, boldface added]

The Presocrates liked the idea of an original and single underlying stuff, but a "changeless eternal reality" did need to wait for Parmenides. The appeal to "mystical experiences" is nonsense. Mysticism is far in the future, but from this we see how Sheldrake wants to read his own preferences into sources where they do not occur. We thereby learn a lot more about Sheldrake than about the Presocratics. The implication that Parmenides was some kind of mystic means that Sheldrake has not read his actual arguments, which were an innovation. But they don't fit what Sheldrake is looking for.

This leaves an impresson that Sheldrake is more impressed by mysticism than by logic, even as he is unconcerned that there is no mathematical theory for his "life force" -- as physicists struggle to unify the mathematics of Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity.

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