Freeing the spirit of enquiry by Dr Rupert Sheldrake

Science at its best is an open-minded method of enquiry; it has been successful because it has been open to new discoveries. By contrast, many people have made science into a worldview or belief system. They believe that there is no reality but material or physical reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Nature is mechanical. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

These beliefs are often taken for granted by scientists, not because they have thought about them critically, but because they haven’t. To deviate from them is heresy, and heresy harms careers.

I believe that the sciences will be regenerated when they are liberated from the dogmas that constrict them, as I show in my book The Science Delusion (called Science Set Free in the US). Many new lines of research become possible when we abandon the idea that we already know the answers in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in.

Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.

1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own.

2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view.

3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).

4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same forever.

5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.

6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.

7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains.

8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.

9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.

10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Together, these beliefs make up the philosophy or ideology of materialism, whose central assumption is that everything is essentially material or physical, even minds. This belief-system became dominant within science in the late nineteenth century. But materialism is now facing a credibility crunch unimaginable in the 20th century.

For decades, there have been confident claims that genes and molecular biology will soon explain the nature of life, but there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone. Moreover, the human genome project has led to the discovery that genes account for only a small part of heredity. This is called the “missing heritability problem”.

Despite the brilliant technical achievements of neuroscience, like brain scanning, there is still no proof that consciousness is merely brain activity. The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the “hard problem.” It is hard because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experience of redness is not accounted for.

In physics, too, the problems are multiplying. Since the beginning of the 21st century, it has become apparent that known kinds of matter and energy make up only about 4 percent of the universe. The rest consists of “dark matter” and “dark energy.” The nature of 96 percent of physical reality is literally obscure. The multiverse theory, which asserts that there are trillions of universes besides our own, is popular among cosmologists in the absence of any experimental evidence. These are interesting speculations, but they are not hard science. They are a shaky foundation for the materialist claim that everything can be explained in terms of physics.

I am convinced that the sciences, for all their successes, are being stifled by outmoded beliefs that act as barriers against open-minded thinking. The sciences would be better off without them: freer, more interesting, and more fun.

  • Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D. is a biologist and author of more than 80 scientific papers and 10 books, including The Science Delusion. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, a Research Fellow of the Royal Society, Principal Plant Physiologist at ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Hyderabad, India, and from 2005-2010 the Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge.
  • His web site is www.sheldrake.org
  • Twitter: @RupertSheldrake

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