Scientific delusions, or delusions about science? Rupert Sheldrake’s ten dogmas (part one)

The Science Delusion (Coronet, 2012)

The Science Delusion (Coronet, 2012)

Rupert Sheldrake’s latest book, The Science Delusion (2012; Science Set Free in the US), has been given quite a lot of attention this year. Through its UK title, the book is clearly situated in the market as a sort of counter-manifesto to Dawkins’ God Delusion, or more precisely to the so-called “New Atheism’s” attempt to monopolize discourses on science for a wholly secular, atheistic, and anti-”magical” worldview. Sheldrake’s book has indeed worked as a sort of battle cry for a certain segment of the educated population left cold by creationists and new atheists alike, in fact a rather big group that wants to retain a worldview hospitable to irreducible mysteries without compromising their identity as modern, scientific-minded, rational people.

Sometimes, this rather precarious situation – of wanting science to be something else than what the scientists appear to make it – triggers a form of “ressentiment” against what is perceived as a dominating elite: “Materialist” elite scientists are exercising a “corrupting” influence across the fields of science. Had they not, everyone would have seen it our way. This sort of ressentiment is evident in much of Sheldrake’s polemic. There is much talk of “Science” as a gargantuan single entity, and what “it” dogmatically says and does. Perhaps that is what one would expect from someone who ditched a mainstream scientific career decades ago to pursue the elusive promises of parapsychology, while tirelessly expanding and pushing his own neo-vitalistic theories of “morphic resonance” and the “morphogenetic field” (rejected by his peers) in books and articles published for a wider and much more enthusiastic audience. His popular image as a persecuted visionary was greatly enhanced by the senior editor of Nature John Maddox, who foolishly entitled his review of Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life (1981)  “a book for burning?”. Commercially speaking, it was probably the best review Sheldrake could ever have hoped for.

Rupert Sheldrake - hero, heretic, or just another populist science writer?

Rupert Sheldrake – hero, heretic, or just another populist science writer?

Despite a carefully kept image of being victimized by intolerant oppressors, Sheldrake’s message and rhetoric (the two are closely intertwined and codependent) falls in fertile ground among those who shape public opinion. One only has to look at  the number of book reviewers and journalists writing enthusiastically about The Science Delusion in mainstream media. Mary Midgley endorsed the book wholesale in her review for The Guardian last February. Colin Tudge, writing for The Independent, even praised Sheldrake for doing us all a great favour by exposing the “dogmas” of modern science. A portrait interview in The Guardian was more sober (they had the decency to but “heretic” in scare-quotes), but gave Sheldrake all the time and space he wanted to elaborate on his viewpoints and communicate his allegedly persecuted ideas to the masses.

After the renegade biochemist gave a public lecture in my native Norway last month, his science-criticism also reached the Norwegian media. It was reproduced several times over in the press, although mostly in much less compelling and sophisticated ways than the original. In general, major media outlets are happy to lend a microphone or a keyboard to Sheldrake’s central accusation that science has deluded itself. Or as he put it in a Huffington Post spin-off: that”[t]he sciences are being held back by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas, maintained by powerful taboos”.

The reader should have guessed by now that I am not all that impressed. It is not that I disagree with the most basic message that Sheldrake tries to convey: that science should be based on “radical scepticism”, not tollerate dogmas, and always search for new questions instead of final answers. The problem is that he comes bursting through doors that are already wide open. I cannot avoid thinking that the accusation of scientific dogmatism is itself inherently dogmatic. It reads a bit too much like a predictable response to those who, having applied the sceptical attitude Sheldrake claims to cherish to his own pet theories, have walked away unconvinced.

So let us turn Sheldrake’s imperative back at his book, turning some of the rigidly stated assumptions and certainties in it into questions instead. Rather than accepting the statement that “science is deluded” on face value, let us ask, “is science really deluded?” And let us approach the “ten dogmas” that Sheldrake lists and uses to structure the chapters of his book with some scepticism. Are these really “dogmas” at all, or is there something else going on? Are they really delusions of science, or is it perhaps the list itself that presents a deluded pictures of what “science” is all about?

When we do this, it quickly appears that the overall argument of the Science Delusion rests on a number of stereotypes about modern science and its history. The ways the book handles central philosophical issues in the domains of epistemology (otherwise the philosophy of science) and the philosophy of mind are woefully superficial. But there is also another and more puzzling thing at work: while Sheldrake’s supporters seem to think that he is an impressively original thinker, the stereotypes that he reproduces are in fact far from new. A rudimentary grasp of the history of modern science and philosophy should be enough to recognize them as echoes of the science-scepticism of earlier ages – from the post-Enlightenment romantics, through the psychical researchers of the late-19th century, to the anti-scientific intellectuals-in-denial that blossomed in continental Europe and elsewhere after the First World War.  Sheldrake’s own generation of science-critics, formed in the context of the cold war, against the expansion of “big science” and “big pharma”, under the influence of the student rebellions and the psychedelic era, and closely aligned with an increasingly mass-popularised and commodified “counter-culture”, brings little that is substantially new to these earlier periods.

The best way to  demonstrate these claims is by a point by point walk-through of Sheldrake’s  “ten dogmas”. Doing that after such a lengthy general introduction would however be much too taxing, so this will follow in separate installments.

To give you a grasp of what you have in store, here is Sheldrake’s list in abridged form:

According to Sheldrake, the ten dogmas of science hold that:

1. Everything is mechanical; only mechanistic explanations will do.

2. Matter is unconscious / inanimate.

3. The matter and energy of the universe is constant, and has remained constant since the Big Bang.

4. The laws of nature are fixed.

5. Nature is without inherent purpose, and evolution has no goal.

6. Biological inheritance is a purely material process.

7. Minds are located within heads, and are nothing but the activities of brains.

8. Memories are stored in the brain, and are wiped out at death.

9. Telepathy and other psychic phenomena are illusory.

10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works.

If these strike you as true, provocative, or completely misguided, now is the time to think through why that is. I have spent very much time thinking about and researching the way in which problems of this type have historically been handled by scientists, philosophers and other thinkers, as part of my recently completed dissertation. I see them as elements of what I call “the problem of disenchantment”, and Sheldrake fits right in as a spokesperson for a specific kind of response to that problem. More on this in the next installment, where I will start by discussing the claim of the first dogma: What does it mean to say that science is mechanistic?

In the unlikely case that you are exceptionally eager to know what I might have to say about this, why not check out some previous posts on disenchantment, psychical research, or the relation between science and religion?

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This work by Egil Asprem was first published on Heterodoxology. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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24 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. None of the “dogmas” of science in that list strike me as true at all.

    Also, “science” is a verb, isn’t it?


    • Are the “dogmas” untrue, or is it untrue that they are “dogmas”?
      I think both – with the necessary addition of a “but it’s more complicated than that”.

      • Science doesn’t have dogma. It is part of the nature of the scientific method that all “truths” are conditional upon the current understanding of the currently available data.

        Also, I don’t recognize the specific dogmas mentioned. The first one is especially laughable as the mechanistic model of the Universe was first successfully challenged by Relativity and eventually demonstrated as a special case only by Quantum Mechanics.

        Anyone conversant with the current state of science could easily write a point-by-point refutation of these so-called dogmas of science.

        I look forward to your next installment.


  2. Completely agree with that, Gideon, and you have my next installment in a nutshell. :)

  3. Excellent work, I too look forward to the next installment. I may be jumping the gun here, but I’d like to add my thoughts on the matter.
    For a start scientists are not a bread appart they simply achieve a level of education which allows them to practice their trade. Therefore the degree to which scientists are capable and knowledgeable lies within a broad spectrum, from those that scrape by to those that push the field. Added to that is the extent to which an individual has contemplated and understood the scientific method and science as it is excecuted in various fields.
    So the fact that Sheldrake was a scientist says little of his knowledge of science in theory or practice and certainly not as a whole. A quick pubmed search reveals no publications by sheldrake prior to stepping out of the fold, while not conclusive this leads me to believe he lacks practice if not skill as a scientist. Having not read the Science Delusion and going by what you’ve written here (and a few other pieces I read about his work), it is my assumption that Rupert Sheldrake does not have a firm understanding of scientific theory or the foundations of various fields of science. This allows him to posit his warped critique without having to argue against the current state of sciencetific knowledge. The weak ploy is enhanced by his catchy title which forces wordplay obsessed jounalists around the world to write articles comparing his work to that of Dawkins.
    There may be an unfortunate readership enthralled by the suggestion that a field they are forced to respect by it’s standing in the world may not be all it’s cracked up to be. They may be hoping for an expose that tells them they no longer have to respect science because it’s gloss of lies like politics. If they get through the book they will come away none the wiser.
    Then you have the people that harbour beliefs which science has not confirmed, the paranormal and so forth. These may already have an affinity for Sheldrake and are not likely to read critically. They may come away with the feeling that they have a credible spokes person. This too is unfotunate since Sheldrake appeals for that possition by proclaiming science to be against the views of these people, which it is not. Science is not against the paranormal, mysticism or religion (though some scientists may be). It is about revealing proof about the (functioning of) the world around us (and beyond). Things which lack proof remain outside science, but the door remains open should proof arise in the future. Some things start to look exceedingly unlikely in the face of scientific discoveries, like a universe of just a few millennia or DNA mutation not being resposnible for the diversity of life, but others may yet find evidence to support their possitions.
    I doubt many scientists will read the book, though those that do are sure to feel their blood pressure rise at some points during their reading.

    • “Science is not against the paranormal, mysticism or religion (though some scientists may be). It is about revealing proof about the (functioning of) the world around us (and beyond).” Very well put, Chimed. Agree wholeheartedly, and it’s one of the points I wanted to make.

      As for your pubmed discovery concerning Sheldrake, that sounds about right. There is certainly an important difference between those who “scrub by and those who push the field”, as you say. As for Sheldrake, he seems to have found an alternative to both that was no doubt a much more exciting and well payed career in the paranormal/countercultural/psychedelic/new age lecture circuit. It should be noted that his CV suggests he was a very talented young researcher, wining several prizes of merit for work in biochemistry and fellowships for prestigious institutions including Harvard, Cambridge, and the Royal Society. But he may have been more interested in pop-”philosophical” ideas absorbed from and influenced by the cultural circumstances of the 60s and 70s. His attempt to “push the field” was always inspired by the notion of “paradigms”, and hence perhaps more armchair-”revolutionary” than hands-on “normal science”.

  4. I personally am a big fan of believing memories are stored in the elbow, but that a preponderance of yellow bile can disrupt this natural state, so I take issue with #8.

    • This made me laugh, but there is an assumption here based on the computer model of mind, which is that a memory is something which is stored somewhere- as on a memory stick or hard-disc.
      There is actually no hard evidence that memories are ‘stored’ in the brain. All the work on neurophysiology only shows that a person’s ability to remember is impaired by damage to the brain. This points to several possibilities, among which are – 1. That memories are stored in the brain, but if has not been demonstrated how or in what form, and no one has succeeded in accessing such a stored memory except by asking a conscious person, ‘Do you remember x?’. And 2. that memory is dependent on brain function , but it has not been demonstrated exactly how that works either, except in the limited sense I have already referred to that the ability to remember may be impaired by brain damage.

      • Thanks Tom, that anticipates perfectly the notes I have for the response to dogma eight. There is pretty much a consensus in cognitive science, neuroscience, psychology and the philosophy of mind that memories are actively constructed rather than stored, so #8 is a good example of something that “science” does not in fact support and hence cannot be a dogma. But it is a classic straw man.

    • ROFL

  5. I’m so excited to read more! -I’ve been searching for concise, in depth critiques of other’s critiques of science!
    I haven’t spent the time wording good critiques myself. So, thanks!

    • Cool, hope I can provide the service. :)

  6. The main limit on the scope of science seems to be research funding, or at least that is what scientist talk about the most as a limit on their pursuit of knowledge. I think this is a more genuine area of concern than the idea that all science or the scientific method of inquiry has “dogmas”.

    • Indeed. Funnily enough, it has typically *not* been very hard to find funding for the kind of “persecuted” science that Sheldrake wants more of: parapsychology. True, such funding usually does not come through government research budgets (although that has also happened, such as with the US Star Gate programme that was only shut down in the mid 1990s), but from rich aunts and uncles wanting to see their personal interest in survival of bodily death, telepathy, clairvoyance etc. pursued – and quite often, to have their beliefs justified by “science”. Behind *almost* every parapsychological research institute since 1900 there is an aging, wealthy industrialist.

      • indeed and the splash that Sheldrake creates with his pseudoscientific pabulums will no doubt continue to extract funding from the Prince Charleses for the more “speculative” research areas.

  7. I’m looking forward to this. I have been very sympathetic to paranormal researchers, including Sheldrake, who have been treated with undue disdain by presumptuous sceptics but the publication of The Science Delusion offered evidence of the disturbing credulousness of other elements of the intellectual elite. What fascinated me is that the reviewers neither endorsed or seemed particularly interested in Sheldrake’s actual theories: they just welcomed the presence of man who insulted materialism. The Guardian‘s Mark Vernon even said: “he may not be right in the details. But he is surely right…in insisting that the materialist world view must go.” He may not be right, in other words, but he is surely right.

    It strikes me that even parapsychologists and the like should not welcome these kind of sympathisers. They remind me of apologists of religion who insist that religious beliefs are irrelevant, which, if I was a believer, would be insulting to hear.

    • Whether or not someone might get “insulted” if scientific claims don’t back up their beliefs should be of little concern to scientists. The “presumptuous sceptics” you talk of are mostly that minority of scientists (and others) who happen to be vocal about conflicting claims when they obtain (and, contrary to the more liberal notion that there can never be any conflict between “science and religion”, of course it does happen often enough. And I say that without subscribing to dawkinism).

      • I think you misunderstand me. (Which was at least partly due to my sloppy phrasing.) What I would find insulting is not somebody challenging my fact claims but somebody acting as if they are unimportant – as someone like Eagleton has done with those of the religious and Midgley and Vernon did with Sheldrake’s.

        A debate regarding the critical standards of some sceptics of paranormal research would, perhaps, drain everyone’s time and patience so I will only suggest that they often appear to have been low. The problem, I think, is that paranormal hypotheses so often sound and, indeed, so often are absurd that people are prepared to tolerate less argumentative care than they would in other contexts. They can decide a priori that they are bogus, and that is presumptuousness that I was referencing.

        Again, looking forward to the series.

  8. That clears it up somewhat. In this case we are talking about journalists, of course, but if we were to talk about science I would still say that it is necessary for scientists themselves to determine what is important or not. Especially, perhaps, when the object of study is something heavily invested with human meaningmaking. For scholars of religion (whether historians, sociologists, or anthropologists) this problem is encountered all the time. What we find important from a scholarly point of view is most of the time something quite different from what the adherents of a specific religion find important. The latter would be more of an explanandum. And we have to ask irreverent questions to make any headway in fields like this.

    As for the comment about sceptics of paranormal research, I cannot say I disagree with you. But at the same time, I also find many unreasonable counterattacks.

    Hope to see you following the rest too then. :)

  9. [...] Asprem debunks scientific debunkers. [...]

  10. [...] the previous post on Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion, I noted that the overall argument is based on a number [...]

  11. Sharp writing on Sheldrake, Egil. Highly appreciated!

  12. [...] as for old ones who need to refresh their memories, previous installations in the series are found here, here, and here. Without further ado, let me get started on an evaluation of the fourth dogma [...]

  13. […] his book, The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Inquiry, Sheldrake these ten dogmas in more detail. The book has received an abundance of reviews and they […]

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