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