Scientific delusions, or delusions about science? (Part four: on natural laws and resonating habits)


Laws as a bad metaphor: Who’s enforcing what on whom?

It has been a while since my last post on Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion, or, as it is called in the United States version (published by none other than Deepak Chopra Books – no doubt a token of proper peer-reviewed science), Science Set Free. For new readers as well 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 ascribed to science: “The laws of nature are fixed”. As in previous posts, evaluating this dogma (and whether it is one to begin with) will occasion a few short excursions in the philosophy and history of science. But this time we are also led, finally, to confront Sheldrake’s own key thesis, namely his theory of “morphic resonance”. Read on if you’re still curious.

Dogma 4: “The laws of nature are fixed”

Are the laws of nature fixed once and for all? The dogmatic answer of science is “Yes”, according to Rupert Sheldrake’s forth dogma. Curiously, though, the chapter dedicated to arguing this point suggests that this is actually not the case: To the contrary, Sheldrake demonstrates (perhaps despite himself) that there is today a lively and ongoing science-internal discussion about the nature and stability of such things as the physical constants, and the reach and universality of the laws of nature. In fact, Sheldrake’s beef here is not with science, but with what he identifies as “Platonism”: the philosophical view that these “laws” are independent of the things they “govern”. This “platonic” view may have just as much to do with the metaphor of governance itself: the laws of a society are distinct from the subjects of that society, and so the application of universal laws to natural particulars already suggests an ontological difference.

The position Sheldrake supports stands in a different tradition. He holds that the regularities of nature are more akin to evolving habits than to universal laws. Laws do not define and constrain the behaviours of natural entities, processes, and interactions, but describe their habits. By way of a version of the problem of induction, he can hold that the universality of these habits, as described and worked out mathematically, does not follow from the observation.

Library of Babel as visualized by Erik Desmazieres.

Library of Babel as visualized by Erik Desmazieres.

This argument, of course, could be used to support a radical form of scepticism about what kind of world we find ourselves in. It is logically possible that, by some random coincidence, we happen to be in a universe that has all the features of a structured and rational whole for a certain period of time, only to dissolve into a completely unrecognizable chaotic mess at some given point in the future. The situation would be similar to that faced by someone entering Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel”, which contains all possible books of all possible combinations of letters and punctuation marks. By far the most of these books are complete gibberish from start to finish; a very small amount of them will be written with proper syntax – and a subset of these will be real classics, written in masterful prose. But there will also be a much greater set of books that look masterful until you reach page 231, where they suddenly collapse into meaningless strings of letters and punctuation marks. Our world could, conceivably, be just like this. The laws of nature might be nothing but the faux syntax of such a randomly generated text.

Now, this is not what Sheldrake is arguing when challenging the universality of laws. He argues that regularities are habits that have evolved through the history of the world. In a sense this strengthens the temporal and even historical aspect of the world (“natural history” becomes once more an apt term for science).  As was the case with his position on minds, mechanisms and organisms (discussed here), this does not make him a completely novel thinker but rather places him in an alternative tradition  that has deep roots in Western natural philosophy. We could list, for example, the medieval distinction between natura naturata (“nature natured”) and natura naturans (“nature naturing”), made famous through Spinoza’s natural philosophy, and its reception in e.g. German romantic Naturphilosophie around the turn of the 19th century. This type of speculation emphasises nature’s creative potential, its self-causing, generative properties, that give rise to stable phenomena without the incursion of non- or super-natural agents or forces (whether a theistic god, an indifferent and distant “first mover”, or Platonic/Pythagorean disembodied numbers). This stream of thinking obviously has affinities with vitalistic and organicist theories, and in more recent times we find varieties of it in Driesch’s “entelechy”, Bergson’s “élan vital” and “creative evolution”, and to some extent in modern emergentist philosophies of nature. (I’ve written about some of these  in a different context here).

It could be added that one wouldn’t even have to go to such exotic systems to find a case against the rather naive jurisprudence metaphor of natural laws. Mainstream philosophy of science has plenty of sophisticated alternatives to offer, most often basing itself on forms of dispositional essentialism, which imply that “laws of nature” are metaphysically contingent on particulars and their arrangement, rather than the other way around.

In other words, Sheldrake’s claim here is not very controversial when we look below the surface rhetorical level. Certain dispositions can only be realized under conditions that only obtain relatively late in the history of the universe, for example, and some dispositions may even be seen as emergent properties showing up when new objects come into existence. (This, however, still allows for a sort of ceteris paribus understanding of natural laws, but that is perhaps a different discussion that takes us too far afield).

As usual, things get a lot more controversial when Sheldrake starts explaining his own alternative (ignoring all the other options while he is at it). It is in the chapter on natural laws (why exactly it is introduced at this point is not too clear) that the real motivations for writing this book become apparent: it is not that “science” is so dogmatic and closed and settled – Sheldrake ironically demonstrates that this is false by quoting from mainstream science to show how  diverse the range of theorising is – it is rather that his own particular “theory of everything”, the theory of “morphic resonance” and “morphic fields”, happens not to have been taken seriously by the wider research community. Starting on page 99 of his book, morphic resonance is introduced and explained at some length as a framework for a habitual understanding of laws. But it goes much further than that, indeed, much further than what seems necessary for an alternative account of the lawlike behaviour of natural phenomena. Morphic resonance, in Sheldrake’s view, implies that all self-organizing systems (from molecules to organisms to planetary systems) are held together by “organizing fields”, “within and around the system it organizes, and is a vibratory pattern of activity that interacts with electromangetic and quantum fields of the system” (p. 100). But the truly mysterious property of these “morphic fields” is that they work by a form of non-local (but time-dependent) imitation. They are, to quote Sheldrake once more,

“shaped by a 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.” (p. 100)

The latter cannot be entirely true, for it is crucial to Sheldrake’s further argument that imitation only works backwards in time, not forwards – it follows a time arrow, and is not reversible. What are the implications of this? It means that whenever something has happened, its likelihood of happening again increases. The first time a certain molecule is shaped, it is likely to suddenly be shaped again elsewhere in the universe. When a certain organism develops a certain organ, morphic resonance will transfer the pattern elsewhere, get picked up by a morphic field somewhere in the universe, and voila, the feature emerges again.

Morphic resonance thus becomes a general theory of habits, memory, imitation, and form-production that is designed to counter “materialistic” accounts of such phenomena. But what does it add? What are the unsolved scientific problems that this theory actually can explain? How well does it explain them? And crucially (a point almost universally lost on all “discovery enthusiasts”, and a good alternative candidate for defining “pseudoscience”): At what costs in terms of our already well-established, well-tested knowledge of how the world works?

string-theory xlcdGiving Sheldrake some credit, his theory is able to some extent to generate novel predictions. Most notably, morphic resonance would predict that imitations of form can happen without any physical contact, so that, if one has a genuinely new form of organisation, and is able to keep it under absolute control, the theory would predict that it is still possible for the form to be reproduced elsewhere, by mysterious action at a distance from one morphic field to another.  However, these are predictions of an extremely vague sort, that will always come with plenty of escape routs in the face of apparently disconfirming evidence: the theory does not specify any limitations in terms of distance, or even time (except that retrocausality appears to be ruled out), nor any direction in which the resonance will be emitted, making it impossible to predict where, when, and how the form is supposed to be replicated. In other words, a critic might argue that the production of a certain new synthetic compound, kept isolated in a laboratory, should have sent resonance waves that would cause the compound to suddenly start manifesting naturally. Sheldrake, however, could easily dodge the bullet and say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: perhaps the compound is just a bit too novel, requiring special circumstances to manifest; and perhaps the compound in fact has started to appear spontaneously on some far away planet? With the number of likely planets in the universe estimated to be in the sextillions (i.e. > 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) it is still possible that the effect could be huge on a cosmic scale without us knowing it from our position on earth.

Sheldrake does in fact use an argument like this. His favourite example is crystallization, or more precisely one puzzling phenomenon associated with “polymorphism”. Some chemical compounds have the ability to crystallize in different forms; the different shapes are called “polymorphs” of the given compound. The “mystery” that Sheldrake adopts as an interesting “anomaly” to be explained by a new theoretical construct (his theory of morphic resonance) is that apparently, once some compound have crystallized in a specific way, chemists find it very difficult to get it to crystallize in any other way. It is as if the compound as a whole (and not just locally, in a given laboratory) had “learnt” one specific way, and found it very hard to unlearn this habit. Morphic resonance, working non-locally?

Maybe not. The problem is well-known, and is generally considered a technical problem that has to do with contamination. Tiny crystals may leak from laboratory conditions, and when they come in contact with other compounds will spread the form by way of a sort of “contagion”. This is a well-known and well-documented effect, and there has even been court-cases revolving around the problem in the pharmaceutical industry, where such crystal contagion has real effects both in terms of patent rights, and in terms of the actual medical effect of certain drugs. One slightly apocryphal story goes that new crystals travel from laboratory to laboratory by getting stuck in the beards of scruffy research assistants, contaminating samples as soon as they are being checked.

In any case, there is no anomaly left to explain: one has a perfectly sound mechanism within present models, and a theory of morphic resonance would not add anything of interest (except of a pretty superfluous metaphysics). The new predictions it may offer remain far outside of anything that is of practical significance until we become an intergalactic species. This is apparently good enough for Sheldrake, who writes the following at the end of his chapter, apparently finding it a convincing and  promising line of inquiry:

“[I]t should be possible to discover which new chemicals are unique to earth and which have existed elsewhere. If the rate of crystallization of, say, a thousand new chemicals is measured systematically, and if, say eight hundred show increasing rates of crystallization while the other two hundred do not, we could infer that the latter have existed elsewhere in the universe, but the former have not. Inexpensively, we could find what is truly new on earth, and deduce something about events on other planets, even though we do not know where those planets are.” (p. 108)

Inexpensive, perhaps, in terms of research costs, but hardly parsimonious as a hypothesis. And hardly a good substitute for generating evidence that can actually be checked, unless science is to fall into a real dogmatic slumber.

Creative Commons License
This blog post 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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