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.
Scientific delusions, or delusions about science? (Part four: on natural laws and resonating habits)
In the previous post on Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion, I noted that the overall argument is based on a number of misrepresentations and stereotypes of what “science” is up to. The reader gets the impression of a monolithic structure, big-S-“Science”, now dominated by Ten Dogmas, like commandments cut in stone tablets. The history of science has, of course, been rather more complicated. Several of the dogmas do not even correspond well with the actual theories that are pursued today: at best they represent a pointed caricature, at worst, they build on stereotypes crafted about a century or longer ago, that hardly have any relevance for contemporary scientific practice. Even to the extent that some of the “dogmas” refer to presently widespread theoretical or methodological conventions, holding these to be fixed dogmas obscures the fact that they are the outcome of long and sometimes complicated historical developments, both internal and external to science. In short: that x is a widely held belief does not make x a “dogma”; that y is a commonly recommended way of pursuing a task does not make y a dogmatic procedure.
As promised in the previous post, I will go through the ten dogmas one by one to demonstrate some of these points. In the present one we shall focus on the first two, which have to do with questions about mechanism, vitalism, scientific method, materialism, and the problems of defining “consciousness”. We will visit some historical backgrounds and parallels to Sheldrake’s criticism of science, and test his claim that science has closed certain questions “dogmatically”, by holding them up against the actual historical developments of some of the special sciences. Without further ado, here goes dogma #1:
In 2009 a fat and promising book landed on my desk, fresh from the publisher. I had looked forward to it for a while, as the topic was highly relevant for my dissertation, and this was the first full-length academic study ever to look at it. It was furthermore written by an author whose articles on the same topic I had been following for a while, with great interest. The book was Heather Wolffram’s Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870-1939. I was going to write a book review for Aries, which I did. It only appeared this spring, however. Since it is already three years ago that the book was published, I think it is about time to share the review with a broader community. So please find the pre-publication version of the review below.
Following up the previous post about Weber’s notion of disenchantment, and its normative implications, this second part of the installment provides some snapshots of episodes in the early 20th century – that is, of Weber’s contemporaries – which all seem to be in conflict with the disenchanted perspective of science. We start by considering some episodes in physics, then move on to the life sciences, before ending with some remarks on the controversial borderland which is psychical research.