Does the sun have feelings? Is the speed of light slowing down? Author Rupert Sheldrake puts accepted scientific dogmas under the microscope and finds that they’re actually controversial beliefs.
This text is an abbreviated transcript of a talk by Rupert Sheldrake at the Legatum Institute on 5 July 2012. The talk was part of LI's Salon Series
The science delusion is the belief that science already knows the answers in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in. It’s a widespread belief and I think it’s deeply wrong. I think there’s a crisis in science at the moment because there’s a tension between science as a method of enquiry and investigation, and science as a belief system or world view. For many people science has become a world view. This is nowhere better shown than in the work of Richard Dawkins; his book The God Delusion puts forward the materialist world view as truth, and for him, it’s a matter of deep faith. A lot of people who follow that line of thinking take the view that other people have beliefs—religion, new agers and what not, they have beliefs—but, by contrast, they, the people who believe in science, know the truth. But it’s not really the truth, it’s a belief system, and it’s a materialist belief system that doesn’t have to be at the heart of science.
My book, The Science Delusion, takes the ten central dogmas of science and turns them into questions, looking at them scientifically to see how well they hold up. When you do that, the whole thing opens up and all sorts of new science become possible, new investigations, new lines of enquiry, innovative research, and some of it may well have practical implications.
The ten beliefs I want to question are:
- The world is mechanical or machine like
- Matter is unconscious
- The laws of nature are fixed
- The total amount of matter and energy is always the same
- Nature is purposeless
- Biological hereditary is material. It’s all in the genes or in epigenetic modifications or in cytoplasmic inheritance but essentially, it’s material
- Memories are stored as material traces in brains
- The mind is in the brain. Mental activity is brain activity and it’s all inside the head
- Psychic phenomena are illusionary; if the mind’s in the brain your thoughts and intentions can’t possibly have effects at a distance
- Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works. And that’s why the British Medical Research Council spends its annual budget of £1 billion exclusively on mechanistic science.
These beliefs have huge consequences in the funding of research, the way science is taught, and the world view that we bring up our children on. The same science is taught to students in India, China, Africa, South America,
"What I’m going to argue is that every one of these assumptions, when turned into a question, reveals that it’s not a truth at all."
everywhere—they’re all taught it as if it’s the truth. And, science has been very successful, the huge prestige of science mostly born from its successful application in technology; all of us are impressed by iPhones, television, jet planes, modern surgery—we all depend on these technologies. It is indeed very impressive, but what I’m going to argue is that every one of these assumptions, when turned into a question, reveals that it’s not a truth at all. At best it’s a controversial belief.
Is the world mechanical?
The idea that nature is mechanical or machine like is the foundation of mechanistic sciences and the basis of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century. People in the Middle Ages in Europe believed that nature was organic; the whole world was like an organism. According to Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas in the twelfth century, animals and plants, and all living things had souls. The word animal is derived from the Latin anima—soul. That’s what people believed in medieval Europe—it was a living world, an animistic world with a living God.
The seventeenth-century scientific revolution was revolutionary precisely because it denied that view. It said the world is a machine, like clockwork: animals and plants are machines; there are no souls and no purposes in any living organism. The realm of consciousness and spirit was confined to humans, angels and God. Everything else became inanimate, unconscious machinery. This fitted very well with the beginning of an industrial age, as well as freeing science from religion; religion was put in a separate compartment and the whole of nature and the inanimate universe was given to science. The questions of morality became the domain of religion. The founding fathers of science, devout Christians, thought by taking the purpose and design out of nature and putting them in God, the divine engineer, they were enhancing God’s power and prestige. An extreme dualism was created between God and nature, humanity and other animals, considered to be unconscious machines (the basis of factory farming and agribusiness is this way of thinking). This is still the view on which today’s science is founded.
The Big Bang theory, which became orthodox in 1966, gives us a picture of the universe that’s totally unlike a machine: it started very small, less than the size of a pinhead, and it’s been growing and expanding ever since. It’s more like a developing organism, an embryo, and the Big Bang is like the hatching of a cosmic egg. So there’s nothing in this new cosmology that compels us to say nature is mechanical, it’s just a metaphor. It’s a useful metaphor, but we can adopt other metaphors, like the organism, if we want to. The machine metaphor is not proved, it’s not a fact, it’s just a way of looking at things that’s rather limiting in many ways, especially in relation to living organisms and people.
Is matter unconscious?
By the nineteenth century, the materialists said that matter is the only reality. Therefore consciousness is nothing but brain activity. But the problem with materialism is it can’t explain consciousness. To say that consciousness is an illusion doesn’t explain consciousness because an illusion itself is a mode of consciousness—it pre-supposes consciousness.
The problem with materialism is it can’t explain consciousness
It’s an untenable position yet it’s held by most academic philosophers and neuroscientists admired in the English-speaking world. By contrast, Alfred North Whitehead, one of the most important philosophers of the last century, argued that everything had a mind-like aspect, even an electron. Electrons have feelings, Whitehead said, and their feelings are expressed in the way they’re attracted or repelled by things and, in a sense, they have a primitive kind of emotion.
What was so interesting about Whitehead’s view and his philosophy of mind was the physical relationship between the mental and the physical. The usual view is that the mind is the “inside” and the outer world is the “outside”. It’s a spatial metaphor. He believed the relationship was in time. That the “mental” of all things was to do with the future, with possibilities, with choices of possibilities, and the “physical” is what happens when you make the choice, it becomes a fact, but then, the fact is in the past. We’re all in this room now—that is fact. There was a time in the past when we hadn’t decided to come; we could have done lots of other things this evening. When we were thinking about coming, it was in the future, the “mental”. But we made a decision to come and here we are, it is now an observable fact, the “physical”, but it is now in the past in the sense that we’ve been here a while and it can observed and photographed and so on.
This interplay between the future and decisions is similar to the way electrons work. They have something called the Schrodinger wave function, which determines all the possible things an electron could do. As soon as it interacts with something, one of these possibilities, and only one, is realized. This is sometimes called “the collapse of the wave function”—all these possibilities collapse into an observable fact and then a whole new set of futures open up. So this interplay of mental and physical is really the interplay of future possibilities and observable events, which are soon past.
Why shouldn’t the sun think?
This may seem a little abstract and talking about the consciousness of electrons is a stretch, but personally I think if we’re going to start thinking about the mental aspects of physical things then it’s more interesting to think about big things than small things. The sun, for example, is a self-organising system with a body full of complex electromagnetic patterns, more complex than those in our brains. Why shouldn’t the sun think? Why shouldn’t the sun be conscious?
"The dogma that the sun and all other material bodies are unconscious is simply a dogma and when you question it, the question opens up a whole new way of thinking."
That’s what all traditional cultures have always believed. It’s what children think—they draw the sun with a smiley face. We have been taught to think that it’s a completely childish view and only primitive savages think like that, or children, who haven’t had a scientific education. But do we now know? It’s a taboo topic within science; it’s not on the agenda. We don’t know that the whole universe is unconscious and has no mental activity, we simply assume it because in the seventeenth century it got embedded as an entrenched dogma in the core beliefs of science and it’s become unchallengeable. But in fact the consciousness of the sun is an open question. The dogma that the sun and all other material bodies are unconscious is simply a dogma and when you question it, the question opens up a whole new way of thinking.
Are the laws of nature fixed?
I think the whole idea of laws of nature is inappropriate. In the seventeenth century it made sense: God was the cosmic emperor and was all-powerful, like a cosmic law enforcement agency. But in the present day, where many scientists are atheists, the idea of the laws of nature is an extremely anthropomorphic hangover from seventeenth-century theology.
This belief in fixed laws is linked to a belief in fixed constants, supposed to have been fixed exactly at the moment of the Big Bang—but are they really constant? The fundamental constants include the speed of light and the universal gravitational constant, but if you look at the data you find some very surprising things. From 1928 to 1945, the speed of light dropped by 50 km per second. Then in 1945, it went up again. So what happened? I went to discuss this with the Dr Brian Petley, Head of Metrology at the National Physical Laboratory. I showed him the data and he said to me, “Well I’m afraid you’ve uncovered one of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of our subject.”
“Well what do you think?” I asked. “Could the speed of light really have dropped by 50 km per second between 1928 and 1945? And, if so, what does that tell us about the universe if the speed of light can vary?”
“Of course it can’t vary,” he said.
“It’s a constant.”
“Well then how do you explain everyone getting these much lower values? Were they just fudging the results until they got what they thought everyone else expected?”
“We don’t like to use that word. We don’t say ‘fudging’.”
“What do you say?”
“We prefer to call it ‘intellectual phase-locking’.”
“Well, can this embarrassment continue?”
“No, it can’t happen again.”
“We fixed the speed of light by definition in 1972.”
“But what if it really varies?”
“We’d never know because we redefined the meter in terms of the speed of light so the units of measurement would change with it.”
“What about the gravitational constant?” I asked.
“Well that’s more of a problem.”
And, indeed it’s continued to be one. Big G, the universal gravitational constant, in the last 20 years has varied by more than 1.3% in different labs round the world. They always attribute the fluctuations to errors; they average the values so you get all these widely varying figures, discarding any values that seem too discrepant. Then they average the values from different labs all round the world, discarding labs they think might be unreliable, and arrive at the new figure of the universal gravitational constant. As I left Dr Petley’s office he said, “Oh before you go you may like these,” and he reached down in a box by his desk, took out a pamphlet and handed it to me. “The latest values of the physical constant,” he said.
Is the total amount of matter and energy always the same?
The total amount of matter and energy seems like one of the most fundamental truths. As it turns out, it’s the shakiest of them all and the one with the biggest implications. The reason for thinking the total amount of matter in energy is always the same is not based on very accurate measurements rather it’s philosophical and theological. In the Ancient Greek world different philosophers had different theories of reality; they thought reality was eternal.
"The reason for thinking the total amount of matter in energy is always the same is not based on very accurate measurements rather it’s philosophical and theological."
The Pythagoreans thought it was eternal maths, the Platonists thought it was eternal forms or ideas beyond space and time, and the Materialists or Atomists said it was eternal matter. Matter was made up of lots of little bits, the atoms, which didn’t change and were therefore constant in number and implicitly the total amount of matter was always the same. When materialism was revived in the seventeenth century and atomism was incorporated into the foundations of science, the idea that the total amount of matter is always the same was just accepted as a given. The idea that the total amount of movement, energy or change is the same came from the seventeenth-century theology that God created the universe and impelled it in motion at the beginning, and the total amount of motion or movement or change was therefore constant because it was God-given and eternal.
Now physicists have no qualms about breaking these laws. We may treat them with great reverence, but in the 1980s it turned out that galaxies were attracting each other far more than they should be, and stars were going round galaxies in orbits that couldn’t be explained by the total amount of matter in the galaxy. What do you do in that circumstance? Well, you make sure that the equations work by adding in extra matter that’s not actually there or observable to make the equations balance—dark matter. So dark matter was invented or hypothesized to balance the equations, as much as you need to make the equations work. With no independent evidence we still haven’t a clue what it is, but the current estimate is there is about five times as much dark matter as regular matter. When they added in all this extra matter, it meant the universe had more gravitation and that meant its expansion should be slowed by the inward pull of all this extra matter. People predicted it would slow down, stop and then begin to contract until everything ended in the opposite to the Big Bang, known in the trade as the Big Crunch. But observations in the 1990s showed that the universe wasn’t slowing down, it was speeding up, the distant galaxies were accelerating faster than they should have been and they weren’t slowing down at all.
So how do you explain that? You invent something else, dark energy, which is pushing the universe apart; the further it pushes the more dark energy. The universe is now a perpetual motion machine and the total amount of dark matter and dark energy now makes up more than 96% of reality. Well, does it really exist? What is it? Nobody knows and so physicists have in fact created more than 20 times more matter and energy than anyone knew about in the 1970s, without anyone suggesting that it disobeys these laws.
The Genome Project
The genome project was supposed to tell us everything about the nature of human nature in terms of molecules and it’s been a tremendous disappointment. The first shock was that instead of 100,000 genes we only have about 24,000—sea urchins have about 28,000, fruit flies 17,000, rice plants 38,000. If you measure people’s height with tape measures you can predict their children’s height on the basis of the parents’ height with an accuracy of about 80%. If you do it with 30,000 genomes of different people on a billion-dollar budget you can do so with an accuracy of 5%. The gap between the genetic prediction and the heritability, observed with tape measures, this 75% gap is called the missing heritability problem.
An open-minded funding system could transform the scientific world
What would happen if there was another source of science funding? There are a lot of interesting questions that could be addressed within science that simply are not being addressed because the whole structure makes it impossible to do it, largely due to the bureaucratic nature of government funding agencies and also the short horizons of business investment. If there were an open-minded funding system it could transform the scientific world, transform our view of nature, and make a huge difference on a relatively small budget. Imagine, for example, a privately-funded Foundation for Innovative Sciences and Technologies (FIST). The way science is run now is rather like in the Soviet Union, through a top-down centralised-control system. What we really need is plurality of funding bodies instead of state monopolies. So my question to you is: do you think such a thing is feasible?