Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion — Part 1: Dogma & DenialOctober 21, 2012
Rupert Sheldrake recently published a book called The Science Delusion. It was accompanied by a public lecture tour of the same name, and this two part series of posts is based on one of these lectures.
As will be argued below, Sheldrake’s understanding of science is itself delusory. He grossly misrepresents the nature of modern science, and commits the very same errors he has accused science of making: defining things into and out of reality, dismissing evidence out of hand, and failing to question his own assumptions.
Sheldrake simply blanks out hundreds of years of the history of science, and completely ignores entire fields of scientific inquiry. Repeatedly, he presents the whole of modern science as if it is a minor and rather primitive branch of speculative philosophy, run by a cabal of cynical, incompetent and power-hungry priests.
He asserts that modern science is based on ten dogmas, all of which originated at a particular juncture in history several hundred years ago, and which have been blindly maintained ever since, without regard for evidence.
What his argument requires him to do, then, is to show that these dogmas:
a) really exist in modern science;
b) hinder scientific progress or skew research; and
c) show that his alternative would serve scientific advancement.
As will become clear below, he does the following instead:
a) fails to correctly identify the assumptions that science really uses;
b) ignores all research and all progress in all the sciences; and
c) simply demands the right to tinker philosophically with the theoretical foundations of science, without regard for evidence.
Sheldrake: The Ten Dogmas of Modern Science
Nature is essentially mechanical.
Sheldrake recalls the dualistic philosophy of Newton and Descartes, which “removed” God from the natural world. It is commonly accepted that this made it easier for materialistic approaches in philosophy and science to ignore God completely. Sheldrake asserts repeatedly that the entire theoretical foundation of modern science can be traced back to this point. In doing so, he disregards the entire history of scientific development from the 17th century onwards.
The history of neuroscience, for example, involved hundreds of years of vainly searching for the mechanism by which the soul interacts with the physical brain. The soul was not discarded out of hand as Sheldrake asserts. Rather, it was eventually discarded as a working concept because it played no useful role in scientific advancement. And neuroscience has progressed spectacularly without it.
The same holds for any other branch of science that Sheldrake might care to mention. In every single instance, scientific progress came from those who searched for natural rather than supernatural causes for natural phenomena. But Sheldrake doesn’t even mention any progress in science at all.
Scientists — real scientists, not those like Sheldrake who’d rather be amateur philosophers — are concerned with provisional working hypotheses, not absolute truths. They will use them as long as they facilitate progress. With each of his ten dogmas, Sheldrake misrepresents the way assumptions are used in science.
Now let’s have a closer look at what he claims is Dogma Number 1: that scientists see nature as essentially mechanical.
He is very explicit in arguing that scientists insert the metaphor of nature as a machine into all their observations and theorizing. This is probably because he’s misunderstood Richard Dawkins. He quotes Dawkins’ use of the term reproduction machines…. And Descartes also used the word machine! Snap!!! Dawkins must be using the same idea….
Not for the only time, Sheldrake fudges his definitions, concealing the fact that Dawkins was using the term as a metaphor, and as a completely different one from Descartes, at that. He was not claiming, as Sheldrake has it, that animals are simply machines. (Dawkins explains all this on page 1 of The Selfish Gene, and Sheldrake clearly hasn’t read it.)
Sheldrake then makes his misunderstanding even clearer. Having rejected science’s supposed metaphor of nature as a machine, he states:
“Organism” is a much better metaphor for living beings. In fact it’s not really a metaphor, it’s just saying what they are….
This is entirely stupid. First, he is confused about the difference between a metaphor and a description. Dumber still, he is claiming that modern biology does not see living beings as organisms!
There’s no reason why we should lock all our thinking to one metaphor, a metaphor that’s based on projecting our modern human obsession with machinery onto the whole of nature. It makes more sense to think of nature as organic, and organisms as organisms.
Anyone who thinks Sheldrake is onto to something with all this, is invited to open a biology text and start trying to find things that would need to be altered in the light of this “revelation”. Maybe Sheldrake’s next big idea will be that pubs could start selling alcohol to generate extra income.
But that was only the life sciences which Sheldrake has just revolutionized with his new improved assumption-cum-metaphor-cum-description. Now physics gets the renovation treatment:
….And even the whole universe is best thought of as an organism rather than a machine.
That’s quite an assertion to hang on there as an afterthought!
Just as he blanked out the entire history of the life sciences, he now dismisses the entire progress of physics with a wave of his hand. He will continue to do this at every opportunity for the rest of the lecture. Quite ironic, given that this is exactly what he has accused science of doing.
Do physicists see the universe as a machine? As far as I know they don’t, but I’m no physicist. I’ve certainly never gained that impression though. And his accusation that the whole of modern physics is founded on an unquestioned assumption “carried over from Descartes” seems to me to be plain stoopid.
All matter is unconscious.
This is another straw man, albeit a well dressed one in a tweed coat. Why would scientists believe such a negative assertion? There’s no need to. Okay, hypothetically atoms could indeed have some kind of consciousness, but they behave as if they don’t. So for the purposes of experimentation, there’s no need to even consider the possibility unless an anomaly appears.
But Sheldrake has scientists exerting themselves to believe that matter is unconscious, and then shows them comically hitting a wall like circus clowns:
But then we’ve got this terrible problem of how can our brains be conscious if matter is unconscious.
His line of argumentation reduces to a couple of atrociously bad syllogisms. He attributes the following position to scientists:
Matter is unconscious;
the brain is matter;
therefore the brain is unconscious.
He wants to replace it with:
the brain is conscious;
the brain is made of matter;
therefore matter is conscious.
I don’t think you need to be a philosophy graduate to see the problems with all that.
Then he goes into a lot of speculative philosophy on the question of whether or not consciousness can be said to exist. I am not going to discuss it though, because this lecture is supposed to be about science. Stick to the topic please Rupert!!!
The total amount of matter and energy is always the same. (Law of Conservation of matter and energy.)
Sheldrake says that even he accepted this until he started thinking about this book.
I questioned this because it’s clearly a dogma; it’s clearly an assumption…. And it’s one of the weakest.
Again he conflates dogma and assumption. And as I argued earlier, science doesn’t make assumptions in order to arbitrarily exclude ideas it doesn’t believe in. It uses assumptions in order to get started! Otherwise scientists would spend all their time sitting around wondering if the universe was just created a minute ago, or if they might be dreaming.
There’s a place for all that, but science has a job to do, and it does it very well. And Sheldrake ignores this completely.
Anyway, he now starts having a go at physicists, saying they too have simply carried over post-Cartesian dogma into their models of the universe. He reports getting some clumsy responses in private from a physicist about dark matter, and on the strength of that, accuses the world’s physicists of making the whole thing up just to make their clunky old “mechanistic” model of the universe work.
How seriously can you take the conservation of matter when people can simply invent or abolish all that extra matter?
This is a total misrepresentation of the science of physics. Physicists are not just sitting around idly speculating stuff in a vacuum and cashing in on sounding important. Again, Sheldrake treats physics as if it’s a minor field of speculative philosophy, with nothing to show for itself.
And what does Sheldrake offer in its place? — The speculation that atoms have a conscious will, that makes them want to clump together or run away from each other…….. in ways that just happen to exactly explain all the stuff that we can’t so far explain. That, of course, is exactly what he has just accused the world’s most brilliant scientists of doing.
Then Sheldrake jumps back to biology, because this is also a chance to talk about vitalism, the earlier scientific notion of a “life force”. He argues that Helmholtz tried to disprove it in the late 1800s, failed, but decided to define it out of reality anyway. At that point, biology ground to a self-satisfied halt and hasn’t moved on since.
Sheldrake mentions the work of Paul Webb in the 1970s, which he claims was ignored or suppressed because it contradicted scientific dogma. (Not because it was poorly designed or the results weak!) Woos are always arguing that there is impeccable scientific research that has been suppressed. Well the internet is here guys. Just put it on the Web for crying out loud!!!! …..And it had better be good.
Part Two is now up: Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion — Part 2: Delusions of Dogma