Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Delusion — Part 2: Delusions of DogmaOctober 27, 2012
If you haven’t read Part One, please do that first, because you’ll get a summing up of the whole thing in the first few paragraphs and you might decide Sheldrake has made such a mess of it that it’s not even worth bothering to read on!
Rupert Sheldrake, as we saw in Part One, claims that modern science is based on ten dogmas. Further, he claims these dogmas force scientists to exclude all evidence for spiritual phenomena regardless of merit. But before diving back into the list where we left off in Part One, I want to point out two more disastrous flaws in Sheldrake’s argument.
One is that it’s not just spiritual ideas that science has discarded over the last few centuries. A massive number of hypotheses that would perfectly fit into what Sheldrake sees as science’s “mechanistic dogma” have also been discarded. Why? Because they didn’t work. But why does Sheldrake think these mechanistic theories were discarded, if the only standard for proof he sees operating is adherence to a mechanistic dogma?
Obviously, if he will allow that strict and fair rules of evidence were applied to mechanistic theories, then why would these suddenly be suspended on ideological grounds for spiritual ideas? Such behavior would leave a very clear paper trail, wouldn’t it, Dr Sheldrake. Where is it, and why didn’t you discuss that in this lecture?
A second problem — even more immediate — is that he has failed to discuss real life scenarios where scientific “dogma” was seriously challenged. How do scientists react in such a case? Consider the neurtrino incident. The sequence of events is recounted here in a few newspaper headlines:
- Speed of light ‘broken’: life changing scientific discoveries
The science world has been left in shock after it was announced that CERN scientists had recorded subatomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light in a finding that could overturn fundamental law of physics.
- Those faster-than-light neutrinos. Four things to think about
Having read the paper, seen the seminar and watched the excitement over evidence from the Opera experiment that neutrinos violate the speed limit of the universe, here are four things to ponder.
- Neutrinos Faster than Light? –“No, They Don’t Break the Universe’s Speed Limit” –CERN
- Neutrino ‘faster than light’ scientist resigns
According to Sheldrake, the reporting scientists would simply be ignored or openly chastised for daring to question the dogma. Or the anomaly would have been ignored by the discoverers themselves, either through dogmatic blindness or fear of God, as Sheldrake argues below. But that’s not what happened, and Sheldrake does not discuss this incident.
But now back to Sheldrake’s list of ten dogmas that he accuses all scientists of slavishly following. (Link to video of Sheldrake’s lecture: The Science Delusion.)
The laws of nature are fixed and have been since the time of the Big Bang.
Sheldrake has a rather bizarre take on this. He starts off by pretending that it’s a mystery for scientists why the universe possesses exactly the right laws and conditions for life to come about. As is often pointed out at this point in such discussions, Sheldrake has clearly failed to notice that large areas of the universe — really very very large areas, in fact — are not at all conducive to human life. Do you remember, Dr Sheldrake, how the astronauts who landed on the moon were wearing those snazzy space suits? Just why do you think that might have been? Did you notice that the capsule they traveled in did not have a retractable sunroof?
This surprisingly popular argument that the universe must have been carefully fine tuned for humans 14 billion years ago is called the Anthropic Principle. Personally, I prefer the Blue-Footed Booby Principle, which states that the universe was fine-tuned to make it the perfect place for these incredibly cool creatures to live.
I ask you, which is more likely: that God is a hip cool dude who digs stuff like birds with blue feet, or that he wanted to create a place where flabby humans could sit around watching telly for a while before choking to death on a bit of cheeseburger that went down the wrong pipe?
But why are we even discussing the Anthropic Principle? So that Sheldrake can tell us we can stop discussing it now. We can also stop discussing the idea of multiple universes because, he claims, a physicist privately admitted to him that it was only dreamed up “to get rid of God.” Ah, that’s what those fuzzy haired old physicists have been up to. Elaborately skewing their equations to disprove God. And building The Bomb and the Hubble Telescope was just a side job, I guess.
With a wave of the hand, all the advancements of modern science are erased from the blackboard, and the world’s greatest scientists with all their scatty research programs are dismissed for the day. Dr Sheldrake will be taking over. New thought forms are to follow. We can get rid of all those rigid inflexible laws and constants, because….
In an evolutionary universe, why shouldn’t the laws evolve?
But then again, Dr Sheldrake, why the hell should they? You were the one who threw out the old dogma! You need to be able to replace it with something a little more useful than idle speculation with nothing to back it up!
Sheldrake here is cashing in on two senses of the word evolve. But when physicists say the universe evolved, they are not talking about natural selection with genetic inheritance. Same word; two meanings. Rupert hasn’t noticed, and neither have you, okay?
I think they do evolve. In fact I think they’re more like habits.
……..Um, that wouldn’t be an assumption without a shred of evidence would it, by any chance Dr Sheldrake?
I think there’s a kind of memory in nature. That’s my theory of morphic resonance.
He doesn’t want to spend too much time talking about his dogma of- excuse me, – his theory of morphic resonance, but for the uninitiated, it’s the idea that ideas or actions leave an imprint on a hypothetical psychic field, where they can be picked up by others who resonate with it. It’s “in the air” so to speak, and can become contagious. Soon everyone will be doing the new thing whether or not they have encountered the idea through the five senses.
As commenter @lettersquash dryly pointed out here a while ago, it’s funny how that theory never really caught on…..
But Sheldrake doesn’t want to promote his own theory today. He just mentioned it because it doesn’t have anything to do with the topic at hand. So he starts talking about how different offices in charge of defining weights and measures returned slightly varying values for the speed of light. Therefore the speed of light is not constant. And why don’t we hear more about this? Because of a scandalous cover up!
The speed of light was defined by and international committee in 1972 and they defined the [metric] meter in terms of that. So if the speed of light varies, the meter will vary too. So it’s now a closed system.
Even worse than that, “wild fluctuations” in the gravitational constant have been measured all around the world. Physicists simply mash all the numbers together and publish the average, in order to maintain the dogma.
Yes he is really arguing that differing measurements mean that the true values themselves must also vary. (This is around the 42 minute mark in the video.) I doubt that any reader is waiting with bated breath for me to explain why that is stupid. Unfortunately, exactly HOW stupid it is, is beyond my grasp of the relevant physics, so I will say no more.
Nature is purposeless
As always, Sheldrake insists that this dogma originates from that magic moment in the 17th Century.
If we look at animals and humans, they clearly have purposes. If nature is purposeless, how come we have purposes?
Again — same word; two meanings; no big mystery. How can an animal have a purpose (like looking for food) if “purpose” itself was not already there in nature? As if purpose itself, (or consciousness itself) is a substance that needs to be present at all levels in ever smaller packages.
A spider is genetically programmed to spin its web. A program is a man-made computer program for a purpose.
And again, same word (program); two separate meanings. And incredibly bad logic.
All computer programs are consciously designed;
Genes can be called a program;
Therefore genes were designed.
Aristotle invented syllogistic logic 2500 years ago, but Sheldrake still hasn’t figured out how it works. But then again, maybe one day the laws governing it will evolve into a form where the above statement will make some sense.
Richard Dawkins’ selfish genes are just molecules. They can’t be selfish.
Out come the clown scientists on their wobbly bicycles again. Sheldrake’s audience laughs until he rescues the funny scientists and explains what the problem really is. It’s because nature makes no sense unless you see purpose and design in it. The scientists, he says, look funny because their dogma forces them to “smuggle purpose back into their theories” and then deny it. He thinks has caught out Dawkins as a “crypto-vitalist”.
As pointed out in the previous post,”selfishness” is being used here as a metaphor, and Sheldrake has unwittingly outed himself as someone who has neither read the book he is criticizing (The Selfish Gene), nor understood the basics of evolutionary theory.
And it is highly ironic and hypocritical of Sheldrake to poke fun at Dawkins for supposedly ascribing conscious will onto inanimate matter, isn’t it!
All biological inheritance is material. It’s in the genes or the DNA
Again, this turns out to be a tremendous assumption….It turns out that about 75% of heritability simply can’t be explained in terms of genes.
Ummm, what??? Sheldrake offers no evidence other than a cursory mention of epigenetics. So epigenetics suddenly accounts for 75% of heredity?
I have no idea why new agers are so opposed to genetic heredity in the first place. Enjoy it you idiots! It means you aren’t locked into repeating the mistakes of your parents! It means you came through your parents not from them, as Kahlil Gibran said. New agers are always trying to co-opt science, yet where it really does support some nice fluffy new age ideas, they run away! Strange people….
At this point Sheldrake starts skipping through the dogmas because he has suddenly realized he only has about 5 minutes left. Reading a clock also seems a bit of a challenge for him. He should have given himself about 5 minutes for each dogma. And given that he makes the same historical, logical and linguistic errors with each dogma, he should have had no trouble gliding through the material in an orderly manner.
Memories are stored inside the brain.
Yet attempts to find memories in brains have drawn a blank over and over and over again.
The philosopher Henri Bergson didn’t think that memories are stored in the brain. And, “of course that’s not even mentioned in regular biology.” What he forgot to mention is why on earth it should be. Dr Roopy, if Henri Bergson told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?
Minds are inside brains.
He fools around a bit with seeming paradoxes of perception, presents a dreadful oversimplification of the “official view” and then says it makes just as much sense to assume that our perceptions are actually “where they seem to be”, i.e. outside the body.
His view is that “our minds reach out to touch what we’re looking at”. Okay, but this is all highly speculative and rather shallow philosophizing, and you wanted to talk about science. So, how would science be improved by using this assumption? He doesn’t say. He does mention some badly designed research he’s done in this area though.
Psychic phenomena are illusory.
Well he might have something here. I remember reading that the American Society for Psychic Research was set up in 1882 to empirically verify the existence of psychic phenomena. Maybe they’ve come up with something by now, after 130 years of research? ….Umm….Nope! But don’t expect Sheldrake to tell you that.
Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
This isn’t a public lecture on science, it’s a blatant act of trolling. Tacking such a foggy and generalized broadside on at the end is a disgraceful piece of tabloid populism.
He argues that the placebo effect could not work if the mind is “no more than the brain”. He doesn’t understand the placebo effect, and instead of googling it, he argues that it should be recognized as a legitimate part of medical practice.
Fine with me — as long as “doing nothing” is included as an official medical treatment. I’ll start a career as a do-nothinger, and charge for visits. I’ll get just as many cures as homeopathy, acupuncture, and all the other treatments that “heal through the placebo effect”.
Of course I’m being facetious, but that is how low Sheldrake has set the bar for the definition of medicine.
Sheldrake constructs a grotesque parody of science, and then removes all its achievements. He then ascribes a string of errors to it, and makes a total hash of criticizing these straw-man errors. His ideas however do have value, in that they can be used as a form of self diagnosis for anyone wondering if they are scientifically educated. If you find yourself nodding to any of his criticisms, you have some reading — and some shutting up — to do!
Bronze Dog has written three succinct blog posts closely related to issues raised by Sheldrake’s dualistic hyper-reductionist antics:
- Reductionism & Abstraction
- Substance Dualism and the Language Problem
- Substance Dualism and the Substance Problem
Seeing as Sheldrake spent so much in misinformed attacks on Dawkins, I’ll link add a link to clear up a couple of Sheldrake’s errors. This link goes to an online copy of Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins. Click on Chapter 2, (takes a while to load). As Dawkins explains:
The spider web is as good a candidate as I can think of for an interesting simulation of natural selection on a two-dimensional computer screen. The next chapter is largely devoted to the story of spider webs, beginning with the natural history of real webs and moving on to computer models of webs and their evolution by ‘natural’ selection in the computer.
I wonder if Sheldrake’s dumbass argument about spiders being designed because they’re “programmed” is based on a horrible misreading of that chapter.
From biologist and author Jerry Coyne’s (excellent) website, comes this article arguing the effects of epigenetics have been over-estimated. [Update 3 Dec 2012: I just noticed two other articles on Coyne’s site – this review of Sheldrake’s book, and this recent post.]
I linked to this excellent blog post already (in Dogma 9) but it’s worth putting it here too. Blogger Skeptico has compared the progress made by the American Society for Psychic Research since its foundation in 1882, with the progress made by science over the same period.
Also see the entry in the Skeptic’s Dictionary about Sheldrake, which notes:
In short, he prefers metaphysics to science, though he seems to think he can do the former but call it the latter.
Sheldrake has undertaken such a generalized, unfocused attack on the whole of science that any well written book or article on any aspect of science is likely to correct several of his misconceptions and errors. Readers — at least those who know WTF they are talking about — are invited to add recommended links in the comments. (Not too many in one comment because of the spam filter, and email me if your comment gets eaten.)