Rupert Sheldrake tells us in the preface to his book Set Science Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery that “I have written this book because I believe that the sciences will be more exciting and engaging when they move beyond the dogmas that restrict free inquiry and imprison imaginations.” To help the sciences make this move, Sheldrake spells out ten dogmas of modern science and gives, for each, a chapter that discusses its history, a critique and a way forward.
Before reviewing this book, a disclosure is in order. I had the pleasure of meeting Rupert at a conference in Vienna, and conducting two workshops with him at Esalen. Friendship and objectivity are often at odds. Readers of this review can apply an appropriate grain of salt.
The ten dogmas, in brief, are as follows: Everything is mechanical; all matter is unconscious; total matter and energy remain constant; the laws of nature are fixed; nature is purposeless; biological inheritance is material; mind is a product of brain; memory is stored as traces in the brain; parapsychological phenomena such as telepathy are illusory; and only mechanistic medicine works.
These are indeed principles that are widely, although in some cases not universally, presupposed in current scientific theory and practice. They provide a good set of themes for a review and critique of scientific assumptions.
For each dogma, Sheldrake gives a history of the evolution of philosophical and scientific ideas leading up to the dogma, punctuated with numerous quotes from key historical figures. Each history is engaging, thought provoking and easy to follow; the quotes are well chosen. These histories alone make the book a valuable resource, and worth the price of admission.
Sheldrake disagrees with each of the ten dogmas, and for each offers a vigorous critique. He summarizes his attitude as follows: “It is not anti-scientific to question established beliefs, but central to science itself. At the creative heart of science is a spirit of open-minded inquiry. Ideally, science is a process, not a position or belief system. Innovative science happens when scientists feel free to ask new questions and build new theories.” I agree with this statement, and so would most scientists. Advances in science spring not from deference to authority or received opinion, but from logic, simulation, experiment, and rigorous examination of assumptions. By critically examining deeply held assumptions within the sciences, Sheldrake is performing an important service.
The dogmas Sheldrake examines are wide ranging, as are his critiques. With some of his critiques I agree. For instance, Sheldrake argues that, “After almost four hundred years of mechanistic science, there has been almost no progress in understanding how the brain produces subjective experience, although many details have been discovered about the activities of different regions of the brain.” Cognitive neuroscientists have indeed done a great deal of research into the neural correlates of specific conscious experiences. For instance, activity in area V4 of visual cortex is correlated with the conscious experience of color; damage to this area, such as by stroke, is correlated with loss of the conscious experience of color. There are dozens of such examples that have been uncovered in first-rate and painstaking scientific investigations. However, no scientific theory has yet been proposed that can explain how the activity of neurons, either in isolation or in groups, can cause or give rise to conscious experiences. Not only are there no scientific theories, there are no remotely plausible ideas. Steven Pinker, for instance, asks in How the Mind Works how conscious experience could arise from brain activity, and responds “Beats the heck out of me. I have some prejudices, but no idea of how to begin to look for a defensible answer. And neither does anyone else. The computational theory of mind offers no insight; neither does any finding in neuroscience, once you clear up the usual confusion of sentience with access and self-knowledge.”
But with some of Sheldrake’s critiques, I disagree. For instance, in critiquing mechanistic models in science, he argues that, “Organisms are self-organizing; they form and maintain themselves, and have their own ends and goals. Machines, by contrast, are designed by an external mind; their parts are put together by external machine makers and they have no purposes or ends of their own.” It turns out, however, that machines can self replicate. The physicist John von Neumann was the first to show how machines can replicate themselves (see his Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata) and subsequent work has nicely extended von Neumann’s ideas (see, e.g., the textbook Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines). Moreover, machines can self organize. For instance, many self-organizing artificial neural networks have been devised (see, e.g., Pattern Recognition by Self-Organizing Neural Networks) and self-organization is a key feature in the field of artificial life (see the MIT Press journal Artificial Life). All of these self-organizing systems can be instantiated in computer programs, and thus are entirely mechanistic. And all, in the process of self-organizing and self-replicating, exhibit goal-oriented behaviors. Thus, if there is an important aspect of organisms that cannot be instantiated in machines, it appears that self-organization is not it. If Sheldrake thinks that these self-organizing machines miss something vital about self-organization in organisms, it would be most instructive to explain exactly what that is and why, in principle, no machine could bridge the gap. This would be an important critique of the mechanistic assumption.
In discussing how to move forward, Sheldrake proposes the concepts of morphic fields and resonance. A morphic field “is within and around the system it organizes, and is a vibratory pattern of activity that interacts with electromagnetic and quantum fields of the system.” These fields are “shaped by resonance from all similar past systems,” a resonance which “is not attenuated by space and time.” Sheldrake notes that he “leaves open the question of how morphic resonance actually works.” Fair enough: These concepts are still under development. In their current state they are, for me, not yet precise enough to know whether to agree or disagree. We need the equivalent for morphic fields and resonance of Maxwell’s equations for electromagnetic fields. Then precise predictions and tests will be possible. Until then, experiments that falsify a prediction of one of the ten dogmas do not ipso facto support morphic fields or resonance.
As this brief review might suggest, Set Science Free is an engrossing discussion and critique of some deeply held assumptions of modern science. Whether or not one agrees with its conclusions, the ideas are thought provoking, the examples engaging and the journey worthwhile.
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Donald D. Hoffman received his Ph.D. from MIT and since 1983 has been a professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Irvine. He is an author of more than 100 professional publications, including the book Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See. His research received a Distinguished Scientific Award of the American Psychological Association and the Troland Award of the US National Academy of Sciences.