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A Question of Faith: An Interview with Scientist Rupert Sheldrake

Rupert Sheldrake 2

A Question of Faith: An Interview with Scientist Rupert Sheldrake
by Greta Jankauskaite

Buddhism has always engaged the traditions of the cultures it has come into contact with, and spoken through them. In the case of Western Buddhism, much of this engagement has been through science. Dharma in the West has seen the refashioning of the Buddha and his doctrine in terms of scientific and therapeutic principles as a “science of mind.” But while Buddhism is immediately recognizable as a belief system with its own distinctive axioms, the current ideological premises of science are rarely cast in the same light.

Scientist Rupert Sheldrake has dedicated his latest book, Science Set Free, to questioning unexamined assumptions that go hand-in-hand with science. Sheldrake distinguishes the method of scientific inquiry from the materialist worldview with which it is often conflated. Unlike most religious believers, people who put their faith in scientific materialism are often unaware that their beliefs are just that—a matter of faith.

As an undergraduate in biochemistry at Cambridge University, where he later received his doctorate, Rupert Sheldrake was awarded a fellowship to study the philosophy and history of science at Harvard at around the same time that Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) was published. Unlike scientific idealists of the past, Kuhn figured the vicissitudes of history, ideology, and power as playing a central role in the development of science. Sheldrake continues in Kuhn’s tradition. “One of my main concerns,” Sheldrake says, “is the opening up of science.” Such an opening up would likely lead to a more fruitful engagement between science and religion in which, through mutual challenge and shared exploration, they might enrich and alter one another.

Tricycle’s Alex Caring-Lobel initiated the following email correspondence with Sheldrake in early March.

You write that science is properly a method of inquiry but that it has developed into a philosophical system, the assumptions of which often go unexamined by those who subscribe to them. Could you say more about that?At the creative heart of science is a spirit of open-minded inquiry. Ideally, science is a process, not a position or a belief system. Innovative science happens when scientists feel free to ask new questions and build new theories.

In his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the historian of science Thomas Kuhn argued that in periods of “normal” science, most scientists share a model of reality and a way of asking questions, which he called a paradigm. The ruling paradigm defines what kinds of questions scientists can ask and how they can be answered. Kuhn helped focus attention on the social aspect of science and reminded us that science is a collective activity. Scientists are subject to all the usual constraints of human social life, including peer group pressure and the need to conform to the norms of the group. Kuhn’s arguments were largely based on the history of science, but sociologists of science have taken his insights further by studying science as it is actually practiced, looking at the ways that scientists build up networks of support, use resources and results to increase their power and influence, and compete for funding, prestige, and recognition.

The ideal of free inquiry portrays scientists as open-minded seekers of truth, not ordinary people competing for funds and prestige, constrained by peer group pressures and hemmed in by prejudices and taboos. Yet naive as it is, I take this ideal of free inquiry seriously.

How did we find our way from open inquiry to an ideologically driven approach?Materialist philosophy achieved its dominance within institutional science in the second half of the 19th century, and it was closely linked to the rise of atheism in Europe. Atheists of the 21st Century, like their predecessors, take the doctrines of materialism to be established scientific facts, not just assumptions.

Since its beginnings in 17th-century Europe, mechanistic science has spread worldwide through European empires and European ideologies like Marxism, socialism, and free-market capitalism. It has touched the lives of billions of people through economic and technological development. The evangelists of science and technology have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the missionaries of Christianity. Never before has any system of ideas dominated all humanity. Yet despite these overwhelming successes, science still carries the ideological baggage inherited from its European past, from the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, and then between atheists and Christians. Scientists emerged as the priesthood of progress.

In France, Louis Pasteur (1822–95) was an influential proponent of science as a truth-finding religion, with laboratories like temples through which mankind would be elevated to its highest potential: “Take interest, I beseech you, in those sacred institutions which we designate under the expressive name of laboratories. Demand that they be multiplied and adorned; they are the temples of wealth and of the future.”

By the end of the 19th century, many influential physicists believed that science understood almost everything, in principle. Such was the fantasy of scientific omniscience. In 1888, the Canadian-American astronomer Simon Newcomb is said to have written, “We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.” In 1894, Albert Michelson, later to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, declared, “The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote … Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” And in 1900, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, the physicist and inventor of intercontinental telegraphy, expressed this supreme confidence in an often-quoted (perhaps apocryphal) claim: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” But only a few years later, along came the quantum and relativity revolutions, and then the big bang cosmology, all of which have transformed the foundation of the physical sciences.

The spirit of inquiry has continually liberated scientific thinking from unnecessary limitations, whether imposed from within or without. I am convinced that the sciences, for all their successes, are being stifled by outmoded beliefs.

You observe that materialist beliefs of science are taken for granted by those who subscribe to it as a total system. Would you explain this? Materialism is the theory that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality; consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain; matter is unconscious; evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

These beliefs are powerful, not because most scientists think about them critically, but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough, and so are the techniques that scientists use, and so are the technologies based on them. But the belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in 19th-century ideology.

Many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption; they simply think of it as science, or the scientific view of reality, or the scientific worldview. They are not actually taught about it, or given a chance to discuss it. They absorb it by a kind of intellectual osmosis.

What is the relationship between the many successes of science and what you see as the current situation of its inflated and unfulfilled promises? Materialism provided a seemingly simple, straightforward worldview in the late 19th century, but 21st-century science has left it far behind. Its promises have not been fulfilled, and its promissory notes have been devalued by hyperinflation.

The “scientific worldview” is immensely influential because the sciences have been so successful. No one can fail to be awed by their achievements, which touch all our lives through technologies and through modern medicine. Our intellectual world has been transformed through an immense expansion of our knowledge, down into the most microscopic particles of matter and out into the vastness of space, with hundreds of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe.
Yet although science and technology seem to be at the peak of their power, when their influence has spread all over the world and when their triumph seems indisputable, unexpected problems are disrupting the sciences from within. Most scientists take it for granted that these problems will eventually be solved by more research along established lines, but some, including myself, think that they are symptoms of a deeper malaise.

The fundamental materialist proposition that matter is the only reality leads to a treatment of consciousness as nothing but brain activity. It is either like a shadow, an epiphenomenon, that does nothing, or it is just another way of talking about brain activity. However, among contemporary researchers in neuroscience and consciousness studies there is no consensus about the nature of mind. The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the “hard problem.” It is hard because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experienceof redness is not accounted for.

There is a general recognition that we know very little about consciousness in scientific terms. But materialism promises that this will eventually be understood through a greater knowledge of brain function and neuroscience. Hence the enormous prestige of the neurosciences today. Certainly the brain and its activities are immensely complex, and there’s a huge amount we don’t know. Much can be discovered about the relations between mind and brain through brain scans and brain physiology. For example, the activity in different regions of the brain during meditation, or dreaming, or verbal understanding, can be mapped and described scientifically. But this does not explain the ultimate meaning or relevance of these experiences.

I was once discussing this with a neuroscientist who said, “Now that we have found which parts of the brain are activated in meditation, it shows that these conscious states are caused by nothing but the physiology of particular parts of the brain.” We were outdoors, facing a beautiful tree. So I said to him, “I’m sure that as we look at that tree there are characteristic patterns of activity occurring in our brains, which could be scanned, mapped, and described scientifically. But that doesn’t prove that the tree is only inside our heads and corresponds to nothing beyond. In a similar way, brain activity during meditative experience does not prove that the consciousness experienced in that state is entirely confined to the inside of the head and bears no relation to anything outside it.” He admitted that this might be the case.

You’ve stated that it’s impossible to be a consistent materialist. How so? Materialism alienates us from our own experience, from the rest of the natural world, and from each other, because it claims our minds are nothing but the activity of our brains isolated in the privacy of our skulls. Yet our scientific knowledge is inexplicable from this point of view. If our brains simply make us think what we think and we have no freedom, as materialists proclaim, then materialism itself is a necessary consequence of the brain activity of materialists. Their brains make them believe it. But they would like to think that their beliefs are based on science—reason and evidence—which would require their minds to have a freedom and independence from physical causation that the theory itself denies. In practice, most materialists adopt their beliefs during working hours when challenged, but when they get home in the evening they revert to being normal people, assuming that they have true freedom of choice and feelings and thoughts that are not mere by-products of their brains.

I myself absorbed a materialist worldview along with my scientific education, and it took me a long time to see how limiting this was. It did indeed alienate me from my own experience, which I had to think of as purely subjective and therefore unscientific, except insofar as it could be explained in terms of the brain and hormones. Stage by stage, I came to see that a more holistic view of nature is both a better foundation for the sciences and for the integration of one’s own experience with scientific knowledge.

What is reductionism, and what role does it play in materialist science?Reductionism is the attempt to reduce phenomena to smaller parts and less complex interactions. Thus human society is reduced to individual psychology, individual psychology to brain function, brain function to nerve impulses and the chemistry of nerve endings; the nerve cells to molecular biology, molecules to atoms, and eventually atoms to subatomic particles. The problem is that at every level of reduction the wholeness that is more than the sum of the parts is destroyed. It’s a bit like trying to understand a functioning computer by grinding it up and analyzing the chemistry of its components. This would tell you facts about the silicon, copper, and other elements involved in its structure, but it would destroy the architecture of the circuits on which its functioning depends. Or if the physiology of the computer was studied by measuring electrical impulses moving through different parts of the hardware, this would give a true description of some of its electrical aspects and of the currents that flow through it, but would reveal nothing about the programs that direct its activity or the purposes those programs serve. Reductionism inevitably misses almost everything of interest about systems that concern us in everyday life and ignores most of the activity of our minds entirely. A more holistic science admits the emergence of new properties at different levels of organization and sees the universe made up of a nested hierarchy, or holarchy, of wholes: organelles within cells, within tissues, within organisms, within societies, within ecosystems, within Gaia, within the solar system, within the galaxy, and so on. All of these defy reduction to the properties of their parts. And human meanings, values, and purposes can only be understood in the context of human societies, traditions, philosophies, religions, and experiences.

Reductionism aside, what is unique about scientific knowledge? All scientific methods have in common the ideal of objectivity, or at least potential agreement between different observers. A taboo against subjectivity has meant that some of the more interesting states of consciousness, as revealed through meditation, for example, have been ignored by scientists until recently. Everyone agrees that the brain states of meditators can be investigated scientifically, and even that reports of their experience can be classified and compared, but the interpretation of this experience lies beyond materialist science. Materialism sees all conscious experience as epiphenomenal to physical processes, or just as another way of talking about them. But a nonmaterialist kind of science does not need to make this assumption. It would include the effects of prayer and meditation on health and longevity, and in counteracting depression. There is already good evidence for their beneficial effects. A nonmaterialist science might also have something to say about the effects of rituals, which through the repetition of mantra, ritual gestures and actions, chanting, and other traditional practices may bring the participants in the ritual into resonance with those who have done it before. I think we have only just begun to explore the possible interfaces between the sciences and religious traditions.

When a spiritual practice is divorced from its religious context and placed in a scientific one, might the practice being studied or the way it is experienced become altered? Any kind of science involves taking things out of their context. This is true of experimental research on animal behavior, the growth of plants in controlled environments, bacteria in test tubes, and so on. Every one of these procedures alters what is being studied. The same would be true of research on contemplative or yogic practices. But insofar as these practices are acquired skills, it should be possible to test them even under artificial conditions. If the generation of heat in tumo practitioners is a purely physiological effect under voluntary control, then it need not necessarily happen on a Himalayan mountainside, but could also happen in a walk-in fridge, even though the environment might be rather off-putting to the practitioner. So I don’t see the problem of investigating these abilities as being specific to spiritual practices; it’s one of the problems with any scientific experiment. In spite of abstracting from normal contexts and backgrounds, many experiments work and give illuminating results. I think the same could be true here.

Science shares many of the same problems that burden religion, such as blind faith, self-righteousness, and intolerance. Though science goes to great lengths to distance itself from religion, the two seem to suffer from similar afflictions.The difference between people with scientific beliefs and those with religious beliefs is that most religious believers are aware that their position is based on faith and that believers in other religions, or even different sects of the same religion, have different beliefs. People who put their faith in scientific materialism are often unaware that their beliefs are beliefs at all. They usually think of them as the truth. One of the common ways in which this attitude is expressed is in phrases like “People used to believe X, but we now know…”

Scientific fundamentalism mirrors religious fundamentalism in distressingly many ways. But there is no need for science to be fundamentalist any more than there is a need for religions to be fundamentalist. Fundamentalism springs from a desire for certainty, but many religious people and many scientists know that this cannot be achieved by beings with limited minds and experience such as ourselves.

Alex Caring-Lobel is Tricycle’s editorial assistant.

Photograph by Stuart Conway.

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