the Rupert Sheldrake TEDx talk controversy

I’ve only just come across this story. Rupert Sheldrake had been invited to give a TEDx talk at the University of London as part of an event devoted specifically to “Challenging Existing Paradigms,” and then – as a result of complaints from P.Z. Myers and Jerry Coyne – TED thereupon removed the video from their YouTube channel, relegating it to a somewhat obscure corner of their site.

The video however (embedded below) was very popular, as was the original event itself, and an outcry erupted over this action. Finally the video was given its own page with a forum devoted to the issue and an extensive discussion ensued, the great majority of whose contributors have been supportive of Sheldrake and opposed to the TED response.

It’s a very interesting story which highlights crucial issues in science and the nature of truth today. I haven’t had the chance to think enough about Sheldrake’s main theoretical contribution of “morphic resonance,” which I don’t feel I properly understand. But what he has to say in the interviews I’ve read with him about unquestioned materialistic assumptions and reductionism are indisputably central critiques.

His scientific credentials are not in dispute (PhD in biochemistry from Cambridge), but his work is unsurprisingly dismissed as pseudoscience by much of the scientific establishment. Interestingly, he was able to spend some time at the ashram of the great Benedictine monk Dom Bede Griffiths in Tamil Nadu before Griffiths’ death in 1993, and in general it seems that his work very valuably attempts to integrate scientific attitudes and trans-scientific philosophy and practices.

How successfully he has achieved this is hard for me to say at this point. But I feel his efforts to publicize unquestioned, dogmatic attitudes within science, as in the talk below and his book Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery (The Science Delusion in the UK) are crucially important, and may well help spark a way forward out of materialism one day…

An interview with him about this controversy appears here. And for reference, I’ve transcribed from the talk above his ten dogmas of materialistic science, each of which he feels are highly questionable. Note: he is not simply claiming that the reverse of every one of these is true. Rather, his book turns these certainties into questions, and reflects on what new possibilities for inquiry might then be freed up as a result.

1) Nature is mechanical or machine-like. The universe is like a machine. Animals and plants are like machines. We’re like machines, in fact we are machines. We’re “lumbering robots,” in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are genetically programmed computers.

2) Matter is unconscious. The whole universe is made up of unconscious matter. There’s no consciousness in stars, in galaxies, in planets, in animals, in plants. And there ought not to be any in us either, if this theory is true. So a lot of the philosophy of mind over the last hundred years has been trying to prove that we’re not really conscious at all [laughter]. So matter’s unconscious.

3) The laws of nature are fixed. The laws of nature are the same now as they were at the time of the Big Bang, and they’ll be the same forever. Not just the laws but the constants of nature are fixed, which is why they are called constants.

4) The total amount of matter and energy is always the same. It never changes in total quantity except at the moment of the Big Bang, when it all sprang into existence from nowhere in a single instant.

5) Nature’s purposeless. There are no purposes in all nature, and the evolutionary process has no purpose or direction.

6) Biological heredity is material. Everything you inherit is in your genes or in epigenetic modifications of the genes or in cytoplasmic inheritance. It’s material.

7) Memories are stored inside your brain as material traces. Somehow everything you remember is in your brain in modified nerve endings, phosphorylated proteins. No one knows how it works, but nevertheless almost everyone in the scientific world believes it must be in the brain.

8) Your mind is inside your head. All your consciousness is the activity of your brain and nothing more.

9) Psychic phenomena like telepathy are impossible. Your thoughts and intentions cannot have any effect at a distance because your mind’s inside your head. Therefore, all the apparent evidence for telepathy and other psychic phenomena is illusory. People believe these things happen but it’s just because they don’t know enough about statistics, or they’re deceived by coincidences, or it’s wishful thinking.

10) Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works. That’s why governments only fund research into mechanistic medicine, and ignore complementary and alternative therapies. Those can’t possibly really work because they’re not mechanistic. They may appear to work because people would have got better anyway or because of the placebo effect, but the only kind that really works is mechanistic medicine.