Sheldrake-Shermer, Materialism in Science, Opening Statements

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Materialism in Science

Through the months of May, June, and July of 2015, is hosting an intensive Dialogue on the Nature of Science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer.

During the first month, May, the focus will be on materialism in science.

Dr. Sheldrake will defend the position that science needs to free itself from materialist dogma; indeed, science misunderstands nature by being wedded to purely materialist explanations.

Dr. Shermer will oppose Sheldrake's position, arguing that science, properly conceived, is a materialistic enterprise; for science to look beyond materialist explanations is to betray science and engage in superstition.

For details about this dialogue, along with a complete guide to other portions of it, click here.

To give our readers context for this dialogue, Drs. Sheldrake and Shermer graciously provided the following interviews:

* * *

Sheldrake Opening Statement

Dear Michael,

We agree about many things. We both think that scientific research and the scientific method are of enormous importance. We both believe in evolution. We share an interest in the history of science. And we are both in favor of skepticism.

Where we differ is in our degree of skepticism. I am more radical than you. I think we need to question the dogmas of science itself. As the physicist Richard Feynman observed, scientists need to find out not only what might be right about their theories, but also what might be wrong with them.

For more than 150 years, scientific orthodoxy has been based on the philosophy of materialism, the claim that all reality is material or physical. All our own experiences are by-products of physical and chemical activities in our brains. Even God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads. Brains are made up of unconscious matter and governed only by impersonal physical and chemical laws. Like all other features of living organisms, they have evolved through chance mutations and natural selection, without any purpose or direction.

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 beliefs that govern conventional scientific thinking are an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology.

Contemporary scientific orthodoxy rests on the following assumptions:

  1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, “lumbering robots,” in Richard Dawkins's vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.
  2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the physical activities of brains.
  3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).
  4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same forever.
  5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.
  6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.
  7. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
  8. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not “out there,” where it seems to be, but inside your brain.
  9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Many people are unaware that these doctrines are assumptions; they think of them as science, or simply believe that they are true. They absorb them by a kind of intellectual osmosis.

In my recent book, Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery (Deepak Chopra, 2012), I tried the experiment of turning these assumptions into questions, treating them as testable scientific hypotheses rather than dogmas. None stood up very well to the evidence. And all led to further questions, some of which I would like to ask you, Michael. My questions are in italics.

1. Is nature mechanical?

The mechanistic theory of nature gives a supreme privilege to machine metaphors. The genes are programs; the heart is a pump; the brain is a computer. But many aspects of nature are not machine-like, including the entire universe. The theory that everything started in a Big Bang resembles ancient myths of the hatching of the cosmic egg. Ever since it hatched, the universe has been growing and developing ever more form and diversity; it seems much more like a developing organism than a machine. And developing plants and animals themselves, like oak trees or cats, are more like true organisms, with their own goals and purposes, than purposeless machines.

Michael, do you think of yourself as a complex machine or as a conscious living organism?

2. Is matter unconscious?

The Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century gave birth to modern science by creating a radical dualism between unconscious matter and conscious, non-material minds possessed only by humans, angels, and God. This duality was mirrored in the more or less peaceful coexistence of religion, the arts, and the sciences from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Religion and the arts were concerned with conscious experience, while the realm of science was the physical universe.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many people reacted against the power of churches by becoming atheists, especially in countries like France and Russia, where the established churches were allied with reactionary, authoritarian governments. Materialism provided arguments in support of atheism, and gave it scientific credibility. By denying the existence of immaterial consciousness, atheistic materialists got rid of God and angels at one stroke. There were no longer two realms of reality, matter and consciousness; there was only one reality, matter.

Materialism became the predominant orthodoxy of science by the end of the nineteenth century. Materialists got rid of God, or at least confined him to the brains of believers, but they were left with the “hard problem” of explaining how unconscious matter becomes conscious within human brains. This problem continues to haunt the neurosciences and the philosophy of mind. If consciousness is an illusion, or nothing but a by-product of brain activity, it cannot actually do anything, and hence we cannot make free choices.

Do you believe that you have free will?

3. Is the total amount of matter and energy always the same?

The constancy of the total amount of matter and energy made sense in the eternal universe of nineteenth-century physics, when eternal laws of nature governed an eternal physical reality. Most materialists still believe in changeless laws of nature and constant amounts of matter and energy, with one exception: all the matter and energy in the universe sprang from nothing at the moment of the Big Bang. Leaving aside this miraculous origin, the nature of matter and energy is not straightforward. Physicists now postulate that about 96% of reality is made up of dark matter and dark energy, whose nature is literally obscure.

Do you believe that the total amount of dark matter and dark energy is always the same (except at the moment of the Big Bang)?

4. Are the laws of nature fixed?

The idea of fixed “laws of nature” is a hangover from pre-evolutionary cosmology, which prevailed until the Big Bang theory became orthodox in 1966. In an evolving universe the laws themselves may evolve, or they may be more like habits — as I think myself, as the American philosopher C.S. Peirce suggested in the early twentieth century, and as the contemporary cosmologist Lee Smolin also proposes.

If you believe that all the laws and constants of nature came into being fully formed at the moment of the Big Bang, how does the universe remember them? Where are they imprinted?

5. Is nature purposeless?

The assumption that nature is purposeless follows from the machine metaphor. Machines have no purposes of their own, but only those imposed upon them or programmed into them, to serve human purposes. If the universe is mechanical, then evolution is purposeless: it has no goals, intentions, or direction.

Is the purposelessness of evolution a testable hypothesis?

6. Is all biological inheritance material?

Genes have been greatly overrated. They do not “code for” or “program” the form and behavior of organisms, like the shape of an orchid flower or the nest-building instincts of a weaverbird. They specify the sequence of amino acids in protein molecules, and some genes are involved in the control of the activity of other genes.

The Human Genome Project has been disappointing because it was based on a false conception of what genes do. The “missing heritability problem” is now provoking a crisis in modern biology, because it turns out that as much as 70% of inheritance does not appear to be explained by genes. Also, the recognition of the epigenetic inheritance at the beginning of this century means that the inheritance of acquired characteristics, once taboo, is now mainstream. For example, recent experiments have shown that mice can inherit the fears of their fathers. Male mice were made averse to the smell of a synthetic chemical, acetophenone, by being given electric shocks while they smelled it. Their sperm were used to fertilize female mice, and their children and grandchildren were terrified of the smell of acetophenone (see here).

Findings of this kind mean we need to modify Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory, which was based on the primacy of genes and a denial of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Neo-Darwinism assigned creativity to random mutations of genes. But if organisms can learn and adapt to their environments, and pass on adaptations to their offspring, then evolution is affected by organisms' own abilities to learn and adapt.

How have your views of evolution changed in the light of epigenetic inheritance?

7. Are memories stored as material traces?

The assumption that memories are stored as material traces in brains has dominated scientific research for more than a century, but the hypothetical memory traces have proved surprisingly elusive. There is plenty of evidence that particular parts of the brain become active when memories are being laid down and retrieved, but where they exist in between is mysterious. As I suggest in Science Set Free, memories may depend on a kind of resonance across time. Brains may be more like TV receivers, tuning into memories transmitted from their own past, than like video-recorders. Brain damage can affect the retrieval of memories, just as damage to a TV set can affect the sounds or pictures it produces, but this does not prove the damage has destroyed a storage system.

There is also a philosophical problem: the theory that memories are stored in material traces means there must be a retrieval system that recognizes the memories it is trying to retrieve. To recognize the memories, the retrieval system must itself have a memory. And if it has a material memory, then the retrieval system itself needs a retrieval system, and so on.

Doesn't this standard explanation of memory either presuppose memory, or fall into an infinite regress?

8. Are minds confined to brains?

If minds are nothing but the activity of brains, then they must be confined to the inside of heads. But when I look at a tree, I do not experience the image of the tree inside my head; I experience it where the tree is. My image of the tree is in my mind, but it is not inside my head. Our minds may be extended beyond our brains every time we look at something.

Everyone agrees that vision involves light coming into eyes, causing activity in the retina, impulses up the optic nerves, and specific patterns of activity in brains. Most materialists assume that the nervous tissue then somehow generates a 3-D, full-color virtual reality display inside the skull. But since these virtual reality displays are invisible to objective observers, how do we know they are inside skulls? Instead, we may generate images that are projected out to where they seem to be. Our minds may reach out to touch what we are seeing — for example, a tree. We may affect what we are looking at. That may be why many people and animals often sense when they are being watched, even when looked at from behind. And, in my opinion, there is good evidence for the reality of the sense of being stared at, which we will probably discuss in our dialogue next month.

Meanwhile, Michael, how do you interpret your own experience of seeing? When you look at the sky, do you think that you are seeing the sky inside your skull?

9. Are unexplained phenomena like telepathy illusory?

We will be discussing telepathy and other psychic phenomena in our next dialogue.

10. Is mechanistic medicine the only kind that really works?

I think the best way of evaluating different kinds of therapy is through comparative effectiveness research, pragmatically finding out which therapeutic systems work best for common problems like lower back pain or migraine headaches. Some patients, selected at random, would be sent to regular physicians, others to acupuncturists, chiropractors, osteopaths, homeopaths, and practitioners of other systems that claim to offer cures. Which systems work best? And which are most cost-effective? Through pragmatic research, we can have an evidence-based approach to medicine without a commitment to one particular system or ideology.

Do you think that governments and health insurance companies should fund research comparing the effectiveness of different kinds of therapy, including alternative therapies?


Like you, Michael, I am pro-science. But we have different ways of expressing our enthusiasm. I think the interests of the sciences are best served by exploring what we do not understand, even if that leads us beyond the limitations imposed by the materialist philosophy. My scientific allegiance is not to a particular worldview, materialism, but to science as a method of inquiry, open to new possibilities.

Some atheists fear that if they let go of materialism they will allow back religion, and set off a tsunami of superstition. Therefore, materialism must be defended at all costs. But this fear is exaggerated. Atheists need not be shackled to materialism; they can move beyond it and still remain atheists. For example, the distinguished American philosopher Thomas Nagel rejects materialism in favour of panpsychism in his recent book Mind And Cosmos: Why the Materialist, Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford UP, 2012). He proposes that there are aspects of mind throughout the natural world, even in the chemical elements. He also argues that evolution is purposive. But he remains an atheist.

Whether God exists or not is a different question, which we will discuss in our third dialogue. Our present discussion is about the whether the sciences ought to remain within the materialist paradigm, or whether scientists should be free to range more widely.

(view Shermer's Response to Sheldrake's Opening Statement)

* * *

Shermer Opening Statement

Dear Rupert,

We have never met in person but I have been following your work ever since your book, The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (Times Books, 1988), was published. I was in a doctoral program in the history of science at the time and recall being intrigued with your thesis that the past's influence on the present goes beyond the usual socio-cultural effects that historians track (such as political, economic, and cultural forces that carry across the centuries — the longue durée, as the French Annales school of historians call it). Clearly, you meant something more than the strict materialist forces at work that scientists study (including historical scientists, under which heading I include historians along with archaeologists), and this is where my skeptical alarm went off as I tried to understand what mechanism within the known laws of nature could possibly be at work for the present to be influenced by the past in ways that you suggest.

As you know and have been critical of — most recently in your book The Science Delusion (Coronet, 2012; titled Science Set Free here in the colonies — why do publishers rename books?!) — most scientists (myself included) adopt the materialist position of methodological naturalism, which I take to mean: life is the result of a natural and purposeless process in a system of material causes and effects that does not allow, or need, supernatural forces. In my public talks I often illustrate the principle with the famous Sidney Harris cartoon of two scientists at a blackboard filled with equations in which the words “Then a miracle occurs” appear in the middle of the mathematical sequence. The caption has one scientist saying to the other: “I think you need to be more explicit here in step two.”

This is sometimes called the “God of the gaps” argument — wherever an apparent gap exists in scientific knowledge, this is where we interject a miracle from God as an explanation. It works something like this, when dealing with certain biological features of organisms, in which “X” may be the eye or DNA or some other feature:

1. X looks designed

2. I can't think of how X was designed naturally

3. Therefore X was designed supernaturally

This fallacy reminds me of the “plane problem” of Isaac Newton's time: the planets all lie approximately in a plane (known as the ecliptic). Newton found this arrangement to be so improbable that he invoked God as an explanation in Principia Mathematica: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” Since Newton's time, however, that gap has been filled in with natural explanations that involve how stars and solar systems are formed from condensing clouds of interstellar gas in which eddies of material conglomerate into a central star (or two, in the case of binary stars) and multiple smaller planets (Kant was the first to propose this “nebular hypothesis”). Creationists do not cite this problem or quote Newton because the gap has now been filled in with a natural explanation by scientists.

The materialism of methodological naturalism also bothers the Intelligent Design movement because of their desire to introduce supernaturalism into the system of the world. For example, in his book, Darwin on Trial (Regnery, 1991), the University of California-Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson — one of the founders of the Intelligent Design movement — accused scientists of unfairly defining God out of the picture by limiting the search to only natural causes. He charged that scientists who postulate that there are non-natural or supernatural forces or interventions at work in the natural world are being pushed out of the scientific arena on the basis of nothing more than a fundamental rule of the game. Like you, Johnson and his Intelligent Design colleagues such as William Dembski, Paul Nelson, and Stephen Meyer want the rules of the game changed to allow methodological supernaturalism.

Let's play out that scenario and imagine what methodological supernaturalism would look like in science, and how it would work. (I did this in my book, Why Darwin Matters [Times Books, 2006].) For the sake of argument let's assume that Intelligent Design theorists have discovered a new force of nature that accounts for the apparent design in such features as the eye or DNA. How will they identify it? Will it be considered a new natural force, or a new supernatural force? By what criteria will they discriminate between the natural and the supernatural? How can one tell?

For example, in the early 20th century the British biologist Julian Huxley parodied the French philosopher Henry Bergson's fuzzy explanation for life as being caused by an élan vital (vital force), which Huxley said was like explaining a railroad steam engine as being driven by its élan locomotif (locomotive force). In his book, The Ancestor's Tale (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), Richard Dawkins employed a similar analogy to parody Intelligent Design explanations for life. To say that the eye or DNA are “designed” tells us nothing. Scientists want to know how they were designed, what forces were at work, how the process of development unfolded, etc. Dawkins imagined a counterfactual history in which Andrew Huxley and Alan Hodgkin, winners of the Nobel prize for figuring out the molecular biophysics of the nerve impulse, in a creationist frame of mind attribute it instead to “nervous energy.”

Along these same lines (inspired by Dawkins's analogy that I first employed in my book, The Believing Brain [Times Books, 2011]), imagine if David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel — winners of the 1959 Nobel Prize for their pioneering research in brain circuitry and determining the neurochemistry of vision — had, instead of spending years getting down to the cellular and molecular level of understanding how the brain converts photons of light into neural impulses, simply attributed the process to a force mentale.

Now see here, Hubel, this business about how photons of light are transduced into neural activity is a dreadfully thorny problem. I just can't understand how it works, can you?

No, my dear Wiesel, I can't, and implanting those electrodes into monkeys' brains is truly unpleasant and messy, and I have the hardest time getting the electrode into the right spot. Why don't we just say that the light is converted into a nerve impulse by a force mentale?

What does invoking a concept like force mentale explain? Nothing. It would be like describing your automobile's engine as operating by a “combustive force,” which fails to capture what is actually going on inside the cylinders of an internal combustion engine: a piston compresses a vaporous mixture of gasoline and air that is ignited by a spark plug causing an explosion that drives the piston down thereby turning a crank arm that is connected to a drive shaft that is linked to a differential that rotates the wheels. Giving something a label like “nervous energy,” force mentale, or “combustive force” is not an explanation. It is just a label to talk about something material that is at work that we want to try to understand with natural forces.

In this sense, then — as I've mentioned many times in my critique of theories about Psi, ESP, miracles, and the like — there is no such thing as the paranormal or the supernatural. These words “paranormal” and “supernatural” are precisely parallel to “nervous energy” and force mentale: just linguistic placeholders to talk about something for which we do not as yet have a normal or natural explanation.

Analogously, when cosmologists talk about “dark energy” and “dark matter,” they don't mean those words to be an explanation, only linguistic placeholders until they figure out what exactly is causing such as-yet unsolved mysteries such as the rotation of galaxies and the accelerating expansion of the cosmos. Whereas cosmologists do not stop searching for the underlying mechanisms of the observed phenomena just because they have a label, however, paranormalists and supernaturalists treat words like “paranormal” and “supernatural” as if they were causal explanations. They're not.

Turning to your area of research, Rupert, if it turned out that, say, people really could read other people's minds and that they were able to do so because (pace Roger Penrose's and Stuart Hameroff's theory) inside our neurons are tiny microtubules in which quantum effects happen that allow thoughts (patterns of neural firing) to be transferred from one skull to another at any distance (like the “spooky action at a distance” effects that quantum physicists have measured in experiments), that would not be ESP or Psi, and we would not need to call it a “paranormal” effect, because we would then know that the ability to read minds was due to the properties of neurons and atoms. If this turned out to be true (I'm skeptical), this new theory would be subsumed under the sciences of neuroscience and/or quantum physics (quantum neuroscience?) and would no longer be studied under the umbrella of, say, parapsychology.

This is not a new problem. Scientists and philosophers of science have long struggled with defining what constitutes legitimate scientific knowledge, and no less a mind than the great British astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington chimed in on the debate in his 1939 classic work, The Philosophy of Physical Science (recall that it was Eddington who successfully tested Einstein's theory of relativity by measuring the bending of starlight by the sun during a solar eclipse in 1919). Eddington made this analogy that I use in my critical thinking course (and in my book, Why People Believe Weird Things [Mjf Books, 1997]), which I think has some relevance to our discussion on the nature of science:

Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematize what it reveals. He arrives at two generalizations:

1. No sea-creature is less than two inches long.

2. All sea-creatures have gills.

…In applying this analogy, the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it. The casting of the net corresponds to observation…

An onlooker may object that the first generalization is wrong. “There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.” The ichthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. “Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of ichthyological knowledge.” In short, “what my net can't catch isn't fish.”

Extending the analogy beyond the physical sciences to all fields: regardless of what forces may be at work in our world, if they can be measured by our scientific instruments (or by our senses), then by definition they must be natural forces (regardless of what you call them). In other words, what our senses and scientific nets catch are natural fish.

Later, we will be discussing God, but in this context, let me note that if one were to argue that God exists outside of our world (or outside of the universe, or outside of nature), and that God's forces are non-natural (or supernatural) and they can still affect the world but in a non-measurable way (because our scientific nets only catch natural fish), then what's the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God?

And if God (or some creative force — it need not be the creator Judeo-Christian-Muslim God) exists outside of nature, but periodically reaches into our world to change it in some manner (such as answering prayers or performing miracles), then, in principle, there should be some way to measure such effects (e.g., patients who are prayed for heal faster, or a physically impossible feat occurs, such as the regrowth of an amputated human limb) and deduce that the source of the effects is outside of all known natural forces. In that case, in principle, such a God (or force) would simply become part of the natural world (at least when He/It operates on it).

Thus, it seems to me that once we have carefully defined our terms, it is clear that there really is only the material world, methodological naturalism is the only means to understand it, and science is the only form of reliable knowledge that we have.


(view Sheldrake's Response to Shermer's Opening Statement)

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