Sheldrake-Shermer, Materialism in Science, Replies

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Materialism in Science

This May thru July 2015, is hosting an intensive dialogue on the nature of science between Michael Shermer and Rupert Sheldrake. 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 Reply

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

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your Response to the questions I asked in my Opening Statement.

At first I was puzzled by the contradictions in your positions. But then I read your chapter on free will in The Moral Arc (Henry Holt, 2015). I was struck by your endorsement of the theory of modular minds, according to which we have many different compartmentalized brain functions, or mental apps (as on a smart phone). As you put it, “There is no unified ‘self' that generates internally consistent and seamlessly coherent beliefs devoid of conflict. . . . Instead, we are a collection of distinct but interacting modules that are often at odds with one another” (p. 338). Suddenly, your inconsistencies became easier to understand. There are several different Shermer modules that predominate in different contexts:

I agree. But other Shermer modules pull your brain in different directions:

Luckily, when your libertarian module is uppermost, we agree that scientific inquiry should be free, and not constrained by dogma. We will return to this subject next month.


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Shermer Reply

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

Dear Rupert,

In response to your second letter, and your point about seeing living organisms as “organisms, not machines,” again I ask: why can't they be both? An organism is a living machine, and a complex enough machine can become a living organism! Proponents of Artificial Intelligence would likely agree for future machines that reach a certain level of intelligence---the singularity, say---at which point these machines will be indistinguishable from living organisms in their actions and cognitions, even though we could lift the hood and see that they are just complex machines. So we're really talking about degrees of complexity here, and at some point a machine can become so complex that it appears for all intents and purposes to be alive and organic, as our intuitions understand those concepts. (And future AI will force us to revise those intuitions, along with our legal and moral systems about what constitutes a sentient being deserving of rights and personhood.)

Now, we both agree that these complex organic machines were not designed from the top down (or from the outside by an intelligent designer), so the problem to explain is the source of the complexity, the creative spark behind the complex design. Stephen Hawking once famously asked, “What is it that breathes fire into the equations?” And he equally famously answered “no one”---the universe comes equipped with fire already built into the equations. You and I seem to agree that there is no “who” on the outside breathing life into inorganic matter, so the answer to the question about the source of life's fire must come from within.

You argue that “creativity is inherent in nature.” I agree, if by creativity you mean that certain laws of nature---in particular those laws governing biology, embryology, epigenetics, genetics, etc.---lead organisms to unfold embryologically from a tiny cluster of cells into a full-fledged organism (e.g., a mammal), and for species to evolve from simple to complex (and even for the evolution of evolvability). That is, inherent in what Aristotle called the “final cause” of a thing (in this case an organism) is what it is, by nature, destined to be---a seed to become a plant, a human embryo a human being---under the right conditions. Just as a star is destined to convert hydrogen into helium under the right conditions of heat and pressure, a seed or an embryo must become a plant or human under the right conditions that allow the processes of genetics, epigenetics, embryological development, and the like to unfold as they are destined to do by the laws governing the actions of their molecules.

As you know, the great German philosopher and writer Goethe developed a biological theory of morphology (he invented the word!) based on the formalist idea that the wide diversity of plant and animal complexity can be reduced to single archetypes or forms---a “leaflike” form for leaves, for example. But Goethe's formalist morphological theory never panned out because no underlying mechanism to drive it was ever found, much less the source of the archetype in the first place. Darwin's genius was to turn this theory on its head by showing how all current forms are derived from prior forms, modified by natural selection to be adaptive to current environments. Thus, the “archetype” of our arms and hands---the tetrapod forelimb with a humerus, ulna, and radius, and carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges bones---evolved in fish 375 million years ago as an adaptation for transitioning from the water onto the land (amphibians), most famously in the Tiktaalik fossil discovered by Neil Shubin in 2004. And fossils before and after that type (see the Wikipedia entry for “transitional fossils”) show no “archetype” at all, only local adaptations to local environments all the way back and forward from that particular type.

So we already have a purely materialist explanation for the diversity of types in nature without the need to invoke the “memory” of forms (in your theory) that guide molecules toward them (if I'm understanding your theory correctly), but if you are right in your claim that “genetic programs” do not explain forms, body types, anatomy, or physiology, then I have three questions:

  1. What do you think DNA is for and what is it doing, if not what geneticists think it is doing?
  2. Where is the “memory” for forms (say, the tetrapod forelimb) stored?
  3. How does this memory act on physical systems, such as the molecules that make up cells or organs or (in keeping with my example) tetrapod forelimbs?

I think the reason your theory of morphic resonance has not gained acceptance within the scientific community is the same as why Goethe's formalist theory of morphology never succeeded: in science we need both theory and mechanism. Alfred Wegener had a theory of drifting continents but no mechanism that could drive plates around the globe. Once that mechanism was found in the 1960s in the form of plate tectonics, the theory gained acceptance. It's true that Darwin didn't have an understanding of genetics as a mechanism for natural selection, but the evidence for his theory was so overwhelming from so many different lines of inquiry that it gained acceptance despite this shortcoming. And of course after 1953, genetics synthesized the theory of evolution into the fully mature science it is today.

For your theory to follow a similar trajectory, you would need to:

  1. provide more reliable and consistent (i.e., replicable) evidence that such memory in nature exists;
  2. explain where this memory is stored (i.e., what's the mechanism of storage); and
  3. explain how morphic memories affect physical systems (e.g., molecules)

If you were able to do these things, then I and most everyone else in science would change our minds and accept your theory.

Until then, it is reasonable to be skeptical.


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