Sheldrake-Shermer, Mental Action at a Distance, Replies

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Mental Action at a Distance

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,

Probably most of our readers will have experienced the sense of being stared at and telephone telepathy. Many will also have come across dogs or cats that know when their owners are coming home. Surveys in the US and in Europe have shown that about 85% of people have experienced the sense of being stared at, about 80% of people have thought of someone for no apparent reason who then called, and about 50% of dog owners and 30% of cat owners say their pets anticipate the arrival of a member of the household. These are ordinary, not extraordinary, experiences---normal, not paranormal, events---and the scientific evidence supports their existence, as I discussed in my opening statement and in my response to yours.

Unfortunately, your dog Hitch seems to be in the 50% of dogs that don’t sense when their owner is coming. The fact that the Japanese dog Hachiko, to whom you referred, waited every day at the train station for his deceased owner shows that this dog’s devotion was not dimmed by his owner’s death: this was also the case with a famous Scottish dog, Greyfriars Bobby, who spent 14 years guarding his owner’s grave. But these animals’ heroic loyalty is not a refutation of many dogs’ and cats’ abilities to know when their owners are coming home in normal circumstances.

Committed skeptics try to dismiss psi phenomena as tricks of the mind, or mistaken interpretations of chance events, or self-delusions, or examples of “anomalistic psychology.” In effect, they are asking people to disregard their own experience in favor of the materialist theory that the mind is nothing but the brain, mental activity is nothing but brain activity, and minds are confined to the inside of heads. Therefore, mental action at a distance is impossible, or at least so unlikely as to merit no serious attention. Crusading skeptics also try to muddy the waters by making it sound as if positive results in psi research are false, or at least scientifically unreliable.

There is nothing wrong with fair criticism; science thrives on it. But science does not thrive on bias, prejudice, and willful attempts to cause confusion and misdirect attention. Professional skepticism is all too easy: only the opinions of other skeptics count, and there is no need to do time-consuming experiments, or even to read about them. Moreover, skepticism pays, and it opens the way to a niche career in the media. When Susan Blackmore gave up her unsuccessful experimental research and joined the skeptic movement, her media career took off.

You and I have both referred to Richard Wiseman’s claims to have debunked the “psychic pet” phenomenon. Here is my reply to his article that you referred our readers to. In addition, this short film, recently released, summarizes his claims and shows how misleading they are. And Wiseman’s theory that Jaytee went to the window more and more the longer Pam was out has already been refuted experimentally. You can see the data from the control experiments, filmed on occasions when Pam was not coming home, in Figure 3 in my summary of this long-running controversy.

I wish there was a way to move our argument forwards. It seems to me that your rejection of psi phenomena is a result of your worldview and confirmation bias. Based on my experience of our dialogues so far, I do not expect that anything I write, or any evidence I draw to your attention, will lead you to change your beliefs. But I live in hope. I do not know what you will say in your reply, published simultaneously with this. I will read it with your own criterion in mind: “One practical way to distinguish between a skeptic and a denier is the extent to which they are willing to update their positions in response to new information. Skeptics change their minds. Deniers just keep on denying.”

Some of our readers may want to find out more about mental action at a distance. They do not need to take my word for it, or yours against it. I encourage those who are interested to discuss their own experiences with their friends and families, to read some of the many published papers on psi research, and to try some experiments for themselves. Here are some that can be carried out with one or two other people online or through phones.


Shermer Reply

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

Dear Rupert,

In your last letter you accuse me of being a “committed skeptic” who is “against psi phenomena because they do not fit in with the materialist worldview.” You keep repeating this point despite my protests to the contrary. As I’ve said all along, if psi were real and we understood how it worked, then it would be part of the scientific worldview explainable by natural forces, even if that means expanding our understanding of what constitutes “natural.” Again, there is no supernatural; just natural and mysteries that remain unexplained by natural causes. It is possible that one day psi will be accepted by the scientific community and incorporated into the scientific worldview (even the materialistic worldview), but at the moment it isn’t, for both evidentiary and causal reasons.

I have reviewed the many shortcomings with your claimed evidence. In perusing the site you directed me to, to understand your causal theory involving morphic resonance, I find a number of flaws in your conjectures, starting with the name itself. “Morphic resonance” is too broad a category---too generalized---and it attempts to explain too many separate phenomena (that very likely have separate causes) to be a useful theory. How can a single field of any sort explain cellular membranes and microtubules; the body types of dogs (from Afghan hounds to poodles); memory in rat; social groups (from schools of fish to flocks of birds); human customs such as the Jewish Passover, the Christian Holy Communion, and crossword puzzles; perceptual phenomena such as vision (the sense of being stared at); and even the laws of nature and the Big Bang origin of the universe?! Is there anything this theory can’t explain? I contend that any theory purporting to explain everything in effect explains nothing.

In your last letter you cite Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, and their theory of fields explaining electric and magnetic phenomena, as analogous to your own morphic resonance fields. First, Faraday and Maxwell were attempting to explain one specific phenomenon that involved electricity and magnetism and their relationship; they were not attempting to explain everything from inheritance to cultural customs to human memory to the origin of the universe! And it wouldn’t have mattered if there was an organized skeptical movement or not, because in time their theory proved correct irrespective of what any skeptical evaluator might have thought about it. Likewise, the skepticism you have encountered has not primarily been from organized skeptical groups, but rather from mainstream working scientists who have no affiliation with organized skepticism. In any case, skepticism is inherent to the scientific process itself, as I noted previously in arguing that all scientists start with the skeptical position of the null hypothesis that their experiments attempt to reject. The burden of proof is on you.

You make the analogy with fields “extending beyond the material objects in which they are rooted”---such as magnets and magnetic fields, planets and gravitational fields, and cell phones and "cellular" electromagnetic fields---to argue that the mind extends beyond the brain. The flaw in this reasoning is that these other fields are detectable, measurable, quantifiable, and predictable. What detectable evidence do you have of the mind extending beyond the brain? The equivalent of a Geiger counter that detects the radiation extending beyond radioactive materials would go a long way toward supporting your morphic resonance theory of mind. To date, you appear to have no such detectable evidence of such a field, and instead rely on subjective feelings people have about being stared at or receiving phone calls or emails from people whom they are thinking about, which have other equally plausible explanations (more plausible in my thinking).

As well, surely the morphic resonance field that directs the development of cellular microtubules is different from the field that shapes the DNA-protein chain sequence, and different still from the field that controls memory, cultural artifacts, and the evolution of species. You do not seem to have any evidence for any such fields, outside of a “god-of-the-gaps” type argument that if a scientist can’t explain phenomenon X (e.g., embryological development), then a morphic field must be the explanation. It’s not enough to challenge the prevailing theory of X; you must proffer your own testable explanation for X and provide evidence for it. In my opinion, you have yet to do so, and so I and most scientists remain skeptical.

Finally, it appears to me that your morphic resonance theory is circular: “Morphic fields contain other morphic fields within them”; morphic fields “contain a built-in memory given by self-resonance with a morphic unit’s own past and by morphic resonance with all previous similar systems”; and so forth. It seems to me you are explaining morphic resonance fields with . . . morphic resonance fields. It would be tautological to assert that morphic fields cause morphic fields. What is the cause of morphic resonance fields in the first place?


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