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The Anti-Sheldrake Phenomenon
by Ted Dace
Attacking the Theory of Morphic Resonance
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By devising a testable hypothesis of natural memory, Rupert Sheldrake has established himself as the world’s central figure in the evolutionary theory of existence. Heir to the lineage of Darwin, Peirce, Bergson, Elsasser and Bohm, Sheldrake bears on his shoulders the weight of their worldview. Attacks on his work amount to an offensive against any alternative to a universe under the control of eternal immutable laws.
In 1980 Bohm proposed that material events are abstracted into an “implicate” order that influences subsequent events in the everyday “explicate” realm. The following year, Sheldrake proposed that current organic events are influenced by a composite of previous, similar events. Are these different theories or just the same theory arrived at by different means? When the scientists got together to discuss their work, they weren’t sure.1
Yet their books received radically different receptions. Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order was treated with the respect owing to any scientific work, while Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life evoked not just hostility but hysteria and out-of-thin-air accusations of pseudoscience.
In part the differing responses reflected the more evolved thinking of physicists. Once you’ve resigned yourself to quantum entanglement, memory as a property of nature doesn’t seem particularly outlandish. Biology, however, has yet to experience its quantum shock. Stuck in a 19th century time warp, most biologists inhabit a tidy world of cause and effect on the basis of contact mechanics.
But this alone can’t account for the curiously different treatment afforded Sheldrake, since his book garnered positive reviews from publications such as New Scientist and Biologist. 2 It was only after journalist John Maddox put in his two cents that the anti-Sheldrake phenomenon condensed like a raindrop around a particle of dust. Before long the storm of abuse had commenced.
It was Maddox who, as editor of Nature, infamously proclaimed Sheldrake’s book “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.” As he elaborated for the BBC in 1994, “Sheldrake's is not a scientific theory. Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned, in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reasons: it is heresy.” 3
Leibniz thought universal gravitation was an attempt to smuggle the occult into science, but at least he never called Newton a heretic. Maddox, on the other hand, revealed an attitude more in line with a pope than a scientist. Having confused science with the rigid doctrine that every event has a physical cause contiguous to it in space and time, he couldn’t accept that Sheldrake’s proposal, which defies this primitive belief, is logically coherent and fully testable. Adding to his revulsion was the fact that Sheldrake was an insider, a scientist with impeccable credentials, including numerous publications in peer reviewed journals, Nature itself among them.4
Whether or not “formative causation” turns out to be true, that it’s a scientific theory is a simple fact. By denying this fact, Maddox sinned against science. Perhaps dimly aware of his disloyalty to the project of clarity and enlightenment, Maddox projected his heresy onto Sheldrake rather than face up to his own failings.
At the heart of reductionism is the confusion of assumption with fact. Though we can always say in retrospect that a given event must have been caused by a spatially contiguous prior event, when we look at the behavior of cells and organisms, we find that physics leaves room for many possible actions. That a particular event takes place doesn’t mean it was mechanically forced or that things couldn’t just as easily have played out differently.
Biologists assume they have physics on their side, but physics isn’t so sure. According to Gabor Forgacs and Stuart A Newman, the recognition that organisms cannot disobey physics “is of limited value” in explaining their behavior. In their textbook, Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo, Forgacs and Newman explain that while physics operates by reducing complex systems to simple components, in organisms complexity is a “fundamental and irreducible property.” Because complexity has to be taken “as is,” physical analysis is limited in explaining living systems. 5
Contrary to popular belief, biologists only assume the operations of an organism are explicable according to causal mechanics. As Forgacs and Newman put it, “While it is obvious that nothing in development, or in any other domain of biology for that matter, can occur without the participation of physical mechanisms, the high degree of structural and dynamical complexity of most living systems makes it exceedingly difficult, in general, to follow the workings of basic physical principles or appreciate their roles.” This becomes increasingly apparent with the emergence of complex structures such as immune, hormonal, circulatory, vascular and nervous systems.6
Far from being under strict mechanical control, an embryo makes use of mechanisms to achieve its goals. Left unchecked, a physical process that aids its development will ultimately destroy it. The initiation and termination of such processes within and among cells “ensures that each driving force is constrained... and that the whole complex of forces is subordinated to the survival and propagation of the organism.” 7
When the embryo is faced with numerous possible actions, how does it know which one is right? Forgacs and Newman follow the standard assumption that embryonic development is guided by information encoded in its genes. The basic idea can be expressed in a simple equation: physics plus genes equals organism.
But this only pushes the question back a step. How does the embryo know which genes to activate at any given point in its development? The answer must come from beyond the genes themselves. Molecular biologists suggest that a cell’s position in the embryo is enough to determine its fate. Simply by being in a particular spot in the blastula, a given blastomere is destined to turn out as a certain kind of differentiated cell. All it takes is non-uniform distribution of “morphogens,” and voila, all the instructions are automatically in place for determining which genes to turn on at which places and times in order to construct the completed organism. Morphic resonance offers a less miraculous solution: the embryo simply does whatever its forerunners did when they reached the same developmental stage.
The genius of the memory theory is that the capacity to reach into our past also accounts for recollection at the personal level and, by extension, our enduring sense of self. Contact mechanics, on the other hand, offers no possibility of explaining our indivisible self-existence, much less our intelligence and self-determination.
If an organism, including a human being, is nothing more than its material components, the mind is nothing more than the brain at work. Our recollections and thoughts and feelings are reduced to stored information and cerebral computations. Needless to say, this model is inherently problematic. We have information in the brain, and we have a conscious person, but we have no idea how to connect them. How are the brain’s calculations registered by the whole person?
The obvious parallel to neural information storage is the computer, but this only makes things worse. A computer needs someone to operate it. If the brain is a computer, where’s the user? If it’s the person as a whole, why not put the information there, at the level of the whole mind? Once we recognize the organism as a self-referential unit irreducible to material components, why bother trying to fit all the elements of mind into brain? If we deny holistic self-existence, the user of the neural computer must be a homunculus located somewhere in the circuitry. It goes without saying that no such entity has turned up, despite Descartes’ helpful tip to look at the pineal gland. With neither conscious self nor homunculus, we’re left with information accessing itself. But if we’re going to accept self-accessing information, why not self-existent consciousness?
The funny thing about the denial of the reality of ourselves is that our self-nature is nothing if not self-evident.
In the absence of proof either way, morphic resonance is the default assumption, as it’s the only approach that can tie together the experiential and biological levels of life. Establishment attacks against Sheldrake are expressions of insecurity stemming from an ideology that can’t provide a plausible account of what it means to be alive.
Once Maddox opened the gate, legions of ideologues felt free to launch their own misguided attacks. Somehow it seemed acceptable, even for nonscientists, to ridicule a distinguished scientist with the audacity to propose a testable theory of development from the egg. What unites these dogmatic reductionists is their delusion that they represent “scientific skepticism.”
“Science,” according to renowned physicist Richard Feynman, “is the organized skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion.” 8 Yet Skeptic magazine, edited by Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer, is all about fringe beliefs and rarely takes on expert opinion. Like arch skeptic Martin Gardner, Shermer serves as an enforcer for establishment beliefs, not a critic.
Shermer seems to think science is a popularity contest. “The person making the extraordinary claim,” he writes in Why People Believe Weird Things, “has the burden of proving to the experts and the community at large that his or her belief has more validity than the one almost everyone else accepts.” You must lobby to get your opinion heard and “marshal experts on your side so you can convince the majority.” Once you’ve done that, “the burden of proof switches to the outsider who wants to challenge you with his or her unusual claim.”9
In a chapter devoted to “how thinking goes wrong,” Shermer calls attention to the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, meaning that whatever event preceded a given event must have caused it.10 This is indeed a “superstition,” as he says, but he doesn’t realize it characterizes the entire approach of mechanistic biology. First genes are transcribed. Then cells form into organs. Ergo gene transcription causes bodily formation. It doesn’t occur to orthodox biologists that both events could result from a deeper cause, namely the efforts of the organism to match the activities of its predecessors, whether at the genetic or multicellular level.
A true believer in the reduction of the organism to machine-like operations, Shermer’s prime directive seems to be the prevention of any skeptical inquiry into his own ingrained beliefs. During a 2007 interview with Shermer, I asked him what he thought about the apparent creativity of living things. ”What does this mean, internal creativity? Positing some sort of metaphysical thing or something. At some point we’re gonna ask, well, what is this internal creativity? Quit using that word. Give us something that we can actually test in the lab. What are you talking about - - genomes? Protein chain things? What is it you’re talking about?”11
Shermer’s Orwellian approach would stifle inquiry to the point where we can’t even articulate our thoughts. As he put it, “instead of speculating about some inherent force at work, let’s just don’t call it anything.” Apparently it’s okay to speculate about forces or properties of nature when you’re a physicist, but in biology everything has to be broken down to something akin to the workings of a cuckoo clock.
You’d think the idea that genes and their signature proteins conspire to build a living body from a microscopic envelope of carbon-rich compounds ought to be subject to skeptical evaluation, but Shermer obediently follows the pack and assumes all mystery has been eliminated and that there’s no need to investigate any further into how organisms emerge from the eggs or, for that matter, how new species emerge from ancestral species.
When I proposed that evolution involves the innate intelligence of organisms, Shermer went right off the rails. “This is not a debate in science. No one has this debate. I’ve never heard this debate before, and I go to all these evolution conferences. Nobody debates this. This is an outside of science debate. This is a Rupert Deepak Chopra debate. It’s a different kind of creationism. But it has nothing to do with science.”
So the idea that organisms creatively adapt their behavior, which then triggers bodily changes, is just another kind of creationism. Darwin’s theory of evolution, in other words, is another kind of creationism. But there’s a certain logic to Shermer’s unreflective acceptance of expert opinion. After all, Darwin wasn’t a professional biologist but only an amateur student of nature.
So confused is our “skeptic” that he cites complexity theory as a basis for his reductionist bias. “At some point, you have to have a stepwise, bottom-up, natural, self-organized complexity out of simplicity.” Quite the contrary. According to the science of nonequilibrium thermodynamics, complex systems are fundamentally holistic and goal-directed. A tornado, for example, pops into being in order to eliminate the temperature gradient between warm air near the ground and cold air above. Complexity isn’t built up stepwise or otherwise from simplicity but emerges fully formed as if from the head of a thermodynamic Zeus. Whether living or only lifelike, self-organized systems are shaped by energy flows rather than their constituent molecules. DNA is no more responsible for building organisms than dust is responsible for building tornados.
“Some things,” he writes in Why People Believe Weird Things, “such as water dowsing, extrasensory perception and creationism, have been tested and failed the test often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are false.” 12 He’s wrong on all counts, though for different reasons. For starters, to include creationism here makes no sense at all, as this belief represents a rejection of science and, unlike scientific propositions, cannot be put to the test and definitively refuted. If you say a deity wouldn’t fashion a species only to let it go extinct, the creationist can simply respond that God works in mysterious ways. There’s no arguing against an attitude such as this.
Water dowsing, on the other hand, is indeed testable. However, the results have been ambiguous. Some practitioners find underground water sources at rates no better than chance, while others succeed astonishingly well. Einstein was so impressed by reports of successful dowsing that he offered electromagnetic fields as a possible explanation. By contrast, Shermer dismisses it without so much as a glance at the evidence. In so doing he aligns himself with the Inquisition, which condemned “water witching” for precisely the same reason as Shermer, because such a strange practice introduces uncertainty and defies the orderliness of the reigning belief system, whether based around laws of God or nature.
As to extrasensory perception, this phenomenon has been verified countless times in carefully controlled laboratory conditions. Such experiments are a matter of public record, and their significance has been confirmed by independent statisticians. Shermer could read all about it in Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe or Chris Carter’s Parapsychology and the Skeptics. Instead, he rejects it without investigation, as if all “psychic” entanglement is simply impossible. If physicists had taken that approach with quantum entanglement, we’d have lost an opportunity to learn something about nature.
In keeping with his blind faith in expert opinion, Shermer says scientists admit to their errors, while “pseudoscientists... ignore or rationalize failures.” This tendency is known as “heads I win, tails you lose.”13 If an experiment demonstrates the sought-after results, it was legitimate, but if it shows negative results, it must have been poorly designed or executed.
As Stephen Rothman demonstrates, this mindset is alive and well in establishment science. For many years a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, Rothman raises numerous examples of “heads I win, tails you lose” trickery among his colleagues, in particular regarding the vesicle theory of protein transport. According to this theory, proteins can’t spontaneously go where they’re needed in a cell but must be transported by a mechanism. If protein is found where the theory predicts, it verifies the theory. If protein is found in the wrong location, it’s written off as a “contaminant.” With the use of autoradiography, scientists determine the best exposure time according to whichever time produces the results they were looking for. If samples fail to show the desired results, it’s assumed that the process of taking samples was somehow flawed. And so on.14
The basic problem, says Rothman, is the failure of most experts to doubt their own beliefs. It doesn’t help that “skeptics” encourage them in their self-certainty. “The call to authority,” he warns, “is sometimes dressed in the garb of scientific skepticism.” 15
Fishing for a suitably balancing quote from a “media skeptic” in a 2003 story on Sheldrake’s research into telepathy, USA Today called on Shermer, who obliged with his allegation that Sheldrake “never met a goofy idea he didn’t like.”16 Following in the tradition of pseudoskepticism, Shermer would rather bully a marginalized thinker than do the hard work of scrutinizing the authority of expert opinion.
In a column for Scientific American, “Rupert’s Resonance,” Shermer implies that Sheldrake defines form in terms of “fields of information,” though in reality Sheldrake defines form the way anyone else would, in terms of the shape and internal structure of objects. Shermer then claims morphic resonance takes place within a “universal life force,” a reference to the archaic belief that a “vital force” animates living matter and thereby distinguishes it from nonliving matter.17 Sheldrake, of course, makes no mention of any life force, and in fact proposes morphic resonance as a general property of nature that accounts for repeating crystal formations as much as stereotypical living processes.
After mischaracterizing morphic resonance, Shermer abruptly shifts gears and analyzes Sheldrake’s unrelated assertion that people can detect when being stared at from behind. Shermer deceives his readers by implying that Sheldrake’s only evidence for this ability is a test that can be downloaded from his website and performed by anyone with an internet connection. Shermer points out that these tests can’t be trusted, as if he came up with that brilliant insight on his own. However, as Sheldrake himself wrote, in a paper that appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, ”because the tests were unsupervised, there is no way of assessing their reliability.” 18
Shermer refers to this paper but leaves out that quote. More to the point, he fails to mention that Sheldrake also conducted supervised experiments showing the same positive results as the informal web-based trials.
Shermer’s sophistry continues with a just-so story meant to explain why so many people think they can sense when they’re being stared at. When you get that “funny feeling,” he says, you turn around, and your movement causes whoever happens to be there to look back. Of course, the whole point of testing this ability is to exclude precisely this sort of possibility.
Skepticism is in the eye of the beholder. Though Shermer is correct that doubt is the default position when it comes to unproven claims, he doesn’t realize that when he says people are routinely fooled by their sense of telepathy, this too is a claim that ought to engender skeptical inquiry. Has he tested this claim? Has he conducted trials showing that people easily gain a false sense of being stared at from behind? Then again, why bother putting your claim to the test when you already know you’re right?
Not exactly a scientific approach.
Shermer disingenuously implies that the first formal test of the sense of being stared at was conducted by John Colwell of Middlesex University of London, though in fact Colwell was merely attempting to replicate Sheldrake’s 1999 experiment, which involved a random sequence of trials in which the subject was sometimes stared at from behind and sometimes not. The idea was to see if the person could guess, at better than chance rates, when someone was actually there.
When Colwell, to his surprise, produced the same positive results as Sheldrake, he chalked it up to a hidden pattern in the sequence of trials that the participants had somehow stumbled onto, enabling them to produce results significantly above chance. Colwell never explained how Sheldrake’s randomization procedure was not really random, and he was apparently unaware that Sheldrake got the same results even when a coin toss determined whether someone would be staring at the subject during a given trial.19
Shermer goes on to claim, again falsely, that psychologist Richard Wiseman replicated Sheldrake’s experiment and got negative results. First of all, Wiseman put the subject on closed circuit television, so the person assigned to do the staring was actually watching a monitor. Second, even with this change-up, Wiseman still got the same results as Sheldrake and only managed to arrive at his desired negative results when he dismissed his student volunteers and took over the role of staring himself.20
Right about here, Shermer might have noted that when Wiseman replicated Sheldrake’s test of a dog that seemed to know, from a distance, if its owner was returning home, he reproduced Sheldrake’s results and then misrepresented his own findings, claiming to have refuted what he actually verified. Instead Shermer allows his readers to think Wiseman is a reliable source.21
Shermer attributes Sheldrake’s data to confirmation bias, meaning he got the results he was looking for. Yet this critique applies just as well to researchers seeking negative results, such as Wiseman and Colwell, who also managed to eliminate positive results by taking over the role of staring at subjects. Since Sheldrake points out that negative expectations of the person doing the staring could conceivably dampen the effect, Shermer claims the effect is therefore unfalsifiable. He leaves out the fact that most of the people doing the staring have been student volunteers with no predilection to believe or disbelieve. If their sessions produced negative results, the effect would indeed be falsified, but that’s not what has happened.
Finally, Shermer seems to think Sheldrake must be wrong because the responses from mainstream academics to his Journal of Consciousness Studies paper ranged from neutrality to rejection.
Skepticism in the reliability of expert opinion? Not this “skeptic.”
Sheldrake duly responded to Shermer’s hatchet job, but Scientific American, to its discredit, refused to print a letter that would have exposed the sloppy thinking and outright deception of one of its columnists.22
Much of Shermer’s work is laudable, especially in the area of mass delusions such as holocaust denial and modern witch crazes. But he can’t own up to the fact that he himself got caught up in the hysteria of the anti-Sheldrake phenomenon.
Whereas Shermer at least demonstrates basic competence in the art of sophistry, Skeptic’s Dictionary author Robert Todd Carroll unleashes a spectacular series of blunders in his entry on morphic resonance.23
After repeating the bogus charge of vitalism, Carroll accuses Sheldrake of working outside the “paradigm of science.” Yet Sheldrake’s central proposal, that natural systems are influenced by similar previous systems, is easily testable, as neuroscientist Steven Rose demonstrated when he tried (and failed) to refute it.
Carroll stumbles again with his claim that morphic resonance leaves no room for genetic influence over the forms and functions of the organism. Sheldrake, however, is absolutely clear on the need for a complementary approach, with genes differentiating individuals within a given species and morphic resonance providing the general background form common to all members of a species.24 Compounding his confusion, Carroll asserts that Sheldrake has substituted laws of nature with morphic resonance. Yet it was philosopher CS Peirce who substituted laws of nature with habits of nature, and Sheldrake’s contribution is to explain universal habit according to resonance based on similarity of form.
Incredibly, Carroll associates morphic resonance with Plato’s concept of a timeless realm of static Forms, ignoring the fact that Sheldrake’s hypothesis is explicitly designed to bring formative causation into the stream of time, thereby opening up the possibility that natural forms can evolve rather than simply reflecting fixed, eternal types.25
Unable to argue his way around Sheldrake, Carroll attempts to smear him as an occultist peddling metaphysics and the paranormal. Given the well-established concept of action at a distance in physics, the occult charge is inexcusable. As to metaphysics, Sheldrake avoids it like the plague, both in the informal sense of supernatural explanation and in the proper philosophical sense of a theory of reality. Ironically it’s Carroll who embraces the metaphysics of reductionism as a dualistic explanation of reality according to passive matter and deterministic law. As to the paranormal, Sheldrake asserts that if telepathy, for instance, turns out to be real, then by definition it is normal.
Carroll says morphic resonance has the same scientific status as the engram, a term he claims was coined by L Ron Hubbard. In fact, the concept of the engram was introduced by eminent German zoologist Richard Semon, though it was his concept of mnemic homophony that really informed Sheldrake’s work. Of course, even when you get your facts right, guilt by association is never an honorable or scientific tactic.
In contrast to writers like Maddox, Shermer and Carroll, scientists generally have enough sense to refrain from condemning the work of other scientists, particularly if they haven’t taken the trouble to understand it. Alas this is not the case with biologist PZ Myers, who has launched uninformed ad hominem attacks against Sheldrake in his blog, “Pharyngula.” In his entry, “The Sheldrake Phenomenon,” Myers reveals his own religious-like attitude toward science.26
Myers begins by referencing a discussion between Sheldrake and Richard Dawkins in which Dawkins, apparently unaware of quantum entanglement, asserted that telepathy would “turn the laws of physics upside down.” Demonstrating its existence would therefore require extraordinary evidence. Sheldrake responded that it would be far more extraordinary if everyone who claims to have experienced telepathy is deluded. Myers twists this statement around by claiming that Sheldrake denies the possibility that people could be deluded about their experience. On this basis, Myers pronounces his verdict. “This man is nuts.”
Really? Sheldrake is nuts because he thinks a popular belief just might be true? Apparently Myers views reason as the province of an educated and trained elite. Since ordinary people can’t possibly think logically on the basis of evidence, in order to know anything, they must consult a member of the scientific priesthood, like Myers for instance.
As with Carroll, Myers hasn’t done his homework. His major point of dispute is that Sheldrake provides no mechanism for telepathy, and therefore his research is meaningless. Aside from the obvious fact that investigators are perfectly capable of detecting phenomena without necessarily knowing their cause, Myers seems to have no idea that Sheldrake is first and foremost a biologist and that his interest in telepathy grew entirely out of his theoretical work in biology.
That said, Sheldrake’s explanation of psychic phenomena, which involves the concept of morphogenetic fields, is perhaps problematic. In the 1920s, as biologists came to grips with the problem of how activities are coordinated within and among cells, Paul Weiss and other theorists began discussing the idea of a field effect within developing organisms. Like a magnetic field, the morphogenetic or “form-giving” field would inform cells as to their proper place in the embryo. But Weiss doesn’t seem to have taken the term literally, and to this day it’s generally not considered an actual physical field. Arguing that they’re as real as gravitational and electromagnetic fields, Sheldrake contends that they coordinate activities of cells within bodies, insects within colonies and, yes, even enabling psychic links between individuals.
While there’s a great deal of evidence for morphic resonance, is a field concept really needed as well? True, the parts of an embryo seem to be coordinated much in the way that iron filings are brought into order by a magnetic field, but once we admit to the existence of the morphogenetic field, it becomes an intermediary between current and past organisms. Instead of resonating directly with past embryos, the current embryo is organized by a field, and it’s the field that resonates with past embryos. This complicates an otherwise elegant theory.
Though Sheldrake is right to look to physics for a model of how the embryo’s parts are coordinated at a distance, a better model might be the nonlocal effect of quantum entanglement. Just as photons are entangled insofar as they materialize a common form, the act of resonating with a common form may entangle cells of a given type. This would explain their coordinated efforts without the need for a field concept.
Sheldrake explains the “phantom limb” effect, whereby an amputee still senses a limb after its removal, by proposing that an arm, for instance, is governed by a morphogenetic field that remains in place even after the arm itself is removed. But if the individual is in resonance with his own past, back when he still had both arms, this alone would explain the phenomenon without appealing to a field effect. Same goes for “psychic pets.” Just as entanglement is easy to measure among particles that have recently interacted, once a pet and its owner have bonded, they too might remain nonlocally connected.
The morphogenetic field is inherently perplexing. Ever since its introduction, it has occupied a twilight zone between reality and heuristic concept. As soon as Forgacs and Newman define morphogenetic fields as nothing more than concentrations of chemical “morphogens,” they turn 180 degrees and claim that concentrations of morphogens are determined by morphogenetic fields.27 No one seems to know how to approach the field, the only agreement being that the parts of embryos are coordinated in a way that has yet to be explained from a materialistic standpoint.
Perhaps Sheldrake slipped up with his literal reading of morphogenetic fields, much as Darwin went astray with his concept of pangenesis. Even if this is true, however, it’s no excuse for the disgraceful treatment he has received from ideologues both inside and outside the sciences.
Fear of Science
To really criticize Sheldrake, you’ve got to open your mind enough to acquire a basic understanding of his work. Like Maddox before them, Shermer, Carroll and Myers think they can refute one of our foremost thinkers with a few insulting remarks. Dismissing out of hand any evidence that might bolster Sheldrake’s theory, their approach is to philosophize their way clear of him. A more thoroughly anti-science attitude can hardly be imagined. What the “scientific skeptics” reveal in their attempts to banish morphic resonance is their own underlying fear of science.
Instead of opening up to novel possibility, reductionists occupy a closed system of thought which they mistake for science itself. Rather than admit to their credulous commitment to the metaphysics of mechanistic reductionism and their fear and trembling in the face of real science, pseudo-skeptics cultivate the delusion that they are its foremost defenders. By narcissistically identifying themselves with science, they imagine that anything at odds with their own belief system is therefore contrary to science. Much like a cult, they reinforce each other’s confusion and sense of righteousness in the face of an implacable and unreasoning enemy, all the while imagining their efforts at maintaining collective self-satisfaction amount to some kind of noble undertaking.
Whereas true skepticism is the doubt that flushes out superstition and makes way for knowledge, cult skepticism is the absolute certainty in the falsehood of any suggestion in conflict with the ingrained prejudices of its adherents.
This world is indeed chock full of irrational thinking, and the methodology of science offers us an antidote. For this reason, the systematic confusion of science with reductionist dogma is the most dangerous cult of them all.
1. Sheldrake, Rupert, A New Science of Life (3rd Edition), London: Icon Books, 2009, pp 303-309
2. Ibid, front cover
4. Sheldrake, A.R., “The ageing, growth and death of cells,” Nature, 250, 381-385, August 2, 1974 http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v250/n5465/abs/250381a0.html
5. Forgacs, Gabor and Newman, Stuart A, Biological Physics of the Developing Embryo, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p 1
6. Ibid, pp 188-189
7. Ibid, p 50
8. quoted in Smolin, Lee, The Trouble with Physics, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006, p 307
9. Shermer, Michael, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and other confusions of our time, New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1997, pp 50-51
10. Ibid, p 53
12. Shermer, 1997, p 16
13. Ibid, p 53
14. Rothman, Stephen, Lessons from the Living Cell: The Limits of Reductionism, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002, pp 185, 210, 213
15. Ibid, p 283
16. Peterson, Karen S, “Paranormal is normal, controversial scientist says,” USA Today, February 26, 2003 http://www.usatoday.com/news/science/2003-02-26-mindmain-usat_x.htm
17. Shermer, Michael, “Rupert’s Resonance,” Scientific American, November 2005, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=ruperts-resonance
18. Sheldrake, Rupert, “The Sense of Being Stared At, Part 1: Is it Real or Illusory?” Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12, No. 6, 2005, p 16
19. Ibid, p 24
20. Ibid, p 26
21. Sheldrake, Rupert, “Richard Wiseman - Attempts to Debunk Evidence on Dogs,” http://www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversies/wiseman.html
22. Sheldrake, Rupert, “Do Skeptics Play Fair?” http://www.sheldrake.org/D&C/controversies/shermer.html
23. Carroll, Robert Todd, The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions, Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003, pp 231-232 http://www.skepdic.com/morphicres.html
24. Sheldrake, Rupert, The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature, New York: Times Books, 1988, p 89
25. Ibid, pp 106-107
26. Myers, PZ, “The Sheldrake Phenomenon,” Pharyngula, http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2008/06/the_sheldrake_phenomenon.php
27. Forgacs and Newman, 2005, p 125
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