Rupert Sheldrake’s The Science Delusion takes on the “dogmas” of scientific materialism. It isn’t a polemic. It’s a thoroughly thought provoking book which seeks to get people thinking about the claims and beliefs of those who think that human beings are mechanical “stuff” and nothing more.
He outlines ten common beliefs which underpin the materialistic conceptions of most scientists.
1 Everything is essentially mechanical
2 All matter is unconscious
3 The total amount of matter and energy is always the same
4 The laws of nature are fixed
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 Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activity of brains
8 Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death
9 Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory
10 Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works
He then asks the reader to consider how valid or true such dogmas are, and poses questions for debate at the end of each chapter. This is most unlike most proclamations of scientists, and certainly of “skeptics” whose astounding sense of certainty about their own opinions is quite breath-taking and typically comes across as arrogant and closed minded.
Here’s a quote from The Independent – one of many positive reviews you can find –
But alas, in large measure, science and the idea of it have been seriously corrupted. That some of its high technologies are not in the general good is all too obvious – although it isn’t always obvious which ones are and which ones aren’t. Even more to the point, and in some ways more serious, is that science all too often becomes the enemy of what it should stand for. Although it must have rules and methods – in particular, the ideas of science must be testable – it should be open-minded. It should go where the data lead. That’s what the myth says it does do – but the reality is very different. In reality, science is locked into a series of dogmas that are largely untested and to some extent untestable, which for science ought to be the great no-no. Yet they must be adhered to, or risk the charge of flakiness and loss of grant. In The Science Delusion, Rupert Sheldrake drags ten of the most powerful dogmas out of the basement and into the light of day; and does science, humanity and the world a large, a considerable favour. The most obvious and all-prevailing of the great dogmas is that the universe as a whole – including life — is mechanical. Bits of stuff interact – and that’s it. The smaller the bits, the more fundamental the explanation is deemed to be. According to Richard Dawkins, human beings are “lumbering robots”, driven by their “selfish” DNA (where “selfish” is a shameless and seriously misleading piece of anthropomorphism). Consciousness, says Boston philosopher Dan Dennett, is an illusion – just the noise that neurons make, although it is hard to see how something that is not itself conscious could suffer from illusions. On the back of this mechanical dogma all metaphysics, which in effect means all religion, is kicked into touch. Yet, asks Sheldrake innocently, where is the evidence that life and all the universe are simply mechanical? What can the evidence possibly be? Common sense and common observation cry out every turn that we and many other creatures at least, are conscious, and that we have free will. Why reject our intuitions? On what grounds? Then again, some of the greatest philosophers, including Baruch Spinoza and AN Whitehead, have argued in various ways that consciousness is not confined to our brains. We do not engender it within our own heads, but partake of what is all around. Now there are reasons from many branches of science – physics, psychology, anthropology – to take this seriously. But all inquiry that seems to offend the dogma is marginalised.
The unlucky fact that our current form of mechanistic materialism rests on muddled, outdated notions of matter isn’t often mentioned today. It’s a mess that can be ignored for everyday scientific purposes, but for our wider thinking it is getting very destructive. We can’t approach important mind-body topics such as consciousness or the origins of life while we still treat matter in 17th-century style as if it were dead, inert stuff, incapable of producing life. And we certainly can’t go on pretending to believe that our own experience – the source of all our thought – is just an illusion, which it would have to be if that dead, alien stuff were indeed the only reality. We need a new mind-body paradigm, a map that acknowledges the many kinds of things there are in the world and the continuity of evolution. We must somehow find different, more realistic ways of understanding human beings – and indeed other animals – as the active wholes that they are, rather than pretending to see them as meaningless consignments of chemicals.