welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake

John Greenbank is unconvinced by Rupert Sheldrake’s lively heresies.

Rupert Sheldrake has been a distinguished biochemist and cell biologist, but his latest book, The Science Delusion, is disturbingly eccentric. Fluently superficial, it combines a disorderly collage of scientific fact and opinion with an intrusive yet disjunctive metaphysical programme.

I was an undergraduate student of biological sciences at Cambridge at the same time as Sheldrake, and I remember his commenting on Peter Medawar’s review of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s book The Phenomenon of Man (1959) and laughing at the idea of Teilhard ‘vibrating’ with the universe. Medawar’s review had been merciless: “Teilhard habitually and systematically cheats with words. His work, he has assured us, is to be read, not as a metaphysical system, but ‘purely and simply as a scientific treatise’ executed with ‘remorseless’ or ‘inescapable’ logic; yet he uses in metaphor words like energy, tension, force, impetus and dimension as if they retained the weight and thrust of their specific scientific usages.” Nevertheless, The Phenomenon of Man made a deep impression, I think, and it is Sheldrake’s own understanding of science that is now deluded. Although science has progressively revealed the workings of nature by direct engagement with it, Sheldrake wishes to free it from what he believes are its materialist intellectual shackles – and to make it “more exciting and engaging.”

Anti-Science Science

Some decades ago, the scientific establishment – in the person of an Editor of Nature, John Maddox – pounced on Sheldrake’s first book, A New Science of Life (1981), declaring it scientific heresy. Indeed it was, for in rejecting conventional understanding it broke faith with the community of scientific thinkers. Such perceived treachery is deemed punishable behaviour: heretics are never to be treated lightly. Sheldrake was indeed duly punished by a closing of ranks, the denial of official recognition for his views, and a block on funding for further research even in orthodox fields of science.

So who are the intended readers for this new book? The back cover of The Science Delusion (in America it’s called Science Set Free) lists some ‘amazing possibilities for scientific investigation’. For examples: the universe may be alive, and nature may have a purpose; the so-called ‘laws of nature’ may themselves be evolving, and matter and energy in the universe increasing; our minds may exist outside our brains, and our memories may not be brain-based but activated when we ‘tune in’ to the past; our children may inherit physical characteristics that parents have acquired since their own births; and whilst ‘energetic causation’ is from the past towards the future, ‘mental causation’ may work backwards from the future. Although these ideas are posed as open questions, they are intended to raise doubts. Sheldrake hopes thereby to gain the reader’s confidence before proceeding to cast doubt on the whole enterprise of science. A tone of derision appears early on in The Science Delusion when Sheldrake objects that an article written for the Wall Street Journal by Ricky Gervais “portrays scientists as open-minded seekers of truth.” So, Gervais the entertainer, turned spokesman for science, is mocked about science by a scientist turned entertainer.

Sheldrake introduces his pet interests – telepathy, the survival of memory after death, the purpose of nature and evolution, the consciousness of matter – saying that all are dogmatically denied by the establishment. In lining up the alleged dogma and serially berating his orthodox colleagues, he claims to be motivated by a “spirit of radical scepticism.” However, this spirit is manifested through a sleight-of-hand, where, for example, the alleged ‘dogma’ that matter is unconscious is turned into the question ‘Is matter unconscious?’

Scientific uncertainty is portrayed as unreliability or contradiction; yet Sheldrake’s own claim that laws may vary across the universe is based merely on the evidence of historical variation in measured constants. He dismisses the intellectual struggle of cosmologists to understand the universe as “a new, extravagant form of Platonism” (p.97), telling us that physical laws are but habits of the universe. He is convinced that “regularities of nature do not depend on an eternal mind-like realm beyond space and time [my italics] but on a kind of memory inherent in nature.” (p,85)

Sheldrake also claims that “the very idea of a law of nature is anthropocentric.” Yes, but isn’t that because science itself is anthropocentric? And then he writes, “Some philosophers of science… argue that [scientific laws] are generalisations based on experience.” (Again, my italics.) So (Sheldrake argues), since materialistic science does not depend for it’s truth on any judgement as to an absolute ground of experience, it must be wrong; but scientific curiosity is not in any need of metaphysical support or external validation. Scientists see their work as simply a mode of human activity, with its own rules and standards.

‘Teleology’ is the study of purposes or design in nature, and here scientists need to especially be on their guard. But Sheldrake shows little caution. For example, he asks the unanswerable question “Do morphogenetic fields really exert a causal influence, drawing organisms towards their goals?” He also believes that a purely evolutionary (natural selection) explanation of eyes “does not explain the purposiveness of living organisms: it presupposes it.” (p.131) However, science cannot propose a creative agent, for that is beyond its scope.

Resonating with the Universe

Sheldrake’s foundational metaphysical belief is ‘morphic resonance’. The idea of morphic resonance rests on a fallacy of thought, that of the ‘stolen concept’, which error is further compounded through the associated fallacy of the ‘argument from ignorance’ (or ‘wishful thinking’), before the idea is finally illicitly objectified by ‘false reification’. Thus, disillusioned by what he sees as the mechanistic neutrality of current science, Sheldrake makes an irrational conceptual leap to an alternative outlook by stealing the concepts ‘morphic’ and ‘resonance’ from their legitimate backgrounds, in biology and physics respectively. Because morphogenesis (the shaping of an organism’s form by cellular biochemistry) has not identified any substance responsible for co-ordinating the overall form – for instance, a vital fluid or a life force (élan vital) – Sheldrake invents one, which he calls a ‘morphogenetic field’. This field supposedly constrains the results of development so that an organism grows into the right shape. This cannot even be called a hypothesis, but is merely an argument from our incomplete knowledge of the processes of biology. And the proposal that morphic fields are “fields of probability, like quantum fields” is simply meaningless. (As an alternative to morphogenetic fields, might we not consider the universe connected together by an infinitesimally thin, perfectly elastic and infinitely extensible thread, through which energies and biological information can flow instantaneously?)

Whilst the exact status of scientific descriptors (facts, concepts and theories) are always under the legitimate scrutiny of philosophers, any acceptance of a new physical force, field, or sphere of action, must come from within a scientific community after appropriate investigation. But such is Sheldrake’s mistrust of what he understands as materialism that consciousness – a term used liberally and without definition – presents an insoluble problem. He sees it as unrelated to the material, so a dualism is implied. But to accept mind/matter dualism is to recognise two distinct realities, and science has no procedures for handling or analysing such a separation. So, again we encounter bad thinking, with faith in consciousness treated as a reason to believe in it, and then that concept being illegitimately made into a thing so that ‘mind’ can float free. Sheldrake castigates the whole area of cognitive psychology as just more materialism, ignoring the brilliant representational work of British neuroscientist David Marr.

An attempt is made to escape from materialism through panpsychism – a modification of materialism in which consciousness is an inherent property of all matter, and is not presumed to arise at any particular level of material complexity; when matter is assembled into brains, for example. Sheldrake warms to panpsychism, as to him the material world seems to imply evidence of both purpose and mind, and he mistakenly turns to Alfred North Whitehead. His discussion of Whitehead’s Process and Reality left me with “a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense” – as Medawar said of Teilhard de Chardin.

Whitehead is invoked by Sheldrake to underpin his own references to quantum theory. Sheldrake tells us that “Even the smallest possible processes, like quantum events, are both physical and mental” (p.121) and “the wave theory of matter destroyed the old idea of material bodies as essentially spatial” (p.120) The abstractions of quantum physics are presented as familiar: for example, “Thus the mass of an electron, for example, arises through its interaction with the Higgs field, and this interaction depends on special Higgs particles, called Higgs bosons, which are hypothetical.” From this understanding of the quantum world he confidently jumps to statements about free will.

Messing with Biology

After the euphoria of genome studies at the turn of the millennium, the promise of increased power for politicians and fame and fortune for ambitious scientists dwindled to a reluctant acceptance of a ‘missing hereditability problem’: a one-for-one matching of genes with human characteristics has not yet shown up. This problem is somewhat exultantly reported by Sheldrake, who, instead of pausing for thought as to the precise scientific implications of this situation, abandons all faith in such a quest. It may very well be possible to make a representational analysis for gene action like the one David Marr made for cognitive capacity, but Sheldrake no longer believes in progress in molecular biology. For example, he abandons reason in explaining biological continuity during insect metamorphosis (when, for example, a caterpillar turns into a butterfly), saying that “almost all the caterpillar tissues are dissolved before the new structures of the adult develop. Most of the nervous system is dissolved as well.” (My italics.) The implication here seems to be that all identity is lost, leaving us with the problem of explaining what determines the adult. (Sheldrake’s interest here is not the physical transformation, but how behaviour learned by a caterpillar is transferred to the adult.)

Discussing the perception of objects, Sheldrake finds it impossible to accept a ‘representational’ understanding that fits our subjective sensation of seeing or sensing directly, although we all represent the physical world in our sensation of it. This is so surprising because it is plainly impossible for the eye actively to see (by itself, as it were): instead there must be a mechanistic pathway that allows photons of light impinging on the retina to thereby influence the brain and so our perceptions. To argue otherwise is to be obtuse in the extreme – both illogical and unobservant – but this is what Sheldrake does.

In criticising Francis Crick for his materialist interpretation of human behaviour, Sheldrake quotes Carl Sagan – “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.” (Although in the next chapter this exact quote is dismissed as a materialist slogan!) Sheldrake wants to replace material traits or structures by ‘patterns of goal-directed activity’. But his discussions of this are unpersuasive because such capacities would be much more in evidence if true: secrets would be insecure, insider-dealing could be transmitted to others to be carried out by proxy, lottery numbers would be forecast, and the winnings spread widely.

Sheldrake’s core ideas depend on what might be called ‘paranormal’ activity. But experimental support for the paranormal is unreliable, for it is subject to the contamination of expectation – a self-invalidation akin to ‘leading the witness’. Freeman Dyson is cuttingly specific about this: “Recently Rupert Sheldrake did some interesting experiments on ESP in dogs. Dogs are much better than humans for such experiments. Dogs are dumb, they are not interested in the outcome of the experiment, and they do not cheat. Unfortunately Rupert Sheldrake is not a dog. He is human, and his essential role in his experiments makes his results questionable.” (Scientific American, 13/05/11.) Much that is used as evidence in this area reminds me of films where someone says “Something’s not right! Let’s get out of here!” Time and again we are presented with disingenuous arguments resting on dubiously-applied quantum concepts like ‘wave function’ and ‘multi-dimensional space’, that appear as if they’re being used like mantras to induce a state of belief in his ideas.

Senses of Science

There are several credible theories of science. In the 1950s, Willard Quine switched the attention of the philosophy of science from items of sense data to full systems of belief. In the present context, what we hold to be true about reality – our temporary metaphysical beliefs – should fill out our best scientific theories. Radically new ideas should be accommodated within a receptive conceptual framework. The very notion of a scientific system suggests that answers about the world are to be found not by expanding the terms of reference, but by seeing things from a different angle, or by bringing new ideas into conformity with the established beliefs.

Another, contrasting, individual strode onto the science scene in the 1960s with his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn says, “There is, I think, no theory-independent way to reconstruct phrases like ‘really there’.” That is, all notions of what is really there depend upon their place within what Kuhn called a paradigm, which is an accepted basic way of understanding the world. In practice, Kuhn says, different paradigms can be accommodated within the same subject, as long as these paradigms operate at different levels of detail. Perhaps Sheldrake would like to have discovered a new paradigm to operate alongside those already accepted by science. He wants to raise science to a new level that somehow recognises within its discipline a vibrancy in all living things that transcends their mere assemblies of atoms and molecules. As he finally despairs: “The bottom has dropped out of the atom, and a zoo of evanescent particles seems unlikely to explain the shape of an orchid flower, or the leaping of a salmon, or the flight of a flock of starlings.” But Sheldrake has himself lost the sense of science being a disinterested pursuit of curiosity. Instead he has a creed, and an agenda. Thus a scientist fascinated by a problem cannot investigate freely, but is hampered by ‘the mechanistic tradition’. The reader is encouraged to anticipate a revelation that processes are at work apparently requiring the redefinition of terms – ‘energetic’, the ‘laws of nature’, ‘acquired’ characteristics, ‘mental causation’ etc. But what Sheldrake can’t accept is that, across all fields of science, the world continues to be amenable to a purely materialist interpretation.

It is clear that Sheldrake must have a theory for everything, but I find ‘morphic fields’, ‘morphic resonance’, and ‘perceptual fields’ both absurd and irrelevant – fabrications superimposed on experience as spurious explanations. The Science Delusion itself is a preposterous confection. It may unsettle some general readers and turn others away from science, but for the scientifically-initiated it is simply incoherent. A truer (although totally subversive) title would be The Phenomenon of Science and the Delusion of Man. As an antidote for the perplexed reader, I can only recommend Kuhn’s 1969 Postscript to the Second Edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

© John Greenbank 2012

John Greenbank graduated in Natural Sciences and English from Clare College, Cambridge, and in Mathematics from the Open University. He was a Science Subject Officer with Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations in Cambridge. He is currently developing a range of modern shortwave crystal radio designs for amateur construction.

The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake, Coronet, 2012, 400 pages, £20 hb, ISBN 978-1444727920

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X