It’s not often I say this, and may never again, but The Guardian has an excellent article in today’s online edition.
Rupert Sheldrake: the ‘heretic’ at odds with scientific dogma is a very good read. Note the quotes around heretic; plus the phrase, scientific dogma. Tim Adams is clearly a journalist with an open mind, unlike the sainted Polly Toynbee of this parish, whose pursed-lipped, lemon sucking performance on Jubilee Sunday’s Marr paper review was jaw dropping in the circumstances.
The article ostensibly reviews the spiritual scientist’s new book, The Science Delusion, with its echoes of revolt against Richard Dawkins’s effort, The God Delusion, but goes much further than that.
Adams lets Sheldrake speak for himself. He would have preferred a different title but his publisher seems to have spotted a good controversy to be had. The work is selling very well.
The title doesn’t matter, the book is a wonderful ride through the territory that is often seen as anti-science, ie mystical, when really it fills in the gaps that scientists can’t grasp with their clunky tools and pretend don’t exist.
But they do matter, for in those gaps is contained a majestic worldview that does justice to the many imponderables of human existence. Sheldrake himself is no pot-smoking weirdo — although he had his moments in India, like many others of his generation.
His scientific CV is starry and far superior to the majority of his critics: a former Cambridge biochemistry don, he was one of the brightest Darwinians of his generation, winner of the university botany prize, researcher at the Royal Society, Harvard scholar and fellow of Clare College. He deserves a hearing at least.
When his first book was published, the journal Nature imperiously pronounced it “a book for burning”. What could they have been afraid of?
Not surprisingly, he now writes about “the limitations and hubris of contemporary scientific thought”. For those of us ploughing a similar field of furrows, the summary of contents on the back cover of Science Delusion is a feast:
* The universe may be alive
* The “laws of nature” may be habits that change and evolve
* Minds may extend far beyond the confines of brains
* The total amount of matter and energy may be increasing
* Children may, after all, inherit characteristics that their parents acquired
* Memories may not be stored … in our brains …
* Nature may have inherent purposes.
In my view, it all comes down to the presence of two types of people in the world. One sees a wall and takes out a tape measure, believing it will reveal all about the wall. The other wonders what lies beyond it and seeks ways to get there.
The first type is fearful that the wall may be a delusion and attempts to solidify it as a list of dimensions. The second is fascinated by the delusionary possibilities of the wall and wants to explore the consquences.
The two are not incompatible, as Sheldrake shows. The difficulty is that a world that is not what it seems raises atavistic terrors in the minds of the measuring type. They defend their territory by any means available, even rage and violence. Sheldrake was once stabbed by a knife-wielding student.
As Rupert Sheldrake puts it: “To describe the overwhelming life of a tropical forest just in terms of inert biochemistry and DNA didn’t seem to give a very full picture of the world.” Or again, “electrical changes in the cortex didn’t seem able to fully explain Bach”.
For me, despite its apparent search for the “new”, science as we know it is desperately defending a physical view of the cosmos that allows its practitioners to sleep at night. They are true defenders of the faith. Like priesthoods, their tenacity can be vicious.
Consequently, their understanding of the world is 3000 years behind the great spiritual masters. You wouldn’t think that early science began with mysticism.
If you’ve got an hour to spare, and don’t mind a little tedium, read some of the 650 comments on the piece online, mostly against the truthsayer.
Well, it is The Guardian.
… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.
Mystics in the Modern World is coming soon.