Rupert Sheldrake’s most recent book, The Science Delusion in England and Science Set Free in the United States, may well prove to be the most important book of the decade, surely one of the most important books. Why? Because everyone knows that Science is the “good housekeeping” approval for most any intellectual effort in the West and Sheldrake has both the smarts and the balls to dare to challenge—not its hegemony—but its premises. And by “its” I mean the unexamined “dogmas” (Sheldrake’s word) of modern science that we still have with us like haze after a fire or pollution after a coal train has sped by even though we imagine we have outgrown 19th century thought.
Sheldrake makes clear that he is writing his book for scientists; he is critiquing science by its own terms; after all he is a well established though controversial scientist (graduate of Cambridge and all that) and he shows great courage in daring to stand up to his own discipline and scientific super egos. Yet Sheldrake writes in so lucid a style that his arguments are for the most part easily understood even by non-scientists like myself. Nor does he just throw firebombs at the “unscientific” suppositions (ten of them) that comprise the ten chapters of the book—he offers calm (and sometimes humorous) alternatives to the stuck ideologies of modern (as distinct from post-modern) science that still rules and haunts the halls of academia and the media and the fund granters. Sheldrake has spent years creating scientific experiments on low budgets that in fact support many of his criticisms of dogmas, experiments such as those with dogs that know when their masters are returning home and with people who know when they are being stared at—findings that deconstruct some dearly held scientific shibboleths.
Speaking personally, I have to say that this book was most timely for me for at least two reasons. First, I read Stephen Hawking’s latest book that was intended to shed light on the universe for all of us but I was so frustrated and frankly angry when I finished it that I wanted to throw it across the room. Here is a man who is elevated as an icon by the media (as are so many atheists these days, a number of whom such as Richard Dawkins are raking in even more money than silly television preachers), whom we all are supposed to listen silently to, but who in telling us the story of the universe never even mentions consciousness once. What? As if consciousness is not part of the universe? Or important in it? What about his own consciousness? I admire Hawking not only for his brilliant intellect but also for the amazing battle he has had to wage with his torn body to do his work and live his life. Does that struggle alone not give evidence of a deep consciousness and determination? One silver lining in Hawking’s book was that he was honest enough to come out of the closet as a materialist—that is his ideology, that is his belief system, that is the setting in which he plants all his other seeds.
That is what makes Sheldrake’s book so important. He establishes first of all that the dominant scientific paradigm today is still that of materialistic determinism a la Dawkins and Hawking and that, practically speaking, these are the ones and this is the ideological bent that gets the lion’s share of grants for investigative research. (The English title of Sheldrake’s book plays on Dawkins’ book title, The God Delusion.) So we are talking about what questions are asked and what questions are funded for research and, of course, what questions are not asked, never allowed to be asked, and never funded research-wise.
I said my first reason for the timeliness of this book was my experience with Hawking (and of course picking up on Dawkin’s noise and so many other very vocal and very well-connected-to-the-media-megaphone atheists). My second event this year that rendered this book so timely was reading an amazing book on the spiritual perspective of Albert Einstein put together by an old friend from German days who, like Einstein, escaped Germany to come to America in the thirties. This book, Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man, by William Hermanns gives first hand accounts of Einstein’s philosophy which was not at all that of scientific materialism but was beholden to Spinoza. In it Einstein talks about our need today for a “cosmic religion” that goes beyond all religions and all nationalities and political tribalism and that houses a “church of conscience.” I do not find in Hawkins work or in Dawkins much discussion of conscience. I suppose if you throw consciousness out the window, conscience goes out with it. The baby with the bathwater of course.
But this lacuna in contemporary materialism is precisely one thing that renders Sheldrake’s work so refreshing. If he is right—that ten dogmas are holding science back from doing its deeper work today—then exploring these ten shadows of contemporary culture could unleash tremendous vitality and possibility—even moral possibilities. It was Einstein who said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and our rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” To which I say: Amen. Amen. Amen. Think of all the creative advertising we see on our televisions—that is intuition serving the rational gods of consumerism. Consider the numbers being posted on Wall Street. Whom are they serving? The gods of rationality and casino capitalism.
Sheldrake, with courage and finesse, with scientific brilliance and a sharp wit, dares to take on the unexamined dogmas of today’s (outmoded) scientific ideologies. He proves that, alas!, the Stephen Hawkins of the world are to science what the Cardinal Ratzingers are to religion: They are dinosaurs and they are holding us back.
Following are the ten “dogmas” of modern science that Sheldrake names and takes apart in ten chapters, each dogma with its own chapter dedicated to it. He presents the chapter titles as questions.
1. Is Nature Mechanical?
2. Is the Total Amount of Matter and Energy Always the Same?
3. Are the Laws of Nature Fixed?
4. Is Matter Unconscious?
5. Is Nature Purposeless?
6. Is All Biological Inheritance Material?
7. Are Memories Stored as Material Traces?
8. Are Minds Confined to Brains?
9. Are Psychic Phenomena Illusory?
10. Is Mechanistic Medicine the Only Kind that Really Works?
He closes the book with chapters on “Illusions of Objectivity” and “Scientific Futures.” His vision is laid out in the final chapter like this: “The sciences are entering a new phase. The materialist ideology that has ruled them since the nineteenth century is out of date. All ten of its essential doctrines have been superseded. The authoritarian structure of the sciences, the illusions of objectivity and the fantasies of omniscience have all outlived their usefulness.” (p. 318) He also adds another and significant observation: Science is now global and materialistic ideology is uniquely European deriving from religious wars of the seventeenth century. “But these preoccupations are alien to cultures and traditions in many other parts of the world.” Just this one point makes clear how important this book is. The deconstruction of the ideologies behind science is an important part of keeping science itself relevant and alive on a global scale. Science needs to be ecumenical with various cultures (and religious world views) the world-over.
Though I am a christian I am by no means a fundamentalist who wants to make war with science or use the Bible as proof texts about creation. I want to use science to better understand creation whether we are talking about the universality of homosexuality among human tribes and among non-human species, or whether we are facing global warming and humanity’s moral implications in contributing to the same, or whether we are talking about life on mars or intelligent life elsewhere in the universe—for all these great questions I expect science to inform me. I come from the tradition of Thomas Aquinas who fought the fundamentalists of his day (has much changed in seven centuries since?) and brought in the “pagan” scientist Aristotle to do so. Aquinas says, “a mistake about creation results in a mistake about God.” Science therefore is integral to my theology and worldview and always will be and I am not only curious but eager to learn about creation from science; and therefore more about God. I am as anti-fundamentalist as any angry atheist. I am very critical of my own discipline as a theologian. Can not scientists be equally critical of their own discipline? Should they not be?
Let me make my position clear. Atheism has its place. I do not begrudge atheists their philosophy or worldview and indeed all theists should be listening to and be in dialog with atheists for, among other gifts, they assist the cleansing of hypocrisy and they also challenge the overuse and misuse and projected use of the Divine Name, the Mystery without a name that “has no name and will never be given a name” that Meister Eckhart talks of. There are many kinds of atheism just as there are many kinds of theologies. Some atheists are anti-theists (I am anti-theist also, my God is a panentheistic God, not a theist God). Some atheists are anti-organized religion (a pretty easy sell these days when so-called religious leaders countenance pedophilia and saddle up with dictators). Some atheists are anti-fundamentalists who are anti-intellectual. I share common ground there also, for I believe what Hildegard of Bingen said: “All science comes from God.” The left brain is a gift as are our right (or mystical, intuitive) brains.
Meister Eckhart offers the following prayer: “I pray God to rid me of God,” a challenge that deserves to be flung before every churchgoer and theist whether by a mystic like Eckhart or an atheist of conscience (of which there are plenty). Sheldrake is not arguing for theism; he is just making clear that an entire world view of materialistic science is reductionistic and rests on unproven assumptions. Why believe the unbelievable and/or at least the unproven? Why teach that the mind is limited to what goes on in the cranium? Why make that the basis of education and the basis of grant-giving and the basis of culture itself? Especially when that culture is so often revealing a less than dignified direction and preaches despair and pessimism so readily? For the record, I do not consider myself a theist but a panentheist. They are not the same thing. All mystics are panentheists.
One bone I have to pick with scientific materialists is the lack of admiration and praise many of them offer for the great and generous souls who, whether they be Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa, Buddha or Jesus, Mohammad or Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero or Hildegard of Bingen, were driven to the summits of moral generosity by their spiritual beliefs. These people are moral heroes in anybody’s book. But they all come out of some kind of sense of the Sacred, God, the holy Universe, the Church (King and Romero for example), etc. That is where they derived their courage. That fed them in their darkest times. Such nourishment deserve to be acknowledged. And even praised. These people were not fools. They represent the best among us, the best within us. As Eckhart said: “Who is a good person? A good person praises good people.” Why are materialists so often short on praise? Not just of good people but of the goodness of the earth and of the universe and of our existence from which we all derive?
Years ago, with Sheldrake’s first book, a scientific journal embarrassed itself by declaring that “this book more than any other in the last ten years deserves to be burned.” Goodness! Modern science borrowing a page from religion’s dark side (or politics’ dark side? Smells a bit like Nazi times also). The response so far to this latest book from Sheldrake has been overwhelmingly positive in the press in England. BUT not a single scientific journal has had the balls to review it. Isn’t that telling? Here is a scientist talking to scientists about their unconscious and unexamined and shadow side—and not ONE scientific journal has the guts to discuss it. Isn’t science supposed to be curious? Are dogmas so frozen that questions cannot be examined? My, my. It makes the Vatican and its unexamined dogmas almost standard. I cannot think of a greater accolade for this book than to say: It scares the bejesus out of scientists. And out of academicians.
When I wrote my book on The Reinvention of Work some twenty years ago, I called on all of us to take a more critical view at our professions and to find the values and the mysticism and prophetic possibilities that were there—and to offer alternatives, to carry the good fight into our work worlds because that is how history gets altered. I have tried to do that in my work both as an educator and as a theologian over the years. Rupert Sheldrake carries on that good and prophetic fight of reinventing his profession in this book where he dares to take on the scientific establishment—not out of rancor or hubris—but out of love for his vocation and vocations of future scientists. As he says, “This book is pro-science. I want the sciences to be less dogmatic and more scientific. I believe that the sciences will be regenerated when they are liberated from the dogmas that constrict them.” (p. 7) Is anyone listening? Are any scientists listening? Are any scientific journals listening?
Rupert, like any prophet, dares to speak truth to power and science is powerful. “Its influence is greater than that of any other system of thought in all of human history.” (p. 13) He wishes to rid science of “centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. The sciences would be better off without them: freer, more interesting, and more fun.” (p. 6) Sadly, Sheldrake notes that “many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption: they simply think of it as science, or the scientific view of reality, or the scientific worldview.” (p. 8) This book is rich with the history of science and philosophy telling important stories of movements and persons and ideas that have shaped our scientific world often in conflict with our religious beliefs.
In its studied and quiet and gentle and sometimes humorous way this book pulls the rug out from under an entire culture, one that is already on the down-slide as neither education nor science nor economics nor politics nor religion nor media are doing their job today. They are not feeding the souls and spirits of the Earth or its peoples. They deny us a future. We can do better. Sheldrake lights the way.