Monday 22 April 2013

A Mistitled Book

I think I mentioned recently that I was reading Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion. I  finished this misnamed book last week - it's not a quick read, being quite densely packed ('full of matter,' as Johnson would say) and written in a dry, almost textbook-like style. I say misnamed because Sheldrake's book is in no way an attack on science as such - it is avowedly 'pro-science', but anti the dogmatic, authoritarian postures into which science is perpetually inclined to lock itself, perhaps never more so than at present. I imagine the publishers' marketing department came up with The Science Delusion in the hope of catching the backlash to Dawkins' The God Delusion (to which it is most definitely not a riposte, though the author takes a few well-merited potshots at Dawkins - who wouldn't?)
  In America, Sheldrake's book has the much more descriptive title, Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery. The ten paths are laid out systematically. They open out from a list of ten 'core beliefs that most scientists take for granted' - 'The Scientific Creed', Sheldrake calls is. Each of the ten beliefs - which amount to unspoken assumptions or unexamined dogma - is then inverted into a question in the ten chapters that follow, from 'Is Nature Mechanical?', 'Are the Laws of Nature Fixed?' and 'Is Matter Unconscious?' to 'Is Mechanistic Medicine the Only Kind that Really Works?' In each chapter, he proposes new lines of inquiry and cites strong evidence that they might be fruitfully pursued. He closes each chapter with a few cogent 'Questions for Materialists' and a Summary of the content. After the ten core chapters comes Illusions of Objectivity, an eye-opening account of how Science is actually done - research, funding, peer review, publication - and how the authoritarian dogmatic structure works against free inquiry and can positively encourage bad science, even fraud.
  The book aims to open up science, to stimulate it to question its assumptions and explore new avenues. It would better be called The Delusions of Science - the principal delusion being that it is firmly founded on certain unassailable truths that no longer need to be examined. Sheldrake's questioning leaves that edifice of certainty riddled with holes and looking more and more like the ossified outgrowth of an outmoded world view. His job, in this book, is not really to propose an alternative, but its outlines can be discerned clearly  enough - in crude summary, it's a model of reality conceived in terms of fields rather than particles (Sheldrake is best known for his Morphogenetic Field theory).
  I can't claim to have enjoyed The Science Delusion as a reading experience, but on the intellectual level it was an exhilarating journey of discovery, putting flesh on the bones of my own intuitions about the reductive dogmatism and closed-mindedness of scientism, and showing that, even within science, there are sound, mind-opening alternatives to this self-defeating stance. It left me firmly convinced that, in the end, there is really very little we can be firmly convinced about - and that, surely, is a good thing.
  Country Life, in a fine spray of Reviewers' Adjectives, describes The Science Delusion as 'refreshing, important and astounding' - and actually that's not far wrong. A shame we'll never see Sheldrake presenting a TV series and giving us a (refreshing, important and astounding) break from Brian 'Boy' Cox - and, of course, Dickie Dawkins.


  1. Joey Joe Joe Jr.22 April 2013 at 15:15

    Paint me cynical, Nige. Perhaps I should give the chap a chance and get his book, but I've read a couple of his interviews and, frankly, he sounds a bit of a kook. Whenever I read polemics about Science's dogmatic insistence on materialism, I always suspect the problem the writer actually has is with Science's dogmatic insistence on minimum standards of evidence, especially if the writer in question has a penchant for rather New-Age sounding theories about 'Morphic Resonance Fields'. Besides, the history of science is full of examples of our understanding of the universe improving because somebody has questioned or tested some seemingly fundamental law or symmetry. That we usually work on the assumption that 'it probably isn't magic' without feeling the need to question or test it, is probably more an issue of practicality than anything.

  2. If you don't like Sheldrake then Edward Feser's The Last Superstition is well worth a read.

  3. Taking on the pretensions of scientism and dogmatic materialisn is both noble and great fun, but it does take discipline to avoid becoming slaphappy and dabbling in fantasy. Materialism falters over some well-known things like first causes, but mainly when it tries to tackle human consciousness and subjectivity. It tends to minimize the scope of those, treating consciousness as little more than a quirky add-on that lets us recognize ourselves in a mirror but isn't of much greater moment. In fact, the subjective rules our lives a lot more than the objective and separates us from the nerd who thinks pesky questions like "Why are we here?" aren't nearly as interesting and important as the composition of dark matter. Everything from love to vengeance to justice to art to genocide to religion and much, much more comes from it. Why does Nige mourn an ancient tree of dubious beauty?

    So by all means let us challenge and torture them on their overreach. But one is on very dicey grounds when one starts raising the spectre of the "objectively non-material" and suggests the possibility of mysterious transcendental or ethereal realms and dimensions. By definition science can't go there, so why complain that it doesn't? That's just doing the opposite of what materialists do when they insist subjective experience can be reduced to the world of material objectivity. Morphic Resonance Fields sounds oh-so-learned,but I want to know whether that's where pixie dust is found.

    Perhaps a good illustrative example is his questionning of what he somewhat patronizingly calls "Mechanisitic Medicine". Materialists go apoplectic over things like homeopathy and frequently want it outlawed and its practitioners put in stocks. If there is a case for just letting it be and telling them to chill out, it's not made by arguing that Hepar Sulf may have general, rationally inexplicable healing properties that originate in some non-material realm we haven't yet explored, it's that mechanistic medicine has a stunted and vulgar notion of human wellness. If people can improve their health by buying a dog, it should be no surprise they can do so by ingesting what they believe to be natural goodies. Why such is so is a fascinating puzzle, but surely it's not because they contain physical healing agents from a non-physical realm that recommends them to the general population. Also, it's worth remembering neither Hepar Sulf nor a dog will help you much if you have cancer or a serious infection. With those you'd be better to rely on proven, tested remedies with an evidentiary foundation. Like prayer. :-)

  4. I've heard his banned TED talk, and while I remain skeptical about morphic resonance, he gives a good, fair description of the tenets of materialism. And I agree that the first reaction of any scientist to the examples of inconsistencies he gives should be "let's look into that," not "that's the way it's always been done."