The Problem with Rupert Sheldrake

Rupert Sheldrake

Rupert Sheldrake is an English author and parapsychologist (someone who studies paranormal phenomena, such as telepathy, precognition, psychokinesis and other forms of ESP). In recent times he gained notoriety for having his TED talk banned, a talk that questioned, what Sheldrake believed to be, the ten dogmatic assumptions of modern science.

He is credited with coming up with the hypothesis of “morphic resonance” and has argued that dogs have the power of telepathy, in his book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999), drawing on what he believes is compelling experimental evidence. Sheldrake was also a good friend of Terence McKenna, who, with the mathematician Ralph Abraham, engaged in several trialogues, discussing a myriad of unusual ideas and fringe theories. (Some recordings of these trialogues, which were also later turned into books, can be watched on YouTube: The Evolutionary Mind, MetamorphosisThe Apocalyptic Tradition, Education in the New World Order, and many more).

The problem with Rupert Sheldrake, however, is that his ideas do not really survive critical investigation and so they remain within the realm of pseudoscience. Also, his book, The Science Delusion (2012), which many celebrate as an attack on the dogmatism in science, instead involves a distortion of how science actually operates.

Despite having a PhD in Biochemistry, Sheldrake has received a great deal of criticism from the scientific community for his work on telepathy. He views this attack as a refusal to look at the evidence he has collected over the years on this topic; however, none of his experiments has ever been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, suggesting that there is no compelling evidence in the first place. In Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, Sheldrake describes how he videotapes the behaviour of dogs and concluded that they knew when their owners set off to go home. Dogs would apparently wait by the doorway before they could hear the noise of their car approaching, for example.

The psychologist Richard Wiseman wrote a paper entitled, The Psychic Pet Phenomenon: A Reply to Rupert Sheldrake and in it he critiques Sheldrake’s interpretation of the data. Wiseman attempted to duplicate Sheldrake’s experiment using the same ‘psychic’ pet that Sheldrake had used in his own experiments; a dog named Jaytee. Sheldrake then analysed Wiseman’s data and said that it pointed to psychic abilities: Jaytee, for example, would wait on the porch for longer periods of time when the owner was closer to arriving home, a phenomenon consistent with Sheldrake’s own results.

Wiseman, on the other hand, is not convinced. He argues that the observed patterns could easily be explained by Jaytee’s natural waiting behaviour – a dog is more likely to wait on the porch for longer the longer their owner is away. So it should not be surprising that Jaytee is on t the porch before the owner comes home. This is evidence of a dog anticipating the arrival of their owner, instead of knowing it through psychic abilities. Wiseman also criticises the fact that Sheldrake’s experiments have not been published in peer-reviewed journals, but only in his books. This has meant that his methodology has not been fully described, making it difficult to properly assess the validity of his methodology.

Sheldrake has also explored the phenomenon of when people ‘know’ that they’re being stared at, in his book, The Sense of Being Stared At. In tens of thousands of trials, he reported that 60% of the subjects reported being stared at when they were and that 50% of the subjects reported being stared at when they weren’t. He sees this as evidence of weak psychic abilities. However, the results are not that significant and the 60% hit rate could be explained by other factors than psychic abilities. Richard Wiseman has also replicated the experiment and found that subjects detected stares at rates no better than chance.

Another idea that has characterised Sheldrake’s career has been ‘morphic resonance’ and the ‘morphogenetic field’. In his 1981 book, A New Science of Life, Sheldrake refers to ‘morphic resonance’ as the basis of “memory in nature….the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species.”

Morphic resonance is the influence of previous structures on subsequent similar structures. Through morphic resonance each member of a species draws on a collective memory and in turn, through their own activity, contributes to it as well. The idea of a collective memory is similar to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, a pool of symbols and archetypes of which we are unaware. However, Sheldrake makes claims that go far beyond Jung’s idea that the collective unconscious is purely a phenomenon of human psychology. Sheldrake claims that morphic resonance is transmitted via ‘morphogenetic fields’ and that a member of a species will tune into the collective information in this field in order to shape its own development. In his own words, Sheldrake says:

It is not at all necessary for us to assume that the physical characteristics of organisms are contained inside the genes…Thus, morphogenetic fields are located invisibly in and around organisms, and may account for such hitherto unexplainable phenomena as the regeneration of severed limbs by worms and salamanders, phantom limbs, the holographic properties of memory, telepathy, and the increasing ease with which new skills are learned as greater quantities of a population acquire them.

Two claims here strike me as problematic: the first, that the physical characteristics of organisms are not contained inside genes. This is contradicted by a well-established and persuasive body of evidence which explains how DNA and gene expression affects the development of organisms. The second claim, that the morphogenetic field is invisible, leads sceptics to argue that the concept is magical and untestable (and therefore unscientific). Supporters of Sheldrake’s hypothesis could reply by saying that the quantum world is invisible to us, yet that does not mean it is unreal. That’s true; however, all the evidence points to a quantum world. Sheldrake’s obsession with telepathy does not necessarily point to a world full of invisible morphogenetic fields. Reports of telepathy can be explained without the unnecessary baggage of morphic resonance.

The most recent issue which Sheldrake has addressed has been the apparent dogmatism and fundamentalism found in modern science. These ideas were expressed in his most recent book, The Science Delusion and were summarised in his banned TED talk. Whether his TED talk (along with Graham Hancock’s) should have been removed from the TED website is a separate issue. It is not fair to say that they have been censored since they are available online anyway. Perhaps Sheldrake and Hancock should not have been invited in the first place, given the nature of TED talks.

Sheldrake maintains that the 10 dogmas of science are: (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, (6) All biological inheritance is material, (7) Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activity of brains, (8) Memory is stored in material traces in the brain, (9) Unexplained phenomena such as telepathy are illusory, and (10) Mechanistic medicine is the only one that really works.

Anyone with a scientific mindset would (and should) be suspicious about someone claiming that these ten points are religiously held dogmas. All of these 10 supposed dogmas are actually claims which have been bolstered by compelling evidence and which have not been falsified. Since the scientific method is inherently non-dogmatic – it involves a self-correcting mechanism where hypotheses which are inconsistent with the data are rejected – if there was real evidence for telepathy, purpose in nature, homeopathy, and so on, then these phenomena could be seriously studied.

But instead, Sheldrake sees the lack of interest in his own beliefs as a sign that science works by suppressing information which does not fit into its own framework of assumptions. It still remains the case that there is a lack of evidence for Sheldrake’s own strongly held assumptions, including the belief in a purposeful goal-directed universe, the belief that laws of nature are not laws at all, but are more like ‘habits’, the belief that the mind is essentially immaterial and non-local (not located in the brain), and the belief in panpsychism (a doctrine which says that all matter is conscious). The irony of Sheldrake’s attack on science is that he fails to subject his own assumptions to the same open-mindedness and critical thinking that he accuses scientists of lacking.

For more, check out this recent debate with Rupert Sheldrake, neuroscientist Colin Blakemore, and novelist Joanna Kavenna, who discuss whether we should view the human body as a machine. Blakemore’s position is that the human body is purely mechanical, which is at odds with Sheldrake’s critique of such mechanistic thinking.

1 Comment

  1. October 29, 2015 / 3:08 am

    Clinical psychedelic studies by Grof indicates for telepathy…. The dogmatic issue with science lies in the cessation of psychedelic studies following the controlled substance act 1970.

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