Friday, December 27, 2013

Is the world weirder than science admits?

The Science Delusion: Freeing The Spirit Of EnquiryThe Science Delusion: Freeing The Spirit Of Enquiry by Rupert Sheldrake

If there’s bias in scientific experiments, it’s usually put down to something subtle but essentially mundane - subconscious cues in the behaviour of experimenters being picked up by their subjects, for instance. In a characteristically radical claim, Rupert Sheldrake suggests we should be looking for much more exotic causes like “mind-over-matter effects or psychokinesis”.

The vast majority of scientists would scoff: we don’t need to worry about effects that seem more like magic than science.

In The Science Delusion, Sheldrake argues for such sweeping changes to the scientific world view that you may find yourself wondering whether it is some elaborate satire intended to highlight the dangers of conventional thinking. If you conclude (correctly) that he’s in earnest, you may wonder if he’s mad.

The chances of that seem small: Sheldrake is a Cambridge scientist with decades of work in plant biology behind him and a string of mainstream academic connections. He is also the author of more than 80 papers in conventional scientific journals. He may be a maverick but he’s not an outsider (unlike the home-based James Lovelock for instance).

The Science Delusion casts doubt on almost everything that conventional science takes for granted. And it is that ‘taking for granted’ that Sheldrake most objects to. He complains that what we now think of as scientific progress is limited to developments on a narrow front sanctioned by the closed minds of the scientific establishment. Research is only funded if it conforms to a series of ‘articles of faith’ – untested and rarely articulated assumptions which add up to nothing more ‘scientific’ than the dogmas of the Christian church in its heyday.

The body of Sheldrake’s book is devoted to questioning ten of these assumptions and pointing to experimental evidence which he believes debunks them.

So, for instance, his first chapter deals with the question ‘Is Nature Mechanical?’. In other words, ‘is there life in life?’ or can it be fully explained by the mechanisms of chemistry and physics, as science today assumes.

Sheldrake’s answer is that at every level of a hierarchy of being, from sub-atomic particles to molecules, to cells, to organs and organisms, and social systems, there are emergent properties that are ‘more than the sum of the parts’. The idea of life forms as machines, he says, is more a metaphor than a testable theory.

Sheldrake’s list of targets is impressive in its range as well as its detail: genes are “grossly over-rated” as the controllers of development; physical constants are not constant; minds can influence each other telepathically; memory will never be mapped in the brain; the promise of biotech industries has already been seen to be over-hyped; medicine is floundering as it tries to continue the progress it was making until a couple of decades ago.

The reader is challenged to decide how far to accept the author’s thesis. Easiest to go along with is the survey of the uncertainties behind scientific dogma and Sheldrake’s critique of the over-reliance on conventional thinking by a self-serving culture.

Then there are the intriguing experiments, including many of Sheldrake’s own: his apparently controlled test, for instance, that seems to prove the popular idea that before they pick up the receiver, people know more frequently than chance would predict, who is telephoning them.

Hardest to follow (in both senses of follow) is the author’s fully-fledged alternative theory that claims to plug the deficiencies of conventional thinking. It’s called morphic resonance: “similar patterns of activity resonate across time and space with subsequent patterns.” So crystals are more likely to form in a particular configuration if that configuration has been common in the past. He has data to support the claim. Human skills become easier if others have learn them before (see the rise in IQ scores over the years). And inherited behaviours that couldn’t be genetic would be explained by morphic resonance between generations.

There’s something disturbingly metaphysical about morphic resonance: the temporal properties of cause and effect become strangely inverted: instinctive behaviour or the growth potential of a plant work “by pulling towards a virtual future rather than pushing from an actual past.”

Sheldrake insists it’s a testable theory - unlike, he says, many of the current assumptions of science. And he’s not backward in the claims he makes for it. Take the way he’d like to give to morphic resononance, some of the jobs we currently attribute to genes. While the correlation between insect mutations and genetic changes is typically taken as a demonstration of the role of genes in ‘coding for’ the form of the organism they sit inside, Sheldrake see it differently. To him, genes are nothing more than the equivalent of the parts of a TV set in relation to a TV programme: their malfunction will certainly affect the ability of a TV set to play a programme properly. But that doesn’t mean they contain within them all that’s required to produce - or explain scientifically - the programme. The programme comes from outside the TV set through a whole different process. In the same way, then, an animal’s form and behaviour are indeed affected by genetic mutations “but this does not prove that form and behaviour are programmed in the genes.” Instead, “they are inherited by morphic resonance, an invisible influence on the organism from outside it.”

The TV analogy is a powerful illustration of the possible limitations of what can be deduced from mutations; and the positive suggestion of morphic resonance is nothing if not a brave attempt to move the debate forward.

Few scientists - whether through fear or genuine scepticism - have thrown in their lot with morphic resonance. But science needs more thinkers who are prepared to try to figure out the big picture - to combine the findings of astronomy and sub-atomic physics with ordinary human experiences and the cultural and social history of science and religion, and to articulate the assumptions that are so deeply ingrained in our thinking that we can’t easily recognise them.

To speak on these subjects from within the scientific and academic establishment is taboo, as Sheldrake sees it - and is the great achievement of his work. He insists on open-minded thinking and that the study of strange and exotic phenomena is the lifeblood of scientific enterprise. We should thank him for putting up with the raised eyebrows he meets on high table as he tries, almost single-handedly, to nudge the compass of the scientific oil tanker.

For non-scientists, the feeling that big mysteries are still being investigated is reassuring and seems to make sense. Can anyone seriously argue that existing theory doesn’t have problems explaining emergent properties - that reducing systems to their components is a complete explanation?

Rather than Sheldrake’s TV set metaphor, I’d go with something more mechanical: there’s a limit to how much the understanding of how a piano works can provide an account of music.

There’s a message of hope at the heart of Sheldrake’s case. We don’t have to try to explain everything with existing theories - especially when they require bending to breaking point to fit what we see around us. I had the same sense of excitement reading Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. On a somewhat narrower canvas, Kelly argues that an idea of direction in evolution fits the evidence more convincingly than the conventions of Dawkins’ ‘blind watchmaker’.

Of course, the providing of hope isn’t the right measure of a scientific endeavour. But the sense of new ideas opening fresh possibilities for research and the chance to better integrate theory with observed reality must surely be welcome.

When you have read Sheldrake, you will find yourself coming across things that you can imagine him seizing on as fitting right into his world view: in the Times (2/12/13), there was a great report by Rosemary Bennett about a study to be published in Nature Neuroscience in which the effect of experiences is passed between generations. The offspring of parents taught to fear a certain chemical are found to fear it before having been exposed to it; and their offspring have the same reaction. It's as if Pavlov's dogs passed on their responses genetically.

This work is part of the “quiet scientific revolution” of epigenetics, the new field that explores the inheritance of characteristics based on experience: “what we eat, how much stress we undergo, and what toxins we're exposed to can all alter the genetic legacy we pass on to our children and even grandchildren.” Sheldrake has already described the phenomenon, and offered it as an example of morphic resonance.

Is the tide of research and scientific thinking flowing in his direction?

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