In his explorations for a better understanding of consciousness, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake challenges the mechanistic dogma of contemporary mainstream science. He has recently released a new book, Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery, which addresses the ideas that have become dogmas in modern scientific thought, exposes their weaknesses, and offers intriguing solutions for a way forward.
Gabriel Roberts: Dr. Sheldrake, you are known for raising the public's awareness about morphic fields. What are they and what's the evidence to support them?
Rupert Sheldrake: Morphic fields are the fields that organize the shape or form of living organisms, like plants and animals. They are like the invisible plans that shape them. The idea of morphic genetic fields, or short form shaping fields, was quite well known in biology for a long time, over 90 years. That is not an original point of mine, it's a pretty mainstream idea. The key part of my theory is that there is a kind of memory in the field, and that each organism draws on the collective memory and in turn contributes to it. The evidence for that is the mysterious memory effects that occur in living things. For example, if you train rats to learn a new maze trip in New York, then rats all around the world should be able to learn the same trick more quickly just because the rats had learned it already in New York. And there is actual evidence from experiments at Harvard, in Australia and in Scotland that this effect really happens.
How do morphic fields releate to the other discoveries you write about in your new book Science Set Free? In the book, you discuss the Higgs Boson and the significance that it may have. What's the correlation?
Well this doesn't have much to do with the Higgs Boson, which is a theory in physics about how things get their mass. But what the Higgs Boson does do is remind us of how little we understand about the fundamental nature of matter. After all, the Higgs Boson is supposed to explain why anything has mass. We take for granted the fact that things have weight. If you buy a pound of fruit, it weighs a pound. We take weight and mass completely for granted. And yet it turns out it's completely unexplained in physics, and depends on this Boson that was detected elusively just a few months ago. Even then it leaves many questions unanswered.
One of the points I make in Science Set Free is that we actually understand so much less than we usually assume we do. In relation to genes and inheritance, for example, people thought that the genome project would explain the vast majority of heredity. It turns out to explain only about 5 to 10 percent in most cases, and there is now a crisis in the heart of biology called the "missing heritability problem." It's not in the genes. I think that's because it's in the morphic resonance of the collective memory I was just speaking about.
That's interesting, because when I read that part of the book I kept thinking of people looking for their keys in the wrong pair of pants.
Yes. I mean frankly, the whole of biology, for decades now, is based on this assumption that it's all molecular and genetic. I share in my book Science Set Free that hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested on the assumption that this genetic view of inheritance is the whole truth, or almost the whole truth. It turns out it's not, and there's been a vast waste of money — public and private money — on this project which has been a disastrous failure, as the Harvard Business school shared in a recently report.
What kind of reaction have you received to the things you're bringing up? In your book, you lay out what the problems are, how science had turned into dogma, and you offer some solutions. What are the main scientific presumptions that have been turned into dogmas?
In my book I deal with ten different dogmas. One is that the total amount of matter and energy is always the same. Another is that nature is mechanical, or machine-like. Another is that heredity is all carried in the genes. These are three of the ten dogmas I address.
I said something just now about heredity and the genes, but take matter and energy, that the total amount is always the same, except at the moment of the Big Bang, when it all appeared from nowhere — that's the usual assumption. Well, it turns out that physicists have discovered that there is a huge amount of so-called dark matter and dark energy. We don't have a clue what they are, but they now make up 96 percent of reality, and they've been added over the last 30 years. Now if the total amount of matter and energy is always the same, is the total amount of dark matter and dark energy always the same? No one has a clue. Actually, the total amount of dark energy seems to be increasing as the universe expands.
You know, the whole thing is in shambles, really. What we all learned at school and thought of as fixed laws turns out to relate to only to 4% of the matter and energy in the universe. And we don't know the relationship between that 4% with the rest.
I found that in many recent comments about the Higgs, scientists used the word "magic" to suggest, "Well, we put these things in here and just like magic it pops back out!" Which reminded me of the Terence McKenna quote,"Science just asks for one small miracle and then they'll be sure to take care of the rest." That was quite amusing.
That's a great quote of Terence's. Yes, that's it. Science requests, "Give us one free miracle and we'll explain the rest." And the one free miracle is the appearance of all the matter and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it from nothing at a single instant.
That's just a small miracle.
You've experimented a good deal with the sense of being stared at. This sort of thing seems so simple to the average person, and yet a scientific materialist might say, "That's just nonsense." Is this another example of the dogma you refer to?
One of the ten dogmas I discuss in Science Set Free is that the mind is inside the head. The assumption of materialism is that the mind is nothing but the activity of the brain, therefore it is all inside the head. That means that when you look at somebody, your image of that person is inside your head, it's not out there in any way. So when you look at somebody, you shouldn't be able to affect them.
Yet almost everybody has the experience of knowing when you are being looked at from behind, when you turn around and someone is looking at you. Or you look at somebody and they turn around. So that suggests the sense of being stared at is real. It's found all over the world. I've interviewed surveillance officers, private detectives and so forth, and they all take it completely for granted. It's taught in the martial arts; you can train this ability and get better at it. I've done lots of experiments, and so have many other people, that show this is indeed a real phenomenon.
This is no surprise to most people, because they have experienced it and so have most of their friends and family. The phenomenon is well known, yet there has been an almost complete systematic denial of its existence in science for a hundred years because, if the mind is inside the head, it's impossible. It ought to not happen. Therefore the evidence was dismissed as illusory. There are still organized groups of skeptics who take that line and try and just explain it all away as coincidence. Yet the science we gathered does show it's real, and if it's real, then something about our mind reaches out to touch what we are looking at.
I think in fact our minds extend far beyond our brains. They're a bit like cell phones, in the sense that cell phones have an electromagnetic field which is inside the phone but which extends far beyond the cell phone. That's why cell phones work, because of this influence that stretches out beyond them. What I'm suggesting is that our minds are a bit like that. Of course they are in the brain, but they stretch out far beyond the brain, far beyond our bodies in the very act of perception. Every time we look at something with an intention, when we have an intention to do something, that intention reaches out. For example, if I have an intention to make a phone call to somebody, my intention precedes me making the call. What often happens is that people start thinking about someone for no apparent reason, then that person calls and they say, "That's funny, I was just thinking about you." I think that's because they pick up the intention before the call is actually made. It's in fact a kind of telepathy.
That's another of the dogmas I talk about in Science Set Free, the dogma that psychic phenomena are illusory. They are impossible because the mind is in the brain and therefore they cannot happen. In fact, they do happen. Telephone telepathy, which again for a hundred years was denied by so called skeptics as just coincidence, turns out to be a real phenomenon. About 80% of the population has experienced it, so it's no surprise to most people.
I have an automated telephone telepathy test running in the US, so I can invite any listener to do it themselves. This is something you can actually try yourself. Go to my website, sheldrake.org, and you'll find the online experiments portal. Simply register to do the test. You put in your own name and cell phone number, and the cell phone number of two friends or family members. Of course you have to check with them first, because they have to be available to answer the phone. Then the computer picks one of the two people at random and sends a text message. If you were the sender, you would get a text message saying, "This is Rupert's telephone telepathy test, please call him at this LAN line number." So you call the landline number, which is in fact the computer and it puts you on hold. Then the computer rings me, and my cell phone says, "Telephone telepathy test" in the caller ID field. When I answer, it says "This is your telephone telepathy test. One of your two callers is on the line right now, please guess who it is. Press 1 for Gabriel, Press 2 for Toma." So you make a guess. Then the line opens up and you get to see whether you're right or wrong. So it's a fun, easy-to-do test that is now running automatically in the United States. These tests are showing above chance results.
You've spoken publicly about shamanism and how shamans enter other realms and bridge the gap between them. Can we apply a scientific analysis to these kinds of phenomena?
Dr. Sheldrake: As I was saying, I think that the mind extends far beyond the brain. With every perception it stretches out. In addition, I think we also have access to collective memories. I think that mystical experiences of various kinds, shamanic and otherwise, involve our mind contacting other mental realms or mental realities — which are not inside other people's brains or even inside animal brains. Well, they are inside of them, but they stretch out beyond them. Psychic abilities like telepathy and mystical experiences have all to do with extensions of the mind, and contacting other minds. Mystical experience, I think, has to do with contacting higher forms of consciousness in the world. I think that the Earth itself has a mind, that the sun has a mind, the whole solar system — the whole galaxy. We live in a living world and there are many levels of consciousness.
The materialist worldview, the one I criticize in Science Set Free, says that we live in an unconscious universe — that matter is made, matter is unconscious. It says that, for some unknown reason, matter becomes conscious in the human brain, but otherwise the rest of the universe is just unconscious. We are the only conscious beings, except for perhaps some other species of animals, and maybe little green men on other planets. Materialists claim that we live in a little, unconscious universe. That, I think, is profoundly wrong. We live in a universe that's alive and full of minds and consciousness . That's what people have thought traditionally all over the world. It's what Christians thought in the middle ages, it's what shamans think, it's what Buddhist thinks, what Hindus think. It's what virtually all people think all over the world, except for people who have a materialist education.
In the book, you talk about Francis Crick and the discovery of DNA. Many people have commented on his use of lysergic acid, and I've wondered how he could have experienced something like LSD and still maintained such a staunch materialist, mechanistic view.
Obviously some people do, and Crick's one of them. LSD for many people is a really mind-opening experience that shows them some other dimension to consciousness. But if you are a materialist and a committed one, as Crick was — he was deeply committed. He was a militant atheist turned into an evangelical materialist all his life, well at least his adult life. It was a huge part of his motivation to try and remove any mystery from life or the universe, to show it's all just science. I suppose that for materialists, if they take any LSD and it works, then they can be amazed by the experience, of course. But then, when they come around and try to think about it, they will say, "Well, that just proves materialism, because it's a chemical molecule and a chemical molecule can have this huge effect on consciousness. Therefore consciousness is just chemical." You can see how basically an experience induced by LSD, or any other psychedelic, or indeed by any method that induces mystical changes — experiences, breathing, exercises, fasting or whatever — one can say, here are these chemical influences on the brain that cause changes in consciousness.
Some materialists will take that as proof of materialism. But what we have to do is recognize that consciousness depends on a kind of interaction between a mental dimension and the brain. Obviously, the brain has something to do with it. Brain damage can lead to a loss of memory, it can lead to unconsciousness, and so forth. Clearly consciousness involves the brain. But that doesn't prove it's nothing but the brain. If I tinkered with your TV set, I could alter its tuning so it doesn't get some channels and is always stuck on others, but that wouldn't prove that all the programs you are seeing on TV are generated inside the TV set. The effect of LSD and other psychoactive drugs on the brain changes the brain's tuning system so that different kinds of consciousness are accessed. It doesn't prove that consciousness is at all generated inside the brain.
Image by Patrick Hoesly, courtesy of Creative Commons license.