The following interview is excerpted from The Quest For Gnosis, available at gabrieldroberts.com/bookstore.
I met Dr. Sheldrake in New York a couple of years back and had already been a fan of his work for a long time. I enjoyed his approachable nature and sharply subtle wit and humor. “I’m all for science and reason as long as it is scientific and reasonable,” he softly said to the audience, drawing a good chuckle. Dr. Sheldrake’s work has been the bane of the Mechanistic Scientist since his book, A New Science of Life was released in 1983. He maintains that there is a morphic field that contains a collective memory. This field is outside the bounds of the material world and therefore is an irksome notion to many who hold an ‘it’s material, or it doesn’t exist’ viewpoint. I was lucky enough to include this, my second interview with him.
Gabriel D. Roberts: I asked a bunch of my people online about questions to ask you. The first one I have is from Sir Penrose’s research on quantum vibration in microtubules. The long and short of it is that they believe that the quantum pathways inside the brain are the source from which our consciousness comes. But it seems like it doesn’t answer the question of consciousness, just where it might be received.
Dr. Rupert Sheldrake: Well, for years they have been plugging this idea of microtubules as the place where it is being received. I myself feel the interface is the whole pattern of brain activity including the electrical patterns of activity and it’s not just microtubules which are no doubt quantum processors which interface with morphic fields, but so are cell membranes that are whole pattern of activity throughout whole regions of the brain. So I think they have zeroed in on one little bit. So, I think the basic idea that there are quantum processes, that there is an interface throughout such processes in the brain may be okay. But I think their extreme specificity about microtubules is like saying the whole economy depends on the activity of cash registers in supermarkets. Its true to a point that they are involved, but it doesn’t explain the whole thing.
I like the cash register analogy. One thing I have come across, especially in circles with people talking about consciousness and psychedelics and spirituality, a lot of people take your work, and they pick and choose how they might want to apply it. Could you explain what these morphic fields are and what they are not in relation to spirituality and things like that.
Morphic fields are the organizing fields of systems at all levels of organization including atoms, molecules, crystals, cells, organisms, flocks of birds, solar systems and galaxies. Morphic fields are organizing structures that make the whole more than the sum of its parts in self organizing systems. They have a built in memory by morphic resonance from similar things of the some kind in the past, therefore they are the basis of collected memory within living organisms, and basically they underlie the habits of nature. In its most general sense my theory says the so called laws of nature are more like habits. So it’s a theory of habits and a theory of collective memory. It helps to explain the collective unconscious that Jung proposed. It helps to explain how repeated activities can have a particular effect in the context of religion and spirituality.
Rituals are activities that are deliberately done in as similar way as possible, like Thanksgiving dinner or the Passover ritual or the Holy Communion. These rituals are done in similar way that they have been done before which creates the right conditions for morphic resonance. I think that morphic resonance explains part of the power of rituals and mantras where the same phrase is repeated, and by repeating it in the present, you tune into yourself and others using that in the past. So I think it helps with those aspects of spirituality, but I don’t think it tells us much about consciousness itself because habits are usually unconscious. It leaves open the question of consciousness, and creativity, both of those areas are important in spirituality but morphic resonance itself doesn’t explain either the existence of consciousness or creativity but it is compatible with consciousness being an arena of choice. Morphic resonance is really the habit principle; in evolution we need at least two principles, habit and creativity. So it explains how, once new creative things have happened, including new creative spiritual breakthroughs, they become easier for others to follow. It can explain the propagation of creative events but it can’t explain creativity itself.
I read a book by the author Peter J Carroll, he mentioned you, one thing he talked about is that he himself is an Atheist, however, he believes in things like telepathy and morphic fields. So going along secondary to the last question, does one require a belief in God per se to believe that morphic fields are a real thing or is it something that can be separately applied as some people do?
Oh Yes, it can be separately applied. In my first book A New Science of Life, I give four different theories of creativity, one of which is an expanded version of naturalism, or materialism. Morphic fields and morphic resonance are a part of science and scientific investigation and don’t require a spiritual or religious belief, but they leave open the question of spirituality and I think that the kind of world view I’m putting forward is compatible with a spiritual world view but it doesn’t necessitate it. I think its important to have in science something which doesn’t require a particular world view or require atheism. Right now science is inherently atheistic, the materialist world view. So it sort of marginalizes spirituality. I think the new kind of science I’m keen on would allow for both spirituality and an expanded liberal naturalism.
It seems there is an ongoing refinement. Once the bickering dies down a little bit there seems to be a drawing closer. Are there things going on now in current research that are encouraging as far as these trends are concerned? Are we finding new things or less things that would lead us to believe that morphic resonance is occurring in the regard to consciousness and the mind sciences, for instance?
There have been very few experiments directly looking at morphic resonance. One of the features of morphic resonance is that memories are not stored inside the brain, and also that inheritance involves morphic resonance not just genes and epigenetics. There have been some rather interesting experiments recently particularly, one involving mice, I don’t know if you saw the paper on mice where the father is made averse to a chemical acetophenone that they don’t normally encounter in nature, or the lab, they are made averse to it, they smell it and are given electric shocks to their feet, it’s one of those old style cruel experiments, so after a while they are terrified when they smell acetophenone. Their children and grandchildren are terrified when they smell acetophenone, they inherited this fear from their fathers, even when they have never met, or even when the mothers are artificially inseminated. So the only way that conventional science can explain that would be in terms of epigenetic modifications of the genes in a way that goes far beyond anything that has ever been demonstrated. Whereas morphic resonance would make it relatively easy to explain.
I think the data suggest to me that its a combination of the two, there may be some degree of epigenetic modification but I think that the main learning may be transferred by morphic resonance. That’s a very interesting paper that recently attracted a lot of attention. Another one was some work by Michael Levin at Tufts did experiment where he trained flatworms to respond to light in a particular way; they can learn, they are simple organisms but they have the capacity to learn. So he trained a population of flatworms then he cut their heads off and they don’t have much of a brain but they have a sort of cerebral ganglia, and the eyes are in the head as well, so he cut the head and brain and eyes and these worms regenerated their heads and they can still remember what they had learned before their head was cut off. So you would have to say there are some physical memory stores all over the body, which is possible, or that this is a morphic resonance effect. It would require further experiments to to decide between them. But the fact that these experiments have been done, or reported in the last few months is to me very exciting because these areas where morphic resonance is definitely one of the potential explanations.
So one of the difficulties in things like morphic fields is how to map these things that are not necessarily in the traditional material realm. Are there ways that we can do this in a scientific manner that will allow us to make progress? I suppose that the worm test is a good example of a repeatable method; are there others? How can we try to figure out what’s going on in the non-local aspect?
The main thing is to do experiments to show whether morphic resonance is happening or not. There is already quite a lot of circumstantial evidence and experiments on human learning and animal learning that suggests morphic resonance is happening. I discussed this at length in my book A New Science of Life which came out 2-3 years ago, in America it’s called Morphic Resonance. I have a whole appendix summarizing the research so far and describing ten new tests. So the basic tests are when one animal would learn something in one place and other animals of the same kind should learn the same thing elsewhere. There is already evidence this happens with rats. Experiments with people could show this as well; several have been done. It’s not difficult to do the experiments, the problem is getting them funded or persuading people in universities to do unconventional research because there is a big disincentive to doing anything unconventional in the scientific world because you can damage your career. The problem is more sociological than scientific.
So have you found in your own research over the years that this has been kind of a detriment that some things you have promoted? In the original trialogues Terence Mckenna said your book was a prime candidate for burning, have you found it difficult to continue your research? How do you continue on and get around those pitfalls?
Well, there is a lot of prejudice within the scientific world against morphic resonance and especially psychic phenomena like telepathy on which I have also worked. So there is a kind of narrow dogmatic conservatism, and that after all is the theme of my recent book Science Set Free. I think this is a problem for all of science, this dogmatic attitude that has become increasingly predominant. I believe that science should be a method of free enquiry, I don’t think it should be a dogmatic belief system, and that’s what keeps me going, I really believe in science. I think science has a great and bright future but not if it remains under the control of this extreme narrow dogmatism. So there are plenty of people who want science to move on and change. Not everyone in the scientific world is dogmatic, though the dogmatic people are a rather vociferous minority. So I’m encouraged by the fact that there are lots of open minded people in the scientific world. I meet them all the time, but many of them keep their views private because they are afraid of damaging their careers by coming out of the closet and speaking more freely, at least in public. But I think the potential of revitalization of science is very great, not just in my area but in other areas too, and that’s precisely why I wrote the book Science Set Free to explain what I think the problems are and how we can move forward.
I really enjoyed it I thought it was an excellent work. So traditionally gnosis, from the Greek, represents an experience that is not necessarily intellectually based but a personal experience. For instance if one is to talk about making love, that is one thing, but to actually experience making love, after that experience they have gnosis on that matter. How have you experienced gnosis in that sense in a modern applicable way in your life?
Gnosis in its general sense has the same roots of our word knowledge. So there is a sense that we all have access to knowledge, and knowing through experiencing this happens every day all the time. A more deep sense of knowing, a sense of connection with a greater consciousness than our own is usually called a mystical experience and I have had quite a few experiences of that kind. Things that make clear to me that the world is more than just a surface appearances of thing or just the mechanistic model of things, that there is a kind of mind or consciousness within the natural world and one that transcends it as well. So I would call that a sort of contemplative experience or mystical experience. The Greeks used the word Theoria, which meant intuitive knowing. Some of the gnostics were Platonists; Plato thought that there was a world of eternal forms and ideas that we can directly glimpse in mystical or altered states on consciousness, and I think many of the gnostics in the traditional sense of the word were rigid in Platonic tradition. I’m not a Platonist myself because I don’t think the forms of things are all fixed, I think we live in a radically evolutionary universe. The Platonic version of gnosis is not one I’ve ever felt very drawn to, but the sense of the intuitive, mystical, unitive experience is something I have had myself and I think many other people have had and that’s the root of any spirituality or religion in the ultimate analysis.
I will be speaking at the SYNCHRONICITY: Matter & Psyche Symposium with Dr. Sheldrake & Graham Hancock in Joshua Tree, September 12-14. More details can be found at http://www.matterpsyche.net
Main image by Thierry Ehrmann, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.