The Science Delusion

Questioning Church
Belief and Unbelief
Deepening Spirituality
Image of the sky through a circular hole in a roof
Rupert Sheldrake

Extracts from 'The Science Delusion' (US: 'Science Set Free') by Rupert Sheldrake

The ‘scientific worldview’ is immensely influential because the sciences have been so successful. They touch all our lives through technologies and through modern medicine. Our intellectual world has been transformed by an immense expansion of knowledge, down into the most microscopic particles of matter and out into the vastness of space, with hundreds of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe.

Yet in the third decade of the twenty-first century, when science and technology seem to be at the peak of their power, when their influence has spread all over the world and when their triumph seems indisputable, unexpected problems are disrupting the sciences from within. Most scientists take it for granted that these problems will eventually be solved by more research along established lines, but some, including myself, think they are symptoms of a deeper malaise.

In this book I argue that science is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. The sciences would be better off without them: free, more interesting and more fun.

The biggest scientific delusion of all is that science already knows the answers. The details still need working out, but in principle, the fundamental questions are settled.

Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

These beliefs are powerful not because most scientists think about them critically but because they don’t. The facts of science real enough; so are the techniques that scientist use, and the technologies based on them. But the belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth century ideology.

The scientific creed

Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.

1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins' vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.

2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.

3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).

4. The laws of nature of fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same forever.

5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.

6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material DNA, and other material structures.

7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’ where it seems to be, but inside your brain.

8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.

9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.

10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Together, these beliefs make up the philosophy or ideology of materialism, whose central assumption is that everything is essentially material or physical, even minds. This belief-system became dominant within science in the late nineteenth century, and is now taken for granted. Many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption: they simply think it as science or the scientific view of reality or the scientific worldview. They are not actually taught about it, or given a chance to discuss it. They absorb it by a kind of intellectual osmosis.

In everyday usage, materialism refers to a way of life devoted entirely to material interests, a preoccupation with wealth, possessions and luxury. These attitudes are no doubt encouraged by the materialist philosophy, which denies the existence of any spiritual realities or non-material goals, but in this book I am concerned with materialism’s scientific claims rather than its effects on lifestyles.

In the spirit of radical scepticism, I turn each of these ten doctrines into a question. Entirely new vistas open up when a widely accepted assumption is taken as the beginning of an enquiry, rather than as an unquestionable truth. For example, the assumption that nature is machine-like or mechanical becomes a question: ‘Is nature mechanical?’ The assumption that matter is unconscious becomes: ‘Is matter unconscious?’ And so on.



Open questions

As the taboos of materialism lose their power, new scientific questions can be asked and, hopefully, answered.

Throughout this book, I have suggested a range of new possibilities for research: for example, the use of comparative effectiveness research on conventional and ‘alternative’ cures for conditions such as lower back pain, migraines, and cold sores; experiments on experiments to find out how significantly experimenters’ expectations influence their results in the ‘hard’ sciences; an analysis of existing data to find out if the Universal Gravitational Constant varies; a mass-participation investigation to find out if earthquakes and tsunamis can be predicted on the basis of animal premonitions; and a prize challenge to find out if any alternative energy technologies or ‘over unity’ devices actually work.

Existing lines of scientific research will, of course, continue. Nothing changes very fast when big institutions, vast amounts of money and large numbers are involved: there are now more than seven million scientific researchers worldwide, producing 1.58 million publications a year. What I am suggesting is that a small fraction of these resources is devoted to exploring new questions. New discoveries are more likely to happen if we venture off the well-trodden paths of conventional research, and if we open up questions that have been suppressed by dogmas and taboos.

The delusion that science has already answered the fundamental questions chokes off the spirit of enquiry. The illusion that scientists are superior to the rest of humanity means that they have little to learn from anyone else. They need other people’s financial support, but they do not need to listen to anyone less scientifically educated than themselves. In return for their privileged position, scientists will deliver knowledge and power over nature, transforming humanity and the earth.

The materialist agenda was once liberating but is now depressing. Those who believe in it are alienated from their own experience; they are cut off from all religious traditions; and they are prone to suffer from a sense of disconnection and isolation. Meanwhile, the power unleashed by scientific knowledge is causing the mass extinction of other species, and endangering our own.

The realisation that the sciences do not know the fundamental answers leads to humility rather than arrogance, and openness rather than dogmatism.

Much remains to be discovered and rediscovered, including wisdom.


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