Rupert Sheldrake, in The Science Delusion, posits that science is being held back by dogma, including ten core beliefs that scientists allegedly 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 are 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 in 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.
1. Not all mechanical systems are alive but all living organisms are essentially mechanical systems. If the mechanism in my watch were to confer upon it the ability to reproduce, to metabolise, and to process environmental information in such a way as to promote its own survival and reproduction, then it too could be regarded as living. It just so happens that its mechanism was the product of human invention and its end goal to tell the time, whereas humans are one product of evolution, whose 'end goal' (if you can forgive the tortured anthropomorphisation) is to promote propagation. I.e. life is not above the laws of nature.
How else might living organisms be understood, if not in mechanical terms?
2. Consciousness can be regarded as a state of 'awareness of awareness' and, as such, is not illusory. All of the known examples of consciousness in the world arise in living organisms, that is, highly complex and dynamic arrangements of matter. There is no evidence to suggest that matter not arranged in a way conducive to neuronal activity is conscious - and it does not help to assume otherwise.
3. Standard thermodynamics.
4. The laws of nature have been painstakingly deduced from empirical observations. Of course, therefore, they represent the most optimal model of reality in its current state. Technically, the future is unpredictable, but equally it does not make sense to assume that nature will begin to behave differently.
5. There is no obvious purpose, goal or direction as far as evolution or any other natural process is concerned. The most common suggestions, i.e. intelligent design, fail to explain the purpose, goal or direction of the designer.
6. 'Inheritance' may also occur at the social and behavioural levels, at least if the offspring is willing to mimic and/or learn from its parents.
7. 'Mind' is a loose term for the emergent properties of neurobiology. The term could be removed from the dictionary without loss of understanding with regards the nature of human thought. 'Nothing but the activities of brains'... this phrase is rather disparaging of processes that are highly complex and only today being studied in detail. Also, the brain may be a simulator of sorts, but this does not preclude the existence of objects in an ultimate reality.
8. Until the moment a dead person expresses a memory, this is a sensible assumption to make.
9. Given sufficient evidence, no doubt the scientific community would readily accept the phenomenon - it isn't the fault of the scientific community that the evidence is non-existent.
10. What other kind of medicine is there? Even herbal remedies, adopted by tribes wholly unconnected with modern medicine, work by one mechanism or other. Of course, to the tribes, the mechanism is irrelevant - the medicine is efficacious, and that is all that matters from their personal perspective - but that does not mean to say that the medicine is not 'mechanistic'. All of the kinds that do not work, by the way, are not medicine
Sheldrake was a professional scientist associated with Cambridge University and has latterly worked to defend his concept of morphic resonance, or the 'memory inherent in nature'.
Is there anything useful worth taking from Sheldrake's criticisms of Science?