Monday 10 October 2011

What is Rupert Sheldrake?


The two conventional views of Rupert Sheldrake are that he is either a scientist, or a pseudo-scientist.

He certainly is a credentialed scientist by profession, (oft-cited) publications and practice; but I suggest that he is most profoundly a philosopher: specifically a metaphysical philosopher.


Metaphysics is concerned with the fundamental nature of things: it is the framework within which other disciplines are conducted.

Darwin was, of course, a metaphysical philosopher, although remembered as the greatest-ever biologist (with the possible exception of Aristotle who was of course another metaphysical philosopher - one of the two greatest).


That is, Darwin proposed a 'framing' metaphysical theory - evolution by natural selection - then gathered a vast amount of observational data which he set forth as consistent-with this metaphysical theory.

This strategy served to obscure that for many decades Darwin's theory of natural selection was - as science - radically incomplete.

(i.e. Natural selection did not work and did not make sense until the Neo-Darwinian synthesis of NS with genetics was achieved in the mid-twentieth century.)


Sheldrake has done something precisely analogous to Darwin: i.e. set forth a metaphysical theory (concerning morphic fields and their properties) and accumulated a vast amount of observational and experimental data consistent with this theory.


The use of empirical data to support metaphysics is sometimes termed 'saving the appearances' on the basis that a useful metaphysical theory is compatible with the 'appearances' of things - the obvious, raw, in-your-face observations.

Empirical data does not test or prove the validity of metaphysical theory - all of Darwin's examples from animal breeding and the diversity of species did not test natural selection theory - rather they are set-forth to illustrate the theory and its operations.

I regard Sheldrake's voluminous body of empirical work as having a similar function.


Taken together, Sheldrake's books and papers on numerous topics, his surveys and experiments, demonstrate that Sheldrake's theories of morphic fields do indeed (to a significant extent) 'save the appearances' - that is to say the theory is compatible with observed reality.

However, taken one piece at a time, each specific item of empirical evidence that Sheldrake (or anyone else) can bring forwards can be (and is) (if not simply ignored) explained using numerous other conventional ad hoc explanations...

(Including - when all else fails - assumptions of dishonesty, incompetence and bias; because his critics 'know' that Sheldrake is not doing science in the way they are doing it - or ought to be doing it, and therefore cannot be right.)


However, there are other functions served by Sheldrake's empirical work (as was also the case for Darwin's work following the statement of his theory).


1. The numerous observations are each a demonstration, which 'teaches' how to use the theory in specific instances.

By repeatedly working-through examples (like doing problems in maths) the learner becomes adept at using the theory.

Thus the student learns to think within the theory and using the theory.


2. The use of examples and observations serves to interest many people who would not be interested by abstract formulations of metaphysics. In fact very few people are interested by metaphysics - even or especially not modern philosophers.


3. By describing examples from various sciences, not just observations from biology but also knowledge drawn (especially) from theoretical physics, Sheldrake has aimed to explain his theories using analogies.

The analogies from 'hard' sciences, such as physics, serve to make the new metaphysics less alien and strange.

For instance, they make more plausible the alien-ness and strangeness of morphic fields and morphic resonance by showing that equally strange and alien things are found and used effectively in advanced physics without anyone getting upset about them or regarding them as 'unscientific'.


4. The multiple examples of empirical science no doubt serve to extend and refine the metaphysical system, to explore and explicate its implications by going beyond immediate 'appearances' to what (is presumed to lie) behind the appearances.

Naturally, at some point, pushing backwards and outwards - exploring the theory's tentacles of implications as they ramify through reality - every metaphysical system runs into problems of some kind. Either clashing with superficial 'appearances' or becoming very complex and difficult to comprehend.

But all theories which are simple enough to be useful to lots of people are too simple to account comprehensively and with perfect internal consistency for everything which those people encounter in all circumstances.


At the end of the day, Sheldrake's metaphysics would probably do the job for most people in most situations.

His metaphysical framework is easily and obviously compatible with a wide range of human experiences - probably a wider range of human experiences than the normal mainstream metaphysics.

For example, the description of reality in terms of morphic fields and their interactions seems to be straightforwardly compatible with Christian theology, as well as science.

That Sheldrake's metaphysics is (explicitly) foreshadowed by earlier philosophers is a strength, not a failure of originality; since any useful general theory which approaches the truth is almost sure to have been converged-upon by honest and independent thinkers.



Anonymous said...

I regard Sheldrake as a genius, and I note that the Nobel-prize-winning physicist Brian D. Josephson has a high opinion of Sheldrake and of several other unconventional thinkers.

Wurmbrand said...

Which book should the layman start with?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - you could look around the web pages and see what looks interesting -

I think you would not (like me) much appreciate some of the co-authors of some of the books; but RS is always worthwhile whatever the company he keeps.