Science Versus God. Interview with the British biologist, Rupert Sheldrake
According to the British biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, a new holistic world view is emerging within science. Kosmos has been in London to visit him for a dialogue about science, God and visions for the future.
Rupert Sheldrake is a pioneer. For almost four decades he has done research in areas of science and spirituality. This has given him many critics, but it has also created an enormous interest in his work that goes far beyond the circles of biology.
As a young scientist in the 1960s and ’70s Sheldrake had a promising career ahead of him. He published in leading scientific journals and had obtained a leading position at one of the top universities in the world, Cambridge University in England. He could have chosen a more conventional career. Instead he chose to travel to India to explore a holistic vision for science and for life.
Kosmos has been in London to visit him for a dialogue about science, God and the situation of science and the world today. Watch the full interview here.
For almost four decades Sheldrake has worked on developing a more holistic approach to science, biology in particular. In 1981 he published his first book, A New Science of Life. Nature, one of the leading scientific journals in the world, described his book as “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years”. Sheldrake has been the subject of fierce criticism by sceptics in England and the US who have seen him as a “heretic” against science. However, he has also received positive response from colleagues and some have seen him as “a visionary genius of the stature of Darwin or Einstein”. An American journalist has very tellingly called Sheldrake “the most controversial scientist on Earth”. (see www.sheldrake.org)
Rupert Sheldrake, born in 1942, is a world-renowned British biologist, PhD and former researcher at the University of Cambridge, England. He is particularly known for his theories about morphogenetic fields and morphic resonance, which involve the idea of a living universe with its own memory. He has also done research on consciousness and on unexplainable phenomena, such as telepathy in animals and humans. He is the author of more than 80 scientific articles and books; he has participated in numerous TV and radio documentaries and is one of the leading critics of the modern natural sciences, which he sees as deeply dogmatic. Sheldrake was among the top 100 Global Thought Leaders in 2013, as ranked by the Duttweiler Institute, Switzerland’s leading think tank.
Science Versus God
Jens Christian Hermansen: I would like to begin with the question of God. Do you believe in God?
Rupert Sheldrake: Yes, I believe in God, but I come to my belief in God largely through experience, the experience of being connected to a consciousness vastly greater than my own, rather than through logical proofs. And I think that by God I mean a consciousness greater than our own that underlies the whole universe and underlies all conscious minds within it. Of course, I don’t think of God as a man with a white beard sitting on a cloud. A lot of people have a childish vision of God and they say, “I don’t believe in God”. When I talked to my atheist friends, and many of my friends are atheists, then I had to say, “You know what kind of God don’t you believe in?”. The God they don’t believe in is a God that I don’t believe in either – you know some kind of masculine engineering figure outside the universe who designs the machinery of the world and then presses the start button.
We’ve seen a transformation of society from one in which practically everyone believed in God to a society in which God takes up no place or almost no place in people’s daily lives. What is the biggest problem with the atheistic world view as you see it?
The biggest problem with the atheistic world view is first of all that it’s just not true. Atheism says that there is no mind, consciousness or spirit out there. Our ideas about God or gods or goddesses or saints or angels are just human cultural constructs that exist in human minds and therefore in human brains. They’re just inside our heads. Atheists see it as their job to free people from these illusions, believing in things that don’t exist. But they’re just making the assumption that has been built into science since the 17th century, that the whole material world is unconscious. The sciences have been dominated by a materialist ideology; but materialism is not science. It’s a philosophy of Nature. It’s a series of assumptions about the nature of Nature. So, atheism is a belief system, and it’s a belief system that’s basically deeply depressing. It says that the whole world is basically pointless. Evolution is not going anywhere. It’s just blind chance. The universe is not going anywhere. It’s pointless and purposeless. Your mind is nothing but your brain, and when you die, it’s all just wiped out. Your consciousness ceases forever. It’s basically a depressing world view. It’s not a surprise that the predominant psychological problem of Western secular countries is depression, a massive scale of depression. We have millions and millions of people taking antidepressants to counteract depression. If you have a depressing world view, I don’t mean that’s surprising.
New tendencies in philosophy and science
When you say that atheism isn’t true, can we explore that question in a scientific way? Is it possible to investigate this belief system in a more scientific way?
It’s interesting that the belief system of atheism is actually changing before our very eyes at the moment. Because of the hard problem of explaining consciousness, an increasing number of atheists are becoming panpsychists. That is to say, they believe that there’s some kind of mind or consciousness even in atoms or electrons or in matter, that matter isn’t totally unconscious. Panpsychism – “pan” means everywhere, “psyche” means soul. It’s saying that there’s some kind of mentality or soul in all things. The reason they do that is because if they say that there’s some kind of mind in electrons and in atoms and in molecules and in cells, then the appearance of consciousness in human beings is no longer a kind of miracle. So there’s a general move now among philosophers of mind and materialists to adopt panpsychism, which is really an updated form of animism – the belief that we live in a living world, that the whole universe is alive. Most of them have not thought through what this means when they discuss the consciousness of electrons and so on. It’s all rather academic. I think the best way to see its implications is to think about the possible consciousness of big things like the sun. I myself think that if you adopt a panpsychist world view, then it’s reasonable to think that the sun is conscious and the stars. And that the entire galaxy might have a mind at a higher level than that of the stars, which are like cells within the body of the galaxy. And if the whole galaxy has a mind, why not the whole cosmos? Then we get into a traditional theological argument because if the whole universe is conscious, then is that consciousness God?
In a lecture that you gave at Hollyhock in Canada some years ago you said, and I quote, “from panpsychism we get the idea of perhaps a cosmic consciousness”. Panpsychism – you have already told a bit about that – it’s a particular idea of consciousness. It’s an idea that’s becoming increasingly popular today. How do we get to an idea of God from panpsychism?
If you take panpsychism far enough, if galaxies have a kind of mind or consciousness, if galactic clusters have mind or consciousness, then what about the entire universe? And, if the whole universe has a kind of consciousness, then we get back to the question we’ve already discussed: is that God or is there also an element of divine consciousness that transcends the universe as well as pervading it? The idea that there’s a consciousness beyond and more inclusive than our own level I think is true of any thoroughly thought-out panpsychist doctrine. If the sun is conscious, for example, then the consciousness of the sun would pervade the entire solar system, which is like the body of the sun. So the consciousness of the sun may be witnessing all that’s happening here on Earth, and that may be part of the consciousness of the galaxy which may be aware of everything that’s happening within the galaxy. So we’re embedded within greater forms of consciousness. I think panpsychism leads us to the idea of more inclusive levels of consciousness, not just one level but many.
Is there a connection between the living, conscious universe that you describe and your previous empirical and scientific work? Are these two things connected?
Well, my scientific work is largely devoted to trying to find a more holistic approach to living organisms in Nature. I’m not alone in seeking a more holistic world view. This has been going on for a long time. The philosopher that most clearly expressed it was Alfred North Whitehead, writing in the 1920s about what he called the philosophy of organism. Instead of seeing the universe as a machine it’s better to see it as an organism. The whole cosmos is like an organism. That makes even more sense in the light of our new evolutionary cosmology. The universe begins very small and it grows and develops and as it grows and develops new forms and structures appear in it. That’s nothing like a machine, but it’s a lot like an embryo or a growing plant. Instead of laws of Nature, I think that the evolving universe has habits. So that’s part of what I’m doing. Another part is to say that our minds are not just the activity of our brains. Our minds are more like systems of fields that stretch out beyond our heads. Just like a mobile telephone has an electromagnetic field within it but it’s not confined to the inside of the phone. It stretches out invisibly beyond it, which is why mobile phones work. I think our minds stretch out beyond our brains through mental fields every time we see something or every time we form intentions. And I think that’s why phenomena like the sense of being stared at take place – when people know that someone’s looking at them even if that person is behind them and not making any noise. Within materialist science people say it’s just an illusion or it’s a superstition, but the experimental evidence shows that it does exist. I’ve done lots of experiments and so have other people that show this is real.
Visions for a better future
Where do you see us 10, 15 or 20 years from now? Do you see a new world view emerging?
I do. I see a whole new holistic world view emerging within science itself as materialism becomes unravelled. A lot of the dogmas of 20th century materialist science are already coming undone within science itself. Thanks to the Human Genome Project, we now discover that genes only explain 5-10% of heredity of most characteristics like height or proneness to disease. People used to think it would reveal that genes controlled almost all of heredity. We now have something called the missing heritability problem: genes don’t explain anything like as much as people thought they did. Old-style Neo-Darwinism – it’s all about genes, gene populations and selective selection of genes that randomly mutate. That plays a part in the inheritance and evolution, but it’s no longer the dominant explanation it seemed when Richard Dawkins wrote his book, The Selfish Gene. That’s terribly old-fashioned now, and biology has moved on. Philosophy of mind is moving on from old-style dogmatic materialism. That’s why we have this revival of panpsychism within science. I think in all these ways there’s a more holistic view emerging within science. Within medicine there’s a movement towards a more holistic view, and I think a more holistic view of science will help that process.
Why do we need a new world picture? Does it make any practical difference?
Breaking out of the materialist dogmatic belief system is very, very important for science, because that dogmatic belief system and that attitude to nature ultimately underlies the ecological crisis. This is not just an academic issue. The way we relate to the world and our environment is a matter of the actual survival of humanity or not. We treat nature as nothing but a collection of raw materials for economic exploitation. The world is nothing but a mechanical system of unconscious matter, which is the whole modern world view, which is expressed by every government in the world through the ideology of economic growth and development. This is a self-destructive course for humanity. We need to wake up and come to our senses. It’s not just an academic luxury. It’s a matter of necessity.