By Imogen Adie
Rupert Sheldrake believes that science as we know it is just a delusion: a series of unquestionable dogmas that prevent real discovery. Put simply, he suggests that science assumes that the nature of reality is already fully understood. Sheldrake argues that these preconceptions influence our research, education, and belief, forcing science to become narrow and inhibited from moving forward.
Sheldrake spoke as part of the Brighton Science Festival, a series of events held annually for the past eight years, designed for discovery and debate, lead by top science communicators. The festival aims to make science accessible to all, instilling the spirit of enquiry in young and old alike, by encouraging exploration, experimentation, creation, and making mistakes.
This particular event was organised by ‘Philosophy in Pubs’ (PIPs), a group that gives ordinary people an open forum in which to debate and discover. The night began with Sheldrake speaking and answering questions for a short time. This was followed by lively group discussions contemplating the viability of Sheldrake’s claims.
Before moving on to explain Sheldrake’s controversial science, it is important to point out that many disagree with what he has to say. However, I, along with others in the room, was inspired. It brought out the child in me: the science-loving student that I once was, before I became disillusioned with chemistry and equations. The room was awash with debates and intensive questioning, and distraught, outraged faces, but also with Sheldrake-followers with personal experience and evidence to discuss.
The key ideas of Sheldrake’s most recent book, ‘The Science Delusion’, were the concept of discussion for the evening. Broadly-speaking, the book is a critique of materialism: the belief that nature is simply made up of machines, bound by laws of nature and properties of matter (‘mechanical laws’). Sheldrake thinks that it is this mechanistic overarching theory that holds science back from truly understanding reality. He sees modern science as seeking only to fill in the small gaps in this overarching theory, without ever challenging it.
Each chapter of his book discusses a different concept supported by modern science, and presents an alternative. For example, Sheldrake suggests that living things are not just genetically programmed computers, that not everything that is inherited is material, and that the laws of nature are not fixed. Overall he argues that much of science is based upon theological or theoretical assumptions, and aims to provide real evidence for his ideas.
At the event, Sheldrake elaborated further on two of his central arguments: firstly, that the amount of matter and energy in the universe is not always constant. Sheldrake himself admits that he only recently began to reconsider this universally accepted theory. Now he believes that it is the shakiest scientific concept of them all. Universal laws of atoms, energy and thermodynamics exist, yet their irregularities are accounted for through strange notions of dark matter and dark energy. Sheldrake suggests that these unexplained types of matter are manipulated concepts constructed to explain away discrepancies and prop up current theory.
Secondly, Sheldrake battled with the idea that minds are not constrained within the material boundaries of heads. He argued that when we see something it is located outside of our head, like a projection, rather than inside as science suggests. Science therefore cannot explain out-of-body experiences, or that awareness of someone looking at you when you are not able to see them. Sheldrake believes that when we turn around and find this person, this is telepathy: we can influence others through our thoughts. This concept could completely revolutionise neuroscience, but only by challenging assumed scientific ‘facts’ can science move forward.
Sheldrake’s ideas are definitely thought-provoking, exciting and quirky. He seemed to encompass what the Science Festival is about, bringing together scientists and non-scientists (like myself) to debate, discover, and rethink what we believe to be true.