Book Review: The Science Delusion

This is a review of 'The Science Delusion,' by Rupert Sheldrake. Published in the UK in 2013 by Coronet from a Hodder and Stoughton imprint. My review is of the paperback version of 392 pages.

(ISBN: 978 1 444 72794 4)

R upert Sheldrake is an English biologist and author who is is known for his work on plant hormones, crop physiology, and for having proposed a non-standard account of morphogenesis and for his research into parapsychology. His books and papers often cover topics such as animal and plant development and behaviour, memory, telepathy, perception and cognition in general.

Sheldrake is one of a growing number of people involved in the various disciplines of science who believe the time is right - indeed, well overdue - to challenge the overall direction which modern science has been taking for a good number of years. Over twelve very illuminating chapters he challenges the modern, mechanistic, materialist approach of 'scientism.' Some of his chapter subjects include, 'Is Matter Unconscious?,' 'Is Nature Purposeless?,' 'Are Minds Confined to Brains?,' and 'Is Mechanistic Medicine the Only Kind That Really Works?' He is always probing and deep-thinking, moreover he is highly scientific in the good, innocent, old-fashioned way which barred philosophy and all outside pressures from scientific research and analysis. Oh, how refreshing that is in our day!

The materialistic, narrow and blinkered approach of scientism is, in fact, beginning to come under pressure from an encouragingly growing number of those with open and enquiring minds, especially from various areas of science and psychology. Sheldrake does not stand alone. Of course, he has been branded as a heretic because of his challenges. He writes,

Materialism provided a seemingly simple, straightforward worldview in the late nineteenth century, but twenty-first century science has left it behind. Its promises have not been fulfilled.... (p12).

He further states,

I am convinced that the sciences are being held back by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas, maintained by powerful taboos. These beliefs protect the citadel of established science, but act as barriers against open-minded thinking. (p12).

The Common Public Image of Science

This picture sums up the common public perception of scientists; ever at work in the laboratory, always carefully assessing new ideas, to see what stands the test of proof, assessing all new scientific theories without prejudice. But it is all a false impression. Most of science, for most of the time, simply does not work this way. The picture might be a fair depiction of certain research science, as well as the work of those training for science degrees, but the 'big hitters' of science will not be found in laboratories. Modern science is largely a myriad of often overly politically-motivated interests which continually jostle for the best position and the most advantageous research grants as they work within already-accepted theories. To genuinely 'think outside the box' is to potentially jeopardize a scientist's career. Mechanistic and materialistic philosophy may not be challenged!

Well, thousands of us would say 'amen' to those very wise and perceptive words. So Sheldrake then establishes his case by taking some examples of things in which there is good evidence - often outstandingly good evidence - that scientism is simply wrong, yet it cannot change course because of its naturalistic, mechanistic worldview. This is directly opposite to the widespread public perception that science is - above all else - supremely open and ever-eager to go in any direction where the evidence might lead.

Sheldrake makes a plea to get back to an original organic view of the world and nature which was the general view until circa the 17th century. Yet it was scientists who were mostly of the Christian Faith who first suggested that the creation should start to be looked upon as a machine; their idea being that God Himself was the machine-maker and maintainer. This worked for a while but, in the process of time, 19th century science started to want to kick God into touch, feeling that He was not needed in an increasingly 'scientific' age. The author explains much of these developments in a very clear and lucid manner. The last survivor of the older view was the dualism of mind/spirit and matter. Today that too is pretty much gone and scientism now insists that there is only matter in the universe, moreover, it is claimed that pretty much all the science on that is already decided, with only the details left to be filled out. As Rupert Sheldrake points out, such a point can only be reached by ruling a huge area of human experience - and it really is a huge area - over the 'dead ball line.' But to do so turns scientism (as it is now best called) into a dishonest enterprise. Even worse, materialistic science now assumes for itself the title of 'the only truth and only reality.'

Your reviewer is, perhaps, especially interested in the view that human consciousness cannot be contained within the brain alone. This is a view which I have held for many a year. I can give two brief, but hopefully illuminating, examples here: one of an experience of mine, the second not a personal experience. Firstly, several years ago, when travelling on the top deck of a double-decker bus in a busy city centre, I saw, in the distance, a man whom I had once worked with as a 15-year-old 'office boy.' Yet it was only a tiny head in the distance among thronging city-centre crowds. My certainty that this was 'Jack' surprised me since I was well out of range to make such an identification; it was almost as though an invisible 'cloud' or 'field' was emitting from him saying, 'I am Jack.' When my bus (which was moving slowly in heavy traffic) finally caught up to the tiny figure in the distance, it was indeed Jack. I knew that this whole thing was certainly not within my head, and the experience was unusual, just as though an invisible 'field' surrounded my old colleague, identifying him; an odd experience and one which I have never forgotten!

The other illustration is really an old ghost story; should it be discounted for that reason? I don't think so because this phenomenon has indeed occurred to people. Here is the story: a woman had a recurring dream of visiting a certain house, it went on for months. Then one day, whilst out driving with her husband, she actually saw this house; she was astonished. The couple stopped the car and knocked the door of the house. A man answered, looking very surprised. The woman asked, 'Who lives here?' The man said, 'Nobody lives here now. 'Why?', enquired the woman, 'Because it is considered haunted.' 'By whom?' the woman continued. The response? 'By you, madam.' So, in dreaming of going to a certain place, a person's image or apparition can (apparently) appear in that place. There have been similar accounts. I think that many so-called "ghost stories" concern certain metaphysical/spiritual phenomena not currently understood. If indeed a person's spirit may leave their body and travel during bodily sleep this plainly shows that mind and consciousness cannot possibly be confined to the inner workings of the brain.

If we say that life is composed of both mind/spirit and also the material that leaves a door open to finding solutions later, but if we say there is only the material, which is entirely unknowing and purposeless, it closes the door on ever finding an explanation to things which many thousands probably experience every single year.

Rupert Sheldrake does also give some consideration to such psychic phenomena in this book but he does not go into great depth on this. However, he certainly covers a lot of ground in general. One of his most intriguing sections considers the possibility that matter itself may not be unconscious at all (chapter four), this, and several other sections too, are fascinating indeed.

Possible Criticisms...

Two main points here:

* Dr Sheldrake is a highly skilled man in his field, but just occasionally his knowledge and skill cause him to move too far for the average lay reader to keep up with him; this does happen on several occasions within this book.

* The author apparently supports Theism and is (I am told) a church-attender, yet he never outlines exactly what form his belief takes. I feel that many evangelicals and creationists may see him as a fellow believer, yet he is no creationist and does support evolution although apparently feeling it is divinely-led, this would appear to place him in the 'theistic evolution' camp (a very problematic area, one has to say). Many of us would say that macro-evolution is simply entirely wrong, hook, line and sinker - we would love to have this well-studied anti-materialist onboard but he does not seem about to move that far.

The author, then, believes in the reality of an "evolving universe" (does that mean that God Himself evolves in the Sheldrake view?). This seems somewhat strange because the obvious conclusion of many of Robert Sheldrake's criticisms of modern scientism would seem to be that Darwinism is simply wrong from its very foundation upwards (something which many of us have long since come to believe), yet, for some reason, the writer stops short of that. Sheldrake, then, sees materialistic, mechanistic scientism as the big problem, but not necessarily evolution in its broadest sense. One should perhaps just note here that Sheldrake seems to be influenced by Alfred North Whitehead, the 'father' of process philosophy and process theology. Whilst this form of theology was known for its defense of theism, Whitehead's 'God' was nothing like the revealed God of Judaism and Christianity. In this form of theology, just as the entire universe is in constant flow and change, so too is God. So this is not the God of the Bible but a God, apparently, forever in process. So whilst one is pleased indeed to find that Sheldrake is a believer, sadly one really has to point out that his God is the product of a more liberal theology, therefore, an army of Christian evangelicals who would agree with Dr Sheldrake's overall critique of modern materialistic and mechanistic scientism might well be disappointed by this fact.

Nevertheless, I Recommend This Book...

I do recommend this book for those who are somewhat deeper readers and who feel that modern scientism is cutting us all off from greater discoveries because of its refusal to seriously consider those vast areas of the soul, spirit, mind and consciousness.

Is it a 'Christian read'? Probably not, since the writer never explicitly sets out his Christian belief but I think we have to forgive him for that because this is not a book on theology, yet the areas which are covered really should be of concern and interest to every deep-thinking Christian believer. I know many Christians who would eagerly read this book but I know others who would not pick it up (I think they are wrong in that). But it's available at not a very great price for any who might be interested enough. I enjoyed reading it and learned from it.

Robin A. Brace. June 28th, 2013.