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Is Rupert Sheldrake Crazy, or on the Cutting Edge of Science?

Topics: Editorial & Opinion | Add A CommentBy admin | February 13, 2013

One thing you can always count on with unexpected paradigm shifts in science is that no-one expected them.

You’ve probably heard of the experiments in which a neurosurgeon touches a part of a subject’s brain with an electrode, and it triggers a vivid memory. A fascinating phenomenon, to be sure, but did you know that the experiment was performed prior to 1950 by Wilder Penfield, that it occurred in less than five percent of patients, and that the results have not been replicated with any regularity since? The idea that this was somehow a commonplace occurrence entered the popular mind largely as a result of the 1967 book I’m OK, You’re OK, and contributes to the misconception that science has any truly clear idea of how memory works, or where memories are stored. This is not to diminish the groundbreaking work that Penfield did; modern neurosurgery literally wouldn’t exist without his work in general. But it highlights something about the current common perception of science, something which may actually be getting in the way of the kind of exciting discoveries that we typically associate with it as an endeavor. And that is the notion of “science as dogma”. Historically, the thing that really put religion or metaphysics at odds with science was the simple idea that while science didn’t preclude possibilities, it demanded an actual demonstration of the theory presented. Rupert Sheldrake explores the problem of science as dogma in a piece on HuffPo called Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion, a piece which better articulates some things I’ve said myself.

But who the heck is Rupert Sheldrake, and why should we care what he thinks? Well, while Deepak Chopra may hail him as a visionary, the more skeptically-minded consider him a bit of a nut. I personally didn’t know anything about him until I read this interview recently, in which – while he talked about scientific heresies like morphogenic fields and experiments in paranormal phenomena – he also talked about the damage done to science by its own establishment – in part by the way that science has become largely driven by its ability to produce profitable results – but also how science seems to be stuck in its own reality-as-machine faith. He cites how no-one is likely to talk about how, for instance, the Human Genome Project has been a disappointment, primarily because there are billions invested in it. And how the best and brightest new minds are drawn more to high incomes in the tech and pharmaceutical industries than to opportunities for “pure inquiry”.

Two topics that he discussed in the interview that I found compelling were based on the fact that current scientific doctrine implies that genetics will explain everything about life, and that in spite of little in the way of hard evidence, it also implies that somehow we already know how memory and consciousness work, we just have to map the details into specific electrochemical reactions in the brain. The latter kind of popular thinking is reinforced when statements like “MIT discovers the location of memories: Individual neurons” are made by popular tech and science articles. In that particular piece, the author goes on to say “By triggering a small cluster of neurons, the researchers were able to force the subject to recall a specific memory. By removing these neurons, the subject would lose that memory.” It’s not until the third paragraph that they mention that the “subject” was a mouse.

But one specific thing he said in the interview that really struck me was in response to the question “If…memory does not reside in the brain, then where is it?” to which he replied “‘Where?’ is the wrong question. Memory is a relationship in time, not in space. The idea that a memory has to be somewhere when it’s not being remembered is a theoretical inference, not an observation of reality.” Those two points are quite accurate, and I’ve personally never heard the concept framed that way. And it’s not terribly at odds with something that the trailblazing neurosurgeon we referenced at the top said, which was “Consciousness exists only in association with the passage of impulses through ever-changing circuits between the brainstem and cortex. One can not say that consciousness is here or there.”

I don’t know yet what I think of Sheldrake’s ideas about morphogenic fields and his other fringe-science pursuits, but I have a sort of “dull Occam’s Razor” view of the world. I don’t latch on to crazy, elaborate explanations just because I like them, but if there’s one thing I do know about science it is that it’s at its best when it overturns its own dogma. As Arthur C. Clarke said:

“If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”