Coronet, 2012, 392 pp
Reviewed by Sky and Marian McCain
The materialist philosophy or the ‘scientific worldview’ is not a vision of undeniable, objective truth. It is a questionable belief system superseded by the development of the sciences themselves.
With this critique of science, the author—himself a scientist with impeccable credentials—aims to encourage a fundamental and beneficial re-evaluation of the way the sciences are defined and practised in our modern world. He claims that the scientific orthodoxy of today, based as it is on a thoroughly pragmatic, materialistic worldview, is severely limiting the spirit of enquiry and discovery that birthed it because of centuries old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas.
Sheldrake begins by listing ten core beliefs that most scientists accept without question:
1. Everything is essentially mechanical
2. All matter is unconscious
3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same
4. The laws of nature are fixed
5. Nature is purposeless and evolution has no goal or direction
6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the DNA etc.
7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains
8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death
9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory
10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
In the chapters that follow, he carefully and systematically examines these beliefs, all of which are untested and most of which are in fact untestable, and explains why they are doggedly adhered to by the scientific Establishment in order to ensure funding and to avoid any accusation of ‘flakiness.’ Sadly, these beliefs severely limit the ability of our modern sciences to respond convincingly to the challenges we face in the twenty first century. For by assuming the mantle of certitude and moral authority—the mantle once worn by the Roman Catholic church in centuries past—Western science, which we were all taught was about free and open and enquiry into the nature of things, actually stifles debate, sets the parameters of respectability and tolerates little if any dissent.
The biggest delusion, Sheldrake says, is that there are no more fundamental questions. In fact, the old saying that the more we know the less we understand has never been more true than it is today. One has only to think of all that ‘dark matter’ in space. For as he points out: Far from providing a satisfyingly complete explanation of the universe, modern physics suggests that we understand less than one twentieth of it.
Whereas science has built a reputation for the establishment of un-biased, ‘godlike’ knowledge, an extremely pragmatic scientific practice has emerged: one in which fact is so strongly influenced by the above ten assumptions that the public has difficulty determining whether pronouncements from the various branches of science are true because of exhaustive testing or because a materialistic, deterministic, reductionist belief system has filtered out most of the alternatives.
In the final chapter –Scientific Futures – the author offers workable suggestions as to how, once the illusion of objectivity has banished as the fiction we now know it to be, scientists might benefit from a new open-source spirit of enquiry where at every turn both viewpoint biases and associated facts are examined, possible hypotheses are not discarded because they are impossible in a materialistic worldview and scientists are freed from the stipulation that all research must have practical, lucrative outcomes. Science and religion can learn from each other and nobody can lay claim to final, permanent truth.
Ranging as it does from quantum physics to wart-charming and from double-blind experiments to African women’s ability to carry huge loads on their heads over long distances, this is a delightful, interesting, informative, highly readable and much needed book and we definitely recommend it.