Mar 31 2012

Flexible Thought Vs. the Big Mouth in the Sky: The Science Delusion By Rupert Sheldrake


“God is a word, and the argument ends there” – Bill Callahan

I’m up to the tits with this whole God vs. Science thing. It should have been done when Reed Richards stuck the ultimate nullifier in Galactus’s face, but noooo. The transcendental God, who was never more than a beard for the Holy Roman Empire, is still hanging round playgrounds like a seedy vagrant, whispering into the kiddies’ ears about creationism and original sin, just to make sure they know their place.

The problem is, science has fallen for the ruse, and is still attacking religion as if it were a belief system, when it’s no more than the use of myth and ritual to express the ethos of the community –  which community is supposed  not to do that, exactly? — and by doing so, it’s just given Nobodaddy the credibility he wanted.

Time for a new theology of science then.

Into the breach strides Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist best-beloved of the British public for his defense of telepathic dogs, though  also for crowdsourcing evidence for his pet theory of morphic resonance. His new book, The Science Delusion, is one part summary upgrade on his previous works, one part survey of the philsophy of science, and the whole of it a challenge to materialist thinking.

Sheldrake’s key idea, morphic resonance, is best understood as an inverted Platonism that operates on Darwinistic principles. In order for it to work, it has to posit some kind of infranatural layer of reality that logs information and in which patterns tend to establish themselves in the same way that habits do for peoople. In short, the universe learns how to be who it is just like we do, through trial and error and laziness. As above, so below!

Because we’ve grown up with a Platonic vision of an orderly universe (which then transformed under Deism into a mechanistic order), we continue to unconsciously think of this as “laws” of physics as if they were handed down by somebody who knew what they were doing, and with cellular automata ticking along robotically to assemble the great machine that is the world. This is one of the great assumptions Sheldrake wants us to question:

“Most scientists are unconscious of the myths, allegories and assumptions that shape their social roles and political power. These beliefs are implicit rather than explicit. But they are more powerful because they are so habitual. If they are unconscious, they cannot be questioned; and in so far as they are collective, shared by the scientific community, there is no incentive to question them.”

This system of unconscious assumptions he calls materialism, and he has no qualms about conflating the two meanings of the word to create an ethical view of our dominant paradigm as something as soulless, reactive and impersonal as an AK-47 – or as a financial instrument. Gordon Gecko and Isaac Newton merge to become a phildickian demiurge that constrains our view of the world (and ourselves in the world), and preventing us from seeing the whole as an organic living system.

So this is essentially an Integral Studies Guide to the Sciences (where Integral Studies is the reintroduction of Eastern philosophy into Western practice with an eye to holistic synthesis rather than analytic disection); intended to challenge scientific orthodoxy to take personality and interconnectedness wholly on board instead of excluding it.

In an elegant and beguiling prose, Sheldrake touches lightly on the philosophy of science since the Enlightenment, detailing what he takes to be overlooked lacunae: Purpose, the fixity of nature in mechanics and law, the morphogenetic field as final cause, the panpsychism of nature, and the possibility of the non-locality of memory and mind.

And as anyone familiar with Sheldrake’s prior work might expect, there are concerns with treating the universe itself as a singular personal and conscious supraorganism evolving into itself; with various strange consciousness effects (such as telepathy and out of body experiences), and various seemingly strange results (such as unconnected crystals learning the trick of a new formation simultaneously), all of which are supposed to demonstrate morphic resonance at work.

Each of these issues is raised as a confrontation with the metaphor of mechanism, and the heartlessness presumed to keep it company; and an encouragement to imaginative involvement in his own crowdsourcing experiments; so in that spirit, I thought I’d engage wth a couple three of them head on myself.

Is Matter Unconscious? (And Does Consciousness Matter?)

I think Sheldrake tends to do materialism a disservice with the presumption that materialism necessarily denies purpose, consciousness, etc.; whereas it simply excludes them from consideration in order to clarify the model (though this very well may amount to the same thing in the scientist’s habits of mind).

I take his point that this exclusion in itself may lead us into false consciousness, but Sheldrake seems unaware that the strategy of deferring, as it were, the existential science until we have the tools to do the job  –  well, that’s beginning to pay off in, say, Antonio Damasio’s work on neurobiology, which doesn’t shy away from humanistic questions of meeaning.

In Looking for Spinoza, Damasio produces a convincing narrative about consciousness without having to make the mistake of thinking it a noun, and thereby multiply entities. Once we remember Sartre’s thought that we cannot be conscious without being conscious of something, the issue of consciousness pretty much resolves itself.

What we call consciousness is being conscious of being conscious. To put it another way, non-conscious organisms produce elementary models of reality. The maggot only knows light, and to move away from it, the cat knows complex stimuli and complex responses, but sentient beings not only create a virtual reality in their head, they populate that virtual reality with a self-representation, which is attached to various feelings and emotions.

We have no difficulty understanding that self pity is the same as the simple pity (a basic emotional stimulus-response) raised to the level of representation and reflexively redirected. Why do we make any more of a deal about self-consciousness? (Well, because we want to be God’s special snowflake, obviously, but let the rhetorical question stand.)

Sheldrake wants us to take the extra leap of saying that panpsychism is the actual third way between materialism and dualism; but I think rather that having understood the processes of emergence, we can more easily recognize panpsychism as a consequence of emergence; that is, sure, the entire universe is made of the same stuff, and so are we, and at different levels of complexity, that stuff finds new ways to express its nature.

We don’t have to resort to the pathetic fallacy so much as recognize that agency and experience happen at all the levels, and sentient beings just do agency and experience at this level. But at the same time, Schopenhauer’s idea that everything is driven by will, and Dawkin’s anthropomorphic metaphor of the selfish gene can perhaps be combined into the simpler idea that everything wants something. We are all always falling into the void of desire, and subatomic particles are also looking for their missing piece. Everything’s gotta eat!

In the last analysis, Sheldrake points out that either everything’s conscious, or everything’s an automaton. And while this is true, if we remember that there are degrees of consciousness, and that the brain generates consciousness from matter, the simple point is that we either treat the world personally or we don’t. Usually both, in my experience.

Is Nature Purposeless?

To cut to the chase, Sheldrake recasts Aristotle’s teleology in terms of strange attractors; it’s somewhat appealing, although the claim that attractors are ideal rather than material is a bit dodgy. What seems obvious to me is that the attractor is an output of material forces, a model whereby we can see how a combination of least-effort behaviours in nonlinear relationships add up. That is, at the endpoint, we can see the self of self-organization (can you see what it is yet?), but before that, we only see the separate microprocesses doing their thing.

It’s fair to say that the process whereby complex systems find the conformation of minimum energy, but I’m not sure we have to posit an existent morphogenetic field to describe it. Many-worlds theory would suggest that there’s an intrinsic quantum computation across all possible universes taking place, which collapses into the least-effort pattern  — which we then perceive in hindsight as an attractor shape calling the processes into being, when it’s just (!) the multiverse running the numbers.

And here is somewhere that I think Sheldrake’s own imagination falls short, and he falls into dogmatism himself. Many of the issues of considering the universe as a living system fall away when we think of the multiverse as a quantum computer delivering least-effort results. What if lifelike properties are simply an emergent output of an infinite improbability drive? Do we need to project purpose onto an eventuality system at play?

Sheldrake does, because he wants to preserve the idea of a pot of form at the end of the sacred rainbow, drawing us on into its self-becoming. But in this I find the old Victorian “revolt of the soul against the intellect” (as Yeats said about Blake). That’s a fair position as poetry, as we strive to find our place – and indeed ourselves – in the midst of this mess. But I don’t know that it amounts to an alternative vision of how to do science.

Are Minds Confined to Brains?

Sheldrake says:“We see things outside our bodies; we do not experience images inside our heads.”

Well, yes, but no. What we actually experience is the representation of ourself within the representation of the world that we keep inside our heads. This much is obvious to anyone who ever had a dream… well, maybe once it’s been pointed out to them. This is the real miracle of the world, that it contains seven billion worlds inside seven billion heads, and each man’s death kills a whole world.

There’s a simple mistake Sheldrake makes here: what we project with our extended mind is projected within our virtual reality. What’s more interesting here, to me, is what telepathy actually might be: a kind of game in which two or more minds somehow synch to create a shared virtual reality. Stoners and acid heads learn this trick, as did the witnesses of the Miracle of Fatima (which certainly had no objective correlate, but by God everyone saw the sun move!).

Sheldrake notes this as perceptual guided activity, and cites Arva Noë: ‘We are out of our heads. We are in the world and of it. We are patterns of active engagement with fluid boundaries and changing components. We are distributed.”

And well, yes; but we don’t need to posit a neoplatonic essence to achieve distributed mind or accept that our minds are in and out of each other’s pocket universes all the time. That is, after all, how poetry works.

And of course our minds extend in time and space; that’s what the forebrain is there for, to generate predicted outcomes. If we’re good at the rhythms of life — or, like William Blake, have especially vivid visual imaginations — we’ll get more hits than most people. And the point isn’t just that we only remember the times we’re right; it’s that the universe itself is in the business of probabilistically generating outcomes.

All Shall Be Well, And All Shall Be Well…

So in the death, Sheldrake doesn’t quite pull off being the Jesus of a new theosophy so much as look like its Moses, cutting himself down a couple steps short of the promised land. The vision of a universal consciousness, whatever that might be, remains unrealized. Then again, that’s as it should be – he’s only asking us to take it into consideration as a possibility that might spur our imaginations on to a more holistic framework for, if not science per se, then how we engage with what we learn from science.

On the other hand, I find it peculiar that he rails against Dawkins, calling him “a vitalist in molecular clothing” for using “anthropocentric metaphors”. The way I see it, what Sheldrake needs in order to cross into Israel is to take that language at its word, to honour as the metaphor as hidden intention and recognize panpsychism in the unconscious urgency and will of all life (and that we’re personally part of it no more and no less than the selfish genes themselves).

“From a materialist point of view, nonmaterial inheritance is impossible, except for cultural inheritance”, Sheldrake says, urging us to think outside the box. “Everyone agrees that cultural inheritance – say, through language – involves a transfer of information that is not genetic. But all other forms of inheritance must be material: there is no other possibility.”

But why would we not recognize language and culture as material? And is it actually the case that it’s the mathematical mechanists who are Platonic? Or are they, as I see it, the heir to Aristotle, while it’s the idea of morphogenetic fields carries the burden of Ideal form made manifest?

Yearning for an invisible substrate that guarantees morphic resonance strikes me as a kind of reflexively-blind Platonism-in-all-but-name that prevents the emergence of a true postmaterialist theology. What we could hope to grasp is that we might be local negentropic agents of co-creation precisely through our unwitting involvement-through-desire in the multiverse’s constant screen refresh. Well, it makes as much sense as anything these days.

I’m inclined to think the same thing of morphogenetic fields as I do about “God”. If an entity we might recognize as God should prove to exist, it would have to be identical to the universe itself (that is, be the universe considered as a supraorganism we might reasonably treat as personal).

As below, so above. The morphogenetic field is the organism itself in its development, bootstrapping itself into self-organized existence from the genetic base, like the Escher sketch of the hand drawing the hand drawing the hand.

If we want to think of the universe as a personal supraorganism, whether as Dr. Strange’s best bud Eternity or the Qaballah’s Adam Qadmon, best to remember the inner meaning of the incarnation (as we pass the time between the Spring equinox and Easter): that the inner principle of the man is of one substance with the man himself, and requiring of no external hand to guide it. And all manner of things shall be well-formed, according to the principles of their self-organization.

Morphogenesis, from organism to supraorganism, is a word; and the argument ends there.