When the strikingly original ideas of Rupert Sheldrake were first widely discussed in the early 1980s it seemed possible a new philosophical/scientific paradigm was breaking like a thunderstorm.
Thirty years later, Sheldrake’s influence on modern thought may more accurately be compared to a fine drizzle. Many diehard ‘fine day’ proponents angrily deny there’s been any rain at all.
Sheldrake’s hypotheses call for a radical rethink of the nature of our cosmos. While grounded in cosmology and theology, his key ideas are essentially scientific theories, expressed in scientific language. These are amenable in most cases to empirical testing – a claim made by Sheldrake from the outset.
A number of experiments over the last quarter century were set up to do precisely that. In the mid-1980s, I imagined debate about Sheldrake would be largely over in a few years, resolved beyond doubt one way or another.
My anticipation of a clear-cut, widely accepted result was not to be fullfilled. Yes, there have been multiple experiments, but their outcome remains in dispute. Much of the debate about Sheldrake’s ideas has barely progressed in a generation. It’s still essentially a contest between enthusiasts – some tentative in support but nevertheless encouraging – and extraordinarily fierce, dogmatic rejectionists. For the most part, ‘establishment science’ has been dismissive.
In his first book – A New Science of Life (initially published in 1981) – Sheldrake posited the existence of an effect that, if found to be genuine, is inexplicable within the materialist-mechanistic framework of modern mainstream scientific thought. Sheldrake called this ‘formative causation’. Simply put, if Sheldrake is correct and formative causation is indeed a principle at work in the universe, then events that happen once will be more likely to happen again; the effect, he suggests, is cumulative.
Sheldrake believes this is an immanent, universal propensity of organised complexity. He believes it applies it to a vast range of phenomena, from crystal formation to biological morphogenesis – even to human behaviour and psychology. In other words, it influences the full range of reality we experience.
Sheldrake’s ideas owe something to the organicist cosmology of Alfred North Whitehead, who suggested the entire universe is more like an organism than a (non-physical) idea or a (physical) thing. This presents a ‘third way’ philosophical alternative to idealism and materialism.
In his later books, Sheldrake’s proposals became even more far-reaching. What we know as the ‘Laws’ of Nature, in Sheldrake’s view, are more akin to habits than human legislation. Indeed ‘law’, according to Sheldrake, is not an intrinsic propensity of the universe; habit is.
No-one can better explain and defend Sheldrake’s ideas than the man himself. The video above – a fairly recent lecture – is an excellent introduction to Sheldrake’s ideas. His website provides a lot of additional material.
A number of his admirers have also published material that’s available on the web. I recommend an interview with Sheldrake shown originally as part of a PBS documentary series. It can be viewed at the Nautis Project website: see the Glorious Accident Interview with Rupert Sheldrake.
A debate about the evidence for psi phenomena (which Sheldrake explains as a manifestation of the principle formative causation) took place between Sheldrake and a well-known ‘sceptic’, Professor Richard Wiseman. It was facilitated by Alex Tsakiris of the Sceptico.com website.
This discussion – Rupert Sheldrake and Richard Wiseman Clash Over Parapsychology Experiments – is well worth absorbing (scroll down for the audio file). There’s follow-up debate on the same topic on the Mind-Energy Forum. It helps explain why there hasn’t been definitive proof – or rebuttal – of Sheldrake’s hypothesis until now.
Sheldrake alleges deep scientific establishment bias against new theories that conflict with materialist philosophy.
I think he’s right about that.