This interview is the second in a two-part series on the nature of belief (read Part 1 with Deepak Chopra here).
In this conversation, world-renowned biologist, research scientist, and bestselling author Rupert Sheldrake and I spoke about his new book Science Set Free. Here, he discusses the difference between science as a belief system and science as a method of inquiry and makes the bold argument that many of the most basic assumptions science makes about the nature of reality constrains the possibility of new discoveries.
Chelsea Roff: Your new book is called Science Set Free. For readers who are unfamiliar, what are you proposing science be set free from?
Rupert Sheldrake: I am proposing that science be set free from the dogmas that so strongly restrict it at the moment. As it developed over the last 400 years, science has made a number of simplifying assumptions that were at first liberating and helped research, but have now hardened into unquestionable dogmas, which most scientists are not even aware are beliefs, rather than facts. The inhibiting effect they have on scientific thought is often unconscious. The ten beliefs that I examine in my book constitute what I call the science delusion (which is the British title for this book). The science delusion is the belief that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in. This imprisons the thinking of scientists and suppresses curiosity.
CR: How do you see the distinction between science as a belief system and science as a method of inquiry? Do you think most scientists approach science as a belief system or as a method for inquiring into the nature of reality?
RS: Ideally, science is a method of inquiry through hypothesis and experimentation. But at any given time scientists work within a paradigm or model of reality, and this model of reality, or belief system, is not usually discussed, but taken for granted.
Within a given field of inquiry, such as protein biochemistry or low temperature physics, scientists do indeed proceed in a spirit of genuine inquiry. But when one zooms out and looks at the bigger picture, the framework of belief within which the sciences are currently conducted, then what one finds is a materialist belief system which is not generally challenged within the sciences themselves.
CR: What about the general public -- do you think people reading about recent findings in science are able to make that distinction?
RS: Most people in the general public know about science through the writings of scientific popularizers and scientific journalists. Since these writers generally popularize what is going on in mainstream science, they explain new advances — for example in stem cell research, in genome sequencing or in research on the Higgs boson — but they do not discuss the general materialist philosophy on which science is based, and the ten specific assumptions that are usually taken for granted.
So most outsiders’ view of science is one that takes the materialist belief system for granted, without realizing it is a belief system.
CR: You write in the book about ten “dogmas” you believe are holding science back. What’s the difference, in your mind, between a dogma and a hypothesis supported by evidence? What makes these beliefs dogmas, rather than conjectures supported by a large body of evidence?
RS: A hypothesis is open to discussion and is tested by evidence, which can support it or disprove it. A dogma is not looked at as if it is an open question. It is taken as a shared assumption or starting point.
For example, the dogma that nature is mechanical or machine like is not a hypothesis that can be tested and supported or refuted by evidence. It’s a metaphor. To some extent it’s a suitable metaphor: the heart is rather like a pump, the eye is rather like a camera, in some respects brains are like computers. But a much more appropriate metaphor for the universe as a whole, and for most things within it (except machines) is the organism. Organisms are self organising and have their own formative principles and purposes within them. Machines are not self-organizing, but have to be designed by humans and serve human purposes.
Similarly, the dogma that memories are stored inside the brain is not something that most brain researchers ever discuss. They take it for granted and look for mechanisms of memory storage. They do not discuss the possibility that memory might work in a completely different way, by resonance across time. Even when they fail again and again to find the putative memory traces, they go on looking for them. These different theories of memory can in fact be tested by experiment, but only if the memory trace theory is treated as a testable hypothesis, not as an unquestionable dogma.
Essentially what I am doing in my book is treating the dogmas as hypotheses that can be tested scientifically, bringing them into the realm of science rather than standing outside it as assumptions that have to be accepted as articles of faith.
CR: How do you think the structure of academia and the way research is done in science has influenced the propagation of these dogmas?
RS: Universities teach students the currently orthodox knowledge and ideas and hence propagate the prevailing beliefs of the time. Academics themselves are awarded with grants and promotions largely on the basis of their publications in peer-reviewed journals, preferably with a high citation index. What matters is peer approval, and this is an inherently conservative force. Grant applications, like journal articles, are also subject to anonymous peer-review which again is highly conservative and works against original or unusual research, and also against the opening up of new fields of inquiry which are inherently riskier than sticking to well established areas of research.
Many scientists are motivated by fear of losing their grants, of not getting their papers published in high-prestige journals and in missing out on the competition for jobs and promotion. Therefore they tend to play safe. In the past, much scientific research was privately funded and was not subject to these conservative forces. Charles Darwin, for example, worked independently without an academic position or government grants and was much freer as a consequence, but there is very little independent science today. The academic system does not favor the questioning of dogmas in science, or in any other area.
CR: What practical steps do you believe should be taken to — as you suggest — turn the ten dogmas you write about into questions?
RS: The first step in turning a dogma into a question is to recognise the existence of a dogma. If it is taken for granted as a truth, it is beyond the realm of questioning.
Once the dogma has been turned into a question, it can take the form of a testable hypothesis and then it is possible to think of experiments to test it, or evidence to that could support or go against it. This opens up the possibility of new lines of research, as I show in Science Set Free. For example if the usual assumption of the conservation of recognised forms of matter and energy is true, then all sorts of unconventional energy devices can be dismissed as impossible, as they are at present. But if there are other forms of energy that can be converted into familiar forms, then some so-called above-unity devices might be able to provide new sources of energy that could transform the world economy. Accepting the possibility that such devices might be real opens the way to finding out if any of them actually work. I suggest an international competition as the best way of evaluating whether any of the claims by inventors in this field are valid or not.
Likewise, the assumption that all heredity is material restricts research on other forms of inheritance, for example morphic resonance. The hypothesis of morphic resonance predicts that if rats learn a new trick in San Francisco, rats all over the world should learn it quicker as a result. This is testable and is already supported by evidence. It is not difficult in principle to do experiments to test these dogmas. The most important obstacles are psychological and institutional.
Last but not least, an important practical step would be the establishment of funding agencies that are prepared to fund unconventional research which is not at present funded through government agencies or corporations. The more such funding agencies the better, because the freedom of science, like any other kind of freedom is likely to flourish best under a pluralistic system rather than centralised bureaucracy. There are already many private foundations and wealthy private individuals, and if some of them were to devote some of their resources to funding unconventional scientific investigations, they could make a very big difference, and get a much bigger bang for their buck than conventional scientific funding, which is obeying the law of diminishing returns.
You can purchase Rupert Sheldrake’s new book, Science Set Free, on Amazon.