Werner Heisenberg, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, once observed that history could be divided into periods according to what people of the time made of matter. In his book Physics and Philosophy, published in the early 60s, he argued that at the beginning of the 20th century we entered a new period. It was then that quantum physics threw off the materialism that dominated the natural sciences of the 19th century.
Of materialism, he wrote:
"[This] frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concept of mind, of the human soul or of life. Mind could be introduced into the general picture only as a kind of mirror of the material world."Today we live in the 21st century, and it seems that we are still stuck with this narrow and rigid view of the things. As Rupert Sheldrake puts it in his new book, published this week, The Science Delusion: "The belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a 19th-century ideology."
That's provocative rhetoric. Science an act of faith? Science a belief system? But then how else to explain the grip of the mechanistic, physicalist, purposeless cosmology? As Heisenberg explained, physicists among themselves have long stopped thinking of atoms as things. They exist as potentialities or possibilities, not objects or facts. And yet, materialism persists.
Heisenberg recommended staying in touch with reality as we experience it, which is to say holding a place for conceptions of mind and soul. The mechanistic view will pass, he was certain. In a way, Sheldrake's scientific career has been devoted to its overthrow. He began in a mainstream post as director of studies in cell biology at Cambridge University, though he challenged the orthodoxy when he proposed his theory of morphogenetic fields.
This is designed to account for, say, the enormously complex structure of proteins. A conventional approach, which might be described as bottom-up, has protein molecules "exploring" all possible patterns until settling on one with a minimum energy. This explanation works well for simple molecules, like carbon dioxide. However, proteins are large and complicated. As Sheldrake notes: "It would take a small protein about 1026 years to do this, far longer than the age of the universe."
As a result, some scientists are proposing top-down, holistic explanations. Sheldrake's particular proposal is that such self-organising systems exist in fields of memory or habit. These contain the information required to make the structure.
Fearlessly, he extends the speculation to embrace a range of phenomena that many people experience. Telephone telepathy is one, when you are thinking about someone just as they phone. Or the sense of being stared at. The idea, roughly, is that our intentions can be communicated across mental fields that are like morphogenetic fields. They connect us - though in the modern world, with its ideological and technological distractions, we are not very good at noticing them.
Sheldrake has continually to fight his corner. In the new book, he records an encounter with Richard Dawkins, when the eminent atheist was making his 2007 TV series Enemies of Reason. Sheldrake suggested they discuss the actual evidence for telepathy. Dawkins resisted. "There isn't time. It's too complicated. And that's not what the programme is about," Sheldrake reports Dawkins saying, before himself retorting that he wasn't interested in taking part in another "low-grade debunking exercise". Dawkins reportedly replied: "It's not a low-grade debunking exercise; it's a high-grade debunking exercise."
I admire Sheldrake for his extraordinary good humour, given the decades of abuse he has endured. This manner comes across in The Science Delusion because, at heart, it is a passionate plea for the materialist worldview, finally, definitively, to be challenged.
Whether or not his own theories will stand the test of time is another question. In a paper published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in November 2011, Fraser Watts examines them at face value and, broadly, finds them suggestive but wanting. For example, Sheldrake conceives of mental fields via the analogy of an amoeba: as an amoeba extends its pseudopodia and touches the environment around it, similarly telepathy and the like would be the result of "mental pseudopodia" extended into the world around us.
The analogy has the benefit of naturalising extrasensory perception, Watts notes. But it also raises problems. For example, how would it be possible mentally "to touch" objects that don't exist, as would happen when contemplating a centaur? Watts concludes: "An adequate account of the mind must encompass both first- and third-person description whereas the idea of a 'field', along with the other spatial descriptions that Sheldrake uses, seem to be exclusively third-person type descriptions." Oddly, this is a strikingly 19th century attitude to have.
Nonetheless, Sheldrake must welcome such serious engagement with his work. He may not be right in the details. But he is surely right, with Heisenberg, in insisting that the materialist world view must go.
This article was amended on 28 January 2012. The superscript formatting in a quote by Rupert Sheldrake was lost in the production process, leaving it with a reference to 1026 years instead of 1026. This has now been corrected