James Le-Fanu

More big questions

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The Science Delusion

Rupert Sheldrake

Coronet, pp. 392, £

There is something rather odd about the current state of science. The funding for its prestigious institutions and mega projects now routinely runs to hundreds of millions, even billions, of pounds. And it is certainly productive, generating a tidal wave of papers every year published in its 25,000 academic journals. But ask what it all adds up to and those much heralded breakthroughs in understanding seem remarkably elusive.

This could be due, at least in part, to the law of diminishing returns, where science’s striking success necessarily imposes barriers to further advance. By the time it has (apparently) resolved the big questions of the origin of the universe, how the galaxies and our earth were formed, identified the earliest forms of life and cracked the genetic code, then what comes after could be an anticlimax.

For Rupert Sheldrake, science’s problems go much deeper than this. It is, he claims, facing a ‘credibility crunch’ on many fronts where the physical and natural world, as currently understood, can no longer be accounted for within its own narrow, materialist terms. He presents this challenging, if intriguing, argument by identifying ‘ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted’: we live in a causally closed universe, governed by known physical laws; life can be explained in terms of its constituent parts; the human mind in terms of the electro-chemistry of the brain; and so on. He then interrogates each in turn by reformulating it, in the spirit of radical scepticism, as a question. Are the laws of nature fixed? Is biological inheritance material? Are minds confined to brains? This Socratic method of inquiry proves surprisingly illuminating.

The law of the conservation of matter and energy, for example, is a foundational principal of physics. There is only so much of each, they can be converted from one form into another (kinetic, potential, mechanical, electromagnetic) or into each other — but can neither be created nor destroyed. However, pose it as a question, ‘Is the total amount of matter and energy always the same?’ and the answer is clearly no in ways that transcend materialist assumptions.

The compelling evidence for the creation of the universe ab initio at the moment of the Big Bang required there to be suddenly a lot more of both — as that speck of matter increased in size a million million million fold and within a million millionth of a second. So how did that come about, one might reasonably wonder, when, within the prevailing scientific paradigm, as Sheldrake points out, it is tantamount to ‘Give us a free miracle and we will explain the rest’.

It has also emerged that the distribution of galaxies and continued expansion of the universe requires there to be vastly more of both matter and energy than can be observed. This hidden ‘dark’ matter and energy invisible to scientific scrutiny accounts, it is estimated, for a staggering 96 per cent of the total. This might perhaps be relevant to similarly invisible but apparently real ‘energetic’ phenomena whose existence is denied by modern science — notably the ‘spark of life’ that so unambiguously distinguishes the animate from the inanimate.

In a similar way, Sheldrake invokes the more recent developments in neuroscience to challenge the proposition that the non- material attributes of the human mind are ‘no more’ than emergent properties of the brain. It might seem self-evident that the process of memorising events and their subsequent recall requires that they somehow be laid down as permanent traces in the physical structure of the brain — how else to account for their loss with the ‘forgetting’ of dementia?But this notion of some form of permanent record raises a whole series of insurmountable problems. How does the electrochemistry of the brain translate into those vivid childhood memories? How  do we reconcile the fixity of memory over decades with the constant turnover of the neurotransmitter chemicals in the neuronal synapses? Why should chimps and rats retain the ability to perform learned tasks despite the removal of much of their brains?.

If memories are not ‘stored,’ that would suggest that the brain must work in radically different ways than were until recently presumed, and which are not amenable to science’s method of investigation. From this perspective, the non-material mind, its sense of self and free will could be as real as they appear, and not, as required by materialist science, an illusion generated by the brain to give the impression that someone is in charge.

Regrettably Sheldrake does not confine himself to asking these searching questions but periodically interpolates his own favoured theory of interconnections between the physical and living world, known as morphic resonance. Still, those who read selectively, perhaps humming their way through the relevant passages, will find this a seriously mind-expanding book.