Dogma and Habit

This is the first part – of four – of the talk ‘The Science Delusion’.



“The science delusion is the delusion that science already understands the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to be filled in.” So begins Rupert Sheldrake’s January 2013 controversial TEDx talk based on his book ‘The Science Delusion’, which stands in sharp contrast to Richard Dawkins’s (‘The God Delusion’) view of science. He continues: “There is a conflict at the heart of science”; Dawkins’s widely-held view “has come to inhibit and restrict the free enquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavour.”

How does science work? What does it actually tell us? Is science compatible with religion or not? Perhaps that conflict “at the heart of science” is key?


1. An Introduction by Rupert Sheldrake

I’m going to let Rupert Sheldrake do the introduction for this talk here for me. He is perhaps a surprising person for me to call upon for support, but he is very eloquent, what he says is very apposite and he says it succinctly. Furthermore, I’ve borrowed his title – from his 2012 book ‘The Science Delusion’ and also his rather notorious TEDx talk at TEDx Whitechapel (London) in January 2013. He started that talk:

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 is a very widespread belief in our society. It’s the kind of belief system of people who say ‘I don’t believe in God; I believe in science’. It’s a belief system which has now been spread to the entire world. But there’s a conflict at the heart of science between science as a method of enquiry, based on reason, evidence, hypothesis and collective investigation, and science as a belief system, or a worldview, and unfortunately the worldview aspect of science has come to inhibit and constrict the free enquiry which is the very lifeblood of the scientific endeavour.

Since the late nineteenth Century, science has been conducted under the aspect of a belief system or a worldview which is essentially that of materialism (philosophical materialism) and the sciences are now a wholly-owned subsidiaries of the materialist worldview. I think that, as we break out of it, the sciences will be regenerated.

This talk is very much about philosophical materialism, which has been referred to as (a particular flavour of) ‘realism’ in the past. But both ‘realistic’ and ‘materialistic’ have everyday connotations that ‘physicalistic’ is too cumbersome to suffer from and I will refer only to ‘physicalism’ henceforth.

Sheldrake identifies a conflict within science between the method of science and the scientific worldview and this conflict is very much the topic here. I think it is key to understanding the often-heated wider conflict between science and religion which isn’t considered directly here but is often touched upon briefly and is a background theme.

Sheldrake talks of the regeneration of science through ‘breaking out’ of the physicalist worldview, but I see the solution being in a reformation of that physicalist worldview.

2. The Dogmas of Science

Sheldrake continues in his talk (between 1 min. 35s and 2 min. 15s):

What I do in my book ‘The Science Delusion’, which is called ‘Science Set Free’ in the United States, is take the ten dogmas, or assumptions, of science and turn them into questions, seeing how well they stand up if you look at them scientifically. None of them stand up very well. What I’m going to do is first run through what these ten dogmas are, and then I’ll only have time to discuss one or two of them in a bit more detail. But essentially the ten dogmas … are the default worldview of most educated people all over the world.

To summarize, those ten dogmas of science are:

  1. Nature is mechanical / machine-like.
  2. Matter is unconscious.
  3. The laws of nature are fixed.
  4. Conservation of matter/energy.
  5. Nature/Evolution is purposeless.
  6. Everything inherited is material.
  7. Everything you know is stored (somehow) in the brain.
  8. Your mind is inside your head.
  9. Psychic phenomena (e.g. telepathy) are impossible.
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that works.

(You can watch the video of course for his fuller descriptions.)

Two things to note here:

  1. ‘Dogmas’ is obviously a pejorative term, and
  2. It is a rather personal list for Sheldrake.

To understand this, we only need watch the rest of the TEDx talk. Sheldrake is well known for his investigations into telepathy and other parapsychology (through his books such as ‘The Sense of Being Stared At’ and ‘Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home’) and his theory of ‘morphic resonance’, by which “memory is inherent in nature” such that, for example, it allows rats learning how to navigate a maze somewhere in the world to benefit from the prior experiences of other rats, maybe on the other side of the world. This is all far from scientific orthodoxy.

Rupert Sheldrake’s ‘The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry’

The TEDx Whitechapel event in London had the overall theme ‘Challenging existing paradigms and redefining values (for a more beautiful world)’. Sheldrake certainly rose to that challenge. His critics objected to the TED organization (see for example Jerry Coyne’s dismissal on his ‘Evolution is True’ blog) who then banned the talk, along with that by Graham Hancock. Sheldrake responded to his (anonymous) critics, and the talk was reinstated, but only onto the TEDx discussion pages.

But this is not a talk about Sheldrake’s ideas and whether they are science or pseudo-science. It is about the ‘dogmas’/’assumptions’ of science. Sheldrake refers to them as dogmas because he sees that they are immovable points for those that hold them, around which other facts and opinions can be formed but they themselves do not move. And these dogmas stand in the way of an acceptance of his personal theories.

Sheldrake’s list of dogmas is not the first, of course, to try to characterize science into its essential characteristics. Many philosophers of science have created their own lists – and rather more dispassionate than Sheldrake’s. As an example, in ‘Place of Science in a World of Values and Facts’ (2001), Loucas G. Christophorou presents nine principles:

‘Place of Science in a World of Values and Facts’ (2001), Loucas G. Christophorou

  1. The principle of Explanation
  2. The principle of Scientific parsimony
  3. The principle of Universality of the physical law
  4. The principle of Relatedness
  5. The principle of Embeddedness
  6. The Coordinating principle
  7. The principle of Correspondence
  8. The principle of Complementarity
  9. The principle of Continuity

Whenever lists like this are presented, four values crop up time and time again: explanation, parsimony, universality and correspondence. Basically, science is about providing explanations of how the world behave that corresponds to how the world is, and these ‘laws’ apply regardless of specific locations in space and time are as described as simply as possible.

3. Science as a Habit

Having introduced the ten dogmas of science, Sheldrake examines some in more detail, starting with the third, that the laws of nature are fixed. Having introduced the idea of change with the shift from Steady State to Big Bang theories of the universe, he continues (from 7 mins.):

In an evolutionary universe, why shouldn’t the laws themselves evolve? After all, human laws do, and the ideas of laws of nature is based on a metaphor with human laws so it’s a very anthropocentric metaphor. Only humans have laws. In fact, only civilised societies have laws. As C. S. Lewis once said, “to say that a stone falls to Earth because it’s obeying a law makes it a man and even a citizen”. It’s a metaphor we’ve got so used to we forget it’s a metaphor. In an evolving universe, I think a much better idea is the idea of ‘habits’. I think the habits of nature evolve, the regularities of nature are essentially habitual. This was an idea put together at the beginning of the twentieth Century by the American philosopher C. S. Pierce and it’s an idea that various other philosophers have entertained and it’s one which I myself have developed into a scientific hypothesis – the hypothesis of ‘morphic resonance’.

Again, I am not interested in morphic resonance here; I am interested in the idea that scientific theories are seen as potentially changeable habits rather than immutable laws.

I cannot verify Sheldrake’s quote of C.S. Lewis precisely. The closest I can find is in ‘Mere Christianity’ (1952), in which he says:

When you say that falling stones always obey the law of gravitation, is not this much the same as saying that the law only means “what stones always do”? You do not really think that when a stone is let go, it suddenly remembers that it is under orders to fall to the ground.

Whereas C.S. Pierce talked of ‘habits’, C. S. Lewis talked of ‘patterns’: science detects patterns in the universe – regularities. As a Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis was interested in rationalizing how Christian miracles could be accommodated within a scientific understanding of the world. Deism is the idea of a God revealed only by reason and observation, who created the universe but then leaves events in it to unfurl without intervention – and bereft of any supernatural events. But C.S. Lewis was a theist rather than a deist: he believed that God can (and does) intervene in the world. In simple terms: God can break his own laws. Miracles aren’t amenable to science because they are one-offs that cannot then be verified. Science will not find (intervened) irregularities and so cannot explain them; it only explains the repeating patterns of ‘normal’ regularity.

The notion is a bit like ‘simulated reality’: A physics simulation can be run on a computer. But at any point, I can decide to stop that simulation, twiddle with the state of the simulation at that instant and then continue with the simulation. To anything within the simulation, that intervention is a miracle. (For another comparative example, consider the film ‘The Matrix’.)


(To be continued. Next part: Physicalism.)

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6 Responses to Dogma and Habit

  1. Wyrd Smythe says:

    Sheldrake is a bit beyond the pale to my taste, but I agree with the view of science as a kind of faith, and I’ve long believed science and spirituality are compatible. Your final paragraph comes very close to something I’ve argued many times. Hawking talks about there being no place (in the physics) for “God to be” and Sean Carroll and others often question how a non-physical “soul” could affect the physical.

    Clearly, God, if such exists in any form, is meta-physical, not physical and pretty much by definition outside the physics. An analogy I’ve used is of pointers to software objects in a running system. From the software object’s point of view, there is no evidence of any kind that somewhere else a pointer links to it. But the owner of that pointer can “see” the software object and even twiddle its bits, which from the software object’s point of view would be entirely mysterious and apparently miraculous.

  2. headbirths says:

    More to follow. Let’s see what you make of the other parts. The ‘final paragraph’ was just a convenient place to put a blog-break, rather than being a punchline. Hawking pops up later on. Thanks for the nice analogy. Perhaps some future work for Sheldrake?: ‘objects that know when their pointers are dereferenced’.

    • Wyrd Smythe says:

      🙂 The bit about dogs doesn’t surprise me. I had a black lab that I often took for long walks around a lake that was 20 miles away. After the good workout, she’d be crashed in the back seat, but invariably, within a couple miles of home, she’d wake up and start paying attention. I became convinced she detected the smells of the local area (dogs, to a great extent, “see” with their nose). Waking up at a given time could easily be due to the daily smells cycle (flowers blooming, sun warming effects, etc.). Hearing also plays some role — we’ve had dogs that could discriminate a family car a block away.

  3. Pingback: “The Science Delusion” - Wayward Blogging

  4. headbirths says:

    Here’s a ‘dogs can smell the time’ article –
    Hypothesis: the owner’s smell fades during the day whilst they are out of the house; the dog learns to associate the lingering smell falling below a particular level with when the owner returns and hence can predict when the owner will soon be home.

    As far as this talk is concerned, what’s relevant is we’re looking for a *physical* explanation. Do we restrict ourselves to the physics of now (dogma; our current science is right, absolutely) or consider possibilities that might lead to a modification to our physics (Sheldrake; our current science is useful even though parts of it can be wrong)? More on this later.

  5. Pingback: The Science Delusion, Part 3 | Headbirths

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