Nuts & Bolts

Wandered into the library this afternoon, spotted a book on the New Arrivals table — Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Set Free. His brief is to question the orthodox scientific world view, a project that his Ph.D. from Cambridge in plant biology gives him the credentials to undertake.

My feelings about Chapter One, “Is Nature Mechanical,” were quite negative. It seemed to me that Sheldrake is hopping over too many fences in this material, or failing to connect the dots if you prefer a different metaphor. After jumping forward to Chapter Nine, however (“Are Psychic Phenomena Illusory?”), I revised my opinion of Sheldrake rather sharply upward. I went back to Chapter One and started reading it again with a different mindset.

If you don’t feel a need to rush out and buy the book, you can hear most of the material in Chapter Nine in an hour-long YouTube video.

In Chapter One, Sheldrake reconsiders the standard scientific notion that the universe operates according to blind mechanical laws.

There are reasons to question this notion. The idea that the universe is mechanical arose only in the 17th century, when mechanical clocks became common. We can see the same kind of analogizing at work today, when the mind or brain is compared to a computer. A hundred years ago, it was often compared to a telephone exchange, in which imaginary operators plugged and unplugged cables. Whatever is new and wondrous — well, the universe must be just like that. People seem to need these metaphors in order to reduce complexities to manageable dimensions, but inevitably the metaphors warp our thinking and leave some observations unexplained (or denied).

Sheldrake mentions quantum uncertainty, which does indeed undercut the old-fashioned Newtonian idea that if one knew the precise position and momentum of every particle in the universe at a given point in time, and had a powerful enough computer, one could infallibly predict the course of all future events. Quantum uncertainty flushes that idea down the crapper. But the leap from quantum uncertainty to the idea that “the entire universe is more like a growing, developing organism than a machine” is breathtakingly broad, and this chapter provides neither a description of the trajectory of the leap nor a description of the gymnastic training that would be required to carry it off.

In this chapter Sheldrake repeatedly invokes the idea that animals are organisms, not mechanical processes, as if a clear distinction between the two could be taken for granted and as if everybody can see what it is. Granted, organisms are enormously complex, and we have a very poor understanding of their complexity. A better understanding may indeed require both new scientific procedures and new metaphors. But in the end, Sheldrake seems to be resorting to a lot of hand-waving.

“The machine metaphor,” Sheldrake asserts, “has long outlived its usefulness, and holds back scientific thinking in physics, biology, and medicine.” I’m bound to wonder whether the thousands of researchers who are studying the molecular processes that take place within living cells, in order to develop new medical treatments, would agree.

I’m also a bit worried about his taking for granted that the mind and the brain are two different things, that a merely mechanical molecular brain cannot possibly manifest what we experience as mind. His attack on Anthony Grayling’s view of the brain (p. 35) is very suspect.

The difficulty with this opening chapter, however, may be more organizational than real. Sheldrake is presupposing certain ideas of his own, which are brought forth in later chapters. Until he introduces these ideas, his criticisms of the mechanical metaphor seem baseless.

Chapter Two, “Is the Total Amount of Matter and Energy Always the Same?”, is better. The laws dealing with the conservation of mass and energy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics may have no theoretical basis or proof: They’re axioms with a theological basis in the 17th century, namely the idea that God created the universe once and for all. Sheldrake cites some odd studies that seem to suggest the existence of unknown sources of energy, and also points to some recent cosmological theories that suggest the amount of dark energy in the universe (a type of energy that is, in any event, completely mysterious) may be increasing over time.

Chapter Three, “Are the Laws of Nature Fixed?”, takes these ideas further by documenting the fact that what physicists usually consider to be universal constants, such as G, the gravitational constant, may fluctuate from time to time and place to place.

For now, I’m going to withhold judgment on the ideas sketched out in Chapter One. I need to read the rest of the book first.

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