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Failing the lab test

14 May 2012

Misunderstandings about science here, says Jeremy Craddock


The Science Delusion: Freeing the spirit of enquiry
Rupert Sheldrake

Coronet £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

THE title of this book is obviously intended to be a parody of one by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. The two books have unintended similarities. Dawkins’s book con­tains several examples of the author’s failure to understand religion, and attributes to Christian readers, in particular, views that they don’t hold. That may be under­standable: he is an atheist as well as a scientist, and is obviously un­acquainted with the work of many theologians.

Rupert Sheldrake’s book contains instances where he disagrees with many other scientists, and that is less understandable: he has a scientific education that many of us would envy, and hence we need to probe his motives.

His publisher has not helped. The back of the dust jacket includes comments such as: “Minds may extend far beyond the confines of brains.” We might add that, of course, the effects of minds go be­yond our skulls; but it does not follow that minds themselves are immaterial things in the space around us.

Let us leave the publisher there and tune into the author’s views of what he thinks scientists believe. Here are two: “All matter is un­conscious,” and “mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.” I don’t know of any scientists who think like that; and we have only got up to page 8.

One of his problems is that he thinks scientists are all materialists; but he confuses materialism with naturalism. He would have done well to read the two relevant and lengthy articles in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy before he began. Another problem is his obsession with his idea of morphic fields. Most biologists think that similar creatures are produced by similar evolutionary pressures. Sheldrake thinks that they result from an immaterial field that “re­members” their shape. But other fields we know about are not really immaterial, and are mediated by particles. That is why so much time and money are being put into finding the Higgs boson, the particle that should mediate the field that gives particles mass.

Despite his background, I fear that Sheldrake’s book is not scientific, and, equally, does not replace science.

The Revd Jeremy Craddock was a forensic biologist.

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