From Cellular Ageing to the Physics of Angels: A Conversation with Rupert Sheldrake
Interviewed by John David Ebert
Can there be a science of metaphysics? The question was posed by Immanuel Kant in 1781 with his monumental cathedral of a book, The Critique of Pure Reason. Deeply embedded within the towering spires and vaulted arches of its frame---with its ornate tracery of axioms and foliated scrollwork of concepts within concepts repeating like Cantor sets to infinity---was to be found, for the patient reader, Kant's answer: there can never be a science of metaphysics because science, by its very nature, is concerned with a recondite analysis of tangible things within the world of space and time.
Metaphysics, on the contrary, is concerned with transcendent intangibles, such as God, the soul, freedom, and immortality. Theology has never been the province of science, the primary aim of which is a coniunctio of the categories of the mind with the impressions of the senses. Metaphysics, however, confined as it is by the rigid nexus of classical logic, has always looked askance at the earthly plane as a place for confirmation of the validity of its "truths."
The question is still relevant today, for some of our most creative scientists have begun trespassing into the territory of metaphysics, which Kant had insisted should remain separate from science in order to preserve the domain of human freedom and religiousness from being absorbed by the machine of the Newtonian cosmos. Kant knew very well what would happen to society if its citizens came to believe that free will was an anachronism and that the events of one's own life were to be regarded strictly as functions of the impersonal laws of a secularized environment.
Indeed, with the publication of the works of Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Skinner during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, precisely what Kant had feared came into cultural manifestation with the unfolding of these various materialisms. T. S. Eliot's poems "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men" have become emblematic of the spiritual climate of the twentieth century, particularly since every one of the classical domains of the humanities has been colonized by the expanding empire of mechanistic science. But now, as the twentieth century spirals to its finale, it would seem that science is very much in need of a blast of wind from the pneumatic spirit to set its stagnant waters in motion once again.
Rupert Sheldrake is one of the few scientists with no reservations whatsoever about discoursing on those metaphysical topics which engaged the famous banqueters of Plato's tables, such as the existence of the soul, reincarnation, or the soul of the world. He is the biologist who made himself famous with the concept of morphogenetic fields, which he articulated in his first book, A New Science of Life (1981), as a creative response to the challenge set by nineteenth-century debates between mechanists and vitalists over the development of organisms.
In the 1990's, the "organicists" first proposed the idea of morphogenetic fields as a kind of golden mean between the extremes of mechanism and vitalism. The models proposed by these thinkers, however, tended towards Platonism, with their vision of morphogenetic fields as transcendent "laws" of organization. But Sheldrake's innovation was to see these fields as themselves evolving along with the forms which they produce.
And indeed for Sheldrake, the "laws" of the universe may not in fact be laws at all, but rather deeply ingrained habits of action which have been built up over the many eons in which the universe has spun itself out. Like the ancient riverbeds on the surface of Mars left behind by the pressures of flowing water over billions of years, so too, the "laws" of the universe may be thought of as runnels engraved in the texture of space-time by endless, unchanging repetition. And the longer particular patterns persist, the greater their tendency to resist change. Sheldrake terms this habitual tendency of nature "morphic resonance," whereby present forms are shaped through the influence of past forms. Morphic resonance is transmitted by means of "morphogenetic fields," which are analogous to electromagnetic fields in that they transmit information, but differ in that they do so without using energy, and are therefore not diminished by transmission through time or space.
Sheldrake illustrates his idea with the analogy of a television set. Though we can alter the images on our screens by adjusting components or distorting them---just as we can alter or distort phenotypical characteristics through genetic engineering---it by no means follows that the images are coming from inside the television set. They are in fact encoded as information coming from electromagnetic frequencies which the skillful arrangement of the transistors and circuits within the television set enables us to pick up and render visible. Likewise, it is not at all necessary for us to assume that the physical characteristics of organisms are contained inside the genes, which may in fact be analogous to transistors tuned in to the proper frequencies for translating invisible information into visible form. Thus, morphogenetic fields are located invisibly in and around organisms, and may account for such hitherto unexplainable phenomena as the regeneration of severed limbs by worms and salamanders, phantom limbs, the holographic properties of memory, telepathy, and the increasing ease with which new skills are learned as greater quantities of a population acquire them.
When Sheldrake's first book was published, needless to say, there was great controversy in the academic journals regarding the value of his hypothesis. One reviewer in Nature magazine considered that the book would make good kindling for a fire, at least, if nothing else. Such reactions, however, are an indication that someone has come up with a perspective containing enough incendiary potential to melt down the rusted old paradigm and reforge it into something fresh. One recalls the anxieties of Saturn which impelled him to devour his children when he learned that Zeus was coming to put an end to his Golden Age. Sheldrake's first book was followed by his magnum opus, a href="/the-presence-of-the-past">The Presence of the Past (1988), a philosophical and cultural amplification of ideas presented academically in the first volume. This was followed by The Rebirth of Nature (1991), in which he traced the birth, rise, and inevitable senescence of the materialistic world view that is presently crumbling beneath the onslaught of such fresh thought worlds as chaos theory, the Gaia hypothesis, cellular symbiosis, and morphic resonance. Sheldrake's next book, Trialogues at the Edge of the West (1992), was a series of discussions with friends Terence McKenna and Ralph Abraham regarding the current state of cosmology.
In 1995, Sheldrake's little gem Seven Experiments That Could Change the World was proposed as a do-it-yourself guide to science, in the spirit that some of science's great ideas have come from amateurs and dilettantes outside the formal academic world (Leeuwenhoek was a janitor; Mayer was a surgeon; Mendel was a monk). Sheldrake presents a series of experiments in which he invites the reader to participate in the investigation of such unexplained phenomena as pets who know when their owners are coming home, the strange homing powers of pigeons, or the phenomenon of phantom limbs.
Most recently Sheldrake has collaborated with theologian Matthew Fox on two sets of dialogues, Natural Grace and the Physics of Angels, in which the ongoing conversation between science and spirituality finds fresh incarnation. A new set of discussions with Abraham and McKenna is on the way, to be entitled Trialogues at the Edge of the Unthinkable.
In the following interview, Sheldrake and I discuss his ideas about aging, the existence of the soul, reincarnation, ghosts, telepathy, and angels. For despite Kant's insistence on keeping the two spheres separate, it is important to know what the changing perspectives of science have to say about traditional spiritual beliefs. The elementary ideas of the human imagination---gods, spirits, the category of the holy---have been ubiquitous throughout the development of human evolution, and there is no reason to think that the death of orthodox Christianity at the hands of an increasingly arrogant mechanistic science means that these ideas are merely vestigial relics from man's "superstitious" past. On the contrary, as Carl Jung often pointed out, modern man's lack of contact with these ideas has left him vulnerable to all sorts of political, social, and economic hysterias which have plagued the course of the twentieth century with one catastrophe after another. It is therefore important to bring the two perspectives together in order to heal the deep schism between the sciences and the humanities, which has resulted in an inability to communicate with each other, which C. P. Snow remarked upon in his book The Two Cultures.
JE: One of the first papers that you wrote was on the aging, growth, and death of cells. Can you say a few words about the theory of aging that you proposed in that paper?
RS: Well, I think aging is inherent in all forms of life because accidents occur, things go wrong, just like they do in a house, where there's always something that goes wrong and needs repairing. But living cells have limited repair capacities. And so, when there are mistakes that can't be repaired, they tend to accumulate. That I think is the basis of aging. My proposal was that what happens in regeneration is that cells can be regenerated only by growing so fast that they dilute these breakdown products, these seeds of death that build up as a result of aging.
Or, cells divide asymmetrically---that is, they divide in an unequal way, so that one of the daughter cells gets the seeds of death in an unfair measure, while the other one is regenerated. Asymmetrical cell division is very common in both animals and plants, in tissues which go on growing indefinitely, like the skin, the blood cells, or the growing tips of plant shoots. It's also found in the way egg cells are formed in both animals and plants, where, for every egg cell that's made, there are three highly mortal cells which are cast aside as the new regenerated egg cell is formed. So this was the basis of the cellular theory of aging as I proposed it in my Nature paper.
JE: Joseph Campbell (102) once suggested that the idea of morphogenetic fields reminded him of the Hindu concept of maya ---the field of space-time that gives birth to the forms of the world. You wrote your first book, A New Science of Life, while living in an ashram in India. Do you think that the content of your book was influenced at all by a resonance with the traditions of Indian thought?
RS: Well, I think it probably was, but the basic idea of morphic resonance and morphic fields came to me while I was in Cambridge, before I went to live in India. The main influence on my thinking about morphogenetic fields came from the holistic tradition in developmental biology, where these fields are fairly widely accepted.
The main influence on my idea of an influence through time---the morphic resonance idea---in fact came through Henri Bergson in his book Matter and Memory, where he argues that memory is not stored in a material form in the brain. I realized that Bergson's ideas on memory, which were to me completely new and incredibly exciting, could be generalized, and it was really through reflecting on Bergson's thought that I came to this idea.
However, when I went to work in India in an agricultural institute, I went on thinking about these ideas, and indeed they had much in common with Indian thought. I discovered, when I was first thinking about these things in Cambridge, that many people there simply couldn't understand what I was going on about---particularly scientists---and thought the idea was too ridiculous to be worth taking seriously. When I arrived in India and discussed it with Hindu friends and colleagues, they took the opposite approach; they said, "There's nothing new in this, it was all known millennia ago to the ancient rishis." So, they found the ideas perfectly acceptable; the only thing was, they weren't particularly interested in extending them into a scientific hypothesis.
I worked for five years in an agricultural institute before I went to live in the ashram to write my book. And I dare say, the climate of Indian thought was a very fertile one for me. It enabled me to go on thinking about these ideas in a much more favorable environment than if I'd been doing it in Cambridge. But the germs of these ideas, the roots of my own thought, are in Western philosophy and science rather than Oriental philosophy. So, it's a kind of convergence.
JE: You see evolutionary history as a tension between the two forces of habit---or morphic resonance---and creativity, which involves the appearance of new morphic fields. But in the case of mass extinctions you suggested once that the ghosts of dead species would still be haunting the world, that the fields of the dinosaurs would still be potentially present if you could tune into them. Would you mind commenting on how it might be possible for extinct species to reappear?
RS: Well, I haven't in mind some kind of Jurassic Park scenario. What I was thinking of was that the fields would remain present, but the conditions for tuning into them are no longer there if the species is extinct, so they're not expressed. However, it's a well known fact in evolutionary studies that some of the features of extinct species can reappear again and again. Sometimes this happens in occasional mutations, sometimes it turns up in the fossil record. And when these features of extinct species reappear, they're usually given the name, "atavism," which implies a kind of throwback to an ancestral form. Atavisms were well known to Darwin, and he was very interested in them for the same reasons I am, that they seem to imply a kind of memory of what went before.
JE: Do you think that morphic fields could account for the existence of ghosts in any way?
RS: Well, the fields represent a kind of memory. If places have memories, then I suppose it's possible for ghostly-type phenomena to be built into their fields. This is a very hazy area of speculation and not one I've thought through rigorously. And I've had no incentive to think it through rigorously because it's so hard to think of repeatable experiments with ghosts. But ghosts do seem to be a kind of memory thing, and morphic fields have to do with memory, so there may well be a connection.
JE: Karl Pribram suggests that memories are spread throughout the brain like waves, or holograms, and you go further in suggesting that memories may not be stored in the brain at all, but rather that the brain acts as a tuning device and picks up memories analogously to the way a television tunes in to certain frequencies. Furthermore, you've suggested that if memories aren't stored in the brain at all, this leaves the door open for the possibility of the existence of the soul. Can you explain how your ideas on the existence of the soul fit into this paradigm?
RS: Well, we should clarify the terms here. The traditional view in Europe was that all animals and plants have souls---not just people---and that these souls were what organized their bodies and their instincts. In some ways, therefore, the traditional idea of soul is very similar to what I mean by morphic fields. The traditional view of the soul in Aristotle and in St. Thomas Aquinas was not the idea of some immortal spiritual principle. It was that the soul is a part of nature, a part of physics, in the general sense. It's that which organizes living bodies. In that sense, all morphic fields of plants and animals are like souls.
However, in the case of human beings, the additional question arises as to whether it's possible for the soul to persist after bodily death. Now, normally souls are associated with bodies. And the theory I'm putting forward is one that would see the soul normally associated with the body and memories coming about by morphic resonance. If it's possible for the soul to survive the death of the body, then you could have a persistence of memory and of consciousness. From the point of view of the theory I'm putting forward, there's nothing in the theory that says the soul has to survive the death of the body, and there's nothing that says that it can't. So this is simply an open question. But it's not one that can be decided a priori.
JE: In your book The Presence of the Past (220B2), you have an interesting theory of reincarnation. You suggest that people who have memories of past lives may actually be tuning in to the memories of other people in the morphogenetic field, and that they may not actually represent reincarnated people at all. Would you care to comment on that?
RS: Yes. I'm suggesting that through morphic resonance we can all tune in to a kind of collective memory, memories from many people in the past. It's theoretically possible that we could tune into the memories of specific people. That might be explained subjectively as a memory of a past life. But this way of thinking about it doesn't necessarily mean this has to be reincarnation. The fact that you can tune into somebody else's memories doesn't prove that you are that person. Again, I would leave the question open.
But, you see, this provides a middle way of thinking about the evidence for memories of past lives, for example, that collected by Ian Stevenson and others. Usually the debate is polarized between people who say this is all nonsense because reincarnation is impossible---the standard scientific, skeptical view (I should say, the standard skeptical view; it's not particularly scientific)---and the other people who say this evidence proves what we've always believed, namely, the reality of reincarnation. I'm suggesting that it's possible to accept the evidence and accept the phenomenon, but without jumping to the conclusion that it has to be reincarnation.
JE: So your theory that information can be transmitted by these nonmaterial morphic fields makes theoretically plausible a paradigm in which phenomena such as telepathy or ESP can be understood. Can you explain how your paradigm makes sense out of this type of phenomena?
RS: Well, if people can tune in to what other people have done in the past, then telepathy is a kind of logical extension of that. If you think of somebody tuning in to somebody else's thought a fraction of a second ago, then it becomes almost instantaneous and approaches the case of telepathy. So telepathy doesn't seem to be particularly difficult in principle to explain, if there's a world in which morphic resonance takes place.
I think that some of the other phenomena of parapsychology are hard to explain from the point of view of morphic fields and morphic resonance. For example, anything to do with precognition or premonition doesn't fit in to an idea of influences just coming in from the past. So, I don't think this is going to give a blanket explanation of all parapsychological phenomena, but I think it's going to make some of it at least, seem normal, rather than paranormal.
JE: In your book Seven Experiments That Could Change the World, you point out that the expectations of experimenters have a great deal to do with the outcome of their experiments. And you even suggest that they might influence their experiments through psychokinesis or telepathy. Would you mind discussing how that might work?
RS: Yes, it's well known that, in psychology and in medicine, the experimenter's expectations can and do influence the outcome of experiments, which is why people use blind experimental techniques to try and minimize this effect. The second point is a new one that I've just discovered by doing a survey of the literature and scientific practice of laboratories from different branches of science. And this reveals that in the physical sciences and in most of biology, people never do blind experiments. There's no protection, whatever, against possible experimenter effects. It seems to me quite possible that experimenters could be biasing the way they record their data. And I would be very surprised if that doesn't happen in conventional science.
But I think something more surprising and alarming might be happening, as you suggest, namely, a possible psychokinetic influence over the actual experimental system. Scientists would be completely unprepared for this if it were happening; they'd take no precautions against it. The culture of institutional science dismisses it as impossible. So, there would be a great vulnerability to this effect, if it's going on, and it might be happening quite commonly in science.
We know from the psychokinetic studies of Robert Jahn of Princeton that people can influence random number generators in a rather surprising way, even at a distance. And since quantum events and random number generators are not unlike the quantum events occurring in physical, chemical, and biological systems, there's already a precedent in experimental data for this kind of mind over matter effect. In Jahn's experiments, people are simply doing a kind of harmless game. In scientific experiments, where the experimenter has a lot invested in the outcome of the experiment, a lot of hopes and tensions and funding proposals hinging on what happens, the intensity of expectation may be much greater, and the consequences far larger than anything detected by Jahn. But this is an unexplained area. In that book I suggest several experiments that could be done in order to test for this effect in conventional science.
JE: Your recent books Natural Grace and The Physics of Angels, co-written with Matthew Fox, are explorations into the interface between science and spirituality. There have been other important scientists---such as David Bohm and Fritjof Capra---who have also taken an interest in crossbreeding science and spirituality. In what ways do you see these two areas of discourse intersecting and what kinds of cultural hybrids do you see resulting from this fusion?
RS: There are many areas of potential intersection. One is the cosmological, because when science is talking about creation, it's getting into a realm that has been very much the preserve of religion for a long time. I'm not now thinking simply of "where did the big bang come from?" If we focus too much on the initial moments of creation, about which we know practically nothing, we get into a situation rather like that of the eighteenth-century deists, who thought of God making the world machine and starting it up and then standing back and letting it go on by itself.
I'm more interested in the ongoing creativity, which is expressed in the evolutionary process, and the evolutionary process must have an inherent creativity, and we know that our universe is creative at all levels, physical, biological, or mental, cultural, and so on. So, what is the source of this creativity? Well, it's really a metaphysical question and materialist science has no other suggestion than chance, which really means that it's unintelligible---we can't think about it. However, this does overlap with traditional areas of theological and spiritual enquiry. Therefore this is one area of discussion.
Another is the nature of the soul, the psyche, consciousness, which science, until very recently, has had almost nothing to say about but which is obviously of crucial importance to our understanding of ourselves and of nature. And as I show in my book with Matthew Fox, there are yet further areas, such as the question of prayer and how it works. If people praying for things to happen on the other side of the world have a statistically measurable effect on what does happen, you've got a kind of action at a distance, which is in the purview of science to investigate. And this is precisely what people who pray claim can happen. So I think there are quite a number of areas of fruitful discourse and enquiry. And I think that as science breaks out of this narrow mechanism that has been its straitjacket for so long, approaching a more holistic view of nature, then much more possibility of fruitful interaction occurs between science and the spiritual.
JE: You mention that your new book, The Physics of Angels, was inspired by the similarity of St. Thomas Aquinas's descriptions of angels as without mass or body, and the modern view of science that particles of light - photons - also have neither mass nor body. Can you elaborate on the significance of this?
RS: Well, when Matthew Fox and I were first talking about angels together, this was one of the points we raised. We both found it quite fascinating. I think that Aquinas was trying to think as logically and as rationally as he could about what it would mean to be a being with no mass which could yet move and act. If you think in those terms, I suppose you come to rather similar conclusions as people like Einstein and other pioneers in the present century, when they were thinking about relativity and quantum theory. You're sort of driven to very similar conclusions. Einstein's photons of light have remarkable parallels to Aquinas's discussions of the movements of angels. And I think it's because they were starting from similar premises. And thinking in a similarly logical way about the consequences.
Campbell, Joseph. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. New York: Harper & Row, 1988
Fox, Matthew, and Rupert Sheldrake. Natural Grace: Dialogues on Creation, Darkness, and the Soul in Spirituality and Science. New York: Doubleday, 1996
Jahn, Robert G. and Brenda J. Dunne. Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1987
Sheldrake, Rupert. "The Ageing, Growth and Death of Cells." Nature 250 (1974): 381B5
A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1981
The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature. New York: Random House, 1988
The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God. New York: Bantam, 1991
Seven Experiments That Could Change the World: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995
Sheldrake, Rupert, Terence McKenna, and Ralph Abraham. Trialogues at the Edge of the West. Santa Fe, NM: Bear, 1992
Stevenson, Ian. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1974.