The universe is not a machine

Face to face with the biologist DR RUPERT SHELDRAKE (Great Britain)*

You worked more than thirteen years in the academic field. Did you feel spiritually or intellectually discontent in this time of your life?
Yes, I felt that natural sciences were much too limited and had become dogmatic and too reductionist. I’ve always felt that, since I was an undergraduate. When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t know that there was an alternative possible. The first glimpse I had of this possibility was by reading the work of Goethe on plants and his theory of colors, die Farbenlehre. Of course I read this in English. This opened for me the possibility of a more holistic science. Then I studied history and philosophy of science in Harvard. That was long time ago; I was there in 1963 and 1964. Thomas Kuhns book “The Structure of Scientific Revolution” had just come out. This is the fiftieth anniversary this year. It came out in 1962. So the idea of the paradigm shift, which is the key idea in his book, I found very exciting. I felt: Well, science doesn’t have to be the way it is now forever. It could change. So I’ve ever been interested in the possibility of finding a better and wider kind of science. I’ve always wanted it to be scientific and I’ve spent my whole career working within the discipline of science, doing experimental research, publishing papers in peer-review journals and all that. But I would say: It goes back a long way in the sense that something has gone wrong in science.

Have you consciously considered that your book „A New Science of Life“ (1981) could end your career as a serious researcher?
Well, I seriously considered the possibility that publishing it would it make hard to get a job in the university. I didn’t think it would stop me doing research and in fact it hasn’t. I’ve done a great deal of research since I published the book. But I was aware of the fact that the scientific world was conformist and intolerant and narrow, which I think is a bad thing. In the ninetieth century it was much broader and more tolerant because many scientists didn’t work in institutions. Charles Darwin worked freely and so did many other scientists. So in a way Darwin was my hero. I thought: When Darwin could work freely then it should be possible today to work freely if necessary. I didn’t know what would happen when I published my book but what happened was in fact more extreme than I expected. I expected a debate within science and I hoped for a serious discussion among developmental biologists. At least that was my intention. What in fact happened was much more dramatic. I do denunciation in nature; I’ve been proclaimed a heretic and so on in a world wide scale. And this pushed me into a position that I hadn’t intended to be in. I intended to work in developmental biology and if possible within mainstream zoologies.

You have written seven books and numerous articles, including „The Presence of the Past“ and „The Rebirth of Nature“. What is your core statement?
The sense that the universe is alive, that we live in an organic evolving world and that there is a kind of memory in nature. That living organisms are living organisms and not machines. That the whole universe is like a living organism and not a machine. And that we are living parts of a living world, not lumbering robots, to use Richard Dawkins’ phrase, in a mechanical universe which has no purpose, no consciousness, no direction and which has all appeared by chance. That’s the official materialistic view. I think it’s profoundly mistaken.

What bothers you as a scientist on current scientific worldview?
Well, the official academic theory about life is that living organisms are programmed by their gens, that the genes are ruthless competitive with each other. In facts they’ve stopped being mere molecules. They’ve become cartoon-like selfish little people. The problem with modern mechanistic biology, especially the biology of Dawkins, is that it isn’t really mechanistic at all. It’s crypto-vitalist. It personifies the gens and turns them into cartoon characters with tremendous ambitions for immortality and ruthless competitiveness which no molecule can have. It’s naiv. It’s based on kind of simplistic metaphors. It’s not truly mechanistic. That’s the reason it’s persuasive to people. The rhetoric is persuasive because it gives a simplistic, easy to understand view in human anthropocentric terms.

What is the main difference between this „crypto-vitalism“ and your holistic model which is also accused vitalism by many scientists?
The difference between that and what I’m saying is that I’m putting forward a version of the holistic point of view that the world is made up with organization on different levels. Each pattern organization contains wholes which are themselves wholes that consist of even smaller particles. So, cells are like organisms in tissues or organs in societies or ecosystems. And at every level the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Many people have said that. I think the main difference of what I’m saying and many other organismic thinkers is that there is also a memory built in to each kind of organization through morphic resonance, habits and memories that are inherited from the past. I think that we need to have a principle of memory because nature is fundamental evolutionary and what happens now depends on what happened before. History is built into the hall of nature.

If your theory will one day gain scientific acceptance: Will it effect science only? Or will it also have an impact on the macrocosm of society?
If anyone takes the mechanistic theory seriously or if anyone is a thoroughgoing materialist, it’s deeply depressing. It says that each of us is isolated inside the privacy of our skulls, that we are all social atoms, that society is nothing else but a congregation of atomistic individuals, that the universe has no purpose or direction. There’s no god, no spirit, no meaning. It’s a deeply depressing theory. And I think it’s very significant that one of the commonest mental complains in the developed world is depression and that millions of people take anti-depressives.

Materialism is only one trend of this time, the other is religious fundamentalism.
I think, fundamentalism, both in its Christian and Muslim forms, is indeed a reaction to the materialist world view. And in that sense I think it’s healthy. It’s the only form of a kind of mass popular resistance to materialism. But I think it’s misguided because it rejects the scientific view because its materialism is limited. I think they are right in thinking that materialism is too limited. So they become against science. Well, I am not against science, but I think that science has to change. My aim is not to reject science but to change science. In doing that I find myself up against another kind of fundamentalism, which in many ways is worse than religious fundamentalism namely scientific fundamentalism.

Does the academic resistance to your theories discourage you?
Well, I find narrow dogmatic thinking annoying whenever I come to it in whatever form whether it’s in politics, in economics or the academic world, science. I find that very limiting. But I know from my experience with many scientists in many countries that although they pretend to be mechanistic when they are in public, in private many of them have much more interesting and richer views. It’s just that they’re frightened to speak to their colleagues about it. And I think that what would really change science is the equivalent to the gay liberation movement when scientists come out and speak to their colleagues about what their real interests are. They will then find that many of their colleagues go and see alternative practitioners for health problems, have psychic experiences, some do meditate and pray, quite a lot have religious practices and views. Some of them would describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious. Some have a deep connection with the natural world. I think, what they’ll find is, that most of their colleagues are not actually hard-line mechanists and dogmatic skeptics at all. But they usually assume they are. And therefore they are frightened to speak freely. I think that what will change science is when people have the courage to speak freely to their colleagues. And then they will discover that many of their colleagues share their interests.

In the sales figures your books and the publications of your opponents balance each other. How do you explain the enduring popularity of the skeptics such as Richard Dawkins („The God Delusion“) if materialism is so depressing?
I think that people who read Dawkins‘ books are people who have been converted to scientism or materialism or atheism, which is a lot of educated people. The default position of educated intellectuals in Europe and in America is atheism or agnosticism. And this is because the university system has been inculcating this enlightenment rationalism for generations. In order to be educated at least you have to pretend that you believe in it because otherwise people may think that you’re not educated or stupid. It’s the assumption that only primitive and childish people believe in god or religion whereas educated people have risen above it.

Who then are your readers?
Well, I think, people interested in my books are mostly people who have doubts about the materialist worldview. And there are many reasons to have doubts about it. First of all they may doubt it because it doesn’t lead to a very harmonious world in the sense that lately it leads to the ecological crisis because of the disruption of our relationship with nature. It’s the mentality that stands behind the ideology of progress. And anyone who questions material progress is the sole goal of humanity might be interested in alternatives. Secondly people who have had psychic experiences and are curious about it and who are put off by the narrow dogmatism that dismisses all this. I think they are interested in what I am saying. Thirdly people who have spiritual or religious interests and who don’t like the idea that science completely excludes all of this and that it’s relentlessly atheist and you have to choose between atheist science or credulous religion. People who think that want both science and spirituality and that we need to look for a new way of relating.

Is this contradiction between science and faith in the end your own personal fight as a human being who is at odds with himself?
I believe in education and I believe in science. And I don’t think that science and education have to be materialist. I think they are at the moment. I don’t think that we need to reject science and education. But I think they need to be reformed. I think we need an enlightenment of the enlightenment. We need to question the dogmatism that has now become enlightenment thinking to liberate ourselves from this new dogmatism. We don’t have to do education and studying in a reductionist spirit and to treat f. e. ancient cultures as stupid deluded people, and we don’t have to assume that priests were just trying to cynically manipulate them through superstition. This is bringing a set of assumptions to the study which is not necessary and in fact is harmful for the proper study of this material. After all, scholarship in the past hasn’t always been dogmatically reductive. Look in the medieval scholarship with people like Thomas Aquinas, extremely integrative, intelligent combining faith with reason in a way that was truly inspiring. In the Summa Theologia he doesn’t start with saying: This is the dogma. He starts with a series of questions, and everything he deals with is a question. He writes both points of view, for and against. And in the medieval monasteries people had debates with an advocatus diaboli and you had both points of view. The same you find in Tibetan monasteries today. In fact in religious traditions – and in the Jewish tradition above all – there has always been a tradition of debate, inquiry through debate and discussion. Ironically that’s the one thing that’s sadly lacking in modern science. It’s become much more authoritarian than religions ever were. They always had this internal debate. In modern science there is an hardly any spirit of debate, there is an authoritarian structure of administration, of grant giving, of journal editors, of professors in universities, and at any given time there is an orthodoxy and people that don’t fit in with it find at least they don’t get their grants. Then they don’t get promoted, they don’t get the jobs or they’re branded as a heretic. The word heresy is used much more in modern science than in modern religion.

From 2005 to 2010 you directed the privately financed Perrott-Warrick project at the venerable Trinity College, Cambridge. What was the subject of your research?
The Perrott-Warrick Fund was an endowment in Trinity College for research for psychic abilities. It was founded in memory of Frederick Myers who was a fellow of Trinity College and who was one on the pioneers of psychic research, the man who actually created the word “telepathy”. I was mainly doing research on telepathy and principally on telepathy in connection with modern technologies: telephone telepathy, SMS telepathy, email telepathy. These forms of telepathy have been evolving along with technology. It’s a very common experience in the modern world that people think of somebody who then telephones. I’ve done surveys in Germany and England and America that show that about 80% of the population had these experiences. Now the educated academic realms have always been trained to dismiss this by saying: It’s just coincidence, you think about people all the time and if somebody rings you think that’s telepathy, but that’s just an illusion. It’s not telepathy it’s just chance or unconscious knowledge. But you see, this hypothesis turns out to have no evidence. This is an evidence-free speculation. And in science you need more than speculation, you need evidence. None of these sceptics have ever done any research on this subject. They thought that just putting forward hypotheses was enough. Well, in science it‘s not enough. Otherwise science would be full of speculation. I designed experiments to test this. The typical experiment has four callers. One of them calls at random, and the person has to guess before they answer the telephone or see the caller ID system. By chance they‘d be right one time in four, but in fact they were right in 45 % of the time. And these were filmed and published in peer review journals and replicated in various places in the world including Freiburg in Germany. I think the evidence is quite strong and these are real phenomena and the sceptic argument is an armchair speculation that the evidence doesn‘t support…

We have already talked about the return of the fundamentalists on both sides. What do you think: Will the „free spirits“ prevail against all these opponents at the end?
Well in the end, I think they are bound to win because the materialistic worldview is self-destructive. But the problem is we now got a set of social, financial, economical and political institutions that are self-destructive as well. And it‘s obvious everywhere in the world that business as usual is not an option. This is now part of the mainstream financial and political world reality: It‘s not going to be possible because of the climate change, because of this ridiculous casino capitalism, the meltdown of the whole financial system and also the shift in industrial power from Europe and America to the Far East. All these things mean that the old model isn‘t working. So we‘re going to be forced to change. And the only question is whether the change is happen in a benevolent way or in a terrible conflict, the breakdown of the present order in a destructive way.

* The biologist and philosopher Rupert Sheldrake is considered to be a scientific maverick. His theory of the „morphic field“ (as a kind of natural cloud that stores all biological information) inspired holistic and spiritual writers all over the world. The specialist journal „New Scientist“ has written of him: „Sheldrake is an outstanding scientist. He is one of those genuine, visionary explorers who found new continents in the past.“ In September 2012, he released his latest book, „The Science Delusion. Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry“. For more information see


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