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The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry

After Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion comes the reply. Wham bam! Rupert Sheldrake takes on the "truth-finding religion" of science in general and "ten dogmas" of the 21st-century worldview in particular. These include arguments that consciousness is "a by-product" of the biochemistry of the brain; that evolution is purposeless; that God is only an idea. Each is dealt with swiftly and efficiently in its own chapter, at the conclusion of which are some sceptical questions that challenge the reader to think again, and a clear summary of the main arguments.

Sheldrake recalls, disapprovingly, the philosopher of science George Sarton saying: "Truth can be determined only by the judgment of experts ... The people have nothing to say but accept the decisions handed out to them." Verily, says Sheldrake, here is an attitude worthy of the Roman Catholic Church at its most zealous. And he hints that religion lies behind many philosophical certainties, starting with Descartes splitting asunder mind and matter, that have shaped the modern, supposedly "objective" worldview.

In place of such orthodoxy, he offers a more mysterious Universe shaped by "morphic resonance". The idea is that this explains how crystals adopt a collective strategy for growing, how spiders inherit good habits for spinning webs, and even how humans become, equally mysteriously, better at solving a puzzle once it has been solved (unbeknown to them) elsewhere. The Universe, it seems, is essentially mind, not little bits of matter, and the regularities sought so energetically by science are miasmic and illusory. By way of proof, Sheldrake offers scientific loose ends such as the variation (long known) in experimental measurements of the speed of light, in defiance of Einstein's theory; the inconvenient need for dark matter to balance the Universe; the "heroic", fruitless search for memory "traces" in the brain, conducted by slicing up monkeys; and, of course, the propensity of dogs to know when their masters are coming home (see Sheldrake, 1999, as it were).

There is a lot to be said for debunking orthodox science's pretensions to be on the verge of fitting the last grain of information into its towering edifice of universal knowledge. And Sheldrake pokes enough holes in such certainties to make this work a valuable contribution, not only to philosophical debates but also to scientific ones, too. Of course he goes a bit too far here and there, as in promoting his morphic resonance theory; or when he asks the reader to consider the difference between "implicate" and "explicate" universes, the first of which is where everything is enfolded into everything - which means that "resonance may pass through the quantum-vacuum field, also known as the zero-point energy field, which mediates all quantum and electromagnetic processes" (all due to "hidden extra dimensions, as in string theory and M-theory"). And this from a man who starts off, promisingly enough, by mocking the claims of a scientific elite to have, in the manner of Plato and his Guardians, sole access to the workings of the Universe.

Sometimes Sheldrake is not sceptical enough. He's against scientific "laws" but convinced of the permanence of scientific "facts". He offers that science is brilliantly successful at increasing agricultural yields and curing diseases, but neglects evidence that traditional farming produces higher yields than the multiple-cropped, energy-intensive systems he recommends; and you must ignore many "facts" to see modern medicine as an effective way to promote human health.

The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry

By Rupert Sheldrake. Coronet, 400pp, £19.99. ISBN 9781444727920. Published 5 January 2012.

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