David Jay Brown
Interviews Rupert Sheldrake
Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist who’s research strongly challenges the paradigms of conventional science. He is the author of more than fifty scientific papers, and six popular books, which develop his controversial hypothesis regarding how forms occur in nature, and document his groundbreaking research into mysterious phenomena that traditional science has great difficulty explaining. His ideas and research strike a strong cord in many people, and he has written some of the bestselling science books in the world, including A New Science of Life, The Presence of the Past, The Rebirth of Nature, and Seven Experiments That Could Change the World.
Dr. Sheldrake is best known for his controversial Theory of Formative Causation, which implies a non-mechanistic universe, governed by laws which themselves are subject to change and evolution. His theory and research grew out of an interest in morphogenesis, the process by which developing organisms, as well as inorganic forms such as crystals, take their shape as they grow.
Dr. Sheldrake’s theory is based upon the premiss that there is an inherent memory in Nature. Repeating patterns that occur in evolution come to resemble habits that form in Nature over time. The more these habits are repeated, the stronger the memories of them become, making it increasingly likely that the forms will be repeated in the future. These memories are organized within form-shaping “morphic fields” that exist within and around crystal formations and biological systems. These fields resonate across space and time, invisibly guiding, organizing and orchestrating much of how the world forms around us. Dr. Sheldrake proposes that these fields help to explain not only morphogenesis, but also the ease with which an organism can learn a new behavior, social organization, and even telepathy and other mysterious phenomena. “Sheldrake has a remarkable ability to identify the weak spots of scientific orthodoxy,” said science writer Paul Davies.
Dr. Sheldrake’s biological field theory and research are controversial. In fact, Robert Anton Wilson said, “Rupert: Sheldrake is the most controversial scientist on Earth.” Some of the more rigid members of the scientific establishment have had strong critical reactions to his work. In 1981 the British science journal Nature described A New Science of Life as “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.” Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins declined to be interviewed for this very book, partially because I was including the following interview with Dr. Sheldrake. But for a growing number of younger, more open-minded scientists Dr. Sheldrake is hailed as a revolutionary and a genius. “Sheldrake is the Einstein of biology,” declared chaos mathematician Ralph Abraham.
The reason that Sheldrake is so highly regarded by certain people is because his theories explain so much that conventional science simply can not account for–like how pets can anticipate their owners arrival. How people can tell when their being stared at. How flocks of birds and schools of fish organize themselves. How homing pigeons can find their way. How telepathic experiences occur between friends and family. Conventional science is unable to adequately explain these phenomena, and Dr. Sheldrake’s theory of biological fields provides a model that, rather simply, puts it all into perspective.
Part of Dr. Sheldrake’s brilliance lies in his ability to devise simple experiments, that anyone can do for very little money, and produce results that challenge the paradigms of conventional science (such as those described in his book Seven Experiments That Could Could The World). His easy-to-do experiments have helped to revitalize a sense of scientific curiosity in many people. Students around the world, of all ages–from elementary school to graduate school–routinely perform experiments designed by Dr. Sheldrake as class projects.
Born in Newark-on-Trent, England, Dr. Sheldrake studied natural sciences at Cambridge and philosophy at Harvard, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow. He took a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Cambridge in 1967, and in the same year became a Fellow of Glare College, Cambridge. Dr. Sheldrake was Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology there until 1973. He was a Rosenheim Research Fellow of the Royal Society, and at Cambridge he studied the development of plants and the aging of cells. From 1974 to 1978 Dr. Sheldrake was Principal Plant Physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India, and he continued to work there as a Consultant Physiologist until 1985. He lived for a year and a half at the ashram of Fr. Bede Griffiths in South India, where he wrote A New Science of Life. In July 2000 Dr. Sheldrake was the H. Burr Steinbach visiting scholar at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in San Francisco.
Dr. Sheldrake is the author of A New Science of Life, The Presence of the Past, and The Rebirth of Nature, which Deepak Chopra called “a breakthrough book”. Dr. Sheldrake’s book Seven Experiments that Could Change the World was voted Book of the Year by the British Institute for Social Inventions. His two most recent books explore research from two of the “seven experiments” in depth–Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (which won the British Scientific and Medical Network Book of the Year Award), and The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind. Dr. Sheldrake co-authored two books with theologian Matthew Fox–Natural Grace: Dialogues on Science and Spirituality and The Physics of Angels. He also did three books in collaboration with ethnobotanist Terence McKenna and mathematician Ralph Abraham–Trialogues on the Edge of the West, The Evolutionary Mind, and Trialogues at the Edge of the Millennium. To learn more about Dr. Sheldrake’s work visit his web site: www.sheldrake.org
I met Rupert at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California in 1989 when I interviewed him for my book Mavericks of the Mind. I got together with Rupert again in 1996 to discuss the possibility of working on a study of unusual animal behavior prior to earthquakes, and we ended up working closely together for around three years on a number of exciting research projects. We co-authored three scientific papers together, and I did the California-based research, and many of the interviews, for his books Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, and The Sense of Being Stared At.
Dr. Sheldrake lives in London with his wife Jill Purce, a pioneer in vocal healing techniques, and their two sons Merlin and Cosmo. I interviewed Rupert for this book on March 8, 2004. Rupert is one of the most eloquent speakers I’ve ever met, and one of the most gracious and thoughtful people that I know. He’s extremely polite, and he patiently expresses his revolutionary ideas with old-world charm and aristocratic authority. Rupert is a deeply spiritual person, and he has profoundly integrated his scientific and religious beliefs. In the following interview we spoke about the unexplained powers of animals, his model for understanding telepathy, the interface between science and spirituality, and how our beliefs and intentions might effect the outcome of experiments in unexpected ways.
David: What were you like as a child, and what inspired your interest in biology?
Rupert: : As a child I was always very interested in plants and animals. I kept many pets. We had a dog, budgerigars, a rabbit, pigeons, a jackdaw, newts, terrapins, fish, and every year I raised tadpoles and caterpillars. So I was intrigued by animals.
I was especially interested in pigeons. We lived near a railway station where pigeons were sent from all over England to our home town, Newark-on-Trent. I used to go there with my father every Saturday, where they released the pigeons for races. There were hundreds of these wicker baskets, and I helped the porters at the railway station release the pigeons. We opened the baskets and all these pigeons took off, flew up into the air, circled around, and then headed off in different directions to their homes all over Britain. I kept pigeons myself, took them away from home, and sure enough they came back. So these were things that made me very interested in animal behavior. The biggest mystery really was the homing of pigeons. I asked everyone how they did it, but no one knew, and that was one of the enduring questions for me.
I was also very keen on plants. My father was a herbalist. He knew a lot about plants, and he taught me about them. He had a microscope laboratory in our house, and used to show me things under the microscope–samples of animal and plant tissue, and drops of pond water with little creatures in them. So I was steeped in biology as a child.
I also had an experience with plants that, in retrospect, turned out to be rather important. When I was about five or six I was on our family willow farm. My grandmother’s family had a farm where they grew willows for making wicker baskets. I saw a row of willow trees with wire hanging between them, and I asked why the wire was there. My uncle said to me that they had made a fence out of willow stakes and they came to life. When he said that I could see that, in fact, there were stakes there, and they’d all sprouted and turned into willow trees. So this was really a moment that gave me a great interest in regeneration, and a lot of my work has been concerned with regeneration ever since–both in plants, and in a more broad sense.
David: Why is morphogenesis such a mystery to science, and how did you first develop the concept of a morphic or a morphogenetic field?
Rupert: : When I was at Cambridge doing my research in developmental biology I worked on plant morphogenesis. In particular, I worked on the way plants regenerate, how they make hormones, and the how the hormones are moved around in the plant. The hormone that I worked on, auxin, was well-characterized, and it’s chemical nature is well known. I worked on where it was made, and how it was distributed in the plant. At first I started off in a mechanistic way, thinking this would help us understand how plants take up their form, how morphogenesis works.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, although it was helpful in a way, and although it was important to know about it, it couldn’t really explain what I wanted to understand. The reason is that all plants have auxin–at least all higher plants, as well as all ferns–and yet they all have different shapes. You’ve got the same auxin in a palm tree, an oak tree, or in a grass, and yet they all have totally different shapes. Even within the same family you can have plants with totally different shapes of leaves–like, for example, in the bean and pea family, there’s all different leaves–and yet the same chemical is there So it seemed to me that trying to explain it just in terms of a few chemicals wasn’t really going to work, because even within, say, a pea plant, you’ve got the same auxin in the petals, the sepals, the leaves, the stems, and the roots, so it doesn’t explain why they all have different shapes.
Then I came across the holistic tradition in developmental biology, where the idea of morphogenetic fields–form-shaping fields–was already well-established. It had been put forward in the 1920’s for the first time, and I thought this was a really helpful idea. The idea was that there was a kind of invisible plan in the plant, and the genes and these chemicals worked in their own ways, of course, but they worked within the framework of a kind of invisible plan given by this field. That made a lot sense to me, but nobody knew what these fields were. The more I thought about them, the more I thought this is something really important, and also something really new–a new kind of biological field that we don’t have in physics–and I got intrigued by the nature of these fields.
The more I thought about them, the more I realized that they had to evolve, because living forms evolve. They have history within them, and the big insight for me came through realizing the fields must have a kind of memory. The hypothesis I came up with–in fact, it came to me a flash–was the idea that this memory must involve a kind of transmission of influence across time, by the process I call morphic resonance. These ideas came to me while I was still working at Cambridge on plant morphogenesis in 1973.
David: How did you become interested in the unexplained powers of animals?
Rupert: : My interest in the unexplained powers of animals goes right back to my childhood, as I just said, and my interest in homing pigeons. This was really the first area that I started investigating. When I was at Cambridge working on plants I was still very interested in animals, and I used to ask people about homing pigeons. I found that my colleagues in animal behavior really just didn’t know how pigeons found their way home. They didn’t know how navigation occurred in animals. Then, when I was thinking about it, I had the idea that maybe the pigeons were linked to their home in some way through a field, a kind of morphic field. That lead me to think of an experiment which is the opposite of the normal experiments with pigeons. The normal experiments involve taking the pigeon from the home. My experiment was the opposite–taking the home from the pigeon. So even while I was at Cambridge doing work on plants, I actually started a project on homing pigeons. I set up a homing pigeon project with a mobile loft in 1973 on a friend’s estate in Ireland.
So I started working on this unexplained aspect of animal behavior right then. This got me into the whole subject of other unexplained aspects of animal behavior. The more I asked people, the more I thought about it, the more such examples came to mind–including the phenomenon of animals knowing when their owners are coming home. So that became the basis really for my investigations that I set forth in my book Seven Experiments That Could Change the World, published in 1994, in which three unexplained areas of animal behavior are three of the seven experiments–dogs that know when their owners are come home, homing pigeons, and the social behavior of termites. That started me off on a whole new phase of research looking experimentally into these unexplained animal abilities.
David: Why do you think studying the human-animal pet bond is particularly important?
Rupert: : Because there’s a lot we don’t understand about animal behavior, and the animals we know best are the pets that we keep in our houses. There’s a huge amount of information available on these pets from people who keep them. We know far more about them than we do about wild animals–which, after all, we don’t watch that much–or laboratory animals, which are kept under extremely artificial conditions. The behavior of laboratory animals is usually not really observed very closely, and their behavior is always very constrained by the cages they’re kept in and the artificial situations they live in. Domestic animals are the animals we know best, and which have most to teach us I think.
They also form bonds with their owners, which mean that people are not just external observers, they interact with their animals. This interaction is very interesting to people. It’s one reason they keep pets. After all, they want to have interactions with their animals, and they’re interested in it. So this provides a huge amount of potential material for research. By working with pets, and the bonds between people and pets, we can find out a great deal just by asking people what they’ve noticed. I have a huge database with now more than five thousand cases of unexplained behavior in pets and other domestic animals, and this information really is the starting point for my natural history of unexplained abilities. In cases where it’s possible to test what people observe about their animals and their behavior, we then move on to do experiments.
David: Can you talk a little bit about some of the latest developments in your research with the unexplained powers of animals?
Rupert: : I summarized the main phase of my research in my book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home in 1999. Since then I’ve gone on working with animals, most particularly with parrots, and in particular with the parrot Nkisi, belong to Aimee Morgona in New York. This parrot turns out to be one of the most remarkable animals in the world. He’s an African Gray that now has a vocabulary of more than 950 words, which is a world record, and he speaks in sentences. He’s used at least seven thousand different sentences, and he uses language creatively. He also seems to have a concept of self; he uses the word “I”.
So this a completely astonishing situation, of an animal that talks and uses language in a meaningful way–better than chimps or gorillas that have been taught to use language through American Sign Language. He does it in English. You can hear what he says. All this is in itself totally amazing and mind-boggling, but most amazing of all is that he picks up what his owner’s thinking telepathically, and comments on her thoughts and intentions–even on her dreams. Sometimes he wakes her up from her sleep by commenting on her dreams. She noticed this and got in touch with me in 2000, and of course I went to visit her as soon as I could in Manhattan to see for myself. And sure enough what she told me seemed to be true.
We set up a whole series of controlled tests to see if he really could pick up what she was thinking. In these tests we filmed the parrot continuously in one room, and she was in another room–with all the doors closed, on another floor of the house, so there was no sound transmission possible. She looked at a series of photographs that she hadn’t seen before, which were in sealed randomized envelopes. In each trial, she was filmed as she opened an envelope, and looked at the picture in it for two minutes. She didn’t say anything. Then we had independent transcription of what the parrot said. Three independent people transcribed it, blind, not knowing what was going on. We then saw whether the words the parrot said matched the picture she was looking at. In some tests the parrot didn’t say anything. But when he did, we could check and see if the words corresponded–and in an astonishingly significant way they did.
In some trials, for example, she was looking at a picture of a man on a phone, and the parrot said, “What’cha doing on the phone?” In other trials she was looking at pictures of flowers, and the parrot said, “those are flowers. It’s a pic of flies”, and went on talking about flowers. In other trials she was looking at water, and he said the word “water”. When you see the videos it’s pretty obvious that something really astonishing is happening, but of course we had to have evaluated in an objective way. All the statistics were evaluated independently by a professor of statistics in Amsterdam, and, sure enough, the whole thing is a hugely significant statistically. A paper on this research was published in January 2004 in The Journal of Scientific Exploration, and the text is available on my web site for anyone interested in the details.
David: Could you explain the model that you use to understand telepathy and other unexplained phenomena?
Rupert: : The model I have is that members of a social group are linked to each other through a morphic field. Members of a flock of birds or a school of fish are like cells within a larger organism. The whole flock, or the school, is like an organism, and they’re like parts of it. I think there’s a field for the whole flock or school. If some members of the group go away the field isn’t broken–it stretches. So, for example, if a dog forms a bond to a human being, they’re part of a social field. The human being’s an honorary member of the dog’s pack, as it were.
If the person goes away the field linking them doesn’t break, it stretches. I think that stretched field–like an invisible band which continues to connect them–is the channel through which telepathic communication can take place. Interestingly, telepathy typically happens at a distance between members of social groups, people who know each other well, or animals who know each other well. It doesn’t typically occur between strangers. If you look at human telepathy, most of it occurs between best friends, parents and children, twins, brothers and sisters–people who know each other very well, or have emotional bonds. So I think that telepathy is a reflection of these morphic fields that link together members of the group, even when they’re at a distance.
David: A number of scientists that I’ve interviewed have told me that they didn’t think that there was any scientific evidence for psychic phenomena. What would you say to these scientists about research in psychic phenomena?
Rupert: : I’d ask them if they’d actually looked at the evidence. It’s a common assumption in the scientific world that there is no evidence for psychic phenomena. But all the people that I’ve met who say that are unbelievably ignorant of the evidence. Most of them have never read a book, or any of the papers in journals on the subject. One or two of them, when I pressed them have said, oh well, they vaguely remembered having read a paper about thirty years ago on an analysis of Rhine’s experiments at Duke in the 1930’s, and thought there might something wrong with the statistics. It’s that kind of level of information that I encounter.
This was thrown into sharp relief in January 2004 when I held a debate with Professor Lewis Walpert, who is one of the pillars of the science establishment in England. Until recently, he was Chairman on the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, which was set up by the Royal Society. And for twenty years he’s been making statements to the media, saying there’s not a shred of evidence for telepathy and so forth. He’s often given statements to the press. For example, with my parrot research, when there was a report on television about this research–which had taken us two years to do, and a great deal of detailed analysis–he appeared on the same television program saying it was all rubbish, there was not a shred a evidence that parrots or any other animal could be telepathic.
The program makers at the television company told me they were astonished that he said this. They offered to show him the film of the experiments, and he said he didn’t need to see the evidence because he knew it wasn’t valid. So his comments were based simply on prejudice and not on information. Well, I challenged him to a public debate that was held in London at the Royal Society of Arts, and the position that many scientists have in more or less strong forms, was actually thrown into sharp relief. In this debate he was invited to speak for half an hour, to put forward his case. Then I had half an hour. There was a high court judge in the chair to ensure a level playing field and a fair debate.
But, the fact was, he couldn’t speak for half an hour. At first he said he’d only speak for a quarter of an hour, and, in the end, he only spoke for ten minutes. The reason is, he hadn’t read any of the evidence for telepathy. He was totally ignorant of it. Really, apart from just saying over and over again, “there’s no evidence”, “it doesn’t exist”, “it’s impossible”, and that “anyone who believes in this must have something wrong with their heads”, he hadn’t really got anything else to say.
I then put forward the evidence. I summarized hundreds of published papers on card-guessing tests, dozens of papers on dream telepathy tests carried out in the Sixties, twenty-five years of ganzfeld experiments with dozens of published papers, all with meta-analyses, published in proper scientific journals. I summarized my own papers, based hundreds on trials for telepathy in dogs and cats, and my own data on hundreds of trials on telephone and email telepathy. I presented a huge amount of evidence, none of which he’d ever read or heard about. And the fact is that his case simply imploded. It ended up with virtually the entire audience coming to the conclusion that telepathy did exist, and his position collapsed. This debate was written up in Nature. The report in Nature, published on January the 22nd, 2004 is on my Web site in the full text version.
David: Why do you think so many scientists have difficulty accepting the evidence for psychic phenomena?
Rupert: : I think it’s a very deep-seated, kind of knee-jerk prejudice, and there’s nothing new about it. The same kind of prejudice was more or less in place at least a hundred years ago. If you read the kinds of comments that scientists made about some of the early psychical research in 1880’s and 90’s, it was just as ignorant, with almost the same words as they use today. I think, firstly, the reason is ideological. A lot of scientists are committed to a materialist ideology. They think that the mind and the brain are the same thing. The mind is nothing but the brain, or the activity of the brain, so therefore it’s all inside the head. So anything like telepathy that suggests that there might be mental inferences working beyond the brain simply doesn’t fit into that view of the world, and therefore it has to be rejected.
It’s just like the Cardinals at the time of Galileo, who didn’t believe there could be craters on the moon, so they just didn’t want to look through his telescopes which showed that there were. And in the 19th Century people who didn’t want to believe in evolution had to explain away the fossils as being, in the most extreme case, put there by God to try our faith. This attempt to explain away, ignore, or reject things that don’t fit into a world view is a very well known human tendency. It’s happened over and over again in the history of science. In the end, the evidence wins out, but in the case of psychical phenomena this denial is still quite strong. So I think that it’s essentially ideological. It’s based on a particularly limited world view–a world view that was developed in the late 18th Century, before we knew anything much about electricity and magnetism, and certainly before quantum theory and quantum non-localicy was known about. It’s really enlightenment rationalism of the sort of 1790s variety.
The enlightenment rationalists believed that science and reason should sweep away religion, dogma and superstition, and this was an ideological and social agenda. In many way this was liberating and important. We’re all the beneficiaries of this, but it’s become a restrictive dogmatism now, and science has moved on a long way since the late 18th century. Field phenomena were unknown then. I think a lot of these phenomena that were classified as superstition, like psychic phenomena really do exist, and they can be explained in terms of fields. But many scientists are locked into a world view that says they’re impossible, and fear that if you allow them to exist the whole of reason and science will be undermined. This leads to a completely irrational denial of things, which are really just a question of evidence.
I think telepathy is a normal biological function present in many animal species, a means by which social animals keep in touch with each other at a distance. It’s evolved under natural selection. It’s part of animal nature and human nature. I think it’s explanation in terms of morphic fields involves extending science as we know it, but it doesn’t involve overthrowing science, abandoning the scientific method, the whole of civilization crumbling and being overwhelmed by superstition and irrationalism. On the contrary, I think it’s the best way to pursue a scientific agenda–whereas to deny the evidence, and to close one’s eyes to it, is profoundly unscientific, and I think actually holds back research and gives science a bad name.
David: When I interviewed science writer Clifford Pickover for this book I asked him what he thought about your research into psychic phenomena. He replied, “At heart, I’m a skeptic and demand very strong evidence for claims of the paranormal….What I would really love to see is Dean and Rupert: draft a precise paranormal claim and a means for testing the claim–followed by a letter to CSICOP (The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), James Randi, and Robert Todd Carroll…asking if they would accept the “new” test as a valid test for a claim of the paranormal…and agree to participate in Randi’s one-million-dollar prize offer to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” How would you respond to Cliff?
Rupert: : I’m surprised Cliff takes Randi and these dogmatic skeptics seriously. Randi is a showman with no scientific credentials whose main claim to fame is the claim that he has money to offer as a “prize”. This is not a serious scientific project but a publicity stunt–see the analysis on www.skepticalinvestigations.
Randi is scientifically naive. He is also a liar, as I found out, and described on my Web site. I think its pathetic that people want media personalities like Randi to give them permission to believe things rather than reading the evidence and making up their own minds. In any case, I’m sure Cliff wouldn’t think that evolution would only be credible if leading creationists could be persuaded of the evidence. They always find ways of dismissing what doesn’t fit into their belief system, and I’m afraid dogmatic skeptics are the same. My own method of research is to set up hypotheses, test them and submit papers on this research to peer-reviewed scientific journals, where they are evaluated by professional scientists and experts following the normal procedures of science.
David: How do you think it’s possible that our beliefs and intentions might effect the outcome of experiments in ways that are not currently understood by conventional science?
Rupert: : There are ways that beliefs and expectations do effect the outcome of experiments that are understood. The work on the experimenter effect of Robert Rosenthal at Harvard, and many others, is now well accepted in the psychology of medicine. It’s well known that people’s expectations and beliefs can effect the outcome of psychology experiments, even experiments on animal behavior. One of Rosenthal’s classic experiments was to divide a batch of rats into two lots. He then told students that one lot of rats was specially bred to be bright, the other lot to be stupid, and asked them to test them. And sure enough, the “bright” rats did better in the tests than the “stupid” ones. But, actually, they were the same batch of rats, just divided at random. Their expectation affected what they found with the rats.
This is also well-known in medicine, where placebo effects are widely accepted. It’s well-known that if you give people a blank pill, and if the people and their doctors believe that it’s an active medicine, it often helps them to get better. That’s why in medicine people do double-blind randomized trials, to try and overcome these expectation effects. However, in the rest of science, blind methodology is virtually unknown. In a paper I published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, I did a survey of the use of blind techniques which guard against this expectation effect by scientists not knowing which sample they’re working on. I did a survey of these techniques in various branches of science. I found that they were virtually unknown and unused in the physical sciences. Out of hundreds of papers in top physics and chemistry journals, not one involved blind evaluations. In biology it was less than .5%. In psychology it was about 15%. In medicine about 25%. And in parapsychology 85%.
So parapsychology and psychical research are by far the most rigorous of all the sciences from this point of view, and I think that regular science, supposedly objective, may actually be a house of cards–because people have no idea how much their expectations may be biasing the results they get, and they could bias them in several different ways. One is simply through biased observation. You see what you want to see, or there is a biased recording of the data. You write down what you want to record, and you ignore observations that don’t fit in with your expectations. Then there’s of course biased reporting of the data. In most fields of science only about 5% of the data are written for journals, and of course people select the 5% that agrees best with what they want to find, 95% remains buried in file drawers and never published.
So all of these are ways in which science is by no means as objective as most people assume. It’s based on expectation effects, biases, prejudice, discarding of inconvenient data, and so forth. Parapsychology is subject to this kind of criticism very often, which is why parapsychologists have tightened up their act, and are much more rigorous than any other kind of scientist when it comes to not selecting their data just to reflect what they want to find, by carrying out blind experiments, etc.
Their may be a way in which, in regular science, people might influence the outcome of the experiments in a more subtle, and perhaps even more interesting way, which is through mind over matter effects–psychokinesis. There’s now good evidence that this can happen. Things like random quantum events seem to be influenced by people’s expectations, and by their intentions, and this could happen in some kinds of scientific experiments. Perhaps the experimenter’s beliefs and expectations can actually influence what happens, not simply bias the way they observe it.
The way to find out whether these sorts of things are going on would be quite simple. I’ve suggested a simple experiment that could be done in any branch of science to see how important such effects might be. It’s this. In a typical scientific experiment you compare a control with a test situation. For example, in biochemistry an activated enzyme with an unactivated control enzyme. Normally, everyone knows which is which–one tube’s labeled “activated”, the other’s labeled “control”. People then measure the activity, and, of course, they find a higher activity in the activated enzyme. That’s the normal way it’s done. What I’m suggesting is doing it that way, but then doing half the samples in a different way, where they’re done blind. They’re labeled “A” and “B”, and exactly the same experiment’s done–but this time people don’t know which is which. Do they get the same results?
This would be like doing a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in medicine, as opposed to an open one, where everyone knows who’s getting which drug. And, of course, there is a difference when you do that in medicine. There is a difference in psychology. There is a difference in animal behavior. Is there a difference in other branches of science? We don’t know, because no one’s ever done this simple experiment. I’m hoping it will be done. I would expect that experimenter effect would be larger in some branches of science than others. Then, if we find there is an experimenter effect, then I would do further experiments to find out, is this simply biased recording of the data? Is it simply biased observation? Or is what actually happens being influenced by the experimenter’s expectations? I think this is a huge area of research, of enormous importance for science as a whole, but as yet this is still virgin territory.
David: One of my favorite ideas of yours is the notion that there really are no “fixed laws of physics”, but rather, only habits of nature, that change and evolve over time, just like everything else in the universe. Can you talk a little about this idea, and some of the ways that you think this hypothesis can be tested?
Rupert: : The idea that the laws of nature are all fixed is really hangover from the 17th Century theology. In the 17th Century, the founding fathers of modern science–like Descartes, Galileo, and Newton–all believed that God was a mathematician, and that nature was governed by eternal divine laws. God was like the emperor of the universe, and he fixed all the laws of nature at the beginning. That made sense in terms of the theology at the time. They believed that God created the world in the beginning, according to these laws, and then it just went on like a machine ever after. However, we now have an evolutionary universe, beginning with a Big Bang around fifteen billion years, and most scientists still assume that the whole thing is governed by totally fixed laws that were all there at the moment of the Big Bang, like a kind of cosmic Napoleonic code. Well, how do we know they were all there then? In fact, how do we know they’re fixed? If the universe evolves, why shouldn’t the regularities of nature themselves evolve?
If we assume the laws of nature were all there at the moment of the Big Bang, then were they there before the Big Bang? And if they existed before the Big Bang, before there was a universe, it’s clear we’re dealing here with theology or metaphysics, not with science. If they were all created at the very instant of the Big Bang, then how? I mean, this is a totally unexplained thing. How could they be created out of nothing at the moment of the Big Bang? This invites some kind of theistic creation story. I’ve nothing against God, but I just think the idea of God as an emperor making up laws is an extremely anthropomorphic vision of the universe. Even those who don’t have God, and have laws that just appear in a vacuum out of nowhere, are asking us to believe a totally incredible miracle, with no source of the miracle at all–yet that’s the conventional scientific position. I think instead the laws of nature may be more like habits. They may evolve as the universe goes on. The regularities of nature may build up over time through natural selection. There’s all sorts of creative acts occurring all the time. In the human realm there are lots of new ideas and inventions. In the biological realm there are hundreds of mutations in behavior and form. Most of them are not successful, only some of them are, and the successful ones are repeated, over and over again. Now I think those become increasingly habitual through morphic resonance, through this kind of memory within nature.
So my idea is that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits, they build up over time, and this has quite a lot of implications. It applies even to the crystal and the molecular realms. New compounds should become easier crystalize as time goes on. New habits and organisms should spread. There’s already evidence that these things seem to happen. New forms of behavior should spread. Things that a lot of people have learned should get easier to learn, through a kind of collective memory. One area where there seems to be evidence for this in I.Q. tests. Scores in I.Q. tests have been going up steadily for decades, and it’s not because people are getting smarter–they’re just getting better at doing standard I.Q. tests. I think this is probably because millions of people have already done them before. So there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence for morphic resonance, for this memory in nature, and there’s no evidence for the laws of nature being totally fixed. It’s simply an assumption.
When things have happened a lot, like water boiling at 100 degrees, salt crystalizing, and so on, over billions of years, then these habits become more and more fixed. They behave as if they’re governed by eternal laws. But when you look at new phenomena, then you can actually see the habits build up. So I think that idea of nature being governed by evolving laws, or evolving habits, is bound to be taken seriously sooner or later. The fact that many scientists go on believing in eternal laws is simply a hangover from an older metaphysics. So sooner or later it’s just not going to be viable to go on taking that for granted.
A related question is whether the “constants of nature” are constant. This is something I’ve been looking into as well. If you look at the actual data, the so-called fundamental constants–like the speed-of-light, the gravitational constants, and so on–actually vary. When people find they vary, then they say, oh well, all the older observations must have been errors. But if you look at the actual data, there’s, in fact, a remarkable and rather surprising variation in them.
David: What is your concept of God, and do you see any teleology in evolution?
Rupert: : I think that God is an organism, rather than a sort of huge disembodied mind, or an old man in the sky. My concept of God is influenced by the Hindu and the Christian traditions, both of which see the ultimate reality as being a trinitarian, or threefold. The Hindus have the trinity of Gods. Brahma, who’s the ultimate creator. Shiva, who’s the energy principle, the change principle. And Vishnu, who’s the preserver of form, and the formative principle. In the Christian trinity you have God the father, who’s the source of all things, a kind of primordial consciousness. You have the Logos, or the word, which is the formative principle in nature. And you have the spirit, which is the divine breath or energy, which gives the movement and change in all things.
So I think, in fact, these are reflected in the physical world, as we understand it, through modern physics, and the principles that underlie all matter in the universe, which are the formative aspect of fields. Everything is shaped through fields. The gravitational field shapes the whole universe. Quantum fields shape atoms, and electromagnetic fields shape molecules. And morphic fields shape organisms, the arrangement of social groups, and so forth. There are all these fields that give form and order to nature, and there’s energy, which is the moving principle of nature. It’s what makes things happen, change, alter. It’s the principle of activity. So I think these are both ultimately derived the divine source of the universe, and they’re reflections of the divine nature, the ways in which the universe is within God, and God is in the universe. I think we can know about the consciousness of God directly through mystical experience. I think all religions are based on mystical experience, where people directly contact a form of consciousness or intelligence, or sometimes many forms of consciousness and intelligence beyond the human level. All religions are based on that experience. So it’s an experience rather than dogma, which I think underlies this perception.
I think the evolutionary process involves the dynamic principle of change that comes through the spirit, or the energy principle, in its biggest sense. This works through the expansion of the universe. Unless the universe were expanding nothing would change. At the moment of the Big Bang the universe was less than the size of the head of a pin. It’s been expanding ever since, and as it does so, there’s a kind of driving force. There’s an arrow of time that makes things change. Nothing can remain the same indefinitely. The whole universe is in this state of development, because it’s growing like an organism. And this change principle is one that’s always creative. But then as things change, there’s a possibility for new forms to appear. And when new forms appear–like new ideas in the human realm–they just spring into being. We don’t know where they come from. When people have new ideas they just say, “it came to me”, or “I suddenly saw something”, or “it happened in flash”. And if you ask, where did it come from? The answer is they don’t know. We don’t even understand human creativity.
I think there’s something in the universe that, on the one hand, promotes change, and causes creativity to occur, and there’s something else, a formative principle, that gives rise to new forms. Often there’s a tremendous proliferation of new forms, as I said earlier. Human beings have lots of new ideas. They’re not all good ideas. So there’s a tremendous fertility and creativity of forms in universe, but then they all have to be winnowed and selected through natural selection, and the viable ones survive. So I think that divine creativity works in two ways–one through this creative production of new forms, and the other through the driving principle, the dynamic principle of energy or spirit, which makes sure there’s always change. This ensures that that nothing can ever just settle into repetitive habit, because the universe doesn’t settle down into repetitive habits. It’s always growing, expanding and changing.
David: Do you think its possible for consciousness to exist independently of a physical structure like the brain, and what do you think happens to consciousness after death?
Rupert: : For me the best starting point for this question is experience. We all have the experience of a kind of alternative body when we dream. Everyone in their dreams has the experience of doing things that their physical body is not doing. When I dream I might be walking around, talking to people, even flying, yet these activities in my dreams, which happen in a body, are happening my dream body. They’re not happening in my physical body, because my physical body’s lying down asleep in bed. So we all have a kind parallel body in our dreams. Now where exactly that’s happening, what kind of space our dreams are happening in, is another question. It’s obviously a space to do with the mind or consciousness, but we can’t take for granted that that space is confined to the inside of the head. Normally people assume it must be, but they assume that all our consciousness is in our heads, and I don’t agree with that assumption. I think our minds extend beyond our brains in every act of vision, something I discuss in my book The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind.
So I think this then relates to out-of-the-body experiences, where people feel themselves floating out of their body and see themselves from outside, or lucid dreams, where people in their dreams become aware they’re dreaming, and can will themselves to go to particular places by gaining control of their dream. These are, as it were, extensions of the dream body. Now when we die, it’s possible, to my way of thinking, that it may be rather like being in a dream from which we can’t wake up. This realm of consciousness that we experience in our dreams may exist independent of the brain, because it’s not really a physical realm. It’s a realm of possibility or imagination. It’s a realm of the mind. It’s possible that we could go on living in a kind of dream world, changing and developing in that world, in a way that’s not confined to the physical body.
Now whether that happens or not is another question, but it seems to me possible. The out-of-body experiences, and the near-death experiences, may suggest that’s indeed what’s going to happen to us when we die. But the fact is that we’re not really going to find out until we do die, and what happens then may indeed depend on our expectations. It may be that materialists and atheists who think death will just be a blank, would actually experience a blank. It may be that their expectations will affect what actually happens. It may be that people who think they’ll go to a heavenly realm of palm oases and almond-eyed dancing girls really will. It may be that that the afterlife is heavily conditioned by our expectations and beliefs, just as our dreams are.
David: And just as our lives are. Rupert , you just touched upon what I wanted to ask you about next. You mentioned to me that you think that people can sense being stared at because, in the looking at someone, a part of the observer is, in a sense, reaching out to touch the person being observed in some way. I’m curious as to whether you think this is true in other states of consciousness, where the person that one is observing is not in consensus material reality. For example, in lucid dreams, DMT-induced states of consciousness, or in a computer-simulated virtual reality, do you think that the act of looking at someone–or some being–in one of these alternative realities is actually expanding a part of that person’s mind into another dimension of sorts, or do you think this might be an illusion that’s just in the mind?
Rupert: : I think these things are in the mind, but I don’t think the mind is in the brain. I think in an ordinary act of vision, when we look at something, the mind extends beyond our brain. If I look out of my window now and see a tree, I don’t think that image of the tree is inside my head. I think the image is where it seems to be. I think it’s projected out. Vision involves a two-way process. Light moving in, changes in the brain, and then projection out of images. And oddly enough, when you think about the conventional theory, that it’s all in the brain, it leads to very peculiar consequences. I’m looking up at the sky now, and according to the conventional view, my image of the sky, what I’m seeing in front of me, is actually inside my head. That means that my skull must be beyond the sky. When you look up at the sky, your skull’s beyond the sky. Now this is absurd really, and yet that’s what the conventional view is telling us, and most people take it for granted, without realizing how very counterintuitive, and very peculiar this speculative theory is. So I think that we go beyond our brain in the simplest act of vision, and I think that many of these other experiences also involve going beyond the brain. I don’t think the mind is confined to the brain. So it may be true to say that near-death experiences, visionary experiences, and DMT trips are all in the mind, but that doesn’t mean to say they’re all in the brain.
David: What sort of relationship do you see between your concept of a morphic field and the theological concept of a soul?
Rupert: : There may be a relationship. I think it might be better to use the phrase “philosophical idea of a soul”. In the Middle Ages it was generally taken for granted that all plants and animals have souls. The reason animals are called animals is because the word animal comes from the latin word anima, meaning soul. So, what the soul did, according Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas–who were the main authorities for the medieval view–was to act first as the form of the body, to shape the developing organism as it grew. In animals the soul also underlay the instincts, the movements and the organization of the sensations and behavior. In human beings the soul also included the intellect, the rational mind, the conscious mind.
So the human soul had three levels or layers. One was the conscious mind, second to the animal soul, which was largely unconscious, and we shared with animals. And thirdly there was the vegetative soul, or the nutritive soul, which shaped our bodies, and gave rise to the form of our bodies, helped maintain them in health, and in healing from injury and disease. Those ideas of the soul fit very well with what I mean by morphic fields. Interestingly, up until the 17th Century, everyone thought that magnets had souls. The magnet was believed to have a soul, which was how it attracted and repelled other magnets at a distance. In fact, what’s happened in science is the old idea of souls has been replaced by fields. The magnetic soul became the magnetic field. The formative soul of the animal or plant becomes the formative morphogenetic field. So in many ways the field concept has replaced the soul concept in modern science.
So I think many aspects of our minds can be understood in terms of fields. I think when we look at something, and our visual world is projected out around us, it’s projected in the morphic fields that stretch out from our brains. I think our brains are the source. The morphic fields of perception and our behavior are rooted in our brains–just like magnetic fields are rooted in magnets, or the fields of cell phones are rooted inside cell phones–but nevertheless stretch out beyond their surface. I think our minds are rooted in our brains during our normal waking life, and stretch out beyond their surface though fields. So in that sense the field concept and the soul concept are indeed related.
David: How has your experience with psychedelics influenced your perspective on science and life?
Rupert: : I think that psychedelics reveal dimensions of the mind and experience that most of us would otherwise not experience. They show us there’s a lot more going on than we’re lead to believe through text books of psychology, and the standard kind of scientific model of the brain. I think they show that there are realms of experience that transcend ordinary waking consciousness, and for many people, including myself, I think psychedelics can reveal a world of consciousness and interconnection that is akin to mystical experience, of the kind experienced in many religious traditions. So I think in that sense the psychedelic experience is akin to mysticism, indeed, is a kind of mysticism. And by mysticism I don’t mean obscurantism. I mean direct conscious experience of expanded realms of consciousness, or other regions of consciousness, which go beyond those we normally experience in our everyday lives.
David: Do you think that the human species will survive the next hundred years, or do you think that we’re in danger of extinction?
Rupert: : Extinction might be putting it too strongly, but we could be in for some very nasty shocks. Very few species that are as numerous as ours become totally extinct. I think there could be catastrophes, population collapses, and so on, but I personally don’t think the whole human species is likely to become extinct. The going could get very rough indeed if things go badly wrong, and they might well through our own actions. People who live in modern cities are extremely vulnerable. If the food supply, water supply, and electricity supply break down, how are ten million people living a huge city going to survive?
But if you look at peasants in India or Africa–small farmers who are not part of a cash economy, who just grow their own crops and make their own houses–the situation appears different. If the whole of the urban system on which we all depend breaks down, their lives wouldn’t be that much affected. They would just carry on. They’re much more resilient, and much more likely to survive than we are.
So I think that the most vulnerable part of humanity is modern urban industrial civilization. I think subsistence economies, which still survive in many parts of the world might be much more resilient. I would expect, even if things go badly wrong, that there will be places where people survive more than others. I should think New Zealand, for example, would have a better chance of surviving pretty well intact than certain other places in the world. So I wouldn’t take the total Doomsday, total extinction scenario. I think there might be very bad shocks, but total extinction, I don’t think, is going to be one of them.
David: Assuming that we do survive, how do you envision the future evolution of the future species?
Rupert: : Frankly I just don’t know. I know enough about prophesies made by people in the past to realize this is a hazardous undertaking. I just hope and pray we’ll survive, that sanity will prevail, that the worst excesses will be curbed, and the destruction of the environment will be greatly reduced. So I’m a kind of optimist, but I wouldn’t like to make any detailed predictions.
David: Where do you think the human race should be focusing its scientific efforts right now?
Rupert: : I don’t have a master plan for scientific research, but I think we need to basically move to a more holistic way of studying nature, and a more ecological way of looking at things. There are certain areas where it’s obvious what we ought to be doing. We ought to be developing much more sustainable uses of energy–wind power, wave power, solar power, and so forth. Those are already done to some extent. I think in medicine we ought to be looking at alternative and holistic therapies, as well as high-tech medicine, and trying to develop preventative medicine systems that lead to better health, rather than expensive fixes for problems.
I think in biology we should be looking at a field approach, and studying things much more holistically. I think in fundamental physics we should be looking at the evolution of the laws of nature, and the memory of nature, and how this fits in with what we know about quantum theory and relativity theory. I think in cosmology and astronomy we should be looking at the possibility of consciousness within the universe–either in the whole universe, or associated with stars and galaxies. I don’t mean just looking for little green men on other planets. I mean considering the possibility the sun and the entire galaxy might be conscious–that the whole solar system might be a living organism, and the sun might be like it’s brain. I think these are some of the areas of science where a different approach could be extremely revealing, and lead to a completely different view of ourselves and our place in nature.
David: What are you currently working on, and how can people get involved in your research?
Rupert: : I’m currently doing research on unexplained human abilities, following the suggestions that I set out in my book The Sense of Being Stared At. I’m opening up a number of other lines of investigation into the nature of the mind, and the fields of the mind. People who would like to do research themselves, or find out how this research is progressing, can do that through going to my Web site, www.sheldrake.org, where there are updates on my research, and also suggestions for how people can do experiments themselves. There are also several online experiments, including an online telepathy experiment, which people can take part in with their friends and family. They can have fun by doing this, and also contribute to my ongoing research.