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Rupert Sheldrake

some aspects of organisms in this machine-like way. But in other important respects, nature in general, and organisms in particular, are not machines or machine-like. So, what I’m suggesting is that the mechanistic theory is alright as far as it goes. Its positive content is alright when it tells us about the physics of nerve impulses, or the chemistry of enzymes; that’s fine, this is useful information, and is part of the picture.

If it says that life is nothing but things that can be explained in terms of regular ordinary physics, that already exist in physics textbooks, if it says life is nothing but that–and this is what most mechanistic biologists do say–then I think it’s wrong, because it’s too limited. It’s taking a part of the picture, and assuming it’s the whole. It’s a half-truth.

RMN: You’ve incorporated that into your theory, and just taken it to another level…?

RUPERT: Yes. There are still enzymes and nerve impulses in the kind of world I’m talking about; all the things that are in regular biochemistry and biophysics are still there. What isn’t still there is the assumption that these aspects of the process are all there is. To take an analogy, it’s like trying to understand a building. If you want to understand a building, one level of looking at it is to say, well it’s made of wood and other things, metal and frames, and so on. And then you can say we can measure, we can analyze the wood and other components.

You can find out exactly what chemicals are in the wood, the exact molecular composition, the exact constituents of the whole building. But when you grind it up or break it down to analyze the parts, the form of the building, the structure of the room, the plan disappears when you’re analyzing the constituents, especially if you have to knock it down to do that. And usually to analyze the chemical constituents within an organism, first you have to kill and destroy it. So the plan of the building is also part of the building, it’s the formative aspect of the building, the form. And you’ll never understand the plan of a building, its form or its function for that matter, just by analyzing the constituents. Although without the constituents, the wood and stuff, you can’t have a building.

DJB: What are the implications of the theory of formative causation? How do hypothetical morphic fields affect things like the sciences, the arts, technologies, and social structures?

RUPERT: Well, I’ve written an entire book on this subject–The Presence of the Past–so it’s difficult to answer it extremely briefly. But, first of all, it gives a completely different understanding of formative processes in biology and in chemistry. It gives a new understanding of instincts and behavioral patterns, as being organized by morphic fields. It gives a new understanding of social structure, in terms of morphic fields, and cultural forms, and ideas. All of these I see as patterns organized by these fields with an inherent memory.

In the human realm, for example, it leads to the idea of a collective human memory on which we all draw, which is very like Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. In terms of social groups, it gives rise to the idea that the whole social group is organized by a field. And that that field is not just an organizing structure in the present, but also contains a memory of that social group in the past, a group memory—and also, through morphic resonance, a memory of other similar social groups that have existed before.

So, a football team, for example, will tune into its own field in the past. The individual players on the football team will be coordinated not just by observing each other, but by a kind of group mind that will be working when the game’s going around. And this will in turn have as a kind of background resonance the morphic fields of other similar football teams.

RMN: On the one hand it is reassuring that a certain pattern or order is being maintained, and yet options must be available for change if that pattern ceases to function effectively. In what ways does nature supply the necessary conditions for this balance of repeatability and novelty?

RUPERT: Well, the universe is not in a steady state; there’s an ongoing creative principle in nature, which is driving things onwards. Cosmologically speaking, this is the expansion of the universe. If the universe had been in a steady state at the moment of the Big Bang, it’d still be at billions of degrees centigrade. We wouldn’t be here. The reason we’re here is because the Big Bang involved

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