Science as a belief system or a method of enquiry?
Posted by J Russell
This is the central question posed by Rupert Sheldrake’s book The Science Delusion, and I think it is an extremely pertinent one.
I have, for a while, been losing patience with the attitude of media scientists (most particularly the irritating Brian Cox) who talk and write about their subject as if it were some kind of dogma rather than a body of knowledge and theory that rightly evolves with time. It is not so much that Cox and his ilk deny the evolution of knowledge. The fact is, I heard his honestly pointing out, when the neutrinos in the OPERA experiment at CERN appeared to travel faster than the speed of light, that science is a discipline wherein you merely remain at any given point in time less wrong than before. No, my petty irritation arises from the arrogant and haughty dismissal of any experience or possibility that sits outside the current scientific orthodoxy.
Sheldrake writes most interestingly on the subject of the mind, something that many scientists will insist exists entirely as a set of experiences formed in the brain through the activity of chemicals, electricity and neural pathways. In fact, there are some who will say that because they can measure activity in the brain before we make a conscious decision that any free will we may think we have is a delusion, our brain has already decided for us. Thankfully, there are scientists that understand, from their own experience and that of others, that there is a lot more to us, our minds, our conciousness than that. I heard a psychiatrist on the radio the other week likening the use of brain scanning techniques to understand mental illness with the idea that you would better understand the plot of Eastenders if you dismantled your telly to observe its wiring. Comparing apples and oranges? Well I suppose so, but they are both fruit and it’s an analogy with some mileage in it to my mind.
When I write ‘my mind’, I don’t mean only my brain – I am sure of it because I have observed my own experience. I might mean a combination of my brain, epigenetics, embodied cognition, collective conciousness and quantum mechanics. If I were to agree with Richard Sheldrake I might mean the field of my mind and morphic resonance too.
You see there is a lot more knowledge out there, up in the air, or wherever, but not just in our skulls than the orthdox scientific community feel compelled to enquire into. What’s worse, those that do enquire are given short shrift by the establishment. Richard Dawkins refused even to look at the evidence contained within Richard Sheldrake’s Science Delusion, let alone discuss what it might mean. Yes, the orthodox scientific community’s methods are superb for describing what goes on in the human brain but these descriptions should never be conflated with our understanding of why, or perhaps how.
Many scientific leaps have been made through close observation of experience and that includes the observation of trial and error. Many trials and a few errors or accidents have created the breakthroughs in medicine and technology that we so rely on in our lives today; hence the sworn fealty to the scientific way. Not all of that effecting of positive outcomes has given us the lowdown on the Why of it though. For example, we regularly make people lose consciousness through administering general anaesthesia in hospitals. The person has a painfree surgical procedure that improves their life. Then the anaesthetist brings them round. We can do all this, but we still don’t know where consciousness comes from. We go to sleep daily and we have a different sort of conciousness, we can describe what it might feel like if we dream, but still we don’t know where conciousness comes from. After all the brain is still there, doing its thing. It doesn’t entirely nod off too, does it?
That is why Sheldrake’s central question is a valid one. I do not necessarily agree with all his various hypotheses, but his insistence about the necessity for the scientific community to get its collective head out of its arse and enquire methodically into all aspects of the human experience (not just those that fit with its current preoccupation with the materialist model) is a valid one. After all, metaphysics is not just for poets, philosophers and religion.