Monday, April 19, 2010

Where does science end and 'magic' begin?

Where does science end and 'magic' begin?
Paranormal & Unexplained

The third edition of Rupert Sheldrake's book, A New Science of Life, will be published in the UK this week. Unlike most enthusiasts for the paranormal, Sheldrake, who enjoyed success for many years as a conventional biochemist, frames his hypotheses as science and then designs, performs and reports his experiments.

When A New Science of Life was first published, the editor of Nature famously wondered whether it merited being publicly burned. What is it about his work that his critics feel takes it beyond the bounds of science?

Below is Dr Rupert Sheldrake response to his critics.

By Rupert Sheldrake

Scientific fundamentalism serves deep emotional needs, but it is counter-productive for the progress of science itself

The question: Where does science end and 'magic' begin?

Magic is an attempt to control and forecast natural events. Sir James Frazer distinguished two categories. First, sympathetic magic by similarity: like produces like. For example, manipulating a model of something is believed to give power over that which is modelled. Second, magic by contact or contagion: objects that were once joined together retain a mysterious connection when separated, so that a change in one can affect the other.

Science is also about controlling and forecasting natural events. Much of its power comes from making models of natural processes. Mathematical modelling gives scientists ever more power to predict and control. And many modern technologies depend on a sympathetic resonance between similar patterns of vibration at a distance. A hundred years ago, television would have been magic, and so would mobile telephones.

Second, in quantum theory, objects that were once joined together retain a connection at a distance when separated, as in magic by contact or contagion. Einstein dismissed quantum non-locality as "spooky action at a distance". But quantum entanglement is real, and is applied technologically in quantum computing.

Isaac Newton ran into the science/magic problem with gravity. The idea that the moon influenced the tides through empty space sounded like magic, and Newton was embarrassed by his failure to explain what he called the "occult" or hidden force of gravitation. His critics, mainly French, accused him of magical thinking.

John Maddox, as editor of Nature, proclaimed me a heretic for "putting forward magic instead of science." He used magic as a pejorative word for any action at a distance not yet recognised by science. Morphic resonance may indeed sound like magic, but it is a testable scientific hypothesis.

The hypothesis of formative causation implies that there is an inherent memory in nature, and that the laws of nature are more like habits. Each member of a species draws upon a collective memory and in turn contributes to it. The greater the similarity, the stronger the resonance. Organisms are generally most similar to themselves in the past, and I suggest that their self-resonance underlies individual memory. You resonate with yourself in the past, rather than store countless memories as "traces" inside your brain. Despite decades of effort and billions of dollars of research funding, these hypothetical long-term memory traces have continued to elude detection. The simplest explanation for this negative finding is that they do not exist. There is good evidence for intense rhythmic activity in the hippocampus and other regions of the brain when memories are formed and when they are retrieved. But in between they seem to disappear.

I summarise the evidence for morphic resonance and discuss 10 new tests in the new edition of my book A New Science of Life. I do not claim that the evidence is conclusive, only that the question is open. Those who assert that there is no evidence, like Susan Blackmore and Adam Rutherford, are willfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.

The same is true of controversies about telepathy. Sceptics like Rutherford, who accused me of "crimes against reason", rely on the claims of other skeptics, like Michael Shermer, who rely on yet other skeptics such as David Marks, who ignore any evidence that goes against their beliefs.

Adam Rutherford, who works for Nature, dismisses scientific ideas presented in books, rather than in scientific journals. He would therefore rule out Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate this year, as well as most of the work of Richard Dawkins. My own research is published in peer-reviewed journals (including Nature) as well as in books. My papers on the sense of being stared at, and on telepathy in people and in animals are all available online.

I have recently launched a new telephone telepathy experiment that works through mobile phones. Anyone interested can try it here.

Science is our best method for exploring what we do not understand. But for some people science has become a religion. They need authority and certainty, and want to believe that the fundamental answers are already known.

Scientific fundamentalism serves deep emotional needs, but it is counter-productive for the progress of science itself. It inhibits scientific exploration, gives science a bad name and puts young people off. Science advances through questioning dogmas, by considering new possibilities, and through open-minded enquiry.

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