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Psience Quest Interview No. 6: Rupert Sheldrake 2019-09-03, 05:29 PM 12
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Psience Quest Interview No. 6: Rupert Sheldrake Extended Consciousness Phenomena
Psience Quest Interviews
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A big thank you to Dr. Sheldrake for consenting to this interview. (Disclosure: three small grammar/punctuation edits have been made.) 1. While you're primarily known these days for your theory of morphic resonance and research into phenomena related to parapsychology, you began as a plant physiologist, and your website lists your involvement in a long-term experiment on trees adapting to climate change in Canadian forests. How did you come to be involved with that work? For many years now I have been spending 6 weeks each summer on a remote island in British Columbia with my family.  We co-own some forest land there, which we bought after it had been clear cut.  We have replanted it with native species, Doulas Fir and western Red Cedar, and also as part of we are carrying out a long term experiment in adaptation of tree species to climate change.  We are also trying out groves of coastal redwoods, giant sequoias and black walnuts which we think should do well in British Columbia if the summers get hotter and drier.  Giant sequoias lived here before the last ice age so should be well adapted to this environment.  So far the experiment is going very well.  The trees have been in for more than 10 years and some are 30 feet high and seem to be flourishing.  Already other people with forest land nearby are taking an interest and may well be following up with further plantings on a larger scale.  The reason these replacement species are important is because with hotter and drier weather, the native Western Red Cedar will not survive well, and many trees are already dying.  That is why we need to find suitable replacement species.  2. There has been heated debate this year ( concerning the idea of plant consciousness. Have you followed any of the research and debate in this area, and what do you make of the idea of consciousness in plants? The standard view of plants and animals in biology is mechanistic.  They are just inanimate unconscious machines, and so are human bodies.  The debate about plant consciousness is trying to move on from this very limited view of life.  Obviously mechanistic materialists still want to cling to it and will oppose any change in the direction of a more animistic understanding of nature.  In some ways the choice of the word consciousness is unfortunate because most human mental activity is unconscious and if plants have something like mental activity most of theirs is likely to be unconscious too. As part of my idea of formative causation, I think plants are organised by morphic fields which have internal purposes and which can adapt to change in seemingly intelligent ways.  But this need not necessarily involve consciousness as we know it.  Morphic resonance also allows plants to draw on a collective memory, and contribute to it, but again this is probably largely unconscious like our own habits and like animal instincts. I think the primary function of consciousness is choosing between alternative possibilities and plants may become most conscious when they are confronted with most choices as in climbing plants finding supports to climb up, or root tips choosing which direction to grow in.  3.  We are now several decades out from your first proposal of morphic resonance, to considerable controversy. Your work, and the broader family of ideas labeled parapsychology, have often been ostracized from mainstream science. In the time since you first published, have you perceived any shift in attitudes from society, particularly the scientific establishment, to this family of ideas, or do you still see obstacles to having these ideas taken seriously that must be overcome? Morphic resonance is a much more general theory than parapsychology which is about humans and animals.  Morphic resonance covers all of nature and leads to the idea that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.  It also means that inheritance involves much more than simply genes.  When I first proposed this idea most people thought that genes would soon explain almost everything about living organisms and that this proposal was completely unnecessary.  It now turns out that genes explain only a small part of heredity, which is now recognised in the form of the “missing heritability problem”.  I think that morphic resonance accounts for much of what organisms inherit, and also enables them to inherit adaptations acquired by their parents.  In the 20th century, the idea that acquired characteristics could be inherited was one of the most forbidden heresies in biology.  However since the beginning of this millennium it is now recognised as an important phenomenon with major implications for evolution, and has been rebranded ‘epigenetic inheritance’.  I suspect that many of the examples of epigenetic inheritance that are now being discovered may well have a morphic resonance component.  For example if male mice are made afraid of a particular smell, in this case acetophenone, by being giving electric shocks when they smell it, their children and grandchildren are terrified of the smell of this substance.  This effect is inherited even when the mothers are impregnated by artificial insemination and never meet the fathers.  When this research was published in Nature, the report was entitled “Inheriting the fears of fathers”.  In research on epigenetics most people simply assume that this can be explained in terms of molecular modifications of genes or of proteins that bind to genes or through RNA molecules that bind to DNA.  But I think that this is creating a whole new area of research where morphic resonance may well come to be seen as playing a major role.   Parapsychology is still very controversial because it directly challenges the materialist theory that the mind is nothing but the activity of the brain.  But materialists are becoming increasingly dogmatic and have little to fall back on in the face of increasing evidence than more dogma.  For example, in 2018 the American Psychologist journal published a paper summarising a great deal of positive evidence for parapsychological phenomena.  They then published in 2019 a response to all this evidence by two leading skeptics which completely ignored the evidence and even claimed, explicitly, that the evidence was irrelevant because these phenomena are simply impossible.  For those who see science as a matter of dogmatic belief, this may still be a convincing argument, but for most people the claims of the skeptics looks increasingly threadbare and unconvincing. 4. Why did you find the idea of fields the most satisfying explanation for self-organizing forms? In order to shape the form, that which shapes it has to have a form.  Fields are patterns in space which underlie forms in nature.  To take simple examples, the lines of force around a magnet are forms created by the field, and the spherical shape of the sun is a form created by its gravitational field.  Attempts to explain form in terms of mechanistic interactions, for example through random collisions of molecules, are very poor at explaining forms as the very limited success of the mechanistic approach to morphogenesis has shown.  Switching on and off genes enables particular proteins to be made, but these do not automatically give the form of a plant or an animal, any more than delivering bricks, cement and other building materials to a building site gives the form of the building.  That form comes from the architects plan which in turn comes from the idea in the mind of the architect.  Fields plays a similar role in the development of organisms to architects plans in the construction of buildings.  I do not know of any other explanatory concept in science which could give rise to the complex forms we see in living organisms or indeed in crystals and molecules.  5. In investigating phenomena related to parapsychology, has there been any idea you had to seriously refine, or even abandon, due to new evidence, recognizing error or bias, or an evolution in your own thinking? Most of my research into psychic phenomena has been on the sense of being stared at, telepathy between humans, as in telephone telepathy and mother-baby telepathy, and in telepathy between humans and animals as in dogs that know when their owners are coming home.  The evidence for these phenomena has continued to grow and they are also part of the everyday experience of billions of people.  I have done less research on psychokinesis and precognition.  My ideas have mainly changed through the collection of case histories and the study of the natural history of psychic phenomena, in which phenomena has come to light which I had never thought of before or come across myself.  For example I now have dozens of accounts on my database from people who say that they have thought of somebody for no particular reason and then soon afterwards met them, for example when they walk round a street corner in a city.  This phenomenon is very different from telephone telepathy in which somebody thinks about another person who is intending to call them, and in this case I think they are picking up the intention telepathically.  With thinking about somebody who they then meet, the other person is not thinking about them and this seems to be more like a kind of premonition or precognition than telepathy.  But this, like many other psychic-type phenomena has not yet been researched experimentally.  6. Are there any phenomena related to parapsychology (telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, remote viewing, psychic healing, OBEs, poltergeists, mediumship, survival of bodily death or reincarnation) that you have a skeptical view of? I think there is good evidence for all these parapsychological phenomena except for the survival of bodily death in reincarnation.  Out of the body experiences do not necessarily prove the survival of bodily death nor do mediumistic communications.  I think this is a subject on which conclusive evidence is always going to be elusive, because it can be interpreted in other ways.  In relation to reincarnation, I think there is good evidence that some children can remember events from previous lives, but this does not necessarily prove that they are the same person.  It could simply mean that they pick up the memories from a particular person who lived before by morphic resonance.  I must admit I’m rather sceptical of supposed evidence for reincarnation based on hypnotic regressions.  Even if people pick up information that they could not have known by normal means, this could again indicate the transfer of memories rather than of an individual soul.  But even between Hindu and Buddhists there are long standing disagreements about what is involved in reincarnation or rebirth, with the Hindus favouring a kind of psychic unit moving from body to body in life after life and the Buddhists being closer to the idea that what moves is not a psychic unit but rather a bundle of memories.  7. Have you had any personal paranormal or religious experiences, and if so, what was the most profound? I have had many telepathic experiences in connection with telephone calls and with my children when they were quite young but most of these were about trivial events rather than profound ones.  For example I was once walking along with my older son when he was about 6 years old and I felt in the pockets of the coat that I had put on an acorn that I didn’t know was there.  I didn’t take it out of my pocket I simply felt it with my hand in my pocket and he then started talking about acorns for no apparent reason.    I have had several mystical experiences of connection with the ultimate source of consciousness which have had a profound effect on my life.  But these are hard to describe in a way that makes sense for people who have not had such experiences or who deny that they are possible, except as illusions produced inside the brain.  But I do not claim any special distinction in having such experiences.  Research over the last few decades has shown that mystical experiences, often in connection with nature, are surprisingly common, but most people do not want to talk about them for fear of being thought strange.   8. Discussions on our message board often touch on ontology, as it relates to the philosophy of mind - substance dualism vs. idealism vs. panpsychism, etc. To what ontology do you subscribe to, and how has your research informed that? My own ontological view would best be described as panentheism the idea that God is in nature and nature within God.  This is similar to panpsychism but goes beyond it by including a transcendent aspect to the consciousness of nature and indeed the entire cosmos.  Panpsychism extended to the whole cosmos leads to a pantheistic view where God is nature and nature is God; panentheism includes a transcendent dimension of divine consciousness as well.  My research on morphic resonance and on psychic phenomena does not necessarily imply panentheism and would be equally compatible with panpsychism.  But my research on spiritual practices and their effects leads me to a recognition of the transcendent dimension as well, including morphic resonance psychic phenomena within a panentheistic view.  My two most recent books are on this subject:  SCIENCE AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICES and WAYS TO GO BEYOND AND WHY THEY WORK.  In each of these books I discuss 7 different spiritual practices which can lead to experiences of personal transcendence implying a deeper from of consciousness within and beyond the universe.  This kind of spiritual research is literally empirical, as is scientific research, because it is based on experience.  The root of the word empirical in fact means experience, and both science and spirituality are rooted in experience.  9. Discussions also frequently touch on evolution. Given your proposals on formative causation, where do you think the "memory" came from that would account for the sudden arrival of so many diverse species with different body plans in the Cambrian explosion? My idea of evolution is that it involves an interplay of habits and creativity.  Morphic resonance sustains the habits but it does not account for the creativity.  I think there is an inherent creativity in nature at all levels which can lead to new forms of molecules, crystals, microbes, plants, animals, eco societies, ecosystems, ideas, solar systems and galaxies.  New forms or patterns come into being all the time.  Most do not survive, but the successful ones are repeated and through natural selection new habits are established with stronger and stronger morphic resonance.  The rapid phase of evolution that occurred during the Cambrian explosion may have several different explanations, but one of them could well be the appearance of image-forming eyes.  Those then completely changed the conditions of animal life enabling predators to be more effective and prey to evolve new defences in a kind of evolutionary arms race.  10. To close on a question related to consciousness, one of our most-discussed topics: do you think there can be causation without involvement of consciousness in some way? The answer to this question would depend on one’s worldview.  For a mechanistic materialist, all causation excludes consciousness, even causation inside human brains.  Consciousness does nothing and is just a kind of epiphenomenon or another way of talking about physical changes in brains. For an idealist consciousness underlies everything and therefore all causation must have a conscious component.  I take the view that purely mechanical causation, like the falling of a rock from a mountain caused by erosion and its effects on other rocks it hits splitting them up into pieces may not involve any conscious causation at all.  The instinct of behaviour of spiders spinning their webs may be essentially habitual and unconscious, as is most of our own behaviour.  I think most of nature, like most of our own life, depends on habits and habits are essentially unconscious.  Consciousness comes in when there are choices to be made between alternative possible courses of action.

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