My time at Schumacher is drawing to a close, and the whole experience has been quite formative for me. Preparing meals, washing dishes, and weeding the garden provided unexpected opportunities to reflect upon the value of simple work with others. This morning I spent about an hour in the kitchen chopping the stems off about 300 gooseberries with Delphine, an older woman whose exuberance seems to have grown with age. We discussed the life of Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), especially the powerful film about his life “Fierce Grace,” and tried to understand the relationship between psychedelic experience and spiritual awakening.
Later in the day, Rupert Sheldrake discussed his theory of morphic resonance. I was already convinced that the proper metaphor for understanding the universe was as an organism, rather than a machine, but hearing Rupert express the specific reasons why he arrived at such a view was fascinating nonetheless. He believes that cosmologists are mistaken in conceiving of nature as being governed by fixed laws that somehow exist beyond space and time. Instead, he posits a radically evolutionary picture of the universe, where supposedly constant laws are actually habits which have, over great spans of time, worked themselves into groove-like patterns. Mathematical formalisms, like Newton’s inverse square law or Einstein’s E=MC2, work because they are good approximations of these habits, which are stable enough for physicists to make reasonably accurate predictions about physical processes. A deeper look, however, reveals that supposed constants like the speed of light, or the melting point of various crystals, have changed over the years, sometimes drastically (Sheldrake gave the example of aspirin, whose melting point has risen 12 degrees celsius since the 19th century).
Sheldrake also discussed the historical significance of the Scientific Revolution which brought about the reigning mechanistic conception of the universe, arguing that many of the more organic Aristotelian ideas that Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton rejected should be reconsidered. Chief among them is the idea of formative causation, which Sheldrake’s theory of morphic fields redresses in modern scientific language. Aristotle wrote of various levels of soul which work in nature, including the vegetative, sentient, and intellectual souls. Plants grow with the patterning influence of the vegetative soul, which is at work in all higher forms of life as well. It is the wholeness not reducible to the sum of its parts. Animals have the added influence of the sentient soul, which gives them emotion and a higher degree of purposive mobility. Human beings are distinguished from the rest of the animal kingdom by the intellectual soul, which provides for the ability to think abstactly and to ponder the meaning of existence.
For Aristotle, the soul was not in the body, but the body in the soul. This seemingly counter-intuitive way of thinking about the soul-body relation gets at the elusive nature of Sheldrake’s morphic fields. They are invisible spheres of influence that guide the formation of physical systems. From such a perspective, the genome would not be the cause of an organim’s morphology, but the visible molecular trace of the field’s higher dimensional activity. Sheldrake insists that morphic fields are still spatial phenomena, but speculates that they exist in dimensions not directly captured by our 3D sensory experience.
He also believes that morphic fields have a temporal dimension, a morphic resonance that establishes an influence on future members of the same species (be they atomic, chemical, or animal species). In this way, physical systems are related to a non-local memory bank, so that, for example, when the genome of one member of a species mutates, other members might be simultaneously effected through a kind of subtle resonance. The punctuated evolution of species begins to become more plausible in this context, as a purely Darwinian explanation (where mutation is an isolated event effecting only individuals) seems to require too much time to account for the speed at which entirely new kinds of organism emerge.
Mechanistic materialists will of course reject all of this as unnecessary, claiming that even if molecular biologists don’t understand everything yet, complete knowledge based on reductionistic analysis is just around the corner. Sheldrake says he has lost count of how many times his more holistic biology has been dismissed by such materialistic promissory notes, which amount to nothing more than an act of faith in what is ultimately a metaphysical view. Indeed, if direct observation is supposed to be the basis of science (rather than abstract speculation), then the sort of Aristotelian organicism that Sheldrake proposes seems far more coherent with our actual embodied experience than those views which suggest we are nothing but sophisticated robots.
When it comes to phenomena like consciousness, who is more metaphysical and other worldly: someone like Daniel Dennett, who posits that our immediately felt-sense of being conscious persons with rich inner lives and spiritual longings is but an illusion because, in reality, we are but computers made of many insentient mechanical components, or someone like Sheldrake, who suggests that we are among the more complex manifestations of a living universe whose behavior is orchestated by the nested relationships between sentient spheres of influence? It seems clear to me that the latter view–if only we can overcome the fallacy of misplaced concreteness that has produced the deadened industrial ideology preached in universities–is the more adequate to our actual day to day experience. One only needs to take a walk in the woods to remember that we live upon an animate earth and to feel themselves embedded within the psyche cosmu.
I commented to Sheldrake that perhaps the real tragedy was not that such enchanted views of the universe were dismissed out of hand by the intelligentsia of mainstream culture, but that such dismissmal prevented human beings from futher developing still latent capacities (such as clairvoyance and telepathy). He agreed, but suggested that in his experience, very few reductionistic scientists and philosophers actually carry their metaphysical views over into their personal lives. On the weekdays, while they are researching and writing papers, they say what they need to in order to maintain respectability within their institutions. Our industrial economic system requires that its intellectual leaders continue to re-enforce the reigning mechanistic worldview. But on the weekend, most of these same arch-mechanists become romantic nature lovers amazed by the mystery of existence.
The problem, then, seems to be integrating scientific knowledge and personal experience, so that the two can co-exist harmoniously within a single cosmology. Sheldrake’s new science of life is a step in the right direction. Part of the necessary transformation would seem to me to require re-thinking the current hierarchy of scientific disciplines, where physics currently ranks supreme. Perhaps biology ought to replace physics as the most fundamental science. Of course, Aristotle’s physics (in Greek “φύσις,” or physis, referring to the way plants grow), was already based on a conception of the universe as living. So perhaps we just need a more adequate understanding of the physical, not as dead particles in motion according to eternal laws, but as living tissue developing within a cosmic embryo.
Sheldrake still has one more lecture for us this evening, so I will probably have more to say…