Rupert Sheldrake and Morphic Fields at Schumacher

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…

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13 Comments Add yours

  1. Bart Segall says:

    As far as the melting point of aspirin increasing…. The chemical composition changed and hence the melting point. So how can I accept anything else he states?

    1. Joe Norman says:

      Yes, it seems that even if the chemical composition was not intentionally different, the extraction and purification techniques have been so refined since the 19th century it is hard to say if that is a good measure.

      Matt, your dad has a good point!

    2. Zac says:

      I know this is a fairly old thread but I was wondering how you’ve come to believe the chemical composition of aspirin has changed since the beginning of the 20th century. I’m not saying that it hasn’t, I’m just curious as to what your sources are for that statement.

  2. 1postpomoman1 says:

    People have done grosser/greater ‘mistakes’ in their presentations before, though. The theory itself is solid in many other points. The materialists are in unconsciousness of their own multidimensional awareness, generally. Even when they project their consciousness into the mysteriousness of nature.

  3. John Bryant says:

    Some constants are like harmonics, the relationship between Hydrogen and Helium for example, if the “mass” of a proton were to change, Helium would still be twice that of Hydrogen and so the difference might be undetectable by typical means. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that some physical constants might vary over time, because they depend on factors which may interact in unknown ways. I’m wondering if this has actually been demonstrated. If so, tracking these sorts of changes might reveal all sorts of interesting things about the world’s true nature.

  4. Recently I have been moving into Stuart Hameroff’s approach
    to Consciousness. Still trying to get a grip on his thinking,
    but in one of his interviews I noted he had some positive
    things to say about Sheldrake/morphogenetic fields. 🙂

  5. Adam Hudson says:

    Yo… Aristotle stops the development of ‘soul’ with the ‘intellectual’ – what an idiot. He didn’t know about computers and the techno ‘soul’. And Teilhard de Chardin claimed ‘spheres’ developed until the noosphere… well, he’s an idiot too! These people don’t have the balls to acknowledge the newest, coolest development of all… the ‘applesphere’ or if you will: the technosphere or the internet-soul – you know what I’m talk’in about! Seriously though, they are so stupid! We all know its better to be living now than dead in the past. I’m so thankful and I’m smarter because I’m alive. Anyways, Sheldrake is brilliant. All archetypes create physical dynamics – ‘laws of nature’ are historical habit subject to the natural variability in this type of universe. And developing new forms of experiencing thus affording new types of measuring capacity is empirical – Sheldrake is building biology as a pioneer because he knows this… Using ‘morphic resonance’ as a biological concept to explain the behavior of an evolving universe of organisms…brilliant. It a full, interesting and adequate theory. I don’t think its necessarily ‘better’ – it would not be a possible theory without the past 500+ years of powerful mechanistic theory. BUT, then again – I like interesting better than ‘better’. BEST SENTENCE: Defining morphic resonance, you wrote: “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” Awesome. I am ‘higher dimensional activity’ and the global cloud-interface that mediates this message is what? some kind of soul something…??? It is digital morphic resonance. Its a new mad house with unbridled potential.

    1. Adam, you’d be proud! I brought my iPad and it ended up stealing the show in one of Sean’s classroom sessions here at Schumacher. He was talking about google earth and how it might function to give people a view of Gaia they wouldn’t otherwise have. He mentioned the Star Walk app also, and I decided to pass my iPad around so people could see it for themselves. The applesphere has swallowed 2 dozen more thanks to me…

  6. After reading your post about Sheldrake, (and scanning your various tags), I get the feeling that you would like a book that’s come out recently called: “Spontaneous Evolution.” It’s written by Bruce Lipton and Steve Bhaerman [Swami Beyondananda]. Bruce Lipton, famous for attribute the ‘brain’ of the cell to be in the cell membrane and Bhaerman adds a welcomed sense of humour to the many topics discussed throughout the book. If you get a chance, look into it, and see if it sounds interesting to you.

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

    1. thanks for the recommendation. I’ve heard of Lipton and have been meaning to check out his work.

      1. John Bryant says:

        Another vote for Lipton. The hypotheses I’ve heard and their basis seems very solid, geneius even. 😉

  7. Leland BeBee says:

    Professor Sheldrake has once again proved provocative — poking, prodding, challenging, undermining, reconfiguring, and otherwise, however gracefully and peacefully, assaulting many conventions and paradigms that modern man has accepted as the truth or the way to the truth. The good Professor, if we are being honest in self-assessment, has probably brought our own Weltanschauung into question. I don’t think being challenged to consider his ideas is a bad thing for anyone, but those ideas are so frame-shifting that, if true, would re-organize man’s understanding of the universe perhaps more than Darwin’s theories of evolution or Einstein’s theories of relativity did.

    As I let Sheldrake’s ideas settle into my consciousness, I feel a familiar dissonance — not unlike either the encounters I continue to have with Heisenberg’s [unyielding] Uncertainty Principle or the compelling-but-somehow-unsettling attraction I feel toward Teilhard de Chardin’s [alluring] Omega Point. For some time I’ve tried to define, not merely analogize, the dissonance Sheldrake’s ideas produce in me. I think now the kernel of the dissonance is simple to state, hard to shake — he forces me to revisit those personal, hard-won boundaries I’ve accepted and internalized — between physics, metaphysics, epistemology, and faith.

    I agree with others, however, that if his ideas are truly to open a door to greater understanding, he will need to be less cavalier with supporting facts. The melting point of aspirin matter is clearly a case in point. Great ideas can survive for a time relying on thin reeds of support, but perish quickly if they cannot muster a reed at all. I am eager to see if better evidence can be found, but I’m willing to engage for awhile in the thought experiments that emerge from the ideas.

    Thanks, Matt, for sharing your thoughts and your exuberance in the encounter with Sheldrake and his ideas.

    Always and always,

    Leland

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