Monday, July 04, 2022
  The Science Delusion    by Rupert Sheldrake       Source
About / Introduction
About this Book

In The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry (published in the US as Science Set Free), Rupert Sheldrake shows the ways in which science is being constricted by assumptions that have, over the years, hardened into dogmas. Such dogmas are not only limiting, but dangerous for the future of humanity.

According to these principles, all of reality is material or physical; the world is a machine, made up of inanimate matter; nature is purposeless; consciousness is nothing but the physical activity of the brain; free will is an illusion; God exists only as an idea in human minds, imprisoned within our skulls.

But should science be a belief-system, or a method of enquiry? Sheldrake shows that the materialist ideology is moribund; under its sway, increasingly expensive research is reaping diminishing returns while societies around the world are paying the price.

In the skeptical spirit of true science, Sheldrake turns the ten fundamental dogmas of materialism into exciting questions, and shows how all of them open up startling new possibilities for discovery.

Science Set Free will radically change your view of what is real and what is possible.

Posted on 11 Aug 2020




1 Is Nature Mechanical?

2 Is the Total Amount of Matter and Energy Always the Same?

3 Are the Laws of Nature Fixed?

4 Is Matter Unconscious?

5 Is Nature Purposeless?

6 Is All Biological Inheritance Material?

7 Are Memories Stored as Material Traces?

8 Are Minds Confined to Brains?

9 Are Psychic Phenomena Illusory?

10 Is Mechanistic Medicine the Only Kind that Really Works?

11 Illusions of Objectivity

12 Scientific Futures






















My interest in science began when I was very young. As a child I kept many kinds of animals, ranging from caterpillars and tadpoles to pigeons, rabbits, tortoises and a dog. My father, a herbalist, pharmacist and microscopist, taught me about plants from my earliest years. He showed me a world of wonders through his microscope, including tiny creatures in drops of pond water, scales on butterflies’ wings, shells of diatoms, cross-sections of plant stems and a sample of radium that glowed in the dark. I collected plants and read books on natural history, like Fabre’s Book of Insects, which told the life stories of scarab beetles, praying mantises and glow-worms. By the time I was twelve years old I wanted to become a biologist.

I studied sciences at school and then at Cambridge University, where I majored in biochemistry. I liked what I was doing, but found the focus very narrow, and wanted to see a bigger picture. I had a life-changing opportunity to widen my perspective when I was awarded a Frank Knox fellowship in the graduate school at Harvard, where I studied the history and philosophy of science.

I returned to Cambridge to do research on the development of plants. In the course of my PhD project, I made an original discovery: dying cells play a major part in the regulation of plant growth, releasing the plant hormone auxin as they break down in the process of ‘programmed cell death’. Inside growing plants, new wood cells dissolve themselves as they die, leaving their cellulose walls as microscopic tubes through which water is conducted in stems, roots and veins of leaves. I discovered that auxin is produced as cells die,1 that dying cells stimulate more growth; more growth leads to more death, and hence to more growth.

After receiving my PhD, I was elected to a research fellowship of Clare College, Cambridge, where I was director of studies in cell biology and biochemistry, teaching students in tutorials and lab classes. I was then appointed a research fellow of the Royal Society and continued my research at Cambridge on plant hormones, studying the way in which auxin is transported from the shoots towards the root tips. With my colleague Philip Rubery, I worked out the molecular basis of polar auxin transport,2 providing a foundation on which much subsequent research on plant polarity has been built.

Funded by the Royal Society, I spent a year at the University of Malaya, studying rain forest ferns, and at the Rubber Research Institute of Malaya I discovered how the flow of latex in rubber trees is regulated genetically, and I shed new light on the development of latex vessels.3

When I returned to Cambridge, I developed a new hypothesis of ageing in plants and animals, including humans. All cells age. When they stop growing, they eventually die. My hypothesis is about rejuvenation, and proposes that harmful waste products build up in all cells, causing them to age, but they can produce rejuvenated daughter cells by asymmetric cell divisions in which one cell receives most of these waste products and is doomed, while the other is wiped clean. The most rejuvenated of all cells are eggs. In both plants and animals, two successive cell divisions (meiosis) produce an egg cell and three sister cells, which quickly die. My hypothesis was published in Nature in 1974 in a paper called ‘The ageing, growth and death of cells’.4 ‘Programmed cell death’, or ‘apoptosis’, has since become a major field of research, important for our understanding of diseases such as cancer and HIV, as well as tissue regeneration through stem cells. Many stem cells divide asymmetrically, producing a new, rejuvenated stem cell and a cell that differentiates, ages and dies. My hypothesis is that the rejuvenation of stem cells through cell division depends on their sisters paying the price of mortality.

Wanting to broaden my horizons and do practical research that could benefit some of the world’s poorest people, I left Cambridge to join the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, near Hyderabadellar Hyde, India, as Principal Plant Physiologist, working on chickpeas and pigeonpeas.5 We bred new high-yielding varieties of these crops, and developed multiple cropping systems6 that are now widely used by farmers in Asia and Africa, greatly increasing yields.

A new phase in my scientific career began in 1981 with the publication of my book A New Science of Life, in which I suggested a hypothesis of form-shaping fields, called morphogenetic fields, that control the development of animal embryos and the growth of plants. I proposed that these fields have an inherent memory, given by a process called morphic resonance. This hypothesis was supported by the available evidence and gave rise to a range of experimental tests, summarised in the new edition of A New Science of Life (2009).

After my return to England from India, I continued to investigate plant development, and also started research with homing pigeons, which had intrigued me since I kept pigeons as a child. How do pigeons find their way home from hundreds of miles away, across unfamiliar terrain and even across the sea? I thought they might be linked to their home by a field that acted like an invisible elastic band, pulling them homewards. Even if they have a magnetic sense as well, they cannot find their home just by knowing compass directions. If you were parachuted into unknown territory with a compass, you would know where north was, but not where your home was.

I came to realise that pigeon navigation was just one of many unexplained powers of animals. Another was the ability of some dogs to know when their owners are coming home, seemingly telepathically. It was not difficult or expensive to do research on these subjects, and the results were fascinating. In 1994 I published a book called Seven Experiments that Could Change the World in which I proposed low-cost tests that could change our ideas about the nature of reality, with results that were summarised in a new edition (2002), and in my books Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999; new edition 2011) and The Sense of Being Stared At (2003).

For the last twenty years I have been a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, near San Francisco, and a visiting professor at several universities, including the Graduate Institute in Connecticut. I have published more than eighty papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, including several in Nature. I belong to a range of scientific societies, including the Society for Experimental Biology and the Society for Scientific Exploration, and I am a fellow of the Zoological Society and the Cambridge Philosophical Society. I give seminars and lectures on my research at a wide variety of universities, research institutes and scientific conferences in Britain, continental Europe, North and South America, India and Australasia.

I have spent all my adult life as a scientist, and I strongly believe in the importance of the scientific approach. Yet I have become increasingly convinced that the sciences have lost much of their vigour, vitality and curiosity. Dogmatic ideology, fear-based conformity and institutional inertia are inhibiting scientific creativity.

With scientific colleagues, I have been struck over and over again by the contrast between public and private discussions. In public, scientists are very aware of the powerful taboos that restrict the range of permissible topics; in private they are often more adventurous.

I have written this book because I believe that the sciences will be more exciting and engaging when they move beyond the dogmas that restrict free enquiry and imprison imaginations.

Many people have contributed to these explorations through discussions, debates, arguments and advice, and I cannot begin to mention everyone to whom I am indebted. This book is dedicated to all those who have helped and encouraged me.

I am grateful for the financial support that has enabled me to write this book: from Trinity College, Cambridge, where I was the Perrott-Warrick Senior Researcher from 2005 to 2010; from Addison Fischer and the Planet Heritage Foundation; and from the Watson Family Foundation and the Institute of Noetic Sciences. I also thank my research assistant, Pamela Smart, and my webmaster, John Caton, for their much-appreciated help.

This book has benefited from many comments on drafts. In particular, I thank Bernard Carr, Angelika Cawdor, Nadia Cheney, John Cobb, Ted Dace, Larry Dossey, Lindy Dufferin and Ava, Douglas Hedley, Francis Huxley, Robert Jackson, Jürgen Krönig, James Le Fanu, Peter Fry, Charlie Murphy, Jill Purce, Anthony Ramsay, Edward St Aubyn, Cosmo Sheldrake, Merlin Sheldrake, Jim Slater, Pamela Smart, Peggy Taylor and Christoffer van Tulleken as well as my agent Jim Levine, in New York, and my editor at Hodder and Stoughton, Mark Booth.

For all those who have helped and encouraged me, especially my wife Jill and our sons Merlin and Cosmo.


The Ten Dogmas of Modern Science

The ‘scientific worldview’ is immensely influential because the sciences have been so successful. They touch all our lives through technologies and through modern medicine. Our intellectual world has been transformed by an immense expansion of knowledge, down into the most microscopic particles of matter and out into the vastness of space, with hundreds of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe.

Yet in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when science and technology seem to be at the peak of their power, when their influence has spread all over the world and when their triumph seems indisputable, unexpected problems are disrupting the sciences from within. Most scientists take it for granted that these problems will eventually be solved by more research along established lines, but some, including myself, think they are symptoms of a deeper malaise.

In this book, I argue that science is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. The sciences would be better off without them: freer, more interesting, and more fun.

The biggest scientific delusion of all is that science already knows the answers. The details still need working out but, in principle, the fundamental questions are settled.

Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

These beliefs are powerful, not because most scientists think about them critically but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough; so are the techniques that scientists use, and the technologies based on them. But the belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology.

This book is pro-science. I want the sciences to be less dogmatic and more scientific. I believe that the sciences will be regenerated when they are liberated from the dogmas that constrict them.

The scientific creed

Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.

  1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.
  2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.
  3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).
  4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same forever.
  5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.
  6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.
  7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.
  8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
  9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.
  10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Together, these beliefs make up the philosophy or ideology of materialism, whose central assumption is that everything is essentially material or physical, even minds. This belief-system became dominant within science in the late nineteenth century, and is now taken for granted. Many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption: they simply think of it as science, or the scientific view of reality, or the scientific worldview. They are not actually taught about it, or given a chance to discuss it. They absorb it by a kind of intellectual osmosis.

In everyday usage, materialism refers to a way of life

In the spirit of radical scepticism, I turn each of these ten doctrines into a question. Entirely new vistas open up when a widely accepted assumption is taken as the beginning of an enquiry, rather than as an unquestionable truth. For example, the assumption that nature is machine-like or mechanical becomes a question: ‘Is nature mechanical?’ The assumption that matter is unconscious becomes ‘Is matter unconscious?’ And so on.

In the Prologue I look at the interactions of science, religion and power, and then in Chapters 1 to 10, I examine each of the ten dogmas. At the end of each chapter, I discuss what difference this topic makes and how it affects the way we live our lives. I also pose several further questions, so that any readers who want to discuss these subjects with friends or colleagues will have some useful starting points. Each chapter is followed by a summary.

The credibility crunch for the ‘scientific worldview’

For more than two hundred years, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, minds are nothing but brain activity and nature is purposeless. Believers are sustained by the faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance ‘promissory materialism’ because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made.1 Despite all the achievements of science and technology, materialism is now facing a credibility crunch that was unimaginable in the twentieth century.

In 1963, when I was studying biochemistry at Cambridge University, I was invited to a series of private meetings with Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner in Brenner’s rooms in King’s College, along with a few of my classmates. Crick and Brenner had recently helped to ‘crack’ the genetic code. Both were ardent materialists and Crick was also a militant atheist. They explained there were two major unsolved problems in biology: development and consciousness. They had not been solved because the people who worked on them were not molecular biologists – or very bright. Crick and Brenner were going to find the answers within ten years, or maybe twenty. Brenner would take developmental biology, and Crick consciousness. They invited us to join them.

Both tried their best. Brenner was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work on the development of a tiny worm, Caenorhabdytis elegans. Crick corrected the manuscript of his final paper on the brain the day before he died in 2004. At his funeral, his son Michael said that what made him tick was not the desire to be famous, wealthy or popular, but ‘to knock the final nail into the coffin of vitalism’. (Vitalism is the theory that living organisms are truly alive, and not explicable in terms of physics and chemistry alone.)

Crick and Brenner failed. The problems of development and consciousness remain unsolved. Many details have been discovered, dozens of genomes have been sequenced, and brain scans are ever more precise. But there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone (see Chapters 1, 4 and 8).

The fundamental proposition of materialism is that matter is the only reality. Therefore consciousness is nothing but brain activity. It is either like a shadow, an ‘epiphenomenon’, that does nothing, or it is just another way of talking about brain activity. However, among contemporary researchers in neuroscience and consciousness studies there is no consensus about the nature of minds. Leading journals such as Behavioural and Brain Sciences and the Journal of Consciousness Studies publish many articles that reveal deep problems with the materialist doctrine. The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the ‘hard problem’. It is hard because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experience of redness is not accounted for.

In biology and psychology the credibility rating of materialism is falling. Can physics ride to the rescue? Some materialists prefer to call themselves physicalists, to emphasise that their hopes depend on modern physics, not nineteenth-century theories of matter. But physicalism’s own credibility rating has been reduced by physics itself, for four reasons.

First, some physicists insist that quantum mechanics cannot be formulated without taking into account the minds of observers. They argue that minds cannot be reduced to physics because physics presupposes the minds of physicists.2

Second, the most ambitious unified theories of physical reality, string and M-theories, with ten and eleven dimensions respectively, take science into completely new territory. Strangely, as Stephen Hawking tells us in his book The Grand Design (2010), ‘No one seems to know what the “M” stands for, but it may be “master”, “miracle” or “mystery”.’ According to what Hawking calls ‘model-dependent realism’, different theories may have to be applied in different situations. ‘Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied.’3

String theories and M-theories are currently untestable so ‘model-dependent realism’ can only be judged by reference to other models, rather than by experiment. It also applies to countless other universes, none of which has ever been observed. As Hawking points out,

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M-theory has solutions that allow for different universes with different apparent laws, depending on how the internal space is curled. M-theory has solutions that allow for many different internal spaces, perhaps as many as 10500, which means it allows for 10500 different universes, each with its own laws … The original hope of physics to produce a single theory explaining the apparent laws of our universe as the unique possible consequence of a few simple assumptions may have to be abandoned.4

Some physicists are deeply sceptical about this entire approach, as the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin shows in his book The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next (2008).5 String theories, M-theories and ‘model-dependent realism’ are a shaky foundation for materialism or physicalism or any other belief system, as discussed in Chapter 1.

Third, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, it has become apparent that the known kinds of matter and energy make up only about four per cent of the universe. The rest consists of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy'. The nature of 96 per cent of physical reality is literally obscure (see Chapter 2).

Fourth, the Cosmological Anthropic Principle asserts that if the laws and constants of nature had been slightly different at the moment of the Big Bang, biological life could never have emerged, and hence we would not be here to think about it (see Chapter 3). So did a divine mind fine-tune the laws and constants in the beginning? To avoid a creator God emerging in a new guise, most leading cosmologists prefer to believe that our universe is one of a vast, and perhaps infinite, number of parallel universes, all with different laws and constants, as M-theory also suggests. We just happen to exist in the one that has the right conditions for us.6

This multiverse theory is the ultimate violation of Occam’s Razor, the philosophical principle that ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’, or in other words, that we should make as few assumptions as possible. It also has the major disadvantage of being untestable.7 And it does not even succeed in getting rid of God. An infinite God could be the God of an infinite number of universes.8

Materialism provided a seemingly simple, straightforward worldview in the late nineteenth century, but twenty-first-century science has left it behind. Its promises have not been fulfilled, and its promissory notes have been devalued by hyperinflation.

I am convinced that the sciences are being held back by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas, maintained by powerful taboos. These beliefs protect the citadel of established science, but act as barriers against open-minded thinking.


Science, Religion and Power

Since the late nineteenth century, science has dominated and transformed the earth. It has touched everyone’s lives through technology and modern medicine. Its intellectual prestige is almost unchallenged. Its influence is greater than that of any other system of thought in all of human history. Although most of its power comes from its practical applications, it also has a strong intellectual appeal. It offers new ways of understanding the world, including the mathematical order at the heart of atoms and molecules, the molecular biology of genes, and the vast sweep of cosmic evolution.

The scientific priesthood

Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a politician and lawyer who became Lord Chancellor of England, foresaw the power of organised science more than anyone else. To clear the way, he needed to show that there was nothing sinister about acquiring power over nature. When he was writing, there was a widespread fear of witchcraft and black magic, which he tried to counteract by claiming that knowledge of nature was God-given, not inspired by the devil. Science was a return to the innocence of the first man, Adam, in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

Bacon argued that the first book of the Bible, Genesis, justified scientific knowledge. He equated man’s knowledge of nature with Adam’s naming of the animals. God ‘brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them, and what Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof’. (Genesis 2: 19–20) This was literally man’s knowledge, because Eve was not created until two verses later. Bacon argued that man’s technological mastery of nature was the recovery of a God-given power, rather than something new. He confidently assumed that people would use their new knowledge wisely and well: ‘Only let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest; the exercise thereof will be governed by sound reason and true religion.’1

The key to this new power over nature was organised institutional research. In New Atlantis (1624), Bacon described a technocratic Utopia in which a scientific priesthood made decisions for the good of the state as a whole. The Fellows of this scientific ‘Order or Society’ wore long robes and were treated with a respect that their power and dignity required. The head of the order travelled in a rich chariot, under a radiant golden image of the sun. As he rode in procession, ‘he held up his bare hand, as he went, as blessing the people’.

The general purpose of this foundation was ‘the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible’. The Society was equipped with machinery and facilities for testing explosives and armaments, experimental furnaces, gardens for plant breeding, and dispensaries.2

This visionary scientific institution foreshadowed many features of institutional research, and was a direct inspiration for the founding of the Royal Society in London in 1660, and for many other national academies of science. But although the members of these academies were often held in high esteem, none achieved the grandeur and political power of Bacon’s imaginary prototypes. Their glory was continued even after their deaths in a gallery, like a Hall of Fame, where their images were preserved. ‘For upon every invention of value we erect a statue to the inventor, and give him a liberal and honourable reward.’3

In England in Bacon’s time (and still today) the Church of England was linked to the state as the Established Church. Bacon envisaged that the scientific priesthood would also be linked to the state through state patronage, forming a kind of established church of science. And here again he was prophetic. In nations both capitalist and Communist, the official academies of science remain the centres of power of the scientific establishment. There is no separation of science and state. Scientists play the role of an established priesthood, influencing government policies on the arts of warfare, industry, agriculture, medicine, education and research.

Bacon coined the ideal slogan for soliciting financial support from governments and investors: ‘Knowledge is power.’4 But the success of scientists in eliciting funding from governments varied from country to country. The systematic state funding of science began much earlier in France and Germany than in Britain and the United States where, until the latter half of the nineteenth century, most research was privately funded or carried out by wealthy amateurs like Charles Darwin.5

In France, Louis Pasteur (1822–95) was an influential proponent of science as a truth-finding religion, with laboratories like temples through which mankind would be elevated to its highest potential:

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Take interest, I beseech you, in those sacred institutions which we designate under the expressive name of laboratories. Demand that they be multiplied and adorned; they are the temples of wealth and of the future. There it is that humanity grows, becomes stronger and better.6

By the beginning of the twentieth century, science was almost entirely institutionalised and professionalised, and after the Second World War expanded enormously under government patronage, as well as through corporate investment.7 The highest level of funding is in the United States, where in 2008 the total expenditure on research and development was $398 billion, of which $104 billion came from the government.8 But governments and corporations do not usually pay scientists to do research because they want innocent knowledge, like that of Adam before the Fall. Naming animals, as in classifying endangered species of beetles in tropical rainforests, is a low priority. Most funding is a response to Bacon’s persuasive slogan ‘knowledge is power’.

By the 1950s, when institutional science had reached an unprecedented level of power and prestige, the historian of science George Sarton approvingly described the situation in a way that sounds like the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation:

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Truth can be determined only by the judgement of experts … Everything is decided by very small groups of men, in fact, by single experts whose results are carefully checked, however, by a few others. The people have nothing to say but simply to accept the decisions handed out to them. Scientific activities are controlled by universities, academies and scientific societies, but such control is as far removed from popular control as it possibly could be.9

Bacon’s vision of a scientific priesthood has now been realised on a global scale. But his confidence that man’s power over nature would be guided by ‘sound reason and true religion’ was misplaced.

The fantasy of omniscience

The fantasy of omniscience is a recurrent theme in the history of science, as scientists aspire to a total godlike knowledge. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the French physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace imagined a scientific mind capable of knowing and predicting everything:

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Consider an intelligence which, at any instant, could have a knowledge of all the forces controlling nature together with the momentary conditions of all the entities of which nature consists. If this intelligence were powerful enough to submit all these data to analysis it would be able to embrace in a single formula the movements of the largest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atoms; for it nothing would be uncertain; the past and future would be equally present for its eyes.10

These ideas were not confined to physicists. Thomas Henry Huxley, who did so much to propagate Darwin’s theory of evolution, extended mechanical determinism to cover the entire evolutionary process:

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If the fundamental proposition of evolution is true, that the entire world, living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction, according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed, it is no less certain the existing world lay, potentially, in the cosmic vapour, and that a sufficient intellect could, from a knowledge of the properties of the molecules of that vapour, have predicted, say, the state of the fauna of Great Britain in 1869.11

When the belief in determinism was applied to the activity of the human brain, it resulted in a denial of free will, on the grounds that everything about the molecular and physical activities of the brain was in principle predictable. Yet this conviction rested not on scientific evidence, but simply on the assumption that everything was fully determined by mathematical laws.

Even today, many scientists assume that free will is an illusion. Not only is the activity of the brain determined by machine-like processes, but there is no non-mechanical self capable of making choices. For example, in 2010, the British brain scientist Patrick Haggard asserted, ‘As a neuroscientist, you’ve got to be a determinist. There are physical laws, which the electrical and chemical events in the brain obey. Under identical circumstances, you couldn’t have done otherwise. There’s no “I” which can say, “I want to do otherwise.”’12 However, Haggard does not let his scientific beliefs interfere with his personal life: ‘I keep my scientific and personal lives pretty separate. I still seem to decide what films I go to see, I don’t feel it’s predestined, though it must be determined somewhere in my brain.’

Indeterminism and chance

In 1927, with the recognition of the uncertainty principle in quantum physics, it became clear that indeterminism was an essential feature of the physical world, and physical predictions could be made only in terms of probabilities. The fundamental reason is that quantum phenomena are wavelike, and a wave is by its very nature spread out in space and time: it cannot be localised at a single point at a particular instant; or, more technically, its position and momentum cannot both be known precisely.13 Quantum theory deals in statistical probabilities, not certainties. The fact that one possibility is realised in a quantum event rather than another is a matter of chance.

Does quantum indeterminism affect the question of free will? Not if indeterminism is purely random. Choices made at random are no freer than if they are fully determined.14

In neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory randomness plays a central role through the chance mutations of genes, which are quantum events. With different chance events, evolution would happen differently. T. H. Huxley was wrong in believing that the course of evolution was predictable. ‘Replay the tape of life,’ said the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, ‘and a different set of survivors would grace our planet today.’15

In the twentieth century it became clear that not just quantum processes but almost all natural phenomena are probabilistic, including the turbulent flow of liquids, the breaking of waves on the seashore, and the weather: they show a spontaneity and indeterminism that eludes exact prediction. Weather forecasters still get it wrong in spite of having powerful computers and a continuous stream of data from satellites. This is not because they are bad scientists but because weather is intrinsically unpredictable in detail. It is chaotic, not in the everyday sense that there is no order at all, but in the sense that it is not precisely predictable. To some extent, the weather can be modelled mathematically in terms of chaotic dynamics, sometimes called ‘chaos theory’, but these models do not make exact predictions.16 Certainty is as unachievable in the everyday world as it is in quantum physics. Even the orbits of the planets around the sun, long considered the centrepiece of mechanistic science, turn out to be chaotic over long time scales.17

The belief in determinism, strongly held by many nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century scientists, turned out to be a delusion. The freeing of scientists from this dogma led to a new appreciation of the indeterminism of nature in general, and of evolution in particular. The sciences have not come to an end by abandoning the belief in determinism. Likewise, they will survive the loss of the dogmas that still bind them; they will be regenerated by new possibilities.

Further fantasies of omniscience

By the end of the nineteenth century, the fantasy of scientific omniscience went far beyond a belief in determinism. In 1888, the Canadian-American astronomer Simon Newcomb wrote, ‘We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.’ In 1894, Albert Michelson, later to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, declared, ‘The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote … Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.’18 And in 1900 William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, the physicist and inventor of intercontinental telegraphy, expressed this supreme confidence in an often-quoted (although perhaps apocryphal) claim: ‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.’

These convictions were shattered in the twentieth century through quantum physics, relativity theory, nuclear fission and fusion (as in atom and hydrogen bombs), the discovery of galaxies beyond our own, and the Big Bang theory – the idea that the universe began very small and very hot some 14 billion years ago and has been growing, cooling and evolving ever since.

Nevertheless, by the end of the twentieth century, the fantasy of omniscience was back again, this time fuelled by the triumphs of twentieth-century physics and by the discoveries of neurobiology and molecular biology. In 1997, John Horgan, a senior science writer at Scientific American, published a book called The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. After interviewing many leading scientists, he advanced a provocative thesis:

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If one believes in science, one must accept the possibility – even the probability – that the great era of scientific discovery is over. By science I mean not applied science, but science at its purest and greatest, the primordial human quest to understand the universe and our place in it. Further research may yield no more great revelations or revolutions, but only incremental, diminishing returns.19

Horgan is surely right that once something has been discovered – like the structure of DNA – it cannot go on being discovered. But he took it for granted that the tenets of conventional science are true. He assumed that the most fundamental answers are already known. They are not, and every one of them can be replaced by more interesting and fruitful questions, as I show in this book.

Science and Christianity

The founders of mechanistic science in the seventeenth century, including Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, were all practising Christians. Kepler, Galileo and Descartes were Roman Catholics; Bacon, Boyle and Newton Protestants. Boyle, a wealthy aristocrat, was exceptionally devout, and spent large amounts of his own money to promote missionary activity in India. Newton devoted much time and energy to biblical scholarship, with a particular interest in the dating of prophecies. He calculated that the Day of Judgment would occur between the years 2060 and 2344, and set out the details in his book Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John.20

Seventeenth-century science created a vision of the universe as a machine intelligently designed and started off by God. Everything was governed by eternal mathematical laws, which were ideas in the mind of God. This mechanistic philosophy was revolutionary precisely because it rejected the animistic view of nature taken for granted in medieval Europe, as discussed in Chapter 1. Until the seventeenth century, university scholars and Christian theologians taught that the universe was alive, pervaded by the Spirit of God, the divine breath of life. All plants, animals and people had souls. The stars, the planets and the earth were living beings, guided by angelic intelligences.

Mechanistic science rejected these doctrines and expelled all souls from nature. The material world became literally inanimate, a soulless machine. Matter was purposeless and unconscious; the planets and stars were dead. In the entire physical universe, the only non-mechanical entities were human minds, which were immaterial, and part of a spiritual realm that included angels and God. No one could explain how minds related to the machinery of human bodies, but René Descartes speculated that they interacted in the pineal gland, the small pine-cone-shaped organ nestled between the right and left hemispheres near the centre of the brain.21

After some initial conflicts, most notably the trial of Galileo by the Roman Inquisition in 1633, science and Christianity were increasingly confined to separate realms by mutual consent. The practice of science was fairly free from religious interference, and religion fairly free from conflict with science, at least until the rise of militant atheism at the end of the eighteenth century. Science’s domain was the material universe, including human bodies, animals, plants, stars and planets. Religion’s realm was spiritual: God, angelent: God, spirits and human souls. This more or less peaceful coexistence served the interests of both science and religion. Even in the late twentieth century Stephen Jay Gould still defended this arrangement as a ‘sound position of general consensus’. He called it the doctrine of Non-overlapping Magisteria. The magisterium of science covers ‘the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value.’22

However, from around the time of the French Revolution (1789–99), militant materialists rejected this principle of dual magisteria, dismissing it as intellectually dishonest, or seeing it as a refuge for the feeble-minded. They recognised only one reality: the material world. The spiritual realm did not exist. Gods, angels and spirits were figments of the human imagination, and human minds were nothing but aspects or by-products of brain activity. There were no supernatural agencies that interfered with the mechanical course of nature. There was only one magisterium: the magisterium of science.

Atheist beliefs

The materialist philosophy achieved its dominance within institutional science in the second half of the nineteenth century, and was closely linked to the rise of atheism in Europe. Twenty-first-century atheists, like their predecessors, take the doctrines of materialism to be established scientific facts, not just assumptions.

When it was combined with the idea that the entire universe was like a machine running out of steam, according to the second law of thermodynamics, materialism led to the cheerless worldview expressed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell:

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That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collisions of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system; and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be built.23

How many scientists believe in these ‘truths’? Some accept them without question. But many scientists have philosophies or religious faiths that make this ‘scientific worldview’ seem limited, at best a half-truth. In addition, within science itself, evolutionary cosmology, quantum physics and consciousness studies make the standard dogmas of science look old-fashioned.

It is obvious that science and technology have transformed the world. Science is brilliantly successful when applied to making machines, increasing agricultural yields and developing cures for diseases. Its prestige is immense. Since its beginnings in seventeenth-century Europe, mechanistic science has spread worldwide through European empires and European ideologies, like Marxism, socialism and free-market capitalism. It has touched the lives of billions of people through economic and technological development. The evangelists of science and technology have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the missionaries of Christianity. Never before has any system of ideas dominated all humanity. Yet despite these overwhelming successes, science still carries the ideological baggage inherited from its European past.

Science and technology are welcomed almost everywhere because of the obvious material benefits they bring, and the materialist philosophy is part of the package deal. However, religious beliefs and the pursuit of a scientific career can interact in surprising ways. As an Indian scientist wrote in the scientific journal Nature in 2009,

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[In India] science is neither the ultimate form of knowledge nor a victim of scepticism … My observations as a research scientist of more than 30 years’ standing suggest that most scientists in India conspicuously evoke the mysterious powers of gods and goddesses to help them achieve success in professional matters such as publishing papers or gaining recognition.24

All over the world, scientists know that the doctrines of materialism are the rules of the game during working hours. Few professional scientists challenge them openly, at least before they retire or get a Nobel Prize. And in deference to the prestige of science, most educated people are prepared to go along with the orthodox creed in public, whatever their private opinions.

However, some scientists and intellectuals are deeply committed atheists, and the materialist philosophy is central to their belief system. A minority become missionaries, filled with evangelical zeal. They see themselves as old-style crusaders fighting for science and reason against the forces of superstition, religion and credulity. Several books putting forward this stark opposition were bestsellers in the 2000s, including Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason ( 2004 ), Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (2006), Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006), which by 2010 had sold two million copies in English, and was translated into thirty-four other languages.25 Until he retired in 2008, Dawkins was Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford.

But few atheists believe in materialism alone. Most are also secular humanists, for whom a faith in God has been replaced by a faith in humanity. Humans approach a godlike omniscience through science. God does not affect the course of human history. Instead, humans have taken charge themselves, bringing about progress through reason, science, technology, education and social reform.

Mechanistic science in itself gives no reason to suppose that there is any point in life, or purpose in humanity, or that progress is inevitable. Instead it asserts that the universe is ultimately purposeless, and so is human life. A consistent atheism stripped of the humanist faith paints a bleak picture with little ground for hope, as Bertrand Russell made so clear. But secular humanism arose within a Judaeo-Christian culture and inherited from Christianity a belief in the unique importance of human life, together with a faith in future salvation. Secular humanism is in many ways a Christian heresy, in which man has replaced God.26

Secular humanism makes atheism palatable because it surrounds it with a reassuring faith in progress rather than provable facts. Instead of redemption by God, humans themselves will bring about human salvation through science, reason and social reform.27

Whether or not they share this faith in human progress, all materialists assume that science will eventually prove that their beliefs are true. But this too is a matter of faith.

Dogmas, beliefs and free enquiry

It is not anti-scientific to question established beliefs, but central to sentience itself. At the creative heart of science is a spirit of open-minded enquiry. Ideally, science is a process, not a position or a belief system. Innovative science happens when scientists feel free to ask new questions and build new theories.

In his influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), the historian of science Thomas Kuhn argued that in periods of ‘normal’ science, most scientists share a model of reality and a way of asking questions that he called a paradigm. The ruling paradigm defines what kinds of questions scientists can ask and how they can be answered. Normal science takes place within this framework and scientists usually explain away anything that does not fit. Anomalous facts accumulate until a crisis point is reached. Revolutionary changes happen when researchers adopt more inclusive frameworks of thought and practice, and are able to incorporate facts that were previously dismissed as anomalies. In due course the new paradigm becomes the basis of a new phase of normal science.28

Kuhn helped focus attention on the social aspect of science and reminded us that science is a collective activity. Scientists are subject to all the usual constraints of human social life, including peer-group pressure and the need to conform to the norms of the group. Kuhn’s arguments were largely based on the history of science, but sociologists of science have taken his insights further by studying science as it is actually practised, looking at the ways that scientists build up networks of support, use resources and results to increase their power and influence, and compete for funding, prestige and recognition.

Bruno Latour’s Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (1987) is one of the most influential studies in this tradition. Latour observed that scientists routinely make a distinction between knowledge and beliefs. Scientists within their professional group know about the phenomena covered by their field of science, while those outside the network have only distorted beliefs. When scientists think about people outside their groups, they often wonder how they can still be so irrational:

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[T]he picture of non-scientists drawn by scientists becomes bleak: a few minds discover what reality is, while the vast majority of people have irrational ideas or at least are prisoners of many social, cultural and psychological factors that make them stick obstinately to obsolete prejudices. The only redeeming aspect of this picture is that if it were only possible to eliminate all these factors that hold people prisoners of their prejudices, they would all, immediately and at no cost, become as sound-minded as the scientists, grasping the phenomena without further ado. In every one of us there is a scientist who is asleep, and who will not wake up until social and cultural conditions are pushed aside.29

For believers in the ‘scientific worldview’, all that is needed is to increase the public understanding of science through education and the media.

Since the nineteenth century, a belief in materialism has indeed been propagated with remarkable success: millions of people have been converted to this ‘scientific’ view, even though they know very little about science itself. They are, as it were, devotees of the Church of Science, or of scientism, of which scientists are the priests. This is how a prominent atheist layman, Ricky Gervais, expressed these attitudes in the Wall Street Journal in 2010, the same year that he was on the Time magazine list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Gervais is an entertainer, not a scientist or an original thinker, but he borrows the authority of science to support his atheism:

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Science seeks the truth. And it does not discriminate. For better or worse it finds things out. Science is humble. It knows what it knows and it knows what it doesn’t know. It bases its conclusions and beliefs on hard evidence – evidence that is constantly updated and upgraded. It doesn’t get offended when new facts come along. It embraces the body of knowledge. It doesn’t hold onto medieval practices because they are tradition.30

Gervais’s idealised view of science is hopelessly naïve in the context of the history and sociology of science. It portrays scientists as open-minded seekers of truth, not ordinary people competing for funds and prestige, constrained by peer-group pressures and hemmed in by prejudices and taboos. Yet naïve as it is, I take this ideal of free enquiry seriously. This book is an experiment in which I apply these ideals to science itself. By turning assumptions into questions I want to find out what science really knows and doesn’t know. I look at the ten core doctrines of materialism in the light of hard evidence and recent discoveries. I assume that true scientists will not be offended when new facts come along, and that they will not hold onto the materialist worldview just because it’s traditional.

I am doing this because the spirit of enquiry has continually liberated scientific thinking from unnecessary limitations, whether imposed from within or without. I am convinced that the sciences, for all these successes, are being stifled by outmoded beliefs.

Biography of Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D.

Rupert Sheldrake looking up

Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than 90 scientific papers and 9 books, and the co-author of 6 books. His books have been published in 28 languages. He was among the top 100 Global Thought Leaders for 2013, as ranked by the Duttweiler Institute, Zurich, Switzerland's leading think tank. On ResearchGate, the largest scientific and academic online network, his RG score of 33.5 puts him among the top 7.5% of researchers, based on citations of his peer-reviewed publications. On Google Scholar, the many citations of his work give him a high h-index of 38, and an i10 index of 102.

He studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, where he was a Scholar of Clare College, took a double first class honours degree and was awarded the University Botany Prize (1962). He then studied philosophy and history of science at Harvard University, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow (1963-64), before returning to Cambridge, where he took a Ph.D. in biochemistry (1967). He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge (1967-73), where he was Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology. As the Rosenheim Research Fellow of the Royal Society (1970-73), he carried out research on the development of plants and the ageing of cells in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge University. While at Cambridge, together with Philip Rubery, he discovered the mechanism of polar auxin transport, the process by which the plant hormone auxin is carried from the shoots towards the roots.

Malaysia and India

From 1968 to 1969, as a Royal Society Leverhulme Scholar, based in the Botany Department of the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, he studied rain forest plants. From 1974 to 1985 he was Principal Plant Physiologist and Consultant Physiologist at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India, where he helped develop new cropping systems now widely used by farmers. While in India, he also lived for a year and a half at the ashram of Fr Bede Griffiths in Tamil Nadu, where he wrote his first book, A New Science of Life, published in 1981 (new edition 2009).

Rupert Sheldrake Cambridge 1970
Cambridge, 1970

Experimental research

Since 1981, he has continued research on developmental and cell biology. He has also investigated unexplained aspects of animal behaviour, including how pigeons find their way home, the telepathic abilities of dogs, cats and other animals, and the apparent abilities of animals to anticipate earthquakes and tsunamis. He subsequently studied similar phenomena in people, including the sense of being stared at, telepathy between mothers and babies, telepathy in connection with telephone calls, and premonitions. Although some of these areas overlap the field of parapsychology, he approaches them as a biologist, and bases his research on natural history and experiments under natural conditions, as opposed to laboratory studies. His research on these subjects is summarized in his books Seven Experiments That Could Change the World (1994, second edition 2002), Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999, new edition 2011) and The Sense of Being Stared At (2003, new edition 2012).

Recent books

The Science Delusion in the UK and Science Set Free in the US, examines the ten dogmas of modern science, and shows how they can be turned into questions that open up new vistas of scientific possibility. This book received the Book of the Year Award from the British Scientific and Medical Network. His two most recent books Science and Spiritual Practices and Ways to Go Beyond And Why They Work are about rediscovering ways of connecting with the more-than-human world through direct experience.

Academic appointments

Since 1985, he has taught every year on courses at Schumacher College, in Devon, England, and has been part of the faculty for the MSc in Holistic Science programme since its inception in 1998. In 2000, he was the Steinbach Scholar in Residence at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. From 2003-2011, Visiting Professor and Academic Director of the Holistic Thinking Program at the Graduate Institute, Connecticut, USA. In 2005, Visiting Professor of Evolutionary Science at the Wisdom University, Oakland, California. From 2005-2010 he was the Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge University. He is currently a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, a Fellow of Schumacher College in Devon, England, and a Fellow of the Temenos Academy, London.


In 1960, he was awarded a Major Open Scholarship in Natural Sciences at Clare College Cambridge, In 1962 he received the Cambridge University Frank Smart Prize for Botany, and in 1963 the Clare College Greene Cup for General Learning. In 1994, he won the Book of the Year Award from The Institute for Social Inventions for his book Seven Experiments That Could Change the World; In 1999 the Book of the Year Award from the Scientific and Medical Network for his book Dogs That Know When their Owners Are Coming Home, and won the same award again in 2012 for his book The Science Delusion (Science Set Free in the US).

He received the 2014 Bridgebuilder Award at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, a prize established by the Doshi family "to honor an individual or organization dedicated to fostering understanding between cultures, peoples and disciplines." In 2015, in Venice, Italy, he was awarded the first Lucia Torri Cianci prize for innovative thinking.


He lives in London with his wife Jill Purce. They have two sons, Merlin, who received his PhD at Cambridge University in 2016 for his work in tropical ecology at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, and Cosmo, a musician.

Books by Rupert Sheldrake

Ways to Go Beyond And Why They Work: Seven Spiritual Practices in a Scientific Age (Coronet, London, 2019)

Science and Spiritual Practices: Reconnecting Through Direct Experience (Coronet, London, 2017; Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2018)

The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2012; published in the US as Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery, Random House, 2012)

The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind (Hutchinson, London, 2003; Crown, New York; new edition, 2013, Inner Traditions International)

Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals (Hutchinson, London, 1999; Crown, New York; new edition, 2011, Random House, New York)

Seven Experiments that Could Change the World: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Revolutionary Science (Fourth Estate, London, 1994; Riverside/Putnams, New York, 1995; new edition, 2002, Inner Traditions International)

The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God (Century, London,1992; Bantam, New York)

The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (Collins, London, 1988; Times Books, New York; new edition, 2012, Icon Books)

A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (Blond and Briggs, London, 1981; Tarcher, Los Angeles, 1982; new edition, 2009, Icon Books)

With Michael Shermer

Arguing Science (Monkfish Book Publishing, 2016)

With Kate Banks

Boy’s Best Friend (Farrar, Strauss, Giroud, New York, 2015)

With Ralph Abraham and Terence McKenna

The Evolutionary Mind (Monkfish Publishing, 2005)

Chaos, Creativity and Cosmic Consciousness (Inner Traditions International, 2001)

With Matthew Fox

Natural Grace: Dialogues on Science and Spirituality (Bloomsbury, London, 1996; Doubleday, New York)

The Physics of Angels (Harper San Francisco, 1996)


Essay in How I Found God in Everyone and Everywhere: An Anthology of Spiritual Memoirs (Monkfish, 2018)

Talks and Workshops

Rupert Sheldrake has spoken in many scientific and medical conferences, and has given lectures and seminars in a wide range of universities, including the following (from 2008-2019):

Aarhus University, Denmark
Amsterdam University, Holland
Bath Spa University
Bath University
Birkbeck College, London
California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco
Cambridge University
Christchurch University, Canterbury
City University, London
Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris
Europa University, Frankfurt (Oder), Germany
Goldsmiths College, London
Greenwich University, London
Groningen University, Holland
Haverford College, Pennsylvania
Imperial College, London
Innsbruck University, Austria
Kings College, London
Leiden University, Holland
Manchester Metropolitan University
Middlesex University
New York University
Niels Bohr Institute at Copenhagen University
Northampton University
Oxford University
Royal College of Art, London
Sainsbury Laboratory, Cambridge University
Schumacher College/University of Plymouth
Sussex University
Trinity College, Dublin
University College, Dublin
University College, London
Vienna University
Vienna: Sigmund Freud University
Vienna: Universität für Bodenkultur
Wageningen University, Holland
Winchester University
First published in Great Britain in 2012 by Coronet
An imprint of Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company

Copyright © Rupert Sheldrake 2012

The right of Rupert Sheldrake to be identified as the Author of the
Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any
means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be
otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that
in which it is published and without a similar condition being
imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

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Chapter 1 ♦ Is Nature Mechanical?

Many people who have not studied science are baffled by scientists’ insistence that animal and plants are machines, and that humans are robots too, controlled by computer-like brains with genetically programmed software. It seems more natural to assume that we are living organisms, and so are animals and plants. Organisms are self-organising; they form and maintain themselves, and have their own ends or goals. Machines, by contrast, are designed by an external mind; their parts are put together by external machine-makers and they have no purposes or ends of their own.

The starting point for modern science was the rejection of the older, organic view of the universe. The machine metaphor became central to scientific thinking, with very far-reaching consequences. In one way it was immensely liberating. New ways of thinking became possible that encouraged the invention of machines and the evolution of technology. In this chapter, I trace the history of this idea, and show what happens when we question it.

Before the seventeenth century, almost everyone took for granted that the universe was like an organism, and so was the earth. In classical, medieval and Renaissance Europe, nature was alive. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), for example, made this idea explicit: ‘We can say that the earth has a vegetative soul, and that its flesh is the land, its bones are the structure of the rocks … its breathing and its pulse are the ebb and flow of the sea.’1 William Gilbert (1540–1603), a pioneer of the science of magnetism, was explicit in his organic philosophy of nature: ‘We consider that the whole universe is animated, and that all the globes, all the stars, and also the noble earth have been governed since the beginning by their own appointed souls and have the motives of self-conservation.’2

Even Nicholas Copernicus, whose revolutionary theory of the movement of the heavens, published in 1543, placed the sun at the centre rather than the earth was no mechanist. His reasons for making this change were mystical as well as scientific. He thought a central position dignified the sun:

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Not unfittingly do some call it the light of the world, others the soul, still others the governor. Tremigmpliistus calls it the visible God: Sophocles’ Electra, the All-seer. And in fact does the sun, seated on his royal throne, guide his family of planets as they circle around him.3

Copernicus’s revolution in cosmology was a powerful stimulus for the subsequent development of physics. But the shift to the mechanical theory of nature that began after 1600 was much more radical.

For centuries, there had already been mechanical models of some aspects of nature. For example, in Wells Cathedral, in the west of England, there is a still-functioning astronomical clock installed more than six hundred years ago. The clock’s face shows the sun and moon revolving around the earth, against a background of stars. The movement of the sun indicates the time of day, and the inner circle of the clock depicts the moon, rotating once a month. To the delight of visitors, every quarter of an hour, models of jousting knights rush round chasing each other, while a model of a man bangs bells with his heels.

Astronomical clocks were first made in China and in the Arab world, and powered by water. Their construction began in Europe around 1300, but with a new kind of mechanism, operated by weights and escapements. All these early clocks took for granted that the earth was at the centre of the universe. They were useful models for telling the time and for predicting the phases of the moon; but no one thought that the universe was really like a clockwork mechanism.

A change from the metaphor of the organism to the metaphor of the machine produced science as we know it: mechanical models of the universe were taken to represent the way the world actually worked. The movements of stars and planets were governed by impersonal mechanical principles, not by souls or spirits with their own lives and purposes.

In 1605, Johannes Kepler summarised his programme as follows: ‘My aim is to show that the celestial machine is to be likened not to a divine organism but rather to clockwork … Moreover I show how this physical conception is to be presented through calculation and geometry.’4 Galileo Galilei (1564–1642) agreed that ‘inexorable, immutable’ mathematical laws ruled everything.

The clock analogy was particularly persuasive because clocks work in a self-contained way. They are not pushing or pulling other objects. Likewise the universe performs its work by the regularity of its motions, and is the ultimate time-telling system. Mechanical clocks had a further metaphorical advantage: they were a good example of knowledge through construction, or knowing by doing. Someone who could construct a machine could reconstruct it. Mechanical knowledge was power.

The prestige of mechanistic science did not come primarily from its philosophical underpinnings but from its practical successes, especially in physics. Mathematical modelling typically involves extreme abstraction and simplification, which is easiest to realise with man-made machines or objects. Mathematical mechanics is impressively useful in dealing with relatively simple problems, such as the trajectories of cannon balls or rockets.

One paradigmatic example is billiard-ball physics, which gives a clear account of impacts and collisions of idealised billiard balls in a frictionless environment. Not only is the mathematics simplified, but billiard balls themselves are a very simplified system. The balls are made as round as possible and the table as flat as possible, and there are uniform rubber cushions at the sides of the table, unlike any natural environment. Think of a rock falling down a mountainside for comparison. Moreover, in the real world, billiard balls collide and bounce off each other in games, but the rules of the game and the skills and motives of the players are outside the scope of physics. The mathematical analysis of the balls’ behaviour is an extreme abstraction.

From living organisms to biological machines

The vision of mechanical nature developed amid devastating religious wars in seventeenth-century Europe. Mathematical physics was attractive partly because it seemed to provide a way of transcending sectarian conflicts to reveal eternal truths. In their own eyes the pioneers of mechanistic science were finding a new way of understanding the relationship of nature to God, with humans adopting a God-like mathematical omniscience, rising above the limitations of human minds and bodies. As Galileo put it:

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When God produces the world, he produces a thoroughly mathematical structure that obeys the laws of number, geometrical figure and quantitative function. Nature is an embodied mathematical system.5

But there was a major problem. Most of our experience is not mathematical. We taste food, feel angry, enjoy the beauty of flowers, laugh at jokes. In order to assert the primacy of mathematics, Galileo and his successors had to distinguish between what they called ‘primary qualities’, which could be described mathematically, such as motion, size and weight, and ‘secondary qualities’, like colour and smell, which were subjective.6 They took the real world to be objective, quantitative and mathematical. Personal experience in the lived world was subjective, the realm of opinion and illusion, outside the realm of science.

René Descartes (1596–1650) was the principal proponent of the mechanical or mechanistic philosophy of nature. It first came to him in a vision on 10 November 1619 when he was ‘filled with enthusiasm and discovered the foundations of a marvellous science’.7 He saw the entire universe as a mathematical system, and later envisaged vast vortices of swirling subtle matter, the aether, carrying around the planets in their orbits.

Descartes took the mechanical metaphor much further than Kepler or Galileo by extending it into the realm of life. He was fascinated by the sophisticated machinery of his age, such as clocks, looms and pumps. As a youth he designed mechanical models to simulate animal activity, such as a pheasant pursued by a spaniel. Just as Kepler projected the image of man-made machinery onto the cosmos, Descartes projected it onto animals. They, too, were like clockwork.8 Activities like the beating of a dog’s heart, its digestion and breathing were programmed mechanisms. The same principles applied to human bodies.

Descartes cut up living dogs in order to study their hearts, and reported his observations as if his readers might want to replicate them: ‘If you slice off the pointed end of the heart of a live dog, and insert a finger into one of the cavities, you will feel unmistakably that every time the heart gets shorter it presses the finger, and every time it gets longer it stops pressing it.’9

He backed up his arguments with a thought experiment: first he imagined man-made automata that imitated the movements of animals, and then argued that if they were made well enough they would be indistinguishable from real animals:

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If any such machines had the organs and outward shapes of a monkey or of some other animal that lacks reason, we should have no way of knowing that they did not possess entirely the same nature as those animals.10

With arguments like these, Descartes laid the foundations of mechanistic biology and medicine that are still orthodox today. However, the machine theory of life was less readily accepted in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than the machine theory of the universe. Especially in England, the idea of animal-machines was considered eccentric.11 Descartes’ doctrine seemed to justify cruelty to animals, including vivisection, and it was said that the test of his followers was whether they would kick their dogs.12

As the philosopher Daniel Dennett summarised it, ‘Descartes … held that animals were in fact just elaborate machines … It was only our non-mechanical, non-physical minds that make human beings (and only human beings) intelligent and conscious. This was actually a subtle view, most of which would readily be defended by zoologists today, but it was too revolutionary for Descartes’ contemporaries.’13

We are so used to the machine theory of life that it is hard to appreciate what a radical break Descartes made. The prevailing theories of his time took for granted that living organisms were organisms, animate beings with their own souls. Souls gave organisms their purposes and powers of self-organisation. From the Middle Ages right up into the seventeenth century, the prevailing theory of life taught in the universities of Europe followed the Greek philosopher Aristotle and his leading Christian interpreter, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–74), according to whom the matter in plant or animal bodies was shaped by the organisms’ souls. For Aquinas, the soul was the form of the body.14 The soul acted like an invisible mould that shaped the plant or the animal as it grew and attracted it towards its mature form.15

The souls of animals and plants were natural, not supernatural. According to classical Greek and medieval philosophy, and also in William Gilbert’s theory of magnetism, even magnets had souls.16 The soul within and around them gave them their powers of attraction and repulsion. When a magnet was heated and lost its magnetic properties, it was as if the soul had left it, just as the soul left an animal body when it died. We now talk in terms of magnetic fields. In most respects fields have replaced the souls of classical and medieval philosophy.17

Before the mechanistic revolution, there were three levels of explanation: bodies, souls and spirits. Bodies and souls were part of nature. Spirits were non-material but interacted with embodied beings through their souls. The human spirit, or ‘rational soul’, according to Christian theology, was potentially open to the Spirit of God.18

After the mechanistic revolution, there were only two levels of explanation: bodies and spirits. Three layers were reduced to two by removing souls from nature, leaving only the human ‘rational soul’ or spirit. The abolition of souls also separated humanity from all other animals, which became inanimate machines. The ‘rational soul’ of man was like an immaterial ghost in the machinery of the human body.

How could the rational soul possibly interact with the brain? Descartes speculated that their interaction occurred in the pineal gland.19 He thought of the soul as like a little man inside the pineal gland controlling the plumbing of the brain. He compared the nerves to water pipes, the cavities in the brain to storage tanks, the muscles to mechanical springs, and breathing to the movements of a clock. The organs of the body were like the automata in seventeenth-century water gardens, and the immaterial man within was like the fountain keeper:

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External objects, which by their mere presence stimulate [the body’s] sense organs … are like visitors who enter the grottoes of these fountains and unwittingly cause the movements which take place before their eyes. For they cannot enter without stepping on certain tiles which are so arranged that if, for example, they approach a Diana who is bathing they will cause her to hide in the reeds. And finally, when a rational soul is present in this machine it will have its principal seat in the brain, and reside there like the fountain keeper who must be stationed at the tanks to which the fountain’s pipes return if he wants to produce, or prevent, or change their movements in some way.20

The final step in the mechanistic revolution was to reduce two levels of explanation to one. Instead of a duality of matter and mind, there is only matter. This is the doctrine of materialism, which came to dominate scientific thinking in the second half of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, despite their nominal materialism, most scientists remained dualists, and continued to use dualistic metaphors.

The little man, or homunculus, inside the brain remained a common way of thinking about the relation of body and mind, but the metaphor moved with the times and adapted to new technologies. In the mid-twentieth century the homunculus was usually a telephone operator in the telephone exchange of the brain, and he saw projected images of the external world as if he were in a cinema, as in a book published in 1949 called The Secret of Life: The Human Machine and How It Works.21 In an exhibit in 2010 at the Natural History Museum in London called ‘How You Control Your Actions’, you looked through a Perspex window in the forehead of a model man. Inside was a cockpit with banks of dials and controls, and two empty seats, presumably for you, the pilot, and your co-pilot in the other hemisphere. The ghosts in the machine were implicit rather than explicit, but obviously this was no explanation at all because the little men inside brains would themselves have to have little men inside their brains, and so on in an infinite regress.

If thinking of little men and women inside brains seems too naïve, then the brain itself is personified. Many popular articles and books on the nature of the mind say ‘the brain perceives’, or ‘the brain decides’, while at the same time arguing that the brain is just a machine, like a computer.22 For example, the atheist philosopher Anthony Grayling thinks that ‘brains secrete religious and superstitious belief’ because they are ‘hardwired’ to do so:

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As a ‘belief engine’, the brain is always seeking to find meaning in the information that pours into it. Once it has constructed a belief, it rationalises it with explanations, almost always after the event. The brain thus becomes invested in the beliefs, and reinforces them by looking for supporting evidence while blinding itself to anything contrary.23

This sounds more like a description of a mind than a brain. Apart from begging the question of the relation of the mind to the brain, Grayling also begs the question of how his own brain escaped from this ‘hardwired’ tendency to blind itself to anything contrary to its beliefs. In practice, the mechanistic theory is only plausible because it smuggles non-mechanistic minds into human brains. Is a scientist operating mechanistically when he propounds a theory of materialism? Not in his own eyes. There is always a hidden reservation in his arguments: he is an exception to mechanistic determinism. He believes he is putting forward views that are true, not just doing what his brain makes him do.24

It seems impossible to be a consistent materialist. Materialism depends on a lingering dualism, more or less thinly disguised. In the realm of biology this dualism takes the form of personifying molecules, as I discuss below.

The God of mechanical nature

Although the machine theory of nature is now used to support materialism, for the founding fathers of modern science it supported the Christian religion, rather than subverted it.

Machines only make sense if they have designers. Robert Boyle, for example, saw the mechanical order of nature as evidence for God’s design.25 And Isaac Newton conceived of God in his own image as ‘very well skilled in mechanics and geometry’.26

The better the world-machine functioned, the less necessary was God’s ongoing activity. By the end of the eighteenth century, the celestial machinery was thought to work perfectly without any need for divine intervention. For many scientifically minded intellectuals, Christianity gave way to deism. A Supreme Being designed the world-machine, created it, set it in motion and left it to run automatically. This kind of God did not intervene in the world and there was no point in praying to him. In fact there was no point in any religious practice. Several Enlightenment philosophers, like Voltaire, combined deism with a rejection of the Christian religion.

Some defenders of Christianity agreed with the deists in accepting the assumptions of mechanistic science. The most famous proponent of mechanistic theology was William Paley, an Anglican priest. In his book Natural Theology, published in 1802, he argued that if someone were to find an object like a watch, he would be bound to conclude on examining it and observing its intricate design and precision that ‘there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use’.27 So it was with ‘the works of nature’ such as the eye. God was the designer.

In Britain in the nineteenth century, Anglican clergymen, most of whom emphasised the same points as Paley, wrote many popular books on natural history. For example, the Reverend Francis Morris wrote a popular, lavishly illustrated History of British Butterflies (1853), which served both as a field guide and a reminder of the beauty of nature. Morris believed that God had implanted in every human mind ‘an instinctive general love of nature’ through which young and old alike could enjoy the ‘beautiful sights in which the benign Creator displays such infinite wisdom of Almighty skill’.28

This was the kind of natural theology that Darwin rejected in his theory of evolution by natural selection. By doing so, he undermined the machine theory of life itself, as I discuss below. But the controversy he stirred up is still with us, and its latest incarnation is Intelligent Design. Proponents of Intelligent Design point out the difficulty, if not impossibility, of explaining complex structures like the vertebrate eye or the bacterial flagellum in terms of a series of random genetic mutations and natural selection. They suggest that complex structures and organs show a creative integration of many different components because they were intelligently designed. They leave open the question of the designer,29 but the obvious answer is God.

The problem with the design argument is that the metaphor of a designer presupposes an external mind. Humans design machines, buildings and works of art. In a similar way the God of mechanistic theology, or the Intelligent Designer, is supposed to have designed the details of living organisms.

Yet we are not forced to choose between chance and an external intelligence. There is another possibility. Living organisms may have an internal creativity, as we do ourselves. When we have a new idea or find a new way of doing something, we do not design the idea first, and then put it into our own minds. New ideas just happen, and no one knows how or why. Humans have an inherent creativity; and all living organisms may also have an inherent creativity that is expressed in larger or smaller ways. Machines require external designers; organisms do not.

Ironically, the belief in the divine design of plants and animals is not a traditional part of Christianity. It stems from seventeenth-century science. It contradicts the biblical picture of the creation of life in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. Animals and plants were not portrayed as machines, but as self-reproducing organisms that arose from the earth and the seas, as in Genesis 1: 11: ‘And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit trees yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself.’ In Genesis 1: 24: ‘God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth after his kind.’ In theological language, these were acts of ‘mediate’ creation: God did not design or create these plants and animals directly. As an authoritative Roman Catholic Biblical Commentary expressed it, God created them indirectly ‘through the agency of the mother earth’.30

When nature came to life again

Followers of the Enlightenment put their faith in mechanistic science, reason and human progress. ‘Enlightened’ ideas or values still have a major influence on our educational, social and political systems today. But from around 1780 to 1830 in the Romantic movement there was a widespread reaction against the Enlightenment faith, expressed mainly in the arts and literature. Romantics emphasised emotions and aesthetics, as opposed to reason. They saw nature as alive, rather than mechanical. The most explicit application of these ideas to science was by the German philosopher Friedrich von Schelling, whose book Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797) portrayed nature as a dynamic interplay of opposed forces and polarities through which matter is ‘brought to life’.31

A central feature of Romanticism was the rejection of mechanical metaphors and their replacement with imagery of nature as alive, organic, and in a process of gestation or development.32 The first evolutionary theories arose in this context.

Some scientists, poets and philosophers linked their philosophy of living nature to a God who imbued Nature with life and left her to develop spontaneously, more like the God of Genesis than the designer God of mechanistic theology. Others proclaimed themselves atheists, like the English poet Percy Shelley (1792–1822), but they had no doubt about a living power in nature, which Shelley called the Soul of the universe, or the all-sufficing Power, or the Spirit of Nature. He was also a pioneering campaigner for vegetarianism because he valued animals as sentient beings.33

  Worldview God Nature
  Traditiomal Christian Interactive Living organism  
  Early mechanistic Interactive Machine
  Enlightenment deism   Creator only   Machine
  Romantic deism Creator only Living organism
  Romantic atheism No God Living organism
  Materialism No God Machine

These different worldviews can be summarised as shown at right:

The Romantic movement created an enduring split in Western culture. Among educated people, in the world of work, business and politics, nature is mechanistic, an inanimate source of natural resources, exploitable for economic development. Modern economies are built on these foundations. On the other hand, children are often brought up in an animistic atmosphere of fairy tales, talking animals and magical transformations. The living world is celebrated in poems and songs and in works of art. Nature is most strongly identified with the countryside, as opposed to cities, and especially by unspoilt wilderness. Many urban people dream of moving to the country, or having a weekend home in rural surroundings. On Friday evenings, cities of the Western world are clogged with traffic as millions of people try to get back to nature in a car.

Our private relationship with nature presupposes that nature is alive. For a mechanistic scientist, or technocrat, or economist, or developer, nature is neuter and inanimate. It needs developing as part of human progress. But often the very same people have different attitudes in private. In Western Europe and North America, many people get rich by exploiting nature so that they can buy a place in the countryside to ‘get away from it all’.

This division between public rationalism and private romanticism has been part of the Western way of life for generations, but is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Our economic activities are not separate from nature, but affect the entire planet. Our private and public lives are increasingly intertwined. This new consciousness is expressed through a revived public awareness of Gaia, Mother Earth. But goddesses were not far below the surface of scientific thought even in its most materialist forms.

The goddesses of evolution

One of the pioneers of evolutionary theory was Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who wanted to increase the importance of nature and reduce the role of God.34 The spontaneous evolution of plants and animals struck at the root of natural theology and the doctrine of God as designer. If new forms of life were brought forth by Nature herself, there was no need for God to design them. Erasmus Darwin suggested that God endued life or nature with an inherent creative capacity in the first place that was thereafter expressed without the need for divine guidance or intervention. In his book Zoönomia (1794), he asked rhetorically:

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Would it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which the great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions and associations, and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down these improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!35

For Erasmus Darwin, living beings were self-improving, and the results of the efforts of parents were inherited by their offspring. Likewise, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck in his Zoological Philosophy (1809) suggested that animals developed new habits in response to their environment, and their adaptations were passed on to their descendants. The giraffe, inhabiting arid regions of Africa,

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is obliged to browse on the leaves of trees and make constant efforts to reach them. From this habit long maintained in all its race, it has resulted that the animal’s fore-legs have become longer than its hind legs, and its neck is lengthened to such a degree that the giraffe attains a height of six metres.36

In addition, a power inherent in life produced increasingly complex organisms, moving them up a ladder of progress. Lamarck attributed the origin of the power of life to ‘the Supreme Author’, who created ‘an order of things which gave existence successively to all that we see’.37 Like Erasmus Darwin, he was a romantic deist. So was Robert Chambers, who popularised the idea of progressive evolution in his best-selling Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844. He argued that everything in nature is progressing to a higher state as a result of a God-given ‘law of creation’.38 His work was controversial both from a religious and scientific point of view but, like Lamarck’s theory, it was attractive to atheists because it removed the need for a divine designer.

But Chambers, Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin not only undermined mechanistic theology, they also, perhaps unwittingly, undermined the mechanistic theory of life. No inanimate machinery contained within it a power of life, capacity for self-improvement or creativity. Their theories of progressive evolution demystified the creativity of God by mystifying evolution.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s theory of evolution by natural selection (1858) attempted to demystify evolution. Natural selection was blind and impersonal, and required no divine agency. It weeded out organisms that were not fit to survive, and favoured those that were better adapted. The subtitle of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. The source of creativity was within animals and plants themselves: they varied spontaneously and adapted to new circumstances.

Darwin gave no explanation for this creative power. In effect, he rejected the designing God of mechanistic theology, and attributed all creativity to Nature, just as his grandfather had done. For Darwin, Nature herself gave rise to the Tree of Life. Through her prodigious fertility, her spontaneous variability and her powers of selection, she could do everything that Paley thought God did. But Nature was not an inanimate, mechanical system like the clockwork of celestial physics. She was Nature with a capital N. Darwin even apologised for his language: ‘For brevity’s sake I sometimes speak of natural selection as an intelligent power … I have, also, often personified the word Nature; for I have found it difficult to avoid this ambiguity.’39

Darwin advised his readers to ignore the implications of his turns of phrase. If, instead, we pay attention to their implications, Nature is the Mother from whose womb all life comes forth, and to whom all life returns. She is prodigiously fertile, but she is also cruel and terrible, the devourer of her own offspring. She is creative, but she is also destructive, like the Indian goddess Kali. For Darwin, natural selection was ‘a power incessantly ready for action’,40 and natural selection worked by killing. The phrase ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ was the poet Tennyson’s rather than Darwin’s, but sounds very like Kali, or the destructive Greek goddess Nemesis, or the vengeful Furies.

Charles Darwin, like his grandfather Erasmus and Lamarck, believed in the inheritance of habits. His books give many examples of offspring inheriting the adaptations of their parents.41 The neo-Darwinian theory of evolution, which developed from the 1940s onwards, differed from Charles Darwin’s theory in that it rejected the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Instead, organisms inherited genes from their parents, passing them on unaltered to their offspring, unless there were mutations, that is to say, random changes in the genes. The molecular biologist Jacques Monod summarised this theory in the title of his book, Chance and Necessity (1972).

These seemingly abstract principles are the hidden goddesses of neo-Darwinism. Chance is the goddess Fortuna, or Lady Luck. The turnings of her wheel confer both prosperity and misfortune. Fortuna is blind, and was often portrayed in classical statues with a veil or blindfold. In Monod’s words, ‘pure chance, absolutely free but blind, [is] at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution’.42

Shelley called Necessity the ‘All-sufficing Power’ and the ‘Mother of the world’. She is also Fate or Destiny, who appears in classical European mythology as the Three Fates, who spin, allot and cut the thread of life, dispensing to mortals their destiny at birth. In neo-Darwinism, the thread of life is literal: helical DNA molecules in thread-like chromosomes dispense to mortals their destiny at birth.

Mat Cniol DNA merialism is like an unconscious cult of the Great Mother. The word ‘matter’ itself comes from the same root as ‘mother’; in Latin the equivalent words are materia and mater.43 The Mother archetype takes many forms, as in Mother Nature, or Ecology, or even the Economy, which feeds and sustains us, working like a lactating breast on the basis of supply and demand. (The Greek root ‘eco’ in both of these words means family or household.) Archetypes are more powerful when they are unconscious because they cannot be examined or discussed.

Life breaks out of mechanical metaphors

The theory of evolution destroyed the argument from mechanical design. A creator God could not have designed the machinery of animals and plants in the beginning if they evolved progressively through spontaneous variation and natural selection.

Living organisms, unlike machines, are themselves creative. Plants and animals vary spontaneously, respond to genetic changes and adapt to new challenges from the environment. Some vary more than others, and occasionally something really new appears. Creativity is inherent in living organisms, or works through them.

No machine starts from small beginnings, grows, forms new structures within itself and then reproduces itself. Yet plants and animals do this all the time. They can also regenerate after damage. To see them as machines propelled only by ordinary physics and chemistry is an act of faith; to insist that they are machines despite all appearances is dogmatic.

Within science itself, the machine theory of life was challenged continually throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by an alternative school of biology called vitalism. Vitalists thought that organisms were more than machines: they were truly vital or alive. Over and above the laws of physics and chemistry, organising principles shaped the forms of living organisms, gave them their purposive behaviour, and underlay the instincts and intelligence of animals. In 1844, the chemist Justus von Liebig made a typical statement of the vitalist position when he argued that although chemists could analyse and synthesise organic chemicals that occurred in living organisms, they would never be able to create an eye or a leaf. Besides the recognised physical forces, there was a further kind of cause that ‘combines the elements in new forms so that they gain new qualities – forms and qualities which do not appear except in the organism’.44

In many ways, vitalism was a survival of the older worldview that living organisms were organised by souls. Vitalism was also in harmony with a romantic vision of living nature. Some vitalists, like the German embryologist Hans Driesch (1867–1941), deliberately used the language of souls to emphasise this continuity of thought. Driesch believed that a non-material organising principle gave plants and animals their forms and their goals. He called this organising principle entelechy, adopting a word that Aristotle had used for the aspect of the soul that has its end within itself (en = in, telos = purpose). Embryos, Driesch argued, behave in a purposive way; if their development is disrupted, they can still reach the form towards which they are developing. He showed by experiment that when sea-urchin embryos were cut in two, each half could give rise to a small but complete sea urchin, not half a sea urchin. Their entelechy attracted the developing embryos – and even separated parts of embryos – towards the form of the adult.

Vitalism was and still is the ultimate heresy within mechanistic biology. The orthodox view was clearly expressed by the biologist T. H. Huxley in 1867:

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Zoological physiology is the doctrine of the functions or actions of animals. It regards animal bodies as machines impelled by various forces, and performing a certain amount of work which can be expressed in terms of the ordinary forces of nature. The final object of physiology is to deduce the facts of morphology on the one hand, and those of ecology on the other, from the laws of the molecular forces of matter.45

In these words, Huxley foreshadowed the spectacular development of molecular biology since the 1960s, the most powerful effort ever made to reduce the phenomena of life to physical and chemical mechanisms. Francis Crick, who shared in a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the structure of DNA, made this agenda very explicit in his book Of Molecules and Men (1966). He denounced vitalism and affirmed his belief that ‘the ultimate aim of the modern movement in biology is in fact to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry’.

The mechanistic approach is essentially reductionist: it tries to explain wholes in terms of their parts. That is why molecular biology has such a high status within the life sciences: molecules are some of the smallest components of living organisms, the point at which biology crosses over into chemistry. Hence molecular biology is at the leading edge of the attempt to explain the phenomena of life in terms of ‘the laws of the molecular forces of matter’. In so far as biologists succeed in reducing organisms to the molecular level, they will then hand the baton to chemists and physicists, who will reduce the properties of molecules to those of atoms and subatomic particles.

Until the nineteenth century, most scientists thought that atoms were the solid, permanent, ultimate basis of matter. But in the twentieth century it became clear that atoms are made up of parts, with nuclei at the centre and electrons in orbitals around them. The nuclei themselves are made up of protons and neutrons, which in turn are composed of components called quarks, with three quarks each. When nuclei are split up in particle accelerators, like the Large Hadron Collider, at CERN, near Geneva, a host of further particles appears. Hundreds have been identified so far, and some physicists expect that with even larger particle accelerators, yet more will be found.

The bottom has dropped out of the atom, and a zoo of evanescent particles seems unlikely to explain the shape of an orchid flower, or the leaping of a salmon, or the flight of a flock of starlings. Reductionism no longer offers a solid atomic basis for the explanation of everything else. In any case, however many subatomic particles there may be, organisms are wholes, and reducing them to their parts by killing them and analysing their chemical constituents simply destroys what makes them organisms.

I was forced to think about the limitations of reductionism when I was a student at Cambridge. As part of the final-year biochemistry course, my class did an experiment on enzymes in rat livers. First, we each took a living rat and ‘sacrificed’ it over the sink, decapitating it with a guillotine, then we cut it open and removed its liver. We ground up the liver in a blender and centrifuged it, to remove unwanted fractions of the cellular debris. Then we purified the aqueous fraction to isolate the enzymes we wanted, and we put them in test tubes. Finally we added chemicals and studied the speeds at which chemical reactions took place. We learned something about enzymes, but nothing about how rats live and behave. In a corridor of the Biochemistry Department the bigger problem was summed up on a wall chart showing the chemical details of Human Metabolic Pathways; across the top someone had written in big blue letters, ‘KNOW THYSELF’.

Attempts to explain organisms in terms of their chemical constituents are rather like trying to understand a computer by grinding it up and analysing its component elements, such as copper, germanium and silicon. Certainly it is possible to learn something about the computer in this way, namely what it is made of. But in this process of reduction, the structure and the programmed activity of the computer vanishes, and chemical analysis will never reveal the circuit diagrams; no amount of mathematical modelling of interactions between its atomic constituents will reveal the computer’s programs or the purposes they fulfilled.

Mechanists expel purposive vital factors from living animals and plants, but then they reinvent them in molecular guises. One form of molecular vitalism is to treat the genes as purposive entities with goals and powers that go far beyond those of a mere chemical like DNA. The genes become molecular entelechies. In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins…

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We are survival machines, but ‘we’ does not mean just people. It embraces all animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses … We are all survival machines for the same kind of replicator – molecules called DNA – but there are many different ways of making a living in the world, and the replicators have built a vast range of machines to exploit them. A monkey is a machine which preserves genes up trees; a fish a machine which preserves genes in the water.46

In Dawkins’ words, ‘DNA moves in mysterious ways.’ The DNA molecules are not only intelligent, they are also selfish, ruthless and competitive, like ‘successful Chicago gangsters’. The selfish genes ‘create form’, ‘mould matter’ and engage in ‘evolutionary arms races’; they even ‘aspire to immortality’. These genes are no longer mere molecules:

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Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationalefor our existence … Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.47

The persuasive power of Dawkins’ rhetoric depended on anthropocentric language and his cartoon-like imagery. He admits that his selfish-gene imagery is more like science fiction than science,48 but he justifies it as a ‘powerful and illuminating’ metaphor.49

The most popular use of a vitalistic metaphor in the name of mechanism is the ‘genetic program’. Genetic programs are explicitly analogous to computer programs, which are intelligently designed by human minds to achieve particular purposes. Programs are purposive, intelligent and goal-directed. They are more like entelechies than mechanisms. The ‘genetic program’ implies that plants and animals are organised by purposive principles that are mind-like, or designed by minds. This is another way of smuggling intelligent designs into chemical genes.

If challenged, most biologists will admit that genes merely specify the sequence of amino acids in proteins, or are involved in the control of protein synthesis. They are not really programs; they are not selfish, they do not mould matter, or shape form, or aspire to immortality. A gene is not ‘for’ a characteristic like a fish’s fin or the nest-building behaviour of a weaver bird. But molecular vitalism soon creeps back again. The mechanistic theory of life has degenerated into misleading metaphors and rhetoric.

To many people, especially gardeners and people who keep dogs, cats, horses or other animals, it is blindingly obvious that plants and animals are living organisms, not machines.

The philosophy of organism

Whereas the mechanistic and vitalist theories both date back to the seventeenth century, the philosophy of organism, also called the holistic or organismic approach, has been developing only since the 1920s. One of its proponents was the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947); another was Jan Smuts, a South African statesman and scholar, whose book Holism and Evolution (1926) focused attention on ‘the tendency of nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution’.50 He saw holism as

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the ultimate synthetic, ordering, organising, regulative activity in the universe, which accounts for all the structural groupings and syntheses in it, from the atom and the physico-chemical structures, through the cell and organisms, through Mind in animals to Personality in man. The all-pervading and ever-increasing character of synthetic unity or wholeness in these structures leads to the concept of Holism as the fundamental activity underlying and coordinating all others, and to the view of the universe as a Holistic Universe.51

The holistic or organismic philosophy agrees with the mechanistic theory in affirming the unity of nature: the life of biological organisms is different in degree but not in kind from physical systems like molecules and crystals. Organicism agrees with vitalism in stressing that organisms have their organising principles within themselves; organisms are unities that cannot be reduced to the physics and chemistry of simpler systems.

The philosophy of organism in effect treats all nature as alive; in this respect it is an updated version of pre-mechanistic animism. Even atoms, molecules and crystals are organisms. As Smuts put it, ‘Both matter and life consist, in the atom and the cell, of unit structures whose ordered grouping produces the natural wholes which we call bodies or organisms.’52 Atoms are not inert particles of stuff, as in old-style atomism. Rather, as revealed by twentieth-century physics, they are structures of activity, patterns of energetic vibration within fields. In Whitehead’s words, ‘Biology is the study of the larger organisms, whereas physics is the study of the smaller organisms.’53 In the light of modern cosmology, physics is also the study of very large organisms, like planets, solar systems, galaxies, and the entire universe.

Figure 1 1
Figure 1.1 A nested hierarchy of wholes or holons.

The philosophy of organism points out that everywhere we look in nature, at whatever level or scale, we find wholes that are made up of parts that are themselves wholes at a lower level. This pattern of organisation can be represented diagrammatically as in Figure 1.1. The smallest circles represent quarks, for example, within protons, within atomic nuclei, within atoms, within molecules, within crystals. Or the smallest circles represent organelles, in cells, in tissues, in organs, in organisms, in societies of organisms, in ecosystems. Or the smallest circles are planets, in solar systems, in galaxies, in galactic clusters. Languages also show the same kind of organisation, with phonemes in syllables, in words, in phrases, in sentences.

These organised systems are all nested hierarchies. At each level, the whole includes the parts; they are literally within it. And at each level the whole is more than the sum of the parts, with properties that cannot be predicted from the study of parts in isolation. For example, the structure and meaning of this sentence could not be worked out by a chemical analysis of the paper and the ink, or deduced from the quantities of letters that make it up (five as, one b, five cs, two ds, etc.). Knowing the numbers of constituent parts is not enough: the structure of the whole depends on the way they are combined together in words, and on the relationships between the words.

Arthur Koestler proposed the term holon for wholes made up of parts that are themselves wholes:

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Every holon has a dual tendency to preserve and assert its individuality as a quasi-autonomous whole; and to function as an integrated part of an (existing or evolving) larger whole. This polarity between the Self-assertive and Integrative tendencies is inherent in the concept of hierarchic order.54

For such nested hierarchies of holons, Koestler proposed the term holarchy.

Another way of thinking about wholes is through ‘systems theory’, which speaks of ‘a configuration of parts joined together by a web of relationships’.55 Such wholes are also called ‘complex systems’, and are the subject of a number of mathematical models, variously called ‘complex systems theory’, ‘complexity theory’ or ‘complexity science’.56

For a chemical example, think of benzene, a molecule with six carbon and six hydrogen atoms. Each of these atoms is a holon consisting of a nucleus with electrons around it. In the benzene molecule, the six carbon atoms are joined together in a six-sided ring, and electrons are shared between the atoms to create a vibrating cloud of electrons around the entire molecule. The patterns of vibration of the molecule affect the atoms within it, and since the electrons are electrically charged, the atoms are in a vibrating electromagnetic field. Benzene is a liquid at room temperature, but below 5.50C it crystallises, and as it does so, the molecules stack themselves together in a regular three-dimensional pattern, called the lattice structure. This crystal lattice also vibrates in harmonic patterns,57 creating vibrating electromagnetic fields, which affect the molecules within them. There is a nested hierarchy of levels of organisation, interacting through a nested hierarchy of vibrating fields.

In the course of evolution, new holons arise that did not exist before: for example, the first amino acid molecules, the first living cells, or the first flowers, or the first termite colonies. Since holons are wholes, they must arise by sudden jumps. New levels of organisation ‘emerge’ and their ‘emergent properties’ go beyond those of the parts that were there before. The same is true of new ideas, or new works of art.

The cosmos as a developing organism

The philosopher David Hume (1711–76) is perhaps best known today for his scepticism about religion. Yet he was equally sceptical about the mechanistic philosophy of nature. There was nothing in the universe to prove that it was more like a machine than an organism; the organisation we see in nature was more analogous to plants and animals than to machines. Hume was against the idea of a machine-designing God, and suggested instead that the world could have originated from something like a seed or an egg. In Hume’s words, published posthumously in 1779,

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There are other parts of the universe (besides the machines of human invention) which bear still a greater resemblance to the fabric of the world, and which, therefore, afford a better conjecture concerning the universal origin of the system. These parts are animals and plants. The world plainly resembles more an animal or a vegetable, than it does a watch or a knitting-loom … And does not a plant or an animal, which springs from vegetation or generation, bear a stronger resemblance to the world, than does any artificial machine, which arises from reason and design?58

Hume’s argument was surprisingly prescient in the light of modern cosmology. Until the 1960s, most scientists still thought of the universe as a machine, and moreover as a machine that was running out of steam, heading for its final heat death. According to the second law of thermodynamics, promulgated in 1855, the universe would gradually lose the capacity to do work. It would eventually freeze in ‘a state of universal rest and death’, as William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, put it.59

It was not until 1927 that Georges Lemaître, a cosmologist and Roman Catholic priest, advanced a scientific hypothesis like Hume’s idea of the origin of the universe in an egg or seed. Lemaître suggested that the universe began with a ‘creation-like event’, which he described as ‘the cosmic egg exploding at the moment of creation’.60 Later called the Big Bang, this new cosmology echoed many archaic stories of origins, like the Orphic creation myth of the Cosmic Egg in ancient Greece, or the Indian myth of Hiranyagarbha, the primal Golden Egg.61 Significantly, in all these myths the egg is both a primal unity and a primal polarity, since an egg is a unity composed of two parts, the yolk and the white, an apt symbol of the emergence of ‘many’ from ‘one’.

Lemaître’s theory predicted the expansion of the universe, and was supported by the discovery that galaxies outside our own are moving away from us with a speed proportional to their distance. In 1964, the discovery of a faint background glow everywhere in the universe, the cosmic microwave background radiation, revealed what seemed to be fossil light left over from the early universe, soon after the Big Bang. The evidence for an initial ‘creation-like event’ became overwhelming, and by 1966 the Big Bang theory became orthodox.

Cosmology now tells a story of a universe that began extremely small, less than the size of a pinhead, and very hot. It has been expanding ever since. As it grows, it cools down, and as it cools, new forms and structures appear within it: atomic nuclei and electrons, stars, galaxies, planets, molecules, crystals and biological life.

The machine metaphor has long outlived its usefulness, and holds back scientific thinking in physics, biology and medicine. Our growing, evolving universe is much more like an organism, and so is the earth, and so are oak trees, and so are dogs, and so are you.

What difference does it make?

Can you really think of yourself as a genetically programmed machine in a mechanical universe? Probably not. Probably even the most committed materialists cannot either. Most of us feel we are truly alive in a living world – at least at weekends. But through loyalty to the mechanistic worldview, mechanistic thinking takes over during working hours.

In recognising the life of nature, we can allow ourselves to recognise what we already know, that animals and plants are living organisms, with their own purposes and goals. Anyone who gardens or keeps pets knows this, and recognises that they have their own ways of responding creatively to their circumstances. But instead of dismissing our own observations and insights to conform to mechanistic dogma, we can pay attention to them and try to learn from them.

In relation to the living earth, we can see that the Gaia theory is not just an isolated poetic metaphor in an otherwise mechanical universe. The recognition of the earth as a living organism is a major step towards recognising the wider life of the cosmos. If the earth is a living organism, what about the sun and the solar system as a whole? If the solar system is a kind of organism, what about the galaxy? Cosmology already portrays the entire universe as a kind of growing super-organism, born through the hatching of the cosmic egg.

These differences in viewpoint do not immediately suggest a new range of technological products, and in that sense they may not be economically useful. But they make a big difference in healing the split created by the mechanistic theory – a split between our personal experiences of nature and the mechanical explanations that science gives us. And they help heal the split between the sciences and all traditional and indigenous cultures, none of which sees humans and animals as machines in a mechanical world.

Finally, dispelling the belief that the universe is an inanimate machine opens up many new questions, discussed in the following chapters.

Questions for materialists

Is the mechanistic worldview a testable scientific theory, or a metaphor?

If it is a metaphor, why is the machine metaphor better in every respect than the organism metaphor? If it is a scientific theory, how could it be tested or refuted?

Do you think that you yourself are nothing but a complex machine?

Have you been programmed to believe in materialism?


The mechanistic theory is based on the metaphor of the machine. But it’s only a metaphor. Living organisms provide better metaphors for organised systems at all levels of complexity, including molecules, plants and societies of animals, all of which are organised in a series of inclusive levels, in which the whole at each level is more than the sum of the parts, which are themselves wholes at a lower level. Even the most ardent defenders of the mechanistic theory smuggle purposive organising principles into living organisms in the form of selfish genes or genetic programs. In the light of the Big Bang theory, the entire universe is more like a growing, developing organism than a machine slowly running out of steam.

Chapter 2 ♦ Is the Total Amount of Matter and Energy Always the Same?

Every science student learns that the total amount of matter and energy is always the same. Matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed. The law of conservation of matter and energy is simple and reassuring: it guarantees fundamental permanence in an ever-changing world.

This law usually goes unquestioned. But it faces unprecedented challenges. As I discuss in this chapter, most physicists now believe that the universe contains large amounts of ‘dark matter’, whose nature and properties are literally obscure. Dark matter is currently thought to make up about 23 per cent of the mass and energy of the universe, whereas normal matter and energy make up only about four per cent. Worse still, most contemporary cosmologists think that the continuing expansion of the universe is driven by ‘dark energy by ƀ, whose nature is again obscure. According to the Standard Model of cosmology, dark energy currently accounts for about 73 per cent of the matter and energy of the universe.

How do dark matter and energy relate to regular matter and energy? And what is the zero-point energy field, also known as the quantum vacuum? Can any of this zero-point energy be tapped?

The law of conservation of matter and energy was formulated before these questions arose, and has no ready answer for them. It is based on philosophical and theological theories. Historically, it is rooted in the atomistic school of philosophy in ancient Greece. From the outset it was an assumption. In its modern form, it combines a series of ‘laws’ that have developed since the seventeenth century – the laws of conservation of matter, mass, motion, force and energy. In this chapter I look at the history of these ideas, and show how modern physics throws up questions that the old theories cannot answer. As faith in conservation comes into question, astonishing new possibilities open up in realms ranging from the generation of energy to human nutrition.

Matter, force and energy

Classical Newtonian physics was based on a fundamental distinction between matter and force. Matter was passive. Forces acted on matter causing changes. Material bodies either continued to exist in the same place for ever, or continued to move in a straight line perpetually, until they were acted on by forces that caused them to accelerate, or change direction or decelerate. Force was the active principle that caused change. Indeed, force or energy was causation. And because the cause must equal the effect, the total amount of force or energy must remain the same for logical reasons.

As the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) made explicit, matter was inert and could only be experienced through its effects, and force was the cause of all these effects. In contrast with matter or bodies, forces and energies are not things: they are to do with processes in time. They are elusive. They breathe life, we might say poetically, into material nature and underlie all changes.

I begin with the history of the belief in the conservation of matter, which arose more than 2,500 years ago.

Eternal atoms

In ancient Greece, philosophers were preoccupied with the idea that behind the chang Kind heighting world of experience there was a changeless eternal reality, or an original unity. This conviction probably originated in mystical experiences, which appeared to reveal the existence of an ultimate reality or truth beyond space and time. The philosopher Parmenides tried to form an intellectual conception of an ultimate changeless being, and concluded that that being must be a changeless, undifferentiated sphere. There could be only one changeless thing, not many different things that change. But the world we experience contains many different things that change. Parmenides could only regard this as the result of illusion.

This conclusion was unacceptable to philosophers who came after him, for obvious reasons. They looked for more plausible theories of Absolute Being. Philosophers in the tradition of Pythagoras (c. 570–c. 495 bc) believed that eternal reality was made up of changeless mathematical truths. Plato and his followers thought in terms of transcendent Ideas or Forms beyond space and time. The atomist philosophers found another answer: Absolute Being is not a vast, undifferentiated, changeless sphere, but rather consists of many tiny, undifferentiated, changeless things – material atoms moving in the void. Thus the permanent atoms were the changeless basis of the changing phenomena of the world: matter was Absolute Being.1 This philosophy of atomism or materialism, first propounded in the fifth century before Christ by Leucippus and Democritus,2 was based on impressive feats of logical deduction. No one could see atoms or provide evidence for their existence, but it was a remarkably fruitful idea, and still exerts an enormous influence. Implicitly, the total amount of matter was always the same because the atoms were indestructible, by definition.

The atomists proposed that the movements and combinations of the atoms were governed by natural laws. There was no need for gods; neither were there any divine purposes in the universe. The human soul itself depended on combinations of atoms, and was extinguished at death; the atoms themselves continued for ever, entering into new permutations and combinations.

The main appeal of the atomist or materialist philosophy in pre-Christian Greece and Rome was its scepticism about the pantheon of gods and goddesses. Epicurus (341–270 bc), one of the most influential atomist philosophers, preached that materialism could liberate human beings from the fear of fickle gods and of divine retribution after death. He advocated a moderate for K mooulm of hedonism, freed from these fears, teaching that happiness could best be achieved through simple pleasures and the company of friends.3

The Roman philosopher Lucretius (99–55 bc) popularised the Epicurean philosophy in his poem De Rerum Natura, ‘On the Nature of Things’. He began by portraying Epicurus as the hero who crushed the monster of superstition and religion. He then explained everything mechanistically in terms of the purposeless motions and interactions of eternal atoms.

Atomistic materialism re-entered European thought from the late sixteenth century onwards largely through Lucretius’s poem. It appealed to the founders of mechanistic science because it was mechanistic, not because it was anti-religious. The leading populariser of atomism was a French Roman Catholic priest, Pierre Gassendi (1592–1655), who tried to make the atomist doctrine compatible with Christianity. The founding fathers of mechanistic science followed his example by accepting God, the divine creation of the universe and the immortality of the soul as well as atoms of matter.

In effect, the seventeenth-century mechanistic theory of nature combined two Greek philosophies of eternity to produce a cosmic dualism: nature was made up of changeless atoms of matter in motion governed by immutable mathematical laws of nature that transcend space and time. But whereas for pre-Christian Greeks, like Democritus and Epicurus, atoms could be thought of as eternal, for the Christian founders of mechanistic science, they had to have been made by God in the first place.

Robert Boyle preferred to use the word ‘corpuscle’ because he wanted to avoid the atheistic implications of atomism and materialism. Boyle thought that in the creation of the universe God divided matter into a large number of small particles of different sizes and shapes, and isolated them from each other by setting them in motion in different ways.4 After God had created them, the atoms just stayed the same. Isaac Newton agreed, and summarised his own views as follows:

quote big

It seems probable to me, that God in the beginning formed matter in solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable particles … and that these primitive particles being solids, are incomparably harder than any porous bodies compounded of them; even so very hard as to never wear or break in pieces; no ordinary power being able to divide what God himself made one in the first creation.5

In the late eighteenth century, atoms took on a more definite identity as the atoms of chemical elements. The pioneer of chemistry, Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94), took the law of conservation of mass or matter to mean that the total mass of all the products of a chemical reaction equalled the total mass of all the reactants. He defined an element as a basic substance that could not be further broken down by chemical methods, and was the first to recognise and name oxygen and hydrogen. Unfortunately Lavoisier was a tax collector as well as a chemist, and was guillotined at the height of the French Revolution. Soon afterwards, John Dalton (1766–1844) discovered that elements combine together in ratios of whole numbers, and he suggested that they involved combinations of chemical atoms, such as CO2 and H2O. The subsequent growth and enormous success of chemistry made atomism into an extremely fruitful theory.

The dissolution of solid matter

The more that atoms were investigated, the more apparent it became that they were not ultimate units of matter, made up of ‘solid, massy, hard, impenetrable’ particles, as Newton had imagined. Instead, they were structures of activity. From the 1920s onwards, quantum theory portrayed the constituent parts of atoms – electrons, nuclei and nuclear particles – as vibratory patterns of activity within fields. Like photons of light, they behave both as waves and as particles. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper expressed it, through modern physics, ‘materialism transcended itself’:6

quote big

Matter turns out to be highly packed energy, transformable into other forms of energy; and therefore something in the nature of a process, since it can be converted into other processes, such as light and, of course, motion and heat. Thus one may say that the results of modern physics suggest that we should give up the idea of a substance or essence. They suggest that there is no self-identical entity persisting during all changes in time … The universe now appears to be not a collection of things, but an interacting set of events or processes (as stressed especially by A. N. Whitehead).7

Meanwhile, according to the theory of quantum electrodynamics, brilliantly expounded by the physicist Richard Feynman, virtual particles, such as electrons, and photons, appear and disappear from the quantum vacuum field, also known as the zero-point field, that pervades the universe. Feynman called this theory the ‘jewel of physics’ because of its extremely accurate predictions, correct to many decimal places.

The price that is paid for this accuracy is the acceptance of invisible, unobservable particles and interactions, and of the mysterious quantum vacuum field. According to quantum electrodynamics, all electrical and magnetic forces are mediated by virtual photons that appear from the quantum vacuum field and then disappear into it again. When you look at a compass to find out where north is, the compass needle interacts with the earth’s magnetic field through virtual photons. When you switch on a fan, its electric motor makes it go round because it is suddenly filled with virtual photons that exert forces. When you sit down, the chair supports your bottom because the chair and your bottom repel each other through a dense creation and destruction of virtual photons between them. When you get up, much of this activity in the vacuum field stops, and now great clouds of virtual photons appear between your feet and the floor, wherever you put your feet. All the molecules within your body, all your cell membranes, all your nerve impulses depend on virtual photons appearing and disappearing within the all-pervading vacuum field of nature. As the physicist Paul Davies put it, ‘A vacuum is not inert and featureless, but alive with throbbing energy and vitality.’8

We have come a long way from a simple belief in atoms of matter as tiny solid objects that persist unchanged through time. According to current theories, matter itself is an energetic process, and mass depends on interactions with fields that pervade the vacuum.

Even mass, the quantitative measure of matter, turns out to be deeply mysterious. According to the Standard Model of particle physics, the mass of a particle like an electron or a proton is not inherent in the particle itself but depends on its interaction with a field called a Higgs field, named after one of the theoretical physicists who proposed it in 1964, Peter Higgs. Physicists think of this field as being like a universal pool of treacle that ‘sticks’ to otherwise massless particles travelling through it, conferring mass upon them.9 Thus the mass of an electron, for example, arises through its interaction with the Higgs field, and this interaction depends on special Higgs particles, called Higgs bosons, which are hypothetical. There is no agreed prediction about their mass, and no Higgs boson has so far been detected, despite the expenditure of billions of euros to look for them in a gigantic particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, near Geneva. Writers of popular science often refer to the Higgs boson as ‘the God particle’. These elusive particles and fields have taken physics a long way from the Newtonian conception of matter as made up of ‘solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, movable particles’.

The conservation of energy

What we now know as the law of conservation of energy did not emerge until the 1850s; indeed, the word ‘energy’ itself, though it came from a Greek root, was not in general use among scientists until the mid-nineteenth century. But right from the beginning of mechanistic science, there was a precursor of this law in the idea of conservation of motion or force. Like the conservation of matter, the conservation of motion or force was based on philosophical and theological arguments rather than on experimental observations.

For Descartes the original source of all matter and motion was God, and because God and his creation were immutable, the total quantity of matter and motion could not change. Individual particles could acquire or lose motion by colliding with other particles, but the total amount of motion was unaffected.10 In the early nineteenth century, James Joule, who established the mechanical equivalent of heat, likewise made God the guarantor: ‘[T]he grand agents of nature are, by the Creator’s fiat, indestructible; … wherever mechanical force is expended, an exact equivalent of heat is always obtained.’11 Michael Faraday was also convinced that God’s powers could not be created or destroyed without some compensatory balance. He wrote, ‘The highest law in physical science which our faculties permit us to perceive [is] the Conservation of Force.’12

In the first half of the nineteenth century, several different investigators arrived more or less independently at this conservation principle,13 which became one of the great unifying principles of physics, combining ideas about kinetic energy, potential energy, heat, mechanical energy, chemical energy, light, electromagnetic energy and the energy of living organisms.14 The forms of energy could change, but the total amount remained the same. The principle of conservation of energy was embodied in the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy can be transformed from one form to another but cannot be created or destroyed.

As William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, saw it, energy’s fundamental status derived from its immutability and convertibility, and also from its unifying role in linking all physical phenomena in a web of energy transformations. He gave energy a theological sanction, and declared in 1852 that energy cannot be destroyed but only transformed ‘as it is most certain that Creative Power alone can either call into existence or annihilate mechanical energy’.15

The ideas of conservation of matter and energy played an essential role in the development of the equations of physics. By definition, an equation demands that the total quantity of matter and energy before a change is equal to the total amount afterwards. In the 1960s, Richard Feynman expressed it as follows:

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There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law; it is exact, so far as we know. The law is called the conservation of energy; it states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy, that does not change in manifold changes which nature undergoes. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle; it says that there is a numerical quantity, which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number, and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same.16

The principles of conservation of matter and energy were brought together by Albert Einstein in his famous equation E=mc2, which shows the equivalence between mass (m), energy (E) and the velocity of light (c). For example, the amount of energy released as radiation in the explosion of an atomic bomb equals the amount of mass lost by the bomb, times the square of the velocity of light. However, the mass is not destroyed by being converted to radiant energy: the energy released by the bomb still has mass, and this mass is transferred to bodies that absorb the radiation. If the bomb loses one gram, and all its radiation is absorbed by other bodies, they collectively gain one gram. In effect, Einstein’s equation meant that the conservation of matter became an aspect of the conservation of energy.

The equations of physics imply that satisfyingly precise relationships underlie all the transformations of nature. The conservation of matter and energy seems like a mathematical truth, even though matter is no longer solid, and mass depends on undetected Higgs particles. But the idea that the total amount of matter and energy is the same forever runs into big problems in cosmology.

The appearance of matter from nowhere

The Big Bang theory, originally called the theory of the primeval atom, was first proposed in 1927 by Father Georges Lemaître. This theory became orthodox in the late 1960s.

The Big Bang theory means that all equations were violated in the primal singularity of the Big Bang. There was no conservation of matter and energy if the universe arose from nothing. As Terence McKenna expressed it, ‘What orthodoxy teaches about time is that the universe sprang from utter nothingness in a single moment … It’s almost as if science said, “Give me one free miracle, and from there the entire thing will proceed with a seamless, causal explanation.”’17 The one free miracle was the sudden appearance of all the matter and energy in the universe, with all the laws that govern it.

The creation of all matter and energy in the Beginning is presupposed by the Big Bang creation story, just as it was by René Descartes, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and other scientists who wanted to make physics compatible with an initial act of creation by God. Indeed in 1951, more than fifteen years before physicists generally accepted the Big Bang theory, Pope Pius XII welcomed it in an address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

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Thus everything seems to indicate that the material universe had a mighty beginning in time, endowed as it was with vast reserves of energy, in virtue of which at first rapidly, and then ever more slowly, it evolved into its present state … In fact, it would seem that present-day science, with one sweeping step back across millions of centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to that primordial Fiat lux uttered at the moment when, along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation.18

The Big Bang theory was initially controversial because some astronomers were suspicious of its theological implications; indeed, some opposed it precisely because the Pope approved of it. One British physicist suggested that the Big Bang theory was part of a conspiracy to shore up Christianity: ‘The underlying motive is, of course, to bring in God as creator. It seems like the opportunity Christian theology has been waiting for ever since science began to depose religion from the minds of rational men in the seventeenth century.’19 The astronomer Fred Hoyle condemned the Big Bang theory as a model built on Judaeo-Christian foundations,20 and proposed an alternative. He argued that there was a process of continuous creation through which new matter and energy appeared with Kappd an alin the universe as it expanded. The universe was eternal and infinite, and as the galaxies moved apart, new galaxies were created in the gaps between them. The universe was expanding yet remained in a steady state because of continuous creation, which took place as a result of the activity of a hypothetical C- field, or creation field, which both drove the steady expansion of the cosmos and generated new matter.

The original version of the steady state theory had to be abandoned because it predicted that new galaxies would be formed within the gaps between old ones, and hence young galaxies should be scattered all over the universe. By contrast, the Big Bang theory predicted that young galaxies would be formed relatively early in the history of the universe, and would therefore be found only far away, billions of light years in the past. In the early 1960s, evidence gathered by the British radio astronomer Martin Ryle showed that young galaxies were indeed distant, favouring the Big Bang theory. One of the theory’s proponents, George Gamow, wrote a poem to celebrate:

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‘Your years of toil’
Said Ryle to Hoyle
‘Are wasted years, believe me,
The Steady State
Is out of date
Unless my eyes deceive me.’21

Another discovery by a radio astronomer in 1963 seemed to provide further evidence for the Big Bang. Maartin Schmidt, a Dutch astronomer, was studying an extremely energetic radio source that he thought at first was a star in our own galaxy. But it turned out to have a high redshift: the radiation from it was much redder than would be expected if it were nearby. Objects far away have larger redshifts or, in other words, longer wavelengths of light than nearby objects because of the expansion of the universe. Redshifts are produced by the Doppler effect: waves are stretched when their source is moving away, just as the sound waves from a siren get longer when a police car moves past; the tone drops. The further away galaxies are, the faster they are receding, and the redder they look. The high redshift of Schmidt’s radio source suggested that this object was receding from us very fast. In fact it had the highest redshift ever detected, suggesting that it was over a billion light years away. This quasi-stellar radio object, or quasar, would therefore have to be an unprecedentedly brilliant galaxy, hundreds of times brighter than any yet known.

More quasars were soon discovered, and all of them had high redshifts and hence seemed very distant. If the universe were in a steady state, there should have been nearer quasars too, intense radio sources with small redshifts. But quasars seemed to lie in the most distant reaches of the universe.

The discovery in 1965 of the cosmic microwave background radiation, thought to be a kind of echo or afterglow of the Big Bang, seemed to settle the matter. Stephen Hawking described this discovery as ‘the final nail in the coffin of the steady-state theory’. The Big Bang theory became the new orthodoxy. In the simplistic style of history favoured by many scientists, the Big Bang theory was the victor; the steady state was vanquished.

Dark matter

In the 1930s, Fritz Zwicky, a Swiss astrophysicist, studied the movements of galaxies within galactic clusters and realised that the clusters could not be held together by normal gravitation. Galaxies were attracting each other too strongly. The force holding them together seemed to be hundreds of times greater than a gravitational pull by visible matter could explain.22

Zwicky’s results were ignored for decades, but were again taken seriously when it became apparent that the orbits of stars within galaxies could not be explained by the gravitational attraction of known kinds of matter. Too much force was acting upon the stars. Astronomers mapped the gravitational influences and found that apparent sources of gravitation did not correspond to the familiar disc-shaped structure of galaxies. Instead, there was a roughly spherical distribution of matter, which they called dark matter, stretching far beyond the fringes of the luminous galaxies, forming vast haloes extending into intergalactic space.23

Dark matter helps to explain the structures of galaxies and the relations between galaxies within clusters, but it does so at a heavy price: nobody knows what it is. Theories to explain it include vast numbers of unobserved black holes or other massive objects, or enormous quantities of undetected particles called WIMPS (weakly interacting massive particles).

A few physicists believe they can get rid of dark matter altogether by modifying the laws of gravitation instead.24 If they are right, then the total amount of matter recognised by physics will drop dramatically.

Dark energy

In the mid-1990s, the problems for cosmologists worsened. Detailed observations of distant supernovas – exploding stars in faraway galaxies – showed that the expansion of the universe was speeding up. Gravitation ought to be slowing it down. So something else must account for accelerating growth. Physicists were forced to conclude that there must be an antigravity force, called dark energy, which they thought of in terms of a negative pressure of empty space, or as an invisible field permeating the universe.

In 2010, only about four per cent of the universe was believed to be made up of familiar matter and energy such as atoms, stars, galaxies, gas clouds, planets and electromagnetic radiation.25 Far from providing a satisfyingly complete explanation of the universe, modern physics suggests that we understand less than one twentieth of it. Moreover, some of the dark matter may be convertible into regular forms of energy. In 2010, observations of the centre of our galaxy showed that more gamma rays were being emitted than could be accounted for by known sources, leading some physicists to suggest that dark matter was being annihilated, giving rise to regular kinds of energy.26

In the light of modern cosmology, how can anyone be sure that the total amount of matter and energy has always been the same? As we have just seen, the standard kinds of matter and energy to which the conservation laws are supposed to apply are only a small fraction of the total amount of matter and energy. Most of the universe is composed of hypothetical dark matter and dark energy whose relationship to each other and to known kinds of matter and energy is mysterious. But the story becomes even more complicated. The amount of dark energy may be increasing.

Perpetual motion and the second law of thermodynamics

From the very beginning of modern science, there has been a denial of perpetual-motion machines as a matter of principle. Galileo proclaimed such machines could not exist, and so did most of the other founders of physics.27 In the nineteenth century, Rudolf Clausius reformulated this prohibition in the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat cannot flow spontaneously from a lower temperature to a higher temperature. In other words, heat does not flow ‘uphill’ unless aided by the expenditure of energy.28

Thermodynamics arose through the study of steam engines and was primarily concerned with heat, as the name ‘thermodynamics’ tells us. But the second law was soon generalised to cover other forms of energy as well. In general terms, this law gives a picture of energy flowing ‘downhill’, from a higher to a lower temperature, just as water powering a waterwheel flows downhill. In a watermill, the total amount of water remains the same although its ability to power the wheel is lost as it falls. Moreover, only some of the energy lost by the falling water as it powers the wheel is converted into useful work. Some is lost in friction and as heat; no machine is 100 per cent efficient.

From a thermodynamic point of view, machines are energy conversion devices, and only some of the energy can be converted into work. The rest is lost; it is dissipated into the surroundings as heat. This lost energy that cannot do work is measured in terms of entropy. In other words, entropy is a measure of the amount of energy that is not available for doing useful work in a machine or in any other thermodynamic process. More abstractly, the second law of thermodynamics states that spontaneous natural processes lead to an increase in entropy. Or, again, the entropy of a closed system always increases or remains constant: it does not decrease. This increase of entropy gives an arrow to time, and means that spontaneous processes are always running ‘downhill’ from a thermodynamic point of view.

When the second law of thermodynamics was generalised to the entire universe, it implied that the universe was like a machine running out of steam. Entropy would go on increasing until the universe froze for ever, the state described by William Thomson in 1852 as ‘a state of universal rest