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Plato's Cave - The Orlando Philosophy Meetup Group Message Board › Rupert Sheldrake's theory of Morphic Resonance

Rupert Sheldrake's theory of Morphic Resonance

Rami K.
Orlando, FL
Post #: 476

Ben Forbes G.
Orlando, FL
Post #: 259
Rupert Sheldrake is a crank pseudoscientist and parapsychologist pedaling unsubstantiated New Age “woo woo” bullshit (much like Deepak Chopra); Sheldrake’s misinformed talk is not truly worthy of the TED motto “ideas worth spreading” — Sheldrake’s hypothesis of “morphic resonance” is demonstrably inconsistent with incontrovertible facts of genetics and embryology — and, as far as I know, has thus been debunked rather than independently confirmed, reliably demonstrated, and replicated sufficiently to warrant being considered provisionally sound and accepted as adequately proven mainstream science (if this were NOT the case, then Sheldrake would have won major accolades and would be deservedly famous). As I understand it, there is simply not yet any plausible model or mechanism by which he can explain how “morphic resonance” could allegedly work in the supernatural ways that he seems to claim it works. Pseudoscientists should put-up or shut up; if their ideas actually had merit, then the predictive and explanatory power of their evidence would easily persuade skeptics and erase their doubts (that’s how *real* science works). In general, after more than a century of serious modern scientific research, there is no methodologically sound evidence to substantiate hypotheses such as telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, veracity of near-death experiences, reincarnation, “past life” memories, apparitional/ghostly experiences, homeopathy, and multifarious other sorts of supernatural / paranormal claims; this is why people like Rupert Sheldrake who too credulously persist with overindulging “parapsychological speculations” aren’t doing respectable psychology or neuroscience (and are instead wishfully “researching” an area that is likely to remain fruitless, except of course for the important skeptical benefit of legitimate scientists who tirelessly debunk the pseudoscience and woo that too many people still unjustifiably believe in and too many charlatans and deluded fools advocate). Agent Mulder on the X-Files was fond of saying “the truth is out there” — but when it comes to the paranormal, we’d have expected to find it already given how thoroughly we’ve looked if it were really there. At this point in human intellectual history, the only time these sorts of ideas are more likely to potentially (and surprisingly) progress our realistic understanding would be if there is a NEW type of alleged phenomena to test and potentially discover — or a novel sort of experiment which hasn’t been done before that deserves to be investigated and given a fair chance). People who sincerely believe that paranormal phenomena are “plausible” based on currently available evidence are insufficiently skeptical, period; the tests on those have overwhelmingly been done to the extent that such claims are even potentially falsifiable, there is no reason to expect different results if these experiments are endlessly repeated, and the phenomena in question all have more plausible conventionally empirical and natural explanations. Anyone who is tempted to take people like Rupert Sheldrake or Deepak Chopra seriously would do well to learn more about Bayesian inferences and improve their powers of induction (as well as pay attention to Dr. Carrier’s salient and analogous example of the flares in this particular talk).

Moreover, almost every point Sheldrake makes throughout the entire talk is a straw-man fallacy trying to spuriously question what misguided critics like him (who don’t adequately understand rigorous scientific methods or properly humble yet realistic philosophy of science) mistakenly imagine as the currently “cutting-edge” science-based “worldview” (which is actually nowhere near as “scientistic” or “dogmatic” as he ignorantly presumes and slanderously portrays it to be). Science does NOT arrogantly claim to absolutely “already understand the nature of reality in principle, leaving only the details to fill in” — while that may seem to be true to some extent (or in some sense) within certain branches of science, paradigm shifts due to new discoveries are always possible, and at least science has produced some awesomely useful models for understanding a plethora of amazing phenomena on many scales as best we currently can with incredible explanatory and predictive power (e.g. relativistic Einsteinian physics and quantum-mechanics / string-theory); however, a TOE or “theory of everything” connecting the very large and the very small still eludes us, as does anything approaching a complete understanding of the earliest bit of the Big Bang (and what caused it) or of consciousness (which is not to say that we understand nothing about such fascinating and still mysterious phenomena and that pseudoscientists and theologians should feel free to just blithely make things up and imagine whatever they please via argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacies). Also, people don’t “believe in science” as if it were some sort of religion — nobody who properly understands scientific epistemology and methods would say that and seriously mean it literally if pressed, whereas theistic apologists or ridiculous New Age mysticalists like Sheldrake seem to deploy this phrase like an insult as if it were skeptics whose credulity most deserves to be questioned; like it or not: but we have good reasons and ample evidence to trust the provisional conclusions of science much more than subjective preferences vulnerable to cognitive errors or largely baseless, poorly substantiated, or improbable speculations. Skeptics who hold to the only currently justifiable provisional ontological “worldview” of empiricism/naturalism/physicalism are NOT believing things on insufficient evidence or assuming things “dogmatically”...
Ben Forbes G.
Orlando, FL
Post #: 260
Anyway, not that he really deserves the attention — but, just for the sake of argument, let’s take a look at this Sheldrake fellow’s “ten dogmas” and rhetorically tear them apart as they deserve for the pathetic and deplorable straw-men or misleading misunderstandings that they are:

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.

“Life” distinguishes objects having signaling and self-sustaining processes from those that do not, either because such functions have ceased (death), or because they lack such functions and are thus classified as inanimate. Any contiguous living system is called an organism; However, since there is no unequivocal definition of life (aside from how we describe qualities common to observed life forms on Earth), the current understanding is merely descriptive; i.e. life is considered a characteristic of something that exhibits all or most of the following traits: cellular structure, undergoes metabolism, maintains homeostasis, can grow, responds to stimuli, can reproduce, and (through natural selection) gradually adapt to many an environment in successive generations if it doesn’t become extinct. More complex organisms can communicate through alternative means, whereas some “organisms” like viruses are more like replicators “on the edge of life”... That said, science recognizes and constantly works to better understand many ways in which we differ from “designed machines” (more bottom-up emergent complexity in fits and starts and jury-rigging in nature rather than the more top-down rational and intentional approach of artificial design) — and though there does seem to be a sense in which consciousness is an “illusion” that we qualitatively experience within our brains, and we are genetically programmed to a great extent (though we also respond to experiential environmental stimuli), this does not make it meaningless to talk about holistic organisms being “alive” or having goals “of our own” (especially in the Frankfurtain sense of an organism’s “volitions” as a holistic agent) despite, for example, “our” genetically-human cells being outnumbered by bacteria in our own bodies (such that, in a very real sense each of “us” is mostly NOT actually technically “ourself”). There is a sense in which this “dogma” is demonstrably true based on all the best currently available evidence; Sheldrake just doesn’t like this reality as revealed by increasingly penetrating biological and neurological science — so he would prefer to give the prospect a negative spin or spuriously imagine things differently.
Ben Forbes G.
Orlando, FL
Post #: 261
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.

There are between 50 and 75 trillion cells in the body... Each type of cell has its own life span, and when a human dies it may take hours or day before all the cells in the body die. (Forensic investigators take advantage of this vaguely morbid fact when determining the cause and time of death of homicide victims.) Red blood cells live for about four months, while white blood cells live on average more than a year. Skin cells live about two or three weeks. Colon cells have it rough: they die off after about four days. Sperm cells have a life span of only about three days, while brain cells typically last an entire lifetime (neurons in the cerebral cortex, for example, are not replaced when they die). However, this last fact does not mean there is any evidence whatsoever for a brain-independent mind, let alone a soul. We now understand much of what goes on in our brains that we once did not (with more being discovered all the time) — and, though many genuine mysteries remain to be solved and this is a great scientific challenge of our time, what we know so far overwhelmingly mitigates against dualism to the point of falsifying it with nearly absolute certainty. This certainly does NOT mean, however, that our inner senses of our selves (produced by and in the brain) experience “no inner life or subjectivity or point of view” — nor does it follow from the fact that consciousness is demonstrably produced by the material activities of brains that “consciousness is an ‘illusion’”!!!

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).

We do not fully understand where, if anywhere, the observable universe “suddenly appeared” from (as the origin point of all observable spacetime and thus of all known “locations”), but I can see no good reason to suppose ex nihilo “creation” as “most likely” given the conservation of matter and energy we observe as well as many interesting observations and experiments in particle physics, especially at the quantum level, in addition to black holes... Essentially, the multiverse could very well still be “eternal” (or beyond/transcending any single spacetime continuum) and there could be constantly spawning and collapsing multifarious universes with diverse and/or changing “constants” like bubbles in a foam. Anyway, we certainly don’t know for sure that the Big Bang came “from nothing” (and it’s not even clear that the concept of literal nothingness makes ontological sense beyond colloquial uses). We also cannot be sure that other universes do not interact with our own. Nonetheless, natural laws (within “our” post Big Bang expanding universe) are a lot more than mere “habits” following vague patterns (though Hume’s skepticism regarding cause and effect applies at a certain level of doubt, that level of doubt is not very useful — and the explanatory and predictive power of Einsteinian physics is incredibly precise even well beyond Newtonian standards, so it’s both wise and pragmatic to act as if gravity, mass, energy, etc. are all going to keep on functioning as we’ve so far observed with increasing accuracy — and that miracles or paranormal phenomena are almost totally implausible unless and until one could be sufficiently empirically established by Humean standards). Real science doesn’t pretend to know things it doesn’t know, and doesn’t feel free to insert speculative pseudoscience or theology into the remaining gaps; paradigm shifts are always possible, albeit unlikely in many cases, but even the queerest and most counterintuitive theoretical physics are ultimately based on evidence, observation, and experiment — possible implications of which are expressed in mathematically measurable models. Immaterial speculations about the origins of the universe raise more questions than they “answer” and commit one or more damning logical fallacies.

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.

Science does not make this assumption. Sheldrake claims the “Speed of light” “dropped” from 1938-1945 because it was measured less precisely before and raised again for some reason?!? Then the speed of light was “fixed” in 1972. He also talks about averaging various calculations determining constants. For example, the universal gravitational constant varied by 1.3%, was measured in different labs and averaged, etc. Okay, I’m not a physicist, so I don’t know all the precise details of this particular issue and can't fully evaluate the veracity of these claims, though I do know some of the fascinating history involved (steady-state to expanding universe, Einstein’s “blunder” and what has followed, etc.). Anyway, so what if the cosmological constants do change (obviously remaining within a range that still allows us to exist, for now)? This would not be a blow to materialism/naturalism whatsoever (though it might have implications for determinism versus indeterminism)… Moreover, the great thing about science, unlike religious dogma or woo, is that it’s genuinely open to falsification, revision, and change — given sound new evidence that requires it. Here are some legitimate empirical scientists talking about this issue of constants changing, and they don’t seem particularly surprised or worried, nor is this possibility in any way a blow to their physicalist worldview…
Ben Forbes G.
Orlando, FL
Post #: 262
5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.

This is demonstrable and manifestly clear to anyone who adequately understands evolution, whether Sheldrake likes it or not. The argument from design is falsifiable, and has been adequately falsified by observable facts; there is no good evidence of teleology in nature (which is obviously blind in its evolutionary progress and “red in tooth and claw”) and there are mountains of unequivocal sorts of evidence from every relevant branch of science overwhelmingly mitigating against teleological possibilities (this is why phrases like “blind-watchmaker” or “emergent complexity” are often used to properly describe evolution). Unless one thinks a capricious, inefficient, bizarre, and malevolently cruel “design” / “designer” is plausible, this is the only conclusion — but just because there is no evidence for teleology doesn’t mean that nature needs to be considered nihilistically “purposeless” from the point of view of conscious agents (and multifarious biological components, including entire holistic organisms, essentially have naturally functional evolved “purposes” of a sort: most prominently to survive and pass on their genes).

6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.

There is no demonstrable evidence other than wishful thinking that I’m aware of for any non-material biological inheritance (aside from the cultural evolution of social species and the significantly influential rearing by parents or surrogate caretakers that some species require to survive for long and learn to functionally behave as adult organisms). This apparent reality is not something that science axiomatically asserts, but rather something that has so far been inductively confirmed and not falsified, and thus is provisionally true unless and until reliable new evidence might demonstrate otherwise. As a general point, many things which might colloquially seem “immaterial” are merely not directly observable, but can nonetheless still be studied by science and are thus demonstrably real even if our perceptions of them are indirect or imperfect; such actual phenomena, forces, waves, etc. are epistemically distinct from unfalsifiable and unsubstantiated ontologically implausible metaphysical speculations (e.g. spirits, souls, ghosts, auras, etc.). What “evidence” does Rupert Sheldrake think he has of non-material inheritance? There is no reliable or scientifically demonstrable legitimate evidence for reincarnation or past-life memories, etc. Moreover, if he thinks science has some sort of “dogmatic” conclusion to which he has discovered one or more exceptions, then he should get about demonstrating and proving those exceptions and science WILL change in a significant paradigm shift if he is actually successful.

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.

We know how light works, how eyes work, and how they evolved. We even know quite a bit about how the brain produces “vision” based on signals and stimuli from the eyes (turning it right-side up, etc.). I have no idea what New Age woo woo bullshit Sheldrake is talking about with this one…

8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.

What is Sheldrake’s “evidence” of minds extended beyond brains or memories surviving an organism’s brain-cells’ death (aside from indirectly in other minds who shared similar experiences from their own perspectives or learned and remembered the same things)? There are many plausible phenomena (which REAL science will hopefully discover and understand) that could best empirically explain feeling gazes on oneself without seeing that one is being watched or predators / prey “sensing” each other, etc. I’d like to see this study regarding separate rats of the same breeds subsequently learning similar tricks quicker in different locations (but dogs, for example, have been artificially selectively bred by humans to perform various tasks better, and these capabilities are carried forward empirically in their genes; my own dog, for example, has some pointer in her and will point to game with her leg even though I have never taken her hunting or trained that behavior). Regardless, neuroscience has discovered much about memory and where it is located (and how it can be impaired or destroyed by damaging certain areas of the brain); there is no good evidence for any “ghost in the machine” that I am aware of.

9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.

There is no evidence! It is only wishful thinking until proven (or even merely just proven plausible and worthy of further serious study). Moreover, James Randi has a million dollars for Sheldrake if the credulous fool can legitimately prove telepathy, and then he can go on to collect his Nobel Prize! People this gullible should put-up or shut up...

10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Tim Minchin has eloquently and stridently said pretty much everything I need to say about this one, which has risible hippie woo written all over it… The reality is that: by definition, “alternative medicine is either ‘medicine’ that has not yet been proved to work, or has been conclusively proved NOT to work” — “alternative” medicine that actually HAS been proved to work is simply “medicine” (and thinking that medicines derived from natural sources are automatically superior to “mechanistic” medicine is simply an argumentum ad naturam fallacy, not to mention the fact that many seemingly “artificial” medicines are actually derived from natural sources or simply more economically imitate/synthesize substitute artificial equivalents to nature's pharmacy). Real and verifiable biochemistry trumps New Age bullshit, every time, including when it comes to knowing which natural remedies actually work or truly help manage symptoms.
Ben Forbes G.
Orlando, FL
Post #: 263
In conclusion...

Everything that can be tested in science is questionable and potentially falsifiable, and Bayesian reasoning can be reevaluated based on newly available pertinent data that affects prior probability or marginal-likelihood/model-evidence. The “worldview” aspect of science (evidence-based materialism/empiricism) is almost certainly here to stay for the foreseeable future, given the overwhelming pattern of intellectual history, and remains the unequivocal provisional ontological and epistemic champion until proven otherwise with superior reasons or evidence, which immaterial speculations simply don’t have. Science is not going to “break out” of materialism unless and until we discover evidence of something non-material (which has not happened in over a century of fully modern rigorous scientific testing that likely would have revealed and substantiated the presence/influence of various proposed non-material “paranormal” phenomena, IF any actually existed).

The Big Bang did not “spring into existence out of nothing” and there is no evidence for teleology and much evidence against it… Sheldrake irredeemably fails to adequately understand the explanatory power and respect the inexorable epistemic superiority of scientific methods (the only thing that deserves to trump sound science is better science taking into account new data — not personal preferences or faith based beliefs)... Moreover, the best available cutting-edge materialistic ontology and epistemology is much more Popperian and Bayesian, etc. than most theists or New Age pseudoscientists realize when they take the simpleminded route of criticizing straw-men and committing argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacies to keep their gods, spirits, or auras hidden and allegedly inscrutable (yet completely unsubstantiated). People who mistakenly and stupidly think science is somehow “dogmatic” or idolized/worshiped in ways they erroneously describe as “scientism” frankly don't have a clue what they are talking about — but science does effectively mean the obsolescence of theology to the point where it now deserves to become a historical curiosity irrelevant to the pursuit of genuine discovery). Science does not spuriously claim any more objectivity than is warranted and is very well aware of human cognitive flaws as well as some of the best ways of filtering them out in order to arrive at a sound ontology of materialism/naturalism/physicalism; thus, the reality is that science is an epistemic “substitute” for unjustifiable faith-based mythologies or speculations and renders religion unnecessary while offering superior explanatory power — but science is fundamentally different, much more genuinely humble, and much better in methodological character compared to religion; science is not “believed in” similarly to religions in terms of how conclusions are arrived at, tested, or maintained...).
Rami K.
Orlando, FL
Post #: 478
Have you considered Shedrack's background and early career, or what led him to his particular theory? This is a man who worked directly out of the field of Darwinian evolution and after nine years of research concluded it to be circular argument. This reminds of a question a particularly skilled computer programmer asked me once, "What do you do when you've found an entity operating in a circle?" My response then was that you seek a wider circle. Another response is that you work to break out of all circles altogether.

Does the theory put for by Rupert qualify as falsifiable - this is where the discussion gets interesting. Under one model his claims are not, however when one moves out of a mechanistic model of the mind and into a super-positional model of mind as a quantum device, one with access to quantum physical properties: one where entanglement is provable and thus where instantaneous communication is possible, then his theory (which of course he holds is but that: theory), becomes something worth re-examining. Sheldrake does not have to be 100% correct, however one has to follow the line of thinking which lead this biologist to come to his conclusions and then see if there is any relation between his theory and the current evidence which is not only theory but is already actively resulting in technology.

Now what do you think of Sheldrake's proposal for coordinating and tracking measurements of G, the gravitational constant, to see if it is indeed variable?
Ben Forbes G.
Orlando, FL
Post #: 267
Only sound scientific evidence (or the conspicuous lack thereof, in this case) should matter when establishing whether a hypothesis like “morphic resonance” should be considered plausible; Sheldrake’s early career (and any actually legitimate, mundane, and independently verifiable scientific discoveries or contributions therein) are totally irrelevant to the issues in question (to cite them as if they constituted “evidence” for any inadequately demonstrated extraordinary supernatural claims is an argumentum ab auctoritate fallacy) — moreover, his “background” association with a “Christian Ashram” confused in India, complete with credulous mystics pedaling ridiculous woo like Bede Griffiths / Swami Dayananda, certainly does not redound to Sheldrake’s credit as a “scientist” whatsoever (and only serves to underscore why his dubious pseudoscientific claims deserve extra skepticism and any “expert scientific authority” he may have on paper should not be trusted without adequate dispassionately unbiased independent confirmation). This is just like the analogous fact that no amount of actual legitimate science done (or scientific evidence-based consensus either “accepted” or conveniently ignored) by someone like Francis Collins can make his indefensible supernatural beliefs any more plausible whatsoever; such claims should ultimately always stand (or fall) solely on the basis of their evidence-based merits (or, as has always been the case so far throughout history, the lack thereof).

Moreover, like most examples of woo or religious beliefs, Sheldrake’s questionable hypotheses which we’re discussing are caught in a devastating catch-22 when it comes to the damning “question” of their falsifiability, and are worthless unprovable (or unproven) bunk either way: on the one hand, to the extent that he makes extraordinary claims which are not falsifiable, these should be summarily dismissed as baseless speculations (QUOD GRATIS ASSERITUR, GRATIS NEGATUR) — however, on the other hand, many of Sheldrake’s extraordinary hypotheses do make testable claims, and some of the more incredible ones have been conclusively falsified (or are contradicted by better biochemical evidence than they have “supporting” them); indeed, even on the most charitable interpretation, Sheldrake’s claims have not yet been adequately independently replicated and confirmed to a point that warrants credence. Unfalsifiable (faith-based) ideas which purport to be serious “ontology” are actually worthless — since they can have no epistemically verifiable and reliable explanatory or predictive power. Also, it’s pathetic how many of Sheldrake’s pseudoscientific ideas couldn’t even withstand blind peer-review: some are so vague, absurd, or unfalsifiable that experiments to test them can’t even thus far be conceived.

In general, scientific evidence of absence is evidence of any kind that can be used to infer or deduce the probable or even almost certain non-existence or non-presence of something (and can often eliminate causes or motivate scientists to look for alternative causes). For instance, if a doctor does not find any malignant cells in a patient, this null result (finding nothing) is evidence of absence of cancer, even though the doctor has not actually “detected” anything remarkable per se (similarly, there are plenty of factors which constitute sound evidence that we live in a universe that is not what we should reasonably *expect* if the sorts of gods most people imagine actually ruled it — or if the sorts of supernatural forces people imagine were truly real). This sort of inductive reasoning is important to empiricism and science, but has well established limitations… The challenge thus becomes identifying when a researcher has received a null result (found nothing) because the thing does not exist (evidence of absence), and when one simply currently lacks proper means of detection (absence of evidence) but further research might still be warranted, especially if new and better experimental methods could be devised; specifically, in the case of many of Sheldrake’s claims, I think there is enough evidence to incline toward the former provisional conclusion (after over a hundred years of fruitless research into still unsubstantiated paranormal and parapsychological claims that would arguably be evident if they had any veracity, not to mention ample and sound evidence in genetics and embryology which contradict, if not conclusively falsify, some of Sheldrake’s more incredible ideas) — but, even if all this were not the case, the simple fact remains that supernatural ideas like “morphic resonance” still cannot meet their burden of proof (which is why they’re not relatively uncontroversial mainstream science and why Sheldrake isn't famous and probably never will be).

Furthermore, if the gravitational constant is actually variable, then only proper and rigorous science will discover that, measure its changes over time, and adjust our models to better account for the potentially fascinating implications of that vis–à–vis the accelerating expansion of our universe; unbridled pseudoscience and argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacies attempting to “justify” supernatural speculations based on the perceived “uncertainty” in natural laws will not offer any credible explanatory power. See the link above to listen to legitimate astrophysicists talking about this issue (they are all for coordinating and tracking any changes in cosmological “constants” and studying their potential implications: to the extent that he might have a legitimate point regarding this issue, which I'm not convinced he does, there is certainly no “dogmatic” conspiracy or cover-up arrayed against Sheldrake)… Moreover, while potentially very interesting in their own right, variations in the “constants” would in no way constitute evidence for anything supernatural or paranormal (but rather perhaps for more of an indeterministic model rather than a deterministic one).cool

Also, as far as I know, Sheldrake’s claim that evolutionary biochemistry is “circular” is spurious (though I would be interested in what ostensible “evidence” he thinks he has for this kooky opinion, despite having no good reason to trust him as an authoritative scientific expert, given his background associations with woo); the reality is that materialistic evolution more fully and satisfyingly explains organisms’ shapes, typical behavior patterns in response to various stimuli, etc. much better than any other model. Sheldrake ignorantly denies that DNA contains a recipe for morphological development. Lamarckian inheritance and similar ideas have been largely debunked by post-Darwinian/Mendelian biology, and there is no credible evidence I’m aware of for New Age parapsychological speculations. Admittedly, it’s probably true that things like methylation patterns in DNA and chromatin marks can apparently regulate the activity of genes (and are loosely considered somewhat “Lamarckian” in the sense that they are responsive to environmental stimuli and can differentially affect gene expression adaptively, with phenotypic results that can persist for many generations in certain organisms… but this is a far cry from “substantiating” any speculative supernatural metaphysics like morphic resonance.
Ben Forbes G.
Orlando, FL
Post #: 268
Indeed, even in cases where we don’t yet “know” (by the lights of provisionally conclusive evidence-based science) what causes a “mysterious” phenomenon, we can surmise that some vague and extraordinary immaterial hypothesis is not the most likely explanation using sound Bayesian reasoning even before we do a single experiment. When you look at the history of the world, you see thousands — tens of thousands, arguably hundreds of thousands or more — of phenomena for which a supernatural explanation has been replaced by a natural one: why the sun rises and sets, what thunder and lightning are, how and why illness happens and spreads, why people look like their parents, how people got to be here in the first place, etc… all these things, and thousands more, were once “explained” by gods or spirits or mystical energies. And now all of them have superior natural, physical explanations with mountains of solid, carefully collected, and replicable evidence to support them.

Now, how many times in the history of the world has a natural explanation of a phenomenon been supplanted by a supernatural one? The answer is: zero (if one had been, we would almost certainly all have heard of it — and, in case of an ongoing phenomenon, it would probably have been rediscovered even if it was once suppressed or forgotten). Of course, people are coming up with new supernatural explanations of naturally-explained phenomena all the time. Intelligent design is an obvious and ignorant example. However, one can pick up any New Age magazine (or go to an ashram in India like Sheldrake) to find plenty more.

But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, and rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence which is also consistent with all the best evidence from established science or incontrovertible enough to revise or supplant it? Large amounts of evidence, from many different unbiased sources that can easily survive blind peer-review? Again, as far as I’m aware — exactly zero supernatural claims can meet his standard (if they could, then they would actually be demonstrably real, and would thus become part of the best and currently most epistemically rigorous model of “nature” we have).
Which brings me to the rather trenchant Bayesian question of likelihood, especially considering prior probability.

Given the overwhelming pattern of all of recorded intellectual history — i.e. thousands upon thousands upon thousands of natural explanations more accurately supplanting superstitious ones, and zero supernatural explanations accurately supplanting natural ones — doesn’t it seem most probable that any given unexplained phenomenon is far more likely to have a natural explanation than a supernatural one? Like, several orders of magnitude more likely?

When you’re looking at a phenomenon (consciousness, for instance) that doesn't currently have a complete naturalistic explanation, you can of course argue “Explain that!” or “That doesn't prove anything.” You can argue that scientists don’t really yet fully “know” what consciousness is, and therefore it *could* be some sort of metaphysical energy (with telepathic memory connections, etc.), and science can’t absolutely conclusively prove that it isn’t (but that is an argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacy). Moreover, it makes a lot more sense to look at the overwhelming pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones by the thousands and more — and consider which kind of explanation is really most plausible. Learn about how sound Bayesian inference works and use it!

David Jones, reviewing one of Sheldrake’s books in The Times, criticized it as magical thinking and pseudoscience, saying that morphic resonance “is so vast and formless that it could easily be made to explain anything, or to dodge round any opposing argument... Sheldrake has sadly aligned himself with those fantasists who, from the depths of their armchairs, dream up whole new grandiose theories of space and time to revolutionize all science, drape their wooly generalizations over every phenomenon they can think of, and then start looking round for whatever scraps of evidence that seem to them to be in their favour” — and Jones then went on to emphasize that without confirmatory experimental evidence, “the whole unwieldy and redundant structure of [Sheldrake’s] theory falls to Occam’s Razor” — yep, that pretty much sums it up. Sheldrake is no better than Deepak Chopra.

With good reason, Professor Steven Rose has asked Sheldrake to “get his facts straight” in a piece published in the Guardian, explaining the status of current neuroscientific research and concluding that “there is no way that this straightforward and impressive body of evidence can be taken to imply that memories are not in the brain, still less that the brain is tuning into some indeterminate, undefined, resonating and extra-corporeal field” — by persisting in a failed hypotheses without adequate evidence longer than is warranted, Sheldrake is “ignoring or denying” overwhelming evidence of neuroscience over the past two decades which has shown that memories are stored in specific changes in brain cells. Furthermore, Professor Rose has taken up the challenges of folks like Sheldrake and debunked “morphic resonance” in experiments on chicks. I’m sorry, but there is currently simply no good evidence for “telepathy-type interconnections between organisms” — which is why TED’s scientific advisors (rightly) “questioned whether his list is a fair description of scientific assumptions” and stated that “there is little evidence for some of Sheldrake’s more radical claims, such as his theory of morphic resonance” — ergo, the advisors recommended that the talk “should not be distributed without being framed with caution” (if you ask me, Sheldrake is lucky TED was willing to consider his “science” to be “ideas worth spreading” at all; I think they were insufficiently skeptical and overly charitable in that decision and his ideas aren’t worthy of their platform). In summary, while Sheldrake’s crackpot and unsubstantitated ideas might be taken seriously in an ashram or by the likes of Deepak Chopra, there are sound reasons why his “morphic resonance” hypothesis as well as other comments should make him a laughingstock among methodologically rigorous scientists.
Ben Forbes G.
Orlando, FL
Post #: 269
Some people ignorantly talk about science as if it were a set of beliefs — like a religion: a body of opinions about how things are. But while there’s some truth to this on a practical day-to-day basis, it really isn’t the big picture, or even the medium-sized picture. What science is, ultimately, is a method — a process for better observing the world and trying to explain it (and there is nothing “dogmatic” about it). Indeed: it’s been developed over the years to do one very specific thing — to minimize the effects of human error and bias (as much as is humanly possible) in order to best figure out what is and isn’t real about the world — and it goes as far as we know how to minimize the effects of arrogance, stubbornness, etc. It doesn’t do it perfectly… and it takes time, not to mention extremely hard, often tedious work. But it does this job better than any other method we have of gathering information about the world and coming up with sound theories to explain it.

  • Transparency, of both results and methodology: When scientists publish papers, they don’t just report the results of experiments. They also report (in mind-numbingly boring detail) exactly how their experiments were done. They do this so other people can repeat their experiments and see if they get the same results (see Replicability below), and they do it so other people can examine and analyze their methodology and point out any problems. Scientists know that outside observers can often spot mistakes that an insider can’t — especially when that insider has been working on research for years and has emotional attachment to the outcome.
  • Replicating results: One of the first things that happens when a scientist reports a surprising result is that a hundred other scientists run to their labs to repeat the experiment and see if they get the same result. So even if one scientist gets a particular result because they expected or wanted it and somehow skewed their experiment to make it happen… when the hundred other scientists repeat the experiment and try to replicate the results, it’s not going to come out the same. (BTW, this doesn’t just work to screen out bias — it also works to screen out fraud.)
  • Peer review: Again, scientists know that outside observers can often spot mistakes that an insider can’t, either because that insider cares too passionately about the outcome, or because they’re simply too close to the work to have perspective on it. So before it’s even published, research has to be reviewed by other scientists in the field — by scientists who don’t have the same personal stake in the outcome as the researcher, and some of whom may even have opposing or competing stakes. Ideally, this is done anonymously.
  • Careful control groups: As much as is humanly possible, scientists set up control groups for their experiments that are identical in every way to the testing group except in the area being tested in attempt to isolate one or more variables. (And if they don’t do a good job with this, it’s likely to get caught in the peer review process — and even more likely to get caught in attempts to replicate the research.) It’s impossible to do this perfectly — especially when you’re doing your testing on human beings and not, say, hydrogen atoms — but they do it as well as they can, and they run it by their peers to see if they missed anything (see Peer Review above). They do this because they know, from experience and history, that a hundred different variables can affect the outcome of an experiment — and a variable that you thought was trivial could turn out to be crucial.
  • Double-blind and placebo-controlled testing: Scientists know — especially when it comes to doing tests on people, such as medical or psychological research — that unconscious biases of the testers can influence the results of the tests. And, when it comes to medical testing, scientists know about the placebo effect. Ergo, as much as possible, experiments are carefully set up so that even the researchers don’t know, for instance, which batch of blood samples came from the group that got the drug, and which batch came from the group that got the placebo — until the testing is all completed.
  • Falsifiability: This is one of the most important principles of science. If you have a theory that can’t be disproven — if any evidence at all can be made to fit into your theory — then you don’t have a useful theory. It has no predictive power, no explanatory power, and usually raises more questions than it “answers” or engages in special pleading or argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacies. So when you offer a theory, you have to be willing to say, “If A, B, or C happens, that would support my theory; if X, Y, or Z happens, that would contradict it.” And these predictions regarding expectations ought to be reasonable.
This is one of the reasons so many science-lovers and skeptics get so frustrated with so many religious or spiritual beliefs (not all of those beliefs, but many) whenever anything at all that could ever happen can get twisted around somehow to fit into the belief system. From a scientific method point of view, that makes the belief system useless. So, for example, “If paranormal phenomena were ‘shy’ (i.e., inconsistent and unpredictable and tending to disappear when tested) but real, how would that information be useful?” If you have a theory about the paranormal or metaphysical (or about anything else), and no possible result or evidence (or lack thereof) could contradict that theory or convince you that it’s wrong… then it’s not a useful theory. It has no power to explain past results or predict future ones. And that’s not just a practical problem. It’s a philosophical problem, and a big one. If you have no way of knowing whether you’re wrong, then you have no way of knowing whether you’re right.
This system can make mistakes, especially in the short run: early results can seem promising but don’t pan out, surprising new evidence gets “explained” by boatloads of new theories that turn out to be bullshit, etc. But, when the method is followed, it eventually works. Slowly, in the long run, with lots of stops and slowdowns and detours along the way, it inexorably works. And even when it isn’t carefully followed by an individual scientist, the method works in the long run to catch that scientist’s mistakes (and to catch mistaken assumptions and incorrect theories made by all scientists) and provide a new and more accurate theory (including a paradigm shift, if warranted)… Intuition and inspiration are great. Scientists rely on them to come up with ideas in the first place. But intuition is a starting place — not a final answer. We KNOW that intuition is heavily slanted by bias and expectations and what we want to be true. Intuition gives us ideas for paths to explore — but if we want to be maximally sure that our ideas reflect reality: as sure as we can be with our imperfect brains and the huge and mystifying cosmos, then we need a method to test our inspired, intuitive ideas. And, as imperfect as it is, the scientific method is unequivocally the best one we have.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson has so eloquently quipped: “The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.”biggrin
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