Science, Skepticism and Spirituality
REVIEW: Arguing Science: A Dialogue on the Future of Science and Spirit by Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer
Debating the nature of the ineffable is always a chancy proposition. In “Arguing Science” we have two scientists, respected in their fields, face off in a debate over whether there can be a spiritual dimension to science. On the side of belief in a divine source is Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist best known for his hypothesis of morphic fields and morphic resonance. On the side of materialism and evolution dictated by physical parameters alone is Michael Shermer, Scientific American’s skeptic-in-chief and well-known debunker of the paranormal.
The book starts with a discussion of the scientific method and whether paranormal phenomena can be investigated in ways that would satisfy the rigorous standards acceptable to peer-reviewed scientific journals. As the dialogues progress back and forth, a middle ground of agreement emerges in which the paranormal becomes defined as natural phenomena for which science does not yet have an explanation. Sheldrake spends a lot of time quoting his books on psychic dogs who know when their masters are coming home and people who know who will be telephoning them next. I thought the whole exchange on “mental action at a distance” could have been much more persuasive on Sheldrake’s part had he gone into the extensively documented reports on near-death experiences and out of body experiences.
The discussion about the existence of God seems to devolve into a question of semantics. Shermer, a self-proclaimed atheist humanist, focusing on the Abrahamic God of the bible, rejects all notions of a divine being sitting in judgment or being the architect of the universe and all it contains. He is convinced that all natural systems will self-organize, and that the notion of any form of intelligent design is mere superstition promoted by religions with a vested interest in controlling the faithful. Sheldrake, on the other hand, speaks eloquently of a compassionate universal energy that is a manifestation of divine power and consciousness.
However you wish to call it – God, energy, unified field – in the end Sheldrake and Shermer’s views on spooky action at a distance or the causal field that creates order out of chaos and life out of biochemical reactions are not that far apart. The main question that separates a person of faith from an open-minded skeptic is whether these actions are directed by a conscious source. That seems to be the “big question” that materialists do not yet have an answer for. On the one hand, looking at such things as war, disease, poverty and injustice, even a believer must wonder what was God thinking! But then looking at babies, sunsets, starry skies and the beauty of nature, the thought that this all came about by chance just doesn’t compute. I personally would not want to be such a skeptic as to think that the universe is just a clockwork mechanism obeying the laws of physics and mathematics and indifferent to my being. How grey the world would seem. I think the biggest gift of this book is that one is forced to consider one’s own position on many fascinating questions like this in light of the other perspective. It is far too easy to go on autopilot when it comes to one’s beliefs, and feels safer to go with what your parents and teachers taught. Given the state of the world and the polarization being inflamed by religious zealotry, it is probably time that we all re-examined our beliefs. This book provides some useful directions.