Abstract: Rupert Sheldrake’s New Age philosophy, peddling notions such as morphic resonance and habits of nature, is a purely theoretical product that has been impossible to underpin empirically. It’s a blind alley in the world of theory.
Keywords: morphogenetic field, David Bohm, Gustaf Strömberg, Ken Wilber, Niels Bohr, hypostatization, archetypal ideas, pantheism, World Soul.
Sheldrake’s theory involving ‘formative causation’ (Encyc., here) has a strong kinship with physicist David Bohm’s causal quantum theory that postulates a quantum field permeating the entire cosmos (Wiki, here). Bohm’s theory predicts that a local event immediately affects the movements of particles at the other end of the universe, as the result of the workings of a cosmic quantum field. Such extreme “non-locality” is unacceptable in scientific thinking. The theory is unacceptable also because it hypostatizes the quantum field into a form of world-enveloping spiritual force. In the Copenhagen quantum theory, the quantum field remains a theoretical model, i.e. an abstraction (cf. Faye, 2014, here). (This is true also of the particle model.) Sheldrake’s theory suffers from the same problem of non-locality, which turns it into a philosophy bordering on religion. The memorizing morphogenetic field is akin to an all-seeing spiritual being capable of perceiving all universal events and remember them, too. It is really a pantheistic god image. Whereas Schopenhauer talked about The Will underlying all reality, Sheldrake introduces The Memory which is, likewise, a spiritual being continually building reality. There is nothing wrong with religion — it’s just that there exist better religious models than Sheldrake’s.
Theories of this kind, represented by Sheldrake, Bohm, et al., represent a regress from the modern thought of Niels Bohr, who introduced the notion of complementarity. Psychologists C.G. Jung and M-L von Franz were enthusiastic about Bohr’s paradigmatic theory. With time, while it was verified by innumerable experiments, the Copenhagen model came to be accepted by the scientific community. Solutions that postulate spiritual fields permeating the universe have never attracted substantial support in the scientific community. Today, such theories have been ousted by Bohr’s model.
If one wants to dig into this kind of Neoplatonic speculation, it’s much more rewarding to read the Neoplatonists themselves, or the Gnostics, because they are wonderfully alive with projections from the unconscious. Furthermore, Sheldrake tries to ride on the popularity of C.G. Jung whose notion of the collective unconscious is fundamentally different and, unlike Sheldrake’s ideas, empirically verifiable (Encyc., here). Models that incorporate a spiritual being married to matter, a World Soul, represent a blind alley in the world of theory. To build a religious worldview is fine, but to give it an air of scientific thinking is destructive, both to our religious feeling and to science. The regression into obsolete thinking is a well-known phenomenon. Von Franz says:
The idea of complementarity in physics is the same thing. It was first created by Niels Bohr and then very much picked up and propagated by Pauli, while Louis de Broglie, for instance, for several years wrote on those lines and then regressed and suddenly said that he could not accept it any more. At the same time he became friendly with the Communists. In other words, as Pauli put it, he could not stand the newness of the thought. It was too uncanny after awhile, so he had to regress to a mechanical view, as in the Communistic sciences, and with that discard the idea of complementarity. It is so difficult to give up an old thinking habit. Even people who have got an idea already, sometimes, after awhile, give it up again. (Von Franz, 1972, p.219)
Sheldrake’s theory follows a similar pattern. It’s nothing but the good old theory of pantheism. The world-enveloping spirit permeates the material universe, and is essentially at one with it. The spirit steers the minutest particle according to its habits. God’s finger is everywhere and always. Although such ideas lack empirical veracity they have not lost their attractiveness. This is because they express eternal religious truths, i.e., they are archetypal in character.
There is another thinker who follows this recipe of presenting archetypal truths in New Age form, yet in scientific terminology. This is Ken Wilber (Wiki, here) who, resorting to a pseudo-intellectual language, presents idea after idea, in a never-ending stream. Much of his thought is archetypal in character and therefore alluring, but the scientific substance is very meagre. Such philosophers would better realize that they are high priests establishing religious cults. If they could only accept their own shamanistic character, they could find a place among the many religious and mystical thinkers in our civilisation, and their notions would derive a mature character. However, as they try to infiltrate science, it only serves the purpose of those who cannot stand the newness of thought in thinkers such as Bohr and Jung. These two are seedlings for the future — let them grow in peace.
The notion that the universe is also a psyche which has a memory (in a sense, a cosmic brain) is an attractive thought, but it is already known to theology and comparative religion. Einstein entertained such ideas, too (see below, here). It seems that people need religion. Arguably, it is better to use archetypal ideas to renew old tradition, including Christianity.
Metaphysical ideation and hypostatization
The morphogenetic field is a metaphysical idea. Also in the traditional sciences there is a tendency to use curious spiritual notions, such as force and energy, for example. What’s the difference? Scientists argue that the notion of energy is merely a convenient notion which facilitates mathematical calculation. So most scientists don’t believe in “energy”, as such, because nobody has ever observed this mysterious entity, as such. Energy is used as a generic term for electricity, heat, etc., but there exist no empirical observations of real generic energy.
How come a notion is employed that, after all, seems so close to the notion of “spirit” in religious thought? The answer is that the concept is undergirded by empirical observation. Empirical reality behaves “as if” “energy” underlies phenomena. It allows scientists to reason about the “(Holy) Law of Conservation of Energy” and argue that potential energy equals kinetic energy. Thus, they set up the equation mgy = ½mv2 and find that empirical data confirms the mathematical equation all the time, which is really astounding.
So this is the reason why scientists seemingly adopt “spiritual” notions. These are really abstractions that help to predict observations in the empirical world. To everybody’s surprise these predictions seem to describe reality quite well. Scientists still marvel at this. Nevertheless, they maintain that all their notions of “field”, “energy”, etc., are merely for convenience. In other words, they refrain from hypostatizing these concepts and appointing them true metaphysical reality as invisible entities equal to gods. The spiritual notion of the “morphogenetic field” cannot be substantiated by empirical data. It doesn’t help in predicting the phenomenal world, which is an important difference. It doesn’t comply with reality like scientific abstract notions and consequently this concept is of no use in the scientific enterprise.
What happens with ideas which, for one reason or another, are useless in the real world? Oftentimes they are hypostatized, which means that they are uplifted to a supernatural realm and receive true spiritual status. This is what Sheldrake does with his morphogenetic field. As he cannot undergird the notion empirically, he feels obliged to dogmatize it and appoint it substantial, although immaterial, reality. Comparatively, the Greek philosopher Plato could not get any support for his grand ideas about how society should be constructed. So he hypostatized his whole philosophy, uplifting it to an ethereal world among the eternal Ideas.
Scientists of today can afford not to hypostatize their ideas. This is because they are useful in empirical reality. Hence, everybody believes in their ideas anyway. So that’s why they may be soft-spoken and argue that these notions of ours are merely for convenience. We don’t claim to know much about the unknown “X” underlying reality. But modern shamans, like Sheldrake, must claim that they possess such metaphysical insight because there is no other means to substantiate their own ideas. The claim is that of a metaphysical reality and a holy morphogenetic field underlying physical reality.
Archetypal ultimate truth
Comparatively, imagine if people would stop believing in the value of paper money, which would have catastrophic consequences. After all, the whole system builds on the belief that this “paper trash” is actually worth something. So one can hand over some of it and receive a car in exchange. One can get a car for paper that is worthless, as such. But the point is that the salesman can, in his turn, “fool” somebody else and buy food, for instance. So this collective delusion is very functional.
If people would lose their belief in the value of money, the bank directors would have to step out on the terraces of their bank temples and talk pompously to the people: ”Hear ye, hear ye! This money is of similar nature as the holy spiritual Money that resides in the heavenly kingdom and where it has existed from the beginning of time. With Money the Creator bought earth from the Chaos dragon and from this earth he created the world…” And so people come to believe in money again and the world may continue spinning. This is why there existed high priests in former times. They had to encourage people to believe in their own humdrum lives and in society, by pointing towards metaphysical truths. In this way order was upheld and people could continue with their lives. So this is what modern shamans try to do; they try to establish metaphysical truths. C.G. Jung comments on this:
If we are convinced that we know the ultimate truth concerning metaphysical things, this means nothing more than that archetypal images have taken possession of our powers of thought and feeling, so that these lose their quality as functions at our disposal. The loss shows itself in the fact that the object of perception then becomes absolute and indisputable and surrounds itself with such emotional taboo that anyone who presumes to reflect on it is automatically branded a heretic and blasphemer. (Jung, 1977, para.787)
Nevertheless, as long as one doesn’t aspire to scientific recognition, one is entitled to formulate Neoplatonic novelties. Cosmologist Gustaf Strömberg (1882-1962) conceived a theory of organisational waves or genii (sing. genie), which bears a close resemblance to Sheldrake’s theory of morphogenetic fields. Although his notions are surprisingly naive, his work was reviewed by such notabilities as Einstein and Eddington, and received appreciation. In Strömberg’s book “The Soul of the Universe” (1940) he conceives of a many-levelled structure of non-material genii that steer material particles and the morphogenesis of living beings. The indigenous structures of these genii exist independently of matter. Certain of the organisational waves function as accumulating memories in nature. So memory is a fundamental characteristic of nature. Strömberg also envisages a world-enveloping genie which he names the World Soul. The kind of genii cooperating with chromosomal genes he names gene-spirits.
Dr. Strömberg is quite honest and acknowledges that his theory is a modernized version of Aristotelian entelechy. He also affirms the kinship with the vitalism of Hans Driesch and admits that his theory is not quite compatible with modern science as he postulates spiritual fields in nature. His notion of organizational derivation is more complicated than Sheldrake’s since not only accumulated memory is responsible for the appearance of complicated organisational waves. Strömberg devises a function where the encompassing genie splits off a structure causing an evolutional jump at the lower level. The World Soul is capable of such emissions.
It would be wholesome for Sheldrakians to acquaint themselves with Strömberg’s notions because it uncovers what Sheldrake’s theory really is underneath the drapery of pseudo-scientific language. It is actually very similar to Neoplatonic and Gnostic world conceptions as it builds on a duality of matter and spirit. Strömberg, however, never tries to hoodwink his readers but readily admits the religious character of his theory. He creates a very entertaining book which revives Plotinus’s World Soul. It’s interesting that this idea is still alive. So I think Sheldrake ought to side with his historical forerunners rather than distancing himself from them. It’s really a very old theory which has had many spokesmen, among them Dr. Strömberg and Emanuel Swedenborg (1653-1735).
© Mats Winther, 2001.
‘Collective unconscious’. New World Encyclopedia. (here)
‘De Broglie–Bohm theory’. Wikipedia article. (here)
Faye, J. (2014). ‘Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.) (here)
‘Formative causation’. Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. Encyclopedia.com. (here)
Franz, M-L von (1972). Creation Myths. Spring Publications, Dallas.
Jung, C.G. (1977). Mysterium Coniunctionis. Princeton/Bollingen. (CW 14)
‘Ken Wilber’. Wikipedia article. (here)
Stromberg, G. (1940). The Soul of the Universe. David McKay Company, Philadelphia.
Winther, M. (2002). ‘The Plastic Preachers – on inferior psychology and religion’. (here)