Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God

Book Review: The Rebirth of Nature: The Greening of Science and God by Rupert Sheldrake (Park Street Press 1991. 1994)

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake is a brilliant thinker and I think he is on to something important with his ideas of formative causation and morphic resonance. I find his scientific ideas quite fascinating. I definitely do not agree with his preference for religion over secularism but he does make some fair arguments. I argue much below against his case for preference of religion over secularism. In other matters, his comparison of ancient thought and modern science is rather fascinating as are his ideas about biology and the memory of nature.

Sheldrake notes this book as fulfilling a personal quest and emanated from many conversations at conferences and centers for human thought around the world. He notes being taught in academia that direct, intuitive knowledge of plants and animals is unscientific (though one can hardly deny that such knowledge leads to scientific discoveries). Much of this book argues that nature is alive and animated rather than mechanical, that it is more organic and intelligent than appears. Our lack of “belief” in a living nature is like a psychological split that threatens to harm us and the planet. Traditionally (pre-17th century mechanistic science), nature is alive and feminine. He seems to see mechanistic science as a competing school of thought – another orthodoxy – similar to competing religious philosophies, but I think he takes this just a bit too far. My own take is that science (often in this so-called mechanistic form) is the best means we have of both understanding and agreeing on the structures and functions we encounter. Mechanistic science is successful because technology is successful. Thus it has weaved itself into the fabric of economic success as well as he says, as “a kind of religion.” But deterministic science is being refuted more and more, says Sheldrake, as ideas like Chaos Theory become more useful to biology.

The machine metaphor for nature has walked side by side with technology but the mother metaphor is quite intuitive and not easily forgotten. Sheldrake recounts the history of veneration of the Great Mother, from the Paleolithic/early Neolithic cities of abundance, and likely peace, to the development of the goddess of agriculture and the symbiosis with and eventual conquering by nomadic pastoralists with male sky gods = the feminist mythological model, many aspects of which can’t be denied.

Sheldrake seems to blame the Protestant Reformation as the source and main support of mechanistic science and the turning away from a feminine nature. He also sees the mechanistic scientific worldview as the source of atheism, which he seems to disdain. While I don’t appreciate atheism as a dogma I do like it as a saner counterbalance to the religious extremism that is so rampant these days. It is true, as Sheldrake notes, that it was the Reformation that further established the Father as supreme in its Christianity and promoted the suppression of the Cult of Mary as Mother of God, which protestants likened to paganism. This was the beginning, he says, of the desacralization of nature. He seems to despise secular humanism as the heir to the mechanistic science dogma. While I might agree that the humanistic part is often taken too far, the secularism has done much for us to promote freedom of belief and to ward off dominance by irrational religious thought. He does not acknowledge this. While the Reformation may well have enabled an increase in dominion over nature as a worldview I would call it lucky that it later inadvertently led the greater acceptability of atheism as a worldview. If science had to be accompanied by some spiritual belief I think this would be problematic.

Sheldrake does recount the desacralization of nature beginning with the Hebrew suppression of local agricultural goddess cults by the pastoralist Yahweh cult. The whole triumph of patriarchal monotheism over pre-existing polytheistic cults can be seen in a similar manner. Sheldrake’s argument is that there was enough of polytheism and the cult of the Great Mother preserved within Christianity to be functional – many of us would disagree. He does note that the Protestants likened the sub-cults of Catholicism to idolatry but he also sees secular humanism as the ultimate desacralization of nature where any belief in the supernatural is likened to a form of idolatry. Personally, I would rather have secular humanism (in a non-dogmatic form) be the standard against which beliefs are measured than to have some dogmatic religion as that standard. Sheldrake likens the conquest of nature to a takeover by a “scientific priesthood.” While this is true to some extent, is it not better than having religious bullies running things? He does note that it was not only Judeo-Christianity that championed the conquest of nature, as many culturizing hero myths of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome, and other cultures were also celebrated. He sees the metaphor of Faust – first written about in 1587 – as indicative of the bargain made by conquering nature and accepting technology. This is apparent in Goethe’s Faust, written in 1808. Along with Goethe’s Faust, there is also Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus, as a metaphorical story where quest for power (over nature) becomes all-consuming and megalomania ensues. Sheldrake marks Francis Bacon as perhaps the greatest proponent of the conquest of nature by humans and as the originator of the scientific priesthood. Bacon was a lawyer, brilliant at logical argument. He distinguished “natural knowledge” from “moral knowledge.” Basically, he was able to divorce science and religion to some extent, and distinguish facts from values – for which I am grateful but apparently Sheldrake is not. I think it is a bit unfair of Sheldrake to consider Bacon as an originator of humans’ destruction of nature by making these distinctions. Simply trying to understand nature without religious dogma is not akin to announcing our right to destroy the world. It is true that Bacon re-interpreted some of the myths of the past to coincide with the rationalistic quest for knowledge and technology and his utopian tome, New Atlantis, depicted a group of scientists making key decisions for humanity – I would prefer it over superstitious religious dogmatists. But Sheldrake is correct to point out that the scientists have their own dogma. I just think it is more open and flexible than the religious sort. Sheldrake depicts Bacon as some sort of power-hungry demon, operating in the secretive Royal Society of London to plot a power grab. This may have been true but the secrecy was necessary to prevent the vengeance of the Church, both Catholic and Protestant.  He argues well that the philosophy of nature before the advent of mechanistic science was animistic and that the existence of souls gave way to notions of a mechanical universe. Man as microcosm to nature as macrocosm was de-emphasized. I agree that such ideas as this as well as animism in general are intuitive and need not be rejected. The problem is that the animism is often animated with “particular” dogmas so that one belief system becomes dominant. In the case of Christianity there is a long tradition of intolerance to other belief systems to the point of violent suppression. While Sheldrake might point out remnants of pagan beliefs that became incorporated into Christianity in various ways, other pagan beliefs were extinguished by torture and death.

Sheldrake goes on to depict the mechanization and objectivity of science, through the likes of Copernicus, Newton, and Descartes, as somehow unnatural. While I am no advocate of Cartesian science I think Sheldrake’s depiction of these fellows as selfish and power-hungry serves to demonize them to prove his own point. The depersonalization of science he rails against is arguably a good thing and may well have led to great discoveries. Of course, science should not function without some form of ethics but those ethics need not be in terms of religious dogmatism. Success is the proof of mechanistic science as a method. Sheldrake seems to confuse the method as inimical to moral philosophy when it is merely independent of it as a method, not as a competing philosophy. He is right that such methods are a “partial way of knowing.” He sees the conquering and suppression of native peoples of the American West, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as consequences of the worldview where the conquest of nature is paramount. He calls it a “mentality of domination” that developed from the worship of technological progress through mechanistic science. While that may have been true in the past, there is no necessary division of science and ethics in today’s world. It does occur of course, but secular scientists are no less ethical than religious ones.

There is discussion of how nature and wilderness have been depicted and seen through time up to the conflict that developed between economic development and conservation that began in earnest in the 19th century. Sheldrake sees in the conservationists and the American Transcendentalists, the poet in the scientist. Nature was found to inspire with wonder rather than simply be a domain to be dissected. He explores “the hidden goddesses of Darwinism” in the form of the fortune, fate, and chance of evolution. I do agree with Sheldrake that strictly objective mechanistic science is missing a key component – the subjective, emotional, and probabilistic aspects.

He notes that with mechanistic science, an animistic and active nature became inanimate and passive. He also notes that science would come to re-animate things beginning with Newton’s study of gravitational attraction. Earlier notions held that nature was animated by the world soul, anima mundi. Newton could calculate gravity but still believed in the anima mundi to explain it. His belief was that spirit moved matter according to mathematical laws and ultimately according to God’s will. Mechanists (such as Voltaire) did not like Newton’s use of the word “attraction” to describe gravity as it implied the animism that was ousted. Later, Einstein’s theories would show that the gravitational field is space-time itself. Here Sheldrake gives an interesting section comparing “souls” and “fields.” Ancient philosophers like Thales considered magnets to be operated/animated by souls. In the 19th century electromagnetic and related gravitational fields came about and in the next century various quantum fields. In 1600, William Gilbert, the father of modern magnetism, proclaimed that the earth itself was a large magnet. Descartes and others sought to discredit this animistic explanation by proposing a new subtle form of matter called effluvia that conveyed magnetic attraction and repulsion. Maxwell also considered Faraday’s explanation of the electromagnetic field to be propagated in an “ether” but no such mediums were found, only the fields themselves, explained mathematically, and later harnessed. Faraday saw fields as patterns of forces. Einstein concluded that the electromagnetic field is a state, not of matter, but of space. Quantum particles are defined as patterns of vibration in their field, ie. a proton vibrates in a proton-antiproton field and an electron vibrates in an electron-positron field. Atoms were found to be not things but “structures of activity.” Fields have become the basis of physical reality. The concept of energy was adopted in physics in the 19th century and the laws of thermodynamics are rather fundamental. Einstein showed that matter itself is at its root a form of energy so that now we could say that all reality as we know it is composed of fields and energy. In the 20th century, along with quantum mechanics and relativity, we discovered the science of chaos, that many physical systems and processes are indeterminate, non-linear, unpredictable, and chaotic. This, along with the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics set back the determinism of mechanistic science and possibly as Sheldrake thinks, provided “the matrix for evolutionary creativity.” He also notes that “attractors” in chaos science imply internal goals or teleological purposive behavior (however crude) even if towards a goal that is “chaotic.”
Sheldrake also notes – the mystery of dark matter, which he likens to the vast unconscious of the universe:

“The magnitude of this mystery is staggering. The great majority of the matter in the universe is utterly unknown, except through its gravitational effects.”

Fields have subsumed souls as the self-organizing mechanism of the universe. Purposes are modeled in terms of attractors. Thus, he says, animism is returning to our conceptions of nature in newer and better ways.

Next he considers three theories of life and nature: vitalism, mechanistic theory, and holistic theory. Vitalism considers life to be animated with a life force as many ancient peoples believed. Mechanistic theory considers organisms to be inanimate matter governed by the laws of nature - there are no laws of nature specific to life and no purpose of life. Here he quotes Richard Dawkins who calls organisms “throwaway survival machines” made by the selfish genes so they can survive within them. Sheldrake sees the selfish gene idea as an extreme of anthropomorphism. While I am not a big Dawkins fan I do think his style of extreme atheistic science is a better standard to measure against than religious extremism as in general it is less extreme and more based in science. Holistic theory, or systems theory, or organismic theory, treats all nature as alive. It goes further than vitalism to attribute all of nature to a single system and to systems within that system. It is an upgraded animism.

Now come the more interesting parts of the book. The mystery of development and regeneration is examined. Mechanistic biology has been most successful at explaining the physiology of adult organisms. Adult organisms may be structured like and function like machines but development and regeneration are purposive processes, presumably evolving and shaped by natural selection, that are not machine-like. The growth and development of organisms is called morphogenesis. Genetic programs can be described as “inherited, purposive, holistic organizing principles” and in that sense resemble vitalism (as vital organizing factors) which has been discredited among mechanistic biologists. There is still much unknown about how organisms develop and regenerate. In the 1920’s “a number of biologists independently proposed a new way of thinking about biological morphogenesis: the concept of embryonic, developmental, or morphogenetic fields.” They were thought to exist in nested hierarchies, ie. organ fields, tissue fields, cell fields. Their purposes could be modeled in terms of chaotic attractors. When an organism develops, the attractors representing the initial forms change to the attractors representing the final forms.

Now we come to Sheldrake’s Formative Causation theory which suggests that morphogenetic fields develop from a kind of collective habit-memory of previous versions of the same form. He developed this theory in his two books of the 1980’s – A New Science of Life and The Presence of the Past:

“… self-organizing systems at all levels of complexity – including molecules, crystals, cells, tissues, organisms, and societies of organisms – are organized by “morphic fields.

Morphogenetic fields are just one type of morphic field, those concerned with the development and maintenance of the bodies of organisms. Past forms influence present forms through a process he calls morphic resonance. There is transfer of information but no transfer of energy. This idea remains controversial in biology. His work with the crystals of newly synthesized organic chemicals offers scientific support of this hypothesis. Thus novelty affects probability of recurrence. In Sheldrake’s biology, organisms inherit not only genes but also morphic fields. Morphic fields are inherited non-materially, through all members of the species rather than only through direct ancestors. If this is true, then it strengthens our relatedness to one another. Instinctual behavior can be explained by morphic resonance:

“Instincts are the behavioral habits of the species and depend on a collective unconscious memory. Through the morphic fields, patterns of behavior are drawn toward ends or goals provided by the attractors.”

Learning from experience implies memory and even simple organisms do it. The mystery of memory can also be explained by morphic resonance. Neurobiologists have yet to find “memory traces” and one researcher noted that memory seems to exist “both everywhere and nowhere in particular.” According to Sheldrake’s theory, even the current “self” is subject to morphic resonance with the recent past self as well as with the distance past self (with less potency). Damage to the brain that can sometimes remove memories may simply be damage that can impair one’s ability to “tune-in” to the past forms. In comparing to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious as an inherited collective memory he notes that:

“The hypothesis of morphic resonance enables the collective unconscious to be seen not just as a human phenomenon but as an aspect of a far more general process by which habits are inherited throughout nature.”

The mystery of social organization of eusocial species and superorganisms can also be explained by morphic resonance. These organisms develop holistic goals that often supersede individual goals. The synchronization and coordination of schools of fish and flocks of birds could also be explained. Human social habits and tribal customs might also be explained. In closing the chapter he notes that holists, or organicists, have transcended the vitalist-mechanist controversy by stressing the holistic nature of organisms. Proposing new causal mechanisms such as organizing fields, though often rejected by mechanists, may be a way of demystifying the souls concept of vitalists while also mystifying the field concept. Sheldrake sees laws of nature as habits maintained by morphic resonance.

Sheldrake asks whether the laws of nature are also evolving, changing through time, rather than eternal, as mechanists insist. He explores the paradigms of eternity and evolution and their interplay – that everything is governed by eternal laws and yet changes. In an evolutionary universe, God too would have to be evolving, he says. His hypothesis of formative causation simply says that the more something happens, the more it is likely to happen again. This is in line with Eastern notions of habit-energy and karma, though he does not mention it. The present rides in the grooves of the past and the future in the grooves of the present. He offers three ideas of the regularity of nature: eternal, unchanging laws, new laws coming into being as nature evolves and becoming universal, and nature as always evolving as the laws are actually habits built up through time.

In exploring evolutionary physics Sheldrake notes that notions of a primal unified field at the beginnings of the universe are very similar to Platonic conceptions of a world soul that is the source of all other souls. He examines and compares the weak anthropic principle and the strong anthropic principle of cosmologists. The question is whether the universe is purposive, and if so, how purposive. Sheldrake seems to prefer the strong version and beyond, which assert strong purpose and propose design and a creator. Such ideas are, of course, controversial among scientists, and many a religious fanatic would be at the ready to tell you how God did it all according to literal dogmas. A less dogmatic form of God is one possible answer among many possible answers.

Survival requires being in harmony with environment. Such survival takes advantage of nature’s habits and increases survivability even further. Thus, he says, natural selection is due not only to genes but also due to morphic resonance of successful memory-habit-patterns being passed to offspring and fellow species members. Instincts, memories, and growth and development show the influence of habits, possibly inherited. Embryos show evidence of ancestral species through their development – they mimic previous forms (tails, gills, etc) until they grow and transcend into adults. Most new mutations are recessive – the habitual or “wild” type is dominant to the new mutant form. When they become more common through natural selection they become dominant, possibly by becoming more habitually present. Sheldrake gives several examples where morphic resonance working with genetic variation can help explain evolution. He notes that Darwin thought that the spread of new habits could become hereditary but this has been rejected by mechanistic neo-Darwinists. In more recent times the acknowledgement of epigenetic phenomena suggests that Darwin was correct. Sheldrake suggests that such new habits can be passed on through morphic resonance. I am not sure how this pairs with development in genetics of the last 20 years such as niche construction and epigenetics. It may be that morphic resonance is a precursor to epigenetics (where flexible genes can be activated and deactivated according to environmental pressures) which is a precursor to genetic adaptation.  

Next we come to re-emergence of the idea of a living earth. James Lovelock’s and Lynn Margulis’s Gaia Theory is the main manifestation where the earth is seen as a self-organizing and self-regulation system or series of systems. Their evidence involves various atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial chemical cycles tied to biological organisms. Sheldrake sees this as a new animism though Lovelock and especially Margulis may have favored a more metaphorical version. The Gaian view is a systems/holistic/organismic view. He puts forth weak and strong forms of the Gaia hypothesis similar to the anthropic principle. Like Gilbert, Sheldrake seems to see the gravitational and magnetic fields of the earth as a kind of world soul. Morphogenetically, he compares the poles of the earth to the poles of plant seeds (root and shoot) and animal eggs. Interestingly, he asks if the evolution of Gaia is moving toward an attractor and what part humanity plays toward this end. He speaks of the morphic field of Gaia indicated by regulatory processes. It is interesting but quite vague.

Next he examines special times and places, particularly where sacred and mindful activity occurs. Seasonal festivals and places of awe and ceremony tie us to the cycles of nature. He examines the rituals of society in terms of morphic resonance. Many of these are re-enactments that try to preserve the elements of the original rites or myths as much as possible – to conform to the original format. One can see this fitting as a kind of morphic (form) resonance. The past becomes the present and one enters mythic time, creation time or dreamtime. He mentions the differing qualities of time and the German concept of the “spirit of the time”, or zeitgeist. Next is the spirits of places. The spirit of place, aka genius loci, refers to the psychological feeling of a place that people often agree about. One idea, first put forth by T.C. Lethbridge, is that nature spirits are kinds of fields about places, perhaps morphic fields, says Sheldrake. The very word “field” refers to a chunk of land, a place. This is all a bit vague and speculative but interesting. Psychics and psychometrists like to think they can tap into the memory-fields of places. Venerating sacred places, living in harmony with places according to principles (ie. geomancy, feng shui, etc), and the practice of pilgrimage are other ways we tap into the power of place. Pilgrimage involved mindful or sacred intention, while tourism is much more casual.

Ecological movements have influenced various religious traditions to reassess their policies and beliefs about our relationship with nature to some extent. He notes that James Frazer and other anthropologists showed that Judaism and Christianity are very similar to other ancient pagan and tribal traditions in their beliefs in animism and magic. The anthropologists pointed out that they are equally superstitious, rather than one being more sophisticated than another. They all arose from previous shamanism and can be interpreted somewhat on the basis of shamanism. But he does not seem to be at all put off by the insistence some religions claim, of superiority over others and seek to discredit and denounce them as immoral devils. In other words, he does not address the inherent intolerance but simply praises the shamanic roots of the Judeo-Christian traditions. The Virgin Mary is seen as Queen of the Forest in South American ayahuasca cults. Other hallucinogenic plant cults such as the Native American Church are imbued with Christian elements. Thus, there is syncretism of Christianity with animistic beliefs. The Virgin of Guadalupe is modeled after the Aztec mother goddess, Tonantzin. The Cult of Mary was rooted out by Protestantism as a form of idolatry but is being restored somewhat, as in the Anglican Church, which I think is Sheldrake’s particular practice.

He notes that according to formative causation each new pattern of organization in nature develops a new kind of morphic field based on previous ones and since the evolutionary process happens through time it is cumulative. This is due to the habit-memory of nature. He gives three theories of how creativity works: the mother principle – from within (immanence), the father principle – from without (transcendence), and the interplay of the two. He suggests that

“… a view of nature without God must include a creative unitary principle that includes the entire cosmos and unites the polarities and dualities found throughout the natural realm. But this is not far removed from a view of nature with God.”

I am not sure I like that statement as it makes assumptions and has the intention of defining God as a unitary principle, possibly to seem in accord with religious dogma. He goes on to explore religious creative trinities such as the Tao (yin and yang within the circle), Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva, and the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He discusses panentheism where God is both immanent in nature and transcendent above it. He notes that:

“New forms of theology have recently been developing in an attempt to conceive of the God of a living, evolutionary cosmos.”

This is a radical break with tradition and a good one for religionists as long as they don’t practice the intolerance that many do. Sheldrake makes the assumption that we need to make a choice as to our beliefs about the nature of reality. I disagree. We can suspend judgment about such things. It is the making of such choices and especially adhering to them against the choices of others that causes much of the problems in the world. We can simply be kind to one another, learn what we can, and try to keep an open mind about mysteries rather than adhering to beliefs. We need not make a choice.

Sheldrake and others have put forth the argument that humanism, or more specifically anthropocentrism, and its offspring, mechanistic science, have separated us from nature. He advocates a shift from humanism to animism, or one might call it ecocentrism. Ecosystem needs are becoming more important and rivaling human needs in the green movements. He mentions a spirit of repentance developing for the way we, as anthropocentrists, have been treating the environment, so that people are making effort to change the way we are living to be in better harmony with the environment. He compares the prospects of eco-catastrophe with Christian apocalypse, as many have, but I think trying to fit real events to prophecies can be problematic as it reinforces dogmatic beliefs. Do we need a collective spirit of repentance, as he says, or do we just need to work harder and make more effort to be “green”? Oddly, many Christians use the bible and their religion as means to avoid environmental responsibility, using such absurd arguments like – ‘God takes care of the climate so humans can’t really affect it.’ The attitude Sheldrake advocates would be a welcomed change. Sheldrake mentions overly pessimistic environmentalists and their gloom (he quotes Bill McKibben) as disempowering. I tend to agree as they tend to place blame on everyone but themselves, the ultra-radicals. Nothing else is good enough and this often backfires as their greener-than-thou-ism sparks resentment. We are all to blame, not just a few of us.

Finally, he discusses mystical experience, particularly nature experiences. He notes that awe-inspiring childhood memories are often of this sort and that mystical experience is perhaps more common than realized. We may remember having periods of an intuitive connection with nature, particularly as children, he notes. E.O. Wilson has noted that often scientific innovation is rooted in childhood experience and Sheldrake notes that he has interviewed some of his science friends and noted that childhood experiences have often influenced their choices of scientific specialty, himself included.

This is a very good and fascinating book, an important book, even though I don’t agree with parts of it. I look forward to reading more of Sheldrake’s work.

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