Today marks the beginning of an intriguing online dialogue between the influential biologist Rupert Sheldrake and well-known skeptic Michael Shermer, hosted by TheBestSchools.org. Remarks from each will be posted simultaneously throughout the coming three months, covering the topics of materialism in science, mental action at a distance and god and science. Opening statements on materialism in science from Rupert and Michael are now online.
Rupert begins with a review of the top 10 major assumptions of modern scientific materialism, which he wrote about in his recent book The Science Delusion (UK) / Science Set Free (US), and asks Michael several questions in connection with them. The thrust of his argument is that "the sciences are best served by exploring what we do not understand, even if that leads us beyond the limitations imposed by the materialist philosophy." He wrote:
The facts of science are real enough, and so are the techniques that scientists use, and so are the technologies based on them. But the beliefs that govern conventional scientific thinking are an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology.
Michael's openning statements begin with a discussion of the "God of the gaps" argument, wherein any gap in scientific knowledge is explained by some supernatural cause, moving quickly to a critique of intelligent design. To Michael, people who speak of ESP, PSI or intelligent design are simply using placeholders for material causes not yet understood, implying an intellectual laziness. He argues that any true cause would ultimately be natural, not supernatural:
... regardless of what forces may be at work in our world, if they can be measured by our scientific instruments (or by our senses), then by definition they must be natural forces (regardless of what you call them). In other words, what our senses and scientific nets catch are natural fish.
Interestingly, Rupert himself has frequently emphasized that the forces at work in telepathy and other anomalous phenomena must be considered natural, rather than supernatural. As he wrote in Morphic Resonance and Morphic Fields - an Introduction, "There is now good evidence that many species of animals are telepathic, and telepathy seems to be a normal means of animal communication, as discussed in my book Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home. Telepathy is normal not paranormal, natural not supernatural, and is also common between people, especially people who know each other well."
It will be interesting to see how much common ground there is, and yet I expect the differences in what these two men choose to do with the same information will remain wildly divergent. Will Michael acknowledge that unexplained phenomena like telepathy should be studied scientifically, or will he maintain that such research is pointless? Will Rupert accept that everything in nature, no matter how mysterious, is ultimately material causation at work, or will he argue that the philosophy of materialism is fundamentally flawed? Stay tuned to find out.