- - Thursday, January 31, 2013

By Rupert Sheldrake
Deepak Chopra, $26, 400 pages

“Should science be a fundamentalist belief system? Or should it be based on open-minded inquiry into the unknown?” So asks prolific author Rupert Sheldrake, a former fellow of Clare College at Cambridge University, where he was director of studies in cell biology and was a research fellow of the Royal Society.

In his new book, “Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery,” Mr. Sheldrake satisfactorily answers a series of 10 questions designed to challenge “core doctrines of materialism in the light of hard evidence and recent discoveries.” Throughout this abundantly referenced book, anecdotal and ample empirical evidence is given to substantiate the claim that more than just matter and energy is involved with the substance and operation of the universe and our experience of it.

Much attention is paid in the book to the difference between the brain and the mind. The materialist view is that the mind is confined to the brain and the analogy to a computer is often made to describe its operation. Thus, the mind results from physical, chemical, electrical and energy properties of the material brain alone. Yet problems arise with this view when real phenomena like consciousness, including memories, need to be explained in terms of the material only.

Mr. Sheldrake explores what has been learned from a wide variety of investigations in memory work with, for example, trained octopuses and moths (from their days as caterpillars) to study the difference between the brain and the mind.

“Science Set Free” brings to the forefront how observed phenomena like wind direction are the result of a balance of forces. Those forces are seen and unseen but are nonetheless slow enough to be detected by instrumentation like a simple wind vane. A hypothesized phenomena such as “morphic resonance,” which Mr. Sheldrake describes in lucid detail, helps to explain how the mind is related to the brain by a combination of sophisticated influences.

By the way, since thought travels faster than the speed of light — you can theoretically get to Mars in 12.5 minutes at the speed of light, but instantly at the speed of thought — attempts to measure its reception and possible transmission is quite a challenge.

Regarding the transmission of thought, Mr. Sheldrake’s discussion of experiments on detection of stares (for instance, sensing when someone is spying on you) is particularly engaging. Such research is relegated to the realm of parapsychology. He points out interesting statistics based on surveys of thousands of research papers in leading scientific journals. Parapsychology studies, which produce so many results that challenge traditional theories of science, use considerably more blind and double-blind investigation methods than the physical, biological, animal behavioral, psychological and medical sciences.

One part of “Science Set Free” that readers may find disappointing is the inappropriate use of anthropogenic climate change skeptics as examples of those who misuse science to promote some supposed nefarious agenda. Mr. Sheldrake implies that such skeptics are simply “oil-industry-funded scientists [who] have continually muddied the waters of the debate.” From this, I take it that Mr. Sheldrake conveniently relies on the proclamations of the very scientific establishment he challenges in so many other areas of research to readily dismiss the honest opinions and real-world experience of those with pertinent education and proficiency in atmospheric science and modeling. After all, it seems that authentic scientific practice would include the right to question dogmatic assertions made in the largely academically — and government — controlled field of climate change.

Regardless, “Science Set Free” explores a vast array of scientific thinking. Besides making a strong argument for the reinvigoration of science through relaxing the firm grip materialism has on scientific practice, the book allows the reader to think “outside the box.” Indeed, Mr. Sheldrake advises that “new discoveries are more likely to happen if we venture off the well-trodden paths of conventional research, and if we open up questions that have been suppressed by dogmas and taboos.”

Anthony J. Sadar, a certified consulting meteorologist, is author of “In Global Warming We Trust: A Heretic’s Guide to Climate Science” (Telescope Books, 2012).

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