Sheldrake welcomes the new year with this blast on the Edge web
THE CREDIT CRUNCH FOR MATERIALISM
Biologist; Director of the
Perrott-Warrick Project; author A New Science of Life
Credit crunches happen because of too much credit and too many
bad debts. Credit is literally belief, from the Latin credo,
"I believe." Once confidence ebbs, the loss of trust is
self-reinforcing. The game changes.
Something similar is happening with materialism. Since
the nineteenth century, its advocates have promised that science will
explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry; science will
show that there is no God and no purpose in the universe; it will
reveal that God is a delusion inside human minds and hence in human
brains; and it will prove that brains are nothing but complex
Materialists are sustained by the faith that science will
redeem their promises, turning their beliefs into facts.
Meanwhile, they live on credit. The philosopher of science Sir
Karl Popper described this faith as "promissory materialism"
because it depends on promissory notes
for discoveries not yet made. Despite all the achievements of
science and technology, it is facing an unprecedented credit
1963, when I was studying biochemistry at Cambridge I was invited to a
series of private meetings with Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner in
Brenner's rooms in King's College, along with a few of my
classmates. They had just cracked the genetic code. Both
were ardent materialists.
They explained there were two major unsolved problems in
biology: development and consciousness. They had not been solved
because the people who worked on them were not molecular biologists -
nor very bright. Crick and Brenner were going to find the
answers within 10 years, or maybe 20. Brenner would take
development, and Crick consciousness. They invited us to join
Both tried their best. Brenner was awarded the Nobel
Prize in 2002 for his work on the development of the nematode worm
Caenorhabdytis. Crick corrected the manuscript of his
final paper on the brain the day before he died in 2004. At his
funeral, his son Michael said that what made him tick was not the
desire to be famous, wealthy or popular, but "to knock the final
nail into the coffin of vitalism."
failed. So did Brenner. The problems of development and
consciousness remain unsolved. Many details have been
discovered, dozens of genomes have been sequenced, and brain scans are
ever more precise. But there is still no proof that life and
minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone.
The fundamental proposition of materialism is that matter is
the only reality. Therefore consciousness is nothing but brain
activity. However, among researchers in neuroscience and
consciousness studies there is no consensus. Leading journals such
as Behavioural and Brain Sciences and the Journal of
Consciousness Studies publish many articles that reveal deep
problems with the materialist doctrine. For example, Steven
Lehar argues that inside our heads there must be a miniaturized
virtual-reality full-colour three-dimensional replica of the world.
When we look at the sky, the sky is in our heads. Our skulls are
beyond the sky. Others, like the psychologist Max Velmans, argue
that virtual reality displays are not confined to our brains; they are
life-sized, not miniaturized. Our visual perceptions are outside
our skulls, just where they seem to be.
The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence
of subjective experience the "hard problem" of consciousness
because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we
understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, for example, the
quality of redness is still unaccounted for.
biology and psychology the credit-rating of materialism is falling
fast. Can physics inject new capital? Some materialists
prefer to call themselves physicalists, to emphasize that their hopes
depend on modern physics, not nineteenth-century theories of matter.
But physicalism's credit-rating has been reduced by physics itself,
for four reasons.
First, some physicists argue that quantum mechanics cannot be
formulated without taking into account the minds of observers; hence
minds cannot be reduced to physics, because physics presupposes
Second, the most ambitious
unified theories of physical reality, superstring and M theories, with
10 and 11 dimensions respectively, take science into completely new
territory. They are a very shaky foundation for materialism,
physicalism or any other pre-established belief system. They are
pointing somewhere new.
Third, the known kinds of matter and energy constitute only
about 4% of the universe. The rest consists of dark matter and
dark energy. The nature of 96% of physical reality is literally
Fourth, the cosmological anthropic principle asserts that if
the laws and constants of nature had been slightly different at the
moment of the Big Bang, biological life could never have emerged, and
hence we would not be here to think about it. So did a divine
mind fine-tune the laws and constants in the beginning? Some
cosmologists prefer to believe that our universe is one of a vast, and
perhaps infinite, number of parallel universes, all with different
laws and constants. We just happen to exist in the one that has
the right conditions for us.
the eyes of skeptics, the multiverse theory is the ultimate violation
of Occam's Razor, the principle that entities should not be
multiplied unnecessarily. But even so, it does not succeed in
getting rid of God. An infinite God could be the God of an
infinite number of universes.
Here on Earth we are facing climate change, great economic
uncertainty, and cuts in science funding. Confidence in
materialism is draining away. Its leaders, like central bankers,
keep printing promissory notes, but it has lost its credibility as the
central dogma of science. Many scientists no longer want to be
100% invested in it.
Materialism's credit crunch changes everything. As
science is liberated from this nineteenth-century ideology, new
perspectives and possibilities will open up, not just for science, but
for other areas of our culture that are dominated by materialism.
And by giving up the pretence that the ultimate answers are already
known, the sciences will be freer - and more