RUPERT SHELDRAKE INTERVIEW, November 21, 2018
RICK ARCHER: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of interviews with spiritually awakening people and discussions about spiritual topics. I’ve done nearly 500 of these now and if this is new to you and you’d like to check out previous ones, please go to batgap.com B-A-T-G-A-P and look under the ‘Past Interviews’ menu. This show is made possible by the support of appreciative listeners and viewers, so if you appreciate it and would like to support it there is a PayPal button on every page of batgap.com and there’s also a page about other ways to donate. Someone just yesterday called and said she doesn’t really like PayPal and how else can she do it, so there’s a page which explains that. I’m really honored to have as my guest today Rupert Sheldrake Ph.D. Rupert is a biologist and author of more than 85 scientific papers and twelve books, including Science Set Free and Science and Spiritual Practices, and also this one which I’ve been reading a bit, Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home. I actually have several more books to hold up for you but he appears to be popular in Fairfield, Iowa because his several other books were checked out of the library and I couldn’t get them. Rupert has a distinguished academic career, the details of which I’ll post in the description under this video and also on his page on batgap.com, and I’m sure it’s also detailed on his website which is sheldrake.org. So, welcome Rupert, and thank you so much for doing this.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Good to be with you, Rick.
RICK ARCHER: I’m really fascinated with the topics you study and discuss: morphic fields, the relationship between science and spirituality, the delusion and dogmas of modern science, and I think all of these have tremendous implications for the future of humanity, actually, including whether humanity will even have a future. I think it’s safe to say that most of my viewers accept the reality of the things you study and discuss, such as telepathy between animals and things like that, so rather than spending time trying to convince people that these things actually take place, I hope we can spend most of our time discussing the deeper mechanics of how they take place.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Okay, yeah.
RICK ARCHER: So for starters, would you consider morphic fields to be your most important idea, and if so -and you know it seems like a lot of your research is an effort to substantiate it, such as this book Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home – that presumably their ability to know that and other things you discuss in the book is mediated by what you call “morphic fields.” And in your answer, you’ll probably have to define morphic fields because I’ve just thrown the term out without defining it.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Okay, morphic fields – the word ‘morphic’ comes from the word ‘shape’ or ‘form,’ and I started this work by working on developing plants. I didn’t start with telepathy or psychic phenomena or spiritual phenomena, I started with developmental biology, which is what I did research on in Cambridge. And within developmental biology, there’s been an idea since the 1920s of Morphogenetic fields, form shaping fields. The idea is that as a plant or an animal embryo develops there’s a kind of invisible field, like a mold that shapes the developing organism. And fields are structures in space or space-time as a magnetic field is in and around a magnet or gravitational fields in and around the earth and other heavenly bodies. The field of your cellphone is within and around the cell phone, the electromagnetic fields of it. So the idea is that there are fields within and around organisms that shape the structure of that organism. There are similar fields that work on brains and nervous systems to shape behavior underlying the instincts in animals and also underlying our mental activity, and the generic name for all these fields is ‘morphic fields.’ What is new in my take on the hypothesis is partly that I developed the idea of morphogenetic fields – behavioral fields, mental fields, and social fields, beyond what they’ve been developed before. But mainly the new component is the idea that these fields are inherited through a process I call ‘morphic resonance.’ They have a kind of memory built into them so all kinds of things in the universe, including planets, galaxies, crystals, molecules, cells, plants, animals, and social groups – like flocks of birds, have a kind of memory built into them; a collective memory from similar things of the same kind, by the process I call morphic resonance. And just one or two more points about it: this is a testable hypothesis. I first put it forward in my book A New Science of Life, now called Morphic Resonance, in its third edition. It’s developed most fully in my book The Presence of the Past, and it’s testable. It predicts, if you crystallize a new chemical over and over again, the more you crystallize it the easier it will get to crystallize all over the world. If you train rats to learn a new trick in London, rats all around the world of the same breed will learn the same trick quicker everywhere else. So, in a sense, it’s a bit like Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, but it’s not just confined to humans, it’s everything in nature has a kind of memory. In its most general sense what I’m saying is that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.
RICK ARCHER: I gather that you’ve run into some skepticism from some scientists for this whole theory or hypothesis. At first glance it would seem surprising because fields are commonly understood, like you say, the magnetic field and the electromagnetic field and so on, that makes our cellphones work, but is it fair to say that their skepticism has been due to the fact that you take it a lot farther than the understanding of fields in physics by saying that fields can have a memory or that fields can actually shape the structure or evolution of a physical entity, such as a giraffe, rather than just sort of being detected by that entity, the way a cellphone detects electromagnetic field?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes, well I mean the cellphone also shapes the field because it transmits as well as receives, and it’s sending out structured signals.
RICK ARCHER: True, but the field doesn’t make the cell phone, or it doesn’t put a little Apple logo on it or something.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: That’s true, that’s the point. Machines are not made by fields but the fields really apply to all self-organizing systems (morphic fields), and machines and tables and chairs are not self-organizing, that’s why they’re made in factories. But basically, I think it’s controversial because, well, it’s a new idea, and new ideas tend to be controversial. And it’s controversial because it’s introducing the idea of a kind of memory in nature that is not familiar in Western thought. In Eastern thought – in Hinduism and Buddhism -it’s a kind of standard idea: the idea of karma or a kind of memory in nature is very widespread in Eastern philosophy. I didn’t get the idea from there, in fact, I didn’t know that it was widespread in Eastern philosophy, but I lived in India for seven years after coming up with this idea, and I found that my Hindu friends and colleagues were completely unshocked by the idea of memory in nature; they just said, “Oh there is nothing new in this idea.” Whereas in the West people get rather upset by it, or some people do.
RICK ARCHER: But if you speak of Akashic record, of course, everyone’s heard of that.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Exactly, I mean that’s a kind of Theosophical take on the Hindu idea, and lots of people have heard of that in the esoteric world. So, for people who are familiar with those kinds of ideas, it’s not shocking. The people it’s most shocking to are hardline dogmatic materialists.
RICK ARCHER: So, a hardline dogmatic materialist understands how salt is dissolved in water for instance, but what is the nature of the morphic fields such that information can be stored in it, and in what form is that information stored?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, I’m saying the information comes about through morphic resonance, and I wouldn’t call morphic resonance a kind of storage. Storage implies a kind of passive, spatial system, you know, like a book or a CD or a hard drive or a flash drive. Storage implies storage in a spatial location. What I’m suggesting is that memory in general and morphic resonance, in particular, depend on a resonance across time, so it’s not stored in space; it resonates across time. So the collective memory of a giraffe, for example, involves a giraffe tuning into millions of previous giraffes through a kind of collective memory process by resonance, rather than there being some kind of CD up in the sky with all this information in it. So, it’s not really stored; it’s accessed.
RICK ARCHER: Do you think that each species has its own morphic field, such that there’s one for giraffes and another for aardvarks, another for salmon and so on, or is there one morphic field and then different species resonate with different frequencies of it and influence it within a certain range, just as there’s one electromagnetic field and different devices interact within different frequencies of it and also within certain limited ranges?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: I think there are lots of different morphic fields, I mean there are generic similarities obviously, literally, between members of a genus. We classify things biologically, in general, and the fields of the different species of salmon are obviously similar to those of other members of the same genus of salmon, so you could say they’re kind of modulations of the salmon field, but that’s very different from, say the field of chickens, peacocks, pheasants, partridges, and so on, or corals. I mean there are many kinds of organisms. And although it’s true to say there’s one kind of electromagnetic field and many modulations of it and one kind of gravitational field, when you get to quantum physics there are many kinds of fields: the proton field, the electron field, the neutron field, the so-called quantum matter fields are different for each kind of particle. So, there’s a plurality of fields in quantum physics rather than modifications of one fundamental field.
RICK ARCHER: Well, I’m no physicist but as I understand physics, even though there is that plurality of fields, they all emerge from more unified underlying fields – various force and matter fields that arise out of this and that. So I guess maybe the question would be: are there different levels to the morphic field from gross to subtle, the subtle being more universal than the gross? You made a video entitled If God Exists, How Does He or She Work? Could we say that God, using that terminology, would be the Ultimate morphic field, or perhaps using physics terminology, the vacuum state or the unified field could be the alternate field? And whichever terminology we use, that ultimate level is the repository of all information and intelligence in the universe? So would God subsume all morphic fields, being more than the sum of them all?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well yes and no, I mean, the whole hypothesis doesn’t require God. I mean, the morphic fields work at their own level by resonance from one member species to another. And just going back to the unified field theories, within physics there’s an attempt to explain all the kinds of fields, as you said, in terms of an ultimate unified field. I mean the Superstring or M-theory are attempts to explain all the fields of physics from some primordial ten- or Eleven-dimensional field from which they’re all derived. And it may well be that morphic fields are also derived from that, but because physicists ignore them, they’re not part of their attempted synthesis. I mean in a bigger picture they would be. But coming back to God, God is not an undifferentiated entity. In most forms of theology, and I’m excepting Buddhism here because it’s a different case, because it doesn’t strictly speaking have a God, but if you take the Christian or the Hindu conceptions of ultimate reality, then you have on the one hand a ground of all being, which the Hindus call “Sat” – the ground of conscious being. Then you have contents of consciousness (names and forms), which they call “Chit.” There’s a knower and what’s known, and what’s known has formed structure, meaning pattern. In the Christian version, God the Father is the ground of all conscious being and the Logos, the second person of the Trinity is the principal form/order/word/reason/proportion, and so forth. Now morphic fields in one sense are aspects of Chit, or of the Logos, in the sense, they’re to do with form, pattern, and structure. They’re also to do with habits; morphic fields are sustained by habit and therefore they’re different from the creative principle. Any cosmology that’s evolutionary has to have both habits and a creative principle because otherwise you just get stuck in a gruesome habit. So morphic fields are not the totality of everything that there is; they’re an aspect of the totality, they’re the habit or form aspect of the totality, but there also has to be a ground of being itself – the Father in Holy Trinity, or Sat, or, and there has to be a creative principle. In sat-chit-ananda it’s more the spirit principle, the Ananda principle, in the Christian Holy Trinity it’s Spirit, which is free, creative, and not bound by habit. So, I would say they’re part of the Divine nature if we want to interpret them theologically, but not all of it.
RICK ARCHER: What you’re saying is reminiscent to me of the idea of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer, and Shiva the Destroyer. You can’t have any one alone running the show because it wouldn’t be balanced.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Absolutely, that’s another version of the Holy Trinity principle. The Hindus have several versions of it – Brahma Vishnu and Shiva is one of them. In Tantrism, you have the idea of Shiva and Shakti. Shiva in that model becomes the principle of form and Shakti the principle of energy, and they have a common source or ground, so they’re shown locked in an embrace; there’s a higher unity of which they’re both parts.
RICK ARCHER: Jesus is attributed to have said, “Split a piece of wood and I am there, lift a stone and you will find Me.” To me, this means that Divinity or consciousness permeates the manifest universe at every scale. We’re kind of rehashing a little bit here but how does that notion relate to the notion of a morphogenetic field, in your opinion?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, you see, there’s several. In our own nature, there’s the habit nature (our morphic nature), which is essentially unconscious. Most of our habits are unconscious, but there’s also the conscious aspect of our nature which is where the creativity comes in. Consciousness is really about possibilities and choices, and most of our mental life is unconscious. I would assume that everything in nature: atoms, electrons, molecules, plants, cells, animals, galaxies, are mostly creatures of habit like us, and insofar as they have consciousness then it would be considered concerned with choices among possibilities. So yes, I would expect this very principle of the nature of consciousness and habit and form and order to be reflected in every level of nature, but we don’t need to attribute more consciousness to molecules and crystals than we have ourselves. And most of the time when, you know we’re not conscious when we’re asleep except when we’re dreaming, and also most of our daily life, as I say, is habitual.
RICK ARCHER: As you know, there’s a big argument about whether consciousness is fundamental or is a product of the brain, and I want to get into that more specifically with you a little bit later, but on the point you just made, some say that everything, well let me try to phrase this properly, that everything is sort of like an instrument, in a way, which reflects consciousness to one degree or another – like a stone to one degree, or an ant to another degree, a giraffe to another, human to another degree, and so on, but that consciousness is omnipresent just the way the electromagnetic field is, and that different devices can pick up that field, like some say they hear the radio if they have the wrong kind of tooth filling, but a radio does it better. What do you think of that notion, that consciousness is all-pervading and that all the different physical forms and creation are instruments through which it is reflected or expressed to varying degrees?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, I would say that there are many many levels of consciousness that are all-pervading, for example, the cells in our bodies are within the general conscious field of our whole being, and our own individual consciousness is within the consciousness of a social group of the whole society if you like, or of human to the larger culture. The whole of the consciousness of things on earth is within the conscious field of the Sun or the solar system, and that’s within the conscious field of the galaxy, and that’s within the conscious field of the whole universe. So you and I are embedded in the conscious field of Gaia, insofar as Gaia, the planet is conscious within the solar system, within the galaxy, and within the universe. So there are many levels of consciousness and then that would still be a kind of animistic universe. Then there’s a consciousness pervading the whole and transcending the whole universe within which the consciousness of the universe is embedded. So, it’s not as if there’s one superhuman consciousness in which we and everything else is embedded; there are many layers of it within which we’re included.
RICK ARCHER: Could there be both? I mean the Upanishads say, “All this is that” but then the various Scriptures also speak of individual consciousness – jivas.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yeah, I think it’s both. I think there’s a kind of nested holarchy or hierarchy of levels of mind or consciousness, just as everything in nature is organized in a nested hierarchy. Our organelles are in our cells, they’re in tissues, they’re in organs, they’re in bodies, whole organisms are in societies, they’re in ecosystems, in planets and solar systems, and so on. And so, at each level of organization, there’s a wholeness that is more than the sum of the parts, and each level may have its own level of consciousness.
RICK ARCHER: Hmm, a lot of times when I hear you talk about morphic fields I’m sort of reminded of the notion of the subtle body, that we have a subtle body that corresponds with our gross body but is made of subtle matter of some sort, and that is sometimes said to extend beyond the gross body. You see pictures of peoples’ auras and so on. Let me have you respond to that before I have another question in mind, but I want to let you do that one first.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, I think the morphogenetic field, the field that shapes the body, is a kind of subtle body, it’s what the Steiner people call an etheric body. It’s not the only kind of subtle body, we have also another subtle body that emerges when we dream. In my dreams and in your dreams, I imagine in your dreams you have another body, it’s not the same as your physical body because you can walk around and talk to people and do things in your dreams.
RICK ARCHER: I can fly, or I can ski like a pro or whatever.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Exactly, all these things, so we have another body in our dreams which I call the “dream body,” I mean some call it the astral body. I think it’s easier to call it the dream body, it’s less mysterious and more linked to our experience. So I think that the so-called subtle body is very similar to the morphogenetic field, and I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s made of subtle matter. In the 19th century, physicists thought that light was carried by the ether, the luminiferous ether, and so esoteric people in the 19th century wanted to be up to date so they used the latest scientific terminology and called it the “etheric body.” But then science moved on after Einstein when Einstein said there’s no such thing as the ethers, there are just fields, there’s the electromagnetic field, it’s not based in subtle matter, the ether. But esoteric people went on using 19th-century scientific terminology, they didn’t sort of update it. The updated version would be to call it a “field,” not an “etheric subtle matter body,” but this comes this is a matter of terminology or a verbal distinction. Anyway, it’s slightly confusing in the way that in esoteric literature you come across this mysterious word ‘etheric,’ and when you realize this was their attempt to be scientific in the 19th century, it’s that science has moved on and esoteric terminology hasn’t. And ironically, it’s not that it was always called etheric, it was they called it that to make it seem scientific.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah, a lot of spiritual people are accused of doing that these days, to co-opting scientific terms.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes, particularly quantum terminology.
RICK ARCHER: Right, yes, drives physicists crazy. In fact, our friend Deepak Chopra had a run-in with this fellow named Leonard Mlodinow who stood up in an audience and gave him a hard time about things he was saying about quantum mechanics, but they became friends and ended up writing a book together and doing interviews together. So a little bit more about morphic fields if we may. You were talking about nested hierarchies a minute ago, so could we say – I think you have just said – that there’s a hierarchical arrangement to morphic fields, so would it be true to say that let’s say an atom has a morphic field, a molecule has a morphic field, a cell has a morphic field, an organ in our body has a morphic field, our body as a whole does, and our family, our town, our country, our world, our solar system, that these are sort of fields within fields within fields?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes, yeah.
RICK ARCHER: Okay
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yeah, that’s exactly what I’d say, yes.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah, and when we say that it’s hard for me to think of these fields as discrete like you could find exactly where they left off and the next one started. It’s more like just sort of, I don’t know, just kind of frequencies or ranges of influence within a homogeneous – not homogenous, because it has distinctions within it – but within a larger field, but little ripples or areas of fluctuation within the field that ultimately encompasses the whole universe.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, yes. Although these systems do have boundaries more or less, I mean they’re fuzzy boundaries, but every atom has a kind of boundary, in theory, its electron shells, the orbitals electrons extend out indefinitely far, but in practice, the most probable place for them is in a particular region around the atom. And you and I have boundaries, I mean the utmost obvious physical boundary is our skin, but then if we have fields of influence around us, even when people see auras, they don’t stretch out forever, they stretch out a few feet maybe.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Or inches. So, they’re fuzzy boundaries but nevertheless, they’re not equally distributed everywhere in the universe, they’re localized.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah, I mean theoretically they could be picking up our TV signals from the 1950s, some relatively nearby star, but they’d have to have really good detectors because even though there is a fluctuation in the field way out there, it’s gotten very small.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes. So mostly they’re localized, the systems that they organize are localized. My cells are within my body, they’re not in your body or anyone else’s body, and so in that sense, they’re localized in a particular region.
RICK ARCHER: Okay. One or two wrap-up questions about morphic fields and then we’ll move on to a different topic. You say for instance that giraffes have a morphic field and that it’s the existence of that morphic field that helps to shape the form of the giraffe in its mother’s womb and make it totally giraffe-like. Couldn’t that all be explained by DNA, without recourse to morphogenetic fields?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, that’s of course what most conventional mechanistic biologists believe. They believe that DNA can ultimately explain all inheritance of form and behavior; that’s a faith system really. I mean what DNA actually explains is the sequence of amino acids in proteins. It enables a protein to be made from a particular string of amino acids and it codes for that, and some DNA codes for the control of protein synthesis. So DNA enables the giraffe to have the right giraffe proteins and that’s what it’s known to do. The idea that it actually programs for the pattern of spots on the skin and the shape of the neck and the instincts of the giraffe in reaching up and eating tree leaves and stuff, that’s not in the DNA. The assumption is that if you just get the right proteins, they’ll interact in a way that’s far too complicated to calculate yet, but sooner or later somehow this will lead up to an explanation of a giraffe’s form and its behavior. That’s a hypothesis that’s based on what the philosopher Karl Popper called “Promissory Materialism,” it says we can’t explain it that way yet, but give us another 50 years, hundred years, 200 years, thousand years, and we will be able to explain it, that’s why I call it an act of faith. No one has explained the form of any organism just in terms of its genes, but the people who believe that have a very strong faith that it will be possible. I challenged one of the leading mechanistic biologists here in Britain, Professor Lewis Wolpert, to a wager about this, and in 2009 he and I took part in a debate about the nature of life, as part of the Cambridge University Science Festival. He argued that everything could be explained with genes and molecules, and I said it couldn’t. He then said, well just as soon as we’re given the genome of a fertilized human egg, we’ll be able to predict every detail of the ensuing person, including abnormalities, and modify it at will. I said I don’t think so, and I said, in fact, I bet you we can’t, I said, in fact, I bet you a bottle of champagne we won’t be able to do this within 10 years, and he said, well maybe not 10 years, and I said, ok 20, and he said, well maybe not 20, so I said 50. Well, no … So, I said, how long? He said, maybe a century.
RICK ARCHER: Champagne gets better as it ages, doesn’t it?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: [laughing] Yes. Well in fact I said, that’s unrealistic, promissory materialism, a post-dated note for a century. Obviously, it’s an untestable hypothesis. I finally managed to get him down to a 20-year wager. At first, he said, ok, we’ll do it with a mouse and then he got back to me, and this was published in New Scientist, this wager, and in the end, it’s based on port. We bought a case of fine port, we paid half each. It’s maturing in the vaults of the British Wine Society right now, and it’s a Quinta do Vesuvio, which the experts say by 2029 when the wager terminates, should be drinking perfectly. So the case of port is there, but the idea we can predict everything about a human on the basis of a genome, I don’t think anyone believes anymore. First of all, it leaves out epigenetics and the whole inheritance of acquired characters, and secondly, it just doesn’t enable, or give sufficient predictive power. There’s a problem with the missing heritability problem that I discuss in my book Science Set Free. Anyway, the fact is that this wager that Walpert made, at first said, ok, it’ll have to be a chick, it can’t be a human, and I said ok, we’ll shake on it. And he said, no no, oh well I’ve decided a chick is too complicated, it has to be a frog, and I said alright, a chick or a frog. And then he said, well it’ll have to be – he came back a week later – a nematode worm, and a millimeter long. So I said ok, a chick or a frog or a nematode worm. And then even that was too complicated. He discussed it with various people and realized how naive this was. And we finally made it apply to any multicellular organism; that’s how the wager stands. And I think there are very very few people who’d be on Walpert’s side in that wager. If you have any dogmatically mechanistic biological friends, see how much they’re prepared to put on backing up Walpert’s side of that wager, I bet you’d raise more than a nickel or two.
RICK ARCHER: What it suggests to me is that there is an unfathomable intricacy and complexity to the universe which, we can sort of glimpse in bits and pieces but which we may never understand as the intelligence which gives rise to that complexity quote-unquote “understands” it. For instance that people argue that eventually we’ll be able to understand how the brain produces consciousness or how all the memories we have are stored in consciousness, so if I remember something from when I was 2 years old, then that must have been an imprint in some cells in my brain someplace. But whether we’ll ever really understand that thoroughly? I mean, go ahead, respond to what I’ve said so far because I’m rambling.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, that’s, I mean that’s another aspect of promissory materialism. Promissory materialists say, well, which is all materialists really, they say everything can be explained eventually in terms of molecules and matter, including consciousness, but we’re not there yet, but we will be there in five years, ten years, twenty years, a hundred years, a thousand years – I mean it’s a sliding scale, they can keep moving the goalposts. But that’s why I think this is best seen not as a scientifically proven hypothesis, but as a faith system, a belief system based on the faith in some future culmination, devoutly to be wished, which won’t appear in our lifetimes or our children’s or our grandchildren’s lifetimes. I mean it’s essentially, as I say, a position of faith, and it’s a faith that science will come up with all the answers without the need for God or Spirit or any form of more-than-human consciousness. It’s just a belief, and it can be respected and treated as a belief like any other belief system, but it has no claim to superior credibility on the grounds ‘this uniquely is supported by science, unlike any other belief system’, because it isn’t.
RICK ARCHER: That’s a really good segue into what I want to talk with you about next, but before I shift into that let me just ask you a final wrap-up question about morphic fields. If morphic fields were to become an established scientific understanding, let’s say it became the way climate change is believed in by 98% of climatologists or whatever, what impact do you think that might have on technology and culture if we really had that orientation? What would the practical implications of that be?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, it’s hard to foresee these things. When Faraday discovered electric and magnetic fields, he couldn’t really have foreseen television or the internet, so then I would say the one obvious place is in education because morphic resonance facilitates learning, and there might be ways of running our educational system better to take it into account. Secondly, I think it would lead to a different approach to understanding memory. Right now, as you say, it’s all believed to be stored inside the brain, despite the lack of evidence for that. It would enable us to have a better understanding of collective memory. I think we could interpret evolution very differently if we take into account morphic resonance. For example, the development of similar species in Australia and in other parts of the world, parallel and convergent evolution, could depend on morphic resonance, as indeed could parallel discoveries in the human realm, where people come up with similar discoveries independently, in different places. So it would reinterpret a lot of things like that. I think it might even be possible to build a kind of morphic resonance-based technology. I don’t think it would work with digital computers. Morphic resonance works through morphic fields, and morphic fields work by imposing patterns on indeterminate events. There has to be a physical indeterminacy for the morphic hill to get a grip on it, to put an imposed pattern on it. Now digital computers are not like that, they’re highly determinate. So, if there were to be morphically resonant computers that would have a global memory system and so forth, I think they’d have to be analog computers, not digital ones, and they’d have to be ones with a high degree of indeterminacy. It’s possible that quantum computing is going in that direction. In the 1950s, when computing was very young, it was touch and go whether it went along an analog pathway or a digital pathway, and analog computing is much more holistic, it makes models of the process you’re looking at, digital computing breaks it down into sort of yes/no bits and it’s atomistic, granular, whereas analog computing is much more holistic and could deal with indeterminate systems. I think it could lead to an emphasis on a rediscovery of analog computing, particularly quantum computing, which is effectively reinventing analog computing in the quantum realm.
RICK ARCHER: Interesting. I also think that if we had a scientific community that accepted morphic fields as a kind of established reality, then we would have a scientific community that didn’t buy into the materialistic paradigm, and that could result in a completely different orientation of science and technology to the way we treat the world and the environment and so on.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes, morphic fields are part of a holistic philosophy of nature which is not trying to reduce everything to the level of atoms or molecules or subatomic particles, and which would show that we are part of a larger whole. There are many holistic philosophies and this would be a particularly scientific development of a holistic approach to nature, which of course we desperately need. The reductionist approach to nature, treating everything as sort of separate, is obviously disastrous ecologically.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah. Alright, now actually even that point is a good segue. I want to start with a quote from one of your books and that’ll get us into the next phase of this conversation. You say, “The new atheists do not believe in God but they have a strong belief in the philosophy of materialism. Materialists believe that the entire universe is unconscious, made up of mindless matter, and governed by impersonal mathematical laws. Nature has no design or purpose, according to them. Evolution is a result of the interplay of blind chance and physical necessity. Consciousness is confined to the insides of heads and only exists inside brains. God, angels, and spirits, are ideas in human brains; they have no independent existence out there.” So, you’ve given a lot of thought and done a lot of writing on the philosophy of science, I think you studied it at Harvard, didn’t you?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes, I did.
RICK ARCHER: This is a pet interest of mine, I don’t know if everyone listening to this finds it interesting, but I do think it has tremendous implications on the whole for society, as we were just suggesting, and also for spirituality. It’s a deep issue that I think people with spiritual inclinations might want to think about, so let’s discuss it a little bit. Would you like to respond to that quote I just read, for starters?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well I mean, I think that quote says it, I mean, I don’t need to say it again but I think that is the worldview of people who believe in the materialist philosophy, and that’s the reason that they’re so opposed to any form of spiritual or psychic phenomenon because they think they know the truth, although it’s a depressing truth that they know. They think that they’re heroically strong-minded in accepting this depressing truth and anyone who doesn’t is either feeble-minded or stupid or too uneducated or childish to be able to grasp this depressing reality that they’ve seen and others have not. So, it leads to a very arrogant approach, in my opinion, to other people and other points of view. It also leads to a personal isolation, because if you amputate the whole of the psychic and the spiritual world from your life, then I think it leads to impoverished lives. I think it’s not just a philosophical idea; people who put that into practice in their lives, I think are stunting their own experience of life.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah, you make that point in your book Science & Spiritual Practices, and how actually atheists are sort of trying to use substitute forms of spirituality to imbue their lives with some meaning which has been lost through the materialistic perspective.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yeah, well here in Britain we have one of our atheist philosophers, Alain de Botton, who wrote a book called Religion for Atheists. He’s trying to reinvent religion for atheists, with atheist ceremonies, atheist love feasts, and atheists’ sermons on Sunday mornings in London. There’s even an atheist Church in England, The Sunday Assembly. Meanwhile, one of the new atheists, Sam Harris, is now giving online meditation courses. Now the interesting thing about new-type atheism as opposed to old-school atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, the new-school atheists are actually adopting spiritual practices themselves because they do recognize that these are necessary, or at least advisable, for a healthier and better way of living. So, the debate used to be, involved complete rejection of all spiritual practices by atheists; it’s now shifted and many of them accept the value of spiritual practices, it’s just they don’t accept the religious or non-materialist framework to interpret them within.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah, Sam Harris is a dedicated Buddhist practitioner, he spent probably a couple of years altogether on Buddhist meditation retreats and has done all sorts of exploration. What was that quote I heard you say in your interview with Deepak the other day, about how Sam sort of dissed Dzogchen, from which his practice is derived?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes, well I mean Dzogchen, as you know, is a very important Tibetan tradition, and one of its parts is a direct transmission from master to the student. He had this transmission from his master, but then instead of acknowledging and giving thanks for this transmission, which is what just good manners would suggest you should do, he then describes what he’s doing as “plucking the diamond of spirituality from the dung heap of religion.” Well, what a very sort of inappropriate way to express learning something from someone within a well-established mystical tradition, like his Dzogchen teacher. To dismiss everything else that man believes in as a dung heap is just so rude and inappropriate. I just think that this attitude of, it’s arrogance. It’s saying, yes we can take the spirituality – and Alain de Botton says the same, “We need to steal these practices from religion.” Why not just say, “learn” them from religion? It’s, the idea, the problem with this kind of atheism is it’s so arrogant. They think they’re smarter than everyone else, and everything else is sort of contemptibly ignorant except for these practices. It just irritates me, this rudeness, I just see it as bad manners.
RICK ARCHER: Hmm. I suspect that if these people practice some of these practices ardently enough, and if the practices are effective enough, which some of them are, it would be kind of like standing with your one foot in the dock and one foot in the boat and the boat is drifting away; at some point you’re going to fall in the water, you know? Because they’re going to begin to have the kinds of experiences that the mystics of the traditions they derive the practice from reported.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Absolutely Rick, I mean I think that myself. I think that they’re, well, as they start having these experiences more – and what I say to people really if they ask me about this, is that the choice really becomes one between: do you trust your own experience of consciousness through consciousness itself, or do you prefer to put your trust in a theory, the materialist theory, which is only a theory after all, and is a theory which is notoriously bad at explaining consciousness? So if you have an experience in meditation or in other spiritual practices that you’re connected with forms of consciousness greater than your own, do you just dismiss that and say, “Oh no, it’s all in the brain, that’s an illusion,” on the basis of a theory that says it’s nothing but the brain, or do you accept your own experience? And I think in the end, the sanest thing to do is to accept our own experience. I mean, that’s after all the only way we can ultimately judge the nature of consciousness.
RICK ARCHER: Hmm, I think I heard you mention that when you were at Harvard studying Philosophy of Religion you read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and for the sake of the audience, he suggests that there are what he calls paradigms, which are worldviews that get established in science, and that these paradigms have a certain immovability to them, but that they begin to get challenged by anomalies or contradictions, and when those anomalies get plentiful enough and strong enough, then the paradigm ultimately has to give way to a new way of seeing things. So, it seems to me that what you have done a lot with books such as Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, is throw anomalies out there which refute or challenge the materialistic paradigm. I think largely these things have just been dismissed as impossible because they don’t fit the paradigm, but we’ve seen the history of that kind of thinking.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, yes, I think one of the troubles with Kuhn and his analysis is that he was both working on the principle that there’s at any given time one paradigm in science, one model of reality that rules the whole roost. It’s a kind of totalitarian model and unfortunately, this is the way scientists think, that at any given time there’s just one model. Now we don’t think that in terms of religion or art or politics. I mean there are different political parties as here in Britain, you know, we’ve got Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, Labor-Greens, and so on, and then a very variety of fringe parties. And within religion you know, there’s Christians and Buddhists and Jews and Sikhs and Jains, and then within each of those religions, there’s a range of different schools or sects, like Shia and Sunni Muslims. And in a court of law you get to hear equal time on both sides: the prosecution and the defense, you’ve got two points of view represented, whereas in science at any given time, the dominant paradigm is dominant and it controls who gets promoted, who gets funded, who gets the jobs in universities, what the school and university curriculum is. I personally think what we need in science is more pluralism, you know, being able to tolerate different points of view and different approaches instead of it’s all mechanistic materialism. If there’s one reason there’s so much resistance to a holistic worldview, it’s the idea that if morphic resonance and a holistic approach take over then it would be all just morphic resonance and all these other guys would lose their jobs. It’s based on this kind of winner-takes-all way of thinking which is, I think, the wrong way to approach it. Kuhn didn’t really challenge that; he portrayed science as going through a series of paradigms, a bit like military dictatorships in South America where one hunter is replaced by another. I think actually we need to go beyond Kuhn as well, we’ve got to go more to an idea of pluralism, of scientific approaches rather than the idea there should be one dominant paradigm.
RICK ARCHER: I think that we see a similar thing in religion, where many religions say, “Ours is the only one, everything else is bogus.” I think it has to do with people’s desire for some sort of security and a feeling of superiority. It’s just, it’s a psychological thing really.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yeah, I think so. And people who’ve made science their worldview, scientific fundamentalists like the new atheists and the materialists, have rejected religion and rejected their traditional ancestral belief systems and replaced them with science as an ideology or a worldview or a faith system. It’s very, very important for them to maintain this, and it’s important that it gives some certainty and a sense of superiority, which is what gives us an unhealthy attachment to scientific dogmatism. And for people who … I lived in India for seven years and I worked in an agricultural Institute with Indian scientists, and they weren’t particularly attached to the mechanistic world view; you learned it at college, you got a job doing research in science, but as soon as they got home in the evening most of them turned into regular Hindus or Muslims or Jains or Sikhs or whatever. They had no particular emotional attachment to this worldview. But for people who’ve made it their only worldview and they think it’s the only path to truth, they’re very attached to it and get very upset if it’s challenged.
RICK ARCHER: I wonder if there’s some correlation between the Indian scientists you just described and Western scientists, and Indian religion and Western religion. I mean because Indian religion is very pluralistic, and when Jesus was brought to India the Indians said, “Okay, great, we’ll put Him on our altar too.” They didn’t buy into this “this is the only way” attitude.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: I think in India there’s certainly a very pluralistic and tolerant approach, it’s part of the Hindu way of seeing things, and I think that their approach to science is similar to that. I think that within the West there has been a tendency for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to think that theirs is the only way. In practice, there’s a whole range of schools of Judaism and schools of Islam and schools of Christianity and different sects and so on. Nevertheless, there’s the ideology that suggests there’s “one true path.” I think, on the whole, ironically, Christians have given that up. The Catholics and Protestants are not at each other’s throats anymore, and the Eastern Orthodox are all quite friendly. And there’s no kind of internecine warfare going on in most parts of the Christian world today. But scientists, in a foundational story – the Galileo persecuted by the Inquisition – is the idea that science takes over and becomes the true faith, as opposed to the church. And science has never, is still locked into this kind of “the one true path” ideology, which is why paradigms when they get dominant tend to be dominant. And of course, they can change, science would never progress if they didn’t, but as we were discussing earlier, the model is you have one particular way of looking at things like the mechanistic materialist paradigm dominates science in every country in the world today, and when there’s a revolution and it’s overthrown, then I dare say most people want the new system to dominate everywhere. But maybe it won’t, maybe we will have Indian science, which takes more seriously yoga and Ayurveda, and Chinese science which takes more seriously Qigong and Qi and Chinese medical principles and so on. I think that would be a healthy thing actually, a pluralism within science.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah. I guess you know science aspires to get it all figured out you know, to really just sort of have a complete and reliable and unchanging understanding of reality, of how the universe works, but obviously, we’re all blind men feeling the elephant, so far. Everyone has their own little piece of it and no one’s individual piece is complete, much less the totality being complete.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yeah.
RICK ARCHER: Regarding atheism and materialism and so on, I mean I can’t even walk down the sidewalk without feeling a sense of awe and wonder as I look at blades of grass and little bugs walking along and things like that and contemplating the sort of intricacy and amazing intelligence apparently orchestrating these things. If the universe is random and meaningless, and I know you’re probably not the right person to speak for atheists, but if the universe is random and meaningless, how do you think atheists explain the beauty and complexity of it, how that complexity organized itself out of homogeneous hydrogen?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, I mean they talk in terms of laws of nature providing the basic principles of order, which they take for granted; they assume they were all there at the moment of the Big Bang. And they assume evolution is a matter of chance events and natural selection. So I mean they have a way of trying to explain it, but in my view, it just diminishes the phenomenon. In my book Science and Spiritual Practices, one of the practices is connecting with the more than human world, which is really about the relation to nature. And even quite a lot of atheists have this as a practice. They’re, in their spare time would be moved by, as everyone would be, by looking at the heavens or beautiful landscapes or mountains or trees or flowers, or the beauty of animals and so on. So, I think actually this is probably the one spiritual practice that even many atheists would acknowledge, but they wouldn’t interpret it in terms of a consciousness greater than their own or greater than the natural world.
RICK ARCHER: Even connecting with the human world, I mean I’ve seen this amazing animation of what goes on inside of a cell, I forget who made it, but you can find it on YouTube. As you watch it you’re just awestruck, I mean they say that a single cell is as complex as, at least Tokyo, and at the same time it’s self-replicating and self-repairing. To consider that to be the product of random chance or accident is ludicrous, in my opinion.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Mmm, well I think so too.
RICK ARCHER: So again, just to emphasize that point a little bit longer, you and I are on the same page on this, but it amazes me that people can have the perspective that somehow all this complexity and beauty came out of nothing. I think as Brian Swimme puts it, you leave hydrogen alone for 13.7 billion years and you get giraffes and rosebuds and opera and all that. Why should such order and complexity come out of random homogenous hydrogen? There obviously seems to be some intelligence or something that is making this happen.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yeah well, hmm, I think there is, exactly how it works is less clear. But even dogmatic materialists have smuggled the principles of law and order into the universe, I mean for example Lawrence Krauss, who wrote the book A Universe from Nothing. He’s a dogmatic materialist if ever there was one. He doesn’t actually produce the universe from nothing in that book, he starts from the quantum vacuum field, which is full of energy and just by fluctuating can create a new universe, lots of them, and he starts from the laws of nature. My critique of Lawrence Krauss is that he’s so theologically conservative, I mean the traditional Judeo-Christian model is that you start from an infinite Source of energy – the spirit, the Spirit of God is an infinite Source of creative energy, and you also start from a primal source of order – the laws of nature, which are aspects of Logos or the Word of God. So he starts with his secularized equivalent to the Word of God and the Spirit of God, and then generates the universe. The only difference between his model and the theological model is that his starting principles are unconscious, whereas in most traditional systems they’re conscious. But how you can have laws of nature, which are basically mathematical ideas beyond space and time, in a totally unconscious material universe is left unexplained. So, in a way, I think even atheists presuppose these Divine ordering principles.
RICK ARCHER: But they don’t address them or confront them in any way, they just sweep them under the rug.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes, take them for granted, yes. If we had an ideal scientific community without any of the small-mindedness or bias or dogmatism, and an ideal spiritual community, again without those qualities but just, treating spirituality as an empirical investigation of deeper realities, how do you feel that science and spirituality might complement one another? And do you feel they might actually merge into a common sort of discipline using different tools to investigate the nature of the universe?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, yes, I mean that’s one of the reasons I wrote my book Science and Spiritual Practices because I think they are converging. I think that practices like meditation which are a spiritual practice, which gives a direct insight into the nature of consciousness- a direct conscious experience- can also be studied scientifically, the physiology of the brain scans and all that kind of thing, the effects on health and well-being and so forth. There is already a kind of convergence going on between these realms, and I think that it’s not inconceivable this could happen quite quickly. It’s happened before. In the medieval period in Europe, there was a form of theology that was quite philosophically sophisticated, with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as understood by people like St. Thomas Aquinas, was pretty sophisticated. And they also had a fairly sophisticated mathematical understanding and were very accomplished in engineering terms. I mean you think of those great cathedrals of Europe like Lincoln and Chartres and Canterbury and so on. These are astonishing structures built in, you know, 1200, 1300. They had ropes and pulleys and horse carts and things and yet they built these structures which are still some of the most impressive buildings in Europe. They were a triumph of technology and mathematical understanding and sacred geometry and reflected an understanding of nature, which was not in conflict with God or the realm of the Spirit but in harmony with it.
RICK ARCHER: Do you think that, I mean I guess science tries to exclude subjectivity because it’s unreliable, but do you think that we could consider the human nervous system and mind a scientific research tool that could in some way have its use standardized, such that the deeper realities probed by mystics and discussed by mystics could be the subjects of an empirical investigation? Again, using this tool, as opposed to a tool external to this tool of the human nervous system?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Oh definitely, I mean that’s after all what meditation is all about, meditation is about exploring consciousness through consciousness itself. And there are definite techniques in meditation that are taught in all different religious traditions, and people who do these things have similar experiences. I think these are definitely ways of exploring consciousness and creating a kind of consensus reality. I mean science is more about consensus than about excluding subjectivity. I mean, after all, every time a scientist looks at a dial or a meter or digital display in the laboratory, it’s a subjective sensation and scientific theories are subjective. Take away all human beings and there’d be no scientific theories left, I mean they exist in human minds. Scientific discussions are about people discussing ideas, and without consciousness, you’d have no perception of the universe. I don’t see that the exploration of consciousness is unscientific. And even in regular medicine and psychological research, subjectivity has to be part of it. I mean if you’re doing research on painkillers for example in a pharmaceutical company, there’s no objective measure of pain and yet there are tens of thousands of people doing research on pain and producing products that sell for billions of dollars, all about pain, which is purely subjective. So, you couldn’t say the whole of that area of research isn’t really part of valid medicine or science; it clearly is a major part of it. And also, I mean if you look at the emerging science of psychedelic research, now that this has become a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry again, when people are studying the effects of LSD, DMT, I mean other drugs, there are measurable effects on brains of course, but there are also intersubjective observations you can make by asking lots of people about their experience. You find out the natural history of what they’re experiencing and there are certain features in common, you can characterize the effects of these drugs- the natural history of their effects and the physiology, and the way they interact with peoples’ minds or consciousness, and also the effects of this interaction.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah, I would say that even though the Large Hadron Collider or the Hubble Space Telescope and so on can reveal things that the unaided human nervous system would never be able to discover, the human nervous system can discover other things which no man-made tool can discover because it has so much … it’s such an intricate tool in and of itself. All these subtler realities discussed by mystics are just as legitimate a part of the universe as distant galaxies or the Higgs-Boson, they’re just a different thing that this tool, if put to proper use, can help us understand.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Exactly, I don’t see any conflict at all. And even in regular psychology, the rather more sort of mundane kind of experimental psychology, it’s all based on people’s reports of their perceptions you know: “Do you see this shade of gray darker or lighter than that one?” I mean in the end, it’s all based on people’s subjective reports.
RICK ARCHER: A few questions have come in from Listeners. Let me ask a few. This is from Rahul Kulkarni in Bangalore, he says: “I’m just a commoner with a very poor science background but a lot of what you say reminds me of Taoism and what Nisargadatta Maharaj called the “Nisarga Yoga” or natural yoga of the universe. It seems to me that we are in the framework of nature, our own self, and yet fundamentally out of touch with it. Could you speak about spiritual practice or our attempts to go back to the effortless state in light of your background and understanding? And also, what going back to the intelligence of nature or self would look like, to you?”
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, I mean this is a huge question. I think that one of the things about Taoism is that it sees nature and human life as a kind of interplay of polarities, I mean it’s, one of the most central ideas is yin and yang, but they’re not two separate things. The Taoist images- the yin and yang- are contained in a circle. The Tao is the whole which contains these polarities which are always interacting, and we can experience that in our own lives. We can experience it in nature itself and we can see these polarities everywhere in nature. I was recently reading a collection of early Taoist texts and one of the first mentions in Chinese literature of yin and yang is when they’re defined as the sunlit and the shaded side of a hill. The side that’s in the sun is the yang side, the side in the shade is the yin side and they’re clearly, it’s a polarity. And that can change as the sun moves- the yang side would become different, so it’s a moving polarity. That kind of insight into the nature of nature is actually something quite compatible with science. I mean so much in science is about polarities: positive and negative magnetic poles, you know put north and south – positive or negative charges. In animals and plants, the polarity of root and chute, and in a head and feet, and back and front. And I mean when you look at the world in that way, well it’s possible to see so many interplays of polarity, and also in our own lives, the polarity of sleeping and waking. I find it a helpful way of modeling reality in a kind of flexible, fruitful manner. I think when we look at our own consciousness in the light of that philosophy, and the interplay of the different centers in our body and the energy that flows through it, again, it makes a lot of sense. Chinese medicine, which has a lot of emphasis on the flow of energy and patterns of flow, fits into that kind of worldview. It’s a much more naturalistic worldview than mechanistic materialism, and I think there’s a lot to be learned from the Taoist approach, myself.
RICK ARCHER: Thank you. Here’s one from Saguna Muller in Austria, she asks: “Is morphic resonance an extension of the physical concept of resonance in that it replaces matter and oscillations with a relationship between series of actions or events?”
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes, it’s a good question. I mean regular physical resonance is when you have things that are similar in their vibratory structure, they can influence each other, like acoustic resonance is the best illustration. I notice that when you put the sustaining pedal down on a piano and you chant and say “Oooo” into the piano, it’ll reflect back “Oooo.” And then go “Aaahh,” it’ll reflect back “Aaahh,” that these different vowel sounds have the same note, but they have different resonant overtones, and the strings on the piano pick that up and reflect it back. Radio is of course a form of resonance. You have a particular frequency that the radio or TV set is tuned to and you have an electromagnetic resonance. Morphic resonance is like that, it’s about the automatic recognition of similarity in vibratory patterns. And everything in nature is vibratory: atoms, molecules, crystals, the patterns of activity in cells, and our bodies, all have this rhythmic or vibratory quality. So morphic resonance is a relationship between vibratory patterns of activity across space and time, from the past to the present. In a sense, it’s analogous to familiar forms of physical resonance like acoustic and electromagnetic resonance, and electron-spin resonance, as used in medical imaging- there are a lot of atomic resonance patterns looked at there. It’s analogous to all those and it’s a sort of extension of them in the sense that it takes those same principles and says, well there’s another kind of resonance in nature which is of influences of vibratory patterns, the information of those patterns are traveling across time and space.
RICK ARCHER: Good. Here’s one from Matt in Chicago, Matt asks: “I’ve been practicing types of energy work and uncovered tons of evidence for a non-physical reality but none of this evidence is empirically verifiable. How do you suggest materialists can be helped to understand this as legitimate evidence and not a hallucination of the physical brain?”
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, it depends what kind of evidence. I mean if you’re looking at things like telepathy then it’s possible to get perfectly good empirical evidence. I mean I’ve done lots of experiments on this with dogs and cats, and telephone telepathy- one of my current research projects- can you tell who’s calling on the phone? In these experiments, you have four callers and one of them is picked at random. You get the call, it’s one of these four people, you have to guess which one out of the four before you answer it or look at the caller ID. So those, and because they’re picked at random you can’t do it on the basis of regular knowledge of their patterns of activity. So all this is, these are examples of measuring things that would normally be considered elusive or subjective; you can measure quite a lot of these things. I think when we come to conscious states, as you and I, Rick, were just discussing, you can study the effects of meditation, ask people to report what they discover in these states of meditation, what they discover in particular psychedelics and other things that affect consciousness. It’s possible to build up a kind of empirical science of subjective experience.
RICK ARCHER: You can also measure the neuro-physiological correlates of this.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Oh of course you can, yes you can, there’s no problem. All these spiritual practices, in my book Science and Spiritual Practices, all the spiritual practices I’m talking about have scientifically measurable effects. It’s not as if we’re talking about something completely undetectable. All of them have measurable effects on people’s health, on well-being, on neurophysiology, on brain patterns, even on brain anatomy.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah, I’m just firing these questions at you quickly without too much discussion because I don’t want to take up too much of your time. But here’s one from KP in Mumbai India: “Can Rupert talk about his experience”- this is a sweet one- “can Rupert talk about his experience with Father Bede Griffiths? Was he trying to make Vedanta compatible with Christianity as we understand it? What particular kind of practice was Bede engaged in? What was Rupert’s personal sadhana with him?”
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Oh, that’s an interesting question. When I was in India, I spent five years working in an agricultural Research Institute, The International Cross Research Institute for The Semi-arid Tropics in Hyderabad, and what I was doing there was regular agricultural research, I was a plant physiologist. I was working with breeders and entomologists and pathologists and agronomists trying to improve Indian crops, and well actually international crops and cropping systems, so that was my work. When I was in India, I explored Hindu traditions and Sufi traditions and also re-explored or reconnected with the Christian tradition, in which I was brought up but which I’d left behind when I became an atheist as a student, so for years I identified as an atheist. For me what was important in this ashram is that Father Bede Griffith was an English Benedictine monk, deeply grounded in Western mystical theology- the Great Western mystics and the philosophy of people like Thomas Aquinas as well as Greek philosophy, but also had made a deep study of Indian philosophy and gave discourses on the Upanishads. What he was trying to do was to find ways of relating these two traditions to each other, what they had in common and what made them different. He wasn’t trying to say they’re exactly the same thing. He was saying there are real differences but there are also real similarities, and each can learn from the other. In his ashram, each day there were two periods – morning and evening – of meditation, which I did sitting on the bank of the sacred River Cauvery; the ashram was in Tamil Nadu on the bank of the Cauvery. There was also yoga, it was vegetarian- we had typical Indian food sitting on the floor. The chapel of the ashram was shaped like a temple, so in many ways, it was an Indian style of living and spiritual practice. It also had at its core the Benedictine principle of chanting together and praying together and the celebration of the Mass once a day, so it combined in, I thought, a creative and mutually illuminating way the Christian and the Indian traditions without trying to say this one’s right and this one’s wrong but learning from them both. What was most … the meditation aspect fitted well, the idea of the philosophy of nature on the whole fitted well, the main difference was in the philosophy of time. The Judeo-Christian tradition puts a strong emphasis on Divine activity in history and in evolution, whereas the Hindu view of time is ultimately cyclical, things rise and fall, universes come and go. You can find ways of saying, “Oh well, we live in a very long cycle. The universe will eventually dissolve and another one will start,” and it could fit into a Hindu cosmology like that, but in practice, from year to year, there’s much more sense of the involvement of the Divine in history in the Judeo-Christian system than there is in the Hindu one.
RICK ARCHER: It must have been a lovely atmosphere and a very wonderful routine to be living in that ashram.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: It was wonderful, I mean I lived there two years altogether, and Father Bede was an inspired and holy figure but also highly sophisticated philosophically, and at the same time a mystic with deep mystical experience and lived very very simply. He wouldn’t allow any machinery in the ashram and one time he went off on some foreign trip and he took the ashram bullock cart to the nearest railway station. We had bicycles, but he lived very simply. He wasn’t like a lot of Indian gurus with fleets of Rolls Royce’s or anything like that.
RICK ARCHER: [laughing] Here’s a question that came in from Mark in Charleston, South Carolina: “Can you elaborate on your theory of morphic resonance and how it functions in human consciousness through the movements of human life and culture and the changes that are ongoing from moment to moment?”
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well, I already talked about the basic principles of morphic resonance so what I’d say is that the in human life, we have on the one hand a collective memory that we all draw upon, which Jung called the “Collective Unconscious” – it shapes our own experience, our dreams, our understanding. We learn things more easily that other people have already learned, including language. It’s also involved in cultural transmission. It’s easier to learn things other people have learned, like riding a bicycle or snowboarding or skateboarding or computer programming. It’s also, as I show in my new book Science and Spiritual Practices, plays a very important part in religious practices, particularly rituals. Rituals are common to all religions. All religions and national cultures, like the American Thanksgiving dinner, have a conservative quality, you do things the same way they’ve done before and you do them with the same languages, often archaic languages, like Sanskrit in Brahminic rituals or ancient Egyptian in the Coptic Liturgy of the Coptic Church in Egypt. And so these very ancient practices repeated many times, I think create the conditions for morphic resonance and enable those who take part in the rituals to be connected with those who’ve done them before, by morphic resonance. In fact, I think morphic resonance is a key feature in rituals and they’re a key feature of human societies and all religious traditions.
RICK ARCHER: Hmm. You also talk about pilgrimages in your book and I’ve been to some holy places, not as many as I would like but the atmosphere in some of these places is really palpable, it’s very profound. In some cases, people have been going to them for thousands of years and with a reverential attitude, and it’s built up a Shakti or an atmosphere in the place that really influences anybody who comes there.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes, very definitely. I mean I think by morphic resonance you tune into the memory of people in that place before, because you’re under similar sensory stimulation of the place itself- the atmosphere, the smells, the visual stimulus, etc., the quality of the place. What tunes you into those who’ve been there before which is I think why in places where people have prayed or had mystical experiences in the past or where a lot of rituals have been carried out, you can often feel this atmosphere. And I first got into pilgrimage when I was living in India going to Indian pilgrimage sites, mainly Hindu temples, also holy trees and sacred rivers, and so on because in India there are many kinds of holy places. And of course, everywhere in the world, there are these sacred places. In England, we have great cathedrals and also pre-Christian holy places like Avebury and Stonehenge. One of the things I discuss in my book Science and Spiritual Practices is by reconnecting with these traditions, especially if one walks to these places at least the last bit. It’s much more powerful if one walks for part of the way at least, rather than just arriving in a car or taxi, stepping straight out, and getting straight into the holy place. And then something I learned in India that I always do here in England is before entering a Cathedral or a holy place, walk around it first, circumambulation, because that makes it the center and it makes it much more powerful when you enter it to being around it first. And Hindus, when they visit temples, generally speaking, circumambulate them before they go in, and of course, Muslims circumambulate the Kaaba in Mecca. Well, they don’t go into it because it’s a kind of cube, you can’t go in, but the center of their pilgrimage is walking around it. And then of course people circumambulate Mount Kailash when they go on pilgrimages there – Buddhists and Hindus.
RICK ARCHER: Arunachala?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yeah, yes, or the hill of Arunachala, yes.
RICK ARCHER: I know you’re pressed for time because you’re on a writing project, do you want to wrap it up or do you have a little bit more time
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Well should we take one more question, one more point, if you’d like to.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah, I have one here. You sent me about ten points of things we might discuss and I hope we’ve hit on some of them but here’s one that interested me especially- your points nine and ten, I’ll kind of combine them. You say: “The very existence of consciousness is the “hard problem” for the materialist ideology of many scientists. It’s called that, it’s called the “hard problem.” In order to solve the hard problem many materialists have now adopted the philosophy of Panpsychism, the idea that there is some level of mind or consciousness throughout nature, not just in brains, and that even electrons may have a kind of mind. More startlingly, even the sun may be conscious and all the other stars.” The reason that surprised me is that it seems like such a non-materialistic attitude that there could be some level of mind or consciousness throughout nature. It seems like they’re coming over to our camp so to speak.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: That’s I think one of the most interesting intellectual developments in the last decade or so, that the hard problem is the very existence of human consciousness. If you believe as a materialist that matter is unconscious and everything’s made of matter, then we ought not to be conscious. And some materialist philosophers say that we’re not, incredibly enough, they’re called eliminative materialists.
RICK ARCHER: You have to be conscious to say that don’t you?
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: [laughing] Of course you do, and that’s why it’s so absurd, but these people hold down well-paid posts at major universities in Britain and America. And some of them say consciousness is an illusion but illusion is itself a mode of consciousness, so it doesn’t explain it, and that’s why it’s the hard problem. They go round and round in circles trying to eliminate consciousness or dismiss it as an illusion and yet it won’t go away, so that’s why some of them are now jumping ship. As the sinking ship of materialism hits the rock of the hard problem, they’re adopting what they call Panpsychism, which is really another version of animism: the idea there’s mind or consciousness throughout nature. And by saying that even electrons and atoms have some low- level of consciousness, the emergence of consciousness in human brains then becomes a difference of degree, not of kind. Then that becomes a way of trying to say, well we’ve solved the hard problem because actually matter itself is conscious. Now some of them still call themselves materialists but it’s not really materialism at all, it’s materialism expanded so far that it’s no longer … I mean I personally don’t care that much what they call themselves, but the fact is it’s just confusing to have people saying that’s materialism when old-style materialism, and still the dominant kind, is not saying that. Anyway, once they expand and open up this question, then the debate so far has mainly been about atoms and molecules and nerve cells, but once you start that way of thinking it’s a slippery slope and I’m glad they’re on the slippery slope. I want materialists to slip on it faster and further. That’s one reason that I’m so interested in the consciousness of the sun, because if self-organizing systems are conscious, they’re not just little ones like atoms but also big ones like stars should be conscious. All traditional societies have taken the view that the sun is conscious- it’s a god or a goddess in India, “Surya.” I’ve been doing for forty years every morning the Surya Namaskar, the sun salutation.
RICK ARCHER: Good for you.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yoga exercise is good for you. Also, part of my practice in Father Bede’s ashram and when I was living in India was chanting the Gayatri Mantra.
RICK ARCHER: We were just playing that this morning, my wife just memorized it.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: It’s a wonderful mantra. It’s asking the Divine splendor of the sun to illuminate our meditation. And so, you know, the sun is a portal for Divine light and Divine consciousness on this view, and so are the other stars. I think when we see that, our view of nature and our experience of nature is so much more immersive and enhanced compared with seeing the sun as nothing but a nuclear bomb, a hydrogen bomb, just a physical process. So for me, the way that materialists are now going over to Panpsychism, which is effectively animism, means sooner or later they’ll have to consider the sun and the other stars as conscious beings, and then the whole galaxy as a conscious being, and then ultimately the whole universe as a conscious being, and that’s traditionally called pantheism. But the whole universe as a conscious being may not be the ultimate, there may be a transcendent mind within which the universe exists, and which transcends the universe, and that’s panentheism. In my own view, I would call panentheistic- that means God is in nature and nature is in God. Pantheism is God is nature, old-style theism is God’s outside nature, making it and controlling it but rather separate from nature. Panentheism: God’s in nature and nature’s in God, and that to me is the understanding that makes the most sense. It’s also the understanding that’s just very natural within the Hindu tradition and indeed within the medieval Christian tradition too.
RICK ARCHER: Some people tag the term “evolutionary” onto that: “evolutionary panentheism.”
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes, I would say I would use that term, yes.
RICK ARCHER: Michael Murphy who founded Esalen is writing a book about that and others have been discussing it, but I guess it’s the idea that the whole universe is sort of as you say, in God and God is in it, and the whole thing is evolving. It’s like one big evolution machine moving along.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Or evolution organism; it’s kind of like a great organism which is evolving. Yes, well I’m glad to hear Michael Murphy’s doing that because he’s a great inspiration for some of my own work, particularly in his understanding of human evolution involving not just mental but physical evolution through sports.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah, I should check with him. I invited him for an interview a few years ago and he said, “Well, I’m 85 years old and I’m trying to write this book, and so I don’t want to do an interview.” Maybe if he’s finished with the book, he’ll do one.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes.
RICK ARCHER: Anyway, I really appreciate your time Rupert, I really enjoyed this conversation. Talking to somebody like you gets me firing on all cylinders.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: It was fun for me too Rick, and I appreciate the questions too. They’re really good questions that people sent in.
RICK ARCHER: Yes, they did some nice ones. So I’ll wrap it up. I’ve been speaking with Rupert – I almost said Spira. You know Rupert Spira probably there.
RUPERT SHELDRAKE: Yes.
RICK ARCHER: Yeah, he’s a good friend. Rupert Sheldrake. And this is part of an ongoing series of interviews, if you’d like to check out previous ones as I said in the beginning, go to batgap.com and just explore the menus, you’ll see a number of things. You’ll also see it exists as an audio podcast for those who like to listen while commuting or whatever. Next week I will be interviewing a woman about shamanism, which I haven’t really covered too much on this series, and after that, I’ll be airing a number of interviews that I recorded when I was out at the Science & Nonduality Conference. So, if you’d like to be notified of these you can subscribe to the YouTube channel and YouTube will notify you, or you could come to BATGAP and get on the email list, and I’ll send you an e-mail when each new interview is released. Thanks for listening or watching and thank you so much, Rupert. And good luck with your deadline, I hope you make it.