Sunday, November 18, 2012

Caution! Don't Go Near That Theory!

I bought a book the other day by Rupert Sheldrake. It is a scientific book outlying a theory of his which seeks to expand our current understanding of evolution beyond biology and out to encompass the entire cosmos. Habits, he says, are crystalised through the generations, until there reaches a point, after eons upon eons of cosmic evolution, when certain habits take on the appearance of immutable laws of nature. The universe wasn’t always this way; it will not be this way in the far future.

Here is a link to an interview of Sheldrake by the Guardian.

You may have noticed that there is a lot of talk of him as a heretic in the piece. That is because he questioned an assumption scientists have held for centuries. Science does have dogmas of its own. Especially popular science. When a belief in the way things are (TM) is arrived at, given that this belief gains proponents and a certain amount of cultural capital, then it also gains high priests and fundamentalists - true believers that will never err in their conviction.

I use the word “belief” in the way things are because, regardless of the truth of the matter, there is a certain amount of faith involved in anything that a large portion of the population think to be true. We have faith in the people who tell us that things are the way they are, even if we don’t fully understand the complex processes observed that brought someone to such a conclusion.

The scientific method, at the base level, in its purest form, should always be trying to question and overturn its own triumphs of the past. And science has again and again proved that this is its crowning achievement. It grows; it evolves. And yet, that human urge for answers, the desire to have a grasp on reality at a fundamental level, seeps into science. And so it should; this is humanity’s gift.

But we should remember what people like Sheldrake have to say. Basically excommunicated from the scientific community, forced to conduct his science from the fringe, he has an important lesson for any scientist, indeed for any of us who are interested in science and hold what scientists have to say with esteem.

The purity of the scientific method implores us to question all assumptions, even ones garnered by scientific analysis itself. This is not the cultural warfare of the religion science debate. It is affirming the ideally infinite and unstoppable force of skepticism at the heart of the scientific method itself.

I say “ideally” because it is my firm belief (ahem) that no one can exist without a faith of a certain degree, a belief in something (ahem, ahem). Nevertheless, an ideal is a powerful thing. We must not ignore the one that lies at the heart of science itself. Science must never rest on its laurels, proud of its many victories over religion and other world views.

Sheldrake’s “mistake” was to suggest that the laws of nature changed with the evolution of the cosmos. “Heresy!” They said. “He just denied the infinite!” Some things never change!

Besides, the idea of the evolving universe chimes true for me. That is to say I (ahem) believe in it. A recent article in New Scientist (here's the link) suggests that the entropic principle may turn out to a be contender for a theory of everything, given that it explains time and gravity in ways which the standard model cannot. Things build towards complexity, things evolve. Sheldrake seems to be saying, from the little I have read of him (just the introduction to The Presence of the Past) that all that residual material that we relegate to the past continues on, influencing everything that happens and will happen.

It’s just that things are continuously being built upon, systems continuously becoming evermore complex. Can these two theories be united? I am no scientist, but I’d like to think so. That is to say, I’d (ahem) like to believe so.

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