Is Nature Mechanical?

By Michael Edmonds 12/05/2013 3


“Is Nature Mechanical?” is the name of the first chapter in Rupert Sheldrake’s book “The Science Delusion”*, a book in which Sheldrake challenges what he calls the “Scientific Creed”, ten beliefs which he claims that “most scientists take for granted”. (I previously posted a TED presentation where Sheldrake outlines and criticises his “Scientific Creed”)

In “Is Nature Mechanical?” Sheldrake begins by describing the evolution of scientific theories which attempted to explain how nature works, from early religious and spiritual beliefs involving god(s) and/or the soul, through to a more mechanistic approach, begun by Descartes who “laid the foundations of mechanistic biology and medicine.”

Sheldrake presents the mechanistic view of nature, as based largely on reductionism, the idea that all of nature can be described in terms of physics and chemistry and that a complex system is nothing more than the sum of its parts. This view is contrasted to that of vitalism, whereby living organisms are perceived to have something akin to a soul, something that causes living organisms to differ to non-living objects.

Sheldrake promotes something which seems to fall between the vitalistic and mechanistic views, that of an organismic view – that treats “all of nature as alive … even atoms, molecules and crystals are organisms.” I’m not quite sure I fully understand this view, perhaps it will become become clearer in subsequent chapters. I suspect it relates to his work on morphic resonance.

One of Sheldrake’s main criticisms of advocates of an mechanistic world is that they, in their own explanations of the world around us, allow vitalistic explanations to creep in – for example, the common use of “genetic program”

“The ‘genetic program’ implies that plants and animals are organised by purposeful principles that are mind-like, or designed by minds.”

He also queries whether most scientists really believe in materialism

“Can you really think of yourself as a genetically programmed machine in a mechanical universe? Probably not. Probably not even the most committed materialists cannot either. Most of us feel we are truly alive in a living world.”

When it comes to science, I’m a pragmatist – a mechanistic view allows us to break complex systems down into manageable sections to explore and gain a better understanding of them. However, modern science also relies on the synthesis of this new information into the larger system in order to better understand it, something Sheldrake seems to overlook.

When it comes to complex and dynamic systems, complete understanding of how they work may not be possible, as their complexity makes outcomes hard to anticipate (as explained by Chaos theory). However, that does not mean there is more to the system than that which can be explained by chemistry and physics. I have yet to be convinced that Sheldrake’s organismic view has anything to offer.

My view of nature  is mechanistic in that, based on existing evidence, I think that all of nature should be able to be described in terms of chemistry and physics. However, with complex and dynamic systems the variables are too complex to anticipate outcomes accurately. Furthermore, the behaviour of complex systems results in synergies – for example, sentience in human beings. I don’t think vitalism or even organismism is required to explain how we experience the world. In the same way that the iCloud is something that seems to exist beyond the mere computers which make it up, I see human consciousness and sentience as something that, while it may appear to exist separately from our biological selves, does not. This does not have to detract from our appreciation of what we are or the world around us – rather it can and should create a profound sense of awe.

I must admit so far I have found “The Science Delusion” to be a bit of challenge to read. I find it misrepresents how science works,  and relies more on philosophy than on real world evidence. Chapter 2 questions whether “The Total Amount of Matter and Energy is Always the Same?”, in one section making the “observation” that some holy men and women in India apparently live for decades without consuming either food or water.

*A more detailed critique of all of “The Science Delusion” by John Greenbank can be found here.

 


3 Responses to “Is Nature Mechanical?”

  • I find the quote:

    “Can you really think of yourself as a genetically programmed machine in a mechanical universe? Probably not. Probably not even the most committed materialists cannot either. Most of us feel we are truly alive in a living world.”

    A non-sequitur with regard to determining how the world works. Our personal feelings on a matter bear no relation to whether it is true or not.
    What if I find it impossible to think of myself as being held onto the Earth via mutual attraction: does this mean that one of the myriad crank theories of gravity must win out over Newton?
    I hope Sheldrake’s arguments get better than that.

  • “The ‘genetic program’ implies that plants and animals are organised by purposeful principles that are mind-like, or designed by minds.”

    This isn’t reporting on what genetics shows, but erecting a straw man: I can’t imagine the ‘advocates of an mechanistic world’ he pegs this on would say it. (Never mind geneticists.)

    “Can you really think of yourself as a genetically programmed machine in a mechanical universe? Probably not.”

    Well, no – but because the analogy he starts with is wrong, never minding his later stuff. The machine metaphor is one of rigid clockwork (or an engine). Biological systems on the other hand work as collections of molecules whose overall effect is roughly useful, but the individual interactions of each molecule are hit-and-miss. (More formally, life at the molecular level is stochastic. He’s being a bit mischievous with ‘programmed’, too.)

  • Darcy

    “I hope Sheldrake’s arguments get better than that.”

    I would like to hope so but I doubt it. He uses some pretty poor analogies for example suggesting that reductionist thinking would be the equivalent of trying to work out how a computer works by grinding it down and then doing a chemical analysis of the resulting powder.
    Either he does not understand science fully or he is providing biased arguments to support his cause.