Rupert Sheldrake’s new book: dogs know when their owners are coming home, ergo Jesus

January 29, 2012 • 6:08 am

When a new book gets rave reviews by both Mary Midgley and Mark Vernon at the Guardian, you know it has to be pretty dreadful. And so we have their take on The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake, apparently a strong attack on materialism.

This stance seems strange given that Sheldrake was trained in botany and biochemistry at  Harvard and Cambridge, but lately he seems more into woo:

While in India, he also lived for a year and a half at the ashram of Fr Bede Griffiths in Tamil Nadu, where he wrote his first book, A New Science of Life.

From 2005-2010 he was the Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, funded from Trinity College,Cambridge. He is also a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, near San Francisco, and a Visiting Professor and Academic Director of the Holistic Thinking Program at the Graduate Institute in Connecticut.

I don’t know of Sheldrake or his books, which include Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, but I suspect that my readers do. Nor have I read his latest, but it gets encomiums from both Vernon and Midgley.

Midgley’s review first. She gives her own views before launching into her review:

We need a new mind-body paradigm, a map that acknowledges the many kinds of things there are in the world and the continuity of evolution. We must somehow find different, more realistic ways of understanding human beings – and indeed other animals – as the active wholes that they are, rather than pretending to see them as meaningless consignments of chemicals.

You know where she’s going here: straight into the bosom of Jesus:

Rupert Sheldrake, who has long called for this development, spells out this need forcibly in his new book. He shows how materialism has gradually hardened into a kind of anti-Christian faith, an ideology rather than a scientific principle, claiming authority to dictate theories and to veto inquiries on topics that don’t suit it, such as unorthodox medicine, let alone religion. He shows how completely alien this static materialism is to modern physics, where matter is dynamic.

First of all, materialism is not a “faith,” it’s a working principle (appropriately turned into a supporting worldview) that the only way we progress in understanding the universe is through assuming that matter and energy are all there is. Call philosophical materialism an “ideology,” if you will, but it’s by no means a “faith,” for that “ideology” has made enormous progress in understanding our universe.  There is plenty of evidence for the efficacy of materialism as a “way of knowing,” and no such evidence for faith. Faith is an ideology that doesn’t answer any questions. And yes, science does have the authority to pronounce on the evidence for God, and certainly has the authority to investigate the claims of alternative medicine.

Further, everything we know about how the “active wholes” of humans and animals work has been achieved through the naturalistic methods of science. Where, Dr. Midgley, is the evidence for a “soul”?

Finally, since when has science been based on “static materialism”? What does that mean, anyway: that we assume things don’t move? Surely she realizes, even in her dotage, that every advance in modern physics has also come from materialism. There’s no invocation of God in quantum mechanics. Yes, it’s weird, but nobody (or at least nobody who’s sane) sees quantum entanglement as evidence for God.

The problem comes when Sheldrake has to propose an alternative paradigm.  And it’s not heartening:

Sheldrake’s proposal that we should think of natural regularities as habits rather than as laws is not just an arbitrary fantasy. It is a new analogy, brought in to correct what he sees as a chronic exaggeration of regularity in current science. He shows how carefully research conventions are tailored to smooth out the data, obscuring wide variations by averaging many results, and, in general, how readily scientists accept results that fit in with their conception of eternal laws.

Habits? Really? The speed of light and the inverse-square laws are “habits”? Does she—and Sheldrake—really think that physical laws are conspiracies constructed by scientists to hide the messiness of real data? Has she not considered that it may be the data themselves that are messy—that there are always errors in measurement—rather than the underlying principles? If what Sheldrake says is true, we’d never be able to get people to the Moon.

Clearly, Sheldrake’s thesis has been enormously influenced by his pathbreaking work on dogs expecting their owners to come home:

Whether or no we want to follow Sheldrake’s further speculations on topics such as morphic resonance, his insistence on the need to attend to possible wider ways of thinking is surely right. And he has been applying it lately in fields that might get him an even wider public. He has been making claims about two forms of perception that are widely reported to work but which mechanists hold to be impossible: a person’s sense of being looked at by somebody behind them, and the power of animals – dogs, say – to anticipate their owners’ return. Do these things really happen?

Sheldrake handles his enquiries soberly. People and animals do, it seems, quite often perform these unexpected feats, and some of them regularly perform them much better than others, which is perhaps not surprising. He simply concludes that we need to think much harder about such things.

What she means, of course, is that these aren’t materialistic phenomena, but somehow reflect the hand of Baby Jesus. But I’m dumbfounded. Why do these behaviors defy materialism? Dogs can learn lots of things: the sound of cars and can openers, what the sight of a leash means, and many other things.  Why shouldn’t they be able to sense the passage of time, and anticipate their owners’ return? And of course we’re evolved to be wary, and so can often sense that someone is looking at us when we can’t see them, especially if there are people around.  Sometimes, of course, that feeling might be wrong, but it’s better to have it misfire than not to have it at all, because when an enemy or a predator is around, it’s better to err on the side of caution. I’m a mechanist, and I don’t deem these two behaviors impossible (Midgley says that Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert are two of the miscreants who unfairly attack Sheldrake’s work.)

But enough. Ever since Midgley mounted an attack on The Selfish Gene that was as ascerbic as it was misguided, we know she’s a bit mush-brained on the issue of evolution.

Things are just as bad with Mark Vernon’s review, “It’s time for science to move on from materialism.”   Here, for example, is how both Sheldrake and Vernon (an ex Anglican priest), make a hash of protein evolution and structure—if that’s what this is about, since it’s hard to tell.

This is designed to account for, say, the enormously complex structure of proteins. A conventional approach, which might be described as bottom-up, has protein molecules “exploring” all possible patterns until settling on one with a minimum energy. This explanation works well for simple molecules, like carbon dioxide. However, proteins are large and complicated. As Sheldrake notes: “It would take a small protein about 1026 years to do this, far longer than the age of the universe.”

As a result, some scientists are proposing top-down, holistic explanations. Sheldrake’s particular proposal is that such self-organising systems exist in fields of memory or habit. These contain the information required to make the structure.

Fearlessly, he extends the speculation to embrace a range of phenomena that many people experience. Telephone telepathy is one, when you are thinking about someone just as they phone. Or the sense of being stared at. The idea, roughly, is that our intentions can be communicated across mental fields that are like morphogenetic fields. They connect us – though in the modern world, with its ideological and technological distractions, we are not very good at noticing them.

At least Vernon doesn’t mention the dogs!  But the idea of physical laws as “memory and habit”, though dumb, don’t even give credibility to views like telepathy.  Further, science doesn’t dismiss these phenomena a priori: we doubt them on two grounds:  1) there is no evidence for them, and 2) we know of no physical mechanism to communicate telepathically. Indeed, Vernon notes that absence of evidence:

Whether or not his own theories will stand the test of time is another question. In a paper published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in November 2011, Fraser Watts examines them at face value and, broadly, finds them suggestive but wanting. For example, Sheldrake conceives of mental fields via the analogy of an amoeba: as an amoeba extends its pseudopodia and touches the environment around it, similarly telepathy and the like would be the result of “mental pseudopodia” extended into the world around us.

This shows two things. First, despite the assertion of accommodationists, science can investigate the supernatural, and those claims have come up empty.  Second, Vernon himself shows that the way to test those theories is using the naturalism-based methods of science.  Claims about real phenomena in the world, whether they be about telepathy or the existence of a god who interacts with the universe, are not recalcitrant to the methods of science.

Sadly for Vernon and Midgley, they have no examples showing that science is impotent at investigating real phenomena in the world.  They decry materialism and naturalism simply because they don’t like it.  It doesn’t support their beliefs in the supernatural, so they simply criticize the methods of science.  But science is the only way to determine if such phenomena really exist.

You can’t believe in something simply because it makes you feel better, and that is the overarching tenet of New Atheism.  When we were young, we had no problem discarding the idea of Santa Claus because there was an alternative and naturalistic explanation for the mysterious appearance of presents on Christmas morn.  Yet Midgley and Vernon still cling to the idea of a Super-Santa—someone who makes them feel good not just on Christmas Day, but every day of the year.  It’s time to put away that childish thing, too.  If they really wanted to use their imaginations in a productive way, they might ponder the methods science could use to determine how dogs know when their owners are coming home.

155 thoughts on “Rupert Sheldrake’s new book: dogs know when their owners are coming home, ergo Jesus

        1. Though the TV Tropes article you refer to does call Sheldrake a ‘biologist’. Surely this is a true case of morphic resonance – whatever Sheldrake has transmogrified into, he still *looks* like a biologist?

  1. “If what Sheldrake says is true, we’d never be able to get people to the Moon.”

    You wouldn’t be able to get them to the grocery store, either. L

  2. Thanks so much – you’ve made my Sunday. I saw the words ‘morphic resonance ‘ in a review in the Independent and didn’t think I’d see them so soon again ! The review of the garbage was favaourable- after all all views even utter drivel are ‘equally valid’. ‘Morphic resonance—— how profound,just like the word ‘leprechaun’.

    1. Unfortunately the Natural History Museum in London shares the newspaper’s credulous views. The last time I visited, in 2011, a book of Sheldrake’s had pride of place on its bookshop shelves, beside books by genuine scientists.

  3. I don’t know of Sheldrake or his books

    You don’t? Where have you been all these years? His writings have long been providing innocent merriment to a wide readership.

    My favorite that I’ve come across is his earnest paper about the telepathic parrot …

  4. This is one big Argument from Ignorance, but the you can play Spot That Logical Fallacy with the rest of it too.

    “some scientists are proposing top-down, holistic explanations”. Yeah, sure they are.
    That must be where the “mental pseudopodia” come in.

    This isn’t even Bad Science, it’s Non Science.

      1. Har.

        Then we have the mysterious case of Trinket the cat, who in spite of knowing when suppertime was, used to frequently oversleep during his afternoon siesta, and arrive back for supper late. He would come padding across the lawn as fast as his paws could carry him, yowling in mistaken horror that supper may have been missed.

        How could he have overslept all those sunny afternoons? Jesus? Mental pseudopodia? Mebbe even Quantum?

  5. James Randi’s group, and Skeptical Inquirer have been having a field day with Sheldrake for years.

    First class nutter.

    1. I just finished Faith Healers by James Randi. Its interesting the depths of people’s willful self-deception. Depressing too that people are still that stupid. My favorite line in the book is the Ben Franklin quote, “There is no greater liar than the quack; except for their patients.”

    2. I had a standard reply for patients who would ask me re the efficacy of such woo as homeopathy, reiki, aroma therapy, etc.:’If you have a complaint that has no basis in physiology or anatomy, you may very well respond to treatments that have no basis in physiology or anatomy.’ Some of them actually figured out what I had just said!

  6. My family used to be amazed at our dog’s anticipation of my return from work. The dog would yelp and wag at the door even before my car turned the corner down the street. Until my work hours changed. For about two weeks, the dog was surprised every day when I showed up early, until the cues for time of day clicked in and he associated the new clues with my arrival. This is grade school Pavlov science stuff.

    1. Not only that, but it is known that dogs sense precursors of earth-quakes. I think it is possible (see my efforts not to use the term “believe”) that dogs have seismic sensors in their feet. It makes sense because that is the way wolves possible detected pray or enemies that way. I had a dog that would notice when I walked into our street, about 150 feet away, at any time. Of course they also recognize the sound of your car, and of the car doors slamming. Nothing supernatural…

      1. When at work, I can recognise quite some of my collegues when they walk down the corridor- by their type of shoes and way of walking alone. If I can, then I’ll bet that a dog with much better hearing can figure it out, too.

        1. Yeah, I’ve experienced that. Could always tell when the boss was coming, even without consciously trying. Then they replaced the linoleum in the hallway with carpet, and we had to get a lot more wary. 🙂

      2. Many years ago our dogs would know just when my husband came home from work. And then we sold the car to the family across the street. And our dogs would tell us when he came home. It took them months to work it out, and for them to stop sitting at the garage door when the guy across the street came home.

      3. it is known that dogs sense precursors of earth-quakes.

        A large helping of Sheldrake there. I was googling up on the fact that this folk science claim is not an observed fact, and what do you know, Sheldrake is on this:

        “The belief that animals can predict earthquakes has been around for centuries.

        In 373 B.C., historians recorded that animals, including rats, snakes and weasels, deserted the Greek city of Helice in droves just days before a quake devastated the place. Accounts of similar animal anticipation of earthquakes have surfaced across the centuries since. […]

        American seismologists, on the other hand, are skeptical. Even though there have been documented cases of strange animal behavior prior to earthquakes, the United States Geological Survey, a government agency that provides scientific information about the Earth, says a reproducible connection between a specific behavior and the occurrence of a quake has never been made.

        “What we’re faced with is a lot of anecdotes,” said Andy Michael, a geophysicist at USGS. “Animals react to so many things—being hungry, defending their territories, mating, predators—so it’s hard to have a controlled study to get that advanced warning signal.”

        In the 1970s, a few studies on animal prediction were done by the USGS “but nothing concrete came out of it,” said Michael. Since that time the agency has made no further investigations into the theory.

        Researchers around the world continue to pursue the idea, however. […]

        Still, the Chinese have continued to look at animal behavior as an aid to earthquake prediction. They have had several notable successes and also a few false alarms, said Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist and author of the books, Dogs that Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and The Sense of Being Stared At.

        A reproducible connection between animal behavior and earthquakes could be made, he said, but “as the Chinese have discovered, not all earthquakes cause unusual animal behavior while others do. Only through research could we find out why there might be such differences.”

        Sheldrake did his own study looking at animal reactions before major tremors, including the Northridge, California, quake in 1994, and the Greek and Turkish quakes in 1999.

        In all cases, he said, there were reports of peculiar behavior beforehand, including dogs howling in the night mysteriously, caged birds becoming restless, and nervous cats hiding.

        Geologists, however, dismiss these kinds of reports, saying it’s “the psychological focusing effect,” where people remember strange behaviors only after an earthquake or other catastrophe has taken place.”

        [My bold; article from 2003.]

        1. Oops. No luck with the italics – those are two different Sheldrake books – but it is probably the same mess anyway.

  7. Dead mutton, re-heated.
    Frankly, I thought the whole Sheldrake morphic resonance haloimes had been quashed thirty years ago.
    In any case, here’s a nice piece of statistical debunking:

    But, as Michael Shermer noted, Sheldrake would respond

    that skeptics dampen the morphic field, whereas believers enhance it.

    Not even Sokal could have invented that!

    Madame Midgley, “a map that acknowledges the many kinds of things there are in the world”, does not just “enhance the morphic field”: she’s all over the place.

    1. I’m reminded of a video I saw where an interviewer would ask people if they believed in certain common misconceptions (without labeling them as such). The final question would be if they believed they could feel someone watching them from behind. After the person answered yes, the interviewer would ask them to turn around. Behind the interviewee was a person in a gorilla suit who had been looking at the interviewee, and whom the interviewee had obviously failed to detect.

      1. I recall (vaguely) reading a blinded study in Skeptical Inquirer or Skeptic of whether people could detect people watching them. Not surprisingly, the answer is “no.”

  8. I was just wondering a few days ago why Sheldrake hadn’t popped up recently – a NEW book! –with nothing new inside it…

  9. Sheldrake is a bit of a tree hugger. Here’s a critique of his Morphic Resonance.

    There’s a CBC podcast series How To Think About Science, which includes some really good episodes that challenge some of the mistakes mid-20th century science thinking. So it starts with a great episode on Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer.

    Then there are the rather more excentric episodes, and Sheldrake’s is one of them. He explains his Morphic Resonance, and the dog story (so he’s been writing this book for a few years it seems). He’s also into what is traditionally paranormal stuff. And in the podcast he wonders if sight is actually a projection of our inner sight onto the world, rather than being a reflection of the world into our eyes. I wonder if he may have dropped this last idea

    And if you read the blurb and listen to the podcast the quote from Sir John Maddox on book burning makes it seem as if the whining Sheldrake was hard done by. A more complete quote from Maddox here puts it into perspective.

      1. I’m a tree-hugger too. Doesn’t mean I have to believe in a woo merchant like Sheldrake. Nor does my tree.

  10. My college roommate and I were 90% accurate knowing in advance who was calling us. When the phone rang, we called out a guess, then answered it. (before caller-id of course.) Nothing mystical, we just knew the patterns of our friends. Our parents always called around the same time; Joe always wanted help with homework before a test; Fred telling us where the next party was at; a girlfriend calling every day; someone who said they would call at that time.

    And on the rare occation it was someone out of the blue that we had been thinking about, we were never foolish enough to beleive devine influence. We recognized it for what it was… A statistical likelihood that thinking enough times about enough different people will eventually place one of those thoughts a few days prior to an out-of-the-blue call.

  11. The pet-dog-knowing-in-advance-that-master-is-unusually-returning-home-early has been thoroughly debunked. I can’t be bothered to research Sheldrake’s ‘research’ but I half recall that reports by him of this effect were based on anecdotal data from those who wrote in to him when he asked the public for evidence. Also a TV crew filmed a ‘telepathic’ doggie throughout the day & the animal spent its waking time pacing to-and-fro with the door & window as endpoints as it neurotically awaited the return of lord & master. Thus if observations are ONLY taken around the time of the homecoming there will be a strong bias towards the dog exhibiting the acclaimed telepathy.

    I also remember the BBC radio putting out an appeal for people to note instances of new learned behaviour in animals being passed on ‘morphically’ to animals in other locales. e.g. certain birds learning to peck through the foil of milk bottle tops to get at the cream in the South of England somehow passing that skill to their Scottish brethren without direct observation.

    He’s been churning out this same, tired garbage since I were a lad & he (& these ‘journalists’) are still touting it as a paradigm shift?

  12. Sheldrake is heading down a path first trod by David Icke!

    Animals are extremely good at gathering information. Our cat always knows when we are going on holiday and she will be heading for the cattery. On the day of departure she invariably does a disappearing trick! Now that might have quite a lot to do with the fact that we were packing our cases the night before. There again, Mr. Sheldrake, maybe it doesn’t!

  13. I have never seen or heard of the supposedly common approach of describing molecules as explorers investigating all possible energy states, let alone how long it would take.

    This is designed to account for, say, the enormously complex structure of proteins. A conventional approach, which might be described as bottom-up, has protein molecules “exploring” all possible patterns until settling on one with a minimum energy. This explanation works well for simple molecules, like carbon dioxide. However, proteins are large and complicated. As Sheldrake notes: “It would take a small protein about 1026 years to do this, far longer than the age of the universe.”

    As a result, some scientists are proposing top-down, holistic explanations. Sheldrake’s particular proposal is that such self-organising systems exist in fields of memory or habit. These contain the information required to make the structure.

    What scientists are proposing ‘top down holistic’ approaches?

    This is just more solipsism where the author makes unfounded generalities and uses plural forms of words to imply majority, or at least significant numbers.
    Just like ‘there is a growing number of scientists exploring the possibility of aliens implanting ball bearings in male genitalia’ could mean the number of scientists growing from 3 to 5, let’s say, but let’s not say that the pool of scientists has grown by 75%, or also that the number of scientists that go insane is also ‘growing.’

    Anyways, there are already organizing fields called electro-magnetic that actually already explain protein structure, as evidenced by computer modelling making successful predictions regularly.

    Funny, there must be morphological bullcrap fields that grow linearily to the number of words these new age-ists write.

    Actually, it’s probably exponential growth.

    1. The protein folding conundrum is known as Levinthal’s paradox. The intent was to show that even by postulating great simplification of the process, it couldn’t occur by simple sampling of all possible conformations of the mainchain to arrive at the stable folded conformation, other aspects of the actual amino acid sequence must be part of the equation. So let’s ignore all the other insights and experimental work on the problem since then, that have enabled progress in predicting folded structure and postulate a “memory field”. This guy is a glorified panhandler.

  14. My understanding is that the “you can tell when someone is looking at you” thing has been tested many times and has failed 100% of the time when proper controls have been done to ensure it isn’t just hearing breathing or some other sensory cue.

    As far as dogs knowing their owners are coming home, forget about the passage of time, they have very sensitive hearing and can probably pick up engine noises from well down the street. I know if I drop something as light as a torn corner of a slice of bread into their food dish, they will hear the distinctive “clank” caused by the resonant frequency of that particular dish from all the way across the house, even if I might have trouble hearing it in the same room.

    1. “Knowing” when you’re being stared at involves a large element of self-fulfilling prophecy, because the act of turning around to check attracts attention from people who otherwise wouldn’t have looked at you.

      Confirmation bias also plays a role, since you don’t know how many times you failed to notice when somebody was actually staring at you.

  15. …claiming authority to dictate theories and to veto inquiries on topics that don’t suit it, such as unorthodox medicine…

    Ah, yes, and what would they call unorthodox medicine if it worked?

  16. Oh, and if there is another person present when the dog is anticipating the arrival of its owner, then all bets are off. The ability of dogs to pick up on subtle body language and such from their owners’ is absolutely uncanny.

    One day my wife started to get concerned that one of our dogs was sick. I can’t remember what symptom she thought she noticed, but, concerned, she came over and started investigating the dog. The dog (Juniper) rapidly started to look even sicker: she seemed lethargic, and even started shaking. My wife of course became increasingly concerned.

    Suddenly I had a flash of insight. I said to my wife, “Go hide behind the bathroom door there so she can’t see you.” Then I said, in a bright happy tone, “Come on, Junie! Come here, pup!” Immediately, she stopped shaking, bounded towards me, and all symptoms vanished. My wife breathed a sigh of relief, and the dog was entirely “cured”. No trip to the vet needed.

    It was pretty amazing.

  17. Dogs don’t know when their owners come home – one was followed and it went to the door many times during the day hoping its owner would be back.

  18. …the active wholes that they are, rather than pretending to see them as meaningless consignments of chemicals.

    An example of having a desired conclusion in mind at the start. Free willists exhibit this flawed thinking often.

  19. “static materialism”? What does that mean, anyway: that we assume things don’t move?

    I think she means belief of materialism is unchanging, i.e., static.

    As opposed to the woo of spiritualism which is fluid and dynamic and flexible in a way that something that can be made up as we go along can be. Materialism hasn’t changed since.. well since its inception in the human consciousness.

  20. ” Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home”

    No they don’t. Dogs anticipate based on experience filtered through their beliefs, just as humans do. Dogs no more know their owners are coming home than I know that I’m going to win a jackpot when I go to Las Vegas. If I do win a jackpot in Las Vegas, I’ll probably go more often. If it doesn’t work, then maybe I’ll rethink my plans.

  21. Wonderful article! This (and the rare sun) made my Sunday.

    And of course we’re evolved to be wary, and so can often sense that someone is looking at us when we can’t see them, especially if there are people around.

    I would add that we are often claimed to be aware by what used to be called “subliminal cues” but today perhaps would be called “delayed consciousness of decisions”. =D

    What we focus on is not what we can perceive or discern, it is what is of interest. Hence Sheldrake can become belatedly aware of “being stared at”.

    In fact, it is a common enough layman observation that people turn towards people looking at them while passing. I am fairly sure it can be researched, if it isn’t already.

    Sheldrake’s dualistic ideas remind me of research on out-of-body experiences, that show precisely that we are ‘meaningless’ consignments of chemicals:

    “I report an illusion in which individuals experience that they are located outside their physical bodies and looking at their bodies from this perspective. This demonstrates that the experience of being localized within the physical body can be determined by the visual perspective in conjunction with correlated multisensory information from the body.”

    we know of no physical mechanism to communicate telepathically

    Moreover I think physicists have managed to show that there can be no more fundamental interactions than the ones we already know. For reasons of observed entropy you can’t push more such interactions than the 3-4 known ones – electroweak if LHC finds the Higgs else electromagnetism and the weak force, the strong force and gravity – onto the vacuum.*

    You can have any number of particle fields that mess around with gravity through matterenergy couplings, such as the Higgs particle field giving many particles mass, the particle field or fields that once drove inflation, et cetera. But gravity effects are too weak to give you anything interesting in daily life.

    And certainly not telepathy, however dense Sheldrake is.

    * I tried to find the refs, but no luck. Maybe it was Weinberg, who often debunk dualism. Maybe I am mistaken.

  22. A botanist? Oh dear, I feel a bit ashamed now. Usually the weird ones go for zoology or palaeontology because they are offended by the idea that their ancestors are monkeys, not by the idea that the ancestor of a rose was an alga…

  23. I came across A New Science Of Life as an undergraduate biologist in 1983. I thought it might challenge my thinking so I bought it. At about page 15 I had had enough. It was, even to my not quite fully formed mind, patent trash. But, in fairness, I ploughed on. By the end of the book it was still trash. A few years later, Sheldrake’s second book came into view and I bought it because I thought I might not have been totally fair the first time. No, I was right. Gave up this one after a couple of chapters and never went back.

    Funnily enough, books that do challenge me, like Brian Greene, Richard Dawkins and the like, don’t leave me thinking this is rubbish after a few pages. True science thinking, even if wrong, at least satisfies the intellect. Sheldrake comes across as the Erich von Daniken of biology to me. Conjectures become “facts” a few pages down the line.

    1. I haven’t and I am certainly not planning now to read Sheldrake, but I did read Von Daniken, and I think you do him a disservice, based on the accounts of S.

      I read Von D when I too was an undergraduate, and when Chariots of the Gods was just published, so the memory is not fresh, but I got something positive out of it. I got an interest in how the heck did the ancient civilizations accomplish all those cool megaprojects. I was never convinced of alien assistance but still it’s an interesting question worth answering.

      I like Von D’s concept of the extraterrestrials as just friendly visitors with a limited agenda. I find them much more plausible than today’s crop-circle-making, cattle-mutilating, kidnapping anal-probing, or reptilian aliens. Unlikely, unsupported, and unnecessary, I recognized at the time I think, but a cute and harmless fantasy, except for the cost of the paperback.

      1. I agree with you about giving inspiration – I read von Daniken at school and he made me want to know more. I guess it is which path we take: checking facts or finding more confirmation in similar books. I read The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail and that led to me reading the Gospels to see if their facts were right. Didn’t make me take the religious path though, nor the pseudohistory path. Twenty years after graduating in biology, I studied archaeology seriously for a while.

      1. So, almost certainly neither of these is true:

        “You know where she’s going here: straight into the bosom of Jesus…”

        “What she means, of course, is that these aren’t materialistic phenomena, but somehow reflect the hand of Baby Jesus.”

        1. You are muddled. You are not required to be a Christian to crusade for Christianity. It is styled accommodationism. Whether she forthrightly concedes to being a Christian is irrelevant. She struggles for that worldview.

          Also, if her implication wasn’t the hand of Jesus what was it?

        2. Midgley wrote that Sheldrake “shows how materialism has gradually hardened into a kind of anti-Christian faith.”

          She didn’t say materialism is against Judaism, or Islam, or any other religion.

  24. Sheldrake’s title “The Science Delusion” puts it squarely in the centre of the books the Dawkinists call “fleas” – books designed to ride on the fame of “The God Delusion”.

    (“So nat’ralists observe, a flea
    Hath smaller fleas that on him prey,
    And these have smaller fleas that bite ’em,
    And so proceed ad infinitum.” – Jonathan Swift, but the first part of Augustus De Morgan’s version is better known:
    “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
    And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
    And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
    While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.”

    Would Swift have pronounced flea – like tea – to rhyme with prey?)

    For years I never could remember whether the name of Sheldrake’s theory was “formative causation” or “causative formation”. If there was anything to it, the correct term would have become evident by the thing itself, formative, um causative, er…

    (Both terms are good examples of what I will call redundant tautologism, where an adjective qualifies a noun formed from a (near-)synomym of the adjective, or vice versa.)

    1. If one searches for ‘Dawkins’ on Trademe (that’s our local equivalent of Ebay) it’s remarkable how many Goddy books put ‘Dawkins’ on the front cover, obviously in a cheap attempt to increase sales. And even more name him in the blurb (to be fair, they often also invoke Hitchens, Dennett and Sam Harris just to widen their coverage).

  25. “You know where she’s going here: straight into the bosom of Jesus”
    Aaaak! I misread that as ‘straight into the bottom of Jesus’. My mind must still be ringing with Mr de Bottom – Botton – what the heck – and his phallic temple. 🙂

    But actually I don’t see from the article that she’s a Jesus freak (though I don’t know her background, she could be a crypto-Jesus-freak), stuff like “We must somehow find different, more realistic ways of understanding human beings” is straight out of the standard ‘alternative ways of knowing’ woo-merchants songbook. Xtianity is a different flavour of woo.

    1. She’s an atheist actually, but she is against reductionism and ‘scientism’, I think for both humanistic and philosophical reasons (reductionism can’t be explained via reductionism, etc.).

  26. Sheldrake’s proposal that we should think of natural regularities as habits rather than as laws is not just an arbitrary fantasy. It is a new analogy, brought in to correct what he sees as a chronic exaggeration of regularity in current science.

    I think gravity is a good habit. I hope we never break it.

  27. From my personal experience, I can say that Sheldrake is correct. For example, my dog knows when I am coming back, without any physical cues. For example, sometimes he shows his foreknowledge by being asleep when I arrive, and jumping in surprise when I suddenly open the door. Sometimes he displays his prescience by being caught throwing the garbage around right when I open the door. He also sometimes displays his foreknowledge by being asleep in my daughter’s room instead of at the door when I come in. Further, he is even more emphatic in his expectation of my arrival by looking toward the door if I make noise in the hallway, say by talking to a neighbor in the hall before I open the door.


    A long time ago Sheldrake’s resonant blather morphed into moronic repetition.

  28. I’ve been a Guardian reader for all of my adult life for various reasons but it seems every other post on this site starts ‘At the Guardian, more nonsense…..’

    Not sure what reasonable alternatives I have if I vote with my wallet and stop buying it, but if they continue to be a clearing house for this type of vapid arse-hattery I’m going to have to consider it.

  29. Quick question for you all, and try and answer honestly. Who here has actually read Sheldrake’s research? And are you aware the author is reviewing work he hasn’t actually bothered to read? Doesn’t seem very scientific to me, but maybe I’m missing something!
    Also I saw someone bring up Richard Wiseman, his results actually replicated Sheldrake’s and had an even stronger effect (I’ve see both sets of results) so I would be careful before bringing up Richard Wiseman in this debate.

    1. You are deceiving people. Those who wish can easily find Richard Wiseman’s demolition of Sheldrake and his silly fantasies on

      Furthermore Sheldrake predictably lied about Richard Wiseman’s results in his (Sheldrake’s) book, ‘Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home’. For those interested in truth, read a real scientist (Richard Wiseman) on the issue and don’t rely on a pseudoscientist’s distortions and lies.

      1. Decieving people? Not sure how I’m doing that exactly.

        Check this out

        Or go here

        Where Wiseman admits his results replicated Sheldrake’s. That’s all I said, that Wiseman got the same results as Sheldrake. And where exactly is Sheldrake lying?
        Interpretation is up to them, and comes to down to previous expectations and beliefs, along with other factors.
        By the way, If you’re going to debate me, please respond to points I actually make, instead of inventing points and responding to them.
        And I’m not going to join in this ‘Real Scientist’ stuff you’ve got going on, attacking people doesn’t achieve anything.

        1. Richard Wiseman:

          ‘Sheldrake has presented the results of our work in the main text of [his] book… instead of stating that we had concluded that our experiments did not support the existence of Jaytee’s claimed abilities, he described our data as follows:

          “The pattern was very similar to that in my own experiments and confirmed that Jaytee anticipated Pam’s arrival even when she was returning at a randomly chosen time…”

          Sheldrake only described our actual conclusions (i.e. that we believe that our experiments do not support claims about Jaytee’s abilities) in an endnote, published in a very small font, at the very back of the book.’

          1. Very nice quoting, not sure what I’m supposed to take from it. I already said that the interpretations were different, evidently so did Sheldrake. The point is the results were very similar, were they not? Wiseman can say that the results did not support the hypothesis all he likes, but if the results were the same, that would suggest otherwise, would it not?

            1. To put it bluntly, since you insist, Sheldrake has made his career by indulging in the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. Richard Wiseman puts it more politely:

              ‘Sheldrake’s book contains only brief descriptions of the experiments and does not contain many of the details needed for a proper assessment, such as whether RS’s method of analysing his own data was developed post hoc. Moreover, there appear to be design problems in the experiments that might tend to lead artefactually to the patterns in Jaytee’s data observed by RS’.

              Or: extraordinary conclusions require extraordinary evidence. Of which there is none.

              1. Published books rarely if ever contain great details about experiments conducted, if you want that then take a look at his paper. The fact there isn’t great detail in his book is neither here nor there, and not limited to Sheldrake. There is design problems in every experiment so Wiseman would be likely correct there, however you still haven’t answered my point of Wiseman’s results closely matching Sheldrake’s, when presumambly his experiments were free of these design flaws.
                And what is ‘extraordinary’ to one person is normal to the other, so that often quoted saying is basically meaningless.

              2. A claim that a force unknown to science can connect dogs with their distant owners is extraordinary, by any reasonable standard.

            2. but if the results were the same, that would suggest otherwise, would it not?

              No, it would suggest that Sheldrake is drawing conclusions that aren’t supported by his data.

              1. Mike-I guess you’re right there, I said the wrong thing, I meant what makes the evidence extraordinary? How strong would the evidence have to be for it to be accepted?

                Truthspeaker-How are his conclusions not supported by his data exactly?

  30. “It’s not a matter of believe, it’s a matter of evidence!” – Charles T Tart

    Telepathy is not obvious it is subtle and spontaneous, it is also tricky to evoke on demand and very easy to overlook. Yet there is ample scientific evidence for the existence of Telepathy. Keep in mind that if you’ve ever taken a pill or received medical treatment in your life, you are benefiting from experimental concepts basically pioneered in experimental parasychology.

    Parapsychology was one of the first fields in Science to detect the problem of the filedrawer effect, because it was the first field to conduct a meta-analysis.

    1. Parapsychologists and “psychical researchers” have been making the same claims since the time of Charles Darwin, and still haven’t shown conclusively that there’s actually anything there to investigate. Name one other field of legitimate scientific inquiry that has gone that long without producing any coherent theory or widely accepted experimental evidence.

      1. Yeah, there’s an irony for you. String Theory takes a drubbing for a dearth of physical evidence for just a few years, and “psychical researchers” have nothing for centuries.

        [An important distinction is that String Theory has a real theoretical foundation based in actual applied, standard model physics, and its proponents will abandon it if it shows false. It is real science–the fundamental distinction.]

        1. Parapsychology is a member of the AAAS (The American Association for the advancement of science) which means it is recognised as a legitimate field of science. This would put it under the category of ‘real science’.

          1. Just because the investigation of putative phenomena is recognised as a scientific discipline doesn’t mean that ESP is real, only that investigation of ESP is real…


            1. Right, but I was responding to the comment ‘It is real science–the fundamental distinction’, which was suggesting the study of ESP (Parapsychology) is non scientific, by pointing out that is a recognised field of science. So your comment is neither here nor there.

  31. Commenters seem not to be considering the possibility that The Guardian’s review editor recognised the review as idiotic and published it to discredit Midgley. In a way I’d rather they were stupid than cruel.

  32. Sheldrake has unearthed one of the bible’s great mysteries, held back from feeble minds such as ours, for all these centuries: He has seen that d-o-g is just g-o-d spelled backwards! Clear evidence for such g-o-d granted abilities as knowing when their master is coming, so we all should be as our d-o-g-s, and know when our master commeth. I feel so much better now. So, how do I get to Tamil Nadu?

  33. It’s time for science to move on from materialism.

    No. There is at least one thing that must be done before science can “move on from materialism”:

    Someone has to propose a non-materialistic theory that can be tested empirically. If the philosophers aren’t happy about this I can be more precise: someone has to propose a non-materialistic theories that implies the truth of statements expressible in an existing observation language.

    Until a non-materialistic theory can actually imply particular facts about the universe it will not be time for science to “move on from materialism.”

    Another good condition would be that the suggestion that science should “move on from materialism” should only come from a respected scientist with a long, fruitful publication history. Vernon’s not in a position to make this sort of suggestion. Let him defend a thesis first.

  34. It wouild seem that these people have never actually known dogs.

    Dogs are a vague, metaphorical creature to them.

    This is like hipster city-folk thinking they know shit about the earth and sky all over again. Put that “crystal” down and ask a farmer, dumbass.

  35. I’m just not sure that the options are either reductionism or god.

    There are things within science-only-materialism it makes sense to question, such as – can the laws of physics explain modern human history (which seems like a weird claim), or – is it possible to be skeptical about your own freedom (which seems quite difficult).

    It is possible to believe that human behaviour cannot be explained with only atoms and equations, and not be religious. It’s possible to be a materialist and not a reductionist. It is possible to be certain humans are free and for that not to be a super-natural statement.

    You don’t have to fall into pseudo-science if you don’t think science explains everything.

    1. Nobody thinks science explains everything.

      What we materialists claim is that there is a scientific explanation for everything. Nobody claims we have all those explanations yet – not even close.

      1. You and some other Materialists may claim that, but there are ample others who claim this, or dismiss ideas out of hand, without looking at the evidence. Take Brian Cox, a scientist I actually like, dismissing ESP, out of hand, without demonstrating any knowledge of the research done in that area.

        1. Cox is quite right to do so.

          See “Realism and Religion : A Physicist Examines the Basis for Belief” by Milton Rothman:

          Is the claim plausible according to the standard model of particle physics, the principle of relativity, the theory of gravitation, and the rest of verified knowledge? For example, does a proposed machine require the expenditure of energy without an energy source? Then it cannot happen. Does ESP require that information travels faster than the speed of light? Then it cannot happen. Does a UFO defy gravity and hang suspended high in the air with no visible means of support? Then it cannot happen.

          These are not arbitrary or a priori judgements. The experiments that establish the general laws have already been done. You do not have to repeat the experiments for special cases of ESP and UFOs. General laws that apply to everything in the world also must apply to the particular cases of ESP and UFOs. (Those who object to this statement may refute it by proving the existence of objects or events in the universe that do not follow regular and general laws of nature.)


          1. If there is evidence for the existence of a phenomenon, saying it cannot happen because of current laws is very short sighted. These theories and laws are not absolute, and are subject to change, according to appropriate evidence. So saying does ESP need to travel faster then light? Then it cannot happen, doesn’t disprove ESP, it just means it can’t be explained by current understanding we have now, but may be in the future. Anyway I thought they have found evidence that neutrinos may travel faster then the speed of light?
            Cox is a media scientist, he’s supposed to give the general public an idea of what science and scientist is like. Dismissing something out of hand is not scientific, so he is not ‘quite right to do so’. If he wanted to act like a true scientist, he should say ‘I haven’t studied the evidence on ESP so I cannot say’, or say ‘I have studied the evidence and I believe it is not conclusive for reason x or reason y’. Some of the ideas he asks the public to accept, are alot more out there then ESP. It’s an emotional response, and nothing more.

            1. saying it cannot happen because of current laws is very short sighted.

              Very well, then: Address Rothman’s “Those who object to this statement may refute it by proving the existence of objects or events in the universe that do not follow regular and general laws of nature.”

              These theories and laws are not absolute, and are subject to change, according to appropriate evidence.

              True, in principle, but the fact is that the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood. Our models here are very far from tentative. The principles (if not the details) have been exhaustively validated. They are as close as is possible in science to established fact. Evolution is true, for example.

              They are so firmly established any new evidence can only extend the model. As has happened with evolution: We now know that there are more things at play than natural selection, but that doesn’t mean that life no longer evolves. As has happened with gravity: We now know that Newton’s laws are incomplete, but that doesn’t mean that apples no longer fall from trees. And Newton’s laws are still a reliable approximation for everyday life (GPS excepted).

              Dismissing something out of hand is quite scientific when it contradicts (rather than refines) what has been so exhaustively validated. Or would you advocate that Cox say, “I haven’t studied the evidence for astrology, so I cannot say,” rather than, “astrology is a load of rubbish” (a position that was first reached by Islamic scholars at least 650 years ago) or, “I haven’t studied the evidence for creationism, so I cannot say”?

              As for those superluminal neutrinos, even if they do exist — and there are very good empirical reasons for thinking that there are systematic errors in the experiment rather than this being true; the lack of Čerenkov radiation, for example — they are well beyond the physics of everyday life… unless you’re suggesting that ESP is a product of energies comparable to those achieved in the LHC?

              If there is evidence for ESP, it firstly needs to be demonstrated that it cannot be explained by our understanding of the physics of everyday life — and our understanding of neuroscience, psychology, psychiatry, and so on — and secondly an “ESP hypothesis” needs to explain that evidence (what force is at work? how is it generated? how does it interact with people’s minds or physical objects? &c., &c.) and make testable predictions. As it stands, even if that evidence cannot be otherwise explained (which it usually can), what you have is nothing more than “ESP of the gaps”.

              So peremptorily dismissing ESP is quite rational, in fact.


              1. ‘Very well, then: Address Rothman’s “Those who object to this statement may refute it by proving the existence of objects or events in the universe that do not follow regular and general laws of nature.”’.

                Non Locality? That violates the ‘laws’ of space and time.

                I agree that these laws are well established, but finding the experimental evidence for something that doesn’t fit these laws, doesn’t invalidate them, maybe we need to make new laws, or maybe they don’t apply to this particular phenomenon, who knows? Like the example you used with Newton’s laws, since ESP has been experimentally shown to exist, it is likely that the laws it ‘violates’ are simply incomplete. Yes Evolution has been proved, we won’t be disagreeing about that fact!

                No but there isn’t any experimental or scientific evidence for astrology or creationism and no serious attempts to find any. This is not the case for ESP, and it shouldn’t be lumped with those other two things, I suspect we agree on the validity of them. I just think Cox shouldn’t dismiss something out of hand when he clearly knows very little about the subject, it makes him look dogamtic to those that do, which is a shame, I like him!

                No I don’t think ESP has anything to do with the LHC, don’t know where you got that from?

                So far, it has been demonstarted that the evidence cannot be explained by ‘normal means’. Subtle cues, poor randominsation, the file publishing effect, lack of independent replication (and I’m just reffering to the Ganzfeld experiments here) have all been dealt with, so I’m not sure what is left. People are getting information from non normal means, consistantly above chance, so how is ESP of the gaps an explanation? And what does it even means? If you think ESP is just filling in ‘the gaps’, I’d like to hear your opinion on what those ‘gaps’ might be instead.

              2. • Non-locality — Which kind? Quantum nonlocality refutes some notions of classical mechanics, but quantum theory is itself “a regular and general law of nature”, one which is a reliable model at a different scale than classical mechanics.

                • “since ESP has been experimentally shown to exist” — Not proven. See below.

                • But you brought up the LHC’s superluminal neutrinos!

                • “it has been demonstarted [sic] that the evidence cannot be explained by ‘normal means’” — This is not the case. Firstly, the criticisms of the Ganzfeld experiments are at best disputed, not “dealt with”. Secondly, it’s not clear that the full gamut of non-𝜓 explanations have been evaluated. The current lack of a non-𝜓 explanation – a “gap” – doesn’t imply that a 𝜓 explanation is true. (So, an obvious analogy with the “God of the gaps” argument.)

                And this really goes back to a point I made above that you did not address: and secondly an “ESP hypothesis” needs to explain that evidence (what force is at work? how is it generated? how does it interact with people’s minds or physical objects? &c., &c.) and make testable predictions.

                All that’s happening so far is that experimenters are pointing at some as-yet-unexplained results and declaring, “It’s 𝜓!” Even if it is something new, this is not an explanation!

                A key question here, which any scientific hypothesis for 𝜓 must address, is what force is at work? And this appears to be insuperable, given the finding that Torbjörn noted above, that there can be no more than the three or four known forces.

                Unless you can explain ESP in terms of electroweak (or electromagnetic or weak nuclear), strong nuclear or gravitational interactions…


  36. Dogs know when their owners are coming home?You think of someone and then they call on the phone? Are these people serious? This stuff is /less/ believable than Santa Claus. Do they even stop for a moment to consider all the times when you’re thinking of someone and they /don’t/ call? Or all the times a dog seems to be distracted by what ends up being nothing at all, and certainly not the owner? Holy Cow.

  37. Sometimes I think I see a cat staring into space. Now, thanks to Sheldrake, I realize that I must really be over there, where they are looking, even though I think that I am over here! Wow! How does he know? Its uncanny!

    Sometimes it really, really, really seems I am at home, but my dog goes over to the door. How does my dog know that I am about to return…when I don’t even know that I’ve left? I mean, like, yo, Dude, I’m at home, and he goes to the door! How does he know? Its uncanny!

    Many days, the mailman comes to deliver the mail before I check my mailbox. How does he know? Its uncanny!

    Uncanny?!? Nah! Its morphic resonance!

  38. Dr. Sheldrake had years of work as a conventional post doctoral scientist before he started exploring psi research – do all of you really think you can find flaws in his work so easily?

    Professor Coyne admitted that he hasn’t even read his books.

    Are any of you even aware of the Society for Psychical Research?
    A main conclusion drawn up by quite a few of the SPR members who were atheists and materialists was that ghosts, apparitions, mediumship, was all the result of telepathy. A main book on the subject was written by Frank Podmore called Telepathic Hallucinations. Another atheist and parapsychologist George N. M. Tyrrell wrote a book advocating a similar theory.

    1. Are you aware of CSICOP? James Randi? Susan Blackmore? Michael Shermer? Have you read any of their books? Maybe you should. Blackmore’s Adventures of a Parapsychologist would be a good place to start.

      The test of any idea that wants to be taken seriously as science is not how many years its author spent in the lab or how many books he’s written. It’s whether the idea itself stands up to critical scrutiny. So if you want to know how parapsychology measures up, don’t just read the believers; read the critics too.

      As Feynman said, the most important thing is not to fool yourself — and you’re the easiest person to fool.

      1. Yes, all very biased organisations/persons with a clear agenda. Actually Michael Shermer probably isn’t as bad.
        Pick one of these people, and we’ll discuss them :).

        1. If you’ve read Blackmore, then you know that she came to her skepticism reluctantly, and not through some prior bias. She believed in ESP, and set out to study it rigorously, but to her surprise found nothing substantive there to study. Her only agenda was to find out the truth (and in my opinion she found it). “Very biased” is a serious misrepresentation of her views; you’d be hard-pressed to find a more open-minded observer on either side of the debate.

          More broadly, the history of science shows that controviersial ideas that are actually true, with solid evidence to support them, soon come to be widely accepted despite opposition from critics. Think of evolution, the age of the earth, inflationary cosmology, plate tectonics, anthropogenic climate change, prions, dark matter, and so on.

          This has not happened with parapsychology. Why do you suppose that is? Because of some vast 150-year conspiracy on the part of biased mainstream scientists to ignore convincing evidence? Or because the alleged evidence, on careful examination, turns out not to be very convincing? If you didn’t have an agenda of your own to defend, which of these two explanations would you think is more plausible?

          1. She came to this conclusion based on fairly informal experiments, that were of a level that if they were positive would not be accepted, so because they were negative, they should not be either. This aside, 7 of the experiments she ran turned out to be stastically significant! She is now a person paid to provide a skeptical position or viewpoint, so in what way is she objective exactly? I think Dean Radin is much more objective, especially considering the criticism, and pressure he has to deal with.
            I take your second point, but Parapsychology is studying an topic with emotional attachment from both sides, so it has come up against more thorough criticism and opposition then any modern scientific discipine that I can think of (Yes it is a scientific discipline-currently a member of the AAAS).
            I think the effects of psi are fairly weak and inconsistent, but they certainly exist, and again because it is such a controversial topic it is held to higher standards then other disciplines, and gets caught up or associated with other things, such as New Agery and what not. So the issue is very complicated. I mean for example, you brought up Dark Matter, I don’t think it is has been observed or even measured, yet it is much more readily accepted.

            1. There has been (and still is) much, much stronger emotional opposition to evolution than there ever was to parapsychology. Republican candidates for president don’t one-up each other in denying (or affirming) ESP.

              As for weak effects, surely ESP can’t be harder to detect than, say, the Higgs boson, if Rhine could do it with a deck of cards.

              So I don’t think you can blame extraordinary emotional opposition or unreasonably high standards for the failure of parapsychology to prove its case. If parapsychology wants to be taken seriously, the way to do it is to stop making excuses and amass some convincing evidence that even skeptics will be unable to refute.

              1. Can I ask why you haven’t replied to my points on Susan Blackmore?

                Yes, Evolution does get alot of emotional opposition that is true, but that topic is much more readily accepted by mainstream science.

                ESP is alot easier to detect then the Higgs Boson, it has been experimentally shown to exist, whilst the Higgs Boson remains theoretical and elusive, yet it is more readily accepted, I wonder why?

                I have read ‘Noetic Universe’ by Dean Radin and had personal correspondance with him, so I can blame those things as part of the reason for Parapsychology’s ‘failure’, as he cites them himself.

                There is ample evidence for the existence of psi, but changing somebody’s mind ona subject like this is extraordinarily difficult, people don’t like to do it. If you would like to look at the evidence, try checking out the Autoganzfeld experiments, or presentiment for example. Dean Radin’s book goes through all the evidence, of which there is alot more then I suspected.

              2. There is ample evidence for the existence of psi

                “ample”? Clearly not enough to establish a scientific consensus that it is real!


              3. Robbie, you say Blackmore’s experimental work is substandard and should be ignored — except when it supports your position. Her conclusions disagree with yours — therefore she must be a paid stooge of the opposition, incapable of objectivity. Arguments of this sort scarcely need a reply.

                Your personal correspondence with Dean Radin doesn’t make your argument any sounder. It’s still special pleading, no matter who it comes from.

                ESP has not been shown to exist. At best, autoganzfeld experiments indicate that something is happening to elevate hit rates above chance. In the absence of any theory about what ESP is or how it works, there’s no justification for assuming those elevated hit rates are due to anything paranormal. “Psi”, in this context, is not an explanation; it’s the absence of an explanation.

              4. In the absence of any hypothesis about what ESP is or how it works, …


                Otherwise, I agree completely: As I said elsewhere, this is just “ESP of the gaps” (or “ψ of the gaps” 😉 )


            2. Re dark matter: This has not been directly observed, but, unlike ESP, the hypothesis explains a corpus of well-attested observations that cannot be explained by the standard models of physics and cosmology, it makes testable (i.e. falsifiable) predictions, and some of those predictions have been validated (for example, that you can model the development of the universe from the big bang with the emergence of spiral galaxies like our own).

              I’m not sure what you mean by “readily” accepted, but it is generally accepted by the mainstream scientific community, in preference to alternative hypotheses.


              1. Haha running out of Energy here! Alot to reply to!
                Gregory-I re-read my post and it reads not how I intended it. I meant that Susan Blackmore’s experiments were informal so they should not count as evidence either way, but IF you wanted to count them, 7 of the studies were stastically significant. If you asked me about the evidence of ESP, I would not use her studies, so apologies for me misrepresenting my views! In terms of her objectivity, if she is paid as and makes regular appearances as a skeptic, surely it’s fair to say she might not be objective? You may disagree but I think that is a fair assesment. I only brought up up my correspondance with Dean Radin to highlight my thorough interest in this topic, that I don’t just buy into this stuff out of faith.
                The lack of a theory does not negate psi, there is a lack of a theory of proper explanation for the placebo effect, yet that is generally accepted. If people are getting information about something from non normal means consistantly over chance, then It suggests it is PSI, i.e gaining information from non normal means, that’s all psi is. It is the best explanation we have. And this ‘ESP’ of the gaps thing is cute, but unless you have an alternate explanation, meaningless. If you do have one I would genuinelly be interested, since no one else has thought of one that that isn’t non normal and has been refuted.

                Ant-ESP can be falsiable, as in, if you rule out normal ways of gaining information, and establish a chance level that people may guess or just manage to get right, and the results are generally no better then that, ESP has been falsified, yes? However this is not the case. You can predict if psi exists people should be able to pick up information above chance, this prediction has been met. And when I said ‘readly’ I meant what you said, as in, generally accepted by the mainstream science community.

              2. I’m not sure on what basis you conclude that Blackmore’s experiments were “informal”; in fact she published a whole string of refereed papers in parapsychology journals back in the 1980s. Her research is as formally legitimate as Radin’s.

                Our host, Jerry Coyne, frequently lectures on evolution and creationism and has written a book called Why Evolution Is True. Presumably he gets paid for all this activity. Does that, in your view, disqualify him from objectively evaluating the evidence for or against creationism? I daresay Radin gets paid for his opinions too, when he write books or makes lecture appearances.

                Psi is not an explanation in the sense that calling it “psi” tells you nothing about how the subject got the information. It’s just sticking a label on your ignorance.

              3. What you describe is not falsifiability. You’re already invoking 𝜓 to account for results that appear to be better than chance, so saying that results that were consistent with chance would falsify this “hypothesis” is incoherent. (What’s more, there have been such results — so is 𝜓 disproven?!)

                And, similarly, that prediction is not a prediction, it’s just the result that you saw in the first place that prompted the 𝜓 “hypothesis”.

                As Gregory says, you’re sticking a label on your ignorance: 𝜓 explains nothing.

                This is very, very, very, very, very, very, very different from the situation with dark matter.


    2. » Mystical Atheist:
      Dr. Sheldrake had years of work as a conventional post doctoral scientist before he started exploring psi research – do all of you really think you can find flaws in his work so easily?

      Ah, the trusty argument from authority. Not really unexpected.

      Professor Coyne admitted that he hasn’t even read his books.

      Obviously a mortal sin seeing as he isn’t talking about the books but about two reviews. Have you even read the post, or did you stop, Midgley-style, at the end of the title?

      Are any of you even aware of the Society for Psychical Research?

      Excuse me, you just dropped something.

      1. So you think criticising somebody’s work, based on reviews of that work, rather then the actual work itself is fair? If a Parapsychologist, or even Rupert Sheldrake did this, you would likely criticise them, and rightly so.

        And the argument form authority works both ways, as in, if Sheldrake had these ideas but his credentials were poor, this would be brought up to discredit him. Because he has got good credentials, understandably this is being brought up, to say that his idea shouldn’t be easily dismissed by armchair critics, who don’t even bother to read his work.

    3. “I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.” -Asimov

      Now, provide the scientific evidence.

      “Dr. Sheldrake had years of work as a conventional post doctoral scientist before he started exploring psi research – do all of you really think you can find flaws in his work so easily?”

      Can you find flaws in the works of Shockley on genetics, Mullis on everything, but chemistry, Lenard on ‘jewish science’, and Joesphson on wait for it…telepathy? I bet you can. What do all these men have in common? They are Nobel laureates and crazy. “There is a quote attributed to Enrico Fermi on what characteristics were common to Nobel Prize winners: “I can’t think of a single one. Not even intelligence.'” While this is an exaggeration it shows that brilliance is, usually, brilliance in one area.

      What is Sheldrake’s Ph.D in? Biochemistry. I am not suggesting Sheldrake is a genius, but that his doctoral work is irrelevant to his psi research.

  39. You know it’s going in the wrong direction when sentences (or articles) start with ‘What we NEED is a NEW model for X and Y…’.

    Rational or scientific people know that you never NEED anything like that, and that science does not need anything.

    At best, what we ‘need’ is a Unified Theory of Physics, proof for the Higgs boson, and suchlike. Even that, though, is not true – physicists I’m sure would be equally thrilled with evidence for not-a-Higgs, and the world seems to be doing fine without a GUT.

    By using the word need, the author puts the horse behind the cart and betrays him/herself as someone who has already presumed, without evidence, there to be meaning, in need to be found.

  40. Writer Nicholas Humphrey requested that I post here an email he sent me:

    The Midgley / Vernon axis, that you show up in your review of Sheldrake, cuts both ways. A year ago these mysterian twins jointly tried to rubbish my book Soul Dust: the Magic of Consciousness. The book makes a radical break with existing scientific approaches to consciousness, of just the kind you might think both they and Sheldrake might approve. So what’s their problem? The problem is that my ideas, however radical, are still ultimately grounded in conventional biology. I argue that consciousness is a magical-mystery show, designed by natural selection. This marvelous show, that we stage inside our heads,  makes us feel special and transcendent. It paves the way for spirituality, and allows us, as human beings, to reap the rewards, and anxieties, of living in what I call the “soul niche.” So magic, yes. A soul of sorts, yes. But Midgley and  Vernon don’t want magic or a soul of sorts, they want a miracle. Their problem is that my book comes too close to showing just why a miracle is not needed.

    1. Good plug for your book, Nicholas. I intend to read it!

      The “hard problem” of consciousness is, well, hard. So I don’t get too upset with philosophers who take a mysterian view of consciousness. Or even a dualist/supernaturalist view. The great shame is when they allow such views to infect their attitudes to subjects which lie more squarely within the scientific domain, and where there is far less mystery.

  41. Gregory-It won’t let me reply to you up there so will have to reply in a new post!
    My comments regarding Blackmore can be backed up by following this link:
    Jerry being a person who is paid to put forward an evolution standpoint (which I agree with) does hinder his objectivity, as is the case with Dean Radin. I find Dean Radin to be much more balanced then Susan Blackmore, mainly by reading his work, and the high quality of the research that he does.
    Again you are saying psi doesn’t explain how the person got that information, so come up with another explanation? If all other factors have been ruled it, saying the evidence is suggestive of psi is certainly reasonable.

    Ant-I don’t know how what I said doesn’t provide falsification for psi, but fair enough. In terms of the chance results that occasionally happen in psi experiments, this is to be expected as it as an experiment involving human performance. If a basketball player missed a basket you would’t say they could’t play basketball would you? Likewise, a few chance results doesn’t nullify the overall results of psi experiments which are stastistically significant and the odds of it being due to chance are astronomical. You’re saying I am ‘proving my ignorance’ and that psi isn’t an explanation, yet like Gregory, you have yet to come up with an alternative explanation.

    1. Robbie, the point you keep missing is that you’re the one making an affirmative claim here: you keep saying that psi exists, and causes the effects seen in the experiments. The burden is therefore on you to prove your case, not on us to disprove it. Simply pointing out that an effect may exist does not establish paranormal mental powers as the cause of that effect.

      You want an alternate explanation? Fine: the subjects were inspired by Jesus. Or they had help from invisible leprechauns. The point is that there is exactly as much evidence for the psi hypothesis as there is for the Jesus and leprechaun hypotheses. You can’t prove that Jesus didn’t do it, so you have no basis to claim that psi did do it. All you have (at best) is an unexplained effect, an unanswered question. That’s not the same as having an answer. The fact that I don’t have an answer either doesn’t mean you can just make one up and call it proven.

      If your best evidence against Blackmore is some pro-psi blogger’s review of a book aimed explicitly at discrediting the critics (and whose author certainly got paid for doing so), then I think we’re done with that subject.

      1. I don’t see what point I am missing here? You say the burden of proof is on me fair enough. There have been a variety of experiments that have been stastically significant in favour of psi, the Auto-Ganzfeld studies, the dream telepathy studies, presentiment studies, prayer studies, RNG studies, experiments on the staring effect, not to mention the remote viewing of Ingo Swann for example. All these experiments have been stastically significant. So all these studies point to people getting information from non-normal means, the name to which that is given is ‘psi.

        And you comparison to Jesus or Leprachauns shows you have no alternate explanation. I have cited experimental evidence for an effect where people gain information by non-normal means. You have just said ‘its a non explanation’ and still haven’t given me one yourself. You admitted as much as there is an effect we can’t explain, I agree we can’t explain it (yet), but there IS an effect there, so what more proof do you want? If in the experiments they have removed all possible aritifacts and normal explanations, and still an effect exists, what more is there to prove exactly? It’s easy for you to say its an ‘unanswered question’ but all you’ve done is show bias against the best answer we have, they made no attempt to come up with a serious one yourself.

        The link I cited isn’t a book review, not sure where you got that from. If you couldn’t be bothered to visit the link you may as well have just said. It discusses the informality of her experiments and how they don’t prove or disprove psi. Since you didn’t bother to look at the link, I’ll provide the a quot in the link that Blackmore made herself ‘I agree that one cannot draw conclusions about the reality of psi based on these experiments.’. Even though in public she makes claims otherwise. Also the blogger is not paid, if you check the link you’ll see a donation form as the site is run entirely on donations.

        1. I’ll try once more and then I’m done, since we’re clearly going in circles here.

          If the burden of proof is on you (which you apparently accept), then I am under no obligation to provide an alternate explanation, nor do I have time to look into every one of these experiments and provide an alternate explanation for each one. I am certainly not claiming that one explanation fits them all; that’s your thing.

          You agree that the observed effects are unexplained, yet you still insist the cause in all cases is “non-normal means”. If it’s unexplained, that means we don’t know what the cause is, we don’t know that it’s the same cause in all cases, and we certainly are not in a position to say it’s “non-normal”. Again, “we don’t know” is not “the best answer we have”; it’s not an answer at all.

          I did look at the blog page you linked to, and the entire substance of it consists of quotes and paraphrases from a book by Chris Carter. That makes it a book review as far as I’m concerned. I did not say the blogger was paid; I said that Carter (the book’s author) was paid.

          1. If you want to be done then there is little point in me responding, otherwise like you said we’re going round in circles!
            Thanks for your comments anyway, always interesting debating with those you disagree with, and hope I didn’t annoy too much!

  42. Ant-I was reffering to Non Locality in Quantum Mechanics. Where two particles have an immediate effect on each other, even when seperated by large distances. This would mean the information would be travelling faster then the speed of light, violating the ‘Law’ o casuality.

    I did bring up the LHC’s neurinos, but I never said they had anything to do with psi per se!

    Okay, tell me some of the criticisms of the Ganzfeld experiments that are ‘disputed’, rather then ‘dealt with’. And you keep saying we don’t have an explanation other then psi, so psi is filling in the gaps. Right okay, I’m sorry but that’s mere speculation, we could use this argument on many things. But unless you can come up with another explanation, then what is wrong with using psi as an explanation?

    In terms of a hypothesis or a force being at work, as I’m aware that stage hasn’t been reached yet. However, this doesn’t mean that psi doesn’t exist as a force as the mechanics behind it don’t exist yet, again note the placebo effect, that is accepted, but the mechanics or ‘force’ behind it are not understood.

    And psi can’t be explained by nuclear/gravitational interactions or electroweak effects, but that doesn’t mean the effects aren’t there. Just because we can’t explain something using current knowledge, doesn’t mean the effect doesn’t exist.

  43. From the Skeptic Dictionary website:

    “The James Randi Educational Foundation offers a prize of $1,000,000 to anyone who can prove he or she has a psychic ability.”

    Bottom line: This challenge has never been met.

    Also, there has been about 100 years of attempts to establish the reality of this phenomenon without any real conclusive evidence. In addition, virtually all the above-cited studies have significant methodological flaws.

    Why has Massimo allowed this thread to go on as long as it has?

  44. Most of these commenters clearly haven’t bothered to read any of Sheldrake’s work, and have skipped straight to the ‘debunking’ so that they don’t need to think.

    Folks, if you want to know the real truth, I suggest you start with the actual scientific papers, and proceed from there.

    They have not been debunked.

    1. Eddie Whorl, Sheldrake hasn’t bothered to check up on what real scientists think, before he criticised a straw man of what he thinks science is. He went straight to the debunking without needing to face the real world.
      Sheldrakes methods have been critiqued here:

  45. I generally don’t waste my time on religious threads, but I was bored today and most of the responses on here are so pathetic and uninformed that I just couldn’t help it. Why not actually read the case, along with the experiments which were conducted. Here, try this:

    I can also add that no I’m not a religionist or a creationist, and I don’t believe in evolution, but rather I accept the evidence for it. It is the same thing here, I don’t believe in an afterlife or some other type of paranormal phenomena, rather I accept the collective evidence for it. Why not research things for yourselves people before posting irrelevant material or just taking your anti-paranormal heroes words for it.

    1. “Why not research things for yourselves people before posting irrelevant material or just taking your anti-paranormal heroes words for it.” I have done extensive reading about so called paranormal events, and always they’re anecdotal, with little decent evidence, and no scientific evidence in their favour, and mounds of scientific evidence against them. Those who uncritically and gullibly believe such guff are invariably ignorant of the scientific evidence against supernatural explanations, such as there being no supernatural explanation that ever became a working scientific theory. Sheldrake and Midgley et all are miffed that science does not support their religious fantasies. They’re the close minded ones.

  46. I didn’t read the 150 + responses (I will), but my experience with (2) dogs is quite simple:

    1)Their hearing is quite sensitive to very low frequencies, much below 40 Hz (our limit). My dog recognizes the engine noise of my car as soon I turn the corner into our street. She (and my previous dog) also recognizes the stepping of my wife as soon she enters our street (at a distance of 100 feet).

    2)I think it might be possible that they feel low frequency sound waves transmitted through the ground with sensors in their feet (has to be tested scientifically, I’m not aware of any proof). This would explain why dogs apparently feel precursors of oncoming earthquakes in some cases (and thunderstorms at quite long distances).

    3) Dogs adhere to strict time schemes, so my dog (and my previous dog) comes to me exactly at the same time when she has to get her daily medication for the treatment of a tropical disease she caught in Italy (Leichsmania).

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