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The Ten Dogmas Of Modern Science

The Ten Dogmas Of Modern Science

Rupert Sheldrake  |  Introduction to the book 9,884 views
The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry (2012)
(U.S. edition: Science Set Free: 10 Paths to New Discovery)
August 15, 2012

The ‘scientific worldview’ is immensely influential because the sciences have been so successful. They touch all our lives through technologies and through modern medicine. Our intellectual world has been transformed by an immense expansion of knowledge, down into the most microscopic particles of matter and out into the vastness of space, with hundreds of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe.

Yet in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when science and technology seem to be at the peak of their power, when their influence has spread all over the world and when their triumph seems indisputable, unexpected problems are disrupting the sciences from within. Most scientists take it for granted that these problems will eventually be solved by more research along
established lines, but some, including myself, think they are symptoms of a deeper malaise.

In this book, I argue that science is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas. The sciences would be better off without them: freer, more interesting, and more fun.

The biggest scientific delusion of all is that science already knows the answers. The details still need working out but, in principle, the fundamental questions are settled.

Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. Th ere is no reality but material reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

These beliefs are powerful, not because most scientists think about them critically but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough; so are the techniques that scientists use, and the technologies based on them. But the belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology.

This book is pro-science. I want the sciences to be less dogmatic and more scientific. I believe that the sciences will be regenerated when they are liberated from the dogmas that constrict them.

The scientific creed

Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.

  1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.
  2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.
  3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).
  4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same for ever.
  5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.
  6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.
  7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.
  8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
  9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.
  10. 10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Together, these beliefs make up the philosophy or ideology of materialism, whose central assumption is that everything is essentially material or physical, even minds. This belief-system became dominant within science in the late nineteenth century, and is now taken for granted. Many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption: they simply think of it as science, or the
scientific view of reality, or the scientific worldview. They are not actually taught about it, or given a chance to discuss it. They absorb it by a kind of intellectual osmosis.

In everyday usage, materialism refers to a way of life devoted entirely to material interests, a preoccupation with wealth, possessions and luxury. These attitudes are no doubt encouraged by the materialist philosophy, which denies the existence of any spiritual realities or non-material goals, but in this book I am concerned with materialism’s scientific claims, rather than its eff ects on lifestyles.

In the spirit of radical scepticism, I turn each of these ten doctrines into a question. Entirely new vistas open up when a widely accepted assumption is taken as the beginning of an enquiry, rather than as an unquestionable truth. For example, the assumption that nature is machine-like or mechanical becomes a question: ‘Is nature mechanical?’ The assumption that matter is unconscious becomes ‘Is matter unconscious?’ And so on.

In the Prologue I look at the interactions of science, religion and power, and then in Chapters 1 to 10, I examine each of the ten dogmas. At the end of each chapter, I discuss what difference this topic makes and how it affects the way we live our lives. I also pose several further questions, so that any readers
who want to discuss these subjects with friends or colleagues will have some useful starting points. Each chapter is followed by a summary.

The credibility crunch for the ‘scientific worldview’

For more than two hundred years, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, minds are nothing but brain activity and nature is purposeless. Believers are sustained by the faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science
Karl Popper called this stance ‘promissory materialism’ because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Despite all the achievements of science and technology, materialism is now facing a credibility crunch that was unimaginable in the twentieth century.

In 1963, when I was studying biochemistry at Cambridge University, I was invited to a series of private meetings with Francis Crick and Sydney Brenner in Brenner’s rooms in King’s College, along with a few of my classmates. Crick and Brenner had recently helped to ‘crack’ the genetic code. Both were ardent materialists and Crick was also a militant atheist. They explained there were
two major unsolved problems in biology: development and consciousness. They had not been solved because the people who worked on them were not molecular biologists – or very bright. Crick and Brenner were going to find the answers within ten years, or maybe twenty. Brenner would take developmental biology, and Crick consciousness. They invited us to join them.

Both tried their best. Brenner was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work on the development of a tiny worm, Caenorhabdytis elegans. Crick corrected the manuscript of his final paper on the brain the day before he died in 2004. At his funeral, his son Michael said that what made him tick was not the desire to be famous, wealthy or popular, but ‘to knock the final nail into the coffin of vitalism’. (Vitalism is the theory that living organisms are truly alive, and not explicable in terms of physics and chemistry alone.)

Crick and Brenner failed. The problems of development and consciousness remain unsolved. Many details have been discovered, dozens of genomes have been sequenced, and brain scans are ever more precise. But there is still no proof that life and minds can be explained by physics and chemistry alone (see Chapters 1, 4 and 8).

The fundamental proposition of materialism is that matter is the only reality. Therefore consciousness is nothing but brain activity. It is either like a shadow, an ‘epiphenomenon’, that does nothing, or it is just another way of talking about brain activity. However, among contemporary researchers in neuroscience and consciousness studies there is no consensus about the nature of minds. Leading journals such as Behavioural and Brain Sciences and the Journal of Consciousness Studies publish many articles that reveal deep problems with the materialist doctrine. The philosopher David Chalmers has called the very existence of subjective experience the ‘hard problem’. It is hard because it defies explanation in terms of mechanisms. Even if we understand how eyes and brains respond to red light, the experience of redness is not accounted for.

In biology and psychology the credibility rating of materialism is falling. Can physics ride to the rescue? Some materialists prefer to call themselves physicalists, to emphasise that their hopes depend on modern physics, not nineteenth-century theories of matter. But physicalism’s own credibility rating has been reduced by physics itself, for four reasons.

First, some physicists insist that quantum mechanics cannot be formulated without taking into account the minds of observers. They argue that minds cannot be reduced to physics because physics presupposes the minds of physicists.

Second, the most ambitious unified theories of physical reality, string and M-theories, with ten and eleven dimensions respectively, take science into completely new territory. Strangely, as Stephen Hawking tells us in his book The Grand Design (2010), ‘No one seems to know what the “M” stands for, but it may be “master”, “miracle” or “mystery”.’ According to what Hawking calls ‘model-dependent realism’, different theories may have to be applied in different situations. ‘Each theory may have its own version of reality, but according to model-dependent realism, that is acceptable so long as the theories agree in their predictions whenever they overlap, that is, whenever they can both be applied.’

String theories and M-theories are currently untestable so ‘model-dependent realism’ can only be judged by reference to other models, rather than by experiment. It also applies to countless other universes, none of which has ever been observed. As Hawking points out,

M-theory has solutions that allow for different universes with different apparent laws, depending on how the internal space is curled. M-theory has solutions that allow for many different internal spaces, perhaps as many as 10500, which means it allows for 10500 diff erent universes, each with its own laws … The original hope of physics to produce a single theory explaining the apparent laws of our universe as the unique possible consequence of a few simple assumptions may have to be abandoned.

Some physicists are deeply sceptical about this entire approach, as the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin shows in his book The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science and What Comes Next (2008). String theories, M-theories and ‘modeldependent realism’ are a shaky foundation for materialism or physicalism or any other belief system, as discussed in Chapter 1.

Third, since the beginning of the twenty-first century, it has become apparent that the known kinds of matter and energy make up only about four per cent of the universe. The rest consists of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’. The nature of 96 per cent of physical reality is literally obscure (see Chapter 2).

Fourth, the Cosmological Anthropic Principle asserts that if the laws and constants of nature had been slightly different at the moment of the Big Bang, biological life could never have emerged, and hence we would not be here to think about it (see Chapter 3). So did a divine mind fine-tune the laws and constants in the beginning? To avoid a creator God emerging in a new guise, most leading cosmologists prefer to believe that our universe is one of a vast, and perhaps infinite, number of parallel universes, all with different laws and constants, as M-theory also suggests. We just happen to exist in the one that has the right conditions for us.

This multiverse theory is the ultimate violation of Occam’s Razor, the philosophical principle that ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’, or in other words, that we should make as few assumptions as possible. It also has the major disadvantage of being untestable. And it does not even succeed in getting rid of God. An infinite God could be the God of an infinite number of universes.

Materialism provided a seemingly simple, straightforward worldview in the late nineteenth century, but twenty-first-century science has left it behind. Its promises have not been fulfilled, and its promissory notes have been devalued by hyperinflation.

I am convinced that the sciences are being held back by assumptions that have hardened into dogmas, maintained by powerful taboos. These beliefs protect the citadel of established science, but act as barriers against open-minded thinking.

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Impunity at Home, Rendition Abroad It’s a Fiat, Fiat, Fiat, Fiat World

14 comments so far

  1. Dane

    Mr Sheldrake

    My own work has been dedicated to the physical basis of consciousness. “How can light stand still” is the “physics” question I pursued since 1974. My goal was to provide an objective explanation based on that concept. I can now do that.

    Scientific Objectivism has always been the problem for most people because they don’t realize where it came from.

    Essentially the proponents of “natural science” had a meeting with the Church authorities and got an agreement that they could do research so long as they left the “invisible” to the church. Western science was forbidden to treat the invisible as a topic of research so “Objectivism” was born.

    I put an article on my site addressing that point of view in 2002.

    …”An article by Travis Norsen, published June 2001 on the web by, titled Mathematics vs. Matter: The Philosophic Roots of the Rejection of Physical Causation in 20th Century Physics does a nice job describing the why and how of Science’s current philosophical quandary.”


  2. Les

    I have great knews for you my friend. These 2 scientist have a message for the world! They have restored my faith in science! Have a look at Bruce and Tom~

  3. Blair T. Longley


    I agreed with the comment made by Dane, above, about the history of how science originally made a sort of social contract with established religion.

    Thus, objectivism, and many of the other false fundamental dichotomy dogmas that our currently established “science” are based upon, tended to go to the wrong pole to assert a spurious unity.

    For example, when it became possible to make urea in a test tube, the false notion that therefore nothing was alive was advance, rather than the truer notion that everything is alive.

    Social control questions were mainly the issues behind why such dogmas existed!

  4. Leticia Valdez

    This conservative scientific belief is being exploited and fed by corporations and on their behalf by governments, educational institutions and of course, by the scientist as as an ‘ordinary’ human just like anyone else, rather than the person with the power to dismiss god.

    Our corporate world is governed by Mammon and its well dressed representatives. To Mammon, scientist are barely more than workers, rather than the great minds to shape our world, they believe to be. Scientific initiatives for the better of mankind are finally always manipulated to profit Mammon and its elite.

    I wish that ’science’ will break its chains and open up to a more rewarding reality.

  5. Abbass

    I’ve been saying much the same as this for years. The word science is little more than a mantra to Atheism and many people who use it seem oblivious to the actual scientific process. I’ve always thought the observed reversed nature of Entropy was the best evidence for inteligent design. What is driving so many things away from the natural entropic effects towards more organisation and evolution?

  6. Beno Candelón

    I just want to compliment you on your insights and encourage you with your work. It is self-evident to me you are on to something huge. Cudos!

  7. Koen

    Wanted, dead or alive: the truth. There are multiple definitions of ‘alive’. The question is: is life also expressed in terms of something we don’t know yet? Something much more refined than atoms? Is empty space filled with aether, and can aether also express complexity and life? That’s the question. Btw, official relativity theory is WRONG (study Dayton Miller), and so is the non-determinism of QM. Something very refined, we are not supposed to understand by officialdom.

  8. dfnj

    Reality is always much stranger than anything we can ever imagine. Our big bang may be the result of a star collapsing to black hole in another dimension. All thought, all understanding, is bounded by the limitations of language. God is just a word. Time is just a word. God and time are words that only exist in our use of language. All objectivity is subjectivity determined. There are no objects. There are no words. Everything is connected to everything else. All of existence is one giant wave of energy with a frequency of one in relationship to nothing.

    No one ever dies because no one is actually alive. Death is a delusion because it is a delusion to think you are “alive”. We are not who we think we are. No one person invents or owns having sex. No one person invents or owns having a sense of humor. Each of us is part of something larger. Everything that makes us human does not die with us. All that makes us human survives in other people after we die. Our human spirit is eternal and lives on in the others that follow. Our sense of appreciation in fine things lives on in others. Our spirit of love, caring, and reverence lives on in other people.

    What matters in a multiverse reality comes down to a choice. We either choose that our life is sacred and meaningful. Or we choose our life, and everyone else’s, is mundane and meaningless. Try to imagine a World where each person in it is treated like a priceless piece of fine art. Our imagination is our most powerful magic.

  9. Wayne Pacific

    I can’t imagine a universe that has a physical end to it, or a beginning or end time. This expansion which people seem to have evidence for, is probably just in our part of the universe. It may be collapsing elsewhere.
    I sense that the universe is infinite and has always existed. What else could it be? Relax enjoy it.

    By the way, if it is infinite, then there is no center, except each of us is the center of our own universe.

  10. Serge

    “Yet in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when science and technology seem to be at the peak of their power, when their influence has spread all over the world and when their triumph seems indisputable, unexpected problems are disrupting the sciences from within.”

    The triumph is in the eye of the beholder. If you’d read the popular press of the 1920’s, you would see a very different set of expectations. Flying cars, man on other planets, life lasting for hundreds of years. Practical stuff. Fast forward to 2012.

    What do you see in 2012? Mind boggling questions: are wormholes leaking energy? Is our Universe one of many? Is there dark matter (which by the way is very similar philosophically to the concept of aether from the 19th century)? How to explain consciousness?

    The difference between 1920’s and 2012 is simple: the science, as it is, has peaked. It has now reached the level of decadence, where real practical questions are not even asked at all. The self-congratulatory atmosphere trumps any real questioning of the basics. Why question the basics when they are proven beyond the shadow of the doubt?

  11. baglady

    God had to die so that the scientific dictatorship a la Huxley and Bertrand Russell could come in. That’s what we are under now.

  12. Steve


    Exactly! I could not have said it better myself.

  13. Sergey

    “They argue that minds cannot be reduced to physics because physics presupposes the minds of physicists.” - I would have written: the minds of physicists determine physics. In the sense that reality is as we are ready and willing to see. Yes, the man builds a matrix.
    Due to stupidity of humans basic science - is in crisis. It stuck. But that is what will lead to the revolution.

  14. admin

    I prefer evolution ;) Revolution is nothing but rotation around a motionless circle, this is why after all revolutions the things sooner or later return to the same ;)

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