Rethinking Consciousness: Setting Science Free

The facts of science, scientific techniques and technologies are real enough. But, the philosophy of materialism that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith grounded in a 19th-century ideology. It is time to set science free. We dialogue with Dr. Rupert Sheldrake on all things consciousness. Does it exist beyond the brain? Where did our ideas on consciousness originate from? How do we move beyond it? Come to see how dogma limits our view of the world and reality, and open your eyes to the possibilities of science.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Hello everyone, welcome to this webinar, Rethinking Consciousness: Setting Science Free with Dr. Rupert Sheldrake. This webinar today is an introduction to some of the themes and topics that we explore in advaya's 12-part on-demand course with Dr. Sheldrake.

So Rupert probably needs little introduction to everybody here, but he is a biologist who has been at the forefront of science and consciousness studies for decades. He is renowned for exploring the questions that materialist science can't answer. And he is the author of more than 100 technical papers and 12 books. Some of the titles include The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Inquiry, A New Science of Life, on his theory of morphic resonance or the habits, or memory of nature, Ways to Go Beyond and Why They Work, Science and Spiritual Practices, The Sense of Being Stared At: And Other Unexplained Powers of Human Minds, as well as Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home & Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. Dr. Sheldrake has worked with many of the leading visionaries and scientists of our times to explore the interrelationship between science, spirituality, culture and philosophy. And there is a great deal of research that can be found on his website, including the trilogues with Terence McKenna and Ralph Abraham on the evolutionary mind.

In this course, we look at some of the ways materialist science has been constricted by assumptions that have, over the years, hardened into dogmas. And together these beliefs make up the philosophy or ideology of materialism, whose essential assumptions Rupert will go into, is that everything is essentially material, even minds. In the course, Rupert shows how by turning the assumptions into questions, we can open up the field of science with limitless possibility.

So to begin Rupert, I would love you to shed some light onto what exactly is materialist science? How is it a limiting worldview? And what might a more integrated approach look like?

Rupert Sheldrake: The materialist approach to science, as the name implies, puts matter as its primary explanation. It's sometimes called physicalism. But the terms materialism and physicalism are the same really. Basically, it says matter is the only reality or physical reality is the only reality. Everything in the universe is made of matter, and energy and fields. But there's no place, in this worldview, for consciousness, or purpose, or intelligence, or true creativity. There's just chance. So it's a worldview which is extremely limited, and it's always associated with the primacy of a machine metaphor. Everything's a machine. The universe is a machine, our brains are machines, they're like computers, our hearts are machines, they're like pumps, animals and plants are machines... which is why it's often called mechanistic materialism. And it's very good and very successful, in dealing with machines, and making machines. It's, in a sense, the perfect philosophy for an industrial civilisation, where everything's about machines and about quantifiable factors, like money, and profits and gross national product.

But where it fails and fails utterly, is in accounting for consciousness. There's no room for consciousness in the materialist worldview. There's no room for free will either. So committed materialists believe that minds are nothing but the activity of brains. They're confined to the insides of heads. That we have no free will, our brains just make us do things. That that consciousness that we actually experience is no more than a kind of epi-phenomenon around the activity of the brain, or an illusion. And this difficulty of explaining consciousness is often called the hard problem of consciousness because the very existence of consciousness is a serious problem—the most serious problem for the materialist worldview, because consciousness ought not to exist. So some materialist philosophers have made their entire careers out of arguing that consciousness doesn't exist, and that we have no free will. They seem to miss the irony of all this because they're making arguments using language appealing to our own consciousness, and would like us to believe that adopting their point of view would be the most rational choice, if we have no free will, if we believe in materialism, it would just be because our brains make us do so.

Of course, God, spirits, angels. All spiritual realities, from this point of view, are nothing but activities of human brains. They're all inside our heads. So God isn't out there, God's just an idea, in their view, a false idea inside human brains, the activity of the brain inside the head. So this worldview—it breaks down, when it comes to understanding life, because living organisms aren't machines, they're organisms. And the whole universe is much more like an organism than a machine, as I show in the episode of my course about these fundamental metaphors of nature. The machine metaphor was quite useful and helpful in the 17th century, when it first came in. It's been updated, as with steam engines, then with electrical machines, and with computers, now with the internet, but it's still a machine metaphor. And the alternative metaphor, is really the idea of the universe as an organism. In the Middle Ages, in Europe, everyone thought of the whole universe as like an organism. And this is how almost all cultures in the world think of it—animistic societies, shamanic societies, think of the whole of nature as alive, and as an organism. The whole universe, in fact, according to Big Bang cosmology, seems much more like an expanding, growing, developing organism, than it does like a machine. There's no machine that begins very small and very hot, and then expands for billions of years, creating more and more variety and differentiation within itself. The only thing that's remotely like that would be a gigantic embryo, or developing organism.

So, I think that, as I show in this course, dealing with the ten fundamental dogmas of science, I go into these dogmas, turn them into questions, explain their history, show how we got to where we are, and how science is already bursting out of them, and where this would end up—if this change, this paradigm shift is actually going on right now, is—where it would end up is really bringing us to a view of the whole of the universe is alive, interconnected, organic, organisms as organisms, not machines. And even things like atoms and molecules as being more like organisms and machines. And the same for solar systems and galaxies and the whole universe. So it's a paradigm shift, which would take us to a view of living nature as opposed to dead inanimate nature. It'd give us a much greater sense of our minds and their role in nature, and of mind throughout nature, not just human minds. From this point of view, consciousness is not just confined to brains, in human brains or animal brains, just on Earth, but is much more widespread throughout the whole universe and indeed, underlies the whole universe.

So these are some of the themes which I'll be touching on in the course. And they'll hopefully help people who take part in the course to shift their worldview, and not only shift their worldview, but be better equipped to deal with the skeptics and the cynics who attack or try to argue against any change in science. Because if there are people who are believers in scientism, who made science into a kind of religion, they're not usually very well-informed about science itself. They usually try and bludgeon people into acquiescence, by pretending that any other view is simply irrational. But I hope that anyone who does this course will be well-protected and able to stand up for themselves and it will help them not to be bullied.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Thank you, Rupert. In the course, you talk a lot about the history of science and certain decisions or certain ways of thinking that have taken us to where we are now, particularly around the Enlightenment and the relationship between the institution of the church and the state, in relation to spirit and matter, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about why an understanding of the history of modern science is important, and how that could help us to expand our approach to the sciences as a whole.

Rupert Sheldrake: I find the history of science essential, really, to understanding how we've got to where we are now. And this history is almost exclusively European, up until the 19th century and indeed through then Europe plus North America, for right up to the present, really. But this is particularly important because now, the majority of scientists in the world are not in Europe or North America. They're in China and India, and in other countries, in Africa, Latin America. There are scientists everywhere in the world now. But the history of science has been tremendously shaped by the peculiar and idiosyncratic history of Europe. And I think that understanding the history of science will show just how much baggage this carries from the European past, and how much a lot of this baggage is quite unnecessary as we move forward. It's also irrelevant to scientists in India and in China and in many other parts of the world. So I think liberating science from the kind of habits of thought, which grew up in the course of its history is really important. And just as you can't free yourself from your own habits unless you're aware of them, we have to be aware of these habits.

I think the key thing to be aware of is that in Europe, until the 17th century, when the so-called Scientific Revolution took place, when modern science was born... Until that time, in Europe, like almost everywhere else in the world, it was generally taken for granted, the world is alive. In medieval universities, in Oxford and Cambridge and Paris and Bologna, and elsewhere throughout Europe, the worldview that was taught was essentially a form of Christian animism. The most influential philosopher was Thomas Aquinas, and his philosophy was very much grounded in the philosophy of Aristotle, in ancient Greece. And Aristotle said that all of nature is alive. Animals and plants have souls. That's why we call animals animals, because anima is the Latin word for soul—beings with souls. The stars and planets were alive. Plato called the stars and the planets living gods, and we still actually call them by the names of gods: Mars, Mercury, Venus, and so on. So it was a living world. Gaia, Mother Earth was alive. And this was the worldview that gave rise to the great cathedrals of medieval Europe, which are full of carved vegetation, and foliage and gargoyles and animals and demons and green men, animated by all this medieval imagination, which was an animistic imagination.

In the 17th century, the shift in paradigm said that all nature's dead, mechanical, it's just nothing but machinery with no soul, and no life of its own. It just works automatically, like a machine. The whole universe is like a machine and the soul was drained out of it. The soul was drained out of animals, so they became machines, out of plants, out of the earth, out of the planets, the stars, the whole universe. And so it became inanimate. And the soul was drained out of the human body as well. Before that, everyone thought that the soul permeated the whole body. The body was in the soul, not the soul in the body. And so all that was left of anything alive in the whole of nature, was the human rational mind. So you had dead inanimate matter, and rational human minds. They still had God, but God was outside nature, supernatural, not natural, whereas previously God was within nature. And the so-called Cartesian split, named after the French philosopher Rene Descartes, created this radical split between matter and spirit, or matter and mind. And so there were minds outside nature, God and angels and spirits, and the only mind inside nature was inside the human brain. The whole of the rest of the universe was made up of dead, inanimate matter.

What happened as science went on in the 17th century, was that in Europe, there was a tremendous amount of disputes and fighting between Protestants and Catholics. The 30 Years War in Europe was terribly devastating. It destroyed millions of people, it destroyed much of Europe—it was an incredibly destructive conflict. And at that time, some people started saying, Well, you know, we're tired of all this religion and these disputes and priests quarrelling, and demagogues, and so on. Why don't we go for what they called the third way, which was neither Protestant or Catholic, but namely the way of science? And they believed that scientists could understand the true nature of God, because they thought God was a mathematician. And therefore, scientists, particularly mathematicians and physicists, could understand the divine mind, and that nature was governed by eternal mathematical laws which were ideas in the mind of God. But this God was not a God who answers prayers or permeates nature or underlies life. This God was a kind of external intellect outside the universe, that only scientists could really understand.

So scientists became the new priesthood. And in the Enlightenment in the 18th century, this idea of scientists as the new priesthood became the main accepted idea of Enlightenment intellectuals, and then eventually became the basis of the secular educational system, that scientists are the ones who can penetrate the secrets of nature, learn how to use them, to benefit mankind through science and technology, machinery, the Industrial Revolution, and all the things that industrialism and the mechanistic sciences, engineering, has brought us: including today's jet planes, mobile phones, computers, electric transmission lines, microwave ovens, etc, etc. There's no doubt all these things have transformed human existence on the whole planet. They've also created the environmental crisis because they've happened within a framework of thinking, which ignores the fact that we're part of nature—until recently. Climate change forces us to recognise that. But until the last few decades, people just went on as if we could do exactly what we wanted. Nature was just there for us to exploit and use, because there was no sense of our connection with, and our interrelation with nature, and to the whole Earth as an organism.

And then, in the 19th century, increasing numbers of people, mainly starting for political reasons, with Communists, like Karl Marx, began to say, Well, why have any belief at all in gods and spirits and angels and all these things that are outside nature anyway? They don't make any difference to science or nature. They're just at best bonus extras or optional extras to the worldview. People can believe in them, but if they believe in them, it's just things happening inside their brains. And so you got a kind of widespread atheism, coupled with materialism. The idea that there's no reality beyond matter, the spiritual realm that Descartes had in 17th century science recognised, didn't really exist. And all that really exists is the material world. And so this was a kind of reaction against Cartesian Dualism, and Cartesian Dualism was created by deanimating the living world of the Middle Ages—leaving only intellectual minds and inanimate matter. So this peculiar history—very peculiar to European history, the dynamics of conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, the emerging political movements that wanted to throw off the old order and establish a new rational Enlightenment order, like in the French Revolution, and in the American Revolution, both based on Enlightenment ideas, tried to free humanity from the traditions of the past and make it based on science and reason and reshape the whole educational system to to reflect that.

And the result is we've now exported this Enlightenment worldview and educational system to the whole world. India, China, Southeast Asia, Africa, Latin America, everywhere else. We've exported this system, peculiarly shaped and distorted by this European history. And children in schools all over the world are being taught in their science classes that nature is dead, mechanical, inanimate, the mind is nothing but the brain, things that conflict completely with their own traditions, their ancestral belief systems, disrupting ancestral belief systems, whole cultures, and giving them instead this particular shallow and unsatisfactory worldview, which is good for making machines but not very good for most other things. It's good for certain kinds of medicine, surgery and drugs. Not very good for mental problems or spiritual problems. So anyway, that's how we've got to where we are. And so I think that moving beyond that, going beyond this historical legacy, which we've all inherited, without being aware of it, for the most part, is very important. And that's really what my course is about.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Thank you so much, Rupert, for that explanation, and I wanted to go further into the question of consciousness in relation to the hard problem, since that's the topic of the conversation today. And also, after that, wanted to unpick one of the questions in particular, or as part of that, wanted to unpick one of the questions in particular that you look at as one of the 10 dogmas that are unpicked, around the consciousness of matter, when you say instead of matter is unconscious—is matter unconscious, turning it into the question. And in relation to the hard problem, somebody in the chat was asking if you could explain the processes of consciousness that science cannot explain. So perhaps as part of that answer, you could touch also on that.

Rupert Sheldrake: Well, the short answer to what science can't explain is consciousness itself. The very fact we're conscious, that we can experience qualities like colours, shapes, etc. If you look at the neurophysiology of the brain, you can study electrical impulses, you can study neurotransmitters, like serotonin and so on, but there's nothing in the brain that's sort of red, or loves or hates or feels angry, there's just nerve impulses, nervous activity... All the things we actually experience, the experience of living in a rich world, of all the visual shapes, the forms, the quality of music, joys, sorrows, all these things are not there any more than they are in a computer. You see, if the brain's like a computer, computers don't have emotions, your computer or your mobile telephone, don't have emotions of their own. They're simply a medium through which electrical activities take place, and produce sounds or pictures on screens. So the hard problem really is that we're conscious and we ought not to be. And some philosophers, materialist philosophers, particularly a woman called Patricia Churchland in California, argue that we're not really conscious at all. And that to say talking in terms of emotions, feelings, colours, enjoyment of music, and so on, is simply what she calls, dismissively, folk psychology, that will be replaced with the advances of science by neurophysiological descriptions of what's happening in our brain, and that's the only real reality that will be true science and we can forget about all these things like emotions and qualities.

So you see that that really is a huge problem. And in 20th century science, in the science of the mind, psychology, which is... psyche means soul in Greek. Psychology is really supposed to be the science of the soul, but it's usually called the science of the mind. In 20th century psychology in Britain, and the United States, the dominant school of thought was called behaviourism. And behaviourism said that psychology shouldn't talk about consciousness, or emotions or qualities, or feelings, because all of those were unscientific. They had no place in an objective scientific worldview, and therefore, they should be punished or driven out of science. All science could do was study behaviours, like rats pushing levers, how many times they'd push a lever to get rewards or pellets. They could be trained to avoid pushing the lever if they got electric shocks, or encouraged to push it if they were rewarded. So stimulus response type psychology, and/or glandular secretions. So it's an extremely narrow view of mind and consciousness.

Then towards the end of the 20th century, the dominant school in academic psychology became cognitive neuroscience, where the whole thing was about treating the brain as a computer. So it was all about computer models of the mind. But again, you see, computers don't have feelings, emotions, experience qualities, all the things that make our life worth living. All our actual direct experience computers don't have. They just calculate things according to algorithms, as if they're disembodied minds. It wasn't really until the late 1990s, that consciousness studies became part of science. Scientists began to say, Well, we should actually look at consciousness itself scientifically. And then when that started, that was a real liberating thing, from this gloomy materialist behaviourism or cognitive science. It meant that instead of dismissing the whole of human experience, it became a topic for research, as it had already been studied for years, of course, by philosophers and by psychic researchers who'd studied phenomena like telepathy, precognitive dreams, and so on, out of the body experiences.

But as consciousness studies got going, then people started studying near-death experiences. Many people are surprisingly similar in many cases, when people have nearly died, and as I'm sure almost everyone listening to this knows, they experience themselves floating out to their bodies, often seeing themselves from above, and going through a kind of tunnel or tube into a realm of light, joy, bliss, peace. And then of course, they have to come back, because it's a near death experience. Psychedelic experiences are now a major topic of scientific research, within consciousness studies, and one of the results of this research has been to show that psychedelic experiences can have enormous benefit for people who have suffered from chronic depression and been resistant to other forms of treatment. Consciousness studies also studies mystical experiences, out of the body experiences, and a whole range of other subjective experiences, which are, now, part of science. The old view, you see, was to say, Well, none of this counts as science because it's not objective, and science should be empirical, only based on empirical evidence. But the irony there, you see, is empirical means based on experience, and the only way you can experience consciousness is by being conscious. So if you dismiss all consciousness as subjective and not objective and therefore unscientific, it becomes impossible to study it scientifically, and it's excluded from science, and that's what happened.

But now, consciousness is taken much more seriously within the sciences. It doesn't fit within the materialist worldview very well, which is why it's the hard problem for materialism. And one of the things I discuss in the course is the rise, in recent years, of pan-psychism as a philosophy, quite a lot of committed materialists, people who used to be committed materialists are jumping ship, because the materialist worldview is becoming harder and harder to sustain. There are still quite a number of true believers. The most well-known perhaps in popular intellectual life is Richard Dawkins, the biologist best known for his selfish gene theory. And intellectuals like Steven Pinker, whose book, Rationality, his most recent book is really a defense of a kind of Enlightenment rationalism based on a materialist worldview. But quite a lot of philosophers, notably Galen Strawson, and Philip Goff, both of whom are British, and many in other countries too, argue that the best way of trying to solve the hard problem of consciousness, is to say that there must be a little bit of consciousness in everything, in atoms, in electrons, in cells, in single-celled organisms, in microbes, in plants, and as things get more complex, you get more and more consciousness until you get to the complexity of the human brain, then you end up with our consciousness.

But instead of the view that consciousness has just popped up in brains from nowhere, in an otherwise inanimate and unconscious universe, what they're arguing is that there's a kind of evolution of consciousness, from modest beginnings, even in the simplest particles of matter. And so pan-psychism, the idea that there's consciousness everywhere, is now surprisingly popular. I mean, even in sort of hardcore academic philosophy departments, there are now pan-psychists in many universities. But then it's a question of how far you want to go. And one of the things I discuss in this course, is how far can you take pan-psychism? One thing I've explored myself really is the question of, is this unconscious? If pan-psychism says everything in nature is conscious, then what about the sun? What about the whole solar system? And in the past, of course, most people did think the sun was conscious, in Europe until the 17th century, and in India, today, and in shamanic cultures, it's generally taken for granted. One of the most popular prayers in Hinduism is the Gāyatrī Mantra, which is a prayer asking for the divine splendour of the sun, to bless our meditation, to bless us, it treats the sun as a living being through which the light of God shines into us, into our lives. So I recently wrote a paper called, Is the sun conscious? Which was published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, exploring the consciousness of the sun.

And if the sun is conscious, then what about the whole galaxy? The stars are like cells, in the whole body of the galaxy. The whole galaxy may have a mind. It has an energetic centre, like was generally thought of as a gigantic black hole, a pulsing heart, from which energy radiates out through all the arms of the spiral galaxy, with huge electric currents and magnetic field lines, a million light years long. All of this coming out from the centre, which could be the conscious centre, like the brain of the whole galaxy. Then there are clusters of galaxies, which seem to be linked together. And then galactic clusters are linked through threadlike strands of plasma, through which electric currents pass, creating magnetic fields, linking up the whole universe. It's sometimes called the intergalactic network. It's a bit like nerve cells, linking up ganglia, the galaxies throughout the whole cosmos. What if all those are conscious? What if the entire cosmos is conscious? I explore these questions because I think that they're part of a worldview to which we're moving. And I think they'll make a great deal more sense out of the natural world, than mechanistic materialism, which preaches the whole universe as dead, and inanimate, as I said, with the tiny islands of consciousness inside human brains and maybe the brains of other species of animals, but the whole of the rest of the universe is dead and inanimate, except perhaps for little green men, or humanoid or otherwise other intelligent beings on another planet somewhere. But it's a very, very limited view of consciousness. And a much wider view is possible—not only possible, but it's been the basis of great civilisations, including the Indian civilisation for many, many centuries, even thousands of years.

Ruby Reed (advaya): You were talking about pan-psychism and consciousness in nature, and the extent to which everything could be conscious. And I'm wondering how that interplays with technology or artificial Intelligence, James Lovelock with Gaia theory, had an understanding that technology couldn't be separated from Gaia, because it was part of Gaia, so it was part of the Earth, the self-regulating organism. And I wonder how you understand the interplay between consciousness technology, artificial intelligence, and particularly in relation to all the changes that are happening and developments that are happening now.

Rupert Sheldrake: Well, certainly, technologies like the internet, and mobile telephones, have led to a far greater interconnectedness of humans with each other, at least in the sense that they can transmit images and words, through texts and images and speech, through telephones and through the internet. So there's one sense in which this has led to a much greater interconnectedness. And the philosopher and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, talked about an Omega Point, a point to which we were moving, where human consciousness was unified, in a whole new way, a whole new level. Some people see the internet as a way of doing that, as a unifying influence. But of course, in practice, it can often have an opposite effect. I mean, when you look at the echo chambers created by far right groups, or child pornography groups, or whatever, there are all sorts of sub-worlds within this interconnectedness, that hasn't meant the whole of humanity has come to a unified worldview of living in harmony together, and the awful wars that are going on at the moment, and the threats of more wars, and all the appalling divisions and conflicts show that there's no magic effect of this interconnectedness on overcoming these traditional problems: in some ways, it exacerbates them, particularly with political disinformation and fake news.

So when it comes to artificial intelligence, there are some people who think that artificial intelligence will become conscious and machines will take over, we'll become kind of redundant or slaves of the machines, which will overwhelm us. This has been an ancient fear with technology. Right from the beginning of science, that was the myth of Faust. The story is from the 16th century onwards, of Doctor Faustus, who was a kind of scholar, to start with, a kind of alchemist, but then, over the years, lots of people wrote Faust stories, including ‎Goethe, and in the 20th century Thomas Mann, the German novelist, in the Elizabethan period, Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus... The stories of Faust changed over the years, and in a sense, Frankenstein is a spinoff from the Faust tradition. Because what happens is that Faust sells his soul to the devil, in return for unlimited knowledge and power, but for a limited period. In the original Faust stories it's 24 years. At the end of that, the devil comes to claim him, and he's dragged down to hell. But during that 24 years, he has an unbelievable power that comes through knowledge. It's really the myth of science. And what's so interesting about the Frankenstein story, written in the early 19th century by Mary Shelley, is that the the inventor of Frankenstein puts together this being made out of bits from corpses, which he animates with electricity, and creates the Frankenstein monster, by creating life, building on existing ingredients, but creates life.

And at first the monster starts off like a kind of noble savage, but then he finds people shun him and are afraid of him. And then his aim becomes to destroy his creator, to take revenge on Frankenstein. And so Frankenstein is destroyed by his own creation. And in a sense, the Faust story, you see, haunts our whole civilisation. The idea that people often talk of nuclear power as a Faustian bargain, that we can get unlimited power from nuclear fission—at the moment it's mainly fission, well, you can get it from fusion in hydrogen bombs, but not in a useful form yet. So we get this unlimited power, but it can destroy us. So the idea that we can be destroyed by our own creation is deep-seated, right from the beginning of science. It's been the shadow side of science, all these stories, imaginative stories, in literature, in plays, and in films, in various forms. The idea that we'll be destroyed by our own creations, and in a sense, modern fears about robots taking over, or artificial intelligence taking over, are in that long literary tradition. I mean, there are certainly dangers in artificial intelligence. And there are also of course many uses in it, which is why so many people are investing billions and billions of dollars in developing it, but I don't think that artificial intelligence will become conscious.

At the moment, the main thing it does based on large language models, is just... It gets huge amounts of information, and then uses that to make predictions. So facial recognition, by artificial intelligence, depends on feeding in images of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of faces, and then by comparing and sorting among these faces, it can recognise faces in a crowd. But that's not the same as understanding emotions, and knowing what people are like, understanding how bodies differ, how embryos develop, and how faces have formed, the underlying bone structure, and how the nerves innervate the mouth and the various features, and the tongue and all the things that move as we speak, and as we communicate. It doesn't understand any of those things. It just enables you to recognise faces. And artificial driving systems, artificial intelligence, driving system, driving cars, are just based on a set of rules and plus a lot of experience from driving cars. And they can easily be confused. Just three or four years ago, we were told the roads would soon be full of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars. The whole Uber taxi business was based on the idea they'd just employ people for a year or two, until they could roll out automatic self-driving Uber cars, and all the drivers would then become redundant. Hasn't happened. I dare say that more effective ways of self-driving cars will be developed in due course, but there's something very stupid about any forms of artificial intelligence.

And none of this involves consciousness. What consciousness involves is: the ability to contemplate possibilities. I discuss, in my course, the idea of how our minds can be related to bodies, and a big part of that is that minds are related to bodies in the sense that minds are about future possibilities. Possibilities are what minds inhabit. And one of the main functions of conscious minds is choosing among possibilities. There's a huge amount of randomness in brains. And it's precisely because things can go one way or another, from the point of view of physical determination, that you can choose. If everything was rigidly determined physically, we would have no free will, as many materialists believe. If it was just blind chance, we'd still have no free will, it would just be random, whatever choices you made. But if there's an integrated field of consciousness, that can choose among possible actions, and that our conscious minds are full of possibilities among which we can choose, then we have a model of consciousness that is completely different from the way that large language models work. There's nothing like randomness in computers. You can put in pseudo-random algorithms to computers, to certainly inject a little bit of randomness, but they don't work by choosing among many different possibilities, all of which are equally possible. And there's nothing within them that can do that kind of choosing in a realm of possibility.

So I don't think it's possible that existing computers will become conscious. I think it'll be possible—it's already possible—to make computers that have conversations with people that make it sound as if they're real. And all of us have talked to call centres now, which have automated artificial intelligence, call answering systems. There are people developing apps for mental health, where you talk to a virtual psychiatrist or counsellor. And some of these are quite convincing, up to a point. But they're not conscious. I don't think they ever will be. So I myself am much less worried about being overwhelmed by artificial intelligence. And I explained why I think this, in more detail, in the course.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Thank you, Rupert. We've got just ten minutes left until the end time, and there's a few different directions that could be interesting to go in. There's been a lot of conversation in the chat around quantum mechanics and quantum theory and that seems to be something that people are very interested in, understanding the relationship between consciousness and the quantum realm. And then there are also questions around what an integration of consciousness within a scientific paradigm means to biases and the science as method empiricism, and ensuring fact... And I wonder if, perhaps, we could answer the second. And then if there's time, go into the quantum question as well.

Rupert Sheldrake: Yes. Well in my course and the book is based on, The Science Delusion, called Science Set Free in the United States, I have a section on illusions of objectivity. Because there's been, for a long time, there's been the idea within science that science is objective. Every other form of human endeavour is subjective. The arts, religion, the imagination, just ordinary, emotional, interpersonal life. But science is uniquely objective, because it's looking at facts—measurable facts. And this has created this image of scientists as uniquely objective minds, somehow detached from nature. And I think that the place where this reached its apogee, this way of thinking, was with Stephen Hawking, who, through no fault of his own, and was incredible heroic courage, confronted life in a wheelchair with motor neuron disease, until he could barely even communicate by moving an eyelid. And when his book A Brief History of Time, came out, on the cover of the book, there was a quote from Time magazine, that said, even as he sits helpless in his wheelchair, his mind soars over the vastness of time and space to unlock the secrets of the universe. So, this, you see, in a sense, iconically embodied the idea of scientists as disembodied minds, somehow just observing nature 'as it really is'.

But of course, scientists aren't disembodied minds. They're people. And they're all too fallible. Scientists have spent a lot of their time writing grant proposals, competing with other scientists to get funding, senior scientists, principal investigators, often say they spend at least a third of their time on grant proposals, and that's all about putting arguments forward, why they should be funded, and so forth. And they usually argue they should be funded because their work is going to be useful, or cure cancer, or something or other—produce useful products, or whatever. So emotions and motivations come into it and competition. And one of the things that's happened in recent years is the replication crisis in science, where it turns out that within the biomedical sciences, about 75% of papers in top journals turned out not to be replicable. In psychology, in large scale replication trials, about 60%. In many other branches of science, most papers in most top scientific journals, in most fields of science turn out not to be replicable. And why is this? Well, one reason, as I point out, is from the way that science is done. If you look at the sociology of science, the anthropology of science, as some anthropologists have done and sociologists, most notably Bruno Latour, the great French sociologist of science, who died recently. It just shows scientists are people.

This isn't normally a big surprise, really, especially if you've known a few and worked among them, as I have all my life. What happens is that scientists get usually rather messy results from their experiments. They're rewarded by publishing papers to get ahead in science. You publish as many papers as possible in as prestigious journals as possible. And that's what is the basis for promotion and employment and grants. So naturally, people publish their best results, and if there are messy results, they don't publish them. So publication bias is a big part of this. And it's as if you only had to publish 10% of your financial details onto your tax return, and the tax authorities never looked at the other 90%. Obviously, the picture you would present to them would be very different from the actual real picture. And that's basically what's been happening in science for decades, even centuries. So, I don't think that a more holistic approach to science is going to undermine scientific objectivity. I think by abandoning the pretense that scientists are somehow superhuman intellects, study nature in a completely objective way... Dropping that illusion and recognising we're fallible people, would be the first step and luckily, that's becoming more the case within science, because it was a definite lesson in humility, when this replication crisis happened. A lot of science until then used to say, Well, science is uniquely objective, superior to all other human endeavours because of peer review, and replicability. It turns out that science is full of fraudulent papers that have gone through the peer review system. And a lot of it is not replicable.

Now, we don't have very long to deal with the second point... I deal with this in much more detail and give a history of the replication crisis, and ways I think it can be dealt with most successfully, and how science can achieve a greater reliability than before... So I don't think this holistic approach will make it less reliable, I think it'll be more reliable. The whole point of my entire thesis here and this entire course, is not to make science less scientific, is to make it more scientific, because by being dogmatic in the way that so much of it is now, and limited and excluding anything that doesn't fit in, it's less scientific than it could be—much less scientific. I think it will get much more exciting, if it's more scientific, more open-minded, more curious, and less suffering from illusions.

I don't really have time to deal with the question of quantum theory in its relation to consciousness. I do discuss this in the course. But basically, quantum theory is the science of very small things within physics: atoms, molecules, subatomic particles. And I don't think we can leap straight from quantum theory to consciousness, because there's all the different levels between that—those atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, whole complex networks of nervous cells, nervous tissues, and there are quantum processes underlying everything in nature. But the kinds of things we observe in subatomic particles are not the same as the way whole neural networks or whole societies of organisms are working. So I don't think we can short circuit everything by going down to the smallest possible level. That would be a kind of extreme reductionism. We have to look at nature as a series of levels and understand each level at its own level, wholes more than the sum of the parts at every level, at the level of an atom, is more than the sum of the quantum particles, and the level of molecule more than the sum of the atoms. What quantum theory does tell us is there's an inherent indeterminism, right down to the very basis of nature, and to every level. And it also tells us that quantum particles can be interconnected—there are mysterious interconnections across space and time, that we never admitted before, within science, as in quantum non-locality, or entanglement. So, there are several new features of science, that quantum theory illuminates, but I don't think it gives us a shortcut to understanding consciousness. And I'll explain in more detail why, in this course.

Ruby Reed (advaya): Thank you, Rupert. So I'm aware that in this webinar, it was just one hour and we opened up so many questions. And, as in the nature of your approach, very little, certain answers, but that's the nature of the course. And it's been such an honour to collaborate with you on this course, which is on the advaya platform.

Some of the questions that we touch on in the course, are some that we've explored today. But it's things such as is nature mechanical, are the laws of nature fixed, is the total amount of matter and energy always the same, is nature purposeless, we also look at say psychic phenomena, mechanistic medicine as the only type that really works. We look at minds and memories, biological inheritance. It's a fascinating course, the depth of which opens up so many things that we take for granted, and which we don't realise that our current worldview cannot answer. So I encourage everybody here to sign up. And you can write to me if you have any questions about it before signing up. And thank you so much, Rupert, again for your time. And it's such a pleasure and an honour, as always.

Rupert Sheldrake: Thank you Ruby.


Dr Rupert Sheldrake

Dr Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than 100 technical papers and twelve books, including Science and Spiritual Practices. A former Research Fellow of the Royal Society, he studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, where he took a Ph.D. in biochemistry, and philosophy at Harvard University, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow. He was a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, and director of studies in cell biology. From 2005-2010 he was director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, funded by Trinity College, Cambridge, for research on unexplained human and animal abilities. He is currently a fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, near San Francisco, and also of Schumacher College, in Devon

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Ruby Reed

Ruby co-founded Advaya in 2015 and Earthed in 2023. She is a community builder, curator, creator and lover of water fascinated by how we relate to the world around us.

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