Sheldrake, author of Science Set Free, is a Cambridge-trained biochemist and plant physiologist, is a prominent public intellectual critical of the authoritarianism and closed-mindedness that he finds increasingly typical of mainstream science.
But we will let him tell it to philosopher James Barham here:
The Best Schools: On p. 93 of your new book, Science Set Free (Deepak Chopra, 2012), you speak of the “intellectual phase-locking”—that is, the “group think” or herd mentality—that clearly plagues mainstream science today. We were wondering whether this was mainly due to the hubris that comes from the unprecedented social prestige scientists now enjoy, or whether it might not be more a matter of the metaphysical commitment to materialism that has been deeply ingrained in the scientific community for the past 400 years.
In other words, is the intellectual phase-locking of scientists more about arrogance and turf-protecting? Or is it more about their being in the grip of a misguided ideology? Or both? Please elaborate.
Rupert Sheldrake: The materialist ideology promotes a high degree of conformity in scientific thinking because it is indeed ideological, and materialists are unforgiving towards heretical deviations from this belief system.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the atmosphere within biology became increasingly intolerant, at the same time as physics opened up a wider range of possibilities. There are still great limitations on what professional physicists can think, but there is a toleration of alternative interpretations of quantum mechanics, divergent interpretations of cosmology, the question of whether there is one universe or many, and so on.
Another reason for the greater uniformity of thinking is the professionalization of science. In the nineteenth century, many of the most creative scientists were not professionals. For example, Charles Darwin was an amateur naturalist living on a private income, with no academic post or government grant. He was much freer as a result.
Now, the vast majority of scientists rely on salaries and are far more aware of peer-group pressure. In fact, the peer-review system for jobs, grant applications, and publication of papers in journals means that peer pressure dominates their lives. In the nineteenth century, there were fewer constraints on creative and independent thinking. More.
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