February 20, 2007
It’s pretty darned frosty here in New York City, at last. It took so long for cold weather to kick in that I became even more paranoid about global warming than I already have been. (And no, I”m not reassured by the four or five scientists whom the coal industry has rounded up to reassure us “Keep moving, folks, nothing to see here.” These climatologists are the 21st century equivalent of the doctors once hired by the Tobacco Institute to argue that smoking helped keep your lungs germ-free, and the doctors working for Big Pharma who argue that birth control pills are safe for schoolgirls. Real conservatives think about posterity”which is not defined as “our House candidates in the next election.”) So I”ve finally broken down and bought myself a TV monitor and a DVD player”though no cable service, as I can”t resist the allure of 24/7 reruns of Law & Order, or Animal Planet.
One of the movies I rented, and watched curled up with my beagles is the New-Age documentary What the Bleep Do We Know? (2004), which does a nice job of debunking scientific materialism, using funky animation and the talented Marlee Matlin to explore how quantum physics at the level of brain chemistry makes room for free will. The film falls off at the end, when we learn that most of the “experts” cited (but not identified) throughout the movie are followers of the bleached-blonde sorceress J.Z Knight, who claims to be channeling the ghost of a 35,000 year-old “warrior spirit” named Ramtha. Indeed, the old witch appears, uncredited, throughout the film, her commentary intercut with statements by physicists, psychologists, and at least one chiropractor. A little digging reveals that Ramtha’s foundation funded the whole project, with some help from John Hagelin of the Maharishi University of Management, based (where else?) in Fairfield, Iowa. All of which undermines the movie’s scientific credentials, just a tad. Still, the movie is generally successful, and has proved surprisingly popular, which should inspire film-making efforts on the part of other obscure, almost-unknown religious groups”for instance, Christians.
Do your pets have telepathy? Mine don”t, and I”m a little disappointed. Because many pets do”close to half of dogs and 1/3 of cats, according to iconoclast British scientist Rupert Sheldrake, author of Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, and several other daring works in scientific theory. In Dogs That Know, Sheldrake presents a fascinating array of puzzling biological phenomena, which he claims cannot be explained using current scientific theories”the most appealing of which is the amazing power of pets to sense their masters” intentions. Sheldrake observed the phenomenon in his own dogs”getting reports from people dog-sitting for him that his animals became inexplicably excited some 40 minutes or so before he unexpectedly returned, long before they could possibly have smelled or heard him coming. Why 40 minutes? As it turned out, that was the time that Sheldrake had made the decision to head on home.
Intrigued, Sheldrake decided to survey other pet owners, and set up verifiable, repeatable tests of the phenomenon. Over and over again, in hundreds of cases Sheldrake examined, based on reports from all around England, Europe, and the U.S., animals that were closely bonded to their masters”mostly dogs and horses, but also cats and the occasional bird”showed themselves intensely perceptive about their masters” return, in ways that science so far cannot explain. These were not scheduled returns, or part of a daily routine; Sheldrake left out any such cases. Nor did the master call ahead, or in any other way signal his intentions. Nevertheless, the animal would become excited, jumping around, waiting by the door, barking, whinnying or meowing, long before any molecules could have reached their noses by wind, or any sound waves have touched the most sensitive ear. (Sheldrake runs the numbers, examining the sensitivity of feline and canine smell and hearing; they are by no means so powerful as we assume.)
Sheldrake’s book is all about smashing unjustified assumptions. People assume that “somehow” smell or sound must explain an animal sensing its owners” return, just as they assume that fish swimming in a school can “feel” the infinitesimal movements of their neighbors, and stay perfectly aligned with hundreds of other fish, moving through turbulent waters for miles; likewise they try to explain how flocks of geese turn as one on a dime; how blind, almost insensate termites can work as one to build exquisite nests, and a hundred other natural mysteries that have proved impervious to analysis. Here’s another: How did such complex structures as the mammalian eye or a bird’s wing develop through sheer chance and natural selection? There are dozens of areas of complex biological behavior, ranging from the evolution of species to the acquisition of language, which Sheldrake shows cannot be adequately accounted for by the materialistic analyses preferred by many scientists.
The current, mechanistic techniques of scientific analysis have worked so well in most areas, so it is natural to presume that they will explain the whole world”natural, but not rational. When a theory hits the end of its explanatory power, it is time to question or revise it. To refuse to do so means you”ve left the ground of science and moved into a kind of quasi-religion, an ersatz, irreligious faith.
Yet that is precisely the sort of reverence which too many intellectuals have for the 19th century “scientific method,” and the mechanistic theories that underlay it. Having read their high school science textbooks, and the occasional feature story in the New York Times, the average educated non-scientist has been imbued with an image of the universe which I call the “domino fantasy.” Each event in the world, he imagines”from the movement of molecules on the surface of the sun, right up to the very thoughts that are running through your mind at this moment as you read these words”has a discrete material cause, which in turn had its own material cause, and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang. The universe is an impossibly long, senseless array of dominos, tumbling inexorably, in a predetermined (if meaningless) order, until the last energy is exhausted, the dominos are all flattened, and the universe is a lukewarm soup of chaos and evenly distributed particles. So what you think is your free will, what you hope is your individuality, is in fact just an illusion”a trick of the eye created by falling dominos. In fact, your thoughts and mine are determined by the chemical interactions of our brains, which produce the impression we call consciousness”a secondary phenomenon, like the screensaver on your PC, which vanishes when you switch off the hardware (that is, when you die).
This grim, relentless vision of the world possessed the men of the late 19th and early 20th century; Darwin, Marx, Freud, Welles, Spengler and innumerable other thinkers of this period accepted such a determinism as fundamental to the nature of things, and strove to show how its principles applied in their own areas of expertise. In the process, they ground down traditional ideas of individual responsibility, morality, freedom, the self, and immortality”that is, most of the notions fundamental to Western humanism, and most of the reasons for believing that people have “inalienable rights.” Not surprisingly, the century that was guided by such post-human thinking was the most inhumane in history; perhaps 100 million people were killed in the 20th century, in the course of warfare, extermination campaigns, political terror, induced famines and other atrocities”too many of which were planned or executed by coolly calculating bureaucrats in the name of progress and science.
Sheldrake’s scientific research”and that’s what it is, not religious speculation or New Age noodling”opens the door to something more hopeful, to a study of the universe that is not hemmed in by old clockwork metaphors. As he points out, on the subatomic level, causality as we know it breaks down completely; quantum mechanics implies an irreducible randomness at the very heart of existence. There is simply no way to say where a given particle is at a given moment: The dominoes do not touch! There’s a gap between them, and some will fall, others will not, according to statistical probabilities which we alter even by looking at them.
What does this mean for you and me? It means we are free. Sir John Eccles, the Nobel-Prize winning brain neurologist”and Christian”points out in his book How the Self Controls Its Brain, that at the level of synapses and neurons in the brain, quantum mechanics reigns supreme. There is no way that previous chemical reactions in the brain could ever be used to predict or perfectly explain the thoughts that run through one’s mind. The dominos do not touch. In fact, Eccles suggests, it may very well be that our minds influence the quantum probabilities of whether or not a synapse will fire”in other words, that our consciousness controls our brains, and not the other way around. (Of course, the interaction between the two is complex, perhaps inextricable; but it’s important to demonstrate that the “higher” function is something real and irreducible.) Eccles did some preliminary experiments which suggested that this explanation is correct. Since I”m not scientist, I can”t judge whether those experiments prove what he thought they did. Likewise, I can”t tell you whether Sheldrake is correct when he suggests that information accumulates in the universe, residing not just in the human mind and in computer databases, but in the repetitious events of biological life, which become ever more probable, the more often they happen. He calls these accumulated probabilities information “fields,” and grants them great explanatory power, developing a subtle and provocative theory of how biology and physics interact. The bond between master and pet is one of those fields, he argues, which explains why information can travel between the two without a material medium for transmitting it. If Sheldrake is right, then we can free ourselves at last from the soul-deadening influence of outdated science, and reintegrate the discoveries of contemporary experimental science with the felt realities that motivate our everyday lives”including the freedom of the will, the sacredness of the individual, even the hope for immortality with God.
John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living