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Scientific Heretic Rupert Sheldrake on Morphic Fields, Psychic Dogs and Other Mysteries

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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For decades, I’ve been only dimly aware of Rupert Sheldrake as a renegade British biologist who argues that telepathy and other paranormal phenomena (sometimes lumped under the term psi) should be taken more seriously by the scientific establishment. Since I’m one of those fuddy-duddy establishment doubters of psi, I never bothered to examine Sheldrake’s work closely. But I was intrigued, and amused, by the vehemence of his critics, notably John Maddox, the long-time editor of Nature, who once called Sheldrake’s views “heresy” that deserved to be “condemned.”

Rupert Sheldrake believes the "materialist worldview," rather than being abandoned, can be expanded to accommodate his work.

Sheldrake probably provokes such strong reactions in part because he is a product of the scientific establishment—more specifically, of Cambridge University. He earned his doctorate in biochemistry there in 1967 and became a fellow and director of studies in biochemistry and cell biology. He gradually became dissatisfied with current theories of biology. He presented an alternative framework—involving his theory of morphic resonance (explained below)–in his 1981 book A New Science of Life, which Maddox, in a now-famous Nature editorial, called “the best candidate for burning there has been for many years.”

Sheldrake, undaunted, went on to write more popular books, including Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (1999), The Sense of Being Stared At (2003), Seven Experiments That Could Change the World (1994) and, most recently, Science Set Free (2013). The latter calls on modern science to shed its restrictive materialism and reductionism, advancing some of the same arguments that philosopher Thomas Nagel does in his recent book Mind and Cosmos (which I reviewed here).

The reason I’m telling you about Sheldrake is that less than two months ago, we were both speakers at a festival in Hay-on-Wye, England, and were put up in the same boarding house. (I participated in several sessions at the festival, including one about Big Data that I reported on here.) I spent lots of time talking to Sheldrake during the festival and after it, when we spent an afternoon tramping around a heath near his home. (I also met Sheldrake in 1997 at a scientific reception in London, but we only spoke briefly.)

Sheldrake is terrific company. He is smart, articulate and funny. He does a hilarious imitation of the late psychedelic scholar Terence McKenna, his friend and co-author, whom I met in 1999 and profiled here. There is an appealing reasonableness and gentleness in Sheldrake’s manner, even when he is complaining about the unfairness of his many critics.

He possesses, moreover, a deep knowledge of science, including its history and philosophy (which he studied at Harvard in the 1960s). This knowledge—along with his ability to cite detailed experimental evidence for his claims–make Sheldrake a formidable defender of his outlook. (For more on Sheldrake’s career and views, see his website,

At one point Sheldrake, alluding to my 1996 book The End of Science, said that his science begins where mine ends. When I asked him to elaborate he said, “We both agree that science is at present limited by assumptions that restrict enquiry, and we agree that there are major unsolved problems about consciousness, cosmology and other areas of science… I am proposing testable hypotheses that could take us forward and open up new frontiers of scientific enquiry.”

I remain a psi doubter; my doubt was reinforced by psychologist Susan Blackmore, a psi believer-turned-skeptic whom I interviewed for my 2003 book Rational Mysticism. But now and then I still doubt my doubt. In a post here two years ago, I point out that many brilliant scientists—from William James and Alan Turing to Freeman Dyson—have been open-minded about psi.

I conclude, “I’m a psi skeptic, because I think if psi was real, someone would surely have provided irrefutable proof of it by now. But how I wish that someone would find such proof!… The discovery of telepathy or telekinesis would blow centuries of accumulated scientific dogma sky high. What could be more thrilling!”

Sheldrake—I think even his most adamant critics will agree–is a fascinating scientific figure. I was thus delighted when he agreed to the following email interview.

Horgan: I admit that I’m still not sure what morphic resonance is. Can you give me a brief definition?

Sheldrake: Morphic resonance is the influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields.  It enables memories to pass across both space and time from the past.  The greater the similarity, the greater the influence of morphic resonance.  What this means is that all self-organizing systems, such as molecules, crystals, cells, plants, animals and animal societies, have a collective memory on which each individual draws and to which it contributes.  In its most general sense this hypothesis implies that the so-called laws of nature are more like habits.

Horgan: Did the idea of morphic resonance come to you in an epiphany, or was it a gradual process?

Sheldrake: The idea of morphic resonance came to me when I was doing research at Cambridge on the development of plants.  I was interested in the concept of morphogenetic, or form-shaping, fields, but realized they could not be inherited through genes.  They had to be inherited in some other way.  The idea of morphic resonance came as a sudden insight. This happened in 1973, but it was a radical idea, and I spent years thinking about it before I published it in my first book, A New Science of Life, in 1981.

Horgan: What is the single most powerful piece of evidence for morphic resonance?

Sheldrake: There is a lot of circumstantial evidence for morphic resonance.  The most striking experiment involved a long series of tests on rat learning that started in Harvard in the 1920s and continued over several decades.  Rats learned to escape from a water-maze and subsequent generations learned faster and faster.  At the time this looked like an example of Lamarckian inheritance, which was taboo. The interesting thing is that after the rats had learned to escape more than 10 times quicker at Harvard, when rats were tested in Edinburgh, Scotland and in Melbourne, Australia they started more or less where the Harvard rats left off.  In Melbourne the rats continued to improve after repeated testing, and this effect was not confined to the descendants of trained rats, suggesting a morphic resonance rather than epigenetic effect.  I discuss this evidence in A New Science of Life, now in its third edition, called Morphic Resonance in the US.

Horgan: Is animal telepathy a necessary consequence of morphic resonance?

Sheldrake: Animal telepathy is a consequence of the way that animal groups are organized by what I call morphic fields.  Morphic resonance is primarily to do with an influence from the past, whereas telepathy occurs in the present and depends on the bonds between members of the group.   For example, when a dog is strongly bonded to its owner, this bond persists even when the owner is far away and is, I think, the basis of telepathic communication. I see telepathy as a normal, not paranormal, means of communication between members of animal groups.  For example many dogs know when their owners are coming home and start waiting for them by a door or window.  My experiments on the subject are described in my book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Dogs still know even  when people set off at times randomly chosen by the experimenter, and travel in unfamiliar vehicles. One of these experiments can be seen here:

Horgan: Do you think morphic resonance theory will ever yield practical applications?

Sheldrake: Morphic resonance involves the transfer of information across space and time.  It might be possible to develop information-transfer systems, with a global memory, which would work without all the normal paraphernalia of satellites, wires, booster stations etc.  I have already designed experiments in which a pin code could be transmitted from London to New York without any conventional means of communication.

Horgan: Does your scientific outlook make you doubt whether artificial-intelligence researchers can replicate human minds on computers?

Sheldrake: Morphic fields take place in self-organizing systems.  Machines are not self-organizing – they are made in factories – and I would not expect them to have morphic fields.  Therefore I expect artificial intelligence on digital computers will remain rather limited in scope, and those who have high hopes for it will be disappointed.  However if analogue computers with genuine quantum randomness were constructed, perhaps they could be organized by morphic fields and show much more intelligent behavior.  It’s possible that quantum computing will lead in this direction.

Horgan: Do you ever have doubts about morphic resonance, and think maybe the materialists are right?

Sheldrake: I would like there to be much more research on morphic resonance and I would like to see a lot more evidence for it. If there were, it would not necessarily refute materialism, but could expand the materialist worldview, which has become excessively dogmatic, as I show in my recent book Science Set Free (called The Science Delusion in the UK).  I think something like morphic resonance is necessary to make sense of inheritance, memory, the evolutionary nature of nature, and many other phenomena. Lee Smolin, the theoretical physicist, recently put forward a similar idea, which he calls “the principle of precedence,” and perhaps his hypothesis might mesh in better with established science, since it is formulated in the context of quantum physics.  The main question is whether or not the effects predicted by the hypothesis of morphic resonance – or the principle of precedence – actually happen.

Horgan: Why do you think your ideas are so vehemently rejected by the scientific mainstream, while multiverses, string theory, panpsychism (as defined by neuroscientist Christof Koch) and other highly speculative ideas are taken seriously?

Sheldrake: Within physics, since the quantum revolution and the Big Bang cosmology, there has been a pluralism of ideas with many unexpected possibilities entertained seriously by mainstream physicists.  However in the 20th century, biology moved in an opposite direction, towards to a more dogmatically materialist position.  When I first put forward the hypothesis of morphic resonance in the 1980s, most biologists were convinced that all the problems of biology would soon be solved in molecular terms, and this enthusiasm gave a great impetus to human genome project.  But this confidence is now waning as developmental biology continues to defy any simple explanation in terms of molecules. The assumption that genes code for the characteristics of organisms is thrown into question by the “missing heritability problem.” And it turns out that the inheritance of acquired characteristics, now called epigenetic inheritance, is common in both animals and plants.  The implications of this revolutionary acceptance of epigenetic effects are still being worked out, but I think that biology will become more open as a result.

Horgan: Do you believe in God? Does your faith influence your scientific outlook in any way, or vice versa?

Sheldrake: Yes, I believe in God. I am a practicing Christian, specifically an Anglican (in the US, an Episcopalian).  I went through a long atheist phase, and began to question the materialist orthodoxy of science while I was still an atheist. I later came to the conclusion that there are more inclusive forms of consciousness in the universe than human minds.  But my ideas about morphic resonance and telepathy are not part of orthodox religious belief, any more than they are part of orthodox science.

Horgan: If you were appointed King of Science, in charge of prioritizing research and funding, what would your first decision be?

Sheldrake: I would leave most research funding as it is for the time being because it would be highly disruptive to the scientific community if there were a sudden change in direction.  But I would allocate about 5% of the available funds to innovative research that could lead to breakthroughs.  In most branches of science, there are dissident minority groups who have been marginalized by the mainstream, but which contain well-qualified scientists and promising unorthodox results.  These are the low-hanging fruits that are most likely to lead to breakthroughs, and I would make sure that such areas were adequately funded.

Horgan: If you had the skeptic Michael Shermer (who critiqued morphic resonance in 2005) in front of you right now, what would you say to him?

Sheldrake: I would invite him to have a debate about the existence of telepathy and other psychic phenomena. In 2003, in relation to my research on the sense of being stared at and on telepathy, he asserted in USA Today that “The events Sheldrake describes don’t require a theory, and are perfectly explicable by normal means.” I emailed him to ask what his normal explanations were. He was unable to provide them, and confessed that he had not actually read the evidence. I challenged him to a debate. He accepted, but unfortunately he was so busy being a professional skeptic that he could not find time to look at the data. He has often claimed that “Skepticism is a method not a position.” Taking part in this long-delayed debate would provide an opportunity to put his principles into practice.

Addendum: See also my recent conversation about Sheldrake on,

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. brianj 5:39 pm 07/14/2014

    You say, “I’m a psi skeptic, because I think if psi was real, someone would surely have provided irrefutable proof of it by now.

    Not all phenomena are as controllable as the sceptics would like them to be. Someone, in a similar context, raised the question of whether one could produce on demand, in the laboratory, the phenomenon of ‘falling in love’, in order to provide sceptics who lead a dull personal life with ‘irrefutable proof’ that falling in love is a real phenomenon.

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  2. 2. SJCrum 6:52 pm 07/14/2014

    What they are describing as psi, the science is simply that when people have a thought pop into their mind, what really occurs is that a person who has passed away, basically connects the thoughts in their brain, by being close enough to make the connection, (inside them), and the person thinking the information has the affect inside the living person as a miraculous instant thought. And, one they cannot explain except that it mysteriously occurs.

    By the way, during WWII, when soldiers were killed in battle, virtually all of them went behind enemy lines to find out exactly what the Germans were doing, and they then came back to “enlighten” our living soldiers. Ironically, on the good side, very few German soldiers did the same, and because many of them totally hated the evilness of their leaders.

    The point of that is that information like psi can occur in many different ways. And, the information can be enormously important. One other example is that locations of criminals wanted by the FBI can be TOTALLY known by them, and they can have a person they know write an anonymous letter to the proper authorities. Especially when the person is really evil, etc.

    So, this is the real reason psi, when it occurs truthfully, can be enormously revealing and accurate.

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  3. 3. kaslo1 7:32 pm 07/14/2014

    Great interview. I wanted to post this to my Facebook and Twitter, however because of the God question I don’t think I can. I don’t think Sheldrake believes in a male God with a beard up in another dimension, but that’s no doubt how some interpret the word “God”. You should also interview Iain McGilchrist.

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  4. 4. evelyn haskins 7:35 pm 07/14/2014

    I NEVER thought of Sheldrake as ‘scientific’.

    And he’s definitely not the only person with a degree in science to believe in looney things.

    He’s probably best be described as a Philosopher :-)

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  5. 5. kaslo1 7:43 pm 07/14/2014

    @evelynhaskins See Iain McGilchrist’s talk “The Myth of Logic and Logic of Myth”

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  6. 6. darkspace 8:33 pm 07/14/2014

    if the pilot wave concept of quantum mechanics were true, the one championed by Einstein, then you’d have an objective and deterministic basis for telepathy in physics, you might say the dog and owner were “entangled” by their interaction. I disagree that any one life form is self organizing, a human is organized by the environment and so are machines, without the proper conditions nothing can be organized. It seems to me most of the circumstances in which some form of telepathy is suspected involve intense emotion and not reason, this may be why many experimental tests attempting to communicate emotionally neutral information fail, one might have to care about outcomes to activate telepathic effects, emotion may be more fundamental to all of life than anyone currently imagines. Music activates emotional states quite readily and it can be studies objectively, all languages use modulation of pitch tempo and timbre PRIMARILY to impart emotion and only secondarily to impart abstract associated meanings, this is why we can understand the emotional state a speaker is expressing even if we don’t know the language, a knowledge of music and a knowledge of physics and chemistry show them to be very similar, the tonic of music in the line of fifths is as Hydrogen in the line of elemental families, chemical reactions are very much like musical progressions. specific chemical reactions in the brain result in specific emotional states. The same chemical reactions internal to us are occurring externally to us as well, perhaps emotion is a deep physical attribute of all energy exchange whether internal or external to living things. We would then have a physical means for something like a morphogenic field.

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  7. 7. HildaR 3:54 am 07/15/2014

    I think religions bear some responsibility for the refusal of so many to consider that ideas such as Sheldrake’s could be feasible. In the past the Church did its best to stamp out speculative notions and nowadays these are just as likely to fall foul of rationalists who condemn them as suggestive of the supernatural. I discuss this at more length in my blog

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  8. 8. sciencehistorian 4:30 am 07/15/2014

    Sheldrake is just one of many ‘heretics’ trained in Cambridge: There are other indications that claims of the ‘disenchantment’ of the world by science are surprisingly ill-informed.

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  9. 9. Scientifik 12:10 pm 07/15/2014

    “I conclude, ‘I’m a psi skeptic, because I think if psi was real, someone would surely have provided irrefutable proof of it by now. But how I wish that someone would find such proof!… The discovery of telepathy or telekinesis would blow centuries of accumulated scientific dogma sky high. What could be more thrilling!’ ”

    “centuries of accumulated scientific dogma ” ? ? ?

    or rather,

    centuries of accumulated scientific research ?

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  10. 10. Andrei Kirilyuk 1:17 pm 07/15/2014

    “Science set free” – what a good and timely idea, at the point where science is totally transformed into fruitless, corrupt and perverted bureaucracy, while the world suffers most from the absence of consistent problem solutions in all spheres of life…

    As to the “bio-psi mysteries” in question, the situation generally resembles that in the standard quantum mechanics, known as its “incompleteness” – and this is not a coincidence.

    In quantum mechanics the official postulation of “quantum mysteries” is challenged by the still unconventional idea of “hidden variables” (I’d better call it “hidden dynamics”), i.e. some directly unobservable “layers of reality” that can provide quite causal, scientific, though maybe nontrivial, explanation for the otherwise absolutely unscientific “mysteries” from the official “positivistic” doctrine. The 100+ years old battle still goes on, with the mainstream science remaining at the side of supernatural mysteries…

    Today we witness the emergence of a similar situation and fight in biology and “science of consciousness”. While the official schemes of genetics and neuroscience seem to provide the necessary and mechanically complete picture, the inexplicable “mysteries” persist and grow, here too (even apart from occasional evidence in favour of “paranormal” features).

    It becomes the more and more obvious that similar to standard quantum mechanics, scholar biology/genetics and everything related to intelligence show the fundamental incompleteness necessitating the existence of “hidden bio-variables”, if only one wants to preserve science objectivity (and here too, the official science “defenders” prefer to sacrifice just that key feature in favour of supernatural, but conveniently postulated mysteries!).

    Those hidden biocomplexity layers should be different from much lower levels underlying quantum phenomena (contrary to some popular speculations on “quantum consciousness” etc.) and can a priori take various forms (from Sheldrake’s ideas to still poorly understood genomic interactions), but they are unavoidable and provide the whole missing basis of life and intelligence (including, by the way, their rigorous definitions), rather than only minor additions to the conventional structure dynamics.

    If only science could be set free, it could become creative again, from fundamental physics to consciousness, and give rise to the vitally necessary civilisation development, replacing its growing degradation… The (new, extended) science is the only real means to perform that revolutionary transition. Far from another “belief”, it’s the objective, rigorously provable truth. But its purely empirical and “intuitive” understanding does not seem to be too complicated either…

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  11. 11. ttice84 1:33 pm 07/15/2014

    The case for psi is more robust than most academics realize:

    I would love to see Sheldrake debate Shermer.

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  12. 12. brianj 3:18 pm 07/15/2014

    @sciencehistorian: Ill-informed, such as by taking note of what the experiments point to? One point Sheldrake often makes is that the sceptics don’t bother to study the evidence. As Dan Drasin has written: “before debunking, prepare your equipment. Equipment required: one armchair.”

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  13. 13. Scientifik 7:21 pm 07/15/2014

    I would gladly evaluate the evidence for the consciousness of stars, planets and galaxies he was talking about in his banned TED talk.

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  14. 14. ted_christopher 7:35 pm 07/15/2014

    John Horgan, Rupert Sheldrake, and others,

    Rebutting materialism is arguably a simple task, at least around the behavioral margins. Forget lab experiments! For source material get a hold of a book like “Far From the Tree” or “Islands of Genius”. The terrain associated with prodigies and/or transgender individuals is ‘Far From Materialism’. See the excerpt in the following comment.

    Sheldrake acknowledged “The Missing Heritability Problem”. I have spent years pointing out this pending problem and suggesting this as a potential general failure point for scientific materialism (and hoping some insiders would pick up on it). Very little DNA is available to differentiate individual humans (and beyond that, us from chimps), and science is way overdue in identifying some critical codes for our big variable items like intelligence. And forget the epigenome as a significant vehicle for inheritance. How could it?

    For a sincere account of a premonition by someone unrelated and uninterested in ESP you can read the second chapter in the book “Nine-Headed Dragon River” by the late author Peter Matthiessen.

    For an overdue heretical paper that was published thru scientific channels and whose only criticism from one prominent scientist was that they couldn’t accept the “metaphysical explanation” (but acknowledged the huge mysteries), you can look here,
    (The publication journal, Cureus, has since changed formatting and this derailed some of my formatting, so scribd is the place to see it).

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  15. 15. ted_christopher 7:37 pm 07/15/2014

    Here is the closing paragraph from the Introduction of the above mentioned paper,

    A suggestive final example was found in Darold A. Treffert’s fascinating book, Islands of Genius [24]. The description of a modern prodigy there was as follows [24 (pp. 55-56)]:
    By age five Jay had composed five symphonies. His fifth symphony, which was 190 pages and 1328 bars in length, was professionally recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra for Sony Records. On a 60 Minutes program in 2006 Jay’s parents stated that Jay spontaneously began to draw little cellos on paper at age two. Neither parent was particularly musically inclined, and there were never any musical instruments, including a cello, in the home. At age three Jay asked if he could have a cello of his own. The parents took him to him to a music store and to their astonishment Jay picked up a miniature cello and began to play it. He had never seen a real cello before that day. After that he began to draw miniature cellos and placed them on music lines. That was the beginning of his composing.
    Jay says that the music just streams into his head at lightning speed, sometimes several symphonies running simultaneously. “My unconscious directs my conscious mind at a mile a minute,” he told the correspondent on that program.
    This was an example of what led Treffert to conclude that prodigal behavior typically involves “know[ing] things [that were] never learned”. Additionally, whatever their origins some prodigal capacities seem to challenge biological feasibility. This last example introduces the remainder of this paper and its consideration of some remarkable intellectual phenomena.

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  16. 16. Scientifik 8:40 pm 07/15/2014

    “Today we witness the emergence of a similar situation and fight in biology and “science of consciousness”. While the official schemes of genetics and neuroscience seem to provide the necessary and mechanically complete picture, the inexplicable “mysteries” persist and grow, here too (even apart from occasional evidence in favour of “paranormal” features).”

    We’ve only recently discovered the consciousness on/off switch — how “paranormal” is that?

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  17. 17. Scientifik 9:19 pm 07/15/2014

    “Horgan: If you were appointed King of Science, in charge of prioritizing research and funding, what would your first decision be?

    Sheldrake: I would leave most research funding as it is for the time being because it would be highly disruptive to the scientific community if there were a sudden change in direction. But I would allocate about 5% of the available funds to innovative research that could lead to breakthroughs. ”

    I’m surprised that he would allocate only 5% to the study of fringe. I got the impression from his talks and science delusion book that the entire scientific community has become mired in dogma and is unable to make any further progress at this point, unless, of course, it embraces the paranormal. Apparently, deep down he realizes the enormous value of the current scientific research.

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  18. 18. harkiolakis 4:41 pm 07/16/2014

    Morphic resonance sounds a lot like the inertia in physics.

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  19. 19. brodix 9:09 pm 07/16/2014

    The world is full of devices which are ‘telepathic.’ They are called ‘wireless.’ Why couldn’t the human mind have that facility?
    My experience is that consciousness is a field effect, colloquially known as one’s ‘space.’ I know when I get around numbers of other people, I tend to get ‘jazzed’ and have much more errant thoughts seemingly coming in from outside my own particular stream of consciousness.
    The problem it seems is that we don’t have a well organized ability to sort the signal from the noise, other than what is referred to as ‘love.’ Personally I get these strong senses of bonding to those whom I’m emotionally attached and when I feel concerned for them, let that part of my self seek out their self.
    Could all be nonsense, but then logic is fundamentally reductionistic and there is little way to account for all the ‘soft stuff’ we dismiss, in order to arrive at the ‘hard stuff.’

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  20. 20. rshoff2 1:33 am 07/17/2014

    Oh my. I can’t even find the words. Perhaps some aspects of the materialist world we do not understand we call psi, some would find it in religion. I would prefer to think that our materialist world is textured and layered in ways that things are not apparent. Perhaps psi does exist, but it would have to have material roots for me to swallow it whole.

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  21. 21. rshoff2 4:06 pm 07/17/2014

    Perhaps the concept of morphic resonance is akin to the idea of patterns. Patterns in ‘what’ would be where materialism and psi may intersect on this notion. It’s kind of like a foot path created across a grassy field by the pattern people traverse the field. As the pathway forms, more people are encouraged to behave in the same manner and walk along the same path as others have. Even though these individuals know nothing about each other, not even of each others’ individual existence, they share something. One could observe these individuals’ behavior and assume they communicated. However, instead the notion of the following the same path was a conferred behavior. It was conferred via the pattern of the pathway.

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  22. 22. AuYaax99 7:54 pm 07/17/2014

    Great interview. Questions made in a respectul and open minded manner, this is remarkably noticeable especially because John Horgan is skeptic about psi and this is not a common attitude coming from skeptics. Also Sheldrake words are all the time in line with a true scientific mindset not pretending he has all the answers and proofs.That is why is a theory.

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  23. 23. Scientifik 12:59 pm 07/20/2014

    AuYaax99 said “That is why is a theory.”


    The word theory has a vastly different meaning in science than in the everyday use.

    ” A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing.”

    Ergo, when Sheldrake makes a claim without buttressing it with experiments and evidence that, for example, the Sun has consciousness it’s not a scientific theory, it’s just his belief.

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