Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Speaking of "biological thinking," censorship and book burning...

...such things seem typical to a mind of the synaptic gaps that has sought to fold in on itself, supposedly encompassing all knowledge. We can use the buzzwords of "science" and "religion" when it comes to knowledge, yet in actuality much of it is the same knowledge stated in different cultural forms. The priest or charlatan of old would have told you that the world was pooped from a cosmic turtle and perhaps ten percent of the population believed in this imaginary history enough to regard it as a truth worth promulgating, seeking to establish or live by, just as about ten percent fully believe in the imaginary mythological narratives of naturalism typical to the Darwinian creation myth these days. For the most part it seems that the majority of people do not care about origins even as they live in cultures fundamentally shaped by beliefs about origins.

But when we do think about it we seem to have a hard time admitting that we do not know something, whether the form of knowledge is called religion or science the same issues come up. E.g.
In September 1981 the prestigious scientific journal Nature carried an unsigned editorial (subsequently acknowledged to be by the journal’s senior editor, John Maddox) titled ‘A book for burning?’ (Maddox, 1981). It reviewed and damned Rupert Sheidrake’s then recently published book A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Causative Formation (Sheidrake, 1981) and raised a storm of controversy whose fall-out is still very much with us.
Up to this time Sheldrake was a well-respected up-and-coming plant physiologist and the recipient of academic honours including a fellowship at his Cambridge college. The furore that grew out of the assault in Nature put an end to his academic career and made him persona non grata in the scientific community. Over twenty years later this journal still runs the risk of ostracism by publishing his work. What can explain this deep and lasting antagonism?

The Origins of the Controversy

The saga began a week ahead of the book’s publication, when Sheldrake had trailed his hypothesis of formative causation in an article in the New Scientist magazine. The piece was provocatively headlined: ‘Scientific proof that science has got it all wrong’. An editorial introduction admitted that, to modern science, an idea such as Sheldrake’s was ‘completely scatty’, but justified its publication on the grounds that first, ‘Sheldrake is an excellent scientist; the proper, imaginative kind that in an earlier age discovered continents and mirrored the world in sonnets,’ and secondly, ‘the science in his ideas is good. ... This does not mean that it is right but that it is testable’.
This was mid-June, and over the summer Sheldrake’s ideas were subjected to much discussion in journals and newspapers, and his book was reviewed in a variety of scientific and religious publications. Attitudes were predictably mixed and by no means all negative. Then came the bombshell in Nature.
Nowhere did the editorial actually say the book under review ought to be burned. Indeed, it said the exact opposite: ‘Books rightly command respect ... even bad books should not be burned; ... [Dr Sheldrake’sl book should not be burned.’ But it also contained the comment ‘[Sheldrake’sl book is the best candidate for burning there has been for many years’ and — probably the real clincher— there was that headline: ‘A book for burning?’ Dozens will read a headline who never read the text, and how many of those troubled to note the question mark at the end of the heading? Thus the myth was born: Nature says Sheidrake’s book should be burned.
What concerns us in this editorial is not Sheldrake’s hypothesis, but Maddox’s ‘hysterical attack’ (as a writer to his own letters page called it a week or two later). Why did the editor of Nature, himself a noted secularist, deliberately invoke the language of book-burning, an activity inevitably associated not only with religion, but with forcibly imposed dogmatic teaching? What caused him — in the words of another correspondent — to treat his editorial column as ‘a pulpit from which to denounce scientific heresies’? The answer came most clearly in an interview on BBC television many years later, in 1994, when Maddox said:
Sheldrake is putting forward magic instead of science, and that can be condemned in exactly the language that the Pope used to condemn Galileo, and for the same reason. It is heresy.
This quotation makes absolutely explicit a charge that appeared in more muted form in the original editorial. Here Maddox had written that,
Sheldrake’ s argument is an exercise in pseudo-science. ... Many readers will be left with the impression that Sheldrake has succeeded in finding a place for magic within scientific discussion — and this, indeed, may have been a part of the objective of writing such a book.

The image of Sheldrake as the opponent of science was also presented in a radio discussion between the two protagonists in the autumn of 1981. In his closing speech, Maddox first spelled out his very conservative approach to new theories:
The conventional scientific view, which I think is entirely proper, is that there is no particular point in inventing theories which in themselves require a tremendous feat of imagination* and constitute an assault on what we know about the physical world as it stands, when there is at least a chance, and in this case a good chance, in my opinion, that conventional theories will in due course provide an explanation.
Several things in these quotations point to why Maddox found religious terminology so appealing in his own defence of science, and they indicate how similar in some respects are the scientific and religious establishments. These similarities throw light on the nature of the hostility most mainstream scientists and philosophers continue to show toward Rupert Sheldrake and his research programme.

Heresy in Religion and Science

Sheldrake is accused both of ‘putting forward magic instead of science’ and of ‘finding a place for magic within scientific discussion’. This is noteworthy because the only reference to book-burning in the New Testament is when the magicians of Ephesus, under the influence of St Paul’s preaching, came out on to the streets and publicly burned their books of spells (Acts 19.19). There is an implied contrast here between the openly proclaimed teachings of Christianity and the secret arts of the magicians, and much early Christian polemic praised the transparency of the public orthodox tradition over against the secret knowledge claimed by the Gnostics. Orthodox science is orthodox religion’s true heir in this respect, putting its trust in public replicable experiments rather than spooky unpredictable effects.
Another motif in the Ephesus incident is the idea that written words have an inherent power, so that false words need to be physically destroyed (burned).
(Sheldrake and His Critics: the sense of being glared at
by Anthony Freeman
Journal of Consciousness Studies
Volume 12, No. 6 (2005) :5-6)

I'll finish this later. Some meanderings which I may reformulate later.

Part of the little things that Sheldrake goes into is the sense of being stared at, as apparently there is data similar to the placebo effect that people can tell if someone is staring at the back of their head. That's the sort of "magic" that sends scientists running for their lives and so on. The thing about the "magic" of the placebo effect and other things of this nature is that they have been observed empirically, magic or no. It seems that sometimes the empirical facts do not matter to scientists whose make a god of what they imagine matter to be. What they seem to be imagining are little billiard balls governed by Newtonian physics, one bumping into another and so on and on. In all of it each cause and effect can be traced to another, all else is of the "magic" that shuts down the pursuit of knowledge and so on. Why, it may as well be a Flying Spaghetti Monster and this sort of thing if it doesn't fit in with their little imaginings about one billiard ball hitting another and causing it to move, then another, another, another and so on to a mystical infinity hidden away in millions of years.

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