An Interview with Rupert Sheldrake
According to British biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake, our minds extend far beyond our brains and our bodies. In his most recent book, The Sense Of Being Stared At: And Other Aspects Of the Extended Mind, he goes beyond anecdotal evidence to laboratory evidence for psychic phenomenon. Psi, as it is sometimes called, is a widespread phenomenon in the animal kingdom according to Sheldrake, who authored the bestseller Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers Of Animals. He posits that mental fields project outside our local space/time and connect us to a collective memory through what the soft-spoken thinker calls “morphic resonance.”
Sheldrake earned a PhD in biochemistry at Cambridge in 1967 and was a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, where he was director of studies in biochemistry and cell biology until 1973. As a research fellow of the Royal Society, he carried out research on the development of plants and the ageing of cells. The following interview took place last June on Cortes Island, during Sheldrake’s 2003 visit to BC.
Geoff Olson: What in your life indicated the traditional paradigm of physics was incomplete? Was it more of an intellectual thing, or was there a moment in your personal life that gave you this feeling?
Rupert Sheldrake: I felt there was a gap between what science was teaching and what I was really interested in about animals and I studied biology because I really liked animals. One of the things that fascinated me as a child for example, was homing pigeons. How did they do it? I used to keep pigeons, I used to take my pigeon away from home and let it go and come back. So I was always very intrigued by these things.
As I studied biology in school and university I found the things that fascinated me weren’t addressed and weren’t on the agenda. Instead, the testing we did with the animals we were studying was to kill them and then cut them up and extract enzymes.
As an undergraduate and I read about the work of Goethe, the German poet and botanist, who raised the possibility of a holistic science. Before that I thought science had to be done a certain way. It’s a shame, but that’s the way past science used to be. Then I had this insight that another kind of science was possible; that was an important intellectual revelation. It was based on an emotional feeling, a feeling of incompleteness about the way that biology was done, that it actually violated the very essence of life, because nearly everything we studied was killed first.
When I started doing research in developmental biology, I realized that the present mechanistic system isn’t likely to come up with the answers.
Travelling, particularly in Asia, showed me that normal ways of looking at things are very culturally conditioned; it’s possible to look at the world in a very different way. So it was a gradual realization over the years, a combination of emotional responses, intellectual insights and exposure to other cultures.
Joseph Roberts: Do you have an interest in music?
RS: I’ve played the piano since I was about five years old. My father was keen on the flute and piano. My grandfather was a church organist and my uncle was a church organist, so I grew up in a musical family. My mother played the piano. So I played classical piano, and I sang in choirs. Music is an important part of my life. Now my kids are keen on music and they do something I can’t do, which is play jazz piano. So it is an important way to counterbalance intellectual endeavours. When I want a change from thinking about things, I just go and play the piano. It’s a completely different activity, very relaxing.
JR: Would you encourage people to reframe how they look at the world?
RS: What’s happening in our culture is that we have a tremendously deep division between the intellectual theory of the world provided by enlightenment and rationalist science, which most educated people have been brought up to believe in, and our own direct, immediate experience. Most people have telepathic experiences with telephone calls from friends and family, and many people have animals that seemed to read their thoughts. Our present system rejects all that, and saying it’s make-believe, or not scientific, and so we’re forced to deny a lot of our experience.
And another split in the present culture encourages a mechanistic, bottom-line approach to life from Monday to Friday. And then the reason people want to make a lot of money, often by exploiting nature, is so they can buy a little place in the country - or preferably, a big place in the country - to get away from it all. On weekends and on holidays, people want to get back to nature in the car. So our culture is based on exploiting and destroying nature only with regard to profit.
So it’s not that there’s one lot of people who love nature, and cherish it, and there’s another lot who hate it, who just want to exploit or destroy it. They are the same people, just on different days of the week. These are examples of the splits that come about through this mechanistic view of nature. So I think if we can have a more holistic view of life, nature and the mind, then we will be able to reduce the splits that exist.
JR: One example of this split is the culture of cottage life; There are magazines and TV channels promoting this cottage life where you go to really enjoy yourself, if you’re lucky, two weeks out of the year.
RS: Or when you retire. No, this is a big thing everywhere in the western world, urban, modern, high-tech civilization. If you scratch the surface of many people in it, what they really want, or say they really want, is to live in a remote rural place and be closer to nature.
The whole culture is split; there’s the mechanistic, rationalistic side, especially from the 18th century onwards, but even in the late 18th century, there was a reaction against it in the Romantic movement, a kind of back to nature movement. And both of these are features of Western civilization. It’s not as if there is one lot of people who are romantics and another lot more sort of mechanistic. Most people have two sides, a rationalist side and a romantic side. The rationalist side is the public side that comes out at work and in public. The romantic side has to do with one’s cottage life and weekends, one’s gardens, one’s pets, one’s friends, one’s family, it’s the private life. And I think the split is very damaging, because it prevents us from integrating our lives.
GO: In your Hollyhock seminar, you used an interesting quote about skepticism and belief.
RS: A 19th century psychologist, said he had to tread a middle path between what he called the scornfully skeptical and the eagerly credulous.
I don’t actually find that’s so much the problem as the division between people who take these things for granted because they have experienced them, and the people who say they’re impossible.
Often there’s a division within individual people. There’s a part of many people who know these things happen because of their experience, but people with a university education feel they are duty bound to deny they exist. So they have to pretend it’s just a coincidence or something. So there is a split within the culture about these things.
GO: I was reading your conversations with Terence McKenna and Ralph Abraham, and have the impression that you were, and presumably still are, a mystic as much as a scientist. I also get the impression those two things aren’t necessarily incompatible.
RS: Well, I think mysticism has to do with direct, conscious experience of a sense of unity; connection with nature, connection with the others, connection with the universe, connection with God. I’ve had such experiences, and these lie at the root of all spiritual experience, and indeed lie at the root of all religions. I know that Terence and Ralph had such experiences. Part of the challenge is to see how one can relate that to intellectual endeavour in general and science in particular. There isn’t actually a conflict, a great many scientists have been mystically inclined; Einstein was, Newton was.
A lot of scientists have this mystical side. They often keep it quiet until they’ve won the Nobel Prize or until they’re retired. It is a factor in many great scientists, that they are impressed by the unity of nature, and I think the sense of a unitary principal is definitely related to the mystical experience. Now there are a lot of scientists who are more concerned with the nuts and bolts or just getting on with the job, and finding out more details. But I think quite a number of scientists have a strongly developed mystical side, and don’t see it as contradictory to science.
JR: You mentioned William Blake in your discussion. Where do you place him?
RS: “Happiness is to see the world in a grain of sand, and Heaven in a wild flower, to hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in a single hour.” Blake was taking a mystical view. He was talking about that perception you can have when you’re in the present, where everything in the universe is somehow interconnected and reflects the whole universe - where a grain of sand has something in it that connects it to everything else. There’s a sense of the dilation of time. So there’s a fullness in the present, that is not just distracted by memories of the past or plans for the future. There’s a tremendous rich fullness in the present moment.