Why has the Guardian fallen in love with Rupert Sheldrake? They carry an interview with that entertaining and intriguing feature of the badlands of scientific and philosophical research; which follows a warm review of his latest book by Mary Midgley and a praiseful companion piece by Mark Vernon.

I like Sheldrake. I like his nonconformism; his imagination; his bloodymindedness. This is not the same thing as agreeing with him, though. The Guardian writers seem endeared to him because they don’t like the people he’s criticising, which, again, is dubious. They’re opponents of the “narrow”, “rigid”, “crude” materialistic and atheistic scientists who are, to their chagrin, “fashionable”. Well, I’m not Richard Dawkins’ biggest fan but, still, I’m not keen on their using Sheldrake merely as a stick to beat him with. For example, Midgley writes…

Whether or no we want to follow Sheldrake’s further speculations on topics such as morphic resonance, his insistence on the need to attend to possible wider ways of thinking is surely right.

You’d think the author of a 1000+ word review could make up their mind as to whether their subject’s life work is worth “follow[ing]” or not. Vernon, meanwhile, writes…

He may not be right in the details. But he is surely right…in insisting that the materialist world view must go.

Er – no. Sorry. I’m no devotee of materialism but you can’t dismiss such theories with rhetorical flourishes. Somehow, I’m not sure Vernon would be so comfortable with someone writing, say, that Dawkins “may not be right in the details, but he is surely right in insisting that theism must go”.

It’s materialism that Vernon and Midgley have a beef with: the idea that we are “meaningless consignments of chemicals”; mere slaves to biological impulses. That is not a concept I am fond of either. The nature of human consciousness is one of the most important questions we face. But I fear that bringing in the “paranormal” muddles things. The case against materialism is not reliant on finding some new power that humans have, or some new force within the universe. It has long been made upon the premise that the scientists cannot explain what we already know about ourselves.

For example, Sheldrake says that he began to move away from naturalism after feeling that “electrical changes in the cortex didn’t seem able to fully explain Bach”. Philosophers of the mind have long been arguing against scientific reductionism on similar bases but they have not had to look for alternative causal mechanisms. They have only had to recognise its limitations. (I will admit that “morphic fields” sound sexier than “intentionality” but there we go.)

I suppose my point is that while I’ve defended theorists of the “paranormal” from unfair criticism they have got a lot of work to do to prove that such phenomena exist. Exploring the implications of the unproven is, while doubtless interesting, a little presumptuous. Sceptics of materialism should, I think, look to philosophers. For one thing, presuming that it must be threatened by a scientific discovery is a rather scientistic way of opposing scientism.

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