This post is a distillation of a discussion that the Biologist Rupert Sheldrake gave to an interviewer in this Youtube video discussing Jordan Peterson.
Almost all of these ideas are formally expressed in his book The Science Delusion, where Sheldrake identifies the 10 unquestioned assumptions underlying the belief system of atheist materialism.
It is a tour de force of skeptical inquiry, posed against the dominant paradigm of our time.
Sheldrake identifies the 10 fundamental principles of scientific, atheistic materialism:
1. Everything is essentially mechanical.
2. All matter is unconscious.
3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same
4. The laws of nature are fixed.
5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.
6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.
7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains.
8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.
10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
In his book, Sheldrake devotes a chapter to each of these beliefs, skeptically questioning and examining them. The result is quite liberating for the reader. His analysis in his book reveals the tyranny of thought that any prevailing paradigm has over its inmates, all the way back to the paradigm which imprisoned Galileo.
As Sheldrake points out, most people in western civilization do not recognize these points as questionable assumptions, they simply believe they are The Truth – which was probably the case in Galileo’s time as well.
In this discussion on youtube, Sheldrake is asked to give advice to someone who would debate an atheist materialist, and the following is a distilled version of his answer:
“I’ve seen all the usual attitudes that one encounters among atheists. They think they’re right and they’ve seen the truth and anyone who’s religious is being deluded. And they’ll probably continue their evangelical mission to liberate the world from religion.
“I mean it has this kind of evangelical zeal to it very often. It certainly does in Sam Harris’s case. Not all atheists are evangelical proselytizing atheists. John Gray for example whose recent book ‘Seven Types of Atheism’ is enormously enlightening.
“My own approach with atheists is to look at what they believe because the normal stance is that atheists are on the attack. ‘You believe in God and that’s a very silly idea. This led to all these problems and people just become obsessed with violence to get their own dogmas across.’ I mean all those usual polemics. “Think of the Inquisition! Think of the Wars of Religion! Think of Islamic terrorism!” and so forth. These are their usual points of view.
“Atheists normally put themselves in the position of the Inquisitor. Here are all these people with silly beliefs and the atheists are coming to it with reason and science on their side, turning the spotlight of skeptical reason on these beliefs which they think of as being completely devoid of evidence. And then they get the religious people on the defensive.
“Those are the normal dynamics. But atheists are not people who have no beliefs, or who’ve risen above belief. The great majority of them have a very strong belief system: they believe in the philosophy of materialism, mechanistic materialism, which they often think of as of their ‘scientific worldview’. Well the trouble with mechanistic materialism is that it’s a philosophy – not science. And it is itself a dogmatic belief system.
“As I show in my book The Science Delusion called Science Set Free in the United States, mechanistic materialism is the official belief system of science and every atheist I’ve ever met has been a mechanistic materialist. There are some who are not, well probably John Gray is not, but most are. They have a belief system that they think is science and is true, and what they believe is true. What everyone else believes is just a belief.
“But actually the mechanistic materialist worldview is based on ten central assumptions. The first being that nature is mechanical. This works with nature as a machine not an organism. In other words nature is inanimate and purposeless. And secondly, that matter is unconscious, that the whole universe is made of unconscious matter. And therefore there’s no place for God, spirits, or angels in nature because the whole of nature – the Stars the galaxies outer space – it’s all unconscious matter.
“Well these are assumptions. They’re not facts. And they’re not proven by science, and they’re not tested by science even. They’re just taken for granted.
“In the 17th century the philosopher Rene Descartes defined matter as unconscious because he split the world up into unconscious matter and conscious spirit. Spirit consisted of God, angels, and human minds which he thought were immaterial outside time and space. And matter was material inside time and space and unconscious. He made this distinction in the 19th century.
“This Cartesian dualism was overturned by materialists. They said well why bother with this untestable realm of God, angels, and the human spirit? Everything’s just matter. So they scrubbed out the spirit tower of Cartesian dualism, leaving the material pole as the only reality. And God and angels disappeared at one stroke from this worldview. But again this is an assumption. It’s not a proven fact.
“And it’s an assumption that Descartes made in connection with a dualistic model of reality which has then reduced, collapse down to a monism. And the result of that is that materialists and atheists are left with the problem of consciousness. It ought not to exist in a universe which is totally unconscious. If they define matter as unconscious, then consciousness shouldn’t exist anywhere. Yet we know it exists in human beings and that’s why in the philosophy of mind it’s called ‘the hard problem’.
“The very existence of consciousness is ‘the hard problem’. And so they then have to say well it somehow emerges from brains when they get complex enough. But how can something emerge that is so radically different from its source? Or they have to say it doesn’t really exist. Some of them say consciousness doesn’t really exist – it’s an illusion. But that doesn’t explain it because illusion is itself a mode of consciousness – it presupposes consciousness. Or some of them say it does exist but it doesn’t do anything – it’s an epiphenomenon of the physical activity of the brain.
“But the point is that the very existence of human consciousness is a massive problem for materialism and it’s what’s led to a whole burgeoning field of consciousness studies – a tremendous debate about the nature of mind.
“So I think that if one has a debate with an atheist where one takes for granted that their assumptions are correct, that mechanistic materialism is a true view of reality as bound up with science, then atheists will definitely win any argument based on that. Because they’re taking the ultimate view of reality to be this materialist philosophy which excludes God and angels. And then you have to add those on as kind of quirks of the human imagination, or as phenomena inside human brains. Or if you have the idea of miracles and God working in nature, then it has to suspend the laws of nature and occasionally intervene.
“These are all preposterous views that are very unconvincing. And if an atheist can force religious people into those kinds of views then clearly the atheist has a more rational position. I think you have to reframe the debate because it can’t be taken for granted that mechanistic materialism is the true philosophy of nature: It’s a philosophy of nature. It’s a belief system. It’s a worldview.
“So the atheists have a worldview, instead of not having a worldview. And I think a real discussion would involve discussing their worldview as well as the religious worldview on a level playing field. We will apply some skeptical thinking to this, and you know you could benefit with a bit of skeptical thought.
“I’m totally in favor of skeptical thinking in my own case. I apply the skepticism to the assumptions of science itself. I think radical skepticism is a very good thing. What I don’t like is partial skepticism where you take for granted your own beliefs and use this laser beam of skeptical thinking against everyone else’s, assuming that your own are invulnerable. I think skepticism should be applied to all belief systems.”
Interviewer: It’s fascinating if you think about it as “okay the materialist worldview can explain absolutely everything apart from what is experiencing”. That’s a huge hole, and if you reframe it like that then the whole thing seems to collapse.”
“Well of course it does. And the materialist’s worldview – as an idea, it’s in minds. It’s nothing. It doesn’t exist out there. It doesn’t exist as something you can find and crystallize in a test tube. It’s purely intellectual. And I dare say it exists only in minds, and so as a view of the universe it’s not an objective view. It exists only inside minds. In fact only inside some modern human minds. And it presupposes consciousness. And for most materialists who think that physical realities are the only reality they have to disbelieve in free will.
“Their mind is just the physical activity through physical causes and trace events inside their brains. So how come they believe in materialism? Well it must be their brain that makes them do it, so why should you or I believe in materialism? Just because their brains made them believe in it? You can’t prove it’s true if it’s just something that your brains made you believe in.
“I mean they try and get around this by saying we behave as if we’ve got free will or something like that, but we don’t really. Then his views are ones that he has no freedom to choose, so this undermines the entire basis for any discussion about truth.
‘There is no such thing as truth if it’s just something your or my brain makes you do. And our brains make us do it because they’ve been shaped by natural selection to do for long periods of time with social behavior, and then in small hunter-gatherer groups, and making stone axe heads, and studying the behavior of animals and plants they hunt or gather. There’s no reason to believe a brain that was shaped by those evolutionary forces over long periods as the evolutionary psychologists like to point out.
“Brains should have the necessary capacity to understand distant galaxies or the Big Bang or the origins of time and space or the entire universe. Why should human brains, evolved over such a limited period for such limited purposes, have this ability? And if they do, and if we think that we do have that ability, then how do we know it’s not just evolution?
And if I have this materialist worldview and try and persuade you of it, what right have I to try and persuade you of something my brain just made me do? And why should you listen to me rather than anyone else?
It’s self contradictory.
“If we live as materialist science tells us in a purposeless universe where we are here as a result of blind chance in mutations and unconscious natural selection forces, then it’s a pretty depressing worldview. And the result of this is that in secular societies the endemic mental condition or mental problem is depression on a massive scale. Vast proportions of the population on antidepressant pills, lots of suicide even among children.”
Sheldrake’s arguments above reveal gaping craters underlying the belief system of atheist materialism.
In my time as an atheist after Scientology, and in the few years I’ve spent crawling back up out of it, I have had many of the same thoughts that Sheldrake communicates here, but never have I seen this whole materialist paradigm so thoroughly demolished. I can’t tell you how spiritually fulfilling it has been to be exposed to such a great and true skeptic as Rupert Sheldrake.
I feel that I have been set free from a depressing, omnipresent tyranny and can finally be myself again.
Thank you, Rupert Sheldrake.
And thank you skepticism: May you continue to save every sleep-walking one of us.