September 3, 2013

Learning From Other Cultures.


When your mind and heart are truly open abundance will flow to you effortlessly and easily.

by Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D; biologist and author of Science Set Free

The sciences are entering a new phase. The materialist ideology that has ruled them since the nineteenth century is out of date.

All ten of its essential doctrines have been superseded. The authoritarian structure of the sciences, the illusions of objectivity and the fantasies of omniscience have all outlived their usefulness.

The sciences will have to change for another reason too: they are now global. Mechanistic science and the materialist ideology grew up in Europe, and were strongly influenced by the religious disputes that obsessed Europeans from the seventeenth century onwards. . But these preoccupations are alien to cultures and traditions in many other parts of the world.

In 2011, the worldwide expenditure on scientific and technological research and development was more than $1,000 billion, of which China spent $100 billion. Asian countries, especially China and India, now produce enormous numbers of science and engineering graduates. In 2007, at the B.Sc. level there were 2,500,000 science and engineering graduates in India and 1,500,000 in China compared with 515,000 in the US and 100,000 in the UK. In addition, many of those studying in the US and Europe are from other countries: in 2007, nearly a third of the graduate students in science and engineering in the US were foreign, with the majority from India, China and Korea.

Yet the sciences as taught in Asia, Africa, the Islamic countries and elsewhere are still packaged in an ideology shaped by their European past. Materialism gains its persuasive power from the technological applications of science. But the successes of these applications do not prove that this ideology is true. Penicillin will go on killing bacteria, jet planes will keep on flying and mobile telephones will still work if scientists move on to wider views of nature.

Learning from other cultures

The sciences as we know them are weakest when they are dealing with, or trying to avoid, the subjective aspects of reality. Our own experiences of qualities, like the smell of a rose or the sound of a band, have been stripped away, leaving only odourless molecular structures and the physics of vibrations. But instead of trying to reduce minds to objects, what if all self-organizing systems are subjects? As discussed in my previous article, some philosophers propose that materialism implies panpsychism, meaning that self-organizing systems like atoms, molecules, crystals, plants and animals have points of view, or inner lives, or subjective experience.

Most people who keep companion animals take for granted that their dog or their cat or their parrot or their horse has subjective experiences, like emotions, desires and fears. But what about snakes? Or oysters? Or plants? We can try to imagine their inner lives, but it is difficult to do so. Yet in traditional hunter-gatherer societies all around the world, specialists in communication with non-human organisms form connections with a wide range of animals and plants. Shamans link themselves to animals and plants through their minds or spirits, and find out useful information by doing so. They are said to know where animals are to be found, and they help hunters. They know which plants are useful as healing herbs, or as mind-altering brews.

For centuries, among scientists and educated people in the West, shamanic knowledge has been dismissed as primitive, animistic, or superstitious. Anthropologists have studied the social roles of shamans, but most of them have assumed that if shamans have any valid knowledge of the natural world, it has not been gained subjectively but rather by “normal” sense-based means, or by trial and error. If shamans have discovered herbs that work, or visionary brews like ayahuasca, traditionally used in parts of the Amazon region, they have done so by trying out various plants at random. But some shamans themselves say that this knowledge has come from “the plant teachers”.

What if shamans really do have ways of learning about plants and animals that are completely unknown to scientists? What if they have explored the natural world for many generations discovering ways of communicating with the world around them that depend on subjective rather than objective methods? The Brazilian anthropologist Viveiros de Castro summarized the difference as follows:

Objectification is the name of our game… The form of the other is the thing. Amerindian shamanism is guided by the opposite ideal. To know is to personify, to take on the point of view of that which must be known. Shamanic knowledge aims at something that is a someone – another subject. The form of the other is the person. What I am defining here is what anthropologists of yore used to call animism, an attitude that is far more than an idle metaphysical tenet, for the attribution of soul to animals and other so-called natural beings entails a specific way of dealing with them.

For most of human history, people have lived as hunter-gatherers, and have only survived because they knew how to hunt and had a deep understanding of the animals they hunted. They only survived because they knew which plants were edible, and where and when to find them. Their knowledge worked. We still benefit from their discoveries. About 70 percent of our drugs are ultimately derived from plants , and much of the knowledge of these plants’ medicinal properties was traditional, discovered long ago in pre-scientific cultures.

For much of the twentieth century, scientific psychologists tried to learn about minds objectively, from outside, by studying measurable behaviour and quantifiable responses. In more recent research, the emphasis has mainly been on the study of brains and of computer models of brain activity. In the mystical traditions of both East and West, people have explored the nature of minds through long periods of meditation, discovering how their mental processes work from within. By contrast, academic psychologists and cognitive scientists usually carry out their studies with paid subjects, generally undergraduate students, who have no professional training in observing or reporting mental processes. As the Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace put it:
By leaving introspection in the hands of amateurs, scientists guarantee that the direct observation of the mind remains at the level of folk psychology…. Cognitive scientists have taken on the challenge of understanding mental processes, but unlike all other natural scientists, they receive no professional training in observing the realities that constitute their field of enquiry.

Today there are many teachers of meditation, mainly rooted in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and some scientists have begun to explore their own minds for themselves.

Scientific investigations of the interactions of minds and bodies are as backward as the investigation of minds from within. In medicine, there is a growing recognition of the effects of belief on healing, as shown in the placebo response, and studies using biofeedback show that people can learn to gain conscious control over their blood flow and their fingers and other aspects of their physiology that are normally regulated unconsciously. But these achievements are elementary compared with feats achieved by Indian yogis, who demonstrate a remarkable voluntary control of their digestive and circulatory systems. One of the means by which they acquire these abilities is through the control of breathing. Breathing is under the control of both the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems, and yogic breathing exercises may provide a bridge between them.

In China, the chi gung or qigong tradition likewise places a strong emphasis on breathing practices, and has many applications in traditional Chinese medicine and in the martial arts. Both prana in the Indian tradition and chi in the Chinese are translated into English as “energy” but they differ from the concept of energy in mechanistic physiology. There are serious problems with the standard scientific dogma of energy conservation in living organisms and a re-examination of human energy balances is long overdue. This is one area in which it might be possible to bring together these different traditions in a new, integrated understanding.

New dialogues with religions

As the sciences free themselves from the constrictions of materialism, many new possibilities arise. And many of them raise new possibilities for dialogues with religious traditions. Here are a few examples.

Statistical research has shown that people who attend religious services regularly tend to live longer, have better health and are less prone to depression than those who do not. Also, the practices of prayer and meditation often have beneficial effects on health and longevity. How do these practices work? Are the effects purely psychological or sociological? Or does the connection with a larger spiritual reality confer a greater capacity to heal and an enhancement of wellbeing?

If organisms at all levels of complexity are in some sense alive with their own purposes, this implies that the earth, the solar system, our galaxy, and indeed all the stars, have lives and purposes of their own. And so may the entire universe. The cosmic evolutionary process may have inherent purposes or ends, and the cosmos may have a mind or consciousness. Since the universe itself is evolving and developing, the mind or consciousness of the universe must be devolving and developing too. Is this cosmic mind the same as God? Perhaps only if God is conceived of in a pantheistic spirit as the soul or mind of the universe, or of nature. In the Christian tradition, the world soul is not identical with God, whose being transcends the universe. For example, the early Christian theologian Origen (c. 184-253) thought of the world soul as the Logos, endlessly creative, which gave rise to the world and the processes of development within it. The Logos was an aspect of God, not the whole of God, whose being transcended the universe. If instead of one universe there are many, then the divine being would include and transcend them all.

The universe is evolving and is the arena of continuing creativity. Creativity is not confined to the origin of the universe, as in Deism, but is an ongoing part of the evolutionary process, expressed in all realms of nature, including human societies, cultures and minds. Although the creativity expressed in all these realms may have an ultimately divine source, there is no need to think of God as an external designing mind. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God imbued the natural world with creativity to, as in the first chapter in the book of Genesis, where he called forth life from the earth and the seas (Genesis 1: 11,20,24) – a very different image from the engineering God of a mechanistic universe.

If the laws of nature are more like habits, and there is an inherent memory within the natural world, how does this relate to the principle of karma in Hinduism and Buddhism, a chain of cause and effect that implies a kind of memory in nature? In some schools of thought, as in the Lankavatra Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism, there is a cosmic or universal memory. Likewise, if biological inheritance largely depends on morphic resonance and a collective memory within each species (Chapter 6) how does this relate to doctrines of reincarnation or rebirth?

If minds are not stored as material traces in brains, but depend on a process of resonance, then memories themselves may not be extinguished at death, although the body through which they are normally retrieved decays. Is there some other way in which these memories can continue to act? Can some non-bodily form of consciousness survive the death of the body and still gain access to an individual’s memories, conscious or unconscious, as all religions suppose?

If minds are not confined to brains, how do these human minds relate to the minds of higher-level systems of organization, like the solar system, the galaxy, the universe and the mind of God? Are mystical experiences just what they seem to be: connections between human minds and larger, more inclusive forms of consciousness?

If human minds, individually and collectively, make contact with minds of higher-level minds, including the ultimate consciousness of God, to what extent can they influence the evolutionary process, or be influenced by the divine will? In an evolutionary, living universe, are humans merely part of an unfolding process on one isolated planet, or does human consciousness play a larger role in cosmic evolution, in some way connected to minds in other parts of the universe?

All religious traditions grew up in a pre-scientific era. The sciences have revealed far more of the natural world than anyone could have imagined in the past. For example, only in the nineteenth century were the great sweep of biological evolution and the aeons of geological times recognized, and only in the twentieth century were galaxies outside our own discovered, along with the vast expanse of time from the Big Bang to the present. The sciences evolve, and so do religions. No religion is the same today as it was at the time of its founder. Instead of the bitter conflicts and mutual distrust caused by the materialist worldview, we are entering an era in which sciences and religions may enrich each other through shared explorations.

The realization that the sciences do not know the fundamental answers leads to humility rather than arrogance, and openness rather than dogmatism.

This article is based on Rupert Sheldrake’s book Science Set Free, published in paperback on September 3. Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than 80 scientific papers and 10 books. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, a Research Fellow of the Royal Society, Principal Plant Physiologist at ICRISAT (the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Hyderabad, India, and from 2005-2010 the Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, funded from Trinity College, Cambridge University. His web site is

Write Your Comment

  1. Seraphina Knows

    Instead of arguing the pros and cons of various systems of belief or discovery, or locking on to a single path of belief, we humans will only learn TRUTH grow through an open mind willing to expand as new understanding and wisdom becomes available to all. Remember, scientists have spent more time exploring space than our own oceans, which we know approx 1% about! We are babes yet, with infinite potential for expansion of spirit, mind, wisdom and soul if we stay open minded and learn to do our own research before accepting the "truth" of any one man or system of belief!

  2. James Kimani

    Thank you!

  3. Olgui Vazquez


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