My philosophy and Sheldrake's morphic fields

[Updated 9 March 2016]
In the message board of this blog, reader David Bailey suggested that I compare my philosophy to Rupert Sheldrake's ideas, among which the hypothesis of morphic fields figures prominently. As regular readers know, my philosophical position entails that nature – indeed, reality at large – exists only insofar as it is a construct in the medium of consciousness; that there is no reality outside of consciousness, such an idea being simply a seductive, persistent, but unprovable and unnecessary abstraction. In philosophy, the position I hold is usually called idealism. My specific articulation of an idealist philosophy is elaborated upon in my books (particularly Why Materialism Is Baloney and Brief Peeks Beyond) and in several articles in this blog (particularly this one). The question then becomes: How does Sheldrake's hypothesis of morphic fields relate to my idealist position? This is what I hope to explore in this article.


In the short video above, Sheldrake summarizes the concept of morphic resonance. Basically, he postulates the existence of a non-physical field of memory called 'morphic field.' The shape of our bodies, and those of all organisms and even crystals, is determined by a form of resonance between the DNA-transcribed proteins in our bodies and this invisible, non-material morphic field. The information in the field itself is determined by habit: Animals today look the way they look largely because they looked the way they looked in the past. (Except, of course, for changes in the patterns encoded in the field caused by the current activity of organisms, which tentatively accounts for evolution in a somewhat Lamarckian way.) Similarly, Sheldrake also postulates that our memories are not stored as material traces in the brain, but are themselves encoded in the morphic fields in a way that transcends time. Morphic fields are, thus, not only fields of forms, but fields of qualia. When we recall a past event, "resonant patterns of activity" (The Science Delusion, page 197) in our brains tune into the corresponding segments of the morphic field, giving us access to qualia across time. This is, in a nutshell, the thrust of Sheldrake's hypothesis. Personally, I find the hypothesis quite intriguing and coherent, even though there is no theoretical articulation (i.e. a formal, perhaps mathematical model) for the morphic fields themselves, nor for the process of resonance by means of which the fields causally affect the physical world.

Sheldrake's metaphors suggest that the morphic fields are objective, autonomous realities. As such, they are supposed to be like electromagnetic fields, but of a different nature. Electromagnetic fields are abstract and invisible, detectable only by their ability to interact with particular arrangements of matter, like ionized gases or magnetically polarized metals. Similarly, morphic fields, which are equally abstract and invisible, are detectable only by their ability to resonate with particular arrangements of matter under particular circumstances, like those of embryonic development or electrochemical activity in the brain. Sheldrake thus places his views on a firmly realist ground: Morphic fields exist objectively in nature as part of it, next to other objective parts of nature like atoms and fields of other types. In other works, Sheldrake also suggests that mind itself is a kind of field centered in the brain but extending beyond the brain, much like the electromagnetic field of a magnet is centered in the magnet but extends beyond it. Here again, Sheldrake's metaphors seem to be underpinned by a realist assumption: Minds are objective and causally-effective fields just like electromagnetic fields. As such, mind-fields are a part of nature, but not the very medium of all reality, as idealism entails.

Sheldrake's hypothesis thus seems to contradict my idealist philosophy. Yet, this is merely a difference of interpretation, not of substance. When one looks carefully at the phenomena Sheldrake describes to motivate his ideas, one quickly realizes that they all equally support idealism. In fact, I'd go as far as to suggest that an idealist interpretation is simpler and requires less abstractions. You see, morphic fields are conceptualized as memory fields shaped by habit. Now, very few things are more intrinsic to what we call mental activity than memory and habit. Therefore, when Sheldrake talks about the habits of nature he is flirting with the idea of nature itself being mental. The idealist hypothesis is that all of existence is simply 'excitations' of the medium of mind, which would be entirely consistent with all of Sheldrake's observations of habit formation in nature: Mental excitations simply 'flow' more easily through previously traversed, 'softened' paths, something we all know from personal, direct experience. Morphogenesis can be interpreted as the result of the mind-medium of nature shaping itself the way it has 'learned' to shape itself before, without need for postulating objective morphic fields. Memories can be interpreted as a resonant 're-flow' of mind excitations across time (time itself being a construct of mind), without need for postulating objective qualia fields. A process of resonance could still be involved, but as a form of self-resonance within the medium of mind. There would be no need to postulate objective fields centered in the brain and extending beyond the body to explain reported mind-over-matter phenomena. In fact, in his discussion of potential 'experimenter effects' in the physical sciences, Sheldrake comes agonizingly close to endorsing idealism. In page 306 of The Science Delusion he writes:

"Although experimenter effects may often result from biases in the observation and recording of results, experimenters might affect the experimental system itself. This is easy to understand when experiments involve human subjects, who may well respond to the experimenters' expectations and attitude. [i.e.placebo effect] ... But there is a more radical possibility. In the uncertain circumstances of research, the experimenter's expectations may directly affect the system under investigation through mind-over-matter effects or psychokinesis." (my italics)

"Fluctuations in the subjective medium
of mind." See discussion below.
Source: Wikipedia.
My own view is as follows: There is only mind. All phenomena of nature are 'excitations' of the subjective medium of mind observing itself. Not all such excitations are cognizable from the point of view of ordinary human awareness: The excitations of our so-called 'unconscious' mind – which I prefer to call obfuscated mind – correspond to a rich phenomenology that is as real as our ordinary reality, but lies outside the perceptual scope of the ego. Now, here is the key point: Some of these obfuscated excitations of the medium of mind are prone to habit formation, converging over time to very stable patterns, some of which we've come to call the 'laws of nature.' Ordinary reality seems autonomous because it is merely the visible 'tip of the iceberg' of excitations of mind, some of whose underwater (i.e. obfuscated) dynamics have 'crystallized' over time. Because much of the 'iceberg' lies hidden in the obfuscated mind, we are not aware of these crystallized mental mechanisms that produce the phenomenology of ordinary reality. Therefore, ordinary reality, despite being our own mentation in action, feels separate from us and takes on an illusory (albeit convincing) cloak of autonomy, much in the same way that the visions of a schizophrenic feel entirely autonomous to him or her. If only we were to become self-reflectively aware of the whole medium of mind, we would immediately identify ourselves with all of nature, understanding at once that the 'laws' of physics are merely the expression of our own (obfuscated) habits, crystallized through the aeons of cosmological history. We would grok how ordinary reality emerges from these underlying, ordinarily obfuscated mental processes.

Under this perspective, it is not mind-over-matter phenomena that need to be explained through a proliferation of invisible, objective fields; after all, if all of nature are excitations of the unified medium of mind, there is no such a thing as matter-separate-from-mind, but only non-local mind reaching across time and space. Instead, what needs to be explained is why the so-called mind-over-matter phenomena are not happening all the time! And here is where Sheldrake's observations and insights come handy. Indeed, I used them above to substantiate my form of idealism: To help explain, through habit formation, how a continuous, stable and seemingly autonomous reality can emerge from an otherwise notoriously unstable medium of mind. I believe Sheldrake's empirical observations and insights help tackle this very critical challenge of idealism, without any need for postulating yet more objective fields; yet more linguistic abstractions that take our culture further away from the immediate experience of reality (I discussed this before here).

In my view, Sheldrake is right in the essence of his hypothesis: Yes, there is no such thing as 'laws' of nature but merely 'habits' of nature, which express themselves in ordinary reality through a form of trans-temporal resonance. But there is no need for new abstractions of objectivity, like morphic fields, for this entire process to take place. Reality may be much simpler and more elegant than that: It may consist simply in excitations of the subjective medium of mind.

Copyright © 2012-2016 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.

Comments

  1. To me, conventional fields, such as the electromagnetic field, are a very mechanistic concept - so I am never quite sure if I like Sheldrake calling his habit forming structures, fields. It is also not clear how they are supposed to relate to the rest of materialistic science - I tend to imagine that they operate by modifying the quantum probabilities at each wave function collapse,in some way.

    Nevertheless, Sheldrake fascinates me because he supplies such a broad range of evidence to support his ideas.

    It is an interesting observation that ascribing habits to nature, is more or less an idealist concept!

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  2. I find the notion of MR quite interesting. As a linguist and "proponent", the question naturally occurred to me: If morphic fields are indeed genuine and the habit forming processes occur as mentioned, would that not imply that the more people that speak a language, the easier that language should be to learn? By this logic Mandarin Chinese, the largest language on earth, should theoretically possess a certain ease of learning, though many would disagree.

    I'm actually a Chinese Studies major, and I find the language extremely easy compared to, let's say, Russian.

    Just curious what your thoughts on the matter were. Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Interesting. I'd guess many factors play in how easy a certain language is to learn for different people. Morphic resonance could be one. But then you also have similarities to other languages one already speaks; whether there is a different alphabet involved or not; general ease one has with languages; motivation to learn a given language; affinity with the structure and sounds of a language; etc. So I guess it's hard to conclude anything pro or against the role of morphic resonance when so many others factors can be inferred to be at play as well, though the thought is definitely intriguing!

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    2. I made a similar experience: If something is very difficult to understand, a very complex and abstract idea, then I take this concept, writing a short post on a blog or a email to some friends, and after a few days I reconsider it ... and wonder it is so easy to understand.

      I made this experience a few years ago and since this time I experimented a lot with this phenomenon. Sometimes I do not even waste my time on some topics and just use the power of the collective mind to facilitate the learning process (writing posts and emails in advance if I see that some topics could arise in the next few weeks).

      It seems that the collective human mind is like this SETI@home large scale distributed computing.

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    3. As described in his book Morphic Resonance, in 1982 New Scientist held a competition for ideas on testing MR. Rupert followed up on the winner, though with a twist. A Japanese poet provided a nursery rhyme known to generations of Japanese and composed two novel rhymes with a similar structure, but meaningless. People in Britain and America were asked to memorize all three, without of course knowing Japanese. They were significantly more successful with the real deal. As Rupert notes, this could be due to the original rhyme's intrinsic properties; that it became popular because it was easy to remember, and though written by a leading poet the fakes were inferior.

      To muddy the waters a bit, what intrigues me given MR is what happens when you try to factor in the countless other beings we know nothing of, living on other planets or even within other realms, other coherent phases of consciousness beyond the consensus reality we normally experience. If they exist, which I believe they do, what influence might their habits have on us, assuming some portion of them are morphologically similar in mind? A trillion people speaking Chinese might be a drop in the bucket, even for fellow earthlings. The same would apply in other areas of behavior and morphogenisis, making it difficult to test for local effects. But I suppose these musings are (literally) far out there.

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  3. There is a certain amount of information about deductions like this in Rupert Sheldrake's recent update of his book, "The Presence of the Past". This book contains a lot of experimental work backing up his MR idea.

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  4. Very interesting article, as always. I've read quite a bit of Sheldrake in the past couple years (most recently The God Delelusion) and reading through your excellent blog entries I'm often struck by the many parallels between your ideas and Sheldrake's. Right now (my thinking on these things vascillates regularly) I actually tend to prefer your model as it does seem to be the more parsimonious. Also, should Sheldrake's predictions be validated over time (as I expect they will), it's easier to see how morphic fields could gradually be absorbed into the current materialist paradigm and become the latest "dogma", with the actual physical discovery of these fields left as another materialist promissory note. Your take on Idealism, while simpler in some ways, would seem to be the ultimate "dogma buster" and nearly impossible to fit into the current materialist paradigm--if all reality as we know it is ultimately a product of and modulated by consciousness there's no room for dogma.

    Another possible reason to prefer an Idealist approach over morphic fields (alone) is related to the qustion of novelty. Sheldrake's fields don't seem to have any good explanation for novelty. how do new biological entities come into existence? If everything is based on habits from the past, how does anything new come into existence for that matter? Sheldrake alludes to a purposefulness to nature but again it's unclear how morphic resonance could drive it. If once assumes that consciousnes is inherently creative (which it seems to be), and if consciousness is everything, then the problem seems to go away.

    That said, I'm still a huge Sheldrake fan and I see a lot of complementary ideas between you (a certain resonance if you will!). Progress is being made, great stuff!

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    Replies
    1. You mean the "Science Delusion" written by Sheldrake, not the "God Delusion" ... this was written by someone else (name is not important).

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    2. Just picked up on this article. Yes, I'd say that morphic resonance - habit formation - is driven by purposeful biological entities, not the other way around. Of course, those 'biological entities' are actually consciousness anyway.

      In other words, it is the accumulated intention of humans (for instance) that deforms the field and establishes new paths for it to follow (because, well, we are the field, and we are essentially just deforming ourselves, reshaping ourselves into the experience we desire).

      The two - idealism and MR - work quite nicely together, as a way of picturing what's going on.

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