My philosophy and Sheldrake's morphic fields
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).