Why Bad Science Is Like Bad Religion

by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake

scientismIn both religion and science, some people are dishonest, exploitative, incompetent and exhibit other human failings. My concern here is with the bigger picture.

I have been a scientist for more than 40 years, having studied at Cambridge and Harvard. I researched and taught at Cambridge University, was a research fellow of the Royal Society, and have more than 80 publications in peer-reviewed journals. I am strongly pro-science. But I am more and more convinced that that the spirit of free inquiry is being repressed within the scientific community by fear-based conformity. Institutional science is being crippled by dogmas and taboos. Increasingly expensive research is yielding diminishing returns.

Bad religion is arrogant, self-righteous, dogmatic and intolerant. And so is bad science. But unlike religious fundamentalists, scientific fundamentalists do not realize that their opinions are based on faith. They think they know the truth. They believe that science has already solved the fundamental questions. The details still need working out, but in principle the answers are known.

Science at its best is an open-minded method of inquiry, not a belief system. But the “scientific worldview,” based on the materialist philosophy, is enormously prestigious because science has been so successful. Its achievements touch all our lives through technologies like computers, jet planes, cell phones, the Internet and modern medicine. Our intellectual world has been transformed through an immense expansion of scientific knowledge, down into the most microscopic particles of matter and out into the vastness of space, with hundreds of billions of galaxies in an ever-expanding universe.

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Science has been successful because it has been open to new discoveries. By contrast, committed materialists have made science into a kind of religion. They believe that there is no reality but material or physical reality. Consciousness is a by-product of the physical activity of the brain. Matter is unconscious. Nature is mechanical. Evolution is purposeless. God exists only as an idea in human minds, and hence in human heads.

These materialist beliefs are often taken for granted by scientists, not because they have thought about them critically, but because they haven’t. To deviate from them is heresy, and heresy harms careers.

Since the 19th century, materialists have promised that science will eventually explain everything in terms of physics and chemistry. Science will prove that living organisms are complex machines, nature is purposeless, and minds are nothing but brain activity. Believers are sustained by the implicit faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance “promissory materialism” because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made. Many promises have been issued, but few redeemed. Materialism is now facing a credibility crunch unimaginable in the 20th century‚Ķ

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