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Rolf Sattler, PhD, FLS, FRSC, is an emeritus professor of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. His specialty was plant morphology: the development and evolution of plant form. Besides plant biology and general biology, he taught courses in the history and philosophy of biology. Furthermore, he explored the relation between science and spirituality. In this connection, he taught a course at Naropa Institute in Modern Biology and Zen and participated in several symposia on Science and Consciousness. He published nearly 80 research papers in refereed scientific journals and is the author of several books including Biophilosophy: Analytic and Holistic Perspectives (1986) and an e-book Wilber's AQAL Map and Beyond (2008), published at his website, which also includes a book manuscript on Healing Thinking and Being that examines ways of thinking and different kinds of logic in relation to human existence. Rolf Sattler can be reached through his website

Rupert Sheldrake
and Dogmatism in Mainstream Science

Rolf Sattler

“If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may take us” (Adlai Stevenson)
The Science Delusion

In his book The Science Delusion (or Science Set Free) Sheldrake pursues two main objectives. The first objective is to show that mainstream science “is being held back by centuries-old assumptions that have hardened into dogmas” and that “the sciences would be better off without them: freer, more interesting, and more fun” (Sheldrake 2012, p. 6). Sheldrake's aim is to help setting science free from these unnecessary limitations (see also Sattler: Science: its power and limitations). With regard to the delusion of mainstream science, Sheldrake noted, “the biggest scientific delusion of all is that science already knows the answers. The details still need working out, but in principle, the fundamental questions are settled” (Sheldrake 2012, p. 6).

Sheldrake's second main objective is to show that beyond the current dogmas alternative theorizing is possible such as his theory of morphic fields and morphic resonance, which provides various explanations and predictions.

Dogmatism, Intolerance, and Repression in Mainstream Science

I want to discuss first some of the dogmas that are holding science back. The majority of scientists would not agree that this is actually the case. They cannot see the dogmas, or if they can see them, they don't think that these dogmas (that they prefer to call assumptions) are holding science back. The reason why many scientists fail to see the dogmas or take them for granted is because during their education they have been indoctrinated and brainwashed. This is not their fault. It is the fault of the educational system at all levels from kindergarten to university. The dogmas Sheldrake refers to such as materialism and mechanism are usually not presented as assumptions, but are taken for granted and implied in whatever is presented. Therefore, the student may not become aware of the assumptions. Furthermore, most instructors do not present alternatives to these assumptions. Therefore, the student has no way to evaluate the pros and cons of the assumptions. Many students remain in the dark and are led to believe that materialism, mechanism and other assumptions are the truth. When I was a student, I changed university each year and went from one professor who defended one theory to his opponent who defended the opposite point of view. This allowed me to see more of the complexity of science. Furthermore, I learned that opposite views might be different perspectives, each of which contains maybe a partial truth. But since nearly all of my professors shared at least a few basic assumptions such as materialism, I could not become sufficiently aware of these assumptions.

I am, of course, not claiming that all mainstream scientists are totally unaware of assumptions such as materialism and mechanism. Some or many scientists may simply think that these are the most appropriate assumptions. Others may be more or less skeptical but may carry out their research according to these assumptions because they know that the mainstream scientific community punishes those who do not comply. Nowadays “heretics” are no longer burnt or tortured physically, but they may risk losing their “reputation,” research grants, and in some cases even their position (unless they have tenure).

Rolf Sattler
Rolf Sattler

To illustrate these problems I want to briefly share my own story. As a plant morphologist I carried out research on the development and evolution of plants for 38 years. At first I took the materialistic/mechanistic framework of mainstream science for granted. After all I was indoctrinated in spite of some liberation due to my change of professors as I mentioned above. However, as I kept investigating plants, I came to question some of the most fundamental assumptions of mainstream plant morphology such as its categorical approach that had become dogma. According to this dogma, plants, such as flowering plants, consist of only three kinds of organs: roots, stems (caulomes) and leaves (phyllomes). Consequently, any organ one encounters must be either one or the other. Note how this kind of thinking implies Aristotelian either/or logic that even today is still widespread in science and society. We have, however, also fuzzy logic according to which membership in a class is a matter of degree (Sattler: Healing Thinking through Fuzzy Logic). Although fuzzy logic is much more precise than either/or logic, many (or most) scientists and laypersons harbor a more or less intense dislike of the word 'fuzzy.' However, my research demonstrated the fuzziness of the organ categories of mainstream plant morphology: there are plant organs that do not fit these categories, but are more or less intermediate between these categories. Consequently, I developed a continuum morphology that links the categories and thus removes their mutual exclusivity (Sattler: Plant Morphology). When I first proposed these ideas at a symposium in Heidelberg, Germany in 1971 almost all of my colleagues were against me. Later on, I provided more and more evidence for this view. Nonetheless, only some of my colleagues accepted this view, and even today, as far as I know, continuum morphology is absent in most textbooks, although investigations in molecular genetics and evolutionary developmental biology (plant evo-devo) have confirmed continuum morphology in plants (for references see Sattler: Plant Evo-Devo and my Morphological Research).

I mention all this because it shows how difficult it is to overcome deeply engrained assumptions that have become dogmas, although much evidence is available that contradicts these dogmas. The scientific community of mainstream science (in my case, mainstream plant morphology) does not want to tolerate “dissenters.” Great effort is made to repress “dissenters,” especially when they question the most fundamental assumptions. Fortunately, I had already tenure when I first proposed continuum morphology. And while I developed it further together with my students and collaborators I also continued research that appeared more or less mainstream, and thus I managed to retain funding for my research. Like Sheldrake, I do not want to deny the usefulness and success of mainstream science. I only think that it is limited and needs to be complemented or superseded by approaches that go beyond the scope of mainstream understanding, in the case of plant morphology beyond the scope of the categorical approach that understands plants as composed of categories of parts just as machines are composed of categories of parts such as engines, transmissions, mufflers, etc.

As the physicist Werner Heisenberg advised, one should not call a revolutionary approach “new.”

In retrospect I think I made at least one big mistake. I presented continuum morphology as a new approach. I should not have called it “new” for two reasons: 1. I learned that other botanists had proposed a continuum morphology already in the 19th century. But they were ignored and therefore it was not easy to find out about them. 2. As the physicist Werner Heisenberg advised, one should not call a revolutionary approach “new.” One should rather present it as a modification of already existing approaches. This way conservative mainstream scientists feel less threatened, and therefore the “modification” becomes more easily acceptable. I think Sheldrake also could have made life easier for himself and his theory had he followed Heisenberg's advice. But he chose to call his theory “a new science of life,” and, like myself, he emphasized the novelty and difference of his theory instead of underlining also similarities and connections with existing theories. It seems to me that the stronger the emphasis on novelty, especially with regard to the most basic assumptions, the stronger is the negative reaction by the conservative community of mainstream science.

I also want to add that the mainstream scientific community is not totally monolithic. It appears rather differentiated and includes more or less open-minded individuals who can see beyond the dogmas. I even think that there may be a continuum between typical conservative mainstream thinking and alternatives such as holistic science. But one should not underestimate the pressure of the conservative scientific community on all those who try to go beyond the dogmas that inhibit the freer research Sheldrake and others advocate.

Besides my own story, there are many stories of other scientific dissenters or innovators whose ideas and evidence have been ignored or more or less suppressed by the conservative scientific community. Sometimes the research of those innovators has been vindicated later on. Think of Gregor Mendel, Albert Einstein, Barbara McClintock, and others. In other cases the ideas and evidence might have been lost or restricted to a small number of more open-minded scientists and laypersons. I wonder how often this has happened. I know I cannot extrapolate from my own field whose history I know best, but I tend to think that it may have happened more often than most of us can imagine. Conservative dogmatic scientists who feel threatened by new ideas and evidence often use - consciously or subconsciously - a number of different strategies to attack, ridicule, and discredit their perceived opponents. Such strategies are also used against Rupert Sheldrake.

Rupert Sheldrake's Theory of Morphic Fields and Morphic Resonance

One strategy to work against dissenters or innovators is to label them by labels that are generally repulsive for the mainstream scientific community. In the case of Sheldrake, Asprem (2014) and others called him a vitalist. What in mainstream biology could be worse than being called a vitalist? It seems like a death sentence. Asprem put Sheldrake's theory into the same category as Hans Driesch's entelechy. He wrote: “It [Driesch's entelechy] was a concept not unlike Sheldrake's own “morphic resonance” ”(Asprem 2014). I think it would have been more useful and interesting to show how much Sheldrake's theory differs from Driesch's. But since Driesch has been already discredited in the eyes of most, if not all biologists, putting Sheldrake into the same category as Driesch helps to discredit him.

But in spite of some commonalities, Sheldrake differs very much from Wilber.

Visser (2013) put Sheldrake into the same camp as Ken Wilber who, as Visser (2010) documented so well, has badly misrepresented neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. But in spite of some commonalities, Sheldrake differs very much from Wilber. Sheldrake is a scientist who has published over 80 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, including Nature (Sheldrake 2012, p. 4). He has held important positions in scientific institutions. And he is very familiar with scientific methodology and the workings of science because he has had much hands-on experience. Sheldrake knows that scientific theories have to be testable and require explanatory and/or predictive power. And his controversial theory of morphic fields and morphic resonance can be tested and provides explanations as well as predictions. Anyone who denies that has not read his books and articles in which he provides much observational and statistical evidence. In short, Sheldrake's theory can be seen as a scientific theory, whereas Wilber's Eros-driven evolutionary ideas do not seem scientific to me (but they can be acknowledged otherwise).

Smith (2013) concluded his critical evaluation of Sheldrake's theory as follows: “At some point, he [Sheldrake] has to stop complaining about what science has not shown, and reveal something new of its own.” Has Smith read all of Sheldrake's publications in which he presented many novel observations and statistical analyses? If so, why does he not refer to them, except for very few examples? How would he feel, if someone judged and condemned his whole work just on the basis of a few examples?

Regardless of whether I like or dislike Sheldrake's theory of morphic fields and morphic resonance, as a scientist I have to recognize that his theory can be tested and provides explanations and predictions. Of course, shortcomings and weaknesses may be pointed out. But one can also easily criticize investigations in mainstream science by pointing out various shortcomings and weaknesses such as inadequacies in sampling, disregard of potentially important variables (who can include all of them?), disregard of the state of mind of the investigator, disregard of the time of the day, the season, the lunar cycle, etc. I am not saying that all of this is always crucial, but without investigating we don't know. I noticed that in university laboratory courses sometimes so-called well-established experiments just don't work. The normal excuse is that the protocol had not been followed correctly. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe these experiments are not repeatable under certain conditions. We don't know. Usually, we can come up with an ad hoc hypothesis to explain the failure. Maybe the ad hoc hypothesis is correct, maybe not. Who knows? Sheldrake also uses ad hoc hypotheses. Again, maybe they are correct, maybe not. The point I want to make is that in both mainstream science and alternative holistic science ad hoc hypotheses are used. When mainstream scientists try to discredit alternative scientists because of the use of ad hoc hypotheses, they had better look also at the ad hoc hypotheses that are used in their “well-established” science.

Besides the use of ad hoc hypotheses through which anything that does not fit can be explained away, another common way to “save” theories, basic assumptions and dogmas is to ignore all contradictory evidence. Thus, everything seems just fine. Or if is admitted that there is a problem and the problem is considered unsolvable, it is believed that future research will bring the solution. Again, this maybe so or not. We don't know. So instead of knowledge, we have belief and faith. Sounds more like religion than science. How long do we have to cling to such belief and faith in the absence of results? For example, how much longer do we have to wait till conventional medicine based on materialism and mechanism will be able to cure all types of cancer? How many more billions or trillions of dollars will have to be spent (or wasted?) for this kind of research? Alternative holistic medicine sometimes provides a cure or remission, but such successes are often discredited as anecdotal by most mainstream medical researchers and physicians. But lives are saved through such holistic methods. Would it not make sense to carry out more research on holistic methods? In the United States for some time the National Institute of Health has had a panel on alternative medicine (NIH Office of Alternative Medicine, now the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine). But the amount of money awarded to this type of research is miniscule compared to the huge amounts given to materialistic/mechanistic mainstream research.

Visser (2013) praised the innovations of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). I agree that evo-devo research has greatly contributed to a better understanding of the evolution of the development of organisms. But it has limitations (Sattler: Plant Evo-Devo and my Morphological Research). Sheldrake has tackled phenomena that appear out of reach for evo-devo. For example, how can evo-devo explain why dogs know when their owners are coming home? Or how can evo-devo explain why many people turn around when someone stares at them from behind? Sheldrake has accumulated much statistical evidence for these and other phenomena and then he explains them through his theory (Sheldrake 2011, 2013). One can debate whether his theory provides the best explanation or whether another theory would provide a better explanation. But regardless of which theoretical explanation is favored, one should at least recognize the phenomena, which contradict the materialistic/mechanistic framework of mainstream science. I find it unfortunate that some (or many?) mainstream scientists try to remove the contradiction simply by ignoring these phenomena or by denying categorically (dogmatically) their existence. One can also hear the argument that the existence of these phenomena has not been proven. But in science nothing has been proven and nothing can be proven because science remains open-ended, which is one of its great strengths (Sattler: Science: its power and limitations).

Regardless of how one evaluates Sheldrake's theory of morphic fields and resonance, his book Science Set Free and similar books by other authors give us some idea of how much is shoved under the rug in mainstream science. Ignorance or denial of all that will not further progress in science.

Sheldrake does not deny the success of mainstream science and conventional medicine that is based on mainstream science. “There is no doubt that modern medicine works very well” (Sheldrake 2012, p. 216). But he also points out that modern medicine and mainstream science on which it is based have important limitations, which is also admitted by some (or many?) mainstream scientists. In other words: there are areas in which mainstream science has not succeeded. Sheldrake's theory provides explanations and predictions in these areas. Thus, one can see materialistic mainstream science and Sheldrake's theory as complementary. In general, I see materialistic/mechanistic mainstream science and holistic science as complementary. Together they provide more comprehensive insights than each alone. If, however, holistic science could integrate all the insights of mainstream science, then the latter would have been superseded.

Creating a theory or science of everything has been the goal of many ambitious scientists. I cannot claim dogmatically that it cannot be attained. But at present we seem far from it and we may have to contend with complementary theories, each of which illuminates a different perspective of reality. Even in physics a grand unifying theory still seems out of reach. Thus, “it may require a series of overlapping theories to represent the universe, just as it requires overlapping maps to represent the earth” (Hawking and Mlodinow 2012, p. 9).


Especially with regard to its most basic assumptions such as materialism and mechanism, mainstream science tends to be dogmatic, intolerant, and repressive. It also tends to ignore much that does not fit its framework. Sheldrake's book The Science Delusion (or Science Set Free) demonstrates vividly the one-sided dogmatic stance of much mainstream science and conventional medicine that is largely based on materialistic/mechanistic mainstream science. Nonetheless, Sheldrake recognizes the success and usefulness of mainstream science and is well informed about mainstream science, including evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). But because he knows mainstream science so well, he also knows areas in which it has not been successful. His theory of morphic fields and morphic resonance provides explanations and predictions in these areas. Regardless of how one evaluates morphic fields and resonance, his theory qualifies as a scientific theory in as much as it can be tested and provides explanations and predictions. Of course, shortcomings and weaknesses can be pointed out. The same applies to mainstream science. Its experiments have also shortcomings and weaknesses and can be criticized for many reasons such as inadequacies in sampling, disregard of potentially important variables (who can include all of them?), disregard of the state of mind of the investigator, disregard of the time of the day, the seasons, the lunar cycle, etc. Instead of attacking and ridiculing it seems more profitable and interesting to offer constructive criticism to scientists who have views and theories opposed to our pet theories. Even contradictory theories may complement each other, and thus together they may provide a more comprehensive picture than one alone. Living systems appear very complex. So far no theory has been able to capture all aspects of this complexity. Evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) has made considerable progress in the understanding of the evolution of the developments of organisms. But it also has limitations. Areas such as, for example, parapsychology, seem far beyond the scope of present day evo-devo. Thus, more inclusive theories are needed. But so far we may have to content ourselves with complementary theories, each of which illuminates a different perspective of reality. Even in physics “it may require a series of overlapping theories to represent the universe, just as it requires overlapping maps to represent the earth” (Hawking and Mlodinow 2012, p. 9).

The mind is like a parachute: it works much better when it's open.
“Most people have minds like concrete: mixed up and permanently set” (Rovin, J. 1989. 1001 Great One-Liners. New York: Penguin).


Asprem, E. 2014. Scientific delusions, or delusions about science? Review of Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion.

Hawking, S. and Mlodinow, L. 2012. The Grand Design. New York: Bantam Books.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Sattler, R. Science: its power and limitations.

Sattler, R. Healing Thinking through Fuzzy Logic.

Sattler, R. Plant morphology. Continuum and process morphology.

Sattler, R. Plant Evo-Devo and my Morphological Research.

Sheldrake, R. 2011. Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. 2nd ed. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Sheldrake, R. 2012. The Science Delusion. Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry. London: Coronet (also published as Science Set Free)

Sheldrake, R. 2013. The Sense of Being Stared At And Other Unexplained Powers Of Human Minds. South Paris, ME: Park Street Press.

Smith, A. P. 2013. Resonating out of phase. Wilber, Sheldrake and evolution.

Visser, F. 2010. The 'spirit of evolution' reconsidered. Relating Ken Wilber's view of spiritual evolution to the current evolution debates.

Visser, F. 2013. Rupert Sheldrake and the evo-devo revolution: a comparative evaluation.

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