Monday, December 18, 2006

Sheldrake Vs Savva

I got an email from Rupert Sheldrake last week, asking about an informal telephone telepathy test I was involved with a couple of years ago. In my reply, I asked:

I suspect that you believe in god, or in a purpose or point to life? Am I correct?
I present for you his response to those questions and my replies back to him. Enjoy!
Dear Louie
Thanks for your email. In your telephone telepathy tests, roughly how many did you do, how many subjects and how many trials were involved?
An honest reply is I can't remember. I think we had about 5 receivers and senders running multiple trials and as far as possible we tried to maintain a methodology as close to your published procedure. I do remember that the results were not suggestive of any paranormal effect and we decided against a larger formal study, as I was then involved in a couple of projects which seemed more likely to achieve those elusive positive results.
When you say that “quite a few other people did the same,” can you remember who they were or how many there were? I’d like to follow this up and get some estimate of what the results were and how many tests were done. Chris Roe told me one of his students had done a test at Northampton, with positive results. But who else have you in mind and at which universities?
This is researcher hear-say. I was merely stating my experience that when I had discussed telephone telepathy at conferences, I remember being told about unpublished student projects. Where and by whom, again, I cannot remember. I raised this point not as a strong argument against the existence of the effect, rather that I was satisfied that there were alternative explanations which could account for it.
Anecdotal sceptic file drawer arguments are not very scientific. I publish all my data in peer-reviewed journals. If sceptics don't publish theirs they condemn them to the realm of anecdote. But lets try and get some more facts here if possible.
However Rupert, I have quit parapsychology. I have no real interest in engaging in debate or otherwise with anyone on the topic. What I'm doing on my blog, is presenting my own PhD research and life experiences, partly to record them for myself and partly to allow others to read them, if they so wish. I became a parapsychologist to discover the answers to questions that had troubled me. I pursued my goals honestly and I believe capably and have given parapsychology more thought than I care to estimate. If only I could have read my thesis before I had started (instead of Radin's 'Conscious Universe' for example) I might have chosen to spend my life differently.
As a committed sceptic, I am quite sure that you could see how unconvincing this argument would be if it were done the other way round. If sceptics had done some tests and found negative results, and published them, and then somebody said “Lots of parapsychologists have done this experiment and it always works really well”, with no references, no data, and no names I’m sure you wouldn’t find it a very convincing argument. That’s why I’m trying to go beyond this unsatisfactory situation.
I understand your frustration. But not wanting to repeat myself I don't see a need to reference every thought or conversation I've had with another person, which may have influenced my thinking. At the end of the day, either there is psi (for example) or there isn't. I looked at the evidence and concluded against. It was not an easy conclusion for me to reach.
On the question of evolution, the idea that it has no purpose is just an idea, it’s one interpretation. If you believe it, then that’s you belief and there’s nothing much anyone can say about it. It seems to me just as much a faith position as the opposite.
I absolutely disagree. Positing that everything is pointless is a position of not believing claims of a purpose. Dawkins has made the celestial teapot argument quite famous. I am a sceptic to your claim of a point. Why is the onus on me to provide evidence that everything is pointless (which I try to do, by the way)? Is it not for people who posit a point to provide evidence to support their claims?

And ultimately I cannot see how anybody can argue that the big bang had intelligent direction. That it all cooled down and formed so that, simple replicating molecules could evolve into life. You and I, Rupert, are descended from organisms that had one purpose: to propagate in a pointless universe. And even this had no intelligence behind it, but was a consequence of natural selection. I do indeed argue that everything is pointless and to argue otherwise is to try and reinterpret those key pieces of hard-fought knowledge. Show me the evidence to refute my argument and I will of course consider it. But it must be an exceptional kind of evidence to undermine Darwin's contribution.
I myself am a very firm believer in evolution, and my idea of morphic resonance is more radically evolutionary then conventional neo Darwinism. I suggest that nature is ruled not be fixed laws, all there at the moment of the Big Bang, but rather by evolving habits, so evolution applies not only in the biological but also in the physical and chemical realms.
If I might quote you on morphic resonance (from SkepDic):
it is not at all necessary for us to assume that the physical characteristics of organisms are contained inside the genes, which may in fact be analogous to transistors tuned in to the proper frequencies for translating invisible information into visible form. Thus, morphogenetic fields are located invisibly in and around organisms, and may account for such hitherto unexplainable phenomena as the regeneration of severed limbs by worms and salamanders, phantom limbs, the holographic properties of memory, telepathy, and the increasing ease with which new skills are learned as greater quantities of a population acquire them.
And I'm afraid Rupert, that I dismiss the idea you propose outright. Your words sound reminiscent of Jules Eisenbud and his writings proposing that animals give themselves to predators for the sake of group selection. I have written recently on my blog about animal consciousness and I'm afraid I'm as sceptical of that as I am of your claims for telepathy and staring detection. The world simply does not appear to be the way you describe it and all of the wishful thinking will not make it so.
One thing that’s very clear from studying animal and human behaviour is that animals and humans behave in a purposive way. So purpose is important to us, whether or not it’s important to the whole universe. Without a sense of purpose, people lose the will to life and become depressed. Even if you say that animal purposefulness has been programmed in by natural selection because it’s useful, it doesn’t alter the fact that it’s part of life as we know it, and has evolved because it helps us survive.
Humans do not require any kind of evidence to believe in something. Just because we are indoctrinated as children to believe there is a purpose to what we do, does not follow that there actually is. I am interested in reality, not make-believe.
You could argue that this simply biases our philosophies of the universe. But if someone is depressed and thinks everything is purposeless, this may also introduce a subjective bias.
Except that I have outlined the facts that are the basis for claiming everything is pointless. They are not emotional arguments caused by abnormal brain functioning. They are sterile, scientific facts. I would wager everything, that the universe was not built for human beings. That when we die, we will never see our friends and family again. Much as I disagree with you Rupert, I wish you no ill will and wish that all humans could live happy lives with no pain or suffering. But we get only one life and it is only since Darwin's time that we have had the absolutely luxury to know our place in the scheme of things. Even if we are all one membrane floating in 10 dimensions, it will not change certain facts. The universe was not made for us and we will one day all be gone. Please don't patronise me by diagnosing depression. Unfortunately the answers to scientific questions may not always please us.
I wouldn’t like to speculate about a purpose or point to the whole of the universe and I don’t think traditional religion is that much help either, since it was formulated before an evolutionary perspective came along in science. I do believe in God, and am a member of the Church of England.
This does not surprise me. So we are diametrically opposed. You believe in the supernatural, paranormal and theistic. I do not. And so again I am reminded of why dialogue between sceptics and believers is ultimately as pointless as the rest of 'creation'. We will never agree. I am never going to believe there is a god or that any intelligence was involved in our evolution.
But I’m against both scientific and religious fundamentalism. And while human beings undoubtedly see a purpose in what they do, and need to experience one, most human-centred religions don’t have much to tell us about the purpose of galaxies, or even billions of stars in our own galaxy which from a traditional religious perspective seem quite irrelevant to our own concerns on earth. nevertheless the universe has a direction, if not a purpose, in that it is expanding and diversifying as it does so.
Interesting last point. I might even agree. Although everything is pointless, exploring the expanding universe might well be one of the most exciting things that could happen to our species. Or we go extinct trying!

So thanks to Rupert. You've confirmed rather than changed my opinion!