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Emily McManus

Editor, TED.com, TED


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Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx talk: Detailing the issues

There's been a lot of heat today about Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx Talk. And in the spirit of radical openness, I'd like to bring the community into our process.


While TED does not vet speakers at independent TEDx events, a TEDx talk can be removed from the TEDx archive if the ideas contained in it are wrong to the point of being unscientific, and that includes misrepresenting the scientific process itself.

Sheldrake is on that line, to some commenters around Twitter and the web. His talk describes a vision of science made up of hard, unexamined constants. It's a philosophical talk that raises general questions about how we view science, and what role we expect it to play.

When my team and I debate whether to take action on a TEDx talk, we think deeply about the implications of our decision -- and aim to provide the TEDx host with as clear-cut and unbiased a view as possible.

You are invited, if you like, to weigh in today and tomorrow with your thoughts on this talk. We'll be gathering the commentary into a couple of categories for discussion:

1. Philosophy. Is the basis of his argument sound -- does science really operate the way Sheldrake suggests it does? Are his conclusions drawn from factual premises?

2. Factual error. (As an example, Sheldrake says that governments do not fund research into complementary medicine. Here are the US figures on NIH investment in complementary and alternative medicine 2009-2010: http://nccam.nih.gov/about/budget/institute-center.htm )

As a note: Please know that whether or not you have time or energy to contribute here, the talk is also under review by the TED team. We're not requiring your volunteer labor -- but we truly welcome your input. And we're grateful to those who've written about this talk in other forums, including but not limited to Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Kylie Sturgess and some thoughtful Redditors.


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  • Mar 8 2013: |
    Biologists and neuroscientists can talk about how memories are stored etc., and that's fine, but I think there are bigger issues here, issues about the philosophical assumptions scientists make.

    I'd like to be clear on the difference between philosophical assumptions and scientific hypotheses -

    Say a scientist influenced by materialist/realist/Western philosophy measures the distance to the Sun. He concludes that there is a material object called the Sun, a material object called the Earth, and an objective distance of 93,000,000 miles between them.

    Say a scientist with Hindu assumptions makes the same measurement. To him he has explored 'namarupa', that aspect of his sensory experience that has name and form, and a pattern in sensory experience is that whenever you make that measurement, you see a number around 93,000,000 on the meter.

    Could we really say that the philosophical assumptions of materialism were corroborated? I think not; it seems to me that the Hindu and materialist interpretations are equally valid. Nearly all scientific experiments are like that; they don't corroborate, prove, disprove, support, or touch the philosophical assumptions they're built on.

    Western/materialist/naive realist philosophy (none of these names are really satisfactory, but you know what I mean) includes assumptions like:
    - Matter is the ultimate reality
    - The universe obeys laws
    - Consciousness, if it exists at all, is an epiphenomenon of matter

    I'm not against these assumptions. I'm not saying they're wrong. I do think we should question them. 99% of experiments say nothing either for or against them, but there are a few experiments that seem to me (and many much better informed people) to challenge these assumptions. Schrodinger concluded the philosophy of the Upanishads was a better fit for scientific findings than materialism [What Is Life, 1943]. Zeilinger et al. wrote that experimental evidence has "shattered" realism [Nature 446, 871-875 (19 April 2007)]
    • Mar 8 2013: Interesting analysis. The difference between the philosophical, and scientific approach includes the idea that science is essentially pragmatic methodology. Materialism as an assumption of science allows for efficient discovery. Otherwise, science would flounder, as philosophy seems to do. Materialism imposes the fewest assumptions. Occam's raizor comes to mind. Also, materialism, from what I understand (not a philosopher) has largely been accepted by modern philosophers and many of the historical speculations of philosophers have been set aside. My guess is that fewer philosophers, for instance, hold to dualism. This is because many speculations were originally suggested when there was a lack of understanding of the physical world. Daniel Dennett is an example of a philosopher who filters philosophy based on modern science.
      • Mar 8 2013: "Materialism as an assumption of science allows for efficient discovery. Otherwise, science would flounder, as philosophy seems to do."
        Well, perhaps you are right. Could you give me an example of where assuming an objective material reality allows more efficient discovery?

        I don't think I'm misrepresenting the Copenhagen interpretation very much if I say it asserts the exact opposite: assuming a material, mind-independent reality damages science. I've never seen evidence that the Copenhagen interpretation has caused science to flounder, but perhaps it has.

        " Also, materialism, from what I understand (not a philosopher) has largely been accepted by modern philosophers "
        I would not say that.

        "My guess is that fewer philosophers, for instance, hold to dualism. "
        I can't find a single philosopher who holds to strong/Cartesian/substance dualism. But that's not to say they're all materialists.
        • Mar 8 2013: Assuming material reality allows the investigator to formulate an effective experiment. To assume a supernatural (or unspecified force, i.e. Morphic resonance, ID ) event that could change the experiment "at will" would mean predictions of outcomes would not be possible. The scientist must specify a result in advance that would disprove the hypothesis. If a chemist thinks that combining A with B will result in C, but only if supernatural forces do not interfere, then he's wasting his time.

          I tend to equate monism with materialism. Perhaps that's too easy. What other schemes are you thinking of in the context of Sheldrakes baffling remarks?

          I think a key notion about modern philosophy is that many ideas that animated debate for centuries still have to account for our experimental science. Science and its findings are at least part of reality. Old frameworks that cannot account for a round earth, a heliocentric solar system, the germ theory of disease, mans place in nature as an evolved mammal, have been shed. Neuroscience is making the idea of souls, spirits, ghosts, demons, and gods, less likely.

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