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The debate about Rupert Sheldrake's talk

Please use this space to comment on the debate around Rupert Sheldrake's TEDx talk, as described here:

http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/19/the-debate-about-rupert-sheldrakes-talk/

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Closing Statement from TED

Thanks to all who participated in this conversation on TED's decision to move Rupert Sheldrake's talk from YouTube to TED.com. It was scheduled as a 2-week conversation, and has now closed. But the archive will remain visible here.

We'd like to respond here to some of the questions raised in the course of the discussion.

Some asked whether this was "censorship." Now, it's pretty clear that it isn't censorship, since the talk itself is literally a click away on this very site, and easily findable on Google. But it raises an interesting question about curation. Should TED play *any* curatorial role in the content it allows its TEDx organizers to promote? We believe we should. And once you accept a role for curatorial limits, you have to accept there will be times when disputes arise.

A number of questions were raised about TED's science board: How it works and why the member list isn't public. Our science board has 5 members -- all working scientists or distinguished science journalists. When we encounter a scientific talk that raises questions, they advise us on their position. I and my team here at TED make the final decisions. We keep the names of the science board private. This is a common practice for science review boards in the academic world, which preserves the objectivity of the recommendations and also protects the participants from retribution or harassment.

Finally, let me say that TED is 100% committed to open enquiry, including challenges to orthodox thinking. But we're also firm believers in appropriate skepticism, or critical thinking. Those two instincts will sometimes conflict, as they did in this case. That's why we invited this debate. The process hasn't been perfect. But it has been undertaken in passionate pursuit of these core values.

The talk, and this conversation, will remain here, and all are invited to make their own reasoned judgement.

Thanks for listening.

Chris Anderson, TED Curator

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    Mar 24 2013: "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are." (attributed to Talmud and other sources)

    When Sheldrake talks about physical constants, he makes a valid point that we often fall into a habit of seeing what we expect to see (or have a habit of seeing) rather than seeing reality. But then he seems to fall victim of this exact habit of seeing in nature what we are used to see in ourselves - the habit of making habits. If he does it deliberately, to provoke our thought and thus break out of this habit, it was an excellent move. The rukus around his talk proves that it was a success.

    His talk resonates with Dan Dennett's talk http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_dennett_on_our_consciousness.html where he says that he is going to explain how our consciousness works, but people are usually disappointed by such explanations as if someone explains to them the trick of a street magician. Then he shows using a few examples that we see what we expect to see, not the reality. And we see that reality is not what we expected, we get disappointed. And, guess what, there is a host of disappointed comments to the talk saying that he did not really explain anything. That talk is one of my favorite. Rupert Sheldrake's point and way of presenting it seems to be very similar.

    It can be disappointing and frustrating to find out that reality is not what we think of it. But it can be inspiring too.
    • Mar 24 2013: It's quite funny that Dennett has a TED (not TEDx) talk called 'The Illusion of Consciousness' and yet Sheldrake was lambasted for suggesting that a dominant view within science/philosophy of mind was that consciousness didn't really exist. The point Sheldrake makes, which could have been clearer (and is clearer in his longer talks) is that the idea that consciousness is causally efficacious is absolutely off the radar. That is, there is simply no room for conscious causal agents in the great chain of causation (now adapted to quantum indeterminacy plus necessity). In that respect, then, virtually nobody within science believes in consciousness, and that is why, as Sheldrake says, most of the science/science-based philosophy of mind of the 20th century was an attempt to do away with it altogether. Scientists who call foul at this are, I think, so committed to their dogma that they don't even recognize that Sheldrake is not merely saying the illusion exists (they all pretty much agree with that), he is saying consciousness exists in the strong sense of the causally efficacious thing everyone knows it to be (the thing that decides to make a cup of tea) until they start doing science. Or, rather, he is asking: what if consciousness really does exist in that strong, ordinary sense? And what other than a dogmatic commitment to a completely mechanistic universe (with a little randomness thrown in) could possibly lead people to reject this most familiar of all phenomenon before we've even really begun to investigate it.
      • Mar 24 2013: Can't thumb you up any more, maxed it out :(
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        Mar 24 2013: Sheldrake's talk is more philosophical than scientific. I love Sean Carroll's position in these debates.
        In the final paragraph of his article http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2012/04/28/a-universe-from-nothing/#.UU-BOCR4y9U where he criticizes Lawrence Krauss' book "A Universe from Nothing...", he writes:

        "Lawrence took the regrettable tack of lashing out at “moronic philosophers” and the discipline as a whole, rather than taking the high road and sticking to a substantive discussion of the issues. In the Atlantic interview especially, he takes numerous potshots that are just kind of silly. Like most scientists, Lawrence doesn’t get a lot out of the philosophy of science. That’s okay; the point of philosophy is not to be “useful” to science, any more than the point of mycology is to be “useful” to fungi. Philosophers of science aren’t trying to do science, they are trying to understand how science works, and how it should work, and to tease out the logic and standards underlying scientific argumentation, and to situate scientific knowledge within a broader epistemological context, and a bunch of other things that can be perfectly interesting without pretending to be science itself. And if you’re not interested, that’s fine. But trying to undermine the legitimacy of the field through a series of wisecracks is kind of lame, and ultimately anti-intellectual — it represents exactly the kind of unwillingness to engage respectfully with careful scholarship in another discipline that we so rightly deplore when people feel that way about science. It’s a shame when smart people who agree about most important things can’t disagree about some other things without throwing around insults. We should strive to be better than that."

        I completely agree.
        • Mar 25 2013: That's brilliant, and brilliantly pertinent.
        • Mar 25 2013: i will be bowled over and deeply surprised/humbled if you could get sean carroll to endorse anything sheldrake says in this talk....

          most likely he will say it is all nonsense, both scientifically and philosophically.

          the above quote is great - but sheldrake is not in the class to which carroll is referring.
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        Mar 25 2013: @Julian Walker

        I don't want to speculate who Carroll would endorse. From what he says, he, most likely, would stay out of this debate altogether. Here is another quote from his article:

        "Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously. Then the discussion quickly degrades into name-calling and point-missing, which is unfortunate because these are smart people who agree about 95% of the interesting issues, and the chance for productive engagement diminishes considerably with each installment."

        I think, his article refers to the zealots from science who "pose as pseudo-philosophers", as Noah has put it - people who express their opinions on subjects outside their competence to which I, certainly, belong.

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