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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:



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 25 2013: 6) biological heredity is material.

    as opposed to what - biological heredity is ephemeral, immaterial, supernatural?!

    7) memory is material.

    as opposed to what?

    sure memory is a complex phenomenon - and (as with much of what makes up "consciousness') neuroscience certainly has an incomplete picture, but this gap does not warrant inserting some immaterial spooky essence.

    not entertaining spooky essences and immaterial transmission of memory or heredity etc because it is a hypothesis that is unsupported by any evidence and inconsistent with the data we do have an all the surrounding things we have figured out is not a form of dogma, it is simply sound reasoning and following of scientific method.

    8) your mind is inside your head.

    well most scientists agree that the mind is embodied - a complex set of relationships between nervous, endocrine and brain activity, of which the brain is of primary importance.

    damage the brain and the mind is damaged. no brain = no mind. drugs, disease, injury etc that affect the brain affect the mind - not sure what the controversy is, unless one has a supernatural quasi religious agenda.

    again his entire set of "dogmas" is mostly just repeating a demand for idealism over materialism, dualism over monism, ghosts in the machine, immaterial essences and consciousness as distinct from neurobiology.
    • Mar 25 2013: "again his entire set of "dogmas" is mostly just repeating a demand for idealism over materialism, dualism over monism, ghosts in the machine, immaterial essences and consciousness as distinct from neurobiology."

      Right. Conversely, most of the dogmas themselves (i.e. most of the worldview of materialists/atheists) just repeat a demand for materialism over idealism or dualism. Rather than unproductively ramming heads, can you describe an empirical experiment, however complex or simple, that would address the question? The only thing I can think of is the double-slit experiment, but that tends towards dualism.
      • Mar 25 2013: the entire history of science is the basis for materialism.

        quantum physics does not support either dualism or idealism. though new age hucksters like deepak chopra have tried to make it seem that way!
        • Mar 25 2013: I'm sorry, that's just not enough. Most of the history of science is people studying material things. Studying material things doesn't prove that consciousness is unreal any more than botany proves that Danny de Vito is unreal.

          I've never read any Deepak Chopra, so I can't comment there. I do know that John Bell's mathematics proved that the either there is no mind-independent reality or, if there is, it is non-local. I know that Pauli, Bohr, Bohm, Planck, Heisenberg and Schrodinger all professed either idealist-monist or dualist theories. (See my reply to your comment below.)
        • Mar 25 2013: Max Planck: "As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter."

          Julian Walker: "quantum physics does not support either dualism or idealism", "materialism is simply what the evidence supports"
        • Mar 25 2013: The main problem with materialism is that you haven't managed to find a single piece of matter, nor are you able to define even roughly what matter is supposed to be! This is unsurprising since matter, if it existed, would have fundamentally different properties from everything we have so far encountered which on every occasion has been shown to be composed of yet other stuff and so on down to the point where we can't really find anything anymore except, what is it, probability clouds or some such non-thing. Would a 17th century materialist have counted probability clouds as matter? Perhaps, but that would have been a linguistic decision and not a scientific discovery.
      • Mar 25 2013: connor so far there is nothing else to study but matter - and yes matter as it runs out are quantum fields... but its still the same thing. there is nothing other than matter and energy.

        science has not been studying matter it has been studying everything and so far it turns out we live in a material universe. what is the other _____ that science could be studying and why has it not yet?

        it is a mistake to take quantum physics as a basis for idealism, new age or religious beliefs.
        • Mar 25 2013: Some might argue that the scientific method can and has been applied to the study of psychology. Numerous studies have been performed documenting various psychological phenomena, such as, for instance, confirmation bias.
        • Mar 25 2013: Re : it is a mistake to take quantum physics as a basis for idealism, new age or religious beliefs.

          Please, check out here:

          Is it idealism, new age or religious beliefs OR more mature understanding of how nature works ?
        • Mar 25 2013: "what is the other _____ that science could be studying and why has it not yet?"

          "it is a mistake to take quantum physics as a basis for idealism"
          Maybe you're right. Or maybe Wheeler, Zeilinger, Schrodinger and Planck are right. I'm not sure. But I am sure that quantum physics is incompatible with local, materialist, realist worldviews (i.e. Bell's theorem).

          This has got nothing to do with New Age. One of the most influential physics papers of recent years (Gröblacher, Simon, et al. "An experimental test of non-local realism." Nature 446.7138 (2007): 871-875. http://arxiv.org/pdf/0704.2529.pdf), was essentially targeted at disproving worldviews "according to which an external reality exists independent of observation". (But, but, but matter is unconscious and mind-independent. Matter exists objectively.That's not a dogmatic belief; it's supported by all the data, all the data...)
        • Mar 25 2013: The idea quantum fields count as matter was a linguistic decision and not a scientific discovery. What scientific test did you use, for example, to decide whether they were matter or not? None, is the answer, you just took it that they were. A critic might argue, however, that you lost the instant you couldn't find the billiard balls, and can only win again if you find some other, smaller, billiard balls. As I say though, the whole argument is pointless since nobody can define what will count as matter in advance. Thus, as noted, it is a linguistic decision.
      • Mar 25 2013: Connor, quantum effects do not happen at the macro level we live at.... If they did everyday reality would not function the way it does and the way that is described very well by classical physics.

        At the quantum level all manner of anomalous phenomena occur, which would be wholly unremarkable were it not for their being so different to phenomena at the macro level.

        The move of using quantum physics to make it seem as if paranormal claims have an explanation is just a mistake and skips the step of providing the necessary peer reviewed replicable evidence that anything paranormal exists in the first place.
        • Mar 25 2013: Ah, the old 'quantum effects are wiped out at the macro level' maneuver. Strange how desperate some people are to return to the safety of the 17th century. Anyway, assuming what you say is true, the question is what level the mind operates at. Can evolution not put quantum effects to use? Is this forbidden by Randi's law?
        • Mar 25 2013: I've dealt with the question of the empirical data for psi in other comments. Once you have the empirical data, you look for a theory to explain that data. Quantum entanglement fits the bill. (Most parapsychology experiments are done inside Faraday cages, which rules out anything like a radio wave.)

          "Ah, the old 'quantum effects are wiped out at the macro level' maneuver. "
          Lol, exactly! It's a materialist stock.

          Isn't a basic tenet of materialism that the true description of the world is micro? If we were omniscient, we would see things as they really are: a seething mass of particles. (The Churchlands actually say that ideas and thoughts don't exist, only molecules exist, and talking about thoughts is just a mistaken way of talking about molecular processes in the brain.) But bring in the actual scientific description of the micro level (i.e. quantum theory) and all of a sudden it's, "no, no, that's just the micro level, it doesn't count".

          Julian, biological systems use quantum effects. We don't yet know to what extent. The sense of smell of fruit flies[1] and photosynthesis in general[2] depend on quantum effects. Penrose and Hameroff believe that the brain is a quantum computer, and that consciousness is a quantum field. I would't rule this out, but their theory is too far ahead of the experimental technology for my liking.

          [1] Franco, Maria Isabel, et al. "Molecular vibration-sensing component in Drosophila melanogaster olfaction." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.9 (2011): 3797-3802.
          [2]Engel, Gregory S., et al. "Evidence for wavelike energy transfer through quantum coherence in photosynthetic systems." Nature 446.7137 (2007): 782-786.

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