Excerpts from Quest Magazine: From Cellular Aging to the Physics of Angels: A Conversation with Rupert Sheldrake
Interviewed by John David Ebert
JE: For Rupert Sheldrake, the “laws” of the universe may not in fact be laws at all, but rather deeply ingrained habits of action which have been built up over the many eons in which the universe has spun itself out. Like the ancient riverbeds on the surface of Mars left behind by the pressures of flowing water over billions of years, so too, the “laws” of the universe may be thought of as runnels engraved in the texture of space-time by endless, unchanging repetition. And the longer particular patterns persist, the greater their tendency to resist change. Sheldrake terms this habitual tendency of nature “morphic resonance,” whereby present forms are shaped through the influence of past forms. Morphic resonance is transmitted by means of “morphogenetic fields,” which are analogous to electromagnetic fields in that they transmit information, but differ in that they do so without using energy, and are therefore not diminished by transmission through time or space.
Sheldrake illustrates his idea with the analogy of a television set. Though we can alter the images on our screens by adjusting components or distorting them — just as we can alter or distort phenotypical characteristics through genetic engineering — it by no means follows that the images are coming from inside the television set. They are in fact encoded as information coming from electromagnetic frequencies which the skillful arrangement of the transistors and circuits within the television set enables us to pick up and render visible. Likewise, 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.
JE: Joseph Campbell once suggested that the idea of morphogenetic fields reminded him of the Hindu concept of maya — the field of space-time that gives birth to the forms of the world…. You see evolutionary history as a tension between the two forces of habit — -or morphic resonance — and creativity, which involves the appearance of new morphic fields. But in the case of mass extinctions you suggested once that the ghosts of dead species would still be haunting the world, that the fields of the dinosaurs would still be potentially present if you could tune into them. Would you mind commenting on how it might be possible for extinct species to reappear?
RS: Well, I haven’t in mind some kind of Jurassic Park scenario. What I was thinking of was that the fields would remain present, but the conditions for tuning into them are no longer there if the species is extinct, so they’re not expressed. However, it’s a well known fact in evolutionary studies that some of the features of extinct species can reappear again and again. Sometimes this happens in occasional mutations, sometimes it turns up in the fossil record. And when these features of extinct species reappear, they’re usually given the name, “atavism,” which implies a kind of throwback to an ancestral form. Atavisms were well known to Darwin, and he was very interested in them for the same reasons I am, that they seem to imply a kind of memory of what went before.
JE: Do you think that morphic fields could account for the existence of ghosts in any way?
RS: Well, the fields represent a kind of memory. If places have memories, then I suppose it’s possible for ghostly-type phenomena to be built into their fields. This is a very hazy area of speculation and not one I’ve thought through rigorously. And I’ve had no incentive to think it through rigorously because it’s so hard to think of repeatable experiments with ghosts. But ghosts do seem to be a kind of memory thing, and morphic fields have to do with memory, so there may well be a connection.
JE: Karl Pribram suggests that memories are spread throughout the brain like waves, or holograms, and you go further in suggesting that memories may not be stored in the brain at all, but rather that the brain acts as a tuning device and picks up memories analogously to the way a television tunes in to certain frequencies. Furthermore, you’ve suggested that if memories aren’t stored in the brain at all, this leaves the door open for the possibility of the existence of the soul. Can you explain how your ideas on the existence of the soul fit into this paradigm?
RS: Well, we should clarify the terms here. The traditional view in Europe was that all animals and plants have souls — not just people — and that these souls were what organized their bodies and their instincts. In some ways, therefore, the traditional idea of soul is very similar to what I mean by morphic fields. The traditional view of the soul in Aristotle and in St. Thomas Aquinas was not the idea of some immortal spiritual principle. It was that the soul is a part of nature, a part of physics, in the general sense. It’s that which organizes living bodies. In that sense, all morphic fields of plants and animals are like souls.
However, in the case of human beings, the additional question arises as to whether it’s possible for the soul to persist after bodily death. Now, normally souls are associated with bodies. And the theory I’m putting forward is one that would see the soul normally associated with the body and memories coming about by morphic resonance. If it’s possible for the soul to survive the death of the body, then you could have a persistence of memory and of consciousness. From the point of view of the theory I’m putting forward, there’s nothing in the theory that says the soul has to survive the death of the body, and there’s nothing that says that it can’t. So this is simply an open question. But it’s not one that can be decided a priori.
JE: In your book The Presence of the Past, you have an interesting theory of reincarnation. You suggest that people who have memories of past lives may actually be tuning in to the memories of other people in the morphogenetic field, and that they may not actually represent reincarnated people at all. Would you care to comment on that?
RS: Yes. I’m suggesting that through morphic resonance we can all tune in to a kind of collective memory, memories from many people in the past. It’s theoretically possible that we could tune into the memories of specific people. That might be explained subjectively as a memory of a past life. But this way of thinking about it doesn’t necessarily mean this has to be reincarnation. The fact that you can tune into somebody else’s memories doesn’t prove that you are that person. Again, I would leave the question open.
But, you see, this provides a middle way of thinking about the evidence for memories of past lives, for example, that collected by Ian Stevenson and others. Usually the debate is polarized between people who say this is all nonsense because reincarnation is impossible — the standard scientific, skeptical view (I should say, the standard skeptical view; it’s not particularly scientific) — and the other people who say this evidence proves what we’ve always believed, namely, the reality of reincarnation. I’m suggesting that it’s possible to accept the evidence and accept the phenomenon, but without jumping to the conclusion that it has to be reincarnation.
JE: So your theory that information can be transmitted by these nonmaterial morphic fields makes theoretically plausible a paradigm in which phenomena such as telepathy or ESP can be understood. Can you explain how your paradigm makes sense out of this type of phenomena?
RS: Well, if people can tune in to what other people have done in the past, then telepathy is a kind of logical extension of that. If you think of somebody tuning in to somebody else’s thought a fraction of a second ago, then it becomes almost instantaneous and approaches the case of telepathy. So telepathy doesn’t seem to be particularly difficult in principle to explain, if there’s a world in which morphic resonance takes place.
I think that some of the other phenomena of parapsychology are hard to explain from the point of view of morphic fields and morphic resonance. For example, anything to do with precognition or premonition doesn’t fit in to an idea of influences just coming in from the past. So, I don’t think this is going to give a blanket explanation of all parapsychological phenomena, but I think it’s going to make some of it at least, seem normal, rather than paranormal.