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Scientists Begin to Revive the Big `Why?'

By Brad Knickerbocker covers environmental issues for the Monitor from Ashland, Ore. / January 30, 1991



THERE was a time when scientists were philosophers, and philosophers explored the realms of physical science. Theologically (whether one assumed one God or many), the parallel track was animism, a natural world alive, intelligent, and soul-filled. Then, starting about the time of the Protestant Reformation, Francis Bacon, and Ren'e Descartes, the predominant world view became mathematical and mechanistic as it moved to exorcise the demons and witches from religion and the spirit and soul from nature. Meanwhile, science was becoming so complex and specialized that it stopped asking the big ``why'' - what's the point of the universe? And philosophers so narrowed their efforts (to quote philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) that they took as their ``sole remaining task ... the analysis of language.'' All of which made it easier for explorers and the barons of technology and economic progress to run roughshod over the landscape and lesser mortals in their quest to dominate the Earth - which was just a bunch of stuff making up a big machine anyway.

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This is a rough schematic of British biochemist Rupert Sheldrake's ``The Rebirth of Nature'' - a synthesis of biology, mythology, history, psychology, and religion that breaks enough icons to offend experts in each of these disciplines. Or rather it's the first half of Sheldrake's well laid out and richly detailed thesis regarding man and nature.

From there he postulates that nature in fact can be seen as a living, developing organism with evolving laws. This is similar to James Lovelock's controversial ``Gaia hypothesis,'' a sort of new animism in which the Earth is a single living system. And it resides in the same neighborhood as ``deep ecology,'' radical environmentalism, which rejects a man-centered world. It also relates to quantum theory, in which matter in its traditionally quantifiable sense has become extremely illusive to say the least.

Much has been written about how a narrow reading of the Old Testament has led to environmental destruction, and how - given the extent of that destruction - nature is irreparably damaged if not doomed. In fascinating detail, Sheldrake marches the anthropocentric philosophy farther back in time. But he convincingly argues for a more optimistic outcome than gloomier contemporaries like Bill McKibben (``The End of Nature'').

In recent decades, scientists of acknowledged brilliance but with an unusually expansive way of looking at things have been getting back to the big ``why'' as philosopher/scientists did centuries ago. Theoretical physicists Stephen Hawking (``A Brief History of Time'') and Freeman Dyson (``Infinite in All Directions'') are among the most thoughtful, substantial, and readable. I would put Sheldrake in this same intellectual family, although he no doubt disagrees with some of their analyses and conclusions and they with his.

Sheldrake's search (he was director of cell biology and biochemistry at Cambridge University in Britain) took a decidedly religious turn when he spent several years conducting research in India. ``Much to my surprise,'' he discovered, ``I found myself being drawn back to Christianity.''

Which took him directly to the big question. ``Each of us, faced with the mystery of our existence and experience, has to try to find some way of making sense of it. We have a choice of philosophies: the mechanistic theory of nature and of human life, with God as an optional extra; the theory of nature as alive but without God; or the theory of a living God together with living nature.... And those who acknowledge the life of God are consciously open to the mystery of divine consciousness, grace, and love.''

These aren't the only ontological choices, of course. You can tell he's still searching, and the fact that he is makes joining his journey more enjoyable and rewarding than if he'd already settled on a destination.

``What is at stake are fundamental models or paradigms of reality,'' he writes. ``In the context of growing fears of environmental crisis, it has become obvious that our attitudes affect the way we live and even affect our prospects of survival as a species. The debate ... is now not just a scientific or philosophical issue but also a political one.''

For my taste, Sheldrake occasionally skitters too far into the New Age ideas. But he's right when he asserts that ``science itself [has begun] to transcend the mechanistic world view ... giving way to the ideas of indeterminism, spontaneity, and chaos.'' And in the end, his exploration of ideas about nature is a thoughtful and stimulating contribution to the ongoing discourse.