TED and the shaking of the scientific materialist tree

26/03/2013 § 13 Comments

I am amused at the overreaction of the TED organisers to the two excellent speeches by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake at TEDx Whitechapel in January (an event I attended and spoke at). I thought both speakers were excellent – passionate but articulate and credible.

Because effectively these two speakers are squarely challenging conventional scientific thinking, when the talks went on-line some people objected to the talks being associated with TED. So what did the TED organisers do? Asked some anonymous scientific experts to look at the talks. See here  http://blog.ted.com/2013/03/19/the-debate-about-graham-hancocks-talk

What a brilliant idea – ask some scientists what they think about two speeches that are, in effect, accusing most scientists of being partially sighted. The scientists could only respond in one way – “this is not science” they claimed. So TED got in a tizzy and insisted the talks be put in a quiet corner of their site, with lots of health warnings from scientists, proper ones of course!

What did the TED people expect the scientists to say? It is a bit like expecting a group of doctors to opine objectively on the validity of homeopathy, or Chinese medicine. It is so different from the way they were taught and how they practice that most doctors, literally, cannot see it. And many of them react defensively, as if they are being attacked.

To take another metaphor, what would have happened if, before the banking crisis of 2008, you had assembled a group of bankers to decide upon the validity of  Ann Pettiphor’s views (she was saying that the banks were taking us towards a financial collapse). Would they really have been objective? Or would they have found every way they could, fair or foul, to shut her up?

We are facing a scientific crisis/opportunity. And the good news is that, as this blogger pointed out, whereas a few years ago the scientists would have won hands down, now there are enough articulate supporters of the new science that the old guard can no longer be assured of having their own way.    Don’t we live in interesting times!


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§ 13 Responses to TED and the shaking of the scientific materialist tree

  • Steve Thorp (@SteveThorp1) says:

    Hi Patrick, interesting post, as always.

    Interesting times indeed! As you know I’ve never been that convinced by Sheldrake nor by the ‘materialist’ science versus something else label; and I’m not actually sure what this ‘new science’ actually is, nor that we are facing a scientific crisis (we might be facing a technological crisis, but that is a very different thing). The blogger you’ve cited clearly has a particular viewpoint, and that’s fine, but he does throw the ‘materialist’ label around. The materialists are in charge, he claims, and this is a ‘full blown culture war’ – so maybe there’s a bit of tilting at windmills in this whole debate.

    Anyway, if there is, for example, a primacy of consciousness in physics, then surely the ‘old science’ of theory, hypothesis, then proof or disproof will eventually show it to be true or not? It may take a while, of course! Otherwise we are left with objective evidence being replaced by the expediency of personal or shared cultural beliefs. Haven’t we been somewhere like that before? I’m all for progressive – even wild – ideas, but somewhere down the line there has to be a process that says this one is interesting and has some potential to be true – lets test it and take it further; and this one is fantasy and has been shown not to work, so lets not waste our time on it.

    There’s an interesting debate to be had, mind, and I think its ludicrous that TEDx have relegated the talks. it actually just makes me want to find them!

    • Steve Thorp (@SteveThorp1) says:

      Just wanted to add that having seen the Hancock video, i’m not sure what all the fuss is about. No wonder he’s pissed off! It seemed a perfectly good piece of on-the-edge questioning to me!!

  • Thank you Patrick for bringing this TEC talk to my attention. For all my somewhat radical views, especially about medicine, I had no idea about the suppression of consciousness that is happening in our world, and yet it is obvious when pointed out. This talk needs to be heard and I will help spread the word.

  • thanks for your comments Steve. I admit that I over-simplified things somewhat. This is no doubt partly because I feel strongly about the way homeopathy is having such a hard time in making headway in the NHS (the Royal Homeopathic Hospital, with a 160 year old history, has suffered death by 1000 cuts, to take just the most high profile example).

    Part of this, in my view, is because of a mechanistic approach that says that if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist (or doesn’t work). To my mind this is connected with the bankers who pretend they understand how the financial system works and scientists who pretend to understand how life works. They understand parts and then believe they understand the whole. What’s more, they then collectively seek to shut down dissenters. It happened to Galileo and no doubt many other scientists. We have reached a stage in the cycle when the dissenters are getting more support and are becoming more articulate.

    To me, Sheldrake is asking decent questions. I can’t see him ever earning the Nobel prize but I like people to ask interesting questions and challenge a prevailing mindset that is leading us towards ecological devastation, social fragmentation and economic collapse.

    • Steve Thorp (@SteveThorp1) says:

      I also think Sheldrake is asking decent questions, but he does tend to set up an opposition quite well! In his talk he claims that there are 10 assumptions that material science takes for granted. I didn’t really recognise them except as caricatures; my experience is that most thoughtful scientists are much, much more subtle than that and are genuinely excited by new ideas. They just have a method for testing these which is called ‘science’ (which Sheldrake seems to support at the beginning of his talk). I’m not sure what other way we can tell if something works or not, rather than being something we just believe works; do you?

      I think that’s what I find most difficult about the debate, the tendency amongst many of those who throw the epithet ‘material’ around (e.g. Chopra, Sheldrake even Kumar) is that they misrepresent science, and suggest that we should then accept their particular (highly speculative) theories or hypotheses on trust or experience. There’s a wonderful dismantling of Chopra’s use of quantum physics, for example, on the http://www.skepticblog.org/2009/11/16/deepak-chopra-mangles-quantum-mechanics-again/ and there is also often a fundamental misunderstanding of basic concepts like ‘evolution’ which lead people to make claims that fall way outside anything that could be evidenced (see Frank Visser’s rich, integral/sceptic blog – e.g. http://www.integralworld.net/visser50.html

      • I had the advantage of attending a longer talk by Sheldrake a couple of months ago when he was able to be far more specific about his assumptions.

        I agree he is over-simplifying. On reflection I realise that he is making a living from being a contrary voice, rather than being a “proper” scientist, and yet he does, to an extent at least, claim to be a proper scientist. To this extent he is far less honest than Graham Hancock – the two talks don’t seem to me to belong in the same category at all.

        I am not sure I view science as being simply a method of testing. My dictionary describes it as “systematic and formulated knowledge”.

        Let me see if I can articulate my view properly, and tie all this together. My starting point is when I went to India 15 years ago and met a man who materialised solid objects from mid-air. Most scientists called him a fraud, without making any real attempt to try to verify or question – they just believed he had to be and so then went about proving what they believed. I guess such an attitude has been extremely common throughout history whenever new ideas, new possibilities emerge that don’t fit within the prevailing mindset that careers or institutions have been built upon. I wonder what Einstein would have made of it – after all he said energy = matter.

        Anyway, from this experience (I admit that I didn’t see him materialising things myself, but I know enough reliable people including my wife who saw it at close hand so I accept it) I started to understand that there are some things that can’t be explained, not in any rational way. The Tao Te Ching says it – “The truth cannot be spoken – if it can be spoken it it not the truth.”

        Does that mean science only applies to the stuff that can be rationally proven, justified, formulated? Maybe. If that is so, it would be nice if science as a whole could be more honest about it – that their knowledge is limited to the provable, and cannot be relied on to answer the big questions (like what is love, what is beauty and why does it make my heart sing, why does buttered toast taste so good?).

        Part of the complexity when trying to talk about this stuff is that talking of “scientists” in general is a very different thing from talking about individual scientists. I find that there is a dynamic about human groups and institutions that is not just the sum of the parts. I have never met an “evil” businessman (although perhaps some exist, somewhere). Yet most businesses, to my mind, are systematically exploiting and depleting human and ecological capital in order to create positive numbers on spreadsheets. We have to differentiate the group behaviour from the individual human beings who make up the group. The trouble then is that you sound like you are over-generalising. Yet how else do you talk about these group behaviour patterns?

        Coming back to homeopathy, I have no doubt, based on Dasha’s work, that there are times when homeopathy can achieve extraordinary results that conventional medicine can only dream of. Yet time and time again, scientists using their conventional methods of testing, fail to measure any impact of using homeopathy. So you either conclude (a) that homeopaths are charlatans or deluded and that their patients (which includes animals such as horses) are naive (b) it is simply luck or the placebo effect or (c) the testing methods that are used are not appropriate. I prefer (c). Does that mean that homeopathy, which has been practised for over 200 years, is unscientific? Some would say yes. It depends on your definition of science.

        I believe we are in a time of great change. Everywhere I look I see this defensive reaction by the old guard, who have entrenched positions they are highly uncomfortable about moving from. Yet the world is moving so fast that these positions will be overrun any time soon. In order for individuals to be able to respond to the wave of new, more holistic and ecological, thinking that is coming, we need translators who simplify, and risk over-simplifying, yet touch on deep truths. This is how we should see the Chopras and the Sheldrakes. It is like what happened to me in year 3 at school. I learned about how protons neutrons and electrons relate in an atom and then in year 4 they said “forget all that – it was a convenient untruth. Now we will tell you the real story.” If I had carried on to college they would have told me another, more accurate but still partial truth.

        So to that extent the scientists were maybe right to criticise Sheldrake’s talk, and I admit it it is far too easy to simply dismiss them as being over-defensive. At the same time such talks need to be heard. Getting the balance right it not so easy – as TED found.

      • donsalmon says:


        The critique of materialism may be far more subtle than you imagine. Are you familiar at all with phenomenology? Husserl described something he called “the natural attitude”; the almost innate assumption that there is a self-existing, independent “material” object that corresponds to the percepts that arise in awareness.

        It is extraordinarily difficult and may require some years of highly focused mental discipline to understand what it means to “bracket” (the phenomenologists’ term) or set aside the natural attitude. To see simply as the Buddha said, “what is seen, to hear simply what is heard” without “adding” conceptual layers to it that may cause us to misinterpret what is out there.

        I’m addressing this specifically to you because i’ve applied this phenomenological analysis to Frank Visser’s writings on evolution and he fails to understand (as others who have read both his writings and my critique) what I’m talking about.

        I understand why he doesn’t get it; it took me several decades to get to the point I could even begin to write articulately about what science might look like if we drop the “natural attitude”.

        The expertise of a particular scientist does not mean that that scientist is capable of understanding what it means to “see” without the natural attitude. Hawking’s absurd, primitive and at times childish musings on the nature of “reality” are first rate evidence of this.

        Try it. Look, pay attention to your experience and don’t assume that you are in contact with self existent material objects. One thing that may help you do this is imagine you are fully conscious in a dream (also known as “lucid dreaming”). Even better, imagine you have gone through a series of false awakenings (look it up) and now you cannot tell whether you are awake or dreaming (it happens frequently to millions of people).

        Look at the table in front of you – what are its “material” constituents?

        How do you see the table? Is the light from the sun or artificial light reflected off it? How would you interpret this differently if you were awake or dreaming?

      • Steve Thorp (@SteveThorp1) says:

        Thanks Don. Yes I’m familiar with phenomenology and have used its psychological forms (including bracketing) in my work with clients over the years. I also like where it leads – often in different directions it has to be said – towards existentialism, towards the eco-philosophy of David Abram and towards the kinds of approaches you are promoting. I also like what you’re trying to do (I read some of your articles on Integral World by the way, and thanks for introducing me to AntiMatters) and the way you’re not trying to tip one way or the other!

        To be clear, my position in this thread wasn’t to take the side of so-called materialists, but to express some frustration at the characterisation of either/or that is prevalent in the so-called progressive integral and new spiritual communities. I don’t see the problem myself – maybe I’m a simple soul, but if there’s real (material) evidence of psi, for example, then it will emerge. Susan Blackmore’s cry of “I don’t know” is just a human frustration of not yet having the data to say yeah or nay. And I have no problem in accepting the reality of someone’s experience of transcendence for example, and not having to explain it.

        OK, so this is probably the subject of a much bigger exploration for me (thanks for sparking it), but its seems a question of not separating out material and physical from the phenomenal and experiential when looking at the whole, but recognising the validity of both (in their respective quadrants). For a human, the phenomenal experience is an essential part of the object I am perceiving. If it’s a tree, let’s call this the ‘tree in the mind’, for this tree, consciousness (whatever this really is) is essential, the ‘tree in the mind’ can’t exist without perception in whatever state we are accessing this from. However there’s also a ‘tree in the world’ which exists on its own terms. It cannot be perceived fully by any other ‘holon’ – but exists anyway, irrespective. In short, however we describe it, perceive it, analyse it or dream it – it just is what it is.

        Not sure if this misses your point about the natural attitude. I think my approach to this is to say, yes, its true, and no, its insufficient.

        Go well…

      • donsalmon says:

        Hi folks. Steven i hope you don’t mind if I don’t reply directly to your reply to me (shwew, that was complicated).

        This site seems to have a very unusual level of intelligence and respect for different views. I just discovered it, and I think I’ll just hang back and read it for awhile before jumping in… just to see where people are and to avoid prejudging.

        Very good stuff!

  • Steve Thorp (@SteveThorp1) says:

    You’re right of course, science isn’t just about testing (although it is the one objective test we have for replicable phenomenological truth, I suppose), but it is about an unfolding investigation.

    We both agree that things have to change big, but I think I see the anti-materialist critics as being distractions. In fact I don’t see many of them taking the kind of stances that would make change happen. And their ideas aren’t new – go back to Victorian days with seances and Madame Blatavky and stage magic and the like – its no different really: take an unexplained phenomena (or create one), then wrap a metaphysical theory around it that has lots of pseudo-scientific language; take a charismatic leader or guru – and hey presto! Magic – of the conjuring type – has a very long history. Have you read David Abrams latest book – Becoming Animal – in which he reflects on some of these things in his encounter with a shaman?

    Back to great change – I actually see the anti-materialists as part of the problem culturally. They ask us to tinker round the edges and accept (have faith in) views of the world that are often purely speculative and imaginative (nothing wrong with that in a poet, novelist or artist of course!) and then present them as a post-modern truth, one as equally valid as any other. Follow them and…nothing much would change, I suspect. Meanwhile there are other voices who could be listened to which are more grounded and secular, and much more progressive in terms of crafting the change and seeing it for what it really is. And if I am honest, in 100 years time, I don’t see Chopra et al as being people who will be seen as having touched deep truths or whose vision will have lasted.

    On homeopathy – of course this isn’t a new debate, nor is homeopathy at the cutting edge of any new science – anti-materialist or otherwise. If I have to take a position I’d go for a more sophisticated version of your b) above. Its easy to dismiss the ‘placebo’ as just luck or some irrelevant control position, but I think there’s a lot more potential in the therapeutic relationship and psychological contract between healer and patient and the unfolding evidence of body-mind connections than we have previously imagined. My guess is that the reason Dasha gets extraordinary results sometimes is because she is an extraordinary therapist, and she touches a readiness in her clients that is framed within the necessary rituals of the therapy shoe practices. However I know you would both see it differently…

    Here I was having a perfectly ordinary Easter weekend, Patrick, and you sparked off another intriguing conversation! For that I thank you, and I hope your day is as bright as mine is!

    Love Steve

  • Hi Steve,
    as usual you make me think.
    I suppose I am interested to understand why you seem to have it in for Sheldrake and Chopra. Are they really doing so much harm? It makes me think of my reaction to Neil Crofts. He has set himself up as a bit of a guru of “authentic business”. For a time a few years ago I was quite critical of him – I felt that his approach was fairly shallow and that he was really about promoting his own image. Yet I eventually remembered that when I first heard him talk and read his writings I found him really inspiring (for example he used to start talks with the wonderful poem “the invitation” by Oriah Mountain dreamer) and he helped steer me along a path of looking for inspiring examples of businesses.
    So do I look to him for guidance any more – no. Do I enjoy reading his blog posts – sometimes yes. Do I feel I have gained from encountering him – absolutely.
    Likewise I have gained a lot of inspiration from Chopra and I don’t feel that he tries to force me down a particular path – he makes me look at the world afresh. Is that so bad?
    Happy Easter 🙂
    Love Patrick

    • Steve Thorp (@SteveThorp1) says:

      The prompting is mutual! It’s a good challenge to ask me about my problems with Sheldrake and Chopra. I have very different responses to each of them, and it may say more about me than about them!!

      Are they doing any harm – well Sheldrake no, I just think he’s been given a bit too much influence in the alternative community who want there to be something to back up their ambivalence towards science. Chopra is a bit different, because he explicitly promises (or has promised) a kind of new-age nirvana, but it often seems its really all about the self. So does he do harm? Not directly, but I do feel he has taken a lot of people down dead ends that haven’t really contributed to whatever change or turning we need.

      However this is just my perspective, and I know that loads of people say they’ve been inspired by him. Maybe its just because I can’t really understand this inspiration. When I read his stuff I feel more irritation than inspiration.


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