He’s not dead, he’s pining for the Fjords.
Rupert Sheldrake was a reputable plant scientist. He enjoyed a good reputation in his field, and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals until 1978, and published articles in Nature in 1973 and 1974. He has links to his published papers on his web site. According to his own Web site, he went to India and worked his academic field from 1974 to 1978. After that he studied in an ashram, and then began to publish more spiritually oriented writings.
He has continued to publish articles in publications like the Journal of Parapsychology, the Journal of Noetic Sciences, the Journal of the Society for Psychic Research, Alternative Therapies, and the Journal of Scientific Exploration. He was connected with Matthew Fox and the Univerity of Creation Spirituality in Oakland and appears to have become connected with the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Northern California.
Rupert Sheldrake believes in telepathy and the special powers of animals, and he has spent a great deal of time writing on those topics. Most recently he has explored the powers of a telepathic parrot. This pursuit has attracted a certain amount of skeptical derision, as he concedes on his web site.
Rupert Sheldrake has also postulated a general theory of how the world holds together, which serves to explain why his cherished beliefs in psychic and paranormal events are real and true. He believes in morphological or morphogenetic fields. Several of his papers are devoted to explaining this theory, and he has been interviewed of published in leading New Age or Alternative magazines such as In Context. He explains his theory as morphic resonance:
morphic resonance: The influence of previous structures of activity on subsequent similar structures of activity organized by morphic fields. Through morphic resonance, formative causal influences pass through or across both space and time, and these influences are assumed not to fall off with distance in space or time, but they come only from the past. The greater the degree of similarity, the greater the influence of morphic resonance. in general, morphic units closely resemble themselves in the past and are subject to self-resonance from their own past states.
His theory of morphic fields isn’t actually unique. For instance, we can look at the Morphological Institute’s Web Page.
Sheldrake is an intelligent and learned man – a pundit – who has been using his credentials as a real scientist to publish papers of speculative psychology and cosmology in an effort to authenticate strongly held personal beliefs. He has become associated in his teaching and writing with individuals and groups who present themselves as the next wave of human consciousness and spirituality, an essentially religious movement. He is willingly lending his former scientific credibility to an expanding group of teachers, teaching institutions, retreat centers, personal coaches and transformational counsellors to validate their methods.
His belief in fields and psychic phenomena is a theory in search of proof – in short it is a belief held on faith. When his beliefs have been challenged he has resorted, like many religious writers, to the deconstruction of empiricism, materialism, rationalism and the scientific method. I think that’s the only logical way for him to go. When Sheldrake writes about psychic phenomena, he is describing his own experience of a transcendental reality. His writing is really theological, or religious.
The study of religious experience is academically and culturally fragmented. Religion is studied by psychologists, sociologists, cultural anthropoligists, philosophers and theologians. There are significant divisions between students who write inside a religious experience, like theologians and religious writers, and students who try to approach religion as a descriptive social science.
Irving Hexham writes about religion as an academic scientist. He has made some of his books available on line, as part of his New Religions Web site. His book, Understanding Cults and New Age Religions, discusses the persistence of myths and fragments of myths in modern culture:
What Maslow [the psychologist Abraham Maslow], in the context of Western modernity, calls peak experiences, others, in the context of non-Western traditions, call primal experiences. Traditional societies mediate the effects of vivid primal experiences through the use of rich mythologies that enable individuals to accept and seemingly understand their psychic condition. But modern man suffers from a fragmentation of belief that often leaves those who have primal experiences without any acceptable means of resolving the conflicts associated with primal realities.
In medieval Europe, people who encountered the primal saw visions of saints and the Virgin Mary. Hindus in India see the gods Krishna and Rama, Buddhists meet Bodhisattvas, and Muslims share visions of God. By contrast, in industrial society, people encounter raw experiences without readily available imaginative frameworks to give the experience content and meaning.
Industrial society has no body of shared beliefs, no common mythology. Its members hold onto a collection of disconnected beliefs and are vaguely familiar with fragments of many myths. The advantage that some new religions have in this situation is that they possess powerful integrated mythologies that accommodate primal experiences.
The mythologies of new religious movements are created out of numerous disjointed myths found in society generally. By weaving these unrelated myths into coherent wholes, new religions create a sense of continuity with society. Through the use of traditional myths, they are able to give themselves an apparent historical depth that legitimates their claims to be the carriers of a high culture.
Within that perspective, I would have to regard Sheldrake as expressing myths of personal power and insight. His interests in morphological fields and psychic animals blend neo-pagan nature myths and pseudo-science myths. His research into the psychic parrot is almost comical – it puts me in mind of the classic Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch about the dead parrot.
Sheldrake doesn’t seem to be asking for money on his own web site, apart from advertising his books and lecture appearances although he seems to be connected with some other ventures that do try to sell something. Mainly, he presents himself as a legitimate scientist, unjustly reviled by a skeptical scientific establishment. He presents his theories as science, to take advantage of people’s trust in science and the scientific method, while preaching an essentially religious world-view. His science is speculative, and his theology is simply another warmed over episode from the Twilight Zone.