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The Mystery of Matter – Rupert Sheldrake’s Formative Causation

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Copyright © 1996, 2012 James Arraj.
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This excerpt from The Mystery of Matter: Nonlocality, Morphic Resonance, Synchro-nicity and the Philosophy of Nature of St. Thomas Aquinas has been posted with kind permission from the author.

Read or purchase entire book at innerexplorations.com

While it is not necessary to set the historical stage as we did with quantum theory in order to understand Rupert Sheldrake’s work, we should realize that it is part of a non-mechanistic current in biology that has always existed, although in recent times as a minority. Sheldrake is an English biologist who first came to public notice in 1981 with the controversies that surrounded the publication of his A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation. Sheldrake’s work will give us another opportunity to see important philosophical issues begin to emerge from the careful consideration of scientific problems.

Sheldrake had shared the view of most biologists that “living organisms are nothing but complex machines governed only by the known laws of physics and chemistry.” (1) But pondering unsolved problems in biology led him to give up this mechanistic viewpoint. One of these problems was biological morphogenesis, or the coming into being of the form of an organism. This development is what biologists describe as epigenetic: “New structures appear which cannot be explained in terms of the unfolding or growth of structures which are already present In the egg at the beginning of development.” (2) Other issues, intractable to a purely mechanistic approach, include regulation, regeneration and reproduction. Regulation is the ability of the living being to overcome the loss of one of its parts, and still develop into a complete organism. What guides it to that goal? In regeneration, the organism replaces a part that is destroyed. And in reproduction the organism creates a completely independent form. In all these cases what is observed goes beyond what can be understood by the model of a machine.

The difficulty of explaining these morphological issues is matched by a series of behavioral problems: instinct, behavioral regulation, learning, and intelligent behavior. Neither can mechanism create an adequate explanation for psychological views like that of the unconscious proposed by C.G. Jung. Even the explanatory power of DNA has its limits. Chimpanzees and humans share almost 99% of their non-repeated DNA sequences, and yet show enormous behavioral differences.

Once Sheldrake realized the limitations of the mechanistic approach, he saw two alternative possibilities. On the one hand there was vitalism, and on the other, some kind of organismic or wholistic approach. Vitalism says there is another causal factor involved in living organisms. One of its most forceful modern proponents was the German embryologist, Hans Driesch. Driesch, who had himself started off as an adherent to mechanism, had conducted a series of experiments on the embryos of sea urchins in which one of their original cells was destroyed, yet the embryos regulated themselves, and reached the goal of normal adult development. No machine, Driesch reasoned, could survive the arbitrary removal of some of its parts and still retain this kind of wholeness. He therefore hypothesized the existence of a non-physical, non-spatial causal factor in living beings which, with a nod to Aristotle, he called entelechy. This entelechy directed the physical and chemical processes during the organism’s development. The word entelechy came from Greek and meant ‘bearing the goal within itself,’ and Driesch thought of it as an “intensive manifoldness.” It was, in his mind, a natural factor but not a form of matter or energy.

Despite the merits of Driesch’s position, Sheldrake was unhappy with the fact that the entelechy was non-physical, and thus led to a dualistic conception of the organism, for how could it act on physical and chemical processes if it, itself, was not physical? “The physical world and the non-physical entelechy could never be explained or understood in terms of each other.” (3) Then Sheldrake turned to organicism, which tried to solve the problems of morphological development by proposing that the wholeness exhibited came from embryonic or developmental or morphogenetic fields. But as potentially fertile as this idea was, it had remained more of a description of morphogenesis than an explanation of it.

Sheldrake took the best in Driesch’s vitalism and of these field theories, and created a new hypothesis he called formative causation. Forms are all around us, and they cannot be completely comprehended in purely quantitative terms. Biologists recognize forms like flowers and butterflies directly, and classify them. “As forms they are simply themselves; they cannot be reduced to anything else… If the forms of things are to be understood, they need not be explained in terms of numbers, but in terms of more fundamental forms.” (4) These kinds of reflections brought to mind the doctrine of Plato in which the things of daily experience were reflections of the archetypal forms, but this didn’t explain how these eternal forms were related to our earthly ones.

“Aristotle believed this problem could be overcome by regarding the forms of things as immanent rather than transcendent: specific forms were not only inherent in objects, but actually caused them to take up their characteristic forms.” (5)

Sheldrake realized that physics dealt with energy as a principle of change, but not really with form, and so he proposed a new type of causation. “The hypothesis of formative causation proposes that morphogenetic fields play a causal role in the development and maintenance of the forms of systems at all levels of complexity. In this context, the word ‘form’ is taken to include not only the shape of the outer surface or boundary of a system, but also its internal structure.” (6) He recognized that the energetic cause in physics was like Aristotle’s efficient cause, while his formative causation resembled Aristotle’s formal cause, and he uses the analogy of building a house to illustrate this kind of causality. In order to build a house we need the raw materials, the carpenters who do the actual building, but also a plan “which determines the form of the house.” And this plan, too, is a cause. (7)

Morphogenetic fields are not kinds of energy, but they play a causal role in determining the forms of the systems with which they are associated.” (8) They are ” spatial structures detectable only through their morphogenetic effects on material systems.. Thus there must be one kind of morphogenetic field for protons; another for nitrogen atoms; another for water molecules; another for sodium chloride crystals; another for the muscle cells of earthworms; another for the kidneys of sheep; another for elephants; another for beech trees; and so on.” (9)

In morphogenesis a morphogenetic field surrounds an already organized system which becomes the germ of the higher level system to come, and the field is probably associated with this germ because of their similarities in form. This germ develops under the direction of the field which is not yet filled out or completed, but contains the final goal in virtual form, and directs the activities of the seed system so it realizes that goal. “(M)orphogenetic fields differ radically from electromagnetic fields in that the latter depend on the actual state of the system – on the distribution and movement of charged particles whereas morphogenetic fields correspond to the potential state of a developing system and are already present before it takes up its final form.” (10)

There is a certain constancy to form. This is readily understandable if forms are a result of changeless physical laws like a mechanistic approach supposes. But Sheldrake is trying to break out of that framework, and he comes up with what he considers a radically different approach: “Chemical and biological forms are repeated not because they are determined by changeless laws or eternal Forms, but because of a causal influence from previous similar forms. This influence would require an action across space and time unlike any known type of physical action.” (11)

The question immediately occurs to him about the origin of the first forms which will, according to this hypothesis, then begin to influence subsequent ones. He feels that no scientific answer is possible because the origination of forms is a unique event, while science deals with repeatable events. “The initial choice of a particular form could be ascribed to chance, or to a creativity inherent in matter; or to a transcendent creative agency.” (12)

A form influences subsequent forms by a kind of morphic resonance, and since this resonance is non-energetic like the morphogenetic fields themselves it need not be limited by space and time. It is the morphic resonance aspect of the idea of formative causation that gives rise to testable predictions, and this is, no doubt, an important reason why it recommended itself to Sheldrake, and he goes on to suggest various ways in which it could be tested. These include the speed of formation of new crystals and experiments in plant breeding, and their basic principle is simply that if a form or behavior has been repeated in the past, then it will be more readily repeatable in the present, for the past form and behavior resonate with and influence the present. The interaction between the physical and chemical processes of the organism and morphogenetic fields and their power of resonance can be compared to a radio playing music. The physical structure of the radio and its power source are essential to its functioning, but it receives radio waves without which there would be no music. “In terms of the hypothesis of formative causation, the ‘transmission’ would come from previous similar systems, and its ‘reception’ would depend on the detailed structure and organization of the receiving system.” (13)

Sheldrake then goes on to apply this hypothesis to a wealth of biological problems ranging from inheritance, to the evolution of biological forms, the movement of plants and animals, instinct, and behavior.

In The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature which appeared in 1988, Sheldrake takes up the same theme of formative causation but with a different emphasis. He is going to place it “in its broad historical, philosophical, and scientific context.” (14)

“Things are as they are because they were as they were.” (15) There is a memory inherent in nature that is passed on from one generation to another by means of morphic resonance. Memory does not have to be conceived as something engraved on our brains, but rather, might be directly present to us. The morphic fields of past organisms might somehow continue to be present to us. Sheldrake feels that immutable laws of nature are tied to a view of the universe as an eternal machine, and both these perspectives are not in harmony with what we now know about evolution. “Rather than being governed by eternal laws, the nature of things may be habitual.” (16)

In the past the laws of nature were presented as if they had an objective existence which somehow transcended space and time, and were even imagined by scientists to have existed before the creation of the universe. To this Sheldrake responds: “How could we possibly know that the laws of nature existed before the universe came into being? We could not ever hope to prove it by experiment. This is surely no more than a metaphysical assumption.” (17)

“Eternal laws made sense when they were ideas within the mind of God, as they were for the founding fathers of modern science. They still seem to make sense when they govern an eternal universe from which God’s mind had been dissolved. But do they any longer make sense in the context of the Big Bang and an evolving universe?” (18) Sheldrake feels that these eternal laws should be replaced by the notion of habits, but if we do so, we are still left with the question of how these habits originated and sustained themselves. Somehow habits arise within nature and influence subsequent events.

The idea of eternal laws is deeply rooted in Western tradition and goes back much further than the rise of modern science. Here he again summarizes some of that philosophical tradition in which the eternal forms of Plato were seen by Aristotle to be immanent in things. For Aristotle all living beings had souls that directed their development and activities toward a goal. But Sheldrake feels that these souls, or natures, were also conceived by Aristotle as fixed and changeless. Another problem with Aristotle’s conception is that “the forms of all kinds of organisms arise from non-material organizing principles inherent in the organisms themselves.” (19) This, as we remember, gave rise to the dualism that Sheldrake objected to in Driesch’s work. Aristotle’s viewpoint was highly influential in later theories of vitalism and organismic philosophies, and Sheldrake is making himself heir to this tradition, but trying to put it in an evolutionary context.

There is something so fundamental about the idea of form in biology that it keeps on reappearing. “All attempts to force the organizing principles of life into material objects such as genes have failed: they keep bursting out again. The concept of purposive organizing principles which are non-material in nature have been reinvented again and again.” (20) Even the idea of the universe as a machine implies a plan of organization. Whether we look to the laws of nature or information theory, we return to the fundamental idea of form. “Information is what informs; it plays an informative role…” (21) “Is the information Platonic, somehow transcending time and space? Or is it immanent within organisms?” (22) For Sheldrake this kind of biological information, or morphogenetic fields are immanent in organisms and “inherited in a non-material manner.” (23) These morphogenetic fields are physically real fields with their own spatio-temporal organization. Past fields influence present ones by “a non-energetic transfer of Information.” (24) Therefore, while physically real they are not like the fields physics knows, and involve “a kind of action at a distance in both space and time” which doesn’t decline with distance in space and time. (25)

As a scientist the idea of testing this hypothesis by experiment was central to Sheldrake’s thinking, and he suggested various ingenious experiments that could be carried out. One that was actually done was the result of a competition held to develop ways to test the idea of formative causation. In the actual experiment non-Japanese speaking participants are asked to chant three different Japanese rhymes. One was a traditional Japanese nursery rhyme, another was a similarly structured Japanese rhyme created for comparison, and a third was a chant that made no sense in Japanese. The theory, of course, was that the traditional rhyme, established by millions of repetitions would have a stronger field which would influence the learning of these non-Japanese speaking participants. In actual fact they did, Indeed, find learning the Japanese nursery rhyme easier than the other two, but as Sheldrake pointed out, it is difficult to demonstrate that the original nursery rhyme was identical in learning difficulty to the others.

Sheldrake felt that morphogenetic, or morphic fields, might also help us to understand the mysterious nature of memory, and he goes into a wealth of detail of how these fields could shed light on this whole realm. Not only will an organism tune into its own past by a kind of self-resonance, it will also tune into the collective memory of past fields. Something like telepathy could be explained as a tuning into the fields of other people. Even belief in reincarnation could be related not to one person having lived a former life, but having tuned in to the morphic field and the associated memory of the person who lived before.

Societies of animals and insects often act as if they have a morphic field common to them. How else can we explain the elaborate behavior of a hive of bees, or the coordinated movements of schools of fish and flocks of birds? Sheldrake recounts the work of the South African naturalist, Eugene Marais, who drove a large steel plate through the center of a termite mound in such a way that it was divided into two separate parts. Marais concluded: “The builders on one side of the breach know nothing of those on the other side. In spite of this the termites build a similar arch or tower on each side of the plate. When eventually you withdraw the plate, the two halves match perfectly after the dividing cut has been repaired. We cannot escape the ultimate conclusion that somewhere there exists a preconceived plan which the termites merely execute.” (26)

Of particular interest to us is the link that Sheldrake forges with Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious. Jung found similar patterns in the myths and dreams of people from all over the world and from different periods of time, and concluded to the existence of a collective unconscious, “a kind of inherited collective memory.” (27) “Even if it were to be assumed that the myths of, say, a Yoruba tribe could somehow become coded in their genes and their archetypal structure be inherited by subsequent members of the tribe, this would not explain how a Swiss person could have a dream that seemed to arise from the same archetype. (28) But the idea of morphic resonance makes it a lot easier, in Sheldrake’s mind, to understand how such a thing could take place. For Jung, the contents of the collective unconscious is made up of archetypes which are innate psychic structures, and Sheldrake likens these archetypes to morphic fields that contain “the average forms of previous experience.” (29)

Sheldrake’s remarks on Jung form a bridge to chapter three where we will look at Jung’s synchronicity, but he also has some interesting comments on the work of David Bohm. The nature of life and consciousness have not yet been integrated into the theories of modern physics. “There is a need for a new natural philosophy that goes further than physics alone can go but remains in harmony with it.” (30) And it is David Bohm’s ideas on the implicate order that Sheldrake sees as one of the best candidates for this natural philosophy.

“Bohm emphasizes the importance for physics, biology, and psychology of the notion of formative causation as ‘an ordered and structured inner movement that is essential to what things are.’ Any formative cause must evidently have an end or goal which is at least implicit – what Aristotle called a final cause. Thus, for example, it is not possible to refer to the inner movement from the acorn giving rise to the oak tree without simultaneously referring to the oak tree that is going to result from this movement. Bohm points out that in the ancient view, ‘the notion of formative cause was considered to be of essentially the same nature for the mind as it was for life and for the cosmos as a whole.'” (31)

“Bohm’s theory of the implicate order is more fundamental than the hypothesis of formative causation, but the two approaches appear to be quite compatible.” (32) Sheldrake and Bohm discussed their relationship, and Bohm considered that the movement from the explicate back to the implicate order and back again, if repeated enough, could give rise to a fixed disposition. “The point is that, via this process, past forms would tend to be repeated or replicated in the present, and that is very similar to what Sheldrake calls a morphogenetic field and morphic resonance. Moreover, such a field would not be located anywhere. When it projects back into the totality (the implicate order), since no space and time are relevant there, all things of a similar nature might get connected together or resonate in totality.” (33)

We certainly have not exhausted the richness of Sheldrake’s thought, but I believe that once again we have seen how the notion of formal cause appears in the midst of deep scientific reflection and points to the need for a dialogue between science and a philosophy of nature. We will continue to make this point in the chapter that follows.

This excerpt from The Mystery of Matter: Nonlocality, Morphic Resonance, Synchronicity and the Philosophy of Nature of St. Thomas Aquinas has been posted with kind permission from the author » read or purchase entire book at innerexplorations.com

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3 thoughts on “The Mystery of Matter – Rupert Sheldrake’s Formative Causation

  1. a beautifully clear description of the theory.

    Like

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