Was host Alex Tsakiris being too aggressive and disrespectful towards the good doctor? Or was Dr. Patricia Churchland – Oxford educated, MacArthur Fellowship awarded, highly regarded academic and author of recent you-are-your-brain book Touching a Nerve – simply ill-prepared for her long-standing beliefs, rooted in scientific materialism, to be contested?
While a great deal of attention has been focused on the narrowly circumscribed debate between Bill Nye and the Not Science Guy this past week, this seems like a conversation much more worth having. Particularly since those who question certain aspects of current scientific orthodoxy – like Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake – have actual evidence to draw upon, along with plenty of experience dealing with contentious push-back. Meanwhile, those who forcefully reject a non-materialistic worldview don’t seem to venture too far out of their self-reinforcing circles and, when (and if) they do, aren’t used to enduring an informed discussion.
Take, for instance, this exchange with noted materialist philosopher and New Atheism “horseman” Daniel Dennett. Appearing in the foreword of Russell Targ’s The Reality of ESP: A Physicist’s Proof of Psychic Abilities, Stephen A. Schwartz writes:
“Along with Ed May, I once debated with Daniel Dennett, a prominent critic of ESP research, at an event produced by ABC News for station news staffs and station managers. We debated along for about thirty minutes, with Dennett making dismissive and disparaging remarks to anything Ed or I said, but always in generalities. Finally I said to him: “Let’s pick an experiment we both know, and you tell me what is wrong with it, and I will respond.” Without a moment’s hesitation he shot back in the most deliberately condescending act I have ever witnessed, saying, “You don’t think I actually read this stuff, do you?” There was a moment’s silence, then laughter began, first as giggles, then as chuckles, and, finally, as guffaws. It suddenly dawned on Dennett what he had said. He blushed and sat down, and left as soon as he could” (Targ xv)
Rupert Sheldrake relates a similar encounter with Richard Dawkins:
“Soon before Enemies of Reason was filmed, the production company, IWC Media, told me that Richard Dawkins wanted to visit me to discuss my research on unexplained abilities of people and animals. I was reluctant to take part, but the company’s representative assured me that “this documentary, at Channel 4’s insistence, will be an entirely more balanced affair than The Root of All Evil was.” She added, “We are very keen for it to be a discussion between two scientists, about scientific modes of enquiry”. So I agreed and we fixed a date. I was still not sure what to expect. Was Richard Dawkins going to be dogmatic, with a mental firewall that blocked out any evidence that went against his beliefs? Or would he be open-minded, and fun to talk to?
The previous week I had sent Richard copies of some of my papers, published in peer-reviewed journals, so that he could look at the data.
Richard seemed uneasy and said, “I don’t want to discuss evidence”. “Why not?” I asked. “There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.” The camera stopped.
The Director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic.”
Many in the scientific community chimed in before the Nye/Ham debate, bothered by the idea that Nye’s simple participation would give Ham’s point-of-view some sort of legitimacy. They would rather it have been avoided altogether and considered it a silly idea to even entertain. And, while that may or may not be the case, they make similar assertions when it comes to publicly engaging the likes of Sheldrake and Radin. If either of those two men acted the way Dawkins, Dennett, or Churchland did when challenged, it would be instantly seized upon by the “skeptic” community, citing their behavior as evidence to the weakness of their arguments. As it stands, they field confrontational inquiries frequently and remain calm and rational while doing so (check out any number of their lectures on YouTube, particularly the Q&A portion).
Sheldrake himself happily dove headfirst into the lion’s den in a fantastic Dutch program from 1993 called A Glorious Accident – hosted by likely supervillain Wim Kayzer and featuring such guests as Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson, Stephen Jay Gould, George Page, Oliver Sacks, Stephen Toulmin, and Sheldrake. Part of a much larger series where each participant was interviewed individually, they all came together in the end for a fascinating for its entire 3-hour duration round-table: