Institute of Noetic Sciences: Welcome to our intention download series. We are very pleased today to have as our host, Dean Radin, and our guest is Rupert Sheldrake.
Dean Radin: Thank you. I think Rupert Sheldrake is one of those people who need no introduction, and so I shan’t introduce him. This is one of those few cases where I think that you’re so well known, Rupert, that any introduction, except an introduction that you would like me to give – like to talk about your most recent book, perhaps? I’m not sure I need to say much.
Rupert Sheldrake: Well I think it’s important for those who don’t know about my work, to know a little bit, I suppose.
DR: OK. Well I guess your most recent book, then, is The Sense of Being Stared at and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind. And of course other well-known books before that included Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals, and before that probably one of your most famous books was A New Science of Life. And then there are, of course, many books in between, including The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature. Rupert, of course, is a biologist and author of many technical papers as well, and studied natural sciences at Cambridge University and philosophy at Harvard. I think Rupert now is probably best known or widely known because of his democratization of science, which means finding ways of taking interesting ideas and allowing lots and lots of people to test them without having to go to multi-billion dollar cyclotrons. So with that I think I’ll simply jump right into our questions, which all have to do with the role of intention in the physical world. So the first question is: what is your most significant personal experience of the power of intention?
RS: Well it’s terribly difficult to answer that actually because I’ve had many, but I think the one that stand out in my mind is not significant because it’s particularly dramatic – in a way it’s particularly trivial – but it’s one that was important to me because it’s the first time I started to pay attention to the power of intention. This was when I was living in India in the 1970s. I had some English friends who I wanted to invite to my house for dinner at Christmas time and it was a week or two before Christmas and I couldn’t get in touch with them because they were not on the telephone. So I was sitting there thinking ‘how can I get in touch with them, I really want to talk to them, how can I make contact?’ and thinking of all the ways I could possibly make contact. After a few minutes the phone rang and it was one of these people who’d rang me up and he said, “I don’t know why I’ve rung but I just felt I had to ring you, do you want to talk to me?” “Yes,” I said, “I do.” And that, for me, was very trivial and many people have had this kind of experience – startling, because I hadn’t really noticed that sort of thing before. And thousands of people have had these experiences. As I say, perhaps I was a little obtuse in not noticing it earlier, myself. But for me this was a kind of wake up call as well as a happy coincidence: I got to speak to the person I wanted to.
DR: Yeah, as you say – both trivial in the sense of being mundane and highly repeatable, but also startling in the sense that it suggested there are connections between us that are invisible and yet quite powerful.
RS: Exactly that, yes, and it was years later – I mean this must have been around 1976 – and it wasn’t really until much later that I started doing research on telepathic telephone calls. This was 25 years later but this remained with me as an experience that then led into an entirely new research program.
DR: Well, that leads to our next question: what scientific experiments or viewpoints have most affected your view of intention? And in your case, I imagine that’s going to be experiments…
RS: Well it is, it’s both experiments – partly experiments on things like telephone telepathy, which I have done quite a lot of, but really in my own case, the consideration of biology and how biological systems work. I started off as a developmental biologist and worked for years on biological morphogenesis. This was really the starting point for my idea of morphogenetic fields. Morphogenesis means the coming into being of form (morph: form; genesis: being, coming into being), so morphogenic fields are fields concerned with the way animals and plants grow: how a plant or tree grows from a seedling, or how a giraffe grows from a giraffe egg – a fertilized egg which is just a small round ball. How does this happen? That’s the problem of morphogenesis. The idea of morphogenetic fields was first put forward in the 1920s, and a key part of this concept was that the way the organism develops is shaped by this invisible field. But the field contains what’s called an attractor: the field draws the developing system towards and end or a goal along a pathway of change. British biologist, Waddington, called this the creode – the developmental pathway moves towards a goal. If you start an embryo off and it starts developing normally and if you disturb it, the disturbed parts can regulate so that they reach the same goal anyway. For example, if you take half a dragonfly egg – you tie it in half, you kill one half of the egg. Normally the front half will develop into the front of the embryo, the back half into the back. If you kill the front half and just leave the back half of the egg, what happens is that back half of the egg now develops into a normal, complete embryo. It’s as if there is a final form, an embryonic form, which is attracting the developing system towards it and it can still do it even if it’s being disturbed. It’s working toward a goal, and this goal seeking or attractor-directed development is very characteristic of all biological systems. It turns out also to be the way in which proteins fold and even molecules behave. So there’s a kind of intention, a kind of goal-directedness inherent in the very nature of life in the most fundamental processes that enable embryos to grow and even protein molecules to form. And I think that the kind of conscious intention we experience as part of our mental life has its background in this goal-directedness which is inherent in all living creatures, and is an essential part of the nature of life and an essential part of the nature of the organizing fields that organize living organisms.
DR: Very interesting because it once again takes something which we think may be uniquely human and actually casts it against the entire living world, something which is inherent in living systems.
RS: Absolutely, I think this is really an essential feature of all living systems. Saying that, of course, is not a particularly original theory – it was inherent in the theory of living organisms of Aristotle, who thought that all organisms had what he called a final cause: they move towards goals. Life is goal-directed and this is precisely what was expelled from science in the 17th century in mechanistic revolution but it’s what’s come back in per force through the study of biological morphogenesis and through the study of dynamics – the dynamical theory of attractors within mathematics. This whole system of understanding things in terms of attractors means that the attractors as it were a future state that pulls things towards it. It attracts things towards it, so in a sense we’ve reinvented many aspects of this much older understanding of ends or goals.
DR: Right, and it may be that the notion of final cause is wrapped into the non-living world as well and we see it in principles – like the principle of least action, or Hamilton’s principle – which are considered so fundamental in the physical sciences that most of classical and quantum mechanics can be derived just from the principle of least action.
RS: I think that’s a very interesting idea. So this principle of goal-directedness may, in fact, be inherent in all aspects of nature – there’s all levels: physical, chemical, and biological. And even though for several centuries now science has tried to pretend that’s not how nature works. According to the standard view in science, everything’s pushed from behind, whereas according to this world [we’re] looking at, many things are pulled from in front, as it were, and I think that only by seeing this bigger context can we really make sense of human intention and how it works. Otherwise we’re left with human intention as the one exception to nature, but I don’t think it’s an exception at all. I think it’s totally in accordance with the way that all nature works, the only difference being that we’re more aware of our intentions some of the time than other creatures.
DR: I think perhaps one of the reasons why intention has gotten a bad name in science is because it requires that there is some kind of goal or purpose at a higher level than we, and that starts to sound a lot like religion. Since science is not fond of religion, it simply rejects the idea even though there might actually be some merit to the idea, that it doesn’t have a religious context at all.
RS: Yes, I think that there’s a difference, though, between the inherent intentions… say, a dog when it’s hungry has an intention of getting some food, if it sees some food it really wants to get there and it strains the leash in order to reach it. You could even measure the power of its intention by putting a spring balance in its leash. So this intention is certainly there in living things, but that doesn’t necessarily imply the entire universe has a purpose. Certainly animals and plants seem to have purposes and in the case of animals we can easily recognize them. You know, a dog is usually fairly easy to understand: what its motives are, what purposes are driving it –whether it’s a desire to play, a desire to eat, a desire to mate, or whatever. These are goal directed behaviors but I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that goal-directed behaviors within living organisms or even within human beings imply that the entire universe has a goal. By analogy it might have, but on the other hand it might not have. So I think they’re somewhat separate questions from the religious question.
DR: I agree, but in biological systems the needs that occur, we can imagine that they are localized but if it also goes into non-living systems, if there are physical principles which are similar to the principle of least action, if there is some similarity to what we see as intention in living systems. Then it suggests that everything is permeated by goals, even though in the physical system it might be something as simple as a particle running down the least energy path – that’s still a goal, in which case all goals, in a sense, are local. But that may be because of our limited perspective – the way that we study isolated systems. And so it’s easy to imagine that there may also be much, much larger goals that, for example, are goals having to do with motion of a galaxy…
RS: Yes. No, I agree – that might well be the case. I think this is a really important and interesting area of debate and I certainly don’t think it should be closed off either by prejudice against religion or by, you know, trying to imagine we already know the goals of the universe, ‘cause I don’t think we do.
DR: Okay, let’s go to the third question which, again, has to do, I think, with individual intention. And the question is: what practices do you see as most effective for cultivating our intention at the highest level?
RS: Well, this is a question I’m quite interested in because it’s slightly alien to me. You know, in America there are a lot of courses for cultivating the power of positive thinking and so on. It’s been a major feature in American popular culture and business culture for decades. I went to the Falling Awake workshop given by Dave Ellis, actually at the Noetic Sciences campus, and that’s very much based on cultivating your intentions: forming them, making them quite explicit. I found a kind of cultural barrier to that when I did the workshop. I mean, I overcame it but I was forced to confront this, and I’m forced to confront it in my daily life. I’m a Christian, I pray on a daily basis, and prayer is often a matter of formulating intentions. There’s several ways of praying: there’s one way in saying, “this is the goal, this is how I’m going to get it, God help me achieve this goal” try and put not only one’s whole willpower behind it but also get the sort of Divine will on ones side too. That’s the sort of clear intention, moving forward, clear goal approach. But the approach that actually comes slightly more naturally to me, and one that happens in the way I pray, is really not forcing ones intention upon the Universe any more than necessary and rather praying that the will of God be done – that somehow that the divine intention works through one. One may not even know what it is, so one could see that as sort of drifting and not seizing control. But there are very different ways in which people pray, as I have found by discussing prayer with people who practice it, and there are some people who believe very strongly in the sharp and powerful intention. On the whole, I don’t. I usually pray that the will of God be done and that I somehow, in what I do as part of that… and it’s not always clear to me what the will of God is. So I’m not actually a very good person to talk about the most effective way of cultivating our intention at the highest level. For me, the most effective way is through prayer. But as I say, even within that context it’s not clear just how specific one should be – and I’m usually not very specific.
DR: No, I think you answered the question very well because the question is: how do you see it? And what works for you is not necessarily what works for the next person. Personally I go along more with your approach. Rather than trying to force the Universe to give me a toy, if the Universe decides that it’s useful to give me a toy I am very grateful, but I usually don’t try to manipulate things in that way – partially because I always have a sense of the law of unintended consequences and I don’t want to be responsible for something of which I don’t know all of the variables.
RS: Exactly. I strongly agree with that. And also, since we’re both experimental scientists, I assume we both have had to think about the question of experiments. When one sets up an experiment it’s very gratifying if an experiment gives one the expected results, but we also know that in many fields of science there are experimenter effects where the experimenter’s intentions can consciously or unconsciously influence the outcome of the experiment. And if one cultivates intention too strongly in the context of an experiment and wanting it to work in a particular way, perhaps it will – at least on that occasion – but then it may just show the power of one’s own intention rather than the system one is investigating. This is a very thorny issue in many fields of psychological investigation and I suppose that one’s intention has to be that the truth of the situation is revealed, even if that goes against what one might personally want.
DR: Yes. I always find the most interesting experiments are ones that provide a surprise, because at least it means it’s not my conscious intention that it’s manifesting. It may be unconscious, but at least I find something surprising and that’s always a delight.
RS: Yes, I agree.
DR: Alright, let’s go to the last question, which is: if you could focus our collective intentions on one thing, what would that be?
RS: That’s one of those really difficult questions. I never think in terms of ‘just one thing’ in either my own prayers or what I hope for the world.
DR: I could rephrase it: if you could focus our intentions on two things, what would those be?
RS: Well, I could easily say things like “peace” and “love,” but those become extremely tricky to define. I was involved in the 1980s in a “praying for peace” campaign. We were praying for peace in the context of the Cold War and the question was “what do you visualize?” And we found that just praying for peace was much too nebulous, so what happened was that all of the people who took part got a pair of nuclear bases – one in the west and one in the east, and you adopted a nuclear base. I had one in Czechoslovakia and one in eastern England. Then when we were discussing among ourselves how do you actually pray about these places being disarmed, some people said “yeah, well, you know, I imagine this sort of blinding light sort of filling the whole place and bathing it in rays of light,” etc. And I’m afraid I had to point out that’s exactly what would happen if a nuclear war took place. So I, for myself, found it better to visualize the nuclear bases with all the children playing in the fields and a bit of rusty barbed wire left over from when the fences came down. So peace, even peace, in that sort of context, it’s slightly hard to know what to visualize.
I suppose the one thing I think would make a difference to the world is gratitude. If people were much more grateful for what they’ve got, I think that would act as a major antidote to greed and competition and so forth. And so I think gratitude is the thing which would probably be the least controversial, the most straightforward, and perhaps the most beneficial.
DR: And one hopes the least law of unintended consequences…
RS: Exactly. It’s something where it’s hard to imagine having too much gratitude, or gratitude rebounding in some unintended way.
DR: Okay, well thank you very much for speaking to me today about intention. It’s always a pleasure. And I guess that brings us to the end of our interview.
RS: Good, well thank you.