Anne Harrington in her book "The Re-enchantment of Science" quotes Max Weber declaring after WW1, that Mechanistic Science was here to stay - we had better get used to it. European (especially German) Holism - which included Vitalism - was dead. Welcome to the Machine!
Not for Rupert Sheldrake! This book is about the re-enchantment of science, a rather beautiful and psychedelic alternative paradigm where the Universe is a living entity, like an organism, whose laws (habits) and constants evolve organically over time, where planets and molecules have purposes, matter is alive, and consciousness has powers to change the past, all immersed, shaped and resonating within a "Morphic Field" (somewhat like the Higgs Field), which contains all memory.
The book lays down the gauntlet (or 10 of them), to advocates of normal "mechanistic" science to justify 10 foundational assumptions on which classical "materialist" Science is based. For me that was the challenge that made the book so gripping. It is a clever, scholarly, imaginative, beautiful and (I believe) - ultimately flawed.
From the introduction, the book declares Science to be authoritarian, dogmatic and bankrupt - having now run out of credit on unfulfilled "promissory explanations". This is just the kind of thing that his nemesis Richard Dawkins might say about Religion - and I fear would be closer to the truth. For while religion is rocked by division, dogmatism, scepticism and scandal, "mechanistic" Science is busy making new discoveries every day.
Of course his critique of science is a way of promoting his alternative paradigm of "Morphic Resonance", but it isn't rocket science to find the obvious flaws. After each chapter there are "questions for materialists". However, I was left each time with a number of "questions for vitalists"
For instance, if we abandon mechanistic explanations (dogma 1) for the shapes of crystals (dogma 5) and organisms (dogma 6), in favour of "morphic memory", how do we explain the uniqueness of fractal forms such as snowflakes, or crystal dendrites, or tree roots, or neural networks. These unique forms are never exact replicas copied from a previous version, but rather a product of context dependant iterated processes. Doesn't it also fly in the face of Mendelian inheritance?
Likewise, if physical laws and constants evolve (dogma 4), what laws (or habits) govern the evolution (e.g. rate and direction) of these changes - don't we get ourselves into an infinite regress of "habits"? Wouldn't we also expect to see huge variation in the physics of galaxies around us, as we are looking back in time?
Then there's memory as traces in the brain (dogma 8). Morphic resonance holds instead that we tune in to ourselves in the past. Yet, this fails to explain false memories, implanted memories or alterations in narrative over time. It is also difficult to see how "morphic" memory is blocked (or even modified) by certain drugs - e.g. in treating PTSD.
Overall, it is a challenging and persuasive book, full of fringe, but interesting examples. Based on the philosophies of Bergson and Whitehead (though RS makes no mention of Process Philosophy), his motivation of a "re-enchantment of Science" is good. However, keep your critical head on at all times.
I like that it is read by the author himself - though he sometimes sounds a little depressed. Look out for some amusing imitations of other (living) authors. The strange one of A.C. Grayling made me chuckle.