Ways to go Beyond and why they Work
by Rupert Sheldrake (Coronet, £20.00/€23.00)
In his preface, Rupert Sheldrake introduces himself as a research worker who is making a substantial contribution to the human knowledge that he calls “mundane”. He means the facts relating to our material world, which can be ascertained by controlled physical experiments and by mathematics.
According to at least one survey, quoted here, about half the scientists in the world are materialists, believing that ultimately everything in the universe will be explained according to the laws of physics. The other half believe that, along with Hamlet, that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.
In his very successful career as a scientist, Sheldrake looked far beyond the confines of the field of studies that respond to meticulous observation, experiment and incontrovertible facts.
His reading embraces an array of philosophical and religious works and his experience includes sojourns with communities of Christian and other faiths. His skills as a communicator have resulted in the publication of eight books in addition to numerous papers and contributions to shared works.
Brought up as a believing Christian, he went through some years of atheism before returning to life as a church-going Christian with a generous belief in the spiritual acceptability of many other faiths.
The sub-title of this, his ninth book, ‘Spiritual practices in a scientific age’ continues on from previous works in which he advances three important observations.
The first is the degree to which even the most painstaking of scientists are influenced by sentiment as well as by their results.
The second is the scientifically demonstrable prevalence of phenomena which do not conform to any known laws of physics.
The third is the probability of the existence of the spirit world, forces which influence human beings and the entire material universe but are not physically part of them.
He very rightly notes that atheism and materialism, however sophisticated the thinking behind them, are alternative belief systems as incapable of proof as any spiritual concept.
He discusses examples supporting his theme under seven headings: the spiritual side of sport, learning from animals, fasting, psychedelics, prayer, holy days, love of neighbours, and a final question: why do spiritual practices work?
There is a limit to what can be said on these topics within a readable book. So the treatment is frequently brief – but supported by a very comprehensive bibliography.
For as long as knowledge of the human mind has been possible – about 40,000 years – there has been evidence of a spiritual element to thought.
Careful observation of animals, above all of domestic pets, hints strongly that they too have an element of spirituality. Something similar in plants and even in non-living objects are no longer disparaged by all rational thinkers.
What makes humans unique in this sense is their ability to talk and to record their thoughts in writing. This theme is skilfully illustrated by the author in the form of quotations from the greatest philosophers and teachers, from scientifically controlled studies, and from his own personal encounters. While embracing the great concept of humanity and its place in the universe, the book is easy reading, as delightful as it is mentally stimulating.