Sciences Review, Vol. 30, Summer 1994 page 4-9
Nested Sets of Morphic Fields
Morphic fields are organized in nested hierarchies (see below). For example, there are morphic fields surrounding the atoms in our bodies, which are within the higher level morphic fields of molecules, organelles, cells, organs and limbs, all of which exist within the morphic field associated with the entire body. The body field, in turn, would be within the field of relationships that constitute a family, within a larger social group. Societies, in turn, are embedded within ecosystems, and ecosystems within the planetary system, "Gaia". And by extrapolation, we could extend the series of nested morphic fields until we reach out beyond planetary, solar system and galactic limits to encompass the entire universe.
Even Einstein’s space-time field of gravitation is a universal, cosmic field holding everything together and linking the entire universe, in fact, making it a uni-verse. It does the same thing as the World Soul or Anima Mundi of neo-Platonic philosophy. It embraces the whole cosmos. There are levels upon levels of morphic fields within fields, within which we are embedded. Human life is embedded in vastly larger fields of organization. To what degree they are conscious still remains in the realm of speculation. But I would assume that higher-level fields are not less, and probably more, conscious than we are. I would think they are more conscious than we are not simply because they are larger in size, but because they are more inclusive, contain more complexity, and encompass more possibilities.
I think that is one way of interpreting traditional doctrines about super-human intelligences, or cosmic intelligences, usually thought of in Christianity as the hierarchy of the angels. The word "angel" normally conveys the image of a good-looking youth with wings; but that’s simply a pictorial representation. The traditional doctrine behind that image, however, is of a super-human intelligence. And if the solar system and galaxy have intelligence, then one might be an angel and the other an archangel. In some traditional Christian doctrines there are, for instance, nine hierarchies of angels or levels of intelligence. And I would see these as equivalent to intelligences, minds or organizing fields at different levels of complexity. The galactic angels, for instance, would embrace or include those of solar systems, which in turn would include those of planets.
This is a description of a cosmos which has intelligence at every level, not a view that sees consciousness as something that emerged from unconscious matter. Conscious intelligence was there to start with. The place to look for it is not going to be in atoms or quanta (although there may be some kind of consciousness there), but in solar systems and galaxies and in the whole cosmos. There may be all these different levels of imagination, intelligence, and mind throughout the whole of the cosmic organization. All traditional doctrines that I know of have recognized something of that kind.
Notes & References
1. For an extended discussion of these theories, see R. Sheldrake, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (Tarcher, 1981), and The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature (Vintage, 1988).
Opening Up To The Numinous
As a scientist I wasn’t always interested in prayer. In fact, in earlier days I believed it was all nonsense. I was an atheist; God had no room in my scientific education. After graduating from Cambridge, I thought I had outgrown childish belief structures like religion, and that rational science was the way forward. I had a typical secular-humanist atheistic worldview for a long time, well into my thirties. And this, of course, is the worldview that most of my scientific colleagues still have. They regard religion as a relic from a superstitious age. In that context, prayer is completely meaningless, except insofar as people believe in it they may derive some psychological benefit–a kind of "placebo effect".
Then in 1968 I visited India, and all the materialist assumptions I took for granted just didn’t seem to work any more. What struck me most was the experience of being immersed in a culture that worked in an entirely different way to what I had been accustomed. In this exotic culture, the idea of what we might call "other realms"–the supernatural or spiritual–was simply taken for granted by practically everybody. There was a palpable sense of another dimension to life, everywhere you looked, and everywhere you went.
As an atheist, of course, my initial reaction was to think they were deluded in their beliefs. Yet on the other hand, these beliefs produced a fascinating culture. Even people living in the extremes of poverty seemed to have more joy in their lives than most people I knew who lived in the lap of plenty. I was touched deeply by the natural human warmth, and the quality of the people and of their way of life. According to the materialist beliefs I had, poverty equaled misery; wealth and good medical attention meant, if not happiness, then at least a much better quality of life. In India I saw it wasn’t as simple as that. The people there were poor beyond the comprehension of most Westerners, yet everywhere they walked about with the most radiant smiles. Walk along a street in London, Paris or New York and you see mostly harried, worried faces. That difference impressed me very deeply.
The contrast between the sense of inner joy and peace I experienced all around me in India compared with the tense way of life in the West was so striking that I decided to investigate meditation. For about four years I did various forms of Hindu practice. This didn’t conflict with my scientific attitude because meditation didn’t challenge my whole scientific worldview. On the contrary, I could approach my study of meditation in a truly scientific spirit. Its appeal is that you do it and see if it works. It’s empirical. You sit, you calm your breath and you observe what happens. I started with Transcendental Meditation which sounded scientific in that it was supposed to lower lactose levels in the blood, have beneficial effects on the circulation, and calm brain activity. I found that meditation did indeed work. I experienced within myself that calm I was seeing all around me in India.
As a scientist I wasn’t troubled. I could understand meditation by explaining to myself that it wasn’t opening me up to other realms of consciousness, but that it was simply changing the physiological state of my brain. To say that breathing in a particular way and doing a particular kind of mental activity could affect my mental and physical state did not challenge my worldview.
Nevertheless, although I could follow Hindu practices, India was such a completely different civilization and culture that there was no way I’d ever be an Indian. I began to have a sense that I would need to recover my own tradition if I were to share in the deep perceptions and peace that I saw in the people around me.
Furthermore, after living there a while, I also saw the shadow side of the Hindu tradition, which I hadn’t seen in my earlier brief visit. There is a fatalistic lack of concern for other people that was alien to me. That view was at variance with my more optimistic, progressivist Christian culture.
In India I came face to face with the realization that rooted in the Christian tradition is the sense that you can, and should, help other people; we can aim for some better state of affairs on Earth, for the whole of society. When I talked with my Indian friends and colleagues, it became very clear that I had this view deep within me. I realized that this sense didn’t come from Hindu philosophy, nor from my atheistic outlook. Instead, I saw it came from a deeply embedded Christian view of the world that I carried with me unwittingly. In fact, I realized this partly because in conversation with my Indian friends they would frequently point out that so much of what I was expressing was a Christian view. The repeated revelation of this, even to an avowed atheist, was difficult to ignore.
I spent some time living in Father Bede Griffith’s ashram, and I found that coming back to a Christian path made sense to me. I began praying and discovered that it was more helpful to me than meditating. I would say that meditation involves a kind of separation between the practice and the rest of one’s life; it is going into another space altogether. You could say that contemplative prayer would have the same effect. But for me, ordinary petitionary and intercessory prayer, such as the "Lord’s Prayer", links the events of my daily life directly with my practice. I pray about what I’ve done that day and what’s coming up the next day. It’s a matter of bringing the very fabric of one’s life–relationships, work, and personal concerns–into the context of the spiritual life.
How Do Mental Fields Work?
My hypothesis of morphic resonance and morphic fields has grown out of the notion in developmental biology of "morphogenic fields". This idea dates back to the 1920s in the work of biologists A. Gurwitsch and Paul Weiss. In modern developmental biology these fields are usually regarded as heuristic devices, or as mathematical abstractions with no causal effect. By contrast, I interpret them to be causal fields with an inherent memory given by morphic resonance; in other words I regard them as one kind of morphic field. Other kinds of morphic fields include behavioral fields, responsible for coordinating instinctive or learned behavior, mental fields, responsible for organizing mental activity, and social fields, responsible for organizing social groups.
If fields are the medium of mind then what you have in the brain is an interface between one kind of field and another kind of field. All organization in the body has morphic fields underlying it. Morphic fields in the brain interact with electromagnetic (EM) fields in the brain. However, the nature of this interaction is indirect. Rather than morphic fields working directly through the electromagnetic field, they interact through both affecting the same thing–in this case, physical activity within the brain.
I am not saying that there is a linear-type causal relationship between brain-electromagnetic-morphic fields. I regard mental fields as one kind of morphic field that affects the brain, shaping its activity, and this affects the EM field associated with the brain.
Here you’ve got fields acting on fields: morphic fields surrounding all the cells, tissues and organs of the body, as well as in molecules and cell membranes, and indeed in quantum-matter fields. This is contrasted with the more usual view of the spirit-matter dichotomy–where mechanical matter and ineffable spirit interact in some kind of quasi-miraculous way. If you say that the spirit acts on the EM field, you’ve got a problem of miraculous intervention.
On the other hand, if everything in nature is organized by fields, and if mental fields are a more subtle kind of field, you’ve got no sharp dichotomy–you’ve got fields acting through fields at all levels of reality. So the mind-body problem ceases to be a sharp dichotomy.