The English biologist and physicist Rupert Sheldrake wants to raise art onto a par with science as a way of explaining the world. According to him, the progress of art often precedes science. For instance, linear perspective painting changed people's way of perceiving the world, and artists represented their surroundings using an immobile vanishing point long before the invention of technical recording equipment (cameras). Sheldrake is best known for his concept of morphic fields. These invisible fields direct the development of organisms. Form and instincts are inherited from past members of the species and this takes place not through the genes, but rather with the help of a non-material memory. Sheldrake is opposed to the traditional, mechanistic idea of nature, and offers a new view of it in which each species has a collective memory functioning on a conscious level. He compares the functioning of morphic fields to the different levels of consciousness. Animals and plants act purposefully, although not necessarily consciously.
There are many artists in England and all over the world who are interested in your books, and artists regularly visit you.
I've found a great openness and curiosity on the part of artists about what is happening in modern science, and an awareness of the internal debates within science that is perhaps grater than the awareness shown by many scientists themselves.
Science has been dominated for 300 years by the doctrine that nature is a machine, and the whole essence of modernism was that we lived in a soulless mechanical universe. I think that science is beginning to break out of that, and certainly my own work is an attempt to accelerate the process of breaking out of the mechanistic universe and to recover a new sense of the life of nature. And it seems to relate what artists are doing.
It may be interesting to talk about these projects where you directly enter the museum. You did a project here at the Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris where you initiated a telepathic situation with museum visitors.
The experiment at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris was in fact a pioneering experiment: looking at people in a gallery through a video monitor to see if they could tell that we were looking at them.
I've been involved with the Photographer's Gallery in London because photographers have turned out to be quite interested in this whole idea of the sense of being looked at, and what it means to be observed.
The 1990's have been broadly called the "decade of the brain". "Consciousness revolution" is another widespread notion.
For a long time the very existence of consciousness was denied by most scientists because it couldn't be weighed or measured. This extremely naive scientism is now giving way to a more sophisticated discussion of the nature of consciousness. The problem is that within the academic world there hasn't really been much progress, we've still got dualists and materialists; most scientists are de facto materialists. The whole point of the staring experiment is to take a simple experiment that can move us beyond the standard brain/ mind paradigm, the idea that the mind is located in the head. If people can tell when they're being looked at, some mental influence is reaching out beyond the brain to effect other people at a distance.
Both dualists and materialists have assumed that the mind is located inside the head. The old view of the soul found in medieval Europe and indeed all over the world is that the soul is more extensive than the body, that the body is in the soul, not the soul in the body, and that the soul pervades the entire body and that most of the soul is unconscious; it links us to the animal and vegetable worlds.
However, since Descartes, the view has been that animals and plants are pure machines, and human beings have a mechanical body but a rational mind somehow interacting with a small region of the brain. This very limited view is shared by both dualists and materialists within the present framework of debate. The dualists say there is something mysterious interacting with the cerebral cortex or with some other part of the brain.
The materialists say the mind is nothing but the activity of the brain. I'm saying that the mind is much more extensive than the brain, it interacts with the brain but the mind reaches out all around us into our environment. It connects us in space and time far more extensively than the physical structure of our brains or indeed our bodies.
In the art of the 90's there is a strong shift away from the object. Artists work in and with time, art is more about situations and spending time than about an object.
Old style materialism focused on material objects as the prime reality. In the light of quantum physics, there is much greater sense of material objects being processes or structures rather than things, and interrelationship as being essential to our understanding.
What is nature?
Our understanding of nature has changed a lot. Nature is often defined in opposition to man or to humanity, as if everything that is not human is nature, but then of course we are part of nature and so much of us comes from our natural origins. It's a very difficult term. In the 18th century, nature was thought of as essentially rational and mathematical.
Recently we've recognised that nature has a great deal of freedom, spontaneity, chaos, complexity. I mean there is still a mathematical order that one can discern within nature, but it is no longer this clear, crystalline mathematical order of the rationalists. Ideas of nature change continually.
What about survival?
In relation to survival on this planet, many scientists, including myself, would think that the natural world will survive, whatever we do to it.
Human life and human civilisation may not survive, but the history of this planet shows that there have been mass extinction several times and life has recovered from them. Life survived the great events that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs and 75% of animal species about 65 million years ago, and an even greater extinction about 250 million years ago.
Then we have to remember that this is just one planet in a vast universe. The rest of the universe may be fairly little effected by what happens on this earth.
You stand for an approach to science which is inclusive and full of horizontal links. Science for all?
Participation in science is becoming increasingly important, not only as a counteraction to the extreme specialism of science, but also as a way of overcoming the great alienation that most people feel from the activities of professional science which is trusted less and less by people as it becomes driven by government and commercial interests. The idea of increased participation is not just desirable but necessary within the scientific world, and probably in the art world too to overcome the alienation that also exists there.
I'm all in favour of down to earth science and fortunately it's not as difficult as one might think, because the kinds of things that interest ordinary people a great deal are things that science has neglected. As they are not yet specialised academic disciplines, they are much more open.