In 1981 Rupert Sheldrake, a widely respected and published plant biologist and physiologist, authored a book entitled A New Science of Life. It soon began receiving considerable attention. "A New Science of Life is the best-candidate for burning there has been for many years," fumed the highly regarded British scientific journal Nature. Though the concept of formative causation—the name chosen by Sheldrake to designate the hypothesis he presents in his book—has attracted equally vehement supporters to balance out its rabid critics, it remains as controversial today as it did when first introduced. Publication this spring of an expanded treatment of the theory, The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance and the Habits of Nature, promises to keep the debate alive.
In many ways, this conflict is identical to that between science and religion—between faith and empirical verification. There is a difference with Sheldrake’s hypothesis, though, in that he is more successful in explaining his hypothesis in terms that at least can be comprehended by empiricists (once they overcome their shock). Sheldrake even goes so far as to suggest various experimental frameworks to substantiate the truth or falsity of his ideas. This he does while gently chiding the empiricists themselves for covertly relying on their own faith when encountering difficulties confronting them in their own doctrine. Nevertheless, Sheldrake has proposed a theoretical framework that may move us well along the way towards a reconciliation between metaphysics and empirical science; and the religio-metaphysical possibilities don’t escape him. What the hypothesis of formative causation implies in a religious—particularly LDS doctrinal—context will be discussed in greater length later. First we will direct our attention briefly to what the hypothesis specifically is.
A scholar and then fellow of Clare College at Cambridge, and, further, a Rosenheim Research Fellow of the Royal Society, botanist Rupert Sheldrake was by the early ‘70’s "all set to attain the dream of most career scientists, a professorship in the university of his choice." He decided first, though, to take some time to "look at whole plants growing in fields rather than bits of plants in the laboratory," and went off to India for a while to perform such observations.1 As he studied plants holistically (as the current buzzword has it) he was often struck by unanswered questions as to what it was exactly that caused such precise natural structures as crystals and living organisms to take up the forms they do and no other.
If for example, a crystal is formed when free molecules circulating around its periphery are incorporated into the crystal’s static and highly organized structure, how do all these little bits know as they continue "mindlessly" to fuse with the structure that there are already enough molecules on the left side to contribute to its smoothly symmetrical shape, but that the right side needs more? Does something tell them? Just as intriguing, what is it that tells the minuscule organohydrocarbon building blocks in a developing embryo that the right hand should develop thusly as a structure that is virtually identical to the left—except that it is a mirror image? The sole scientific explanation for the latter question is "it’s genetic."
Sheldrake protests that, though there is a "clear causal chain leading from the sequence of chemical bases in DNA molecules to the sequence of amino acids in peptides. . .here the programming ends." He asserts that "The folding up of the peptides into the characteristic three-dimensional structure of -proteins is not programmatic, for it has no isomorphic (i.e., similarity in form) correspondence in the DNA."2 In other words, DNA is known to control the development of amino acids and their combination into proteins, but no mechanism has been identified to account for how these then are guided into the specific relationships that create the unique forms and structure of an organism.
"I have been deeply intrigued by the problem of morphogenesis," he explained to one interviewer. "—of how the actual forms of living things come into being. . .A seed or a fertilized egg has very little form. But as it develops, you get more and more complexity, form, and order. How this happens is an extremely central problem in biology. . .our attempts at explaining it in terms of chemistry and physics alone have met with very little success. We know a lot about DNA, its structure, how it codes for the sequence of amino acids and proteins, and about the chemical changes in organisms as they develop. But these in themselves don’t tell us why an organism takes a particular form any more than analyzing bricks can tell us how a building gets its overall plan or design."
Sheldrake’s observations led him to conclude that there were major gaps in the mechanistic view of the development of structure in the natural world, from minerals to elephants. Relying not only on his own work, but also on earlier theories dealing with morphogenetics (literally "creation of form"), he arrived at the rather controversial hypothesis of "formative causation." This concept, it turned out, had implications not just for physical form and structure, but ultimately for behavior and mental processes of higher animals as well.
Briefly described, the hypothesis asserts that "all systems are regulated not only by known energy and material factors but also by invisible organizing fields. These fields have no energy but are nonetheless causative because they serve as blueprints for form and behavior."
These fields reach imperceptibly across space in much-the came way as magnetism or gravity, with the added dimension that they seem to reach across time as well. What this means is that the more one thing is similar to something in the past—such an individual of a species is similar to many individuals of that species that have preceded it—the more the effect of a specific morphogenetic field—or morphic field, as Sheldrake currently refers to it—upon the individual organism. Formative causation is the dynamic influence of these morphic fields on developing structures. The mechanism that links morphic fields to this formative causation effect he calls "morphic resonance," which he explains using the analogy of the string of an instrument vibrating sympathetically when the same note is struck on a nearby piano.
One logical consequence of formative causation is that if some new organism or other natural structure should be invented or created, the morphic field for it would at first by definition be nonexistent, then be quite weak, then would grow gradually in influence only as the structure is replicated numerous times. Such an effect does seem to occur, and Sheldrake uses the example of newly created types of organo-crystals to illustrate this.
There are often a number of possible structures that molecules of a crystalline substance can assume and still be compatible with its fundamental composition, but for some unknown reason each type of crystal "selects" only one specific structural arrangement, and every time that crystal is formed, be it quartz or hematite, it takes up that and only that form. However, when a new substance of specific crystalline makeup is created in a lab for the first time, there is no precedent for what form it should take; indeed, new crystals are notoriously hard to form the first time they are created. Sheldrake notes that a supersaturated solution can sit for extensive periods before crystals begin to form.5
At first, other labs attempting to replicate the same substance encounter similar difficulties. Interestingly, at a certain point—apparently after enough of them have been made—it seems almost as if a specific "critical mass" is reached, and these artificial crystals "decide" what their permanent form will be. From this point on, that particular crystal forms more and more readily.
This phenomenon has been reported independently of Sheldrake in the mineralogical and metallurgical literature, and is quite perplexing to the scientists that have reported it. Conventional wisdom accounts for this peculiar effect by relying on such unlikely explanations as itinerant scientists who carry seed crystals from lab to lab in their beards, or microscopic crystalline seeds that float on the prevailing winds from point to point around the globe. Sheldrake points out that formative causation provides a better explanation, and if the hypothesis is valid, the effect should occur even when such unlikely contamination is controlled against—as actually remains the case when contamination from human contact can be ruled out.6
Sheldrake began thinking that some sort of field might be involved when he considered the two biological phenomena that are rather problematic for the conventional genetic solution: regulation and regeneration. Regulation is "the ability of embryos to adjust to damage." For example, if one destroys half a sea urchin embryo, the other half doesn’t turn into half a sea-urchin, but rather it compensates for the damage and continues on "to form a small but complete organism." And, when "two young embryos were artificially fused together, they produced not a double sea-urchin, but a normal single one. " 8
Regeneration is a closely related phenomenon and "is in fact one of the most fundamental features of living organisms. . .All organisms have some regenerative powers, even if only when young or only in certain tissues. many of the lower animals have such a strong regenerative ability that they can duplicate whole creatures from isolated parts. A flatworm, for example, can be cut into pieces, and each piece—a head, a tail, a side, or a mere slice—can grow into a complete worm. . .Processes of regeneration reveal that in some sense organisms have a wholeness that is more than the sum of their parts; parts can be removed, and yet a wholeness can be restored."9
Regeneration and regulation suggested "other physical systems with holistic properties that survive the removal of parts." Cut up an iron magnet, Sheldrake observes, and each of the resultant pieces remains a complete magnet with a full magnetic field, including new north or south pole, surrounding it. And if one cuts up a hologram—which is a "physical record of interference patterns in the electro-magnetic field"—each part nevertheless contains the original image in its entirety. Such systems are examples of fields, which are "not material objects, but regions of influence. "10
The principle apparently at work here has implications extending far beyond crystals to evolutionary theory, species differentiation, embryo formation, instinctive behavior, and even memory storage. In the course of his research, Sheldrake came across many peculiar instances involving animal behavior which were either not well explained or explained not at all by current theory. One instance of several he cited occurred when an experimenter drove a large steel plate through the center of an African termite mound. The insects, deprived of any normal means of communication, set about repairing the damage. When the plate was removed, it was discovered that each half of the restored mound- and-tunnel structure perfectly matched, requiring only that the gap left by the plate be filled in.11
One occurrence that has perhaps attracted the most interest to the idea of formative causation is the renown and somewhat apocryphal "hundredth monkey effect." Apparently, scientists studying an isolated group of monkeys on an island off the coast of Japan had been dropping sweet potatoes on the sandy beach for the animals to eat. The monkeys found the sand clinging to the food difficult to remove, until one enterprising young female hit on the idea of carrying the potatoes to a nearby stream and washing them off. Other monkeys then began to imitate the behavior they observed being performed by their neighbors.
Six years later, it was observed that "all the juveniles were washing dirty food, but the only adults over five years old" that did had learned it by imitating their offspring. In the meantime, the original innovative female had discovered that the sweet potatoes tasted even better rinsed in ocean salt water. But then the observers noted something quite peculiar. Almost spontaneously, all the members of the monkey community suddenly adopted the behavior; even more intriguing, the behavior "seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously... in colonies on other islands and on the mainland.12
What-happened here? "Let us say," the researcher continues, "that the number of monkeys who had learned the behavior in the customary way was ninety-nine," but "at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning, one further convert was added to the fold. The addition of the hundredth monkey apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass." Once this critical mass was reached, the behavior became psychic community property, and all members of the species had access to it.13
Formative causation explains this by saying that each newly developed behavior or skill establishes a morphic field. Every time the activity is repeated, it reinforces the field. When the behavior of an individual of a species—which is already closely related to others of the same species—enters the proximity of the established morphic field, the individual "taps in" unawares to the field, and executes its own individual approximation of the behavior, much like a subroutine in computer programming.
Sheldrake is fond of citing one of the most extensive behavioral psychological experiments ever conducted to illustrate his point. The experiment covered many generations, and involved literally thousands of rats and their descendants. It’s object was to determine how well and how quickly the rats of succeeding generations could learn to negotiate a water maze in an effort to assess if learning could be passed on genetically. Only the slowest learning rats were bred for use throughout subsequent generations, yet some twenty generations into the experiment the rats were learning more than ten times faster than the original animals.
More remarkable still, when untrained rats from the control group were periodically tested, they demonstrated the same increase in learning speed. Though the perplexing results would not support the original hypothesis of genetic learning, they nevertheless caused a great stir in the psychological community. One of the original researcher’s critics repeated the experiment with rats totally un-related to the first batch. He was astonished to discover that his rats began learning at a rate approximating that where the first researcher’s rats had left off. A third researcher then embarked on an even more ambitious version of the experiment, continuing his experiment for twenty-five years, involving fifty generations of rats—and reported the same result. He also had a line of control rats; they, too, exhibited accelerated learning for no discoverable reason. 14
An obvious question is whether a similar phenomenon occurs with humans. Remember, the basic idea is that once a certain threshold or *"critical mass of individuals masters a new skill, it is suddenly easier for all the other members of that species to master it as well. In fact, it seems that the skill or knowledge so acquired may often be learned without contact with others who know it. An example: suppose someone were to invent a gadget that required a certain peculiar dexterity to make it work. The first hundreds or thousands of people learning to use it would take a certain average amount of time and effort to achieve mastery. Once the threshold—whatever number that might be—of people having learned the skill is reached, however, it suddenly becomes part of some ethereal "institutional memory" of humanity, and those who learn it afterwards learn it more quickly and easily; and it is not necessary that they be in contact with someone who has already learned it to acquire it.
We already have a possible example of this: Rubik’s Cube. When first introduced, it seemed to take people hours to master it, and a specific amount of time to solve it even once it had been learned. By the time, however, that it had reached the status of a gigantic national fetish, a competent individual could learn to solve it quite rapidly, with well-skilled persons able to work it through from beginning to end in only a minute or two.
Formative causation may explain such diverse phenomena as jokes or fads that seem to spread from one end of the country to the other virtually instantaneously; or amazingly parallel cultural institutions in societies widely separated by geography or time; or ideas, discoveries or inventions suddenly developed by different people in different places around the world with little or no contact or influence having been possible between them (this explains how both we and the Russians could claim to have invented the airplane at the same time).
We could, of course, speculate variously as to how it all works. Sheldrake himself suggests a potential tie-in with C.J. Jung’s long controversial idea of the "collective unconscious."15 Freud suggested that the unconscious was strictly "personal"—that is, it was a closed "container" that could only be accessed by the person’s own consciousness, and therefore its only contents were what had been passed down to it from the person’s conscious awareness itself.
Jung, on the other hand, maintained that there was much material that emerged from the subconscious in psychoanalysis that could not be accounted for solely on the basis of its having been wittingly or unwittingly deposited from conscious into unconscious. Me proposed a human psychic makeup consisting on the upper level of the personal consciousness; on the next level of the personal unconscious, the contents of which do indeed contain things passed to it from above the liminal threshold; and, at the deepest level, the collective unconscious, which contains inherited memories and patterns that are identical in all humans. These contents are represented by "archetypes"—images, patterns and symbols—whose implications stem from the very earliest times of human consciousness, and are held in common by all humanity.16
"Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious" notes Sheldrake, "simply does not make sense in the context of the mechanistic theory of life." It is "consequently. . .not taken seriously within the current scientific orthodoxy," since even if we could accept that "the myths of, say, a Yoruba tribe could somehow become coded in their genes and their archetypal structure be inherited by subsequent members of the tribe, this would not explain how a Swiss person could have a dream that seemed to arise from the same archetype. " It does, however, make "very good sense in the light of the hypothesis of formative causation."17
As far as it goes, the Jungian collective unconscious fits in well with Sheldrake’s theory. But note that as a hereditary artifact, the collective unconscious is a closed and "nonprogrammable" system. By implication, Jung’s hypothesis demands that once a person is born, he has with him all the collective memories he will ever have. This does not fit altogether comfortably with the concept of formative causation. By definition, morphic fields are dynamic and evolving; since they are not bound by the physical constraints of matter and time in eliciting their effect, and, since they are dependent upon genetic constraints only indirectly for "tuning," they could very well continue to change and convey information to levels of human consciousness throughout a lifetime. A collective unconscious existing as a morphic field could not be the closed system Jung envisioned.
Jung’s ideas become most useful when we synthesize certain parts of the collective unconscious hypothesis with those of Sheldrakes’s formative causation. In fusion, these two produce something strikingly akin to a third metaphysical idea that has been floating around for a long while—the concept of the cosmic unconscious. There are a variety of different conceptual variations of this idea, and elements of it can even be traced back into such diverse traditions as Gnosticism and Oriental religious philosophy.
The model I shall use here begins much as Jung’s does, with a personal conscious and unconscious, but with a cosmic collective unconscious located "beneath" both (if we can even coherently talk of "above" and "beneath" regarding something that may involve no dimensions whatsoever as we understand them). This cosmic unconscious differs from the collective unconscious in that it is a dynamic, always-developing, interlinking construct that joins all humans at a level far below what we can have access from our conscious state (perhaps "beyond the veil" in LDS terminology). We communicate on this level without the necessity of speech or any other physical mechanism. Our personal conscious and unconscious makes us undeniably individuals; but this cosmic unconscious that perhaps connects each of us as well to the rest of humanity may be the all-encompassing Oneness, the manifestation of literal spiritual unity, so often referred to in ancient mystical traditions—to include Christianity.
This notion of corporateness-in-individuality is notoriously difficult to grasp, used as we are to seeing each other in the material world as identifiably separate entities. Imagine, if you will, a hand immersed in a still pool of milk or other opaque liquid with the first two joints of the fingers projecting above the surface. To a person observing the scene, it appears that there are four separate fingers and a thumb standing on end on a surface. If one could see into the liquid, however, it would be suddenly apparent that each of the projecting fingers was part of a larger corporate entity. The fingers are all individual to be sure, capable to a significant degree of individual movement; but they remain inseparably connected to the larger whole, and if severed would die. The projecting two joints of each finger could be taken to represent the personal conscious and unconscious, while the rest of the hand would be synonymous with the cosmic unconscious. The surface of the liquid is figurative for the veil separating person from corporate whole. This analogy evokes remarkably Paul’s discussion of the Church as a body having need of all its members.18
With this understanding, we can now explore the effect of formative causation on the collective human mentality. Each person possesses a certain awareness as he develops a knowledge or ability; and as we know from the ideas of Freudian and Jungian psychology, as well as our own individual experience with inspiration, intuition and dreams, the liminal barrier between the conscious and the unconscious is not impermeable—not "water tight," if you will. The essence of the skill or knowledge acquired percolates also down into the individual’s unconsciousness, and from there passes on to become accessible to the cosmic unconscious.
When enough individuals have filled their own "unconscious reservoirs," and the "Cosmic Unconscious" (morphic field?) has a high enough "level" of this skill/knowledge "energy," then it may develop enough power to project some essence of this awareness up into the personal unconscious and eventually even personal consciousness of other individuals—rising, perhaps, in a sense somewhat analogous to water in an artesian well, to a level within reach of the remaining individuals not yet having overtly encountered the skill or knowledge.
When these people are subsequently exposed to the particular item of interest, the cumulative unconscious experience of all those who have gone before is readily available, and the skill or knowledge is correspondingly more quickly and effortlessly obtained, if it isn’t acquired altogether spontaneously.
As mentioned earlier, Sheldrake proposes various experiments that should produce specific predicted results if his model is accurate. As added encouragement, Sheldrake’s publisher, among others, offered cash prizes totaling over $16,000 for anyone who could construct an experiment that would successfully show an effect predictable through formative causation.
In 1986, the prizes were awarded. The winning experiments explored the idea that people should be able to learn a skill that had been learned by many people in the past (hence possessing a pronounced morphic field) much more rapidly than a skill that had been invented for the experiment and whose morphic field was to all intents and purposes non-existent. As just one example, an experimenter taught subjects either Morse code or another code similar to Morse but invented just for the experiment. With all the people that had learned Morse over the last century and a half, it should manifest a strong morphic field, while the new code should lack such a pronounced field, and thus be harder to learn. As predicted, Morse did indeed prove easier to learn—but much more so for the first group than for subsequent groups, a result which in itself has implications for Sheldrakes’ hypothesis. 19
Though formative causation has led a controversial existence in the scientific community, others have been quick to see its implications. Peace-movement activists recognized early the possibilities of the idea. They reasoned that if enough people could be induced to believe that peace and nuclear disarmament were indeed possible, then when the morphic "critical mass" was reached, attaining peace could suddenly become a reality throughout the world. Trying to achieve "critical mass" played a role in the idea of the Harmonic Convergence event of 1987.20
With the forgoing as a foundation, we can now begin to explore the implications of formative causation for LDS doctrine.
THE SPIRIT AND THE BODY AS THE SOUL OF MAN
Doctrinally, an individual is composed of a physical body and spiritual body that have in some inexplicable way been joined together for the duration of life on earth. The spirit body is as tangible in its own sphere as is the physical, yet "more fine or pure." I presume this to mean that our spirit interacts with our physical from outside our three/four dimensional realm—from some other dimension, if you will.21
Further, our spirit body resembles in most particulars our physical body and in some undefined way influences or controls it. Yet, by definition a spirit can have no direct impact on the physical world. If indeed it is a matter of dimensions, a mere spirit would logically find it difficult or impossible to extend direct influence outside its own dimensional milieu into another. How then can a spirit and a physical body be bound together, and how is it that the spirit can exercise any control whatsoever on the physical?
Formative causation provides a possible explanation. Sheldrake describes the morphic fields governing organisms as "nested hierarchies"—one all-encompassing morphic field for the overall gestalt of the organism, sub-fields for organs, sub-sub fields for organelles, and so on down to cellular, molecular, and even atomic levels. These nested fields he refers to as "holons"—a term invented by Arthur Koestler to describe a whole containing parts that in themselves are wholes containing parts which themselves are wholes, and so on (The parallel with D&C 88:37 is unmistakable—"there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom. " The recently developed mathematical concepts of fractals are also interesting in this context.)22
Essentially, each process and each structure within the body has a morphic field that controls its form and its function, all organized within a "macro- morphic" field that conserves the overall gestalt of the individual. (Recall here that each of these fields operates irrespective of constraints imposed either by time or space—morphic fields must quite literally operate from outside our normal dimensional frame.) The morphic field of each molecule or cell must be relatively weak with respect to controlling one small packet of matter in the physical world. But in the aggregate (when magnified millions of times by the interconnecting fields of the millions of cells within the body) the field/energy/force available to exert influence across a dimensional interface must be considerable; certainly enough to coherently manipulate a complete physical body.
To help understand this better, just think of the simple but mysterious grade school experiment where iron filings are dumped on a sheet of paper, and then are magically organized into recognizable whorls, lines and spaces when a magnet is introduced to the back side of the apparently substantial paper barrier.
THE KINGDOM LIKE A ROLLING STONE
Since the restoration of the Church in this dispensation the scripture in Daniel has been a guiding theme—the idea that the Kingdom will roll forth to gather size and strength until it "fills the whole earth." Formative causation suggests a very plausible mechanism by which this might occur. According to the theory, as people acquire knowledge and understanding of the Gospel they begin to create a morphic field. Then, when that certain critical mass is reached, there will be an explosion of conversions to the Church. People will be easier to teach, more receptive to the Spirit, and more willing to accept the doctrines and truths. That first critical mass may well already have been achieved; but I suspect that there may be several such stages or points of critical mass as the Church is introduced to ever greater numbers of people.
It is quite possible that in the not-too-distant future we may expect to see sudden, dramatic spurts in Church growth that can’t directly be explained by numbers of missionaries in the field or newly introduced member-missionary programs.23
RITES, RITUAL AND REPETITION
There are other areas of the Gospel where Sheldrake may fit: the idea behind enough people with enough faith being able to bring about great spiritual things (i.e., praying for the opening of lands now closed to missionaries). That idea directly suggests the prayer circle at the temple. Its very structure and format would seem to encourage the creation of a small but very efficient morphic field that could in some way conceivably help the things prayed for actually to come about. But there are other connections with the temple besides this.
Rituals, despite a general lack of them (at least in the "outward" Church) play an important role in LDS theology. The temple, of course, is the predominant seat of ritual and ceremony in the Church; and a significant aspect of the ritual there is to bind us to our ancestors who have preceded us both in life and death. "Many rituals," Sheldrake explains, "are associated with stories of origins that tell of the original act that the ritual commemorates "—obvious implications here for the story of the Creation as portrayed in the temple—"the original passover in Egypt. . .the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples on the eve of his sacrifice on the cross. . .Other rituals, such as those of birth, marriage, and death, concern the passage from one state of being to another. But all, through their very repetition, in some sense connect the present with the past.
After commenting that Mankind seems to have "a need or appetite for the past which rituals help to satisfy," he goes on to quote Levi-Strauss: "Thanks to ritual, the ‘disjointed’ past of myth is expressed, on the one hand, through biological and seasonal periodicity and, on the other, through the ‘conjoined’ past, which unites from generation to generation the living and the dead."
A possible role of morphic fields becomes suddenly apparent here. Mormons believe that the ceremonies and rituals practiced today both in the outward Church and in the temple are literal restorations of the same practices that existed in the primitive Church, as well as among those prophets and their followers to whom these rituals had been revealed since the days of Adam. If this is truly the case, then by practicing these same ritual forms we unite in morphic resonance with those of our spiritual ancestors, experiencing spiritual harmony not only with those presently around, but literally connecting with the Lord’s people through every millennium.
Suddenly, the importance of accurate format takes on great significance as the tuning mechanism to put us in touch with those before, since the more closely something resembles similar things in the past, the stronger the morphic field. Baptism as a symbol and an initiatory rite takes on new dimensions; and in Baptism for the Dead we recognize a new efficacy never apprehended before. Through morphic resonance, rituals really can bring the past into the present. *"The greater the similarity between the way the ritual is done now and the way it was done before, the stronger the resonant connection between the past and present performers of the ritual."24
This same connection shows us the importance that the Church be restored as closely as possible to its original form as Christ himself established it at the Meridian of Time. The more nearly today’s church resembles its ancient form, i.e. , with twelve Apostles, Prophet, bishops, Seventies, etc., the more it may partake of the power and dynamics inherent in the form as Christ introduced it.
PREEXISTENCE AND SPIRITUAL CREATION
Sheldrake talks extensively of morphic fields that are already organized or are developed because of some proximate and identifiable cause. But he confesses that he is just as baffled as anyone by where and how the originals—the "archetypal" fields, to borrow a term from Jung—originated.
"Fields of new kinds of organisms must somehow come into being for the first time. Where do they come from?" Sheldrake asks. Maybe not from anywhere, he suggests, or maybe they are created by some "’higher’ field." They may even "represent a manifestation of pre-existing archetypes" which, until their physical manifestations appear, are "entirely transcendent. " The implications here for the idea of a preexistence and spirit creation as described in the Book of Abraham and other doctrinal sources are readily apparent.
In exploring the possible scope of morphic resonance, he extends it even further, to galactic proportions (since by definition there is no reason why there may not exist morphic fields of that scale). "Our own planetary system may not be unique; " he comments. "And if there are others like it, then the field of ours may be influenced by morphic resonance from them, and vice versa. . . . If such planets exist, Earth may be following a developmental pathway that is already established and stabilized by morphic resonance. . . " Mormons will recognize a familiar echo, about things happening on Earth similarly to how they did on "worlds heretofore.
Perhaps the most dramatic and profound implications of formative causation as applied to LDS doctrine come in reference to the process of the Atonement. I have always felt a disconnect when dealing with the topic in the past. Whenever it’s discussed in a Church setting (which is virtually the only place it is discussed), the disclaimer is always added that "the atonement happened in some way we can’t understand." 25 Perhaps that is true; still, considering it in light of Sheldrake’s hypothesis may help us improve our understanding of something that by doctrinal definition has to be the most significant event in human history.26 First, we must recall some of the key elements of what occurred.
Mormonism is unusual in believing that a major element of the Atonement took place during Christ’s sojourn in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his trial. In some spiritual sense Christ "descended below all things," (D&C 88:6; 122:8) suffering all the anguish for all the sins that any human had or would commit, a task which neither a mere mortal nor a god could undertake. It had to be someone who was a fusion of both—someone at the junction point where the physical and spiritual universes converge—someone who was both God and Man.
Next we must remember that, though like us He must have learned at least somewhat "line upon line, precept upon precept,"27 we must assume that towards the end of his ministry Christ had either been granted or had acquired for himself virtually full access behind the Veil, at least to the extent the mortal part of his nature would allow (Perhaps the Mount of Transfiguration represented the culmination of that process).
Finally, we must keep in mind that according to Church doctrine, suffering for sins occurs in a spiritual-emotional sense, not the physical burnings imagined by some of the more archaic sectarian theologies. This suffering must be in some sense a powerful and acute mixture of sorrow in the recognition of having fallen short of the requirements for eternal life, loneliness for being excluded from the presence and spirit of God, a sense of failure, and perhaps even embarrassment at having personal shortcomings become manifest for all to see.
All of us having experienced at least touches of this ourselves in some degree or other already in our lives, we can somewhat imagine what this suffering must be like; but we can also recognize that the true extremes of anguish one might potentially experience cannot fully be described in words. Even more, it is likely that our physical/emotional natures impose some limits in this life on how deeply and fully we can feel suffering for sin—there is just so much the organism can tolerate. However, such limitations may well disappear in the spirit-realm (hinted at by Alma’s statement "there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains"28) , probably to a point not even remotely describable in earthly terms. Since each of us has a certain "burden of sin" (or would have, if it weren’t for the Atonement), if these tremendous feelings of anguish should accumulate and compound themselves in the Cosmic Unconscious through some sort of Sheldrakean mechanism, then imagine the indescribable reservoir of spiritual and emotional anguish that Christ would have taken upon himself.
Now, if this concept of Cosmic Unconscious is correct, then when we as human beings relate spiritually on a level outside physical consciousness, we share not only our thoughts but also our emotions essentially without hindrance. Individuality doesn’t cease to exist, but what does happen is something akin to a perpetual spiritual "conference call"—or, perhaps even better described, the networking of individual computer terminals. Barriers to our understanding one another and our innermost motivations and intentions are non-existent. Another important note to make is that as "all things are present" with God (Moses 1:6), apparently implying that past, future and present are right there before him (see also D&C 88:41), then time either does not exist at that point or is irrelevant. And it is just as likely that time is irrelevant in the cosmic unconscious as well (as in fact time may be irrelevant to morphic fields29). It is as if everything is happening all at once.
Having explored the preceding material, we may now briefly discuss its implications for the Atonement. Christ, the unique fusion of god and mortal, with full access behind the veil normally separating humans from direct knowledge of the spiritual universe, accepted this mission of "descending" fully and consciously into what I have thus far often called the "Cosmic Unconsciousness." Here, because of the absence of the aforementioned barriers, He was able to experience, understand, accept, and then comfort and heal the sin- caused suffering for each individual in His (Christ’s) created universe. The "Mortal" part of his nature made it possible to comprehend and empathize with each of our sufferings—allowed him to be aware of it at our level. The "God" part of him gave him the strength and perspective to endure it. The probability that past, present, and future exist simultaneously allowed him to atone for those who had gone before just as thoroughly as for those who were yet to come.
One sobering thought emerges: based on our understanding of "intelligence" and "intelligences," we as Mormons realize that our basic identities, our awareness of being "I," is as eternal as God. We cannot reasonably cease to exist as self-aware beings, no matter what our outer spiritual or physical consistency. Not even sons of perdition, cast into outer darkness, lose that sense of identity. Nevertheless, to be as immersed in the Cosmic Unconscious as Christ was—to become so intimately and excruciatingly connected with billions of individuals in such compressed circumstances—could conceivably have brought Him to the verge of losing His identity—something that no other creature (barring the possibility of other Christs in other universes) ever had, has, or will have to experience. In a universe where not even energy or matter can totally lose its identity, that is the ultimate sacrifice. And he was willing to make it. The implications of this are profound.
As Hyrum Andrus says, "the fact that blood came from every pore of the Savior’s body. . .evidences an inner agony, pain, and sorrow that mortal man can but little comprehend or appreciate. Further, he summarizes Brigham Young: "The darkening and deteriorating powers of spiritual death then weighed so heavily upon Jesus and produced such anguish and pain that the normal functions of His body were critically disrupted, and blood came from every pore," due to "the withdrawal of God’s spiritual powers of light and life" so that His Son could carry out the terms of the Atonement. This hints that Christ at least faced the potential for bodily dissolution in Gethsemane. And if Christ had the power of life within him, as LDS doctrine maintains, this suggests that He was not just in danger of physical disintegration, but perhaps spiritual as well.30
As long as I can recall, the Biblical story of Abraham’s near- sacrifice of Isaac has been held up as a symbol and foreshadowing of God’s sacrifice of his Son, a sacrifice that was not forestalled by any angel as was the case with Isaac. It has always seemed an imperfect analogy—in Abraham’s case, he truly thought he was about to lose his cherished son by his own hand. Physical death, on the other hand, must seem to God to be virtually insignificant. In fact, he logically should have anticipated with joy His Son’s death as the opportunity for them to be reunited. The parallel between God and Abraham just isn’t there—unless God, too, fully expected to lose His son as a result of the Atonement.
Tied in as it is with Adam’s commandment at the beginning of human history to sacrifice in "similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten,"31 and the sacrifices later prescribed under the Law of Moses, the symbology of Isaac’s near-sacrifice suddenly fits perfectly into the pattern that finally culminated in the Atonement and Crucifixion. Of course, this has some important implications regarding God’s omniscience, with the further suggestion that there was a power above him testing him as he had tested Abraham—both topics meriting further discussion but which cannot be adequately treated here.
There is at least one other aspect to the Atonement that should be considered here. Crucifixion is often described as the most excruciating death imaginable, and that Christ suffered more physically because of it than any other human being. This is difficult to accept, considering that he died even before the two others crucified with him; that thousands of other people have been put to death in almost identical fashion, and that other possible ways of death would seem to be potentially worse. Nevertheless, it still seems important for Christ to have experienced the worst death that could happen to anyone. If he did not, then someone could always say, "You can’t judge what I did because you can’t understand what I went through." However, by his experience in the Cosmic Unconscious Christ would also have experienced in a very personal and intimate way every death that had ever or could ever occur, and would implicitly and completely understand what anyone and everyone would have suffered as well. He would indeed have "descended below all things," so that He could bring us up above all things, if we would only accept that help.
The theory of morphogenetics, is of course, just another secular attempt at explaining a part of the universe we don’t fully yet understand. Some might even condemn it as an attempt to "explain away" spiritual things in a scientific way. Perhaps we should look at it a little differently than that. To me, it’s better considered as someone observing the physical workings of spiritual principles and trying to explain them in terms they can understand based on their still limited knowledge of the cosmos. In the spirit of the 13th Article of Faith we know that truth—even spiritual truth—can come to us through other channels than just the scriptures, the Church teachings, or revelation through the prophets. Indeed, leaders of the Church have taught that people like Edison, Einstein, Bell, etc. were inspired to invent, describe and discover the things they did for the benefit of the Kingdom, often totally unawares of the source of their inspiration. Perhaps we should add Sheldrake to the list.
If exploring formative causation from an LDS-doctrinal view can give us insight into such things as why the fellowship of Saints can be so strengthening; why emulating Christ as an example can be so powerful; why it seems that enough faith can literally change reality (Enoch in the Pearl of Great Price); and why the Lord can tell us that if we believe strongly enough, so shall it be (Mark 9:23); then to my mind, at least, looking into Rupert Sheldrake’s ideas could well be worth the trouble.
- New Scientist, 90 (1256), June 18, 1981, as quoted in Brain/Mind Bulletin, 6 (13), August 3, 1981.
- Rupert Sheldrake, Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance
and the Habits of Nature, (New York: Times Books), 1988. p. 86. Emphasis added.
- Daniel Drasin, "Interview: Rupert Sheldrake, Ph.D." New Realities, 5 (5), December, 1983, p. 8.
- Brain/Mind Bulletin, August 3, 1981, p. 1.
- Drasin, 1983, p. 13.
- Rupert Sheldrake, "Rupert Sheldrake’s Hidden Force," Science Digest, October 1981, p. 54.
- Sheldrake, 1988, p. 80.
- Sheldrake, 1988, pp. 79-80.
- Sheldrake, 1988, p. 76.
- Sheldrake, 1988, p. 78.
- Sheldrake, 1988, pp. 230-231.
- Drasin, New Realities, p. 13; and Sheldrake, Science Digest, p. 57. Quotes taken from the Science Digest article are from Lyall Watson, Lifetide,(New York: Simon & Schuster), 1979.
- Drasin, 1983, p. 13.
- Sheldrake, 1988, pp. 250-253.
- C.J. Jung, "The Concept of the Collective Unconscious," and "Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious," in The Collected Works of C.J. Jung, Vol 9, Part 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 3-53.
- Sheldrake, 1988, p. 251.
- 1 Corinthians 12:12-27
- Michael Kernan, "Is Learning Contagious? The Startling
Theory of Rupert Sheldrake," The Washington Post, July 9, 1986, pp. B1 and B11; and "Tarrytown
ceremony awards *16,500 to winners of Sheldrake competition," Brain/Mind Bulletin, vol. 11, no.
12 (July 7, 1986), pp. 1-2.
- Of course, what the activists fail to take into account in
their striving for the "hundredth monkey" is that the pressures for violence, militarism, and
the desire for national self-preservation (often to absurd degrees) may currently generate a
morphic field far more potent than any that can be created by rallies and Greenpeace commandos.
Yet, who knows—if they work at it gradually but determinably enough, perhaps they will manage
to change enough attitudes to achieve some semblance of true peace.
- D&C 77:2; D&C 88:15; D&C 93:3; D&C 129; D&C 131:7-8. For an intriguing discussion of dimensionality as it impacts on human consciousness, see Samuel C. McClaughlin, "Dimensionality and States of Consciousness," in B. Wolman and M. Ullman (eds.) Handbook of States of Consciousness (New York: Van Nostrand and Rheinhold Co.), 1986; for an exploration of how dimensionality impacts on Mormon doctrine, see Robert P. Burton and Bruce F. Webster, "Some Thoughts on Higher Dimensional Realms, " Brigham Young University Studies, vol. 20, no. 3 (Spring 1980), pp. 281- 296.
- Sheldrake, 1988, pp. 94-96, 120.
- We must consider here a problem similar to that of the peace movement’s attempts to invoke the "hundredth monkey" (note 20). What about all the countervailing morphic fields out there that might work against the Church’s own evolving morphic field’?
In fact, the problem doesn’t exist in the same way that it does for the peace-movement: there isn’t a countervailing morphogenetic field—or, rather, there are so many of them that they tend to cancel each other out. It is axiomatic in military combat situations that, given equivalence in weapons capabilities, logistics, intelligence, and communications, a small, excellently trained and organized combat force will inevitably defeat a larger one that is less well organized and trained. The Israelis have demonstrated this repeatedly.
Such a situation exists in the religio-philosophic world today.
Thousands of competing religious systems, political and philosophical ideologies, and secular
and spiritual world views exist. None seem as well organized or tightly-knit as the LDS Church.
The others, in effect, cancel each other out with their competition, weakening their potential
to produce morphic fields through relative looseness of organization or comparative laxness or
lack of direction in their philosophies.
The LDS Church has often been criticized for its "excessive"
structure, order, and intensity, being seen as aloof or elitist in attitude. What critics and
Mormons alike do not realize is that the Lord may well be cultivating or "channeling" our power
and energy, which has the effect of setting up just the sort of religious morphic field needed
to accomplish His goals in physical existence. As full and selfless an individual and
organizational commitment as possible is essential for success; and while other movements have
either the individual or the organizational commitment, none come to mind that have both.
- Sheldrake, 1988, pp. 258-260.
- In the course of researching this article, I discovered I
was not alone in my feelings about this. See J. Clair Batty, "The Atonement: Do Traditional
Explanations Make Sense?" Sunstone, vol. 8, no. 6 (November/December 1983), pp. 11-16.
- Some LDS members will argue that we are dealing here with a
"mystery," and that we shouldn’t delve into it. I would respond by noting that if we seriously
believe the atonement to be so extremely important to our salvation, trying to understand all
we can about It not only makes eminent sense, but may even be a duty. Saying we don’t need to
understand any more about it sounds suspiciously like those passages in the Book of Mormon that
talk about not needing "another Bible."
- D&C 98:12; Hebrews 5:8.
- Alma 36:21; much of Chapter 36 of Alma is relevant to this point.
- Drasin, 1983, p. 12.
- Hyrum Andrus, God, Man and Universe, Vol. I (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968), p. 418.
- Moses 5:5-8
- Andrus, Hyrum, God, Man and
Universe, Vol. I (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968).
- Batty, J. Clair, "The Atonement: Do Traditional Explanations
Make Sense?" Sunstone, vol. 8, no. 6 (Nov-Dec 1983) pp. 11-16.
- Brain/Mind Bulletin (entire issue), vol. 6, no. 3, (August ~?
- Burton, Robert P. , and Webster, Bruce F. "Some Thoughts on
Higher Dimensional Realms." Brigham Young University Studies, vol. 2O, no. 3 (Spring 1980), pp.
- Drasin, Daniel. "Interview: Rupert Sheldrake, PH.D." New
Realities, vol. V, no. 5, (December 1983), pp. 8-15, 54-55.
- Jung, C.J., "The Concept of the Collective Unconscious," and
"Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious," in The Collected Works of C.J. Jung, Vol 9, Part 1
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 3-53.
- Kernan, Michael. "Is Learning Contagious? The Startling
Theory of Rupert Sheldrake." The Washington Post, July 9, 1985, pp. B1, B11.
- McClaughlin, Samuel C. "Dimensionality and States of
Consciousness." from Wolman, B. and Ullman, M. (eds) Handbook of States of Consciousness (New
York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1986).
- "Morse Code Experiment Supports M-field Theory." Brain/Mind
Bulletin, vol. 10, no. 12 (July 8, 1985), p. 1.
- Ouspensky, P.D. Tertium Organum (New York: Knopf, 1981) 298
- Sheldrake, Rupert. A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of
Formative Causation (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1981) 229 pp.
- _________ "Rupert Sheldrake’s Hidden Force." Science Digest,
October 1981, pp. 54-57.
- Sheldrake, Rupert. The Presence of the Past: Morphic
Resonance and the Habits of Nature, (New York: Times Books, 1988) , 391 pp.
- "Tarrytown Ceremony Awards $16,500 to Winners of
SheldrakeCompetition." Brain/Mind Bulletin, vol. 11, no. 12 (July 7, 1986) , pp. 1-2.
- Woodbury, Joyce N., "Christ’s Atoning Sacrifice: The Role of
the Crucifixion," Sunstone, vol. 8, no. 6 (Nov-Dec 1983) pp. 17-21.
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