I met pioneering biologist Rupert Sheldrake the night he and theologian Matthew Fox celebrated the publication of their new collection of dialogues, The Physics of Angels
. I knew that Sheldrake was not afraid to challenge orthodoxy by entering realms of thought usually eschewed by other scientists. A former Research Fellow of the Royal Society and former Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology at Clare College, Cambridge University, his most unorthodox work is not easily dismissed, even by his more traditional peers. His first major book, the controversial A New Science of Life
, published in 1981, was called "the best candidate for burning there has been in years" by the prominent scientific journal Nature
, but was simultaneously praised by the equally well-respected New Scientist
as "an important scientific inquiry into the nature of biological and physical reality." His work ever since has been notable for its revolutionary attempt to foster an awareness of the intelligent and living quality of what we often view as "brute nature," for trying to heal the Cartesian split between the physical and the mental, and for adventurously crossing the well-guarded boundary between the worlds of science and spirituality. Still, I wondered how far a scientist could go before he had truly left science's legitimate domain. Angels? Surely this must be a whimsical metaphor for something more rational, more in line with modernity, more, well, material.
Speaking with Sheldrake showed me I was wrong, in part. His belief in the possibility
of the existence of angels, or of intelligences operating in the universe that are greater than our own, is not metaphorical. Nor is it tinged with the wishful fantasy that pervades so much of New Age spirituality. Instead, it is the latest exploration of a visionary thinker who is unafraid to take the immense risks that go with entering the territory of the unknown.
In our conversation, Rupert Sheldrake revealed himself to be not only an innovative scientist but also a man of impressive erudition in many other fields of learning, and one whose scientific and philosophical investigation is fueled by a passionate concern for all of life. While some of his theories may seem more fanciful than factual, blurring the line between science and science fiction, speaking with him was a mind-expanding journey that had me, a few nights later, staring into a starry sky and wondering, despite myself, if there was someone or something out there staring back. And, more significant for our investigation of the relationship between scientific exploration and enlightenment, Rupert Sheldrake showed a quality that is rare in men of his intelligence and breadth of knowledge—a pervasive humility and respect for what is not known and for that which it may never be possible for the intellect to grasp.