Book Matters

book matters
“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Dogs that Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home:

And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals

by Rupert Sheldrake

We’ve been in California for the past week and a half for hybrid purposes: first a conference of the Eric Voegelin Society in Los Angeles at which Jerry and I each gave papers, followed next by four days of treatments for me at the Neuropathic Therapy Center at Loma Linda, CA. 

Each back-to-back turn of this two-fold plot had its own entirely distinct significance and implications – the first of course intellectual and the second obviously physical. Likewise, the impact of each will take time and call for its own separate species of assimilation.

Meantime, en route and at bedtime, I’ve been reading the book whose title you see above, which reports on cases, more readily studied in animal behavior, where mind and body have more influence on each other than is explained by our currently admitted theories.

Rupert Sheldrake is an English biochemist, who has studied philosophy and history of science at Harvard. He’s a Research Fellow of the Royal Society, a member of many scientific societies, a Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology at Clare College, Cambridge in the U.K., and the author of numerous articles as well as four previous books. His books are based on research projects he has conducted, which challenge current orthodoxy regarding living things. What orthodoxy is that? That “living organisms are nothing but complex genetically programmed machines. They are supposed to be [in essence] inanimate, literally soulless.” 

The cover photo of Sheldrake’s latest book, Dogs that Know, etc., shows an expectant-looking dog sitting with his back to us, and his face to the front door. As experimental research reported in this book will show, this may be one of those dogs that knows his owner is about to come home, even though the time of that return deviates from the owner’s ordinary routine and the place from which the owner returns is out of earshot, eyeshot, and smell range. What is more, the owner who will come home has not yet gotten up from his desk, put on his hat or coat, or even put away his tasks for the day. So far, all he has done is silently form the intention to return home. 

The research Sheldrake reports in this book is based on “hundreds of people experienced in dealing with animals,” including “dog trainers, veterans, blind people with guide dogs, zoo keepers, kennel proprietors and people who work with horses.” To this, the research project added two thousand more responses from people reached through public appeals, plus formal surveys “involving random samples” in the U.S. and the U.K. and, lastly, “experimental investigations” designed by Sheldrake.

What’s the upshot? In cases that considerably outdo and outnumber what could be expected under the laws of chance, animals know when their owners are coming home even when habitual patterns, times and sites of origin vary. Where there is a bond between pet and owner, the anticipatory behavior starts when the owner has formed the homecoming intention but has not yet acted on it.

Animals show a sense of homing direction even when setting out from previously unfamiliar starting points.

Animals can foretell events without sensory clues.

I won’t belabor these points or detail the kinds of evidence marshalled. Any reader who is curious is hereby encouraged to check out Sheldrake’s book, with its many fascinating cases and shrewd experimental techniques – carefully designed to rule out the ordinary sorts of explainings-away. 

Since I’ve had at least one distinct, unforgettable and unmistakably precognitive dream, as well as a few visions that, pointedly and correctly, predicted future events, none of this upsets any views, philosophic or other, that I hold or have ever held. Personally, I don’t doubt the reality of telepathy, influence at a distance or precognition. The question this book – with its compelling evidence – raises for me is of another kind.

At present, our culture takes as established the reductionist claims that consciousness has no independent existence apart from the physico-chemical substructure of which it is believed to be composed and on which it is believed to depend. This reductionist and mechanistic view of underlying reality affects, in one degree or another, our theories of psychology, interpersonal relations, aesthetics, painting and sculpture, architecture and political relations. The conception of society as a war of forces – oppressor v. oppressed – derives directly from the view that brute power is the hidden truth of social, cultural and erotic life. There is nothing deliberately cynical or deflationary about these views. How else could our lives be conceived if an underlying war of brute forces is supposed to be the most comprehensive explanatory principle?

My present question is this: what would architecture, city planning, elementary schooling, higher education, social life, courtship and political theory look like if we outgrew our mechanistic metaphysical views?

Cultures rest on what their most knowledgeable strata believe about reality. If Sheldrake’s book is one early indication that our culture’s now-dominant beliefs are about to change, it’s probably time to start visualizing the effects of these changes on the way we live now.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Book Matters

  1. Mary Osborne says:

    Writer, psychiatrist, literary critic Iain McGilchrist, beautifully complements Sheldrake with his books, the Master and the Emissary, and The Matter with Things.Let’s imagine that changes are slowly coming, and the reductionist mechanistic view will be reduced in favor of the more creative and supernatural side of thought and experience. Like you, though, I wonder how we’ll meet that evolving reality.

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