Sep 10, 2009
“Embracing Mind: the Common Ground of Science and Spirituality,” by Wallace, B. Alan & Brian Hodel
Are science and spirituality “non-overlapping magisteria” (as the late Stephen J. Gould put it), or can some overlap indeed be found? B. Alan Wallace, lecturer, scholar, and noted Buddhist practitioner, believes that it’s time for scientists and meditators to team up (and indeed for scientists to become meditators) in order to study the mind from within.
Alan Wallace became a Buddhist monk in the early 1970s, ordained by the Dalai Lama in India. After 14 years of training and retreats, he returned to the US to study physics and the history and philosophy of science. Since then he’s been trying to find meeting points for his two enthusiasms — Buddhism and science — and this book (written with the help of journalist Brian Hodel) is the latest of several grappling with some of the very profound issues that Buddhism and science spark off in each other.
The book is really a plea for science to fully ‘embrace’ mind, and so to be prepared to learn from the profound insights of ‘contemplatives’ (which chiefly means Buddhist meditators), people who have rigorously investigated their own minds. “Buddhism”, Wallace writes, “is concerned with understanding the world of experience, which doesn’t exist without consciousness.” Obvious, I suppose, but somehow this phrase really struck me. For Buddhism, actual human experience is primary. Scientists, however, are eager to describe the secrets of the material universe, and human experience is only the rather suspect tool that they are compelled to make use of in their quest.
Yet scientists had been taking a strong interest in the human mind since the pioneering psychology of William James over a hundred years ago. James had high hopes for introspection as a research instrument, but was thwarted by the chaos and instability that he and his subjects found as they tried to make sense of their inner worlds. So Western scientific psychology abandoned introspection, and attempted to study the mind as an object, something observed by dispassionate scientists, in other people, from the outside.
Wallace wishes to revive William James’s project, using the clarity and stability available in meditative experience, an experimental arena that James was unaware of. How can you hope to understand the mind, he asks, without accepting the validity of the subjective world which it really is? Consciousness is real, and subjectivity is valid.
Wallace sets the scene with a survey of Western scientific attitudes and how they developed, trying to explain how the world of actual experience could have become so devalued. Surprisingly, prevalent Christian attitudes seem to have set science on a materialist course, distrusting consciousness and human intuition. By the 19th century, scientific materialism was well entrenched, and insisted on five principles (page 11).
- Objectivism: the only reality is the material universe outside our minds.
- Realism: scientific laws are there to be discovered that fully describe this reality.
- Closure: only material influences can affect this reality.
- Universalism: the laws we discover are true everywhere.
- Reductionism: everything can be understood in terms of interactions between purely physical things.
You can probably see how taking human experience seriously undermines these comforting principles. Yet Wallace insists that it is worth taking a rigorous scientific approach to understanding the mind and its interaction with the material universe. He calls this approach ‘contemplative science’, a term I think that he coined several books ago, which has become quite popular in the US. Really it is his term for Buddhism, though in this book he makes a half-hearted attempt to extend it to other spiritual disciplines that value introspective experience. Every meditation, in Wallace’s view, is an experiment, a piece of independent research which is assessed by one’s meditation supervisor; then one’s reports are ‘peer-reviewed’ by other meditators, as if they were scientific papers. In this way the superficial and subtle properties of the mind have been discovered by generations of contemplatives. Now it is time for them to combine forces with scientists and their MRI scanners. What are the measurable effects of meditation? What’s going on in the brain and the rest of the body when one enters deep states of awareness? Can the reports of meditators and the psychological framework of Buddhism tell us anything about reality as a whole? (I think they can, though I must say that Wallace’s picture of Buddhist meditation as a piece of scientific research does not convince me.)
Wallace proposes a “science of the world of experience” (page 200) to replace our outmoded model of science excluding subjectivity. Respect the results of introspection, but ensure that your inward-looking scientists are properly trained meditators. Then a much fuller understanding of the mind will be possible.
But could this project go even further, and produce a non-dual science, with a vision of the universe (not just the human mind) that has shaken off the five materialist principles? Wallace thinks it could. He believes that crime and selfishness and new forms of ill-health “dominate modern life” (page 105), partly because scientific materialism gives no incentive for ethical behavior. “To be born for no reason and then be extinguished forever is a disheartening and perplexing picture of human life.” (Page 106) Yet we can espouse “the open-minded, exploratory, unbiased ideals of science” without giving up the miraculous and mysterious. This is in part because the most wonderful mysteries have already been emerging for over a hundred years in the new physics.
In trying to present the strangeness of quantum mechanics and relativity, the new physics, I feel that Wallace has taken a few steps backwards. Do you remember The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, back in 1975? Capra was a good physicist, much better in fact than Wallace, who makes quite a few small errors in his scientific explanations. But he became overexcited by noticing parallels in language between the theories of modern physics and some rather imaginative translations of texts from Daoism, Buddhism and Hinduism. For example, the constant appearing and disappearing of virtual particles was like the dance of Shiva, and the fecund space from which these particles emerged was like the fertile emptiness of Mahayana Buddhism. Similarity turned into equality, and Capra convinced himself that Einstein and the Eastern sages were talking about the same reality. But his parallels were rather crude, and didn’t really stand up to examination. I felt rather surprised that Wallace, a good scholar with a wide reading, revisits many of these parallels in this book.
Most crucially, Wallace believes in the participatory mind. This is his clinching evidence that science’s rejection of subjectivity has to be abandoned because of evidence from the very heart of science itself.
When quantum physicists measure, say, exactly how a particle of light is polarized, the polarization ‘collapses’ from a cloud of possibilities into one actual result. And there is evidence that this collapse is not just a change in the experimenter’s knowledge, but is a real change in the state of the system being measured. Some physicists (and many more non-physicists) have concluded that the consciousness of the observer has interacted with the particle of light, causing it to adopt a definite state of polarization. But this is a controversial and quite problematic position. Really nobody knows how the collapse happens, or what the collapse really means. If the survival of a boxed cat depends upon a measured quantum event, is the consciousness of the cat enough to collapse it, or does it need the experimenter to come along later and open the box, until which time the cat is neither alive or dead? (The Schrodinger’s Cat Paradox.) What if an untrained friend notes down the readings on a quantum physicists’ apparatus — does the collapse happen when he takes his notes, or when the trained physicist reads them? (The Wigner’s Friend Paradox.) And in any case, what are our noble consciousnesses doing interfering with such trivial matters?!
Nevertheless, Wallace is quite right to confront science with the primacy of our human experience, and to confront us with the mystery of the apparent boundary between our inner life and outer reality. We seem to peer out from our inner castle. Science blithely annexes our outer world as we watch impotently. Yet here we are, this is valid, and somewhere the boundary must crumble away.
I hope that more and more Buddhists will sally forth from their castles, and offer fresh visions of the universe in a language that scientists can understand and incorporate. I hope that more scientists will be allowed into the castle of the human mind, exploring it hand in hand with Buddhist meditators, and coming up with intriguing questions, fruitful research projects. These questions need, I think, a viewpoint less entrenched in medieval Tibetan Buddhist psychology than Wallace’s, prepared to question Buddhist ready answers. For example, if we don’t accept the materialist assumption that mind is no more than an electro-chemical fizzing in the wet-ware of computer-like brains, then that means it is conceivable that one’s stream of consciousness was conditioned by other streams before the birth of this body, and may in turn condition new ones after death. So, let’s investigate the effect (say) of in vitro fertilization on the later personality of the child — a child who homed in on such a bizarre beginning would surely be a very different being from one who preferred natural conception (or perhaps not — what do you think?). The Tibetan Book of the Dead does not envisage such a possibility, and its authors did not have the tools of experimental science to hand. We have them, let’s go for it.