An interview with B. Alan Wallace (Columbia University Press)

The following is an interview with BAlan Wallace, most recently the author of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic.

The original article appears here at Columbia University Press.

The following is an interview with B. Alan Wallace, most recently the author of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice and Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity. Both books are now available in paperback:

Question: You write that the mind has been artificially excluded from the natural world and that you, following the radically empirical lead of William James, are seeking to return it to the world of nature, where it belongs. How did this exclusion of the mind and first-persona experience come about?

B. Alan Wallace: Since the origins of experimental psychology 135 years ago, many scientists and philosophers have sought to explain the relation between subjective experience and the correlated objective processes in the brain. This has been called the “hard problem of consciousness,” and despite all the advances made in the cognitive sciences, this issue remains a mystery. The underlying issue is the “closure principle,” which has dominated the natural sciences since the mid-19th century, and which asserts that there are no nonphysical influences in nature. This immediately implies that the mind—including our perceptions, intentions, thoughts, and emotions—must either be physical (contrary to all empirical evidence) or it must exert no consequences in human life or the universe at large, which is contrary to common sense. Many materialists argue that mental processes are identical to or are nothing more than functions of their neural correlates, while others dogmatically propose that consciousness and all kinds of subjective experiences don’t really exist at all! Although many materialistic theories of the mind-body relationship have been proposed, none of them lend themselves to scientific verification or repudiation, so they are merely hypotheses or speculations, not scientific theories. And they are certainly not scientifically established facts, despite the fact that the scientific and popular media commonly equate the mind and brain, without any compelling reasoning or empirical evidence.

Q: Does this reductionist approach to the mind and consciousness have ramifications for other branches of the natural science?

BAW: A core problem that has remained unresolved over the past 90 years is the so-called “measurement problem” in quantum mechanics, which has to do with the relationship between the weird qualities the quantum realm, in which physical entities exist only in relation to their being measured, and the world of classical physics, in which the objective world appears to exist independently of all measurements. Before a quantum measurement takes place, that which is about to be measured exists only as a probability wave function. But once the measurement occurs, the wave function appears to collapse, and a physical system exists in a definite state. But what constitutes a “measurement”? Does this require a conscious observer, or can it take place objectively? In short, the problem remains unsolved, and there is little evidence that any real progress is being made.

While many scientists and philosophers regard these two problems as being unrelated, in my last three academic books I argue that they are profoundly related and that a solution for one implies a solution for the other. I have addressed these entangled problems in Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and ConsciousnessMind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity, andMeditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice. In these works I have argued that the root of both problems lies in a dogmatic allegiance to the metaphysical beliefs of mechanistic materialism, rooted in the antiquated physics of the 19th century, and in the failure on the part of the scientific community to devise and implement sophisticated methods for observing and exploring the mind and multiple dimensions of consciousness from a first-person perspective.

Q: How might Buddhist theories and methods of first-person, contemplative inquiry shed light on these unresolved problems?

BAW: The weakness of modern science in these two regards is a strength of the Buddhist tradition of philosophical and contemplative inquiry, and in each of the above three works, I explore the potential interface between scientific and contemplative methods of research into the nature and role of consciousness in the universe. A solution to the hard problem of consciousness and the measurement problem of quantum mechanics may be drawn from the revolutionary theory of quantum cosmology, especially as proposed by the eminent theoretical physicist John A. Wheeler. Rather than viewing quantum systems as being isolated from the world of classical physics, Wheeler views the entire cosmos as a quantum system in his theory of quantum cosmology. Semantic information—that is information that has meaningful content—rather than space-time and mass-energy is considered to be fundamental to the universe, hence his motto “its from bits.” If one follows the logic of this hypothesis, it immediately follows that meaningful information is impossible without a conscious subject for whom this information means something and without a “something” that is the referent of the information. So the three—the information, the one who is informed, and that about which one is informed—must be mutually interdependent.

This is a theme that lies at the core of the Middle Way, or Madhyamaka view, of Buddhism. The existence of an objective physical world, independent of measurement, is in principle unknowable, just as is the existence of a subjective, nonphysical mind, independent of a known object. Both subject and object are “empty” of any inherent existence of their own, as all phenomena arise as dependently related events. Both the quantum cosmology of modern physics and the Middle Way view of Buddhism imply the central role of “observer-participancy” in the universe, in which consciousness is every bit as fundamental as space-time and mass-energy.

Copyright © 2013 Columbia University Press

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An interview with B. Alan Wallace