Friday, August 18, 2006

B. Alan Wallace's First Revolution in the Mind Sciences: Where's the beef?

A recent mailing from meditationlist ( gives a link to a video recording of a lecture recently given by B. Alan Wallace at Google Headquarters in Mountain View, CA. (On June 1 I posted a condensation of ideas in his recent book "The Attention Revolution"... also see the brief biography at end of this post).

Wallace argues that John Searles position ( "Mental phenomena are caused by neurophysiological processes in the brain and are themselves features of the brain" ) represents an "Illusion of Knowledge." a modern physicalist resistance to using introspection or accepting discoveries made with it, in favor of focus on behavioral and neural correlates of mental phenomena. He suggests an analogy with medieval theological resistance to Galileo, the refusal to use the telescope or accept discoveries made with it. He thinks that there should be a long delayed revolution in the mind sciences, to finally take up the challenges of William James ("Introspective Observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always..") and Wilhelm Wundt: ("The service which it [the experimental method] can yield consists essentially in perfecting our inner observation...."). He cites the 3,000 year old tradition of awareness training and introspection in Buddhism as one example of an appropriate approach to these goals (and in the discussion period he also mentions, Hindu, native american, and other meditative traditions.)

I'm entirely sympathetic with Wallace's goals and work, but I think that he's setting up a bit of a straw man in his extreme portrayals of physicalists or materialists (many of whom are quite open to any avenue of insight they can find). The problem I think is that his analogy with other scientific revolutions fails on the issue of universality and ability to reproduce basic introspective observations. Galileo's and Darwin's observations and measurements can be reproduced by anyone in any culture having appropriate equipment. In the period after William James' challenge and before the behaviorists' 50+ year death grip on progress in psychology a number of groups pursuing an introspective approach could not agree on many basic observations (Wallace commented on, but did not really address this issue in the discussion period). The introspective and meditative approaches associated with many different cultures and religions don't seem remotely close to yielding a unified introspective description of consciousness and our mental processes that transcends their cultural origins in the way that astronomy and biology do.

Still, I think that the Buddha was the first great human biologist in his astute descriptions of levels of human behavior that corresponds roughly to stages in the biological evolution of our own brains and behavior (see my "Beast Within" essay). The mutual reinforcement of ancient introspective and modern scientific traditions yields some robustness, and perhaps the prospect of an eventual union of materialistic and mentalistic perspectives. Perhaps this will yield the "consciousness meter," analogous to a telescope or microscope, than we are now lacking.

Wallace is president of The Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. He trained for many years as a monk in Buddhist monasteries in India and Switzerland. He has taught Buddhist theory and practice in Europe and America since 1976 and has served as interpreter for numerous Tibetan scholars and contemplatives, including H. H. the Dalai Lama. After graduating summa cum laude from Amherst College, where he studied physics and the philosophy of science, he earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies at Stanford University. He has edited, translated, authored, and contributed to more than thirty books on Tibetan Buddhism, medicine, language, and culture, and the interface between science and religion. Dr. Wallace is a primary contributer to meditation research projects, including the Cultivating Emotional Balance project and the Shamatha project.

Wallace's published works include Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind (Snow Lion, 1996), The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness (Oxford, 2000), Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground (Columbia University Press 2003), Balancing the Mind: A Tibetan Buddhist Approach to Refining Attention (Snow Lion, 2005), and Genuine Happiness: Meditation as the Path to Fulfillment (John Wiley & Sons, 2005)

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