Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What I totally do not get....a new book on consciousness

I've received four emails promoting a new book by B. Alan Wallace, a guy who has been the subject of two previous posts, one a positive review and abstracting of his book "The Attention Revolution," and the other more critical comments on a video presentation titled "Towards the first revolution in the mind sciences" he gave at a seminar for Google employees. That video presentation contains core ideas in his new book "Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 2007)."

Below I give you the blurb on the book, and the problems I have with this are stated in the critical review just mentioned, some repeated below:
Bridging the gap between the world of science and the realm of the spiritual, B. Alan Wallace introduces a natural theory of human consciousness that has its roots in contemporary physics and Buddhism. Wallace’s "special theory of ontological relativity" suggests that mental phenomena are conditioned by the brain, but do not emerge from it. Rather, the entire natural world of mind and matter, subjects and objects, arises from a unitary dimension of reality that is more fundamental than these dualities, as proposed by Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung.

To test his hypothesis, Wallace employs the Buddhist meditative practice of samatha, refining one’s attention and metacognition, to create a kind of telescope to examine the space of the mind. Drawing on the work of the physicist John Wheeler, he then proposes a more general theory in which the participatory nature of reality is envisioned as a self-excited circuit. In comparing these ideas to the Buddhist theory known as the Middle Way philosophy, Wallace explores further aspects of his "general theory of ontological relativity," which can be investigated by means of vipasyana, or insight, meditation. Wallace then focuses on the theme of symmetry in reference to quantum cosmology and the “problem of frozen time,” relating these issues to the theory and practices of the Great Perfection school of Tibetan Buddhism. He concludes with a discussion of the general theme of complementarity as it relates to science and religion.

The theories of relativity and quantum mechanics were major achievements in the physical sciences, and the theory of evolution has had an equally deep impact on the life sciences. Yet rigorous scientific methods do not yet exist to observe mental phenomena, and naturalism has its limits for shedding light on the workings of the mind. A pioneer of modern consciousness research, Wallace offers a practical and revolutionary method for exploring the mind that combines the keenest insights of contemporary physicists and philosophers with the time-honored meditative traditions of Buddhism.
My previous response:
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.

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