An interview with Alan Wallace

In Hidden Dimensions, Wallace bridges the gap between the world of science and the realm of the spiritual. Wallace’s theory of ontological relativity suggests that mental phenomena do not emerge from the brain. Rather, they arise from a hidden dimension of reality that is more fundamental than the bifurcation of mind and matter.

Question: What is consciousness? Can you give us a basic sense of the different ways that this word is understood by scientists and Buddhists?

Alan Wallace: A primary strength of science is its array of empirical methods for measuring objective, physical, quantifiable phenomena and then subjecting the data from such measurements to quantitative analysis. But consciousness is subjective, it displays no physical characteristics, and it is qualitative, not quantitative. So it is invisible to all objective methods of measurement, and it eludes quantitative analysis. For these reasons, scientists have yet to come to any consensus regarding the nature of consciousness; they have no means of objectively detecting it; and they have yet to identify its necessary and sufficient causes.

A primary strength of Buddhism, in contrast, is its array of experiential methods observing mental processes and states directly, and this includes subtle dimensions of consciousness that are experientially accessible only to those who have achieved advanced levels of samadhi, or highly focused attention. There is widespread agreement among Buddhist contemplatives that consciousness bears two unique characteristics: luminosity and cognizance. “Luminosity” refers to the quality of consciousness of illuminating all manner of appearances, both physical and mental. It is only because of consciousness that the world we experience is imbued with colors, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile qualities. And it is consciousness alone that makes manifest our thoughts, emotions, dreams and all other subjective experience. “Cognizance” refers to the quality of knowing: not only do appearances become manifest to consciousness, but they are also known, or cognized. The multiple hues of a sunset appear to visual consciousness and they are also known for what they are by consciousness. These two qualities are unique to consciousness, and a world without consciousness would be one devoid of appearances and knowing.

Q: What grounds are there for believing that the mind is physical?

AW: In 1847, Hermann von Helmholtz presented a mathematical formulation of the principle of the conservation of energy, and subsequent generations of physicists have regarded this as the key to understanding nature as a whole. This principle lays the ground for the so-called “closure principle,” which states that only physical phenomena can be influenced by or exert influence in the physical universe. The brain obviously influences the mind, and there is growing evidence that the mind influences the brain, and these provide sufficient reasons for most cognitive scientists to believe that the mind must be physical. Any alternative, they believe, leads to an antiquated Cartesian dualism or other kinds of unscientific, “magical” thinking.

Many people who adopt this view think that the category of “physical” is simple and straightforward, and indeed it was through most of the nineteenth century. But advances in physics since then have made it more and more difficult to determine exactly what the term “physical” denotes. One way of operationally defining it is: anything that can be measured with the instruments used by physicists or that can be defined in the language and concepts used by physicists. But this poses a problem: no subjectively experienced mental state or process can be measured with the instruments used by physicists, and none can be defined in the language and concepts used by physicists. Moreover, when we experience mental states and processes directly, they exhibit no physical qualities, such as spatial extension, mass, or velocity.

The principle of Occam’s razor is: “It is vain to do with more assumptions what can be done with fewer assumptions.” I believe it is high time to apply this principle of parsimony to the scientific view of the mind and simply acknowledge that we do not know whether the mind and consciousness are physical or not. Why, after all, should we believe that the universe fits neatly into a human conceptual category—the physical—which has undergone many changing definitions throughout the history of modern science?

Q: What are the necessary and sufficient causes for the emergence of consciousness?

AW: Neuroscientists are discovering more and more neural correlates to specific kinds of consciousness, such as visual perception, conscious memories, and so on. We know that in humans a properly functioning visual cortex, for example, is needed in order to generate visual awareness. So the eye, optic nerve, and visual cortex are all necessary causes for visual perception in human beings. But no one knows what it is about the neuronal configurations in the visual cortex that enables it to generate or even influence visual perception. So we don’t know all the sufficient causes for any kind of consciousness. Moreover, researchers in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics are intent on developing conscious computers and robots, and they are assuming that non-organic processes may provide the necessary and sufficient causes for consciousness. It is not certain that a visual cortex is needed for visual awareness, so no scientist can say for sure what the necessary and sufficient causes of any kind of consciousness are.

Q: A number of eminent physicists, including Wolfgang Pauli, David Bohm, and Roger Penrose, as well as psychologists such as William James and Carl Jung have proposed that the world of mind and matter emerges from another dimension of reality that exists prior to this distinction. Is there any such view in Buddhism, and if so, how is this hypothesis put to the test of experience?

AW: Buddhists have long maintained that the physical world as we know it evolved from a subtler dimension of existence known as the “form realm.” While the scientifically known universe is divided into the categories of mind and matter, the form realm transcends these coarse divisions. It is comprised of archetypal forms corresponding to the basic elements of physical experience—earth (solidity), water (fluidity), fire (warmth), and air (motility)—as well as subtle dimensions of consciousness that can be known only through the development of highly focused, refined consciousness known as samadhi. Classic Buddhist texts describe in detail how to achieve such states of samadhi, requiring hundreds or even thousands of hours of rigorous, continuous training, and how to use such refined attention to experientially explore the form realm and its relation to the physical universe.

Q: John Wheeler proposed that the universe exists as a “self-excited circuit,” in which observers play an active role in generating the world of their experience. How does this hypothesis relate to the Buddhist view of emptiness and dependent origination?

AW: The Middle Way view of Buddhism declares that all observed objects exist only relative to the mode of observation by which they are detected, and all theoretical objects exist only relative to the conceptual framework in which they are conceived. It is impossible to know anything independently of the means by which it is known, so it makes no sense to speak of the objective world as it exists independently of all modes of inquiry. These principles are very compatible with Wheeler’s theories of observer-participancy, and they also closely reflect the views of Stephen Hawking and Anton Zeilinger, all of whom propose that the insights of quantum physics be applied to the universe as a whole. This suggests that we are co-creators of the universe as we experience it and conceive of it. It was not pre-given, waiting for scientists to discover its “true nature.” Rather, among an infinite array of possibilities, on the basis of their systems of measurement and conceptual frameworks, scientists choose the world they inhabit, and the same is true of everyone else, Buddhists included.

Q: Physicists in the field of quantum cosmology speak of the problem of “frozen time,” which arises when you apply quantum theory to Einstein’s general theory of relativity using a procedure called canonical quantization. This indicates that without the presence of an observer the universe should be frozen in time, never changing. This raises the question: why do we see the universe evolving in time in a given way? Is there any such notion in Buddhism, and if so, how does this relate to Buddhist practice?

AW: Scientists see the universe having evolved in a certain way because of the kinds of questions they have asked for the past 400 years since Copernicus, the methods of observation and experimentation they have employed, and the kinds of concepts they have used to make their empirical data intelligible. As both John Wheeler and more recently Stephen Hawking suggest, scientists actually choose the history of the universe on the basis of their subjective means of inquiry. It was not already there, passively waiting for them to get it right. Likewise, according to the Middle Way view and the Great Perfection tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the phenomenal world rises up to meet us in relation to the ways we perceive and conceive of it. But it is also possible to tap into the deepest dimension of awareness known as “primordial consciousness,” which transcends relative space and time. Such pristine awareness is said to be associated with the “fourth time,” which transcends, yet subsumes the three times of past, present, and future.

Q: How might science and Buddhism collaborate in the study of consciousness?

AW: Regarding the study of the mind, the strengths of science are in its methods of gathering quantitative data, exploring the mind indirectly by way of behavior and brain activity. But the cognitive sciences have never devised sophisticated means for observing or exploring states of consciousness directly. This is the strength of Buddhism and other contemplative traditions. By integrating these strengths, we may fulfill the vision of William James, who proposed that the mind be studied by way of behavior and brain functions, but that the primary focus be on introspection.

Q: What benefits might arise as a result of such collaboration?

AW: As long as the scientific study of the mind is confined to examining its behavioral and neural correlates, scientific understanding of the mind will necessarily remain materialistic. Moreover, as long as such studies are confined to the minds of normal people, the mentally ill, and the brain-damaged, the scientific imagination of the potentials of human consciousness will remain very limited. Buddhism has developed sophisticated means for exploring a wide range of mental states and processes directly, and it also includes the development and study of highly advanced states of consciousness in terms of highly focused attention, compassion, and wisdom. But the benefits of such inquiry and personal practice have remained largely anecdotal within the Buddhist tradition. By collaborating with scientists, Buddhists may gain a clearer understanding of the benefits and limitations of their own theories and practices, and this may lead to more effective means in the modern era for transforming the mind and discovering its fullest potentials.