An interview with B. Alan Wallace

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.

Q: You have sought to relate this view of quantum cosmology to the placebo effect? How do you relate the two?

BAW: In 1955 that Henry K. Beecher published a groundbreaking scientific paper, The Powerful Placebo, in which he reported that a patient’s symptoms are sometimes alleviated by an otherwise ineffective treatment, since the individual expects or believes that it will work. But according to scientific materialism, especially as advocated by the behaviorists, subjective mental states such as expectancy and belief—if they exist at all—should not have any power to change the body for better or worse. So Beecher camouflaged his discovery by calling this the “placebo effect,” which implies that it is the physical substance of the placebo that actually brings about the physiological effect. Over the past 60 years, the scientific community has failed to provide an intelligible explanation for how the expectation and belief that a substance with no therapeutic efficacy may bring about precisely those effects in the body that one hopes and believes will occur. But if the body-mind is fundamentally a conscious, information-processing system, and not merely a composite of mass-energy that hosts an epiphenomenal mind, then the placebo effect may be explained by way of the information the expectant and hopeful mind projects into the body.

Q: In the Epilogue of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic you apply the implications of quantum cosmology to the history of science over the past four centuries. How do you relate Stephen Hawking’s views concerning the nature of the past to the history of science?

BAW: The culmination of Meditations of a Buddhist Skepticpresents a revolutionary hypothesis concerning the parallel between the evolution of modern science and the evolution of the cosmos as conceived by modern science. This hypothesis is inspired by the writings of Stephen Hawking regarding the nature of the unmeasured past as existing in a superposition state, and therefore a probabilistic state, prior to measurement. The gist of his argument is that the past—whether that of an individual or of the universe at large—does not exist objectively, independently of measurement. Rather, the past arises relative to our measurements, which always occur in the present.

According to this theory, rooted in quantum cosmology, there are many possible histories, among which scientists and everyone else select one or more based on their specific methods of inquiry. If we apply this insight from contemporary physics, we are led to a remarkable conclusion. In essence, quantum cosmology can be interpreted to imply that the current scientific, materialistic view of the origins and evolution of the universe is a projection of the origins and evolution of modern science over the past four hundred years. This may be called the “anthropological essence of scientific materialism.” It points to a “false or materialistic essence of scientific materialism,” namely, the view of Nature, as we experience it and conceive of it, as having an existence separate from and independent of humanity. We alienate ourselves when we project human history onto the physical universe, and the very act of attributing human qualities to the brain alone necessarily withdraws these same qualities from the human species. In 1927, Sigmund Freud declared, “The problem of a world constitution that takes no account of the mental apparatus by which we perceive it is an empty abstraction.” If he is right, then the objective world of nature consisting only of configurations of space-time and matter-energy, in which the very existence of the mind and consciousness is barely even acknowledged, is an empty abstraction that ironically exists nowhere but in the minds of those who have conceived it.

Buddhism sheds a fresh light on the above problems, not only theoretically, but by proposing experiments in consciousness through the rigorous practices of meditation that enable the first-person investigation of the mind and its role in nature to fully complement the third-person methods of modern science. For this reason, the subtitle of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic is “A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice.” Both the mind sciences and the Buddhist tradition need to instill a fresh spirit of radical empiricism into their ways of theoretically and experientially exploring the nature of human existence and the universe at large. A full-scale collaboration between scientists and contemplatives may herald a profound revolution in both fields, with wide-ranging reverberations for modern civilization.