B. Alan Wallace: Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic

Alan Wallace, Meditations of a Buddhist SkepticThis week’s featured book is Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice, by Alan Wallace. The following is the conclusion to the book’s opening chapter, Toward a Revolution in the Mind Sciences:

Galileo, a devout Roman Catholic, granted his church authority regarding theological issues, such as the nature of the Trinity, heaven, hell, and the human soul, but he denied its authority regarding the objective physical world. Neither Christian theology nor Aristotelian philosophy had devised sophisticated means for the experimental observation of physical phenomena, and a growing number of their assertions were being proved wrong by the empirical discoveries of Galileo and his contemporaries. Likewise, today’s advocates of a new empiricism in the study of the mind may remain committed to science, granting biologists authority regarding the neurobiological and behavioral correlates of mental phenomena while denying biologists ultimate authority regarding the subjective world of the mind. Neither physicists nor biologists have devised sophisticated means for observing and experimenting with mental phenomena, and many of their materialistic assumptions regarding the mind—including its lack of existence—are either uncorroborated or simply wrong.

The principle of parsimony known as Ockham’s razor was used to great effect in shaving off unwarranted assumptions from medieval scholasticism, opening the way for the scientific revolution. This principle states that it is futile to do with more assumptions that which can be done with fewer. Imagine that we were to shave away the assumption that for mental phenomena to be real and causally effective, they must be physical. Without making this assumption, can we explain mental phenomena any less satisfactorily? Does the absence of this assumption impair or limit scientific research on the mind in any way? Consider the fact that this materialistic assumption has never been corroborated by empirical evidence, yet it continues to constrain scientific research on the mind. Has ideological bias prevented the cognitive sciences from devising sophisticated first-person methods for observing mental phenomena over the past 130 years? If so, the illusion of knowledge that the mind is physical has delayed the revolutionary development of the mind sciences and may have delayed progress in other branches of science as well.

Cartesian dualism, rooted in many of the assumptions of medieval scholasticism, has not been a viable basis for the scientific study of the mind. But materialistic monism, based on the assumptions of nineteenth-century physics, has also proven to be a dead end in the discovery of the nature, origins, and potentials of consciousness. At the time of Descartes, the Roman Catholic Church exerted the power of its Inquisition to punish those who deviated from ideological conformity, and now the scientific establishment exerts a similar (though not usually so violent) pressure on its members to reject all forms of mind-body dualism in favor of an antiquated monism. We need to begin thinking outside the box—outside the familiar dualities of dualism and monism, supernaturalism and naturalism—bringing instead an unprecedented spirit of empiricism to the scientific investigation of the mind.

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