Saturday, March 5, 2011

Consciousness: The "Retinal Blindspot" of the Western Scientific Vision

B. Alan Wallace
In a 2006 Google TechTalk, Alan Wallace, noted Buddhist scholar and polymath scientist, challenged neuroscientists to "pick up the gauntlet thrown down by William James" (the father of American introspective psychology and author of The Varieties of Religious Experience) and shift their investigations to the nature of consciousness itself, rather than narrowly focusing efforts on the search for the neural correlates of mental phenomena and emotions.
Wallace stresses that a synthesis of Eastern consciousness and contemplative training with Western scientific methodologies holds the potential for the first real "revolution" in the mind sciences" - a revolution equivalent to that sparked in the physical sciences by Galileo's challenge to Thomas Aquinas' medieval Christian 'scholasticism.'
The problem of exactly what consciousness "is" looms large, particularly given the integral roles that "the observer" and "observation" play in determining the results of quantum effects. Yet, as Wallace notes, 'consciousness studies' has really only emerged as a distinct field in the last 20 years or so.
Even now, however, pure consciousness studies are largely restricted to finding the "neural correlates of consciousness" - the set of functional properties and structures existing amid the neurons in the brain which are sufficient to bring about a conscious experience - which, is a bit of a fool's errand or wild goose chase in Wallace's view, given that there is not even a "scientific definition of consciousness." "How can you study consciousness," he asks, "if you don't even have a definition for what you are studying?"
Calling consciousness "the retinal blindspot in the scientific vision" he challenges the predominant scientific and psychological view that all "things" can be reduced to a physical cause - what Wallace calls the "Limitations of Physcial Reductionism." He notes that:

·      Mathematic theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of matter and energy in the universe.
·      Physical theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of life in the universe.
·      Biological theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of consciousness in living organisms.
·      Psychological theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of religious experience in conscious beings.
It is in the "emergence of religious experience" that Wallace proposes a way out of what many analysts have called "the hard problem" of the neurosciences: Does the brain produce consciousness, or does consciousness produce the brain? As yet, and largely because the latter half of the problem has not been examined at depth, there is no answer to this "hard problem."
(Cristof Koch - perhaps the leading authority amongst neuroscientists working on the neural basis of consciousness -  has observed that, " (t)he characters of brain state and of phenomenal states appear too different to be completely reducible to each other." He suspects, however, "that the relation is more complex than traditionally envisionsed.")
Wallace believes, however, that a truly scientific study of the focused states of higher consciousness achieved by seasoned contemplatives and meditators schooled in Eastern wisdom traditions, may hold the key to breaking open the problem of just what consciousnsess is exactly.  In contrast to Western science, which had its origins in Greek philosophers taking a "God's-eye view of matter," Eastern wisdom schools, typified by (but not limited to) Buddhism, started from the perspective that " the investigation of the mind was primary, (as) there is no world of expereience without consciousness.”
The vital 'religious' or 'spiritual experiences' reported by William James in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" have been reported in all ages in virtually every culture. For Wallace, they hold the key to any revolutionary breakthrough into what the "nature of consciousness" is. In the past, he notes, there was "too much dogma suppressing the empirical study of mental phenomena." With the advent of "the Information Age" and the meeting of Eastern wisdom traditions, such as Daoism, Buddhism, Sufism and Advaita Vedanta, with the Western scientific perspective, there is a potential for a breakthrough, Wallace believes.
It should now be possible, Wallace asserts, to "(i)ntegrate rigorous first-person and thirdl-person methodologies in collaboration between cognitive sceintists and contemplatives with exceptional mental skills and insights resulting from rigorous, sustained, mental training in observing and experimenting with states of consciousness.”
This has, of course, been the direction of a great number of studies in the intervening five years since Wallace presented his views to Google, including studies by Wallace's Santa Barbara Institute. Cracking the fundamental nature of what consciousness "is" and how it helps to form both our physical and mental realities may well turn out to be the key to a truly integrated scientific "theory of everything," uniting physics with psychology and a true metaphysics.

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