Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Alan Wallace: "The Retinal Blindspot in the Vision of Our Origins," Part 1

Alan Wallace, Ph.D.
In an insightful and encompassing lecture on the competing visions of our origins - metaphysical and physical, spiritual and scientific, Eastern and Western - Alan Wallace, a polymath Buddhist practitioner and trained physicist, traces how the origin of the scientific method has evolved to generally exclude anything that smacks of 'subjectivity' - and, most specifically, the phenomenon of consciousness.

The scientific stricture on limiting its studies to the strictly 'objective' became a very limiting bottleneck in the study of 'reality' with the rise of relativity and quantum theory at the beginning of the twentieth century.  In particular, its historical preclusion of anything that that might be construed as 'subjectivity' became more and more untenable as one delved further into the role that the 'observer' (or consciousness) plays in the microcosmic world of atomic sub-particles

The brilliant Werner Heisenberg, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, in his book, "Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science," highlights (and questions) the extent to which 'subjectivity' was precluded from 'classical physics,' a prejudice that was carried over, with mixed results, into the so-called 'Copenhagen Interpretation' of quantum theory.

Werner Heisenberg
In "Physics and Philosophy," at page 29, Heisenberg writes:
"In classical physics science started from the belief - or should one say from the illusion? - that we could describe the world or at least parts of the world without any reference to ourselves. This is actually possible to a large extent. We know that the city of London exists whether we see it or not. It may be said that classical physics is just that idealization in which we speak about parts of the world without any reference to ourselves. Its success has led to the general idea of an objective description of the world. Objectivity has become the first criterion for the value of any scientific result. Does the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory still comply with this ideal? One may perhaps say that quantum theory corresponds to this ideal as far as possible."
"This division," between 'subjectivity' and 'objectivity,' Heisenberg observes, "is arbitrary and historically a direct consequence of our scientific method; the use of the classical concepts is finally a consequence of the general way of human thinking."

But is this really a consequence of "the general way of human thinking," as Heisenberg posits? In the first part of a compelling, if lengthy, lecture, Wallace traces how the strictures against 'subjectivity' arose because the scientific method, ironically, arose out of traditional Christian theological and metaphysical assumptions and worldviews.

"From the time of Copernicus, right on through Kepler, Galileo, Newton and so forth," Wallace observes, "science as we have come to know it has been overwhelmingly extrospective in its orientation (and) its perspective. To understand the nature of reality scientists have looked outwards."

"There are very good reasons (that scientists look outwards), and a lot of them are based in Christian theology," Wallace observes. "It's very important to bear in mind that a great majority of the founders of the scientific revolution were themselves devout Christians. A number of them were theologians, such as Newton himself. And so there were very deep metaphysical underpinnings to the scientific revolution. It was not by any means a revolt against religion," Wallace declares, "but rather an expression of it for many of its participants."

"The scientific aspiration from the time certainly of Galileo on through Newton and for quite some time after that," says Wallace, "was to know the objective world from a God's eye perspective, free of the limitations of human subjectivity."

"Prior to the scientific revolution, prior to the Protestant Reformation," he notes, "there was Christian theology and there was together with that a fairly strong . . . contemplative ideal (and) discipline founded by people like Augustine and the earlier Desert Fathers - and later right on through the Medieval period - that was largely introspective in nature. . . . But with the Protestant Reformation there was this movement outwards, and so one finds no strong inward contemplative tradition, so to speak . . . in the new Protestant Reformation."

Sir Isaac Newton
Wallace notes that "the Protestant Reformation . . . did have a contemplative mode to it, an active mode of inquiry into 'reality,' but (one) which stood instead of contemplative practice - sitting quietly, introspecting (and) going within one's own soul - (and) looked outwards."

"I think you can virtually regard scientific research, or scientific . . . methodology, as being like the contemplative counterpart for Christian Protestant theology," Wallace observes.

The methodology of third-person 'objectivity' (a cornerstone of the modern scientific method), Wallace notes, was thus developed as a method to check that personal subjective biases were not clouding the way in which a 'God's-eye view' would actually look upon the 'reality' of the physical world.

This has been "extremely successful for opening up that facet of reality that lends itself to third person investigation, namely the physical world" Wallace observes. "The disadvantage of that is that it ignores - simply because it refuses to attend to scientifically - those facts of reality that do not lend themselves to that type of third person public scrutiny. What leaps to mind," he notes, "is the whole range of subjective phenomena."

"What happens," Wallace asks, "if your authorities for knowledge very intelligently and for a sustained period and in multiple ways attend to one aspect of reality, and in a very concerted way, scientifically speaking, ignores another aspect . . . (or) domain of reality?"

William James
Wallace cites the pioneering American psychologist and philosopher William James, who, in his classic work, "The Principles of Psychology," observes that:
"The subjects adhered to become real subjects, attributes adhered to real attributes, the existence adhered to real existence; whilst the subjects disregarded become imaginary subjects, the attributes disregarded erroneous attributes, and the existence disregarded an existence in no man’s land, in the limbo “where footless fancies dwell.” . . . Habitually and practically we do not count these disregarded things as existents at all . . . they are not even treated as appearances; they are treated as if they were mere waste, equivalent to nothing at all."

And so, this quirk of the Eurocentric evolution of the scientific method excludes the radical 'subjectivity' of millennia of Eastern philosophical and psychological insights, thereby erecting a largely artificial interpretive barrier to understanding consciousness and the subtler aspects of 'matter' that are increasingly less amenable to Western interpretations as quantum theory and our understanding of it develops. A point that is well made by Wallace in the first part of his lecture.

(Part Two of this article is available here.)

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