Friday, May 6, 2011

Alan Wallace: "The Retinal Blindspot in the Vision of Our Origins," Part 2

Among scientists, as polymath lecturer, Alan Wallace points out, it is still generally considered "impolite" to bring up the question of what 'consciousness' is. Consciousness, it seems, is still very much the 800-pound gorilla in the science lab or classroom.

Yet, as Wallace observes, William James (one of the fathers of modern psychology), in speaking on the subject of consciousness more than a century ago, remarked: "That which we ignore recedes from our experienced sense of reality." This is, of course, a danger that Wallace made clear in the first half of his extensive lecture (embedded below) highlighting the problem that consciousness still presents for the mainstream of Western science.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Wallace observes, we have more information about the 'Big Bang' and the nano-seconds thereafter than we do of the origins of human consciousness. "There are no scientific means," Wallace notes, "of detecting the presence or absence of consciousness in anything, including you or me right now."

It is odd, Wallace points out, that we have virtually no knowledge of something which is so intimate to each of us. "Right now," he observes, "if one were were to ask cutting-edge people, that is people working in the cognitive neurosciences . . . what are the necessary and sufficient causes for the origination of consciousness in a human being . . . the answer would be: 'We don't know.'"

Further, Wallace asks, what is the nature of matter? This, of course, is perhaps the great question - with 'some' solutions (matter is essentially the same as energy, Einstein demonstrated) - of the new physics that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century with the framing of both relativity and quantum theory. "There was something called twentieth-century physics," Wallace notes, "that makes the chunks of 'stuff' get very, very ethereal."

Wallace points out that "by the time you have the 'measurement problem' in quantum mechanics that makes at least suspect the very existence of quantum phenomenon before they are measured - in which the role of measurement remains a mystery in understanding the significance (and) the nature of the quantum realm - by the time you are speaking about probability waves that are being measured and that somehow collapse into actual particles . . . then matter has somehow become more ethereal than was assumed in the nineteenth century."

"You can," he notes, "(even) raise the question: 'Is there any energy in the nature of empty space itself?'" And the answer is, he points out, likely 'yes.' There is, he points out, a growing scientific consensus that the universe emerged from a quantum fluctuation and is imbued with 'dark energy'  and 'information' about the original fluctuation that we cannot even directly observe, although the mathematics indicates that it is there.

"As soon of you speak of the universe of space, time, mass, (and) energy as an emergent property arising out of a hidden (and) underlying dimension of information, the question of consciousness at least can be raised," Wallace observes. Information being, at least on its surface, a matter of the mind, the whole question of consciousness should therefore, according to Wallace, be once again kicked back into the scientific debate of just what the universe is. And yet, as he points out again, any scientific agreement that consciousness itself is a valid subject for scientific inquiry is still somehow lacking.

"Instead of simply assuming that the mind emerges from matter, Wallace concludes, it is possible now . . . and scientifically credible to consider the possibility that space-time and mass-energy all emerge from an underlying dimension of reality that may transcend the very duality of mind and matter."

And, it goes without saying, of course, that this very notion of a non-dual implicate order Wallace speaks of is the essential teaching of all the great Eastern (as well as some Western) wisdom traditions, a point that has not been lost on some of the leading-edge voices - scientific as well as spiritual - who, like Wallace, have probed the rarified and ethereal area where science and Eastern wisdom traditions seem to converge.

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