Choosing Reality

The following article is from the Spring, 1996 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind

by B. Alan Wallace

227 pp. #CHRE $15.95

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Alan Wallace was a Tibetan Buddhist monk for 12 years. Then he graduated summa cum laude in physics, philosophy and Sanskrit at Amherst College and went on to complete a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford University. He is the author and translator of several books such as A Passage from Solitude, Calming the Mind, and Tibetan Buddhism from the Ground Up.

Choosing Reality was written to show how Buddhist contemplative methods of investigating reality are relevant for modern physics and psychology. It answers the question: How shall we understand the relationship between the way we experience reality and the way science describes it? In examining this question, Alan Wallace discusses two opposing views: the realist view, which argues that scientific theories represent objective reality, and the instrumentalist view, which states that our human concepts cannot presume to describe what exists independently of them. Finding both of these philosophies of science inadequate, the author goes on to explore the middle way view of Buddhism and show the relevance for modern physics of Buddhist contemplative methods of investigating reality. He also examines the ideas of body, mind, and reincarnation from the viewpoint of Tibetan Buddhism.

Here are some excerpts from the book:

Science arose from the intellectual tyranny of the Middle Ages. Since then it has provided us with a wealth of knowledge about the physical world, and in the process it has formulated a new article of faith: all of reality essentially boils do wn to matter and energy subject to the mindless, immutable laws of nature. Life is reduced to an epiphenomenal by-product of complex configurations of chemicals; and mind is a coemergent property of the organization of the neural system. Such physicalist reductionism is not simply a conclusion based upon scientific research. Rather, it provides the metaphysical context in which such research and theorizing are pursued; and as such, much evidence is interpreted as being supportive of this view.

The use of mechanical instruments and mathematical analysis has been enormously productive in the physical sciences. But such methods have yielded scanty insight into the nature of the mind. More importantly perhaps, the physicalist view denies that mind as a subjective phenomenon is deserving of scientific research: since it is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of matter, a thorough understanding of the nervous system will provide all pertinent information about the mind. Does this attitude not have a familiar ring? How easy it is to imagine a medieval churchman admonishing his contemporaries: since the physical world is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of God, a thorough understanding of the scriptures (and possibly Aristotle's writings) will provide all pertinent information about nature.

Modern science established its identity by insisting upon directly probing into the natural world as opposed to submitting to authority as the means for understanding. Its original instruments were relatively crude by today's standards, but by using them to their fullest, scientists have developed finer, more sophisticated tools. These instruments are wonderfully suited to objective physical research, but their use in directly probing the mind is extremely limited. Nature in its wholeness includes both objective physical events and subjective mental events. A science that ignores or fails to produce means for investigating the latter must be an unnatural kind of science. Its theories must be incomplete and may be profoundly misleading.

For generations the notion that scientific theories represent objective, independent physical reality has been seriously challenged by philosophers of science. Indeed, there are few today who adhere to such straightforward scientific realism. Among the many problems with the realist position is the fact that multiple, mutually incompatible theories can often be presented that equally account for a given body of experimental evidence. A philosophically unreflective approach to science gives the impression that objective reality screens out false hypotheses, leaving only one true theory. In fact multiple hypotheses are often put forth, and the choice among them is based on various human factors.

Does science give us knowledge of the objective world? At the very least we have grounds for seriously calling this into question. If we conclude that it provides us with no ultimately reliable, objective knowledge, we may ask: what, then, is the purpose of creating scientific theories? One response is that such theories do make natural events intelligible in their relation to our human existence. A second purpose is that they are extremely useful in learning to deal with natural events that have a strong bearing on our well-being. One facet of that purpose is the development of technology.

Let us now return to the question of scientific research into the nature of the mind. If theories are unable to represent objective physical reality, can they any more reliably represent subjective cognitive reality? Might even direct investigation into the nature of mental events yield multiple, mutually incompatible theories to account for the same body of empirical evidence? This may very well be so, in which case, of what use are such cognitive theories? The situation is similar to that for physical theories: cognitive theories can make the mind intelligible in terms of our present worldview; they can enable us to deal more effectively with the mental causes of both joy and sorrow, contentment and discontent; and they may provide means for transforming and refining the mind in ways previously not imagined.

At present, Western civilization has no cognitive science comparable to its physical science. On the basis of this discussion thus far, one might assume that they are two autonomous disciplines. As we employ more revealing techniques for exploring the nature of consciousness, however, we may find ourselves delving into some of the deepest facets of the physical world. As insights into the nature of consciousness are related to physical science, physicists may find themselves confronting the profound role of the mind in their own field of inquiry. Indeed, if the universe is not composed of two autonomous substances of mind and matter (or matter alone), such integration of physical and cognitive science is bound to take place.

How shall we develop a cognitive science that penetrates so deeply into the nature of awareness? Cognitive science in its present Western form investigates mental states objectively in the sense that the researcher performs tests on other people's mental functions. Since the scientist has no direct access to anyone else's mind, this approach treats the mind as a black box. The information that is analyzed concerns input and output from the mind and senses, but cognition itself is not directly examined. This would entail a subjective perspective, which is still regarded as unprofessional in today's scientific arena. This black box approach to the mind provides one means of questioning that can provide a certain body of knowledge about cognitive functions. But it leaves us in the dark as to other important aspects of the nature and potential of consciousness.

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we may avoid [impeding the quest for truth] by asking not whether a theory is true, but by inquiring to see how meaningful it is.

A central theme of this book will be that a particularly useful method for exploring the mind entails refined introspection: let the mind directly probe the mind, for no other instrument has that ability! As soon as we try to do so, however, we run into problems: the mind in its present state is a very unreliable instrument for the observation of mental states. It is exceedingly unstable, strongly subject to compulsive conceptualization, and lacking in clarity. These are some of the reasons why the school of introspectionism died just a few decades after its birth about a century ago.

Perhaps it is time to give the mind another chance. Are there ways to transform the mind into a stable, reliable, clear instrument of observation? In seeking methods toward this end, we may simply rely upon our own resourcesthat is, start from scratchor we may look around for techniques that have already been developed by others. If we follow the latter, timesaving course, we may have to break down some conceptual barriers that we have set up among science, philosophy, and religion. Why? Because the most effective means for transforming human consciousness in this way have been developed by the great contemplative traditions of the world. Those of the East in particular do not distinguish science, philosophy, and religion as autonomous disciplines, as we are prone to do in the West. In our culture meditation and contemplation are widely regarded as means for relaxation and, in the religious context, for deepening one's experience of the divine. Are there contemplative techniques that can provide us with knowledge that can be integrated into our scientific understanding of the world? This we must judge for ourselves, and it is one aim of this book to introduce some of these techniques for appraisal.

In the Buddhist tradition the chief purpose of refining and stabilizing the mind is to cultivate wisdom and compassion. A mind that has been trained in concentration and clarity is a superb tool for investigating the nature of realityof the self, consciousness, the physical world, and so on. This instrument can be an effective one for developing the insight needed to eliminate the fundamental distortions of the mindignorance, craving, and hostility. The healing of the mind from these afflictions, and the cultivation of wisdom and compassion for all living creatures are the greatest miracle. When mental powers are developed within that spiritual context, their use is guided by wisdom and motivated by compassion. They are used in the service of others, and the danger associated with them is thereby avoided.

Objective scientists must take great care to keep their research equipment in excellent running order, both during and between the times that it is being used. Otherwise the results that such instruments yield in experiments would be unreliable, and the research would be pointless. However, the scientists' own mindstheir most basic research equipmentdo not necessarily receive such care. They maybe subject to such distortions as craving, selfishness, hostility, absent-mindedness, and egotism; but the attenuation of such afflictions usually plays no explicit role in scientific education. There may be a similar lack of attention to examining motives for scientific research. Some scientists feel no qualms about using our most advanced knowledge for devising state-of-the-art methods of polluting our planet with radiation and biological and chemical poisons. Powers that become available through scientific research are swiftly put to use for the destruction of life and the stimulation of fear. Clearly the use of such research is not simply determined by scientistspoliticians and the people who put them in power are largely responsible. But it must also be said that much research done by scientists is explicitly aimed at destroying life on earth. We may feel little sympathy for the possible response that scientists devoting themselves to such work are simply following the orders of their employers. The development of such weapons is considered by many people as the only realistic way to preserve peace in the modem world. Peace of mind, however, seems to be a necessary casualty, regardless of the external semblance of peace that may be achieved with that program.

The ground of Buddhist practice is the cultivation of an ethical way of life in thought, speech, and deed. The essence of this foundation of spiritual growth is the avoidance of harm to others. Buddhist contemplatives recognize their own minds as the essential instrument for research.

The central purpose of Buddhist practice is to eliminate all distortions and obscurations of the mind and to bring to fulfillment all wholesome qualities. The contemplative training (outlined in the preceding chapters) leads to a direct realization of the manner in which the world consists of dependently related events. Physics was originally designed to explore the essential nature of reality, and it is precisely to such insight that Buddhist contemplative practice leads.

(In the preceding chapters), we have examined a variety of theories from both Western science and Buddhist teachings. Upon close examination it appears that no theory is true in the sense of describing or explaining reality as it exists in its own inherent nature. Nor is such an ultimately true theory to be found in any eventual integration of scientific and contemplative insights. If we grasp onto any theory as being true in the above sense, we may become satisfied with that conceptual construct of reality, and that impedes the quest for truth, which finally transcends all concepts. We may avoid this obstacle by asking not whether a theory is true, but by inquiring to see how meaningful it is.

The term meaningful may suggest two aspects of a theory. First of all, a theory is meaningful insofar as it makes intelligible a domain of phenomena. One theory is more meaningful than another if it accounts for and explains a broader range of events. This quality is closely related to its capacity for yielding accurate predictions about those events. In Western science and among contemplative traditions some conceptual systems are clearly more meaningful than others in that regard. In accounting for a body of phenomena, we also expect a theory to be internally consistent, and this raises the question of mathematical and other logical systems. The centrist view denies that any logic is inherently true. We can nevertheless inquire as to how meaningful a logical system is in terms of organizing and making intelligible our knowledge of the world. One system may be generally more meaningful than another, or it may happen that one system is more meaningful in one specific area of experience, while another logic is of greater value in another field.

Secondly, we can inquire as to the usefulness of a theory. This immediately stimulates the question: useful for what? The pursuit of knowledge and understanding is fundamentally motivated by a yearning that we share with all sentient beings: the wish to experience happiness and contentment and to be free of pain and discontent. Given this universal condition, we can demand of our systems of knowledge that they be useful in relieving physical pain and mental grief throughout the world. This is a second criterion for judging the meaningfulness of a theory. In this regard, if a body of knowledge brings satisfaction only to a select few scientists or contemplatives, its meaningfulness is very limited.

On a broad scale, scientific knowledge has yielded innumerable benefits to humankind in terms of relieving physical suffering and in making life materially more comfortable. Further, in an unprecedented fashion it has enabled people around the world to share their ideas and experiences, thereby broadening everyone's horizons. Largely due to the present ease of travel and communication, the world is in a position to recognize its condition of being a global village. In this regard, scientific knowledge has proven itself extremely meaningful. In terms of relieving mental distress, anxiety, and discontent, however, such knowledge has been of little value. It is precisely in this realm of experience that contemplative knowledge has proven itself extremely beneficial. The great contemplative traditions of the world focus on the essential concerns of human existence, which are not addressed by physical science. The meaningfulness of scientific and contemplative knowledge is therefore complementary. In the absence of either, the world is impoverished.

In all of human experience two types of aspiration bear an integrity and nobility beyond all others: the yearning for understanding and spiritual awakening, and the longing to be of service to others, to dispel suffering and bring joy. Modern science, as developed and expressed by the greatest of its exponents, is motivated by both these aspirations. Intellectually and practically it stands, at its best, as a model of freedom of inquiry and ingenuity; and if put into active balance with religion and philosophy, it may well serve us long into the future. ä_æ

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