The Scientific Frontier of the Inner Spirit

The following article is from the Summer, 2003 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.



An ex-monk with both a physics degree and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, B. Alan Wallace is extraordinarily well suited to his prominent role as organizer of the Mind and Life Conferences. During his many years as a monk, he did a 4-year series of retreats under the guidance of H.H. the Dalai Lama. He has translated for several Tibetan teachers―from the Dalai Lama to Geshe Rabten to Ven. Gyatrul Rinpoche, and is in demand as a teacher throughout Europe and the U.S. A prolific writer, he's the author of several books, notably Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics, and the Mind, which examines the relevance of the Buddhist Middle Way to modern physics and Buddhism with an Attitude, which explores 7-point mind training―one of the topics His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be presenting at his teaching in NYC this September.

As we enter the twenty-first century and look back on the past four hundred years of scientific progress, can we fail to be impressed by the frontiers of knowledge that have been opened to human inquiry? The physical sciences have illuminated the realm of the extremely minute―the inner core of the atomic nucleus; events in the distant past―the first nanoseconds after the Big Bang; and phenomena on the far side of the Universe―the constitution of galactic clusters billions of light-years away. At the same time, the biological sciences have made great discoveries concerning the evolution of life, mapped the human genome, and revealed many of the inner workings of the brain. But in the midst of such extraordinary knowledge of the objective world, the subjective realm of consciousness remains largely an enigma. While neuroscience searches for correlates between the functions of the human brain and the depths of the human spirit, the actual nature of the mind/body correlation is still a matter of philosophical conjecture: No hard scientific evidence explains how the mind is related to the brain. There is no scientific consensus concerning the definition of consciousness, and there are no objective, scientific means of detecting the presence or absence of consciousness in anything―mineral, plant, animal, or human. In short, scientists have not yet fathomed the nature of consciousness, its origins, or its role in Nature.

How is it possible that something so central to scientific inquiry―human consciousness―remains so elusive? Is it because it is inherently mysterious or even impenetrable to scientific inquiry? Or have scientists simply failed thus far to devise appropriate methods for exploring the frontiers of the inner spirit? To seek an answer to this question, let us review the ways in which scientists have successfully explored other realms of the natural world.

Looking first to the physical sciences, astronomy began to move beyond its medieval heritage when researchers such as Tycho Brahe devised instruments for making unprecedentedly accurate measurements of the relative movements of the planets. Whereas previous generations of astrologers were content to focus primarily on the alleged correlations between the movements of celestial bodies and terrestrial events, Brahe made careful observations of the planets themselves, albeit with the intention to improve the precision of astrological predictions. Similarly, Galileo made precise observations of falling bodies and other terrestrial and celestial phenomena. In short, careful observations of these natural phenomena themselves were the necessary basis for the subsequent explanation of why these physical phenomena act as they do.The life sciences developed in a similar way. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch naturalist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek used the microscope to observe minute organisms, and over the centuries this combination of technology and precise observation of tiny life forms led to the development of cell biology, molecular biology, genetics, and neuroscience. It is important to bear in mind, however, that what the astronomers, physicists, and biologists were observing were mere appearances to the human mind, not external, physical objects existing independently of consciousness. The mind has always played a central role in scientific observation and analysis, yet the scientific study of the mind did not even begin until three hundred years after Galileo. The obvious assumption behind this long delay was that consciousness plays no significant role in Nature. But this is a metaphysical conjecture, not a scientific conclusion. Whether that hypothesis is valid or not, it is certainly an oversight to postpone for three centuries scientific examination of one's primary instrument of observation of the natural world: human consciousness.

At the dawn of the modem science of the mind in the late nineteenth century, the pioneering American psychologist William James defined this new discipline as the study of subjective mental phenomena and their relations to their objects, to the brain, and to the rest of the world (1892). He argued that introspective observation must always be the first and foremost method by which to study these matters, for this is our sole access for observing mental phenomena directly (1890/1950: 1:185). This approach parallels that of Brahe, Galileo, and van Leeuwenhoek in the development of astronomy, physics, and biology, respectively: Carefully observe the phenomena themselves before trying to explain their origins or the mechanical laws governing their movements. James added that introspective study of subjective mental events should be complemented with objective examination of their behavioral and neural correlates. Since his time, great advances have been made in the behavioral sciences, and even more stunning progress is taking place in the brain sciences. But James's emphasis on the importance of introspectively observing subjective mental phenomena themselves has been largely ignored, so there has been no comparable development of rigorous methods for observing and experimenting with one's own mental phenomena firsthand.


How is it possible that I something so central to scientific inquiry―human consciousness―remains so elusive? Is it because it is inherently mysterious or even impenetrable to scientific inquiry? Or have scientists simply failed thus far to devise appropriate methods for I exploring the frontiers of the inner spirit?

Progress in astronomy before the time of Brahe and his contemporary Johannes Kepler was hampered by both empirical and theoretical limitations. Empirically, medieval astrologers and astronomers failed to devise new, rigorous methods for precise observation of celestial bodies. They were too caught up in their concern with the terrestrial correlates of celestial events. Theoretically, their research was limited by their unquestioning acceptance of the metaphysical assumptions of Aristotelian logic, Christian theology, and medieval astrology. In a similar fashion, contemporary behavioral and neuroscientific research into the mind is empirically limited by the absence of rigorous methods for observing mental phenomena firsthand. And, theoretically, such inquiry is hampered by the metaphysical assumption that all mental events can be reduced to their neural correlates. This materialist premise is not a scientific conclusion, but an assumption that underlies virtually all scientific research into the mind/ body problem.

It is with introspection alone that consciousness and a wide range of other mental phenomena can be examined directly. While this subjective mode of perception is still marginalized by the cognitive sciences, the contemplative traditions of the world have for centuries devised a wide range of methods for rigorously exploring the frontier of the inner spirit. Long before the time of Aristotle, the contemplatives of India, for example, devised sophisticated means of refining the attention, stilling compulsive thoughts, and enhancing the clarity of awareness. This discipline is known as the development of samadhi, or deep meditative concentration, which was then used to explore firsthand a wide range of mental phenomena (Wallace 1998).

In profoundly stilling the mind, Hindu and Buddhist contemplatives have allegedly probed beyond the realm of ordinary human thought to an underlying substrate consciousness. In their view, experientially corroborated by hundreds of contemplatives throughout Asia (many of them adhering to diverse philosophical and religious beliefs), the human mind emerges not from the brain, but from this underlying substrate that carries on from one life to the next. This substrate consciousness need not be reified into a kind of ethereal substance or immutable soul, but can be viewed more as a continuum of cumulative experience that carries on after death. In each lifetime, this stream of consciousness is conditioned by the body, brain, and environment with which it is conjoined. In the context of such an embodiment, specific mental processes are contingent on specific brain processes. The brain is necessary for the manifestation of those mental functions once the substrate consciousness is embodied, but it and its interaction with the environment are not sufficient for the occurrence of consciousness. Memories and character traits from one life to the next are stored in this substrate, not in the brain, and past-life memories can allegedly be recalled while in samadhi. However, if specific brain functions are impaired, one may lose access to their correlated mental functions as long as the substrate consciousness is conjoined with a body.

Pythagoras, Plato, Origen (a highly influential third-century Christian theologian), and much of the Christian community during the first four centuries of the Common Era affirmed the continuity of individual consciousness from one life to the next. While Augustine thought that souls are likely created because of conditions present at the time of conception, he acknowledged that, as far as he knew, the truth of this hypothesis had not been demonstrated (391/1937: III: Chs. 20-21). Moreover, he declared that it was consonant with the Christian faith to believe that souls exist prior to conception and incarnate by their own choice (Ibid.: 379). This subject, he claimed, had not been studied sufficiently by Christians to decide the issue. Acceptance of the theory of reincarnation in the Western world decreased from the fifth century onward because of its condemnation by ecclesiastical councils and the decline of contemplative practice in general and of deep meditative concentration in particular.

The theory of the substrate consciousness and its relation to the human mind has not been invalidated by contemporary neuroscience. While James did not advocate reincarnation, he believed that the relation of the workings of the brain to the perceptions of the mind is akin to that of a prism refracting light, rather than an organ (the brain) creating mental events (1989: 85-86). He declared that this nonmaterialist view was compatible with the neuroscientific knowledge of his time, and this remains true today. Thus, no purely scientific grounds exist for assuming a materialist view of the mind. While materialists claim that the burden of proof of the nonphysical nature of the mind rests on those who can provide evidence to that effect, this is open to question. Introspective observation of mental phenomena does not suggest that they are physical in nature, nor does it provide knowledge of the brain. Likewise, the study of neural events alone provides no knowledge of the mind―one never sees any mental events in the brain, just electrochemical processes. So it takes a leap of faith to believe that mental events are really brain functions viewed from a subjective perspective. Generally speaking, if one believes that two types of phenomena that appear to be radically different are in fact identical, the burden of proof lies in demonstrating their equivalence.

Is the belief that the mind is nothing more than a function, or emergent property, of the brain a scientific hypothesis? If so, there should be some way, at least in principle, to put that claim to the empirical test; otherwise, it loses its status as a scientific theory. Insofar as scientific research on the mind/body problem is confined to the study of the behavioral and neural correlates of the subjective experience, it is hard to imagine how one could ever test for the existence of nonphysical mental events. One would need to step outside materialist' methodologies to detect anything nonphysical. One viable way to put the materialist hypothesis to the test, thereby establishing its status as a scientific theory, is by studying the empirical evidence suggestive of reincarnation. Such research has been done not only by contemplatives exploring their past-life memories, but by modem researchers, such as psychiatrist Ian Stevenson (1997), probing the mysteries of the human mind.

Stevenson's remarkable work, however, has received little attention by the scientific community. The reason for this may be quite simple. As neurologist Antonio Damasio comments, many neuroscientists are guided by one goal and one hope: to thoroughly explain how neural patterns become subjectively experienced mental events (1999: 322). So they do not welcome empirical evidence that might suggest that the goal of their research is illusory. This situation is reminiscent of the goal of medieval astronomers to demonstrate how all celestial bodies move in perfect circles. Eventually, Kepler, who was also committed to this belief, was distressed when the empirical evidence accumulated by Brahe forced him to conclude that this long-held assumption was false. (Kepler later deduced that planetary orbits are elliptical; nevertheless, his preliminary calculations agreed with observations to within 5 percent.)

With the union of scientific and contemplative inquiry, humanity may explore the frontier of the inner spirit in unprecedented ways (Wallace 2000). The importance of such collaborative research can hardly be overestimated. The very nature of human identity is at stake, and those who are committed to the pursuit of truth must rely on rigorous, empirical research, even if it invalidates their most cherished assumptions.


Augustine. (391/1937) The Free Choice of the Will. Francis E. Tourscher (trans.)., Philadelphia: The Peter Reilly Co.

Damasio, Antonio (1999) The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, New York: Harcourt, Inc.

James, William. (1890/1950) The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publications. (1892)

A plea for psychology as a science. Philosophical Review, 1, 146153. (1989)

Essays in Religion and Morality. Cambridge. Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Stevenson, Ian, M.D. (1997) Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. Westport, CN: Praeger.

Wallace, B. Alan. (1998) The Bridge of Quiescence: Experiencing Tibetan Buddhist Meditation. Chicago: Open Court. (2000)

The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reprinted with permission of Templeton Foundation Press from the forthcoming Spiritual Information, edited by Charles L. Harper, Jr., Ω 2003.

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