Review: Embracing Mind

By Natalie F. Banner | Metapsychology Online Reviews

ON THE WEB, 22 July 2008

In Embracing Mind Wallace and Hodel attempt to reconcile the typically Western approach to a science of the mind with Buddhist contemplative methods of investigating consciousness.

They are critical of the apparent predominance of scientific materialism but aim to draw significant parallels between the theorizing of contemporary physics and Buddhist metaphysics, arguing that there is much to be gained from a fruitful dialogue between the two. The book assumes little or no previous knowledge either of the history and philosophy of science or of contemplative approaches to the mind and world and as such is well targeted towards a lay audience with an interest in gaining a tentative insight into the potential crossover between Eastern and Western empirical traditions.

The book is divided into three parts, of which this review will focus on the first two. This is because the latter part is an introduction for the curious to three meditative Buddhist practices; effectively the tools of a Buddhist science of contemplation. As a description of the methods of Buddhist meditation this section is not amenable to critical analysis by a reviewer ignorant of such traditions.

The main bulk of the book is devoted to the argument that a Western approach to science in general and a science of the mind more specifically has ignored the role of the mind itself. In focusing outwards on what is present or real in the external world, we have apparently overlooked the vital role of introspection in understanding not only our own minds but the universe of which we are part. The text is structured so as to guide the reader from the unquestioning acceptance of a powerful lay conception of science through to an acknowledgement of the errors and shortcomings of this perspective, before introducing a plausible rhetoric about the advantages a Buddhist metaphysics can provide. It is not intended as an invective against science or scientific practice but rather an exploration of the limitations certain deep-rooted assumptions have for understanding and investigating the mind and world, and a gesture towards possible collaboration between science and spiritual traditions.

Part one begins with a critique of the lay conception of science in general, questioning the material reductionism that prevails in science and certain areas of philosophy today. The principles of objectivism, metaphysical realism, closure, universalism and reductionism that characterize scientific materialism are ones familiar to historians and philosophers of science, but they are explained for the lay reader together with their underlying assumptions and apparent origins in a Christian worldview. A whistle-stop tour of the scientific breakthroughs and developments of the Renaissance and Enlightenment highlights that the human mind has historically been excluded from the domain of scientific enquiry. The objective, mechanical model of the universe eliminated introspective, subjective study of the mental realm from scientific discourse; a move the authors consider to have been detrimental to exploration not only of the mind but of matter and the universe as well.

Focus then shifts into a potted history of physics from Newton onwards. From a Western perspective in which there is sharp delineation between the respective subject matters of physics and psychology, this foray into physics initially seems tangential to the book’s main purpose of discussing sciences of the mind. However as is made clear later on the hypothesis driving the discussion is that mind and matter are mutually interdependent, with study of one being impossible without understanding of the other. The authors retrace the familiar crisis in early twentieth century physics as Newtonian dynamics were found to break down at the atomic level. Setting up a clear dichotomy between the objective, independent world of classical physics that fits comfortably with the ideals of scientific materialism and the murky realm of quantum mechanics, Wallace and Hodel provide an immanent critique that illustrates the implications quantum theory have for the materialist metaphysics taken for granted in other areas of science. Quantum theory undermines our common sense view of reality as well as the views of classical physics regarding local causation, time, space, matter and energy. Some complex key concepts of quantum physics are explained clearly in relatively simple terms and drawn together to demonstrate how the principles of scientific materialism collapse at the quantum level. The key lessons taken from this brief account of twentieth century physics are the rejection of physical reductionism and the role of the human mind in determining experimental outcomes.

In developing the idea that the mind influences both scientific method and observation, a well-established debate in philosophy of science is invoked. The theory dependence of observation challenges the idea that there are knowable mind-independent truths, given that the mind is inherently involved in theorizing, experimental design and data-gathering. The authors provide a simple, plausible argument for the role of social contexts and pressures in shaping the progression of science, and cite the necessity of imagination and creativity in going beyond gathered data to hypothesize about underlying causes and connections. Naturally such a brief account cannot do justice to the many nuanced and sophisticated materialist responses to this charge and the book does not claim to offer a balanced view. Rather the intention is to generate discomfort with our lay intuitions both about the nature of reality and the function of science in seeking to understand and explain that reality.

As well as targeting lay conceptions of reality and of science, Wallace and Hodel criticize the assumptions of cognitive science which they suggest remains rooted in a scientific materialist understanding of the mind. Behaviorism emphasized objectivity and the necessity of observable, measurable experimental outcomes and the cognitive science that developed subsequently modeled itself on a computational, information processing approach to mentality largely consistent with reductionist metaphysics. The sparse detail is sufficient to provide a very general overview for the initiate to the history of cognitive science and psychology and the claims made about the development and underpinnings of the discipline are uncontroversial.

Before progressing to the positive thesis, the authors pause to reflect on whether scientific materialism genuinely does still permeate cognitive science, given the serious challenges posed to its principles by the findings and theories of quantum physics. It is certainly true that the spirit of reductionism is prevalent in much research on consciousness, characterized by the significant research efforts being made to identify neural correlates of consciousness. Wallace and Hodel believe this assumption about science to be pernicious, influencing education, politics and economics by disguising conformity to an outdated metaphysics as free, open and unbiased enquiry. As throughout the book the text here takes the form of rhetoric rather than thorough or refined argument, and the sociological critique here feels somewhat beyond what is justified by the prior discussion. Nonetheless it is an interesting challenge to an intuitive or lay understanding of the role and function of scientific practice. Their criticism of this approach is not targeted towards science as such, but towards a particular dogmatic view of science as conforming to the principles of scientific materialism, in which there is no room for first person understanding or spirituality.

The second part of the book is devoted to developing the argument that introspection should play a central role in balancing out the materialist view both of mind and of reality. In this respect there is no clear delineation between physics and psychology and the authors repeatedly draw on the lessons of quantum physics to reiterate the essential interdependence between observer and measurement. They introduce the ideas of contemplative traditions by drawing parallels with discoveries made in Western science. In this way such philosophies are not perceived as being opposed and alien to familiar scientific traditions but rather complementary and in some respects, strikingly similar. It is a tactic designed to persuade one that introspection can and should be part of a respectable, empirical science of the mind. Buddhist contemplation aims to systematically expound knowledge of the mind and is subject to hypothesis testing and peer review. Focused, sustained voluntary attention is the key tool in contemplation and it can be refined and vigorously trained to achieve stability over many years. Such attention can be used to logically and systematically explore the mind and its findings have given rise to a critical literature open to debate and review. In this respect the authors argue there are clear parallels between the tools and techniques of Western science and contemplative Buddhist, Swami and Hindu traditions that despite being based on first person perspectives are equally empirical.

Drawing again on the analogy between classical and quantum physics, the book introduces some insights of Buddhist metaphysics, illustrating a surprising degree of commonality between Eastern and current Western schools of thought. The commonsense reality of objects in the external world compared to the lack of absolute reality at a quantum level parallels Buddhist philosophy’s two truths. There are conventional or provisional truths: it is relatively true that matter and causation exist, but this is only relative to a certain mindset. However there is also a definitive truth that all phenomena are empty of absolute existence. This should not be taken to mean that conventional truths are mere illusions, nor that the emptiness of phenomena expresses some underlying metaphysical reality. Rather, the Middle Way philosophy propounded by the Buddha seeks out a path between these two mutually interdependent truths. Evidently this is a highly nuanced, subtle and complex view derived from thousands of years of meditative insight and literature, and Wallace and Hodel do well to explain the counterintuitive idea of the emptiness of inherent existence in an accessible, engaging style. Again the intention is not to undermine science: indeed they are at pains to illustrate the similarities between the introspective insights of Buddhist philosophy and the findings of modern physics with regard to the nature of reality.

Once we accept that neither mind nor matter have absolute existence the pressing research agenda to understand mentality in terms of physical processes becomes spurious: the very notion of physical reductionism collapses. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the argument to grasp and it is a shame that the authors do not devote more space to explaining this important implication. Considering the vast philosophical literature devoted to the problem of the interaction between mind and brain it would have been worthwhile pondering further on how and why the Middle Way view of existence impacts so heavily on our conventional understanding of this relation.

Having established an argument for fruitful dialogue between Eastern and Western traditions, the prospects for collaboration between Western third person methodologies and Buddhist introspective techniques are discussed. In psychology and cognitive science there are many impressive citations of research conducted with Buddhist monks and masters of meditative techniques. There is no doubt that meditation has clear and often dramatic physiological effects, and certain meditative techniques are now sometimes offered in conjunction with medical treatments for some conditions. Understanding the relation between mind and brain has additional implications beyond medicine, for example in philosophical and political discussions of free will, the social psychology of conflict and negative emotions and the economics of well-being and happiness. Here the discussion again turns sociological and somewhat vague, stretching beyond the book’s strengths to make gestures towards the general benefits of collaboration for society. The opportunity to create a dialogue between science and spirituality has been embraced by the Dalai Lama and eminent scientists alike, and such dialogue may be particularly relevant at a time when increasing material wealth in the West is accompanied by decreasing personal well-being and psychological health.

In essence then the convergence of Buddhist contemplative traditions with Western science is argued to have a number of ramifications beyond science, extending throughout society. Whether or not this broad-reaching analysis is warranted it is an optimistic picture of the potential for collaboration without rejecting or abandoning scientific practice. This book certainly won’t create converts out of die-hard physical reductionists but does suggest that there are insights offered by Buddhist philosophy that should not be easily dismissed in our quest to understand the mind and world.

Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality, by B. Alan Wallace and Brian Hodel, Shambhala, 2008

Copyright © 2008 Natalie F. Banner Published in Metapsychology Online Review Posted in Science, Spirituality » Tags: ,