The Science of Contemplation

That B. Alan Wallace is a scholar and not just some new agey spiritual guru was quickly obvious as he began his UC Irvine Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum lecture entitled Principles of a Contemplative Science of the Mind. Wallace, who is based at the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, began his talk with a reverential bow. He spent a number of years in the 1970s under the tutelage of the Dalai Lama in Tibet and cited William James as a more recent influence. He claims James’s time has not yet come.

The lecture began with definitions of contemplation and science, definitions that revealed a clear intersection in these fields. Definitions that I was unable to record before they disappeared from the massive screen at the front of the auditorium.

Wallace said that mysticism got a “bad rap” 100 years ago and described the historical forces responsible for this unfortunate circumstance. He traced the cause back to the fall of the “epistemological hierarchy of medeival scholasticism.” In that paradigm, Spiritual Revelation was superior to Reason and Reason superior to Experience. With the work of Copernicus, Galileo and others, scientists upended this hierarchy, saying, in essence, to the Church, “You can’t have all of reality. You can have the nature of God, salvation, hell and all of that, but the natural world is ours.”

With their bold rebellion [rebellion some suggest began with the Protestant Reformation] came the advent of Scientific Naturalism as the overarching worldview in the West. It is a worldview that says the nature of reality is known only through natural revelation. Natural Revelation is superior to Reason, which remains superior to Experience. In this paradigm:

  1. Science is the ONLY source of genuine knowledge.
  2. Science is the ONLY way to understand humanity’s place in the world
  3. Science provides the ONLY credible view of the world as a whole.

Instead of Aristotle and the Bible as ruling authorities, Darwin and Newton are now entrenched. According to Scientific Naturalism, the natural world consists only of physical phenomena that can be explained according to the laws of physics and biology. There are no nonphysical influences in the physical world. For example, Wallace, who did his undergraduate work in physics, quoted Lord Kelvin, who apparently said (before Einstein blew the doors off), “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now.” Those interested in the field were advised to direct their energies elsewhere.

How did this epistemological reversal unfold? Wallace briefly described the Evolution of Science:

  1. Galileo rigorously observing material phenomena launched a revolution in the physical sciences. He said this revolution was threatening to those who liked the “closure” of the 16th century world, but aimed responsibility for this resistance not at the church primarily, but at philosophers. Yes, it was the church that punished Galileo and others, but, according to Wallace, philosophers were the instigators of his persecution, while he enjoyed a significant following among the monks.
  2. Darwin, rigorously observing biological phenomena, launched a revolution in the life sciences, but …
  3. William James’s proposal, rigorously observing mental phenomena, has been thwarted by a theology of Scientism. James proposed using the principle of psychology to understand the nature of the mind—observing it through introspection. His challenge was not carried through because it didn’t conform to the principles of Naturalism.

Next came an argument for the Limitations of the Naturalist Hierarchy.

  • First, Wallace said, mathematical theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of a physical universe.
  • Second, physical theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of life in the universe.
  • Third, biological theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of consciousness in living organisms.
  • Fourth, psychological theories alone do not define, predict or explain the emergence of spirituality in concious beings.

Wallace sees no way of testing these “uncorroborated” theories. For example, how does one test for the emergence of consciousness or spirituality in a human fetus? Wouldn’t it help in the discussion of abortion to know at exactly what point spiritual, conscious life begins?

He described the Blind Spot in the Naturalist Vision of Reality (which he says began 130 years ago) as follows:

  • No scientific definition of consciousness.
  • No objective means of detecting consciousness.
  • Ignorance of neural correlates of consciousness.
  • Ignorance of necessary and sufficient causes of consciousness (eg.  Is consciousness more than response to sitmuli, akin to iron filings drawn to a magnet? Surely it is, according to Wallace.)
  • Ignorance of how the brain generates, or even influences, mental phenomena.

Next Wallace asked Why is there No Revolution in the Cognitive Sciences? (He conceded that there have been insights, but no revolution, as in the life and physical sciences.)

He cited James here as having said, “Psychology, indeed, is today hardly more than what physics was before Galileo.” He also cited John Searle. I only wrote down the last, problem-defining, portion of the quote, ” … Ontology of the mental is an irreducibly first person ontology.” It appears to be subjective. He provided a historical parallel in Galileo, saying some of Galileo’s detractors refused to look through a telescope because they didn’t want to see something that contradicted their commitment to “folk astronomy.” Likewise, William James’s detractors focus on behavior and neural correlates of mental phenomena and “folk introspection,” while refusing to refine and utilize introspection to study them.

A discussion of research into cognition followed:

Wallace decried the practice of using inexperienced, underpaid grad students in such research rather than experienced contemplatives, who would know what to do when, for example, given instructions to focus on a zebra for 30 minutes inside an MRI machine. Wallace says research indicates that most people can only focus on one object for an average of 7 seconds, while experienced contemplatives can do so for extended lengths of time. He himself has led retreats that involve 8 hr. meditations. He also mentioned a year-long meditation retreat. In his view, experts like himself should be utlilized by scientists in the study of the mind. This is not done, he suggests, because of an ontological commitment to expanding Naturalism. He mentioned Dawkins here, saying atheists tend to reject anything remotely supernatural. He noted, however, that the very definition of physical is debatable, in which case, the Materialists’ commitment is to exactly what?

Here he quoted Occam’s Razor: “It is vain to do with more assumptions what can be done with fewer assumptions.” He suggested applying Occam’s Razor to the insistence that mental phenomena are physical, and asked, What is lost in doing so? [Presumably a lot. A narrowing of life and a marginalizing of the mind and experience, both of which have much to offer science.]

Next he talked about perhaps his most controversial point: The Primacy of IntrospectionHe defined introspection from two perspectives (note: both terms are missing their accents):

  1. noetos — cognitive faculty that directly apprehends non-sensuous phenomena and discloses their intelligible meaning.
  2. samadhi — stable focused attention which may be focused on the space of the mind and its contents.

Next, he described a Contemplative Method, which, he said, transcends religious traditions:

  1. Ethics (social and environmental focus) — Spirituality begins with ethics; where and how we are living. Is our life supportive of our own and others’ well-being? This is the only grounds for a religious metaphysics, in his view; all that is left without it is utilitarianism. [Conversely, philosopher Charles Taylor has reportedly said, “Ethics names what was left of Christianity after Modernism did its work.”]
  2. Mental Balance (psychological flourishing) — He described this as focus, clarity, affective balance and noted that we are able to envision physical excellence, even if it is out of reach to the average person, eg. the olympic athlete. He said we ought to envision such excellence for the mind, imagining extraordinary psychological well-being rather than neurosis management as “normal.”  For example, he noted a Chinese concentration camp prisoner that the Dalai Lama had told him about. The man had been held captive 17 years. Asked afterwards if he had been afraid, the man said yes, he was afraid he would lose compassion for his captors. Wow!
  3. Wisdom (spiritual flourishing) — Deeper sense of flourishing beyond social, environmental and psychological.

Next Wallace described 2 Faculties for Defining Attention.

  1. Mindfulness is the faculty of sustaining voluntary attention continuously upon a familiar object, without forgetfulness or distraction. (This is the Buddhist rather than psychological definition.)
  2. Introspection is the faculty of monitoring the mind, recognizing the occurance of excitation and laxity.

He suggested 3 Goals of Attentional Training:

  1. Relaxation — the sense of bodily and mental ease.
  2. Stability — stillness and coherence of attention on an object.
  3. Vividness — brightness, resolution and focus of attention.

Wallace discussed contemplation apart from metaphysics. He advised any atheists in the room to set aside their atheism for the moment, and then delved into instruction on Settling the Mind in its Natural State:

  • Rest the attention in a field of mental events and observe whatever arises in that domain, without distraction and without groping. (He suggested focusing on a thought rather than its reference.)
  • Examine the degree of subject/object participancy in this endeavor. (To what extent are thoughts and emotions “yours”?
  • Bring awareness to a broad band of previously unconscious mental processes. (Make that which was unconscious conscious.)

His conclusion is that thoughts matter. They have causal efficacy.

Next came another quote from James: “No subjective state, whilst present, is its own object; its object is always something else … The act of naming them has momentarily detracted from their force.”

There was a bit here that doesn’t seem noteworthy, and then his conclusion …

Problems of Introspection, (or, Reasons apart from Social, Economic, etc. that James’s Revolution Failed):

  1. Communicability of “private” language re. mental experiences. (Wallace suggested utilizing the expertise of skilled contemplatives to discern these experiences.)
  2. The tendency of unconscious mental processes and unconscious motivations to conceal or misrepresent.
  3. Possible differences between mental appearances and mental realities.
  4. Observer participancy in the process of introspection (resulting in interference with data; he suggested an approach similar to eavesdropping on one’s own thoughts as a solution here.)

Potential Revolution in Cognitive Sciences:

The success of science was so good that it pushed everything else aside. As a result, it turned outward rather than inward and became dogmatic and elitist. Now, Wallace says, it is time to turn to that which made science possible, our own minds. He suggested:

  • Synthesis of rigorous 1st person and 3rd person means of empirically investigating a wide range of mental phenomena and their relation to the physical world.
  • Collaboration between cognitive scientists, philosophers and contemplatives with exceptional mental skills and insights resulting from rigorous, sustained contemplative training.

He believes such synthesis and collaboration could revolutionize our notion of mental health, replacing a low view of “normal” with a vision of excellence defined as sublime mental health and function.

During the Q&A, Wallace was both praised and challenged. Forum director Dr. Aaron Kheriaty noted that he too had become a fan of William James (not to be confused with his brother Henry) and suggested James’s Varieties of Religious Experience as a place to begin reading. Wallace added Talks to Teachers and a couple other titles to this suggestion.

In one dialogue, Wallace acknowledged that some practitioners of meditation can become more emotionally unbalanced by the practice rather than less so. I believe this is the context in which he mentioned a year-long meditation retreat, saying that it aggravated some neurosis rather than curing them.

Kheriaty challenged the primacy of introspection, asking if we need “something beyond introspection to orient us in terms of ethics.” Wallace conceded that introspection is not a panacea, but a useful tool within a broader context. He said science has a backdrop of metaphysics and that backdrop is Scientific Materialism. He said that in the late 19th century, the existence of atoms was a metaphysical discussion. Buddhists would say many things in metaphysics become phsyics. He noted the excellent mental health of Tibetan Buddhist survivors of genocide early in the last century and said metaphysics is a domain of belief that transcends what can be known. However, the metaphysics for one culture may not fit another.

[© cas 2007, all rights reserved.]

2 Comments on “The Science of Contemplation

  1. ….wow, wow, and wow. That sounds like an intriguing lecture! I’ll have to look into this B. Alan Wallace. Thanks for sharing! 😀

  2. You’re welcome Baekho, and thanks for stopping by. I like your avatar.

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