by Alan Wallace (2007). A gifted writer with a background in physics as well as a Buddhist monk, Wallace makes several intriguing arguments in this easy-to-read monograph. Most cogently, Wallace argues that science must make a more serious attempt to study the phenomenological mind. Science spends untold hundred of millions of $ each year on studying the objective, third person manifestations of the subjective, conscious mind – think of fMRI experiments in humans or electrophysiological investigations of animal cognition. Yet we mind-brain scientists only make use of very crude and unsophisticated descriptions of the subjective attributes of the phenomenological mind. We ask subjects to rate the intensity of some stimulus as ‘low’ or ‘high’ or whether or not subjects saw a briefly flashed face. Yet any serious meditative practice involves 1,000 to 10,000 or more hours of training to contemplate the mind, without distraction of forms, of percepts, of memories, of thoughts, of positive or negative emotions, of desires, wants and fears. With the right attitude, these techniques are as reliable as any scientific method (which likewise require year of practice in the form of graduate school and post-doctoral apprenticeship). I do agree with the author that the contemplative, Eastern traditions have a lot to teach to Western science of the mind.
Wallace’s second, more lengthy pursued, argument is that the modern view of physics as provided by quantum mechanics and ancient Buddhists beliefs are congruent. Both assert that the classical distinction between subject and object is illusory, that both are deeply linked and that the so-called measurement problem – think of Schrödinger’s cat, Heisenberg’s uncertainty relationship, the collapse of the wave function, the many-worlds interpretation of Everett and so on – and consciousness depend on each other. One can’t exist without the other, a variant of Idealism (without subject no object). While this is an appealing notion, the actual evidence on the ground that the brain relies in some non-trivial sense on macroscopic quantum phenomena, in particular on entanglement, is non-existent. Mind you, at 300 degrees Kelvin, the brain is very hot. It is also wet and strongly coupled to the environment. All of this makes it very unlikely that the brain is a quantum computer. All the evidence is in favor of the ‘boring’ hypothesis that at the scale relevant for its behavior, the brain obeys classical physics. Furthermore, ever since I read Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics donkey years ago, I’m skeptical of the highly selective interpretation of these two radical different domains of thought. As pointed out by Peter Tse, these similarities should be viewed next to the significant incompatibilities between the two – for instance, the Buddhists belief in reincarnation, in various forms of extrasensory perception, and other spooky stuff with no hard-nosed evidence. Anyhow, I enjoyed reading the book and ordered Wallace’s most recent one.