Category Archives: Philosophy

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Alan Wallace on scientific dogmatism and materialism

Alan Wallace, a Buddhist and writer on consciousness and meditation, talks about what he sees as the dogmatism and idolatry of the current, materialistic scientific paradigm.

While I have some questions about materialism that no one has been able to answer, I don’t agree that the focus materialism is a form of idolatry. It’s just the framework into which all the other empirical data best fits. If another model came along that fit the data better, or data came along that did not fit the model, the prevailing paradigm would change. It would change slowly I’m sure, because paradigms do, but it would change. It’s a bit unfair to talk about current scientific models as if they are not works in progress — even if they slow, perhaps too slow, to change.

Since there’s a finite amount of time and money that can be invested into consciousness research, it makes more sense to start your investigations from the standpoint of the most supported, the most accepted and the most validated paradigm, which is the material model. So you start from here, you make assumptions from here and then test them. A difficult question then becomes, at what point do you know that you’ve exhausted all the avenues of this model, and should start looking to others?

Wallace says that a better way to study consciousness is to use our immediate experience, through our own observations, because this is a direct experience of consciousness, unlike second-hand self-report or brain imaging data. But I don’t see how this can answer the fundamental question – whether consciouness emerges from matter, as the materialistic view proposes, or whether matter emerges from consciousness, as the Buddhist and other views propose. How would introspection answer that?

Observing the mind might well let you understand it, it might show you, as Wallace describes, this blissful second “layer” of consciousness, which Wallace claims does not arise from matter. How is it possible to know this from introspection? If you answer “You have to experience it to know,” then that’s an argument to authority (to people who have already experienced it) and I won’t be convinced by that, but at the very least it’s testable and a million times better than “you must have faith.” That it takes years and years of meditation to test this hypothesis is somewhat inconvenient, but at least its falsifiable.

But let’s say I do experience it. How do I know it does not arise from matter? How can introspection separate something that does not arise from matter and never did, from something that does but has changed through years of mental training?