B. Alan Wallace Makes an Excellent Plea for a Renaissance of Empiricism

B. Alan Wallace, PhD. gave this Google Tech Talk in 2006.   He calls it, “Toward the First Revolution in the Mind Sciences.”  Wallace is the founder of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

He uses the work of Galileo, Darwin and William James to illustrate the need for applying the Scientific Method and, “Introspective observation,” to the study of the mind.

These 3 were Empiricists, Wallace states. Galileo built a telescope and observed space. Darwin observed nature over long periods of time. And James believed that the study of human nature could contribute to what he termed a, “Science of religion.”

Dr Wallace asserts that the mind and the brain are not the same. There is no scientific definition of consciousness, and yet it is what we observe.

First, Wallace refutes this quote by John Searle, calling it, “An illusion of knowledge.”

John R. Searle

“There is a simple solution to the mind-body problem, and “This solution has been available to any educated person since serious work began on the brain nearly a century ago, and in a sense, we all know it to be true.  Here it is:  Mental phenomena are caused by neorophysiological processes in the brain and are themselves features of the brain.”

Wallace says that there is no empirical evidence that mental phenomena are simply features of the brain. He quotes American Neuroscientist Christof Koch:

“The characters of brain states and of phenomenal states appear too different to be completely reducible to each other.  I suspect that the relationship is more complex than traditionally envisioned.  For now, it is best to keep an open mind on this matter and to concentrate on identifying the correlates of consciousness in the brain.”

He gives historical context for the illusion of knowledge with a quote by social historian Daniel Boorstin:

“Throughout human history, illusions of knowledge, not ignorance, have proven to be the principal obstacles to discovery.”

Wallace brings in the Eastern concept to argue for the need for empirical observations:

“The Framework of Buddhist Practice”

Ethics ~ social and environmental flourishing

Mental Balance (samadhi) ~ psychological flourishing

Contemplative insight ~ spiritual Flourishing”

Wallace also quotes Buddha, whom he calls the “Galileo of the East.”

“Do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay.  Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher.’  But…when you know for yourselves that certain things are unwholesome, destructive, and detrimental, then reject them…And when you know for yourselves that certain things are wholesome and good, then accept them and follow them.”

Then, Wallace quotes William James:

“Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has been associated with irreligion, and I believe that a new era of religion as well as philosophy will be ready to begin… I fully believe that such an empiricism is a more natural ally that dialectics ever were, or can be, of the religious life.”

He makes a sound argument for approaching Mind Studies in an empirical way and suggests that integration is key:

“A Potential Revolution in the Mind Sciences

Integrate rigorous first-person and third-person methodologies in collaboration between cognitive scientists and contemplatives with exceptional mental skills and insights resulting from rigorous, sustained, mental training in observing and experimenting with states of consciousness.”


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