Jun 13 2008

B. Alan Wallace and Buddhist Dualism

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Previously I have discussed, largely in the context of an ongoing debate, the notion of cartesian dualism – the belief that consciousness is due, in part or whole, to a non-physical cause separate from the brain. (I hold the neuroscientific view that consciousness is brain function.) This form of cartesian dualism seems to be favored by Western dualists, like Michael Egnor from the Discovery Institute.

There are other forms of dualism as well. David Chalmers, a philosopher of consciousness, holds what he calls naturalistic dualism – that the brain causes mind but consciousness cannot be reduced to brain function. There therefore must be some higher-order (but still entirely naturalistic) process going on. This view is opposed by other philosophers, like Daniel Dennett, who believe no such higher order process need be invoked. Consciousness can be understood as an emergent property of brain function (the position I find most compelling).

Today I want to discuss the dualism of B. Alan Wallace, a former Buddhist monk. I interviewed Alan about a year ago for the SGU podcast and it was an interesting discussion. He is quite a prolific writer on the topic of science, Buddhism, and dualism – so in addition to the interview there is no shortage of material explaining his views.

Wallace has three primary points I want to address. The first is that consciousness does not derive from the brain but rather from “substrate consciousness.” The second is that if science is to understand the nature of substrate consciousness it must expand its methods to include a Buddhist style of introspection. And third, that quantum mechanics supports these views.

Here There Be Dragons

Although he wraps his views in Buddhist mysticism and jargon, Wallace constructs them very similarly to Christian dualist views. In an interview with Steve Paulson he said:

The psyche is not emerging from the brain, conditioned by the environment. The human psyche is in fact emerging from an individual continuum of consciousness that is conjoined with the brain during the development of the fetus. It can be very hampered if the brain malfunctions or becomes damaged.

All I’m presenting here is the Buddhist hypothesis. There’s another dimension of consciousness, which is called the substrate consciousness. This is not mystical. It’s not transcendent in the sense of being divine. The human psyche is emerging from an ongoing continuum of consciousness—the substrate consciousness—which kind of looks like a soul. But in the Buddhist view, it is more like an ongoing vacuum state of consciousness. Or here’s a good metaphor: Just as we speak of a stem cell, which is not differentiated until it comes into the liver and becomes a liver cell, or into bone marrow and becomes a bone marrow cell, the substrate consciousness is stem consciousness. And at death, the human psyche dissolves back into this continuum.

Wallace separates the mind into the psyche, which is essentially everything we can observe and measure about brain and cognitive function, and the substrate consciousness, which is the mysterious dualist aspect of consciousness. What he has done is identical strategically to what Michael Egnor and other modern cartesian dualists have done – accommodated the dualist philosophy to the undeniable findings of modern neuroscience. Just beyond the current findings of neuroscience, however, here there be dragons.

The problem for the dualists is that neuroscience does not leave them any room for the function of the soul or spirit – the non-physical aspect of consciousness. The physical brain is explaining more and more of cognitive function, leaving less and less for the non-physical to do. Egnor carves our room for the non-physical in the limitations of current technological and investigative techniques to describe brain function and correlate with mental function (a classic god-of-the-gaps strategy).

Wallace carves out room for the substrate consciousness (which is something like a soul, but somehow not mystical or divine) by two strategies, as far as I can tell. The first is to appeal to alleged non-physical mental phenomena – like reincarnation, ESP, and clairvoyance. In this way he is making some testable claims, unlike Christian dualists who generally deny these new agey phenomena.

The second is to appeal to the meditative states of Buddhist contemplatives – arguing that their subjective experience should be admitted as scientific evidence (more on this below).

On the one hand, Wallace creates the notion of the psyche to do away with all the evidence from neuroscience that the brain causes consciousness. He then does offer as evidence for something beyond the brain the existence of paranormal phenomena, so at least he is offering a positive argument (unlike Egnor). Unfortunately for Wallace, the evidence strongly suggests that none of the alleged paranormal phenomena exist. This, of course, is a discussion that goes far beyond this one blog entry. But I think it is fair to say that all of these phenomena are at best controversial, and none have been established and accepted by mainstream science.

Therefore, if we take Wallace at his word that his form a dualism predicts the existence of mental phenomena separate from the brain, than his hypothesis fails this empirical test. Unless and until an extra-physical mental phenomena is reliably demonstrated there is no reason to accept Wallace’s substrate consciousness as necessary, let alone true.

As a side note, the strategies of dualists are very similar to the strategies of evolution deniers. They too insert their supernatural beliefs just beyond the limits of current evolutionary science. They are forever retreating from the advance of evolutionary knowledge, but as science is always incomplete they will always have gaps (albeit shrinking gaps) to occupy.

Changing the Rules of Science

Another feature that some dualists have in common with evolution deniers is the desire to change the rules of science. The Intelligent Design (ID) movement was largely started by lawyer Philip Johnson who argued that the rules of science are rigged in that they exclude supernatural explanations a priori. This is not fair to those who want supernatural explanations for natural phenomena. The problem with this ID argument is that it is a non sequitur. Supernaturalism is not excluded a priori, it is simply incompatible with scientific methodology. Supernatural science is an oxymoron.

Also, science does not say that supernatural explanations are not true – only that they are outside the realm of science. This is related to the fact that science as a method is not discovering the Truth with a capital “T”; it is not describing reality as it actual is, rather it is describing that slice of reality that is amendable to scientific methods of investigation. Because science has worked so well (at least so far) it is reasonable to conclude that the slice of reality open to science is fairly large, but from a philosophical point of view it is not the same as all of reality.

Just as the ID proponents want to change the rules of science to allow entry to supernatural causes, Wallace wants to change the rules of science to allow evidence from Buddhist contemplatives. He writes:

To discover the origins of any natural phenomenon, scientists have devised rigorous means of observing the phenomenon itself, conducting experiments on it when possible. This has been true for exploring the origins of all kinds of objects, from cells, on which experiments can be done, to stars, which can be observed but not manipulated through experimentation. The same is true for the psyche. To discover its origins, we must devise sophisticated methods for observing and experimenting on states of consciousness. It is not enough to observe and run experiments on their neural and behavioral correlates, and as long as cognitive science restricts its research to those, it cannot avoid the conclusion that consciousness emerges solely from the material processes under study. This is not a logical or empirical discovery, merely an inevitable conclusion based on a methodology of examining subjective, qualitative, mental processes by way of objective, quantitative, physical processes.

This is the ID argument – science concludes that consciousness is physical because it is limiting itself to physical investigation. If this were true it would still not be a reason to include non-scientific methods into science. The unstated major premise is that science must be able to discover the Truth, whatever it is. Therefore if someone has a hypothesis that cannot be investigated scientifically, science is inadequate and must change. But science cannot know everything. Changing the rules does not alter this fact, it just creates a non-scientific method (faith or philosophy) and calls it science.

Also, Wallace does not establish that this is true – that there is something to consciousness beyond what science can investigate. He tries to – which actually contradicts his first point. You can’t have it both ways – Wallace is saying that science explains consciousness physically only because it is limiting itself to physical methods, and also that science has found that consciousness is not entirely physical. His arguments for non-physical mental phenomena, like ESP and reincarnation, are arguments that the scientific method has found evidence for non-physical consciousness, which he says it is rigged not to be able to do.

He also says that: “As a result of this orientation, cognitive scientists are confronted with an “explanatory gap”: how is it that patterns of neural activity either produce or are equivalent to subjective mental processes?” If there really were an “explanatory gap” that is at least an argument for the inadequacy of the current scientific model. The problem is, there isn’t. While we are far from explaining all aspects of how the brain causes consciousness, the model is holding up so far. There are as yet no anomalies that defy physical explanation or demand a non-physical one.

Like Egnor, Wallace also cites Chalmers to defend his “explanatory gap”, and like Egnor he does not seem to realize that this does not support his position. Chalmers’ “naturalistic dualism” is just a discussion of how the brain causes consciousness – it explicitly rejects cartesian dualism or non-physical causes.

Wallace wants us to admit the subjective experience of Buddhist contemplatives because that way he can simply inject Buddhist mysticism at will, without having to justify any of his beliefs scientifically. He writes:

According to the experience of such contemplatives, there is a principle of conservation of consciousness that manifests in every moment of experience. The material constituents of the brain, such as neurons and electrochemical processes, do not transform into immaterial mental phenomena, such as dreams and hallucinations. No patterns of neuronal events actually become mental events. But nor do mental phenomena emerge from nothing. Rather, this empty, luminous, substrate consciousness transforms into the mental images, discursive thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and so on.

I would like to see that in a peer-reviewed scientific journal – “according to the experience of such contemplatives.” Wallace would have us just take the word of those who are authorities based upon their extreme skill at introspection. But science simply cannot function by relying upon the authority of individuals. Science must be objective and transparent.

In this statement we also see another major strategy of Wallace – shared with other dualists: he is playing with the language of material vs immaterial. How can a material brain create an immaterial mind? But this argument assumes its conclusion – that the mind is a thing that is not material. Rather, the mind is a process – it is not created by the brain, it is what the brain does. Wallace plays off semantic confusion to create an apparent (but false) paradox, then tries to resolve this alleged paradox by inserting his “substrate consciousness.”

Quantum Woo

It is interesting that so much of Eastern mysticism has looked to quantum weirdness for support. Deepak Chopra’s Hindu mysticism is often cloaked in quantum pseudobabble. Wallace too looks to quantum mechanics to give his mysticism the patina of scientific legitimacy. Notice in the first quote above he refers to the “vaccum state of consciousness.” He is using the language of quantum mechanics without applying its meaning – a classic feature of pseudoscience.

He writes:

While the full ontological and epistemological implications of modern physics, quantum mechanics in particular, certainly cannot be foreseen at this point, it does seem clear that they challenge the mechanistic, materialistic metaphysical framework that has dominated scientific research during the past two centuries. I would argue that it is the reductionistic axioms of scientific materialism, rather than the empirical facts of science itself, that have widened the breach between religion and science; and many prominent physicists and philosophers believe that modern physics is now revealing truths about the physical universe that may help bridge the rift between science and religion.

Here he is clearly trying to subvert science to validate his religion – a common apologist tactic but always fatally flawed. In my interview with Wallace he was big on quoting “prominent physicists” claiming that quantum mechanics supports mysticism. This is not, however, the consensus opinion and most physicists find it highly annoying that quantum mechanics is being so thoroughly abused in this way.

Quantum mechanics does not do away with scientific materialism. This is a complete misreading of the implications of quantum physics. The confusion stems largely from certain undeniably weird and non-deterministic effects that occur at the atomic and subatomic levels. Matter and energy at this scale display what is called wave-particle duality – they travel in waves but interact as particles. Also, the waves are waves of probability – an electron’s position can only be described as wave function of probability of it being in any particular location.

Other strange quantum effects include the uncertainty principle which holds that any particle has a minimum amount of uncertainty as to any pair of related attributes you care to measure. So if you look at vector and momentum, the more you know about one the less you know about the other, and there is a minimum total uncertainty that is impossible (as a fundamental law of nature, not a technological limitation) to eliminate.

Even more strange is quantum entanglement – that different particles will be entangled so that the properties of one are determined instantly by the properties of the other, even at vast distances.

Wallace uses these weird quantum effects to argue that physics supports rejecting a strict materialist explanation for phenomena that occur or are observed on the macroscopic level -like the functioning of the brain. There are two primary flaws with his reasoning, however, both stem from his misunderstanding of quantum mechanics.

The first is decoherence. While coherence is indeed strange, it does not violate the speed of light or other laws of physics because, while the two particles may be entangled, their connection cannot be used to transmit information faster than the speed of light. The coherence is not a real connection allowing for instantaneous information transfer – it just says something about their entangled origin. This means that the phenomenon of coherence cannot be invoked to explain ESP or any other paranormal phenomena that Wallace uses to argue for dualism.

Also, as entangled particles interact with the environment – with any other matter, they rapidly decohere. The entanglement goes away. Coherence as a phenomenon is really restricted to specific and exotic laboratory conditions. In the macroscopic world of large amounts of matter interacting with other matter, decoherence rapidly abolishes any effects of coherence. There this phenomenon is not relevant to brain function.

The second quantum fact missed by Wallace is the de Broglie wavelength. Louis de Broglie won the Nobel prize in 1929 for his work in quantum mechanics deriving the formula for calculating the effective wavelength of an electron. His equation actually apply to any physical object, including a person, or the neurons in our brains. The de Broglie wavelength of anything is equal to Planck’s constant (6.626 x10^-34) divided by the object’s momentum. For electrons, this gives a sizable wavelength. The bigger an object the smaller the de Broglie wavelength, and for macroscopic objects it is insignificantly small.

During the SGU interview Wallace was very impressed with recent experiments that show that large carbon molecules (so-called bucky balls, comprised of 60 carbon atoms) displayed the wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics in a classic double slit experiment. Wallace argued that this was evidence that such quantum effects are not limited by size and would scale up even to macroscopic objects.

However, this is simply not true. First, these carbon molecules are still 15 orders of magnitude smaller than the smallest macroscopic objects. So this is not a trivial extrapolation. But more importantly, the de Broglie wavelength clearly indicates that such effects would disappear for anything much larger than these 60-carbon molecules. de Broglie’s “wavelength characteristic” specifically refers to the quantum probability wave – the characteristic that gives small bits of matter their quantum weirdness.

In other words, as objects become larger the de Broglie wavelength effectively disappears and with it all quantum effects. At the macroscopic level the quantum world behaves like the classical world. Therefore de Broglie kills Wallace’s entire quantum argument.


I find Wallace’s position similar to the famous “kettle defense” – he seems to be marshaling whatever arguments he thinks he can use to defend his beliefs, but he is not articulating a coherent position. The reason is clear enough – he is making the classic mistake of starting with a desired conclusion (merging Buddhist mysticism with modern science) and then working backwards. To achieve these ends he tries but fails to make scientific arguments for dualism and he simultaneously tries to fudge the rules of science to sneak in mysticism as evidence to support his side.

Also he utterly mangles quantum mechanics theory in an attempt to argue that – science says the world is weird, and my beliefs are weird, therefore science supports my views. The logic of this argument fails, but it doesn’t matter because the premise if wrong – quantum weirdness disappears at the macroscopic level.

In the end Wallace does no better than anyone who tries to subvert science to support any ideology.

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