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Contemplative ScienceReview - Contemplative Science
Where Buddhism And Neuroscience Converge
by B. Alan. Wallace
Columbia University Press, 2006
Review by A.P. Bober
Apr 24th 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 17)

   Wallace argues that modern science misses what is not materialist and can't be studied objectively.  It misses the entirety of what we think of a spiritual and which we can only reach by first-person accounts.  He marshals arguments relative to neuroscience and quantum physics to show how Western science doesn't work and how it can be made to do so.  An experiential science that captures the best of the objective and subjective, East and West, in the form of "contemplative science" offers a broader and deeper way to knowledge of human experience of the world.

   Subtitled Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge, Wallace presents a studious meditator's insights into Buddhism complementing Dr. James Austin's Zen-Brain Reflections [in my review in Metapsychology Online Reviews, Vol. 10, No. 37] while centrally critiquing the materialism of neurologists like Antonio Damasio.  The eight chapters, clearly taken from four of his five papers in the bibliography and from at least as many of eight listed books, span the range of convergences with christianity, collision of science as Greek rational empiricism and religion, reductively objectivist materialism, the interesting issue of how nontheist Buddhism is, Baconian idols updated, refinement of attention peaking in the great perfection, and empathetic interaction ascending to the four immeasurables.

   His core argument relentlessly seeks to dismantle a materialism he considers incapable of examining illuminative unitivity, at least as the extinguishment of the nirvanic flame or as Buddhism's luminous moonlit nothingness.  Wallace's thrust against neuro-cognitive scientists (153) is four-pronged.  Regarding consciousness:  they have not defined it and, partly for that, cannot detect its presence scientifically; they have not framed its neural correlates or its necessary and sufficient conditions.  He would no doubt support the kind of objection they commonly face:  importing an undefined notion of mind not more modern than Descartes'; correlating it with radio-magnetic-imaging bumps by phrenological fiat; calling "qualia" the emotion unconvincingly distinguished from feeling; ignoring effects of others' words or of life experiences they can't control, often, in effect, explaing running by the functioning of the handicapped qua brain-damaged.

   He wishes to promote Buddhism's refined attention-training, samatha, as the equivalent of our narrow Western science, much as many of us would offer the graphic artist's attention as similarly empirical.  No doubt the scientist would retort that neither discipline tests and eliminates hypotheses, but Wallace offers a round of aguments to show how they could converge as contemplative science.  In that vein the book's heart (114-24) arrives at peace-giving intersubjective empathy in the four immeasurables that remind me of Tolstoy's story of a prince's compassionate caring for a would-be assassin that rotates the latter's hatred 180 degrees past 90-degree indifference (120), taking that motivational "black cloud" (124) into himself, a practice you would avoid without the bubbles (143) technique to handle it.  This section supports Mantak Chia's mix of Buddhism with Taoism as in thankfully smiling to our organs, here extended to identifying with compassionate others, techniques whose physiological effects masters learned intuitively and passed on rather than crunching them from adding-machine methods.

   His classical etymology seems unexceptionable, though he sets nocebo as wounding against placebo's (154) pleasing suggestion, missing the point that psychologists and neurologists traditionally eschew hypnotism, or other-guided focus, as an explanation.  His indexing shows shortcomings, as when a nonexistent "noted earlier" reference (7) to Augustine perhaps later edited out joins the likely locus (4) he fails to include.  And a glossary of tightly defined concepts would have reduced the difficulty his Asian terms create peaking in an apparently important part of Chapter Five (98-99).  There, unfortunately, he conflates critical concepts–self, "I," and probably ego.  Blending what are in effect eight distinct essays cannot yield the unity of a monograph.  A capstone reprise might have helped.

   The reader will want Wallace to answer certain questions.  Can "mental bliss" (143) be other than "physical bliss," in, of, and through the body without being (97, 131?) impossibly externalized?  He may also wonder how quantum physics fits in.  Wallace implies (158) that sciences like physics may not be "hard" but hard-headed, perhaps not as hard as social-behavioral sciences where molecules change their minds in midstream.  I appreciate his implied doubts about a deductive symbolic discipline like mathematics (86) that rests on arbitrary cultural counting labels and rules of relationship, as well as on unevident axioms.  Despite my support  for the idea (92) that the presumption of an anchored, local particle makes non-local influence impossible by fiat, as in my review of Clarke's Ways of Knowing  [Metapsychology Online Reviews, Vol. 9, No. 36],] he would have done better to put this difficult-to-relate line of argument in a separate work.  The reader might also like to see concrete examples of his championed first-person approach, such as a currently flourishing humanistic psychology could supply within a Husserlian frame.  Its grounded theory would work, but Wallace either doesn't know that "third force" psychology or dismisses it out of hand.  In the face of what Wallace states or implies (53, 82, 105-7, 143, 147), this reader, at least, would want him to say more, and more positively, about affinities of Buddhist meditation with mystical experience, offering for his consideration that mysticism:  is emotional; originates internally, never externally; isn't withdrawal, non-existent trance, selflessness, or passive tranquility; doesn't negate or diminish individuality, but rather expands it; can't be compared if adequately communicated; is never the experience of "nothing," an undescribed experience of something so labelled.

   This last brings us full circle to Austin's Zen-brain where, in the cited review, I mentioned the UPenn medical-school work of neurologists D'Aquili and Newberg that would have thrilled Wallace as a materialism-goes-spiritual ground for his contemplative science.  No one could dislike the Austin-like quotes from Buddhists unknown to the general reader.  I particularly felt the splash of the vajra quote that nicely compares (163) the dualist's murder of monist spontaneity to water freezing in a cold wind.  We would expect a Buddhologist like Wallace, Dr. Austin as well, to have us read the life of Gautama as the discovery of a way to liberation.  But could it be that a hight-caste scion turned guilt into a system requiring no structural redistribution to relieve the suffering of the poor his dad kept unliberated?  Doesn't suffering bring exquisiteness to emotional life, oddly avoided in Buddhism, provided it's not hopeless or structurally imposed?  Moreover, doesn't a reincarnated buddha reinstate the pain-causing wheel of birth and death?

   Any reader looking for logical objections to Western science will gain additional ammunition from Wallace, whether or not he gleans a clear meaning for the key concept of substrate consciousness or finds Wallace's program, spiritedly logical, convincing on the whole.  Almost without exception the sophisticated general reader will get what Wallace is saying without strain.

© 2007 A. P. Bober

A.P. Bober has studied a psychology spanning Skinner and a humanistic-clinical view based on existential phenomenology and had been a PhD candidate in a substantive yet philosophic European-based sociology including the "critical" view.  His teaching augmented courses in group theory/"small-group developmental dynamics" (lab) while introducing "sociology of knowledge" and "issues in biological anthropology," with publications in the first two fields.  Currently he is writing a book on mystical experience as metaphorically tied to neuroendocrinology.


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