Guest: Buddhist scholar and author of the upcoming Mind in the Balance, Dr. Alan Wallace discusses Buddhism and atheism.
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Alex: Is the Dalai Lama an atheist?
“In the framing itself, the question is already skewed. It’s not so obvious to a person who’s totally immersed in western civilization and has almost no glimmering of understanding of anything outside of western civilization. Frankly, so much of the rhetoric, this antireligious rhetoric from the likes of Richard Dawkins and so forth, is just wildly unconsciously and uncritically ethnocentric. Do the Buddhist themselves, and I’m honing in on your question. Do the Buddhist themselves ask are we atheists? Well, I’ve never seen that question posed. In Buddhism that would be regarded as such a dumb and uninformed question that is not even worthy of a response.” — Dr. Alan Wallace
Alex: Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris.
On today’s episode, we have a lot to cover and we have a very interesting interview coming up. But before we get to that, I wanted to bring you up to date on the medium experiment because I know a lot of you are interested in that and have done a fantastic job of following it. Giving us feedback, both positive and negative, skeptics and believers if you will, and I wanted to bring you up to date on where we are.
So as most of you know, we’ve been doing this medium experiment over the last couple of months where we ask people who wanted to connect with their love ones to fill out an online survey and record a short message. Then we went out and asked several mediums to do a reading for that person. In doing this, we’ve collaborated with skeptical folks, folks from the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, skeptics who listen to this show. We tried to design the experiment that takes into account the skeptical view of medium readings.
So we’ve been doing this, it’s been very, very interesting, very preliminary at the same time. We’ve been poking around trying to find out what works. We’ve had some successes if you will in the first two trials, especially the second trial that showed some kind of interesting results. But then we did the third trial and it really threw me for a loop and it caused me to rethink a lot of aspects of this experiment. So with that mind I want to take some time today and step back and tell you where we’ve been and where we’re going. So let me start with the big picture stuff, my biggest takeaways thus far. Then I can tell you a little bit about where we’re going.
So the first big takeaway for me from the medium experiment is that there’s definitely something going on here and it’s absolutely just criminal that more researchers aren’t investigating this. At this point, I’ve had a chance to work with dozens and dozens of mediums, probably 30 or 40, and have been involved with well over 100 readings. I don’t even know exactly how many. For all those, I can tell you the information that I’ve seen come through is nothing short than amazing. They’re not always right, the mediums aren’t, but they’re way, way above chance levels and that’s just a gut feel without me putting any statistics on it. But my big takeaway from this is there’s definitely something going on and I feel so strongly about that because every once in a while you get these dazzlingly accurate, out of the blue insights that are impossible to explain by conventional means.
So the big takeaway, there’s something going on here. The second big takeaway is that experimentation in this field is not that hard really. This stuff is doable. The basic format that we’ve started up here where mediums listen to a brief recording and then answer multiple choice questions. It’s seeming like it’s a pretty good way to go about this. So this is all doable but it’s also tricky in some very subtle ways that we’re continuing to find out.
Let’s start from the beginning. You remember when I first started this experiment, I was really emphatic about saying that this is about anomalous cognition and that we shouldn’t ask the question is this mediumship versus remote viewing, psyc versus superpsyc or telepathy or any of those things until we just establish the basic fact that anomalous cognition is somehow going on here. I still hold by that. I think that’s correct. But what I didn’t see is the second half of that equation, the cold reading part. Now recall that cold reading means using ordinary logic and deduction to give the appearance of psychic abilities. But let me explain how that’s relevant to this experiment, how it factors in.
You may recall then on a couple of episodes back on Skeptiko, we heard from Dr. Steve Novella. His conclusion on the experiment was that even if we achieved success, we wouldn’t really be showing anything other than whether mediums are better cold readers than the rest of us. Now, while I don’t think Steve had that quite right, he did touch on a point that I’m coming to understand as more and more important and that’s that you can’t do an experiment like this, an experiment where you’re asking two groups to do multiple choice questions. You can’t do that and then draw too many conclusions about the overall results of the one group, the mediums, versus the other group, the skeptics. You can’t do that because, as Steve was alluding to, some folks are just better cold readers than others. Now I’m not sure that mediums fall into that category but let’s set that aside for a minute and deal with the fact that some folks are better at cold reading than others. We’ve definitely proven that in this experiment.
So that means two things, one, you really have to find your best cold readers, really study them. Number two, you really have to study what they’re coming up with. Like the example I gave you last time where a cold reader in trial two, concluded that since the sitter had an Australian accent they’d be less likely to be a murder victim. That’s good stuff, and it points out just how much some people can do with just a very little amount of information. So really taking into account the cold reader aspect of this experiment has caused me to come a different understanding of what this experiment is all about.
So here’s how I’d reframe the central question of this experiment based on what we’ve learned, and that’s this: can cold reading techniques explain the apparent anomalous cognition that mediums demonstrate? See, I don’t think you can just ask if mediums can demonstrate anomalous cognition because then you have folks like Steve’s saying, “Yes, but they’re just really good at cold reading.” What I really need to do is ask if I know that some people are really good at picking up these little clues from the sound of a person’s voice and their name, then let’s see how far they can go with that information. Then, let’s see if mediums can do better because really, that is the prevailing view among science at this standpoint. The prevailing view is that mediums are just using cold reading techniques. So what you have to do is find the best cold readers and really study their answers and see if their claim about cold reading really holds up.
Now there’s one other thing to interject about the cold reading claim, the cold reading hypothesis as it’s usually given and that’s that the explanation has to be explicit. Now I’ve gotten into it so you skeptics, you’re not allowed just to throw the cold reading blanket on there and say, “Maybe they can do it with cold reading techniques.” You should really be able to explicitly say, as you’ve done, as the good cold readers in our experiment have done. You need to say, “This is how this led to this.” If you leave it open, if you leave it “my gut feel,” if you leave it “my instinct,” any of that stuff, then you’re not doing cold reading and you’re entering into the realm of anomalous cognition that can’t be explained. So let’s make that clear: cold readers have to be able to explain how they do it if their claim is to have merit.
Now this change in how we view cold reading doesn’t result in any huge differences in the experiment but it does have some in the way we’ll set it up and do it in the future. Particularly, it’s going to have some impact in how we analyze the results. So if my big takeaway number one is that there’s definitely something going on, and number two is the experiment is doable but tricky in some subtle ways, then my final big takeaway is that this is a pretty big effort. The sooner I move it into the hands of university researchers the better because it’s taken way too much of my time. Not that I regret being as hands-on as I have been because it’s really given me a unique vantage point and a clear sense of how to do this and how to fund this research this in the future. But it’s definitely time to get some more researchers involved and that’s what we’re going to do.
That’s also an open invite if any of you are interested in receiving some funding to take on this research, e-mail me. I’ve already had several researchers who are in the queue on that but I’d love to have more of you to consider and I will definitely keep all of you updated as we go forward in selecting and funding people to do this. That doesn’t mean that I’m done doing it either. I’m going to be going forward as well but I really want to make it a priority to move this research to the next level because it’s ready. I’ve learned a lot and I have to move on and do some other things.
Okay, so with those three points out of the way, that’s enough about the big picture. Let’s talk about trial three and why I reshuffled the deck in the middle of the trial. First, the numbers. We had 40 cold readers go through the trial, none of them got all four correct. Then I had four of our best, at least best based on the two previous trials, go through the trial and none of them got all four right either. You hear the disappointment in my voice? I was disappointed, I really was. That’s when I jumped in and called a temporary stop to things.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been scrambling around trying to figure some things out because pretty quickly, in looking at the numbers, I realized that there was a lot going on. There’s a lot of interesting back stories from the little bit of data we got from our mediums and from the larger amount of data we got from our cold readers. Let me give you some of those back stories. First, not only did none of the cold readers get all answers correct, they really didn’t even come up with much cold reading stuff, and that’s good. That’s progress in terms of it shows that we were able to learn from our mistakes, if you will, in the first two trials and realize how to tighten up some of the information that we gave and made it harder for cold readers to do their things. As a matter of fact, we’ve even since then come up with some more ways and all that will just make it better and better.
So cold readers didn’t really come up with much, with one small exception and that’s a story in and of itself. A couple of cold readers looked at the first reading for Athena trying to connect with Elizabeth, and said, “Bam! That’s got to be the professional medium because only a medium would name their kid Athena.” Well, they were right in that Elizabeth was the medium and Athena was the daughter but it turns out they were a very strong Greek family and the naming of their daughter “Athena” had more to do with their ancestry and that being a very, very Greek name than anything else. So that’s really more of a lucky guess than anything else, but nonetheless, it’s an interesting connection.
There’s also a connection between this reading, Athena trying to connect with Elizabeth, and the other back story that I wanted to tell you about. It has to do with the quality of some of the readings that I did get through. I just mentioned earlier that none of the four mediums that we tested on trial three got all four of them right, nonetheless, some of the readings that they gave were amazingly accurate. I wanted to share one of those readings with you to give you a feel for what kind of readings we’ve been getting in these experiments. Also to highlight a point that I’ve often thought about but never had an opportunity to talk about. That is sitting from my vantage point and running this experiment with skeptics or cold readers on one hand and mediums on the other, as soon as you start doing that you immediate realize how completely different the process is for the two groups.
Now, skeptics naturally assume that mediums are doing the same thing that they’re doing, that they’re doing this cold reading stuff. As soon as you get into this you realize they’re doing anything but that, just the opposite of that. They want less information, not more. They want to totally engage their right brain and totally shut off their left brain. They complain whenever they have to use logic and deduction, and that’s been somewhat of a problem with the experiment. For example, having to type while you do a reading is difficult for some people.
So anyways, just as someone who’s been involved in this experiment, I just can’t stress that enough. It comes through so clearly that the way these people are getting this information is so completely different than what you would normally think if you assume they’re doing cold reading. That said, I know that doesn’t matter to a lot of you and you really need to see the results. I want to see the results too, but I can’t ignore the fact that that’s just painfully obvious as soon as you get in your work with these people.
So as a small way of demonstrating that, let me give you an example of one of the readings that we got for Athena trying to connect with Elizabeth and you can look how different this is than a cold reading process. Here it goes.
“I am the psychic,” she says very clearly. I had a hard time figuring out who this was so I just asked her to come through and then I’d know and that’s the first thing she says. She’s a very proud woman, almost regal in the way she holds herself, her posture. She says something about her cat, White. She’s with her husband. She says, “His poor heart misses me.” She says, “I finally have my son back. He’s with me now, better than ever.” I see a room in their house that’s very rich in color, decorated in reds and golds, very warm, curtains that filter the light, candles. It was her special place and that’s where her husband goes now to feel her. They have kept this room the same for her loved ones to spend time in.
She had a special drink that she always drank. It’s sweet and fruity, not sure if it’s wine or not. She’s also referring to “my books.” She says they have to be read. She says, “I was write about so many things, but there’s so much more to it than you know on your plane.” She’s very happy and at peace and highly progressed on the other side. She says she is around you often and guides and protects you but everything is still your choice. She says that, “my cause of death was that it was my time, time for me to fly and move on. Take care of yourselves, I love you and I’ll be waiting for you.”
Now some of you who are more skeptical might view that reading as just a usual kind of mumbo jumbo, tarot card, fluff stuff. But there’s a couple of points in there that are just amazingly accurate and we actually went back and confirmed them with the sitter. One small point is the point about the room and the fact that the husband never lets anyone go in the room, won’t sleep in the room. No one is allowed in the room except to go and talk to his deceased wife, that wasn’t in the description but comes through in the reading.
The second thing that is completely nonexistent in the description but comes through in the reading is confirmed by Athena is this issue of the books. There were these books and they were discovering her books and they found all these journals and these books that she’d written and they’re even trying to get them published. So this was something that was very important to her, no one knew about, we didn’t know about in the initial description but it’s something that turns out to be very important to the family, very important to the sitter.
So the fact that this reading was such a hit is an interesting back story to the little bit of data that we have, but it also points out some of the problems. Number one is, in the descriptions that we’ve been giving, we provide so much information that it makes it hard to understand whether the medium is coming through with any new information or is just somehow echoing back the information we’ve given in the description. So that’s something we want to change going forward because one of the things I’ve come to see is that the readings are important. Even if they present some problems in statistically measuring their accuracy, I think we want to create an experiment that allows the readings to come through unencumbered by a lot of detailed descriptions. That’s also something that our mediums are asking for again and again and again is, “Why so much description? Isn’t that really my job?”
So as I look at the clock here on my recording, I see that I’m already well past 15 minutes. Since I am less than halfway through describing all the changes that we are implementing with the new experiment, I think I better cut this off here. Leave room for my very interesting interview with Dr. Alan Wallace on Buddhism and atheism, somewhat of a follow up to the last episode of Skeptiko when that topic came up.
So I’ll certainly have much more to say about the medium experiment in the upcoming episodes of Skeptiko and stay with us for that. In the meantime, stick around for a great interview with Dr. Alan Wallace.
(Start of interview with Dr. Alan Wallace)
Alex: As many of you would recall, the last episode of Skeptiko featured an interview Denyse O’Leary, one of the co-authors of the book The Spiritual Brain. In the course of that interview, we meandered into a subject that stirred up a bit of a controversy among you, our listeners, and that’s the issue of Buddhism and atheism.
Well, as a way of following up on that, I’m very pleased to welcome back to Skeptiko, Dr. Alan Wallace, one of the foremost scholars and lecturers on Tibetan Buddhism in the west, an author of many books on the topic. If you go on Amazon and Google “Alan Wallace,” you’ll find Contemplative Science, Embracing the Mind, The Attention Revolution, Genuine Happiness with a preface by the Dalai Lama, and many, many other books. So Dr. Wallace, thank you for joining us and welcome back to Skeptiko.
Alan: My pleasure to join you once again.
Alex: As I said, this is really a response to something that came up last episode and there’s so many things that I’d love to talk to you about and time permitting we’ll get to all of that. But let’s jump right into this first issue. Obviously, in the last 10 years there’s been this resurgence of atheism and some would say angry atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, New York Times bestseller books. They’ve popularized this position that belief in God is anti-science and just plain dumb and whatever you think about that position that is what this new atheism is all about. I think where I’m coming out of this is when we encounter Buddhism, despite its popularization in recent years, it’s still a little foreign and strange to a lot of people in the west. Out of this soup of western culture that we all mix together, we have this idea that maybe Buddhism is somehow atheistic. We might have heard about that. So let me boil it down to a simple question, is the Dalai Lama an atheist?
Alan: This question is almost like, “Why do you beat your wife?” In the framing itself, the question is already skewed. It’s not so obvious to a person who’s totally immersed in western civilization and has almost no glimmering of understanding of anything outside of western civilization. Frankly, so much of the rhetoric, this antireligious rhetoric from the likes of Richard Dawkins and so forth, is just wildly unconsciously and uncritically ethnocentric. Underlying these critiques and it’s quite homogenous, Daniel Dennett should know better, is the frankly, uncritical and uninformed classification of Buddhism as a religion. That if it looks like a religion, it smells like a religion, it looked a lot like Christianity, there’s prayer and so forth, therefore it must be a religion.
What is ethnocentric about this is the very categories of religion including as well as philosophy, science, these are western constructs born out of Euro-American civilization. We take them uncritically as if these are somehow referring to real absolute entities and we simply discovered the definitions of these categories. Then just blandly, casually in the most cavalier fashion, superimpose them on traditions of inquiry and so forth that are outside of the western Euro-American nexus. So, this is just illegitimate. This is illegitimate as asking flat footedly whether the Dalai Lama is an atheist.
So this type of question, and of course I’m not criticizing you at all, it’s a perfectly legitimate question within an absolutely ethnocentric framework. It really calls for a deepening of one’s own framework and a critical reflective attitude about the nature of the question itself and the constructs that we bring to it. Number one, Buddhism is not simply a religion as defined by the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So we better take a fresh look. Within the Buddhist community, this is the question that’s virtually never posed by people like Dennett and Dawkins and so forth and so on.
Do Buddhists themselves ever ask themselves, “Is our tradition a religion?” No, they don’t because they might have a word that corresponds to our western term of religion. Do the Buddhists themselves, and I’m honing in on your question, does the Buddhists themselves ask are we atheists? Well, I’ve never seen that question posed. In Buddhism that would be regarded as such a dumb and uninformed question that is not even worthy of a response.
Now is your question worthy of a response, the answer is definitely yes. It’s coming out of a western context. But now the first question is not an answer to that question but a question to the question and that is when you ask is the Dalai Lama an atheist. Exactly what you mean by a theist or an atheist. So let’s start with an atheist is obviously is a person who’s not a theist. So who is a theist and which means, “What do you mean by God?” So if by this, by this term “God,” we’re referring to the God of Abraham, who’s male, who created the universe, who governs the universe. Punishes the disobedient and rewards the obedient. That’s who God is and God created the universe [inaudible 00:23:07] and he’s looking after you and responds to your prayers. Is omnipotent and omnipresent and omnibenevolent. Do Buddhists believe in such a God? No. I don’t think any Buddhist believe in that God, at least none that I ever met and the Dalai Lama doesn’t either. So if that is what you’re defining as God then the Dalai Lama is an atheist. Well the Dalai Lama, does he walk around thinking, “I’m an atheist, I’m an atheist.” I very much doubt it. It’s an absurd category because this whole Abrahamic notion, a rather prude and primitive one as I’ve expressed it, bringing in mind a much more subtle notions of the deity within Christianity, this is simply not an issue that even comes up in Buddhism.
So does Buddhism characterize itself as atheistic? The answer is definitely not. Is the Dalai Lama and Buddhism atheistic? With respect to that definition of God, which many Christians and Jews embrace, then the answer is yes.
Alex: Let me reflect back to you a couple of things that you brought up to me in the e-mail exchange that we had that really struck me as getting to the heart of this. The first is that you suggested that this kind of dialogue of lumping or trying to categorize Buddhism as atheistic is uninformed, and here’s the part I like, “quasi truth that creates confusion and alienation.” I’d like you to hone in on the confusion and alienation. Then I’d also like you to reflect on the essay that you sent me that I guess is published in your book, this is your point here. “Some take this position that Buddhism is atheism, to show the inferiority of Buddhism over their own creed. Others do it as a means of demonstrating Buddhism’s superiority over other religions. But on the whole, most people categorize Buddhism in this way because it’s the conventional position to take and they never think to question it.” Would you like to add anything to that?
Alan: Again, what I’m critiquing here is the unreflective, unself-critical use of the terms as if, that we’ve simply taken the categories of atheism and a theism, pluck them out of reality. Then asking how Buddhism stands out to that without recognizing that both of these categories, atheism and theism, are deeply imbedded within our own Euro-American culture, deeply imbedded specifically with the Abrahamic religions. So [inaudible 00:25:32] some of them whom are sympathetic to Buddhism. They like to present Buddhism as being atheistic because it shows Buddhism is not as delusional as religions they regarded as being completely whacko. But then they want to subsume Buddhism into their own materialistic framework, very eager to do so which is just an utter violation and evisceration of Buddhism.
Now Christians there are some, and of course there are all kinds of Christians. Some are very sympathetic to Buddhism, open minded and others not so open minded or sympathetic. But I’ve read this repeatedly in print, Christians, sometimes Jews, certainly Muslims, like to depict Buddhism as atheistic, but as if they have to franchise on determining and defining what is God, in which case who gave them that right? Did God give them that right? If they believe so, then all very well, but this is rather again simply naively ethnocentric and unworthy of cross-cultural discussion.
Alex: I think that’s really interesting and I would add a little personal anecdote. I’m not a Buddhist but I’ve been inspired and influenced by some thinkers of that tradition. In particular, I remember back going through a phase when I was really quite a bit angry about my Christian upbringing, something a lot of people go through. I remember reading the book, Living Buddha, Living Christ by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. I thought that book was a real opening for me because what he did, and he comes from a different Buddhist tradition than you most know about, the Tibetan tradition.
Alan: Quite so, yes.
Alex: But he shows in a deeper way how these traditions might be linked at a deeper level that we don’t appreciate unless we start pulling things apart. Both pulling them apart and then putting them back together. So pulling apart the ethnocentric or the cultural aspects to it, but then also looking deeper and exploring what might be the underlying spiritual dimension to these traditions. So any thoughts on that and in particular, how different Buddhist traditions, and there are many, and there are many different viewpoints as I understand it within each tradition, and how all those come to bear on untangling this mess?
Alan: Indeed, yes. It’s a very rich question. I agree with you this book by Thich Nhat Hanh is a marvelous read. There’s a somewhat similar and also very thought provoking book by the Dalai Lama called The Good Heart. His dialogues with a marvelous Benedictine monk named Brother Lawrence Freeman, on the interface between Christianity and Buddhism. For what its worth, within less than two weeks my latest book will be published called Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity.
There’s a lot of Christianity in it. I’m treating Christianity with great sympathy and I hope some insight. Looking into occurrence of meditative practice and theory that if run through the Christian tradition from earliest times right to the times of the dessert fathers, the medieval era. Right up to the time of the renaissance and somewhat right into the present day. Showing, I think very significant parallels in the kind of methods that are used of contemplative inquiry and the type of insights that are gleaned from such meditative practices. Drawing parallels between these type of practice and theories with Buddhism which then raises the whole issue or allows us to take a fresh look I think at the very notion of divinity within Christianity that is not all that kind of character that I presumed as earlier. But from a contemplative perspective they’re much, much deeper.
More nuance than I think profoundly experiential notions of other divine, which actually has very strong parallels, remarkable parallels with some of the deepest contemplative insights within Buddhism. Obviously, this is something for each reader to judge for him or herself. But I’ve done my best to draw some meaningful parallels and acknowledging the difference. Also planning out of the, I believe, meaningful parallels in modern science that may point to the same reality.
So I think that would be a basic stance, is to look more carefully at the different notions of the transcendent within the western traditions, the Abrahamic traditions as well as various forms of eastern spirituality, not only the many schools of Buddhism but also Taoism, Confucianism. Bring some nuance to it and then as you say, break them apart and then put them back together so that we can approach all of these traditions in a sympathetic way, a charitable way. Seeking as much understanding from them as possible and not as little as possible.
Alex: That’s wonderful. One other point I want to approach this from, and it came up in my discussion with Denyse O’Leary and The Spiritual Brain. I kind of drew out the difference in how I see Christianity, and again those terms fail us when we talk about Christians and Buddhist. Of course, it’s just not a homogeneous group. But I really appreciate the Dalai Lama’s position on the relationship between science and new discoveries, particularly in consciousness research and how that would affect his faith, his religion. The way I read that and I want you to steer me and tell me if I’m wrong here, but he is open to whatever discoveries come about because he is about seeking the truth. Therefore, science is his ally in understanding the truth.
What I really called upon Denyse to do or what I lamented is that more Christians don’t seem to take this perspective and they seem to take a defensive perspective vis à vis science and say, “Science, you can’t prove anything that I believe wrong.” It just seems that when you turn the equation around like my understanding of the way that the Dalai Lama has is say, “You don’t have to prove anything. It’s not about proving me wrong, it’s about let’s go arm in arm together and just try and discover this mystery. Try and unravel it and try and discover the truth. That will really get us all to where we want to be.” Any thoughts on that?
Alan: Sure. As you can imagine I have quite a few. I think the place I want to start is a fundamental distinction between Christianity as it has evolved especially over the last 1,500 years, and Buddhism. That is in Christianity salvation is a gift of God, whether you’re a Roman Catholic, whether you’re a protestant, salvation is a gift and one receives the gift by way of faith, by way of belief, by way of obedience but not by way of knowledge.
So in the Jewish tradition, we go back there we’ll see that God rewards his children who are obedient but punishes those who are disobedient. The very notion that Islam is one of submitting to God’s will, submitting to God’s will and those who submit to God’s will, follows God’s will then open for themselves the path to salvation. So it’s really all about faith, beliefs and obedience and then worship of course and good deeds. But primarily the proceeding in Buddhism, the path to liberation, the means to liberation is above all, and it’s very explicit in Buddhism, it’s knowledge. It’s knowing reality as it is and not simply philosophical knowledge or inferential or conceptual knowledge but direct empirical knowledge through immediate experience. This is what liberates. What we are liberated from are the tendencies of ignorance and delusion as well as derivative mental imbalances and afflictions such as craving and hostility.
So science is foremost and above all a tradition of knowledge. That comes with assumptions, it comes with [inaudible 00:33:17], theological influences, philosophical biases, all kinds of things. But above all, what makes science, science is that it’s a method of inquiry and the discoveries made by using the myriad of methods of inquiry of the scientific community. So in this regard, it would appear that science and Buddhism would be natural allies that is both of all place the highest priority not on obedience or conformity or faith or simple belief or submission but rather knowledge.
So in this regard, yes, the Buddha does want to join arm in arm with the scientific community. Recognizing there are complementary strengths to scientific and Buddhist, especially Buddhist contemplative and philosophical inquiry. The great strengths of science being the use of technology to observe and to investigate objective, physical, quantifiable phenomena, that includes individual subjective reports. Their verbal reports of their mental state, their behavior, brain state themselves, environmental, physical influences on the brain and behavior on the mind. Western science, I’m referring now especially to the cognitive sciences, is very strong in this regard. Buddhism doesn’t have the technology, the MRI, the EEG and many, many other, the behavior methods or the statistical analysis and so forth. So this is a great strength of the western tradition.
But when it comes above all to the study of the mind, which is utterly central to Buddhism that didn’t even enter into scientific inquiry until the late 19th century. When it comes to the study of the mind, the great strength of Buddhism is the direct observation and penetrating investigation of the mind from a first person perspective, which after all is the only way that we have any direct way of measuring any mental phenomena at all. So in this way there’s a complementary.
Now the Dalai Lama has repeatedly stated, and I know he completely means it, that if the scientific community shows compelling empirical evidence to repudiate any Buddhist claim including some of the core planes, even reincarnation and so forth or the nature of the mind. Then, Buddhism will follow the truth, will follow the evidence. What Buddhism will not follow are simply the metaphysical assumptions that saturate so much of the mind sciences, which in fact are hardly ever called into question, and for which there are virtually no methods for even repudiating or putting these assumptions to the test.
To give a couple of examples, all mental states and processes, all states of consciousness are generated solely by the brain in relationship with the body, the physical environment and the social environment. That is an assumption that’s virtually never questioned in the scientific community, yet it’s never put to the test, and there’s virtually no discussion about whether it’s even true. It’s never been validated, it’s hardly even being tested. Another statement, all mental states and processes, all states of consciousness are themselves biological processes within the brain. That may be true but nobody’s ever demonstrated it and in fact the relationships between the subjective experience and the neural correlates remains a mysterious one. No one has ever demonstrated that it is a correlation of equivalents.
A third and final one is that at death a brain does in particular, all mental states, processes, states of consciousness vanish because they’re simply immersion properties or functions of the brain. That’s an assumption that never gets tested, is never even called into question and has never been validated. Buddhism is not going to go along, at least Buddhists like the Dalai Lama are certainly not going to go along with metaphysical assumptions that saturate scientific inquiry, often presented as scientific truth without any empirical evidence and that are never even put to the test. For Buddhists like the Dalai Lama to accept that, we would simply have to be naïve, gullible and have a lemming mentality that goes along with the herd without ever questioning the direction the herd is going in.
Alex: Right. I think the trend line on the cutting edge of consciousness research is really pointing in a direction that is very complementary to the Buddhist perspective on that. We’ll see how it all pans out. I just think that that is the way in my view to bridge this false dichotomy of science versus religion. I know religion is a fuzzy word to attach to Buddhism, but still, the way to overcome that false dichotomy is to join arms and say, “We all just want the truth, let’s figure out the best tools and means to get there.” I think that’s exactly what you said.
Let me switch on the final topic that I wanted to talk about today. I want to touch on meditation and you talk about contemplative science and first person observations of the mind. I think you’re talking about in simple terms, meditation. For many of us in the west that’s still almost a character if you will of Buddhism is this connection with meditation.
In our forum, in the Skeptiko forum, we’ve had some very interesting discussions about meditation. Some people who are wondering how to get started in meditation or are just curious or not so curious and don’t think it’s such a great thing. I just want to point people to, and I thought you could take a minute to talk about your podcast series, on meditation. I think it’s outstanding and from someone who has to really work at their meditative practice like I do and that’s why I’m still on your first or your second series which I’ve listened to probably 100 times, the same one over and over again. But tell us a little bit about if you would your podcast series and meditation from a western perspective if you will, because I think that’s what really to me came through and came alive in the meditation series that you offer. Like I said, I’ve listen to many, many and read many, many books over the years and I really found yours especially good for me I guess is the only way I can say it.
Alan: Let’s look briefly at this word “meditation” which once again we need to bear in mind is an English word, not a science word or Tibetan word. The English word “meditation” traces back to the Latin root which means “to measure.” So meditation, I’m going to come back to Buddhism, but actually even though this is a western entomology, it’s actually quite useful even in the Buddhist context. That is in so far as we’re interested in understanding subjective experience, our immediate experience of the body, immediate experience of the environment, and then above all our own minds. There is no technology devised yet that can directly measure any type of subjective experience at all. Directly observe, directly detect, not even physical pain and very well trained physicians know this well. They know about neurocircuitry and so forth, parts of the brain, nerve endings and all of that, but it is not a one to one correlation to pain. Even if it were a one to one correlation, simply finding the neural correlates pain does not imply that the neural correlates themselves are pain.
So if one is really interested in understanding mental phenomena, then like any other branch of science the primary mode of inquiry according to Buddhism and according to Galileo for the entire physical universe is observe it carefully and directly. This is a major feature of meditation. To observe carefully, rigorously, critically one’s own state, mental processes and states and so forth. Not only simply to understand them which is crucial, but understand them in order to learn how to heal the mind of its inflictive tendencies and bring forth from the mind its own inner resources of qualities that are conducive to our own and others’ wellbeing. Qualities of mindfulness, of equanimity, of attentional skills, of generosity and so forth.
So this podcast series is I think made available over the Santa Barbara Institute for Conscious Studies of which I’m the director, the website SBInstitute.com. So there’s a whole series there and the essential theme here is to make these available to people whether they’re Buddhist or not Buddhist, with no sense of trying to convert anybody to a world view. But simply make available and make which I believe very rich, provocative and insightful methods of first person contemplative inquiry that can be used by anyone.
I’m hoping in the process of this that the Christians themselves, the Christian community will rediscover their own immensely rich heritage which has been largely obscured over the last few centuries by various factors I won’t go into right now. But I’d love to see something of a contemplative renaissance taking place within the Jewish tradition, the Christian, the Muslim and so forth so that when religious people come together, we’re not limited to talking about or debating our metaphysical beliefs. Likewise, in religious and science conferences, meetings, encounters, we’re not simply squaring off and with the religious people trying to defend their beliefs while the scientists are defending their beliefs in the midst of also presenting empirical data. But in fact that the contemplatives from various religious traditions and Buddhist that we can all show for the time being our metaphysical assumptions, both materialistic as well as theistic as well none theistic. Show for the time being even assumptions about reincarnation, karma and so forth. Shelving doesn’t mean to dismiss or repudiate or even marginalize, it just means that it’s set to the side and focus on the experience.
In so doing and proposing this, I’m really following the strategy of William James, he’s one of my heroes, in his promotion of what he called “radical empiricism.” That is it’s come right back to immediate experience itself, take it seriously wherever it leads us and not shunt off or marginalize types of experiences that do not correspond to or somehow may be called into question some of our most deeply cherished assumptions. Whether they’re Christian, Buddhist or materialistic, let’s get back to experience.
Alex: Great. I think there couldn’t be a better way to end it. I thank you again for your time and hopefully this will generate some more interesting discussion and of course, there’s always more in your books. I also would encourage people to visit SBInstitute.com. Dr. Wallace, thanks again for joining us.
Alan: Thank you for the opportunity.
(End of interview with Dr. Alan Wallace)
Alex: Thanks again to Dr. Alan Wallace for joining us today on Skeptiko. If you’d like more information about Dr. Wallace, including a link to his new book, Mind in the Balance, visit the Skeptiko website at Skeptiko.com. I also invite you to take part in our Skeptiko forum, which has quite a lively discussion on these topics. Also on our website, you’ll find a link to all our previous shows, an e-mail link for me where you can drop me a note. That’s going to do it for today, until next time, bye for now.
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