What Constitutes Compelling Evidence, and for Whom? — B. Alan Wallace

B. Alan WallaceThe following post is by B. Alan Wallace, most recently the author of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice and Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity. For more, you can also read our recent interview with B. Alan Wallace:

“Exceptional claims require exceptional evidence” is presented as the heart of the scientific method, and a model for critical thinking, rational thought and skepticism everywhere. But it begs the questions, what constitutes an exceptional claim versus an ordinary claim, and who determines this distinction? When it comes to the relation between the body and mind, one might assume that contemporary scientists and philosophers have the authority to determine the difference between exceptional and ordinary claims. But that assumption is problematic for two reasons: (1) scientific and philosophical views vary widely in today’s society, and (2) contemporary Euro-centric views are not the indisputable arbiters of truth for humanity as a whole.

While the reductionist views of atheist, or materialist, scientists and philosophers dominate scientific discourse and the popular media, they by no means represent a consensus view within the two communities, let alone all educated people. According to a poll published in the Scientific American in 1914, 40% of scientists stated that they believed in God. A poll with the same set of questions was again conducted in 1997, also reported in the Scientific American, and it indicated that 40% of scientists still believe in God. So no one view—either materialist or non-materialist—can be said to represent the scientific community as a whole. Likewise, according to a survey done by the philosopher David Chalmers, 11% of contemporary philosophers are non-materialist, so they represent a significant minority. But more important is his finding that there was nothing of importance the “philosophical community” at large agrees upon. So when it comes to the mind-body problem, there is no consensus about what constitutes an exception versus an ordinary claim.

The same is true of hypotheses regarding unresolved issues in quantum mechanics, particularly the so-called “measurement problem.” As I write in Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic, “In his recent book entitled Quantum, science writer Manjit Kumar cites a poll about the interpretation of quantum mechanics, taken among physicists at a conference in 1999. Of the ninety respondents, only four said they accepted the standard interpretation taught in every undergraduate physics course in the world, thirty favored the ‘many-worlds interpretation’ formulated by the Princeton theoretician Hugh Everett III (1930–82), while fifty replied, ‘none of the above or undecided.’ The real implications of quantum physics seem to be hidden in a cloud of uncertainty.”

Let us briefly examine some of the hypotheses regarding the mind-problem that are taken seriously in the scientific-philosophical community today and judge for ourselves whether we deem them to be exceptional or ordinary. One popular theory is that the mind and brain are identical, as indicated by the fact that the two terms are commonly used interchangeably in today’s media. When two things that appear to be different but are in fact the same, we invariably find that they have many, if not all, qualities in common. The brain has only physical properties (e.g., mass, spatial dimensions, and density), which can be measured in various ways with the instruments of technology. Subjective mental experience, on the other hand, displays no physical qualities when observed directly by means of introspection; and it is undetectable by all methods of physical measurement. By any objective standard, this equation of mind and brain would therefore be regarded as exceptional, for there is no evidence the mind is physical and compelling evidence that it is not physical. As neuroscientist Cristof Koch comments, “Are they really one and the same thing, viewed from different perspectives? The characters of brain states and of phenomenal states appear too different to be completely reducible to each other.”

A second view that is widely accepted by both scientists and philosophers is that all mental processes are functions of the brain, or as Marvin Minksy, one of the fathers of computer science and cofounder of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT, comments, “The mind is what the brain does.” But in the entire known universe, all functions of physical phenomena are themselves physical and therefore lend themselves to physical measurement. Moreover, when an entity is observed, one commonly observes its functions simultaneously and with the same means of measurement. But, as noted previously, subjective mental processes cannot be measured physically. Moreover, when they are directly observed introspectively, the brain does not appear to one’s mind’s eye; and when the brain is measured objectively, mental processes are invisible.

A third view that has gained popularity among both cognitive scientists and physicists is the belief in panpsychism, namely that all matter is conscious to some degree and that higher states of consciousness correspond to degrees of complexity of information feedback loops. Physicist Michio Kaku has recently proposed that a thermostat has the lowest possible level of consciousness while humans, with our ability to move through space and project ourselves mentally backward and forward in time, represent the highest level currently known. The fact that there is no empirical evidence that elementary particles, atoms, molecules, or cells (let alone thermostats) have their own individual consciousnesses indicates that this is an exceptional claim, unsupported by any empirical evidence. And the fact that no cogent explanation has ever been presented to explain how the individual consciousnesses of brain cells, for instance, bind into the whole that we experience in daily life indicates that this far-fetched theory is also unsupported by logic.

While scientists are free to philosophize as much as anyone else, the belief that they their speculations are established scientific facts is literally pseudo-scientific, regardless of how many of their fellow scientists agree with them. They do not even lend themselves to empirical verification or refutation, so such beliefs do not even rise to the level of scientific theories. They are merely opinions. The fact is that the scientific-philosophical community simply does not know the actual nature of mind-brain correlations. Nor do physicists understand what constitutes a measurement that presumably but inexplicably collapses the wave function in quantum mechanics. Perhaps there will be some consensual understanding of these problems in the future. But for now, to present any of the above theories as scientific truths, is, to use the phrase of historian Daniel J. Boorstin, to promote “illusions of knowledge,” and these, he rightly points out, have historically acted as the greatest impediments to scientific discovery.

To place this issue in a cross-cultural context, claims that appear ordinary to materialists often appear to be exceptional to Buddhist philosophers and contemplatives, and claims that are regarded as exceptional by the scientific community may be deemed commonplace facts, well established through rigorous contemplative inquiry by Buddhist communities. As I have discussed in my book Mind in the Balance, unlike all the above reductionist views of the relation between the mind and body, Buddhists do have a theory that can be tested both through rigorous, first-person methods of contemplative inquiry and through objective scientific means. This Buddhist theory is not “dualistic” in the Cartesian sense of the term, but rather “pluralistic” along the line of thinking of William James. More broadly speaking, the notion that the entire universe consists only of configurations of mass-energy and space-time—the types of phenomena that can be measured scientifically—is a truly exceptional claim and one that is unsupported by exceptional evidence.

1 Response

  1. It would have been interesting to have Dr.Wallace deal with another and quite popular view of the mind-body connection, viz. that the mind is an epiphenomenon of the brain or of brain activity. Thus it would not be the brain (identity theory) but would nevertheless be dependent upon the brain. How such an epiphenomenon emerges is, on this view, still a mystery. But it seems to be supported by the fact that there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of a mind or mind activity absent a brain as well as the diminishment of mind activity as the brain is degraded whether through chemical or physical means.

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