I recently watched a debate between Wallace and Searle, certainly two intellectual giants on the topic of consciousness. Searle is well known for his contribution to the philosophy of mind. He has grappled with the hard questions: what is consciousness? What is the mind? In doing so, he has also become a formidable opponent and critic of many philosophical arguments he considers unsound; physicalism, reductionism and mind-body dualism to name a few. Wallace is not as well known, but an intellectual samurai in his own right. A previous Tibetan Monk, Wallace has returned to civilization to pursue a degree in physics. His major contributions have been in the study of science and spirituality, Buddhism and quantum physics. He asks the somewhat controversial question: what can Buddhism and meditation do for science? He advocates a contemplative science, where empirical research is complimented by well-trained meditative minds. He is also a powerful critic of the modern scientific bias of materialism; attacking it for its narrow-mindedness and metaphysical baggage.
So, how was the actual debate? It went in two directions. Wallace made a case for studying consciousness through a contemplative science, while Searle made his case for the mind as a natural phenomenon, a product of evolution. Just as we have begun to understand the origins of life, Searle argues, we will understand the origin of mind, and it will be a natural, material observation.
One major misunderstanding I felt on Searle’s part was that he was not very informed about meditative states of consciousness. To the point where it seemed altogether novice. I was a bit surprised by this. He made a few naive comments, (paraphrasing), on how meditation is great for living a peaceful life and making people more compassionate, but what does that have to do with how the mind works?” He “wants to know,” he kept repeating. Basically, his response was: but what does meditation have to do with the actual science of the mind? How can counting breath and experiencing samadhi have anything to do with how consciousness emerges in the brain? He wanted the mechanics of it, and saw Wallace as merely advocating something entirely off topic.
Unfortunately, Wallace may not have helped this situation become clearer. I was hoping he would state the obvious response: meditative states, and trained meditators working with neuroscientists could help probe the depths of consciousness, various states and reveal first-person knowledge of how their consciousness was arising. Meditation is an ancient, first person science, an exploration or navigation of the mind. Wallace himself compared it Galileo’s inner telescope, or a Hubble telescope to probe the depths of the mind. Neuroscientists could become best buddies with monks and meditators, whose minds were honed to probe these depths with apparent ease. The possibilities of an inner telescope, and an outer microscope are beyond enticing.
Instead, Wallace asserted that neuroscience might be able to figure out particular components of conscious experience, but not consciousness itself. He particularly argued that neuroscience had made no progress in this area. Searle mentioned various “contrary” examples: we can understand how animals see the world, what kind of colors they can detect, etc. Wasn’t this progress? He also demonstrated the great progress in understanding mental illness and treating the brain. I think they are both correct, but Wallace was getting to the heart of the matter: consciousness, as in that bare awareness we all have of ourselves and the environment, is something neuroscience has yet to touch. It’s not that neuroscience has made no progress in understanding consciousness. But it has barely scratched the surface. It can map out experiences in greater detail, but not consciousness itself.
Searle could have argued in response that, yes, that’s true, but consciousness is the sum of all those components (I suppose, without going into epiphenomenon). At any rate, they were both good debaters and kept things light and friendly. Searle even went out of his way to acknowledge Wallace’s work and say neuroscience could benefit from exploring meditation.
In the end, a majority of the questions went to Searle. I wonder if that is because he is somewhat of a philosophical celebrity? At any rate, Wallace was a good sport about it, and I would love to hear more of his lectures.
If you are unfamiliar with Wallace, you might like to check out his latest book: Mind in the Balance. Heard it is much less academic and very approachable in style. I’ll be ordering that one tomorrow.