Buddha on the brain

Ex-monk B. Alan Wallace explains what Buddhism can teach Western scientists, why reincarnation should be taken seriously and what it's like to study meditation with the Dalai Lama.

Topics: Religion, Atoms and Eden, Author Interviews, Neuroscience, Books,

Buddha on the brain

The debate between science and religion typically gets stuck on the thorny question of God’s existence. How do you reconcile an all-powerful God with the mechanistic slog of evolution? Can a rationalist do anything but sneer at the Bible’s miracles? But what if another religion — a nontheistic one — offered a way out of this impasse? That’s the promise that some people hold out for in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama himself is deeply invested in reconciling science and spirituality. He meets regularly with Western scientists, looking for links between Buddhism and the latest research in physics and neuroscience. In his book “The Universe in a Single Atom,” he wrote, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

B. Alan Wallace may be the American Buddhist most committed to finding connections between Buddhism and science. An ex-Buddhist monk who went on to get a doctorate in religious studies at Stanford, he once studied under the Dalai Lama, and has acted as one of the Tibetan leader’s translators. Wallace, now president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, has written and edited many books, often challenging the conventions of modern science. “The sacred object of its reverence, awe and devotion is not God or spiritual enlightenment but the material universe,” he writes. He accuses prominent scientists like E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins of practicing “a modern kind of nature religion.”

In his new book, “Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge,” Wallace takes on the loaded subject of consciousness. He argues that the long tradition of Buddhist meditation, with its rigorous investigation of the mind, has in effect pioneered a science of consciousness, and that it has much to teach Western scientists. “Subjectivity is the central taboo of scientific materialism,” he writes. He considers the Buddhist examination of interior mental states far preferable to what he calls the Western “idolatry of the brain.” And he says the modern obsession with brain chemistry has created a false sense of well-being: “It is natural then to view psychopharmaceutical and psychotropic drugs as primary sources of happiness and relief from suffering.” Wallace also chastises cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists for assuming the mind is merely the product of the physical mechanics of the brain. And he talks openly about ideas that most scientists would consider laughable, including reincarnation and a transcendent consciousness.



In conversation, Wallace is a fast talker who laughs easily and often gets carried away with his enthusiasm. I spoke with him by phone about the Buddhist theory of consciousness, his critique of both science and Christianity, and why he thinks reincarnation should be studied by scientists.

Why do you think Buddhism has an important perspective to add to the science and religion debate?

Buddhism has a lot to add for a number of reasons. Some are simply historical. Especially since the time of Galileo, there has been a sense of unease, if not outright hot war, between religion and science in the West. And Buddhism is coming in as a complete outsider. It’s not theistic, as is Christianity. At the same time, it’s not just science, as is physics or biology. And there’s another reason why Buddhism may bring a fresh perspective. While there’s no question that Buddhism has very religious elements to it — with monks and temples, rituals and prayers — it does have a broad range of empirical methods for investigating the nature of the mind, for raising hypotheses and putting them to the test.

There’s a common assumption that science and religion are entirely separate domains. Science covers the empirical realm of facts and theories about the observable world, while religion deals with ultimate meaning and moral value. But you don’t accept that dichotomy, do you?

Not at all. In fact, most religious people don’t. This is a notion that’s been brought up by Stephen Jay Gould with his whole notion of “non-overlapping magisteria.” But it’s never been true. All of the great pioneers of the scientific revolution — Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and on into the 19th century with Gregor Mendel — they were all Christians. And their whole approach to science was deeply influenced by Christianity. Religion, whether we like it or not, is making many truth claims about the natural world as well as the transcendent world. And now that science is honing in on the nature of the mind and questions of free will, it is definitely invading the turf that used to belong to religion and philosophy.

Many people would acknowledge that Buddhism has some profound insights into the human mind — why we get depressed, what makes us happy and how we become slaves to our attachments. But what does this have to do with science?

In Buddhism, the very root of suffering and all our mental distress — what Buddhists call mental afflictions — is ignorance. The path to liberation, or enlightenment, is knowledge. It’s knowing reality as it is. So despite many differences in methodology, both science and Buddhism are after knowledge of the natural world. But what defines the natural world? In modern science, the natural world is often equated with the physical world, and mental phenomena and subjective experiences are regarded as emergent phenomena or simply functions of the brain. But there are many other domains of reality that the physical instruments of science have not yet been able to detect.

But science is as much about method as anything. The scientific method posits hypotheses and theories that can be tested. Is that something Buddhism does as well?

Not in the same way. I wouldn’t want to overplay the case that Buddhism has always been a science, with clear hypotheses and complete skepticism. It’s too much of a religion, and so there’s a lot of vested interest in the Buddhist community not to challenge the statements made by the Buddha and other great patriarchs in the Buddhist tradition. So there are some fundamental differences. At the same time, science is not just science. This very notion that the mind must simply be an emergent property of the brain — consisting only of physical phenomena and nothing more — is not a testable hypothesis. Science is based upon a very profound metaphysical foundation. Can you test the statement that there is nothing else going on apart from physical phenomena and their emergent properties? The answer is no.

You’re saying we don’t know for sure that the physical functions of the brain — the neural circuits, the electrochemical surges — are what produce our rich inner lives, what we call the mind?

Cognitive science has plenty of hypotheses that are testable. For instance, is Alzheimer’s related to a particular malfunctioning of the brain? More and more, scientists are able to identify the parts and functions of the brain that are necessary to generate specific mental states. So these are scientific issues. But now let’s tap into what the philosopher David Chalmers has called “the hard problem” — the relationship between the physical brain and consciousness. What is it about the brain — this mass of chemicals and electromagnetic fields — that enables it to generate any state of subjective experience? If your sole access to the mind is by way of physical phenomena, then you have no way of testing whether all dimensions of the mind are necessarily contingent upon the brain.

But that is certainly the paradigm of the vast majority of neuroscientists and psychologists. The mind is nothing more than the brain, and what happens in the mind is strictly because of the physical mechanics of the brain. I’m sure most of these scientists would say it’s absurd to talk about the mind functioning independently of the brain.

Well, when you have no possible means of investigating the mind as it might operate independently of the brain, then to even raise it as an issue is indeed absurd. But there is one avenue of inquiry that’s been largely left out or simply repudiated. Right now, you and I have an ability to monitor our own mental states. Can we generate a mental image of an apple? Can we remember our mother’s face? Can we recite the opening lines of the Gettysburg Address or some favorite poem? Are these mental images that you generate nothing other than brain states or parts of the brain? At this point, those are not even scientific questions because nobody knows how to tackle them.

You have called for a new field of study, what you call “contemplative science.” What would that involve?

Contemplative science must live up to the rigorous standards that neuroscience, cognitive psychology, chemistry and physics have set for us. They’ve set the bar very high. So I’m a great admirer of the rigor and skepticism of science at its best. But William James, who’s one of my intellectual heroes, suggested we have a triadic approach. We should study the mind by way of behavior and brain studies, but, first and foremost, he said, we should study the mind by observing mental phenomena directly. But what he didn’t have, and neither did any of his contemporaries, was a rigorous methodology.

Is that what Buddhism offers — a rigorous methodology?

Yes. I’m not saying we should fuse religion with science. Rather, we should select very specific methodologies from Buddhism and other contemplative traditions where the ability to monitor the mind has been honed over thousands of years — beginning with the training of attention and then using sophisticated methods for investigating the nature of the mind, feelings and the very nature of consciousness itself during the waking state, the dream state, even during deep sleep. Now, because of the great advances in transportation and communications, we have easy access to the Taoist tradition of China, the Sufi tradition of the Near East, the Buddhist tradition of Tibet and Southeast Asia. I’m convinced this would add much greater depth and breadth to the types of questions that are raised in modern cognitive science.

In science, you have a hypothesis that’s tested, and it can be disproved. Does that happen in Buddhism?

On its home turf, frequently not. But I’m also waiting for a neuroscientist to tell me how the hypothesis that mental states are nothing more than neural states will be repudiated. I don’t see that as a testable hypothesis. So there’s a fair amount of dogma, not in science per se but in the minds of scientists. Likewise, there’s plenty of dogma in the minds of Buddhists. But Buddhism at its best — and we go right back to the teachings of the Buddha himself — encourages a spirit of skepticism. He said, “Do not take my statements to be true simply out of reverence for me. But rather, put them to the test.” Well, if you do that, you should be able to repudiate them as well as confirm them.

Well, let me ask you about that. I know there is a tradition, particularly among advanced contemplatives, that you have your meditative experience, and then you talk about it, you analyze it, and your peers critique it. Does that really happen? When someone comes out of meditation, would someone else say, “Sorry. You didn’t do it right”?

Absolutely. You know, Buddhism, like any other tradition, is subject to degeneration. So if you and I headed off to India or Nepal or Tibet, we’d find plenty of Buddhist meditators who are simply going through rote ritual, who are just trying to come up with the right answers at the end of the book. But when Buddhism is really thriving, it’s exactly what you described. You go into a three-year retreat, where you are meditating eight to 12 hours a day. You’re training the mind. You’re investigating the nature of the mind. But you’re probably not doing that in entire isolation. You’re in consultation with a mentor who’s going to review your experience and help you deepen your experience. You’ll be questioning your insights. So [your] relationship with your mentor is analogous to working on your Ph.D. with a mentor. If at any point your research becomes flaky or not up to snuff, the mentor is there to say, “No, that’s a dead end. This is not good research.” This happens frequently in the Buddhist contemplative tradition when it’s really robust and healthy.

Has that happened to you? You’ve meditated for decades. And you were a Buddhist monk for 14 years. Did you have your meditative practice analyzed and critiqued?

Definitely.

I can imagine that might be kind of humiliating.

[Laughs] No. Take the first long retreat I did in 1980. I was a monk at the time. I’d just spent the last 10 years in very rigorous theoretical and practical training in India and in a monastery in Switzerland. And then all I wanted to do was go to the lab — basically, go into a meditation hut and spend eight, 10, 12 hours a day meditating. Well, I had the tremendously good fortune to have the Dalai Lama as my personal mentor. So he guided me in the meditation. I would meet with him every few weeks. I would discuss the practice and he’d give me feedback. I was living in a little hut in the mountains above Dharamsala, India. I went into a five-month solitary retreat. Somebody brought me food once a week. I was meditating 10 hours a day. I was honing my attention skills. And I would consult with the Dalai Lama. I would consult with other yogis up there on the hill about technique and problems that were arising. They would draw from their decades of experience to help me. And I started to adapt some of these methods for myself as a Westerner who grew up in America and Europe, rather than as a nomad at 14,000 [feet] up on the Tibetan plateau.

Did you have profound mystical experiences? Did you have moments of what might be called enlightenment?

Well, the word “enlightenment” has been used in so many different ways, I won’t tread on that mine field. Eighteenth century Europe itself went through an Enlightenment, but I’m not sure that would be an enlightenment in my category. So for me to make any claims about enlightenment would be counterproductive. Did I find any transformation of consciousness? Did I find attention skills honed? Did I experience states of consciousness that I’d never experienced before such sustained meditative training? The answer is yes, yes, yes. But what a mature meditator is even more concerned with than those epiphanies — those moments of revelation or breakthrough — is the overall impact on the quality of your life, your way of engaging with other people and dealing with adversity. Is it helpful? Does it give you a clearer sense of reality? If it doesn’t, then I say meditation is merely a hobby. If it does, then meditation can be something very central to developing greater mental health and clear engagement with reality itself.

I’ve heard that your father was a Protestant theologian. It does raise the question of why you became a Buddhist. Why has Buddhism resonated with you in a way that Christianity has not?

Well, it’s a personal issue. You’re quite right. My father was — and is — a Christian theologian. We have a loving and very trusting relationship. The fact that he is a Christian theologian definitely had a profound impact on the course my life has taken. As I was growing up, from the age of 13, I had a very clear sense that I wanted to dedicate my life to science. And so I immersed myself in chemistry, biology, physics and calculus. At the same time, my religious background had made a very deep impact on my life. But what really struck me very painfully — I would say existentially — was the profound incompatibility between science and the whole worldview of Christianity, with God being the creator, responding to prayer, and human identity being that of an immortal soul. Basically, everything was God saturated in this Judeo-Christian view. On the other hand, in the scientific worldview I was simply a body, an animal. There was no creator. There was no ethics in nature. It was just Darwin. It was a great big machine. And I looked at these two worldviews and said, “Wow, these are incompatible.”

So I basically went AWOL from Western civilization for 14 years. I picked up one book on Buddhism when I was 20. It was like a starving man picking up some fragrance of hot baked bread. So I spent a year studying the Tibetan language in Germany, where I was spending a year abroad. And then I bought myself, literally and metaphorically, a one-way ticket to India. I wanted to go live with Tibetans and explore as deeply as I could this Buddhist worldview. It’s not just a religion. It’s not theistic. It doesn’t posit the existence of God as standing outside of creation, governing it, ruling it, punishing the wicked and rewarding the virtuous. It doesn’t have any of that. Nor is it materialistic, flattening my very existence to being an epiphenomenon of my brain.

You’ve suggested that there might be certain functions of the mind, certain aspects of consciousness, that don’t have a material foundation.

Yes.

Advanced contemplatives in the Buddhist tradition have talked about tapping into something called the “substrate consciousness.” What is that?

Just for a clarification of terms, I’ve demarcated three whole dimensions of consciousness. There’s the psyche. It’s the human mind — the functioning of memory, attention, emotions and so forth. The psyche is contingent upon the brain, the nervous system, and our various sensory faculties. It starts sometime at or following conception, certainly during gestation, and it ends at death. So the psyche has pretty clear bookends. This is what cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists study. They don’t study anything more. And they quite reasonably assume that that’s all there is to it. But as long as you study the mind only by way of brain states and behavior, you’re never going to know whether there’s any other dimension because of the limitations of your own methodologies. So here’s a hypothesis: The psyche does not emerge from the brain. Mental phenomena do not actually emerge from neuronal configurations. Nobody’s ever seen that they do.

So your hypothesis is just the reverse from what all the neuroscientists think.

Precisely. 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.

But you’re saying there are also two other aspects of consciousness?

Yeah. 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.

So this consciousness is not made of any stuff. It’s not matter. Is it just unattached and floating through the universe?

Well, this raises such interesting questions about the nature of matter. In the 19th century, you could think of matter as something good and chunky out there. You could count on it as having location and specific momentum and mass and all of that. Frankly, I think the backdrop of this whole conversation has to be 21st century physics, not 19th century physics. And virtually all of neuroscience and all of psychology is based on 19th century physics, which is about as up-to-date as the horse and buggy.

So not everything in the universe can be reducible to matter, to particles?

According to quantum field theory, string theory and quantum cosmology — cutting-edge fields of 21st century physics — matter itself is not reducible to matter. And Richard Feynman, the great Nobel laureate in physics, commented very emphatically, “We don’t know what energy is.” He said it’s not stuff out there that has a specific location. It’s more like a mathematical abstraction. So matter has been reduced to formations of space. Energy is configurations of space. Space itself is rather mysterious. And so when I introduce this theme of a substrate consciousness, it’s not something ethereal that’s opposed to matter. Matter is about as ethereal as anything gets. But could there be this continuum of substrate consciousness that’s not contingent upon molecules? From the Buddhist perspective, yes. But again, this frankly sounds like one more system of belief.

I have to say, you could put a religious spin on all of this. What you’re describing as substrate consciousness sounds a lot like how people talk about God. There is some kind of divine presence that’s outside the material world but somehow intervenes in our material lives.

I think we’re jumping the gun there. In the Buddhist perspective, the substrate consciousness is individual. It’s not some great collective unconscious like Jung talked about. In the Buddhist view, it’s an individual continuum of consciousness that carries on from lifetime to lifetime. That’s not God. Beyond that is this whole third dimension, the deepest dimension, called “primordial consciousness.” This has certain commonalities with Christian mystical notions of God beyond the trinity. It has a thoroughly and deeply transcendent quality to it. And that’s way beyond the pale of scientific inquiry. But when I speak of substrate consciousness, I think it would simply be a mistake to say that’s God. If you want to relate this to something in Western religions, you might say it’s the immortal soul. Christianity really has nothing to say about the existence of your continuum of consciousness prior to your conception. There’s nothing in the Bible that says, where was Steve Paulson 70 years ago? Where did your stream of consciousness, your identity, your soul, come from? But Buddhism has a lot to say about this.

Here in the West, we have on the table three large hypotheses about the nature of human consciousness. One of these looks really good from a scientific perspective. Your consciousness is a product of the brain. Damage the brain and your consciousness evaporates into nothing. Now what’s the experiment by which you repudiate that hypothesis? Well, all the mental states you’re studying are by way of the brain, so the answer is nada. So it’s not scientific and it’s not testable, at least not yet. We have another major hypothesis. You die and your soul carries on to heaven or hell in the Protestant tradition. You go there and it’s forever. Or in the Roman Catholic tradition, you have another couple of options — limbo and purgatory. But these are all one-way tickets. You can’t say, I didn’t like it in purgatory and then come back. My point here is the Christian hypothesis is not testable scientifically. It may be true, but it’s not a scientific hypothesis.

Of course, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has reincarnation. Is that testable scientifically?

Well, here’s the hypothesis. Your psyche emerged some time while you were in your mother’s womb. It’s continuing to evolve, and eventually it’s going to implode back into the substrate, carry on as a disembodied continuum of consciousness and then reincarnate. There’s the theory in a nutshell. Is that one testable? My short answer is yes, I think this is a testable hypothesis, and in principle it really should be able to be repudiated. But we’re also looking for positive evidence.

There are two types of studies being done at the University of Virginia. One is by Bruce Greyson. He’s got a very good track record of doing rigorous, objective scientific studies of alleged — I’m choosing my words carefully here — alleged out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences of patients undergoing surgery. Does it ever happen that a person, while being under general anesthetic, has an out-of-body experience and can actually perceive something, as they hover above, that only the surgeons see? That’s an empirically testable question. And Greyson is studying this scientifically.

So basically, the premise here is that consciousness can exist outside the body. I’ve heard that Greyson has started these tests but so far hasn’t come up with any results.

Quite so. As you can imagine, the National Science Foundation is not exactly jumping over itself to fund this type of research. Nor is the NIH [National Institutes of Health]. This is outside the paradigm. They’re not interested in providing funding for things that challenge the foundations of materialism. So basically, it’s like asking the Catholic Church to pay for research to show that Jesus never lived.

OK, that’s one test for out-of-body experiences. What about reincarnation?

Well, lo and behold, at the same university — they have some chutzpah over there — the University of Virginia, Ian Stevenson is now retired from the psych department. He’s not a Buddhist, he wasn’t a Hindu, and he didn’t believe in reincarnation. Forty years ago he heard anecdotes of children maintaining that this wasn’t their first life and giving detailed accounts of their alleged memories of past life experiences. So he started studying it. On a shoestring budget, he and a team of researchers did this for about 40 years. And about halfway through, he wrote a book called “Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.” He scanned thousands of accounts of children, throwing out most of them because they were either false or the child could have heard about it from parents, relatives, television and so forth. He then selected 20 cases where the accounts given by the child wound up being true when they were subjected to objective corroboration. He couldn’t see any way the child could have known this information. But he also said in that book, “I don’t believe in reincarnation. But I don’t know what else to do with these twenty cases because I can’t see any other way to explain them.”

And then he did another 20 years of research and wrote another book, “Where Biology and Reincarnation Intersect.” It showed the empirical findings of more cases of children giving these very detailed accounts of past life experiences. And usually they were not glorified, like I was Cleopatra or Einstein or somebody spectacular. No, [it was like,] I was a philanderer, and one of the husbands of the wives I had sex with shot me dead because I cuckolded him. So that’s not very glamorous, but that was the recollection of one of these children. This is empirical evidence. It should be scrutinized rigorously, but not thrown out dogmatically.

This raises some interesting questions about Buddhism. Is Buddhism a religion or is it something else? Because there are some people in the West who say we should strip Buddhism of any vestiges of the religious or the transcendental. For instance, Stephen Batchelor, in his book “Buddhism Without Beliefs,” writes, “The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendental truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” Is Stephen Batchelor right?

[Laughs] I’ve known Stephen Batchelor for almost 35 years. We were monks together for years, both in India and in Switzerland. To come up with this picture of the Buddha, you have to bring out a carving knife and chop off great sections of the most authentic accounts we have of the Buddha’s own teachings. You simply have to ignore and pretend he never said an enormous number of things he did say. I think Stephen, my dear friend, has recast the Buddha in his own image as an English skeptic who was raised in an agnostic background, who really doesn’t believe in anything nonphysical.

So we should forget trying to strip Buddhism of its transcendentalism. You haven’t quite come out and said it, but you’re suggesting we should stop saying Buddhism is not a religion.

Well, we have to be very cautious when we take these Western categories — religion, science, philosophy — which are deeply and inextricably embedded in our Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman heritage. But I have to add a footnote to our conversation about reincarnation research. The Buddhists have been looking at this critically and empirically for 2,500 years. They’re not waiting with bated breath to see what the people at the University of Virginia come up with. They, unlike psychologists and neuroscientists, have been exploring mental phenomena directly. And they have specific strategies for going into a deep meditative state, directing your attention backward beyond the scope of this lifetime, directing it back to past lifetimes and coming up with memories. So you have a template here.

This could be studied, together with skeptics. Train very advanced contemplatives to tap into this substrate consciousness — this storehouse of memories from past lives, if it in fact exists — and do this in conjunction with neuroscientists and psychologists. If I had unlimited funds, I’d say this is one of the most important questions we can ask. Make this a 20-year research project, well funded, with all the skepticism of science. Make sure you have some hardcore atheists involved, but ones who are open-minded and not just knee-jerk dogmatists. And then put it to the test. In 20 years, I think you could come up with something that could repudiate or validate a startling, truly astonishing hypothesis that there is such a substrate consciousness.

Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio's nationally syndicated program "To the Best of Our Knowledge." He has also been a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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