- Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness
The project of B. Alan Wallace will be clear by now to those who have been following his career. He seeks the unification of a Buddhist understanding of consciousness with a wide body of available scientific knowledge. In Hidden Dimensions he narrows the scope of his vision to physics and the latent possibility of a new science of consciousness yet to be realized by the scientific community. However, whether that science can be made a reality remains unclear. Wallace has made the general contours of his vision clear, but may need to provide further details for others to decide whether it is a vision they can share.
Wallace begins his argument by reviewing the history of changes in scientific theories. The general point of import can be made by the following analogy. Science is less like a finished building set on a solid foundation than a house constantly undergoing renovations and having additions created. And just as architects have different ideas about how best to proceed in building, scientists always have competing theories about observed data, and the relative pros and cons of those theories can be debated. Wallace brings up this history in order to decenter the dominant explanation of mental phenomena provided by the scientific community. The prevailing theory is that mental events are reducible to physiological brain processes. That theory will color all observations of mental phenomena unless competitors are acknowledged. What Wallace hopes to offer is such a competitor—one he thinks more adequately explains mental phenomena.
The method currently used by scientists to study the mind is based upon materialism and physical causation, thereby leaving two options for explaining mind: as an epiphenomenon reducible to the physical brain or as altogether unreal. Wallace, however, believes alternative methods are available. Just as physical laws are found by observing physical phenomena, observing mental phenomena should also lead to appropriate mental laws. Furthermore, being truly empirical about mental phenomena means observing and gathering data before picking the best theory for explaining that data. No prevailing theory such as that reducing mind to brain should be regarded as infallible. By placing reductionist theories of mind on a level playing field with potential rivals, Wallace looks to Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist traditions for theories of mind that might be more scientifically fruitful. Over thousands of years contemplatives in these traditions have developed techniques that amount to a "telescope of the mind" (p. 41). Before dismissing these potential resources, scientists should use those techniques to investigate mental phenomena in an attempt to replicate what such traditions have discovered about the mind.
While it is certainly true that competing theories are a hallmark of scientific activity, it is debatable whether Wallace has taken his own competition, existing theories [End Page 161] of mind coming from neuroscientists, seriously enough. He expresses doubts over the current paradigm of investigating the mind because scientists have not found the neural correlates of consciousness and yet are still unwilling to consider alternative methods of investigation (pp. 6-12). But scientists have successfully identified the neural correlates of many human experiences, emotions, and feelings. Even if incomplete, those findings are surely not irrelevant to an understanding of consciousness. The association between naturalism and physical causality is similarly dismissed. Wallace interprets quantum mechanics as evidence of nonphysical causation, which thereby makes room for the argument that mind influences matter. However, it is unclear how Wallace would explain the fact that the power of mind is greatly hindered when regions of the brain are damaged or removed through accident or surgery. If there is nonphysical mental causation, it seems heavily dependent on a properly functioning physical base. However, these are debates with proponents on each side and should not distract from the larger issue of the book: a fundamental error in analyzing the current state of physics.
The measurement problem in quantum mechanics refers to the fact that in quantum systems the evolution of what is known as the wave function can be understood with an...