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The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness

by B. Alan Wallace

Buy the book: B. Alan Wallace. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness

Release Date: October, 2000

Edition: Hardcover


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Buy the book: B. Alan Wallace. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness

a brillant synthesis

B. Alan Wallace's new book, The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness, makes the provocative claim that science has become, in many ways, a modern cult, which promotes certain ways of knowing and metaphysical beliefs to the exclusion of others. Subjectivity, an integral aspect of our experience, has been neglected to the point that its existence is in doubt.

Since the book is aimed at people familiar with the common view of scientific materialism, it focuses upon the weaknesses in the scientific materialist view, and how taking contemplative practice and experience seriously can allow us to see that this scientific view is lacking an awareness and understanding of subjectivity. This exclusion is related to assumptions which may have been necessary to get science off the ground (objectivism, monism, universalism, reductionism, the closure principle, and physicalism). However, these assumptions have become ensconced, and now play a role often attributed to religious doctrines: they go unquestioned, lead us to believe stories regarding our origins and nature which are not empirically grounded, and blind us to aspects of common, everyday experience. He traces the roots of these metaphysical beliefs to ancient Greek philosophy and to early and Medieval Christian theology to point out that these are beliefs, and are not empirically proven. The scientific materialist view has many weaknesses, among them: it gives a highly problematic account of the origin and nature of consciousness, and of the relation of mind and body, based more on faith and dogma than on scientific findings; it has no method for systematically exploring consciousness firsthand; scientific knowledge is inadequate for dealing with either global problems, such as environmental pollution (which it has helped to create), or personal problems, such as mental well-being. He points out that "from a contemplative perspective, scientific materialism arrests human development in a state of spiritual infancy; and when a society of such spiritual infants is put in control of the awesome powers of science and technology, global catastrophe seems virtually inevitable." Since "a thoroughly materialistic view of the universe based on science suggests a [certain] set of values and ideals, with profound implications for dealing with the personal, societal, and environmental problems that beset us today," it is imperative to examine this view in depth, and compare it with other world views, in the light of our current situation.

The two main arguments that have been leveled against the subjective from the scientific side are that: 1. subjective influences taint experiments (of implicitly objective phenomena), 2. subjective phenomena aren't scientifically analyzable, which has developed into the extreme position that such phenomena aren't real, but are merely epiphenonema.

Introspection has traditionally been used to investigate consciousness, but many scientists ignore introspection, claim that it cannot tell us anything important, or argue against the possibility of there even being such an activity. Wallace reviews these claims, showing that many of the objections to the use or possibility of introspection could be equally applied to scientific knowledge and techniques; and yet, science works. Therefore it seems that it is primarily the metaphysical beliefs of scientists which prevent them from admitting, and engaging in, ways of knowing such as those based on introspective, contemplative practice. Wallace supports a pragmatic approach to knowledge: "the only guide for methodology is the universal one, namely, to use anything that works."

But we cannot just tack another viewpoint, such as "the spiritual worldview", onto our accounts from science; there are real conflicts here, especially with respect to consciousness, and its origins and nature. For example, as he points out in another article, "Buddhist inquiry into the natural world proceeds from a radically different point of departure than western science, and its methods differ correspondingly.... Buddhism begins with the premise that the mind is the primary source of human joy and misery and is central to understanding the natural world as a whole." He reviews several kinds of divisions commonly made (subjective/objective, private/public, sacred/profane, fact/value) which might permit some kind of clean compartmentalization, and rejects them all. Instead, he calls for a dialogue between different ways of knowing. In order to open the way for a new science of consciousness, we must radically reevaluate the metaphysical stances of the scientific worldview, and of the relations between science and religion. For example, he argues that contemplative practice is in many ways in the spirit of science: it involves rigorous training to prepare the contemplative to inquire, through experience and reasoning, into the nature of things.

However, for people who are reluctant to admit that there can be nondelusional spiritual experiences, this contemplative perspective is going to seem like a belief, and probably won't shake whatever faith they have in the scientific worldview. This is one reason why Wallace constantly emphasizes that the claims of contemplatives are claims to be evaluated (both experientially and through reason), rather than established facts (which usually assumes some kind of general agreement within a community of which the reader and author are part). It is also probably why he emphasizes how contemplative practice could inform a new science of consciousness, rather than simply claiming that these practices have value on their own, as he does in some of his other books, aimed at different audiences.

Perhaps realizing the limitations of our current sciences of the mind will open us to new methods and new views, to explore the knowledge of other societies, and recover ways of knowing that may have been lost within our own traditions. It is hard to know where a truly open-minded, open-hearted dialogue between science and religion could lead, but it is exciting that this seems to be a genuine possibility today, probably more so than any time in the past. Thus, the central question of book is: "does a way exist to integrate the power of religion and of science for the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of humanity?"

From Amazon.com

The Taboo....

I cannot add much to what the above author has offered, other than expressing my deep respect for B. Alan Wallace as my professor. I am enrolled in a course he is teaching at UC Santa Barbara titled "Religion, Science and Consciousness" and I am quite lucky to hear him pontificate and elaborate upon the ideas set forth in his book, amongst many other topics. Mr. Wallace brings light to the ongoing, seemingly inflexible attitude among scientific materialists toward religious ideas concerning the nature of the mind and consciousness. He, in his clear and unique writing style, enlightens the reader regarding the boundaries of the compatibility of religion and science....After all, in the most colloquial of terms- if religion is defined as the way in which we question and know why the hell we exist and science does the same, who is to say they are not compatible, in some way... Religion is not all about hell-fire, brimstone and heresy, as many scientific materialists would have one think! It is time to look to contemplatives in both our culture and others for assistence in the quest for knowledge (The Buddha is quite knowledgable about such things!)

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