The Bridge of Quiescence

by B. Alan Wallace

Featured in Mountain Record 24.1, Fall 2005


When we consider what religion is for mankind, and what science is, it is no exaggeration to say that the future course of history depends upon the decision of this generation as to the relations between them.
—A.N. Whitehead

The Scientific Revolution began in the sixteenth century with a mathematical treatment of the movements of heavenly bodies in relation to the earth. Initiated in the field of astronomy, focusing on the physical phenomena most distant from the human subject, it took modern science more than three hundred years to apply its methodologies to the empirical study of the human mind. Indeed, it was only in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, when many leading physicists regarded their knowledge of the physical universe as essentially complete, that experimental psychology made its first appearance. By then, the principles of scientific naturalism—including physicalism, the closure principle, and the principle of reductionism—had been widely adopted by natural scientists, principles that had ostensibly been derived from and verified by the scientific investigation of the nature (sic).

The subject matter of natural science is, presumably, the whole of nature. But the fact that the first three hundred years of the development of natural science focused exclusively on the physical world resulted in a practical re-definition of the term nature as “the sum total of phenomena in time and space; the physical world as presented to the senses.” Scientifically speaking, this definition has come to replace more inclusive, traditional definitions, such as: “The material and spiritual universe, as distinguished from the Creator; the system of things of which man forms a part.” Due to this physical bias, the three-hundred-year-long omission of consciousness from the domain of natural science effectively excluded the mind from nature. The development of the empirical and analytical tools of science ingeniously created during this period were designed solely for the exploration of the physicalist world. By implication, if a subject matter was to be deemed worthy of scientific investigation, it had to be accessible to the research tools developed by scientists; in other words, it had to be physical.

As we approach the close of the twentieth century, there is some degree of scientific consensus concerning the origins of the physical universe many billions of years in the past, concerning the constitution of galaxies and other phenomena millions of light-years distant, and concerning the most likely scenarios for the ultimate destiny of the universe. But there is no such empirically based, scientific consensus concerning the precise nature of the origins of consciousness (either of life in the cosmos, or of a human fetus), the nature of mental events, or the final destiny of the human mind. The tools of mechanistic science were simply not designed to grapple with such issues. Thus, earlier movements in modern cognitive science have argued that mental phenomena simply do not exist because they are identical with brain states; and more recent cognitive scientists argue that mental phenomena do not exist because they are not identical with brain states. As John Searle points out, this pattern is very revealing, for it shows an inexorable urge to get rid of mental phenomena at any cost.

An important factor in this exclusion of consciousness and other mental phenomena from the natural world may be called the cult of objectivity, which is a central feature of scientific naturalism. This trend earns the label of “cult” not because of its laudable emphasis on open-mindedness and lack of bias on the part of the subject, nor because of the emphasis placed on the existence of entities that can be detected by multiple observers (or “the public”) or by diverse modes of observation. Rather, the type of objectivity lauded in scientific naturalism suppresses the ubiquitous fact that a subjective observer is part of the process of identifying any object. This cult would have us believe that the certainty of our knowledge of the objective existence of an entity is inversely proportional to the role played by subjective awareness in ascertaining its existence. Scientific naturalism, for example, regards the theoretical entities of physics (such as fields and subatomic particles) as more real than observational entities (such as rocks and trees). The reason for this bias may be traced to the fact that the latter are observable by lay people using their ordinary subjective perceptual faculties; while the former can be detected only with the ostensibly objective modes of detection devised by scientists.

 

image

 

The cult of objectivity is literally an instance of superstition: for it is an unreasonable belief tenaciously held as a carry-over from unfounded religious notions of objectivity. The antidote for this superstition is keen empirical and analytical inquiry, which is characteristic of the scientific spirit that has dispelled so many other superstitions.