Thursday, September 29, 2005

MLRN Discussion ListI

Date:Thu, 29 Sep 2005 11:43:44 -0700
From:"Juan Carlos Marvizon"
Subject:Re:[discussionlist] response to Wallace

I was greatly disappointed to read Allan Wallace’s response to George Johnson's review of the book by the Dalai Lama “The Universe in a Single Atom”. I have followed with great interest the Dalai Lama’s interaction with science, and I am looking forward to his lecture at the next meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Allan Wallace is one of the organizers of the Life & Mind meetings, one of which precedes the meeting of the Society for Neuroscience this year. These meetings present themselves as forum to discuss scientific research on topics like meditation. However, Wallace’s defense of reincarnation and a religious interpretation of consciousness has very little to do with the scientific enterprise. Furthermore, he seems to show a contempt for mainstream scientific views on the functioning of the mind that is going to make difficult any rational discussion of these topics. The scientific study of meditation has long been tainted by the efforts of groups with veiled religious affiliations to use it to validate their particular brand of practice. I now fear that the Life & Mind Institute is just one more of these groups, advocating ideas that have very little to do with science, like reincarnation.While I do not have the time to fully refute all of Wallace’s arguments, I would like to make a few points.

1. Neither Wallace nor the Dalai Lama himself have the authority to speak for all Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhism is just one among many Buddhist schools that have held different doctrines for thousands of years. In particular, some Buddhists do not believe in reincarnation or in some kind of immaterial “soul” able to move from body to body. In fact, such a belief flies in the face of central Buddhist teachings like that of impermanence and the absence of an immutable human soul.

2. The core of Wallace’s view of consciousness appears to be that there is some “subtle” part of it that is immaterial and therefore able to migrate from body to body after death. The scientific argument against such immaterial mind can be summarized as follows. For that immaterial mind to direct actions of the body, at some point it would have to change the firing of neurons in the brain. Since the firing of action potentials is a physical phenomenon that follows the laws of physics, the interference of something immaterial with it will violate the principle of conservation of energy. This is because energy would have to come out of something immaterial (“subtle consciousness”) to influence something material. Since the law of conservation of energy is a fundamental principle of science, supported by uncountable observations, there is a heavy burden of proof on whatever theory contradicts it.

3. The work of Ian Stevenson and Jim Tucker lending credibility to reincarnation does not appear to have been properly peer-reviewed or published in mainstream scientific publications. Therefore, I would consider it pseudoscience.

4. One reason the term “consciousness” is so hard to define is the effort of spiritualists like Wallace to muddle things up. It is clear to most scientists that consciousness can not be found in inorganic matter, in plants or even in most animals, as Wallace claims. Therefore, we are not overly worried by the fact that its presence can not be detected in these things by “scientific instruments”. Most scientists are perfectly happy to understand consciousness as one of the functions of the human brain.

5. It is true that science does not have a satisfactory theory of consciousness yet. Neither does it have a good explanation for the origin of life, on how to fully reconcile Quantum Mechanics with the Theory of Relativity, and many other unresolved questions. It may still take us scientists hundreds of years to come up with a complete explanation of the Universe. I, for one, am happy that this is the case, because it allows us scientists to continue to work on these challenges. However, this lack of knowledge is not a license to embrace whatever dogma is offered to us, nor it should be a excuse to abandon time-honored scientific methodology to follow introspective approaches that do not allow independent repetition of results. These methods have its place in individual spiritual search, but not in science.

Juan Carlos Marvizon,
Ph.D.Assistant Professor
Department of Medicine