A discussion about consciousness, science and Buddhism

Alan Wallace has reacted to my essay on Buddhist meditation and cognitive sciences, which mentioned his work. His comments were posted here as part of a podcast for his students. I've archived a copy in PDF, and uploaded the audio file below.

Alan sent me his comments. I replied:

From: Daniel Simpson
Subject: Re: Your article "Buddhist meditation and cognitive sciences"
Date: 16 May 2016 at 16:05:10 BST
To: B. Alan Wallace
Dear Alan,
Thanks for getting in touch. I appreciate your engagement with the article, and I'm grateful for your work on how materialism hijacks science. I particularly enjoyed reading The Taboo of Subjectivity and Mind in the Balance.
I think you're right that Richard Davidson is doing what he can to ride the edge of the paradigm, albeit accepting its constraints. Perhaps he could be encouraged to be a little more forthright, like Jay Garfield [as in this recent op-ed in the New York Times].
Although I agree there's an in-built resistance to contemplative research, I'm not sure it's the same as Cremonini's refusal to look through Galileo's telescope. For the analogy to stand, there would need to be a clearly defined experiment that scientists could do on expert meditators, which would give us more evidence for what they experience than what they say about it.
Perhaps I'm missing something, but I know of no such experiment. As far as I'm aware, none has yet been proposed, apart from the sorts of studies that Garfield calls "much ado about what we all should have known already"; for example, demonstrating that attention can be trained.  
You mention the exposure of Mind & Life scientists to Tibetans who speak about siddhis and previous lives and characterise their response as "if I don't know it, you don't know it." I'm not sure that's accurate. Is it not also possible to accept that contemplatives may "know it" while noting "it" can't be confirmed, except by taking people's word for it? And what they say is a different form of evidence to that which can be verified by other means.
The same applies to what contemplatives say about perception. I don't think it's a case of "either Jay Garfield's right or they're all wrong". I appreciate you were speaking tongue in cheek, but is there not a middle way here? Even if scientists were to study the most accomplished of practitioners, how might it be proven that they can perceive without "inferential processes" and the other forms of filter Garfield mentions?
In the absence of actually studying them, we don't know. To move the conversation forward, I think it would help to frame what needs to change in terms of research that might be done. It sounds like you're proposing this starts by encouraging scientists to engage more deeply in meditative practice. Yet whatever they observed would be dismissed by peers as anecdotal, and discussing it may even get them "excommunicated".
Of course, this prospect shows the current paradigm is too rigid. But I don't really see what "contemplative science" consists of, beyond promoting meditation. That's no bad thing, but it wouldn't help communicate what people find, or prove its validity to anyone else. And despite the constraints on science, there's no one stopping us from pursuing it: we just need to practice.
Best wishes,

Alan's subsequent comments are uploaded here (again, I've archived a copy in PDF - it's five pages long). He also sent me some slides on his views about evidence, and a couple of suggestions for experiments, neither of which appear likely to change scientists' minds. I replied:

From: Daniel Simpson
Subject: Re: Your article "Buddhist meditation and cognitive sciences"
Date: 17 May 2016 at 11:33:18 BST
To: B. Alan Wallace
Thanks for asking Alan. Yes, you can share the correspondence, including this email.
You wrote in your previous message that: "Buddhist philosophy, unlike Western philosophy, has empirical means to test its hypotheses, including the idea that it's possible to transcend the limitations of the conceptual mind."
Unless scientists are able to verify this objectively, it's not going to change the current paradigm. No experiment exists which could do so. Even if scientists are willing, as you propose, to change their own minds through meditative practice, what they experience would not conclusively prove that they're perceiving non-conceptually, for the reasons discussed by Garfield's article [available here].
To argue otherwise would assert that first-hand evidence trumps all other data. And if that's the case, why bother engaging with scientists? It would be sufficient to share Buddhist teachings. Although materialism places little value on subjective evidence, it doesn't stop anyone learning to meditate, or choosing to value their own experience.
Best wishes,

I left the last word to Alan, though I hope to write more about this topic.

From: B. Alan Wallace
Subject: Re: Your article "Buddhist meditation and cognitive sciences"
Date: 17 May 2016 at 18:31:10 BST
To: Daniel Simpson
Hi Dan,
I doubt that many people will care whether or not it’s possible to transcend the conceptual mind, and even fewer will care whether scientists have verified this. Scientists commonly overestimate how much their views matter to the general public. I’m convinced that the fact that science illiteracy in the U.S. is so high—with more than 40% of the public believing in a literal reading of the Genesis account of creation—is due in large part to the scientific community’s insistence on force-feeding the beliefs of materialism as they dish out reports of their discoveries in the world of nature. Materialism is so morally and intellectually repugnant to so many people, that if rejecting that belief system means they need to chuck out science as a whole, then so be it. I’m amazed that so few scientists are aware that their own reductionist views so hinder the acceptance of scientific discoveries by the general public.
Re: "To argue otherwise would assert that first-hand evidence trumps all other data. And if that's the case, why bother engaging with scientists?"
The value of contemplative inquiry doesn’t hinge on this one issue alone. First, we should bear in mind that all scientific observations and conclusions are made within the confines of the conceptual mind, and no one seems bothered by that. And William James, who was such a champion of the first-person perspective when it comes to exploring the mind, freely acknowledged, “introspection is difficult and fallible; and ... the difficulty is simply that of all observation of whatever kind... The only safeguard is in the final consensus of our farther knowledge about the thing in question, later views correcting earlier ones, until at last the harmony of a consistent system is reached.” [William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York: Dover Publications, 1950), pp. 191-2]. The third-person, cognitive/behavioral methods ofpsychology and the physiological methods of neuroscience may shed light on aspects of the mind that are not accessible to the first-person methods of contemplative science, and vice versa. All I’m suggesting is that all three approaches be employed and integrated, as William James advocated more than a century ago.
Re: "It would be sufficient to share Buddhist teachings."
It is sufficient for those people interested in and open to Buddhist teachings. But I'm firmly convinced that Buddhist and other contemplatives have made fundamental discoveries about the nature, origins, and potentials of the mind that are hidden to researchers who confine their observations to the brains and behavior of ordinary individuals. If Buddhist contemplatives have discovered truths, for example, about the existence of a subtle continuum of consciousness that carries on from one life to the next, then these truths should be made public and shared with everyone. So I’m now working with scientists to collaborate in long-term research with highly trained contemplatives, in which the scientists and contemplatives will treat each other as fellow professionals, rather than scientists denigrating contemplatives by treating them as mere subjects for their research.
Re: "Although materialism places little value on subjective evidence, it doesn't stop anyone learning to meditate, or choosing to value their own experience."
Yes, but relegating contemplative insights to mere “subjective experience” leaves the public with the false notion that science alone sheds light on the nature of reality as a whole, including the mind. It’s time to break the monopoly of scientists being seen the sole arbiters of truth, for all they are good at is measuring and analyzing objective, physical, quantifiable phenomena, which excludes all nonphysical phenomena from having any significant role in nature. That is nothing more than an epistemological bias that gives us a skewed vision of reality as a whole.

A related essay on experience as evidence is archived here.