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Scholars Trade Views on Understanding Consciousness

January 26, 2005 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

To understand consciousness, should scientists simply concentrate on biological brain and behavior functions or should they also borrow from Buddhist practices to utilize an intense, first-person focus on the mysterious process? That was the question at the center of a dialogue between two distinguished scholars who recently presented their perspectives to an overflow crowd in Harris Hall.

Though the scholars, B. Alan Wallace, president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, and John Searle, Mills Professor of Mind and Language, University of California, Berkeley, seemed to agree –- sort of -- on the answer to that question, their perspectives reflected huge differences. 

“Consciousness East and West: A Cognitive Dialogue” was sponsored by the Cognitive Science Program in the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. Dedre Gentner, professor of psychology is the director of the program, and the event was put together and moderated by Ken Paller, director of the allied Cognitive Neuroscience Program.  

Wallace shared his insights about how extensive training in contemplative methods for training the mind, developed in Tibetan Buddhist traditions over many centuries, can lead to keen abilities to control and monitor one’s attention, and ultimately to expert empirical observations of the human mind in action.

Just as Galileo revolutionized use of the microscope to bring clarity and brilliance to the development of the scientific method in astronomy, Wallace argued, a sustained and trained focus on consciousness might vividly enhance understanding of one of the most mysterious processes of being human.

“But basically there is no research on ways of learning how to focus attention,” Wallace said. “We have failed.”

The Buddha, he said, applied meditative practices in unprecedented ways to bring high-resolution focus to objects of observation, not with a telescope, but with the mind itself. Combining first-person and third-person ways of studying the mind could lead to a much-needed revolution in cognitive science, Wallace concluded in his opening statements.

Searle responded to Wallace’s statements, often with humor, pacing the stage and immediately charming the audience as he began his comments by disagreeing with the promotion of his talk as representing the Western view. He has spent his career disagreeing with obsolete presuppositions inherited from our religious and philosophical tradition, he said, “essentially attacking every single Western view on dualism.”

Dualism is the view that there are two metaphysical phenomena in the universe, the mental and the physical.

Searle seemed to be in agreement with Wallace when he said, “scientists should use every method they can lay their hands on” to study consciousness.

But he emphasized that “every conscious experience is caused by neurons blasting away in the brain,” and the right approach to understanding consciousness is to treat it as part of nature and explore it accordingly.

He pointed to the water bottle he was holding to bring home his point. The behavior of the H20 molecules explains liquidity but the individual molecules are not liquid, he said. Accordingly, consciousness is caused by lower-level neuronal processes and is an emergent property of the brain.

“I want to know how the brain works,” Searle said.

The question of how human consciousness can be understood is at the foundation of cognitive science, Paller said in his introduction.

“In our laboratories at Northwestern, we are beginning to take note of the novel perspectives on consciousness that might be provided by people who have developed great expertise in understanding the focus of their attention through meditation.”

“Consciousness East and West” can be viewed online by following a link from <http://www.northwestern.edu/people/kap/dialogue05.htm>.

Topics: Research