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The Unification of Physics and Consciousness
B. Alan Wallace
Columbia University Press ($24.50)
by Kelly Everding
Discoveries in quantum physics have underlined the vast chasm between our day-to-day world and the workings of subatomic particles, and the quest for a unification theory—one that may bridge this chasm—has been the holy grail for physicists for decades. Many assume the key may lie in our very own noggins, however, we haven’t yet even discovered what consciousness is or where exactly it resides. B. Alan Wallace challenges age-old scientific assumptions and idolatries in his new book Hidden Dimensions, and he reveals the importance of consciousness as an integral factor in the evolution and workings of our objective world. As Wallace puts it, “a central premise of this book is that the lack of a major revolution in the cognitive sciences is due in part to the antiquated notions of physics that underlie most contemporary theorizing about the nature of consciousness.”
Wallace earned an undergraduate degree in physics and philosophy and spent fourteen years as a Buddhist monk; he is currently the president (and founder) of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. From this unique perspective, Wallace shows the congruity of quantum physics research and the centuries-old study of Buddhist meditation. In quantum physics, the observer plays a role in the outcome of experiments, where the very act of observing serves to create a result by collapsing the probability of outcome, illustrating the deep connectedness of the observer with the subatomic particles that make up our physical world. In Buddhist meditation, the person achieves a meditative quiescence, “settling the mind in its natural state,” and causing the observer to realize “that things have no independent existence, in the outer world, the inner world, or anywhere in between.”
Hidden Dimensions carefully walks us through a compressed history of science, showing the development of theories and prejudices over the centuries that have favored physical phenomena over mental ones. The dual approaches of Baconian and Cartesian sciences balanced out these two seemingly disparate worlds, however Wallace “in this secular age, Cartesian scientists no longer invoke the perfection of God to explain the orderly world. Instead they invoke the perfection of the principles of scientific materialism, which are firmly rooted in nineteenth-century classical physics.” He goes on to discuss theories and research that attempts to delve into the nature of consciousness by such scientists as John Wheeler and Michael B. Mensky, research that takes into account the integral necessity of consciousness when discussing theories of physics. The more we learn about the universe, this world, and our minds, the more we realize we don’t know much, and all is illusory. In his chapter “A Special Theory of Ontological Relativity,” Wallace brings home the illusory nature of the world around us by using the example of the color red, which most people take for granted as a real quality:
Philosophers and scientists have long recognized the illusory nature of perceptual appearances. When we observe the world around us, we see images, such as shapes and colors, that lack physical attributes. The visual image of the color red, for instance, doesn’t have any mass or atomic structure. It isn’t located in the external world, for it arises partly in dependence upon our visual sense faculty, including the eye, the optic nerve, and the visual cortex. There are clearly brain functions that contribute to the generation of red images, but no evidence that those neural correlates of perception are actually identical to those images. So there is no compelling reason to believe that the images are located inside our heads. Since visual images, or qualia, are not located either outside or inside our heads, they don’t seem to have any spatial location at all. The same is true of all other kinds of sensory qualia, including sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations.
By bringing into question the very substance of things, Wallace points out the necessity of trying to understand what role consciousness plays in the creation of the world around us. In subsequent chapters that discuss experiments in consciousness and quantum consciousness, fascinating possibilities open up involving the nature of time, matter, and energy. Wallace calls for rigorous testing on consciousness, analyzing and applying measurements to what Buddhist monks have been doing for centuries to discover the quantum reality that makes up who we are and what the world is. “Meaningful information exists only relative to the act of informing and a conscious being that is informed.”
Although occasionally a bit dry, Hidden Dimensions will appeal to even the least tutored quantum physics enthusiast; Wallace very cogently and clearly shows his process of thinking. He is careful to attribute theories to their rightful owners, and he culls the most interesting research that applies to these theories. And he is the first to admit that while Buddhism has its merits, it has “failed to produce vast knowledge of the natural sciences and has contributed nothing to technology.” However, this calls into question what our society values—religion plays its role in the development of spiritual knowledge which informs how we view the world to its benefit and detriment, just as science does with material knowledge. Many may find these concepts alarming and prefer to believe their senses as they look out upon the seemingly solid world, but it’s clear our ways of thinking and perceiving are in flux and evolving, adapting to the swiftly expanding globalization of information, commerce, climate change, and war. It’s a tumultuous time that requires new ways of thinking, and the next brave frontier to explore may be our own minds and the mysterious inner workings of consciousness.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2007/2008