Toward the First Revolution in Mind Sciences

Daniel Vinograd

INTRODUCTION: Alan Wallace is not a typical monk. He’s a monk who cannot sit still in one place. So even while he was a monk, he went on to get a degree in physics. Then he went on to study neurosciences and psychology, and eventually he got one of those PhD thingies, as some of you might have, and then he went on to become a professor at UCSB. Then he decided he couldn’t sit still in UCSB, so he went on to found his own institute, and he decided to take everything he’s ever learned in life to try to advance the mind sciences.


When I heard about his work, I figured this would be interesting to Google, mind sciences and everything, so I invited him to come visit, come eat with us, and share a talk. Before I bring Alan Wallace up, just a reminder to all Googlers, please do not ask him any questions that contains information that is Google confidential. Thank you. With that, Alan.


WALLACE: Well, it’s quite a delight for me to be with you today. I’ve known about Google, like the rest of us, for a long time. Delighted to be in the matrix here and to share some of my passions pertaining to understanding the nature of the mind, its potentials, the nature of consciousness.


As Mang [sp] mentioned, I’ve had a rather diverse background, but I have been blessed with extraordinary teachers in the Tibetan tradition, other Buddhist traditions, but also marvelous instructors in physics, philosophy of science at Amherst College, and then doing a very diverse PhD program at Stanford University, where it was ostensibly in religious studies, but taking courses in philosophy of physics and cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind.


Trying to bring all of these together, to integrate them – my background of being raised in the West but then living for years in Europe and quite a few years in Asia, trying to integrate, to synthesize, so that these various aspects of my own life as a Buddhist monk for 14 years, but also physics student and so forth, could be all integrated, and so that the various aspects of my own last 56 years on the planet would be all one integrated unit, so no part was isolated from the others. That actually took a long time, because I have, again, been exposed to so many diverse worldviews, ways of life, and so on.


What I’d like to share with you this afternoon is a vision of a possibility of a first revolution in the mind sciences. This very notion is based on an assumption that certainly can be contested. Probably everything can be. But the starting assumption here is that among the natural sciences, we had the first great revolution in the natural sciences starting with Copernicus, building up momentum with Kepler, Galileo, and coming to its fulfillment, to its fruition, with Newton. So the first great revolution we had in the natural sciences wasn’t physics and astronomy. I would say from my own perspective, it started with Copernicus, but with Newton it came together. He brought it all together. That’s when that revolution stopped, and then we simply had a lot of excellent science, a lot of excellent physics after that.


Then we move over to another discipline: the life sciences are plugging along, plugging along, and then 1859, Darwin comes out with his masterpiece. So he started the first and the only great revolution we’ve had in the life sciences. I say it started with Darwin. It started building momentum in the 1870s with Gregor Mendel, a Christian monk with genetics, of course; and then it was building momentum, building momentum. Key point, one century after Darwin: 1959, Crick and Watson DNA. We finally found now the mechanics; how does this happen? The natural selection; how can species mutate? Darwin didn’t tell us. Mendel gave us a hint. Crick and Watson pointed, “there’s the machinery.”


Following that, we’ve had this extraordinary growth, this spectacular growth in the study of genetics. I would say that great revolution, starting in 1859, has come to a culmination. It’s over. It was with the human genome project. We’ve mapped it. Something like 99% now. Well done. Now, of course, the study of biology of genetics will continue; but it was 140 years. Interestingly enough – it’s probably just a coincidence, but it was 140 years also from Copernicus through Newton. Took 140 years for the revolution to start and then go voila! there it is.


We’ve also had a second great revolution in physics, and it started with Max Planck in 1900. It picked up momentum in 1905 and 1915 with the special and general relativity theories from Einstein. It was truly a revolution. By revolution, I mean – to use the familiar phrase – the paradigm has shifted. Your fundamental orientation towards the subject matter has shifted and it will never be the same. From the geocentric to the heliocentric; from pre-Darwin to post-Darwin. Nothing is the same. You cannot look at human existence, you cannot look at the planet, in the same way anymore. Fundamentally, your axis has rotated.


That second great revolution in physics, it’s not over. 106 years, if we start in 1900 when Max Planck came out with the notion of quantum. It’s not over. There are some core, crucial, fundamental issues in quantum mechanics in particular that have not been solved, the most important of which I would say is the measurement problem. How is it that you move from a mathematical abstraction of a probability function – which is hardly physical; it’s a pure abstraction – but prior to making a measurement, that’s what you have. You have a probability function, a Schrödinger wave equation. Then you make a measurement, and voila, now suddenly you have an electron that is here. It still doesn’t have simultaneous exact momentum and location, but at least it’s a real electron, photon, what have you.


But what is it about the active measurement that moves you from a realm of possibility to a realm of actuality? Somehow, the observer is involved, but in what way? What does it take for a measurement to take place? What’s required? Do you need consciousness? Could a robot do it? We don’t know. The measurement problem – I think it was identified about 1930 or so. It’s unsolved. It’s big. We don’t know. What is the role of the observer in the natural world, that takes us from potential to actuality?


But of course, another major unresolved question in this 20th century physics is you have two extraordinarily elegant, profound, powerful theories, and that is quantum mechanics on the one hand and general relativity on the other. Neither one is going away; they’re too good. But they’re not integrated. They’re not integrated. That would be the grand unified theory, and nobody’s come up with it. So that revolution is in progress, the second great revolution in physics.
But now we go to the mind sciences. I’d like to get a little bit of historical perspective here, to point out one element that I think is absolutely an indispensable catalyst to bring about a revolution in any field of science, and that is the development of extraordinary, sophisticated, advanced methods of empirical observation. If you don’t have that, the revolution’s not going to take place. That’ll be my premise. You’ve got to observe the phenomena you’re really interested in, and you’ve got to observe it beyond folk astronomy or folk psychology or folk biology. Get professional.


When I think of this first great revolution in the physical sciences, I don’t think of Copernicus. He was a brilliant mathematician; he was not a brilliant experimenter; he was not a brilliant observer. He’d get up on the roof of his monastery, look at the stars with the best of them; he didn’t do anything innovative there. His mathematical theory, that was innovative. So they called it the Copernican Revolution. Kepler himself was not a great observer. He got all his data from Tycho Brahe, who was a very powerful observer, very brilliant Danish astronomer. But Kepler, like Copernicus, was a great mathematician.


It was Galileo that brought in the full package. Galileo was the observer; he was the engineer; he was the one that reinvented the telescope, which actually had been invented in Holland. He tried to order one; somebody nipped it on the way. He Googled and got one on the way, and then they nipped it in the mail. (laughter) So he was there, bummed out, he didn’t get his telescope, because somebody nipped it. He said, “The heck with it, I’ll make my own.” So he did.


He made himself a 20 power telescope, and he did something unprecedented. The telescope was already there, but Galileo was the innovator, and he used it in unprecedented ways. Instead of just goggling, looking at the girls across the street in Holland, he directed it upwards. Everywhere he looked – can you imagine how thrilling this must have been? That everything he looked at, he was discovering something nobody had ever seen before. He took his telescope and directed it to the moons and he saw craters for the first time in humanity’s history. Turned it to Jupiter, he saw the moons for the first time. Turned it to the sun, he saw sun spots. Turned it to Venus, he saw the phases of Venus. Wouldn’t that be thrilling?


That’s what was needed. He, too, was a mathematician, but he was an experimenter. He was rolling balls down a ramp to see whether they went at constant velocity or they accelerated. He did actually drop objects off the Tower of Pisa. I’ve been there and asked the people at the University of Pisa. He did it all. And he also brought it out into the world. He didn’t write in Latin, like so many of his contemporaries; he wrote in Italian. He brought it home. He was the full package. He was the consummate first great scientist that brought it all together.


Among the things he did, which was seminal, which is indispensable for this triggering of the first great revolution in the physical sciences, was his use of the telescope. He was making observations like nobody had ever done before. The mathematics was there. The observation, that was crucial. Otherwise, what they were doing with Copernicus’s heliocentric system was “Very cool mathematical system, but we already have one, thanks very much. Ours covers the data, it accounts for the appearances; so does yours. So whatever, it’s a matter of choice.”


But it’s not a matter of choice when you start seeing the phases of Venus. It’s not a matter of which one do you like, like do you like ice cream or do you like fudge brownies. By this rigorous observation of material phenomena, he was the one, I think, more than anybody else, that launched the true revolution, the first great revolution, and it was in the physical sciences.


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