Below is a reposting of Tom Pepper‘s essay “Atman, Aporia, and Atomism: A Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic.” But first, an explanation.
Last night I was reading Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic for a section of my book, Critique of Western Buddhism (see my previous post, “Slogging Through Buddhist Writing.”)
Then, this morning I read an article in the New York Times on how Trump’s “ideological guru,” Steve Bannon, has an affinity for the ideas of the Italian figure Julius Evola (1898-1974). Evola was a proponent of what is known as Traditionalism. (Links at bottom.) Very briefly, Traditionalism is closely aligned with Perennial Philosophy’s belief that all humanity shares a transcendental unity via the “brightly shining… unconditioned… pristine awareness” (115) that is our “primordial consciousness,” which “transcends all conceptual frameworks” (24). So, given that this glorious “ground of becoming” (102) is our birthright, why isn’t humanity basking in “an eternal, timeless bliss, or nirvana” (47)? Goddamn modernism and materialism, that’s why. The Traditionalist’s task thus becomes one of “breaking the ideological chains of materialism that shackle the minds of scientists and the modern world at large” (239). It is not difficult to see why Traditionalism had a love affair with the far right wing parties of Europe, old, neo(-Nazi), and Nouvelle(-Droite).
Anyway, as I was reading the piece on Evola, my thoughts kept turning to B. Alan Wallace.
Maybe it had something to do with passages about how Evola, in his book The Revolt Against the Modern World, “cast materialism as an eroding influence on ancient values,” as the Times article says. Maybe it had to do with Evola, Bannon, and Wallace’s shared, seemingly insatiable yearning for the reestablishment of a transcendent moral order that would, among other cataclysmic ends, “restore meaning to the universe” (72). Maybe it has to do with the fact that every single one of these quotes (with page numbers) is a quote not from a right-wing Traditionalist, but from Wallace’s book. Yes, Wallace’s views graft seamlessly onto fascist-aligned totalitarian Traditionalist thought.
Before allowing myself such a drastic conclusion, I did some research. I visited Mark Sedgwick’s blog. He’s quoted in the Times piece, and rightly so; he seems to be the leading scholarly authority on Traditionalism. Much to my pleasure, Sedgwick refers to Richard K. Payne’s article, “Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism.” So, I read that article. It is a tour de force. Every practicing Buddhist should read it. Payne’s article was no doubt timely and relevant when it was published in 2008. But it is even more so today. The article is rich in lines of thought and conclusions to be drawn for the identity of Western Buddhism and of Western Buddhist subjectivity. The one that I want to mention here is this: much of contemporary Western Buddhism (as well as its Religious Studies and Buddhist Studies scholarship) is deeply implicated in the anti-rationalist “experience fundamentalism” that it shares with the Romantic strains of Traditionalism. Given that such “experience,” as a Buddhist-Traditionalist rhetorical trope, is invariably presented as “inherently veridical, and to be epistemologically privileged” (Payne, 180, 182), the path to a kind of totalitarianism of thought, to a hierarchical institutionalized authoritarianism, is cleared.
Wallace looms yet again. This time as a Buddhist St. Paul, an uncompromising evangelist, declaring the good news of the all-seeing Buddha’s epoch-making “contemplative revolution” (147).
Given the advent of Trump, Le Pen, Brexit, the AfD (Alternative for Germany), and so on, the term “fascism” is no longer a mere pejorative: it has reverted back to its role as a legitimate cultural-political descriptor. My point here is not, of course, that Wallace is fascist in the way that a violent brown-shirted thug is. I don’t know Wallace personally. My point is that his text (via his “Buddhism,” Dzogchen,” and this and that mostly Tibetan teacher) has resonances in contemporary fascist thought. I am suggesting that we may find in Wallace the same kind of unconscious (?) collusion with a cultural-political-spiritual fascist ideology that we find with, say, Jon Kabat-Zinn in relation to neoliberalism or Stephen Batchelor in relation to a neo-Orientalist colonialism.
At the very least, Wallace’s Buddhism may be akin to Christofascism, which is to say, it is comprised of a veneer of spiritualized, cosmic meaning-making lain over a functionally totalitarian and apocalyptic traditionalist ideology. Spiritualized apocalyptic thought, whether of the New Age or Traditionalist variety, involves beliefs about the end times of the old world and the coming of a new world. This new world is augured not by collective social action but by some sort of “contemplative revolution,” by, in Wallace’s terms, “liberating people from a state of unknowing (agnostics) to becoming knowers (gnostics) of ultimate reality” (147).
Anyway, the final step of my research led me back to this blog, and to Tom Pepper’s essay. He uses different language. His argument is cool and reasoned. Still, a careful reader will not fail to notice that it’s all in there.
The age of Western Buddhist innocence has passed. What comes next?
[NOTE: Pepper’s essay first appeared under the post title “Feast, Interrupted.” Have a look at the 94 comments to get the full force of the original discussion.]
Atman, Aporia, and Atomism: A Review of B. Alan Wallace’s Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic
By Tom Pepper
By any measure, we would have to acknowledge that B. Alan Wallace is a major player in Western Buddhism. In the last eight years he started the Santa Barbara Institute of Consciousness Studies, published nine books, and is engaged in the International Shamatha Project. He has impressive credentials, with a Ph.D. from Stanford and a stint as a Tibetan monk ordained by the Dalai Lama. He has created himself as the leading authority on the relationship between Western science and Buddhism. His latest book, Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic (a title that would seem to have been chosen to invite comparison with Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist) is subtitled “A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice.” The book sets out to argue that Buddhist contemplative practices can contribute to the scientific study of the mind, which is currently running hard down a dead-end in its attempts to map the mind onto neural activity. Along the way, Wallace argues against a reductive, materialist philosophy of science, and for a particular version of Tibetan Buddhism, as the correct way to finally understand human consciousness.
I first came across Wallace’s work many years ago, with a book called Choosing Reality: A Contemplative View of Physics and the Mind (the word “contemplative” was changed to “Buddhist” in later editions, apparently for marketing purposes). I picked up the book because as a Buddhist who is also interested in philosophy of science, I thought perhaps Wallace was going to get beyond the popular misrepresentation of quantum theory that says that we “create” a particle by observing it. I was hoping he might be trying to demonstrate that both Buddhism and quantum physics could be understood from a realist perspective. That is, I thought he was going to choose reality; instead, his book made a case for idealism, and argued that we choose reality. In the process, he misrepresented contemporary physics and showed a startling lack of knowledge of recent developments in the philosophy of science. I didn’t pay him much attention after that, but given his flurry of recent books, I thought it might be worth reconsidering exactly what his project really is.
In responding to this book, then, I have no intention of debating his take on Buddhism. I intend to take a thoroughly exterior, non-buddhist approach in responding to Wallace’s presentation of Buddhism. I do, in fact, disagree with some of his statements about Buddhism generally, but I am not interested in seeking the “true” Buddhism here. I know very little about Tibetan Buddhism, and I am confident that Wallace knows quite a bit about it. I will assume that his representation of Tibetan Buddhism is accurate. What I am interested in here is simply considering, from a non-buddhist perspective, the social and ideological implications of Wallace’s version of Buddhism. If we all accepted this version of Buddhism as true, and all began practicing it, what would that mean for us?
I will not give Wallace the same benefit of the doubt when it comes to his discussions of Western science and philosophy. In this realm, I will point out the errors and misrepresentations, the sophistries and false dilemmas, and the false conclusions resulting from his limited knowledge of contemporary epistemology and philosophy of science. My aim here, however, is the same: my interest is again in considering the social and ideological project he has marshaled this wealth of pseudo-science and sophistry to promote.
I also want to begin with a few points on which I absolutely agree with Wallace. I point these out to make it clear that I think his goals are often (not always) goals that I share; it is my argument, however, that his ideas on how to reach these goals are terribly problematic, and that his philosophical assumptions can only hinder his project.
For one thing, it would be wonderful if more people understood, as Wallace points out quite clearly (pp. 177-179), that mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition is not at all the same thing as mindfulness in the Western mental-health industry. Despite the frequent claims that it is a concept adopted from Buddhism, mindfulness in the various “mindfulness-based” therapies has little to do with the concept of sati. Wallace also makes clear that absolute acceptance of whatever comes into our minds is not the typical Buddhist approach; instead, Buddhist have traditionally been very keen on controlling what goes on in the mind, to eliminate the afflictions of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Vipashyana (vipassana) does not mean, Wallace reminds us (pp. 204-206), accepting the mind as it is, but learning to shape it into something better.
Finally, and most importantly, I absolutely agree with Wallace that the reductive materialist attempts to map the mind onto the neurological activity of the brain is a mistake, a dead end, that will prevent any real progress both in philosophical considerations of consciousness and in psychology. The mind, I will argue, is neither concomitant with the brain, nor is it an epiphenomenon. However, I will completely disagree with how he seeks to avoid reductive materialism. To adumbrate my conclusions here, I will briefly discuss the problem of free will, and Wallace’s solution to this seemingly endless debate.
At first it seemed puzzling to me that Wallace would end the first part of his book with a chapter on “achieving free will,” as the Western concept of “will” has always seemed to be irrelevant to Buddhist thought. However, this chapter reveals the reason for Wallace’s appeal to the radical empiricism of William James, for his overly simplistic version of modern philosophy of science, and shows us what the goal of his version of Buddhism ultimately will turn out to be. Wallace presents us with a version of Buddhism that seeks to uncover, through spiritual practice, a “brightly shining mind” that is unborn, eternal, and exists “in every being,” although “veiled by adventitious defilements” (115). The “conceptual mind,” which is conventional and impermanent, cannot access this “realm of consciousness,” but the “brightly shining mind” can “influence the minds of ordinary sentient beings” (115) in ways that are “beyond the realm of philosophy” (116). Our greater freedom, it seems, is achieved by removing the defilements, conventional accretions inhibiting the ability of the pure consciousness to subtly and imperceptibly influence the conventional mind. He presents us, then, with the very definition of an atman: an abiding deep self, uncreated by causes and conditions, permanently existing, unchangeable, and alone capable of true and complete bliss. (Of course, Wallace says this is not an atman at all, but simply asserting that it is not an atman does not make it any less of one.) My argument will be that Wallace’s attempt to resuscitate James’s radical empiricism, his misrepresentation of quantum theory, and his implication that reductive materialism is the only existent, and only possible, philosophy of science, all serve to produce his subtle atman as the one remaining conceivable explanation for the existence of consciousness; furthermore, the social and political implications of this version of Buddhism are horrendously elitist and oppressive. I will then suggest one other possible explanation for the existence of consciousness, which I believe is more in agreement with the basic concept of Buddhism, and could possibly make Wallace’s ostensible project more likely to succeed—and without the negative social and political implications.
The Quantum Myth and a Scientific Straw Man
Wallace has gotten quite a bit of mileage over the years out of the popular mythos of quantum theory, and he hits that note several times in this book. It enables him to give a “scientific” argument against what he repeatedly calls “materialistic” science; on Wallace’s version, quantum physics demonstrates that the universe “requires for its existence the participation of an observer” (84). I’m sure we’re all familiar with the version of quantum theory that tells us that the particle doesn’t exist until we measure it, so consciousness ultimately produces reality. When physicists insist that this is an exaggerated claim, that quantum theory “does not imply that reality is no more than a pure subjective human construct,” Wallace simply insists that they are unwilling to accept the implications of their own theory. He quotes Brukner and Zeilinger who argue that from multiple observations it is possible to “build up objects with a set of properties that do not change under variations of modes of observation or description” (84); essentially, what they suggest is that once we become aware of the influence of measurement, we can determine the level of consistent reality existing independent from our conscious observation. On one reading of Vasubandhu’s writing, this is the point of Yogacara Buddhism: that we can study the mind not because it is the only reality, but because then we can become aware of how it distorts reality, essentially learning to correct for error. Wallace is very attached to what we might call a consciousness-only school of physics because it enables him to “open the door to the possibility of nonphysical influences on the material world” (99), producing a radical duality of atman and conventional samsara, with only a one-way possibility of influence. There are, of course, many ways to understand the quantum theory, and Wallace’s consciousness-only physics is not the only option. As Christopher Norris has pointed out in a very interesting book on the subject, “it is preposterous in the strict sense of that term—an inversion of the rational order of priorities—when thinkers claim to draw far-reaching ontological or epistemological lessons from a field of thought so rife with paradox and lacking (as yet) any adequate grasp of its own operative concepts” (5). Norris demonstrates that Bohm, who literally wrote the book on quantum theory, always held that there were alternative, realist models capable of explaining all of the quantum “facts.” This alternative was ignored largely for ideological, extra-scientific reasons (See Norris, especially p. 144). In the case of Wallace’s argument, it seems the “orthodox” quantum interpretation has continued to serve its ideological purpose.
Wallace’s main scientific target is the biological reductionism that would assert that the mind is nothing more than neural activity. He also wants to reject what he calls “metaphysical realism” (28). By this, he means the “scientific worldview” that insists that the only things that are real and can produce effects are physical things, and that physical is equivalent to matter. Of course, not even the most reductive of empiricists would actually deny the existence of energy in the universe, so Wallace’s argument involves a bit of sleight of hand, as he elides everything but material “entities,” and then denies their reality. This sophistry is fascinating:
According to metaphysical realism, the entire objective universe consists of physical entities that produce the effects measured by human beings; however, we can never perceive these entities, as they exist independently of all measurement. Therefore, we can never infer the contents of the absolutely objective world on the basis of observations, which always arise relative to systems of measurement. (28)
This passage is worth close attention, because it is essentially this peculiar logic on which Wallace’s entire argument depends. For Wallace, something is only real in the objective sense if it is a discrete entity; then, that entity is completely invisible since it must be “measured” instead of “perceived;” therefore, we can never know what is actually in the objective world at all; from here, it is a short step to the assumption that no objective world even exists: “all observations of the physical world are illusory”(29). This argument depends on many philosophical errors, but the three most important here are: (1) the belief that “physically real” can only mean a discrete material entity whose only properties are mass and location; (2) the assumption that perception is not itself a form of “measurement;” and (3) the assumption that because any specific measurements of the objective world are limited to certain attributes, we cannot infer anything from them. Of course, as Brukner and Zeilinger indicate in the passage quoted above, it is exactly because we can be aware or our systems of measurement, including perceptual ones, that we can make reasonably correct inferences about the objective world.
Wallace’s reductive, straw-man version of the “scientific worldview” is essential, however, in supporting his central claim about the radical duality of reality. He spells this out for us right in the first chapter. “[T]he illusion of knowledge that the mind is physical has delayed the revolutionary development of the mind sciences” he tells us, and this has occurred largely because “the scientific establishment exerts . . . pressure on its members to reject all forms of mind-body dualism in favor of an antiquated monism”(14). Wallace says he wants to “think outside the box—outside the familiar dualities of dualism and monism” (14), but he rejects the “familiar” Cartesian dualism only to replace it with a more radical dualism, in which an absolute atman, which he refers to at times as “substrate consciousness,” is the deepest and most permanent level of reality, influencing but unaffected by the physical realm. The existence of philosophies of science other than reductive materialist monism has apparently conveniently escaped Wallace’s notice. Roy Bhaskar’s realist theory of science, for instance, completely avoids the problems Wallace finds with the “scientific worldview” without requiring some non-natural, other-worldly power to fill in the gaps. Bhaskar’s philosophy of science includes distinctions between intransitive and transitive objects of science; that is, between the objective reality and the object of thought produced by a science. It includes the possibility that reality is stratified, with different levels of causal mechanisms, and therefore accepts the possibility of emergence. Emergent powers cannot be reduced to more “basic” strata on which they depend; so we cannot explain the mind by studying the brain any more than we could expect to derive the laws of baseball from the laws of physics, despite the fact that it would be impossible to play the game if those laws ceased to operate.
The false philosophical dilemma Wallace sets up requires absolute ignorance of serious philosophical thought about science, and so a misunderstanding of how science operates. Wallace assumes that there must be final, complete answers, or there are no answers at all—and therefore science fails. This assumption depends upon an ontology that is both materially monist and non-stratified; these are not assumptions that are required for a realist ontology. In the words of Andrew Collier, from a critical realist perspective “we never reach rock-bottom—so the prejudice that only rock-bottom explanations are real ones would leave us forever without real explanations” (110). Wallace demands of science that it jump immediately to the rock-bottom answer, rejecting the possibility of stratification, and the transitive nature of explanatory mechanisms. This enables him to make the claim that from a scientific perspective “matter—as it exists in and of itself, independent of measurement—is as unknowable to the human intellect as God” (234). And, when he comes across a poll which suggests that the majority of physicists are undecided about the best interpretation of quantum mechanics, he can only conclude that the “real implications of quantum physics seem to be hidden in a cloud of uncertainty” (236), and the only solution is to conclude that consciousness creates the world. He is incapable of seeing that physicists may be less likely than he is to reify their transitive objects of knowledge; for the best physicists, the interpretations we produce in concepts are what we argue about, because they are always constructs designed to move us toward better descriptions and explanations of the intransitive object. We may never reach rock-bottom, probably won’t, but that doesn’t require us to abandon science and resign the field to the supernatural. Wallace claims that modern science “is incompatible with the Middle Way school of Buddhist philosophy” (29). I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether Wallace’s atman or Bhaskar’s version of realism is closer to Nagarjuna’s epistemology and ontology.
William James, Shangri-La, and Reactionary Ideology
One of the reasons I was initially prompted to read this book was my surprise at Wallace’s call to return to James’s radical empiricism. The stupid insistence of psychology and “mind sciences” on a naïve and reductive empiricism that has never really been the underlying philosophy of any real scientific progress is certainly frustrating. But there are so many alternative scientific epistemologies, I could not imagine why Wallace would pick up on this glaringly reactionary, elitist, and theistic form of capitalist ideology and mistake it for a philosophy of science.
Even if he were reluctant to engage the more radically realist philosophies of science, there have certainly been more philosophically sophisticated versions of radical empiricism advanced in the past century. Quine, Kitcher, and Kornblith come immediately to mind; and I’m sure a philosopher could easily add to the list. What, I wondered, is the ideological value of James’s particular version of radical empiricism?
James’s psychology was begun as an ideological project, intended to defend the existence of the soul against the rampant materialism gaining popularity in academic circles (see Leary). In The Principles of Psychology, James makes no bones about it: “I confess, therefore, that to posit a soul influenced in some mysterious way by the brain-states and responding to them by conscious affections of its own, seems to me the line of least logical resistance, so far as we yet have attained” (181). His argument is that the conceptual puzzles and paradoxes of psychology can only, finally, be resolved by either admitting a soul, or resigning some problems to “nature in her unfathomable designs” which “no mortal may ever know” (182). It should be clear why James appeals to Wallace: a reductive version of science leading to aporia which can only be resolved by appeal to a transcendent soul.
James’s positivism is also quite explicit, and nowhere more so than in a passage Wallace cites in an earlier book, The Taboo of Subjectivity: “the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system” (James, Essays in Radical Empiricism, p. 26). This may seem obvious, but the problem is that for radical empiricism the only things that count as “real” (in a physical, objective sense) are those that can be experienced, and all experiences are real in exactly the same way. There is no room for theoretical causal mechanisms, and no way to distinguish between the kinds of reality that obtain in a thought and in a bomb. Just as importantly, there is no way to think about what Bhaskar calls the “metacritical dimension,” which “aims to identify the presence of causally significant absences in thought, seeking to elicit . . . what cannot be said or done . . . in a particular language or conceptual system” (Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation, p. 25). The rejection of such dimensions of thought in positivist philosophies is always in the service of conservatism. Pragmatism is, as James insists, only interested in “practical” results, and particularly interested in insisting that these results can only be produced from within the current, existing, system—of thought, language, politics, economics.
The political conservatism of this can perhaps be made clear by mentioning Wallace’s dismissal of his own ridiculously incorrect understanding of Freud. From his positivist perspective, Wallace can only misunderstand Freud, and can only think of the unconscious as “the subtlest discursive thoughts, mental dialogues, images, memories, desire, and emotions,” which “Freud discovered centuries after Buddhist contemplatives” (188). That this is not what Freud meant by the unconscious should be clear to anybody who is familiar with serious psychoanalytic thought. Suffice it to say that the dynamic unconscious, for Freud, is not subtle and unnoticed but positively existing mental activity; rather, the unconscious is precisely what is unthinkable or unspeakable within a specific conceptual system. The reason for this persistent misreading of Freud is perhaps clearest when Wallace trots out once again the most often quoted and least often understood passage in all of Freud’s writings. I’ll quote it here at some length:
When I promised my patients help and relief through the cathartic method, I was often obliged to hear the following objections, “You say, yourself, that my suffering has probably much to do with my own relation and destinies. You cannot change any of that. In what manner, then, can you help me?” To this I could always answer: “I do not doubt at all that it would be easier for fate than for me to remove your sufferings, but you will be convinced that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into everyday unhappiness, against which you will be better able to defend yourself with a restored nervous system.” (Studies in Hysteria, p. 232)
This is the source of the most common quip about psychoanalysis: that it can only convert misery into ordinary unhappiness. The point Freud is making, however, is much different. For Freud, it is imperative to accept that much of our human unhappiness is because of our social environment, and that is beyond the reach of psychoanalysis; the really useful benefit of uncovering what is unconscious, what is invisible within our construal of the world, is that it might leave us “better able to defend” ourselves—to make real changes in those “relations and destinies” causing our “everyday unhappiness.” Pragmatism would prefer we remain resigned to the positivity of its conceptual construal of the world, to eliminate the threat of any demand for social change. James’s radical empiricism was always meant to cut off any consideration of the social production of our mental experience. In fact, Wallace quotes Kurt Danziger in support of his claim that abandonment of the introspective method occurred for “ideological rather than pragmatic” reasons (173). In fact, that is Danziger’s point, but the ideological reason is not what Wallace implies; instead, the reason for the abandonment of introspection was that it “demonstrated that the nature of the object of psychological investigation was linked to the social structure of the investigative situation” (Danziger, p. 48). The problem wasn’t materialist ideology, but the possibility that the contents of the psyche were produced by social structures; and so it would require social change to improve or cure the mind. Interdependence, it seems, was more troubling than the possibility of a soul.
And now I come to what will undoubtedly be the most controversial claim I will make in this essay: that the extreme conservatism of Wallace’s philosophical approach is directly connected to the particular kind of Buddhism he is proposing. That is, I will dare to say what is unspeakable in Western Buddhist circles: that Tibetan Buddhism functioned as the ideological support of one of the most undemocratic, oppressive, and elitist social systems to endure into the twentieth century. What could be a better justification for inherited aristocracy than the belief that they have earned their wealth and power by meritorious actions in past lives? A couple hundred aristocratic families lived in opulence, while Buddhist monastics sought meditative bliss in idle luxury, all supported by the labor of an uneducated and economically oppressed hereditary peasant cast, who apparently had some bad karma to work off. This is the Shangri-La whose loss brings tears to the eyes of Hollywood celebrities. Somehow it has come to seem a horrible injustice that an oppressive oligarchy was deposed. It may, of course, be argued that it is a terrible injustice that this deposition did not lead to terribly much improvement in the lives of the peasants, but Wallace’s frequent cold-war anti-communist rhetoric just rings hollow for me.
An elite class, however, turns out to be essential to the kind of Buddhism Wallace is presenting. He repeatedly emphasizes the rarity of achieving the first dhyana, citing a Sri Lankan monk who says there are fewer than five people in Sri Lanka who have achieved it, and assuring us that even in Tibet, where the higher form of Buddhism is supposedly practiced, it is rare (p. 148). Besides the rarity of qualified teachers, there is the need for “a quiet, healthy, pleasant environment where one’s material needs are easily met,” so that one can practice continuously (although the truly dedicated might need as little as “six hours each day” and “even engage with others between sessions” (155-156). Still, he quotes Atisha: “If you lack the prerequisites of shamatha, you will not achieve samadhi even in thousands of years, regardless of how diligently you practice” (155). Such long stretches of idle time (Wallace reminds us that it took even Buddha six years), and the provision of all material comforts, is clearly the privilege of only an elite class of people with good karma. The vast majority of people would simply remain karmically incapable of such spiritual progress in this lifetime.
The rarity of achieving these advanced meditative states also calls attention to Wallace’s odd definition of “skeptic.” Apparently, for him it means absolute unquestioning blind faith in something we can never see any evidence of or hope to even approach in our lifetimes. Not a definition of skeptic I have ever heard before. Wallace’s skepticism is apparently limited to skepticism about a naïve philosophy of science that few people ever accepted; when it comes to Buddhism, his appeals to authority abound. He repeatedly cites “authoritative accounts” (182) or truth “revealed” to an “eminent master” (214), to support claims about the achievement of a stable “pristine awareness” or state of “bliss” that cannot be verified by our own “radical empirical” endeavors, since it is achievable only rarely, by those with the right karma.
Although Wallace does assert that “no autonomous, controlling self can be found,” and that this is what is meant by the Buddhist term anatman (110), it is hard to see in what sense the “timeless, ‘nonmanifesting’ consciousness that experiences” nirvana (209) is anything but an atman. He claims that the “mind when it has settled in its natural state, beyond the disturbing influences of conscious and unconscious mental activity” (69) can experience the “quality of bliss” that “does not arise in response to any sensory stimulus”(68). I have no idea whether this is standard Tibetan Buddhism or not—I can only assume Wallace knows of what he speaks. If it is, I can only say I would have no interest in it. It isn’t hard to see, however, why this kind of Buddhism might appeal to an economic elite in the west; there is no need to worry about the suffering of others, just seek your own bliss in idle luxury. And we can rest assured that our eternal atman-that-is-not-one will dwell in bliss, without having to make any change whatsoever in our current ideology: Wallace assures us that “both religious and non-religious people can embrace this ideal of genuine happiness, with specific attributes defined by each one in terms of his or her own worldview”(172). As long as you have the right karma to be born rich, you’re all set. To the privileged elite, Wallace’s comfort-Buddhism says “we are home at last” (85). Enjoy your bliss!
In conclusion, I would like to suggest one possible alternative to Wallace’s response to reductive materialism. The problems that James saw as “unfathomable” unless we accepted the existence of a soul, and that Wallace sees as insoluble in “mind sciences” unless we accept an atman, might turn out not to be problems at all if we could simply abandon philosophical atomism. Wallace uses the term “mind” in two ways, usually without clarifying which use he intends: the mind is both the “conceptual thought” that exists at the conventional level, and the eternal “substrate consciousness.” In both cases, however, it is clear that for Wallace each mind is individual, either eternally separated from all others in the case of the substrate consciousness, or individually arising from the interactions of a brain and its environment in the case of the conventionally existent mind. Introspection, for Wallace, is compared to an “inwardly focused telescope,” that examines an “individual mind stream” (24). For both James and Wallace, and indeed for much of Western thought, the insistence on discrete, individual consciousnesses has lead to endless paradoxes, aporia, and irresolvable problems—from free will to solipsism, from the status of knowledge to the existence of a mind, there are a host of problems that cannot be solved unless we abandon the notion of consciousness or mind existing individually, the depths of a mind.
Eighty years ago, V. N. Volosinov proposed that we drop this line of pursuit. “Consciousness,” he suggested, “becomes consciousness only once it has been filled with ideological (semiotic) content, consequently, only in the process of social interaction” (11). Psychoanalysis, beginning with Freud and most thoroughly with Lacan, presented a radically empty subject, arising not from deep within but from without, in a socially produced symbolic network. Alain Badiou has suggested a theory of the subject that accepts all of the most radical implications of Lacan’s thought: as individual organisms, we are nothing but automatons; it is only as socially engaged subjects to a truth that we gain any agency. To become subjects with true agency, we must participate in a truth procedure, a practice which functions to extend our capacity to interact with reality beyond what is possible within a given system of knowledge—the subject is not an individual, but a social entity. As such, it may very well transcend the limits of an individual organism’s life, and experience the future effects of our present day actions. We will never find consciousness in the firing of neurons, because it exists only in the symbolic social interaction of multiple individuals.
I would suggest that this line of thought is much more compatible with the Buddhist concepts of pratityasamutpada, sunyata, and anatman than any other form of Western philosophical thought. Further, I would suggest that this line of thought could learn a great deal from Buddhist thinkers of the past couple thousand years—not all of them, but certainly Nagarjuna, Vasubandhu, and Candrakirti at the very least could help teach us to think the radical implications of a non-atomist subject.
If Wallace’s ultimate goal is a political or economic one, propping up a privileged elite or garnering financial support from wealthy Westerners, then I would suppose he would have little interest in the criticism I have offered here. If, on the other hand, his interest is truly in exploring the nature of human consciousness, he might want to do a little reading, and catch up on the advances made in the philosophy of science by Roy Bhaskar’s critical realism, and explore the theory of the subject advanced by Lacan and Badiou. I’m not so optimistic as to hope that will happen, but I am just optimistic enough to hope that a few of those interested in the possibilities of Buddhist thought and practice might realize that we do not have to choose between Wallace’s Tibetan atman and the kind of reductive “naturalizing” of Buddhism advanced by Owen Flanagan, who want to “tame” Buddhism by jettisoning anything that doesn’t fit with a reductive, empiricist philosophy of science, keeping only its useful tendency to teach people to be nice. As Alain Badiou has put it, the enemy of thought today is “a sort of scientism stipulating the mind must be naturalized and studied according to the experimental protocols of neurology, reinforced, as always, by an inane moralism with a religious tinge—in substance: one has to be nice” (118). Wallace’s version of Buddhism would simply abandon the field to this enemy, and retreat to the solitary pursuit of bliss.
From a non-buddhist perspective, the decisional structure of Wallace’s brand of Buddhism is quite clear. As I understand Laruelle’s concept, the decisional structure is the fundamental construal of the world which enables a particular project in thought, but which remains invisible from within that thought. That Wallace cannot see his decisional structure is evident from his ostensible rejection of it: he claims he wants to reject Cartesian dualism and accept the Buddhist concept of anatman, and he cannot see that he is producing both an absolute dualism and the ultimate atman. His reductive understanding of science and epistemology and absolute faith in the authority of the Buddhist tradition would leave us no choice but to accept the existence of an atman that he simply insists is not one. From within his decisional structure, no argument could defeat Buddhist authority; since none of us can achieve the transcendent meditative states of the masters, we can neither debate their existence and value nor even hope to comprehend what such states actually are. No alternative version of science is possible, since for Wallace only rock-bottom (positivist) answers can count as scientific. This combination produces a self-replicating hermetic system designed to perpetuate inequality with the promise of future bliss.
Badiou, A. Second Manifesto for Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity, 2009.
Bhaskar, R. Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation. New York: Routledge, 2009.
Collier, A. Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy. London: Verso, 1994.
Danziger, K. Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Freud, S. & Breur, J. Studies in Hysteria. Trans. A.A. Brill. Boston: Beacon Press, 1937.
James, W. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publications, 1950.
James, W. Essays in Radical Empiricism. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1902
Norris, C. Quantum Theory and the Flight from Realism: Philosophical Responses to Quantum Mechanics. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Volosinov, V.N. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. L. Matejka I.R. Titunuk. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.
Wallace, A.B. Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Wallace, A.B. The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
New York Times, “Steve Bannon Cited Italian Thinker Who Inspired Fascists,” February 10, 2017.
Mark Sedgwick’s Traditionalist Blog.
Richard K. Payne, “Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism,” Pacific World, Third Series, no. 10 (Fall 2008), pp. 177-223.
I was just saying to a friend: “I bet we’ll start hearing the terms ‘Buddhism’ and ‘fascism’ in juxtaposition,” when, snap! ping! Richard Payne’s spanking new essay “Fascists Religiosities” appeared. Visit his blog, and answer his koan for the latter days: “If all religions are ultimately the same, why be a Buddhist?”
On Christofascism, see, Paul F. Knitter, “Theocentric Christology,” Theology Today, 40 (2), July 1983.