Science, the mind and the need for psychological empiricism
The literature in neuroscience abounds with statements claiming conscious experience—the mind—to be merely the by-product of neuronal firing, thus denying and devaluing any claim to legitimacy the domain of interior subjectivity might have; yet it often does so without a genuine empirical basis upon which to base its claims. Instead, such claims are often based simply on metaphysical assumptions. Such claims reflect beliefs about the relationship between brain and mind, without offering any evidence to substantiate their claims. Alan Wallace (2000), examining John Anderson’s textbook Cognitive Psychology and Its Implications (1990), shares an example of such claims based not on empirical research but on metaphysical assumptions:
In Anderson’s presentation of the neural basis of cognition, cognitive terms are uniformly objectified. He asserts, for example, that “[c]ognition is achieved by patterns of neural activation in large sets of neurons,” and “resides in patterns of the primitive elements of computers” (Johnson, p. 59, p. 40). While he declares that “the brain encodes cognition in neural patterns” (p. 40), he acknowledges that no one knows how this occurs. And he offers no justification or explanation for asserting that brain cells experientially detect, rather than merely electrochemically react to, visually related physical stimuli (Wallace, p. 149).
Because contemporary neuroscience often fails to acknowledge the validity claims of the subjective domain, while also making claims based on appearances and metaphysical assumptions, it can be argued that the spirit of genuine empirical science is being ignored in favor of entrenched beliefs about the nature of reality. This is unfortunate because, in light of certain research, acknowledgement of this domain as one of several legitimate perspectives can open new possibilities for the cultivation of well-being—in both those suffering from mental and emotional disorders and those who are considered to be quite normal. Though contemplative neuroscience acknowledges the importance of first-person approaches which validate the reality of the mind and consciousness, it equally acknowledges the importance of third-person, objective approaches as used in science, and therefore endeavors to forge a science not only of objective empiricism but of subjective—or psychological—empiricism as well.
An important contribution to validating and articulating the reality of the interior world has been posited by Wilber (1995) in the form of his four-quadrant model (figure 1), of which, for the sake of space, only two quadrants will be covered:
. . . The Upper-Right (UR) is the exterior form or structure of an individualholon [i.e., a whole or context that is also a part of larger wholes/contexts, which themselves are parts of larger wholes, and so on]. This quadrant runs from the center—which is simply the Big Bang—to subatomic particles to atoms to molecules to cells to neural organisms to triune-brained organisms. With reference to human beings, this quadrant is the one emphasized bybehaviorism. Behavior can be seen, it is empirical—which is precisely why empirical science is always concerned only with the behavior of holons (the behavior of atoms, the behavior of gases, the behavior of fish, the behavior of humans) and wants nothing to do with nasty ‘ol introspection, which involves, of course, the interiors of individuals.
Which would be the Upper-Left (UL) quadrant. This quadrant—the interior form of an individualholon—runs from the center to prehension, sensation, impulse, image, symbol, concept (and so on). These interiors (UL) are correlated, we saw, with specific exteriors (UR), so that emotions “go with” limbic systems and concepts “go with” the neocortex of complex triune brains, and so forth (that is, every point on the right side has a correlate on the left side: every exterior has an interior). With reference to humans beings, this quadrant contains all the “interior” individual sciences (among other things), from psychoanalysis to phenomenology to mathematics (nobody ever saw the square root of a negative one running around in the external world; that is apprehended only interiorly) (pp. 127-8).
Wilber goes on to delineate the lower quadrants, the interior and exterior of the collective, in this way revealing how causality is more accurately expressed as the result of a causal nexus, a confluence of causal influences originating from all four quadrants (p. 128-31). Interestingly, nearly any perspective that can be imagined can fit into any one or combination of these quadrants. In addition, Wilber is careful to show that, although each quadrant tetra-arises holistically with the others, therefore having correlations with the other quadrants, none of these quadrants can be reduced to the others. For example, even though neuroscience may be able to locate virtually all of the neural correlates (UR) of, say, a particularly disturbing dream, none of those neural correlates can convey the interior experience (UL) of that dream. This simple observation is enough to imply, then, that conscious experience—the internal world, both subjective and inter-subjective—is more than its neural correlates, and consequently makes intelligible the notion that, though the external universe does indeed influence the internal universe, interior experience and exterior behavior are indeed qualitatively different, yet correlated, dimensions of one essential reality, both of which need to be acknowledged and honored.
Wallace, B. Alan. (2007). The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness.New York: Oxford.
Wilber, Ken. (1995). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambhala.
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