Hidden Dimensions

At lunchtime today I stopped by the excellent local bookstore Labyrinth Books, looking to see what was new. In the science section, I noticed a pile of copies of Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness. As with the rest of the many “physics and consciousness” books I’ve seen over the years, I spent a few minutes looking at it to see if there was any evidence of something different or interesting about this one. Apparently not, so I was about to file it in the large category of things best ignored, when I decided to check to see who had published the book.

I was shocked and dismayed to see that the publisher is Columbia University Press, where the book is part of the Columbia Series in Science and Religion. Two of the other eight books in the series are by the same author, B. Allan Wallace, including one entitled Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground. In defense of Columbia University Press, the people there don’t actually seem to be reading these books or their promotional material for them, since the blurbs for Buddhism and Science at the CUP site and on Amazon include

“[A] fascinating and captivating book. Without a doubt it will be the definitive text on Holbein’s famous painting for some time to come.”
—Aparna Sharma, Leonardo Reviews

which comes from a review of The Ambassador’s Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance, which just happened to be in the same issue as a review of Buddhism and Science. [Note added: I’ve heard from someone at CUP who tells me that this will be corrected]

Wallace’s background in physics consists of an undergraduate joint major in physics and philosophy of science at Amherst. He’s the author of many other books, including some on Buddhism and physics such as Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind. He has a web-site here and is founder and president of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

Here and here you can read some samples of Hidden Dimensions, and make up your own mind what you think. As far as I can tell it’s pretty generic material of this kind, full of crackpottery invoking quantum mechanics, extra dimensions, etc. etc. It’s more or less in the same vein as What the Bleep, but with more of a Buddhist and less of a self-help angle.

Unfortunately, it’s not just Columbia University Press that is promoting Wallace’s ideas. He also gave the keynote address at a symposium here last year on Mind and Reality. You can watch an interview with him standing not too far from my office here.

I really was intending to avoid writing this kind of critical blog posting for a while. After enraging lots of philosophers, I fear that now I’ll enrage lots of Buddhists, in particular by having no interest in wasting time discussing Wallace’s ideas. But I’m profoundly embarrassed that the institution where I work is promoting this sort of thing, so thought I better publicly say so. This all appear to be the responsibility of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion, which has recently been made part of the Earth Institute, run here at Columbia by economist Jeffrey Sachs. Like pretty much all of the many institutions out there devoted to bringing science and religion together, it has received funding from the Templeton Foundation.

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24 Responses to Hidden Dimensions

  1. DB says:

    Richard Dawkins, in “The God Delusion” has an interesting section on how he experienced at first hand the Templeton Foundation methods. He reports having been the one “token atheist” (his description) out of ten speakers invited to speak at a Templeton run conference, only to find out later via John Horgan’s investigations, that many of the other speakers had been paid 15,000$ to attend.
    As you may know, he is highly critical of the Foundation.

  2. Chris Oakley says:

    If there’s anyone from the Templeton Foundation reading this, I would like them to know that I, too, can be bought. For a mere $1,000 I am prepared to add the following paragraph to the end of a paper I am currently writing about Quantum Electrodynamics:

    “For all I know there may be a connection between all of this and religion, although as yet I am unsure as to what it is.”

    C. G. Oakley M.A., D. Phil. (Oxon.)

  3. Michael Bacon says:

    Actually, you probably won’t “enrage” lots of Buddhists. That would be tough to do. Most should just shake their heads and smile knowingly . . . .

  4. milkshake says:

    Templeton foundation is not evil – some years ago they gave award to Freeman Dyson, and its probably the best thing they could have done with their money.

    (When Dyson writes in the popular books that consciousness is perhaps on some mysterious level involved in quantum mechanics and that “the universe knew we were coming”, he is not annoying because he separates the facts from his somewhat mystic personal beliefs. He presents his beliefs as such, as hopes and dreams. )

    When I was in the highschool in mid 80s, I ran across a discussion in a pop science magazine about antropic principle and multiverse and apparent fine-tuning, Dyson being opposed by a biologist S.J. Gould – and I thought it was a very exciting stuff! (Gould made a very strong point against the fine-tuning argument then.)

  5. Coin says:

    The Templeton Foundation is tough to get a handle on. They’re funding everything from pure religious apologia to pseudoscientific nonsense to borderline Intelligent Design to both sides of this little Woit, Smolin and Co. Versus String Theory war, with grants going to both Tegmark-style anthropicists and several people at the Perimeter Institute.

    As far as I can tell they are legitimately well-meaning and are in fact generally honest about what they are and what they’re doing, just occasionally very very confused…

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Coin,

    I don’t doubt that the people at Templeton are well-meaning, and some of what they fund is worthwhile. The problem is that they have a lot of money, and one of their main goals is to bring religion and science together, blurring the distinction between the two, and effectively often promoting pseudo-science. I doubt they know or care much about string theory, but they’re quite fond of the anthropic principle. It fits in well with the vaguely religious world-view that puts human beings and concern with the “purpose” of the universe at the center of things.

    Anyway, sure they’re a mixed bag, but they’re putting a lot of resources behind the promotion of a point of view that I happen to think is dangerous for science.

  7. anonymous says:

    I’m no fan of Templeton, but I’d gladly take their money, provided it was offered with no strings attached.

  8. Al T says:

    Well there is Spong’s Law of Theophysical Asininity, which states:
    Whenever a person appeals to quantum physics as the basis for a theological or religious principle, he is making an ass of himself.

  9. Coin says:

    The problem is that they have a lot of money, and one of their main goals is to bring religion and science together, blurring the distinction between the two… sure they’re a mixed bag, but they’re putting a lot of resources behind the promotion of a point of view that I happen to think is dangerous for science.

    That is a completely reasonable perspective.

  10. dir says:

    religion is just a personal belief, so its content should stay in somewhere science does not reach and care

  11. Haelfix says:

    Big institutions like Templeton have so much money, they usually have difficulty finding the best ways to spend it. So they fund *everything*.

    It boils down to a bunch of people in a room on a deadline with a lot of cash and likely horribly vague guidelines on what to spend it on. Worse, its likely many of those people/interns don’t even have an education in physics, so they have difficulty sorting through the forest of absurdities out there.

    I find it difficult to assign to much blame to that, after having gone through the sheer horror of grant writing to anything other than the NSF. People literally have absolutely no idea what we do.

  12. Olivier says:

    It seems that lot of scientists, pretending represent “pure science” are very upset, to say the least, by people trying to understand the universe, not only describe it. Lot of them have strong “rationalistic” and “atheistic” views, and they use science for promoting their ideas. The best example is Dawkins, which supposedly based only on “facts”, is doing in fact atheistic propaganda, for which he has no other arguments than his personal opinion. Science by itself is mere description : it cannot say anything else than what directly appears to our eyes. It’s obvious that conclusions on universe and life will use other arguments than spectral radiation shifs or temperatures.

  13. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Haven’t been here for a while.

    All I can say is that I share the dismay at the mere notion of a program to promote the “convergence” of scientific and spiritual understanding. I’m not one of these reflexive religion haters that pollute the blogosphere with bigotry and invective, but everyone has a line that they must draw, even if it necessarily offends some of those on the other side. I should think at absolute minimum that line must be drawn at what is by its very definition a variety of experience inscrutable by any material means known or in any way conceivably or inconceivably possible. These are fundamentally incompatible “ways of knowing”, without even coming near the issue of whether or not one way or the other is to any degree accurate or not.

    I can’t even come up with a real-world analogy to compare the cognitive dissonance that must be required to reconcile the twain by any means. I don’t think there exists a more patently impossible epistemological enterprise. That it claims even a modicum of legitimacy through anthropic physics is the aspect that is the most…what’s the word I want…terrifying? Yes, terrifying. We laugh at things like “What the Bleep Do We Know”, but if there’s some critical mass being approached, stuff like this isn’t funny, if it’s being accepted by well-motivated skeptics who nonetheless defer to the expertise of the better-credentialed.

  14. JJD says:

    Please rest assured that many of us Buddhists are as skeptical as you about the current fad of “explaining” so-called Buddhism in terms of so-called science or vice versa. On the one hand, consciousness is explained with quantum theory and extra dimensions (still waiting to hear how dark matter is involved), and on the other hand isolated and mis-characterized elements of Buddhist practice (mindfulness and meditation) are currently fashionable in mental health clinics. Superstition, quackery, and incompetence are easy to find in either domain, and they are the real problem, not just the silly instances where a scientific quack tries to explain personal identity or a religious quack tries to explain space-time.

    Good science and good mathematics are based on principles and practical discipline which have taken thousands of years to work out. It seems all too easy to get an undergraduate degree or even a PhD in science or math without a firm grasp on those principles and that discipline. This is part of why your blog is needed.

  15. Molnar says:

    The Buddhism angle is all wrong. Physics actually proves Christianity. Or maybe Islam. Definitely not Buddhism.

  16. srp says:

    Low Math needs to read up on basic history of science. Kepler, Newton, and many of the physicists of the Enlightenment believed that their work elucidated either “the mind of God” or the details of God’s handiwork. We atheists have no monopoly on scientific curiousity.

  17. Dan says:

    I, too, have laughed at the hand-waving which seems to occur in many popular books linking quantum physics with mysticism. Yet, I’m not sure exactly what your problem was with Wallace’s book, given that you provided no more than blanket statement regarding the absurdity of even trying to reconcile physics and consciousness. I don’t know much about the Templeton Foundation (beyond what was said here), but as a number of your commentators have noted, if someone likes what you’re doing and they want to support you, you don’t turn them down without a good reason.

    As for Wallace, he appears to have a rather different aim from the average, feel-good, pop physics/mysticism authors. Specifically, he seems not to be critiquing science qua the attempt to gain understanding of the universe through rigorous, reproducible methodologies. Rather, he is critiquing scientists who dogmatically hold philosophical positions without any empirical basis. To quote from the selection you linked to:

    “All subjective experiences, including consciousness itself, remain invisible to objective scientific observation. A growing number of scientists and philosophers of mind believe they have the solution: simply declare that conscious states are equivalent to their neurophysiological
    correlates or to higher-level features of the brain. The physical processes in the brain that are equated with mental processes are believed to have a dual aspect: they are physically measurable processes, consisting of ordinary electrochemical events of a kind quite familiar to
    physicists and chemists, but somehow, inexplicably, they are also subjective
    experiences. The rationale for this quasi-dualistic position is that mental phenomena appear to be nonphysical, but this appearance is misleading,
    for they are realized as neural events, which are their essential nature.

    “It is as if mental phenomena, despite their undeniably subjective, nonphysical appearance, are being granted admittance into the world of nature by being equated with well-understood physical phenomena. Scientists have yet to identify the neural correlates of consciousness, so no one even knows yet what those hypothetical neural processes with a dual identity might be.”

    Perhaps, then, you find fault with his future research plan. For he seems in the other selection to suggest that there exist methodologies within the contemplative traditions, especially Buddhism, which might shed light on precisely these phenomena (consciousness, subjective etc.).

    Why is that a problem? If the methods are rigorously noted, and the conclusions arrived at can be verified (or not) by anyone else who follows out the methodology, I’m not sure why that would be a problem, beyond the fact that those conclusions would not be accessible to everyone regardless of training.

    Wallace specifically singles out mathematics as having a formal similarity to the program he is suggesting (I might single out Brouwer’s intuitionism):

    “[T]he practice of higher mathematics takes place within the mind of the mathematician and is then communicated to other mathematicians. Writing equations on a chalkboard is simply a kind of public behavior that may or may not result from the internal process of understanding proofs and devising theorems. A mathematically uneducated person may be taught how to write down the same equations, but when subjected to interrogation by a qualifi ed mathematician,
    will clearly not understand what he has written. Mathematicians do commonly converse among themselves in a kind of language that is
    unintelligible to nonmathematicians, and the same is true of experts in all fields of science. So there is no reason in principle that researchers could not receive professional training in observing mental phenomena and learn to communicate among themselves about their experiences. However, this is a major undertaking that neither philosophers nor cognitive scientists have yet tackled.”

    Similarly, if I present the radical conclusion of a new experiment, my results are not thrown out unless numerous independent researchers have attempted my experiment, using my methodology, and have failed to get the same results.

    If a rigorous set of methods existed for investigating consciousness and subjective experience, what would be the problem with using them? On what grounds could we throw out the results?

    Perhaps I have failed to meet your criticism. Or perhaps you merely meant to offer up a baseless ad hominem. Perhaps, however, your position is worth reconsidering. And, without question, my position is worth reconsidering. Any suggestions as to where I could start?

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Dan,

    My criticism of the Wallace book has nothing to do with the issues you bring up, but with his specific claims about physics, especially things like quantum physics and extra dimensions. I read enough of the book (not just the chapters available on-line) to convince myself that the author was spouting sizable amounts of nonsense about physics. The world is full of similar nonsense, and it would be both a full-time job and a waste of ones life to argue the details of this with people.

  19. Mike says:

    Peter,
    Are you not debating the details of extra-dimensional string theory? Was there some more specific claim that led to this conclusion?

    I was considering buying this book until I read your review, now I don’t know. I have read parts of Alan Wallace’s participation with the Dalai Lama in the conference with David Finkelstein from Georgia Tech, Anton Zeilinger from the University of Vienna, Piet Hut from IAS, George Greenstein and Arthur Zajonc from Amherst; all well recognized academic physicists. Are they all engaged in “generic material of this kind, full of crackpottery”?? Is this the “similar nonsense” you’re talking about? Or does Alan reference the “others” from the “Bleep”?

  20. Peter Woit says:

    Mike,

    The reference to extra dimensions that I saw in Wallace were nonsense, those of string theorists are completely different.

    The people you mention are a mixed bag, unlike Wallace they’re trained physicists, but some of them are capable of engaging in similar nonsense from time to time. Again, for the last time, I consider this a complete waste of time, including examining and discussing the contributions to the Dalai Lama conference you reference. Please stop trying to discuss this here and find a venue run by someone who wants to engage in or encourage such discussion.

  21. Dan says:

    Hey Peter,

    Sorry for wasting your time further, but I thought that you might appreciate having it pointed out that, while rhetoric often holds sway in the minds of masses, facts are the standard of science.

    As you might have realized, I respect Wallace, for his genuine humility amongst other things. His work regarding science has seemed to me to be both rigorous and fair without being unequivocally laudatory. He certainly has an agenda, but he’s honest and clear minded about it, and doesn’t just try to sweeten up the “medicine” with a little quantum physics. So I was somewhat surprised to discover that a Columbia mathematician/physicist had thrown his latest work into the bin with “What the Bleep” and such junk.

    However, I’m disappointed that you cannot bring up a single point at which he errs. Clearly, you have better things to do than write critical blog postings all day, so I don’t expect you to answer this, but you did spend the time to write the initial post, presumably because, as you say, “I’m profoundly embarrassed that the institution where I work is promoting this sort of thing, so thought I better publicly say so.”

    Perhaps such a strong condemnation should just be ignored when the condemner can’t even remember or enunciate his reasons for condemning. Whatever “this sort of thing” is, it seems fair to hypothesize that you simply don’t know. Perhaps you might try to be a little less embarrassed in the future about things you don’t know.

    Or, perhaps you know, but you can’t tell us because it’s top-secret, classified information too sensitive for a public blog posting! Should we just take your opinions on authority, then? And while you’re at it, where are those damned WMD’s?

  22. Peter Woit says:

    Dan,

    Sorry, but I don’t find Wallace’s book to demonstrate “genuine humility”, but instead found it full of breath-taking arrogance. He announces that these “materialist” physicists have got quantum mechanics all wrong, while not understanding much at all about the subject himself.

    I think that virtually any trained physicist you talk to will tell you the same thing, and has a similar reaction to the book as nonsense. Maybe you can find one of them who wants to waste his time going over the details of this nonsense. It’s not going to be me.

  23. Dan says:

    Alright. Thanks for the reply, though. Guess I’ll have to read it and see for myself.

  24. Louise Martinez says:

    Where Alan Wallace is coming from in my opinion, is from egocentricity. Perhaps it wasn’t always that way. But if you have attended a retreat of his you will see how he is trying to impress you with how many teachers he has had, and his connection to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which leaves one thinking on how he is banking on this relationship.

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