Sean Carroll and Alan Wallace on The Nature of Reality

Our second public dialogue took place in San Francisco at the stately Nourse Theater, part of the amazing City Arts & Lectures program. An audience of some 1,250 people packed the auditorium, to what must have been one of the most well-attended cross-disciplinary conversations in recent history. 

Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist and best-selling author, opened the evening with an eloquent exposition on the virtues of what science has accomplished through a strictly materialistic approach: we know what the world is made of, as described by the elementary particles of matter found in particle accelerators and other detectors. They collide and interact via four fundamental forces—gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces—and this description suffices to explain what we can measure of the natural world. Carroll was careful to qualify his position by declaring that there is, of course, much that we don’t know of the world “out there,” citing as examples dark matter and dark energy, two of his research interests in cosmology. However, we understand well what we, rocks, and stars are made of, protons, neutrons and electrons or, more technically, the up and down quarks that compose protons and neutrons, and electrons. He defends a strict realist position, that the world out there can be understood independently from the us “in here,” that is, of any human signature. Nature is what it is and we grab its meaning in chunks. Science is about doubt, and every “truth” is questioned as soon as it is established. “You don’t get the Nobel Prize for proving that Einstein was right, but for proving that he was wrong.” (Hasn’t worked thus far.) Well, in fact you do get the Nobel Prize for proving he was right, as we will no doubt witness with the discovery of gravitational waves. He also defends a somewhat strict version of determinism, which seems to resonate with the notion that Nature follows rigid deterministic rules, even if we can’t grasp them.

Alan Wallace, a world-renowned Buddhist scholar and monk ordained by the Dalai Lama, has a very different approach to knowledge and to the nature of reality. He discounts strict materialism as based on an unfounded extrapolation that all is matter and that mind is thus a manifestation of brain states. He quoted many celebrated physicists to buttress his arguments. Carroll would counter that the fact that mind and consciousness are complex brain states that are still not understood doesn’t imply in needing a departure from materialism. Wallace believes that the very essence of reality is a kind of undefined (or undefinable), not-human mind substrate that our embodied brains are able to tap into during deep meditation states. He critiques strict materialism as leading Western thought into a dead-end as it shuts out the human dimension to knowledge. There is no pure objective knowledge, he claims, echoing Husserl, Hilary Putnam, and other phenomenological constructivists, only knowledge filtered through our human lens. Wallace and Carroll defended very different ontologies, incompatible at their very essence: pervasive cosmic consciousness versus pervasive quantum fields. In one case, mind precedes matter and the universe is hard-wired to embody mind through us—somewhat as expressed in the strong Anthropic Principle; in the other, mind is an emergent property of matter, and we are a cosmic accident.

Nevertheless, the evening was exemplary in its inspiring constructive engagement between my two guests. I noted in my closing remarks how important humility is as we face such challenges, given how little we truly know of ourselves and the world, scientific triumphs and deep meditation states notwithstanding. Wallace very pointedly noted that when it comes to the nature of consciousness, Western thought is way behind ancient Eastern wisdom. People in the East have been focusing on mind and mind states for millennia, even if Western science tends to push all this knowledge aside as it doesn’t fit within its methodology. That, Wallace states, is a grave mistake. We need to find ways to integrate different ways of thinking into a common language so that knowledge can be shared both ways. The Mind and Life Institute run by the Dalai Lama and others to educate Buddhist monks on modern science is exemplary in this respect. So are new research efforts joining neuroscientists, philosophers, and meditators, although these are not as widespread. Clearly, we have much work to do.

- Marcelo Gleiser