TA106 (Müller)


Commentary 44  (Reply to Response 17 by HFJ Müller)




by William A. Adams

4 September 2009, posted 12 September 2009




I proposed that theism is impossible to defend in a dialog that adheres to critical thinking because there is no empirical basis for theism.  Herbert Müller agrees but suggests there may be alternative ways of rationally addressing religion, “such as for instance offered by some forms of oriental epistemology (Nirvana, Tao).”   If so, it is suggested that some avenue might be found for a rapprochement between science and religion.



That is an attractive idea although the obstacles are formidable.  Alternative epistemologies often have built into them presuppositions that do not map well to a modern Western world view.  Tacit first principles of thinking are  embedded in a culture’s language, literature, and intellectual history, making translation across cultures a compromise, and understanding a severe challenge. Many argue that it is not even possible to transcend one’s knowledge culture (e.g., Jovchelovitch, 2007).



We might hold out hope that for such a fundamental topic as epistemology -- how we come to know anything – that human nature itself could direct us to a ground of understanding.  But that is presumptuous.  In proposing that idea we already have assumed that there is a human nature, asserted essentialism, assumed an objectivity that allows one to (partially) transcend one’s culture and personal life-history, presumed the possibility of self-knowledge, and on and on.  There is no omniscient, culture-free point of view from which to evaluate ideas, and that is the problem with evaluating intellectual schema from other cultures.



However, as long as our goal is to reach mutual understanding  within a broadly construed community in the modernist, Western tradition, and not to define Truth with a capital T, then we can be explicit about our assumptions while trying to grasp other ways of knowing.  Foreign ideas are thus accommodated into a unique syncretism, not assimilated wholesale. I think that’s the only way we can incorporate alternative (non-western) epistemologies into our thinking.



It is difficult to be aware of our own epistemological assumptions.  Here is an example from my manuscript, Empirical Introspection  (https://sites.google.com/site/billadamsphd/works-in-progress ) page 103:

Wallace (2000) described introspection as involving a kind of non-dual knowing, a transcendence of the subject-object dualism that pervades traditional Western thought. 


But in a review of the book, Petranker (2001) complained that, Wallace seems not to appreciate that introspection depends on the intentional structure that assigns knower and known two completely different roles in the process of cognition. As long as such epistemological dualism operates, first-person knowledge of consciousness — in its defining role as subjective knower — will remain impossible (p. 87).


Wallace was describing a kind of mental observation derived from Buddhist meditation.  Although he did not give a perfectly clear explanation, what he was probably getting at is that while the cycle of mental observation starts out as a bipolar dualism, it ends in a moment of accommodation and proto-knowing that is not dualistic, that is, with subjectivity standing alone as a self-relating existence.


That should have answered Petranker’s legitimate concern about the dualism of introspection.  But Petranker was so unquestioningly confident that mental observation is the same as sensory observation that he could not even consider an alternative.  He said,


Ultimately, Wallace does endorse an approach to knowing consciousness that departs from the dualistic intentional structure of introspection…but this characterization cannot be assigned much weight, given the polar structure assigned to introspective methodology (p. 88).


Petranker is insisting that if it’s not a bipolar, dualistic juxtaposition of observer and observed, as in sensory observation, then it’s not introspection and anybody who says otherwise is confused.  He simply defines introspective knowledge as perception-like observation. He cannot imagine non-dual knowing, even though Wallace described it.



In our mainstream intellectual tradition, The French philosopher, Auguste Comte argued in the mid 1800’s  that the observer and the observed could never be one, because the term “observation” simply does not make sense without epistemological dualism.  Petranker does not, and apparently cannot, question that conclusion.


But what if each mental cycle of observation begins in a dualism of subjectivity and objectivity separated by intentionality, but at the moment of knowledge, collapses into a nondualverstehen”?  This is something like what Wallace was trying to say.  If we could understand that idea, then there is the possibility of getting to the ground floor of an epistemology that supports both scientific observation and religious insight.






Jovchelovitch, S. (2007). Knowledge in Context: Representations, Community and Culture.   New York: Routledge.


Petranker, J. (2001). Who Will Be the Scientists? A review of B. Alan Wallace’s The Taboo of Subjectivity. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8, No. 11, 2001, pp. 83–90.


Wallace, B. A. (2000). The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.




William A. Adams
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