Vikram Zutshi In Conversation With Evan Thompson
This article was first published at the Sutra Journal
Evan Thompson, Ph.D., is the author of Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy; Mind in Life: Biology,Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind; and Colour Vision: A Study in Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Perception. He is now Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia and was recently Visiting Professor at the Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.According to a recent NY Times review of Thompson’s tour-de-force Waking, Dreaming, Being: ‘Both Buddhist and Vedic traditions are deeply committed to the idea that consciousness persists independently of the brain. Thompson looks carefully at evidence for out-of-body experiences, reincarnation and, in particular, near-death experiences of the kind heralded in Heaven Is for Real. In all cases, he argues, evidence points to these experiences originating in brains that are either shutting down (dying) or starting back up (resuscitation). Thompson’s dogged balance in these presentations makes his doubts that “consciousness – even in its most profound meditative forms – transcends the living body and the brain” all the more resonant.’
In a conversation with Vikram Zutshi he shares the rich insights gleaned along his long and fascinating journey.
Vikram Zutshi: What is the central thesis of your latest book Waking, Dreaming, Being? How did you come upon this idea for the book?
Evan Thompson: The central idea is that the self is an experiential process, not a thing or an entity. How we experience having or being a self, including experiences we may have of losing or transcending the self, depends on our mode of consciousness – whether we’re awake and attentive, lost in thought, falling asleep, dreaming, having a lucid dream, deeply asleep, having an out-of-body experience, meditating in the waking or lucid dream states, or experiencing dissolution at death. To examine these different ways of being conscious and having or losing a sense of self – I weave together Indian philosophy (Buddhism, Yoga, and Vedānta), the neuroscience of consciousness and meditation, Western philosophy of mind, and stories from my own personal experience.
The idea for the book came from thinking about different philosophical conceptions of the self in the Western and Indian traditions. The framework I use in the book is the threefold framework of awareness, changing contents of awareness, and ways of identifying with these contents of awareness as self or not-self. This threefold framework runs throughout Indian philosophy, especially in the yogic traditions (including Buddhism), and dates back to the Upanishads. The idea also came from my own experience of practicing meditation and treating philosophical inquiry as a kind of meditation.
Vikram Zutshi: How did your fascination with the inner workings of the mind begin? Can you describe phenomenology for the layman, and your contribution to this field?
Evan Thompson: I’ve been fascinated by the mind since I was a little kid. I used to lie in bed and try to watch my mind fall asleep. I would wonder whether life was some kind of dream. When I was a teenager, my father, William Irwin Thompson, created the Lindisfarne Association, an alternative educational institute and community that brought together scientists, spiritual teachers from many different traditions, artists, ecologists, activists, and philosophers. After being homeschooled at Lindisfarne, I went to Amherst College and got my B.A. in Asian Studies, and then got my Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Toronto. For many years, I worked closely with the neuroscientist Francisco Varela (whom I had met at Lindisfarne), who in addition to being a pioneering scientist, was also a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner. (My first book, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, was written with Varela and psychologist Eleanor Rosch.) Varela was also the founding scientist of the Mind and Life Institute, which brings together scientists and contemplative teachers and scholars in order to investigate the mind. The main impetus for me to write Waking, Dreaming, Being, came from my participation in several Mind and Life Dialogues with the Dalai Lama at MIT and Dharamsala, India. At those meetings, we talked about Buddhism and the cognitive and brain sciences – how they could collaborate but also their philosophical differences. What really set the writing of this book in motion for me was a lucid dream I had the first time I went to India for one of these Mind and Life dialogues with the Dalai Lama. It was my first lucid dream and writing it down became a launching point for the rest of the writing.
Phenomenology, in the most general sense of the term, means the investigation and description of experience from the perspective of experience. ‘Phenomenology’ is also the name of a philosophical movement in Western thought deriving from the German philosopher, Edmund Husserl, and taken up and elaborated by Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, among others. One of my previous books, Mind in Life, draws heavily from this tradition of European phenomenology and uses it to advance our understanding of the mind and biological life in collaboration with biology and cognitive science. Waking, Dreaming, Being is phenomenological in the more general sense. It examines Indian philosophical ideas in a phenomenological way, trying to bring out their significance for understanding our lived experience of waking perception, dreaming, sleep, meditation, and death.
Vikram Zutshi: When did you come upon Buddhist philosophy and attempt to fuse it with cognitive science and western philosophy of mind?
Evan Thompson: I was introduced to Buddhist philosophy through Tibetan and Zen Buddhist teachers who visited the Lindisfarne Association in the 1970’s. At one of the Lindisfarne conferences in 1977 I met Robert Thurman, who was there to translate for Nechung Rinpoche. A couple of years later I began my undergraduate studies at Amherst College in order to study with Thurman, who at that time was a Professor of Religion at the College. He introduced me to the systematic study of Buddhist philosophy in an academic context. My work fusing Buddhist philosophy and cognitive science began when I was a graduate student and was collaborating with Francisco Varela on writing The Embodied Mind. This was the first academic work to relate cognitive science and Buddhist thought.
Vikram Zutshi: How is ‘consciousness’ viewed by contemporary western science? Is the materialist view of consciousness being eroded by new findings in Quantum physics and neuroscience?
Evan Thompson: The working assumption of the majority of neuroscientists and biologists is that consciousness depends on the brain. Nevertheless, as scientists know, there is no worked out scientific theory of how consciousness could arise from the workings of the brain or from biological processes more generally. Philosophers call this gap in our understanding the ‘explanatory gap’. This is the gap between our understanding of consciousness in phenomenological terms and our understanding of the brain and body, and physical nature more generally. We do not know how to bridge between consciousness, understood as lived experience, and biological or even physical processes, as understood by science. Some physicists have argued that quantum physics helps us to understand consciousness or to bridge this gap, but many scientists and philosophers (myself included) are not persuaded by this idea. The connections people draw between quantum physics and consciousness are often highly speculative, and don’t seem to illuminate either quantum physics or consciousness very much.
My own view, which I present in Waking, Dreaming, Being, is that there is no evidence for the kind of dualism that we find in many Buddhist traditions (especially Indo-Tibetan ones), according to which a mental continuum can exist apart from physical nature. At the same time, I think that consciousness has a kind of primacy that materialism fails to see. There’s no way to step outside consciousness and measure it against something else. Science always moves within the field of what consciousness reveals; it can enlarge this field and open up new vistas, but it can never get beyond the horizon set by consciousness. Since consciousness has this kind of primacy, it makes no sense to try to reductively explain consciousness in terms of something that’s conceived to be essentially nonexperiential, in the way that materialists think of physical nature. Rather, understanding consciousness as a natural phenomenon is going to require rethinking our scientific concepts of nature and physical being.
Vikram Zutshi: Have you delved into the Self/No-Self debate between Hindus and Buddhists? Some schools of Buddhism come very close to the Vedic concepts of Atman and Brahman, while others reject it outright. What is your conclusion?
Evan Thompson: This debate is fascinating. It developed over many centuries and millennia in Indian philosophy. The concepts of atman and anatman were constantly evolving. On the one hand, there’s a sharp opposition between, say, Abhidharma Buddhist philosophy, which holds that what we call a ‘self’ or ‘person’ is ultimately only a collection of impersonal and momentary mental and physical events (dharmas), and Hindu Nyāya philosophy, which holds that the self exists and is an independent thing or substance. On the other hand, the Mahayana Buddhist idea of an innate Buddha nature (Tathāgatagarbha) seems conceptually rather close to the Advaita Vedānta notion of atman or atman-Brahman nonduality. All these philosophical twists and turns provide a good example of how we can’t talk about Indian conceptions of self or non-self as if they were monolithic; we have to refer to specific thinkers and the evolving context of philosophical debate and contemplative practice.
My own view, which I describe in the last chapter of Waking, Dreaming, Being, is that the self is a kind of construction, but not an illusion. It’s not a ready made, independent thing or substance; it’s a constructed process or a process undergoing constant construction. As such, it serves useful functions, but identifying with those processes or functions as if they were an independent thing causes suffering. So my view incorporates Buddhist ideas but disagrees with versions of Buddhist philosophy that say the self is strictly an illusion.
Vikram Zutshi: Can Buddhist/yogic concepts be described in modern neuroscientific terminology? Have you or anyone you know attempted such a transliteration?
Evan Thompson: I think it’s misguided to try to describe or translate Buddhist or yogic concepts into a neuroscience terminology. Looking at the brain in the way neuroscience does gives us the wrong level for understanding what these concepts mean. Here’s an analogy. Take the concept of ‘good parenting’. Being a good parent consists in a host of emotional and cognitive skills, and in acting or behaving in a way that uses these skills. Although these skills clearly depend on the brain – and improving them changes the brain – the skills themselves and the behaviors based on them don’t exist inside the brain. In addition, what counts as good parenting depends on the context and one’s culture. So the phenomenon of good parenting simply isn’t visible at the level of the brain as viewed by neuroscience. To bring ‘good parenting’ into view we need a wider view, one that takes in the context of the whole body or person and the social and cultural environment.
Now, replace the concept of ‘good parenting’ with any given Buddhist or yogic concept, such as ‘mindfulness’, ‘equanimity’, ‘samadhi’, ‘enlightenment’, or ‘liberation’. Exactly the same points apply – the meaning of the concept as a psychological or soteriological one includes the context of whole body or person, and the social and cultural environment. For example, ‘mindfulness’ (sati/smṛti and sampajañña/samprajanya) consists in certain cognitive and emotional skills, and ways of acting or behaving that embody those skills in the social world of sentient beings. Neuroscience isn’t the right level for understanding the meaning of this concept. So even if being mindful (in any technical or precise Buddhist sense) depends on the brain, trying to translate the meaning of the concept into a neuroscience language is conceptually confused.
Here’s another analogy. Suppose we knew everything that neuroscience could tell us about what is going on in the brain of an accomplished musician when she plays a Bach cello suite. Would this neuroscience information tell us anything significant about Bach and the musical performance as an artistic event? No. Art doesn’t live inside the brain. You need a musically trained brain to play Bach on the cello, but looking at the brain of the cellist won’t reveal to you the meaning of the music. The same is true for contemplative practices and the concepts we use to describe and understand them. Their meaning isn’t to be found in the brain so it’s a mistake to try to translate them into the language of neuroscience.
Vikram Zutshi: Do you have a personal practice? Would you care to describe any experiences you may have had or insights gained?
Evan Thompson: My personal practice mainly consists in taijiquan, together with sitting meditation and some yoga asana practice. The taijiquan practice includes a lot of standing meditation, and the sitting meditation I do is very much keyed to the taijiquan practice. The aim is to bring the calm and powerful energy of the taijiquan movement into the sitting meditation, and to bring the quiet stability and concentration of the sitting meditation into the movement practice. So, within the taijiquan framework, that’s what I try to do.
Vikram Zutshi: Please recommend a few books that have made an impact on you and changed the way you saw yourself and the world around you.
Evan Thompson: When I was twelve years old, I read Laozi’s Daodejing and immediately fell in love with it. Reading it and Zhuangzi’s writings are what first got me interested in philosophy. One of my favorite writers is Jorge Luis Borges. I discovered his book, Labyrinths, when I was a teenager. The relationship between dreams and reality is a constant theme of Borges’s writings. His thoughts had a strong influence on the chapters about dreaming in Waking, Dreaming, Being. In philosophy, the writings of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, especially Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception , have shaped how I think about the philosophical investigation of experience. In contemporary philosophy, I have great admiration for Jonardon Ganeri’s work. His books, The Concealed Art of the Soul: Theories of Self and Practices of Truth in Indian Ethics and Epistemology, and The Self: Naturalism, Consciousness, and the First-Person Stance, are models of original cross-cultural philosophy. They’ve strongly influenced how I view Indian philosophy as an evolving and living tradition with crucial importance for our times.