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Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy Hardcover – November 18, 2014
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Evan Thompson, a philosopher with a deep knowledge of Indo-Tibetan contemplative traditions and modern neuroscience, has written a brilliant and comprehensive book on the nature of awareness and the self. Waking, Dreaming, Being is a dazzling synthesis. Thompson takes on some of the most fundamental questions about the nature of mind and addresses them with remarkable creativity and clarity. This volume is a must read for any serious student of the mind and consciousness. -- Richard J. Davidson, New York Times-bestselling coauthor of The Emotional Life of Your Brain
Drawing on multiple sources of knowledge, all tested by first-person experience and critical analysis, Thompson presents an illuminating neurophenomenological account of what it's like to be a conscious human being. -- Stephen LaBerge, author of Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming
Waking, Dreaming, Being powerfully demonstrates how bringing cognitive science, philosophy, and Buddhism into a critical engagement can open innovative ways of exploring the 'hard problem' of consciousness. The blending of philosophical rigor and scientific knowledge with meditative insights, with the author's own remarkable life as the larger background, makes the book a real joy to read. This book will be an invaluable help to anyone who is interested in knowing how the fundamental questions of self, consciousness, and human existence can be explored in a way that combines the best of both East and West. -- Thupten Jinpa, author of Self, Reality and Reason in Tibetan Philosophy
With extensive training in Buddhism, brain science, and phenomenology, Evan Thompson is uniquely positioned to reveal how different perspectives on the mind can be mutually illuminating. He begins with the Buddhist insight that there are many forms of consciousness--far more than traditionally recognized in the West--and he shows that these can be associated with deferent brain processes. The result is a richly original and integrated account of human mental life. Whether you are a curious newcomer or a seasoned expert, you have much to learn from this stunning synthesis of ancient wisdom and cutting-edge science. -- Jesse Prinz, author of The Conscious Brain and Beyond Human Nature
[An] excellent book., New York Times Book Review
Extraordinary and exciting claims... beautiful ideas., Cosmos and Culture
Contemplative and groundbreaking, Waking, Dreaming, Being is a welcome addition to college library philosophy shelves., Midwest Book Review
Waking, Dreaming, Being is an exceptional and intriguing contribution to the exploration of consciousness as a multidimensional self and makes a convincing argument for the usefulness of philosophical, experiential, and scientific approaches to understanding consciousness. -- Marissa Krimsky, Buddhadharma
A rich, thought-provoking and poetic tour of a wide variety of phenomena of consciousness..., Constructivist Foundations
About the Author
- Item Weight : 1.89 pounds
- Hardcover : 496 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0231137095
- ISBN-13 : 978-0231137096
- Product Dimensions : 6.3 x 1.6 x 9.1 inches
- Publisher : Columbia University Press (November 18, 2014)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #169,176 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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One challenge for me was wading through some of the verbose logical explanations and repetition of some concepts. In places, the book seemed to be written to anticipate the arguments of adversarial philosophers; those parts were less interesting to me. I didn't care how well the book could defend some esoteric models or refute others. What interested me was how well it could bring together philosophical and neuroscientific perspectives, in a way that suggested promising avenues for both experiential and research investigation. It did a fine job at this.
The book concludes with an "enacted self" theory on the nature of the ego's construction, which brings together various threads explored in earlier chapters. As far as theories of enlightenment go, it's fairly restrained. It successfully resists (as does the book as a whole) the temptation to claim knowledge beyond one's own experience. It serves to close out the book on its own terms. For me, the book's conclusion was secondary. What's more compelling is the wide-ranging look at the current state and thoughtful recommendations for future work at the intersection of neuroscience, philosophy, and phenomenology.
Top reviews from other countries
Evan, thank you for shining a light on this topic and removing the fog of misunderstanding for scientists and contemplative.
I loved your insight on death and dying and sharing your experience at the retreat guided by Joan Halifax.
This book has caused significant dismay among scientific materialists, and among those who believe mind or being transcends mere physicality, but also, notably, among some philosophical phenomenologists. The first are unhappy because Thompson takes his meditation experiences and the rigorous philosophy developed within Buddhism just as seriously as he does cognitive science or biology. The transcendentalists, including some Buddhists, are disappointed because Thompson stands with a statement from the Dalai Lama, whom he interviewed, that "even the subtlest 'clear state of mind', which manifests at the moment of death must have some kind of physical base" (p. xxii). But while the Dalai Lama concluded his talk with Thompson with cheerful uncertainty: "Whether there is something independent or not, I don't know" (ibid.), Thompson himself seems to side with materialism and proceeds on his fascinating exploration into varied conscious experiences looking but failing to find any that can withstand objective scrutiny of their transcendence of the physical, especially cerebral, sphere. In this process, there is some question whether his phenomenological credentials are put aside as he appears to stand with objective proof as a final arbiter as opposed to knowledge based in personal experience. Michel Bitbol (2015), a noted philosopher of science and phenomenologist, writes positively of Thompson's book but takes issue with his leap into objectivity over the limitations of a purely phenomenological perspective, which would have left his conclusions more open.
On this journey, Thompson produces a most reader-friendly book, laced with personal asides and conversations with other well-known figures. He writes both with clarity and vigour demonstrating vast knowledge over many fields from neuroscience to arcane Buddhist and Indian yogic texts to current consciousness studies. Early on he moves toward a definition of that most difficult of concepts, consciousness, by seeing it as making appearance possible and noting that those sorts of sciences that attempt to exclude consciousness from their purview could hardly proceed without it:
"Without consciousness, the world can't appear to perception, the past can't appear to memory, and the future can't appear to hope or anticipation. The point extends to science: without consciousness there's no appearance of the microscopic world through electron microscopes, no appearance of distant stars through telescopes, and no appearance of the brain through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners. Simply put, without consciousness there's no observation, and without observation there are no data." (p. 14)
He defines consciousness in a way that embraces self-identity: "Consciousness is that which is luminous, knowing, and reflexive. Consciousness is that which makes manifest appearances, is able to apprehend them in one way or another, and in so doing is self-appearing and prereflectively self-aware" (p. 18). The word "luminous" indicates his background as a meditator since childhood in Tibetan awareness techniques, not to mention his upbringing and education within his father William Irwin Thompson's Lindisfarne Association.
What does he explore? First he goes through perceptual experiences, illusions, and states of consciousness achieved by meditators, including the state of quiescent awareness possible in deep dreamless sleep and the "fourth state", called simply that, indicating that this is said to be void consciousness (no time, no substance, no objects, and no subject) identified metaphorically in Buddhism as "the clear light." He admits that there is no scientific proof, as yet, of such states and that such proof may be impossible to obtain, but he notes that there is no evidence of anyone attaining such a state (or non-state) without having a physical substrate. He makes no claim to such attainment himself, but, toward the end, suggests such realizations may be the result of stilling the brain via meditation into a state of pure subjectivity without objective content. The Dalai Lama himself admits that, though he believes many advanced meditators have attained the clear light, he himself has no personal knowledge of it.
Thompson goes on to explore the dreaming state in some detail, sharing his own experiences of dream insight and lucid dreaming. He investigates so-called out of body experiences (OBEs), including his own, again concluding that such experiences likely are made of intuition, imagination and dream images, noting there is no proof of the body literally being transcended. At this point, the reader begins to wonder if Thompson is being serious or ironic since his own OBE as a child provided him with insights he could have gained no other way. Much to the disappointment of true believers, Thompson also dismisses the near death experience (NDE) as nothing more than the active imagination released when the parts of the brain are left dysfunctional from heart failure, chemical ingestion, or other accidents, none of which have been proven to happen with an inactive brain or from a perceptual point beyond the body. He does not doubt, however, that the many reports reflect actual experiences, illusory or not.
His most compelling chapter asks "What Happens When We Die?" He begins by honouring the ineffability of the experience of death by questioning the scientific perspective on it: "Yet even if we set aside the issue of whether science gives us good reason to believe that death entails the complete cessation of all consciousness, this conception is totally inadequate because it says nothing about the experience of dying" (p. 275). He notes that Tibetan Buddhism, on the other hand, has built a vast literature around this very transition, from the moment of death to seeking and finding new physical embodiment in another incarnation. However, those who have trained themselves to recognize the luminosity of the "fourth state," that is, the pure awareness in the clear light, will not be reborn but transcend into the All, according to this view. Thompson, perhaps surprisingly, writes, "I'm very skeptical of this way of thinking" (p. 287). He notes that any such post-mortem experience is impossible to report without a living body, leaving the theory based on inference or conjecture, in the process casting doubt on the reports of those who claim to have recovered memories of lives previously lived.
He follows this up with an investigation into the deaths of realized meditators whose bodies reportedly did not begin to decay immediately, often remaining unsullied for days or even weeks. Scientific investigation into these reports continues, but Thompson, for the time being, dutifully accepts the skeptical responses of forensic scientists that bodies often resist corruption in the right environmental circumstances. Again, the reader wonders if Thompson is actually toeing the line of scientific skepticism or if he is being ironic, for in at least some of these cases the corpse of the realized meditator was in southern India, hot and humid and perfect for rot. If these reports are proven to be true, it may be an indication that something more than observable physical life is afoot. But, finally: "It can also help us remember that only the dying can teach us something about death, and what we're called upon to do is to bear witness to their experience" (p. 318). This is a truly phenomenological perspective.
In his final chapter, he explores the contentious area regarding the self. Influenced by Buddhist thought, he seeks a middle way between what he terms the "neuro-nihilism" of certain scientists and philosophers who deny there is a self (for they see no brain function that could support it or they expect the genetics to explain behaviour, as evolutionary psychologists attempt to do) and the intuitive self-reification of others who regard the self as a substantial entity existing fundamentally unchanged along with the body. Based on the ideas of the sixth century Buddhist philosopher, Candrak'rti, Thompson sees the self as dependently arising or, more precisely, dependently co-arising from a juncture of causes. It begins with a self-specifying system at the cellular level. At this point, he ties self-making back to the body and denies that consciousness is merely an information processing system, "for consciousness depends fundamentally on specific kinds of electrochemical processes, that is, on a specific kind of biological hardware" (p. 343). This becomes the basis by steps of the enactive self, "a full-fledged I-making system" (p. 344).
He acknowledges social self-making (the narrative self of phenomenology), and he uses the extensive research of Tomasello (1999) to show that "joint attention" helps draw forth a mirror identity, the sense of self as seen by others. If he had read more recent work from Tomasello (2014), he would have seen Tomasello now supports the deeper social entanglement of "joint intentionality," which hints at an actual sense of group identity that then makes individual self-identity possible. Beyond all this, however, Thompson as an experienced meditator must then deal with the claim that many advanced yogis have transcended the illusion of self and "the body is said to have entered a state of suspended animation" (p. 357). With the enactive self and the socially constructed self-concept, this should be no surprise, for "if the self is a construction, then we should expect that it could be dismantled, even while some of its constituent processes - such as bare sentience or phenomenal consciousness - remain present" (p. 362). For Thompson, enlightenment is not self-extinguishment. "Rather it consists in wisdom that includes not being taken in by the appearance of self as having independent existence while that appearance is nonetheless still there and performing its important I-making function" (p. 366)
Overall, the position apparently taken Thompson on the matter of consciousness might be called "luminescent physicalism." This is not the cold objective materialism favoured by many in the sciences that assumes that life, experience and consciousness randomly evolved out of material interactions. Here the only physical world that can be known is one in which life is already present, and, for Thompson, life is coterminous with mind: when one is present so is the other. One of the implications of this is that those sciences that attempt to explain away the activities of living organisms as driven only by the evolutionary imperatives of survival and reproduction have to make room for individual intentions and perhaps even teleological purpose in nature. At the same time, it is no use speculating about the material universe before life appeared, for, from a phenomenological perspective, such would be an impossibility; there is no form to existence, no presence without consciousness.
Finally, it must be said that summarizing Thompson's position in consciousness studies does not do this book justice. It is a big book but one written in a manner meant to reach a wide, non-specialist audience. Thompson explores a veritable kaleidoscope of real and possible experiences, most of which are familiar enough to entertain; experiences that - agree with his conclusions or not - engage us in a way that academic writing rarely achieves.
Bitbol, M. (2015). "When 'altered' states become fundamental." The Journal of Mind and Behavior, 36, 101-112. [...]
Thompson, E. (2007). Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Tomasello, M. (1999). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Tomasello, M. (2014). A Natural History of Human Thinking (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).