Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy

Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy

Article excerpt

Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy. Evan Thompson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014, 496 pages, $32.95 hardcover.

Consciousness is like no other object of study. In fact, it is no object at all, but rather the precondition for anything to be taken as an object of attention or thought. This unique status makes it ver y unlikely that ordinar y, one-dimensional, objectif ying strategies of research may bring much light to the nature and origin of consciousness (at least if these strategies are used in isolation). Consciousness must be approached from within, at least as much as from without, from the midst of lived experience, at least as much as from an objective scientific vantage point. Consciousness must be apprehended from where it is, not only from where one hopes to contemplate it. Prioritizing this lived, embodied, approach to consciousness is the program of phenomenology, as Edmund Husserl and his lineage defined it. Articulating the lived domain of phenomenology with the scientific study of objective correlates of mental structures, and buttressing the study of one onto the study of the other, is the extended program of neurophenomenology as developed by Francisco Varela. Some philosophers of mind also advocated such a balanced attitude, by prescribing a triangulated approach to consciousness (Flanagan, 1993) or a "reflective monist" theory of consciousness (Velmans, 2009). But, unlike neurophenomenologists, they did so shyly since they fell short from prescribing an extensive methodology of first-person inquiry, and adopted a kind of non-committal metaphysical standpoint instead.

Evan Thompson makes full use of the neurophenomenological strategy, in his remarkable book Waking, Dreaming, Being : Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, which will soon be considered a landmark and a tipping point in consciousness investigations. He systematically confronts data from cutting-edge neurocognitive science with various sources of knowledge about the corresponding lived experiences; and he carefully extracts from each one of these approaches the most relevant information to make sense of the other one. True, the best possible neurophenomenological methodology would include experimental control on both sides of the first-person/third-person divide, but even though this requirement is not fulfilled in some of the cases studied by Thompson, his intellectual mastery of the subject is such that he offers a convincing compensation for it.

Yet, Thompson's most admirable achievement is probably not this one. It can rather be found in his thorough exploration of a host of so-called "altered states of consciousness," from lucid dreaming to near-death experiences. It can also be found in Thompson's masterly use of texts from the Indo-Tibetan civilizational area, which most valued the methodic culti vation of these states and the study of the corresponding experiences. This input from such sources as the Upanishads and the Advaita Vedânta, as well as Yogacâra and Mâdhyamika Buddhism, is rich, accurate, scholarly, and immune from any temptation of syncretism. Thompson's book thus comes close to what I consider an ideal of consciousness studies: opening them to the full range of experiences that may occur in human conscious life (and beyond), taking into account all the data that have been accumulated in various spiritual traditions about such experiences, and yet remaining painstakingly critical about any speculative over-interpretation of these experiences. This book avoids both the Scylla of narrow-minded materialism and the Charybdis of facile esotericism, in a single stroke: the stroke which consists in adopting the phenomenological stance.

The importance of feeding the investigation about consciousness with its altered states pertaining to sleep, psychedelic drugs, or Yoga, is reluctantly accepted by philosophers, perhaps because discourse about these altered states has been hijacked by new-age circles. …

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