Reviewed by David Lorimer
In this subtle, brilliant and erudite study, Evan Thompson examines self and consciousness in neuroscience, meditation and philosophy to formulate a contemplative neurophenomenology, building on the work of Francisco Varela and drawing on over 20 years of Mind and Life dialogues with the Dalai Lama. Evan is the son of a cultural historian William Irwin Thompson and was exposed to an extraordinary range of influences growing up, including Asian religious texts and meditation practices, especially Buddhism. He regards Buddhism and neuroscience as sharing a critical approach to the central question of the book, namely is consciousness wholly dependent on the brain or does consciousness transcend the brain? He sees neuroscience and evolutionary biology as challenging the Buddhist view that the ultimate nature of consciousness is nonphysical or nonbiological. Equally, he argues for the inclusion of meditative insight within a contemplative neuroscience.
Thompson’s basic argument and conclusion is that there is no scientific (reliable empirical) evidence to support the view that consciousness, including pure awareness, is not contingent on the brain. He contends that his viewpoint is not materialist on the grounds that consciousness has a cognitive primacy and ‘since consciousness is by nature experiential, and experience is primary and ineliminable, consciousness cannot be reductively explained in terms of what is fundamentally or essentially nonexperiential.’ (p. 103) He abhors both the outmoded belief systems of religious extremism and the entrenchment of scientific materialism and reductionism. In the course of the book he weaves together neuroscience and Indian philosophy in his exploration of wakefulness, falling asleep, dreaming, lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, deep and dreamless sleep, forms of meditative awareness and the process of dying. In doing so he moves freely between analysis of Indian concepts and reports of ground breaking neuroscientific studies.
His understanding of consciousness is as luminous witnessing awareness that is a precondition to knowing. Reportable conscious perception seems to be correlated with ‘large scale synchronous oscillations in the brain’ (p. 31), which does not seem to sit comfortably with his interpretation of near-death experiences (p. 305), of which more below. He returns frequently to the premise or working assumption of neuroscience that all mental phenomena, including conscious experiences, are physical phenomena correlated with brain activity taking place in a living body. This, however, still leaves the explanatory gap of how physical processes could possibly give rise to conscious experiences. The way in which one interprets one’s conscious experience – whether or not this is wholly dependent on the brain – is conceptual and metaphysical. In this respect, while questioning standard emergentist views, he is not sympathetic to Galen Strawson’s panpsychism, preferring to define physical as no longer nonmental or nonexperiential within a nondualistic framework where physical being and experiential imply each other or derive from something that is neutral between them (p. 105) – Bohm’s implicate order would be one example.
In his chapters on dreaming, Thompson attributes a central role to imagination and the witnessing awareness developed in the course of dream yoga, a subject he debates with Alan Wallace. Imagination seems to permeate both waking and dream consciousness and in both cases it is possible to become mindful or lucid. It is when he moves on to discuss OBEs and NDEs that some readers – like myself – will part company with his analysis. Following Susan Blackmore, Olaf Blanke and Thomas Metzinger, he sees OBEs as essentially mental simulations. I discuss a different interpretation involving parallel spaces in my review of the book about Michael Whiteman elsewhere in this issue. Metzinger acknowledges the force of experience in inclining people towards ontological dualism but prefers a research strategy involving the ‘neurophenomenological reduction of paranormal belief systems’, which he regards as seriously misguided and unparsimonious.
The chapter on dying is comprehensive, including as it does Thompson’s experience of a workshop with Roshi Joan Halifax simulating the release and dissolution of consciousness. Within his metaphysical framework it makes no sense to speak of a phenomenology of death as ‘experience ceases to exist.’ This is in fact a metaphysical inference, and there is no reference to any of the work on survival, apart from that on reincarnation by Ian Stevenson. Here I found Thompson relying on methodological generalisations rather than engaging with the specifics of Stevenson’s research. He remarks that all the evidence is anecdotal and quotes a reference from The Skeptic criticising Stevenson’s statistical reasoning and concluding that his evidence is unconvincing. Readers familiar with Stevenson’s work are likely to find Thompson’s own view equally unconvincing.
The same applies to his analysis of NDEs where he criticises the conclusions of Pim van Lommel and Peter Fenwick. I was not persuaded by his observations on the timing of the experience where he puts forward the possibility that the NDE could occur in the few seconds before loss of consciousness – this is contradicted by the evidence for events accurately perceived apparently in real time during cardiac arrest. In order to be consistent, he has to argue that there is brain activity sufficient to support some kind of consciousness, although I find this hard to square with his observations on large scale synchronous oscillations in the brain necessary for reported conscious experience. His critique of the Pam Reynolds case assumes a mental simulation model as the only way of making sense of it so that he concludes (p. 309) that ‘there is no compelling evidence for thinking that the brain is inactive or shut down when these experiences occur…on the contrary, upon careful examination this case actually supports the claim that near-death experiences are contingent on the brain.’ Few people who are not already committed to the mental=physical equation would draw this conclusion. His discussion of veridical OBEs also claims that these are better understood as mental simulations based on ordinary sense perception. However, he is right that the studies conducted in rigorously controlled clinical conditions have so far not yielded any positive results. However, these genuine real life cases cannot subsequently be subjected to the scientific approach to evidence, but are better understood using a rigorous legal approach instead, as Victor Zammit suggests.
In his final chapter, Thompson discusses the nature of the self using a model first articulated by Nagarjuna. He rejects what he calls neuro-nihilism – that there is no self – preferring an enactive view of the self as a dependently arising process that is nevertheless not an independently real entity (p. 324). He elaborates this in terms of self-specifying systems of autopoiesis or self-making that are also conceptually dependent on our cognitive frame of reference. The self as an independent entity is a delusion within his understanding of the self as a mental projection onto the five Buddhist mind-body aggregates of form, feeling, cognition, inclination and consciousness. Such a process self could not survive death.
As I said at the outset this is a subtle and brilliant study making the case for a contemplative neurophenomenology that, unlike Marjorie Woollacott in the book reviewed below, does not stray beyond the neuron but remains loyal to and consistent with the working hypothesis of neuroscience ultimately equating in some way the mental with the physical and ruling out by definition the possibility of consciousness transcending brain function. I do agree with the author, however, that a humble approach of living with uncertainty and not knowing is appropriate in this area of ultimate mystery, but there is more evidence out there than he is ready to embrace.