We have a thread for Varela in this sub-forum so I figured his cohort from The Embodied Mind would be worthy. I've provided some of his recent material elsewhere that I'll move over here. For now this is his homepage. Therein is a link to some of his selected articles, one of which is a condensed version of what will be in his forthcoming book, Waking, Dreaming, Being: New Light on the Self and Consciousness from Neuroscience, Meditation and Philosophy (link). The article is "Dreamless sleep, the embodied mind and consciousness: The relevance of a classical Indian debate to cognitive science" (link). (Kela in times past would have loved this one. Wonder if he's still around out there?) Abstract from the article:

"One of the issues debated between the Advaita Vedānta and Nyāya schools in classical Indian philosophy is whether consciousness is present in dreamless sleep. Advaita Vedānta argues that the waking report 'I slept well' is a memory report and hence requires previous experience, whereas Nyāya argues that the report expresses a retrospective inference. Consideration of this debate, especially the reasoning Advaita Vedānta uses to try to rebut the Nyāya view, calls into question the standard neuroscience way of operationally defining consciousness as that which disappears in dreamless sleep and reappears when we wake up or dream. The Indian debate also offers new resources for contemporary philosophical concern with the relationship between phenomenal consciousness (subjective experience) and access consciousness (accessibility to working memory and verbal report). At the same time, findings from cognitive neuroscience have important implications for the Indian debates about cognition during sleep, as well as for Indian and Western philosophical discussions of the nature of the self and its relation to the body. Finally, considerations about sleep drawn from Advaita Vedānta, as well as the Yoga school and Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, suggest new experimental questions and protocols for the cognitive neuroscience of sleep and consciousness."

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It's 30 minutes and not informative for my inquiry. The interviewer asked very general questions and never got into the specifics of his new book, or anything, for that matter.

I started to listen to this debate with Thompson and Flanagan. Will report more later.

Cognitive Science Dialogue

Co-Sponsored by the Cognitive Science Program and the Training Program in the Neuroscience of Human Cognition at Northwestern University.

Dr. Owen Flanagan,
Duke University


Dr. Evan Thompson,
University of Toronto

Monday, March 4th
The McCormick Tribune Center Forum Room, Evanston Campus

Understanding Consciousness: Is Physicalism Enough?

Thompson's Position: The scientific method gives us no direct and independent access to consciousness itself--no direct access, because third-person observations are always of the behavioral and physiological expressions of consciousness, not consciousness itself; and no independent access because the scientific method itself presupposes consciousness, so we must unavoidably use consciousness to study consciousness. Full recognition of this situation demands that the neuroscience of consciousness include an ineliminable phenomenological component. Some of the phenomenological resources for such a "neurophenomenology" of consciousness can be found in Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist contemplative methods of training the mind.

Flanagan's Position: Subjective realism is the view that the hard problem of consciousness is psychological and epistemological, not metaphysical. Conscious mental states are physical states that have an epistemically irreducible phenomenological or experiential character. The subjective realist acknowledges that providing a first-person phenomenology is a burden for a full theory of the conscious mind, and like the anti-physicalist has things to say about the rules for doing good phenomenology. The worry about many Buddhist methods of mind-training is that they are too theory-laden to deliver the kind of neutral, pure phenomenology needed by the science of the mind.

I just got into the beginning of Flanagan's presentation and so far it seems Thompson would agree with him that consciousness is embodied. More as I continue. But just from reading the initial positions above I'd agree with Flanagan that traditional Buddhist methods are infected with a "theory-laden" (metaphysical) overlay which interferes with a meditator's first-person reports. But I'd agree with Thompson that the meditator can give much more accurate reports of different consciousness states given attention training, and that this reflects in the neuroscientific readings. Plus Thompson, while including the traditional Buddhist overlay, doesn't seem to buy it wholesale as in kennilingus. Recall this, the very first reply to this thread: 

"But whereas the Advaitin takes this minimal selfhood to be a transcendental witness consciousness, I think itʼs open to us to maintain that it is my embodied self or bodily subjectivity, or what phenomenologists would call my pre-personal lived body. In this way, I think we can remove the Advaita conception of dreamless sleep from its native metaphysical framework and graft it onto a naturalist conception of the embodied mind."

It's a case I've been making for years, some of which is included earlier in this thread. Though it might also behoove Thompson to obtain some experienced long-time and non-Buddhist meditators for comparison on first-person reports matched with neuro readings, given the traditional interpretative overlay. I've yet to see him include this key experimental group.

At around 57:00 Thompson introduces a study done with subjects after a secular mindfulness based training. They were able to distinguish between a base, present-centered awareness and the more past-future based narrative awareness, and to stay with the present awareness with much more ease than non-trained controls. The first-person reports were verified by different brain areas correlated with each state.

So I was wrong that he didn't use non-Buddhist experimental subjects in his work. However when it comes to long-time, highly trained meditators he turns to Tibetan monks (1:00), not long-time secular meditation practitioners. And it is here that we get the possible contamination of the metaphysical worldview in first-person reporting.

And at 1:01 he shows a chart of their reports of 'clarity' compared with gamma wave activity and while they match at some points they just as often do not match, something he didn't address. He did note that the meditators noticed the fluctuations in their states, indeed as the graph depicts. But those fluctuations as often as not did not match the fluctuations in actual gamma brain wave activity.

In the rebuttal period at 1:10 Flanagan playfully countered Thompson's Buddho-centric phenomenology with an Irish-Catholic phenomenology, suggesting that there would no doubt be some prejudice on both accounts in first-person reporting. While agreeing with including first-person states in any study of consciousness he doesn't go all the way into assuming consciousness as epistemically primary as does Thompson, given that most cognitive states are unconscious.

Thompson's rebuttal around 1:18 defines his Buddhist-inspired phenomenology in an enactive paradigm, which is exactly not how the Dalai Lama himself defined clear light states as being outside of the physical altogether, aka metaphysical. So what we're getting is Thompson's integration of certain brands of Buddhism with his other methodologies and imputing this back to 'Buddhism' in general. I addressed many of these issues in the rangtong-shentong debate in the Batchelor thread, favoring the rangtong, which sounds much more like Thompson's version. But I was also critical of the rangtong as well, just less so.

All in all though I really like Thompson's de/recontextualization of using 1st, 2nd and 3rd person methods to cross-check and inform each other. He also mentions intersubjective validation in each method, which is of course also necessary. But as critical as I am of a levels-heavy approach as in kennilingus, we simply must include levels in the intersubjective validations in each paradigm as well. Otherwise we get the self-certifying metaphysical clear light of the Dalai Lama's causal meditative state, accepted in kennilingus as well.

And another thing that I've been exploring lately in the OOO thread*, that inner core of Bryant's 3 methodologies, object a. (Actually I don't know that object a is indeed the 'a' in the center of his knot, but I'm making a case for it nonetheless.) I see it as a homeomorphic equivalent of a particular brand of Madhyamaka emptiness much akin to differance. And it is not just the heart of phenomenology but the other 2 domains as well. It is in fact how we come to find some sort of integration with the domains, as it provides the transcendental condition for all of them. And ironically enough, we cannot come to know that without circling (spiraling) around it through the other domains simultaneously in a sort of spiral dynamics (not trademarked).

This post and several following.

Also see this post in the OOO thread on developmental levels. On the topic of that post, that sort of interative observational loop is the hallmark of reflective or narrative self consciousness, which is not the suobject of study with Thompson. Instead he focuses on the present-centered core self and its benefits, not the benefits of the reflective observations of that developmental process which indeed provides the kind of 'integral' worldview context he intuits but does not explicitly state sans this modeling.

Glistening Deepwater, a (quiet!) member here, recently shared a link to a new book by Thompson which looks relevant to a number of themes explored in this forum:  Waking, Dreaming, Being.  The introduction is available at the linked web page. 

Thanks. I referenced that book in the initial post.


:-) - yes, I find I often introduce things here that you've already introduced...  This book looks good; I'll definitely be adding it to my reading list for 2014.

From the Introduction:

"I describe a dialogue on this question I had with the Dalai Lama at his refugee home in Dharamsal
a, India, and I explain the basis in Buddhist philosophy for the Dalai Lama’s view that consciousness transcends the brain. I argue, however, that there’s no scientific evidence to support this view. All the evidence available to us indicates that consciousness, including pure awareness, is contingent on the brain. Nevertheless, my viewpoint isn’t a materialist one" (33).

More from the Intro, expanding on his non-materialist view:

"Nevertheless, my viewpoint isn’t a materialist one, for two reasons. First, consciousness has a cognitive 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. Second, 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 non-experiential, as fundamental physical phenomena are usually conceived to be. Rather, understanding how consciousness is a natural phenomenon is going to require rethinking our scientific concepts of nature and physical being" (33-4).

Still, he explores the neural correlates of consciousness for what it can tell us, and how it can recontextualize metaphysical interpretations.

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

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