This week our featured book is Waking, Dreaming, Being: Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy, by Evan Thompson, with a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. Recently, Thompson spoke to Tricycle Magazine about his book, his view of the mind, and mindfulness as an object of scientific scrutiny. We’ve excerpted parts of this interview below.
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Almost two and a half decades ago, in The Embodied Mind, you critiqued a notion of mind that was already prevalent then and that continues to frame much of the current neuroscience research on meditation. What is that view, and what is wrong with it?
We criticized the view that the mind is made up of representations inside the head. The cognitive science version says that the mind is a computer—the representations are the software, and the brain is the hardware. Although cognitive scientists today don’t think the brain works the way a digital computer does, many of them, especially if they’re neuroscientists, still think the mind is something in the head or the brain. And this idea shows up in the neuroscience of meditation. But this idea is confused. It’s like saying that flight is inside the wings of a bird. The mind is relational. It’s a way of being in relation to the world. You need a brain, just as the bird needs wings, but the mind exists at a different level—the level of embodied being in the world.
What’s your alternative view of the mind?
The alternative view we put forward is that cognition is a form of embodied action. “Embodied” means that the rest of the body, not just the brain, is crucial; “action” means that agency—the capacity to act in the world—is central. Cognition is an expression of our bodily agency. We inhabit a meaningful world because we bring forth or enact meaning. We called this view “enaction” or the “enactive approach.”
In the enactive approach, being human is a matter of inhabiting the human world of culture and shared bodily practices. Of course we need our brain to do this, but we also need that world to be in place in order for the human brain to develop properly. The brain is what philosophers call a necessary “enabling condition” for mind and meaning, while enculturation is a necessary enabling condition for the brain. What’s important is not just what is inside the brain but what the brain is inside of—the larger space of the body and culture. That is where we find mind and meaning.
In 1996, Francis Crick stated that consciousness is now largely a scientific problem. As a philosopher, do you agree? If not, why not?
No, I don’t agree. There are important conceptual or philosophical issues that shape how we think about consciousness and how we investigate it. Crick’s viewpoint, which most neuroscientists share, is that consciousness is in the brain, so the problem comes down to finding the neural correlates of consciousness. That’s another expression of the mind-is-in-the-head idea. It’s like saying a cathedral is in the stones. You need stones, of course, and you need them to be connected in the right way. But what makes something a cathedral is also iconography, tradition, and its being a place of worship. In other words, the larger context in which the structure is embedded helps constitute it as a cathedral. In an analogous way, consciousness isn’t in the neurons or their connections. Here the larger context that constitutes consciousness—in the sense of sentience, or felt awareness—is biological: consciousness is a life-regulation process of the whole body in which the brain is embedded. In the case of human consciousness, the context is also psychological and social. So even if we suppose—as I think it’s reasonable to do, though some Buddhists will disagree—that the brain is necessary for consciousness, it doesn’t follow that consciousness is in the brain. There are many scientific questions about how the brain enables consciousness, but those questions are miscast if they’re made into the problem of how to locate consciousness in the brain in terms of its neural correlates.
It’s also worth pointing out that Crick thought we might have a solution to the scientific problem of consciousness by the year 2000! And we still don’t have one.
So you don’t think progress in understanding consciousness is necessarily about doing more experiments?
No. I mean, experiments are great, but we need conceptual work, theoretical work. We may need to radically change how we think about things in ways that are still not clear to us.
You have said that in seeking a way forward for the Buddhism and cognitive science dialogue, philosophy should take the lead. Why? Buddhism has very sophisticated and technical traditions of philosophy, every bit as sophisticated and technical as Western philosophy. Here we enter the arena of concepts, analysis, abstraction, models, and arguments, all of which bring us closer to science. Buddhist philosophy is very concerned with analyzing cognition, concepts, and consciousness—the subject matter of cognitive science. So this is the arena where I see Buddhism and science as having a lot to say to each other.
I also want to foreground problems of meaning—how these different traditions conceptualize the mind and what’s at stake for them in doing so. It’s really the humanities that need to take the lead in this discussion now, not neuroscience. I think science is really important, so this is not an anti-science point; it’s an anti-scientistic point. When you’re concerned with meaning, you enter into a different space of discussion, where scientific methods are not sufficient.
I am particularly concerned to deploy that thought against the idea that the neuroscience of meditation should lead the way in this dialogue, because that’s very much what the Buddhism-science discussion has been about for the past five or ten years now.
Has there been too much focus on the neuroscience of meditation?
Yes, if we mistake this work to be a genuine Buddhism-cognitive science dialogue about the mind. Buddhism isn’t reducible to meditation—most Buddhists throughout history haven’t practiced sitting meditation. And cognitive science isn’t the same as neuroscience; it’s a broader endeavor concerned with a comprehensive scientific understanding of the mind and includes not just neuroscience but psychology, linguistics, computer science and AI, cognitive anthropology, and philosophy.
A cognitive science approach to meditation is concerned not with meditation per se but with using meditation to cast new light on basic cognitive phenomena like attention or consciousness. This means using meditation to generate new data and to test rival theories and models of the mind or to devise new ones. This can be especially valuable for the neuroscience of consciousness in conjunction with psychology and cognitive anthropology.
What do you see as the way forward for Buddhism and cognitive science?
What I’d like to see is a collaborative effort to develop a much richer understanding of the human mind—a cognitive science of wisdom, for lack of a better term. For example, although self-knowledge is a topic of cognitive science research, it has yet to be informed by the kind of ethical and contemplative perspective that Buddhism upholds. We need to bring into cognitive science the recognition that the human mind can cultivate mature emotional and ethical capacities of benevolence along with cognitive capacities of deep insight and understanding. Right now cognitive science has a view of the mind that’s rather narrow, where the database for mental function is mostly college students. Also, informed by that kind of cognitive science endeavor, I’d like to see a much more critical perspective on what’s happening with the commodification of mindfulness and the social looping effects I was talking about before.
Read the complete interview at Tricycle Magazine.