Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Evan Thompson - Owen Flanagan debate

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.

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.


  1. 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 the OOO 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 rangton, which sounds much more like Thompson's version. But I was also critical of the rangtong as well, just less so.

    * http://integralpostmetaphysics.ning.com/forum/topics/stephen-batchelor

  4. 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.

  5. 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: http://integralpostmetaphysics.ning.com/forum/topics/object-oriented-ontology?commentId=5301756%3AComment%3A45903


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