- Comments on Waking, Dreaming, Being by Evan Thompson
Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being is an outstanding work that richly deserves the widespread praise that it is receiving. The book exhibits exquisite balance between various poles: science and philosophy, “East” and “West,” the accessible and the specialized, the physical and the emergent, and so on. It is also a remarkably readable book, and since academic literature is littered with many unreadable must-read tomes, I am grateful for the change of pace. In short, those who have not yet read Waking, Dreaming, Being should be heartily encouraged to do so. They will find the task a pleasant and edifying one.
Much more could be said in praise of Waking, Dreaming, Being, but the task here is to offer some constructive criticism. The comments below will come in two waves. They begin with reflections on method, and this will lead me to some issues in Thompson’s articulation of nonduality and the way that his nondual project relates to his notion of the self.
Waking, Dreaming, Being boldly engages in a multidisciplinary, cross-cultural enterprise that has been emerging for a number of years in Thompson’s work, but also in the larger context within which his work has unfolded. That larger context, whose most public manifestation appears in the meetings hosted by the Mind and Life Institute, involves conversations woven around a complex interaction of science, Western philosophy, and contemplative traditions, especially Buddhism. Waking, Dreaming, Being moves these conversations along effectively, but it also strays toward a methodological approach that is ultimately a dead end.
The problematic approach appears in various places, but it is perhaps most obvious in the discussion about the mental stream as occurring in discrete moments. Thompson says, “The Abhidharma philosophers agree that the mental stream is always changing, but they argue that it appears to flow continuously only to the untrained observer. A deeper examination indicates that the stream of consciousness is made up of discontinuous and discrete moments of awareness” (p. 35). This, then, sets off an examination of mental moments and their duration.
Methodologically, the role of the Abhidharma in this initial statement is to serve as an alternative model that raises questions about William James’s view of the continuity of the mental stream. This in itself seems perfectly fine. In effect, we turn to the Abhidharma to shake things up a bit and to introduce a provocative perspective. The conversation becomes problematic, however, when we assume that [End Page 934] the specifics of the Abhidharma account are relevant to the process of “shaking things up.”
Thompson moves in this problematic direction most especially when he notes that, according to Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa, “there are sixty-five [mental] instants in the time it takes a healthy man to snap his fingers” and that this measure “works out roughly to 1/65th of a second, or 15 milliseconds, for a mind moment” (p. 40). This then leads to an entertaining and informative account of Francisco Varela’s empirical attempt to examine the question of mind moments, especially with attention to the Abhidharma model. And it also includes an illuminating discussion of more recent work on the temporal phasing of experience. Thompson cites Szczepanowski and Pessoa’s study of fear perception,1 which shows that some individuals (“high achievers”) can detect a target stimulus at only 17 milliseconds, which is a far cry from the usual 100-plus millisecond chunking that is currently assumed. And this research also provides, in Thompson’s view, a clear “yes” (p. 45) to the question of whether the Abhidharma’s estimate of about 15–20 milliseconds is correct.
At this point, things have gone awry, at least in terms of my own experience with this type of work. Over the last many years, I have been involved in a number of empirical attempts at examining not only Buddhist contemplative practices, but also Buddhist theories about these practices,2 and I have come to believe that any attempt to translate Buddhist material directly into a scientific context is methodologically untenable and pragmatically pointless. One problem is that Buddhist accounts are not unified...