The Contemplative Mind and Life: First-Person Methods and the Challenge of Pure Consciousness and Phenomenal Selfhood for the “Neurophenomenological” Research Program
A new paradigm in cognitive science has emerged called the “enactive approach”, which has given rise to a research program known as “neurophenomenology”. This research program attempts to calibrate third- and first-person methods to investigate consciousness. In his recent and representative work Mind in Life, Evan Thompson has put forward the thesis that there is a “deep continuity between life and mind”. While I remain sympathetic to the neurophenomenological approach as an exemplar par excellence of how the science of consciousness ought to proceed, I argue against this continuity thesis from three perspectives: (1) the nature and potential of first-person approaches to consciousness; (2) the most fundamental invariant structure of consciousness; (3) the egological or non-egological nature of consciousness and selfhood. My argument begins by laying out the foundations of enactive cognitive science, the continental analysis of time-consciousness and Thompson‟s attempt to close the empirical gap between life and mind with the help of the neurophenomenological bridging strategy (dynamic systems theory). Next, I discuss the phenomenology of different types of (structured) experiences and the fact that continental and contemplative methods share a common logic. I then argue that first-person methods (i) offer prima facie evidence that there are perceptual and non-perceptual types of experience, and (ii) grant us “cognitive access” to both types of experience. Following this, I consider at least one non-perceptual type of experience (pure consciousness) that breaks down the dynamic and relational structure of time-consciousness. I argue that pure consciousness is phenomenally lived-through but without egocentricity (subject-pole). Furthermore, a sophisticated distinction between (i) a minimal, core sense of (ego-) self and (ii) a non-egological but phenomenally lived-through subjectivity, is capable of shedding light on long-lasting debates surrounding the existence and non-existence of self (ātman). This especially holds true with regards to Buddhist philosophy and objectors to the doctrine of not-self (anatta/anātman). Finally, the nature of pure consciousness will lead me to challenge Thompson‟s continuity thesis, on the grounds that phenomenological evidence shows that the contemplative mind (pure consciousness) is decidedly not dynamic and intentional in structure. Thus there is a conceptual discontinuity between the biological domain and the phenomenological domain, being a decisive conceptual disanalogy between the contemplative mind (consciousness proper) and life. I thus conclude that prima facie: (1) first-person methods give us cognitive access to the objective and subjective domain of consciousness; (2) continental phenomenology is mistaken about the most fundamental invariant structure of consciousness; (3) consciousness qua awareness per se is non-egological. Having completed my argument against the continuity thesis, I will briefly recommend specific avenues for future neurophenomenological research to (a) adjudicate between continental and contemplative phenomenological views of consciousness; (b) judge whether or not Thompson‟s continuity thesis can be upheld; and (c) introduce new ways of studying (phenomenal) selfhood. In this way, I hope not only to argue against Thompon‟s continuity thesis, but to also point towards the potential of the neurophenomenological research program to advance our understanding of consciousness and phenomenal selfhood.