Lecture Two: Naturalism 2.2

2.2 Diachronic discontinuity


A good guide for this investigation is provided by Evan Thompson’s Waking, Dreaming, Being. Self and Consciousness in Neuroscience, Meditation, and Philosophy (2015). We are familiar with Thompson’s work from Lecture One and can now follow his further discussion to explore in a systematic way the spectrum of experience that encompasses waking, dreaming and other borderline forms of experience. Thompson calls his approach here ‘neurophenomenology,’ an investigation of experience that combines insight from both a first-person phenomenological perspective (often integrated by contemplative practices coming from the ancient Indian tradition, including Tibetan Buddhism), and contemporary research in neuroscience aimed at better understanding the way first-person experience can be correlated with the functioning of the physical cognitive system, and with the brain in particular.

For present purposes, the neuroscientific details of Thompson’s discussion can be left aside. The only general point to remember is that the sorts of states discussed in his work seem to correlate with specific modulations of the way the brain functions. As Thompson repeatedly stresses, this should not be interpreted in a reductionist way, according to which first-person experience is nothing but the epiphenomenon or byproduct of brain activity. On the contrary, neuroscientific evidence should be treated as a way of investigating the impact of that mutual conditioning of brain activity on first-person experience, and (vice versa) on the way that changes in first-person attitudes towards the world are reflected and have a physical impact on the functioning of the brain (both momentarily and on the long term).

Appealing to neuroscience is a way of showing that both waking and non-waking experience admits physical instantiations and affects, in measurable ways, the functioning of physical organs like the brain. Neuroscience can be used here as a device to defuse a potential objection about the irrelevancy (or illusoriness) of any sort of experience that is different from ordinary waking experience. Dreaming states and other non-waking conditions reveal a wealth of activity that neuroscience is still tentatively beginning to understand. In no way are these states less ‘real’ or less in touch with ‘reality’ than waking experience. While brain states are best understood as necessary but not sufficient enabling conditions for experience (in the sense that there would be arguably no experience without a functioning brain, even if a functioning brain is not sufficient by itself to create experience), neuroscience can provide a different perspective to look at first-person experience from the point of view of how cognition is embodied in a certain physical living being.

Thompson’s discussion can be summarized as covering two main domains: (i) the diachronic discontinuity of experience (which includes the ‘gappiness’ of waking experience, hypnagogic states, and deep dreamless sleep); and (ii) the synchronic discontinuity of experience (which includes the dissolution or reshaping of the sense of self in non-lucid and lucid dreams, out-of-body experiences, and near-death experiences). To these two main headings, should also be added Thompson’s discussion of the possibility for consciousness to exist without physical correlates as a purely non-material entity (chapters 1 and 3), and his enactive account of the nature and origin of the sense of self. For present purposes, we shall leave aside the issue of the non-materiality of consciousness. We can simply note that the difficulties Thompson finds with this idea are the manifestation of the resistance against anything world-transcendent that characterizes the naturalist approach of his neurophenomenology. These difficulties are not surprising given that Thompson’s view is located near the immanent pole of the spectrum of possible ways of conceiving of the self. We shall turn to this point in the concluding part of this lecture, briefly touching upon his enactive account of the origins of the self.

Consider first the evidence for the diachronic discontinuity of experience. This discontinuity entails that experience does not unfold in a homogeneous and continuous way throughout time, as a continuous and uninterrupted flow or a ‘stream of consciousness’ (to use William James’s term). Discontinuity entails that experience tends to be momentary: there is one moment of experience, which has a certain duration, it ends, and then it is followed by another moment of experience, which repeats a similar pattern. Each moment of experience is different in itself, and each moment might be separated from another moment by a gap in which there is no experience. In each moment there might be a local self that enacts a certain function. But the view that there is a global Self underpinning all these local selves can be based only on inference (by assuming that all the local selves at each moment are the same global Self). However, if experience is discontinuous from a diachronic point of view, then it would be impossible to experience the continuity of the global Self, simply because experiencing genuine continuity itself cannot be part of any possible experience.

The discontinuity of experience can be manifest at both micro and macro levels. At the micro level, Thompson presents a discussion already included in The Embodied Mind, about the fact that ordinary waking experience is akin to a sequence of rapidly succeeding frames (like a movie) rather than the continuous flow of a stream. In chapter 2, Thompson fleshes out this view by arguing that the reason why the ordinary person might fail to notice the discontinuity of moments of experience is due to a lack of training. Focused meditation training aimed at paying attention to discontinuity can reverse this condition and allow experienced practitioners to appreciate discontinuity. Waking experience by itself does not afford hard evidence for the fact that experience is a continuous flow. Whether it does or not depends on what one is looking for, or what one is looking away from.

At a more macro level, this point is strengthened by taking dreams into account. Dreams cover a vast and diverse domain of experience and can reveal different facets of discontinuity. From the point of view of diachronic discontinuity, two aspects are relevant: the hypnagogic state that precedes falling asleep, and the state of deep, dreamless sleep. Thompson discusses the hypnagogic state in chapter 4, as a case in which the world of waking experience seems to collapse and blur, including the sense of selfhood that is enacted there. He comments:

The hypnagogic state blurs the boundaries between inside and outside, self and world. The flashing lights and colors seem to occupy a space around me, but this space appears within my eyes and reconfigures with each eye movement. The strange faces and distorted scenes look other to me, yet my drifting gaze creates them. I behold these images, but they absorb me. In these ways, the distance between me and them diminishes or even seems to disappear. […] Sometimes, in this borderland state, a peculiar kind of double consciousness ensues; we retain awareness of the outside world while watching the inner mental scene usurp its place. […] The hypnagogic state offers a unique concoction of relaxation, absorption, diffuse and receptive attention, ego dissolution, reactivation of recent memories as well as older ones, synesthesia, and hyperassociative and symbolic thinking. By outstripping the waking “I-Me-Mine,” this mode of consciousness can tap deeper sources of creative thinking and intuitive problem solving. (Thompson 2015, 124-125)

The hypnagogic state might be dismissed as simply ‘confused’ from the point of view of a certain interpretation of what reality should look like. However, considered as an experience in its own right, it provides direct, easily available evidence against the sense of a very stable, well-defined, coherent and continuous flow of experience. Every day this flow gets disrupted when one falls asleep. More importantly, the fact that the hypnagogic state is fully part of experience entails that experience is actually constructed and experienced differently from waking experience. The hypnagogic state and the waking state do not differ from the point of view of being a sort of experience. They differ instead in terms of the sort of contents that they make available. In the hypnagogic state there is no manifest sense of a global Self, and there might not even be any locally working self. The hypnagogic state is thus not only a disruption of the sort of experience that is more common during waking time, but also a disruption of the experience of self usually associated with being awake. This means that waking experience is just one domain of experience on a vaster and more diverse spectrum.

Deep dreamless sleep reinforces this point. While the hypnagogic state still manifests a wealth of perceptual components (images, sounds, feelings), dreamless sleep does not. Thompson takes up this topic in chapter 8. Building on Indian contemplative traditions, he contends that deep dreamless sleep is not an experiential blackout. Some minimal form of awareness remains active and allows one to remember the experience of having slept. This is not an inference based one’s recalling the time of falling to sleep and then observing one’s having waken up again, but an actual memory of the experience of having slept. In order to have this sort of memory, some awareness and retention must have been present during dreamless sleep. As he explains:

In deep and dreamless sleep, we experience a kind of blankness or nothingness. In other words, deep sleep isn’t a nothingness of experience but rather an experience of nothingness. Here our ignorance is an experience of pure nonapprehension without misapprehension. Since there’s no object of awareness, there’s nothing for us to mistake for anything else. As total darkness in waking life conceals everything, leaving only not-seeing with no way to misperceive one thing as another, so in deep sleep there is only not-knowing. We have no knowledge of this ignorance when we sleep, but the nonapprehension is a kind of awareness, and it’s this ignorant awareness that is retained in the moment of waking up and that waking memory recalls. If we project some terminology from contemporary Western philosophy of mind onto Yoga and Vedānta, we can say that deep sleep counts as a “phenomenal” state or state of “phenomenal consciousness”—a state for which there’s something it’s like to be in that state. Yoga and Vedānta describe it as peaceful, one undifferentiated awareness not divided up into a feeling of being a subject aware of a distinct object, and blissfully unknowing. Yet deep sleep doesn’t normally count as a state of “access consciousness”—a state we can mentally access and use to guide our attention and thinking. We have no cognitive access to being asleep during sleep; we gain access retrospectively in the waking state. (Thompson 2015, 247-248, original emphasis)

As Thompson points out in the paragraphs immediately after those just mentioned, the sort of awareness that is present in deep dreamless sleep cannot be identified with a self. It cannot be taken to be ‘me’ or ‘mine’ because in that experience there is absolutely no mental or bodily sense of subjectivity involved. This remark (which in itself was matter of controversy among Indian schools) has two major implications for understanding the experience of discontinuity.

First, the presence of some degree of awareness by itself does not constitute an instance of continuity in experience. Awareness does not have to be continuously present in order to be present. As already discussed, even in waking experience awareness is gappy, and it would be surprising (pace what has been sometimes argued by ancient Indian schools) to find out that in dreamless sleep awareness becomes continuous. The fact that there is no content of awareness available in this experience makes it even more difficult to experience it as discontinuous, since in this state there is no point of reference (i.e., no content) to judge the discontinuity, nor even (more importantly) any reflective access to the experience itself. However, if the same awareness that is present in waking experience is also present (albeit in a state of quiescence emptied of contents) in deep sleep, then this awareness must retain the same gappiness that characterizes it. By contrast, if awareness in deep sleep was of an entirely different kind, then the experience of remembering the fact of having slept could not occur, since that memory is an indication of the fact that there is some bridge between deep sleep and waking. Something discontinuous in itself can provide this bridge insofar as a series of discontinuous moments can flow in a consistent way through the same system (movies create the sense of continuity precisely in this way).

Second, the sense of self is heavily dependent on the presence of certain contents of experience and the ability to access these contents. Both local selves and the global Self can be experienced only in relation to certain contents. In this respect, the sense of self should be regarded as belonging to the domain of perception and recognition, through which this or that content of experience is identified as ‘self’ or ‘belonging to the self.’ This entails that the sense of self is always emergent upon an experiential landscape, which is diverse and manifold in terms of contents displayed and available there. Deep sleep offers the opposite scenario: when no content of experience is available anymore (when one has an ‘experience of nothingness,’ to use Thompson’s phrasing), no sense of self (either local or global) could arise, because no content could be perceived as self or belonging to it. This point has a crucial implication: since it is possible to have a degree of aware experience that does not entail the experience of a self (like in deep sleep), it follows that awareness or consciousness by itself is different from the sense of self. Ordinarily, and when awake, one might conflate awareness and selfhood and take the two to be the same, but this is just a perspectival misjudgment. While there cannot be selfhood without some basis of awareness, there can be awareness in which no selfhood is enacted. More precisely, a minimal degree of awareness is a necessary but insufficient condition for the experience of selfhood. With no awareness whatsoever, there would be no experience whatsoever, including no experience of selfhood whatsoever. But given just awareness in its most empty and minimal form (like in deep sleep), it is still impossible to experience that awareness as self in any way. Incidentally, this might be one reason why several Indian schools considered ‘pure awareness’ so important in their metaphysical and soteriological systems, since it seems to provide a model for having an experience free from (ordinary) self (although this soteriological move further requires to interpret ‘pure awareness’ as the True Self, as we shall discuss in Lecture Six).

For present purposes, this second aspect of deep sleep shows that selfhood (in any form) requires more than just awareness, it requires memory, perception, recognition, and access to these aspects of experience. Since none of this is available in deep sleep, despite a residual minimal degree of awareness, deep sleep represents a macroscopic discontinuity with respect to waking experience. Waking experience is not only significantly altered in the hypnagogic state, but it is also almost entirely suspended during deep sleep.


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The Tragedy of the Self by Andrea Sangiacomo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.