The Science of Compassion—A Talk with Evan Thompson

From our minds arise art, stories, technology, philosophy, science, and, in some sense, reality itself. But what is the mind? Is it the brain? Or is the mind something different from the stuff of atoms and stone? Is there mind stuff? Are these even the right questions?

An understanding of the mind is at the heart of our understanding of who and what we are, yet the mind remains the deepest mystery in all of science. Cognitive science, the scientific study of the mind, is an interdisciplinary field involving psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, computer science, artificial intelligence, anthropology, and philosophy that hopes one day to solve the riddle of the mind.

If Evan Thompson, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto is right, cognitive science will be a meeting ground for East and West, or more precisely, a meeting ground for western science and the world's enduring contemplative traditions.

Thompson was in town as a guest speaker at the on-going Science, Religion, and the Human Experience series of lectures at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The lectures are supported with a grant from the Templeton Foundation. Thompson spoke to several hundred people from the university and the community on February 7, 2002. His talk was titled "Empathy as a Way of Knowing: From Cognitive Science to Contemplative Science." Discussants were Dr. Jose Cabezon of UCSB, and visiting lecturer Dr. Pascal Boyer of Washington University in St. Louis.

-- John F. Luca

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JL: You seem to think that cognitive science may be able to learn about ways that the mind can progress emotionally and spiritually. Can science actually contribute to a better human being short of resorting to things like genetic engineering?

ET: One way we measure scientific progress is in terms of material progress, but I think we've completely lost sight of mental or spiritual progress or development. Traditionally that's been the promise of religion and philosophy, especially the contemplative traditions in religion.

My hope is that we can bring the scientific knowledge of the human mind, brain, and body together with contemplative knowledge in a way that could lead to mental and spiritual development in a modern secular society.

I don't think it works any more simply to say, 'Let's give the mind to religion, and let's give nature and matter to science.' That creates, at best, separate but equal spheres; more typically it creates separate and opposed spheres. I'm not suggesting we put them together in one big mush, but we need a kind of post-religious spirituality that is scientifically informed—not scientifically justified, but scientifically informed—that's appropriate for a secular multicultural society.

JL: You represent the view that contemplative and meditative psychologies of the world's enduring spiritual traditions need to become active areas of research. What's happening in cognitive science now that allows contemplative and meditative practices to be acceptable subjects for scientific research?

ET: For a long time, as a scientist you couldn't talk about consciousness—it was a hands-off subject. That's changed. And that change has opened the door to intellectual and psychological traditions that examine consciousness in a first-hand way. These would be the world's contemplative traditions. There's a natural bridge to the contemplative from the scientific side of things by way of this interest in consciousness or human experience. In my own life it's always been a question of how to relate the contemplative and the scientific in a way that will speak to the academic community.

JL: Researchers like Daniel Dennett of Dartmouth are working hard to explain consciousness as arising solely from the material workings of the brain. How are they receiving your work?

ET: I know Dennett well. I did a post-doc with him. From Dennett's point of view I'm a radical. He himself is an open-minded guy, so he's interested in bouncing ideas off people who are more radical than he is.

I would say I don't represent, in terms of the synthesis I'm trying to present, the mainstream by any means. Nevertheless, the mainstream is much closer to the ideas that I work with than it was ten or fifteen years ago.

In 1991, I published a book with Francisco Varela, a neuroscientist, and Eleanor Ross, a psychologist from Berkeley. The book was called The Embodied Mind and discussed Buddhism and cognitive science. We presented what we called an 'embodied' perspective on the mind, that is, you can't understand the mind independent of the body, the organism, and the organism's relationship to its environment.

At the time, that was somewhat a fringe thing to say, but is now completely mainstream. Cognitive science has caught up to the radicalness of our position then.

So, if I were to willfully extrapolate in terms of the synthesis with the contemplative perspective, it's not the mainstream now, but I think it's going to become a lot more of a recognizable trend in the next ten or fifteen years.

JL: If I understand you correctly, you see empathy as being at the very foundation of consciousness. In a recent paper you wrote, "Compassion is the heart of interbeing and is the superlative expression of the human capacity for empathy."

ET: There's a way of thinking about consciousness in Western philosophy that comes from Descartes and informs a lot of work in cognitive science. It's this idea that consciousness is something private and closed in on itself. This manifests in philosophical problems such as how do I know that you're really conscious, and so on.

We habitually see things in terms of intrinsic separate identity, such as I am me and you are you. We each have our intrinsic sense of I-ness. I think that way of thinking about things has the ground cut out from underneath it by the realization that human consciousness is empathetically structured at its very foundation. Empathy is the ability that I have and you have to understand someone else's experience, and you can see that different levels of empathy are possible.

Interbeing is a Buddhist term and is the sense that everything is inter-dependently linked, and so things aren't definable except in relation to each other. The basic idea is that everything is relationally inter-connected. Reflecting and meditating critically, philosophically, and in an experiential, psychological way on the interconnectedness of all things can be used to bring out the realization that the suffering of beings is interrelated, that my suffering is not just my suffering but the suffering of others, and the suffering of others is mine, also.

Compassion can arise on the basis of the realization that others are in the same predicament as me. That kind of compassion is the superlative expression of empathy. By that I mean, if empathy is the base line of our ability to understand each other then compassion is the full flowering of our engagement with each other.

JL: If I were talking to the Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh or a Christian contemplative like Thomas Merton and they told me that the very seed of human consciousness is empathy, and that compassion is the full flowering of that seed, I wouldn't be surprised. But you're an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto who works with experimental neuroscientists and experimental psychologists studying vision and other aspects of the brain and mind, and that's what you're saying.

What's going on in cognitive science to bring this kind of thinking about?

ET: The contemporary situation spiritually, intellectually, ethically, and so on is a very interesting one because you have people in science now able to begin to understand in their own terms and concepts the kinds of things spiritual teachers have been saying for centuries.

When I make that statement about empathy and compassion, I'm not meaning to make it as a kind of spiritual or religious injunction. I'm making it as a statement of a certain view as to what it is to be human and to experience in a human way. I'm stating that the scientific picture that's coming out of cognitive science is now connecting to the picture from the contemplative wisdom side of human thought. Historically in the West those two streams of thought were connected, say, back in the time of Socrates and Plato. They were separated when modern science said, 'OK, we're going to take over nature, and we'll leave the self and the mind to religion or ethics.'

Now, science is actually turning back to look at the mind, to look at the self. And in so doing, science is finding itself needing to renegotiate its relationship with the spiritual traditions—and they, of course, have to renegotiate their relationship to science.

So, we live in interesting times.

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