This is my second essay from my Psychology of Modern Buddhism course. It’s a less fun read, but I’m proud of it and it has some relevance to the discussion I post.
- Does modern science lend support to the logic behind Buddhist meditation practice?
- Does modern science lend support to the moral validity of Buddhism?
The Western World Validates the East
Modern science supports both the logical and moral validity of Buddhism and its mediation practice. Scientific support comes from the modular theory of the mind, and the moral validity comes from the Buddhist meditative ability to affect these modules.
An element of Buddhism that supports general morality is the idea that we are formless. There is no self that ends with the physical body that houses our thoughts and biases. If we are connected to all things, we will not want to inflict harm on other things. This is supported by science.
Psychologist Paul Bloom wrote in his book, How Pleasure Works, “Pleasure is affected by deeper factors, including what the person thinks about the true essence of what he is getting pleasure from.” We give essence to things to differentiate them. We give essence to groups, people, and things. Buddhism promotes morality by removing this essence, this judgement, to be more objective and to eliminate expectations.
When we assign an essence to a person or thing we attribute, at best, a pleasure to it (at worst, a hatred or displeasure). When we assign qualities, we set ourselves up for either disappointment if our expectations are not met or diminished pleasure if our expectations are met.
We heard in the lecture that temptation becomes harder and harder to reject with consumption, as gratification is a reward for success. These pleasure-seeking modules evolved to be a part of our psychology, and they are rewarded and are then more likely to be chosen next time – unless we do something about it. If we refuse to give essence to a person or group or thing, we can be objective about it, or her, or them, and we can simply enjoy the world as it is. There are no expectations that can lead to disappointment, and there are no pleasures we will attach ourselves to for diminished experience.
When we reject the self, we see harm to others as harm to “me” because there is no more me, there is just everything. Rejecting this self goes against natural selection because natural selection is out for our self-interest (survival and replication, not happiness). This rejection of the self is congruent with experiences of “enlightenment” which brings individuals closer to the reality of mind and closer to moral truth because there is a distance from feelings that contain self-serving judgments about the world. This distance eliminates bias and brings us closer to objective truth.
We can reject the self and refuse to give essence to ourselves or others through meditation.
One of the core elements of Buddhism is mindfulness, which is use of the mind for ulterior needs – not selfish. We practice mindfulness through meditation. If we are mindful of our feelings, we can control our thoughts. If we can control our thoughts, we can control our behavior by choosing to empower modules that we want, not just modules that would otherwise naturally appeal to us in our former emotional state. Science supports this, and we see evidence in the modular theory of the mind and the implications of the modular theory.
In Rational Animal, Douglas Kendrick claims we are under influence of seven modules – sub-selves. These are sub-selves because the different modules compete for attention. The winning module is awarded based on its ability to convince the brain that the module has made the best decision. The winning module becomes our sense of self. The problem is the winning module can be biased by previous victories (being selected) or other biases inherent with natural selection (such as tribal feelings to an in-group).
By focusing on something, you overcome modules competing for different views. If we focus on mindfulness, we can control our feelings because we are controlling the self that dictates our behavior. In the lecture, Robert Wright said that meditation is used to become mindful of our behavior, so that we can act in ways that are against natural selection. From this mindfulness, we can choose to reject the self, and to behave morally.
A possible issue with this explanation is that few people have achieved the enlightened state sought after. In the cases of people that claim to have achieved enlightenment, there is no technology to prove they have, and data points are largely experiential.
In conclusion, modern science lends support to both the moral validity of Buddhism and to its meditation practice. By being mindful of feelings, thoughts can be controlled. By controlling thoughts, behavior can be controlled. When behavior is controlled, happiness is controlled, and more power can be exerted in our world – hopefully for good. While much of the results that support this are experiential, modern science does support the theory that supports the results.