The Western World Validates the East

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.

Enjoy.


  1. Does modern science lend support to the logic behind Buddhist meditation practice?
  2. 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.

Badass Buddha

I wrote the following essay for a homework assignment for a class called “Buddhism and Modern Psychology” on Coursera. It’s taught by Robert Wright, evolutionary psychologist an author of The Moral Animal, which is a great book and I recommend if you’re interested in learning more of evo psych.


 

Badass Buddha

According to the Buddha, suffering is part of the human existence. The first two Noble Truths of Buddhism spell out that suffering is not only found everywhere around us – it is a part of us. The first truth, dukkha, tells us that suffering is a lack of satisfaction and that pleasures are fleeting and are therefore not a path to lasting satisfaction. The second truth is that because pleasure is fleeting, we cling to these pleasures as our source of satisfaction. We chase their return. I agree with the Buddha that suffering is part of the human existence, and I will give two examples to show this.

The first example comes from principles in evolutionary psychology. We did not evolve to not suffer. Not suffering was never a goal in evolution. Instead, we evolved to survive and replicate. The traits we developed are in some way related to our evolved need to accomplish these two goals. According to Professor Wright in the lectures, feelings of pleasure are among the traits that developed to incentivize people (and our animal ancestors) to survive and replicate. For example, we describe food (survival) as “tasting good” and sex (replication) as “awesome.”  

Natural selection doesn’t care if you are happy. If we must suffer in order to accomplish natural selection’s goal of surviving and replicating, then that is still the priority of natural selection. According to evolutionary psychology, it is this natural selection that drives our psychology. When natural selection is what drives psychology, then our default behavior will be whatever most increases our likelihood to survive and reproduce. This is what Professor Wright meant when he said that Buddhism is a “rebellion against natural selection” – Buddhism seeks to end suffering, and that can only be accomplished by not giving in to urges that we are designed to feel.

My second example is a more recent, more practical application of our evolved psychology steering us to suffering. Social media preys on our psychology and leads us to feedback loops of chasing pleasure – these feedback loops which the I argue on behalf of the Buddha that lead us to suffer.

Social media exploits a lot of the behaviors that we developed as ape ancestors way back in the day. To increase our likelihood to survive, we evolved to be tribal – to stick to those close to us and to feel a sense of connection. By increasing the size of his tribe, a man had less enemies and more people to fight off enemies, therefore decreasing the likelihood he would die in attack. We evolved to experience pleasure when we make connection with someone and to seek friendship to encourage us to grow our tribe so we would not die in an attack. Social media exploits this reward for growing our tribe.

Social media exploits the reward for growing a tribe by rewarding an individual with “likes” or retweets if the user posts content that other users find appealing. We get our pleasure feeling when others click “like” or “retweet.” The downside is that, as Wright explained, when pleasure is routine and then removed, dopamine (pleasure sensors) goes negative and we actually feel less happy than our neutral state because we fail to reach expectation.

When a user fails to reach expectation our pleasure expectations, social media users generate more content in hopes they will get those pleasure triggers. It is this clinging the Buddha warned against but on an immediate, constant scale. Social media users, and there are a lot of them, are constantly creating and seeking this fleeting pleasure. Ex-Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya warns against this (link), I warn against this, and the Buddha would warn against this. It is unhealthy to constantly worry about these pleasures inspired by the action (click) from others.

In conclusion, suffering is part of human existence. The very things we are designed to do are sources of our desires that lead us to unhappiness. The need to survive and have children shaped our psychology to seek pleasures, and these pleasures are short-term. We become addicted to the pleasures, like a drug user (which probably also has evolutionary roots).

The Buddha says to acknowledge that these pleasures are fleeting, and that we can end our suffering by removing the search for these fleeting pleasures. This is easier said than done, especially in our modern world where social media creates not only a recurring source of pleasure from “likes” and “retweets”, but also serves as a more common means of finding sexual partners. To be free from the suffering found in seeking pleasure, we must rebel against our default psychology and remove the need for the pleasure that gives reason for us to suffer.

Welcome

Hi. I’m Ian.

I’m an intellectual bro, hence the entendre Ian Shrugged.

This is my blog and my exploration of virtue and vice as I try to find and explain what makes me, and you, happy.

I find wisdom through science, the “great books”, personal experience, and other people’s personal experiences.

I want feedback on my ideas. Challenge me. Bro.

Ian