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.

How two conflicting ideologies can be right. What to do.

Two conflicting ideas can be correct at the same time. Both sides of one argument can have facts that support it. That doesn’t mean the conclusion is logically sound.

Two ideas that are founded on values can both be correct.

It’s when ideas are founded in mathematical fact that have conflicting ideas that we must remove opposing views. Differentiating between fact and feeling is important to this, but we must address both situations carefully to avoid emotional outburst and physical conflict.

Math is provable. Scientific experimentation can show correlation or causation.

An example of a mathematical debate is the shape of the earth. It is round not flat.

There are two sexes, which is proven in biology.

There are other “hot topics” that are rooted in the hard sciences and because they stem from the hard sciences they have solvable solutions.

An example of this is the gender debate. How many genders are there? There are two genders. This is provable from studying biology and the evolution of any animal, including human.

“But gender is the sex you identify as, not your private parts.”

I’m skeptical but I’ll even give you that. Even if that’s your argument, the psychology of male/female dynamics evolved from the biological differences related to the private parts. There were no additional private parts to evolve from and therefore only the two genders evolved.

Psychology evolved from biology which evolved from chemistry and physics. 30 genders on a job application evolved from screaming lunatics that deny science.

Liberals and conservatives are weird and selective in their science denials. Liberals deny the previously laid out logic and conservatives deny climate change.

Both of these rely more on the observation over time – the evolution of the planet and the species, and scientists support both climate change and no more than two genders.

These scientific claims are based on math, experiment, and observation showing causation.

I caution against claims not based on these. Not against their merit, but in their absolute rightness. Many claims are made in absolutes that don’t have the bullet-proof reasoning to back them up. Many of these claims, the political ones, are based on values.

I caution against using correlation when making your passionate argument. With large enough data sets, there will often be a correlation in favor of the other side of the argument. Correlation can be shown with all sorts of cherry picked statistics.

Conflict is fine. Ideas compete. Physical conflict isn’t.

So let’s talk about it.

Let’s focus on the grey areas. They aren’t even really grey areas though. These areas are black and white to people with one set of values, and white and black for people with the opposing set of values.

What are these values?

There are numerous values that have a virtuous opposite. Sharing versus self growth. Pleasure vs discipline. Honesty vs kindness.

All of these values show up in political debate to some extent, however there is only one that attempts to define the law.

I believe freedom is the core value that politics tries to define.

On one side of freedom you have capitalists that believe you are more free if you are enterprising and create in order to earn your keep. On the other side are socialists who believe everyone is more free if we all contribute and help the lowest out of their reliance on measly sums of income for their livelihood.

On one side of freedom you have feminists that believe women are more free if they can earn the same incomes as men and challenge them in the workplace. Traditionalists say women are more free if they don’t have to provide for herself and the family and instead focus her energy on growing said family.

Gun rights people find freedom in their ability to defend themselves from evil. Gun controllers say there is more freedom in walking around knowing their neighbor doesn’t have a tool that can kill them.

Globalists want to integrate and bring other cultures together, and eliminate the dependency and thought of culture. Nationalists say we can be more free by promoting and embracing our own culture, which they deem best. One wants to just be and the other says it is our culture that allows us to just be.

There are two sides to all of these debate topics and I argue that neither is wrong. There are numbers to support both. Not bulletproof math. But numbers that can show different correlations.

Socialism may not even have correlations to positive attributes. But there’s numbers to prove a capitalist system isn’t working, just as there are examples to show that it is.

This argument that two sides can both be correct bring up more questions.

Can an idea be incorrect? What makes an idea incorrect if two opposing ideas can be correct? Where do these values come from? And, naturally, what do we do about this – how do we live peacefully and productively with people that will never agree with our politics?

One at a time.

Can an idea be incorrect?

If it is not founded in science and is not solvable either by math or repeated experiment and observation then one could argue the idea is not incorrect.

There can be a morality behind some ideas that are unpopular but cannot be logically bulletproof.

An idea can have little political support, or moral support from others. But if 49 of the population thinks we should live in a capitalistic society and 49 percent think we should be socialist and one percent think we should have a national socialist party that forbids Jews, maybe that person has had poor interactions with Jews that shaped his mind to believing this.

It’s hard to prove the idea wrong with logic, and he would have facts to support his side that point to how Jews are a net negative on the planet.

Now, there are laws that dictate you can’t commit genocide to a group of people, and that was determined by a court system to be objectively a good thing. I agree. By the way.

The actions should be suppressed. The idea should not be suppressed. The better idea that appeals to the larger population should win out in politics.

What do we do about this – how do we live peacefully and productively with people that will never agree with our politics?

You can’t.

Not without removing emotion from the picture. You have to be objective and to see things as they are, which includes seeing people as these emotional side-takers.

This is hard. You can’t have a productive discussion of politics because you are challenging someone’s core values.

Core values don’t change. They are built in. Also built it are emotions. Emotions evolved from needs to survive and replicate also. So while they do help us avoid burns and to pursue sex, they evolved before there was a need for political agreement among tribes across a nation or planet.

This middle ground is politics. And it’s messy. Because of the inherent values in individuals, no one is happy in the middle. We are, by nature, extremely conservative or extremely liberal. We can deny this, and many do, but that’s not being honest.

That’s why politics are, by the nature of those arguing, so divided.

Let’s acknowledge that and move on. These huge battles that move the scale a little to the right or left are not only productive, but they are the only way to maintain peace in a world that will always, deep down, vote right or left.

We all want to be free. But freedom is different based on the side of this value-dichotomy you align with.

For modern conservatives, freedom is the ability to choose what matters and pursue that, uninhibited by the wants and needs of others. For modern liberals, freedom is the ability to do whatever, whenever, and if necessary to share so that others can do the same.

Accepting this doesn’t make decisions easier. It does allow you to understand why there is another side to, what appears to you, the obvious truth.

Acceptance of this view allow you to be less emotional and more detached from the decisions that have slight control over your life. You do not allow these decisions to change your emotion, because it’s natural that they will try to do that.

Why is the country split so massively in the core values it holds? Where do these values come from?

I have an answer to that, but it’s messy, and requires a post of its own.

Coming soon.

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