Science is catching up to the Buddha
Does happiness require a rebellion against evolution?
Jag Bhalla is a writer and entrepreneur. Current projects include this "Thought Fix" blog series for Big Think. And NanoSalad a zero-prep way to zap veggie gaps (by BodZoo LLC, a future-friendly, basic-by-design business, see www.bodzoo.com for further details). Prior projects include "Errors We Live By," a series of short exoteric essays exposing errors in the big ideas running our lives. And I'm Not Hanging Noodles On Your Ears, a surreptitious science gift book from National Geographic Books, which explains his twitter handle @hangingnoodles.
2. Wright means “true” because evolutionary logic and brain science now fit Buddhism’s ancient naturalistic (non-reincarnation-y) aspects. Consider some of Wright’s mind-stopping sentences and essentially delusion-illuminating ideas.
3. Evolution “doesn’t care about our… happiness.” It wants us anxiously striving, thus life brings suffering (=Buddhism’s dukkha = “unsatisfactoriness”). So feeling happy requires “rebellion” against evolution’s values.
5. Feelings arose to enact evolution's vehicle-centered values (=personalized go-forth-and-multiply mission). And all feelings are elaborations of basic evolutionary good-or-bad approach-or-avoid judgments.
6. “Judging is what we’re designed to do.” Our heads are full of feeling-generating “modules,” constantly running backstage (System 1) that judge (assign affective adjectives to) things in our environment.
7. “There’s no such thing as an immaculate perception” or conception (the cognitive, not sexual kind). All come bundled with feelings (feelings = biochemical judgments + attached stories, see “Darwin’s Hindoo”).
8. Brain science backs Buddhism’s “not-self” doctrine—“thoughts think themselves”—there’s no “CEO” module. Ordinarily, which feeling-thought-story bundles “bubble up” into awareness depends on the intensity of outputs of competing modules.
9. Buddhism calls these feeling-thought-story bundles “delusions” because they arise from misplaced “essentialism.” Your perceptions about X may seem like essential attributes of X, but they result from “interdependent co-arising.” Like color, they’re co-constructed, “caused” by properties of the object, lighting, our physiology, and even language (color =“secondary quality” in Western philosophy).
10. Science calls essentialism about people the “fundamental attribution error” (blaming dispositional traits over situational factors). But this error varies by culture, Jerome Kagan says Asian psychologists wouldn’t ever dream up the “Big Five” personality traits (e.g., Korean uses act-plus-context as the basic “unit”).
11. Buddhists don’t fight feeling-delusions directly. Rather they “R.A.I.N.” them in—recognize, accept, inspect, and nonidentify (feelings aren’t an essential part of you).
13. Buddhist language like "nothing possesses inherent existence" can seem to go too far, since our unobjective “delusions” are often accurate enough.
15. Evolution’s save-your-own-skin values tend to inculcate the perspective that we’re “special.” But perhaps these evolution-given values are more like food than air (the former far more culturally configurable than the latter).
17. Our “extended vehicles” raise broader “vehicular viability” issues (see “universal survivor logic”). And beyond the personal practical benefits meditation offers, Wright feels a “Metacognitive Revolution” could save the planet (Buddha and the art of vehicles maintenance).
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions