Podcast: Play in new window | Download (Duration: 52:40 — 48.3MB)
Bob joins Mark, Seth, Wes, and Dylan to discuss his new book Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.
Bob is a best-selling author and scholar in the area of evolutionary psychology (as well as a podcaster: check out bloggingheads.tv). His past books like Nonzero and The Moral Animal lay down foundations for talking about the evolutionary reasons why we feel ourselves to have the sense of self, emotions, moral sentiments, and purposes that we do. Now, he applies that insight to explicating the human condition as Western Buddhism (meaning Buddhism without supernatural elements; see also our interview with Owen Flanagan) describes it: We are fundamentally deluded in a number of ways, and Bob thinks that meditative practice can help us see the world more truly, discarding some of what makes us suffer.
For instance, maybe you tend to get jealous, and Bob can give you an evolutionary story why feeling this way would have helped your ancestors, i.e., was "true" (i.e., adaptive) for them. But it's not such a useful emotion for us now, and keeps us from objectively evaluating our situation. Focusing meditatively on negative emotions like this can help you gain distance from them, see them as something happening to you, not as really part of you. Our feelings and desires are leftover instructions from an evolutionary past, and in many cases they just don't fruitfully apply to today's world. We don't need to go into fight-or-flight mode, certainly not in reaction to social anxiety or other modern worries. While we certainly don't want to ditch love, we don't thrive when controlled by really needy, jealous love.
In fact, the whole unified sense of "self" that you have, and the consequent helplessness you may feel when things are out of your control, are illusions according to Buddhism. You never were in control in the first place! To get the classical picture here, we read and discuss (in part 2) with Bob the Buddha's so-called Second Discourse, i.e., the very short "Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic." If your emotions like jealousy really were you, really part of the thing that sees out through your eyes and makes your decisions, then (argues the Buddha) you'd have control over them.
But you don't: emotions just happen, and you shouldn't take them so personally. The same goes for your body, your thoughts, and everything you might consider you. For Bob's purposes, we don't actually have to follow this argument all the way in the manner of an orthodox Buddhist to the point that we deny that there is any self at all, i.e., no consciousness that you'd want to call "you," but there certainly is no central, unified decision-maker running the show in your mind. That's just another trick of evolution: we need to present ourselves as unified and in control in order to impress mates and to act decisively in do-or-die situations.
Bob points to the modular model of mind to support the idea that this unified self is an illusion. On this model, the mind is a collection of processors, and there's a "jealousy module," i.e., a particular functional system within the brain, that is competing for control with other modules, and the module that gets most pumped up with emotion wins the day. By just stopping and looking at the emotion as it starts, you keep that module from taking control. Ironically, you become more self-controlled the more you can see that you are not a unified self.
The other big Buddhism trope besides "no self" that Bob reinterprets for his own purposes is "emptiness" (discussed in its more traditional form in our episode #27 on Nagarjuna). Experiencing emptiness is seeing things without a superadded "essence," which Bob characterizes as the emotional affect we add to things. To make this idea clear, he gives the example of JFK's pen. It might be identical to many other pens, but if you think this is the very pen that JFK carried around, it gains a special emotional resonance for you beyond its physical and functional properties. We apply these affective sheaths to just about everything, giving objects that are in fact neutral a special connection to us, so that my car stands out to me beyond other cars, and Bob says he has a special affection for tape measures. Most importantly, we attribute these essences to people, characterizing them (maybe without realizing it) as friend or foe, as having some certain, established positive or negative charge that then influences how we interpret their actions in the future: If someone we like does something despicable, we tend to excuse it, to focus on the friend's reasons for this uncharacteristic behavior, whereas if someone we dislike does the very same thing, we see it as coming straight from that person's horrid character.
Again, meditation is supposed to reveal to us the workings of our mind, the ways in which we attribute these essences, and allow us to distance ourselves from such attributions, to see things and people more clearly.
But does any of this amount to seeing metaphysical truth? And can we really, through introspection, observe how our minds construct the experienced world, or does meditation really just reinforce for the meditator whatever Buddhist doctrines he's basing his practice on? Aren't there many other practices (like exercising, fixing motorcycles, listening to music, or doing philosophy) that also make us less reactive, less unreasonable and unfair to others, without Buddhist meditation's introspective pretense?
And what's the epistemic status of explanations in evolutionary psychology anyway? Do we have to posit that an emotion like jealousy or self-loathing was at some point adaptive, or isn't it more likely that many aspects of our psychology more or less evolved as a package deal, so that, e.g., we needed big brains for communication and then got all this other crap with it that was not itself selected for?
Interested? Buy the book. You can read excerpts at whybuddhismistrue.net.
You can also hear Bob elaborate more of his personal story and his ideas on NPR, on the Secular Buddhist podcast, on Very Bad Wizards, on Slate.com, and in several discussions on his meaningoflife.tv site.
The book has been written up in the New York Times and the New Yorker.
Continues with Part Two. Get the full, ad-free Citizen Edition. Please support PEL!
Wonderful to see such light being transmitted. We may yet see a great awakening. But the forces of darkness are very strong and on the offensive. Both from the Middle East, and from within our own exhausted and de-anchored societies. The madness of the left in their Trump psychosis and desperate lurching to absurd extremes of personal choice and freedom plus the appalling new fascism of political correctness may yet bring us all down into a new dark age, ruled by the 7th century madness of a paranoid schizophrenic who detested human beings.
It’s going to be a terrible struggle.
marl karx, known berniebro says
Jennifer Tejada says
I am so psyched! I just finished this book and thought, I really wish the PEL crew would discuss this. I am so surprised and delighted that you chose to. Mr. Wright, if you are reading this, THANK YOU! This book really helped me. I’ve been meditating for a while but I struggle with a daily practice and this was the push I needed. It is so validating to hear you speak about its benefits. I also really enjoyed your talk with Krista Tippet regarding The Evolution of God. I am currently reading that one. I found such comfort in your ideas and in knowing that, like me, you were raised southern baptist and have that as a backdrop for how you see the world. Thank you so much for sharing these things with the world. I’d love to hear the PEL guys discuss that book alongside other arguments that cast some doubt on the ideas within evolutionary psychology and biology.
I imagine that would go something like this did:
as the philosopher and Dalai Lama conversation partner @evantthompson and others have pointed out there is no historical evidence that most Buddhist philosophers were practicing meditation let alone basing their speculations on such experiences.
not sure when you folks recoded this but Bob was recently schooled on much of this in his interview with Lisa Feldman Barrett on how emotions are socially constructed:
but perhaps his attachments to his own theories are too strong to allow for correction…
Jennifer Tejada says
I would argue that the feeling of flow and the results of a meditative practice are quite different. From a scientific point of view, studies show that there is a thickening of the top layer of the prefrontal cortex for long term practitioners of meditation. I am not sure being absorbed in sports provides the same kind of brain changes. However, anecdotally speaking, while I may be less reactive when I take time to become absorbed in an activity such as art or sports, I don’t have the same third person observer ability that I gain when doing regular meditation.
yes indeed, does raise questions about how the effects of sitting and the like do or don’t transfer into other activities, that’s probably a good question for the next generation of lab researchers as we get a better working model of those systems.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was inspired by John Dewey tho things get a bit less one or the other with this excellent piece by Mark Johnson (Lakoff’s better half)
I ENJOYED THIS PODCAST AND THOUGHT ALL THE PARTICIPANTS WERE EFFECTIVE IN CONVEYING THEIR IDEAS.
SEEMS TO ME THAT BUDDHIST MEDITATION AND PRAYING TO A GOD OR A HIGHER POWER ARE SIMILAR. IN BOTH CASES ONE STOPS DWELLING ON ONESELF AND FOCUSES ON ONE OTHER POSITIVE “THING” WHICH PROVIDES SOME PEACE OF MIND. Schopenhauer I THINK CONSIDERED BUDDHISM A GREAT RELIGION (OR IS IT A PHILOSOPHY?) BECAUSE ITS TEACHINGS PROVIDE A REPRIEVE FROM THE ONGOING SUFFERINGS OF HUMAN EXISTENCE.
THOUGH I AGREE WITH A LOT OF WHAT BUDDHISM OFFERS, I DON’T BUY INTO REINCARNATION. I DON’T THINK I HAD A PRIOR LIFE AS SOMEONE ELSE OR AN AARDVARK, WOODCHUCK, OR RATTLE SNAKE..
I ALSO DON’T BUY INTO THE IDEA OF “NO-SELF”.. THAT EACH OF US LIVES IN A WORLD OF CHANGE AND THAT WE ARE OURSELVES ARE CONSTANTLY CHANGING IS CLEAR. BUT EACH OF US RETAINS SPECIFIC MEMORIES, SKILLS, IDEAS. FURTHER, OUR BODIES ARE UNIQUE. NO TWO PEOPLE HAVE IDENTICAL BODIES, EVEN THOUGH OUR BODIES CHANGE ALL THE TIME. SEEMS TO ME THAT JUST BECAUSE EACH OF US CHANGES OVER TIME DOES NOT MEAN WE DO NOT ALWAYS RETAIN TANGIBLE AND INTANGIBLE THINGS THAT ARE UNIQUE TO ONLY EACH ONE OF US. NOBODY ELSE WAS SLAPPED BY SISTER MARY FRANCIS AT A CATHOLIC SCHOOL MANY YEARS AGO AT THE SAME SCHOOL AND TIME LIKE I WAS. THIS WAS A MEMORY UNIQUE TO ME. NOW I MIGHT AT SOME POINT LOSE THIS MEMORY, BUT IN THE MEANTIME I WILL HAVE ACQUIRED OTHER MEMORIES UNIQUE TO ME. WHEN i DIE NOBODY WILL HAVE THE SAME EXACT MEMORIES I HAVE AT THE MOMENT OF MY DEATH, NOR WILL ANYONE HAVE MY EXACT PHYSICAL TRAITS.
i THINK THERE’S A CHANGING SELF, NOT A “NO-SELF”.
Love when the four horsemen are together, such a great quartet of voices! Mark, I found that point you made about classical music very intriguing. I often asked fans of meditation whether it would enable them to better listen to classical music, especially the more complex pieces that take several listens to understand. Actually, I think good listeners exemplify mindfulness techniques without knowing it (well, some might, but most don’t). Would practicing mindfulness or meditative techniques help one listen deeper and hear more in music? Would it help one better understand philosophical problems? I see that maybe a half hour per day wouldn’t hurt, but the more one meditates, the more it cuts into the time one would be listening to or studying music or philosophy, or whatever else one enjoys. Yeah, the default mode network does distract me when listening to music or thinking about philosophy. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t want to shut it off too much. Certainly, most of the content of my wandering mind is crap, but once in a while a pretty decent thought pops up.