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Why Buddhism Is True by Robert Wright

Lachlan Dale considers a naturalistic view of Buddhism.

Robert Wright’s book, Why Buddhism Is True: The Science And Philosophy Of Meditation And Enlightenment (2017) is part of the ‘Secular Buddhist’ movement – a project which seeks to strip away the religion’s metaphysical and mystical content and ground it in a naturalistic or science-based interpretation. In this sense the title is something of a misnomer. Wright has little interest in preserving tradition if it cannot stand up to his secular critique. Still, he is convinced that Buddhism anticipated by a matter of centuries knowledge about the human mind that we are only now unearthing through science. Additionally, Wright believes that Buddhism has techniques which allow us to lessen certain negative aspects of the human condition, namely ignorance, suffering and discontent. To argue his case, Wright draws upon evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and his own engagement with meditation, in order to analyse the core tenets of Buddhism and reflect upon their moral and philosophical implications. He’s hopes that Buddhism might help realise a more sustainable future for humanity.

The View from Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology considers how millions of years of evolution has shaped human perception and behaviour; or as Wright puts it, “how the human brain was designed – by natural selection – to mislead us, even enslave us” (p.3).

As a starting point for his analysis, Wright invites us to consider the fleeting nature of pleasure. While we experience powerful cravings for food, sex, or social prestige, the satisfaction accompanying the fulfillment of these desires is often short-lived. Our minds seem to overestimate the pleasure we’ll receive from achieving our goals. There are strong evolutionary reasons for this. It makes sense for evolution to create animals that crave things that will help them survive and reproduce, and also for the satisfaction of achieving them to be fleeting. A creature which continually needs to strive in order to satisfy its cravings is more likely to actively seek mates, for instance. So deep and lasting happiness is not something that comes easily to human beings.

Modern psychology has also demonstrated many ways in which we are prone to delusion and illusion. There are some fairly benign examples: we overestimate the speed of objects coming toward us; we alter memories as we recall them; and we consider ourselves above average in terms of morality, athleticism, and social skills. But the consequences can be far more serious. Our tendency towards delusionary self-righteousness provides fuel for tribalism, which in turn can pave the way for large-scale atrocities. The Stanford Prison Experiment, and Milgram Experiment, among others, have demonstrated how social pressure can disable our moral compass to enable cruelty and torture.

Wright argues that evolution favours genetic proliferation above all else. Natural selection has no inherent bias towards truth, or towards helping us perceive reality accurately. If a particular delusion actually increases our chances of passing our genes on, then that delusion will flourish. Wright uses this as an argument against the deification of our natural instincts and impulses. And even if we don’t accept that argument, we must admit that the world today is drastically different from the environment in which our instincts were developed. For Wright, such drastic social, cultural, and environmental changes make our minds even less reliable guides to reality.

The portrait Wright paints from evolutionary psychology is a powerful one. If there is a weakness, it is that evolutionary psychology theories are largely unable to be tested directly. Rather, they are extrapolations into past processes based on present evidence guided by the principles of evolution. Wright, like other evolutionary psychologists, patches together a series of facts into a narrative structure. This requires a level of artistry and creative flair, perhaps bringing the endeavour closer to the humanities than a traditional physical science enterprise. And figures such as Jordan Peterson have demonstrated how evolutionary psychology can be used to smuggle in philosophical and political biases. Wright, however, does well to allow cognitive science to form the basis of his argument, rather than merely using an evolutionary framework to reinforce his own perspective.

Buddha statue
Photo by Jason Cooper on Unsplash

The Buddhist Solution

While studying evolutionary psychology in college, Wright found it a powerful way to understand the human condition, but saw that it lacked a way to transform one’s life. Wright wondered whether “there was a way to operationalize the truth – a way to put the actual, scientific truth about human nature and the human condition into a form that would not just identify and explain the illusions we labor under, but would also help us liberate ourselves from them” (p.110). His search brought him to Buddhism, whose philosophical foundations he found aligned well with the view from evolutionary psychology and cognitive science.

In his Four Noble Truths, the Buddha states that life is inherently unsatisfactory (today ‘unsatisfactoriness’ is generally accepted as a more accurate translation of the term dukka than ‘suffering’). The basic cause of this is tahna – a craving for the pleasant, and an aversion to the unpleasant. This calls to mind the ‘hedonistic treadmill’ of psychology: a constant craving and striving towards fleeting pleasures. The Buddha’s solution is the Eightfold Path, which includes a regime of meditative introspection designed to train and ultimately transform the mind. The end goal is liberation or nirvana. Traditionally, this has been regarded as possessing a metaphysical dimension, as liberation from the cycle of on-going reincarnation. However, Wright, with his naturalistic bent, interprets the goal as the liberation of consciousness from the reality-distorting mechanisms of evolution:

“Liberation consists of changing the relationship between your consciousness and the things you normally think of as its ‘contents’ – your feelings, your thoughts, and so on. Once you realize that these things are ‘not-self’, the relationship of your consciousness to them becomes more like contemplation than engagement, and your consciousness is liberated” (p.67).

Research has shown that meditation can indeed help people develop the metacognition Wright is talking about here – an awareness of and distance from our own thought processes. This in turn leads to a non-identification with the thoughts, feelings and perceptions that assail our mind. Indeed, neuro-imaging has shown that for advanced meditators, the area of the brain that is responsible for a wandering of the mind and of attention has significantly reduced activity. For Wright, this metacognition is the process through which a person can develop an awareness of our evolved reality-distorting mental mechanisms and begin to counteract them. He also believes that secular accounts of meditation and mindfulness which focus purely on short term, therapeutic benefits, do not go far enough. He advocates a view from Buddhist philosophy which instead seeks to ask “basic questions about the relationship of the perceiver to the perceived and… the underpinnings of our normal view of reality” (p23). Through Buddhist practices, he claims we can begin to strip away layers of illusion, and thereby bring ourselves closer to truth.

The Roots of Emotion

To evaluate this claim, we need to understand Wright’s analysis of the human mind. Evolutionary psychology suggests that our emotions developed from rudimentary brain mechanisms which encourage or discourage particular activities. For instance, anger and fear promote defensive reactions (fight or flight in the face of a threat) to improve our chances of survival; lust fuels sexual activity; and pleasure provides positive reinforcement for evolutionary goals (orgasm; the satisfaction of hunger; or the warm glow of a fire on a cold night). In this way, emotions can be regarded as automatic judgements about our environment. But these reflex judgements are not always accurate. For instance, social justice movements the world over have struggled to bring our unconscious inferences about gender or otherness into conscious consideration, arguing that despite the ‘natural’ character of these judgements – racism, for instance, can be seen as an instinctive reaction to an individual you do not identify as part of your in-group – they are inaccurate, and incompatible with our sense of morality, and so must be overcome through rationality and will.

Although admittedly in its infancy, the theory of the modular mind sheds light on some of the neurological mechanisms involved. This theory conceives of the brain as possessing a variety of structures or networks which support specific functions: self-protection, enabled by a quick reaction to threats; mate attraction, enabled say through demonstrations of empathy or strength; mate retention; kin care; status-seeking, and so on. These modules continuously compete for the prize of conscious attention. But this competition takes place as a nonconscious level. So many of our impulsive reactions are nonconsciously generated. Compare this idea with the phenomenon of ‘priming’. By exposing people to stimuli they perceive subconsciously, the way they react in certain situations can be manipulated in a fairly reliable way. One study Wright cites involved asking two sets of men to judge the facial expressions of men of a different ethnic group in photographs. One of these sets of judges had been shown part of The Silence of the Lambs beforehand. This set judged the photographs to be showing much angrier expressions than those who hadn’t been exposed to the film. Experiments just like these build a view of the mind as suggestible and often unreliable in its perceptions. They also demonstrate the surprising extent to which our perception of reality is both constructed and constantly shifting. This is a particularly poignant realisation for morality.

The implications are far-reaching. If our perception of reality and of ourselves can be so easily influenced, how can we maintain the classic conception of free will, which depicts us as acting both independently and rationally? At the very least, our sense of free will must be tempered by the Buddhist (and scientific) view of universal interconnectivity. And if it’s true that “the conscious self doesn’t create thoughts; it receives them” (p.112) – that we’re continually processing information at a nonconscious level – what does this say about the primacy of reason? If anything, cognitive science suggests that the conscious mind plays a lesser role in choice than previously thought – that we make countless important judgements below the level of consciousness. Through mindful introspection we can bring these judgements into consciousness, then work to circumvent them if necessary.

Essential Judgements

Wright develops his argument to question the very nature of perception. He claims that humans are predisposed to a kind of essentialism – a belief that both people and physical objects have fixed essences – but that this tendency of thought is incompatible with our understanding of reality, which is that people and things can change, sometimes radically.

This particular delusion has very specific negative consequences. Psychology has demonstrated that when we evaluate the actions of someone we do not consider part of our in-group, we strongly underestimate the role of situational factors. The stranger who cuts us off on the highway, or who cheats one of our friends, is considered not a victim of circumstance but rather as revealing their essence as a fundamentally bad person. Our friends, however, are afforded the benefit of the doubt. When they cut someone off in traffic, the action is far more likely to be excused as ‘out of character’, and we maintain the idea that they’re somehow fundamentally good.

You can see this bias playing out on a grand scale in politics. Some of the conspiracy theories coming from extremists seemed unhinged – such as accusations that Hillary Clinton amongst other Democrats were part of a secretive, almost cartoonishly evil paedophile ring. This is part of a desire to demonise one’s opponent, coupled with the cognitive delusion that we can fairly judge someone as having an evil nature.

Here Wright’s argument intersects with his political project. He believes that most of the world’s violence, cruelty and suffering stems from our inability to perceive the world clearly. This is perhaps the weakest aspect of his thesis, and he admits it’s part of his own worldview. Certainly, the view fits comfortably within the framework of Buddhist moral philosophy. But it is not significantly substantiated in the text, and it’s also not clear how a profound transformation of consciousness at the individual level can take place within the time-frame required by pressing issues such as climate change or the threat of nuclear war.

Additionally, little time is spent actually exploring how meditation and mindfulness will create a more moral life in Wright’s terms. Wright provides many anecdotes and generalities: if we achieve distance from our instinctive emotional reactions, we will be able to better evaluate their validity; if we actively cultivate our sense of compassion, we are more likely to be kind and caring… But he does not establish his ethics through substantial philosophical argument. Instead, he states that Buddhist moral instruction must go along with meditative practise – thereby sidestepping the need to philosophically ground Buddhism’s particular moral code.

Still, Wright has achieved a considerable amount with Why Buddhism Is True. He interweaves secular Buddhism and evolutionary psychology with precision and clarity, and in doing so he has followed perhaps the best route for modern philosophy: to glean insights from contemporary science in order to examine the human condition and reflect upon our moral imperatives. And by coupling a powerful argument against selfish individualism and anthropocentrism with an urging of the Buddhist path of meditation, mindfulness, and introspection, Wright prescribes an active solution for suffering and delusion – and, moreover, one that is open to revision and refinement. While it is doubtful that more traditional schools of Buddhism will approve of Wright’s pragmatic approach – that is, his willingness to set aside centuries of metaphysical speculation, ritual and myth in the name of secularism – this approach is crucial to the development of secular forms of Buddhist practice and philosophy. This makes Wright’s book an invaluable introduction to and argument for the riches of secular, naturalistic Buddhism.

© Lachlan R. Dale 2019

Lachlan Dale is a writer and musician. He is currently undertaking a Masters of Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Why Buddhism Is True, by Robert Wright, Simon & Schuster, 2017, 336 pages, $11.55 pb., ISBN 978-1439195451

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