Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Problem With Buddhist Philosophy

I want to be clear and avoid unnecessary offense to those who might be bothered by a critical discussion of some aspects of a particular religion.  I am not concerned about the religious aspects of Buddhism.  As far as I am personally concerned, all belief systems that are based on supernatural events are equally absurd, but there's nothing to debate about that.  Absurd is absurd.  I am interested in the practical outcomes of living by some specific philosophy in this world.

Philosophies about how one should live are frequently embedded in religious belief systems, and it's hard to consider the ethos of a religion without being influenced by the mythos.  I am here interested only in the applications of the Buddhist philosophy and its impact on individual and community life.  I will say it again:  this is not about religion.

Buddhist philosophy, like Confucianism or Christian philosophy, is about how an individual might live in this world to achieve a better or happier life.  As such, it can be evaluated apart from its religious aspects in terms of how useful, effective, or practical it might be, and how much its practice results in a happier life for the practitioner.

Buddhism prescribes behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that are intended to create a better life (in this world) for the practitioner.  The individual is taught how to adjust their attitudes in such a way as to result in less pain and conflict.  A person practicing Buddhist philosophy learns to adjust himself to his environment and social situation.  He learns to accept what happens, to let go of desires and "false goals", to live at peace with his environment without conflict or struggle.

Such an approach works well.  Much of human unhappiness is related to our tendency to hold on to things, to refuse to let go of bad feelings, of envy and resentment.  Learning to let go of our past is an important and difficult task, but one that promotes freedom and joy in the present.

Buddhist practitioners adjust to their environment.  What they do NOT do is adjust their environment to themselves.  They accept what is, and make no attempt to change it or improve it.  And while this is certainly beneficial to the practitioner, it creates a community which is basically passive, which accepts the status quo and adjusts to it. Buddhist communities and governments are stable and essentially passive.  They are rarely involved in scientific exploration or technological advancement.

Of course individual Buddhists may not fit the above description, but that doesn't change the overall flavor of their communities.  Just look at countries that profess Buddhism in this century.  They are much the same as they have been for thousands of years.

Is learning to be at peace with one's life, even if it is unhealthy, uncomfortable or unsafe, a good thing?  On the other hand, philosophies that lead to constant change, improvement in individual conditions, at the cost of unrest and violence at times may or may not be good.  Sometimes individual comfort/happiness conflicts with community improvement.  Sometimes miserably unhappy individuals have given rise to  amazing and beneficial changes.  Sometimes happy and content individuals have played their fiddles while Rome burns.

Which is better?

Sunday, November 06, 2016

How "belief systems" are born and developed

Looking around at the world, full of conflicts and wars, incompatible and irrational belief systems, it is important to look at the processes by means of which all belief systems are created.  How, living in the same world, did we come to have such widely discrepant belief systems, totally incompatible with one another and all believed to be totally right?  How did individuals grow up with such peculiar beliefs about themselves and the people around them?

We seem to have the inborn trait of curiosity and speculation about how the world works.  We want to know what influences what, what controls what.  We want to predict and control the future.  Where this trait arises is open to speculation.  How we use it is fairly clear.  Humans make theories about causation.

Two factors are important.  The first factor is the post-hoc fallacy.  This fallacy stipulates that when thing B happens directly after thing A, thing A "caused" thing B.  This is a fallacy because it is not always and invariably true.  However, it is true a lot of the time, and leads to our first discoveries of the laws of the universe.  Eating the fruit of a strange plant, followed by miserable illness, leads us not to eat that fruit again.  We don't know for sure that the plant was poisonous, but logical certainty is not as important as avoiding taking the chance.

The key phrase here is "not sure".  We form theories of connection or causality.  We think "A may have caused B".  Eating the fruit MAY have caused our illness.  How do we know?  We try it out, or at least observe carefully.  We look for evidence that our theory is valid.  It is important to our survival that we try to understand how things work and make guesses (theories) as to what might hurt us.  We have to accept probabilities, that is, relative proof rather than absolute. We have to look at the data coming in and allow it to strengthen or weaken our theories.

The second factor is called (by us psychologists) confirmation bias.  This bias tells us that when we think X theory may be true, we pay selective attention to  evidence supporting X.  We do NOT look systematically for evidence disproving X, at least not until the birth of scientific thought.  And even scientists trained in collecting data don't think scientifically most of the time.

For instance, someone who believes they are "unlucky" will selectively attend to "evidence" of unluck and selectively ignore evidence of luck. The "unlucky" person accumulates data over time that "proves" his theory about luck to be correct for him.  Someone who believes they are unlovable will collect rejections, and even invite them, believing rejection to be inevitable.  It is easy to see how religious and political beliefs are supported.

These two factors are sufficient to give rise to thousands, millions, of conflicting ideas and beliefs, many of which are so strongly held that people will kill to defend them.  Our beliefs tell us what to look for, what to believe, how to behave.  They define our civilizations, our religions, and our politics. They define which groups are "good", and which "bad".

In children the process is easier to observe than it is in adults, but adults function in pretty much the same way.  Suppose we are given a theory, such as: step on a crack and you'll have bad luck all day.  We then begin paying selective attention to cracks.  We try stepping on one or two, and then observing the following events, which by means of the post-hoc fallacy, we believe to be directly connected to the crack-stepping behavior.  A number of things happen, as they always do on any given day.  However, because of confirmation bias, we notice particularly the events that "confirm" our theory about cracks.  We discount or minimize those events that do not confirm it.  For at least a few days, while we are paying attention, the theory seems to be more and more true.  We do accept negative evidence, but it takes a lot more of it to disprove the theory than positive evidence to confirm it.

When events occur that have special emotional meaning to us, we try to find a theory that accounts for them.  We wonder what we did or observed that might have "caused" the event to happen.  We form a theory.  When we are young, our standards for a good theory are loose.  (Hopefully they get tighter as we mature).  A small child once asked me if her mother had died because the child had "bad thoughts".  The child is not capable of seeing the weakness of the connection between the child's thoughts and the mother's accidental death.  So all of our theories seem worth investigating, at least while we are young and not appropriately skeptical.

Many events can give rise to theory formation, but events with a lot of emotion attached are primary stimuli for theory formation. Theory: If I don't take a raincoat to work it will rain. Event:  If I don't take a raincoat and it does rain, the theory is supported. Event: If I don't take a raincoat and it does not rain, that doesn't count. So theories mostly find support and rarely find disproof.  They get stronger over the years as we collect more "supportive evidence" and continue to discount negative evidence.  

This pattern results in our changing beliefs about ourselves as we grow older.  Something happens to get our attention and we form a theory of connection.  We accumulate support for that theory, but not disconfirmation.  Suppose some event happens that causes us to form a theory about ourselves.  As an example, imagine getting a bad grade on a test in the first grade.  We might begin to form a theory, such as: "Maybe I'm stupid".  We then begin to look for evidence, but we pay most attention to the evidence that supports our belief in being stupid.  From then on we accumulate more evidence and become more convinced that we're "stupid".  

Religions get formed in the same way.  In the dawn of time, a loving parent falls to his knees and prays to the heavens for the return to health of his child.  The child recovers.  The parent forms a theory:  praying to the heavens results in blessings.  He tells his friends what happened.  They all begin collecting evidence that supports the theory and discounts the negative evidence.  When a parent prays for their child and the child dies, the parent discounts the negative evidence by forming a new theory:  one must have to pray in a specific way for it to work, and he must have got it wrong.  The future evidence is heavily weighted in favor of support of the future theory(s).

Some of the theories formed may be valid, others not so much.  But they continue anyway as if they were confirmed.   We still throw rice at weddings, even when we are not strongly in favor of immediate fertility.   A problem is that theories can never be absolutely proven or disproven.  There is always the possibility of getting more evidence.  We may find connections between event A and B that we didn't know before.  So our world is more and more full of divergent and supported (but not proven) beliefs.

We believe we are right.  We forget that "belief" is not proof.  We do not really question our beliefs unless something happens that forces us to reconsider.  That takes a lot of force.  For instance, many people believe the universe is "fair".  A cursory reading of the newspaper should be enough to cause doubts about that theory.  However, in order to keep the theory intact, people develop new "theories" as to why the universe appears unfair:  the people to whom bad things happen "must have deserved it" or "there must be some higher purpose we don't understand" or any number of theories designed to allow the old theory to continue in the absence of supportive evidence.

To overcome our own confirmation bias requires conscious attention and respect for new data, a conscious willingness to question your beliefs and an equal willingness to consider and evaluate new data on its merits.  For instance, to overcome your belief in being unlovable, you have to be willing to consider data that supports your being lovable. By challenging beliefs, you can become more aware of contradictory data, and vice-versa.  Perhaps you can't entirely eliminate beliefs that have accumulated "support" over the years, but you can weaken them over time.  (A central tenet of CBT).

I always value comments.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Brainless politics

Here we are again, heading for an election that has some real importance in our future.  The candidates, such as they are, have clearly decided that voters will vote on the basis of which candidate can generate the most emotional environment.  In the debates and the speeches, it's clear that the goal is to emotionally activate voters, to get them excited and angry, to get them suspicious and thoughtless.

The whole operation reminds me of a basic trick in stage magic.  You get the audience to watch the wrong hand, while the unwatched hand pulls the trick off.  In politics the illusion engendered is not sleight-of-hand, it's emotional discombobulation.  Excited and angry voters don't think.  They react.  They are not weighing policies and considering outcomes, they are choosing a personal champion with whom they identify, and whom they trust to be bigger, meaner, louder and more aggressive than their opponent.

Where is the thoughtful consideration of policies?  Economic plans?  Foreign relations?  Immigration policies?  Social security assets?

Of course you know the answer.  There is none.  None at all.  The political parties have read you and the rest of us correctly.  We don't understand all these policy thingies, but we know who we like and who we hate.  Thoughtful voters are not really predictable nor are they easily controlled, if they can be controlled at all.  Emotional voters are a piece of cake, easily manipulated with colorful language and over-the-top speeches. Emotional voters can be whipped into a frenzy and have the illusion that their vote is based on good thinking and good values.

What a laugh.  We don't really care about those things.  We like to be excited, to take part in a real soap-opera battle based on bad language, racial and sexual slurs, incitement to violence and distrust of the only political process in the history of the world that has ever even briefly been successful.

Don't vote your heart.  Vote with your mind.  If you don't know the policies of a candidate, don't vote for them.  How hard is that?