Your Book Review: Why Buddhism Is True

Finalist #5 of the book review contest

[This is the fifth of many finalists in the book review contest. It’s not by me - it’s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I’ll be posting about two of these a week for several months. When you’ve read all of them, I’ll ask you to vote for your favorite, so remember which ones you liked. - SA]

The main character of The Matrix, Neo, gets to choose whether to take the red or blue pill: whether to escape his dream world or remain inside it. Unlike Neo, we're (probably) not trapped in a virtual reality. Nevertheless, we may be living in something of a dream world. At least, that's what Robert Wright claims in Why Buddhism Is True.

According to Wright, evolution has packed us full of illusions. They range from the relatively harmless falsehood “powdered sugar donuts are good for me” to the sweeping distortion “I have a self." These misperceptions are not only inaccurate; they are dangerous. They cause unhappiness by trapping us on the hedonic treadmill and immorality by (among other things) fanning the flames of tribalism.

Wright thinks that mindfulness meditation is the real-world equivalent of the red pill. The book attempts to justify this claim, aiming for a grand synthesis of Buddhism and psychology. Wright argues that psychology vindicates two venerable Buddhist theses: not-self (our experience of an “I" is in some sense an illusion) and emptiness (the world is in some sense “empty" or devoid of “essence”). Furthermore, mindfulness meditation allows us to see the truth of these theses in an experiential way which frees us of our evolutionary bondage. Enlightenment, the end-goal of meditation, is the state of full liberation from this bondage.

Given its grand ambitions, it's not surprising that the book doesn't fully deliver. The parts about psychology are shallow and not always to the point. The four chapters about “emptiness" are so unclear that I still don't really know whether or not Wright accidentally autocorrected “affordance” to  “essence" in all of them.

On top of that, the book suffers from bipolar disorder. When it's feeling manic, it promises that meditation will ~~give you puppies and unicorns and the ability to cure cancer~~ make you wiser, happier, and more moral, helping you realize that the world you live in

may be a world in which metaphysical truth, moral truth, and happiness can align, and a world that, as you start to realize that alignment, appears more and more beautiful.

When it's depressed, it thinks meditation might turn you into a nihilistic vegetable.

The nihilism problem legitimately [sic!] raised by Buddhist philosophy is the problem of not having values at all; it’s the problem of just sitting there not having any particular desire for things to change—not having a desire to bring about social justice or the desire to bring about sex.

So why am I reviewing this disappointment of a book? Because beating my head against its inconsistencies helped me come a little closer to understanding how to be a better person. Its vision of enlightenment as a meeting place of wisdom, happiness, and morality might not be as scientifically grounded as Wright makes it out to be, but at least his book convinced me that it’s possible. Plus, it got me to finally grok why moral people are sometimes described as “selfless.”

This review is going to be a journey from depression to mania. Taking you through some of the worst fragments of the book, I’ll be intentionally strawmanning Wright. Hopefully, this route will help you see that the second part of the review is really a steelman.

I. The Depresstrawman

In “The Last Hippie," Oliver Sacks tells the story of Greg F., a Grateful Dead fan and onetime acidhead who joined a Hare Krishna temple in 1970. Greg appeared to thrive there:

He seemed to be becoming more spiritual by the day—an amazing new serenity had taken hold of him. He no longer showed his previous impatience or appetites, and he was sometimes found in a sort of daze, with a strange (some said “transcendental”) smile on his face. It is beatitude, said his swami—he is becoming a saint.

There was just one troubling sign: Greg complained that he was losing his eyesight. The swami wasn't worried; this was simply a sign that Greg's "inner light” was growing.

The temple didn't admit visitors, so it took Greg's parents four years to get permission to see him. When they finally arrived, 

they were filled with horror: their lean, hairy son had become fat and hairless; he wore a continual “stupid“ smile on his face (this at least was his father’s word for it); he kept bursting into bits of song and verse and making “idiotic” comments, while showing little deep emotion of any kind (“like he was scooped out, hollow inside,“ his father said); he had lost interest in everything current; he was disoriented—and he was totally blind.

Greg, it turned out, had a midline tumor the size of a small grapefruit, which destroyed his vision and his ability to form memories. 

What this story shows is that nihilistic vegetables exist (sorry, Greg!), and peddlers of enlightenment (like that swami) are sometimes secretly peddling envegetablement. When reading Why Buddhism is True, I had Greg's tumor, er, in the back of my mind. Wright thinks enlightenment is the ultimate liberation from evolution’s bondage, but is his version of enlightenment better than a hole in the brain? Is he promising a path towards the discovery of important truth (e.g. "only the present is real,” “there is no self”) - or a path towards the destruction of counterevidence to those "truths" (e.g. memories, the self)? 

Wright claims that meditation helps you “see” that the self is an illusion, or at least smaller than you might initially think. Here’s an example meditative experience that caused Wright to have this “insight:”

After devoting some attention to the overcaffeinated feeling in my jaw, I suddenly had an angle on my interior life that I’d never had before. I remember thinking something like, “Yes, the grinding sensation is still there—the sensation I typically define as unpleasant. But that sensation is down there in my jaw, and that’s not where I am. I’m up here in my head.” I was no longer identifying with the feeling; I was viewing it objectively, I guess you could say. In the space of a moment it had entirely lost its grip on me. It was a very strange thing to have an unpleasant feeling cease to be unpleasant without really going away.  

So Wright is ceasing to "identify" with a feeling that he previously considered to be a "part" of himself. But is this really about identity? What's lost if instead of talking about "identifying," we just say "the contents of Wright's consciousness changed?”

Speaking of a similar experience (meditating on a toothache), he says:

this experience was testament to the fact that ownership of even serious pain is, strictly speaking, optional.

This doesn't really sound like discovering that the pain isn't a part of him. It's more like he's disowning the pain - just like Greg F.'s brain disowned its memories (rather than discovering that the past was unreal). 

So these meditative experiences don't really deliver. But maybe psychology shows that there is no self? 

Wright cites a bunch of studies here, which together add up to something like the global workplace theory of consciousness. On this view, our mind is made up of a bunch of modules which have differing preferences and models of the world. The conscious mind - what we naively think of as a kind of CEO - is actually just the place where the modules that make up the mind meet when "you" are trying to, er, make up your mind. It seems like the conscious "CEO" is calling the shots, but actually it's just a witness to the momentary distribution of power from one module to another.

Okay, and…? None of this made me conclude "I guess I don't exist," then vanish in a puff of smoke! Instead, I concluded that I'm a network of modules, and the conscious part of me is smaller and less powerful than I thought in my naive youth. 

So psychology fails to show that we lack a self, but meditation might involve shrinking the self by disowning some parts of our experience, such as toothaches and jaw tension. Toothaches aren’t the only thing Wright threatens to remove. At various points in the book, he suggests that meditation would destroy, or at least dampen, our feelings. 

Now it's not like Wright goes around waving a scalpel. It's more like he menacingly pulls it out every once in a while, then hides it behind his back, and asks "what scalpel?"

Here's one of the more menacing passages:

I mean, if meditation can give you a kind of distance from your feelings and lessen their hold on you, shouldn't it in principle do that equally for good and bad feelings? Shouldn't you wind up feeling more or less neutral - which is to say, feeling more or less nothing?

So while he doesn't go out and say that meditation will remove your feelings, he doesn't understand why it wouldn't.

This would be acceptable if Wright had at some point reassured us that feelings aren't all that important. Instead... he spends approximately half the book arguing that feelings are even more crucial than we might have thought.

For instance, on Wright's view, thoughts passing through our mind are "tagged" with feelings. The intensity of those feeling-tags is what decides whether or not the thought gets promoted to consciousness. (This is what explains the meditative experience of thoughts “thinking themselves” - they originate in subconscious modules and are only brought to the surface with feelings.)

So for Wright, feelings are the glue which attaches awareness to thoughts. Can enlightened people think, then? Unclear. Wright emphasizes how advanced meditators have an oddly quiet Default Mode Network – that’s the part of the brain active in normal people when they're not doing anything in particular, responsible for mental "chatter."  Phrased as removing mental chatter, enlightenment sounds nice. But I think instead of Greg, the guy with a hole in his brain. Are we so sure that the Default Mode Network is just the useless appendix of the brain? In fact, there have been studies connecting the DMN to creativity. Should we really risk putting a metaphorical hole through the part of our brain responsible for creativity? Now maybe advanced meditators' brain just does creativity some other way, but when was the last time you heard of a super creative or inventive enlightened person? Aren't they all just quietly running meditation centers somewhere?  

So on Wright's view, feelings are necessary for thinking conscious thoughts. That's not all. He also seems to think that it's impossible to act without feelings. He says things like "when we decide to do something, we decide on the basis of a feeling" and "the only way to make a decision to act is by having a better (more positive) feeling about that decision than the alternatives." 

In other words, "feelings tell us what to think about, and then after all the thinking is done, they tell us what to do." So Wright says that feelings are the glue which attaches awareness to thoughts, and thoughts to actions. And then, like any sane person, he concludes that we should... dissolve the glue?

Lots of meditators seem to have an easier time with feelings than with thoughts. That would make sense if, indeed, feelings are the glue that makes thoughts stick to your consciousness, that makes you unreflectively take ownership of them. After all, presumably you can't start dissolving that glue - and so you can't get any distance from your thoughts - until you learn to see it clearly, learn to view feelings with some objectivity. 

In conclusion, it's unclear how Wright's enlightened person can think, act, or recognize anything or anyone. As the mother of advanced meditator Bhikkhu Bodhi put it,

as far as I'm concerned, between an enlightened Buddhist and a vegetable, there's no difference.

II. The Steelmanic

I think there's a way to remove the scalpel from Wright's hand and turn his view into something much more compelling.

At his most exciting - and manic - Wright views meditation as a rebellion against evolution. In his view, evolution uses the feelings of pleasure and pain as carrots and sticks. The actions which increase pleasure tend to increase the likelihood of spreading our genes; the unpleasant ones decrease this likelihood. Now this correlation is far from perfect. For instance, evolution drives us towards powdered sugar donuts, which actually decrease our fitness. 

(Wright gave this example so many times that I really wanted to throw something at him. Maybe a powdered sugar donut.) 

This is a sort of illusion: the tastiness of the donut falsely promises healthiness. But there's a more global “illusion" inherent in this whole system of carrots and sticks: the illusion that the survival of our genes is the thing that we should be caring for in the first place. 

Consider the absurdity of the current situation: this planet is full of people operating on the premise that their interests trump the interests of pretty much everyone else on the planet—yet it can’t be the case that everybody is more important than everybody else. So a core tenet of natural selection’s value system is internally contradictory.

"Internally contradictory" is overstating it, but Wright points to something important. From the point of view of the universe, your feelings and preferences are no more special than those of an alligator. From your own point of view, only your own feelings seem “real.” Arguably, a lot of the evil in the world is caused by this clash of perspectives: other beings’ pain feels less real than our own, so we’re more inclined to inflict it.

Wright thinks that meditation is a path towards adopting the point of view of the universe. This would involve letting go of our feelings: 

without a perspective to serve, there would be no feelings in the first place. As Robert Zajonc (…) explained, “Affective judgments are always about the self. They identify the state of the judge in relation to the object of judgment.” In the absence of a particular point of view—yours or someone else’s—the whole idea of an affective judgment, a feeling, makes no sense.

I hope that by now you agree that we shouldn’t give up our feelings. But perhaps we should rebel against evolution and rebuild ourselves to approximate a perfect moral agent more closely. And, unlike Wright, I think that instead of feeling none of the universe’s feelings, such a perfect agent would feel all of them. (The reason I hurt you is often because I forget that your pain is also real. Feeling no pain wouldn’t fix that; feeling your pain would.) That is, her experience should at least encode something like the global utility function (where global utility is based on Buddhist-kosher notions such as happiness and suffering, rather than uninformed preferences).

In fact, I think that by Wright's own lights this is the only way someone could become a perfect moral agent. Remember, Wright thinks that the only way to act is via feelings. So unless your feelings of pleasure and pain - your internal carrots and sticks - drive you precisely to maximizing global utility, you're not going to do that. 

How might you try to become such a perfect moral agent? Well, if you can only act via your feelings, the only route seems to be to selectively strengthen some feelings over others. That's how David Hume thinks of morality. On Hume’s view, feelings come in two kinds: the violent and calm passions. The former include things such as rage and hatred; the latter - compassion, love, and the sense of beauty. Wright approvingly quotes Hume and claims that 

mindfulness meditation is, among other things, an attempt to give calm passions more power and give violent passions less power.

Does meditation actually strengthen the calm passions? It seems plausible! Meditation trains an attitude of openness: of carefully observing your experience (whether the breath or something else) without any preconceptions. It's a sort of detached curiosity, which is plausibly a calm passion. In fact, it may be the ur-calm-passion: love, compassion, and the sense of beauty all seem to involve this sort of openness as a component. 

I have a second way of steelmanning Wright's view. To see it, let's return to Wright's experience of detaching from the tension in his jaw. Note that this wasn't a case of the feeling totally disappearing. Instead 

It was a very strange thing to have an unpleasant feeling cease to be unpleasant without really going away.  

This suggests a view on which meditation makes the valence - the pain or pleasure - of a feeling go away, rather than the feeling itself. That's getting closer, but note that Wright says that

the grinding sensation is still there—the sensation I typically define as unpleasant.

So in the meditative experience, the "pain" of the jaw tension... is and isn't there. That is, the same sensation Wright normally "defines as unpleasant" is there, without actually feeling unpleasant. (This is super weird, but I can confirm that in my experience meditation does mess with pain like this.) 

What the hell is going on here? Buddhism distinguishes craving and aversion from pleasure and pain. Pleasure and pain are intrinsic to feelings; craving and aversion is how we react to pleasure and pain. Wright sometimes speaks as if they were the same, but they aren't. 

Consider the example of road rage. Wright claims that it feels good - we cling to the feeling and keep following it, causing it to spiral out of control. But at the same time, the feeling of rage also encodes a negative judgment: the judgment that the other driver is a bad person who deserves to suffer. So we need at least two dimensions of goodness and badness for each feeling; I think that those two dimensions are craving/aversion and pleasure/pain. Road rage is unpleasant but still we cling to it.

So my second attempt at steelmanning Wright is that meditation removes craving and aversion without changing the character of our feelings. 

How do these two steelmen - that meditation removes craving and aversion and that it strengthens the calm passions - relate? Well, for the views to be consistent, the calm passions would have to be ones which didn't naturally cause craving and aversion... which sounds exactly right! I think “causes craving and aversion” is a plausible interpretation of the "violent" in "violent passion:" road rage is violent because you want more of it and it builds on itself until it's unmanageable. The selfless, calm type of love, on the other hand, doesn't ask for anything. 

So what Wright should have said is that meditation strengthens the calm passions and/or removes craving and aversion. Could it, in the limit, also result in us becoming a Perfect Utilitarian who literally encodes global utility in their experience? This seems somewhat murky, but not totally implausible. If meditation trains a type of openness which is a prerequisite of selfless love, it should at least be taking us in the general direction of moral goodness.

I think the above helps clarify some of the confusing things Wright says about not-self.

Suppose you’re that Perfect Utilitarian who literally feels all the pain and pleasure of the universe. In that case, I think it's fair to say that you don't have a self. (Or, if you prefer, your self is the whole universe.) After all, what makes my toe mine, rather than yours? Arguably, the fact that when I stub it, I'm the one who feels pain, and not you. If I literally felt you stub your toe, I might start calling it "my toe." 

So I think there's a sense of the self - self-as-site-of-pleasure-and-pain - on which the Perfect Utilitarian lacks a self. Still, wouldn't she have a different type of self, one you might call self-as-site-of-action? After all, presumably she can wiggle her toe but not mine. 

Actually, if the Perfect Utilitarian were also perfectly wise, I'm not sure she would have such a self. The world is a causally interconnected system, with no sharp divide between the inside and outside of an organism, or between actions which are done by the organism and to it. (This is one of the things people sometimes mean by “emptiness.”) If that's true, then the Perfectly Wise Perfect Utilitarian wouldn't have a sense of self-as-site-of-action either. (She could still act in whatever way we normally act, but she wouldn't see an in-principle difference between "directly" wiggling her toe and causing you to wiggle yours e.g. by asking you to do it.) 

Isn't this true of other experiences than pleasure and pain? Isn't my toe also mine because I feel its tingles? Yes, but I think there's still something special about pleasure and pain. They tell us what to care for, what to treat preferentially. And maybe this is why meditation needs to remove craving and aversion: craving and aversion build a self as a site of preferential treatment.

So if enlightenment involves becoming a Perfectly Wise Perfect Utilitarian, then indeed the enlightened person wouldn't have a self. But does that mean the self was an illusion to begin with? 

I think it means it was a moral illusion. Other beings' pain and pleasure is as real and as morally relevant as yours. To the extent that the boundaries of the self prevent you from seeing that, those boundaries are the source of an illusion. But it's still true that your perceptions bundle together and other beings’ perceptions form distinct bundles! So I think that the form of enlightenment which ends at Perfectly Wise Perfect Utilitarianism is an instance of dissolving your self rather than discovering that it never existed. 

Maybe I’m experiencing a bout of mania, but that doesn’t sound so bad anymore.

III. Sex Scandals and Universal Love

If you're one of Scott's regular readers, at this point you're probably wondering: okay, but what about sex scandals? We can rhapsodize about how meditation will make us more moral all we want, but isn't the cold hard truth that people who claim to be enlightened are suspiciously likely to be sexual predators?

Wright devotes some space to the question.

There have been meditation teachers of great contemplative prowess who sexually exploited psychologically vulnerable students—including a famous teacher in Manhattan who became known as “the Zen Predator of the Upper East Side.” It may even be that some of them, by viewing incipient pangs of guilt “mindfully,” eased internal resistance to their misbehavior. This two-edged nature of meditative mastery underscores the value of supplementing Buddhist meditation with moral instruction. 

So to avoid becoming the Zen Predator, you need to supplement your meditation with moral instruction. But Wright also says that he personally doesn't get anything out of loving-kindness (metta) meditation, one of the types of moral instruction that is supposed to help here! It's okay, though, because ordinary mindfulness meditation makes him more moral. 

In any event, I’m happy to say that for me, non-metta meditation— plain-vanilla mindfulness meditation—has some of the effect that metta meditation is supposed to have: it tamps down my ill will and can even amp up my empathy.

This coming from the person who reminds us that the human brain is biased to think of itself as more moral than other people... 

I'm of two minds here. In one mood, I think that mindfulness meditation ought to be supplemented by something like loving-kindness meditation. Come to think of it, metta meditation is precisely the sort of thing that ought to help you become a Perfect Utilitarian. After all, it’s a practice of expanding your circles of moral concern: you wish good things on yourself, then on vividly imagined close friends, then on people you don't know well, then on enemies, then on other beings. It's all in the service of realizing that other people's perspectives are as real as your own, and their happiness as important as yours. 

On the other hand – surprise, surprise! - I'm a meditator too. And my experience has matched Wright's: ordinary meditation has made me a better person. (Is this my inherent human bias? Maybe!) 

After reading Wright's book, I went on a ten-day meditation retreat. Here are some things that happened during that period. I cried tears of joy about how I was only one of billions of people who were all as important as me. I stopped chasing my thoughts around in circles. Insights came to me, surrounded by pauses in mental chatter. I turned my anger towards a fellow participant into gratitude. I realized that I didn’t fully believe in the existence of other people. I started believing in the existence of other people and immediately started wanting to do more good. I felt like I became a new, better and happier  type of person. I worried whether this new type of person was a parasite that my old self had incubated. I concluded that this didn’t matter because the parasite was happier than ex-me. I started to believe that the natural state of my mind is one of universal love. 

Immediately after the retreat, I gave a box of tissues to a woman who had just spilled some coffee, without as much as a moment’s hesitation. (Before the retreat, I don’t ever remember carrying out random acts of kindness like these.)

(After the retreat, I also had one of my largest bursts of creativity, writing the third chapter of my dissertation at record speed. It’s about beauty and meditation, and you can read it here. So much for the importance of the Default Mode Network.)

So my personal experience matches Wright’s triumphant vision of a meditative practice leading to universal love/beauty/wisdom/truth. But that’s a far cry from Wright’s own claim that Science supports this vision. How much can you trust someone high on the fumes of their own breathing? 

After all, during that retreat, I also hallucinated a Buddha with a finger up each nostril, the most beautifully bewhiskered otter I had ever seen, and a pile of loose teeth.

Thanks to Ben Kuhn for discussion and comments on a draft of this post.