Speaking of Buddhism (I fear people are thinking that I am at risk of conversion to it due to a fondness for Monkey King movies from Hong Kong/China), there's a book out by Robert Wright called "Why Buddhism is True" which is attracting some attention.
There's a short interview with him at NPR.
In his new book, Why Buddhism is True, Wright makes the case that some Buddhist practices can help humans overcome the biological pull towards dissatisfaction.
"I think of mindfulness meditation as almost a rebellion against natural selection," he says. "Natural selection is the process that created us. It gave us our values. It sets our agenda, and Buddhism says, 'We don't have to play this game.' "
Certainly when you think about the logic of natural selection, it makes sense that we would be like this. Natural selection built us to do some things, a series of things that help us get genes into the next generation. Those include eating food so we stay alive, having sex — things like that.Well, I think I have a bit of a problem with this. It seems to me that you can respond to a recurrent bodily desire (the satisfaction of which gives pleasure) in one of two ways: resenting the fact that the desire keeps returning, or celebrating the repeated satisfaction of it. (Assuming you can satisfy it.)
If it were the case that any of these things brought permanent gratification, then we would quit doing them, right? I mean, you would eat, you'd feel blissed out, you'd never eat again. You'd have sex, you'd, like, lie there basking in the afterglow, never have sex again. Well, obviously that's not a prescription for getting genes into the next generation. So natural selection seems to have built animals in general to be recurrently dissatisfied. And this seems to be a central feature of life — and it's central to the Buddhist diagnosis of what the problem is.
I tend to think Buddhism's attitude is too much like the former, whereas other religions take the more physical life affirming view. Sure, you can say that Christianity or (say) Hinduism thinks asceticism has spiritual value too, but I don't think you could ever say that it thought it was for everyone. With Buddhism, I'm always getting the feeling that it thinks people are fooling themselves if they feel good after, say, a good meal and good sex. (No doubt, some Buddhist would argue I'm completely misunderstanding it.)
The other fundamental problem I've always had with Buddhism is that it seems in its purist form to be a philosophy which de-emphasises the value of charity and help to others. I know Buddhists will argue about that too, but I'm not so sure. It seems a philosophy primed for the argument "hey, poor starving person, you need to realise that your desire for a full stomach is an illusion - I will help you meditate to overcome your hunger pains" instead of getting in and helping them build a better farm.
Wright is perhaps on stronger grounds when he notes some similarity between Buddhism and cognitive therapy (a therapy I've always thought sounded sensible and valuable):
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works by kind of interrogating people about the logic behind things like fears and anxieties, like, Is there really much of a chance of you projectile vomiting while speaking to a crowd? You've never done it before. ... So there's a suspicion there about the logic behind feelings.
Well, in Buddhism there's a suspicion of the logic behind feelings more broadly, I would say. But as a practical matter, Buddhism works at the level of feeling. They don't interrogate the logic explicitly, but you deal with the feeling itself in a way that disempowers it. And there's a kind of bridge between cognitive therapy and Buddhist practice in evolutionary psychology; because evolutionary psychology explains that, indeed, a lot of the feelings we have are not worth following, for various reasons. They may have literally been designed to mislead us to begin with by natural selection. ... We live in an environment so different from the environment that natural selection designed us for that we have these counterproductive feelings, like fear of public speaking. So evolutionary psychology gives a back story, explaining why it is that we so often are misled by feelings ... and then Buddhist meditation tells us what to do about that.
* For other readers: comment made as a result of his tweet that he felt this article came uncomfortably close to describing the reasons for his own "athletic obsessions".