Friday, January 18, 2008

Why People Don’t Believe in Egolessness

Ask yourself, How do you know that the earth revolves around the sun? That George Washington was the first president of the United States? That objects persist over time?

Well, everyone knows these things! Well then, you need to ask, How do they know?

In Buddhism knowing is a big deal, because ignorance is the root of samsara: the cause of all our suffering. Ignorance includes both not knowing, which is mental darkness, and delusion, which is believing things that are false, such as believing that the ego, or the self, truly exists.

I recently came across an interesting article called “Why Do Some People Resist Science?” It could easily be read as “Why Do People Resist Egolessness?” Written by two Yale psychologists, Paul Bloom and Dena Skolnick Weisberg, it sheds light on why we believe the things we do.

The main thrust of their argument is that through experience in our first year of life, we develop basic concepts about the physical and social world. We learn that objects are solid, persistent, fall if they are unsupported, unmoving unless they are acted upon. We learn that people react to events, act according to motivation, react emotionally to situations. As we grow up, we add uncontroversial, culture-specific beliefs that are “common knowledge” to these “instinctive” concepts. These include the names of objects, that the earth is round, matter is made of particles, electricity makes things work, and so on.

When we are presented information that conflicts with our instinctive beliefs and common knowledge, we tend to evaluate the information by judging the authority of the teacher rather than the logic of the information. In other words, most of our beliefs are not based on direct experience or reason.

Buddhism presents a hierarchy of the sources of valid knowledge that we need to lead us from ignorance to enlightenment. The least reliable type is knowledge that comes from trusted authorities, like the Buddha and other noble beings. It is least reliable, not because the Buddha isn’t trustworthy, but because we haven’t figured it out or experienced it for ourselves. More trustworthy is knowledge gained through valid reasoning (and the teachings present detailed discussions of what constitutes a valid reason). The most trustworthy knowledge is gained through direct, non-conceptual experience. In fact, it is the direct experience of egolessness, or selflessness, that produces liberation.

Some Buddhist traditions accept all three sources of knowledge, others accept only the two higher ones. Other than understanding coming from these sources, the rest of our ideas are considered to be just opinions. As these two Western psychologists point out, most of what we think we know is just opinion. Perhaps our most prominent opinions are that we exist, and we are important!

1 comment:

Len Wojcik said...

There's another line of reasoning expressed by Daniel Dennett in a chapter of his "Consciousness Explained" (sorry I don't know which chapter, as I don't have the book handy), which is a theory of how consciousness evolved, in the very early stages of life. It goes something like this. The first evolutionary step towards consciousness was when sets of molecules distinguished themselves from their environment, to the point where "reproduction" made sense (i.e., there was something coherent enough to reproduce). Second, the molecule sets had to acquire enough energy to accomplish continued coherent existence and reproduction, so they had to respond differently to things to be consumed versus things that could consume (and destroy) them. Third, the molecule sets developed greater sophistication in distinuguishing between things to be consumed versus things that could consume them. Ultimately this led to very sophisticated perceptual systems.

My own thinking is that across all three steps, bias is built into the behavior (and proto-consciousness) of primitive living things: in the first step, the bias is an artificial distinction between self and environment. In the second step, the bias is an artificial distinction between things to pursue and other things to reject. In the third step, the bias is perception itself, the way things appear to be, based on whatever succeeds in consuming energy sources and avoiding being destroyed by other objects in the environment. All three steps are conditioned and strongly reinforced by biological selection -- anything that does not successfully compete does not survive.

From this perspective, egolessness in modern humans is completely masked by biases whose origins extend back to the very beginnings of life. The three steps above also seem to correspond to the three skandhas of form (step 1), feeling (step 2) and perception (step 3). Further evolutionary steps taken by advanced organisms lead to the other skandhas of intellect and consciousness, in which an entire coherent, elaborate perceptual and conceptual world is artifically generated by the human mind.

Of course, there is an interesting loop here: now that we have very well-developed intelligence in an artificial, conceptual world created by mind, we are in position to see the origins of the world itself. The entire story, including its own explanation, is a house of cards.