Robert Wright of The Moral Animal fame recently published a book about Buddhism. He titled it Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment and in it seeks to demonstrate the connections between evolutionary psychology and Buddhism. In an appendix to the book he sums the work up himself this way:

[I]f you want the shortest version of my answer to the question of why Buddhism is true, it's this: Because we are animals created by natural selection. Natural selection built into our brains the tendencies that early Buddhist thinkers did a pretty amazing job of sizing up, given the meager scientific resources at their disposal. Now, in light of the modern understanding of natural selection and the modern understanding of the human brain that natural selection produced, we can provide a new kind of defense of this sizing up.

I'd say this is a pretty accurate summary of the book. If you are already familiar with both evolutionary psychology and Buddhism and spent some time thinking about their synergy then nothing in this book will be surprising. But if you are only familiar with evolutionary psychology or only familiar with Buddhism then I think you can learn a lot about how another discipline addresses the same issues.

Now, a few nits to pick:

  • Wright makes use of some probably now unproved psychology results due to the replication crisis. Given book publication cycles this is forgivable but worth noting.
  • His approach is not systematic, and he mainly focuses on places where evolutionary psychology and Buddhism agree. Maybe they don't disagree strongly anywhere but he doesn't make a clear case for this.
  • In particular I think he may fail to the level of a just-so story when it comes to explaining why humans are natural essentialists/idealists. Not that they aren't; it's just that I think his explination is not sufficiently rigorous from an evolutionary psychology standpoint.

The most interesting thing I learned about in the book was the default mode network. There's some disagreement on exactly how it works to the point that the name may be misleading, but the idea of the default mode network is that it's what your brain does when it's not focused on a task. During a task normally only some parts of your brain are active, based on fMRI studies, that are presumably relevant to the task. When you are not doing a task, say like when you're sitting in a waiting room with nothing to read and nothing to play with or when you're quietly laying in bed in a dark room before you fall asleep, the default mode network is what turns on. That is it's the default thing your brain does when it's not doing something we'd identify as having telos/purpose.

Although it's a little different for everyone, most people report the default mode network as including these kinds of thoughts:

  • Planning for future events (what will I do?)
  • Planning for past events (what could I have done?)
  • Self-reflection (why did I do that?)
  • Free association and thought wandering

Wright argues that one of the goals of meditation is to learn to quiet the default mode network, and fMRI studies confirm that during meditation the default mode network is less active. Since for most people the default mode network is a source or amplifier of axiety, depression, anger, and other negative valence emotions, there's a certain kind of sense to this. He even mentions one especially skilled meditator who seems to have learned turn the default mode network off by default and reports having a highly tranquil experience of everyday life. I, however, suspect Wright is slightly mistaken about the relationship between the default mode network, meditation, and tranquility.

Meditation, especially awareness or mindfulness meditation, encourages a person to focus on their senses, including their sense of thought, rather than thoughts and perceptions themselves. This is thus a specific task a person is engaged in that turns the brain away from its default mode. True, it's an usual sort of task that's self referential, but it's a task all the same. Thus it seems not especially notworthy that meditation "turns off" the default mode network except in as much as meditation is a skill that can be practiced and may have a better chance of overcoming the boredom and unaware practice (think the sense of auto-pilot you can get while driving or exercising or playing a game you're skilled at) of other tasks that may allow the default mode network to reengage.

Further, I'm not convinced the default mode network need be a source or amplifier of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, "suffering", negative valence emotions). The default mode network looks a lot like what you'd expect to see if you just let a neural network (in the AI/machine learning sense) that can feed its output back into itself as input run unattended. As such it will certainly have an amplification power, but since we're talking about humans here whatever process it is that keeps humans from staying focused on any one thing for too long will kick in and prevent runaway, but not before amplifying some whatever was already there. However, this will only contribute the dukkha if the thoughts being fed back on themselves generate it, and neutral valence feelings should not need to be avoided.

In fact, I suspect they should be encouraged! The default mode network seems tightly bound up with the learning process and idea generation (babble), and my own meditation practice includes letting the default mode network run once I have already achieved a tranquil state of awareness if that's what it feels natural to do. Only until I read Why Buddhism Is True I didn't think of this as a mode my brain was in but as natural thought wandering that arises from the vedana skandha (and before I was aware of Buddhist terminology, just natural thought wandering). The default mode network mainly gives me a new way to understand my own thoughts, but not necessarily evidence that it's something in my mental processes to be avoided.

And this maybe gets at the heart of where Wright and I differ on our thoughts on Buddhism. Wright says he practices mainly vipassana in the Theravada tradition, whereas I practice zazen. His practice seems to focus around awareness (based on his writing; you'd have to ask him yourself to be sure) whereas mine is "focused" around being unfocused. The great Zen commandment is to "just sit", so that's what I do. And if I may end with a bit of speculation, I suspect that why I like Zen is that it runs counter to what I would naturally try to do, which is understand and philosophize, and helps me attend more to things I would be inclined to ignore. For this reason maybe what I see as disagreement with Wright is actually a matter of perspective, and I have been insufficiently empathetic to what makes sense for him and his practice. And in the end, it seems fitting that a book on Buddhism would leave me with more compassion for my fellow being, so I'll end there.


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Since I'm sharing a link to this post with folks, worth saying that I no longer endorse everything here. In particular, I have a somewhat different view on what's going on with the default mode network and how zazen works. What I say above isn't totally wrong, but it is confused. These two posts represent more recent thinking that may clarify some of the confusion I had when I wrote this:

Seems he wrote the answer at the bottom page before filled out the arguments in the middle. He decided Buddhism was proven by evolution then compiled the evidence to say so?

It's possible it's right but it does shake a waggly finger of suspicion at the idea.

It sounds like the focus there is on meditation rather than Buddhism in general. Buddhism also includes things such as reincarantion, Nirvana, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Pure Lands, Hungry Ghosts and a lot of other stuff which is hardly backed by evolutionary psychology.

That's a decent point. He focuses on the naturalistic aspects of Buddhism, which I forgot to explicitly mention since my own practice similarly excludes the supernatural.