Bayesian Buddhism: a path to optimal enlightenment

by [anonymous]3 min read8th Oct 201027 comments


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I see epistemic rationality as a connection between Bayesian inference and Buddhism. Bayesian inference focuses on the mathematics for updating belief, Bayes' theorem. Buddhism focuses on the human factors of belief, how belief can lead to dukkha (suffering, discontent), and how dukkha can be avoided.

Combining these ideas could give us a practical path to achieving bohdi (enlightenment, optimal belief) from within the context of our human mind (emotional and physical). Call it the optimal enlightenment hypothesis. I am opening this concept up for LW discussion.

Related questions:

  • What would be a good name for this combination?
  • Would you call this a religion or perhaps a philosophy? (There may be tax implications. ;>)
  • What would be the teachings of this path?
  • What aspects of Buddhism should be refactored or eliminated?
  • What are the challenges?

From recent posts by Luke_Grecki and Will_Newsome, it seems that others are thinking along the same line.

Epistemic Rationality

To be rational we need to be willing to see the world as it is and not as we want it to be. This requires avoiding emotional attachment to our beliefs and adopting an even approach to evaluating evidence.

See Also:

Epistemic rationality as defined by Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Epistemic rationality: believing, and updating on evidence, so as to systematically improve the correspondence between your map and the territory.  The art of obtaining beliefs that correspond to reality as closely as possible.  This correspondence is commonly termed "truth" or "accuracy", and we're happy to call it that.

Bayesian inference is a method for updating belief within epistemic rationality:

Bayesian inference is a method of statistical inference in which some kind of evidence or observations are used to calculate the probability that a hypothesis may be true, or else to update its previously-calculated probability.

Buddhism encourages people to view reality as it really is and to constantly seek enlightenment.

In Buddhism's Noble Eightfold Path, as stated here:

dṛṣṭi (ditthi): viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be

vyāyāma (vāyāma): making an effort to improve

smṛti (sati): awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness, being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion

In Buddhism's Four Noble Truths, as stated here:

Suffering ends when craving ends. This is achieved by eliminating delusion, thereby reaching a liberated state of Enlightenment (bodhi);

Buddhism's concept of rebirth can be seen as an openness to updating beliefs.

Another view of rebirth describes the cycle of death and birth in the context of consciousness rather than the birth and death of the body. In this view, remaining impure aggregates, skandhas, reform consciousness.

We are not limited by our current sense of self, here:

Buddhism rejects the concepts of a permanent self or an unchanging, eternal soul, as it is called in Hinduism and Christianity.

The Context Principle

The context principle is integral to both Bayesian inference and Buddhism.

Context Principle: Context creates meaning, and in its absence there is no meaning.

When considering a belief the context must be considered. Outside of its intended context a belief may be wrong or even meaningless.

In Bayesian probability the meaning of the evidence, and the prior probability distribution, depend on the context. When different observers use the same method and evidence, they can come to different conclusions if they have adopted different contexts.

For example:

... humans are making decisions based on how we think the world works, if erroneous beliefs are held, it can result in behavior that looks distinctly irrational.

In Buddhism, the context principle can be found in the three marks of existence:

  • Anicca - inconstancy, impermanence
  • Dukka - suffering, discontent
  • Anatta - not self


From here:

The term expresses the Buddhist notion that all of conditioned existence, without exception, is in a constant state of flux.

If our beliefs are conditional on our context, and our context is in a constant state of flux, then we must be mindful and be ready to observe these changes, and we must be constantly willing to change our beliefs based on the evidence.


From here:

Experience is thus both cognitive and affective, and cannot be separated from perception. As one's perception changes, so one's experience is different: we each have our own particular cognitions, perceptions and volitional activities in our own particular way and degree, and our own way of responding to and interpreting our experience is our very experience.

A rough summary, "suffering is context dependent, if you believe you are suffering, then you are".

Accepting the world as it is and not as we want to be is not simply about becoming comfortable with the status quo. It is about gaining the awareness we need to transform our context. This is explained well in Radical Buddhism and the Paradox of Acceptance.


From here:

Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent or static entity that remains constant behind the changing bodily and non-bodily components of a living being.

The nikayas state that certain things such as material shape, feeling, perception, habitual tendencies and consciousness (the five aggregates), with which the unlearned man identifies himself, do not constitute his self and that is why one on the path to liberation should grow uninterested in the aggregates, become detached from them and be liberated.

From here:

Upon careful examination, one finds that no phenomenon is really "I" or "mine"; these concepts are in fact constructed by the mind.

The concept of self is a convention, not an absolute, it refers to a constantly changing composite. The meaning of self depends on context. Clinging to an inappropriate concept of self can lead to dukka.


Buddhism is not inherently rational

Although there are hints of rationality in Buddhism, it was not created to be a philosophy of rationality. There is a lot of mysticism, and the different schools of thought appear to split primarily on metaphysics.

It is tempting to discard the mysticism outright, but I suspect that there are ideas encoded in the mysticism that help people understand and adopt the beneficial beliefs of Buddhism. Reincarnation/rebirth for example could help people accept Annica (impermanence). I'm not proposing that the mysticism be kept; I'm suggesting that it may be useful to understand its context specific value.

Bayesian inference is not really a philosophy

There are aspects of Bayesian inference that sound like a philosophy, for example changing beliefs based on evidence, but it is really a method of statistical inference. Extending these ideas to domains where it is difficult or impossible to calculate probabilities will be difficult.

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