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

Anicca

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.

Dukka

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.

Anatta

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.

Challenges

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

Blech. This sort of "can be seen as" thing immediately brings to mind, e.g., Yvain's parable on obsolete ideologies...

I'm not suggesting that we should rebrand and use ideas like Buddhism's concept of rebirth. My statement was a summary of a quote which I used to establish common ground between Buddhism and epistemic rationality.

[-][anonymous]11y 10

While I do think there are parts of Buddhist practice and thought that could be useful to rationalists, I think this post is fundamentally in the wrong direction. Instead of trying to identify and isolate these useful parts you simply try to mash together all the fundamental principles of Bayesianism and Buddhism in a single swoop, which makes you come across as the victim of an affective death spiral.

Unfortunately, this post will probably make people somewhat less likely to consider more fruitful ideas in this direction later on.

Seeing as its your first post this should have been submitted to the Discussion section first.

While I do think there are parts of Buddhist practice and thought that could be useful to rationalists, I think this post is fundamentally in the wrong direction. Instead of trying to identify and isolate these useful parts you simply try to mash together all the fundamental principles of Bayesianism and Buddhism in a single swoop, which makes you come across as the victim of an affective death spiral.

Unfortunately, this post will probably make people somewhat less likely to consider more fruitful ideas in this direction later on.

Seeing as its your first post this should have been submitted to the Discussion section first.

Amen, to all of the above, and worth repeating. Strongly suggest the OP move this to the discussion section and seek assistance in breaking the post into individual pieces that emphasize rationality first, Buddhist connection second.

FWIW, I'm someone who has both studied Zen and has often been told that my writings are examples of Buddhist principles, so I have nothing against Buddhism in small doses, and would be interested in seeing good crossover articles. The current article, alas, does not qualify as something I'd read even someplace other than LW, due to it requiring a strong interest in both topics.

(Actually, I imagine this article would currently be better for inspiring a Buddhist to be curious about rationalism, than the other way around.)

What I attempted to do in this post was to establish some common ground between epistemic rationality and Buddhism. The purpose was to illuminate the epistemic rationality within Buddhism.

As you and Luke_Grecki suggest, this isn't the right approach for the LW audience where rationality should be emphasized first.

Strongly suggest the OP move this to the discussion section...

That is a good suggestion, but it isn't obvious to me how to do that. Do I need to delete this article and repost?

Do I need to delete this article and repost?

No. Click "Edit" then on the "Post To" dropdown, select "LessWrong Discussion".

That was my original assumption, but the edit button is not available to me for this post...

I may have caused this. Earlier today I closed a browser window with edit open on this article. I suppose that may be blocking me from editing in a new window.

That wouldn't do it. The only explanation I can think of that makes sense, is that your karma has fallen under the main section posting threshold (20), and the post you're trying to edit is in the main section. If that is indeed the cause, then that'd be a bug (you shouldn't need karma to move things from the main section into the discussion section). Was going to vote up to test, but it looks like it's too late since this is already deleted.

Even though the post has been deleted I still can't edit it. If I can edit it again when my karma goes over 20, that will help to confirm your idea.

I might be able to do this soon, someone has managed to upvote the deleted post. This puts me near the 20 threshold. (Edit: spoke too soon, the upvote is gone now.)(Edit: Back again thanks to AdeleneDawner.)

Upvoted. Can you edit now?

On a side note, I wanted to see what happened if I resubmitted the deleted post. I did not really expect to be able to undelete the post, but I was curious.

First I submitted it to myself as a draft. This had the effect of preventing me from accessing the post if I was not logged in as myself. It appears that deleting a post and resubmitting it as a draft locks out other people.

Then I submitted it to Discussion. The post is still marked as deleted and did not show up in Discussion, which is what I expected. However now when I edit the post, I no longer have any submission choices, I can only submit it back to Discussion.

Yes I can, thanks for the help.

That was me, I think. I was testing to see if it was upvotable - of course I forgot to check your karma before trying to upvote it, so I had to remove the vote to check and make sure it actually affected it.

I'll put the upvote back for now, so if you can get someone else to do the same you'll be over the threshold.

Buddhism focuses on the human factors of belief, how belief can lead to dukkha (suffering, discontent), and how dukkha can be avoided.

Actually, that's what CBT is all about, too. There are therapies that combine CBT and buddhist elements, like Dialectical behavior therapy.

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.

Similar notions are taught in CBT. If there is no permanent or "true" self, it's impossible to have a rotten, bad, evil, worthless (etc.) permanent self. It's an idea that can help in getting rid of some emotional problems and create an attitude that helps to change oneself.

I'd propose that there are a some advantages to starting with CBT, before one learns Buddhism:

  • It's easy. For example learning about Cognitive distortion might be a low hanging fruit for many.
  • It's focused on small practical results, not some grand things like "enlightment"
  • There is no mysticism or magic.
  • That down-to-erath and practical attitude about belief and suffering is the same attitude I think should be used when studying buddhism.

Buddhism is not inherently rational

Right. I see buddhism as a form of therapy created in a mystical context. Any form of rationality found in buddhism is just a by-product of trying to get rid of suffering. As this is not the main goal of LW-type rationality one would expect systematic differences between LW and Buddhism.

Of course CBT is not inherently rational either. It might be interesting how a good cognitive therapy would be done on a LW-person, who knows about propability theory and compartmentalises less. There might be a danger of being "too smart" for the therapist! ("every flaw you learn how to detect makes you that much stupider")

What aspects of Buddhism should be refactored or eliminated?

Buddhists meditate and therefore can be considered experts on introspection, experience, the psyche and so on. But we know that, if you are locked inside a room, you can learn a lot about yourself but not about the world outside the room. So I wouldn't expect to find anything good in buddhist metaphysics.

Also, the term "enlightment" sounds overly religious to me. It might lead to a Affective death spiral and become so great, that it is unarchiveable anyway, so why would you even bother?.

You make a good argument for starting with CBT.

Any form of rationality found in buddhism is just a by-product of trying to get rid of suffering. As this is not the main goal of LW-type rationality one would expect systematic differences between LW and Buddhism.

I can make a similar claim about CBT:

Any form of rationality found in CBT is just a by-product of trying to solve problems concerning dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and cognitions.

As you point out:

Of course CBT is not inherently rational either.

My goal is to find a philosophy that supports Bayesian style epistemic rationality in the context of the human mind.

I suspect that rationality is hard to achieve if a person is experiencing dukkha, or a psychological dysfunction. So I am interested in the ideas and practices of any system that addresses these issues.

Also, the term "enlightment" sounds overly religious to me. It might lead to a Affective death spiral and become so great, that it is unarchiveable anyway, so why would you even bother?

I use the term in the "optimal enlightenment" phrase. My goal is to create a common context between rationality and Buddhism and to clarify that a philosophy of rationality would not assume that there is any absolute form of enlightenment.

[-][anonymous]11y 4

del

[-][anonymous]11y 0

Can you elaborate on the difference between conceptual and non-conceptual insight, using personal examples if possible?

[-][anonymous]11y 0

del

I see no mention of the lesser and greater vehicles of buddhism.

It is my understanding, though wikipedia obfuscates the issue, that the greater vehicle rejects supernatural beliefs and treats those beliefs as allegorical. Thus reincarnation is merely the understanding that a mind changes with new experience, creating a new person. Similarly the demons of the lesser vehicle are the anthropomorphized irrational beliefs of the observer.

Unfortunately this is the result of the path I took in this post.

I did not do an in depth analysis of rationality within Buddhism, which might have been interesting to a Buddhist audience, and I did not extract the elements of Buddhism that might aid rational thought, which might have been interesting to the general LW audience.

The result is that the feedback has been more valuable to me than the post was to this audience. I paid for this in karma, which seems fair.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I think you have the greater (Mahayana) and lesser (Hinayana) vehicles mixed up.

The grandparent sounds a bit wooly, but I think on the whole you're correct.

For some reason edit is not an option for me on this post so I can't just move it to the discussion area. Instead I have deleted it and I'll create a new revised post for Discussion.

I can only speak for myself, but I would prefer if, in situations like this one, the original post was left alone rather than deleted. Deleting it doesn't actually delete anything, but it does make the existing content and comments much more inaccessible.

Linking to this post from the new one may be a workable compromise - yes, it can be linked to even if it's been 'deleted' - but that may or may not have the desired effect overall, depending on what the desired effect is.

I agree with your perspective on deletion and if not for the technical problem I ran into, I would have simply moved this post to the Discussion area. I only deleted the post after trying several approaches to gaining edit access.

When I pick this topic up on Discussion I'll certainly link to the deleted post, not ideal, but as you say, it is a compromise.

I know that. Still, given the choice between deleting it and creating a similar post elsewhere without the original post's comments, or leaving the original post alone, I'd've preferred to see the latter.

A point neglected in the other comments:

I like your use of different colored links for links to Buddhist sources and links to other Less Wrong articles and "Bayesian" sources.

I agree with other posters that you seem to be using or failing to use ideas that have been discussed in other posts, and that it would have been a good idea to start this post in the discussion section.