Thursday, May 15, 2014

Buddhism & Modern Psychology taught by Robert Wright for Coursera

After years of listening to lectures from The Teaching Company that I enjoyed greatly while driving here and there, I decided to give my first MOOC (Massive Open On-Line Course) a try. I opted for Robert Wright's course on Buddhism & Modern Psychology taught from Princeton, where Wright holds a position. My long-running interest in Buddhism & my acquaintance with Wright led me to this choice. Wright is not a traditional academic (I don't think that he holds a doctorate), but he's written a lot of interesting things and has been active on the internet with and other endeavors. He's about my age (okay, like most people, a bit younger), and he's curious about and committed to topics that attract me.

So the MOOC  experience: pretty good. Best of all: I can play back Wright's talks at faster than normal speech (usually 1.75x). I'm kidding? No. Even if a talking head is talking about something that interests you (it does), it can still seem way too slow when you're only looking at a computer screen (not much in the way of visuals here). When driving, regular speed is fine because of the (partially) split attention, but looking at the screen and listening to a talk that you know the basics about (vocabulary, terms of art, etc; i.e., not too much drastically new), you can go faster. 

The other thing I conclude is that MOOCs can't replace the live classroom for serious learning. Rote information: okay; but for discussion (thinking aloud with others), the discussion forums (of which there were several) don't work that well. Too many threads for me. Too slow. This is not the fault of the participants, but of the medium. The comments that I did track where sound and worthwhile, but there were so many and so many different threads. It was an overload. 

As for content, I definitely got something out of the course. I'm going to post my two essays (peer-reviewed) below to give you an idea of what I took away. Each essay garnered some criticism for wandering too far from the questions posed and that seems fair. But I decided to write about what I could synthesize and take-away, not show off knowledge of what we learned in the course (not that I'm necessarily above that). Here's the first questions and essay:

Question 2: The Buddha makes the claim, which may draw some support from modern psychology, that the self does not exist. Describe the self that the Buddha says does not exist and explain the Buddha's principal argument against it. Do you agree or disagree with the Buddha’s argument that this kind of self doesn’t exist? Or are you unable to take a position? Give two specific reasons for your view, and explain your reasons support either the existence of the self or the non-existence of the self, or why they explain why you are unable to take a position on the question.

Question 2

Self or No-Self? Does it matter? An answer to the second question must come first. The Buddha told the tale of the man shot with an arrow. Do we first inquire about the arrow before treating the injury? Thus, Buddha deflected most metaphysical inquiry. Are we and the Buddha ignoring this teaching if we go down the rabbit-hole of the Self? While dangerous, the venture is necessary.

The doctrine of No-Self is important because it relates to the fundamental doctrines of impermanency and causality. The “unsatisfactoriness”  (dukkha) of life identified in the First Noble Truth stems from impermanency. Impermanency prompts humans to grasp at experience. If the Self is real and (implicitly) permanent in a way that other experience or objects are not, then we humans will cling to the Self as our anchor against misfortune. But if the Self is as impermanent as the rest of reality, then humans will have grasped in vain in the hope of negating suffering. Buddha’s deconstructs of the Self imagined by the Upanishads. He proposes instead the Five Skandhas (sheaths) as creating the illusion of a Self. Buddha formulates a self that is created and disbursed from moment to moment just like every other form of reality. We can’t cling (successfully) to what doesn’t exist.

While the Buddha’s formulation makes some sense, so does the formulation of the Upanishads. The atman (Self) exists outside of the particular manifestations of a person. The atman represents a Self behind the person. Given the sense of continuity that most humans enjoy, this makes intuitive sense. Whether we posit a Self like the Upanishads or we follow St. Augustine in finding that the seat of the soul [or mind] is in the memory, we experience a fundamental continuity that most humans enjoy and that identifies each person to himself (or herself) and to others. (E.B. White: “Old age is a special problem for me because I've never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself - a lad of about 19.”) It is this remembered self, along with the “I” (or Freudian ego), that marks our day-to-day lives. To what extent can the Buddha’s formulation alter or end these conceptions, and to what extent should it?

Consider the problem formulated by Heraclitus: can we step into the same river twice? To break down the question, are we concerned about the water, the place, or the function (moving water from here to there)? We may think of the self as a river, a channel of experiences that tends to follow the same course, although it changes from time to time—constantly but subtly most of the time; abruptly and drastically at other times. In the course of time, a river comes into being and disappears; so with this entity we call the self. Also, the No-Self doctrine reflects that a person, like the river, is not subject to a unitary command-and-control entity. Nature, in the form of winds, rains, animals, floods, droughts, etc., changes the river. So with humans: we have only limited control over our lives (our bodies, our thoughts, our consciousness) and in such a situation we cannot identify a Self to which we can give allegiance.

The No-Self doctrine challenges Buddhism internally because of the belief in karma and reincarnation. If there isn’t a Self, then what reaps the effects that constitute karma, especially those effects thought to extend beyond a lifetime? And how does reincarnation work if not via a Self? What entity acts to create karma and to reincarnate? For these answers, we return to doctrines of change (impermanence) and causality. Our No-Self is an aggregate of shifting patterns, and it creates a dharma moment-to-moment within its space-time locale. To extend the metaphor borrowed from Heraclitus, the perceived self is the river of that delivers the water (karma) downstream (a later time). Extending the metaphor even further, we can say that our younger self sends water (karma) downstream to our older self. Our image of the self is the river that appears to have continuity. But we know that the river dries up with old age, sickness, and death. Borrowing from Augustine again, we can see that memory—whether genetic material passed down over eons or the recollections of a younger self—provides the seeming and functional continuity that we experience. We can think of the functional self as a collection of habits. Like any habit, it comes into being (time), functions within a context, and then disappears, if for no other reason than death. Would Buddha disagree that we are a collection of habits that me may notice and change from time to time? Isn’t that the point of meditation? Therefore, we cultivate our meta-awareness to influence the channels of our life.
At the end of the course lectures I wrote the following in response to two questions posed: 

3. Does modern science lend support to the logic behind Buddhist meditation practice?
4. Does modern science lend support to the moral validity of Buddhism?

 Re: Questions 3&4

First, let's stipulate that "modern science" includes the systematic, empirically-based study of shared phenomena. To participate in science, one must share a vocabulary and a set of skills. In evaluating Buddhism in light of contemporary thinking, we should include not just evolutionary psychology, but all manner of contemporary science and philosophy. With this understanding in mind, we find a great deal of support for Buddhist contentions about meditation and morality.

Buddhism for our purposes posits some key points:

The doctrine of No-Self (interior) (anatman), supports the idea that we humans have no central command and control in our brains. Plato's tripartite division of the mind (the cultural manifestation of the brain) posits that Reason controls Will & Appetite. EP  (evolutionary psychology) & modular thinking in particular reject the existence of a command and control center in our brains (and in the self that appears to the outside world). Whether we focus on the modular model or (as I prefer), we focus on McGilchrist's account of the division of the hemispheres, we agree that our brains are not built (by natural selection) with a final, authoritative center to arbitrate and rule upon conflicts within the brain/mind. The modular and hemispheric models of the brain help resolve issues of self-deception (akrasia) and self-control that plague more "rational" models of human thinking. EP argues persuasively that the brain is an environment in which different needs and values compete for resources. Sometimes a perspective "wins"; sometimes it losses. (Think of RW's doughnuts.) We are not singular, unified decision-makers contra much of classical economic thinking. Much of neuroscience and contemporary psychology strongly supports the conclusion that we don't have an ultimate decision-making function and therefore an idea of our Self as singular, constant, and essential fails.

Emptiness/sunyata. The concept of emptiness (or nothingness or formlessness) counters the concept of essentialism, the idea of an unchanging essence lurking behind a phenomena. Buddhism posits that all of reality is the result of co-dependent origination, more process than substance. This perspective, based on a radical empiricism, is one that Buddhism shares with American pragmatism (no surprise that RW cites William James), process philosophy, and even quantum mechanics. Indeed, post-modernity as a cultural phenomena provides a view of the fluidity of reality (along with its share of nonsense).

The doctrine of No-Self (exterior) as Prof. Wright describes it involves a reduction of barriers between ourselves and the world "out there". This perspective sees a fundemental unity of reality. Reports of this perspective by the meditators RW interviewed seem common. As an outgrowth of meditation, which involves perceiving the mind as an impermanent and changing reality, alters our relation to the world in which we live. This melting away of distinctions based on verbal and conceptual habits gives way to a new, unencumbered sense of reality. Concepts are habits of mind that may have been (or that may remain) useful, but in a fundamental sense, we now appreciate them as arbitrary. The seemingly fundamental perspective of Self vs. Other fades away. This, too, jibes with the best contemporary thinking: we have gained a perspective during the course of modernity that our world (the earth) is not the center of the universe, that our species was not created specially by God (thank you, Darwin), and that even space and time are relative (not to mention th mind-boggling perpsectives of quantum theories and the like). These shifts in perspective, which meditation encourages, allows us to see the world in a new light. The "us vs. them" no longer holds as great a sway as it once did. More limited worldviews become less attractive because they become less believable. In this sense, the scientific (in the broad sense) study of meditation supports a new, wider view of morality.

We can now appreciate and transcend our evolutionary heritage, something that religious and (some) philosophical traditions have been seeking to do for several millenia, especially since the Axial Age. We now better understand the evolutionary pressures and mechanisms that affect human behavior and that in our current environment may prove counter-beneficial. Indeed, we humans may serve as the first conscious creators of human life and culture on earth--if we're very wise and very lucky (longshots). This has been a millennial dream--of heaven on earth--but we can move closer to it. Buddhism, as a praxis, a way of life and understanding, draws on centuries of radical empiricism and acute conceptual thinking to help humans lead better lives. Buddhist adepts are curators of a meditative practice based on recognized principles of practice. When we combine practices of meditation with deep investigation, we perceive the world much differently. Buddhists should continue to join with scientists, trained adepts in a different field of experience, to better guide humanity into our future. 

And on peer evaluations:  About one-half of the evaluations were of little value (minimal comment) and other half were about equally divided between praise and marked criticism. Thus, it's hard to gauge what I should be doing differently. Essays by others that I read were more direct in answering the questions, and I marked them high. On the other hand, I didn't perceive much original thought in them. Nevertheless, it's worth doing and an appropriately humbling exercise. 


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