Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Buddhism, Neuroscience, and the Weakening of the Self

Modern neuro-psychology is dubious of the self as a consistent, important thing. Instead, scientists these days tend to see the self as a bundle of separate modules doing different tasks, mainly in response to outside stimuli: "many contemporary cognitive scientists and philosophers have either rejected the view that there is such a self, or have defended some variety of a minimalist conception of the self." One key insight at the root of this thinking is that whether people behave morally (as we see it) depends more on their circumstances than anything intrinsic to their characters; if everybody else is cheating, most people will cheat.

That was by way of background to these fascinating comments on Buddhism from Jay Garfield:
Buddhist doctrine regarding the nature of reality generally focuses on three principal characteristics of things. The first idea is that all phenomena are impermanent and constantly changing, despite the fact that we engage with them as though they are permanent; the second is that they are interdependent, although we engage with them as though they are independent; the third is that they are without any intrinsic identity, although we treat ourselves and other objects as though they have intrinsic identities.
This skepticism about the independent reality of things extends to the self:
A strong sense of self — of one’s own substantial reality, uniqueness and independence of others — may not be psychologically or morally healthy. It can lead to egoism, to narcissism and to a lack of care for others. So the modern emphasis on individuality you mention might not be such a good thing. We might all be better off if we each took ourselves less seriously as selves. That may be one of the most important Buddhist critiques of modernity and contributions to post-modernity.

More positively, the Buddhist tradition encourages us to see ourselves as impermanent, interdependent individuals, linked to one another and to our world through shared commitments to achieving an understanding of our lives and a reduction of suffering. It encourages us to rethink egoism and to consider an orientation to the world characterized by care and joint responsibility. That can’t be a bad thing.
I should note that western Buddhists have a habit of greeting each new wave of scientific thought with "Buddhism already teaches that!" But Buddhism certainly does teach detachment from the concerns that take up most of our conscious minds from day to day, and Buddhist practice is supposed to weaken egotism.

I find this thinking deeply appealing. To obsess about our own successes and failures is to miss something crucial about the universe. We are what we are; we were made more than we have made ourselves. Neither our successes nor our failures are entirely our own, but more the universe acting through us. We are connected to people and things around us, to the cultures we were raised in and the nations that rule us. Indeed in a powerful sense we are those connections. Pluck us out of time and place and we would be someone else, with other worries and other dreams.

Considered from the point of view of any single person, live is full of pain and ends in death. But the universe as a whole is a miracle beyond our comprehension; even the small world of our own houses and neighborhoods contains more wonders than we could ever count. For me, the only answer to the worries of life is to spread ourselves out, so that instead of filling up with our own troubles we make room for discovery, wonder, and compassion for others.

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