Is psychology wrong-headed?
I did an online course on ‘Buddhism and Modern Psychology’, and found it useful to write an essay for the course on just how wrong-headed evolutionary psychologists appear to be. I studied Social Anthropology years ago and was equally stunned at how little access it gave to the mysteries of the human heart. The human sciences (including psychotherapy, philosophy, sociology and academic psychology) wrestle with studying the human mind and desperately try to pin it down with a myriad of theories. What they do not understand - which the Buddha did - is that we can only penetrate the Mind by trusting the principle of awareness. It is so simple and so direct, it cannot be conceived. When we allow ourself to settle down into being the knowing, we can recognize the ideas and representations we have gotten lost into. As Ajahn Cha (one of my teachers) once said, ‘Intellectuals are like vultures, they fly high but what do they feed on?':
Does modern science lend support to Buddhist ideas about the human mind?
In my understanding, evolutionary psychology, driven by a mistaken zeal to develop an objective positivist psychology, has thrown out the concept of self and mind. Some of these psychologists have mistaken the Buddha's view of not self for the idea that the self does not exist, in order to support their theories - a clear case of what they might term confirmation bias.
It is a pity they have not worked to see how things really look through the Buddha’s eyes, because awakening involves the recognition that nothing exists independently but is part of an endless chain of mutually interdependent changing conditions in nature, which arise out of and pass away into a pure Mind…something which would revolutionize evolutionary psychology, and enable it to begin to integrate Mind and Nature. Awakening is being the knowing; knowing directly and not through the lens of any kind of theory or agenda.
Shakyamuni Buddha in his second sermon, states that form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness are not self. Rupert Gethin in his book, ‘The Foundations of Buddhism’, notes that the one time the Buddha was asked point-blank if the self exists or not he refused to answer. Gethin believes this is not about leaving the door open for some ‘mysterious’ sense of self.
What this does leave the door open to is the end of the conventional sense of self – for the Buddha the way we cling through ignorance to the changing conditions in nature, he called the five aggregates. This conventional sense of self involves the belief that we are the author of our actions, and that we exist separately.
The Buddha and modern psychology do have some common ground in questioning whether or not this conventional sense of self is based on an illusion.
Let me first give some evidence for the view that the Buddha is not claiming the self does not exist: immediately after his enlightenment, Upaka encountered the Buddha and asked him what had happened to him. The Buddha says, ‘I am an All-transcender, an All–knower’. Upaka asks him: ‘Have you conquered birth and death? ‘ Shakyamuni says, ‘ Indeed friend, I am a victorious one and now in this world of the spiritually blind I go to Benares to beat the drum of deathlessness.’
This is hardly the comment of a man who has discovered his self does not exist. There are many other references in the sutras to what the Buddha discovered.
In the Majjhima Nikaya 140, Shakyamuni says:
‘He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace…. 'I am' is a construing. 'I am this' is a construing. 'I shall be' is a construing. 'I shall not be'... 'I shall be possessed of form'... 'I shall not be possessed of form'... 'I shall be percipient'... 'I shall not be percipient'... 'I shall be neither percipient nor non-percipient' is a construing. Construing is a disease, construing is a cancer, construing is an arrow. By going beyond all construing, he is said to be a sage at peace.
Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long? It was in reference to this that it was said, 'He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace.'
Gilbert Ryle recognized that the philosopher who went in search of Oxford University but could only find the buildings, was making a category error. The Buddha recognized the category error of imagining self exists in the shape of form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness.
I now want to turn to the way evolutionary psychology has given up on the challenge to study the Mind, by viewing it as a collection of neurological mechanisms designed by natural selection.
Even Darwin wrote of the ‘extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man, with his capacity of looking far backward and far into futurity as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting, I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man.’ (From the ‘Autobiography of Charles Darwin.’)
Science depends on the degree of order evident in the universe, so it is hard to credit life developed simply through a series of random mutations. At least eight entirely distinct groups of creatures developed eyes quite separately from each other – which suggests that creativity and intelligence may be inherent in the universe. Natural selection itself only accounts for what has been enabled to survive; it does not begin to account for the creativity of the solutions that arise. Natural selection is the filter, but it has no originative power; it cannot account for the coffee that comes through.
When Richard Dawkins writes in ‘River out of Eden’, that the universe contains, ‘at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference,’ he is making a sweeping statement that contradicts the facts of life as we experience them. For humans it is never good to be hurt or humiliated or abused. What if a capacity for intelligence and creativity is inherent, and there is a drive to actualize and make the best of one’s life? – Subjective qualities which evolutionary psychologists are bent on ignoring.
If I rest my argument that the Buddha did not discover there is no self, and rest my argument that evolutionary psychology has become so positivistic that it is unable to include the Mind, in what ways do modern psychology support the Buddha’s view that at least the conventional self does not exist?
In the course, Dr Wright, the author of 'The Moral Animal', discusses Gazzaniga’s experiments which illustrate that it is possible to plant suggestions in the right hemisphere which the left hemisphere is not conscious of (in a person whose corpus callosum has been severed). In such cases if for example, the word nut has been flashed only to the right hemisphere, and the person is asked has he seen a word being flashed on the screen, he will say No. But if he is then invited to rummage through a box of objects containing a nut his left hand will single out the nut. This experiment - and many similar ones – suggests we are not always conscious of our motivations.
Dr Wright also discusses experiments which show that people often interpret negative outcomes as due to factors outside their control, whereas, they take credit for positive outcomes. When this is coupled with other experiments, which show that people habitually over-rate their abilities in ways that are statistically impossible, it amounts to a body of evidence that supports the idea that people are not necessarily conscious of their motivation, and tend to be lost in wishful thinking. Does this necessarily support the evolutionary psychologists’ theory that we are made up of a bunch of neurological mechanisms that come together without a central author?
From a Buddhist point of view, (I was a Buddhist monk myself in the Theravadin and Zen traditions) the idea we have of ourself – what psychoanalysts term the ego identity - is built up out of mental fabrications which delude us to our station in Life. But when these ‘thought-coverings’ can be gradually recognized and surrendered we discover a natural awareness which cannot be objectified and which is capable of intelligent responsiveness. This intelligence works in alignment with the flow of life; a recognition of what the Buddha calls dependent origination. So it is not the separate objectified me who is responding.
I recall being on retreat and feeling scared; the bell rang for tea, and I found myself fourth in line with a huge teapot ahead. I was convinced I would pour the tea all over the floor. When it was my turn the tea poured itself, and ‘I’ had disappeared – as had the bubble of hope and fear the ‘I’ often occupied.
This is what the Chinese call wu-wei, there is no-one directing the activity, but it gets along by being left alone and allowed to act. It is impossible to say anything about the mystery that then is oneself – except it feels benign and we realize we have never been separate.