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Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Galef, and I'm here with today's guest, Robert Right. Robert is an author of several bestselling books, including The Moral Animal, which I read years ago and found very influential, also Nonzero and The Evolution of God, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. We're going to talk today about Robert's most recent book, Why Buddhism Is True The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.
Bob, welcome to the show.
Well, thanks for having me. It's great to have you on your you know, the theme of a lot of my podcasts and a lot of my life, honestly, is is trying to grapple with what is rationality and is it good and is it feasible. And all of your road together is like this important piece of that puzzle. So I'm so glad we could finally have you.
I'm not going to ask you whether it's an example of rationality or the other side of the line, but hopefully that will emerge at some point in the next morning and keep people on the edges. So, Bob, the title of your book, Why Buddhism is True, let's let's not go any further before we unpack what that what that's, in fact claiming. So you're you're not talking about the entirety of Buddhism, of all the claims made by Buddhism as a religion.
Right. You're talking about a subset, right.
There are a lot of questions you could ask about that title, some of them hostile. And I've heard many of them. It is it is kind of asking for trouble, it sounds. Was that your publisher's idea? You know, it wasn't it popped into my head and I knew my publisher would love it because I'm the one who's on the firing line. Right. The publishers love arguably hyperbolic titles. I mean, I would actually do that with with headlines as well in articles.
But right now, they always say that the editors choose the headlines, not the authors. And that's true. But at the same time, it does kind of benefit the author for their article to get a lot of clicks based on a hyperbolic headlines. I, I don't know how unwilling the participants my policy on headlines is to not ask. I just want to have plausible deniability. You go with a book title. You are you do have to sign off on it.
And I'm willing to defend this one. Right. But it's yeah. No, it's first of all, not the supernatural part of Buddhism I'm defending. It's not about rebirth, reincarnation. It's about what you could call the naturalistic part. It's sometimes called secular Buddhism. I'm a little ambivalent about that. But in any event, it's the part of Buddhism you could evaluate from the standpoint of modern psychology, modern philosophy. That's what I try to do.
And I kind of focus on what I think of as in a way, the core claim of naturalistic Buddhism, which is that the reason we suffer and the reason we make other people suffer is that we don't see the world clearly. We have major illusions about ourselves, about others. And if you dispel those illusions or at least get closer to seeing reality, you can become happier and you can become a better person. That's that's the way I put it.
And that's so there's there's kind of a diagnosis of the human predicament in Buddhism. We do suffer and then there's a prescription as well, you know, and a way to clarify your vision. And so to several less that that path includes meditation. And I've done a certain amount of meditation, but I'm defending both the the the diagnosis and the prescription basically. Great. And so I don't know a lot about Buddhism personally, but my impression and my assumption a priori would be that from the perspective of the Buddhists and the originators of Buddhism, all of those things, the sort of naturalistic parts and the supernatural parts are they see as part of one framework.
And so I guess I'm I'm wondering if it should give us pause to say that all of these naturalistic parts are right on. And despite the fact that all of these other claims in the framework are complete, you know, about reincarnation are completely false. Should it should we consider that a little bit weird or surprising or coincidental that a framework that is not sort of epistemologically sound in the sense of, you know, it produces all these sort of false supernatural claims, is somehow giving rise to all of these really true, important facts about psychology?
Well, I would call a naturalistic in the supernatural parts of Buddhism, closely integrated, but logically separable. So, for example, on the naturalistic side, there's a lot of emphasis on the role of kind of craving or Tunja, as it's called in Buddhism in. Leading us to recurring states of dissatisfaction, you know, you crave these things and you kind of have this feeling that the gratification will last and it kind of doesn't. And so you want more.
And so this kind of unsatisfactoriness is built into us. Now, that's a claim about human psychology that I think is actually corroborated by the logic of of natural selection, of evolutionary psychology. I think it makes sense that we would be recurring dissatisfied animals for reasons I could get into. But the point for now is that then this it is the this Tunja. This craving has to cease in order for you to be liberated from the round of rebirth according to the supernatural part of Buddhism, because this craving is kind of the energy that propels you into the next life cycle, although there are technical problems with saying you get propelled because technically you don't exist.
But I don't want to get too deep into the weeds here. The point is that it is a tightly integrated system on the one hand, and yet you can look at the naturalistic claims in isolation, I think. And I think they're very impressive. They have an impressive kind of record of being astute and and on target, given the fact that a lot of this stuff developed, you know, a couple of thousand years ago or even longer ago.
Yeah, I mean, well, that is kind of my point, actually, that I mean, I agree with you, as will probably become apparent as we talk more about those claims. I agree with you that a lot of those claims are seems surprisingly astute. And it's the surprisingly part that I'm pointing at that it's almost like if I if I talked to an astrologer or a self professed psychic and they said a lot of true things about my life or I don't know about science or finance or something, they're not logically wrong because they are an astrologer, a psychic, self professed psychic.
But but I would just be sort of surprised, like, how are you getting this right? You know, it is kind of surprising. I mean, especially when you see that kind of Buddhist psychology going back millennia, I think anticipated some things that modern psychology is only now really appreciating, such as how tightly intertwined affect and cognition are, so how how feelings tend to accompany thoughts and perceptions and even shape them. And if you ask, well, why, why did they get the picture so early?
My theory is that, you know, meditation was a well developed practice. It preceded Buddhism in what you could call Hinduism, I guess, and one kind of meditation. And this you can say that mindfulness meditation fits this pattern. And that's the main kind I've done in the mankind I talk about in the book. But it involves kind of quieting the mind, getting it to a point where you can observe the inner workings of your mind with what is, in a way, more objectivity or detachment than usual.
And I personally I mean, I'm not a great meditator, but I mean, I do have a daily practice. But when I go on retreats, so like a one week, two week silent meditation retreat, you know, I see that you really can get your mind into a state where. You start seeing things about its internal dynamics that you hadn't seen before, and they're not like crazy hallucinatory things, they seem to be things about kind of the structure of thought and end of feeling and of the connection between the two.
I think it's at least plausible that an acute kind of introspection is facilitated by certain meditative techniques. And that accounts for some of the early insights in Buddhism into how the mind works. At least that's that's my best working theory, I say.
So these are maybe unlike other empirical truths about the world, like about fundamental physics, say, or truths, that you would need a lot of data and sort of good statistical tools to unearth. These are truths that are there to be uncovered with sort of good introspection and reflection. And the Buddhists or their immediate predecessors just happened to have put in an unusual amount of work developing those tools of introspection that other people kind of didn't. And so that's why they got there.
That's the idea. And of course, strictly speaking, this is not scientific data because it's not publicly observable. Nobody can see what I'm seeing when I meditate other than me. On the other hand, you know, phenomenology the description of subjective experience from within is a part of Western philosophy that is considered legitimate and is thought to possibly shed real light on the workings of the mind. So I wouldn't call this part of Buddhism scientific. I would say, though, that the fact that some of the observations that have come out of it seem to comport well with what science is suggesting, you know, speaks highly of it.
If actually that was going to be my next question. If if these important truths about human psychology and the human condition are detectable just through introspection, then what has modern science added beyond what we were already to able to discern with introspection, like, you know, what is cognitive science? Contributing well, a good example is kind of changing views of what exactly the conscious self is and does. I mean, I think the the intuition that humans naturally have as they just go about their lives is that the conscious self is this kind of CEO.
I'm the one thinking the thoughts, making the decisions. I'm in charge. I being the conscious self doubt has been cast on that going back decades, including the so-called split brain experiments where they did these experiments on people whose the connections between their hemispheres, the cerebral hemispheres, had been severed. And that allowed them to kind of give instructions to one side of the brain to like do things. And the instructions were not accessible to the side of the brain that is reporting about its motivation for doing things right.
So, you know, you'd say, well, get up and start walking. And then you would ask the person, why are you walking? And the left hemisphere, which didn't know why it started walking, would say, well, I'm getting a soda or something. And there's other there's other data suggesting that the impetus for action does not always begin with with conscious intention. But we do tend to make up good stories about our motivation and sometimes actually believe them.
So there's that as data and different kinds of experiments suggest that. And that's very consistent with the Buddhist idea that the self, as we normally think of it, doesn't exist. This kind of S.O.S, there are doubts about that in very early Buddhist texts. And then one of the models that has come along in psychology that I think has a lot to be said for it and is especially, although not only associated with evolutionary psychology, is called the modular model of the mind.
And the idea here is that the mind consists of a lot of little factors like and these are like little kind of modules are they're not spatially discrete. I mean, they're not, you know, any given module would tend to have its functionality distributed over various parts of the brain. But still, you can think of them as modules that have specialties and were probably engineered by natural selection at different times in evolutionary history. So you might have a module that that's in charge of getting you to eat stuff.
Right. And then you might have one that's in charge of getting you to impress people who are worth impressing. And if you're at a cocktail party and you're talking to someone, but you can kind of see the orders and you feel a tension there, maybe that is a tension between two modules like this one trying to get you to do one thing, one trying to get you to do the other. And maybe often the tension between different modules is not consciously perceptible, and in the conflict between them get settled at the subconscious level.
And it's the winning module, so to speak, that is in charge of sending thoughts into your consciousness at any given point. And this is in a lot of ways compatible with Buddhist thinking, and it's compatible with a particular observation. You hear from like meditation teachers and advanced meditators. They'll say thoughts think themselves and what they mean by that. What they mean is that if you get your mind to a sufficient state of quiet and you observe thoughts, suddenly it doesn't seem like you're generating them.
It seems like they're kind of drifting in from left field. And you realize that, well, maybe normally the situation is thoughts actually kind of enter my consciousness from somewhere in my brain and I automatically take ownership with them and assume that I'm the originator of them. But if you really calm your mind, you realize that actually thoughts are being injected into consciousness. So that's a that's a case of an introspective, meditative observation that's kind of nicely compatible with with a model from modern psychology that I think has a lot to be said for it.
Got it. So. So what I'm hearing is introspection can tell us that a phenomenon exists like or that, you know, the there's there's something wrong with our assumption that we are a single unified self, say, and then science can tell us the how and why, ideally, like, it can tell us how, you know, sort of more nitty gritty mechanisms underlying, you know, the fact that the self doesn't exist and can also maybe tell us why the brain is that way evolutionarily.
Yeah, I mean, I think it can, first of all, corroborate the claim itself that, yeah, it is looking like the conscious self isn't so in control. But then yeah, further it can if it can have a provide a model that explains what's going on, that accounts for this fact and in other words, what is in charge, you know, and also with evolutionary psychology, you can take it one level deeper, can provide an account in principle of how this system came to be created and why the system exists.
Great. OK, great. So let's now dive into one of the central claims that you cited at the beginning from Buddhism that you're defending in the book, which is that these false models of the world are one of the main causes of suffering. I don't maybe one of the main was my hedging words. Maybe you just said because of human suffering. I don't remember how strongly you stated it, but maybe just give an example to start us off of a kind of delusion.
The most common sensical example of how natural selection seems capable of explaining an illusion posited by Buddhism. We'll get to the question later whether you want to consider this a real illusion. But is this thing I alluded to earlier, the fleeting ness of gratification? Why does gratification evaporate? Now, in Buddhism, this is considered a kind of misperception or illusion because we don't really come to terms with it. It's like we keep pursuing these things kind of half thinking that they will persist.
I mean, you know, at one level, if you ask me, do I think a powdered sugar donut will bring me eternal bliss, I will say no. On the other hand, or a promotion or any anything I seek or a new smartphone. On the other hand, when you're pursuing these things, you are focused. You're thinking about kind of the gratification, generally, the good part, and not the fact that it will fade and leave you yearning for more.
So you can see why why Buddhism calls this a kind of misperception. But in any event, it makes perfect sense that it would be engineered into animals because that's what keeps animals pursuing goals. If you imagine an animal that just ate a meal and then said, OK, I'm good, I'll never get never gets hungry again, well, that animal will die. Obviously, natural selection wouldn't want those kinds of animals because they're not going to live long enough to get their genes into the next generation.
So that's a kind of example. But another example is this kind of illusions about the self. So it makes sense. And again, this idea, like many in evolutionary psychology and for that matter, many in evolutionary biology broadly, it's kind of conjectural. It's not like. All proven are all that solidly established, but there are very plausible explanations of why we would have illusions about the extent to which, quote, we are in control and the extent to which we have coherent, defensible motivation for everything we do, and in particular, a defensible moral explanation.
Right. That's another bias, an illusion that seems built into us and certainly widespread that we all seem to think we're better than average, morally, at least, at least way more than 50 percent. People report that. And, of course, some of them must be wrong. So I guess unless there's like one person who's just extremely immoral, he could skew the average so that the rest of us are actually all above average. Never mind. I'm sorry.
This is a dumb tangent. I guess it may depend on whether we're talking or median here, but but the you know, and I should also say that they're just it's pretty clear that natural selection can foster misperceptions, just have a very pedestrian sort, like we tend to overestimate the speed of approaching objects, presumably because it's better to be safe than sorry, better to get out of the way too soon and too late. So and it just makes perfect theoretical sense that that natural selection, given that the entire bottom line is genetic proliferation, you know, those traits conducive to genetic proliferation are the traits that will flourish.
It makes sense that that traits that make us misperceive things could flourish so long as they get genes in the next generation. And traits that make us suffer could flourish so long as they get genes in a next generation. And that seems to be the case not just with the fleeting ness of gratification, but also just with things like anxieties, fears. I mean, they were built to apparently motivate us through suffering. And then in a modern Environment Day, the situation gets worse because so many of them are kind of unproductive in a more, you know, ah, less less defensible as being in any sense productive than they might have been an environment more like the one we were designed for.
So there's a lot of I think a lot of examples of how natural selection makes us suffer and makes us misperceive the world. And I also think that that there are connections between those two things is as Buddhism posits.
So you mentioned the modular mind model earlier. One of my recent episodes was with Rob Kurzban, who describes the modular mind model in why everyone else is a hypocrite. And you know, I for about a third of that episode, I kind of went back and forth with Rob about. Whether we would, in fact, be better off if we could reduce this, well, I kept wanting to call them self deceptions, but, you know, he doesn't like the idea of the concept of a self.
So I wasn't allowed to call it that. But that's what they are, the self deceptions or delusions. And, you know, his his whole model, which I think some other scientists are philosophers share, is that these delusions are useful still not just in the evolutionary adaptive environment, because they have the signaling function where, you know, if we think that we're in control or we're really strong or reliable or virtuous, that will help us convince the other people around us that we are those things, too.
And that's strategically useful. And so he just sort of kept like I would give an example of a of a bias or a delusion. He'd say, yes, but that's useful because X, Y, Z. So do you disagree with him about that? Do you think that these these delusions don't serve a useful purpose in sort of a psychological propaganda, or do you just think that, yes, they do, but the suffering they cause us outweighs it?
I think I largely agree, Rob is interesting because, you know, I taught a seminar a couple of years at Princeton on Buddhism and I had him visit the class both times because he's nearby. He's Penn and I and I mentioned him in the book. And one interesting thing about him is that he reached his idea that the self doesn't exist before he was at all conversant in Buddhism. And I think maybe before he knew the Buddhism says the self doesn't exist.
And I thought that was a fascinating kind of corroboration, you know, when somebody with no knowledge of Buddhism independently reaches the same conclusion. But as for the I'm certainly not denying that various things are in some sense use various distortions that natural selection might have built into our minds are in some sense useful in the modern world. I, I, I guess I'd say. A couple of things, I mean, first of all, some are just manifestly not like certain forms of public speaking anxiety.
I mean, evolutionary psychologists would say that anxiety is natural. It's it's natural to worry about what people think of you, because apparently being held in esteem was during evolution, correlated with getting genes in the next generation. But we are not designed, quote unquote, designed by natural selection, you know, to speak to large groups of people we've never met before. In other words, that was not part of the environment in which anxiety evolved. And so it's not surprising that that freaks people out way beyond any utility it might have.
I mean, if you're so freaked out, you can't sleep the night before a talk or you can, you know, then that's not that's not good. And I think there are a lot of examples like that where anxiety, maybe remorse or self-loathing, a lot of things are are just not functional in the modern environment. The other thing I'd say is that some of the things are valuable to people like they facilitate social climbing, say some of these illusions, but that presupposes that social climbing is itself good for you.
And that's an argument you could have. I mean, I think Buddhism tends to question things that are pretty fundamental level and and so it might encourage questioning. Well, is the relentless pursuit of social status. I mean I mean, I understand why I have it. IT status got genes into the next generation. So I have the thirst for that, just like I have the thirst for, you know, sweet foods, which are another thing, by the way, another another feature that was more functional back before the invention of modern things like junk food than than it is now.
But but that doesn't mean, you know, if upon examination I decide that the quest for status, especially, again, in a modern environment, that may be different from the one we designed for, if I decide that that's actually not making me happy anyway, then some of these illusions are actually not not useful even at that level. You talk throughout the book about emotions like anxiety or fear, and you you sometimes refer to them as being true or false, not just being useful or not useful for achieving happiness or achieving your goals.
How do you decide if an emotion is true? Well, there's a couple of definitions I play a way I play around with, you know, feelings originally, presumably, I mean, approach avoid, which presumably is associated with good feeling, bad feeling is the most fundamental behavioral decision in life and presumably the oldest light you like. You avoid toxin's predators, you approach food mates. And so you could say, well, a feeling is true. Feelings are designed to serve the interests of organisms and strictly speaking, the interests of the genes of the organisms.
But if if indeed approaching something because it feels good to approach it leads to some nutrient that's good for the organism, then you can say, OK, that feeling was true. You could have that definition of a truth or falseness of a feel.
It just seems like useful, though, or sorry. That does seem like another way to say a useful or not useful emotion. You could say that. But of course there's a whole philosophical tradition called pragmatism that asserts that you can think of what's true as being what's useful. I don't really get into that in the book. But but but I. I just play around in that in my chapter on feelings and let me back up and say the point of that is to kind of again, get back to this Buddhist claim that we suffer because we don't see the world clearly.
And so the reason I want to provide the back story on feelings and give people a way of asking themselves, wait a second, is this anxiety clarifying my vision or obscuring my vision? You know, and in that sense, you might say, is it true or false? The reason I want to get people thinking that way is because I want to convince them that actually, yes, the kind of happiness of Buddhism promises does qualify for the label valid happiness, at least in the sense that it is associated with a clear view of the world, and I think can be associated with a morally clearer view of the world and better moral behavior.
So that's the reason I go through the exercise of looking at like anxiety and fear and so on. Now, there is a second sense in which feelings can be false, which is like, you know, a lot of these feelings are set to give us false positives. Like if you're taking a hike and you've heard this rattlesnakes around and you hear rustling in the grass, you're going to feel fear. And if a lizard darts out, you may well literally think you see a snake for a second.
And that's just literally false, that that's a case of a feeling fostering. Or if you even go, oh, I'll bet that's a snake and don't see the snake, that's a feeling. Fostering a literal falsehood. Now, that's seems to be designed into us by natural selection because it's better to be scared ninety nine times when it's not necessary than failed to be scared. The one hundred times when when the snake fatally bites you. But but that's another sense in which feelings can be false.
And the main point of this is to convey to people, look, especially the modern environment. We are suffering because of feelings that are just in know whether you want to call it useful or true, I don't I don't care, but there's nothing good to be said about they're not doing you any good. And meditation offers an actual practice for loosening their grip on you for for for for for liberating yourself from them to some extent and even a large extent.
And I think providing the evolutionary back story can actually help the meditative process. I mean, it can give you the, I think, appropriate sense that feeling should be treated skeptically. You know, you should not assume that they are valid guides to how you should behave. And and so I think I mean, I think there's kind of there's philosophical value in asking what you mean by a feeling being true or false or whatever. But I also think there's just practical value in deciding which feelings we should trust.
You talk about how Buddhism and and and developing a skill at mindfulness can help you make decisions in a in a more detached way. Is it that you're you're less subject to influence from emotions that may be false or unuseful? What do you think about the objection that we need emotions in our decision making to help us really know what our values and priorities are and without them, we'd be stunted. Decision makers like you've probably read Damasio's work about how patients with brain damage such that parts of their brain that make them feel emotions when they consider possibility is patients with damage to those parts of their brain have terrible judgments, because when they make decisions, they can't sort of viscerally feel what would be a good or bad outcome.
So they make horrible, self-destructive choices. Yeah, I guess I'm just interested in how how you see that interacting with Buddhism. Yeah, well, if you had no if you had no feelings at all, you would have no preferences, you would have no goals and in a sense no values. And and there are interesting questions that people raise about whether, well, in principle, if you followed the meditative path all the way to enlightenment and that meant you had kind of in some sense overcome the whole phenomenon of aversion and attraction or at least any kind of clinging attraction, would you have lost all your values and end up in the philosophical version of that question is, is Buddhism ultimately nihilistic?
Now, I think that's a good in principle question, not a very important practical question, because very few of us are in danger of going so far down the same path that it becomes a practical question, like in terms of issues of like social, whatever your social and political issues are. I am so far from not caring about what's going on in politics in America right now. I mean, my goal is to calm down enough to pursue my what goals I do have wisely.
And there's one other point, which is that when you talk to meditators who have gone way, way, way, way down the path, people can plausibly claim that they actually walk around with no feeling of self and even don't have self-referential thoughts like, I want this. I want that these people do continue to function and they describe it as just being kind of on autopilot. They show up for their appointments. They show up to my seminar and talk to my students.
And they have, it seems like a normal set of human aspirations, more or less, even if they do have an air of detachment about them and don't seem to be desperately seeking anything in particular. So have you ever asked them what their aspirations are grounded in, like why they care about whether there's aspirations or satisfied? Well. They sometimes make a distinction, I mean I mean, I think the answer is they have not entirely transcended the whole phenomenon of aversion and attraction.
And so they don't qualify as truly enlightened. But a distinction that one of them made to me is that, you know, your nerve endings aren't dead. You still a glass of wine tastes good, but you've dropped the whole story about like, oh, this is a really expensive bottle of wine. Nineteen seventy seven was a very good year. You know, all these things that have been shown to delude people, by the way, I mean, they've done the experiments where they, they give people two bottles of wine.
And what the people don't know is it's the same wine, but one of them has this fancy label, the other doesn't you know, they have shown that people think they like the supposedly more expensive bottle better. And they've done the brain scans showing that certain pleasure centers are actually lighting up that light up with genuine pleasure. But but these these brain scan studies also kind of distinguish between two parts of the brain, the kind of bottom up part of pleasure sensing, and then the part that seems to bring a narrative to the sensory experience and further shape the pleasurable illness or lack thereof.
And what these people are kind of saying is they've just dropped that part of the brain, it seems is not may not be working in them many more. They've dropped the narrative and that applies to a lot of the parts of their lives they've dropped, clinging to a particular narrative about themselves. In principle.
I'm not saying these people have totally dropped them, but is the is the ideal there to have as little narrative in your perception of the world as possible? Or is it to have the freedom to choose which narratives you employ and only you know, and therefore only be able to choose the narratives that enrich your experience as opposed to. I would say that the early parts of the meditative path, and I'm afraid those are the only parts I have personal experience with, except for kind of brushes with deeper experience that I've had on meditation retreats.
But so is my daily practice. I would say what it allows you to do is replace a bad story with a more wholesome one like replace I'm all I'm the one who's always screwing up with a different story. It gives you in a certain sense, it gives you enough space around your feelings to kind of build another narrative. But at a deeper level. I remember a meditation teacher on one of my retreats saying to me that, you know, in a way, you know, if you look at what cognitive behavioural therapy does, it convinces people that that the sources of their like, say anxiety are just not logical.
They don't hold up to logic and they need to find a better story. Right. It's like the narrative that you're going to screw up at this public speaking event is is false. Find a better narrative. He said that's fine. It works, it's fine. And I would say that's kind of characteristic of the early stages of meditation. And he said, but you can get to the point where you are just beyond stories. And I unfortunately don't know exactly what that's like.
But he could plausibly claim to have and in some ways I envy him. Yeah, I, I wanted to say I, I really appreciate the way that you talk about in the book about your personal experiences with meditation because you're so not a natural meditator. And to my listeners who haven't read the book, I'm not being mean. He's very clear and explicit about that in the book. But it's I appreciate it because I'm also not a natural meditator.
Not that I've tried all that hard, but when I did try, it was did not come easy to me. And so this is sort of like it's like being shown around an exotic world by a guide who's from my world. And I can appreciate how exotic it is instead of being of the world himself. You know, it is exotic. And I take your compliment as a compliment, even though one could interpret it another way. But it was meant that way.
Yeah, yeah. No, no, you're right. I mean, I have attention problems. I'm not a I'm not a good meditator, but, you know, if I can do it, I think almost anybody can. Can I ask something that's always confuse me about meditation is, you know, I've asked people before, but what's what's the point of meditation like? Why should I like what if they get me? Basically. And a common response I get is, look, there's no goal.
There's no point. If you approach meditation, trying to get something out of it, then you're doing it wrong. And I just don't know how to react. Like if there's no point, why should I do it? But then we go round in circles. I think the truth is. You do have a goal. People don't go to meditation retreats because they just stumbled on them. I mean, people, you know, if you can do something that extreme, there's probably a reason.
Right? But you do have it right. I'm not crazy. I'm sure they say it all the time. He does it all the time. And they're right in the sense that if you focus on the goal, it will get in the way of attaining the goal. That's that's not really a logical contradiction. It's the way we are that, you know, in fact, in sports, if you if you start thinking about trying to attain your goal, if you start thinking too hard about trying to make the free throw or trying to throw a strike, it'll get in the way.
The goal so we know that this is true, can be true of human behavior. But let's face it, I mean, the Buddha said in the first famous sermon, he basically laid out the goal, let's try to end suffering. I mean, so it's the fact is there is there is a goal. And the fact is also that at least in certain contexts, like while you're meditating, the less you think about it, the better and more specifically.
And also just kind of the less you beat yourself up because you can't focus on your breath or something, that just tends not to be productive. So there are a lot of ways in which a more casual attitude to the practice can pay off. But I do. I meditate for a reason, you know, and I think most people do. Yeah, I guess I wish. So that makes sense. And I am familiar with the the phenomenon of, you know, it being counterproductive to focus on your goal.
But I do wish that they would just be more straightforward in saying, like, here's the goal, but try not to focus on it when you're meditating and maybe they think that's, you know, less helpful than just claiming there's no goal or something. But that also seems like a bit of a strategic deception that I feel, you know, doesn't go well with the whole theme of Buddhism. Yeah, I mean, I think in their defense, there may be, you know, kind of a deeper reason.
It isn't just that if you try to calm down through meditation, you'll have more trouble coming down. It's that, you know, in a state of mindfulness. It's just like trying to do anything in particular gets in the way, like if you feel anxiety, the natural reaction is to try to end the anxiety, whereas the the the guidance in mindfulness meditation is and I know this sounds a little touchy feely, but but just to be with it, you know, and and that's that's good.
It's good advice. In other words, don't run from it. And that's not easy. I mean, we so naturally are always I mean, again, we're built to to very often want to be somewhere we're not or want to to be things to be different than they are. And mindfulness only really works well if you let go of that at a pretty fine grain level. So you're not so, you know, you feel anxiety and naturally you should want to get away from it, but you don't even try.
You should try not to try to do that, you know, if that makes any sense.
OK, so let me try to summarize what I think is your thesis about. Delusions or or false false beliefs about the world, we have a bunch of negative delusions, things like anxiety and fear that maybe are natural and made sense from an evolutionary perspective, but are definitely not useful or not true now in the modern world. And so Buddhism can help reduce those. And then we have these other sort of you might want to call them positive delusions that make us feel good, but are actually bad for us in the long run, or they're not necessarily bad for us.
But they help us pursue goals like, say, social climbing that maybe aren't the optimal like wouldn't make us the happiest. Or if we were really being sort of reflective and careful, we wouldn't choose our goals. Is that. And so that's why you also advocate using the tools of Buddhism to reduce those positive delusions as well. Yeah, I mean, I wouldn't say things like fear and anxiety are always misleading, but I would say they often are, especially in a modern environment.
And as for the kind of what you might call positive illusions or in any event, the category of illusions that in this case help us navigate the social currents and serve our own interests in the along the social landscape. I you know, I don't have a problem with people who want to achieve high status. We all do that to some extent. I mean, we all you know, I've got a book out. I want it to be highly regarded and I want people to think I'm great.
You know, I haven't I haven't transcended that. But I and and I'm not convinced that you can't can't be happy through social advancement, although I think, you know, psychologists have shown that on a treadmill, you know, there's a lot of self negating kind of dimensions of the pursuit of various things at the level of aggregate happiness. But what I would say is if we're looking at those kinds of illusions that that you navigate social landscape. But I think we have to factor in the other phenomena, aside from your own social advancement, that they often lead to, like wars and things like that.
These are often the same illusions, the moral self certainty, you know, the self-righteousness. I'm right. They're wrong. My rivals are wrong. My enemies are wrong. My rivals are bad people. My enemies are bad people. That's a great tool for social climbing because you can then say and believe negative things about your rivals and undermine them. But but, you know, when you start looking at wars that kill millions of people and are fueled by, to some extent the same dynamic, I think you have to add that into the calculus.
And one reason I wrote the book is, is because of all the tribalism in the world, including political polarization in America and in wars and so on. So this is perfect. I had one more question I wanted to throw at you, and that's kind of a perfect segue into my question. One thing that's made this interview enjoyable for me is that I get to throw at you all of the objections that people throw at me when I tout the benefits of reducing irrationality and self-deception.
So one common objection I get that I haven't brought up yet is people will say, look, OK, maybe irrationality can be bad for you as an individual, but it's good for society or the world in general, because, for example, all these people start startups and they're they tend to be irrationally overconfident. Their startup is going to succeed, even though very few do. And that's bad for them as individuals. But it has this positive externality because, you know, one or two of those thousands of startups become Google or Facebook, and that's good for society in general.
And so we're all better off because those people were overconfident or, you know, just broaden the argument to discoverer's or innovators or world changes in general. They the argument goes they tend to be irrational and a bunch of ways have a bunch of delusions about how right they are or about, you know, maybe they're like more passionate than rationality would justify. But it's good that they are because that's how it gets done and that's how we get new discoveries in the world, changes over time.
So I guess, do you agree that that's like a point in favor of irrationality? And do you think that following your prescription would get rid of that crucial subset of of irrational world changers? Yeah, of course. I mean, the idea that we need as much striving as we have in the world for the good of the human species presupposes that technological evolution at its current rate is a good thing, where you could argue that it's destabilizing fast. But anyway, that aside, I.
Look, I think you should always take externalities into account also. It's worth acknowledging that illusions are a kind of, you know, often benign social lubricant. I mean, when you're just doing business with someone or you find you have a common interest, that just perceiving that you can do business in one of these senses tends to give you a favorable view of them that allows you to like them, that allows you to you know, it warps your perception of them.
But that's often not a bad thing. It lets non-zero some games reach a win win outcome. And that's all great. I'm not on an all out crusade against illusions. And one thing I like about mindfulness meditation is it lets you pick and choose a little I mean, you can observe different feelings and decide which ones you want to get on board with. And now that alone may not get you all the way to enlightenment, but, you know, let's face it, how many of us are going to know are trying to get all the way or have any realistic aspiration of getting all the way?
I mainly want to give people what some people I mean, I want to show them how meditation can help them get what is sometimes called metacognition. Abbett both a better understanding of the forces that are actually influencing their cognition, their decisions, their behavior, and a technique for, you know, fiddling with that machinery a little to make themselves happier. And I think that will tend it's not guaranteed to, but I think it will tend to make them better people to behave better toward their fellow human beings.
And I think that's especially likely if it is informed by some kind of ethical system like Buddhism's. But but but I think I think it tends in that direction anyway. Great. Well, Bob, before I let you go, I want to invite you to give the rationally speaking pick of the episode. This is a book or article or something that has influenced your thinking in some way. What would your pick be?
Well, a book that I wouldn't particularly necessarily recommend. But if you're asking me, did it have a big influence on me? Yes, that's sorry. That that is what I'm interested in. When I was in high school, when I was in high school, I wasn't hanging out with an especially intellectual group of students. But I did, I guess because my brother in law was doing graduate work in psychology. I wound up reading B.F. Skinner is beyond freedom and dignity.
And, you know, it's about are we you know, do we do we have freedom or is in fact all our behavior determined? He tended to think it was all determined. He was an environmental determinist. He did. He he minimized and I think underplayed the role of genes. And so there's a lot in the book that I might not sign on to now. But there was something about the crisp analytical quality of the inquiry and the clarity of the writing that really kind of captivated me and I think probably turned him into a kind of role model for me for for a while where I just thought it would be cool to think that clearly in sound that smart, you know.
And and so even though I was only Frank, I love it. I don't there's a lot I'm sure if I went back, I wouldn't agree with the book. But in terms of influence in that book, that book influenced me. Wonderful. Well, we'll link to that as well as to your book, Why Buddhism is True The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Bob, thanks so much for joining us. It was a pleasure having you on the show.
Thank you, Julie. I really enjoyed the conversation. Likewise. This concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more exploration on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.