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Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary Psychology and Enlightenment

The truth can set you free—or at least free-er.

wc sanderson (Mauna Kea, HI)
Source: wc sanderson (Mauna Kea, HI)

In his new book, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, Robert Wright makes the case that the field of Evolutionary Psychology, which sees human nature as a product of natural selection, has supported the view of humankind proposed by Buddhism. Wright is an intellectual hero of mine. After first reading Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, I read Wright’s classic book, The Moral Animal. These two volumes led me to an informal, yet thorough study of Evolutionary Psychology and over time provided an epiphany in the way I thought about human behavior. (Interestingly, Pinker also has a book coming out shortly on enlightenment).

I wholeheartedly agree with Wright’s endorsement of Evolutionary Psychology as the way of understanding the human condition. Indeed, my own pursuit of knowledge in this field was driven by my belief that it provided the necessary foundation that most schools of clinical psychology were missing. And Wright provides a masterful synthesis of the field of Evolutionary Psychology and human nature, and in particular on the ultimate origin of our emotions (feelings) as a driving force of human behavior. It is a must read for anyone interested in the topic.

The germ of Wright’s premise is that evolution hardwired us to experience many (most?) irrelevant intense emotional reactions to various contexts in the modern environment that ultimately cause emotional suffering for the individual because they are programmed to maximize evolutionary success—not one’s own prolonged happiness. In fact, perhaps quite the contrary of generating satisfaction, evolution has selected for unhappiness (e.g., dissatisfaction, envy, guilt, fear)!

So what do we do with this? Most of us want to spend more time being happy (or at least not spend so much time being unhappy and suffering emotionally). But thanks to evolution we are built for only fleeting moments of happiness and prolonged feelings of dissatisfaction (a satisfied organism is not a motivated organism and thus not a winner in the game of natural selection!).

Both Wright and I agree that humans need to be enlightened to develop deep insight so that they can gain better control over the buttons being pushed in their brains that trigger emotions in order to move beyond this pre-programmed state of dysphoria. Wright’s remedy is to use meditation as a strategy to find enlightenment. This certainly seems like a reasonable proposition and he details the basis of his recommendation.

However, his fervent recommendation is a source of my disagreement with him. I believe Wright minimizes the power of knowledge and the impact it can have on influencing contemplative cognition (e.g., beliefs, knowledge, interpretation of our feelings)—which ultimately increase enlightenment.

Indeed, with regard to his acquisition of knowledge drawn from Evolutionary Psychology, Wright states:

What I got from evolutionary psychology was the worst of both worlds: the painful self-conscious without the deep happiness. I had both the discomfort of being aware of my mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.” (P.10)

And thus, the reason for his belief that meditation, not knowledge, is the way to overcome this difficulty. Certainly his personal experience is relevant. However, this premise ignores a whole area of scientific study on how cognition (e.g., interpretation, knowledge, insight) can impact one’s emotional experience. I can briefly summarize the knowledge in this area with the following statement: Thoughts and feelings influence each other - there is a reciprocal relationship between the two.

But my intellectual hero prevails in the end—or at least on page 69 of his book, where he notes perhaps there is another way to accomplish freedom from our irrelevant emotions—not just through meditation—but by consciously examining the validity of the feelings. This can free someone from the hold of these pre-programmed sources of dysphoria as well. Wright goes on to point out that perhaps the same mechanism underlies the effects of mindful meditation and cognitive processing of emotions—waking up to the fact that the feeling is irrelevant or excessive rather than remaining on automatic pilot and assuming it accurately reflects our current circumstances.

So rational enlightenment is not dead. There may be benefits to meditation over rational enlightenment—or vice versa. And it may be a function of individual differences (some may benefit more from one than the other—and perhaps both is the ideal). Why throw out either one?

But the bottom line is scientifically informed rationality can have a profound impact upon our behavior by providing a new view of ourselves and the world we live in. It can help liberate one from the cognitive biases and illusions built into our system and to consequently change our behavior to meet our current needs rather those programmed into us by evolution and based upon a very different context (although there may be some overlap between the two). So the truth can set you free—or at least Free-er. And that is the goal of enlightenment.

To assist with this process in my next blog I will examine the nature of emotions as evolutionary adaptations and discuss one other area of disagreement I have with mindful meditation as the primary way to deal with unwanted emotions: How does one go about deciding when an emotion should be listened to rather than merely experienced mindfully? And this is where consciousness comes into play—it is the process that allows us to reflect upon our experience and attempt to distinguish true alarms versus false alarms and adjust our behavior accordingly. Otherwise we would be pure stimulus-response machines. Which some humans may be because of their lack of insight. More about this to come.

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