Why Buddhism is True [Robert Wright]

Start Date: 6 April 2019 (I think)

Finish Date: 12 April 2019 (I think)

Goodreads link.

Source: Amazon India Kindle edition.


I had learned about this book from an interview on EconTalk. I think it came at the right time for me – I was in a low mood, very susceptible to catastrophic thinking, and the central message of the interview – “Yes, life is suffering, but Buddhism gives us the tools to overcome it.” was much more helpful to me than any assurance that life wasn’t suffering and that I’m an idiot.

I’m probably still susceptible to catastrophic thinking (thank you, Dr Mehak Nagpal, for that term) but now my reaction to it is more “Fine, da, we’ll manage.” than “Best is to die.”

Specific points from the book now:

  • As always, I am a little leery of arguments built on evolutionary psychology that don’t acknowledge that sometimes adaptations arise just by accident, and not because they have a compelling argument. Fortunately, Wright doesn’t go down this route much.
  • His core evolutionary argument about suffering kicks off early and is: “The animal’s brain should focus more on (1), the fact that pleasure will accompany the reaching of a goal, than on (2), the fact that the pleasure will dissipate shortly thereafter. After all, if you focus on (1), you’ll pursue things like food and sex and social status with unalloyed gusto, whereas if you focus on (2), you could start feeling ambivalence.”

And then expresses things again as:

Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.

Scumbag evolution.

And admit it: though there’s something unpleasant about being made angry, there’s something pleasing about the feeling of anger itself—the feeling that you’re rightfully enraged. The Buddha said anger has a “poisoned root and honeyed tip.”

Or why we enjoy judging and bitching. Or as Adam Smith put it:

Love is an agreeable; resentment, a disagreeable passion; and accordingly we are not half so anxious that our friends should adopt our friendships, as that they should enter into our resentments.

  • The argument that we have multiple sort-of-conscious-subselves, each of which is pretending to be the self-in-charge is intriguing; not necessarily provable (or allowing me to understand the proof), but somehow instinctively rings true. Which is why I should probably be a little suspicious of it.

Brain-scan studies have shown that the same parts of the brain that mediate physical pain also mediate the pain of social rejection. Which helps explain why opiates and other painkillers can take the sting out of social setbacks. Even extended doses of Tylenol, one study showed, can dull the pain of social rejection.


(But wait, how robust were those studies?)

Still, if Hume is right, this prefrontal activity shouldn’t be framed as it’s commonly framed, as reason “overcoming temptation” or successfully “opposing feeling.” Reason has its effect not by directly pushing back against a feeling but by fortifying the feeling that does do the pushing back.

The context to this is that because there is evidence that we come to a conclusion before our reasoning brain actually gets involved, reason is more a postfacto justification of something we feel than the driving force. And because of what the book mentioned earlier about multiple subselves, each with their own feelings, it’s feelings that might clash against each other, not reason overruling feelings.

The good news according to Wright is that we can build up specific feelings like muscles.

Ordinarily, if you were determined to stay focused on your work notwithstanding a strong desire not to stay focused on your work, you might respond to the thought of researching smartphones with a reprimand: No, don’t think about smartphones—get back to writing! But if you take the mindful approach, you say: Go ahead, think about smartphones. Close your eyes and imagine how it would feel to search for the latest review of the latest smartphone. Examine the feeling of wanting a cool new smartphone and wanting to search online for one. Then examine it some more. Examine it until it loses its power. Now get back to writing!

I don’t know, it seems that just examining the feeling could send me down the rabbit hole. But it’s worth trying. And it also seems like it’s taking Spock’s ‘Wanting is better than having‘ line to the next level of abstraction.

We build stories on stories on stories, and the problem with the stories begins at their foundation. Mindfulness meditation is, among other things, a tool for examining our stories carefully, from the ground up, so that we can, if we choose, separate truth from fabrication.

Terry Pratchett: because stories take over the human mind, the story creates reality and should be treated and respected as reality

Yuval Noah Harari: because stories take over the human mind, we must have CONSTANT VIGILANCE to protect ourselves from their parasitic influence which obscures reality

Becky Chambers and Robert Wright: stories take over the human mind, but there are multiple stories trying to do this, so we had better make sure that only the right ones get through

There’s one other thing that essence seems to be intertwined with: stories. The stories we are told about things, and the stories we tell ourselves about things, influence how we feel about those things and, presumably, thus shape the essence that we sense in them.

This also reminded me of the prescriptive parts of Geoff Miller’s Spent.

It’s great that natural selection gave us the capacity for love and compassion and altruism, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept natural selection’s guidance on how to allocate these precious resources.

This is of course true in itself, but also reminds me of how I once ranted that we should try to sabotage our genes’ best interest.

I want to emphasize how hypothetical this is, this imagined trade-off between attention to the welfare of kin and of nonkin. The upshot of the standard, more reassuring answer to the question about diminished love is generally true: don’t worry, your family relationships will on balance be enriched as you follow the dharma, even if—maybe especially if—you follow it a long way. Still, I don’t want to gloss over this important point: from a moral perspective, the effect of your meditation practice on the people you already love isn’t necessarily the only or even the central issue.

This both ties into the argument for effective altruism; and is also reassuring in its own right about how detachment probably won’t make you less loving.

Still, you do this not in order to abandon your rational faculties but rather to engage them: you can now subject your feelings to a kind of reasoned analysis that will let you judiciously decide which ones are good guiding lights. So what “not making judgments” ultimately means is not letting your feelings make judgments for you.


But there’s good news on this front. If you would like to think of meditation practice as being a rebellion against an oppressive overlord, we can arrange that: just think of yourself as fighting your creator, natural selection. After all, natural selection, like the robot overlords, engineered the delusions that control us; it built them into our brains. If you’re willing to personify natural selection, you can carry the comparison with robot overlords a bit further: natural selection perpetrated the delusion in order to get us to adhere slavishly to its agenda.

Ahahahahaha. This is a little bit too much of being in sync with my thoughts.

It’s feelings that motivate you to do these kinds of things, and, in these kinds of cases, I say it’s fine to trust your feelings.

Context: “these things” are being kind and helpful and loving to others. And the way Wright has written this line, I was reminded of Pratchett’s Feet of Clay, and Dorfl saying: ‘This Is An Option Available To Me As A Free-Thinking Individual But I Will Not Do So Because I Own Myself And I Have Made A Moral Choice.’

So, for example: The fear instilled in a human by a snake amounts to a judgment that the snake is bad—something to be avoided. But the lust inspired by that very same snake in a member of its own species means the snake is good—something to be copulated with. Rotting flesh fills us with revulsion because approaching it could bring contact with tiny parasites; but from the point of view of the tiny parasites, rotting flesh is the ideal culinary milieu. And so on: stagnant, fetid swamps are off-putting unless you’re, say, a mosquito or an alligator, in which case they’re sublime. Young pandas like a nice meal of mother panda dung; I think I’ll pass, thanks.

No great insight here, but it made me remember “But Gussie isn’t a parrot.” and giggle.

At the same time, it is in the spirit of Buddhism to be skeptical of demonizing anyone or anything, so let me say a few kind words about natural selection: it did create sentient life, and sentient life can be a wonderful thing. Indeed, the bliss that is said to be part of true Enlightenment wouldn’t be possible without sentience. Neither would the more modest growth of happiness that can be had with more modest progress along the meditative path. You might even say that sentience is what gives life meaning and makes it a matter of moral concern. Certainly Buddhism’s moral emphasis on respect for sentient beings wouldn’t make much sense if there weren’t any sentient beings around.

Aww. I’m not sure how often I feel this though.

And sometimes I even perform a feat previously thought (by me, at least) impossible: while sitting at the computer, staring at something I’m writing and feeling a painfully strong urge to do anything other than write, I close my eyes, observe the urge until it weakens, and then get back to writing.

Seriously willing to try Vipassana training if this is the outcome.

Another way you could put it is that I am pursuing enlightenment—it’s just that, rather than think of enlightenment as a state, I think of it as a process. And I think of liberation—liberation from dukkha—in the same way. The object of the game isn’t to reach Liberation and Enlightenment—with a capital L and E—on some distant day, but rather to become a bit more liberated and a bit more enlightened on a not-so-distant day.

Maybe I like this quote so much because it fits with my existing personality; how I try to handle my relationship with my wife, and of course the get rich slowly philosophy of personal finance.

I’ll never forget something that Narayan said on my first meditation retreat: “Boredom can be interesting.”


Seeing the world more clearly can make you not just happier but more moral. This isn’t a guaranteed outcome. There have been very good meditators who were (apparently) very happy and (manifestly) very bad people. Still, there is a close enough association between the psychological dynamics that make us suffer and the psychological dynamics that make us behave badly toward people that the Buddhist prescription for lessening or ending suffering will tend to make us not just happier but better people. That this moral progress isn’t guaranteed is one reason meditative instruction has typically been paired with the sort of ethical instruction that is so prominent in Buddhism.


As it happens, the term enlightenment has another relevant dimension; it signifies the era when the West made a decisive turn toward rational analysis. This struck me as apt, given this book’s argument that the Buddhist worldview, or at least the naturalistic part of it, makes great sense by the lights of the philosophy and science that emanated from that era.




  1. […] Apparently octopus intelligence has evolved even though octopi are solitary and not social creatures – while the episode didn’t mention it explicitly, this probably refers to the theory that human intelligence is an evolutionary response to having to communicate with each other (and is touched upon in Paleofantasy among other things I’ve read recently). The flip side of this, of course, is that evolving to figure out what other humans are thinking means that we are now dangerously prone to perpetual social anxiety or vanity, as Why Buddhism Is True reminds us. […]


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