Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Suffering is Interesting, Ending Suffering is Uninteresting

One of the most important statements of Buddhist philosophy is the Four Noble Truths. These were taught by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the first discourse he made to the five ascetics, who he had worked with during his first years after becoming a monk.

The Four Noble Truths are stated thus:
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. 

Existence is suffering.

The cause of suffering is craving.

The cessation of suffering comes from the giving up of craving.

The way to give up craving and reach the cessation of suffering is to follow the Eightfold Noble Path.

These may be true. They may be false. That is up to you to decide, as the Buddha himself said.

But what is intriguing to me is the relative levels of interest in each of the Four Noble Truths. If you check Google's search results, you get the following number of hits:

"First Noble Truth" - 54,000 results

"Second Noble Truth" - 30,100 results

"Third Noble Truth" - 31,700 results

"Fourth Noble Truth" - 28,100 results

So to judge accordingly, people are far more interested to find out that the Buddha thought the world is miserable than to find out how the Buddha proposed to deal with this predicament.

Less than 60% of the people who found the First Noble Truth insightful enough to quote it displayed any interest in finding out how to actually get rid of suffering. Of course, the Buddha may just be wrong about all this. But then why quote the First Truth in the first place?

Not only that, but having gotten to the end, we're told that the way forward is the Eightfold Noble Path.

"Eightfold Noble Path" - 17,800 results

This, of course, is even less interesting to people than the Noble Truths themselves, hence another third of people drop away. Oh, you mean he was actually serious about ending suffering, and gave a detailed description of how to get there? Bah, who's got time for that!

As a result, Buddhism more or less gets reduced in the popular conception to Brad Pitt's pithy phrase in 'Se7en'
"You're right. It's all f***ed up. It's a f***ing mess. We should all go live in a f***ing log cabin."
So why is the First Noble Truth much more interesting to people than the rest?

Perhaps they don't believe the rest. This is possible, but given the frequency of repetition, I hear the Brad Pitt version quoted as if it's the actual main point of Buddhism. I think most of the 24,000 odd people who don't get past Truth #1 honestly don't know what the others even say.

If they haven't heard the other three truths, it's because they didn't resonate in a way that made people want to repeat them. So why is that?

I suspect part of it comes from what The  Last Psychiatrist said about narcissism, here:
The unconscious doesn't care about happiness, or sadness, or gifts, or bullets.  It has one single goal, protect the ego, protect status quo.  Do not change and you will not die.  It will allow you to go to college across the country to escape your parents, but turn up the volume of their pre-recorded soundbites when you get there.  It will trick you into thinking you're making a huge life change, moving to this new city or marrying that great guy, even as everyone else around you can see what you can't, that Boulder is exactly like Oakland and he is just like the last guys.   And all the missed opportunities-- maybe I shouldn't, and isn't that high? and he probably already has a girlfriend, and I can't change careers at 44, and 3 months for the first 3/4 and going on ten years for the last fourth, and do I really deserve this?-- all of that is maintenance of the status quo, the ego. 
and here:
Grandiosity is only one possible manifestation of a psychic process that went awry.  The essence, the defining characteristic of narcissism is the isolated worldview, the one in which everyone else is not fully real, only part a person, and only the part the impacts you.
Narcissism is self-protective.  It simultaneously allows for the reduction of the other to prop status, while reassuring you that this perspective is not wrong or dangerous because it's not about superiority. 

The First Noble Truth, quoted alone and out of context, can sound ego-validating. Your suffering is a cosmic truth that is inescapable! The misfortune you're suffering is pre-ordained in the structure of the universe. It's not your fault - you're perfect the way you are!

Truths two through four, however, inform you that it is your fault. Whether you find this demoralising or inspiring says a lot about you. Your misery is due to your actions and thoughts, but it's something within your power to change. That should be great news, but of course it isn't necessarily. Faced with the choice between continuing to suffer and changing oneself, are you really surprised that lots of people prefer the former?

And the number that go on to find the details of how to actually do it is smaller still.

The Buddha, of course, was not a psychiatrist in the modern sense, and The Last Psychiatrist is no Buddhist either. But they find common ground in the following observation about the modern world - the main craving that people have is not really craving for material things or money, but attachment to their ideas of self.

So it's well worth pondering The Last Psychiatrist's description for how to deal with the problem of ego:
"Help me, please, I think I'm a narcissist.  What do I do?"
There are a hundred correct answers, yet all of them useless, all of them will fail precisely because you want to hear them.
There's only one that's universally effective, I've said it before and no one liked it. This is step 1: fake it.
You'll say: but this isn't a treatment, this doesn't make a real change in me, this isn't going to make me less of a narcissist if I'm faking!
All of those answers are the narcissism talking.  All of those answers miss the point: your treatment isn't for you, it's for everyone else.
If you do not understand this, repeat step 1.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Imperative of the Biological Imperative

Of all the problems facing western society, there is one question that I suspect will come to determine the answer to many of the rest. Will the West find a way to continue to have children, or will it not?

There is no escaping this question, because it is the one that evolution has ordained for us. Creatures that successfully reproduce replace those that do not. Traits that encourage reproductive success get selected for, regardless of what you personally think of them. 

Most people do not really comprehend this at a deep level, because they have odd and distorted ideas about what evolution is. 

In the popular conception, evolution is something that serves to make creatures awesome. It is effectively nature's version of the Apple R&D department.

Evolution made creatures crawl out of the primordial soup and survive on land. It made them grow wings and fly through the air. It made our brains grow until we became smarter than apes, and then we flew rockets to the moon. What's not to love? Everything gets better over time, because natural selection decreed it so.

Except that there's a hitch. These things only got selected for because the creatures with those traits had more children than those who didn't. Those children in turn survived to adulthood to reproduce, and the traits thus spread through the populace.

In an environment with scarce calories and plentiful disease and predators, being awesome was indeed a good way to outcompete other creatures. Being awesome may confer a survival advantage, but that is only a means to the real end of a reproduction advantage. Sever that link, and awesomeness is no longer selected for.

These days, humans only get predated by other humans, disease tends to mostly strike us down long after we are able to reproduce, and calories are so plentiful that the poor are fat.

So what gets selected for in that environment?

Well, the issue of surviving to be able to reproduce is mostly taken off the table. All that is left is the number of offspring.

If you want to find out what traits and ideas are being selected for right now, just look at what kinds of people are having more children. That's your answer.

As near as I can tell, in purely descriptive terms, what is being selected for is being from the third world, having low impulse control, and being religious. 

What is being selected against is being rich, being western, planning one's life choices carefully, and preferences that emphasize high investment in each child.

Of course, this trend can't last forever. The conditions that have produced the very environment of permanent calorie surplus seem unlikely to survive when the population becomes poor, third world and with low impulse control. But you probably don't want to be around to see what that looks like - it's kleptocratic third world famine, if there were no western countries to provide food aid. Things will get much, much worse before nature causes them to automatically get better again, when civilizational traits once again become eugenic.

If you, like me, value the ideas and culture of the West, then the decline of western populations has to be reversed. Without it, the traits that define the west simply become smaller and smaller among the population. It is possible that those western traits that are purely cultural in nature may still be passed on socially to the remaining population, even if they come from different demographic backgrounds. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The strategy is on brilliant display in the efforts by Republicans to convince Hispanics to vote for them. I leave you to judge its success for yourself.

In addition, the lack of native birth rates is a significant driver of the push for open borders. While there are some groups that push the idea for ideological reasons, part of the economic rationale frequently trotted out comes from the perils of a declining population. Economists care greatly that there will be fewer people to fund social security, work in low paid jobs, and be consumers in the economy. Economists are also, on the whole, oblivious to differences in human nature, and do not seem to much notice or care which people might be brought in for the job. But this can be turned into a strength, as long as you solve the birthrate problem - once native births are sufficient to meet all these economic objectives, business seems less likely to care if the borders get closed.

So if you want to preserve western society, you've got to figure out how to preserve western people.

In recent history, this has been considered a very difficult task. Even the great Lee Kuan Yew (who found this to be the biggest threat to his country) couldn't figure out how to do it, and came to the conclusion that the problem couldn't be solved with monetary incentives.

But is that really the only tool at our disposal? How about just plain old marketing? If marketing executives with sophisticated ad campaigns can sell us all sorts of junk from bottled water to beanie babies, surely they could sell us something worthwhile?

As it turns out, perhaps they can. This story from Denmark is among the most heartening things I've read in ages:
A racy ad campaign, started only nine months ago, has really hit the spot for Denmark's campaign for more baby-making. ...
It all started with cute appeals by Spies Travel to “give the world more babies” and “Do it for mom!” – which gave quite good data on how people tend to get groovier during a seaside vacation, as opposed to an alpine hike. 
Danes will have an average 14 percent more in offspring this summer than last, according to Cphpost, and according to Danmarks Statistic – the official national statistics bureau – 1,000 more babies were born in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2015.

 The problem may actually be amenable to successful policy interventions. And all they had to do was appeal to such timeless ideas as 'it's fun to have sex' and 'do it for your mum'.

I suspect most reactionaries find marketing to be a dreary and grubby business, unworthy of serious thinkers. Certainly in this regard, I think this is a mistake. Persuasion is necessary, whether you do it indirectly by changing cultures or directly by changing birth rates.

The alternative answers, like Spandrell's tongue-partly-in-cheek suggestion to convert to Islam, seem much worse. This is a problem that is not going away.