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Highlights From The Comments On PNSE

(original post)

Alex M writes:

I think one of the main problems with the current state of rationalism (and many other fake “sciences” such as economics or sociology) is fuzzy thinking and lack of falsifiable empirical testing. So somebody claims to be “enlightened.” Does a smart person take that at face value? Of course not. Once you just start believing random shit, you’re no better than a superstitious primitive cargo-cult. You have to TEST all claims. For example, I don’t just take it at face value that economics is a real science just because a bunch of IYIs tell me so. I analyze economist predictions, see that their track record of successful predictions is atrocious, and then make the totally RATIONAL choice to discard my priors and treats economics as the laughable hocus-pocus that it is – because when you genuinely have an accurate view of reality, it doesn’t collapse under scrutiny. We should treat mystical claims exactly the same way. So somebody claims to be enlightened? Fine. How can they substantiate it? Can they do things that unenlightened people can’t, like clairvoyance, predicting the future, or sending messages through the collective subconscious in order to significantly impact world events? Do you see what I’m saying? Enlightenment should have some objectively quantifiable impact beyond just having a different internal narrative that is completely subjective and unprovable.

This total lack of skepticism that people have is endlessly frustrating to me, because it results in bad data and popular narratives that are completely incorrect, if not outright delusional. In my opinion, the reason we have entire pseudo-scientific fields (like sociology or economics) that are nothing more than fake science cargo cults is because of this credulous behavior that results in people just believing whatever an “expert” with a fancy degree says. The fact that we have a replication crisis is a result of this gullible tendency to accept claims at face value. We are slowly learning to fix science by being more skeptical of expert claims, but we have to apply these same standards of falsifiability to spirituality as well, otherwise we are simply shifting our cult-like behavior from the field of science to the field of religion.

Imagine a doctor told you that repeated trauma can cause a long-lasting state of dysphoric depersonalization. In fact, you don’t need to imagine it – I am telling you now that repeated trauma can cause a long-lasting state of dysphoric depersonalization. How much effort should you put any effort into doubting this? If I say that my evidence is I know a few patients with trauma histories who say they’ve had long-lasting states of dysphoric depersonalization, and that most other doctors I talk to also know some patients, and a couple of small studies have been done on this and say the same thing, are you especially interested in doubting it?

Now imagine a doctor tells you that repeated meditation can cause a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalization. Should our prior on this be any lower than the last statement? Should we reject the experience of thousands of people and dozens of studies because it’s just too far out there? Should we say that no rationalist should ever believe such a thing?

I don’t think the minimalist account of enlightenment takes us quite as minimal as “a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalization”. But it takes us pretty close. And the evidence includes thousands of otherwise-trustworthy people who say they’ve had the experience, including some people I know personally and trust quite a bit, and who radically change their behavior afterwards (even if that change is just being impressed by the experience they devote the rest of their lives to exploring it). These are accompanied by many other people who haven’t gotten that far but report surprising and related-sounding experiences from the small amount of meditation they’ve done. And all of this is supported by brain scan results. And all of this meshes well with the evidence from philosophers like Dennett and Parfit that the “self” is a construct created by the brain rather than an objective reality, which itself meshes well with evidence that groups like schizophrenics and drug users can have disturbed senses of self or misplaced self/other boundaries.

This is really as much evidence as we have for any kind of mental state we haven’t experienced personally, and I’m pretty okay with it.

Bugmaster asks:

If 50 people told you they were abducted by aliens, does it mean that there are aliens abducting people?

No. I also wouldn’t believe 50 people who said they had seen Bigfoot, or created perpetual motion machines. I would believe 50 people who said McDonalds had a new dessert on the menu, or that Biden was up in the polls today, or that they had the flu (assuming I hadn’t investigated these issues myself).

As Bayesians, we compute our belief by combining evidence with priors. Our evidence in all these cases is “fifty people believe something”. Our priors are either very low (in the first three examples) or reasonably high (in the last three).

As I mentioned above, my prior that there are euphoric depersonalized states of consciousness is pretty high, given that I know there are dysphoric depersonalized states of consciousness. It’s certainly not low enough that when thousands of people swear they have it, and most of the neuroscientists who look into it end up pretty convinced that it’s real, I’m going to say “Haha, no, you’re all lying”. For thousands of not-really-enlightened people to all falsely claim to be enlightened, describe enlightenment in similar ways, and go around teaching students who themselves later claim to be enlightened, all without giving up the game – sounds like an absurd conspiracy theory.

If I try to steelman the anti-enlightenment argument, the best I can do is to imagine a sort of placebo enlightenment, where if you get told by your culture that you can feel inner peace and selflessness by doing X, eventually you feel (something that can be mistaken for) inner peace and selflessness.

But if we’re going to worry about this, why don’t we believe that LSD only causes placebo hallucinations? Maybe drug culture talks up LSD hallucinations so much that users say they’ve seen them to fit in. Why don’t we believe chronic pain conditions are only placebo pain? Why don’t we worry that “runners high” and “endorphin rushes” are just stories runners tell to feel better for themselves after torturing their bodies over long marathons?

Part of the answer must surely be “because there’s no philosophical difference between pain and a ‘placebo pain’ which presents the same subjective experience as pain, given that pain is a subjective experience”. The other part will depend on our priors about how often people have unusual experiences vs. how often people make things up. My prior is that people have really unusual experiences all the time, and that they make things up much less than doctors like to think. My OCD sometimes presents as a burning need to touch a random piece of furniture far away, felt through a sensory modality I cannot describe to anyone without the condition; my standing to accuse other people of making their unusual experiences up is pretty much nil.

I worry that all of this is being contaminated by associations with the word “enlightenment”, where it represents something like “becoming a superhuman surrounded by glowy rays of light”. If you just say “euphoric depersonalization experience” (or, like Martin, “persistant non-symbolic experience”), it doesn’t seem to have as much cause for skepticism. I imagine people doubted the existence of Komodo dragons for a while based on generally-accurate anti-dragon priors, but if you just think of them as “big lizards” then the problem disappears.

Seppo has a more interesting anti-enlightenment steelman than my poor attempt:

The most interesting enlightenment-skeptical thing I’ve ever heard is this interview (“Meditation: Deconstructing Nonsense” with Bill Joslin; h/t peach jam on David Chapman’s blog).

To summarize (from somewhat hazy memory, sorry):

Joslin did various Buddhist and Taoist practices and had… some kind of weird experience and/or insight. I’m reluctant to throw the word “enlightenment” around since it’s defined in too many ways, but Joslin explains what his thing was in a good amount of detail. He also gives a lucid account of several different kinds of meditation practices that people do and why each of them would lead to something freaky happening to the self/other boundary.

Afterwards, he started teaching meditation, probably without an official licence. (At least, he doesn’t mention having one; even ex-Buddhists who have such certifications will normally say so and name the person who gave it to them, if the topic ever comes up.)

After having some doubts about the whole thing, he spent some time trying to talk about his Insights into the Nature of the Mind and/or Reality with ordinary Americans who had never been interested in Buddhism or meditation or the like⁠—and a lot of them told him something like, “Oh, sure, I know all about that. I was walking in the woods one day and sorta… noticed?”

Now he thinks that (1) whatever valid insights come with wild experiences like his are things that random people stumble into all the time without making a big fuss about it, and (2) the main function of mystical/meditation traditions is to get those insights to come at you in the form of unnecessarily dramatic experiences that they can then take credit for.

Remember, on the last SSC survey, 6% of respondents said they were enlightened. Sure, 4% of that is Lizardman’s Constant. What about the other 2%? Maybe some could be the walking-in-the-woods-one-day people Joslin talks about?

Skaladom writes:

Since we’re using Buddhist terminology, it might be worth pointing out that in Buddhism only those at the far end of the spectrum would be called enlightened. What the paper calls Stage 1, in particular, sounds pretty close to what Theravada Buddhism calls stream entry, which is recognized as an important step to enlightenment. A more generic term used by spiritual seekers to encompass all these levels is “realized”.

I think this is a good amendment to the above points. Maybe “enlightenment” really should be restricted to superhumans surrounded by glowy rays of light. One thing that many descriptions of spiritual experiences share is a warning that the first rungs on the enlightenment ladder, the entry-level forms of enlightenment, are so inconceivably world-shattering that the people who attain them will think they’ve reached the ultimate possible state of being unless they have really strong reasons to think otherwise. Maybe random people walking in the forest and 6% of SSC readers have had early-stage awakening experiences, but there are also states beyond that.

Aella writes:

Ok I’m about to do gossip: I know a highly experienced mediator, someone who’s worked with/around Jeffrey and I asked him about what he thought about the PSNE paper (which I liked a lot, particularly because I strongly related to having experienced the last location). He said that he thought Jeffrey was more interested in developing a good narrative (he makes a lot of money off this stuff) than actually trying to figure out patterns, and that the data is cherrypicked, and that he doesn’t really trust anything Jeffrey puts out.

Of course take this with a grain of salt, is heresay, but I trust the meditator enough that now I personally feel wary of the PNSE paper as well.

Also I’m really intrigued by the infighting that goes on in meditation communities, particularly around claims to enlightenment. I’ve talked at least one somewhat famous meditation teacher that is extremely sure another somewhat famous meditation teacher is definitely not enlightened. The lack of agreement in this area is so goddamn juicy and I really want to dig into it.

Cuke writes:

Student of Buddhism for past 35 years. I don’t claim enlightenment for sure, but I have some lived experience with this terrain — repeated glimpses let’s say, on and off the cushion.

The thing that makes me most skeptical about these reported findings is the discussion around stress and loved ones’ perceptions of the person.

As one goes down this path, the person experiences significantly less emotional reactivity. That means both that they will experience less stress in response to things that used to stress them more and they will move more flexibly/kindly through the world than they previously did. Loved ones will notice this, without question. The person themselves will experience fewer days of tight chest anxiety, hot-faced anger, tension headaches, chronic muscle tension, insomnia due to worry, fear of death, conflict with others, etc.

You can’t really compare one person to another that way because we all start at different places, but within a person, it seems dubious to me that a person could claim to be moving along the road to enlightenment and still be manifesting the same level of stress response and emotional reactivity as they did before. This to me is a contradiction of what it means to hold one’s experience more lightly, to cling less to ego, to be less identified with the self, to feel less attached to desire and aversion, and so on.

In my experience, the path is not reversible beyond a certain point. And there’s good reason for that — the awareness gained in meditation, or indeed however the insight comes — permanently changes one’s outlook about oneself and the nature of reality. You can’t un-see it. Part of what that means too is that the awareness/tools/insights gained in meditation cannot be isolated to the cushion — they change fundamentally how you experience and move through your daily life, how you respond to stressors and to other people.

Anyway, that’s been my experience and what I’ve witnessed in others. For all of us somewhere on the road but short of enlightenment, it doesn’t mean the end of stress, the end of pettiness, the end of ego, the end of clinging. But you definitely definitely would expect to see change along those dimensions in a way that would be noticeable to other people.

What comes through Scott’s review here is a particular focus on the experience of loss of self. Our language is imprecise in this arena. It’s possible to experience “loss of self” in the midst of sex or trance or on LSD or in the woods or after long hours of devotional chanting or certain breath practices. It’s possible to have moments of experiencing “loss of agency” in a way that feels very relieving. I don’t think this should be confused with “enlightenment.”

The path towards enlightenment is about “waking up” from cycles of attachment and aversion that we live in. I think it’s possible to have all kinds of transcendent experiences of “oneness” without making much progress on the waking up from attachment part. Those fleeting transcendent experiences may come and go in any person’s life. Waking up entails new levels of self-awareness that are not reversible (I can’t speak to the impact of dementia or brain injury) and that lead to deeper levels of compassion towards all beings.

I’m not familiar with what enlightenment means outside of Buddhist traditions, so part of the imprecision may be that people studying enlightenment experiences need to be clearer about how the definition varies from one tradition to another. I think it’s possible in the effort to study some phenomenon across traditions, that researchers are settling on a least common denominator that no longer resembles “enlightenment” as it’s understood within any one tradition…

For me personally, [gaining new levels of self-awareness] is like discovering a new room in my house. I may not always be able to go in and see the view from that room, but now that I know it’s there, I know that that view exists. Before that, I didn’t know that the room or the view existed. And now mostly, I know how to get back into that room and see the view. From that view, the things that used to cause me habitual suffering, no longer do. So even on days that I can’t get into the room, the things that used to cause me habitual suffering, don’t cause quite as much suffering.

[As for changes of outlook about the nature of reality] — I don’t have a short way to answer this question. I can tell you it’s not mainly a cognitive/philosophical shift, but it includes it. It’s a more visceral shift in terms of how I hold my moment-to-moment lived experience and how I view myself moving through it. All of it does indeed seem to be tied to what is described as the four noble truths — ie, that attachment causes suffering, that it’s possible to get freer from attachment, and that practicing that does free one up from suffering.

This is what I mean when I talk about the sheer number of testimonials. It’s not just some guy in Tibet trying to sell you a book. Whenever I talk about it, there are smart, normal-seeming people who pipe up and say they have “some experience with the terrain”. I think if you’re going to doubt all these people, you need some theory of what’s going on, something more explanatory than just “we’re rationalists so we don’t believe any of this stuff”.

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163 Responses to Highlights From The Comments On PNSE

  1. Elo says:

    Location 1 is not stream entry. These are different maps.

    I have my own vague sense of “enlightenment” and some sense of the locations. They seem a lot more like persistent concentration states, sometimes so persistent they seem permanent.

    Enlightenment needs to be able to leave states and possibly get back there without clinging.

    I am defining enlightenment as embodied insight into the nature of the 3 characteristics (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and no self). Not just intellectual understanding that sure the self is made up of parts just like the body is made up of atoms.

    States, just like hyperventilating can cause a state, will leave if not maintained, even by a background process of the mind. Enlightenment seems to be more about getting certainty around the insights and tying that into every moment or experience as opposed to tying ones self in the golden chains of jhana or other concentration states of experience.

    I believe that “fundamental wellbeing” is achievable in many ways. One way would be to Max out on putting attention to the good feelings whenever they are around, practice constant gratitude and presume everything is caused by an external God.

    I believe that enlightenment doesn’t come with physics breaking powers but it can come with improbable skill, for example presence, insight into the people and patterns around you and a couple of cool body skills like tummo (drying blanket powers).

    I’d encourage you to read his book, “the finders” for the bits of information that can be gleaned about his sample group.

    I agree with aella about the gossip, mainly because I’d expect him to give more away free if it was more enlightened and less marketing mumbo.

  2. Nicholas says:

    Alex M seems very angry at economists, but I think he doesn’t give them enough credit. I assume by “failed predictions” he means macro, which is fair, but micro is a different ballgame. True, micro predictions haven’t always panned out either, but the models are so strong that those failures warranted further investigation creating the field of behavioral economics, which in turn has given us the cognitive bias literature that rationalists in particular like to harp on about so much. Alex’s ardent rationalism owes a large debt of gratitude to the dismal science, and he’d do well to remember we often learn more from acknowledging when we’re wrong than we can when we were right in the first place.

    • Clutzy says:

      Maybe, I think he kinda makes a point about rationalists (and sorry for the generalization coming), but a lot of them are atheists. A common element in atheists (and I know these are not 100% overlapping sets) is a divine-like belief in something they consider non-religious.

      • silver_swift says:

        A common element in atheists (and I know these are not 100% overlapping sets) is a divine-like belief in something they consider non-religious.

        I think what your seeing is just that people believe a bunch of nonsense. Atheists are people that have managed to not believe one particular type of nonsense, that doesn’t make them immune to believing any of the other types of nonsense.

        I don’t think atheists on average believe more nonsense than theists do (nor do they believe it with more intensity), it’s just more ironic and therefor stands out more to people when an atheist professes strong belief in something they think is nonsense. The rest is confirmation bias.

      • Viliam says:

        I think we shouldn’t take Alex M’s opinion as somehow representative of rationalists, considering that he wrote it as a complaint about “one of the main problems with the current state of rationalism”.

    • Roebuck says:

      Yes. I’m a microeconomist myself (I have no strong identification with my profession, but among rationalists I will quite naturally represent it) and I adopt the quite-neoclassical definition of economics as analysis of trade-offs resulting from scarce resources. There are repeating mental routines, but ultimately each branch of economics has vastly different properties in terms of how experimental it can be (here micro > macro), how mathsy it is, how much of a consensus there is and how different the average view of exprerts is from reality.
      I specialise in auctions / market design and, definitely, there’s a lot of knowledge in this field that’s true, non-trivial, shows up in experiments on humans and is useful for the real world economy. But that need not apply to some other (often more popular) branches of economics.

    • Papillon says:

      This may be of interest to Alex: https://www.reddit.com/r/Economics/wiki/faq_methods

      In particular:

      First, the existence/accuracy of forecasting is not a necessary condition for something to be useful or a science. Paleontologists and evolutionary biologists cannot forecast. Meteorologists, seismologists, and many other scientists frequently fail to accurately forecast events–sometimes with deadly consequences. If failure to predict critical events was the hallmark of not-science, then much of science wouldn’t be science.

      Second, economics does not equal macroeconomics. Macro is a subset of economics, and macroeconomic forecasting is a subset of macroeconomics. Judging the validity of an entire discipline for the perceived failure of a sub-sub-discipline is illogical. The vast majority of economists are not macroeconomic forecasters; in addition, it’s not even the average macro-economist’s job to predict recessions.

      • morris39 says:

        This is a classic response of a widely held delusion. Those fields of activity labeled as science and which cannot predict (i.e. virtually all) concrete results are minimally useful. What usefulness there is lies in some headway in testing that idea, possibly amusing as mental exercise and mainly as a means for personal gain for those who claim expertise.
        Evolution is an example of a somewhat useful science as it helps to think in more practical terms. It retrodicts but cannot predict, it is in a way restating the principle of energy conservation. It does permit unproductive and ultimately boring speculations on the origin of life.
        On the hand hand you have fields (applied science/engineering) that make repeatable exact (enough) predictions based on models which are a series of patterns assembled in exact sequence and exact scale, e.g. how to make an alloy, how to build a turbine. Another name for model is design brief, recipe etc. The results are predictable and have definite market value.
        It might be noticed that this latter field is (often subtly) derogated as being somehow inferior, self serving, just a trade. That view is shared by the first group unsurprisingly.
        So this belief in that kind of “enlightenment” is exactly upside down in my view. The more upside down and unbelievable the more strongly it is held. Like religion: you are worthless/ x loves you/ suffered for you/but will damn you if you do not obey the least command.
        My guess is that this view is strongly opposed by the vast majority on this forum but I do not expect any response (another test) b/c there is not ar ational one.

      • Andkat says:

        Except that we can do evolutionary experiments under various conditions on the scale of individual biomolecules, organismal genomes, etc. in enormous volume as well as make fresh observations in the field to test the general hypotheses of evolutionary biology; experiment and real-time observation are in fact directly available. Moreover, the fundamental mechanisms (i.e. in terms of genetic mutation and their manifestation in changes in the features of biomolecular effectors) are understood in a general sense and rest on likewise concrete physics and chemistry (even if the task of specific sequence -> structure -> function is likewise something unsolved in a broad sense). Quantitative evolution and predictive theoretical evolution are in a fairly early stage by everyone’s acknowledgment; it certainly is not at the same rigor as fundamental physics and there are plenty of folks trying to build models in that direction. The paleontologists I’ve interacted with often admit to how tenuous some of their phylogenetic reconstructions are; many of these may be poised to remain fundamentally underdetermined; few would posit in those cases that they are scientifically ‘complete’. If all we had were overly simplified or unreliable quantitative theoretical models and a few fragmentary paleontological reconstructions then we probably would not be justified in putting too much stock in evolutionary biology as a robust science. But we have quite a lot more than that and can routinely reproduce the fundamentals.

        However, evolutionary biology isn’t trying to punch above its weight here; it is generally accepted that e.g. microbes will evolve antibiotic resistance and that there are varying mechanisms (acceleration of export, acceleration of enzymatic degradation, reduction of affinity or response to binding by the target, etc.) by which they can do so, but nobody is pretends to have the capacity to make predictions that the next big development in resistance to z drug is going to manifest as xyz biological mechanism before any field observation thereof (much less that anyone should pre-emptively try to (re)design a drug around the proposed manifestation!*).

        The trouble with economics in that sense is that it takes a vastly more complex emergent system whose connexions to even comparatively ‘settled’ science are fairly tenuous (insofar as we hardly have any complete or concrete scientific model for the workings of the atomistic components of an economy- i.e. the minds of human agents- and that in turn rests on a still terribly underdefined stratum of biology and biology itself is still looser than we’d like in many respects) and rests upon an ultimately quite limited foundation of empirical knowledge (given the limited samplings of human societies across the possibility landscape of economics and even more constrained unambiguous historical attestations thereto as one leaves the modern era, and the intertwined path dependencies successive and coexisting societies rendering isolable natural experiments a far hazier matter than in e.g. any other field).

        That some other fields can sometimes struggle with their grandest predictive challenges is a reasonable objection but it elides fundamental differences in the structure of the fields compared and the inter-intelligibility thereof with higher confidence scientific substrates. This is compounded with the fact that economists routinely advance prescriptions that can have tremendous consequences for entire societies. They should scarcely be surprised to take flak for such, particularly when speaking with a mien of unwarranted scientific confidence.

        *not that we’re terribly good at designing drug rationally in general and antibiotics in particular have been fraught

        • morris39 says:

          Yes evolutionary theory retrodicts and is interesting but very incomplete. It does not predict useful outcomes although it may in the future. Darwin’s ideas are truly exceptional among the bulk of human thought. It seems ironic that so much energy is spent on arguing the effect and extent of gene action. It mostly benefits those directly compensated for teaching or reporting it. Small beer for most. How much is in depth study worth given the likelyhood of utility? Is that a fair question?
          You say settled science but maybe you missed my point. There is no predictive science except in very narrow circumstances e.g. Newton’s gravity in weak fields. There are only a handful of such cases and they are of the same category as models for making machines.
          It mystified me why people who do not directly benefit from such science so strongly believe in it although likely they do not understand the concepts well enough to have an opinion.

          • Magnaporthe says:

            I’d like to push back a bit on the point about evolutionary biology lacking predictive power and utility.

            Many important chemical compounds we use in our everyday lives are produced by engineered microbes, themselves the products of bioengineers and synthetic biologists. I can hardly think of a single inference or step in the process of engineering a microbe that doesn’t rely on an evolutionary understanding of the system in question. I need to know that unless I have designed the system in a very particular way, production of non-biomass compounds in a microbe incurs a fitness cost it will eventually alleviate if allowed to evolve unchecked, requiring either the reuse of an unevolved “naïve” starter stock or a coupling of the desired compound to fitness. If I want to increase the activity of a sluggish enzyme, which amino acids should I tamper with? Most are structural components that will need to be changed in aggregate in order to have any effect. No, I look across all of the host organism’s relatives (that relatedness itself inferred from changes in a mix of highly- and -poorly conserved barcoding regions) to look at homologs of our gene, observing which amino acid residues are highly conserved. These highly conserved residues will disproportionately represent essential or active-site regions; modifying them is more likely to impact reaction kinetics or specificity.
            Other examples of evolutionary knowledge applied include

            1: Producing wild-crosses between cultivated crops and related wild species to essentially “undo” the domestication genetic bottleneck and gain access to more breeding material.
            2: Directed evolution for protein engineering
            3: Identification of promising drug targets in pathogens and pests

            All of these strategies have proven quite effective for various practical applications, and none of them really make any sense outside, as Dobzhansky would put it, the “light of evolution.”

            But perhaps I am misunderstanding your critique?

          • morris39 says:

            @magnaporthe
            You make my point. I agree with your statements. You cite engineering/applied science efforts in biology which make definite predictions and so have a market value. This part of biology is a very small subset of the whole. The whole is old news is no longer interesting or of value but gets the bulk of the funding beyond basic education.

          • Magnaporthe says:

            Ah, I see. I still contend that you aren’t giving enough credit to evolutionary biology, though. I think you’ll find that people like myself working in applied biology and biological engineering support continued investment in basic biology (including evolutionary biology) precisely because we know there is more to be found.

            An example: one very active area of research (for obvious reasons) is metabolic engineering, wherein you seek to engineer organisms with altered metabolism to produce novel compounds, preexisting compounds in greater quantities or in different tissues, etc. We need ways to predict what changes to a metabolic network will help us achieve our goals, but we have incomplete knowledge (and will for a very long time) of the relevant enzyme kinetics and regulatory factors involved. One approach that has been surprisingly effective is constraint-based modeling (e.g. Flux Balance Analysis), which represents metabolic networks as linear programming problems which can be solved for some objective function that you’ve provided, such as biomass growth or maximal production of a defined compound. Maximizing biomass seems like it would typically be the objective of a microbial culture, but this assumption often fails. A more robust evolutionary theory of metabolism could shed light on (a) the metabolic heuristics organisms use to achieve maximal reproductive success, and therefore the “goals” they seek to achieve through metabolic network organization and regulation, and (b) how these heuristics have changed over time and across different groups of organisms, allowing us to identify better or worse production chassis.

            The evolution of metabolic networks seems, in many ways, to be a very fundamental and “basic biology” sort of question. Coming up with a compelling answer to it could be of great value to both our understanding of the world and our ability to engineer life. This, and many other basic questions in evolution (the evolutionary strategies and game theory of members of microbial consortia, and the evolution of genome architecture come to mind) are still unanswered.

            In fact, one of the criticisms I have often heard in academic circles is that we are being too hasty in investing so much in biological engineering when there are so many basic questions left unanswered. I tend to disagree with that evaluation, as I think these investments improve the public profile of biology, produce much needed value in the form of better crops, medicines, pest controls, etc., and attract scientists who might not otherwise care about biology. But, the point that there is still a whole lot of basic stuff to figure out remains true.

        • Loris says:

          I think it’s unwise to define ‘science’ solely in terms of the ability to make predictions, for a couple of separate reasons.
          Firstly, the simpler something is, the easier it is to predict. You don’t need many ‘moving parts’, literal or figurative, before things which were trivial to predict (with fewer parts) become impossible. While physicists can accurately predict the state of a two-body system with high accuracy at an arbitrary point in the future, they cannot do the same in the three-body problem. I think it’s an obvious mistake to expect the ability to predict the path of evolution precisely.
          You can still develop tools to make statements about outcomes, that is, predictions, but they may become more general, or be about very specific things.

          Secondly, it has been determined that a variety of things are literally impossible to predict [correctly, at any rate better than random]. These discoveries are critical points in the field, rather than the point at which they become non-science.

      • Clutzy says:

        That article is just straight up wrong about its assertions. Paleontologists and evolutionary biologists definitely can an do forecast. How? They predict missing pieces, or things that are beyond what science can currently figure out, but maybe can in the future.

        For instance, a paleontologist might find a hip bone and a few skull fragments and predict a possible entire skeleton from that. Then when another skeleton is found, their prediction skills are tested. Same with evolutionary biology. They used to try and predict relatedness before genetic testing could be done. Now they can try to predict things like which chromosomes they think are likely to have genes that influence height, mental illness, IQ, etc. And those will likely be confirmed/denied in the future. Its not like Einstein got to immediately test general relativity. The eclipse test was done by another person. Spaceflight was invented 2 generations later, same with nuclear clocks.

        So maybe the other stuff is valid, but the beginning of your entire mini subset is false.

        And I got half ninja’d by @andkat

        • morris39 says:

          Do you not see the difference in prediction scale between building a machine and an evolutionary biologist who hypothesizes a narrative based on some scant evidence and a lot of assumptions? The machine is produced exactly the same everywhere and every time (if the model is followed). That last phrase is a favorite of physicists re laws of physics but is not true.
          What is the relevance (utility) to us of say biological relatedness? What benefit can we extract from knowing these claimed but unsupported details? Can we actually start to increase human fitness/health using these assertions? How interesting is it to know after gaining a conceptual understanding of descent? More of the same without new understanding. Who is selling and who is paying is a question you may want to consider.

          • Clutzy says:

            I don’t see how what you wrote is relevant to my post. I was just pointing out that that wiki article is unequivocally untrue in many of its assertions.

          • Loris says:

            What sort of thing would have to be predicted to persuade you?
            How about predicting the existence of an organism having a particular (unknown-of at the time) ability in a particular environment – and it later being found? For example, comammox.

      • abe says:

        Can someone who agrees with this name some examples of non-trivial, accurate, high information predictions made by economics? Here’s the sort of thing I’m looking for: in meteorology, long before you get to anything looking like a model of the atmosphere which can be usefully forecast the weather, you learn about the geostrophic model. This is a steady-state model in which the vertical forces of gravity and pressure gradient are in exact balance, and the horizontal forces of pressure gradient and coriolis force are in exact balance. This model says that, in the upper atmosphere, the wind should be orthogonal, and proportional, to the horizontal pressure gradient, with proportionality constant exactly determined by latitude. Examining any measurement of pressure and wind in the upper atmosphere reveals that this model holds with extremely high accuracy, except during extreme weather events (and even then, it’s not off by that much). This is an extraordinarily accurate prediction made by atmospheric science, which would not be made by an uninformed layman, that contains many, many bits of information. Nonetheless, it’s totally useless for what we actually expect meteorology to do: forecast the weather. It’s a steady-state model!

        Are there such examples in economics? Again, the examples don’t have to be useful! Still I have never heard of any in the lay press. Instead, they seem to be of the form “If the price of good/service X increases due to exogenous shock Y, the amount X purchased will fall”. This contains at most one bit of information, is usually the same thing that would be predicted by a layman, and is not always even correct. I’d be happy to be corrected though. In particular I’m very willing to believe the field of auction design has such examples; I just haven’t seen them personally.

        • Papillon says:

          Throwaway reply: The notion that taxing the unimproved value of land is an extremely efficient way to generate public revenue is not intuitive. Someone ignorant of economic models would be no more likely to propose it than most anything else. But economic models say it’s almost perfectly efficient, and experimental data totally vindicate said models. You can tell similar stories about lots of other policies: immigration, land regulation, tariffs, carbon pricing, and so on. (Not to say that a policy’s being economically efficient necessarily means it ought to be imposed).

          • abe says:

            This sounds great. Can you direct me to the experimental evidence, and also to where I can find out, in terms of precise empirically verifiable claims, what “extremely efficient way to generate public revenue” means?

            I note that your example overshoots what I asked for. I’d be happy with useless results as long as they were precise, accurate consequences of economic theory which would not be predicted by a layman (the last requirement is mainly to exclude assertions of the form “If the only factory producing X burns to the ground, the price of X will increase.” One can make 1000 of these assertions accurately and then claim to have an interesting theory, but of course this theory doesn’t say anything a layman wouldn’t.)

          • Papillon says:

            @abe: There are many precise empirical claims entailed in Georgism. Because you insisted, I’ll offer a (relatively) small one. I claim the following: In the context of a market economy, an increase in the LVT rate, within reasonable boundaries (say, 0% to 90%), will cause urban density to increase, ceteris paribus. My data are: Hartzok, 1997, Oates and Schwab, 1997, Plassmann and Tideman, 2000, Cho et al., 2011, Cho et al., 2013, Wenner, 2016. (You’ll notice that most of these data are from Pennsylvania; that’s because LVTs are rare, which is, in turn, because they work). I’d also like to offer the following: I will very happily bet $5000+ on this result’s reproducibility at any odds greater than $1.001 (I have >99.99% confidence in it, that is). If anyone wants to take me up on this, reply with contact information and we can get a contract written up.
            I hope we can agree that this concludes the debate about whether or not economic models have produced a single verified claim that a layman couldn’t. But the rigour available here is probably unavailable to bigger claims entailed by Georgism. (Annoyingly few governments are willing to policymake for the sake of a randomised control trial.) Despite this, I think we have good evidence for the bigger claims’ verity.
            The biggest and most important claim is roughly as follows: If a country chooses to generate $x in tax revenue via an LVT, it will have a greater GDP and a lower Gini coefficient than if it had generated that same amount via income tax, or tariff, or property tax, or consumption tax, or any combination therein, ceteris paribus. I’ll offer you three sources of data on this. First, for a fun and editorialised summary, see here. (Note that I haven’t verified every claim made there). Second, for a more rigorous examination, see the fawning wiki page. Frankly, it amounts to a glowing endorsement; every study linked is practically head-over-heels. Third, just for fun: The radical Georgist single-tax colony that formed in Alabama is now “the best small town in the South” according to Southern Living (though it hasn’t actually been Georgist for a long time now).

    • Squirrel of Doom says:

      When people say “Economics is not a real science”, they almost always are thinking of Macro. They’re probably not even aware Micro exists.

  3. Joy says:

    Had described your PNSE review to my friend who has both personal and professional experience in the area and she instantly said that these are all symptoms of dissociation: a disconnect between body and mind (like altered pain perception), between conscious and subconscious parts of the mind (like not connecting to one’s emotions) and, in extreme cases, between different parts of the conscious mind (like DID). Only in this case the dissociation is self-induced, rather than brought about by trauma.

    • RomeoStevens says:

      One hypothesis along these lines is that there’s an optimal amount of dissociation from things and most people aren’t dissassociated enough, which wouldn’t preclude people becoming way too dissociated with attendant negative effects.

      The whole ‘finding the right distance’ thing in Focusing feels kind of like this.

  4. zachary says:

    What if we could measure Enlightenment by quality of decision-making… i.e, wisdom? Provocative, but there is some evidence for it, I think.

    Basically, it seems like a lot of PSNE work is adjacent to the field of “adult development”. Indeed, there is some cross-collaboration between the fields and Jeffery Martin even cites Suzanne Cook-Greuter in his paper.

    Why is this important? Well, a paper by Bill Torbert in Harvard Business Review found that CEO’s without a certain level of development struggled to successfully implement change initiatives in their companies. (link). Furthermore, this type of “action-logic” can be measured to some degree via open-ended questions.

    Also, in the expertise literature (link), experts are able to “create time” for themselves by using mental routines to anticipate and plan for more future outcomes. When bad things happen, experts are more prepared and are able to handle the situation as if it was nothing. This sounds a lot like domain-specific enlightenment to me, and I think it can be generalized.

    It was written in the Old Testament wisdom literature several times that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I think, generally speaking, wisdom is a respect for context and the unknown. From my own research into the topic, I think that an argument could be made for truly “enlightened” people being able to make better decisions with less evidence. Usually these decisions are counterintuitive and/or inaccessible to un-enlightened people.

    Of course, this doesn’t account for infidelity and folly (the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak). Personally, I struggle to see how someone can keep up a double life and claim to be enlightened, unless they are simply subject to the social customs of their time and place… and even then, enlightenment should rise above that.

    EDIT – It also seems like “wisdom” and “enlightenment” is kind of like better decision-making from a complexity angle: wise people are able to take more stakeholders into account over longer timespans. That would help explain why Christianity unexpectedly thrived in ancient Rome… going willingly to your death and forgiving your executioners is actually an excellent long-term strategy, but from a very zoomed-out perspective. It would also help explain why love is, ultimately, the fulfillment of the law in the New Testament.

    • dionisos says:

      I believe the result would be a weak correlation, maybe even in reverse. (because from what I understand, a lot of it seems to be about not really caring anymore and going on autopilot).

      But the study will have to take into account [near]-enlightened people are the kind of people able to constrain themselves to do all the meditative stuffs for many years to get it. Which suggest a superior capacity for deferred gratification, and this could help for the quality of decision-making

    • Akhorahil says:

      I would think it would be easier to test more measurable stuff. For instance, does an “enlightened” person with supposedly fewer desires and attachments to the world show increased pain tolerance? Different make-up when it comes to body chemistry? Different brain function under relevant circumstances? A weaker somatic response to sexual imagery?

      This is where the interesting stuff is.

  5. Sniffnoy says:

    I just want to comment to say, what is with this term “persistent non-symbolic experience”? What on earth is supposed to be “non-symbolic” about it? I’m a little suspicious that Martin may have come up with this term first as basically a euphemism, based on his preconceptions of “enlightenment”, without worrying about whether it corresponded to what he actually observed…

    • zachary says:

      From the paper:

      “Eastern psychologies have often pointed to the nonsymbolically mediated, or immediate
      ways of knowing as the only kind of knowing that can lead to enlightenment or true
      insight into human nature. In fact, they consider our addiction to language-mediated,
      discursive thought as a major hurdle in realizing the true or divine Self, or union with the
      Ground. (Cook-Greuter, p. 230)”

      As far as I can tell, I think it’s because humans became “symbolic” creatures when we invented text. It allowed us to write down our thoughts and look at them. As far as I can tell, they mean
      “post-symbolic” to represent a re-unification with the present moment, where our man-made thoughts fall away and we can experience things as they are.

      I had a two-day PSNE back in December 2018 and that’s generally the feeling I got… I became very in-the-moment, less self-aware, more able to respond to things/challenges – and effectively, too.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        I mean, it seems to me that you’re basically confirming my suspicions — that the use of “non-symbolic” here is coming from how “enlightenment” is usually conceived of, and not what was observed in the people interviewed, which doesn’t seem to have much to do with disintermediation.

        • zachary says:

          I think he’s trying to ground his research in adult development literature. The paper he cited is called “Mature ego development: Gateway to ego transcendence?”

          Regardless, we’re in agreement that it’s a weird term. Should we call it a post-symbolic experience? A transcendent experience? A religious experience? A glimpse of enlightenment?

          Abraham Maslow used the terms “peak experience”, “being-cognition” (B-cognition), and B-values: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Maslow#B-values

          Even though people have been looking into this stuff for millennia, the field still feels very new, right down to the lack of terminology.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Should we call it a post-symbolic experience?

            Again, my entire point is that there doesn’t appear to be anything “non-symbolic” about it, that the “non-symbolic” there is coming from what’s been discussed previously, not from what Martin actually observed, and that by using that term he’s potentially conflating what he actually observed with what’s been discussed previously.

            Scott I think gave a good succinct term for what Martin actually observed when he called it “euphoric depersonalization”.

      • Lambert says:

        The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao?

        • zachary says:

          From Matthew 11, perhaps relevant:

          “At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.”

    • alwhite says:

      Non-symbolic makes sense. It’s part of understanding of what thoughts and language are. Language is symbols. Thoughts based on language are also symbols. This kind of symbolic thought is thought to make up the higher functioning of consciousness. You can look into Relational Frame Theory for more background on it. The practice of meditation gets you to look at your thoughts and recognize them as symbols and then contemplate what is containing those symbols.

  6. tossrock says:

    Enlightenment as described seems somehow reminiscent of Jaynes’ bicameral state, or maybe an evolution of it informed by a base of modern conscious experience. The idea that there’s a different mode of functioning of the human mind centered around the self/other boundary and the perceptual sensation of volition is intriguingly similar.

  7. Robert Jones says:

    I don’t think the minimalist account of enlightenment takes us quite as minimal as “a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalization”. But it takes us pretty close.

    This right here is my problem. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t have any difficulty believing in altered states of consciousness. But people who claimed to be “enlightened” are not just claiming to enter a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalisation. They claim that in some sense this state is superior to normal consciousness. The “some sense” is usually poorly defined (and slippery) but the superiority claimed goes beyond feeling nicer. I find that claim very hard to believe.

    My (low confidence) explanation for what’s going on is: meditation can cause a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalisation; people mistake euphoria for insight.

    • Viliam says:

      Exactly this.

      “Inner peace and selflessness” — especially the kind of “inner peace” which from outside may seem like suffering except the person claims it’s not; and the kind of “selflessness” which is compatible with being an asshole or cheating on your wife — are the motte of (Buddhist) enlightenment.

      But when people talk about the wonders of meditation, they usually make much stronger claims. Not everyone makes the same claims, of course. But a frequent annoying claim is that there is something that is inexplicable in principle to those who didn’t experience it; although when two people who have experience it meet, they are somehow able to verify they had the same experience.

      Then there are claims of increased wisdom, perceiving the reality directly, achieving some absolute knowledge, etc. Claims of superior introspection or self-control. And finally, among people who believe in supernatural (although luckily I haven’t seen this among the rationalists… yet?) there are claims about having seen their previous lives.

      Let me put it this way: if you (general you) have been surprised by the fact that famous enlightened meditators have sex scandals, please take that as an evidence that you already buy some of the bailey. Because the “euphoric disassociation” doesn’t contradict the possibility of sex scandals in any way. So you obviously must believe in something more, even if you are not aware of it.

      • eric23 says:

        And finally, among people who believe in supernatural (although luckily I haven’t seen this among the rationalists… yet?)

        Somebody above spoke positively of tummo as a magical practice (to my great surprise, there is nothing on Wikipedia casting the slightest doubt on its reliability…)

    • alwhite says:

      I see two things happening. The early stages of meditation are training your brain to be less reactive. I’ve seen these benefits in people and think it’s a very real thing, but it falls far short of the enlightened state. Keep pushing on that path and you can get to the altered state of consciousness. I think people are conflating the mind training with the altered state? There is a benefit by going down this path, but the benefit happens before enlightenment?

  8. Clutzy says:

    Imagine a doctor told you that repeated trauma can cause a long-lasting state of dysphoric depersonalization. In fact, you don’t need to imagine it – I am telling you now that repeated trauma can cause a long-lasting state of dysphoric depersonalization. How much effort should you put any effort into doubting this?

    I would put in a lot of effort. First, you used a bunch of uncommon words that I don’t know what they mean without research and further their combination seems suspicious to me. Furthermore, you used the word “trauma” which immediately makes me suspicious because I don’t know what you mean by this word because it has been significantly confused in modern discourse. Do you mean a person who was in the WWI trenches for many shelling campaigns? A woman who was sexually assaulted and then had to confront the person at trial? A person who’s life was essentially like mine, but the define the negative things as traumatic? The most pampered person in history who thinks being called pampered is a trauma?

    • Jaskologist says:

      The most pampered person in history who thinks being called pampered is a trauma?

      That’s pretty much the Buddha’s life story right there, so at least it fits.

    • Dacyn says:

      If you rephrase as “a significant number of people have negative experiences that lead them to have unwanted states in which they have no sense of self”, then you don’t need to define “trauma”. (I’m not sure what definition of “trauma” Scott had in mind, but it doesn’t seem to be relevant to this discussion.)

      • Clutzy says:

        The definition of trauma or negative experiences is essential to the believably of the claim. Without a definition that cuts out the vast majority of the population, the definition is meaningless.

        • Dacyn says:

          I think you’re misunderstanding the role that Scott’s claim is playing in his argument. The point of the example is that as long as some people experience dysphoric depersonalization, it shows that depersonalization is the kind of thing that in principle can happen, so there’s no particular reason to reject a claim that some people experience euphoric depersonalization just because it involves depersonalization. There’s also the part where depersonalization is claimed to be correlated with various factors (negative experiences in the first case, and meditation in the second) but this can be bypassed by the observation that things that exist in the real world, tend to be correlated with at least some other things in the world, and so we shouldn’t be too surprised to find such correlations.

          Separately, I don’t see why you need a precise definition for what counts as a “negative experience” if all you care about is whether it correlates with something like dysphoric depersonalization. Surely we can agree that certain experiences are worse than others, even if we can’t give any sort of absolute measure of how bad they are or even quantify how much worse they are. For example, maybe the pampered people have some rate of dysphoric depersonalization, people like you have a higher one, and veterans and sexual abuse survivors have an even higher one. I’m not saying that this is plausible but just that it could make sense of a claim that trauma correlates with depersonalization, without a very precise definition of trauma.

          • Clutzy says:

            But we are talking about a very specific method of depersonalization. If you want to compare it to Scott’s example, we’d have tons of random people being “enlightened”, and there would be a 5% higher incidence rate among people who meditate all the time.

          • Dacyn says:

            It’s true that the scenario you describe would constitute an example of “meditation correlates with enlightenment”. It doesn’t seem like a likely scenario to me though, since random people don’t usually report enlightenment without significant meditation. Maybe I am not sure what your point is, though.

          • Clutzy says:

            It’s true that the scenario you describe would constitute an example of “meditation correlates with enlightenment”. It doesn’t seem like a likely scenario to me though, since random people don’t usually report enlightenment without significant meditation. Maybe I am not sure what your point is, though.

            My point is that the reversal analogy falls apart under scrutiny for the reason you state here.

            There’s also the part where depersonalization is claimed to be correlated with various factors (negative experiences in the first case, and meditation in the second) but this can be bypassed by the observation that things that exist in the real world, tend to be correlated with at least some other things in the world, and so we shouldn’t be too surprised to find such correlations.

            If enlightenment was similar to this state (which I am still skeptical of its existence and correlation with trauma, but lets say I accept it) it would be basically like a mental illness. You can get this thing seemingly randomly, but there are also environmental risk factors. In this case, the risk factors for enlightenment would be meditating a lot while following certain creeds.

            But we don’t see that pattern, instead only the people who meditate ever get to this state. Its like basically nothing else that exists. Some people dont ever exercise and are thin, or strong, instead they simply eat right or do physical work like farm labor. Hakeem was the best player in the NBA for 2 years, he didn’t play basketball until he was 16 or so.

            And, indeed, all of those things are much more like the meditation>enlightenment example than the trauma>depersonalization one.

          • Dacyn says:

            Ah I see, that makes more sense. Well, we don’t actually know whether anyone thinks you can get dysphoric depersonalization “seemingly randomly”. I agree that Scott wasn’t too clear about this. I also agree that the analogy is weaker if dysphoric depersonalization can be random, though I don’t think it becomes completely invalid in that case.

            But I’m not too sure why you say that this property of enlightenment is “like basically nothing else that exists”. For example, knowing-calculus is a state that people who study calculus often find themselves in, while very few people wind up in this state without studying calculus (I guess Newton and Leibniz invented it rather than studying a pre-existing formulation of it). For a medical example, how about having sex and being pregnant.

          • Clutzy says:

            But I’m not too sure why you say that this property of enlightenment is “like basically nothing else that exists”. For example, knowing-calculus is a state that people who study calculus often find themselves in, while very few people wind up in this state without studying calculus (I guess Newton and Leibniz invented it rather than studying a pre-existing formulation of it). For a medical example, how about having sex and being pregnant.

            Both much better examples. I think the calculus one is better because we know that getting really good at math is something that is really hard and is not possible for many people even with great dedication. But few people without dedication can solve a lot of high level math problems. If this model was what enlightenment is like, we would expect most people to achieve it in their 20s or early 30s. I don’t know if that is empirically the case.

  9. Mr Mind says:

    One day, traveling in my car, I was pondering about qualia and death: I was trying to envision myself as dead, and I said to myself something similar to “all qualia will cease”. In that moment, I became aware that my identity is just a hodge-podge of competing processes looked from afar, that there is no real “I”, just a puppet that believes himself to be a single entity. In that moment, a qualia that I’ve always have and was ‘unaware’ of dissolved, I can only describe it as the qualia of “I-ness”. The state I entered was really quiet and resting.
    Almost a year later, when I want to take a vacation from being me, with some effort I can enter the same state, and keep it for a minute or so.
    Is this ‘enlightenment’? If so, it’s not transcendent at all and it is on the contrary something all rationalists should be able and willing to attain.

    • Elo says:

      This appears to be 1 of the 3 characteristics (impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, no self). This is the non self realisation.

      Enlightenment is all 3, all the time. Every moment of experiential reality.

      Temporary versions exist but persistent realisation takes more effort to lock in. Having said that, as you describe, heading back to the realisation is possible, and can do a lot for someone’s suffering clinging experience.

      • Nietzsche says:

        Enlightenment is just accepting the bundle theory of the self? That’s… disappointing. I love Hume and Parfit, but spiritually enlightened?

        • axiomsofdominion says:

          Right?

        • gph says:

          I would say it’s more than just accepting the theory on an intellectual level. It’s more like organizing your attention and consciousness in a way that self and identity based thoughts or mental/emotional habits can be broken down and eventually expunged (or perhaps more like safely ignored). Thus if you don’t believe there’s a self (one of the three pillars of Buddhist enlightenment) you will effectively be aligning your beliefs with how you perceive the world and basically how your consciousness functions.

        • dionisos says:

          If the self is a illusion, I think it is more about stopping to see the illusion that understanding it is one.

          I don’t believe there is a self, and I don’t believe there is anything moving in some random optical illusion.
          But I am completely unable to stop the “I-ness” illusion, in the same way I am unable to stop to see the optical illusion. (obviously I tried less hard on optical illusion because I don’t care)

          This is why I am doubtful all rationalist would be able to do it.

          • gph says:

            >But I am completely unable to stop the “I-ness” illusion, in the same way I am unable to stop to see the optical illusion.

            Well I can’t say I’ve ever stopped the “I-ness” illusion or if it’s possible, but that’s what enlightened folks are basically claiming through intense meditation/practice. Whether or not one could do the same with an optical illusion is an interesting question.

    • dionisos says:

      Why all rationalists would be able to do it ?

    • Lambert says:

      Guildenstern: No, no, no… Death is…not. Death isn’t. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not-be on a boat.
      Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
      Guildenstern: No, no, no–what you’ve been is not on boats.”

  10. theifin says:

    The term “enlightenment” is usually understood as “enlightenment = some privileged or deeper understanding of the nature of experience or of existence”. With this understanding of the word, I think Alex M’s skepticism is correct.

    My argument is as follows: Under this understanding of “enlightenment”, when someone claims to be “enlightened” they are making an assertion of authority: asserting that they know more, asserting that their opinions deserve more weight because they have this deeper understanding. Thinking rationally, I compare the probability that they are asserting authority because they in fact do have a deeper understanding against the probability that they are asserting authority simply because they want authority (nothing to do with deeper understanding). I then notice that, if someone wanted to gain authority simply by assertion, they would be more likely to choose a form of authority that is hard to verify (“I am enlightened”) and less likely to choose a form that is easily verified (“I am a Nobel prize winner”). Since the priors here are that “having a deeper understanding” of anything is rare, that “wanting authority” is common, and that making unverifiable assertions of authority is associated with wanting authority, I conclude that when someone says “I have achieved enlightenment”, they most likely do not have any deeper understanding, but instead just want authority (and the power to influence others that goes along with authority).

    Notice that this argument fits well with the earlier post about the sexual behavior of “enlightened” teachers.

    Of course, if we take enlightenment to mean “achieving a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalization” rather than “achieving a deeper understanding”, then the above argument fails. I’m happy to believe that some people “achieve” a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalization, just as other people suffer a long-lasting state of dysphoric depersonalization. To me, however, both states seem like forms of mental illness because they are not calibrated to the environment (is a long-lasting state of euphoria a correct response to the world we live in?)

    • zachary says:

      You also bring up a really interesting line of thought. Who might be able to achieve a sense of enlightenment/oneness while behaving completely incompatibly with their beliefs? Lucid/sophisticated narcissists could, for example. That’s not too fun to contemplate, but would explain the scandals.

      • dionisos says:

        Lucid/sophisticated narcissists could,

        I don’t see why a narcissist would behave incompatibly with his beliefs more than any other person. (it seems to me being a narcissist is more about having a particular set of beliefs and feelings).

        Your description is more one of a procrastinator. (or more generally of someone with strong akrasia)

        • theodidactus says:

          I mean, lets not forget in all of this that some of the most profound philosophical and theological insights come from writers and artists…who are not always exactly model humans…nor do they generally live out their “teachings” as fully as we’d perhaps like.

          Also, I’m reminded of L. Ron Hubbard. I’ve read a lot of his stuff. 99% of it is garbage but there’s some genuinely profound stuff in there, and I sometimes wonder whether someone who was a less crappy human being could have come up with it.

        • zachary says:

          I think what I mean by this is that only a narcissist would be able to simultaneously genuinely believe they have attained enlightenment, and act in very un-enlightened ways… all while becoming a public guru of “enlightenment”.

          One thing I’m seeing in these discussion threads is people saying “I have some experience here”, or something to that effect. It seems like people who have had PSNE’s (or whatever) are just sharing their experience as data, rather than using them as a proxy for spiritual authority…. a guru uses these claims for very different reasons and purposes.

          An aside: in Luke 18 of the New Testament there’s a parable called “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector” which seems relevant:

          “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”

          • theodidactus says:

            and frankly, this has always been my attitude about “one weird trick” lifehacks and religion in general. If anyone has it all figured out, you’re manifestly *not* likely to run into them in anything like a public setting. Even if they were doing something public-facing, you’d be infinitely more likely to run into a pretender than the genuine article.

            It’s the $20-bill-lying-on-the-sidewalk argument, but with piety

          • dionisos says:

            I think we should separate three things :
            – Being delusional and believing false things about ourselves (what I think you call being a narcissist).
            – Lying, trying to manipulate. (maybe also part of what you call being a narcissist, but I am unsure)
            – Believing stuffs but not acting accordingly. (akratia)

            and act in very un-enlightened ways

            I am unsure there is enlightened and un-enlightened ways to act.

    • Robert Jones says:

      Yes: if we take enlightenment to mean “achieving a long-lasting state of euphoric depersonalisation”, then it may well be that lots of people are enlightened, but that isn’t what is usually meant by the claim to be enlightened.

      I have assumed in my comment above that people who claim to be enlightened have simply made a genuine mistake in taking their euphoria for something more profound, but of course you are right that where people are claiming authority on the basis of their enlightenment, we should not exclude charlatanism.

      Taking the LSD case, we have no difficulty believing that people experience hallucinations because (a) many people have reported this, (b) they seem to have no reason to lie about it and (c) it seems plausible that altering one’s brain chemistry might induce hallucinations. We have difficulty believing that people who take LSD gain some great insight, even though that claim is sometimes made, because (a) experience teaches us that people are too quick to believe in their own insights, (b) there is no apparent mechanism between taking LSD and learning about the universe, whereas (c) there is a mechanism between taking LSD and thinking that one’s learnt about the universe.

      It seems to me that Scott’s failure of skepticism lies in failing to note that (a) the thousands of people who claim to experience enlightenment are not doing so independently, (b) people gain an advantage from making the untestable claim to be enlightened (and gain a further advantage by mutually endorsing each others’ claims) and (c) people are liable to be misled by euphoric states.

      • theifin says:

        Maybe this is where the Zen “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” thing comes from: if you meet someone claiming to be enlightened, they are probably a charlatan.

    • jplewicke says:

      Disclaimer: I’ve meditated a fair bit and would estimate myself as about 35% enlightened. I somewhat agree with you on the moral and pragmatic value of enlightenment-ish mind states, although I’ve found it worth it myself.

      The difference is that it’s not an assertion of an arbitrary deeper understanding — it’s a claim that certain individuals have looked more closely than the average person at their subjective experience, and have noticed things that most people don’t. So if they’re right, then they’ll be able to point things out that you haven’t noticed.

      One of the central claims from individuals claiming enlightenment is that all their claims about the nature of their experience were true before they started meditating (sometimes referred to as “everyone is already enlightened, they just don’t know it yet”). If you care about seeking the truth, then you should want to know what’s the nature of your subjective experience and how it’s constructed step by step. It’s perfectly fine to say “For pragmatic reasons I don’t want to analyze my subjective experience in too much detail so I can avoid unusual or difficult mental states.” But that’s different from there not being epistemic validity to the claims of experienced meditators. There’s also an issue where verifying the claims of experienced meditators involves investigating your own experience. If they’re right about the nature of subjective experience, then your brain will update its mental models of how it works and your real-time subjective experience will change in a similar manner to theirs. And what we do tend to see is broad agreement among people who’ve closely investigated their subjective experience on certain aspects of their subjective experience, which is suggestive that there is more universal validity to it.

      For reference, here are a few claims about the nature of mistakes that most people make about their subjective experience that you can investigate to see whether they’re true for you. Reading the claims may be somewhat unpleasant and could be a bit of an info-hazard.

      Most people have internal auditory thoughts roughly in the center of their heads. They think that they’re purposefully thinking, but if you pay close attention, you’ll notice that those auditory thoughts are basically a just a voice that you’re hearing that starts and stops speaking without conscious volition, kind of like you’re listening with headphones to a recording of yourself talking. How can the sound of an internal voice think about the world?
      When most people think of their identity or of themselves doing or thinking something, an image of your face will flash up sometimes. The image of your face is an image that you ever could see without using a mirror, and so most people will see their face the way it would be in a mirror. When you see it flash up, it won’t be oriented in the same direction as your face is at the time — you’ll be facing towards it instead.
      When you look at anything, you never can see the whole object directly, but instead just a couple sides of it. Most people are convinced at a subconscious level that they’re seeing everything about an object, even though they’re really not.
      When you look at the world, most people will see parts of their nose and the outlines of their eye sockets. But most people implicitly think of the images of that part of their face as something that they’re seeing from as opposed to an image that they see. How can an image see another image?
      Most people will have some muscle tension in the center of the head between the eyes that they seem to be “looking” from. If the visual field is a cone spreading out from the eyes, the tension is the point of the cone. How can an image be seen from muscle tension?
      When you’re looking down at where you’re walking, most people will view the image of the sidewalk as imbued with a quality of hardness that they walk on. But you only ever actually feel pressure from the spot your feet are actually standing — nothing else is solid. How can you walk on an image?
      Most people feel like they’re hearing with their ears even when they’re hearing something far away. But when they feel their ears they’re feeling skin and internal kinesthetic feelings, and when they hear they’re hearing a sound. They know that the sound is happening in a specific spot in space, but feel like it’s simultaneously being heard at their ears. How can the feeling of your ears hear the sound of something else in a different spot?
      Most people think that the different parts of their body feel the same size that they look in a mirror. But if you pay careful attention, the actual felt size of the body varies in proportion to the density of sensory nerves in the skin. So the actual felt experience can be much closer to what you’d expect from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cortical_homunculus .
      So there are all these areas where people who’ve paid close attention have noticed inconsistencies in their understanding of their subjective experience, and their subsequent experience changed to account for those inconsistencies. When other people do the same investigation, they find similar things. What they’ve found also lines up more closely with the underlying neuroscience. You’re familiar on an intellectual level with the homunculus argument for why we don’t need an internal viewer to see external things, but unless you look very carefully at your subjective experience, you’ll accept it subconsciously. When people meditate enough, their experience changes so that their subjective experience lines up with it (“In the seeing, just the seen. In the hearing, just the heard.”)

      There’s a kind of very shallow application of neuroscience where people think that because the brain processes all the information that we experience, they should have the subjective experience of processing everything from the center of their head. In reality, it should be more like every aspect of experience experiencing every other aspect of experience, since all the senses are just different areas of the brain.

      I won’t deny that most spiritual people jump to supernatural explanations that are clearly wrong in terms of mechanisms, but I think that doing a lot of meditation can provide valid epistemic evidence for how the typical human subjective experience occurs while still being compliant with what we’d expect from the available scientific evidence. It’s just that it turns out that our subjective experience is way weirder than we would have naively thought.

      • Brassfjord says:

        Wait. Do you guys hear a voice when you’re thinking? Do you have muscle tension in your brain?

        • axiomsofdominion says:

          I dunno about muscle tension but I hear a voice when I read/speak/type/etc.

        • theodidactus says:

          I have never understood this “internal monologue” thing. This might be one of those universal perceptual experiences that isn’t actually universal, which Scott has discussed before at some length. When I plan and create and imagine, I imagine myself speaking aloud what I intend do to…but when I’m just sitting there, pondering things, I don’t imagine *myself* saying jack. I imagine all the places I’ve heard the things before, and sorta collage them together.

          The “muscle tension” thing is something I can relate to. I imagine the little homunculus that is me seated directly between the eyes and a little farther back. All perception seems to run to there.

          I’ve always been able to dissociate my body from my brain. By thinking a little bit, I can easily imagine my limbs as more like clothing than a part of “me” and can even easily imagine a process like breathing as basically a separate, autonomous fuel-pump-like process quietly running in the background, sustaining “me” but not really ” a part of me”

          What I’ve never been able to do is separate certain desires from that little space between my eyes. The little homunculus there could conceivably be separated from certain tendencies like my laziness or my tendency to overeat…but that thing, whatever it is, seems fundamentally to be something that wants to write stories and learn about chemistry and get into arguments about what “free will” means and grow old with the person I love…Enlightenment seems to be fundamentally about separating from those desires, but I can’t imagine ever doing that.

          • jplewicke says:

            What I’ve never been able to do is separate certain desires from that little space between my eyes.

            These are a few things you could try:

            – Think the word “Feeling” every time you notice the feeling of being that particular space between your eyes.

            – Turn your eyes in a few different directions and get used to the feeling of them turning. Notice how there’s a feeling of directing the direction of looking. Close your eyes, and then try to physically turn them to look directly at the space that you’re looking from. There’s probably an aversion to looking at it, and it’ll also feel a bit physically uncomfortable. Keep on trying to turn your eyes around and look backwards at whatever point/space seems most difficult to look at, or that you feel most like you’re looking from.

        • jplewicke says:

          It it’s not in the center of your head, it could be all around the edges — sort of as tension supporting/defining the cone that makes up your sense of where you’re looking.

          • theodidactus says:

            I guess more specifically my question is why it’s a good idea to want to separate from, or lose, those desires.

            It’s entirely possible this is my western catholic upbringing, but some desires seem really desirable. Not necessarily in the sense that they produce anything good in the world (I don’t think I’m a consequentialist) but rather in the sense that I like having them.

          • HowardHolmes says:

            @theodidactus

            I guess more specifically my question is why it’s a good idea to want to separate from, or lose, those desires.

            One reason you cannot see this is because you still have the desire. I’m not calling that good or bad, but just the reason.

            Let me think of a desire you might still find valuable. Let’s say the desire to be happy. Certainly it is difficult to see how it would be useful to not desire happiness. I do not desire happiness. I do not experience happiness. I do not see it as a good thing or a bad thing that I don’t desire it. I just don’t. Because I don’t I do not miss it or seek it or think I am missing anything not having it. I am 71 and have only been this way for 7 years or so. I know what it is like to be happy and consider myself to have had a happy life (before), but now since I do not desire happiness, I also do not desire to desire happiness. In fact it is a bit stressful to think about having to live with the desire for happiness. One cannot experience living without desire until one lives that way.

            To be clear I am not claiming my way is better or my life is better. I would choose it if given the choice but this could well be just because it is my life currently. I did not see any major problems with my previous life (although I see no problems with this one)

          • Brassfjord says:

            @HowardHolmes

            I think there is a personality type that most of all wants to avoid stress, embarrassment, sorrow and other negative experiences. Then there is those who seek strong positive feelings also when the cost is to sometimes feel the opposite. They are easily bored but for the first type, boredom is almost preferable. There is probably a normal distributed continuous spectrum between extreme variants of those, with people who really appreciate the described effects of ”enlightenment”, towards the avoiding end.

        • Viliam says:

          Do you guys hear a voice when you’re thinking?

          There are different types of thinking (and reading, etc.). When I imagine myself explaining an idea to someone, I have an image of me speaking. But there is also the type of thinking when I just look into distance, and my unconsciousness silently provides the answer. And probably there is also something in between. I suppose I use the “voiced” type of thinking when something is confusing, or when I’m tired.

          When reading e.g. in a foreign language I am not fluent at, I make small movements of my mouth and tongue. When reading a language I am fluent at, slowly (e.g. because the text is interesting, or I am tired), I don’t move muscles as far as I know, but I hear an imaginary voice. Then there is speed reading when I just look at the page, perceive some words and structures, that happens in inner silence.

          • theodidactus says:

            I think this is worth a whole conversation on some future open thread, because I’m now trying to articulate when I do and don’t hear “a voice in my head” and it’s got me wondering when specifically it might be different than other people

      • theifin says:

        So, I don’t hear a voice when I think. All I can say is that I think thoughts: they are not a voice, they are more abstract than that. I also haven’t had the experience of an image of my face flashing up when I think of my identity (again, my thoughts fall more towards the abstract rather than the concrete side, so I tend not to have concrete images). I don’t really get what you mean by saying that people have an image of the sidewalk being hard: I have an abstract representation of the sidewalk being hard (I have knowledge, or inference, of that) but I’m struggling to get what you mean by an “image imbued with the quality of hardness” (that doesn’t make any sense to me: I can’t imagine what the experience of that is like).

        Returning to my point about authority and “enlightenment”: I guess that you are making your assertions about most people’s cognitive experience on the basis of your own meditation practice. Leaving aside the question about how you know about “most people”, how can I even tell if you yourself actually experience things in the way you describe? How do I know you actually experience thought as a voice in the center of your head? The problem is that once such fundamentally subjective statements are put forward as evidence for any sort of conclusion, I have to wonder whether you are making those statements purely to lead me to the conclusion you desire (knowing, as you do, that they cannot be checked). The same point applies to my description of my subjective experience of thought: did you wonder whether I denied experiencing images and internal voices just so that I could support my argument? If not, you should have.

        There is a better way to examine stuff like this: through experimentation. Cognitive psychologists try to do experiments investigating the range of mental representations of thoughts (search for “the imagery debate” for some interesting articles and techniques). Their findings suggest that mental experience is quite heterogeneous; and we can check these results by running further experiments ourselves (in a way that we cannot check assertions based on individual subjective experience).

      • Below are responses to your claims about mistakes people make and my experience of the same. I like that you gave a lot of specific examples. I found it thought-provoking and I like how it functioned as prompt for me. Overall I tend not to be convinced by the claims you make about the experiences you describe.

        I frequently have verbal thoughts involving imagining what I would say in a certain situation, or how to explain something. These occur far in excess of how often I actually talk, and may have an instinctual component, but it seems to have functional purpose for making me more prepared when I do need to say something in a certain situation. I’ve also sometimes caught in my mind some verbal noise that was not in an imagined conversational context, as well as using the verbal loop as an aid to working memory, although that seems rare. This process is clearly distinct from the actual generation of the ideas that are linguistically represented although sometimes I work to represent a thought very shortly after thinking it. I don’t know what you mean by the illusion that I am “purposefully thinking” such verbal thoughts, although I’m certainly under no illusion that each thought I have follows a thought deciding to have that thought, as that would be a ridiculous infinite regress.

        I don’t usually think about my face when I think about myself. Nonetheless, I think you’re correct that my mental image of my face is based on mirror images and that I don’t put the effort to mentally reflect it back to how other people see it. I also know that the way my voice sounds to me is very different from the way my voice sounds to other people, which I can hear when I listen to recordings of myself, but I haven’t fully internalized this. These are illusions I have about myself, but not illusions I have about my mind which seem to be what you want to point to.

        In response to

        Most people are convinced at a subconscious level that they’re seeing everything about an object, even though they’re really not.

        , nobody thinks that. For that claim to make sense you have to lean pretty heavily on “at a subconscious level”, and I don’t know what you have in mind.

        Yes, I think I see from my face, but that’s only an approximate statement. More precisely, I think I see from my eyes, which explains why I can see other parts of my face. I certainly don’t think the image of my face is seeing other images, as indeed an “image see[ing] another image” is indeed ridiculous.

        I’m not aware of the tension you’re referring to that people feel in the center of their heads. It’s hard to deliberately notice such a thing because I get confused by a different mental phenomenon where I can feel a sort of tension in any part of my body that I deliberately focus on expecting such a tension. I certainly don’t feel like I see “from” such a tension.

        On attributing qualities to images, the example that I like to think about is my mental representation of chess: I seem to “see” squares being safe or unsafe, accessible or inaccessible to certain pieces, and similar properties. These attributes are sort of visual in that they are overlayed on the image I see of the board, but don’t have any color or opacity, and they are clearly acquired not innate since they are not seen by people who don’t play chess. Indeed when we see an image, this image has qualities of color which are pretty directly connected to sensory input, and it also has many other qualities attached to parts of the image that come from fitting the image together with our mental model of the world. I wouldn’t call that an illusion. Seeing hardness is different from feeling it with your feet but they’re closely associated because they both correspond to the same mental concept.

        On feeling that I hear with my ear, as well your earlier statement about auditory thoughts being “in your head” and similar issues, I admit I’m genuinely confused. Interpreted literally I’d say that it doesn’t make sense to ask “where” these phenomena are felt spatially, but associating them to a region in or around my head seems like a more natural answer than elsewhere. I find hard to distinguish the social/linguistic aspects where this is the result of trying to find the most sensible interpretation of a confusing question and perhaps fall back to a conventional or expected answer, from the phenomenological aspect of some distinct hard-to-pinpoint mental experience that is associated to these phenomena.

        A cortical homunculus is a representation of a person’s body in their brain. The size of its parts are distorted compared to the body parts that they represent, and this seems to correspond to how sensitive people are to these body parts and how much attention people tend to pay to them. I’m not aware of anyone other than you who claims anecdotal or scientific results about their perception of the body part’s actual size to be related to its size in either cortical homunculus.

    • kai.teorn says:

      > is a long-lasting state of euphoria a correct response to the world we live in?

      I think it very well is, if you define “correct” not as “having a matching level of nastiness” but rather as “allowing you to be, here in this world, maximally non-embarrassingly happy for the longest time” (“non-embarrassingly” means that a maximum number of other, non-euphoric, mental states of you would agree that this happiness is desirable).

      I claim that it is a correct response because such a long-lasting euphoria is what may make you the most productive in making the world less nasty. To put it simply, if you care about the world, don’t waste time sulking.

  11. Steve Sailer says:

    Have you read William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience?” I haven’t, but many people of good judgment have been most impressed by it.

  12. What’s strange to me is that meditating for a long enough time leads to feelings of universal love. I wonder if that part is consistent or whether it’s primed by things like Buddhist belief. Nobody seems to have become enlightened to feelings of universal disdain at least.

    • PreFollower says:

      I think the main thing is that pretty much nobody wants to enlighten into disdain. Enlightenment is seen as some kind of progress, becoming better, and for most people universal love feels better than everlasting mysantropy. Also I could guess that default state of humans is contentment – if you don’t feel stress, fear, anger, regret and such (or feel less of these) and don’t need to fight for status or something, you should be pretty comfortable and therefore more friendly and empathic.

    • rahien.din says:

      Nobody seems to have become enlightened to feelings of universal disdain

      This may be selection bias. Those who become enlightened into (or via?) universal disdain would not be inclined to describe it to those whom they despise.

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        You may be onto something here. There are some followers of black magic who, through (or in spite of?) intense meditation, have come to the conviction that humans are all sheep who deserve to be devoured by primordial chaos. They usually do prefer a degree of secrecy.

    • Viliam says:

      Isn’t loving-kindness meditation the traditional first step before doing the concentration and insight meditations? If you follow this path, the feelings of universal love preceed (and are probably maintained by force of habit during) the enlightenment-oriented meditation.

      From the perspective of (self-)conditioning, you should treat yourself with love during meditation. Because if you punish yourself (internally) for failing to meditate, you don’t only punish the failure, but also the ability to notice the failure — which is the opposite of what you’d want if you are trying to improve self-understanding. So you need at least the self-love to make progress. (How is self-love related to love of others, probably depends on your personality. For some people, loving others is easier, and they may need to get to the self-love through the universal love.)

      • Creutzer says:

        Isn’t loving-kindness meditation the traditional first step before doing the concentration and insight meditations?

        No, it isn’t. If anything, it comes afterwards. I have a suspicion that metta doesn’t even make any sense before you’ve done some insight practice to conjure that mysterious feeling of good-will towards other creatures that comes from it (and which you can then meditate on). I’ve seen insight meditation having practically MDMA-like effects (spontaneously, without being prompted, without having any intention to do metta meditation), and I have no idea why that would happen – but it seems suspiciously consistent and reliable.

        “Self-love” strikes me as an unfortunate term in the context of a practice that is aimed at dissolving the sense of self. The absence of self-hate, self-condemnation, etc. that is necessary and desirable in meditation isn’t something that is appropriately called self-love, because that term has the distinct disadvantage of implying an object of love (and of being a very 21st century Western notion that comes with all sorts of bullshit baggage).

  13. Ninety-Three says:

    Whenever I talk about it, there are smart, normal-seeming people who pipe up and say they have “some experience with the terrain”. I think if you’re going to doubt all these people, you need some theory of what’s going on, something more explanatory than just “we’re rationalists so we don’t believe any of this stuff”.

    How do you explain religious experiences? Because if you talk about that you’ll get plenty of normal-seeming people who pipe up and report some experience with divine manifestations (at least if you do your talking with a less secular audience than the rationalsphere). Technically there has to be some underlying phenomenon in the brain that neuroscientists are probably very excited about but “I dunno man, the brain invents all kinds of weird stuff” is good enough that I don’t feel compelled to stop being an atheist. If we can believe that there’s no there there when millions of Christians talk about directly experiencing supernatural presences, why can’t we do the same for meditators?

    • Enkidum says:

      Because (most) meditators don’t claim anything supernatural, or even that crazy-sounding, so there’s no a priori reason to disbelieve them. Hell, the whole point of many schools of meditation is, literally, that there’s no there there.

    • imoimo says:

      The PNSE article included Christians in its subjects. I think Martin’s theory considers Buddhists and (some?) Christians to be achieving roughly the same thing.

    • Protagoras says:

      There’s a difference between believing people’s reports about their own experience, and believing their claims about what caused the experience. Religious experiences certainly seem to exist, but of course for the usual reasons it doesn’t seem that they are actually caused by any sort of contact with the divine. But the meditation discussion does not seem to involve any such implausible causal stories; if it did, of course we’d doubt those as well.

  14. rahien.din says:

    Maybe everybody is correct.

    Enlightenment, at its most fundamental, is the state of non-attachment. It is explicitly not a state of magical powers – in fact, the Buddhist tradition admonishes its practitioners that any apparent superpowers are at best a temptation along the path to true enlightenment. Recall the adage, “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.” The goal is not to shoot chi bolts or fly or glow luminously.

    Furthermore, enlightenment doesn’t make you or your life anything other than what you are and it is. Practitioners who progress further along the path do not all start to resemble one another, and in fact are described as becoming more like themselves in behavior and affect. And the state in which you understand how everything is interconnected is not the state in which you want some of those interconnected things to change. It’s more likely that, seeing the entirety of existence all at once, one would find it to be holistically good. This would naturally extend even to your own circumstances.

    This is no surprise. The Four Noble Truths are “1. We suffer, 2. The cause of suffering is attachment, 3. There is a method to end attachment, 4. That method is the Eightfold Path.” Quite deliberately, there is nothing in there about how bad the world sucks, or the existence of evil, or the necessity of improving our lot. The second noble truth speaks very firmly against the importance of those things.

    Thus, enlightenment is a state in which you experience blissful non-attachment… but life is otherwise very ordinary and requires the same efforts. That seems to match the accounts of these certified-enlightened people.

    Yes, it seems weird that they describe themselves as less stressed when outwardly they seem to be just as stressed, but this is just the body doing what the body does. It is not that they do not encounter physiologic stresses, it is that they are blissfully non-attached to them, just as they are blissfully non-attached to any other circumstance. They may rightly retort, “Am I also to blame when it rains on me, or if I get sick, or when I die?” Or, “Even if I sought enlightenment to fundamentally alter my life, would enlightenment let me persist in that desire?”

    So, what do we want enlightenment for, anyway?

    The skeptics may also be right, then. It is not simply that enlightenment comes too full-circle to actually change anything other than your own internal experience – it is that “change nothing but your own internal experience” is kind of the point and that’s… jarring.

    One could describe the enlightened being as, fundamentally, a spectator of their own life. A sort of movie-goer, who (if you accept their accounts) is going to watch the same movie from every single perspective. But a story can not proceed without some agency, and is less compelling if you don’t feel it. Enlightenment, on this account, seems to negate both of those things – you have no experience of agency, only bliss. This seems like going to the movies not because you want to experience narrative, but just because you like the patterns of light and sound.

    Furthermore, what happened to compassion? A fundamental aspect of enlightenment is compassion for all beings still experiencing suffering. But if this ends up meaning “wanting all beings to realize that everything is fine and that no one has agency and so we should all stop identifying with the narrative,” that feels a little… pallid.

    Granted, that “feels a little pallid” impression is probably a symptom of being non-enlightened, and if we all exited the narrative and became self-spectators, we would all be in that blissful non-attached state and the world would proceed without taking notice. But to take an even more distant birds-eye view, it’s not clear why this is definitely preferable. It seems, initially, that the two possible states of existence are “believe yourself part of the narrative and experience all the attendant highs and lows,” and “believe yourself an observer of the narrative and experience only unperturbed bliss.” If one prefers the latter nirvanan state, this seems to rest on the belief that living within the narrative is not worth any amount of suffering – the same dubious asymmetry argument that underpins antinatalism. And while that doesn’t have to damn nirvana by the company it keeps, it should at least give us some pause. If we have a choice, isn’t it valid to choose to have some degree of attachment?

    Perhaps this is how we come to the fullest of circles and let go of letting go. Recall that each of these enlightened persons described their state as “the very best state,” not matter what level they were currently on. While that is presented here as a startling delusion, it’s probably exactly correct. Because there is not one single “very best state.” There is a set of efficient states.

    These accounts suggest that there is a relationship, between “degree of attachment/attentiveness to life” and “evenness of feeling.” And – rather than the single point-state of even-bliss-total-nonattachment – enlightenment is that relationship’s Pareto frontier. Everyone starts conscious life with a Pareto-inefficient allocation of attachment and evenness, and moving toward enlightenment means becoming more and more efficient in this allocation. But the ultimate idea is that, to the enlightened being, any level of efficient narrative-detachment is as valid as any other in the nirvana-set, and enlightenment means you situate yourself on that Pareto frontier as you see fit.

    For instance, if you are aiming for pure nirvana, you will end up on the “lowest attachment, highest evenness” end of the frontier. If you are aiming to be more of a boddhisattva, you will be higher-attachment and lower-evenness than the Theravadans.

    One can add a third axis : stability. It is possible that one could move along that Pareto frontier in response to the current circumstances, becoming unattached-and-even in some instances, and somewhat-attached-and-variable in others. And one’s level of enlightenment-stability is also optimizable.

    Thus, the ultimate idea seems to be that enlightenment is a Pareto surface, describing the optimal relationship between local-attachment, local-evenness, and temporal-stability.

    Edit : typo, clarity

    • Fluffy Buffalo says:

      That actually makes sense. I’ve sometimes wondered, when Bhuddism’s ideal mental states are described, “yeah, but would I really WANT that?” I think it’s perfectly fine to say, no, I want attach meaning to people, things and ideas than mean something to me, even if it means suffering. Its okay to want something, even if you don’t get it. So “enlightenment” is not unambiguously better… it’s an option, and it’s good to know that option exists, but I don’t think I’ll aim for it anytime soon.

    • imoimo says:

      Your idea that outward signs of stress are “only” physiological and still compatible with feeling detachment is interesting. I’d expect the enlightened’s loved ones to at least notice changes in other conscious behavior, but maybe the difference between “trying hard to become enlightened” and “enlightened” is entirely internal.

      • janrandom says:

        Personal anecdote: Other people sometimes notice before I do that I’m stressed or tired. It’s not that I can’t notice just that my attention might be on other things.

        I’m not saying that’s the same as with the enlightened study participants but just that it might be common to (be able to) feel inner calm despite bodily stress.

    • janrandom says:

      Very much agree. Great dissolving the question. Not clear how this dissolves the scandal aspect but maybe for this post it’s better left to the reader.

  15. P. George Stewart says:

    I’m not sure what the problem’s supposed to be. We know that there are “mind blowing” experiences (which start and stop in time) of non-duality that have correlates in the brain (loss of self/other boundary). All the religious traditions have mystical traditions embedded in them that claim similar experiences, despite differences in orthodoxy, cosmology, etc. Some drug experiences are similar or have echoes of this experience, but by most accounts the experience is way beyond anything you can get from drugs (I can testify to this). Sometimes people spontaneously have these experiences, and sometimes people have experiences that are similar but dysphoric instead of euphoric (probably just because they’re not prepared by any of the literature, not used to the idea, of losing their ordinary, everyday sense of self).

    So you can either spend the necessary time and energy to try and get that kind of experience (about the same as doing anything else really well in life – i.e. quite a hike, but not impossible) – or you can not bother.

    Reports are mixed as to the “usefulness” of these experiences in daily life, and/or the degree to which they make people more or less moral; but certainly most people who have had them seem to think the effort was worthwhile.

    There’s a fuzzy area about a further level, where either the experience as such becomes permanent (in the sense that what was formerly a temporary experience becomes a permanent condition) or there’s some kind of richer, permanent shift in perspective, or a gestalt switch, beyond it.

    What’s supposed to be anti-rational or especially problematic about any of this? Sure, there’s some babble around it, but there’s babble around everything, and what do you expect from experiences that are unfamiliar and knock you for six the first time you have them? It all seems quite innocuous to me.

    Even the metaphysical claims are innocuous. Physicalism is supposed to be a single system. The mind that develops with the body (however it’s related to the physical system) can just as easily be a mind of that single system (the Universe perceiving and cognizing itself). Again, big whoop. (I mean yeah, it’s big, monumental, subjectively, for the person having the experience; but there’s nothing about it that’s “weird” or “out there” at all.)

  16. greghb says:

    I’ve always been curious about claims of meditation affecting overt physical states of the body, e.g. this study claiming to have measured monks’ ability to raise the temperature in their extremities by 17 degrees (F, I assume). It also recounts monks sitting in rooms at 40F and having drenched sheets placed across their backs, and raising their body temperatures to more speedily dry the sheets.

    No direct claim that this is related to the psychic state of enlightenment, but it’s closer to a real-life super power. I wonder if “enlightened” people would be able to learn these skills more quickly, or something.

  17. theodidactus says:

    I hate to join the chorus of skepticism. Might it have something to do with the name enlightenment? Enlightenment sounds like it should be reserved for superhumans wreathed in coronas of heavenly fire or something…at the very least it sounds like it should be reserved for people who have “figured it out”, whatever “it” is. It definitely sounds prescriptive if nothing else. There are two categories: the unenlightened and the enlightened, and the unenlightened should be enlightened…I can’t read the word any other way.

    I hate to say that it sounds an awful lot like being “born again” in christ: in the abstract people talk about it in this very transcendent way but then when they talk about it as applied to themselves it becomes extremely banal “oh no, I don’t mean I’ll never sin again, it doesn’t even mean I’ll never doubt again, It just means I’ve renewed my dedication to Jesus.”

    It feels very motte-and-bailey: life altering and eminently desirable in the abstract, in practice “I guess what I’m saying is that I felt something had changed. I still desire things. I still get mad. I still get embroiled in sex scandals…but I felt something had changed.”

    • Dacyn says:

      I think the bailey is usually more like “enlightenment/’getting religion’ does cause one to be a significantly better person on average, even if any individual may still act badly”. It’s not so clear that this is actually true, but it’s not so clear that it’s false either.

      • theodidactus says:

        It’s always really bothered me, to be honest. I think my reaction is similar to what Scott is describing in Radicalizing the Romanceless: https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/08/31/radicalizing-the-romanceless/

        I get this bailey of “faith/enlightenment opens up new worlds of boundless joy and wonder” or in slightly reduced form “Faith/enlightenment makes me a better person. Your burden can be eased, your life made more full and complete, if only you turn to [x]”

        …and then the person saying that turns out to have cheated on his wife or screwed over their business partner in a crooked land deal or staggers home drunk when they’re my houseguest and yarfs on my sofa. And when I confront them about their previous assertion they’re like “Hey man I never said it made you perfect.”

        and you know, I wasn’t asking for perfect. Maybe it’s just me being selfish and egotistical, but I get prickly about it. I don’t have these problems. It’s perhaps a personal virtue counterbalanced by hidden vices or something, but “don’t lie to your wife/screw over your partner in a crooked land deal/yarf on my sofa” is like, a step-1 moral lesson I feel like I’ve already learned, and not through complex meditation techniques or the damn bible.

        • Dacyn says:

          Yeah, I understand getting prickly about that, cheating / making crooked business deals is certainly different than just being “imperfect”. (The sofa may be borderline, at least it doesn’t show ill intent but just very poor judgement.) That said, I don’t know how representative those cases are; for example the Christians I know have all been pretty nice (and I say that as an atheist)…

          • theodidactus says:

            talk of Enlightenment might actually annoy me more than standard christian morality-lecturing because (with the exception of some born agains) it’s not an explicit binary. Enlightenment seems to promise an irreversible shift: once this happens, you will no longer [x]. It also doesn’t seem to be about strengthening some part of yourself, rather, having something drop away completely.

            So from my more moralistic christian friends, I get “As a christian, I am more resistant to these forms of temptation” but if they fall prey to them, I guess I understand if they default to “well but there was SO MUCH of that one kind of temptation”

            Whereas enlightenment tends to be phrased as a binary: “As an enlightened being, I no longer experience the falsehood of this kind of stress or temptation.” …and we all had this conversation last week, but I think it’s worth stating my position: I do think enlightenment as it’s generally described is incompatible with the kind of sex scandals we discussed last week…in fact I think it’s incompatible with the behavior of someone who even purports to want to be enlightened…but it’s possible I’ve just entirely misunderstood what enlightenment is supposed to be about.

          • Dacyn says:

            Well thanks for restating your position, I didn’t look at the conversation last week. Anyway, my impression is that enlightenment is supposed to be more like “I no longer experience any kind of desire at all” which… on its face seems incompatible with the fact that supposedly enlightened people continue to do things, regardless of whether those things are morally wrong or not. But there is supposedly some way of resolving this paradox, and I don’t see why such a resolution wouldn’t also explain why enlightened people can act in ways that would ordinarily be due to temptation…

    • HowardHolmes says:

      Sort of like rational and irrational.

      • theodidactus says:

        I’m not sure, because I’m not really sure where I fall on the question of whether “rationality” confers any special benefits (moral, personal-utility, or otherwise). It’s certainly not why I like rationalists or rationalism.

  18. axiomsofdominion says:

    I agree with most of the skeptics. It seems to me that many people consider enlightenment meaningless. Like yeah so what? Well because the stated goal of enlightenment according to its adherents is to escape meaning. If Scott would just let go of his and his friends’ need to feel superior he would see that there is no conflict between skeptics and adherents on the substance and also he would achieve enlightenment.

    But yeah the word itself is causing the problems. If you just said the goal of all this stuff was to learn to care less about stuff basically all the arguments would resolve instantly. It is the implication that enlightenment is about improvement or superiority that drives disagreement. Especially because there is literally no evidence. And arguably there can’t be evidence.

    The arguments for enlightenment and the defenses of poorly and foolishly behaving “enlightened” people sound absolutely identical to peity to me. A monk has nothing and needs nothing but the grace of god. He chops wood and he carries water.

    Enlightenment is presented as a way to get what you want but it is actually a way to not want stuff. And this also seems to make existence pointless. In a secular world there is an easy way to have no attachments or desires. Be dead.

    • Scumbarge says:

      Hm.

      “If you just said the goal of all this stuff was to learn to care less about stuff basically all the arguments would resolve instantly. It is the implication that enlightenment is about improvement or superiority that drives disagreement.”

      These two sentences seem a bit at odds to me.

      I mean, say we assume that “desire for existence to be different than it really is” is the core of suffering, which…makes sense. I don’t think this is about crushing down ambition or will; my interpretation is that it’s about accepting things that cannot be changed.

      To that end, any increase in the ability to be at peace with the inevitable, and react accordingly, seems like an improvement. Any movement away from this attunement is descending a gradient towards delusion.

      So, by training your ability to “not care about stuff”, (i.e, not burn yourself out in pointless rumination), you literally are improving yourself. It’s kind of a rationalist sentiment–“That which can be destroyed by the truth should be”, ““If the iron is hot, I desire to believe it is hot, and if it is cool, I desire to believe it is cool”, etc.

      If you’re taking these definitions as a given, it strikes me as a demonstrably superior state.

      Now, it’s up for debate as to whether or not these practices are an efficient way to do that, but if you twist the words around a bit their claims are more tautological than controversial.

  19. TenthKrige says:

    The more I read about enlightened people, the more I am unimpressed with enlightenment. The only things they seem to explain with words are things that probably vary quite a lot between people anyway.

    To talk about my personal subjective experience, when I compare notes with other people, it seems I have low ego, not many things cause me psychological pain, I almost never get angry, rarely feel sad, or any of the particulars on Cuke’s list of “chest anxiety, hot-faced anger, tension headaches, chronic muscle tension, insomnia due to worry, fear of death, conflict with others”. And I notice he only says that you get less of them, but the significance of that depends on how much you got at first!

    I am reminded of aphantasia, and the variation between people there. The difference here seems to be that you can change the level you’re at if you try hard enough, but I’ve read both accounts that say it’s a good thing and that it’s a bad thing. Maybe it’s a spectrum, from very un-enlightened to very enlightened, and both are kinda bad, but in the middle it’s ok. And you can only (voluntarily) move in the “enlightened” direction, so if you were already right of center it makes you worse, but if you were left it makes you better? [insert here better analogy for multi-dimensional / more complicated landscapes of enlightenment]

    But in the end, just like I wouldn’t take a pill that makes me 1% more evil, I also don’t particularly want to modify my mind in hard to predict directions. Maybe it’s just my natural apathy.

  20. DinoNerd says:

    This whole topic is weird, and I’m inclined to agree with Alex M. Why on earth do we need to believe that “euphoric depersonalization” has any of the other qualities commonly associated with “Enlightenment”, such as saintliness? I’m inclined to believe something like “euphoric depersonalization” can exist, and can probably be created by drugs, never mind repeated meditation. But without priors for associating this with saintliness, I’d be inclined to call a person habitually doing this to themselves a “drug addict” etc. and expect similar behavioural effects. (Neglecting responsibilities, self destructive choices, etc.)

    It seems perfectly plausible to me – and consistent with some of the religious literature – that regular meditation, and perhaps other religious practices, can create 2 things – better behaviour to others and meaningless internal epiphenomena. The former (better behaviour) may or may not be mediated by internal states, such as reduced anxiety – but even so, need not be mediated by the specific internal state described as “euphoric depersonalization”.

    The point of course being that folks recognized as “Enlightened”, based on regular experience of “euphoric depersonalization”, need not be good at anything other than creating this particular experience.

  21. Bugmaster says:

    If I try to steelman the anti-enlightenment argument, the best I can do is to imagine a sort of placebo enlightenment, where if you get told by your culture that you can feel inner peace and selflessness by doing X, eventually you feel (something that can be mistaken for) inner peace and selflessness.

    While this isn’t a strawman, this isn’t a steelman, either. Rather, it’s a kind of… dough-man, maybe ?

    Sure, placebo effects due to cultural norms can be a factor. But it could also be the case that “enlightenment” is a real effect, whereby a person can utilize repetitive breathing and mental concentration techniques to reduce anxiety and induce some weird and/or good feelings.

    We know with high degree of certainty that breathing exercises can promote calm. We know that emotional changes in the mind can be traced to physical changes in the brain (seeing as that’s what they are), so we can track them on brain scans. We also know a variety of other practices that can induce similar mental states: conventional prayer, drugs, maybe even long walks on the beach.

    I might be persuaded that meditation is uniquely powerful, in that it allows one to replicate some benefits of actual drugs, without all the nasty chemical side-effects. That would, IMO, already be a phenomenally useful discovery (because drugs are bad, mmmkay). However, my problem with enlightenment advocates is that they usually take the argument one step further. Meditation doesn’t just give you weird good feelings; it gives you special powers. Maybe you don’t hover off the ground surrounded by golden rays of light; but you — allegedly — can acquire increased perceptual acuity, enhanced intelligence, enhanced empathy, and “new levels of self-awareness”, whatever that means.

    These are factual claims, and they can and should be verified empirically. The claim “I feel as though I can perceive the world more fully” is relatively non-controversial, and a testimonial would suffice to verify it. The claim “I can actually perceive the world more fully” is much stronger, but, fortunately, immediately verifiable. The same thing goes with enhanced intelligence, empathy, etc. The same also goes for golden-light hovering, incidentally.

  22. Alex M says:

    I’ve got absolutely nothing useful to contribute today, just wanted to say “Wow! Senpai noticed me!”

    ✌.ʕʘ‿ʘʔ.✌

    Happy Friday!

  23. mtraven says:

    The idea that enlightenment is some objectively verifiable state seems to miss the point completely.

    I’m hardly an expert but surely the point of meditation, enlightenment, koans, etc, is to produce states of awareness that are in some way Other than those that can be produced through methods of rationality and objectivity.

    In fact even calling it them “states” is probably getting off on the wrong foot. You are already enlightened and can’t enter it or leave it as if it was some mundane state like “hungry” or “happy”. And you have no self to go in and out of these non-states.

    https://www.lionsroar.com/you-are-already-enlightened/

    We Are Already Enlightened
    The Chan tradition does not usually refer to steps or stages. Its central teaching is that we are intrinsically awake; our mind is originally without abiding, fixations, and vexations, and its nature is without divisions and stages. This is the basis of the Chan view of sudden enlightenment. If our mind’s nature were not already free, that would imply we could become enlightened only after we practiced, which is not so. If it’s possible to gain enlightenment, then it’s possible to lose it as well.

    Consider a room, which is naturally spacious. However we organize the furniture in the room will not affect its intrinsic spaciousness. We can put up walls to divide the room, but they are temporary. And whether we leave the room clean or cluttered and messy, it won’t affect its natural spaciousness. Mind is also intrinsically spacious. Although we can get caught up in our desires and aversions, our true nature is not affected by those vexations. We are inherently free.

    In the Chan tradition, therefore, practice is not about producing enlightenment. You might wonder, “Then what am I doing here, practic­ing?” Because practice does help clean up the “furniture” in the “room.” By not attaching to your thoughts, you remove the furniture, so to speak. And once your mind is clean, instead of fixating on the chairs, tables, and so on, you see its spaciousness. Then you can let the furniture be or rearrange it any way you want—not for yourself, but for the benefit of others in the room.

  24. Riothamus says:

    I was much more interested in the language used to approach the problem of enlightenment than I was in the details. The notion of different subjective internal states and changing of the self/other boundary has broader utility (which is what I would expect of better theory).

    Consider berserkergang, which sounds suspiciously like “becoming a superhuman surrounded by sticky mists of blood” or a “violent depersonalization experience” to me. Legends are replete with stories of red mists descending, having the strength of many men, and being immune to fear and pain. These pattern match pretty well with the flying around shooting chi bolts from a third eye stories associated with enlightenment.

    It even seems to be broadly similar in terms of how experimentally confirmed it is, where you can tell whether someone is meditating by their brain scans but also you can see experienced soldiers’ faces and limbs flush with blood instead of going pale when presented with danger.

  25. Lasagna says:

    My wife and I are interested in trying a little meditation. With two small kids and a third on the way, though, the chances of us taking a class are zero.

    Does anyone have meditation experience, and can tell me if this is this something we can learn at home? Through books, videos, YouTube, anything? Or is it not particularly worth it without a guide?

    Thanks in advance! We wouldn’t mind giving yoga a shot either, but the same restrictions apply. 🙂

  26. bagel says:

    Surely brain scans could count as the external, falsifiable, empirical evidence that Alex M. demands? Why didn’t you lead with that? I get that “otherwise trustworthy people reporting something” is a very fair place to start an investigation… but it’s still not the gold standard of evidence so when you have better evidence it’s weird to lead with.

    After all, you could say “lots of otherwise trustworthy people reported demon attacks or alien abductions” and they really did have *something* but we now know that the contemporary reporters have sleep paralysis and suspect the historical reporters did too. Neither the outright believers or doubters would have gotten that one entirely right, but the evidence of its responsiveness to medication is compelling.

    • “Surely brain scans could count as the external, falsifiable, empirical evidence that Alex M. demands?”

      AFAIK brain-scan lie detection isn’t any better than polygraphy. You could probably find something “lighting up” but you expect to find it regardless of whether the claims are true or not.

  27. “I analyze economist predictions, see that their track record of successful predictions is atrocious, and then make the totally RATIONAL choice to discard my priors and treats economics as the laughable hocus-pocus that it is – because when you genuinely have an accurate view of reality, it doesn’t collapse under scrutiny.”

    This is too harsh, and if you understand the EMH, you’ll know why. Economists shouldn’t be able to “predict the economy” because public information is already incorporated into market prices. Think about it this way, imagine that a society went from no economic knowledge to high economic knowledge overnight. Economics says that asset X should be expected to rise 15% next year. What happens? Everyone buys asset X, and as a result it doesn’t rise next year. In a society where this knowledge was widespread, it would never have experienced such a rise because the knowledge would have been incorporated into the price long ago. So does this mean that economics shouldn’t be expected to predict anything? Actually not, economics can tell us the outcome of policies, if whether a policy will be enacted looks in doubt, an economist can predict the movement of the markets when the decision is made. You’re probably thinking of the colossal failure of Brexit, but it did work when it comes to really dumbbell policies like price controls, which need I remind you a majority of Americans supported as recently as 2008:

    https://news.gallup.com/poll/107542/majority-americans-support-price-controls-gas.aspx

    As with any field, CW will end up corrupting it. But the rational thing to do is to gain more knowledge so you can better understand the arguments being made, not declare the field as worthless.

  28. “If I try to steelman the anti-enlightenment argument, the best I can do is to imagine a sort of placebo enlightenment, where if you get told by your culture that you can feel inner peace and selflessness by doing X, eventually you feel (something that can be mistaken for) inner peace and selflessness.

    But if we’re going to worry about this, why don’t we believe that LSD only causes placebo hallucinations? Maybe drug culture talks up LSD hallucinations so much that users say they’ve seen them to fit in. Why don’t we believe chronic pain conditions are only placebo pain? Why don’t we worry that “runners high” and “endorphin rushes” are just stories runners tell to feel better for themselves after torturing their bodies over long marathons?”

    Placebos can only go far, LSD hallucinations is a reductio-ad-absurdum of the argument. But that “runners high” and “endorphin rushes” are placebo effects seems like a perfectly reasonable hypothesis to me. We don’t “worry” about it because exercise is a high-status behavior to do that we want to encourage. If it were low status, you’d hear “it’s just in head bro read about the placebo effect it’s science lol.” Alcohol, too, has been hypothesized to be a placebo in part:

    http://www.overcomingbias.com/2011/11/28328.html

  29. Thegnskald says:

    There’s a certain… hostility, here, to the idea that enlightenment is real, and that it offers any benefits.

    If I said I changed my diet and felt better, I wouldn’t evoke much reaction. Some people would ask what I changed.

    If I said I spent a few hours a week practicing a way of thinking, and felt better, that somehow is deeply suspicious? We must closely scrutinize this claim?

    • axiomsofdominion says:

      The word doesn’t have a good agreed upon meaning. Some meanings of the word wouldn’t evoke a negative reaction but others would. Also people have similar reactions to vegetarianism/veganism and to things like gluten free or pescatarian diets so your example doesn’t really hold up.

      • Thegnskald says:

        And people are, what, choosing the meanings for themselves that evoke those negative reactions?

        And people have similar reactions when others insist everyone would be better on a given diet, as opposed to claiming personal benefit. The former arises considerable hostility that is absent from the latter.

    • Bugmaster says:

      If you said, “I spent a few hours a week practicing a way of thinking, and felt better“, I would have no problem believing you. But if you said, “…and also, I gained valuable and true insights about the world”, or “…and also, I can now perform better at a wide variety of real-world tasks”, or even, “…and now, my clinical depression is cured” — then yeah, I’d ask for proof. One major issue I have with enlightenment proponents is that they keep conflating subjective and factual claims in this way.

      • Thegnskald says:

        In another comment, you talk about distinguishing between true and false enlightenment.

        I think maybe you are defining “true” enlightenment as some kind of… leveling up mechanism. Gaining +3 in Wis, or whatever.

        Whereas it’s more like… “Oh, okay.”

        It’s less about gaining insights into the world, and more about gaining insights into yourself.

        And any benefit you may derive in terms of doing better at tasks is going to arise mostly from a changed perspective or attitude towards those tasks; perhaps something you’ve been dreading will stop seeming so dreadful. You’re not going to do any better at it, but maybe you won’t be quite as reluctant about doing it. (Or perhaps you won’t do it at all, no longer seeing it as terribly important.)

        The basic level of something-that-could-be-called-enlightenment I grok is this: Your mind is not a limb, to be directed. Your thoughts are not a voice, to be emitted. Your mind is a causal force; to think of yourself in the center of that, causing those things, is to posit a mind-within-a-mind, a causal-force-within-a-causal-force.

        If you pay attention to your consciousness, it is not the mouth, it is the ear hearing the mouth. It cannot be both, for that would be to both be the causal force, and the caused reaction.

        Enlightenment is both a sense of unity, in realizing that the entire structure of your mind is yourself, and also a sense of divorcement, in realizing that the part of your mind that is aware of the rest of your mind is not actually in control of everything else; you’re not an infinite nested series of homunculi.

        This doesn’t grant superhuman powers. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t grant any powers whatsoever. It does let your self-awareness relax a bit, though, and stop endlessly struggling to try to assert itself over everything else, which I suspect might be a significant part of the “suffering” people seem to refer to.

        More, the really useful insights you might have gotten from this have already been passed down to you in common cultural wisdom. Habits make the man, for instance. You’re unlikely to stumble into some great new cache of wisdom; this mine has already been pretty thoroughly mapped. But that wisdom might make a little bit more sense.

        So yeah, anybody claiming to have uncovered secrets of the universe? Almost certainly full of shit. But that’s not really what we’re talking about here, and the insistence on focusing on charlatans instead of the subject matter seems bizarrely hostile.

        • Said Achmiz says:

          It’s less about gaining insights into the world, and more about gaining insights into yourself.

          What are these insights? Are they communicable to someone who hasn’t been ‘enlightened’? Does someone who has had them have the ability to do anything better, or even differently, than someone who lacks them? (And if the answers to the latter two questions are ‘no’ and ‘no’, then can they really be called ‘insights’, or are they not merely illusory insights? Fake insights?)

          And any benefit you may derive in terms of doing better at tasks is going to arise mostly from a changed perspective or attitude towards those tasks; perhaps something you’ve been dreading will stop seeming so dreadful. You’re not going to do any better at it, but maybe you won’t be quite as reluctant about doing it. (Or perhaps you won’t do it at all, no longer seeing it as terribly important.)

          So, is there or is there not a benefit? Let’s get clear on this, please; regardless of why or how the benefit occurs—regardless of the mechanism behind it—is there, in fact, a benefit?

          This doesn’t grant superhuman powers. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t grant any powers whatsoever.

          That’s certainly what it seems like! So then the whole thing is useless and there’s (at best!) no point in trying to get it.

          P.S.:

          Enlightenment is both a sense of unity, in realizing that the entire structure of your mind is yourself, and also a sense of divorcement, in realizing that the part of your mind that is aware of the rest of your mind is not actually in control of everything else; you’re not an infinite nested series of homunculi.

          You certainly don’t need to meditate or do anything weird to have this realization; just read Consciousness Explained (or, more broadly, study cognitive science, etc.).

          (Note that understanding how the mind works—actually understanding how the mind works, not mysterian mumbo-jumbo—does constitute insight into the world, because your mind is very much a part of the world. Also note that all the actual insights here are very much communicable in words, and furthermore they absolutely do allow you to do things you otherwise couldn’t—e.g., make experimental predictions about how people will respond to certain stimuli, etc.)

          • Thegnskald says:

            You could read Consciousness Explained, perhaps – I haven’t, so I can’t comment.

            I suspect if you moved from understanding the content, to internalizing and grokking it, you would, in fact, become enlightened. (Perhaps not. Perhaps some degree of action is also necessary. Hard to gauge from an outside perspective.)

            However, the mysterian mumbo-jumbo serves a point. If your consciousness has been fighting a constant war against the rest of your mind, the question you should ask if what it has been fighting -about-. And the things it has fighting about are generally described by Freud, and implied by the kind of training that most mystic traditions require before the training of enlightenment.

            Which is to say, enlightenment can turn somebody into a total shit.

        • theodidactus says:

          So yeah, anybody claiming to have uncovered secrets of the universe? Almost certainly full of shit. But that’s not really what we’re talking about here, and the insistence on focusing on charlatans instead of the subject matter seems bizarrely hostile.

          So I think a lot of Said Achmiz’s questions are striking at the same place as my own…let’s not focus on the charlatans. Let’s focus on the really genuinely enlightened people, and what they say.

          who are they?

          Given that enlightenment seems to have no communicable insights, no externally manifested behaviors, no increase in any skill or ability, perhaps even no connection to virtue or honesty or anything like that…how do I know any of the “charlatans” we’ve been discussing are charlatans? Perhaps a genuinely enlightened being goes around swindling people by promising to connect them with the ultimate secrets of the universe? Perhaps a genuinely enlightened being doesn’t really actually get mad or stressed out but sometimes exhibits basically the same behavior as one who is really actually stressed out but the part of them that’s observing the rest is severed from the externally manifested behavior in some way I’ll never understand.

          I think a good starting point is to ask “what behaviors are incompatible with enlightenment?” So we can at least start telling the charlatans from the non-charlatans.

          • HowardHolmes says:

            “what behaviors are incompatible with enlightenment?”

            Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water

          • Viliam says:

            Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water, and attribute these skills to your meditation practice.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Internal conflict and self-doubt are incompatible, if you’re sufficiently specific about what those terms mean.

            Otherwise, everything is compatible. Maybe even particularly charlatanism.

          • Thegnskald says:

            Also, pondering the “severed in a way I’ll never understand”, it isn’t particularly interesting.

            The severing is just not treating “you” as “that part of your mind which is self-aware”.

            For a first step, this amounts to noticing that the internal narrative voice isn’t controlled by their awareness – which you’ll figure out pretty quickly the first time you try to make it shut up. “Oh, that voice isn’t me.”

            For a second step, it is realizing that your awareness-of-self – what most people think of as consciousness – isn’t in any meaningful sense in control of anything else. It isn’t “you”. It is more of… a simulation of you, that you are running.

            It’s just a slow series of moments of noticing that the things you think of as yourself aren’t really yourself.

            I think. I don’t attach “self” to parts of my mind the way other people seem to, so I am kind of guessing. I can separate my mind out into different pieces – the translator function is probably the closest to sense-of-self, and is also where my sense of self-awareness sits (because its job is translating the rest of my mind into interactions, it has to have a pretty good simulation of them).

            But it isn’t really “me”. I’m all those pieces. I probably pay most attention to Translation, because it is the easiest place to pay attention (it, after all, has a model of everything else).

            So there isn’t really a severing. Just… a realization that the things you think of as yourself, aren’t?

            With practice you can pay attention to things that aren’t your simulation-of-self, and you’ll discover that things you thought were foundational to your experience, like pain, are just… information. The pain doesn’t stop, but your mental relationship with the pain can change.

  30. ChelOfTheSea says:

    > And the evidence includes thousands of otherwise-trustworthy people who say they’ve had the experience, including some people I know personally and trust quite a bit, and who radically change their behavior afterwards

    > For thousands of not-really-enlightened people to all falsely claim to be enlightened, describe enlightenment in similar ways, and go around teaching students who themselves later claim to be enlightened, all without giving up the game – sounds like an absurd conspiracy theory.

    This proves waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much for any claim beyond a base “such-and-such a qualia is possible”.

    Literally billions of people think they talk to god. Many of them think they talk to *mutually contradictory* gods. They describe the experience in similar ways, go around teaching students who themselves later claim to talk to god, and in fact do make very radical changes to their behavior, rarely up to and including killing themselves or their family members or large numbers of bystanders as a result.

    I agree it would be very stupid to claim that religious *experiences* do not exist. But I don’t think that means they ‘change you’ or make you a different type of person in the way religious people claim. Lots of people claim to be born-again and go right on sinning in exactly the same way they did before. Why should we be any more surprised that, say, ‘enlightened’ gurus have sex scandals than that Catholic priests do?

    There seems like a very obvious conclusion here – namely that while some extreme subjective experience we might call ‘enlightenment’ exists, it doesn’t usually change who you are as a person any more than finding religion does, and that its leadership is just as likely to be abusive.

    > If I try to steelman the anti-enlightenment argument, the best I can do is to imagine a sort of placebo enlightenment, where if you get told by your culture that you can feel inner peace and selflessness by doing X, eventually you feel (something that can be mistaken for) inner peace and selflessness.

    > But if we’re going to worry about this, why don’t we believe that LSD only causes placebo hallucinations?

    Because tripping for a weekend is a much lower opportunity cost than selling all your possessions to find enlightenment on a mountain in Tibet or whatever, nor does it (in most circles) confer increased social status.

  31. ajakaja says:

    I think it’s not really fair to say you’re going to steelman an argument and then write “the best I could do is…”. It feels like as rhetorical trick where you pretend to steelman and then put it down anyway. The effect of steelmanning doesn’t work if your argument doesn’t seem like an honest attempt to represent the position well.

    Anyway, it is pretty easy to steelman anti-enlightenment. I don’t find it hard at all to believe that there are multiple mental experiences that one might describe as “inner peace” and “selflessness”, and one of those is actual enlightenment and is very rare and/or impossible to attain and/or just a mystical aspiration for religions to focus on, and the other stuff is just… something else, which is probably quite pleasant but isn’t actually enlightenment.

    I certainly believe that these people have experienced _something_. Maybe even some of the same things. I don’t know how I would be able to tell if it was ‘true enlightenment’ or not.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I don’t know how I would be able to tell if it was ‘true enlightenment’ or not.

      Right, and that’s a problem in and of itself: if no one can tell “true enlightenment” from just a false feeling of enlightenment, then how is “true enlightenment” different from just “good feelings” ?

      • ajakaja says:

        I don’t think it’s quite that much of a problem. We might not be able to tell, but people experiencing it might, or people who have studied the subject a great deal. It might very well be that on much closer inspection the things called ‘enlightenment’ break down into distinct categories, or it might be that some east-asian culture I have little overlap with has been able to tell the difference, and had words for it, for generations, or it might be that some of the people who claim to be enlightened might hear of other people’s experiences and say “ah yes, I remember experiencing that when I was halfway to where I am now”. Not saying any of these are true — just, on closer inspection, there may be much more useable detail here than we’re aware of.

        • Bugmaster says:

          We might not be able to tell, but people experiencing it might

          I have no doubt that those people are experiencing something, but I can’t get into their heads, so there’s no way for me to tell whether their experience is categorically different from just “funky feelings”. It is entirely possible that east-asian cultures and/or professional meditators have some special name for these “funky feelings”, but that’s not super interesting to me (except maybe from the linguistic point of view). If “enlightenment” just means “funky feelings”, then I have no problem with it; but, at the same time, I don’t really see what all the hype is about.

  32. RomeoStevens says:

    It’s really easy to distinguish true enlightenment from its near enemies. It’s right next to true justice and true beauty in concept space.

  33. Squirrel of Doom says:

    I absolutely believe there are geniuses.

    But when someone claims to be a genius, I’m still quite skeptical.

  34. migo says:

    Maybe some of you have experienced Ayahuasca? I tried it some years ago and it was unlike any other psychedelic I have tried. My mind was extremely sharp and clear – I felt I had obvious answers to things: smoking? It’s poison, how can people do it? (I had been a cigarette smoker for 10+ years, did stop for some days, picked it up again afterwards, still smoking). A relationship I was having at the time? Extremely unhealthy, I should leave it behind and move on (I didn’t, ended up being hurt pretty badly). An acute sense of empathy and compassion towards family and friends. A sense of wonder and interconnectedness with my surroundings – the trees, the rocks, the moon, we were all part of something larger and magical. This mode of perception felt much more real and true than the normal one. I’m not sure if the state of enlightenment induced by meditation is similar to the one I experienced, maybe there are different flavours to the permanent states that can be induced by meditation practices. But if it is, achieving that state permanently would be the best thing I could do with my life, by a long shot. (Too bad I’m so meditation lazy.)

    • cuke says:

      Your “too bad I’m so meditation lazy” comment prompts me to want to draw out a few threads in this conversation and it seems to fit here.

      I think most of us are pretty meditation lazy. When the topic of meditation, Buddhism, or enlightenment come up in this space, it tends to focus on meditation as the sole vehicle and on transcendent no-self experiences as the defining feature of “enlightenment.” From my perspective/experience, this focus is too narrow such that it misses some really valuable information.

      (I’m just speaking from a Buddhist framework now, and from my particular corner of it.)

      Please bear with me while I try to re-focus, at least in a way that feels better to me. I acknowledge other Buddhists may see this differently.

      So, Buddhism is centered around the Four Noble Truths, in very plain words: there is suffering; suffering is grounded in attachment; one can get free of suffering by getting free of attachment; the Eight-fold Path is the way out.

      Oh god, another list! Buddhism is like this, with the lists. But stay with me, here are the eight folds:

      right view,
      right intention,
      right speech,
      right action,
      right livelihood,
      right effort,
      right mindfulness,
      right concentration

      As you can imagine, there are mountains of words written around each of these. But it is pretty well understood in all Buddhist traditions I’m aware of that meditation practice is not sufficient (and perhaps not even necessary, though this is more controversial) to become free from suffering.

      However you come at it, getting free from suffering entails many things off of the meditation cushion, having to do with how we interact with ourselves and the world around us, and based on insight into our delusions. Meditation is not the only way to free ourselves from delusion. Meditation is one kind of practice among many. It’s a good one, but it’s not the only one.

      Most traditions of Buddhism talk about the role of the dharma — the teachings. Reading and learning from teachers and other students is part of the road. Most traditions talk about the role of the sangha — the community. And so it’s understood you don’t get free of suffering just by sitting alone on your cushion. There are teachings to be engaged with, there are practices beyond meditation, there are many different forms of meditation, and there is engagement with the community, however one defines that.

      It’s fine to throw all that out and say, “I’m just going to meditate and see what happens” or “I want to see if it’ll help me clear my mind, or relax, or focus” or whatever. That’s kind of like walking in the woods or going for a long run or taking a yoga class, or any number of other healthy things to do. But then it seems helpful to remember that in doing that, we are isolating one piece of a piece of a really long, complex, multifarious tradition, and then expecting it to lead to the same place (“enlightenment” or “freedom from suffering”).

      I’m not a fan of dogma, so as I write this, I don’t mean to say “you have to follow all the dogma or you don’t get the goodies.” More, I mean to say, the experiential wisdom available in this tradition is much deeper and wider and more variable than gets talked about in some corners. There are way more doorways in than get talked about. And on the other side, there’s way more benefit to be had by not reducing the practice to meditation.

      I think about that book by Dan Harris called “10% Happier” — and I think, that sounds about right if all you’re doing is meditating. For my time and effort, ten percent barely rises to the level of noticeable.

      I can see how a person could become very adept at a particular form of meditation, could have various transcendent experiences, and then carry on being the same reactive, stressed-out asshole as they were before. Or 10% better than that, say.

      There are Buddhists who would say psychedelic experiences aren’t a legitimate tool towards enlightenment. There’s a raging debate on the website of a Buddhist magazine right now about whether substances like ayahuasca are “intoxicants” as forbidden on the eight-fold path or if they are something else. I’m inclined to say they are something else. Though in isolation, just like meditation, their benefits may be fleeting.

  35. mtl1882 says:

    It is hard for me to imagine euphoric depersonalization outside of a very structured environment. I have only experienced the dysphoric kind. No inner chatter, for me, means no desire or anticipation or motivation or coherence. This is the supposed upside, but these people continue to act, often seeming to automatically follow their original routine, which is why an existing structure seems key. For me, this manifests as something a lot like severe depression. I simply don’t do anything, even eat. There is some relief of “stressful” desire and frustration, but I don’t just keep going on autopilot. Moving forward holds no appeal. I’m sure this is partly due to individual brain structure in terms of ability to focus, inner-directedness, priorities, etc. Any tips for breaking it or moving into the euphoric kind? It sounds like the latter may be mostly an illusion, but it sounds preferable to the dysphoric kind. This seems to be a loss of narrative thing, where the “enlightened” are perhaps replacing the typical narrative with a simpler, more certain one that feels stable even if it is no more in contact with reality.

  36. janrandom says:

    Meditation is mostly an introspective practice interspersed with teaching and discussion. Most of the presumed key changes happen in a way they cannot be observed from the outside. This means we have a very low bandwidth channel for learning what goes on.

    I wonder whether it would be possible or maybe there already exist meditation practices that involve a meditation where two or more practitioners mirror or otherwise involve each other mutually in a closed loop? As simple as copying the other’s breathing. Or more and more detailed ways of mutually sharing what goes on in each one’s mind. That way internal states might be more reliably ‘certified’ and the information flow could be recorded and analyzed if so wanted.

    • Seppo says:

      Kenneth Folk has been inventing things like that lately. One of them is an “intersubjective” noting practice, where you describe your moment-to-moment experience out loud to a partner.

      • janrandom says:

        Thank you! That is a great source and goes exactly into the direction I was looking for. I also like that Folk is going for a pragmatic practice…

        rather than a rarified or exalted state, awakening is actually a point on the continuum of human development. … Strip away the hagiography and mythology, what he calls the “cartoon saint” image of enlightenment, and awakening becomes a predictable stage of human development.

        and …

        because we are constrained by our biology, it is counterproductive to make an enemy of negative emotions and states or to set a fantasy goal of eradicating them. He suggests that a more realistic and higher goal is what he calls “meta-okayness”- a grounded equanimity that is so robust that it can even allow for suffering, anger, and all negative states to arise.

      • RomeoStevens says:

        They also do that in the Finder’s course and I thought it worked pretty well.

        • janrandom says:

          Can you elaborate on what went well and how it was different?

          • RomeoStevens says:

            Dyadic noting is essentially how I would describe it. We did it in both pairs and with a group of 5-6. We’d try to note the qualities of awareness/experience in that exact moment. Easier to stick to it closely for a full hour with other people there. Lead to at least one major insight for me and some for others in my group IIRC.

  37. acedeuceblog says:

    I don’t doubt that meditation can induce an altered state of consciousness. But my prior for altered states of consciousness providing benefits is very low with two exceptions (social bonding and short term hedonism), and my prior for altered states of consciousness having negative side effects is near 100%. Altered states of consciousness consist of your neurons malfunctioning. They can be induced by drugs, mental illness, hypoxia, extreme sensory deprivation, etc. Most of these are biologically and psychologically harmful. I think meditation is like a more extreme form of sensory deprivation if you close your eyes in a quiet place and try not to think about anything but your own breathing. As to the “insight” claims, for thousands of years ASOC were often misinterpreted by various religions as “revelations” giving them new bullshit to believe. Malfunctioning neurons are not apt to produce true data. (You know what my reasoning process is missing? A temporary depersonalization/derealization disorder! Said no one ever.)

    As to the anecdotal long-term side effects of frequent meditation:
    “Increased empathy” can be either good or bad — too much empathy for tiger in the forest and you get eaten.
    “loss of agency” sounds generally bad, if that means a loss of drive to pursue goals outside oneself.
    You know what else can induce calmness, detachment, and a loss of drive? Being a stoner. I suspect stoners tend to accomplish less than non-stoners.

    I’d wager a lot of money that 15min/day of cardio is more beneficial than 15min/day of sitting on your ass trying not to think.

    • janrandom says:

      Obviously there is a risk of one kind or the other. No surprise most people don’t meditate. Not even in India.

      > I’d wager a lot of money that 15min/day of cardio is more beneficial than 15min/day of sitting on your ass trying not to think.

      How about walking meditation? Gets you both without your sensory deprivation fear.

  38. electricmonk says:

    From the Zen or non-dual perspective, enlightenment as some kind of “euphoric depersonalization” would not only not be enlightenment, it would be the exact opposite of enlightenment, namely, delusion. Why should enlightenment be euphoric, or in any way an unusual experience? Zen is not about chasing after particular states as though some states are “better” or “more enlightened” than others. To have an euphoric experience is to create an opposition to a dysphoric experience (these terms have no meaning except in relation to each other), and once you have done that you have weaved yourself into a delusion (the very definition of ‘delusion’ in Zen would be to enter into creating and taking dualistic concepts seriously, as though they were real and lasting distinctions). To be enlightened cannot be to achieve a particular state, but why, you ask? Because to actually achieve a particular state, means to create that state as a concept in your mind and to create yourself as a concept in your mind apart from that state, because how else can you achieve anything unless you create these concepts (i.e. how can you pass from a state of being “unenlightened” to being “enlightened” except by creating this distinction between the two)? To actually be enlightened means to cease making these concepts or at least to stop taking these concepts seriously and to see through them to the underlying totality. To be enlightened means to stop playing this game of dualism which most everybody is unknowingly in the midst of playing. People even continue to play this game when they believe they have “achieved” extremely high states of “realization” (or whatever they want to call it). Meditation is the antidote to dualistic thinking because it is a purposeless activity, but even so, it is, of course, paradoxically very easy to do meditation with a goal in mind, to place yourself on a path to achieve a particular state that you call “enlightenment” or “being a better person” or “gaining mystical powers,” but all these things are just delusions that you can and should discard as you begin to understand the nature of the practice. To walk down this path is to realize there is no path, there never was a path, and there was never anyone walking on it to begin with! Suddenly, mundane experiences, taking out the trash, sweeping the porch, sipping a cup of coffee, these are not apart from the experience of oneness, they are themselves the experience of oneness, plain to see. Euphoria only gets in the way! Happiness… discard it, sadness… discard it, equanimity… discard it, enlightenment… discard it. Sitting in meditation, view all these concepts coming up and discard them, but also don’t imagine you are a robot or a rock! What then, remains?

    Gecko on the window,
    where do you go these cool nights?
    See you in spring.

  39. DaveK says:

    I am Geshwind/Temporal Lobe Type. This condition is somewhat rare, probably not as rare as people think it is,largely because it is poorly understood. I think it could be classified as the opposite end of the neuroatypical spectrum from autism.

    From a young age, I noticed the inconsistency between the unexamined mental image of consciousness and the actual examined reality. Thinking about the structure of one’s own thoughts is one of the “symptoms” of Geshwind’s. (It is a difficult subject to research, one has to dive deeply because much of the stuff that one gets from a “surface level” google search focuses on the religiosity aspect, which can be misleading.)

    I think that buddhism probably has more immediate impact and is more impressive to those who have never done this “level” of conscious self-analysis except for a short time in passing. For me, a lot of the knowledge one was supposed to gain from buddhism just seemed like common sense.

    I have some general thoughts on this subject that have come from years of observation and thinking about this. First off, as far as the “everything contains an unfulfilled aspect hence life is suffering.” Thinking about one’s thoughts changes their nature. Research by Tversky and Amos confirms this. The process of consciousness is somewhat as buddhist metaphysics describe it, a constant “arrising and passing away”. But there is more then just that. There is the continual revision of memory, of one’sown self story. Thoughts and sense and memories and models are all blended together and constantly being rewritten. When you recall a particular experience, there are aspects that are more accessible or less depending on your current mood or mind state.

    The “life is suffering” view is held as an objective truth, but this is fallacious. If one chooses to view sensations and thoughts as individual components, one can find some unfulfilled aspect. But if one experiences such as a continuous stream, it’s greater existence is not necessarily suffering. Having experienced severe depression, euphoria, and much inbetween, the summation of experience, the “flow” which makes up a mood state, is something different from the individually examined components themselves. There can certainly be “good times” and “bad times”. The buddhist analytic can miss the forest for the trees.

    I do think the thing Scott is describing can happen for some people, where the sense of an acting ego agent dissolves, but everything else is still experienced. I think this can be dangerous however. There is a weird way of thinking that seems to possess otherwise rational people when they think about buddhism. It is sometimes as if they assess the claims of buddhism on it’s own terms, which they tend not to do with other belief systems and ideologies. Interestingly enough, modern buddhism (even it’s non-western routes) is partially a 19th century project of progressives and rationalists at the time who wanted to give buddhism a shape that could fit it into the definition of “world religion” (there was a treaty at the time that classified world religions as different from pagan beliefs and gave them some protection from colonialism.) It also seemed that this same group wanted a spiritual belief system that was more in line with their progressive beliefs then the religions they had experienced. Buddhism was thus heavily infuenced by this western contact, and the way in which it evolved took it in this direction, away from the more pagan like elements that dominated practice. David Chapman has an excellent web blog that goes into detail about this history, the evolution of buddhism, and the flaws in modern buddhism. For example, when the King of Siam (Thailand) was looking for a buddhist monk to instruct him on the practice of meditation, he couldn’t find a single person in his country who actually practiced it.

    This is not to say that all of buddhism is a relatively modern invention. But the large scale practice of had little resemblance to what the west know thinks of buddhism. There were some groups, like the Tibetan monks, who practiced forms of meditation, but most of this sort of think was done by very closed off secret societies.

    Zen buddhism in particular was designed in Japan to be a western cultural export, and the commonly referenced histories of Zen Lineage were written then with this objective in mind.

    Getting back to the western assumptions about buddhism, people tend to treat these ideas as if they were common to all brains. We here should be skeptical enough to realize that even if some of what people are describing as happened for them, the idea that it could happen that way for any individual independent of their unique brain and circumstances should be suspect.

    I think specifically, the idea of dissolving and agent may not be releaving at all to some people. When I was in the worst of my depression, I was very much unattached and desiring nothing and didn’t feel at all like there was a “me” agent, and this was absolutely unspeakably horrifying.

    I am skeptical of the idea of non-attachment in general. To some extent, it could be looked at as a personal preference. Is it better to not feel pleasure or pain, to just exist, to be indifferent to the world?

    I know people will object- That’s not buddhism! But there seem to be as many buddhisms as there are kinds of minds. The squabbling someone mentioned is a notable reason to doubt there really is such as thing as enlightenment, rather then a bunch of different possible changes one can experience by paying attention to their consciousness then manifest very differently.

    For example, there is one Buddhist who claims everyone has it wrong in the west. The whole idea of Nirvana is literally “non-existence” and he claims this is extremely obvious to eastern people. Thus he claims buddhism makes no sense without the belief in karma and reincarnation. The whole point, to him, is to end the cycle of reincarnation so that you don’t get reincarnated and are just nothing. This is a very nihilistic position. It would say that if one didn’t believe in reincarnation or heaven and hell, the way to achieve nirvana is just to kill yourself. I wonder if for many asian buddhists, this was always the case, and westerners were dressing up this very nihilistic philosophy into something it’s not.

    Of course, in belief systems where there are gods, with lower gods and higher gods one can reincarnate as, this interpretation seems less likely. But that sort of buddhism doesn’t seem to have many western adherents at all.

    With the squabbling, it’s not just that many western buddhists claim other who claim to be unelightened are wrong. It’s that they say others are ENTIRELY misunderstandinf the religion. This doesn’t speak well to being an actual objective thing. Even in the questiionable history of the chinsese schools of buddhism, you had civil wars of succession, claiming that so and so didn’t get buddhism.

    There was this somewhat popular book by a Thai buddhist women recently who claimed the Thai monks didn’t get it. She apparently became a buddhist when she witnessed childbirth, realized how disguting the human body was, and was horrified by it. Again, this doesn’t sound like our friendly western buddhism.

    Religious mystical experiences are real. The Geschwind subtype seem especialy prone to them. There are many recorded cases where people have temporal lobe epileptic seizures, have a transcendent religious experience, and are then forever changed by it.

    I tend to think something like this sometimes happens with meditation. And the effects, combined with the ability to meditate and pay attention to consciousness, produce mesaurable changes for some.

    But I doubt that the formal buddhist stuff like “jhanas” or “enlightenment” is more then a framework people use to explain and shape their experience.

    The ultimate challenge to the idea of “enlightenment” to me comes down to some common sense.

    Supposedly, one who is enlightened is non-attached to the world. This seems like magica claim. WE are all affected by physical stimulus because we have physical bodies, Maybe a person with these skills would be better at resisting torture, buy they would still suffer. But it would take them longer, but left alone in a white room, given enough time they would hallucinate.

    And people could beat them, or physically alter their brains, i.e., through lobotomy, and “enlightenment” wouldn’t last.

    Anyway, I would highly recommend David Chapman’s “Vividness” blog and his other associted blogs for a more in depth skeptical look. Interestingly enough Chapman follows a form of Tibetan Buddhism wich he thinks is “better” but also flawed.

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