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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”.