Robert Wright is one of my favorite authors, and I have previously read his books:
1) Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny;
2) The Evolution of God;
3) Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information; and
4) The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (I taught out of this one.)
His most recent work comes with the audacious title: Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. Wright isn’t talking about supernatural Buddhism or its more exotic elements like reincarnation. Instead, he’s interested in the naturalistic parts of Buddhism that can be examined by psychology and philosophy. However, this includes some radical and life-altering claims about nirvana, enlightenment, emptiness, impermanence, overcoming craving, and the doctrine of no-self.
Wright’s basic claim is “that Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” (15) Now Wright is no tender-minded, new age thinker, and he complements his careful analysis of Buddhist ideas by sharing his experiences meditating. Wright analyzes Buddhist ideas in light of his years of study of Buddhist doctrines, discussions with Buddhist scholars and meditation masters, his own meditative experiences, and especially Darwinian natural selection.
Natural selection is crucial here, as it has wired our brains in ways that cause suffering. Buddhist thinkers detected these tendencies long ago, although they didn’t know about evolution. So Buddhism is a rebellion against much of the evolutionary wiring our brains in order that we can see reality more clearly.
This is all important today because we now possess such destructive power. Combine this power with hatred, which derives from a brain designed by evolution to believe that it is special and its ideas always right, and we are in a dangerous situation. Thus Wright believes we need a revolution in consciousness to overcome this bias toward self and tribe that threatens our survival. A first step would be to realize emptiness, the no-self, and the freedom that results from this understanding. Perhaps we can then see at a deeper level than natural selection designed us to do, and marvel and be thankful for what we find.
The only problem I have with the work is that while we would certainly be better off if more people meditated, were less egocentric, minimized craving, and all the rest, I doubt this will happen, at least not on a planetary scale. Wright is aware of this criticism but hopes that whatever small gains we make in becoming self-aware are worth it. On the other hand, I believe that we should use technology to redesign our brains to make them more intellectually and morally virtuous, more capable of experiencing truth, beauty, goodness, and joy. Or perhaps we could scan the brains of meditators and transfer elements of their consciousness to the rest of us. Something like taking a Buddhist chill pill. But we definitely need high-tech fixes and we won’t survive without them.
Let me conclude by saying that Wright is a wonderful writer whose prose engages and inspires. Reading the book invites us to further study Buddhism and begin to meditate. One of the most compelling works I’ve read in a long time.