How Should a Buddhist Deal with Discarding Erroneous Beliefs? – Modern Koans
How Should a Buddhist Deal with Discarding Erroneous Beliefs?
Humans have developed a couple of pretty neat tools for detecting erroneous beliefs. Logic and standards for evidence are two great examples. But your question gets to the heart of the matter – once you discover you’ve been acting based on erroneous beliefs, what do you do?
I suspect, as always, the answer is “it depends”. It depends on the role the belief has in your world view. Let me give an example of how I’ve recently responded to discovering that I’ve been holding an erroneous belief.
I’m researching and writing a book on the intersection of, artificial intelligence, evolutionary biology, and Buddhism. I have been reading a series of books, including several by Daniel Dennett and Ray Kurzweil. In Dennett’s book Consciousness Explained, he spends quite a bit of time discussing how computers are modeled on human design. Ray Kurzweil even goes so far as to identify brain structures that are analogous to computer functions.
But in my reading, I had come away with a belief that humans are in fact just elaborate computers. This may or may not be a reflection of Dennett’s and Kurzweil’s views, but I had certainly drawn the conclusion. Further, it was a foundational idea for my book.
The Wrecking Ball
But, I recently came across an article by Dr. Robert Epstein titled The Empty Brain. In the article’s subtitle, Dr Epstein lays to waste my assumption. He states:
Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer.
Ouch. My first reaction was resistance. In my first read, I took a highly defensive view of the article. I felt like he was just making contrary assertions, but not providing evidence. He was attacking my view and I would have none of it.
But, in a moment of rare clarity, I decided to set the article to the side and put a link to it on my to do list. I promised myself to give it a second read.
I’m glad I did. About 2 weeks later, I re-read the article. I discovered a much more nuanced view of artificial intelligence especially in the context of my book topic. Let’s just say, my to do list now contains an entry to do more research and take on some rewriting.
That Was Easy
I would put this particular example of discarding an erroneous idea in the “easy” category. While the idea lay at the center of a future book, I was able to learn, change, and adapt. Not only was I saved embarrassment, but it actually advanced my understanding. Hopefully it will lead me to a better book. It was a win for me.
But this particular belief, while important to my book, didn’t have a mind blowing impact on my world view. The closer a belief is to the heart of our worldview, the more resistance we will have to it. By more I mean exponentially more.
But, in these cases, if we somehow accepted that our idea was erroneous, what would change look like.
The question was in the context to Buddhism, so let’s target a Buddhist idea that I think is controversial. It’s an idea that stands at the heart of Buddhist philosophy – reincarnation. This topic is especially important to Mahayana Buddhists, and in particular Pure Land Buddhists, which I am one.
The Pure Land school of Buddhism, holds as its central tenet that if one recites the name of the Buddha (Namo Amitofo or Namo Amida Butsu) with the sincere desire to be reborn into the Pure Land (Sukhavati), Amitabha will meet you at death and take you there. Once reborn in Sukhavati you will achieve liberation in one lifetime.The closer a belief is to the heart of our worldview, the more resistance we will have to it. By more I mean exponentially more. Click To Tweet
At the core of this teaching is the concept of reincarnation. As a western convert to Buddhism, I have struggled with the idea of reincarnation. I see no evidence for the simplest interpretation of rebirth – i.e. it is me, Andrew Furst, with my beliefs, opinions, and experience who is reborn into another life. I have no memory of past lives; I have strong doubts about phenomenon like past life regression and the Tibetan practice of identifying reincarnated Lamas.
In fact, my Buddhist practice does not involve belief in these particular views on reincarnation. I have found views sympathetic to my disbelief in authors like Stephen Batchelor and even Thich Nhat Hanh. The latter actually interprets the Pure Land teachings in three levels, two of which do not incorporate this simplistic view of reincarnation.
But at the same time, I must concede that in any reading of the Buddhist sutras, from the Tripitaka (the canonical early Theravadan texts) to the Pure Land Sutras (written much later) prominently feature reincarnation. A synonym for enlightenment is freedom from birth and death – i.e. reincarnation. My disbelief in this view of reincarnation may actually make me a Buddhist heretic.
If you’ve got skin in this game, you’re likely feeling a strong inclination for and against my views. Imagine then, if irrefutable evidence was provided that contradicted your view. What would you do? How would you adjust your practice of Buddhism? How would your worldview have to change?
For me accepting a simplistic view of reincarnation would be easier with evidence. But I suspect it would still be a shock. But I feel, like my belief that humans might be computers, I would make the transition. The evidence and my improved understanding would reinforce the change. I suspect whatever change that you would need to make would be similarly straightforward.
I would put this particular example of discarding an idea in the “hard” category.
But I need to point out one significant difference between the easy and hard. In the case of reincarnation, there is no irrefutable evidence.
Not So Easy
When we don’t have evidence, something that can reinforce change, making the transition will be hard; probably impossible. But, if we reflect on the question, this scenario doesn’t apply. That’s because we have no means to decisively determine whether it is erroneous or not.
Ideas, or as the evolutionary biologist and ardent atheist Richard Dawkins calls them, memes, operate very much like genes. The fittest survive. To a certain extent the truth of a statement has a certain bearing on its fitness. The idea that eating mercury is bad, is true and its’ truth contributes to its fitness. These ideas survive and thrive because of their fitness. The human mind is capable of incorporating them with relative ease. It is almost effortless for the human mind to adapt to a fit meme.
But there are other ideas where truth doesn’t add to, or subtract from, the fitness of an idea. A lot of religious ideas fall into this category. Belief in a God being a big one. There is no evidence for a God, but the idea persists. Believers vehemently defend the idea. I believe that this is a function of its fitness. This is a powerfully fit idea. The tenacity with which people defend it is evidence that whether or not it is erroneous, it is terribly difficult to “discard” it.Religion has persisted for millennia, at its foundation are some very fit, but likely untrue, ideas. Discarding them feel impossible. Click To Tweet
Truth OR Consequences?
Religion has persisted for millennia, at its foundation are some very fit, but likely untrue, ideas. Discarding them feel impossible.
Let’s return to my problem with reincarnation. There seem to be three possible outcomes in this log jam.
- All the Buddhists that believe in a simplistic view of reincarnation are right (probable, but I don’t like it)
- All the Buddhists that believe in a simplistic view of reincarnation are wrong (less probable, but not impossible)
- There is a nuanced idea of reincarnation that accommodates both of these views (feels probable, and highly possible)
I put my money on option 3.
To answer the original question, How should a Buddhist deal with discarding erroneous beliefs? I feel there is little to do. It’s easy to let go of demonstrably false ideas. Where the challenge is and where the benefit can come is in dealing with difficult ideas and finding transcendence through them.
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