July 30, 2003

Latest trip pictures

Here are the pictures from my canoeing trip in the Adirondacks.

Posted by BuddhaBoy at 12:32 AM | TrackBack

July 07, 2003

Why you shouldn't believe anything I say

I wrote this message to the Mudita Forum, an email group I recently joined that has been exploring the connections between Objectivism and Buddhism.

One of the things that has struck me reading recent messages, along with the Objectivist Ethics essay, is the argument that it is easy to understand that our emotions are not necessarily valid, and may be in error; thus we should put our trust into our thinking minds. One of the reasons I have noticed this is because it brings out a contradiction in myself: that when I practice and look deeply at how my mind works, I understand how often my thinking mind is in error and my thinking is not valid, for one reason or another. Yet I still automatically trust my thoughts. So I am writing this message as much for myself as for others, to explain some of the errors inherent in our rational, cognitive, thinking minds, and why we should not automatically trust our thoughts any more than we trust our feelings. Here are some common mistakes in my thinking processes:

Non-acceptance of the present moment. This denial is usually subtle, although sometimes it can be quite obvious, especially to an outside observer. For example, consider the subtle difference between the thoughts "I want to be rich" and "I am working towards being rich". The first thought creates unhappiness as long as the condition has not been met. This is not accepting current conditions, true acceptance means we are at peace with current conditions. The second thought accepts current conditions, while at the same time working towards changing them. If we are attached to the outcome (being rich, in this case), then that is not acceptance of what is. If we are working towards an outcome without being attached to it, then that is complete acceptance. If our cognitive processes are not in accord with current conditions, then they are in error.

Change. Everything changes - things decay, groups of people shift their identities, fads come and go. Any idea we have about how things are may be true for a given amount of time, but very few things last forever. So what may have been true 10 years ago may no longer apply in today's world. What may be true one moment may no longer be true the next. Ideas and beliefs have a limited life span, but we are often unaware of their expiration date.

View and understanding of reality. We often view things around us as just that - things. But another way of looking at everything is that everything is a process. Processes are dynamic, things are static. Although things appear static, in reality, everything is dynamic, always changing (even if this change is only noticable at a very subtle level.)

View of ourselves. The Buddha claimed that our understanding of life is corrupted by our egos. What we are is not what we think we are. This fundamental error is at the root of suffering.

Complexity. Short term weather forecasts have increased in accuracy with the use of computers, but forecasts longer than 3 to 5 days are not so accurate. What may be simple in a limited case may not scale well in the real world, where there are many, many interacting variables. How can we really reach an intellectual understanding of the best action to take in a given situation given the amazing complexity of potential outcomes?

Limited knowledge. The amount of information about the world that is available is much greater than our capacity to access it at any given time. It is impossible to know everything. So at best our cognition is working with incomplete data. Often our knowledge is not only limited, but in error due to our wrong understanding of who we are.

Emotions and cognition are not separate. Our minds are one integrated organ. Our emotions affect our cognitive processes, and our thoughts affect our emotions. While this may be obvious when we are having intense emotions, this still occurs on a subtle level when our emotions are not so noticeable.

Conceptualizing can introduce distortion. Just as it is impossible to create a 2 dimensional map of the earth without introducing some distortion, when we conceptualize things, we often create various types of distortion - either simplification, leaving out subtle variations, or some other error. We think we are working with an accurate model, but creating a model introduces inherent inaccuracies.

Our perceptions are influenced by our beliefs, and our beliefs are influenced by our perceptions. Suffering indicates when these are no longer in accordance with reality. This means that belief tends to be self-reinforcing, and makes it very difficult to determine our errors in thought and action.

Given that there are many different errors we can make in our conceptual processes, how can we be sure when they are leading us in the right direction? Just like our emotions, our cognitive thinking process is often in error and can not be trusted.

A few questions this brings up for possible discussion:
How can we know when we are able to trust our thinking? How can we be sure our thinking has not been affected by one of these very common cognitive errors, or some other error? Be very careful here, make sure your answer doesn't fall into one of these traps! Maybe I'm writing from the midst of one of them - how do we find out?

If cognitive thinking is not equivalent to reason, then what is reason? What is the highest, truest functioning of our minds? And how do we know that we are using our minds in accordance with their highest functioning?

Posted by BuddhaBoy at 10:54 AM | TrackBack