Desirability bias

I Buddhism, A Very Short Introductionnoticed a booklet recently that came free with a copy of The Independent newspaper. They’re doing a series entitled “The Great Religions” and today’s religion was Buddhism. I was curious and ignorant, so I picked it up.

Like many humanists, I find Buddhism more interesting and humane than most other religions. Maybe it’s because it actually encourages critical thinking and discourages all violence or perhaps it’s because it has the most enlightened view of ethics for its time that I know of. OK, perhaps “enlightened” is a bit value-laden, maybe I should say “Modern western liberal view of ethics”.

The eight-spoked Dharmacakra. The eight spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.That’s not to say I’m a Buddhist – I’m not and this booklet wasn’t aimed at changing my mind. I still find things to disagree with in Buddhist teachings. There are some ill-defined mystical ideas, fantastical stories and wild stabs in the dark without a scrap of evidence to back them up. So familiar territory to the sceptical religiophile.

What struck me wasn’t so much the content of the book, but how my opinion changed as I read. I couldn’t help but make some judgements about how plausible it was that Buddhist beliefs were true as I went along. The idea of Karma which I was already aware of appealed to my sense of justice (especially poetic justice) and so I warmed to the ideas, almost thinking there could be some truth in it, despite the six mystical realms of rebirth and the five elements theory of the world. OK, I was probably never going to become a believer, but you could have expected me to do a lot less eyebrow raising when meeting Buddhists.

But then I came to the Four Noble Truths. Namely,

“(1) Life is suffering, (2) Suffering is caused by craving, (3) Suffering can have an end, (4) There is a path that leads to the end of suffering” – The Independent: The Great Religions, Buddhism (extract taken from Buddhism, A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown).

At which point I started to think to myself that the whole thing was a bit ridiculous.

Then I caught myself and asked why I’d changed my mind. I’ve only read a few things online about critical thinking and this is the first time I’ve really caught myself.

I didn’t like this idea which seemed to imply that about life was about suffering and the aim being to end it. I’m fortunate that I haven’t experienced any great suffering so I may be biased, but I think the majority of people have a healthy sense of self-preservation and are glad to be alive. To sum up life as suffering seems woefully pessimistic.

Young Buddhist monks of TibetActually, ending a life of suffering isn’t quite what Buddhism says. It preaches a great respect for all life which should not be destroyed through carelessness or deliberate action. In any case, they expect most creatures to be reincarnated so death wouldn’t bring an end to their existence.The “end” is reaching a peaceful state of enlightenment. On further consideration, it may be that the Buddha wrote the four noble truths as he was shocked by suffering and saw it as a problem which needed to be resolved, both practically and philosophically.

But I could see how some people could read it in an unfortunate way. So it didn’t ring a bell with me. In fact in my mind the four noble truths rang like a soggy cloth.

But whether or not I personally find some of the ideas presented by Buddhism unsettling or likely to have unpleasant consequences says nothing of their truth. Even if I don’t like some of Buddhism’s interpretations of the world, that doesn’t mean that the six realms of rebirth don’t exist. That isn’t a reason to believe that Karma doesn’t cause the morality of our actions to somehow affect us in our present or future lives. The reason it’s almost certainly not true is because there’s no good evidence for it. The evidence for reincarnation is sketchy at best and the six realms are one of many unfalsifiable propositions.

The undesirable-sounding implications of an idea however can make us less likely to believe it. Conversely, I’ve heard plenty of believers, when asked why they find their beliefs convincing, respond “It’s a comforting thought”. This is a kind of argument from consequences.  Put simply it says:

X implies Y and Y is desirable;
therefore X is true

If you’d asked me, I would have said that I was as suspectible to this kind of fallacy as anyone else and that we all fall into these traps.  However, I think we all secretly like to think we’re above it.

So for now my critical thinking school report reads, “Must try harder”.

5 thoughts on “Desirability bias

  1. I love your review of Buddhism. You really did touch on the most important aspects of the belief system that make it both better than others and, ultimately, not viable for a skeptic.

    I’ve always known that, as good as it sounds, Buddhism isn’t something I am interested in following too closely, but you hit the nail right on the head on pinpointing why: suffering and reincarnation. There is where the greatness of Buddhism ends.

    Thank you for the interesting read!

  2. Greetings from a regular Daylight Atheism reader.

    Thank you for your post. I enjoyed it. I think that you are generally on the right track here, but I feel that you might have confused the forest for the trees. Your initial perceptions and ideas about Buddhism are remarkably similar to my own first impressions of it. I just want to say that there is quite a bit more to it.

    Might I recommend this piece? In short, it points out that the more typically religious accoutrements of Buddhism are local flavorings picked up by Buddhism as it spread from one region to another, but that the Buddha himself only used beliefs in gods/spirits metaphorically and was, at heart, an atheist. This has been my experience. For instance, the idea of “karma” has no necessary connection to reincarnation or a “spiritual” world. Karma is simply a matter of cause and effect; if one cultivates bad actions, one will gather bad experiences as a result.

    Then there is this (from the linked article):

    “Gripped by fear men go to the sacred mountains, sacred groves, sacred trees and shrines, but these are not a secure kind of refuge.”–The Dhammapada, 188

    The Buddha taught that nothing was permanent; there is no soul, no core identity, nothing uniquely “you” that will last even in life. There is no other religion that I can think of or know of that is so friendly to the atheist experience of life. The Buddha took many steps toward removing the burden of “beliefs” from those he came in contact with, and many Buddhist writings are replete with those steps. Where the typically religious person says, “Let go. Let God”, the Buddha simply says “Let go”… let go even of “God” if “God” is tying you down.

    The Buddha also said:

    “[If] a disciple still clings to the arbitrary illusions of form or phenomena such as an ego, a personality, a self, a separate person, or a universal self existing eternally, then that person is not an authentic disciple.”–The Diamond Sutra, Ch. 3.

    I don’t think it really mattered at all to the Buddha if a woman or man “believed” in any of the various mystical notions of the world. What mattered was helping that man or woman to center him/herself, without illusions, in the experience of being here now, in taking responsibility for it, being conscious of it, really living it without holding onto it or trying to make it something it is not.

    That said, I have certainly seen my share of very religious Buddhists who believe in reincarnation and cosmic karma and whatnot. That’s fine by be if they believe that they’ll come back as a gazelle or a spider in some new life, even though it seems to be flatly contradicted by the Buddha’s teachings. What bothers me is when I review the history of Buddhism and see those all-too-human religious skirmishes, sectarian violence, and ascetic nonsense. It seems to me that in those cases the teachings of the Buddha have been tragically misunderstood or lost. Then again, I would not expect to see anything less in the world. As human beings we are bound to fuck up, just like birds are bound to fly into windows, moths are bound to get to close to the flame, elephants are bound to trip, dogs are bound to have unfortunate run-ins with chocolate, etc. In the end, I am left to ask myself what it matters and means to me that people behave as they do, as non-human animals behave as they do, as existence is as it is (and is it?). How else can an atheist (like me) approach it?


  3. Interestingly, I’ve always found that the further East you go, the more the religions accommodate atheism. Aside from Buddhism (which covers a wide gamut of faiths from the highly theistic Tibetan strain to the pretty-much-atheist Japanese Zen version), the other obvious contender is Taoism, which in its most popular form has no gods save perhaps the nebulous (and entirely ungodlike) Tao. Confucianism, though not strictly a religion, approaches life in an entirely agnostic way. Jeung San Do, in Korea, is pretty ambivalent about the existence of a god. Even Shinto, the “Way of the Gods”, has a modern form which effectively expels deities from the picture, concentrating instead on a version of philosophical animism.

    Western religions have always been characterised by anthropomorphic gods (think of the Greek, Norse and Egyptian pantheons) and even the Judaeo-Christian God has human qualities and emotions. I can’t hope to offer a reason for this geographical dichotomy – I just thought it was curious…

  4. Thanks for your contributions guys. I realise it’s a massive subject that I’ve only touched on here. I’m sure there are about as many opinions on Buddhism as there are believers in it. A deeper look at it is on my reading list!

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