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”.