Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Entropy, attachment, and the good life

Schrodinger, the famous physicist, proposed that life should be defined in terms of entropy. The universe obeys the laws of entropy, which basically describe how all ordered systems move in the direction of becoming less ordered. Schrodinger defined life as a temporary reversal of entropy. Life appears to violate entropy by going in the opposite direction and creating ever more order, but it is actually forestalling entropy as all of that order comes crashing down when we die and entropy is satisfied. The Buddhist understanding of suffering and attachment is very consistent with this. Attachments can create happiness when they are satisfied, but latent in that happiness is is the inevitable decay and/or catastrophic loss of what was achieved, along with the suffering caused by this. 

This can be used to interpret the first Nobel truth, that life is suffering. If we map suffering to the decay caused by entropy then happiness derived from attachment is generated by temporarily reversing entropy. So, happiness is literally built on suffering as it is created by temporarily reversing the natural flow of entropy. Metaphorically, happiness is like an eddy in a rushing river, inevitably the water will flow down. This is a useful way of understanding it as it explains how attachments can produce real joy, and yet be derived from suffering. 

Ancient cultures such as the Greeks and the Vikings seem to have had a sense of this as well. In these cultures a "good life" was often seen as going out on a high. That is, achieving something great then experiencing a sudden death. In a way, this avoids the suffering that is latent in the joy of the achievement because the decay comes very fast and its all over. In fact, the Buddhist and Christian notions of punishment in the after life can be seen as a way of discouraging this live fast, die young strategy. However, the more important question is, does Christianity or Buddhism offer a better solution to the problem of suffering? 

On the desire for heaven or nirvana in contemplatives

In Buddhism the goal is to achieve nirvana, or enlightenment, but an enlightened person is not supposed to have any attachments. How is this reconciled? Is having the goal of enlightenment not an attachment? In Christianity the goal is to go to heaven, but to get there you should be selfless and focused on helping others. But is it not hypocritical to claim to care about others when the reason for this is the goal of getting yourself to heaven?  This is the same problem. Both practices have as their ideal a selfless existence driven by compassion, but this state comes with fantastic rewards.

If we look to the cognitive and neural sciences there is considerable evidence that the human brain pays a lot of attention to goals. Similar to our language ability, our ability to represent complex goals seems to be one of the defining features that separates us from all other animals. This ability, that allows us to survive, create technology, plan wars, etc., can also be a problem because, although we are very clever at achieving goals, research also shows that we are not good at choosing goals. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view as our evolutionary goals were quite simple - get food, get mate, defeat enemy, feed children, stay warm, etc. In other words, from an evolutionary perspective, choosing goals was not complex and to other animals; what differed was our ability to achieve those goals in ever more complex and efficient ways. So today people are sick from too much food, too much sex on the Internet, and too much stress from the pursuit of false goals that have been programmed into us by our consumer society.

We cannot eradicate goal driven thinking, our brains were designed around it. Instead, I believe that Christianity and Buddhism can be understood in terms of our ability to choose goals. Arguably, the main reason we are poor at choosing goals is that we never stop to think about it. We are programmed to move fro goal to goal with little or no thought. We are designed to fanatically peruse goals, not to question them. If we look at the saints and bodhisattvas they were not devoid of goals, but they taught austerity, which can be understood as the limiting of goals. Likewise, simplicity, silence, humility, poverty, and chastity were not meant as punishments, they are ways of limiting our choice of goals and training the mind to resist taking up goals. Contemplation teaches us to take time and think deeply about our goals. Meditation teaches us to silence the goal driven part of our brain entirely (although, as the Buddha found, this cannot be indefinitely maintained and is therefore not, in and of itself, a solution).

The Dalai Lama referred to the desire for enlightenment as enlightened self interest. In computational terms we can think of it as a virus. We put this goal into our goal processing system to disrupt the system, to slow it down and to limit it, in order to create space for contemplation and to allow us to set goals according to the fruits of contemplation.