Review of “Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment,” by Robert Wright

This book starts with two serious, non-trivial, overarching claims: that Buddhism is correct in

  1. Its diagnosis of the human condition, that we seek, mindlessly and eternally, temporary pleasures that fail to satisfy us and thus cause suffering, and
  2. Its prescription of meditation as a way to understand this condition and to escape from it, leading to both greater happiness and more moral behavior.

In one of my favorite writing features that I wish more authors would adopt, the appendix details the 12 specific Buddhist claims the author is saying are “true,” which he often but not exclusively means in the scientific sense of there existing convincing corroborating evidence.

He then helpfully summarizes his book’s thesis; it is, paraphrased: ‘Humans are animals created by natural selection, which built into our brains what early Buddhist thinkers basically understood at a remarkable level. Now, in light of modern understanding of natural selection and the human brain (mostly through evolutionary psychology and neuroscience), we have convincing scientific defenses of (the naturalistic parts of) Buddhist thought.’
The author makes it clear that he’s, at best, a secular Buddhist who is defending only the naturalistic (not metaphysical) components of Buddhism. However, he does speak quite a bit from personal experience as an (amateur) meditator. At points the book reads like a pop psychology book, such as when the author cites specific scientific studies as evidence for (often far stronger) claims that the study’s authors themselves don’t make. In some cases, he is (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the claim) citing the same studies that behavior economists do regarding how susceptible the human brain is to various mistakes because of heuristics natural selection has drilled into us.

For at least the first overarching claim, the evidence is fairly convincing. Furthermore, it seems to me that the ‘natural selection engineered us to pursue these fleeting pleasures, leading to suffering’ argument is no different than the (increasingly believed) argument that ‘our phones/Facebook have been engineered to be dopamine buttons that capture our attention, making us unhappy and unproductive.’ In that sense, though it may be my Bay Area bias speaking, I imagine that many people will be receptive to this argument.

The second claim (regarding meditation as the prescription) is the far more difficult one to justify, partially because of the relative dearth of scientific backing. As a claim regarding mostly internal, consciousness feelings, it’s hard to imagine what convincing evidence looks like, unless one is convinced by MRI studies that show, approximately, that ‘something different is going on the brains of those who meditate, in particular in regions of the brain commonly associated with X.’ To this end, the author draws far more on his personal experiences with meditation and the testimony of others. He does so with a clarity of argumentation, as someone who is used to writing books distilling complex arguments into a simplistic, persuasive sounding singular idea. However, due to the nature of the claim, whether one believes him is a matter of personal preference, and, I imagine, experience with trying to meditate.