At a retreat I was helping to lead some time ago, I made a comment during the Dharma talk that rustled a few feathers. It went something like this, “There’s nothing you can do to change the world.” At the end of the retreat one of the participants followed up for clarification. He asked with a friendly but incredulous look on his face, “Did you really mean that?”
I admit, it sounds harsh. But, let me explain.
It’s Not Just a Good Idea, It’s the Law
I’ve just finished reading a fantastic book called This Explains Everything. It’s a series of essays by various prominent thinkers answering the question “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”
The authors cover a gamut of disciplines including cognitive science, biology, economics, music, social sciences, and physics. I confess to being an avid pop physics fan. So I was drawn to the essays focused on cosmology and quantum mechanics. Three ideas that weaved through the book will help me make my point.
The first is order. The universe appears to follow a set of rules. Our formulations of these rules, for example Newton’s laws or Maxwell’s equations, are highly predictive and explain a lot about our experience. Even the bizarre probabilities of quantum mechanics demonstrate that there is a certain order to the universe.
Implicit in this observation is that the rules don’t change. This explains how we’re able to use them to predict events with some degree of probability. If the laws changed, things would be completely unpredictable, in fact life couldn’t exist.
Getting There From Here
The second concept is determinism. The probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics has shown that while the universe has order, it’s not precisely predictable. The laws of nature point to likely outcomes, but not rigid cause effect chains. This is a very important point. Ideas about determinism and free will have always been critical to defining our world view. If we misunderstand cause and effect, we’re at risk of misunderstanding everything.
The final idea is Emergence . This is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Scientists have used emergence to develop plausible explanations for everything from the creation of stars to the evolution of life. These explanations are truly deep, elegant and beautiful.
To illustrate how cool these ideas are, I’ll give you some examples. Interesting fact; in the beginning, if the universe had a perfectly uniform density, it would have been a very different, bland place. The ever so slight differences in density throughout the fledgling universe allowed particles to congregate by way of gravity (see a recent TED talk on the confirmation of this hypothesis). Over the course of billions of years these congregations of matter formed hydrogen and helium atoms which in turn formed the first stars.
As the process of emergence unfolded, the stars exploded as super nova, resulting in the creation of larger elements like carbon, iron and so on. These ingredients formed the raw materials for new stars, planets, and ultimately life.
It’s remarkable that scientists have been able to reverse engineer the story of the cosmos. We have a decent picture of the past and a certain degree of confidence that it’s correct because it was derived from the same rules that we use to reliably predict probable future states.
The human body and its behaviors are adaptations produced by an emergent process we call evolution. We’ve evolved to respond to our environment in ways that increase the likelihood of our survival (or more specifically, to increase the likelihood we reproduce).
For example, we blink when something approaches our eye. We produce adrenalin and its associated self-preservation responses when we are in danger. These naturally selected traits allowed our ancestors to live another day by surviving one moment to the next.
Evolutionary development has allowed humanity to move beyond the survival stage into relative comfort and wealth. We even enjoy the luxury of contemplating happiness.
Is happiness an evolutionary trait?
Norwegian biologist Bjorn Grinde proposes in his textbook, Darwinian Happiness: Evolution as a Guide for Living and Understanding Human Behavior, that it may be.
He argues that human emotions find their cause in evolution. Evolution might tend to add stronger incentives for behavior benefiting the genes in an individual with a powerful free will; as otherwise, the free will could easily result in maladaptive behavior. — Wikipedia
Recognizing emotional traits as emergent phenomenon is not hard to see. The love between a mother and child clearly serves to ensure that genes are successfully passed on. But, day to day, it’s difficult to see our emotions in this context. We don’t view our love of family in the context of the perpetuation of our DNA. It seems a little more complex than that.
Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public ― Cornel West
But Grinde is right in that free will without the incentive to self-preserve would likely result in the annihilation of life. Even with the power of evolution behind us, we don’t always act wisely. The effects of our bad decisions can be devastating. The fact that climate change is considered a man-made phenomenon, tells you how much of a mess we can make of things. But broadly speaking, our track record with free will has been net positive. The success of the human species speaks for itself.
So it seems that emergence has resulted in two natural principles. First, we are fundamentally motivated to perpetuate life — i.e. pass on our genes. Second, related to the first, is that freewill is also governed by natural selection. We’re incentivized, via emotion, to get along with each other. The latter principle I would describe as our natural inclination towards social justice.
There is Nothing You Can Do to Change the World
To steer back to my original point, we have to acknowledge that there is much in the world we cannot change. On an impersonal level, it’s fairly easy to recognize that the laws of nature are what they are. The acceleration due to gravity will be the same tomorrow as it was 300 years ago.
But getting a little more personal, there are some truths that can be harder to accept. Learning that your purpose is to perpetuate the information you carry in your genetic code can leave you a little cold. Viewing the love I have for my wife and children as simply the actions of “selfish genes” seems belittling. But no matter how I choose to view it, I am basically a DNA carrier.
Free will is a little more complicated. While our self preservation instincts tend to invoke simple mechanisms to help keep us alive long enough to reproduce, our exercise of free will doesn’t seem to be as automatic. Climate change, pollution, and addiction are all problems stemming from the misguided exercise of freewill. Why do we do these things?
These problems stem from a disconnect between our actions and their consequences. At the foundation is a faulty understanding of what is in our best interest. Why do we act in ways that are a detriment to our well-being? That’s literally insane. This is the root of suffering.
And there it is; the Buddha’s message!
The centrality of suffering and the causes of suffering in the Buddha’s teachings is very compelling to me. The journey begins with diagnosing and treating our own flavor of disconnection. If we fail in this, we’ll have little to offer the world.
Don’t Ever Stop Trying
The Buddhist teaching of the great embrace, the Mahamudra, tells us about the peculiar union of the unchanging eternal nature of the universe and it’s constantly evolving character. Both aspects of the world are observably true. The universe is what it is. Its laws are inviolable. But as these laws manifest over time, a vast diversity of matter, energy, and life unfolds before us.
This esoteric teaching is deep, elegant, and beautiful. It’s something I view as on par with the theories of evolution and quantum mechanics. It reminds us that both things are true in this quirky little universe of ours. The world is simultaneously unchanging and constantly evolving!
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead
We have freewill. We have intentions, make choices, and those choices affect the future. There is much good we can do. It seems we’re actually wired for it. We can listen and empathize. We can speak up when we see injustice and we can be better stewards of our environment.
But we have to do the hard work of putting our own house in order before we can start changing the world for the better. We need to align our efforts so that they actually do good.
It sounds obvious, but in practice it is monumentally difficult. We need only look to history for a multitude of people who have paved the road to hell with good intentions. These would-be saviors arise out of naive ideologies and their actions tend to do more harm than good.
The 1960s and 1970s were a showcase of misguided efforts to better the world. The Symbionese Liberation Army, the Weatherman, and the Black Panthers were all founded on deeply held, but flawed premises. They spiraled out of control because they perpetuated the cycle of suffering.
We must accept the world as it is. If we don’t come to grips with the rules of life, we won’t be able to play the game. When it comes to social justice, there are a lot of dead end routes. Forcing people to adopt social change by legislation or coersion doesn’t work. These approaches don’t take seriously the fact that free will is not a group phenomenon.
The Buddha acknowledged that change comes one heart and mind at a time. It’s an act of freewill to see and acknowledge the world as it is. Its an act of freewill to discover the true path to happiness. We can only walk ourselves across that bridge.
So how do we promote social justice? By example. It may sound ineffectual, but it’s magical seeing how infectuous it can be. In the same way that smiles are contagious, enlightenment can move from one person to the next; sometimes like wildfire. Gandhi said it well:
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do. — Mahatma Gandhi
So get out there and change the world. Social justice doesn’t happen on its own. But do it from a firm foundation. Do the work that’s required to understand the causes of suffering and apply what you learn to reduce it. It often less about doing good for others, and more about living in a way that shows that you have found your way.