Re: Zen

Mario Vaneechoutte (
Mon, 12 Apr 1999 10:36:37 +0200

Date: Mon, 12 Apr 1999 10:36:37 +0200
From: Mario Vaneechoutte <>
Subject: Re: Zen

Aaron Lynch wrote:

> At 01:06 PM 4/9/99 +0200, wrote:
> >To me the importance of Zen - and of meditation techniques in general - is
> that
> >it can free us - temporarily - of our ongoing train of thoughts. In that
> way it
> >is a useful solution to get rid of the emotional burdeon which our thinking
> >puts on us:
> >
> Mario,
> Seldom does such an old and widespread personal philosophy derive all of
> its memetic selection advantage solely from its emotional benefits to
> adherents. Zen may have other memetic selection advantages, such as those
> that would arise in selection for refutation resistance. Consider an
> ancient environment in which several competing religions or philosophies
> were being debated. Adherents of one would challenge a competing belief
> system by showing that it leads either to self-contradiction or to
> contradiction with accepted observations of the world. With philosophy X
> and Y, such demonstration of contradiction could result first in adherents
> dropping out, and second in prospective adherents deciding against becoming
> adherents. But if philosophy Z embraces contradiction, then it could be a
> more robust competitor in an environment selecting for the least often
> refuted philosophy. Zen might owe some of its evolution and proliferation
> to just such a kind of natural selection.

[Note of Mario: I do not see natural selection anywhere in culture, because
there are no autonomously replicating systems in culture. Only in biology, with
the cell as such a system, one can speak of natural selection.]
Dear Aaron,

This is the kind of discussion I would like to get into. I hope I find time.

What we should do in the first place (IMO) when trying to understand why some
ideas, hypotheses, world views are successful and others are not, is to climb
into the human mind. After all ideas are not replicators, but are passive
replicates which have to be replicated by processors like (analog) human minds
and (digital) copy machines. So, we should try to understand the motivation of
these processors to replicate certain ideas instead of other ideas.

What is it in these ideas which makes minds to endorse and/or propagate them?
(If we only could agree that this is the way to ask the basic question in

Supposing that human minds have some preferences (so making suggestions about
human psychology) is what you are doing as well here: you say that some people
endorse 'doubting - uncertainty' strategies like Zen, because they prefer the
least refuted philopsophy.

[The latter is already a very hypothetical suggestion as well: that a doubting
strategy will be least refuted!? But that is now not the discussion I am
thinking of]

So, you make suggestions about how people feel and think, about what they will
prefer. If one's idea about the general working of the human mind is not
correct, one will end up with wrong hypotheses about why some ideas spread. My
idea is that human psychology is certainly not such that it would easily accept
world views which give no certainty - except for the certainty of being member
of the most successful world view [but how does an invidividual quantifies that?
Another question I do not want to get into here]. Therefore I think your
analysis starts from wrong premisses.

My hypothesis goes as follows:
Certainty is an essential experience to an animal (it is a
neuro-endocrinological reward mechanisms for doing the genetically right things)
and certainty is double so essential to a human being, because our speech
abilities enable us to bother also about endless numbers of possible future
uncertainties. We live in constant uncertainty because of e.g. our ability to
consider the future or our ability to reconsider our own social position
(continuously questioning our self-image - even if it is not endangered, which
in itself leads to a continuous need for self confirmation - as we try to
achieve e.g. by posting on this list.). My analysis of the human mind may be
wrong as well, of course, but to me this kind of analysis works every time I
want to understand why some ideas/emotions (like racism, nationalism,
religiosity, ...) keep flourishing against all logic and often against the
well-being of many people.

My idea about the (relative) success of Zen etc. is that it enables a different
escape from the problem caused by gifting an emotional being (an animal) with
speech. Zen etc. shows how irrelevant words are and how one should not bother
about all the problems they bring along (apologies for this simplistic
presenation). Zen learns how it is only the present which is important. After
all, the future does not exist, it is just a concept. Zen is about the
importance of peeling potatoes: It is here and now which matters. You'd better
enjoy the peeling of potatoes you are doing at this moment - how little
intellectually interesting it may seem, because if you don't it is just another
moment of your life that passed away without enjoying. Techniques like Zen give
us back the direct present joy animals can have, but which to many of us has
gone lost most of the time because of our continuous bothering.

So, why might Zen be successful? Because it brings a good feeling to people and
this good feeling stems from freeing them from bothering about all kinds of
things and from learning them to enjoy (or very consciously experience) what is
happening now. I think that is the essence of the success of techniques/world
views like Zen. I think this is a far more realistic and direct explanation than
your second order approach.

A similar way of reasoning learns why e.g. racism (a 'logic' based cultural
extension of our natural xenophoby, which stems from our living in small groups)
is ineradicable. Racistic reasoning works because racists feel good about it
(e.g. because you can blame others for what is actually your own social
failure.). It gives them certainty that they themselves are not to blame. And it
makes them belong to a group of other like-minded, bringing one more feeling of
certainty, which is an extra bonus for feeling good.
And don't forget that many racists are simply people scared for strangers:
uncertainty again, which racist ideology might resolve because it promises to
eradicate those strangers, which are the source of this scariness.

People do things like endorsing ideas and spreading them because they feel good
about them, and they feel good about them basically because this kind of ideas
or behaviours bring certainty.Human uncertainty stems from our linguistic
ability to bother. Western doctrines are language based solutions which promise
future certainty about the hypothetical problems (don't bother about death:
there is heaven). Zen and colleagues learn not to bother in the first place,
bringing back instant joy and certainty.

> Once it establishes its
> reputation as resistant to conventional lines of refutation, many people
> may learn not to even try to refute or even criticize it. This again can
> help it to out-propagate philosophies and religions that do not embrace
> contradictions, non-sequiturs, etc. Once its reputation is established, it
> finds more settings in which it can spread unopposed.

I agree that once an idea gets established (and thus is carried by many people),
it is easier endorsed by one mind than a novel idea in the pool. Certainty plays
again, because we reason/feel that if so many people believe this particular
kind of world view, the chances that it is true are bigger. It is more certain
to be useful.

Mario Vaneechoutte

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