Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

| October 9, 2017 | 12 Comments

We all like nice things, but our pursuit of them has important drawbacks. We’ll look at some of those here, as well as evidence of a transmission fluid leak that I’ve been dealing with for the past year.

Oh well.

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Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (12)

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  1. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Nice thing you given us, Doug!

    You might enjoy this article I came across recently in the Guardian:
    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/09/materialism-system-eats-us-from-inside-out

    It cites several studies in academic journals. The abstract of one of them ends with an observation I think is worth pondering, particularly by those of us who like to imagine we’re beyond envy and craving:

    “Thus, the costs of materialism are not localized only in particularly materialistic people, but can also be found in individuals who happen to be exposed to environmental cues that activate consumerism—cues that are commonplace in contemporary society.” (Cuing Consumerism Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being)
    http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797611429579

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Thanks Michael. That’s a good article, yes. I don’t think consumerism is anything new; the Buddha was talking about the same syndrome 2500 years ago. My sense is that it’s a part of human nature to compete for social status, and ownership of possessions is one way to get that status.

      The power of it is quite insidious, and I mean in all or nearly all of us.

      • Jason Malfatto says:

        My sense is that it’s a part of human nature to compete for social status, and ownership of possessions is one way to get that status.

        I reckon that’s right, Doug, which reminds me of an earlier episode in your series, where you reviewed Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True.

        The take-home message of that book, for me anyway, is not that Buddhism or evolutionary psychology is literally true, but rather that they each lend something to a clearer understanding of the human condition, particularly the problem of and the solution to dukkha. They may be “just so” stories, but useful ones that at least ring true to some extent – say, to the degree that scientific evidence and common experience lend them credibility.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Thanks Jason. Yes indeed, although I guess I wouldn’t call Buddhism, or at least the Buddhist path, a “just so” story, since it isn’t really supposed to be etiological in the same way that say evolutionary psychology is. (There are some parts of Buddhism that are etiological, but the path is more forward directed than backward).

          • Jason Malfatto says:

            I agree that Buddhism isn’t etiological (that’s where Wright’s complementary account of evo-psych comes in), but it does tell us a story (e.g. about the processes of karma, samsara, and nibbana) – one that reflects the beliefs and interests of ancient Indian thinkers and that is only so amenable to empirical testing, the rest being “just so.” That is, one either accepts or rejects the story, based on one’s cultural and/or individual conditioning, but should not count on a robust and widely shared agreement across cultures and/or individuals.

            • Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

              “My sense is that it’s a part of human nature to compete for social status, and ownership of possessions is one way to get that status. I reckon that’s right, Doug.”

              Well, yes and no, I reckon. Depends, I think, on what’s meant by “human nature.” Human nature” also includes empathy, compassion, cooperation. There are plausible evolutionary reasons for both sets of “natures” – whether just-so stories or not, these purported reasons are a corrective to the idea that competition and self interest are the only real motives for human behaviour (though of course an older set of evolutionary just-so stories was promoted to prove “nature red in tooth and claw.”). Because we have multi-faceted natures, we can choose which to cultivate. Isn’t that what mindfulness is about? Not easy, we are conditioned beings. But learning to do so, learning to avoid the conditioning that makes us victims of consumerism (to take on example on topic with Doug’s essay) — isn’t that what the path is about? (Isn’t even nirvana described in some texts as no more or less than an unconditioned state of mind?)

              From another point of view, because we have multi-faceted natures and minds to navigate them, we really have no fixed nature at all (or if you prefer, any nature we have is the result of conditioning. I suspect this is closer to Gotama, but either way we end up with malleable nature. The etiology may not be important).

              It’s here that the notions of emptiness and no-self become powerful (if perhaps not absolutely necessary) concepts or models of reality. Emptiness, understood as lack of essence or fixed nature, reminds us that neither the social order in which we are embedded or our notions about our place in it are more than transient phenomena, not dictated by God or Nature. No-self, if understood as lack of a permanent or essential self, is likewise and antedote to acceptance of conditions that generate anxiety and disatisfaction. Most of us, most of the time, allow ourselves to be molded by conditions outside ourselves, by apparent need for status, recognition, membership in the group etc. Once it is recognized that these constructed self-images are products of conditioning, we have a chance of mindfully taking control – of more dispassionately examining the drive to validate ourselves by seeking status and possessions, for example. Isn’t that what overcoming ignorance is about? Isn’t that what the Dhammapada means when it says “The self is master of the self. Who else?”

  2. Jason Malfatto says:

    Michael: Yes, human plasticity is a thing, but then even the source of the metaphor – plastic – can be said to possess a nature that we can detect, both in the lab and in common everyday experience. That is, plastic is malleable by definition, yet a diverse set of objects – from soft packaging to hard vinyl – possesses qualities (or family resemblances) that allow even non-experts to identify them as plastics with a high degree of accuracy.

    So too with the metaphor’s target – human behavior and experience – except (as Steven Pinker argues in The Blank Slate) there’s an ethical dimension here, such that overestimating our plasticity bears at least as much risk (e.g. of appeals to totalitarian social engineering) as underestimating it (e.g. of rationalizing unjust social norms as fixed), so it’s best that we tread carefully.

    Even on the most optimistic account of the Four Noble Truths, at least the first two can be read as descriptions of human nature: that dukkha is a perennial problem, which originates in our strong (innate? acquired? both?) tendencies to crave this and then that. And even the last two truths qualify insofar as they suggest a solution to the problem to make dukkha cease, which Gotama has achieved. That solution requires no divine intervention or other extraordinary forces external to the embodied human mind, though it arguably helps to be situated in certain environments – say, in what Stephen Batchelor calls a “culture of awakening.”

  3. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Jason,

    I don’t really disagree with much of what you say; I was making a case, without admitting any qualifiers or doubts, displaying my lawyer-nature which is hard to suppress. In particular, the ethical issue you mention is troubling — emptiness does invite the ethical “transcendence trap” Whitehill writes about.
    http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2010/04/whitehil.pdf

    But I don’t have much doubt that the ability to overcomes drives and conditioning, to redefine ourselves, is necessary for enlightenment. We can overcome this conditioning, and in that sense have no fixed “nature.” Our “human nature to compete for social status” may be real, but that need not dictate who we are, is not inescapable. That’s all I really wanted to say.

    While walking my dogs & thinking about this, I was — as ever — impressed by the dogs happiness in the moment, the enthusiasm they greeted other dogs and their humans with in the dog walk park. Here are animals whose genes are those of top predators, but they have become civilized, empathetic creatures. If they can do it, we mere humans should be able to. I recalled something Konrad Lorenz — the uber theorist of instinct, wrote — or should I say was forced to admit: “In a certain respect, the dog is more ‘human’ than the cleverest monkeys: like man, he is a domesticated being, and like him, he owes to his domestication two constitutional properties: first his liberation from the fixed traits of instinctive behaviour which opens to him, as to man, new ways of acting . . . .”

    • Jason Malfatto says:

      Michael, excepts dogs have been bred over millennia for traits that are agreeable to their human masters. They are by no means self-made.

      But I would agree that our natures grant us some wiggle room to cultivate some traits, rather than others, all the while acknowledging that we act under certain constraints (e.g. psychobiological, ecological, and socioeconomic). It’s basically why we’re having this chat.

  4. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Jason,

    Knowing you are a cat associate, I am not surprised by your error. In the first place, dogs, according to many behaviouists (who would of course never stray into mere speculation), dogs (seeing a good thing) domesticated themselves. In the second place, as any proud dog person knows, dog behaviour is not just a matter of breeding, but also of the ability to adapt by suppressing, rechannelling, maybe ignoring the “fixed traits of instinctive behaviour.” 🙂 (:

  5. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Except where squirrels are involved.

  6. Jason Malfatto says:

    Michael: That’s cute, but the truth is I love dogs and in fact grew up with them (along with cats). As a working parent, I just found it more practical to stick with cats as pets. Having a dog is like having another child, in my experience. Besides, I get my fair share of dogs from friends, family, and neighbors.

    As for the rest of your reply, we might actually disagree on the facts of the matter (e.g. about the history of dog domestication, if not about the philosophy of free will vs. determinism and how the modern sciences bear on that debate), but I’m not sure.

    Might also just be that we’re sensing different sides of the same elephant.

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