Saturday, January 2, 2016

Buddha, Happiness, and Alien Civilizations

Buddha lived about 2500 years ago, and devoted his life to two things. After his early years as a prince, husband and father, he abandoned it for some years to go and think about life. After having what he regarded as some revelations, he spent the rest of his life, the majority of it, communicating it to others. What he communicated went to dedicated monks, who preserved the teaching until writing was developed, and then recorded what was preserved as oral tradition. The career of Buddhist monk still exists and is followed in large numbers.

Buddha spent that middle period of his life pondering the human situation, and how to be happy. One question to be raised is, would there have been someone, an alien of whatever sort originated on a distant solo planet, who would come up with similar lessons? If so, we might have an idea of one current of thought in alien civilizations. If the future of our fractionated world includes Buddhism or some outgrowth of it, then it might also happen on an alien world, provided that their brains evolved to operate in similar ways to ours.

We see many examples of convergent evolution here on Earth. Convergent evolution is a term used to mean the evolution of something similar twice, in different species. If some rodent species develops a long proboscis for reaching down ant nests for the ants it lives on, an insect species might also develop one to do the same thing. If humans develop associative neural networks for intelligence to allow them to use tools, maybe aliens in another solar system would do the same. After all, evolution works to find some satisficing solution to a problem of survival or reproduction. It may not be optimal, but it might be close. If our brain structure is close to optimal for intelligence, as far as biological evolution can produce, then something similar might crop up in some alien species that had the preconditions for intelligence to be favorable for survival and reproduction as well.

Buddha was certainly not the only sage who propounded a theory of how to live during his millennium. There were countless others, and some also managed to preserve their teaching through oral tradition until writing became available. He was probably the most successful, measured in numbers of followers. He understood how to create a meme that would preserve itself for centuries, and was so convincing that he was able to get it started. As memes do, it just kept rolling on.

Why wouldn’t aliens, with similar brains, also figure out how to develop a meme about how to live? Convergent evolution isn’t exactly the right term here, but some societal equivalent of it would be. Convergent evolution writes into genes in completely different ways codings to perform the same function. A rodent proboscis does not likely have genes in common with an insect proboscis. Similarly, a meme developed on a different planet might not have the same features as the one Buddha authored. Buddha’s plan for life included a plan for a monk’s life, and this was an important feature of his meme as the monks preserved the oral tradition of his teaching. He prescribed how a monk would dress, what his daily schedule would be like, what his meditation would include, and so on. On some exo-planet, where an alien Buddha was forming his own collection of followers, he/she/it would not necessarily prescribe the lives of the followers who were committing his/her/its teachings to memory in the same way. It would likely be totally different, with only the essence of oral tradition being in common.

However, there would be equivalences in the teachings of the Buddha and the exo-Buddha. People, of that era and of later eras, listen to such teachings because they resonate with their view of life. What exactly does resonate mean? It means that in a neural network, of the type we have and that we think an intelligent alien might have, reinforcement is induced by familiarity coupled with a smidgen of novelty, and the mechanism for reinforcement is generated by neurochemicals being produced and directed to the neural site where new memories are formed. A side effect of this generation of reinforcement neurochemicals is happiness. Happiness is what we seek. Here and on the exo-planet.

Buddha’s specific take on happiness was not how to be happy, but how to maintain a low level of happiness that did not plunge downward into a deficit of neurochemicals. He termed it a way to avoid or tolerate suffering. Other teachers do not typically make this choice, but describe how to achieve some sort of success in life, but Buddha chose to teach how to avoid unhappiness, mostly ignoring the attractions that life offers. By avoiding the peaks of happiness, one avoids the troughs of unhappiness, aka suffering.

Would there likely be anyone on the exo-planet we are imagining who also recognized the value of a life of modest but uninterrupted happiness? It is an option that most likely would not have been ignored. Would there have been someone with the intellectual prowess to create a message and a meme to preserve it? Possibly, if the population was sufficiently large, and the genes for genius evolved on that planet as well as on ours.

What is unique about Buddhism, and would be unique about exo-Buddhism, is that it is immune, at least partially, to the achievement of asymptotic technology. Other belief systems may struggle with technology, but Buddhism is simply a philosophy of living, and of behaving in the context of a society. Such rules for living might be interpreted a bit differently in a primitive culture and an advanced technology culture, but the basic principles would remain. Thus, with the provisos mentioned above, that genius genes are as possible in the alien genetic coding as in ours and that social norms do not form early to prevent such monasteries from forming as would protect and propagate the teachings, we might see some exo-Buddhism on any planet with an advanced alien civilization we manage to visit, or hear about it from the first visitors here, if there ever are any.

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