A Cognitive Scientist’s Response to the Dalai Lama’s Criticism of Western Psychology

I’d like to deal with the current Dalai Lama’s critical remarks against Western psychology in detail, but I only have time at the moment to make a few brief remarks.

First some background:

  • What I have to say here is not about the Dalai Lama per se, nor his various theories or values, but about a particular position he expressed about Western psychology.
  • I’m familiar with some of the basics of secular Buddhism, as they have been adumbrated and translated by people like the Dalai Lama and his translator. I even use some secular Buddhist concepts myself. (I even proposed in a paper on insomnia, a new form of meditation called “the cognitive shuffle”, which can be facilitated by CogSci Apps’ mySleepButton. That paper combines multiple approaches to the problem it addresses.) However, I do not have expertise in Buddhism nor in other Eastern psychological traditions. But, as you will see, this limitation is irrelevant to my argument.
  • I don’t believe that one person is “holier” than another (preferring to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, as difficult as this may be at times). Nor is there a hierarchy in the realm of critical thinkers. So, I won’t I won’t use the expression “His Holiness”.
  • I assume that the Dalai Lama did not mean to take a jab at Western Psychology in saying what he did. I presume he made his remark tongue-in-cheek. For he is probably one of the kindest, most principled people on earth.
  • As you will see, I do not take a sectarian approach.

Still, I think it is worth reflecting on the statement because often comparisons are made between disciplines and traditions. And we can learn something by evaluating such statements. In this post I will not argue that one tradition is better than the other.

The Dalai Lama attended the Neuroplasticity and Healing event at the University Birmingham Alabama Oct. 25 2014. I heard excerpts from this event on episode 113 of The Brain Science Podcast with Dr. Ginger Campbell.

Here’s The Dalai Lama’s statement that I have a problem with:

Then psychology—part of our study. Buddhist psychology, as the ancient Indian psychology, is really highly developed. So, sometimes I’m maybe a little bit prejudiced, because sometimes I compare ancient Indian psychology, including Buddhist psychology, the modern Western psychology is like kindergarten level.

Of course, Western psychology (and cognitive science for that matter) is arguably at a very early stage of development. I am optimistic that we will continue to make progress, though it is possible that we will soon reach a plateau. (Consider, for example, “The Singularity of Cognitive Catch-up” hypothesis.) Only our descendants will be able to judge this. (Compare Imre Lakatos on the methodology of scientific research programs.) Moreover, if global warming or some other disaster causes science to come to a standstill in 20 years, survivors might look back and state that psychology reached its adulthood in the 21st century. Therefore, it is currently impossible to assess Western’s psychology’s current level of development with respect to the future.

But can we compare Western psychology with the East? Is Buddhist psychology so far ahead of the West? I’d love it to be. But none of what I’ve read from the Dalai Lama or others in that tradition has persuaded me that this is true. Here are some reasons why they’d have a hard time convincing me that the East is “ahead” of the West.

  1. In order to compare systems of thoughts, one needs to agree on standards of comparison. As it happens, even within the West there is no unity regarding these standards. (I will mention some standards below.) So, the Dalai Lama’s statement is pragmatically meaningless.
  2. Psychology is not a homogeneous scientific discipline.
  3. “Psychology” is not the only Western way to study the human mind. “Cognitive science” is the interdisciplinary study of the human mind. To call oneself a cognitive scientist, one should be well versed in, and able to think as a member of, its core disciplines: Artificial Intelligence (a poorly named approach that provides the central modern metaphors for understanding the human mind), psychology, linguistics, philosophy, neuroscience, education, anthropology, and some aspects of behavioral economics. And characterizing each of these core disciplines is itself subject to the difficulties I am enumerating here. Cognitive science is, in some respects, more general than what is often called psychology for cognitive science includes psychology. (However, some sub-fields of psychology are not normally considered in cognitive science.)
  4. Therefore, if the Dalai Lama wants to compare Buddhism with Western psychology, he should compare it to cognitive science, not just empirical psychology.
  5. In fact, the very idea that there are scientific disciplines is largely due to political, administrative, economic, and communicative factors that are not relevant to the philosophy of science. I am fond of quoting Karl Popper (1983) on this: “There are no subject matters; no branches of learning—or, rather, of inquiry: there are only problems, and the urge to solve them.” Cf. p. 5 of Realism and the Aim of Science).
  6. the Dalai Lama’s claim is one that belongs to philosophy of science. Western psychology has made a lot of progress there, partly because it has a very large corpus to work with. (I.e., Western science is huge.) And cognitive science leverages some of that philosophy of science (cf. e.g., philosophy of knowledge, and in the study of scientific reasoning).
  7. The distinctions between “science”, “mathematics”, “philosophy” and “computer science” are not clear cut. There is often overlap, particularly in cognitive science but also in other “disciplines”. Scientists often need to put on their mathematical hats, not merely to apply math, but to extend mathematics. Psychologists have made contributions to statistics, for example. Some of the greatest computer scientists contributed immensely to the understanding of mind, and vice versa. (For example: Warren McCulloch & Walter Pitts with formal neuron theory and Alan Turing.) Progress in physics has often been interleaved with progress in mathematics.
  8. The Dalai Lama made his critical statement about Western psychology at a neuroscience conference. I hope I am wrong (please let me know if so), but I doubt anyone there challenged the Dalai Lama on this because (a) they used the honorific “Your Holiness”, which is a completely inappropriate title to use at a scientific conference (it promotes cognitive biases / unscientific thinking), which suggests they weren’t disposed to challenge the man; (b) there is a longstanding “war” between some neuroscience factions and some factions of psychology. For example, in a TED Global 2013 talk, the neuroscientist Dr. Russell Foster took a jab at social scientists (and by extension psychology researchers, given that we are social scientists), saying: “Now, here we have a brain. This is donated by a social scientist, and they said they didn’t know what it was, or indeed how to use it, so – (Laughter)”. Dr. Foster argued in that TED talk that neuroscience was leading to major insights into sleep. Yet, the major implications he drew about sleep were actually developed by sleep psychologists many years ago. (Compare his talk with, for instance, UBC research psychologist Stanley Coren’s 1996 book, Sleep Thieves. And for limitations of neuroscience, I recommend Satel & Lilienfeld’s recent Brainwashed: The seductive appeal of mindless neuroscience). I hope the neuroscientists at Alabama stood up for the Western science to which they are also wed and to which they owe much of their progress, i.e., “psychology”. Cognitive scientists don’t tend to engage in disciplinary wars because they understand (a) the permeability of the “boundaries” between research disciplines, and (b) the necessity of using different approaches.
  9. The arguments that I heard the Dalai Lama give for Eastern being far ahead of Western psychology did not hold water. For example, some of the distinctions he alluded to were made by the ancient Greeks and still inform Western thinkers.
  10. While psychology / cognitive science has a very long way to go, it has in fact made a great deal of new historical progress (meaning new to humanity). Western psychology has painstakingly accumulated and documented a very large corpus of scientific facts, using all kinds of empirical research methods. It has discovered many psychological principles. It has created (invented) a large number of very helpful technical concepts. Consider the subject indexes of textbooks and handbooks in psychology/cognitive science. Or read Margaret Boden’s (2006) masterful Mind as machine: A history of cognitive science (2 volumes) — warning: it’s 1,631 pages. (OUP still prints this set on demand.)
  11. As project managers know quite well, number of calendar years is not the most relevant way to measure effort. Not all calendar years are equal. One must also consider person years. The Western world has contributed a larger number of person years of rigorous, peer-reviewed researched.
  12. Eastern and Western psychological traditions are now blending. Compare the “third wave” of clinical psychology research, for instance.

Furthermore, within cognitive science there are several approaches to advancing knowledge, and they all have a very strong foundation in Western thought. There are many taxonomies of research approaches. Here, very briefly, is one such taxonomy.

  1. Phenomena-based (or empirical) approaches. This is the main set of methods used by psychologists. Research psychologists are experts in empirical methods. A good psychology undergraduate program will give students extensive training in applied statistics and empirical research methods. Unfortunately, psychologists don’t normally prefix “research methods” with an adjective like “empirical”, which leads students (some of whom will themselves become professors of courses in research methods …) to believe that all research methods are empirical. However, there are other sets of methods in cognitive science, such as the following two.

  2. Semantics-based methods — conceptual analysis. I describe this approach in Cognitive Productivity. Chapter 4 of The Computer Revolution in Philosophy (Sloman, 1978) describes several techniques of conceptual analysis. Much of what cognitive science philosopher Dan Dennett does is conceptual analysis. (E.g., in The Intentional Stance, “why you can’t make a computer that feels pain”, and Inside Jokes. ). When psychology goes wrong it is often because of a failure to do an adequate conceptual analysis. Consider for example, Huang & Bargh (2013) BBS target article, “The selfish goal: Autonomously operating motivational structures as the proximate cause of human judgment and behavior”: had they done a better conceptual analysis of goals, they might have developed a more general theory of “the selfish motivator“. Compare the conceptual analysis of goals and motivators in ch. 3 of my Ph.D. thesis, Goal processing in autonomous agents. (I would have submitted a response to the Huang & Bargh target article but I missed the deadline by a few weeks c. 2012.)

  3. Designer based methods. This is the main set of methods used in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Dennett was perhaps the first person to refer to this as “the design stance”. A limited version of this was sketched by David Marr in his contribution to the canon of cognitive science, Vision (cf. the 3 levels of analysis). A more general version of this is described in Cognitive Productivity and in “The Design-Based Approach to the Study of Mind (in humans, other animals, and machines) Including the Study of Behaviour Involving Mental Processes” (available in this PDF file). In a nutshell, this involves (a) specifying the environment and ecosystems and (b) functionality (requirements) of the agent, systems, or subsystems one wishes to understand (e.g., vision), (c) specifying designs to achieve those requirements, (d) implementing those designs in computer programs, (e) running simulations, and (f) analyzing the relations between the foregoing.

Whereas I am not in a position to assess the East’s use of these three different approaches (but clearly the Buddha was not known for his use of computer simulations), I can safely say the West has a very strong tradition in these three large sets of methods. Cognitive science (including AI) not only contributes to technology many of us use every day (e.g., speech processing), it is necessary (though not sufficient) for a deep understanding of the human mind. Many cognitive scientists use all three sets of approaches.

This is not to say that there is no room for improvement in psychology. There is. To be sure, Western psychology is extremely strong in empirical research methods, including experimental methods. In fact, psychologists have contributed research methods and statistical methods that are used in other disciplines (e.g., biology and medicine). However, some quarters of psychology can do a better job of embracing semantics-based methods. Psychology undergraduates typically don’t get explicit training in conceptual analysis. As I alluded to above, this leads to some egregious errors—and perhaps this is what the Dalai Lama had in mind when he criticized Western psychology. I, for one, think all psychology undergraduates should take at least one course on conceptual analysis: here they would not just learn about it from a textbook, but be required to do lots of conceptual analyses themselves. Also, most psychology undergraduates are not required to take a single course in the design stance — and hence do not get any AI computer programming experience. However, there is only so much one can fit into a 4-year undergraduate program. I do not recommend sacrificing training in statistics, psychometrics and empirical research methods.

This leads me to allude to two questions I’ve long wanted to blog about: “What makes for a great cognitive science undergraduate program?” And “what makes for a great graduate program in cognitive science?”. Having spent the first year of my Ph.D. training in Sussex University’s Cognitive Science program during its apotheosis (when Andy Clark, Maggie Boden, Aaron Sloman, Phil Agre, Keith Oatley and several other luminaries were there), and holding the first Ph.D. in cognitive science awarded by the University of Birmingham (England), housed in the computer science program which became top-ranked in Britain, and having seen and reflected upon some other cognitive science programs, I have a few ideas on this subject. (Not that I would make an argument from authority. That would be a sophism.) But that will be for another day. Here, I will just say the following: All undergraduate cognitive science programs should, in my opinion, include training in all three sets of methods listed above, and of course in all the major disciplines of cognitive science. One shouldn’t, for instance, be able to earn a cognitive science degree without a few rigorous courses in neuroscience, a lot of empirical psychology, at least one course in linguistics, etc.

For all of these reasons, and others not stated, (a) comparing Eastern and Western psychology as if there was a single dimension or even a vector is a non-starter. And (b) to claim that the West is in kindergarten compared to the East is ridiculous.

I realize many people will find me disrespectful to have criticized a statement made in passing by the Dalai Lama. However, I don’t think he would, for he said that day:

Actually, Buddha’s advice: he stated, ‘All my followers—monks, scholars— should not accept my teaching out of faith, out of devotion, but rather investigation and experiment.’

And presumably philosophical argumentation counts too. Regardless of who said what, this post is an opportunity for humanity, i.e., all parts of the world, to celebrate its scientific achievements in not merely creating an edifice of knowledge, but in developing self-propelling, self-critical, and self-correcting methodologies for pursuing multiple, intertwined programs of research into the human mind.

One of the foundational attitudes that allows progress, and is shared by various traditions, is epistemological humility. For as Karl Popper put it “While differing widely in the little bits we know, or rather guess, in our infinite ignorance we are all equal.”

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

7 thoughts on “A Cognitive Scientist’s Response to the Dalai Lama’s Criticism of Western Psychology”

  1. The Author is not only revealing his gross ignorance of Eastern Buddhist and Indian psychology, but also is not informed on the latest discussions on this subject.

    He will do better if he read the book “”Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama”” a dialogue between Dalai Lama and a small group of eminent Western psychologists, neuro scientists, and philosophers.

  2. While I fully agree with your take on the proper set of methodological approaches, I believe that it is far from being a mainstream opinion in contemporary psychology. Cognitive science has not risen as a coherent discipline to replace experimentalist psychology, but is mostly still multidisciplinary, with a lot of bandwidth taken up by descriptive neurobiology.

    Psychology’s abhorrence of free variables and comprehensive functionalist theories has led to a dearth of conceptual analysis and big rifts between AI epistemology/design stance and the curriculum of psychology students.

    I have little knowledge of ‘buddhist psychology’. I consider the Dalai Lama as both a skilled politician and an expert in the introspective practices of meditation (neither of which makes him a scientist). We might either take his statement at face value, i.e. identify and evaluate the methodological criteria that might establish the value of buddhist psychology as a scientific body of knowledge (conceptual analysis, design-testable or experimentally accessible mechanisms, therapeutic results, …), and perform comparisons to western psychology where we find sufficient intersections (which could turn out to be interesting), or we may choose to interpret it as a political statement, in front of a backdrop of poor mental health and life satisfaction of westerners, combined with western psychology’s pretty much undisputed failure to develop comprehensive theories of the mind.

    I agree that western psychology is very strong in experimental methods, and in the number of person years invested, but one could point out how many of those experiments and person years have been wasted on unproductive and poorly conceptualized paradigms and fads.

  3. I’m not going to debate science or religion. I have agreements with both, I have disagreements with both. However, when I look and learn about different cultures around the globe I have to look at “their works”. What has been the outcome of all of the sciences, psychologies, and religions? The bottom line is that in reality none of us has actually progressed very far. By this I mean we have not solved our basic concerns regarding human society, national interactions, or human interactions with nature including human nature. It appears to me that the biggest problems of psychology are caused perhaps by leaders, stratified social structure, and the willingness to murder masses of people by any means possible. So, it seems to me cultures which enbolden women and men equally in their input into their society, family, politics, the arts and all other aspects of life have a better handle on reality than societies which don’t. Simply put, cultures which murder masses of “other” peoples are failed cultures, no matter what their politics, social structure, philosophies. religion. We also have to consider the rate of destruction of human, animal, and environmental damage to evaluate the success of a culture, the success of their science, technology, etc. What are the philosophies of a society as a whole? How is the outcome of the science of a society? Western science is done in labs ….isolated from any real reality of the interconnectedness between all elements. Native American science and that of other such societies neglected isolating elements yet, they much of the time, through other intense observations of interconnectedness grasped very major concepts of cause and effect which western science continues to really not grasp at all. As a result of this. We are destroying the very planet we live upon. I do not believe that is an advanced culture, philosophy, religion, science, or political system. We can not understand the human mind until we look at the entire spectrum of the conditions which humanity responds to such as nutrition, pollution, natural elements in the environment, society as a whole, parents, education… the human mind and thereby much behaviour is based upon events, situations, elements of the exterior. Yes each mind may react a bit differently and it is important to know what causes biological problems for the mind, which, we know by now are also effected by exterior exposures.

  4. To consider the Dalai Lama’s remarks regarding Western psychology, we need to be clear about what he might have meant by, “Western psychology,” and let’s just give him the benefit of the doubt for the purposes of this consideration and assume he was referring to the mainstream study of the mind in the West.
    Mainstream Western psychology takes a very different approach to the ideas of karma and rebirth in comparison to Buddhists. The Buddhist view seems to be that there exists a stream of consciousness informing every living person and when a person dies, that steam of consciousness, hinging upon the law of karma (not necessarily so different from our laws of gravity and magnetism, etc. to which physical bodies must adhere), has the capacity to inform another human body as the role of that new person’s consciousness. A Western psychologist by the name of Ian Stevenson has done extensive work with regards to this Eastern idea of rebirth and his findings support the Buddhist view, however mainstream Western psychology has largely rejected the view and kicked Dr. Stevenson to the fringe while ignoring his findings and clinging blindly to this religious-like view they’ve had of the human person for so many years.
    The idea that every theory should be put under the most possible scrutiny lies at the core of the scientific method, and mainstream western Psychology has failed in this measure with regards to this idea of karma and rebirth and how it influences their view of the human person. For years the Dalai Lama and Buddhists have held a very reasonable view of karma and rebirth and while these ideas may have influenced Western thinkers, Carl Jung for instance, the mainstream West would never consider the rebirth aspect in its actuality leaving these ideas inverted by rearranging causal relations. And when a Western scientist sets out using scientific methods to disprove this idea of rebirth and comes back with evidence to the contrary, this western response to banish him to the fringe and ignore his work is not the response of a scientist. This is the response of a child in kindergarten.
    Despite the childish dogmatic underpinnings apparent in the mainstream academic response to these ideas of karma and rebirth, and regardless of whether the Dalai Lama thinks those studying the mind in the West are leaving out a major piece of the puzzle, consider that the Dalai Lama might be referring to much of the methodology itself. Where in the West researchers are always trying to prove something to someone else and they look for those things that they can easily show to someone else, behavior for instance is easily demonstrable. However, vast regions of the mind don’t lend themselves to being proven. Much about the mind must be learned through introspection and trying to learn about certain aspects while looking outside oneself makes the task so much more difficult, it could only be considered foolish when one need only look within himself.
    Now considering that much of understanding the mind comes through the cultivation of one’s own mind, and when we’re talking about the Dalai Lama in comparison to the average mainstream Western academic, the kindergarten comparison shouldn’t seem too far off. The Dalai Lama is a man who can sit still for hours at a time and maintain unbroken focus on a single object. That ability focus helps him be mindful of everything that he does or experiences without exception or break. These are just a couple of the superman-like traits of the high level practitioners of this Buddhist psychology, but they should seem like skills that would help one understand the mind better.
    It’s easy to feel threatened when somebody challenges your core views, but at the end of the day, if we can’t answer these challenges by trying to understand them, but rather just by trying to fend them off, we’re going to keep facing the same challenges forever.

  5. Until you experience a full egoless awakening, you won’t understand why the Dalai Lama compares western psychology (all of it) with a kindergarten. He’s certainly not trying to insult anyone, he’s just expressing the truth as he has realised it. Egoic consciousness cannot understand this truth, and would be especially threatened by it, particular when one considers how many years that egoic consciousness has spent dedicated to learning western psychological systems. Said egoic consciousness takes itself incredibly seriously, and it would disturb it immensely to hear that it’ serious psychological discipline – all the books it has read and all the studies and papers it has written – is infantile by comparison with an eastern system.

  6. Look at the Dalai Lama’s work on valid cognition. If our cognitions are not valid (and we keep projecting our individual fantasies of the mind onto others), we really are a bunch of kindergartners.

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