Contra Contra Contra
Yet another (claimed) jhana-haver, checking in. With the unpopular opinion of "it's trivially obviously real, I verified it myself, but there are two major dynamics that lead to it being overstated, and most people who talk about jhana inadvertently shove those under the rug"
Issue 1: People selectively remember their successful meditation attempts.
It's exactly like fishing. People remember the times they caught a big fish, not the times they went fishing and didn't catch anything. Looking at ten previous first-jhana attempts, if two failed completely, three were lackluster, three were decent, one was pretty awesome, and one was sex-tier, if you riffle back through your memories associated with first jhana, the two most successful ones will be the most salient. The memory of the time where you tried to attain first jhana on a long airplane trip and mostly failed won't come up in most cases. If you're at a party and trying to chat with somebody about meditation stuff, you're going to bring up the "hits" that make good party anecdotes, and not bring up that time where you tried to meditate in bed but you fell asleep. Or that time where you tried to meditate on your couch but your back was too itchy. Or the time during the road trip where you managed to get it going pretty well, and it was a worthwhile experience, but could not reasonably be described as "sex-tier".
Descriptions along the lines of "comparable to sex", strike me as accurate. Even the one about blissing out in the Macy's afterwards strikes me as accurate, there is a really weird aspect of the afterglow where your sensitivity to other pleasures is enhanced and you find yourself spontaneously going "wow, that rock is really pretty and great" (or whatever else you're interacting with). Leigh Brasington went through an MRI, we know that the brain is doing some rather unusual stuff during these states. So any claim like the strong form of "they're making it up", is just outright false.
However, what these experiences do not strike me as, is typical. When asking somebody about jhana experiences, you're getting their highlights reel unless you're very specifically asking them otherwise, just like asking somebody about their fishing experiences. Ordinary-ass jhana-in-the-airport is quite nice, but nowhere near sex-tier.
Even beyond that, there's an issue where, in everyday life, feelings of excitement are usually paired with an exciting thing. A great thing happened to you, you say "it was very exciting", the other person correctly infers that it must have been pretty great. During jhana, feelings of excitement aren't paired with an exciting thing happening. It's possible to experience strong feelings of excitement, but your mind knows that it isn't actually paired with anything, and so it comes across as more of a physiological feeling, and the overall experience is generally a good deal more lackluster than it sounds like. And so you can truly say "it felt EXTREMELY exciting", the other person (falsely) infers that it must have been REALLY great, but feelings of extreme excitement that aren't about anything aren't actually that great.
Issue 2: The word "first jhana" is used to describe a pretty wide range of experiences.
Not too long after figuring out how to do it (ie, attain a mental state that is clearly abnormal while meditating), I recorded what happened, managed to consistently replicate it, and the state was something like a cross between being well-caffeinated, very tightly focused, highly excited, and with occasional waves of body chills, the same sort that music generates. Also it keeps turning off and on again like a car that refuses to properly start. Overall niceness level: like eating a pan of fresh-cooked brownies.
After getting it down well enough and practicing it for a while, it turns out there were a few missing mental steps, and if you don't try quite so hard to force it and just have fun with it, it's much nicer. Energy levels and focus go down a bit, the state gets more stable than it used to be, the excitement component gets a considerably larger dose of happiness added into it instead of being pure excitement, and there's a nice afterglow for ten or so minutes.
And now we get to stuff I haven't personally done.
Leigh Brasington, one of the main meditation teachers teaching this stuff, claims that the body chills/tingles become continuous, rather than coming in waves, when you REALLY hit first jhana, and the stuff I'm doing is just messing around with some pre-jhana states. Nick C's described experiences also seem around this level, if he's describing them as "10x better than sex".
And then there was a time where Leigh Brasington visited some of the really hardcore Thai forest monks, and after a week or so, (claimed to have) managed to get some extremely damn strong jhanas that near-perfectly matched up to the original descriptions in the Pali Canon.
There are many reasonable questions that could be asked at this point, like
"wait, if the word "jhana" is used to describe both an energetic/focused/nice state that can be worked out in a week and easily attained in a spare 20 minutes while waiting in an airport, and some sort of ultra-rare infinite cosmic bliss thing that you can only attain by meditating in a Thailand cave for five years with absolute silence, then isn't the word "jhana" uselessly vague and referring to way too many things?? It's one of the worst cases of motte and bailey I've ever seen!"
"Wait, if I have to be a meditation teacher and spend a week in a Thailand cave to get the highest levels of this, then aren't those highest levels totally useless for everyday life? Even if we buy that it's actually great enough to justify the time sink, what's the point of having mental motions for unbounded bliss if you can't practically use it without sitting in a cave for a week? Looks like wireheading."
"I extremely want to call bullshit on Nick C's experiences and people running around going "you dummy, jhana is totally real" when what they're describing is <1/10th of what Nick C is claiming IS NOT HELPING"
I agree with all of these points! When someone is claiming to have attained jhana, it's really important to try to figure out what they're claiming on this spectrum and not do the implicit motte/bailey thing.
I'm coming to the party kinda late so you probably won't end up reading this, but if you do, that'd be cool.
I’m unsure whether I’ve misinterpreted because some of the prose is muddled, so please forgive me if you’ve covered this. Here’s how I understand the dialectic, if we cleaned it up a bit.
You’re making an argument from analogy. You want to say that spoonies et all are relevantly similar to jhana people. You then argue using the more familiar spoonies example that we should default to low credence. You then apply that to jhana people, since their claims are relevantly similar from an epistemic POV.
Scott implicitly agrees with the framing of your argument, buying that the cases are analogous. However, he objects to your argument by claiming that we should actually believe the spoonies et al. He defends this claim by pointing out that psychosomatic pain is pain just as much as other pain, since pain is just the experience of the pain. This is meant to undermine a principle on which your argument is based. Specifically, he takes you to be claiming that we can infer from “lots of doctors have been unable to identify a physical cause of the pain” to “the patient is full of shit.” By explaining that psychosomatic pain isn’t the sort of thing that has that kind of physical cause, he takes himself to have undermined your principle and therefore crippled your overall argument. Thus, your argument to disbelieve the spoonies fails, and so does your argument to disbelieve the jhana people.
You respond by denying Scott’s claim that we should believe the spoonies. You do this by distinguishing between belief_1 and belief_2. Belief_1 is your kind, the better kind, and involves endorsing the content of what people say. Belief_2 is less clear, but seems to involve endorsing a related, different, and more plausible claim. It’s more charitable. You then argue that the word “belief” actually picks out the concept belief_1, because the patients themselves get mad when doctors say “I believe you and think it’s psychosomatic.”You argue that if “belief” really picked out concept belief_2, then they wouldn’t get so mad. After all, they’d presumably be happy the doctor believed them!
Here’s what Scott should say. The patients are making two separate claims. Claim 1 is about being in pain, which you should believe. Claim 2 is about the pain’s origin, which you shouldn’t necessarily believe. The patient, if he were rational, would realize he’s mad that the doctor doesn’t believe claim 2 and that his anger has nothing to do with whether the doctor believes claim 1. After all, the doctor DOES believe claim 1! So Scott is not using belief_2 at all. Rather, you’ve simply made a reasoning mistake by inferring from “patient mad at doctor” to “doctor doesn’t believe claim 1.”
That’s a very cleaned up version of the dialectic. The real thing is full of nonsense, like Scott’s bizarre complaints about how you use norms. Here’s why Bayesians shouldn’t get their panties in a knot over epistemic norms.
Even Bayesians want want to treat like cases alike, and you’re arguing that spoonies are relevantly similar to jhana, or at least close enough that our credences should be similar. When you argue for a norm, you’re not claiming it to apply everywhere. You’ve ALREADY argued that spoonies and jhana people are relevantly similar. The norm is meant to apply only to whatever group of people contains both and is epistemically at issue. And Scott implicitly admits that the cases seem to be analogous. So he really shouldn’t have beef with the norms stuff.
I do think, however, that your move to attribute an off base definition of belief to Scott doesn’t work for the reasons I outlined above. What you should’ve argued was that Scott’s assessment of what percentage of people are simply full of shit is just wrong. Or you could’ve argued that jhana is even more likely to be full of shit, since it presumably requires involves more complicated neural mechanisms than psychosomatic pain.
I think you can probably tell that I think highly of your thinking and work and want you to do well. From your POV, I am just another internet guy, so why should you give a shit about my views of your writing? Fair enough. It’s easy to ignore if you want. With that said, I have a couple of writing comments that I think would benefit your prose, coming from a philosophy PhD student.
I understand that you were pressed to get this article out quickly. The conversation moves on otherwise. But this piece needed a LOT more editing or to be organized very differently. It needed some understandable jargon instead of all the hyphenated words. It needed a concise reconstruction of Scott’s argument all in one place. It needed you to point where you identified which of Scott’s premises you objected to. This piece was structured as an “omg a big famous dude attacked me and was kinda unfair, let me defend myself.” I do think he misread you at various points, especially with the baseball example. But writing a piece explicitly designed to defend the merit of your previous one came at a huge cost to readability and credibility. Even if Scott wanted to engage again with your ideas, he couldn’t, because this isn’t written clearly enough. This isn’t entirely your fault, because Scott’s piece wasn’t much clearly or better organized. At no point did either of you lay out exactly what the key points of issue were. It led to a muddy back-and-forth. I believe that focusing on the arguments themselves and trying to make them very explicit would work wonders.
For what it is worth, I don't think this is too long at all.
Your point on lying reminds me of Swift's Gulliver's Travels with the... horse people... who don't know what lying is, and refer to it as saying a thing which is not so. (Or something to that effect.) That seems to pretty closely match your sense of lie, mine as well. Maybe it is a bit better to consider it merely misleading if they don't mean to lie, but I think it is fair to expect affirmative action to make sure what you are saying is not incorrect or misleading in that way. I can't tell what someone's intent is all the time, but if they say something that is not so the effect is the same for most purposes. Communication requires effort on both sides, and someone who doesn't care if they say what they mean is as troublesome as a liar, because you can't even predict when they will tell you the false thing.
My biggest beef with Scott, which is slightly your fault, too, is that he didn't focus on what you meant. Sure, ok, RC uses the examples of Spoonies and DID kids as evidence of people lying about their internal states, and Scott says "No no! Those are actually bad examples!" That only ends the discussion if one can't think of any other case where people knowingly lie about their internal states, or abilities reach internal states, to others. I have an extremely hard time believing Scott, a mental health professional, has not run across instances where people lie about their internal states. No Munchausen's? No one lying on intake forms? No kids, in general? No one claiming to have a wonderful relationship that is obviously a giant mess they are trying to cover up?
It seems to me that Scott is unfair, probably knowingly so, in not saying "Ok, those are bad examples, but I see what you mean: people often do lie or at least exaggerate their internal states to get things from other people, such as approval or admiration, just like they may lie to cover up an embarrassing internal state, like a bad marriage." I think you, RC, did get pulled in a little arguing those examples instead of saying "Ok, fine, bad examples, but what about _____?"
Still, the outcome of sorting out the different meanings of lie and belief seems worthwhile!
EDIT:I slipped into an odd 3rd person construct there... tried to clarify that some.
An intelligent back and forth between two individuals who mutually respect each others opinions and sincerely disagree... Substack is kind of the best! Really enjoyed the read, I feel like this argument tends to fall in your favor for the broad strokes, and Scott's favor for the specific ones. So I guess you both kind of succeeded in your arguments?
A brief word on your last few paragraphs; don't be fooled like the rest of the world seems to be. Trust is not always generous, nor is skepticism always cold. Both are immensely good when placed correctly, and immensely bad when placed incorrectly. Deserved skepticism is a virtue, not a flaw. Undeserved trust should be outcast.
No prize short of Truth itself lies in distinguishing the two.
You're clearly a smart, thoughtful person, and you can do better than this. I think I'm going to have to unsubscribe, if I can't come to a better conclusion than "RC is in this for the clicks and eyeballs, not for the good-faith discussion."
re 10: https://www.cochrane.org/CD006380/SYMPT_drugs-treat-phantom-limb-pain-people-missing-limbs Sometimes not only do we prescribe drugs to treat people with psychosomatic illness, but they also work, at least for a while.
More usefully, I don’t think the big disconnect here is about what the word “lie” means. It’s more about what the word “believe “ means.
I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.