An evolutionary perspective on the jhanas

I’m reading Donald Hoffman’s incredibly interesting book The case against reality: why evolution hid the truth from of eyes, and I couldn’t help drawing parallels to the practice of Jhana in Buddhism.

The main question of the book is: do our perceptions reflect objective reality?

For example, when we see a red apple, is there actually a red apple there, even when we close our eyes?

Many philosophers have attempted to answer that question. Some conclude yes, others conclude no. The difference is that Hoffman uses evolutionary theory to answer the question. Not just evolutionary theory in general, but the mathematical formalization of evolutionary theory.

According to the mathematics of evolution, the answer is no. It’s almost an impossibility that our perceptions reflect anything of objective reality. Our perceptions are just shiny eye candy that helps us stay alive and procreate.

However, the math also shows there are some extremely rare situations where our perceptions can reflect objective reality.

According to Hoffman, perception has a chance to reflect objective reality if the perception is 1) really simple and 2) the fitness payoffs only increase (or decrease. Math speak: the fitness functions are monotonic).

This is the juicy part that IMO relates to the Jhanas.

1) Simple perceptions

What is meant by ‘simple’ is actually the amount of information (measured in bits) of the perception. Consider a single photo receptor (we have millions of them in our eyes) that gives a perception of ‘white’ when a photon hits it and ‘black’ when photons do not hit it.

This perception encodes one bit of information, since it has only two states, black or white. Therefore it is ‘simple’ in the mathematical sense.

2) Fitness payoffs only increase

Most fitness payoffs follow the the Goldilocks principle. E.g. oxygen, too little and we die. Too much, we die. Water is the same, too little or too much will kill us. There is a sweet spot of oxygen and water that is just right, where we feel happy and thrive.

If we take food for example, the fitness payoffs of food are not always increasing. It’s not the case that the more we eat, the better we feel. If you eat, there comes a time when you’re full, and you don’t want to eat more. You’ve reached the peak fitness payoff. Eating more will make you feel nauseous. If you push it you will feel really unwell from overeating.

A fitness payoff that only increases would mean you only feel better the more you get of it. You never come to the point where it’s “too much of a good thing.”

Relation to the jhanas

It seems to me that (some accounts of) the jhanas fit really well with 1) simplicity and 2) increasing payoffs.

For example, Ajahn Brahm talks about the jhanas as extremely simple perceptions. When the five sense are shut off, that amounts to eliminating a lot of perceptual information. There is only a single object of perception which is bliss (i.e. it’s a ‘simple’ perception in the mathematical sense).

Moreover, the payoffs are always increasing. For example, in suttas like an9.34 each jhana is described as successively more blissful than the preceding jhana.

When it comes to the peace and bliss of meditation, there is no Goldilocks zone. It’s not that some peace and bliss is good, but if you get too much peace and bliss you get nauseous and you need to take a break. The more peace and bliss the better.


According to the mathematics of evolutionary theory, only certain types of perceptions are capable of reflecting objective reality. These perceptions are characterized by simplicity (they encode only a small amount of information) and monotonic payoffs (more is better, less is worse, there’s no sweet spot).

Some accounts of the jhanas seem to be congruent with this result of the (mathematical) theory of evolution. That is, some descriptions of jhana experiences describe simple perceptions with monotonic payoffs.

The suttas say that these jhana-perceptions allows one to see things as they really are (e.g. an10.2). The (mathematical generalization of the) theory of evolution implies that these type of jhana perceptions are the only ones that can reflect objective reality.

That’s cool! At least I think so :slight_smile:


Obviously what I’ve written here doesn’t prove anything. I’m just speculating, and I thought it was interesting enough to share :nerd_face:

Working from home and being inside almost all day due to country-wide corona shutdown also makes it easier to write long posts like this. Don’t take it too seriously :crazy_face:


That’s a really nice idea, thanks for sharing. I think the evolutionary perspective is really useful, although as always we should avoid taking it to reductionist extremes.

It’s definitely the case that perception (in the Buddhist sense of saññā) is conditioned to meet evolutionary needs. We assess super-quickly things like “edible or inedible”, “deer or saber-tooth tiger”, “suitable reproductive partner or nah?”

Experience is busy and confusing, and perception does the hard job of preparing an executive summary so that consciousness is not overwhelmed.

The deeper we go into meditation, the simpler things become, and the less need for pre-processing.

In jhana, unity has a number of implications:

  • there is only mind-consciousness,
  • that mind-consciousness is aware of only one thing
  • the thing that consciousness is aware of is simple
  • there is also unity in time: things stay the same and change is suspended

All that means is that “perception” has to do very little work, but can basically pass everything directly to viññāṇa. And yep, that’s exactly what it means to see things as they are.


I think his book is awesome too, but to me it seems to suffer from a couple of weaknesses. First, the reasoning process and mathematics he uses to reach his conclusions are also part of the “windows desktop”, that is to say, they are calibrated for survival and not for truth finding. He doesn’t solve that problem to my satisfaction in the book. Second, he seems to be arguing for some sort of idealism, where the foundation of reality is consciousness. I do not think such a foundation can be found.

I like that he challenges the naive realism that is so popular in modern culture, though, and he is very good at it in my opinion. For anyone interested, His TED-talk about the subject is here:

A long interview with sceptic Michael Shermer is here:

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In the spirit of "too much time on my hands’ :wink: … I don’t think it works like that…

In most sensory systems, activation of a receptor by the appropriate stimulus causes the cell membrane to depolarize, ultimately stimulating an action potential and transmitter release onto the neurons it contacts. In the retina, however, photoreceptors do not exhibit action potentials; rather, light activation causes a graded change in membrane potential and a corresponding change in the rate of transmitter release onto postsynaptic neurons. Indeed, much of the processing within the retina is mediated by graded potentials, largely because action potentials are not required to transmit information over the relatively short distances involved.

From Phototransduction - Neuroscience - NCBI Bookshelf



MN121:11.4: ‘Even this signless immersion of the heart is produced by choices and intentions.’
MN121:11.5: They understand: ‘But whatever is produced by choices and intentions is impermanent and liable to


Edit: Looking at my original post I can see that I worded it in a confusing way.

I agree it doesn’t work like that for humans. It’s a hypothetical example to illustrate what is meant by simple in this context.

Like, how would you think about the complexity of a perception in a mathematical, abstract way? One way is to use bits as a measure.

The argument made by Donald Hoffman is completely without reference to human biology. It’s an argument based only on the abstract, mathematical mechanics of evolution.

But it’s hard to make sense of without reading the book; posts like this one (the OP) is what you get when you put someone in corona quarantine, what can I say :sweat_smile:

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According to the framework (the way I understand it), it’s the case that fitness payoff are experienced by us as painful or pleasant feelings.

So pleasure = fitness, pain = non-fitness

So the idea is that since jhanas are experienced as ever increasing pleasure, the fitness payoffs of jhana perceptions must be (monotonically) increasing.

The fitness payoffs don’t have to reflect actual survival or reproduction. For example, pornography is a way for many to experience the fitness payoff of reproduction (pleasure) without any actual reproduction. Movies give us the fitness payoff (pleasure) of some aspects of social interaction without any social interaction, etc.

This was a mathematical requirement for perceptions to reflect (any kind of) objective reality according to Hoffman’s theory.

It’s very abstract! :nerd_face:

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This is a stumbling block for me too. When I perceive a concept in the mind, surely I am experiencing a data structure that is created ad hoc, just like every other perception is (according to Hoffman’s theory)?

A parallell to Buddhism is perhaps the Noble Eightfold Path, which is constructed (it’s a sankhara), yet it leads to the end of all sankharas. IIRC the simile is that of a raft built to cross a river.

Another example is in dn9, where a main idea is that the perceptions that ultimately lead to liberation are created through training. So maybe, even thought our minds are mostly geared towards worldly survival and reproduction, if we know the right tricks we can hack our minds to create perceptions that lead to liberation?

A lot of the Buddhist path seems to be about giving up the worldly stuff that is very much tied up in survival and reproduction.

Here’s another thought for you (I’ve had too much coffee today for sure :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: ). Hoffman’s theory is about evolution. His result states perceptions that preserve any of the structure of an objective reality have no chance of evolving, because they get out-competed by perceptions that only care about fitness.

If we now look at our minds as a petri dish where perceptions are constantly being created and evolving, we could do as the Buddha did in mn19 and actively select for perceptions connected with “renunciation, good will, and harmlessness”.

In a sense, we would be taking control over the evolution of our minds, which is a cool way to think about mental purification IMO.

If we look at the Buddhist path as a whole, we could look at it as a process of evolution; just like a strain of E.coli can learn to digest a new type of organic acid through evolution, perhaps our minds can evolve new perceptual abilities (e.g jhanas)?


You don’t know light until you’ve seen dark.

You don’t know what it means to have eaten until you’ve been hungry.

You can’t see impermanence without seeing permanence.


So are you saying that the Jhanas are permanent?

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I’m saying that in the experience of jhanas, time is suspended.

Time is an inference drawn from our memory of changes in consciousness. When consciousness doesn’t change, there is no time.

Obviously from an external point of view the experience is impermanent, whether from the viewpoint of some other person, or of oneself in later reflection.

But it is, I believe, the reifying of these experiences that is called the “eternal now” and other such ideas in metaphysical religions.


This is where I really like Ajahn Brahms description of Samadhi as Stillness. One gets progressively more still, until there is no movement to be discerned… = no time


Thanks Bhante :anjal:

When time is suspended, what would that make of memorizing previous lives? a genuine insight or mere hallucination considering that both operate in time?

Something that doesn’t happen in jhana per se.

I mean, it’s possibly a distinction without a difference, but it you’re sitting there thinking, "hey, I used to be a cowboy in my past life! :cowboy_hat_face: " then I wouldn’t consider that a jhana.

Rather, I would say that as the “eternal now” of jhana dissolves, the full extent and experience of time comes back and is revealed in ways you hadn’t imagined.


In simple cases, like this (precluding extreme cases like hallucinations and such), I think the Buddhist answer is yes (the apple is actually there even when we close our eyes). I don’t think Buddhism rejects that there is objective reality; it just seems to reject that ordinary perception of reality is 100% accurate, which seems to agree (to some degree, but not completely) with the evolutionary perspective.

I think the Buddhist perspective does claim that ordinary perception isn’t entirely accurate, but it also claims that the mind can be developed to the point where ordinary perception could become extraordinary perception. To the degree that a mind is developed, to that degree it seems capable of seeing objective reality.

I would also argue that jhanas alone are not sufficient to see objective reality. The jhanas only make up the last of the eight parts of the eightfold path - developing the entire noble eightfold path as a whole seems necessary to see things as they really are/objective reality/ultimate or objective truth/the truth of dukkha/etc.

This relationship seems really interesting though! I don’t think I ever saw such a relationship between evolutionary biology and Buddhism, this was thought-provoking for sure.

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It’s one of the arguments of the Vedantists against the Anattā doctrine. :eyes:

who is the witness to these arising of dependent elements? Who/what is the witness to the flux? Against what the flux is not static? If you are moving in a train at the same speed with another train, you will see both trains as stationary. A perception of speed requires comparison with a stationary object. Likewise, perception of flux requires a changeless object for measure of standard. Who/What is that?

But obviously, I assume you’re talking about Nibbāna. I find it hard to see how Nibbāna can have only one of the trilakkhanas (anattā) and not the other two. :thinking:

Edit : I just saw you were talking about the jhanas :smile: :sweat_drops: my question remains. How can a phenomenon not have certain trilakkhanas (here anicca) and have others (dukkha and anattā)? Are you sure that time stops and that there’s some kind of permanence in the jhanas? Isn’t there rather an alteration of memory and perception of time?


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Any particular suttas which you take to support this view?

I haven’t really read the suttas with this question in mind, but my own impression is that the suttas don’t articulate any clear position on this or makes a point out of it.

Please elaborate if you feel like it :slight_smile:

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Very good question.

I don’t base it off any specific discourse, but more so based on my current understanding from how much of the Dhamma-Vinaya that I have read so far. That being said, I looked up something based on what came to mind and I came up with: Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon /
Ādittapariyāya Sutta.

Take one particular case (visual system):

So the eye is impermanent, forms are impermanent, eye -consciousness is impermanent, eye -contact is impermanent, whatever feeling arises with eye-contact as condition—whether pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant—that too is impermanent.

These four are mentioned: eye, forms, eye-consciousness, eye-contact.
Eye-contact (probably known more simply as “sight”) seems to be what occurs when eye, forms, and eye-consciousness co-occur/come together.

Thus, eye-contact and forms are considered distinct and separate.
I.e. that which is seen and the sight/seeing of that object is considered distinct.
From this, I infer that the Buddha acknowledges that that which is seen does/can exist.

What he seems to reject is the view that such an object has “existence” (or even “non-existence”) (not to mention “permanence,” etc.) as an inherent, intrinsic, innate quality.
I.e. it doesn’t always exist, nor does it always not exist - both are conditional.
When the conditions on which its existence depends does exists, the object does exist.
When the conditions on which its existence depends doesn’t exists, the object does not exist.

To say that our external reality does not actually exist would be to veer to other extreme of “external objects always exist” into the view “external objects never exist” or “always doesn’t exist” ).

This view is known in western philosophy as solipsism, I think, or some philosophy related to this.

Solipsism is the philosophical idea that only one’s mind is sure to exist. As an epistemological position, solipsism holds that knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is unsure; the external world and other minds cannot be known and might not exist outside the mind.

I do not think such philosophies would find support in Buddhism though as the Buddha seems to acknowledge the (conditional) existence of external objects (form, scents, sounds, etc.), which somehow relates to your initial post in that this seems to be one case in which science (perhaps excepting few sub-disciplines) and Buddhism seem to agree - that the external world exists. If there was not external world, the endeavor of science would be futile.

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We can only experience time as a perception. Perception, like all conditioned phenomena, is dependent upon clinging. This is why time fades in jhāna. Less clinging means less perception means less sense of time. Culminating in cessation of all three.

Anyway, the idea that there is an objective reality that we can perceive strikes me as a very un-Buddhist idea. Because if you are perceiving, you are clinging. (At least that’s the viewpoint that gets us to awakening.) Sounds a bit unreliable, no?

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