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No Free Lunch

Knowledge, wisdom and peace

/ 05:18 AM January 18, 2019

Sometimes, we economists act like we had all the answers. That’s also often true with experts from other disciplines. For economists, it’s as if everything boiled down to a cost-benefit analysis, and all concerns about human existence could be translated into measurable value reckoned in dollars and cents.

There’s nothing like interacting closely with a diverse group of minds from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds and realms of experience, to humble one into realizing how little he knows and understands about how the world we’re in works.

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I’m in Yangon, Myanmar, for a two-week gathering of students and experts coming from various parts of the world, as faculty member in an “Experimental Winter School” leading to the establishment of a University for Life and Peace (ULP) to be located here. I’m probably learning as much from this gathering of diverse minds as the students are. Fields of expertise in the assembled faculty span neuroscience and psychology, physics, biology, economics and business, education, philosophy, theology, history and religions, and more. Even more wide-ranging are the backgrounds of the 25 students, all of them young people engaged in or having just completed postgraduate studies.

For many of us gathered here, this experience is unprecedented, of being among such diverse scholarly minds in an intimate setting that permits closer interaction and intellectual exchange than is normally possible across disciplines. Such diversity is not unusual in large conference settings with hundreds of participants, and I’ve been through many in my professional career. Many conferences, large or small, gather people who share similar interests, intellectual pursuits, and/or fields of expertise.

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But this Yangon gathering is different. It’s assembled for the noble, if ambitious, mission of spearheading positive change worldwide, via the establishment of the ULP as venue for the sharing and exchange of global knowledge, and harnessing it toward achieving a world free of division, deprivation and destruction.

The project was initiated by Taiwan-based and Myanmar-born Buddhist leader Dharma Master Hsin Tao; he and his Ling Jiou Mountain Buddhist Society have quietly but surely been putting together the building blocks toward his grand vision. To be sure, he is just one among many spiritual leaders around the world pursuing the same dream. But he has already tangibly achieved so much on the mission he has so relentlessly pursued that it’s hard not to share his confidence and be infected by his determination.

Key building blocks already in place are a growing group of diverse believers, scholars, supporters and benefactors from different countries, religions and disciplines, among whom I now count myself. Also among the tangible steps toward his dream is a Museum of World Religions now in place in Taiwan, along with a series of interfaith dialogues it has been fostering.

Turning back to economics and economists, the intellectual arrogance with which we often flaunt our discipline sometimes borders on the level of religion. But the economist’s fundamental premise of utility- and profit-maximizing homo economicus as an inherently selfish being, for whom more is always better, is finally changing with the discipline’s marriage with psychology and cognitive science. The new field of behavioral economics, which won the Nobel Prize for its proponent Richard Thaler, accepts that there is much more to human economic behavior than traditional economics cares to explain.

Here in Yangon, I’ve listened to a physicist explain how our common notion of time is illusory, given relativity and principles of quantum physics. I’ve learned of neuroscientists’ observations on the human brain showing identical responses to certain stimuli across people from seemingly contrasting religions. I’ve listened to a scholar on world religions expound on four noble truths from Buddhism that have universal applicability. And more.

I’m convinced that the unending quest for knowledge, wisdom and peace would best move forward if we, as in the timeless John Lennon song, imagine a world without barriers—and work in our own respective spheres toward achieving it.

cielito.habito@gmail.com

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