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Consciousness, Evolution, and Morality with Robert Wright



Robert Wright is a journalist and the best-selling author of Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information, The Moral Animal, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, The Evolution of God, and Why Buddhism is True. He has edited for Time and Slate and has written for The New Yorker, The Huffington Post, and New York Times Magazine, among others. He is a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary and the founder of the Nonzero Foundation, as well as a director of Bloggingheads.tv and MeaningofLife.tv, where you can watch him discuss the big questions with other intellectuals. In this podcast, Bob talks about the trajectory of his interests, as well as the relationships between evolution, morality, and consciousness.


APA citation: Cazzell, A. R. (Host). (2020, March 3). Consciousness, Evolution, and Morality with Robert Wright [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.ambercazzell.com/post/msp-ep29-RobertWright


Note: This transcript was generated automatically. Please excuse typos and errors.


Robert Wright (01:20):

I had a column called the information age and publisher and editor in New York publishing house. Wrote me a letter and we had lunch in that he wound up being my my editor for three scientists and their gods. I was interested. So that book is a lot about different aspects of the information, information technology and information science. And I had just gotten deeply interested in that. The digital revolution was just starting to happen. The, you know, I wrote that book on the first computer. I ever owned a Kpro 2. And actually the first, the first computer that like came with a monitor and a keyboard. I had had a commodore 64, but we won't get into that. The and so I was really getting interested in the various issues raising, you know, ranging from information, actual information theory to the social implications of information technology and even the possibility that maybe the, the, the basic fabric of the universe was digital.


Robert Wright (02:34):

The first, that book, that book consisted of three profiles punctuated by essays. And the first profile was a better guy named Ed Fredkin, who was at MIT and had a theory of so-called digital physics according to which the universe was in some sense a computer. And, and that has had other people have Steven Wolfram who has since I think maybe written a whole book about that, that, that, that's kind of shown up periodically that idea, anyway, I was interested in the information age and information science. That was the unifying theme, although one of the three, I mean the two other people I profiled got while allowing me to sustain the theme of information in in some sense or another. Also connected to other issues that I'm interested in and have gotten interested in and have been interested in since. One was a profile of EO Wilson.


Robert Wright (03:28):

Of course, coined the term sociobiology which we now we now call what he would call human sociobiology, evolutionary psychology. The third guy was a Quaker economist named Kenneth Boulding, who allowed me to get into a lot of issues of kind of the direction of human history, how technological evolution shaped that. And what kinds of philosophical questions that raised, including questions of purpose and including the possibility that maybe there's the unfolding of a purpose through human history. So there were a lot of dimensions to that book in a certain sense. I haven't raised any fundamentally new issues since then. I mean, my, my books, my, my, I think all of my subsequent books in a certain sense pick up on one or another of the issues that, that were in that book.


Amber Cazzell (04:27):

Yeah, that's fascinating. I can definitely hear the foundations of your other books in what you've just said. So the next one that you write is the moral animal and this one. So for those who are listening who aren't familiar with the moral animal, this is a book that essentially talks about the evolution of different morality, just the moralities that we have and a lot of different spheres of life. So there's a section on sexual morality, a section on familial morality and it's just a fascinating book. And then it's also delightful because it incorporates Darwin's own life stories and examples of these moralities playing out in Darwin's life, which is fun. And I think that that's fascinating. I think the endeavor in the first place of trying to understand and root morality from an evolutionary framework has clearly been extraordinarily influential in a number, in a number of big thinkers today. So you, you came from a religious background, you said, and you started to question that as a teenager and kind of moved from that. Would you consider yourself now to be a naturalist or a physicalist in your thinking about these issues?


Robert Wright (05:51):

I think I'm a naturalist. Yes, very much. The I, you know, I remain a, you know, pretty hardcore Darwinian a naturalist. The only reason I, I, I might hesitate to call myself a physicist or materialist is because I when it comes to consciousness, I guess I'm what is called a mysterion. I, I think it's a profoundly mystifying question why we have subjective experience and so on. And what the relationship is of that experience to what we think of as the physical world. I, I, I'm certainly not, I'm certainly not in a limited, what is it, eliminative physicalist or materialist in this sense, you know, the people who, who, who are kind of arguing the consciousness doesn't exist in a certain sense. I think it's, it's, it's something that deserves its own word and is, is mysterious, but, but so, so but the other, the other reason I'm not totally, I guess a physicalist is I had a conversation with a Princeton philosopher, Gideon Rosen, about this not long ago that you can get on YouTube among other places, but, well, why don't I go ahead and plug my podcast on The Wright Show to the, but and you know, there's also the fact that as we've, as physicists have dug down to deeper and deeper levels, it's less and less clear that what's at the bottom is something that we would, the corresponds very closely with what we intuitively, you know, mean when we think of the physical.


Robert Wright (07:35):

So does that too. But anyway, I'm a Darwinian. I don't, in terms of explaining human behavior, I don't I, I do not bring in any I stick with a strictly scientific framework. And and, and yeah.


Amber Cazzell (07:56):

Yeah. It's interesting because over the past, you know, 30 or so years in, in moral psychology really kind of blossoming. I, I had, I've been really fortunate to speak with a number of really cool scholars and one of the conversations I really enjoyed was with the anthropologist Richard Shweder and he has sort of these, this theory of ethical pluralism and it influenced his, his later student Jonathan Haidt to go on and kind of structuring, create moral foundations theory as we currently know it. I'm assuming you're familiar with moral foundations theory, but perhaps


Robert Wright (08:37):

Roughly. Yeah, I know Jon a little and I mean I, well you to make sure I'm on the right wavelength. So he, I mean, the most common application of it you read about is in kind of a shedding some light on ideological disposition, right? Like, like we have these like these dimensions that are very important. Like how much emphasis we put on things like purity and fairness and authority. If you, I, I guess he's, he's of the view that if you look at how people stand, where people sit on these various dimensions, that's going to help predict their ideology. That's the application I'm familiar with.


Amber Cazzell (09:17):

Yeah. Yeah, that's, that's totally correct that he, that's this idea that we have different sort of moral tastebuds sometimes they're called and that different people emphasize different ones and that can cause ideological conflicts in the political realm and in other areas. But politics is kind of an easy one to point to and, and see that at work and, but, but anyway, I've gotten a little bit off track. The point I was trying to make is that it was, it was kind of Jonathan Haidt that first started to really try to ground this idea of, of intuition ism as a product of this deep evolutionary history that has sort of given us these moral tendencies that we have now. And so he really, in psychology represented somebody who grounded morality in an evolutionary framework of sorts. And they're sort of mixed opinions about this because, you know, a lot of people will say, okay, well, just because it evolved doesn't mean it's moral.


Amber Cazzell (10:19):

And even in the moral animal, you go into lots of examples of, you know, people operating by these, by these seeming moral algorithms of sorts that people or animals will cheat sort of these predictable situations and crossroads. And there's a sort of a balancing point between how many people are faithful in their sexual relationships if they're monogamous and how many people are not and, and things like this that are, that are quite provocative. And so when it comes to grounding things in an evolutionary framework, it's interesting to me to think about morality as a product of evolution. And I'm not sure that that is necessarily where you're coming from, but I'm wondering about that because it seems like evolution has produced both behaviors we consider moral and behaviors we consider immoral.


Robert Wright (11:17):

Yes, yes, it certainly can. I certainly do think that morality is productively understood. I well morality. What do I mean? I mean, you know, the whole moral, you know, realm of the moral consideration of things. Is, is kind of, and behaviors is best understood as a either well product or byproduct of evolution? I mean, I think, you know, the, the, I would just say Darwinism is one of the main illuminating factors in understanding it. Not, not the only thing you need to think about. I think John and I agree on that. John Haidt. I mean, I, I'm, I, I don't know enough about moral foundations theory to know if I buy into that. I'm aware of a couple of recent papers that have kind of raised questions about its empirical foundation. And I don't know, I don't know how penetrating they are or aren't, but, but the, the broader question of you know, absolutely, I think our moral, our fundamental moral intuitions by which I mean ones that you find so far as I know in every culture are, are products of natural selection in some sense.


Robert Wright (12:33):

And you know, even some, even some intuitions that may vary from culture to culture can be well understood with the help of a Darwinian framework. But I mean, if you, if you just take something like the intuition that well and just to stop and, and, and first and, and, and, and, yeah, put a punctuation after the point you made. Yeah. It's, it's certainly not the case that whatever is natural is good. It's, it's not the case that that because a, a moral intuition is an evolved one. It should be respected. If anything, I might think the opposite. I mean, I mean, you know, because a lot of times the alternative hypothesis is that a moral intuition has been implanted by an all knowing and benevolent God. Well if instead, as I believe our moral intuitions are products of natural selection than what they've been implanted by is this really kind of strange process that values genetic proliferation above everything else.


Robert Wright (13:45):

And certainly we know, gives rise to lots of behaviors that we don't morally approve of. And it gives rise to a number of human inclinations that I think we have a right to be skeptical of like aggression under, you know, violence under certain circumstances. And, and so I think, you know, the, to take seriously the idea that our moral intuitions are products of natural selection is, is to take seriously the idea that we need to subject him to really a harsh scrutiny top to bottom and ask if they're defensible. The, I, I mean the one that I feel sure is an evolved intuition is the, the intuition that good deeds should be rewarded and bad deeds should be punished. When I say I feel sure, I mean 99.99, I mean, I don't think science ever tells us anything for sure, but with, with a high percentage of confidence I think that's an intuition that, that was given to us by natural selection. And I, and I think deserves to be appraised with skepticism. That isn't to say we up projecting her that it's not useful. But I don't think it's, it's truth should be taken for granted.


Amber Cazzell (15:09):

Yeah. Yeah. I, and I, and I think I would have assumed that you were a physicalist in some way like we talked about earlier in some way. And that sort of helps me understand where you're coming from a little bit better because it, it seems like, well, if, If morality isn't purely like we, we can evolve these moral intuitions, but if we can also judge them and say that they are not necessarily good intuitions to have, then that implies that morality is rooted. At a deeper level in something beyond just natural selection. And I wonder is that you would mention that consciousness is, you're not really sure what to make of consciousness in light of evolution. Do you think that those two are potentially related? I guess I'm just trying to understand how you're thinking


Robert Wright (16:05):

Is that the question of consciousness is related to,


Amber Cazzell (16:09):

To the ability to say that we can evaluate, we can morally evaluate evolved moral intuitions. Does that make sense? Where I'm coming from? I don't know if I'm being very clear


Robert Wright (16:22):

I would say for my money, the existence of consciousness, which is just to say the existence of subjective experience, the fact that it is like something to be alive. Yeah.


Amber Cazzell (16:34):

Like, yeah, the experience of qualia.


Robert Wright (16:36):

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just, you know, Thomas Nagle's phrasiology is, you know what it is to believe something is consciousness is to believe that it is like something to be that thing. Well, we all can see, or speaking for myself, I can say for sure, it's like something to be me. I assume it's like something to be everybody else and like something to be a lot of animals and possibly other things. But the to me that fact, the fact of subjective experience is what gives morality moral questions, actual meaning. And it gives life meaning. I mean, if you imagine you know, a, a bunch of, I and I did this thought experiment in my book, three scientists and their gods, I, I got into this you know, this is in, in whatever, in the late eighties.


Robert Wright (17:27):

I got into this whole question of you know, imagine there could in principle be beings just like us who do what we do even speak. Because remember, although we think of ourselves as consciously processing language, you could in theory build a robot that would just sense my physical, the physical waves emanating from my mouth, respond appropriately without being conscious. That's possible in principle. So like, suppose there is a planet full of such beings. Another word, suppose that consciousness is a, is an epiphenomenon. And you, and suppose you could create beings that lacked it but still functioned as they do. Would it matter whether you destroyed that planet? Would it matter whether those, the creatures on that planet killed one another? I think most of us would say not because if there was no subjective experience on the planet like what does it matter?


Robert Wright (18:26):

You know, I mean and I think most of us, whether we think about or not, certainly utilitarian, certainly a lot of, you know, kind of consequentialist and, and I think most, most other kinds of moral thinkers do actually associate the, the very significance of moral questions with the fact that it's like something to be alive. So there's that relevance of consciousness to moral considerations generally. And I would say I would add that Oh, let's see how tangential I wanna seem to get here. But, but I mean, I would say, look, it's the fact that moral intuitions are a product of natural selection doesn't totally preclude the possibility of their emanating from some divine being in the sense that you could have a deistic view and say, well, it's a, it's a, it's some God set natural selection in motion or set the universe in motion and gave it physical properties that made natural selection likely to arise.


Robert Wright (19:33):

And you know, you, you could, you could say that. And if you wanted to ask, well, is there any, any reason to actually believe that the universe was created by such a being, you might actually point to the fact of consciousness because it's the fact that it is in the universe. To my mind makes the universe of meaningful place and, and the fact that there's no obvious reason for it to, to exist. I think from a scientific point of view, I personally think that people that in general theories about, Oh, here's why consciousness exists because it does this because there's, I think in general those are just, those are confused by my lights. I could be wrong, but but I think in general people who, who say, yeah, I've got it. Here's why consciousness exists as a rule, I think don't understand the profundity of the mind body problem.


Robert Wright (20:34):

And the, so I think we have to consider it pretty amazing that the universe is like that. I think it ranks right up there with the fact that something exists as an amazing thing. It's amazing that anything exists. And then it's amazing that there are these, there's the possibility of sensing exists. This exists subjectively. In other words, it's amazing that subject, subjective experience exists. So if you wanted to pause it, that there is not withstanding how kind of in some ways you know, draining of meaning Darwinism can seem, if you wanted to hope for there still being something maybe purposeful at the very bottom of the universe at the very foundation or something divine or something, whatever. I think the existence of consciousness is one thing you would, you would cite.


Amber Cazzell (21:32):

Yeah, the, the existence of, I mean I showing my cards here, I totally agree. I think the existence of consciousness is certainly not accounted for yet. And as a psychologist I see this bleed out into, into even these small things like saying, Oh well disgust like we have disgust because it helps us accomplish X or Y or Z evolutionary task better or something. But it's not, it's still, it feels like kind of what you said, it feels like it's missing the mind body. Like it's missing the problem of quality in the first place. Like we can, we can make a computer do something efficiently. That doesn't mean it's experiencing it and if it did, it doesn't necessarily mean it's going to help the computer do that task any better.


Robert Wright (22:21):

No, I agree. I mean I the the example I usually use it just, you know, when you, when your hand gets too close to a fire, you feel pain and you withdraw your hand. It's fine to speak as a kind of shorthand about pain being what caused you to withdraw. But the fact is if you're a real behavioral scientist of a mainstream sort, you believe, I think you should believe that in principle there is a strictly material account of what happened beginning with the, the effect that fire has on sensors at the, at your fingertips, right? Physical sensors sends physical stuff, it's in physical signals up your arm that eventually leads you to withdraw your hand. You can account for that in strictly physical terms and, and so too, whenever we use a word like I did that because I was afraid I did that because whenever we talk about subjective experience in a causal way, you know, I think if you really are a scientific materialist, you should think of that as a kind of convenient shorthand.


Robert Wright (23:20):

And, and, and think that in principle you could construct a strictly physical account of why the behavior happened. And if that's true, then it's pretty mysterious why subjective experience exists because apparently it has no actual role in the causal chain. Now that's one view of conscience. That's an EPA phenomenology of consciousness. But I've got to say that's the, all, all the alternatives to that are even weirder. You know, they, they, they, I mean the epiphenomenal is, you know, unless you flat out say consciousness doesn't exist then of all the views of consciousness, I think the EPA phenomenal list is the one that is kind of clearest, simplest to understand in a certain sense, most consistent with a scientific view of things. And yet it is, it's within a scientific, a worldview that it raises the most profound questions if I'm putting that right. I mean it, it just, if you are a scientific materialists and believe that consciousness exists, assuming that's not a contradiction of terms in itself, you've got to ask, you've got to appreciate deeply the weirdness of the existence of consciousness and be completely baffled by it I think.


Amber Cazzell (24:41):

Yeah. So as somebody who's written a book about the evolution of morality, who simultaneously believes that morality is somewhat irrelevant without consciousness w was it sort of that tension that led to your other books or do you continue to wrestle with that or do you feel comfortable with that?


Robert Wright (25:08):

Comfortable with the, you mean the tension between what and what and what?


Amber Cazzell (25:12):

Well, the tension between having provided this beautiful account of morality in purely evolutionary terms combined with the fact that it doesn't seem like evolution provides a satisfactory account of consciousness for you and that and that consciousness seems to be necessary for morality.


Robert Wright (25:31):

Yeah, that's an interesting, I've never put it in quite such challenging fashion myself. I mean, I do think evolution provides a satisfactory account of human behavior, which doesn't mean it's all in the genes, but in principle all behavior must be a product of in some sense, genes interacting with environment and according to, you know, and according to rules in the genes. And and so I do think it just to be clear that, that in principle evolution accounts for behavior the, I guess what would I say? I guess I'd say if we imagine a planet in which consciousness doesn't exist, then the books I wrote and books could still exist again. Because you know, when you can read a book and just the physical things, you know, bounce a photons, bounce off the page, enter your eyes and you know, you can, you could make book reading robots, I'm sure.


Robert Wright (26:43):

I'm sure near somewhere near where you live that's happening. The in that world, my book might be different cause I wouldn't dwell on the moral stuff so much cause it just wouldn't matter so much. I mean you would still, in other words, so evolution would, you know, would still account for why people favor kin, you know, why they're more likely to feel guilty about neglecting kin than they are to feel guilty about neglecting some randomly selected human. It's just that I wouldn't consider that fact a pressing moral factor. I w I wouldn't, I, I wouldn't, you know, dwell on the injustice of that or the lack of kind of moral optimality of that in some sense. And of course this gets into the fact that, I don't know how weird we want to get, but of course, once you, once you have language, I mean, even if you have an epiphenomenal account of consciousness. In other words, it's like its relationship to the physical stuff is like to the physical organ. The brain is like a shadow is has the relationship of my shadow to my hand when my hand moves and it shadow moves. Even if that's true, once you have self-reflection and language, then consciousness does start to influence things. Cause like you talk about it, we're talking, but this conversation would not happen if consciousness didn't exist. So. Right. I just throw that into further.


Amber Cazzell (28:11):

Yeah, there's like all these metal levels. Well, let's, I want to shift gears so we have some time to talk about non-zero and why Buddhism is true as well. So from the moral animal, why did you then write non-zero? Was that still kind of percolating from having written the three scientists and their gods and you wanted to return to that idea or was there something else that kind of sparked that after the moral animal?


Robert Wright (28:39):

Well, non-zero is kind of a fleshing out of the third part of three scientists and their gods moral animal was a fleshing out of the second part. So I had gotten into this question of how human history seemed to have a direction, at least in the sense of you know, reaching higher and higher levels of organization. You know, Hunter gatherer village chiefdom not to oversimplify the structure, there is local variation, but the fact is we have gotten from a world in which the most complex social organization is a Hunter gatherer village to a globalized world. And that seems to be not just a fluke or an accident, but the result of a kind of a basic direction that is impelled largely by technological evolution as it interacts with human nature and of course is produced by human nature and humans. Humans produce technology and then their social organization is shaped by it.


Robert Wright (29:40):

But so I wanted to look at how that happens. I developed a way of talking about it in terms of game theory, which was basically that you know, new technologies come along and they either facilitate the playing of non zero sum games with more and more people at greater distances or they encourage it. So I mean like you know, information technologies can facilitate the playing of non zero sum games at greater distances. Roman roads were in that sense, information technologies armaments can encourage the playing of non-zero sum games, of richer, more elaborate ones in the sense of encouraging like individual nations to cooperate internally more elaborately in order to be able to fight the war. So basically the argument is new technologies intensify the logic. Well they lead to bigger non-zero sum games over greater distances involving more and more people. And I, you know, I'd also been interested in the growth of biological complexity through natural selection. And so I argued that you could actually use the same basic framework to, to look at that, to, to see the growth from you know, individual cell to well or from prokaryotic and eukaryotic to multi-celled animal to society of multi-celled animal. You could, you could view this as in as some sense of growth of non zero sumness that had certain parallels to the cultural version I just described. And yeah, go ahead.


Amber Cazzell (31:30):

Oh, I was going to, did we talk about what non zero means just in case somebody's not familiar with game theory?


Robert Wright (31:37):

Yeah, I was wondering about that. I mean, I know you have a somewhat academic audience and these days, I mean, I think the terminology is more familiar than it was when I wrote the book, which is 19 years, 20 years ago. But yeah, it's basically just a game in which to simplify it, there can be a win, win or lose, come out lose, lose outcome. In other words, the sums of the fortunes of the players don't necessarily add up to zero. So in tennis, if you're playing singles, you're playing a zero sum game with the person on the other side of the net. If you're playing doubles, you're playing a highly non zero sum game with your partner because every point is going to be either good for both of your bad, for both of you. And, and so, yeah, I mean, non-zero some logic is the logic behind cooperation.


Robert Wright (32:32):

And even when it's not conscious cooperation, so our genes cooperate, that's presumably not a result of conscious reflection their part. Right? It's because natural selection selects genes that cooperate. And that act as if they understood the logic of cooperation. So anyway, non-zero applied that logic to both biological and cultural evolution as a, as a way of explaining how, and I've got to say, if you, if you, if you describe it in terms other than game theory, you can do that. And, and, and other people had kind of done it. So in that sense, there wasn't anything radically new about the book except using the language of game theory in a pretty ambitious fashion to look at this particular question. And then that the book, this led the, you know, by the end of the book I was basically looking at two things.


Robert Wright (33:34):

Where do we have to go? Where do we go from here in a political and social sense? And my argument was we need more in the way of, you know, international cooperation, global governance or else we could take a steep dive, which I got to say, given the last, not just a couple of years, but 10, 20 years seemed certainly not, not off the table, the steep dive scenario. But I also looked at questions of teleology, of purpose, you know, is is the direction of history, can that be taken as evidence that maybe the universe was created with a purpose? That the kind of physical unfolding of the algorithm that gave rise to the universe is in some sense a purposeful one. And and so on.


Amber Cazzell (34:19):

So non-zero is a book that I got like 80% through and then I didn't finish it. Not yet. Anyway, so I know what.


Robert Wright (34:30):

Now you know, what you missed and now I know what I did,


Amber Cazzell (34:32):

But what were your conclusions? What were your conclusions? How did you, what is your personal thinking about the teleology of the universe?


Robert Wright (34:42):

Well, I think much more than most people who share my fundamentally naturalistic views and my kind of pretty hardcore Darwinian orientation, more than almost everyone who shares those views. I think there is some reason to suspect that there could be a purpose unfolding, a purpose with a kind of a moral dimension. And again, I'm not talking about spooky forces guiding evolution, human history. I'm talking about the purpose being built into the algorithm that that natural selection is, and maybe the algorithm that more fundamentally gave birth to a universe in which natural selection eventually winds up happening. So that's, and I do think consciousness is, is one reason to not, not to to readily abandon the possibility that there is this kind of purpose. And I guess, you know, it's funny over the last few years a respectable, I mean, th th th this teleology stuff has gotten me in all kinds of trouble, you know, because first of all, people hear the word and are so appalled, you know, people of the kind that I've described are so appalled that they don't even want to, they can't bring themselves to actually pursue what you're saying enough to understand what it is.


Robert Wright (36:16):

It's just like you know, and so you know, like Steve Pinker, I have told him, I think I told him on my podcast, I think he's it's almost it's a, it's like the equivalent of a religious, what he would condemn as a religious reaction to something. It's so irrational. It's like, just hear the word and freak out and start attributing all of these things to people. And and so that's, it's been you know, because so it's like anathema the word. Yeah. And yet suddenly, and all of these kind of respectable circles, scientifically respectable circles, it's totally legit to speculate about whether we're living in simulation in a simulation. Well, folks, if we are living in a simulation, got news. It is a purposeful, it is a purpose by definition. If some intelligence, you know, I'm not saying we are, I'm just noting that there are, it's not considered quite crazy to talk about living in a simulation.


Robert Wright (37:26):

That's my understanding. I mean, even people who like laugh it off or like, okay, at least it's a scientific hypothesis because this simulation thing would operate according to rules and algorithms and stuff. So fine. It would be a scientific world. Well, that's what I was talking about, the universe being this scientific place run by physical algorithms and in a sense but it could still have a purpose. And I just think there's more, it's an inherently conjectural question. It's not like you're going to get to the bottom of it. You know, unless God rips open the veil and you know, says, okay mysteries over the but I think there's more evidence, I just think is more evidence to suspect such a thing than, than some people credit.


Amber Cazzell (38:16):

Yeah. Yeah. Well, and what I have taken away from your discussions of teleology is, is that it would be sort of an, an like an inevitability, like thinking about it as that evolution might unfold and sort of this inevitable way. And I think when a lot of people hear about teleology, they do imagine sort of as caricature of a God saying it's going to unfold this way at this hour, at this time, and it, and so it undermines the ability for people to really engage with this idea of inevitability.


Robert Wright (38:54):

Right. Well, I would say a couple of things. First of all, my, I do believe that the evolution of intelligent life was very likely on this planet, given enough time without the planet, like getting blown up. And that belief does figure in my speculations about purpose. But that's not to say the human species was ordained. You know, it's like I also believe automobiles, something like the automobile was bound to get invented sooner or later. Doesn't mean I thought Henry Ford would be like the big famous person, right? I mean, or, or that the United States would be the country that the United States would exist. You know, there can be certain functional things that are highly likely to evolve even in a highly contingent framework. And that's why Stephen J Gould's arguments against the likelihood of the evolution of intelligence were to a large extent just confused. He was just, he was just, you know, he, he thought that after he had shown that the human lineage could well have gotten wiped out, he, he seemed to think that that was the same as showing that intelligent life wouldn't have been likely to evolve. And, and it's, it's, it's not. So let's see. I was gonna say something else, but I don't I'm not intelligent enough form of life to remember.


Amber Cazzell (40:16):

I was just talking about how it seems like sometimes these characatures of a God might get in the way of, Oh, Oh,


Robert Wright (40:23):

Oh yeah. I know what I was gonna say. It could be Telio teleological without it being a conscious, intelligent being that created it. Because you know, the analogy would be organisms are in a meaningful sense. Purposive. Even Dan Dennett says, yes, organisms have a purpose imbued in them by natural selection. The purpose is to get genes in the next generation and then to do certain things that are subordinate to that. Like get nutrition and so and so. So that's the case of natural selection. A presumably unconscious process giving rise to something that in some sense has a purpose. Well, you can imagine specific scenarios that you know, cosmological natural selection scenarios where universes are giving birth to other universes that were where a likelihood of of where a universe where intelligent life is likely to evolve, could be the eventual product of, of many, many, many, many generations of natural selection among universes. We needn't dwell on this any further. You know, if you want to, if you want to see details you know, you can go to my conversation with Lee Smolan but who's, who came up with the idea of cosmological natural selection. He's a very smart physicist. But the point is, even even to, to say that maybe the universe is teleological isn't the same as saying maybe it was created by a conscious being, even though that is one way in theory purpose could be imbued.


Amber Cazzell (42:03):

Right? So, I mean, you had appointed, I, I watched your Ted talk on these I the, the ideas with nonzero, Mmm aye. You had pointed out like, okay, and even earlier in this conversation, this is a double edged sword. It could be win-win. It could be lose, lose. Like we, we could create, you know, a nuclear bombs and blow ourselves up and that's it. So, and then in that talk, you also mentioned that you think that there's a need for more whole progress in some sense. And I'm, I'm wondering, I don't, I, I'm probably projecting this onto you, but I wanted to ask if that need for moral progress as part of what sparked your interest in meditation and in Buddhism.


Robert Wright (42:55):

You know, maybe, I certainly think there's a connection. I mean, I, what got me interested in meditation, I'm really genuinely not sure. I mean, I went to college at a time when people were kind of interested in Eastern stuff. You know, this is the late seventies. So, you know, and so I tried it every once in a while. And in the ensuing years never really clicked. Finally, for whatever reason, I was curious enough to go to a a week long silent meditation retreat. I had never had my success meditating and that really just that week just put me into another zone. I was, it was amazing to me what a transformation of consciousness could be achieved by a week in silence and meditating. I think the curiosity that got me there wasn't so much about kind of how do we save the world. But I, I also think I now think that mindfulness meditation could be one tool that is used to increase the chances that the world gets saved. Because I don't know, I think it's a good way to erode what,


Robert Wright (44:12):

You know, you could, you could call the psychology of tribalism, by which I mean a bunch of different cognitive biases that can lead to conflict between groups. Whether the conflict is the kind we see in America and the political realm today, the political polarization, actual physical fighting between nations, between religious sects, whatever. And so I guess I, I, I do now see a connection between those, those two things. But, but not, I don't know whether, whether, whether my, my initial motivation and meditate had much to do with my, my, any kind of save the world impulse.


Amber Cazzell (45:01):

Yeah. Do you have a sense now for like what is, what is needed to, well, let me, let me step back a little bit here and ask the title of the book, why Buddhism is true, is a somewhat provocative title. So could you tell me about what you mean by that?


Robert Wright (45:26):

Yeah, I mean, the book starts with a disclaimer. You know, several things. I don't mean by the book. One thing I don't mean is that I'm talking about, I'm not talking about the so called religious parts of Buddhism. You know, more than a lot of Americans realize Buddhism in Asia as a full fledged religion, there's gods, there's good after life, a bad afterlife. How you behave in this world will determine what you get and so on. It isn't about, it isn't a defense of any of that. It's a defense of, you might say the psychology's a lot of the, the, the core psychological and philosophical doctrines of Buddhism. And also it's not an exclusivist claim. I'm not saying that no other spiritual or philosophical traditions are true. I'm just not opining on that. But you know, the basic, at the most basic level I guess I'd say the fundamental claim of Buddhism is the reason we suffer.


Robert Wright (46:32):

And the reason we cause other people to suffer is because we don't see the world clearly in some sense. So there's a kind of delusion that's almost built into us. It's certainly, it's with us from birth. And there are various ways of describing the core delusions in Buddhist terms. But you know, I I argue that in, in in, you know, in the shortest form, the answer to the question why is Buddhism true is, is because we are animals. I argue that natural selection built into us did delusions that that Buddhism rightly points to as a big problem and seeks to dispel. Hmm.


Amber Cazzell (47:36):

Interesting. And so do you continue to meditate? Do you practice meditation regularly? I do.


Robert Wright (47:42):

I'm right now doing 40 minutes or morning. And that's actually an improvement. I had kind of gotten a little careless and would, it would range from 20 to 30, 35 minutes a day. But lately I've been on a, a reform campaign.


Amber Cazzell (47:59):

And so what is it about seeing clearly in practicing meditation it's supposed to bring about like moral progress or change?


Robert Wright (48:14):

Well I mean, first of all, you know, meditation famously can kind of just calm you down and generally speaking being calm can keep you from committing various kinds of mistakes, including like sending an ill-advised email to somebody who really annoys you. But if you want to speak a little more deeply, I would say that I think, and there's, is actually not any data on this that I know of. I think data about meditation is hard to come by. In my book. I didn't cite a single meditation study cause I, you know, there are all these studies that say meditation does this good thing. And then there's there are, there's these meta analyses that say, well, benefits don't seem that great or they don't seem to exist at all from the beginning. I didn't want to, I didn't want to rest my you know, my case on, on, on those kinds of studies.


Robert Wright (49:15):

I think it's very hard to measure what you would hope meditation would change. I think you have some people doing this studies who have a kind of a commitment to meditation and that, you know, at an unconscious level can bias the results and so-and-so, I don't know about the data and I'm not even aware of experiments that have tried to look at the things that I think would be interesting to look at, which would involve the mindfulness meditation and the erosion of certain cognitive biases. So, I mean, let me give you a, an example of what I think is an underappreciated cognitive bias. I mean, a famous one is confirmation bias that may need no explaining, but it's just, you know being more aware of receptive to information, more likely to remember information that confirms your attitudes and your ideology, then you are to notice and remember evidence at odds with your attitude or ideology.


Robert Wright (50:18):

That's confirmation bias. That's pretty famous. There's a subtler, a cognitive bias that I think is under appreciated, which is attribution error. And this is a real, I think this is really a, I think D's two biases. If you're really eliminated them, I think you'd probably save the world. You know, I think if we can get everybody to rid themselves of these two, but not that I walk around all day free of them. I mean, you got, it's a constant struggle, but if you could I think it'd be a much better world attribution error. Originally they thought of it as when you explain people's behavior, having a tendency to overemphasize the, the role of personal disposition, in other words, the kind of person the person is and underemphasized circumstance or environmental consideration. So standing in line to check out at the pharmacy the person behind you is being rude, person in front of you is being rude to the clerk and you just infer that the person is a jerk, right?


Robert Wright (51:28):

That's what we normally do, right? That's a judgment we normally make. This person's a jerk more often than we probably realize the person just had a horrible day for all we know. They just found out they have a terminal illness we don't know. And originally attribution here was, it was the idea that we tend to overemphasize disposition and underemphasize circumstance in explaining people's behavior. But it turns out it's more complicated than that. It turns out that with our friends and our allies, it, it, it works like this. If they do something good and laudable, we're more likely to attribute it to their disposition. The kind of people they are, if they do something bad, we're more likely to explain it a way via circumstances. Oh, they've been under a lot of pressure at work. They didn't get their nap, whatever. If it's our enemies and rivals, it works in the other direction.


Robert Wright (52:24):

They do something good and we say, Oh, they're just, you know, trying to impress their peers blah, blah, blah. That's not the real them. You know, when our enemies and rivals, I mean, just imagine yourself. Suppose you have a romantic rival. I suppose. I really loved this woman and there's this guy, he's my rival. Well, if he does something good, I'm not going to say, I'm not going to go like, yeah, he's really a good guy. No, I'm, I'm not going to go like that is an aberration. He's a bad guy. I mean, you know, I'm joking, but I'm not, this is really there is this kind of tendency and I mean, moreover it's actually documented. So, and I just think this is this, this, this is a huge problem with the world. It means among other things that once people who want who were in favor of a war, succeed in framing the leader of the country, they went to invade as evil.


Robert Wright (53:15):

Well then it's over. The, the, the person can't get out of that box because if they do something good, we'll say, well, that's not the real them. And if you do something bad, we'll say the real them. So once you have successfully framed someone as a bad person, then it's hard to change people's minds. And it's hard to get them a two credit, for example. Any diplomatic overtures they might make, you know, no, it's a trick. It's blah, blah, blah. So there are all kinds of problems with this cognitive bias. I, I, in my own experience, I do think that when I'm being most faithful to my meditation practice, I am at least somewhat less likely to fall prey to both of these biases, both attribution error and it's in it's two basic manifestations and confirmation bias that that's my belief. I could be wrong.


Robert Wright (54:11):

I haven't done a study but at any rate, I do think I'm getting over attribution error or, you know, minimizing its role in human affairs would be a very good thing. Because if I can point to one, just one thing that I think the world needs more of, it's just more of a, not empathy in the sense of feeling their pain, although that can have its virtues, but cognitive empathy, the ability to just understand how people friends and enemies are processing the world, how the world looks to them, why they're doing what they're doing. Just understanding that I think could keep us out of a lot of trouble. And I think attribution error gets in the way of understanding that.


Amber Cazzell (54:56):

Yeah. Fascinating. That's really interesting. Well, so in just the last couple minutes here, before you go, I would love to hear about what you're kind of working on now. I know you've got blogging heads and I know you've got the meaning of life TV. Those are both awesome discussion podcasts that you all should check out. But I'm also wondering if there's anything in particular that you're working on as far as writing other books or just certain things that kind of keep you up at night?


Robert Wright (55:29):

Well, the the other main, the most time consuming thing for me right now is probably I'm putting out a newsletter called the non-zero newsletter and people can subscribe for free at non-zero dot org and in a way, I mean, that has evolved considerably to actually underwent a name change. And and it, it kind of in a way grew out of my Buddhism book, but it has a lot of politics in it. And and it has just some human psychology in it. And I think in a way I'm kind of using it, I'm kind of waiting to see where it goes or where I take it to kind of point me to my next book or, or I, you know, I have broadly in mind, I have what my next book is going to be relevant to. It's going to be relevant to this question of how you the world from spiraling downward as opposed to upward.


Robert Wright (56:28):

But that could range from a book about American foreign policy, which I think is it's been not very productive to say the least. To a book about the psychology that helps explain why in my view, American foreign policy has gone off the rails and why so many countries, foreign policies are not productive. So it could be a book about psychology. It could conceivably have more of a spiritual dimension. I genuinely don't know except you'll find all of these elements in, in the newsletter, but but the mix of them has changed a little over time and it continues to change. And all I can say for sure is that you know, if I write a book, which I hope to another book it will be relevant to that this larger question and I'll be, you know, trying to, you know, trying to at least modestly increase the odds of, of the non apocalyptic outcome.


Amber Cazzell (57:36):

Yeah. It's a, it's a super important question and a lot of people are, are, it's on everyone's minds these days. So I, I encourage that. I look forward to that book coming out at some point.


Robert Wright (57:49):

Okay. Well if you figure out exactly what the book should be, definitely email me.


Amber Cazzell (57:53):

Okay. I'll let you go. All right. Bob, thank you so much for chatting with me. I've loved this conversation. It's been a blast to get to talk to one of my favorite authors. So thanks again and I hope that this conversation was fun for you too.


Robert Wright (58:09):

Well, yeah, it's been a lot of fun. It's been a blast to hear somebody say I'm one of their favorite authors and and so, thanks.