Robert Wright is the New York Times bestselling author of The Evolution of God (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), Nonzero, The Moral Animal (named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review), Three Scientists and their Gods (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Why Buddhism Is True.
Robert has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Time, Slate, and The New Republic. He has taught in the psychology department at the University of Pennsylvania and the religion department at Princeton University, where he also created the popular online course “Buddhism and Modern Psychology.”
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Brian and Robert discuss:
- The power of ideas and Robert’s journey to becoming a journalist
- His advice for would-be professional writers
- The common thread in all of Robert’s work: evolutionary psychology and the study of cultural evolution
- How religion and government have evolved over time
- Why humans are who they are and do what they do
- Why different fields of science are all converging on the fundamentals of Buddhism
- The “illusion of self” and the latest renaissance of psychedelic theory
- Politics, protests, and a solution to tribalism
- And other topics
Robert Wright grew up as a military brat, often moving from state to state throughout his childhood, a formative experience that enabled Robert to discern cultural variation and the commonality of human nature at an early age. Robert gained confidence as a writer after being mentored by John McPhee during his time at Princeton University. Today, Robert writes about science, history, politics, and religion. Robert is an incredibly accomplished author whose writings have sparked a meaningful dialogue in the fields of evolutionary biology and neuroscience. Robert is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the widely respected Bloggingheads.tv, a visiting Professor of Science and Religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and is currently President of the Nonzero Foundation. To connect with Robert or to learn more about his philosophy, visit his website at www.NonZero.org.
Read the show notes!
Brian Beckcom: Hey everybody. Brian Beckcom. And I have got Robert Wright on the show today. Robert, you go by Bob as well, right?
Robert Wright: That's true.
Brian Beckcom: Is it okay if I call you Bob on the show today?
Robert Wright: It's absolutely acceptable.
Brian Beckcom: Bob, thank you so, so much for coming on the show. You have got one of the most fascinating biographies that I've read in a very, very long time. You come from a Southern Baptist family in Oklahoma. Military brat, ended up at TCU, Texas Christian University, for a year.
And your professional career – and I don't want to characterize it in a way that you wouldn't characterize it, but essentially the common thread that seems to run through your work, at least in my mind, is the study of evolution and in particular evolutionary psychology and the way the mind works.
So, there'll be a lot of people listening to the show that know who Bob Wright is, but there'll be some people that don't know who Bob Wright is. So, before we get into some of the substance of your work, who is Bob Wright? How'd you end up where you are.
Robert Wright: And that's a pretty open-ended question. You know, being an army brat I think was an important formative experience. And I think being from parents who were from West Texas, rural West Texas, was important. I think moving around all the time as a kid is not always pleasant, but I think you learn a lot. And we stayed stateside after I was born. My older siblings had lived in, like, Panama or Germany or whatever, but it was all stateside here, but still.
You're moving around to different kinds of places. Different cultures. Like, I mean, in fifth grade, moving from fifth to sixth grade from Fort Monroe, Virginia – this is, like, the late 1960s. From Fort Monroe, Virginia to San Francisco, where are you going to a public school in San Francisco, like, in 1968, 69, 70. Like, that was a big shift. I had never seen a hippie before I went to San Francisco, and there were plenty.
And I think, you know, I got a lot out of it. I think you learn both – you figure out both, on the one hand, there is a common human nature. There's a sense in which everyone everywhere is the same. At some level they're reacting to the same kinds of things. They have the same needs, the same interests. At some level.
But there's a lot of cultural variation, you know? And you learn that quickly, that the things that were cool or acceptable where you were before are not necessarily cool or acceptable where you are now. And I think that helps you become, you know, both a student of human nature and a student of human culture and human cultural variation.
Brian Beckcom: Sure. And we share that in common. I think I've lived in six or seven different places growing up. My dad was an Air Force colonel and so we moved around quite a bit. I was born in Louisiana, spent some time in upstate New York. Was actually stationed overseas in the Guam islands and, you know, one of the neat things for me growing up on military bases was, like you're saying, the military is a very, very diverse organization.
So, for instance, like, we would go – there would be essentially three Sunday school services, or three church services. One would be a Jewish service, one would be a Protestant service, and one would be a Catholic service. And so, when we went to the Protestant services, we'd get to see Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, you name it. Gospel choir.
So, it kind of stunk growing up moving around so much as a kid, but now I look back on it and I look back on it as a big benefit in my life. I've got friends all over the world and I got to experience a lot of different things. So, I hear what you're saying there.
Studying Under John McPhee
Brian Beckcom: Well, Bob, you ended up after being a military brat at Princeton and among the many people you studied under, one particular person caught my eye and that's John McPhee, who is one of the most well-known writers of I guess you could call it creative non-fiction or narrative non-fiction. And he's also a well-known writing teacher. So, I'm curious to hear what your experience was studying under John McPhee?
Robert Wright: Well, that was very important. I mean, for one thing, taking his course – it was called The Literature of Fact in those days, I think – gave me the confidence to try to be a writer, which I probably wouldn't have had growing up. You know, I mean, growing up, I had never known anybody who had written a book or anything. I mean, it seemed like a pretty exotic world to me. So, that was important.
I mean, I learned a lot from him, as well. Both about writing and about, you know, kind of almost the, I mean, he was just a good all-round role model. I still see him. We've become good friends over the years. And he was a real inspiration, both as a writer and just as a person.
I found out getting to know him better, we actually have quite a bit in common in terms of our basic worldview. I mean, he's a sports fan. We talk about sports. We have similar values, I think. So, that's just been one of the best relationships of my life. And I think maybe the most important thing I came away with, in addition to all the things I learned about actual writing, was just a sense of the importance of, you know, trying to preserve your integrity as a writer. Not take shortcuts. Try to get everything right. Try to be fair to your subjects. I have failed to do that sometimes since then. But, you know, it gives you an idea to live up to.
Becoming a Journalist
Brian Beckcom: And what drew you to, like, when did you decide, “Hey, I think I'm going to give this writing thing a shot. I think I can do this.” What drew you to that, and when did you make that decision?
Robert Wright: I mean, actually, it's funny. My mother was the first person to put the concept of journalism in my head. I guess I had gotten positive feedback in high school from my English teachers or something about my writing and this was when newspaper journalism was suddenly cool in a new way because it was right in the middle of Watergate. And so, the heroes were Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post. I remember I was reading their book, All the President's Men, in high school.
I remember my mother was the first person, kind of oddly in a way, to suggest that I might want to be a journalist. That put the thought in my head. But again, I don't think I had the confidence. I mean, I went – I transferred to Princeton thinking I might, like, you know, apply to law school or something. Something that would have been kind of safer in career terms, just in terms of, you know, your ability to make a living.
And, again, I think it was the McPhee course gave me the confidence to declare myself a freelance writer when I graduated from college and then I quickly kind of failed at that. I had to borrow, like, $1,500 from my parents or something to stay alive. But then I got a job at a small newspaper and then thereafter, I was kind of able to make a living at it. And that was a lot of fun, working at a small newspaper on the Jersey Shore.
Brian Beckcom: What drew you to writing and journalism? And I'll tell you why I asked that question, Bob, is because, you know, I'm an inveterate reader. I probably read 100, 150 books a year and, you know, I'm sitting there during the quarantine and I don't know if you've ever reflected on this, but I'm reading a book by Richard Feynman, Six Hard Problems. I had just finished Six Easy Problems.
And, you know, I just kind of was reflecting on it and I was like, “Isn't this miraculous that I can sit here in Houston, Texas in 2020 in my house and literally open up a piece of technology and put the thoughts of one of the smartest physicist in history into my head.” That just seems to me to be almost miraculous.
And the other thing I've been thinking about for a couple of years, Bob, is I think the most powerful force in the world – the most powerful force historically, the most powerful force now, and the most powerful force going forward, is the power of ideas. And ideas are primarily transmitted through either the written or the spoken word. So, the power that you as a writer have is unbelievable.
But I'm curious for you personally, what was it that drove you into this world of ideas and this world of writing? Like, what was it that really made you decide, “This is something that I want to spend my professional life doing?”
Robert Wright: It's a good question. I mean, again, it goes back even further than I've said. I had a good friend in San Francisco in my sixth grade class and we kept in touch. His name was Bill Strowbridge and he put my – we wrote letters to each other after I moved away. And he said, you know, I remember he compared it to Jim Bouton's writing, who wrote Ball Four. I don't know if you know that book. I later met Jim Bouton, by the way. That was my highlight to my life.
Brian Beckcom: Nice. Nice. TCU also has a very, very well-known journalism school. Is that one of the reasons you were at TCU?
Robert Wright: I was majoring in journalism at the time. The reason I was there because I got a full tuition academic scholarship. And higher education hadn't been a huge tradition in my family. And I figured, you know, the idea was doing well in high school was you get to go to college for free. So, that was TCU was a place to do it.
I was in Texas. I graduated from high school in San Antonio. My parents were happy for me being in Texas. But I was going to major in journalism there. I know I took a journalism course there that year. And they do, I think, have a good journalism school. I had a professor who was, at the time, at the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
Brian Beckcom: Name Dan Jenkins. Does Dan Jenkins sound familiar? The name Dan Jenkins?
Robert Wright: Well, I know the name. It wasn't him. It was a woman. But he was famous. Now I took a golf course at TCU for my PE requirement and we played on a course that I'm sure Dan Jenkins had probably played on, right? He was, like, he wrote about golf a lot.
Brian Beckcom: He wrote a lot about sports. He wrote about football, baseball, golf, you name it.
Robert Wright: And he was from there. I think he wrote a book called Dead Solid Perfect.
Brian Beckcom: That's right. Exactly right. Good memory.
Robert Wright: Was that about golf?
Brian Beckcom: I think it was. Yeah. Good memory.
Robert Wright: But, so, let's see. Where were we? I’m becoming a writer. Anyway, I don't know, you know? These things just happen. It's like you try it and it starts working. You get positive feedback. You stick with it. I always – it's not like I enjoyed the process of writing. I always liked the feeling that I had written a good sentence or that, you know, after however much work it takes to polish something to a point where you're happy with it, the feeling of kind of craftsmanship that you've done it well was a very gratifying feeling for me.
Brian Beckcom: Nice. Well, you've written a number of books that have been very, very well received. That's the understatement of the year. And I want to talk about some of the books and some of the ideas that you've put out in the world. In particular, your most recent book on Buddhism, Why Buddhism is True.
But before we talk about that, there'll be some young folks that are listening to the podcast, maybe some parents with kids in high school or younger that are interested in being journalists or writers or doing what you do. So, do you have any advice or tips for the younger folks who were interested in becoming a professional writer, whether it be a journalist or a book author or what have you?
Robert Wright: Well, the game has changed a lot since I got into it. So, I'm not sure how relevant my experience is. I mean, you know, you take opportunities to get published even if you don't make a lot of money at first, cause then you'll have something to show people. I think – and if you can find a place to get good editing, you know, people who really teach you about writing, take it.
But, the game has changed so much. I mean, you know, a journalist -- I think a lower rate of productivity was acceptable when I got in the business. I mean, at the daily newspaper work, we would do several pieces a day often. But I think the young journalists today are expected to do so much that if you're not pretty efficient – and I don't consider myself super-efficient – you may have trouble.
You know, obviously, read good writing. Don't be afraid to approach people you admire. You probably won't hear from them again, but you never know. I mean, because they probably won't have time to answer most of the email they get. But if you think you might be able to strike up a relationship with a writer you admire where you do some work for them and learn something, keep an eye out for that.
I guess I'm kind of saying that I think in a way apprenticeship is maybe a little harder to get than it used to be. Cause the editors, you know, again, because the economics of the profession have changed.
Brian Beckcom: Well, that's what I was about to say there. The incentives are so much different nowadays than they were when you started out in terms of, you know, clickbait and the provocative headlines and things of that nature. So, yeah, yeah. The incentives or the economics have changed so much.
Robert Wright: Yeah. So editors don't have time to take you, you know, say, “Well, here's the reason I changed this and here's the reason I did this to that,” you know? So, it's hard. So, if you can find a way to get tutored by someone good, you know, that's a precious thing. And if you can afford to be willing to sacrifice short-term income to make that happen, I would say that's very valuable.
John McPhee used to say, even back in the day, when in a way it was – well, was it easier or harder? Anyway, what he used to say was, “You should only be a writer if you can't imagine being anything else.” You know, because even then, I mean, it took real sacrifices. You probably weren't going to get rich. It wasn't a lucrative field. It still isn't. And he just meant, you know, I think he found it in some respects painful often. And so he said, “Look, if you're trying to decide between, like, writing and some normal profession, take the normal profession. Make it easy on yourself.”
Brian Beckcom: There you go. You know, I'm laughing because I had a Methodist pastor friend of mine on early on in the podcast and he made the same comment. His mentors said, “Do not become a pastor unless that's the only thing you can imagine yourself being.”
Brian Beckcom: Well, Bob, who are some of the, you know, so, when I'm teaching my – as a lawyer, I do a lot of writing and a lot of reading. I've been into writing and studying writing. I've written a lot of articles myself. And I'm really interested in the topic. And so, when I have young lawyers at my firm, you know, some of the advice I give them is, you know, I say, “Read Ernest Hemingway. And then read Faulkner. And don't write like Faulkner. Write like Hemingway. Write, you know, powerfully and direct.” Because in my profession, that's the best way to communicate.
But for you, who are two or three of the writers or authors that you most look up to that maybe formed, you know, that maybe had something to do with the way you look at the writing process?
Robert Wright: Well, I'll tell you, the second person who had a big influence on me after McPhee was Mike Kinsley, who was editor. He was our editor, kind of, of his generation. Magazine editor and writer. A great writer. And he had already been editor of Harper's when I came under his kind of influence. He was editor of the New Republic when he hired me. I worked for him in Washington.
This was a time when, you know, of course before the internet. Not long before, but before. And the New Republic was kind of the hot political magazine in Washington. It was through his work that it had become that. It was really a great place to work, a very valued job. And Mike just writes with such crispness and analytical sharpness and clarity.
And, you know, like John McPhee, he was a good role model in terms of his integrity. He's intellectually honest. He doesn't take shortcuts. He doesn't score cheap points when he's critiquing someone's ideas. He doesn't attack strawmen. But he writes with humor and crispness and verve. And I think he was good for me because I tend to – by nature, I write very continuously in the sense that I worry a lot about the transition from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph. And maybe I worry too much. And Mike writes in kind of more staccato kind of bursts where the connections to things are clear enough, but he's not holding your hand as much as I'm feeling inclined to do.
Now, I'll tell you just some, you know, people – you were mentioning writers. I think F. Scott Fitzgerald is a beautiful writer. I think John Updike is a beautiful writer. John Cheever, a short story writer. You know, and so there's a lot of – I really admire grace, you know? And all those writers write with tremendous grace and kind of a beauty. There's a sense of command. There's a sense that they didn't work to do it even though of course they did, probably. There aren't many people beautiful sentences flow naturally out of. But there's a sense that it just flows very easily, but there's a real clarity to it. And so there's, you know, a lot of writers out there to admire.
Brian Beckcom: Can I give you another writer that I really admire a lot whose works have made a big influence on me? Bob Wright. So, you write beautifully and the ideas you communicate or to say I'm excited about them would again be a huge understatement, because I think that the idea is that you talk about the ideas of consciousness, morality, evolution, evolutionary psychology, things of that nature. Buddhism.
The Influence of Evolutionary Psychology
Brian Beckcom: My sense, Bob, right now is that there are a lot of different fields that are kind of converging on the same basic ideas. Like, the same basic question. And so, let's jump into now, if you don't mind, some of your writings. Before we get into that, would it be fair to say that your writing has been heavily influenced by what some people call the field of evolutionary psychology?
Robert Wright: It has. I mean, you said early that evolution was a unifying theme in my writing. It is, but I would extend that to include cultural evolution. Which is what my book Nonzero was about and my book The Evolution of God was about. And that is to say a process that is in some ways analogous to biological evolution, although in certain respects, messier and more amorphous.
But just a way over time, you know, bodies of religious belief evolve. They change. Some ideas are retained, some are dropped by the wayside. Science evolves. Every, you know, kind of, I mean, strictly speaking cultural evolution, by one kind of, well, broad definition, in a way, is all information that is transmitted non-genetically between people. And that is all subject to evolution and that has gotten us where we are today.
So, at a social level, it's gotten us from hunter-gatherer society to the brink of globalization. To the brink of, well, to globalization and the brink, I would say, of forming a cohesive global community. And one of my current obsessions is trying to help that happen. I mean, as opposed to the alternative, like falling into chaos.
Brian Beckcom: Me too.
Robert Wright: And war. And so, anyway, I would say but that's just a tangent that we can let go for now. And yes, you're right. Evolutionary psychology. That was one of the first, back before it was called evolutionary psychology, one of the first things to really, I mean, it was almost like a conversion experience.
First in high school, when I understood the theory of natural selection, just as an explanation for, you know, biological life. But then in college, when I understood particular ideas that form the foundation of evolutionary psychology, in particular kin selection, which explains why relatives may be inclined through evolution to extend altruism to one another, to kin.
Yeah, I became a true believer. First in evolution, Darwinism, in high school. And then in college in the kinds of ideas that do constitute evolutionary psychology. Absolutely.
Brian Beckcom: So, I had a chance, and I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but I had a chance over the quarantine to read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, which, you know, I was familiar with evolution and all the ideas behind that. But man, what a beautifully written book. I questioned whether Professor Dawkins communicates some of his ideas in the nicest, you know, in maybe the best way. That would be a whole nother conversation.
But one of the things that I found really interesting about The Selfish Gene was at the very end where Dawkins introduces, essentially introduces the concept of the meme. Which is like you're talking about, that as a non-biological, but self-replicating unit. But I'll tell you, my awakening experience, Bob. I remember very specifically when this happened. Was in 2016 during the election.
I remember I would sit there and watch the debates between Trump and Hillary Clinton with my wife. And we, after the debates, we'd say, “Well, man, Hillary really did a good job. She beat the crap, he didn't know what he was talking about.” And then I would call my dad, who has a college and master's degree and is a phenomenal human being. Great guy. And he'd say, “Man, Trump really beat the you know what out of her.”
I was sitting there asking myself, “How could it possibly be that two educated people of good faith could literally watch the exact same thing and come to these totally different conclusions?” And so that really led me into the study of consciousness, cognitive biases, meditation, Buddhism. A lot of the stuff you write about. But, in any event, I think what we're talking about here, folks, is there's biological evolution. And then there is evolution that's not biological, whether you call it a psychological evolution, cultural evolution, whatever you want to call it. But that's kind of, I think you'd agree, that is kind of the underlying theme of a lot of your work.
The Evolution of God
Brian Beckcom: So, you mentioned one of your books, which, by the way, your books have won tons of awards. They've done very, very well. And we can talk about whatever books you want to talk about, but I'm curious about maybe we can talk about your book, The Evolution of God, which, if I were to summarize that book in one sentence, I would say basically, “God and the concept of God have evolved and God's a lot more chill now than he was, you know, 500 years ago.” But what were the major ideas, or what are the major ideas you were trying to communicate in that book?
Robert Wright: Well, one was, as you suggest, to view religion as an evolutionary process and explain that, you know, argue that monotheism did grow almost seamlessly out of earlier religions that were not at all monotheistic. But, you know, I had a couple of agendas in the course of telling this story and I focused on – most of the book is about three kind of you know, big, big, big developments within the Abrahamic tradition. You know, once I tell the story of kind of pre-Abrahamic religion and get up to, you know, the story of ancient Israel and the birth of the emergence of monotheism in Israel.
I then, you know, move on and tell the story of the birth of Christianity and the birth of Islam. So that's the narrative. But my agenda certainly included conveying something that I think is very important. I mean, I started thinking about this book in the aftermath of 9/11 and my own view of kind of the connection between religion and, I guess, belligerence.
And I think this is something that the so-called New Atheists, including Richard Dawkins, get wrong. I mean, they think that, like, religion is the problem. When you have, like, militant Islam, you know, if you have radical Muslims or radical Christians or radical anything else. They think if you could only turn them into atheists, everything would be fine.
My view is no, actually, usually they just have grievances and whatever religion they happen to have is going to be, you know, be the medium through which that's expressed. So what I tried to show in The Evolution of God was that, basically, with any religion, whatever the text – I don't mean that the text doesn't matter. I don't mean it doesn't matter whether your basic text is the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament or the Koran. They do have different characteristics that are not completely without importance.
But, I think basically any religious group, if you want them to find in their scripture the basis for, you know, being charitable toward another group and friendly toward another group and go find those passages in the scripture that say, “Be kind to the stranger,” and so on. You have to put them in a nonzero sum relationship with the other group. In other words, give them the sense that there can be a win-win relationship between you. It could be a commercial relationship. Like, we can literally do business. That's a great source of amity between people is to convince them that they can mutually profit, or that maybe they can unite to fend off some common threat.
But the point is, if they view you as threatening, they're going to find in their scripture a basis for hating and killing you. I mean, we hope it won't go that far, but that's when this kind of thing tends to happen. And if they don't view you as threatening, whatever their religion is, they're much less likely to find a basis for belligerence in the religion.
So, you know, I think rather than do what the new atheist want to do, which is try to convince people that they're fools for believing in a God, you know, try to structure the world such that people can gain through interaction. And so, that was one big agenda.
There's also, separate from that, the fact that my own belief, although I've lost my Christian faith, I do believe that when you look at, well, the direction of biological evolution and subsequent cultural evolution – although I explain those things in strictly materialist, conventional terms. Darwinian natural selection. I view cultural evolution as, in a sense, a material process that obeys certain laws. It still seems to me that the direction of the whole process is suggestive of the possibility that it does serve some larger purpose.
So, I've argued that, although in a way as an afterthought in both of these books. But I've argued that in Nonzero and in The Evolution of God. So, in a way, the agent, one of the arguments in The Evolution of God is that even if we stand back and view the evolution of religion in these very clinical terms, the way a social scientist might, that doesn't mean there's no higher purpose. You don't necessarily have to abandon the notion of a higher purpose or a transcended meaning or however you want to put it.
Brian Beckcom: And I think the important point – tell me if I'm characterizing this correctly. The important point – one of the important points in The Evolution of God is you aren't really speaking to the divine itself. You are speaking more to people's conception of the divine and how that evolves over time. So, for instance, I think it's, if I'm remembering right, and I'm not a Biblical scholar by a long shot, but I think it was in, is it Leviticus where they have “love thy neighbor”? In any event, everybody's pretty familiar with the concept of love thy neighbor.
Well, back when those words were written, your neighbor was literally your family. It wasn’t the people in the tribe next door. And so, that concept, I think, is a good example of one of the things you were talking about that evolves over time. Like, in other words, it's not necessarily the words and the texts themselves. It's the situation in which – it's the circumstances in which those words are read and interpreted. Is that a fair characterization?
Robert Wright: Yeah, I think so. I mean, the, you know, religions tend to serve certain social functions. And that's why I think as you move from, like a – you know, in a hunter-gatherer society, kind of enforcing, well, the law, so to speak. There is no written law or anything, but enforcing the rules is not really a huge challenge. You know? I mean, it's not like you can steal somebody's stuff and run away.
Brian Beckcom: Well, you could, but you'd last about two days, right?
Robert Wright: Well, right. And, you know, by and large, it's a small society where everyone knows who everyone is. It's hard to do things secretly and in private. So, a lot of the kind of law enforcement problems that you see in larger societies don't exist at least in very large magnitude. And so I think it's no coincidence that it's mainly when you get to the larger ancient kind of urban societies or even chieftain level societies, but certainly the ancient urban societies, where you start seeing religions that offer more rewards and punishments for good and bad behavior. You don't see as much of that in the hunter-gatherer religions. Including the idea that the afterlife, you know, there will be rewards in the afterlife for people who don't steal and don't cheat and so on.
And that's an example of, I think, the part of religion evolving to meet the needs of the social structure. And other ideas also evolved to meet those needs. And I think, you know, right now we're in a time where the world as a whole needs to – we need to see new ideas evolve that are conducive to a kind of congealing at the global level. At least to enough harmony at the global level that we can solve the growing number of problems that I think can be solved only through international cooperation. So, we need evolution of ideas and so on to continue. And that's one thing I'm interested in.
Brian Beckcom: You were writing – it kind of sounds like you were writing – I'm sure you're familiar with the works of Yuval Harari, and he talks a lot about various fictions that have been useful in coordinating large groups of human beings. And it sounds like you were basically writing about that using maybe different words and different concepts, you know, 25 years before Yuval Harari was writing about it.
The Moral Animal and Human Perception
Brian Beckcom: You also, you also wrote a book, I think, The Moral Animal, which, you know, my one sentence summary of that book would be that you know, who are we really, once you strip away all the superficial crud? Like, who are humans really, and why do they do what they do? Is that a fair summary of your book, The Moral Animal?
Robert Wright: Yeah, and it's, I mean, and specifically, what is, you know, that was – when the field of evolutionary psychology was kind of just emerging, that was published in 1994. In fact, when I started working on the book, I had never heard the term evolutionary psychology. I knew I was working on people who study how evolution shaped the human mind, but I hadn't heard the term. It kind of came to my awareness as I was writing the book.
And so, yeah, the question is why we are the way we are and including some unfortunate ways we are. I mean, you mentioned earlier that you would watch the Trump/Clinton debates and have a very different perspective from your father’s. I know the feeling. Three of my four siblings voted for Trump. And, you know, one thing you learn from thinking about how natural selection shaped the human brain is we're not necessarily designed to perceive the objective truth.
But what the theory of natural selection says is that genes that give rise to traits that help the genes get into the next generation are the genes that will survive. So, if genes incline us to a kind of a warped perception that helps get the genes into the next generation, then those kinds of perceptions will be favored. And this explains a lot of what is sometimes called the psychology of tribalism. It also explains cognitive biases. Like, the most famous is confirmation bias where we notice and embrace information consistent with our preexisting views. We don't notice or reject information inconsistent with it. I mean, these are not the hallmarks of a machine designed to ascertain the truth, right?
Brian Beckcom: That's right. That's right. You know, I'm sitting here chuckling. There's a great Buddhist anecdote that talks about you're walking in the forest and out of the corner of your eye, you see a snake and you start and you get a burst of adrenaline and it turns out it's a stick. And that's kinda what you're talking about. You clearly did not perceive that accurately, but you perceived it in such a way that, you know, it's been programmed to help your genes replicate across the generations.
I'm also thinking about, I don't know if you've ever been on YouTube and seen these cat videos where they stick a cucumber next to a cat and the cat just goes insane. I mean, apparently – have you seen these?
Robert Wright: What does the cat think the cucumber is?
Brian Beckcom: Thinks it's a snake. And so they'll put the cucumber kind of right behind the cat and these cats just, I mean, they jumped 10 feet in the air and spin around. It's crazy how they're programmed to react to these.
Robert Wright: Yeah. Because, you know, better safe than sorry. Right? I mean, you know, similarly, like, we overestimate the speed of approaching objects. Better to get out of the way too soon than too late. When we are tired, we overestimate the slope of a hill that we're looking up at if we're thinking about walking up it. The way, you know, our brain, rather than send the message, “Hey, you're tired. Maybe it's a bad idea to start that hike.” The brain just distorts your perception of how steep the thing is. There's all kinds of ways our perception is distorted.
Brian Beckcom: There's another way that it's distorted and I think that there’s been a lot of study in the field of psychedelia. There's been kind of a renaissance in the study of psychedelics and, you know, one of the theories is the reason psilocybin and some of these other psychedelic compounds have the effects they do is because they turn off the default mode network.
So, the other evolutionary adaptation, Bob, is not only are we interpreting information in a non-objective way, but we're also not getting all the information because if we did, we'd be totally overwhelmed constantly. So, we have a, there's a filter. Not only a kind of a misinterpretation mechanism, but there's also a filtering mechanism in our brain.
Robert Wright: Yeah. You notice this as you get older and you realize no one is looking at you. It's like, you know, I mean, certainly nobody younger than you. You know? It's like, why should they? You're just not relevant. You're not the mate they're looking for, you're not the friend, their enemy they're looking for. You’re not even the rival they're alert to, you know? It's very – it's super selective. And fortunately, it is. But the selectivity can be accompanied by certain kinds of unfortunate biases, for sure.
Brian Beckcom: One of the things I was hoping to achieve in this particular podcast, Bob, and I hope we get a chance to get to this near the end is you've done a ton of work. You have a newsletter called Nonzero, which I look forward to every time you publish it. And essentially, at least the way I see it is, your newsletter is an attempt to educate people about these different cognitive biases we have and then talk about how we can overcome these politically as a country, economically, things like that in order to kind of get things back on track.
Brian Beckcom: And so, let's jump to my favorite book you've written, Why Buddhism is True. And that's, clearly, to some people, a provocative title. So, I would just tell people right up front that Buddhism, there's a secular component. There's what I would call an almost scientific component. And then there's kind of the supernatural component. And in my reading of your book, at least, you're focused almost exclusively on the secular part of Buddhism, not the spiritual or the supernatural part of Buddhism.
Robert Wright: Yeah. I'm not talking about a rebirth, you know, being born after death as a different being. I'm not talking about any of the deities or anything else. I'm talking about, you know, the parts of Buddhism you could call naturalistic. That is to say, they're susceptible to being evaluated from the standpoint of modern psychology, modern philosophy. And I think they hold up well, even though some of them sound radical. Like that we live in a world of delusion.
I mean, you can sense already some of the connection between evolutionary psychology and my defense of Buddhism. I mean, Buddhism says we, in various ways, don't see the real world. And there are radical ideas in Buddhism like that the self doesn't exist. Like the idea that everything you see is in some sense empty or empty of essence. And these things sound either kind of crazy or just kinda hard to fathom, but I argue that they have more merit than you might think.
And I argue that certainly the fundamental promise of Buddhism is true. The idea is that the reason the – first is the diagnosis. The way I put the fundamental diagnosis of Buddhism is the reason we suffer and make other people suffer is because we don't see the world clearly. When you think about it, it'd be great if it's that simple, right? Then you just see more clearly and suddenly you're happy and you're no longer being mean to people.
The relationship among those things is that simple. The trouble is seeing the world clearly is very, very hard. And I think evolutionary psychology tells us why that is. The cognitive biases and the other, like, subtle distortions are deeply built into us. And I think it takes, you know, a discipline like mindfulness meditation.
You know, it's not the only way to do it. And Buddhism isn't the only way to tackle the challenge of being born with these brains that weren't designed to always see things clearly or to always be nice to people. But I do think Buddhism offers some powerful tools like mindfulness meditation that help us, you know, with effort, see the world more clearly. And I think, you know, when that starts happening, you see how it does work. That you suffer less. You're somewhat happier. And you're being less of a jerk to other people. You're being more decent toward other people. More considerate.
And that's the basic idea behind the book. And there is a strong connection to the evolutionary psychology and that's, you know, I mean, you called the title, Why Buddhism is True, you said some people might find it provocative. Well, everyone finds it provocative. Some people find it obnoxious, and not without reason, I have to say. And if you ask, like, “Why do I feel that I'm qualified, after Buddhism has been chewed over for 2,500 years, right? Like, who am I to suddenly say ‘Now, I know why it's true.’” I'm not claiming to have had any special insight. My point is that evolutionary psychology, which only has crystallized very recently, just sheds a lot of new light on why I think the Buddhist fundamental diagnosis of the problem is correct. And why some of the techniques employed by Buddhism to address the problem are effective.
Brian Beckcom: So what excites me about this so much, Bob, is that it's not just evolutionary psychology, but I have a computer science undergraduate degree and a philosophy degree. And there's been a lot of work in artificial intelligence. There's a lot of ideas right now about what happens if we ever reach artificial general intelligence which, you know, who knows when we'll get there. There's a lot of talk about weather consciousness or intelligence is substrate dependent.
In other words, is there something special about the biology of the human brain that makes a consciousness arise spontaneously? Or could you build a machine and if it had the right information processing power and, you know, everything organized in the right way, would consciousness emerge? The hard problem of consciousness itself, what people call the hard problem with consciousness, which, to my mind is the number one most important unexplained scientific problem in the world.
But all of these evolutionary psychology, Buddhism, neuroscience, computer science. All of these fields seem to me to be kind of converging. And that is really, really exciting. I mean, you see things like the Google DeepMind algorithm is starting to do things that the engineers don't have any idea why it's doing that. I think it's called GPT? GP3, or GP? Where Google now has computers that are writing books and painting pictures and composing music that is indistinguishable from what a human being would do.
Which, you know, in the field of computer science, I'm sure you're familiar with the Turing Test, which is basically, can you tell the difference between a human or computer? It looks like we might be getting really, really close to that. But, in my mind, all you're really saying is the science – different fields of science are finally catching up with some of the ideas that have been around in Buddhism for 25 years.
The idea of, you know, life is suffering. Duḥkha. Which is kind of depressing when you first hear it. But then Buddhism offers a prescription on how to deal with that. Like, it says “Life is suffering. Here's why we suffer, because we either have craving or aversion.” The idea that the self is an illusion, which is a really scary thought when you first hear it. But once you've kind of experienced that, it, at least for me, had very, very profound effects. And then what you were talking about earlier, the idea that there's no real essence. The emptiness, or there's no real essence to anything. And again, that sounds kind of depressing, but once you've really experienced that, it has kind of a profound liberating effect, I would argue.
Robert Wright: Yeah. And I think it can have a very productive effect on human society. I mean, the example I cite in my book is on my first meditation retreat, when I suddenly felt kind of transformed by meditation. And I don't want to give people the idea that these kinds of transformations you may get on it, like, a seven day silent meditation retreat are easy to sustain. I mean, in my experience, you kind of hang on to as much as you can via regular practice.
But anyway, the feeling at the retreat can be incredibly powerful. And I remember I was taking a walk and I saw a weed – a plantain weed, if you know what kind of weed that is. You've probably seen them. They’ve infested my yard in various places on the East Coast, at least. I'm not sure if they're common in Texas. And I just thought, “Why have I been trying to kill this thing when it's in my front yard? it's as beautiful as the other plants.”
Now, this sounds like a mundane observation because, you know, yeah, we all know, you know, weed is an arbitrary category, right? It's not like it says “weed” in the DNA of the plant. Some cultures deemed some things weeds and they don't like them, and some cultures might call them flowers, who knows?
But it's deeper than that. It's that you realize that the designation of “weed” had been giving you a kind of a subtle feeling when you see the thing that infuses your perception in a way that you barely notice. But once the feeling drops out and the thing seems beautiful, you realize how powerful that element of feeling was.
I think the idea with essence is that much more than we know, given certain things, when we look at things, more than we realize, they give us a little bit of a feeling that shapes the perception. And the idea – and where this gets really problematic is in human affairs when it's like “essence of enemy,” “essence of rival,” and that starts distorting your perception in a way that leads to more trouble, including wars, than was absolutely necessary. And so that's emptiness. It's not the idea that, you know, you don't imagine people being inspired by the observation that, “Hey, everything is in some sense empty.” It sounds depressing. But it's really kind of the opposite, both in terms of feeling it gives you, which is the feeling of beauty, and in terms of the possible implications of us all becoming less inclined to attribute these essences to things in certain kinds of contexts.
Brian Beckcom: Another example of that in Buddhism, or two examples I can think of, Bob, are the idea of memento mori or contemplating, meditating on your own death. And again, that sounds so macabre. It sounds terrible. But my experience has been the complete opposite. It gives you a profound appreciation for the fact that you're a conscious agent. I mean, that in and of itself is inexplicably miraculous. And then, you know, the other example you're talking about where certain – you perceive things and you're pre-programmed to already kind of color your perception before you even realize it.
What’s helped me a lot with that, as it relates to other human beings, is Metta meditation, which sounds goofy as hell. But basically, you sit there and wish people well. And I do one where I picture my daughter and then I picture somebody neutral. And then I try to picture the people in the world I hate the most, and wish them well. And it's hard at first, but what I've found is, boy, do you feel a lot better when you tamp down those conditioned responses you have.
Robert Wright: It is hard. And I continue to find Metta meditation hard. But I have had, even when not trying to do Metta – Metta, by the way is a word that means loving kindness in Pali. Its M-E-T-T-A. But, I mean, I know you know that, but for the benefit of others. But even garden variety mindfulness meditation, I sometimes find that it allows me to think of people I don't like more charitably. You know, when I’m not even inclined to do Metta meditation. If I just get into a state of greater calm, it helps with that. And it helps even understand the point of view of someone whose point of view you might have previously been very reluctant to acknowledge.
Illusion of the Self
Brian Beckcom: Can I ask you – let's talk just a little bit about the illusion of the self. Because I have a question that I really want to know the answer to. I don't know if you've written about this or not, but – and by the way, there's a, I forget whether this is a ocean [53:48] tradition or what it is, but there's essentially a forbidden instruction in a field of Buddhism. And it's what we're about to talk about.
I always wondered why this was forbidden. I had a good explanation a couple of months ago, which was basically sometimes when people hear what we're about to talk about, they go, “So what?” And the idea in Buddhism is if they have that attitude, then they'll never be able to see it, but the illusion of the self is, again, one of these things that sounds kind of negative, but I've had some experiences in meditation where I try to look at the looker or perceive the perceiver, turn attention back on itself.
And when I first started doing this, Bob, there was nothing there. I mean, there was nothing to see. And I was like, is that it? I mean, there's nothing to find. But then the longer you meditate on that, you realize how profound that is. So, my question for you, Bob, is I'm sure you've had plenty of those self-experiences. What is –
Robert Wright: No, I wouldn't jump to that conclusion if I were you. I mean, but go ahead. I mean, a true, you know, not self-experience. I mean, utter and incomplete, you know, this is considered to be an important, I mean, some would say it's the threshold on the path to enlightenment.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. And by the way, just to be clear, my experiences last, like, five seconds, at most.
Robert Wright: Right. Okay. Yeah, I've had glimpses. And I've also had more sustained kind of incremental progress toward not self. But anyway, go ahead and ask the –
Brian Beckcom: So, the question I have for you, and this is something I'm currently trying not to think too hard about, but just meditate on is once the thinking self is kind of dropped away, then we're just left with awareness. And what is that awareness? Like, if it's not the thinking self, what is it?
Robert Wright: Yeah. I mean, it's a good question because, you know, I was going to, when I alluded to incremental progress toward not self, I was thinking, like, if you observe your anxiety, say, through meditation and suddenly it just seems like not part of you, it's like, you're observing, say, a column. It might feel like – you might visualize it within your abdomen, but it's not like you're looking at it the way you might look at a piece of abstract sculpture. It's, like, interesting, but it no longer has the grip on you. It's as if it’s not you. And the same goes with thoughts sometimes.
Although, I find it easier to observe feelings, you know, with non-attachment through meditation than I do thoughts. But still, sometimes, like on a retreat, these thoughts are things that just kind of float by and you start seeing them kind of emerge like, “Whoa, where did that come from?”
I mean, normally, you think of that, you think, “I thought that thought. I am the thinker of thoughts.” That's what the self is, right? It's a CEO, it issues these ideas and commands. And you're on retreat and you're like, “No, the thought just kind of showed up. Came from somewhere. And if I don't get too attached to it, it will just pass away and it's like a cloud floating by.” And in a way the question you're asking is, “Okay, well” – I mean, first of all, if you do enough of that, it's more and more like, “Well, if the things I had thought constitutes the self, you know, my thoughts, my feelings, no longer seem like part of me. And if generating them was one of the functions I assigned to the self and it no longer seems like I'm generating them, well then, like, where is the self?” And I think – and that's what I meant by incremental progress toward not self.
And the question that I think you're asking arises right away. “Well, what is this doing the observer?” I mean. And I dunno. I mean, it gets back to the mystery of consciousness, for one thing.
Brian Beckcom: Turtles all the way down. Right?
Robert Wright: Yeah. Turtles all the way down.
Brian Beckcom: Have you ever looked into panpsychism or studying any – panpsychism is basically the idea that consciousness is kind of a universal feature of the universe.
Robert Wright: There’s some degree of consciousness, however simple, in all of the physical world, embedded. And then when these physical things assume certain complex configurations like ours, the consciousness gets complex and there are thoughts and things. But, yeah, panpsychism is undergoing a little bit of a resurgence, I think, in philosophy but I think, I don't know if it's more than a fad. I mean, I think the fundamental problem is, as you suggested, we're just going to have a lot of trouble ever getting to the bottom of the consciousness question, I think. The mind body problem.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. There's people that think we will never answer the hard problem. The question of consciousness.
Robert Wright: I think it could be that, you know, there's just something about the metaphysics of being embedded in the system that prevent you from understanding certain aspects of the system. I don't know.
Brian Beckcom: And I'm not saying I believe that to be true or not, but I certainly understand. And to me, that's something we're thinking about. Maybe it's just a fact of nature that our brains just aren't equipped being inside the system to contemplate the system itself or to see the system clearly.
Robert Wright: I mean, we are both – A. we're inside the system and B. as I suggested, our brains were designed by natural selection to do something quite other than perceive the ultimate truth, you know? Like, they weren't even designed to always perceive the local mundane truth.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. What do you think about, have you been keeping up with the latest renaissance and psychedelic research and psychedelic theory? Cause one of the things that really fascinates me about some of the research that's coming out is how many of the people that undergo profound psychedelic experiences see and experience similar things. And how many of these people, including people that would have characterized themselves as atheist beforehand, have profound spiritual experiences.
Have you thought about that as it relates to the study of consciousness? Because to me, these, I think it was, who was it? Maybe Alan Watts said psychedelics are like a microscope for the mind. You use it to peer under the mind, but you're not going to sit there and stare at the microscope for the rest of your life. It's a tool, in other words, to study consciousness. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Robert Wright: No, there is a lot more study of that, clinical study that, like, in Johns Hopkins and other places. There's the book by Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind.
Brian Beckcom: Great book. Great book.
Robert Wright: An important cultural milestone in terms of just –
Brian Beckcom: Big time.
Robert Wright: Making psychedelics kind of mainstream legit in a certain sense. I mean, I don't think you want to take a casual approach to them. They're very powerful. But the idea that they have the potential to facilitate, you know, philosophical and spiritual exploration, I think, is much more common now, partly as a result of that book.
I don't have theories as to, I mean, I had a conversation with him. People can Google it. It's on YouTube. And I think they are my own conjecture was something that, like, well, I mean, you know, the brain – if you think, if you see the brain as having, like, knobs, kind of. Like, if the perception of the world is something that in principle could be fine-tuned.
I mean, as William James noted, you know, the psychologist long ago, the ordinary human consciousness is just one of many possible consciousnesses. And lots of chemicals that you put in the brain are going to turn various knobs up and down. First of all in terms of level of energy and so on and so on. Also, things like the sense of truth, right? It's like, some drugs just make you think whatever you're thinking at the time is really, really true. There's a lot of variables. And then afterwards you may go, “Well, actually.”
Brian Beckcom: “I was just high.”
Robert Wright: On drugs. Yeah, exactly. And some drugs make you think coincidences are more significant than they might seem otherwise. Right? Like, “Whoa, can you believe these two things happened?” And then next day you're like, “Yeah, I can believe those two.”
So, I don't think we should assume, we should attribute necessarily kind of vertical properties to these various drugs and that there's something magic about psychedelics that always show you the truth. I think manifestly sometimes they lead to delusions. But at the same time, if what I've said earlier is true, that the brain is not to begin with designed to see the truth, and it's not designed to think about certain questions much at all, it could well be that any given chemical turns a knob in a way that moves you closer to the truth. And I think we should be open to that possibility, as well.
Modularity of the Mind
Brian Beckcom: You know, and you also talk about in Why Buddhism is True, something that I think, as a meditator, I've started to really pay attention to, and that's this concept of the modularity of the mind. And I don't know if you ever saw the Pixar movie Inside Out, but, have you seen that movie?
Robert Wright: I have seen that movie.
Brian Beckcom: That basically is a great pop culture illustration of the modularity of your mind. Basically, for people that aren't familiar with this concept, it's the idea that different parts of your minds do different things, basically, right?
Robert Wright: Yeah. Which is a big theme in evolutionary psychology. One of the advisors on that film was a psychologist who's evolutionarily inclined, at least. Dacher Keltner at Berkeley. And, yeah, and in my book, my Buddhism book, I talk about the possibility that – the idea of the modular mind, it really, there isn't a single CEO. They're really these different kinds of agents in the mind sometimes working at odds with one another.
Like, if you've ever been at a cocktail party and it's like, you're talking to someone, you're kind of interested in what they're saying. On the other hand, you see the buffet and, you know, you're kind of hungry. It's like you can actually feel the struggle between the part of your mind that wants you to be nice to people, maybe especially if it's an important person, and the part of your brain presumably evolved earlier that just wants to keep you nourished.
And the idea of modularity is that there's a lot of little kind of agents like this, and they compete at a subterranean level for control of consciousness sometimes. And sometimes – and that, I argue, is consistent with certain kinds of Buddhist ideas about, you know, not self and so on.
Nonzero Newsletter & Social Media
Brian Beckcom: So, let me ask you, you got a couple more minutes, cause I wanna really bring this home for people who are coming up right now. The politics is absolutely insane right now, no matter what you believe. It's been a rough time with the pandemic. It’s been a rough time with some racial unrest and stuff like this. And so, what I'd like to do in our final remaining minutes, Bob, is I wanna talk about your newsletter, Nonzero, which I think is an absolutely essential read for anybody that's interested in any of these topics.
But as I read your newsletter, you're basically making an effort to kind of, you know, gently kind of slap people on the head and say, “We need to wake up. We need to stop heading the direction we're heading. We need to get rid of all this tribalism to the extent we can, and go on a different path.” And so let's tie the discussion we've had about the way your mind works, evolutionary psychology, things of that, into our current political climate and what your views are on how we work our way through this time period.
Robert Wright: Yeah. Well, first of all, thanks for plugging the newsletter. People can subscribe for free at nonzero.org. It's actually, it's been in kind of a hiatus for a few weeks, but we're about to start putting it out with more frequency within a few weeks and I think much greater frequency probably after the election. But, you know, I mean, I guess the context I like to think of it all in of the tribalism and everything is, like, humankind, you know, through cultural evolution, we have been approaching for many, many millennia, this kind of point of globalization where I think, in principle, we could form a cohesive global community. And quit doing things like having wars and get more serious about solving common problems.
But I think if we fail, there are, you know, technology is bringing, you know, has already brought things that could more or less destroy the species. And I think it will bring more threats of that magnitude. So things could work out very badly if we can't get our act together. And so, in that sense, you know, the current political era is, well, significant, in more than one way.
I mean, first of all, the political divide within America, the ideological divide, represents different views of how to engage with the world. And I don't want to really belittle either the ideology of either tribe completely. I think they're valid concerns that motivate both. I mean, I'm, as you might've gathered, not a Trump supporter.
And then secondly, there's the problem that the kind of tribalism we're seeing at the national level, the psychology of tribalism, you know, to the extent that that plays out globally, that that will spell doom. I mean, you know, if we – if the people of the world can't demonize each other to the extent that Americans have been demonizing each other. And I think both sides do it. That will spell doom.
So, that's the context of my concern with our all getting, first of all, more appreciative at how subtly biased our perceptions are. Like, just don't assume that everyone in your tribe is right and everyone in the other tribe is wrong. And certainly don't assume that the representative of the other tribe you're seeing on social media is typical. It's the opposite. What you're seeing is the worst example of behavior on the others. That's what social media brings you every day. Worst example of a person in the other tribe.
Brian Beckcom: Can I interject something here, Bob? Because I've been thinking about this for the past couple of months. Do you ever think about how absolutely insane it is that we have let one – I don't know how to put this – one person who's a Harvard dropout dictate what news billions of peoples – I mean, this is absolutely and totally bizarre. Whatever your politics are, the fact that we're letting a sexually repressed college dropout decide what a billion people –
Robert Wright: Zuckerberg?
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. Or even, you know –
Robert Wright: He’s happily married. Maybe you know more about his marital life than I do.
Brian Beckcom: Well, he started Facebook so he could get chicks at Harvard. That's the bottom line. That's why he started Facebook.
Robert Wright: I mean, then again, according to evolutionary psychology, we all do a lot of things to attract mates.
Brian Beckcom: But isn't it bizarre that we've given the keys to the information that people see to four or five people in Silicon Valley and just said, “You guys decide. You girls decide.” I mean, that's bizarre.
Robert Wright: Well, how reluctant we are to exercise any intervention is bizarre because to me there's one easy thing we should obviously do with all social media, which is force these companies to be transparent about the algorithms that are governing us. We need to see all the code, and the government has the power to tell them to do it.
Now, you and I, if we're confronted with that code, we won't know what the hell it means. But what will happen if they have to make it public is that you will see companies – and you would also want to legislate some other things to make sure this happens. But you would see companies that would spring up and not just interpret the algorithm for you, but turn it into an interface that lets you fine tune your experience on Facebook more than you can now. Like, just slide the thing over and say, “I want to see less stuff that makes me angry. I want to see less stuff that XYZ.”
You know, companies would be very creative about how they did this. I'm not sure it would work, but it couldn't be worse than what we have. And, you know, there's also things – I'd also be fine with, you know, breaking some of these companies up. Make Facebook divest itself of Instagram, for example, because concentrations and power in an industry so important, I think, are dangerous.
But I think, yeah, it's problematic, but it’s not so much that I think Zuckerberg is a uniquely sinister figure. He just wants to make as much money as possible. And it turns out that the way to do that is to just give the most reactive parts of human nature free rain. And that's the problem. And so, it's actually quite a challenging problem. It would be even worse if he were this nefarious figure who wanted to use his power to do some particularly nefarious thing. But he's just trying to make money and that itself leads to trouble.
Brian Beckcom: I worry a little bit, Bob, as a lifelong technologist, that we will get to the point, if we're not careful, where we won't be able to change anything, because the news we'll see from the social media companies will totally and completely warp democracy.
The other thing that I would maybe propose to you is all these social media companies are just profiting off your data and your metadata, and they're selling your data and you get nothing out of it. And if they had to pay us for using our data, they would probably be much more responsible and frugal in the way they spread our data all over the place.
Robert Wright: Yeah, this is a hobby horse of Jaron Lanier is the guy who came up with the term “virtual reality” several decades ago. But, you know, we should, yeah. We should be compensated for being the product, you know? Yeah, I'd be fine with that.
Brian Beckcom: What, so I interrupted you. How do we get through this? What's the solution?
Robert Wright: You know, I think there are various angles you could approach it from. I think – I do think Buddhism is one, and I think it will be more – well, I think mindfulness meditation is one as informed by Buddhist philosophy. But I think that'll be more effective if people realize it's not incompatible with any other spiritual tradition. You could be a Christian who does mindfulness meditation. Or a Jew or a Muslim or anything else. Or an atheist or agnostic.
Brian Beckcom: As a matter of fact, the Dalai Lama, I think. said, if you're a Christian, be the best Christian you can be. You can still meditate, but you can be a great Christian and meditate.
Robert Wright: Yeah. Use Buddhism to be the best whatever you already are. And I think just trying to convey to people, I think it's good that there's much more discussion of cognitive biases than there was 20 years ago. I still think it's hard to get people to really appreciate how pervasively influenced they are by the biases. And try to do something about it.
But I'm trying to figure it out myself and exactly, you know, how to most effectively sermonize about it. And, you know, it's a big challenge, as you know, it's a dimension of the newsletter that I'm going to try to preserve. And it's a big, you know, it's a big challenge. But it's a good sign that people like you recognize it and you're, you know, you're interested in it and you're talking about it. I think awareness is growing. And I think awareness, I mean, the good news about the social media thing is, well, this is the bad news and the good news.
Bad news is things are changing so fast, technologically, that it's kind of hard to keep up. And the good news is, yeah, we haven't had much time to react to the social media transformation. We haven't had time to think it through, process it. And I think there's reason to hope we'll figure it out to some extent and come up with whether it's, you know, a combination. It would probably need to be a combination of legal reforms and even what you could call spiritual progress and just cultural progress, just people becoming more aware of certain pitfalls and encouraging one another to avoid them.
Brian Beckcom: Let me ask you this hypothetical. I've been thinking about this recently. If let's say Bob Wright hosted a group of people that were plotting some sort of terrorist act on the United States. Let's say you let them hang out in your living room every night for three weeks and make the planning and you either knew or you could have known that that's what they were doing. And I go out and commit some sort of criminal act. How is that any different from Facebook or any other social media group hosting some of these violent extremist groups, whether it be on the left or the right. Knowingly hosting them, letting them use these platforms to plot criminal acts, and then having absolutely zero responsibility for hosting these violent extremists. Like, where is my analogy or where does that analogy break down? Or is that a good analogy?
Robert Wright: I like to think it was a better analogy two years ago. They now – they purport to be more aware of the problem. And to be – and I do think they're exerting a stronger hand. YouTube Facebook and so on.
I mean, there are parrels in the other direction, right? And this is one reason I think breaking these things up is important. I mean, the fewer people you have controlling these, the more alarming it is that they are going to decide who should be on the platform and who shouldn't.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. I’m so glad you brought that up because one thing that has been very irritating to me is you see this conversation about cancel culture and you're exactly right. Allowing these social media companies to dictate who can and cannot talk on their platform, there could be bad things both directions. But here's what I want to ask all these folks like Sam Harris and all these people that just can't stop talking about this is what do you want us to do about it?
I mean, they're afraid to say what I think is the obvious conclusion is there needs to be some – that we need to treat these social media companies as quasi-public utilities because, you know, you can't say, “Oh, they're private companies. And so, they get to choose who they want to have on their platform.” And then at the same time say, “Well, I don't like who they choose.” Like, why won't people just come out and say it directly? Let's regulate these companies like quasi-public utilities.
Robert Wright: Well, I certainly think the case for regulation is strong. I mean, again, if the regulation consists of the government telling them who can be on the platform and who can't, that also raises concerns, you know, of a directly first amendment kind of nature.
But, you know, if antitrust law does not permit us to intervene when a very small number of companies are controlling our brains, and obviously doing a bad job of it. Then antitrust law needs to change.
Brian Beckcom: For sure. For sure. Well, it needs to be re-imagined, for sure.
Robert Wright: Yeah. And it's not that complicated. I mean, there are just certain aspects of antitrust laws that are completely antiquated. They just, they should not be constraining us in the way that they are.
Brian Beckcom: Well, Bob, this has been an absolutely – this has been an intellectual feast for me. I can't say how much I appreciate your time. I can't say how much I appreciate your work. It’s just, you're just doing great things.
An Optimistic View of the Future
Brian Beckcom: Give us – the idea behind this podcast when I started it was to – I got so sick of seeing all these people fighting and arguing and bitching and all the negativity and all that sort of thing. And so, I was like, “I'm going to try, to the extent I can, to get some positive ideas and positive leadership out in the world.” So, leave us, if you don't mind, as kind of a parting thought with your most optimistic view of what the future looks like.
Robert Wright: Most optimistic view is, at a political level, you know, the nations come together to do more of the international governance it needs to do to address not just the obvious problems like climate change, but arms control challenges, including not just nuclear weapons, but weapons in space, bio weapons. You know, cyber weapons. All kinds of things come together to ensure that we don't – nations don’t start engaging in some kind of human engineering arms race. Right? You know?
Like, the various things and that at the same time we don't let the world become characterized by massive disparities in wellbeing and, you know, economic wherewithal. And I think part of that optimistic picture has to be, I don't think it can happen without this. You know, some degree of enlightenment.
I mean, and I don't see – here's the thing. I don't just mean some kind of commitment to reason and say, “I believe in reason and I'm discarding primitive beliefs. And I look down on religious people.” That's the thing, I mean, the new atheists are as susceptible as anyone else to the subtlety corrupting biases of perception and cognition that keep us all from enlightenment in the true sense.
And so, I think there will have to be a progress that, what do you call it? Psychological. I think in some ways it might qualify as spiritual. But I think that, you know, at something of a grassroots level, there's going to have to be progress. That is its moral progress and its progress in self-awareness and progress informed by the stakes that, you know, by what's at stake here and the importance of us all trying to become better people in these senses.
That's the optimistic scenario. It’s optimistic at both a political level and a personal, psychological slash spiritual level. And I think it can happen. But it's going to take a lot of work. We're not ahead right now.
Brian Beckcom: You know, the New Atheists, you brought them up a number of times and I agree with you a hundred percent that the problem, I think, or one of the problems I see with that group of folks is when you take something away from somebody that's so important as their religion, you got to leave them with something in its place. And I don't see that they're offering very good prescriptions as far as that goes.
Robert Wright: Well, Sam Harris is into meditation.
Brian Beckcom: I would exclude him from that group, probably.
Robert Wright: But I agree. I mean, I just think he's wrong to think that religion is the problem. I just think that's flat out wrong. And I think, I mean, I've said to him, I debated him in LA. I said, “Sam, if you think that the way to solve the terrorism problem is for you to look at Muslims and say, ‘You don't understand. Your God doesn't even exist.’ If you think that's going to make things better, you are on drugs.”
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. Or have Dawkins just make fun of everybody constantly. That's not going to get us really much of anywhere, I don't think.
Robert Wright: And it's just primitive in its own way.
Brian Beckcom: Yeah. Well, Bob, I've taken up a little more of your time than we reserved. Like I said, this has been really, really fun for me and I appreciate it. We could talk forever about these topics, but I know you got things to do, so thank you for your time, my friend.
Robert Wright: It's been my pleasure. I'm flattered by your interest and, you know, whatever your religious beliefs, I think you are in some senses, they say, doing God's work.
Brian Beckcom: Thank you very much.