Intro. [Recording date: September 18, 2017.]
Russ Roberts: Robert Wright's latest book, Why Buddhism Is True, argues that Buddhism and the practice of meditation is consistent with evolutionary biology and much of what we've learned from the latest research in psychology. And that's our topic for today.... Now, despite the title, Why Buddhism Is True, this is not really a religious book. It reminds me a little bit about a story I've heard attributed to Enrico Fermi; but it's probably been attributed to other scientists as well. Supposedly a student comes into Fermi's office, and as he's leaving he notices there's a horseshoe over Fermi's door. And the student turns back to Professor Fermi and says, 'Professor Fermi, you don't really believe that, do you?' And Fermi says, 'Of course not. But they say it works even if you don't believe it.' And, your claim, your book reminds me a little bit of that story. Your claim is that meditation and the Buddhist approach to mindfulness works even if you don't have a religious belief in Buddhism, say. So, let's start with what you mean by meditation, and what you mean by mindfulness, for people who aren't, who haven't heard of these topics and how they are applied in your book.
Robert Wright: Yeah. Well, first of all, you are right: the book isn't about the kind of most plainly religious parts of Buddhism. In other words, the parts that are often considered supernatural like reincarnation. I do focus on claims you can evaluate from the standpoint of modern psychology and philosophy. And as for meditation: there are a lot of kinds. I mean, there are Buddhist kinds and non-Buddhist kinds and even within Buddhism there are a number of kinds. There is Zen meditation, and sometimes that involves contemplating these koans, you--these cryptic or paradoxical sayings or questions. Tibetan meditation often involves visualization, sometimes elaborate visualizations. Mindfulness--the kind I focus on mainly in the book, is about--it's kind of an exercise in attention, you could say. It's about calming your mind enough, typically by focusing on your breathing a while, but calming your mind enough so that you can observe things with more care and clarity than usual. A lot of those things are inside your head. They don't have to be. You can focus on sounds mindfully. But a lot of the things you focus on are inside your head, like feelings. And, with feelings, you basically, you employ, I guess what you could call a basic objectivity of perspective that is unusual. I mean, usually what we do with feelings is react to them. Typically without thinking about them very much or observing them very closely. But, with mindfulness, you might take something like anxiety that you normally kind of react to and try to get away from; and you just kind of accept it, live with it; and thereby allow yourself to actually examine it. That can lead to a kind of loosening of its kind of grip on you. And this is, probably the most famous use of mindfulness is in this kind of therapeutic way you view feelings, as they sometimes say, nonjudgmentally. And this loosens the grip, particularly of unpleasant feelings that you'd like to see the grip of loosened. But, I would say that mindfulness meditation in principle goes a lot deeper than that and has a deep connection to some of the most radical, philosophical claims, made in Buddhism. And in the book I kind of start out with the therapeutic stuff, and, and, and as the book progresses, I move toward the deeper stuff, I guess you would say.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. You break the reader in gently.
Russ Roberts: I want to start with the therapeutic side, though, because I think for someone who has never meditated or attended a silent meditation retreat--and I've done both; and in advance of that experience--in advance of attending a silent meditation retreat I'd never meditated. And I went in with a great deal of skepticism. And I would imagine that listeners who have not meditated or attended a retreat like this, would have an incredible amount of skepticism about it. And so, I think it's worthwhile to talk a little a bit about this claim--I would say it's more about emotions than feelings. Of course, they can mean the same thing. But that various emotions that arise in us can be controlled in a way they otherwise can't be through the process of meditation. That seems like an absurd claim. Right? So, if I said to you--and some people say this; I don't agree with it but it's a common claim, 'Oh, you just listen; watch your breath for 20 minutes a day and try to clear your head and pay attention to your breath; and you'll become a happier person.' And that's--again, for a non-, a person who hasn't meditated, that sounds ludicrous. And for someone who has, I don't think that's quite enough. So, try to flesh out the claim to make it a little more plausible for people who have not experienced it.
Robert Wright: Right. Well, first of all, like you, I had never--I actually had tried to meditate before my first meditation retreat. I just never succeeded. So, a silent retreat was what convinced me that there was something there. I think a lot of people who are more natural meditators than I am might not have to go to a retreat to become convinced of the power of the technique. But, you are right that a lot of times people say, 'Just focus on your breath.' I think that can calm people. I think that can be a good thing in itself. But with true mindfulness meditation, you are going deeper than that. And that is really a preparatory phase. The calming of the mind is just preparation to view things more carefully. And just to give people a sense of the potential power of mindfulness. I remember, after, a few weeks after my first meditation retreat, I was doing this crazy thing I do sometimes, which is: I had a big talk the next day. And so I woke up in the middle of the night and I started thinking, 'Wait a second. What if I can't get to sleep? Then I'll do a terrible job of a talk.' And of course, this is completely irrational to respond by the news that you need to sleep by failing to get to sleep. But that's the way anxiety can work. And so, I thought, 'Well, I'll set up'--do what you are supposed to do with mindfulness: Set up, not run away from the feeling, not just observe it, be with it. And, in a few minutes, I got to a point where the anxiety in my abdomen--and meditation makes you more aware of where in your body feelings are, for starters. But I started, it just, suddenly I was viewing it the way I would view a piece of abstract art in a museum. It was interesting. I wasn't particularly attracted or repelled by it. It was neither good nor bad. It was just kind of interesting. I was examining its contours. It had completely lost its grip on me. And shortly after that, it dissolved. Now, I'm not going to claim that an experience quite that dramatically therapeutic is trivially easy to attain, by any means. I mean, this was like right after meditation retreat when you are kind of in the zone. But, some measure of that I think is accessible to people with a relatively modest commitment. And a meditative commitment. You know, maybe 20 minutes in the morning or something. And I believe it is a step toward actual clarity. And this is, I mean, I don't want to go--tell me if I'm going too fast. But, I think one of the fascinating things about Buddhism is the claim that, the reason we suffer is because we don't see the world clearly. Which is also, they say in Buddhism, the reason we make other people suffer, the reason we kind of misbehave. And so by clarifying your view of the world you can become a happier and better person. That's an amazing claim. And I think, looking at your feelings in a sense more objectively is an example of a way that that can work. But I just do want to emphasize--it's kind of an analytical exercise. I mean, I emphasize this for your listeners, in particular. I view--I mean, there's an old saying--I mention these different kinds of meditation, that, you know: Zen is for poets; Tibetan meditation is for artists. The postena[postenant? sp?], which is a kind of meditation closely associated with mindfulness, is for psychologists. And it is, it is in some respects an analysis of your own mind.
Russ Roberts: Yes. I want to get your thoughts on where that power comes from that you alluded to in that night before your speech. I've had a number of moments like that, as well. And of course, we could be fooling ourselves--which is always interesting. But let's assume we're not fooling ourselves about the control that we might have. What I found extraordinary is that things that used to create anger in me, impatience, annoyance, and various other emotions: By observing them and watching them and somewhat dispassionately arise in myself, I've been able to--as you say, they lose some of their power over us. And it's interesting: there's a strong tradition of meditation in Judaism: makes the same, mystical thinkers in Judaism made the same claim, that by letting your demons in rather than running from them--which is our standard, one standard method we have about our demons. The second method is to fight them. Which some would argue just seems to make it worse. And the third method is to just let them in. And that's part of who you are: You can't avoid it; you have lots of flaws and character traits that influence you. And by observing their influence rather than just being influenced in the heat of the moment, you can have some serenity. And also--this is the more important point, to me, you can decide what to do rather than having your anger decide what you do. And I think that's, to me, the biggest payoff. So, the challenge I want to raise, though, is I wonder, in your experience, how much of that controls [?]--and of course you don't have it all the time. It's not--I don't need to suggest I'm now this masterful, self-controlled person. But I feel like I have more control. I feel like I'm a better husband, a better father, as a result--friend. How much of that do you think comes from, in your case it sounds like 30 minutes or more a day, of just sitting and observing the breath or being aware of your thoughts? Versus the intensity--which is very daunting for most people of a 5-day or a weeklong, or a 2-week meditation retreat where you are forced to confront yourself? And I found that very powerful. So I'm curious what your thoughts are on that.
Robert Wright: Well, retreats are important to me. And this I say especially about my first retreat. Because, for one thing, they allow you to see what is possible in principle. Right? By the end of my first retreat, I felt radically transformed. I was seeing beauty in places I had never seen it before. I was much less judgmental of people. I remember at the beginning of this retreat, you know, I was like sizing up the other retreatants. And, since you are not going to talk to you them, you know, you might as well use entirely superficial grounds, which, you know, let's face it, we're inclined to do anyways. And I remember seeing this guy wearing a t-shirt that said 'Juilliard' on it, and thinking, 'Oh, well aren't we special.'
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Robert Wright: And, at the end of the retreat: yeah, it's, this is what we do, right? And the guy--at least I do. I never know whether I'm worse than average--
Russ Roberts: [?] You're the only one, Bob.
Robert Wright: Really. This has been a very unfortunate experience for me. I have been under the illusion that I was not uniquely bad. But--and then at the end of the retreat, the silence is broken; we can ask questions. And this guy stands up--he's the most timid, insecure soul you can imagine. He's virtually quivering as he answers questions, of course I totally misgauged him. And then when I called my wife at the end of the retreat, she says that before I'd said anything about the retreat, just by the tone of my voice she was delighted about the new Bob. Now, as you know, this doesn't last forever. You know, unfortunately, life is not an endless meditation retreat. Reality intrudes. And you kind of wind of hanging on to what you--as much as you can, of the mindset you had at the end of the retreat via some kind of daily practice. If you maintain that discipline. And that's what we're doing I think, for sure. But, the retreat shows you what is in principle possible. And in my case at least helped convince me, along with other things--along with considerations along with evolutionary psychology and so on--but it helped convince me that this actually is a clear view of the world. The one I had at the retreat--was a clear--because after I, I didn't know anything about that guy with a Julliard t-shirt. It was a delusion to think that I had enough information to judge him. Right? It was kind of an emotionally-driven illusion, in some sense. And I think--so, retreats helped convince me of the potential and in a certain sense validity of the practice in being a way to clarify your vision. And then they also serve as periodic reinforcers. I try to do a retreat close to once a year. Because, as time wears on it's easy to start getting lazy about your practice, on any given morning, even though you are convinced at some level that your day will go better if you practice, you may feel you don't have the time or whatever. And so I like retreats as a little booster. And I guess those are the two main functions I see them serving.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk a little bit about the judgmental comment you made. A big theme in the reading I've done and the meditation I've done is to try to reduce my judgmental aspects toward myself and towards others. Which is very--that really goes against my grain. I've spent a lot of my life being judgmental towards myself--and of others. And felt virtuous about it, of course, which makes it even more difficult to think about that it might not be a good idea. But, one argument against that being less judgmental is that it tends to make us more wishy-washy, a little more, maybe too tolerant of things that are not good. And also, there's a passivity in some of the mindfulness literature that, 'Just be in the present; just enjoy life right now, because that's all there is,' is a standard claim. And of course that's not really all there is. There's the past, which haunts us. And maybe should. There's the future, which we want to enjoy and need to plan for. And so, comment on that, those sort of critiques of the Buddhist approach of not being judgmental and being relatively
Robert Wright: Yeah. Well, first of all it's interesting that actually, if you go back and look at the seminal text that is centuries old on mindfulness--the Satipatthana Sutta--there's actually no mention of living in the moment. There's no phrase that can be translated as 'the moment' or 'the present'. And, you know, to some extent, the meditation that is being taught in the West is being adapted to its current context, in which staying in the moment is sort of challenging because of the technological environment and so on. That said, I don't think it's an invalid emphasis. If you do all the things that is says to do in that ancient sutra, you will be in the moment, because it's asking you to systematically observe things: your feelings, your thoughts, your perceptions, sounds, and so on. And so you will be in the moment. Now, as for the judgment question, that's another thing that's actually not explicit in the texts. But again, I think it's true to the spirit of Buddhism to say that you are viewing your feelings without judgment. And, the question you raise is a common one. In other words, if in a way the goal of Buddhism broadly speaking were able, is to allow you to sustain wellbeing even in adverse circumstances --which is one thing it is about, is there not a danger that you'll become content with any circumstances whatsoever? And not judge certain things as bad things you want to change. You hear this from social activists, for example, this concern, like, 'Will I lose my passion for social justice?' My feeling about that is that it's a very good theoretical question and not a very urgent practice question. In other words, I can imagine you going so far down the path that you would sit around meditating pretty much all the time and be a pretty contented person. Or, even if you weren't meditating all the time, you know, go through life so content, so non-judgmental that you were not a particularly positive force in the world, even though I would say at a minimum you were at least no longer part of the problem. And that's something, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Robert Wright: Because if you really followed the Buddhist path you will have relinquished the obviously selfish impulses and the subtly selfish cognitive biases that lead us to misbehave. So, in a way it's not a net loss, if you really get close to so-called enlightenment or whatever. But I think for almost everyone that question just doesn't arise. Speaking for myself, I do care a lot about issues of policy and various ethical issues; and I think for me it has been a challenge to not let the intensity of my concern get in the way of actually wisely advancing the causes I'm interested in. And I think honestly that's the position of 99% of the people who raise these questions: is, you know, it would be a good problem to have, if you attained such equanimity that you were no longer trying to do the things that you feel need doing right now. I just don't think that problem arises very often.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. For me, the--I just find it fascinating. I've read a lot of books on the present moment in various formats--it's not literally--some are literally called something close to that. But, they don't--I don't find them very helpful or interesting. What I do find helpful or interesting is the idea that when I'm talking to someone, I'm giving them my full attention. Which is not easy to do. And meditation has helped me to do that rather than, at a party, looking around and thinking, 'Who else can I talk to? Who is more interesting?'
Robert Wright: Right. Right.
Russ Roberts: And I think that's a terrible thing to be doing that; and I'm really glad I do a little bit less of it. And the other thing is, it does help you appreciate as you pointed out earlier and in a number of places in the book, moments of natural beauty, human compassion, poignance in the world that you missed because you weren't paying attention--that you just didn't--and they are simple things like a flock of birds overhead. It's the leaves changing on the trees. It does give you an opportunity to savor life I think a little more vividly if it's used correctly.
Robert Wright: It really does. And it's not entirely clear to me why it does. In other words, I might think that the case would be what people often assume it is, which is if you are looking at your feelings in a more objective way, there is some kind of like dulling of feelings in the aggregate, or something. But that's not really what happened. I mean, it's true that some of the less fortunate feelings and some of the most distorting feelings can lessen an impact. But, you know, in other realms--I mean, you take more delight in aesthetic experiences of various kinds. I remember my first meditation retreat, I noticed that some people were eating with their eyes closed, and I'm like, 'What's up with this?' And then I realized: they are so immersed in the flavor--
Russ Roberts: so intense, yeah--
Robert Wright: and they just want to make it--yeah, it's incredibly intense. And it's not even the kind of food I would normally think I would like. It was very healthy food. And it was just amazing. I had an experience in my first retreat where I was taking a walk in the woods and I saw a weed, called a plantain weed, a kind I--I had spent a lot of time trying to kill this weed, because it had infested my lawns. And suddenly I looked at and I felt like, 'Why have I been trying to kill this weed?' I mean, viewed in a sense dispassionately, it's just as beautiful as all the other plants in the forest. And, by the way, I don't want to get into Buddhist arcana. I mean, I do toward the end of the book; and in fact I use this very example. But, I actually think that's an example, what I was experiencing was an example of what is called, kind of misleadingly, the 'apprehension of emptiness' in Buddhism. I think what that really means is, you no longer impose the kind of sense of essence on things. Right? So, I wasn't feeling essence of 'weed'. That there was a subtle way that feelings had been shaping my perception of a weed that I hadn't really understood. And this was like a deep, a subtle and yet deep perceptual shift. And I think a lot of times the perception of essence gets in the way. Especially when we impose kind of negative essences on certain humans without sufficient evidence, and so on. But, the point you are making is right and very important: That, although on the one hand kind of the Hallmark Card version of mindfulness, live in the moment, is a). not true to the original text, and because). doesn't really get at the deepest part of this, it still it is a very welcome side-effect of mindfulness meditation to appreciate, look, the person you are talking to at the cocktail party who you normally might be trying to get away from, and to appreciate just the visual beauty and other kinds of sensory beauty more.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to take it in a slightly different direction. And to bring it to some standard EconTalk themes that listeners might be aware of. So, some people might say, 'Well, but you're wasting your time talking to that loser at the cocktail party.' And, 'That plantain weed is nasty. It's not as pretty as a rose.' Etc., etc. Now, you used the 'essence.' But I think of it--and this is the tie-in to other EconTalk themes, I think of it as a narrative, a narrative that we have running in our head about who is worth talking to, what's worth looking at. And we have that same narrative running in our head about politics. We have it running in our head about religion or anti-religion. We have it running in our head about our marriage, about our family, about our friends. And as a result we fit everything into that narrative. We have a terrible tendency to cherry-pick reality and ignore the stuff that doesn't fit the narrative. So, that person with the ugly t-shirt or the arrogant sneer obviously is a waste of time: where, in fact, you could be wrong. That weed is--you've got this baggage you've been carrying around because you try to get it out of your yard; but it is beautiful. A starling--my favorite example of this is, a starling is a gorgeous bird. There are a lot of them; and they are also a big nuisance to a lot of people, so they've got a bad rep. But if you watch a starling in the sunlight, it's a gorgeous, iridescent creature that you've been sort of talked into, culturally decided, without much thought--without any thought. And that's your feeling about the weed. That's your feeling about that person you are treating like a weed, to be avoided, ignored, gotten rid of. And I just think, when the things you are talking about were correctly--the clarity that you talk about isn't some mystical--you know, 'I'm seeing the universe in some new way.' Although that can happen. But it's really as much about the fact that you are missing out on so much, because you are running this movie in your head that you've directed; and you've got the ending figured out; and anything that doesn't fit in with that plot, you just cast out. And you're missing out.
Robert Wright: No, that's absolutely true. I mean, I kind of distinguish between the weed and the person at a cocktail party. I would say it is just objectively not true that the weed is ugly. Because beauty--that's an entirely subjective thing. So, if you don't think it's ugly, it's not ugly. Now, there is such a thing as a case where if you were talking to one person at a cocktail party, it would do more for your career. That's possible.
Russ Roberts: Absolutely. No doubt.
Robert Wright: So, that's a slightly different case. At the same time, you know, first of all, you are right: People--I just started doing Uber and Lyft and so on. I mean, every conversation--I've talked to cab drivers all my life, so this is not in a certain sense new. It's just kind of a new demographic that I'm talking to. And, you always learn stuff. And, moreover, you know, if you look at the way you are feeling at a cocktail party, when you just urgently trying to, you know, maximize your social and professional opportunities, are you really happy? It's a restless, unpleasant feeling. It's like a desperate feeling. Now, that said, you know, even if you talk to accomplished meditators and teachers, they are not entirely impervious to--even the career implications of things. You don't have to worry about becoming entirely blind to that. Still, it is worth remembering that you just never know what path will lead to what. Right? It's like--I just--I can give you an example. I just thought of this. It's like, the title of my book, Why Buddhism Is True--first of all, it has pros and cons. I can understand people finding it obnoxious and arrogant. I am willing to defend it at press, and I have a whole appendix in the book that does. But, one thing that's interesting is, one of the more painful experiences of my life was a review of my last book, The Evolution of God by Jerry Coyne, who wrote a book called Why Evolution Is True. Now, I didn't consider the review fair--as is not unusual among authors who get negative reviews. I wrote a big--the New Republic let me print the reply in the actual magazine. But in any event, I suspect--I mean, I just consider that a wholly unfortunate, bad experience. In retrospect, I suspect that if that had happened, I wouldn't have had--I mean, that's probably the reason the phrase 'It's True' popped into my head, because he had occupied such a prominent place in my memory. And, I have to say, for commercial purposes, at least the title seems to have worked. You know, the book's doing well. So, the point is just: You never know. You never know what experience is going to lead to what. And, that's a reason for us all to obsess a little less over trying to seemingly maximize the kind of career- or whatever kind of potential of every moment that we engineer. So, I'm kind of just reaffirming what you said.
Russ Roberts: I just--just to extend it to a different EconTalk theme: there's a certain level of trust in emergence rather than in control. There's a certain--even at the individual level where you have to--and I always like to say, 'The dishes don't do themselves. You have to do them.' You can't rely on the market to do your dishes, or some unseen process, or self-regulating process. A lot of things in our daily life require our intention, our execution, our planning, and so on. Unlike, say, worrying about whether there are going to be enough pencils next year because the Chinese are sending a lot of kids to school who used to live in the countryside. And, 'Oh, my gosh! I'm not going to have any pencils.' And somehow that problem solves itself. We don't need a committee. And I don't have to worry about it. I just show up at Staples and they sell me pencils. I don't have to be told, 'Well, we sold them all to the Chinese. They are gone. No pencils till 2019.' So, I--there's an inevitable top-down aspect to daily life as an individual, and I would say as a family member. But I think the process that you are talking about--again, it's certainly in many religions--not just Buddhism--of letting things unfold without trying to manipulate every moment. It certainly makes you happier. But some people would say, 'You are just naive. You are foolish. You are letting things happen when you need to take charge of your life.' It's not so much, just being a cork in the ocean. It's about the process itself and a willingness to be surprised. And I think for a lot of us, surprise is painful. It scares us. And uncertainty scares us. And we want control.
Russ Roberts: And that's a nice segue to the evolutionary side of this book. Because I think, obviously, we spent a lot of our evolutionary history without control, living outside. With predators. So, it's a natural impulse. And I'm not sure it's such a healthy one in our environment. So, talk about, and react to that if you want. And then talk about what you see as the role of evolutionary psychology in thinking about these issues.
Robert Wright: Well, I certainly agree that--I mean, I'm reluctant to agree because it does sound a little like a Hallmark [?card?] of shame. And, you know, when I say something about letting go and, you know, going with the flow, and so on. But there truly is a kind of logic behind it. The--I also want to reaffirm what you said a little earlier about stories. We have stories. And in a way this is a segue to the evolutionary psychology part, because we are creatures who tell stories about ourselves. I think we are designed by natural selection. Of course, I put "designed" in quotes. And it's natural selection--not a conscious process. But I think our minds are designed by natural selection to develop and cling to a story about ourselves. You know: 'I am the person who writes good books.' And so, any reviewer who gives me a negative review is a bad person--
Russ Roberts: An idiot.
Robert Wright: Right. And I will immediately look for bad things to say about that person. I mean, this stuff happens automatically. I mean, you don't have to think about any of that to--and yet, when you look at it, objectively, obviously this is not clearly a vision. Because, you know, there is no book that shouldn't have some negative things said about it. It doesn't mean that the person who said them is an idiot. And, broadly speaking--this is, this is kind of the broadest connection of Buddhism to evolutionary psychology--is that, as I said, that Buddhism says: 'We are inclined to suffer recurringly. We are inclined to not see the world clearly. There is a connection between the two. If we saw the world more clearly we would suffer less.' Well, when I emerged from writing my book on evolutionary psychology, The Moral Animal, I was convinced of two things: We were not designed by moral selection to be happy. For starters, gratification is designed to evaporate. You know, you eat food, feels good for a while, then you hunger for more. That makes sense as a way to design an animal if you want it to stay alive. Right? For it to get recurringly hungry and for the gratification to evaporate. Secondly, feelings like fear and anxiety are natural. They are designed for a purpose. Although they often misfire in the modern environment--which I get into in the book and complicates things. Still, the point is: Natural selection is willing to use our suffering as a motivator in many ways. And, the other take on my head, after writing about evolution, you say, 'Psychology was[?] not designed to see the world clearly.' There are trivial examples like this, like people tend to overestimate the speed of approaching objects. Which makes sense, because it's better to get out of the way--
Russ Roberts: Better safe than sorry.
Robert Wright: Right. But that's an out and out misperception. That's a clear, objective misperception of the world. And there are all kinds of subtler misperceptions. Some of which are emphasized in Buddhism and borne out in evolutionary psychology. But, at any rate, I decided--this is one reason I decided to write this book: I thought that Buddhism needed to be looked at, and mindfulness meditation in particular with a kind of systematic reference to the process that created the human mind, natural selection, because I think that does tend to validate a lot of the claims made by Buddhism and tend to explain why mindfulness meditation can be not just a successful therapeutic exercise but a way to actually clarify your vision. Because, these feelings that are built into us are, again, not designed to get us to see the world clearly but just designed to motivate us.
Russ Roberts: That's incredibly interesting. I guess, the thing that troubled me about a couple of things in the book--one,--not that I'll give it a bad review, Bob. Don't worry. The thing that troubled me, one thing that troubles me about the evolutionary psychology approach is that it is a little bit of a Just So story after the fact; and I think it's very hard to disentangle, say, my desire for control with my primitive ancestors, my personal genetics, the cultural baggage I've picked up during my lifetime, cultural baggage I was given by my parents when I was small and can't remember. So, to me, it's a little more complicated. And in fact you could argue, based on the data, that natural selection must have designed us for suffering--because we do a lot of it. Now, I understand your claim that we're burdened with a primitive mind not so fit for modern times. But an alternative interpretation would be: The human lot is to suffer, the human lot is--because if for no other reason, we're the only animal that I know of that knows its death is inevitable, and has to live every minute of adult consciousness with that awareness. I want to raise a question that I didn't find in the book, which I miss, about consciousness. Consciousness is really what gives us suffering. We could have been an animal--all the other animals, they have primal drives; they can't resist them at all, right? They're really bad it. We're not good at it, but we're better than they are in some dimension, I suppose. Or at least we think we are. Maybe that's an illusion. But, it seems to me that the evolution of consciousness, the awareness of our suffering, our awareness of our challenges in life--and I don't want to be a pessimist; I think there's a lot of glorious things in life, obviously. I'm just being a little bit of a devil's advocate here. But it seems to me that consciousness itself is a big source of our challenge. And I don't think we have a very good evolutionary understanding of consciousness. What do you think of that argument? Do you think we have or will have an understanding of consciousness that will help us? Or, do you think we've already solved it in the current psychology literature and the evolutionary psychology literature?
Robert Wright: First, quickly, so you are right about the kind of evidentiary challenges that evolutionary psychology faces, and actually evolutionary biology. Showing that any trait is actually a product of natural selection is a distinctively challenging thing in the sciences. And I talked about that in my book on evolutionary psychology. But you're right that different claims about what is adaptive, a product of natural selection, deserve different degrees of confidence. And that includes a thing I said about approaching objects: we don't know for sure that that's an adaptation. But, I deal with that in the evolutionary psychology book. You're right: it's a [?] valid question. I'd also emphasize: I agree with you, suffering is built in by natural selection. That's part of the problem. It's not the only--but you're right it's not the only problem. So, anxiety is natural. To care what people think about you is natural. And for that to sometimes cause anxiety is natural. But, then, in a modern environment you are thrown in a situation where you are suddenly speaking to a hundred people you've never met. That's a new kind of situation. So, it's not surprising that public speaking anxieties are particularly problematic; and particularly unproductive. They are usually not helping you. But anyway: On to consciousness. Now, my view of consciousness is, first of all, it's mysterious. In fact, I'd say, if you want a book title that is arguably as audacious as mine, it's Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained. He's as audacious--I don't think we have a satisfactory explanation of consciousness. I think you're right that self-awareness introduces a new dimension to suffering. I assume that when my dog feels pain or feel, it's unpleasant. But it's true that knowing that things will bring--well, it's like when you are at the dentist, you know. It's like the anticipation of the unpleasantness is half of the problem. So, self-awareness can bring new kinds of problems. If you mean--I mean, let me say something about consciousness that may not be what you are interested in.
Russ Roberts: I don't care--
Robert Wright: But, it may be too cosmic and it may be--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I'm not interested in anything. Go ahead--
Robert Wright: may be too metaphysical, either in the legitimate[?] Western philosophy sense of the word 'metaphysical' or in some indefensible sense I don't know. But, I sometimes think that consciousness--I mean, it's kind of a mystery why it's with us to begin with. Why it is like something[?] to be an animal. Because you can in principle imagine, you know, animals that are built like they are built, do what they do. I mean, it's not like anything to be them: they don't have subjective experience. But, in any event, there is subjective experience. And, one thing I wonder is whether it's like reasons we don't totally understand, the way complex consciousness can develop in this universe is through an evolutionary process that creates these complex biological systems of information processing. But, by virtue of the nature of the dynamics of natural selection there has to be in a sense a distortion of consciousness, a warping of it, to bring it into existence. Because, this is--stop me if I'm going too far, Russ. But, because of the weird criteria by which natural selection designs things, whatever gets the most genes in the next generation, wins--I mean, after all, that is, it is that criterion that so often fills our consciousness with a kind of grasping or a recurring dissatisfaction. It's--rather than letting us relax into a simple awareness of, an appreciation of the world. Right? It's because we were designed by natural selection that our consciousness is so often--I don't know, you might say adulterated by this grasping. And, I would say, out-and-out warped. I mean, our perception is out-and-out warped. In various ways I talked about in the book. As a legacy, I think, of the fact that natural selection created the mind. And maybe it's the case that we can in principle use the reflective power that, as you noted, we have, to reflect on the way our minds work, and engage in things that even change the way our minds work, such as meditation, to remove at least a little of what I am calling the warping from consciousness, and let it relax into a state that is a lot more pleasant for us. And I would say at least as productive as us. Now, I may have said at least as much as you want to hear about consciousness.
Russ Roberts: I'm happy to say a little bit more. I'm going to push it in a different direction. Which is: A number of serious philosophers have suggested that there is no evolutionary justification for consciousness. These are atheists, by the way, which is important to note. They are not trying to justify a non-evolutionary view of the world. I would add, by the way, that I believe in God. I want to come back to the religious aspects of my meditation maybe at the end. But I don't think believing in God or leading a religious life is inconsistent with evolution. I have no problem with it. I know others disagree with that. But I'm just--that might be important to mention. But a lot of serious philosophers who are not religious think that there is no evolutionary explanation for consciousness; we're going to need a different understanding of biology and evolution to get to understand how the mind is where it is today. The modern mind, the human mind. And that's a weird thought for a book like yours, because you are arguing that we are burdened, our consciousness or our brain is burdened by this evolutionary legacy and that Buddhism or meditation can unburden us. And yet, it's kind of weird to think about the possibility that it's not evolution. I'm not saying it's something else. From a secular perspective we have no idea what it is. But, it's a little bit weird.
Robert Wright: Well, the whole thing is weird. I mean, I think--my own guess is that, um, there is some kind of metaphysical law, in a legitimate sense of the term 'metaphysical' that associates consciousness with certain kinds of information processing. I want to say--and this is related to God in a certain sense. Because I've actually argued in other places--I think never with as much clarity and care as I should argue at some point. But, I've made the argument that if you step back and look at the entire evolutionary process, not just the biological evolution that created human beings, but the cultural evolution, meaning technological, all kinds of scientific, political, so on, evolution--that has gotten our species to the brink of a global community; and that has built this thing that looks like a global brain, the Internet--
Russ Roberts: yeah--
Robert Wright: I've argued that, um, it's not crazy to think that there's some kind of purpose, larger purpose unfolding. Even if you have a strictly materialist view of what drives it. Which I basically do. I mean, I just--a natural selection creatist. That set in motion these material technologies and so on. So, you can have a materialist view of the whole process, and yet step back and see it as yet in a certain sense a single kind of co-evolutionary process that's been building something that looks like a giant planetary organism. And I think it's not crazy to wonder whether that in some sense manifests a larger purpose--leaving aside the question of what, whether what instilled the purpose was a God or something more like some kind of meta-natural selection process. Whatever. But the point is: If you view it that way, then maybe when people like you and me recommend reflecting on our, our feelings and thoughts, with an eye to revising the way we perceive the world and behave, that, on the one hand we seem to be flowing against the stream of natural selection. And in fact in the book, I say, 'Look, if it helps you to think of [?] Michael's meditation as a rebellion against natural selection, fine.' In some sense it is, because you're kind of trying to rid your mind of some of the distortions built into us. That said, it could be that if we want to progress in the larger evolutionary sense--in other words, build a cohesive global community that is not fraught by all kinds of tribal conflict, ranging from sectarian conflict in the Middle East to political polarization at home in America as we see now--it may be that if we want to do that, and sustain the evolutionary process in that larger sense, we need to attain some kind of metacognition of one kind of another, whether it's via mindfulness meditation or whatever--that does give us a critical perspective on the minds that natural selection left us with. Does that make sense? So--
Russ Roberts: Well, it's a--there's a lot there. That's a very provocative set of thoughts. My footnote to it is that you don't have to be religious to think that there are some glorious things in the world that have nothing to do with natural selection. Our love of--our love of beauty. It's hard to understand that that is selected for. It's just a by-product, maybe. Just something that came along. We don't understand it, obviously. But there are many, many things. And the idea that we have a meta-consciousness as a species through things like the Internet, through EconTalk just to pick a slightly less grand thought--that, it's such a beautiful thing to me that there are tens of thousands of people listening to this conversation--not simultaneously, because they are hearing it recorded. But, somehow, we're together. And I get wonderful email from you out there. You know, you say, you write me, and you say, 'I feel like I know you so well.' Which is weird, because you don't know me at all, the listener. And yet, somehow we have this communical[?] experience. Which has--I don't think it has anything to do with extending the species. Or our genes in the next generation. But it's a beautiful thing. And, um--
Robert Wright: Yeah, it is. I mean, there are evolutionary psychologists that have made in a certain sense, well, that a lot of our aesthetic preferences can be explained by natural selection. And I'm generally a booster of explaining a lot of things via natural selection. That said, when I appreciate this on a meditation retreat or in daily life, the way a more relaxed consciousness, a more relaxed mind is more appreciative of beauty, I sometimes wonder, you know, just [?] and whether appreciation of things is almost the default state of consciousness. And, you know, it's--and it's--and again, it gets kind of warped in a sense in its normal, everyday workings. But I certainly do not believe that consciousness, per se, is adequately understood.
Russ Roberts: I'm a big fan of wonder. And I think wonder and awe are undervalued in our culture--not undervalued in our culture; just we all of us miss out on a lot. And it's out there. It's everywhere.
Robert Wright: That is a feeling that is well-cultivated by meditation. I have, especially on retreat, I have found myself almost literally, at the risk of discrediting much of it entirely, almost literally caressing a tree. In other words, just looking at the bark, the structure of a bark on a tree. And, you know, examining, going--you know, I normally don't notice this. It's amazing.
Russ Roberts: And, to reduce my credibility: I mean, there are many moments in those experiences where--and you write about this in your book--where you are moved to tears by things that don't normally move you to tears. And--it's a deep question about where you are going, if that's the real you, or someone you've created through this bizarre, unnatural experience.
Robert Wright: But it's important, because I think you are kind of emphasizing: We are not talking about a kind of neutralizing of experience.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; sure.
Robert Wright: Which people sometimes think. They think, 'Well, wait: you are going to dull all your feelings?' No. You change your relationship to your feelings. You can become less enslaved by problematic feelings. But, in a certain sense, life becomes more poignant.
Russ Roberts: No, I think--and you could argue that's not a good idea. And similarly, you could argue--I disagree--but you could argue also, 'One of the things I like just most in life is letting my thoughts just wander around.' You know: And, see where they go. And don't try to stop them. And don't try to be aware of them. And, 'Getting lost in my thoughts is one of my favorite activities.' And meditation is, suggests that maybe that's not the best practice. And yet, I'm kind of addicted to it. And it's interesting to have to deal with that as a meditator.
Robert Wright: Yeah. I mean, it's true that one of the first things that happens, and we now know this through brain scans, in meditation, when you succeed in relaxing, is that your so-called 'default network' quiets down. That's a network that is active in your brain when your mind is wandering. But, it's not like you are ending all mind-wandering. You're going to be walking around. It's still going to be happening. It probably has some function. But, an interesting thing I've noticed--presumably one function of mind-wandering is you address little issues and you solve certain problems. Sometimes when I'm meditating, I'll attain a state of calm and suddenly an idea will just pop up that actually is the solution to a problem--in my life, or it's an idea that I should pursue. And it's important to remember that--and I certainly emphasize this in the book--there's a lot of subterranean activity in the mind. There's a lot of stuff going on. And in fact, one commonality of modern psychology and traditional Buddhist teaching is to be kind of skeptical of the extent to which what you think of as the conscious self is really in charge in the first place. Right? More than I think we realize, the work is being done at a subterranean level by perhaps a variety of kind of actors in our brain that have different agendas. And the results of the process are kind of injected into the consciousness. And, so, to the extent that that's true, there's less to worry about than you might think, of kind of relaxing. Because the truth is the conscious mind is designed to think it's doing more than it actually is in the first place.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, we've talked about this many times in the program. The example I always like is Andrew Wiles's solving Fermat's Last Theorem.
Robert Wright: Right.
Russ Roberts: He proves it. Turns out the proof is flawed. He spends a hellish month after month trying to repair the flaw. He can't. And he's in true--talking about suffering--he's in total despair. And, just one day he's sitting at his desk and he sees it. He just sees it. And the answer to how to prove it. We've all experienced this in daily--once you get older, you've experienced this in daily life, frequently. Which is: You want to remember somebody's name or some movie or who wrote that song. And you start thinking about it. You go through the alphabet, trying to figure out what letter it might start with to trigger your memory. And what almost always works for me, and I think it works for everyone, is: Stop thinking about it. And in ten minutes, have someone ask you about it again. And it just pops right into your head. It's something about the way our brain accesses the hard drive. It's obscured from us, obviously. Like many things are.
Russ Roberts: We've probably lost all of our economics listeners. But in case any of them are still hanging on: What are the implications of the mindset that you are talking about in the book, which is, you just referenced, which is the, 'I feel like I'm in charge but I'm really not', which meditation forces you to confront? What are the implications of that for economics, say? Or public policy? A lot of people would argue, 'Because we don't really know our own best interests, we need to be taken care of. We need to be nudged. Paternalism is necessary. And it's not just something we should hold our nose at. It's imperative.' What are your thoughts on that? Especially after you've been thinking about this for a long time.
Robert Wright: So, I'm thinking you're[?] trying to steer me towards some Buddhism/libertarianism synthesis here, right?
Russ Roberts: Exactly.
Robert Wright: Do I have your agenda sized up accurately?
Russ Roberts: Actually, not. Because I already did that with the emergent stuff. Now is your time to bring it back into the--I have to[?] run people's lives--
Robert Wright: It's an interesting question--
Russ Roberts: because they are a bunch of crazy people.
Robert Wright: I guess, I wouldn't--it's not so much that would see policy implications. At least, none are occurring to me right now. Maybe if I meditate for an hour, some will show up. But, I think there's an interesting analogy, just metaphorically, between the libertarian approach to the economy--and I should concede, I'm not a libertarian, at the risk of alienating maybe some of your listeners. But, there's an analogy between that and the way the mind works. In other words, the libertarian attitude toward the economy is maybe a productive attitude to the way, a take toward your mind, and in a certain sense one that's being encouraged in mindfulness meditation. Which is to say: Trust the--well, trust a certain set of the workings of it--you know, a little more than you do.
Russ Roberts: But I want--Bob, I want to push you in the other direction.
Robert Wright: Okay.
Russ Roberts: You know, the psychology of the book, which we haven't gotten into very much, the psychology research, partly because I'm a skeptic about psychology research--but that's a topic for another time. The psychology research that you bring, and you could argue the evolutionary material that you bring, suggests that the human brain leads us to illusion. And certainly this is the Buddhist perspective as well. So, we're all full of illusion, full of delusion. And we don't know what's best for ourselves. We eat too many power donuts and we don't sleep enough and we spend too much time on the Internet. Etc., etc., etc. Can't control our urges. And so therefore we need a more powerful state and a more powerful interventionist government--
Robert Wright: I see--
Russ Roberts: to take care of us. Because we're so deeply flawed.
Robert Wright: Well, I would just say that to the extent that we don't solve our problems ourselves, there is a stronger case for that. I won't rehash all the standard arguments, which is that, if drug addiction is creating negative social externalities, then it is, you know, then it is a more legitimate public policy target than if it's not. Although I think you could make a case for--in some sense, either way. But certainly it's, it's--well, I guess I would say that we're talking about a set of techniques when we are talking about mindfulness meditation that can empower people to solve some of their own problems without forms of assistance that might have otherwise come from the government, in principle. And, by the way, the treatment of addiction--there's this specific kind of mindfulness technique. I talked about it a little bit in the book--
Russ Roberts: Yep.
Robert Wright: that helps people quit smoking and so on, like that. I mean, even though I'm not, I'm not a libertarian, I'm in favor of as much self-reliance as possible in solving problems. It's just almost inherently more efficient. And, I think this is a major set of tools to use in that regard. I don't know if that responds to your question--
Russ Roberts: [?], no, that's great [?]--
Robert Wright: I may have continued to resist your agenda. I'm sorry.
Russ Roberts: Not at all.
Robert Wright: My ideology compels me to resist.
Russ Roberts: No, you took me in a direction that I--that was great.
Russ Roberts: Let me mention Adam Smith. We've talked about his work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Smith talks about man's--the human being's--desire to be loved and lovely. We want attention; we want to be respected; we want to be admired; we want to be liked. And we want to be worthy of it--which is the twist on it that I think doesn't fit so well with the evolutionary--first part fits fine with evolution. Second part is more--is a little harder to square. He argues that we want to be--we actually want to be good. Because we want to earn the respect that other people have for us. We want to recognize that we are relatively unimportant relative to other people even though everything inside us says, 'Me, me, me.' And he says all that without relying on benevolence. He doesn't think we're very benevolent or good-hearted to start with, but he suggests that culture encourages us to be less self-interested than we otherwise would be, because we want that respect from other people.
Robert Wright: Right.
Russ Roberts: And we want to have it fully. Reflect on how that fits in with, say, Buddhism, or how meditation might interplay with that.
Robert Wright: Well, first of all, I think it's pretty broadly consistent with evolutionary psychology in the sense that we do--it makes sense that we want the esteem of people. That seems to have been correlated with getting genes into the next generation. Having the esteem of people, being highly thought of, having high local status, and so on. And that includes having esteem in matters of moral conduct. We want to be thought of as good people. Now, in fact, that tendency seems to be so strong that we have mechanisms for convincing ourselves that we are good even when we are not. I mean, if you ask--survey after survey has shown is if you ask people whether they are better morally than the average person, a large majority say they are. Well, obviously, they are not all right. Right?
Russ Roberts: Well, criminals, I think, see themselves--I'm sure there's survey data on this, but I've seen casual data--that, they think of themselves basically as a good person.
Robert Wright: Right. Now, that's the way we are. And that kind of doesn't sound all that harmful. And a slight inflation of something. At the same time. But the flip side of that is convincing ourselves that various other people who are impeding our short-term agenda are bad people. And so on. There's a whole set of moral biases built into us that in the aggregate are not--well, to put it in economic terms, are not conducive to social efficiency, really. They lead to--we waste a lot of time--distorting the data, so to speak. And telling stories that distort the data. And behaving more badly than if we had a clear view of ourselves. And, meditation, I think, is good about clearing away those obstacles. And, in fact, those distortions. And in fact, if you ask: What does Buddhism mean by these crazy-sounding claims like 'not self'--like, the self in some sense does not exist? Or, 'emptiness'--that things don't have essence? I argue in the book--I mean, leave aside what the full-on not-self or emptiness experience is like. Very few of us will ever find out. We just won't meditate for 5 hours a day for 5 years or whatever it might take us. I think we do make incremental progress toward, in a direction of those things. And that incremental progress is very easy to understand. It's just a slight dilution of, you know, unfair judgments of people; an exaggerated sense of moral entitlement; and things like that. And, I think that's all to the good. And it would be one thing if I was asking people to sacrifice--because I know, some people think, 'Well, wait. Then I'm not pursuing my agenda. I'm not, you know, I'm not getting what's mine.' Again, the Buddhist claim, which I think is borne out, is that becoming a better person can align with becoming a happier person, and with seeing the world more clearly. That's an amazing claim, when you think about it--that you can kill three birds with one stone. But, I think it's true, it's not trivially easy. It's not magic. You have to decide that meditation is worth it, stick with it, and ideally view in light, in a kind of philosophical light of the kind we've been describing. But I really think the central claim is true.
Russ Roberts: Well, Smith says, later on he says--later on, still in The Theory of Moral Sentiments--he says there are two paths in life to get us admired, respect and love. One is fame, power, and money. People who are famous, powerful, and rich get a lot of attention and satisfy that urge. He says the other way is to be virtuous and wise. And he suggests you take the less glittering path, the one of virtue and wisdom. And the reason--we can close on this--the reason I mention it--I want to bring in a couple of things from before, as well. The strange thing I find about the Mindfulness movement, what some people call 'McMindfulness'--the commoditization and commercialization of mindfulness so that it's--'It's going to make you more productive! It's going to make you happier!' And I think that a--it's not what actually happens, at least in the direct consequence. It could be a second-order effect through the goodness mechanism. And I do--as a religious person, a part that religion brings to my meditation is a desire to be good, not just happy. And I think that's missing from a lot of, say, corporate mindfulness programs. I am guessing. I don't know. I don't spend a lot of time at them. Go ahead.
Robert Wright: I suspect that's true. They certainly try not to connect--in these institutional settings, they tend to try not connect any of this to Buddhist philosophy. That just creates political problems for them to the extent that it sounds religious. Even though we are basically talking about secular Buddhism, not the supernatural part. But, um, yeah. What I'm trying to show in the book is not like how to be happy. There are books like that. I am trying to make the case that in principle, this kind of happiness is a valid happiness. Which--in other words, it can align with better behavior, a clear perception of the world. So, in other words, there can be a convergence of happiness, moral truth, and truth--objective truth--about the world, so to speak. In principle. And I agree with you that--I think the best way to approach it is not to worry about the happiness part. Try to view the world more clearly. And try to focus on impediments to behaving decently toward your fellow human beings. Um, and the rest will fall into place. And, and, I try to focus on at least those two dimensions, at least as much as on the happiness part.