On Being with Krista Tippett

Arthur Zajonc + Michael McCullough

Mind and Morality: A Dialogue

Last Updated

March 12, 2015

For several hundred years, much of scientific advance has been about exploring human beings, including their actions and choices, in terms of mechanism — our bodies, our brains, physical processes. Research psychologist Michael McCullough believes that understanding our minds as mechanistic creates moral possibility. He’s led groundbreaking studies on the evolution and cultivation of moral behaviors such as forgiveness and gratitude. Arthur Zajonc is a physicist and contemplative, who believes that the farthest frontiers of science are bringing us back to a radical reorientation towards life and the foundations for our moral life.

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Image of Arthur Zajonc

Arthur Zajonc is president of the Mind and Life Institute. He is emeritus professor of physics at Amherst College, where he taught from 1978 to 2012. His books include Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love and The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal.

Image of Michael McCullough

Michael McCullough is professor of psychology at the University of Miami, where he directs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory. He's the author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.


March 12, 2015

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: For several hundred years, much of scientific advance was about exploring human beings, including their actions and choices, in terms of mechanism — our bodies, our minds, physical processes. Even the farthest edges of chaos theory and quantum physics have often assumed that, in ways we simply cannot yet fathom, much of what we experience as freedom is, in fact, determined by natural forces. This hour, we engage two scientists who are both expanding and questioning these ideas on an evolving frontier at the intersection of mind and morality.

MICHAEL MCCULLOUGH: The universals of human nature may be difficult to see with the naked eye. But, to me, what these advances — like the notion that the people have human rights, I don’t think that is written in our biology. That was — call it an invention if you like — but it’s a really good one. It’s a really useful one.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Or is it a piece of reality that we only evolved to be able to articulate? I guess that would be the other idea.

ARTHUR ZAJONC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s the other idea. And the fact is that every individual has that possibility of making that discovery.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: Arthur Zajonc is a physicist and contemplative. And he’s the current president of the Mind and Life Institute, the Dalai Lama’s ongoing gathering of scientists and spiritual thinkers. Michael McCullough is professor of psychology at the University of Miami, where he directs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory. I spoke with them at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. We were convened by the Center for Humans and Nature’s 2014 series, “Questions for a Resilient Future.”

MS. TIPPETT: Let me just say, before I start, that I’ve interviewed both Michael McCullough and Arthur Zajonc for On Being. But actually, neither of those conversations was in person, right? And I’ve since met you both, but we’ve never actually had a conversation live. And they are quite different characters, which I think is going to make for a fun conversation among us. But I think both of you juxtapose, in your person and in your scholarship, qualities and interests that the culture doesn’t always bring together, especially — I have always loved talking about Arthur as a physicist and contemplative. I like that conjunction.

DR. ZAJONC: I like it too.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, it’s great. So Arthur, here’s a definition that you — of yours of morality from something you wrote: “Morality concerns the nature and quality of our relationship with other people and, by extension, to the world of which we are a part.” Now, what I’m aware of is that the word morality gets thrown around a lot in religion and in culture and in culture wars. And I thought, maybe, as a way to start, to just to ground this in personal experience, which I like to do, I wonder if you might each talk a little bit about kind of your trajectory with the word “morality.” And specifically, what did the word morality connote in your earliest life? Where did it come from? What was it linked to? And just a little bit about where you are now with that. What are you thinking Michael? I want you to jump in.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Well, I think as a — for me, certainly starting out in my career, it was probably how I thought about morality was very much how I thought about it as a kid. Which was a set of things you should be about, you should be doing or not doing. And so I think I was always sort of equating morality with virtues or character traits. I think morality is larger than that, actually. And some of the things that are moral are not really tied to virtue per se. I mean, are you allowed to buy beer on Sundays or aren’t you? Can you go to the store on Sundays or can’t you? Should the stores be open?

Some of them have nothing to do with harming or hurting others, actually, for that matter. They seem to be sort of almost arbitrary lines in the sand that societies make, possibly for different functions than getting along with each other. So, I think as I’ve moved through my career in thinking about morality, I’ve started to see morality as being about more than simply helping and harming, or even about religious piety, but also about fairly abstract and almost arbitrary sorts of concerns as well.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. Well — and we’ll pick up — we’ll keep going on that. Yeah.

DR. ZAJONC: Yeah. For me, I guess morality goes back to my Catholic upbringing. So it was a lot about guilt you could say. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right, right, right.

DR. ZAJONC: You know, sins and venial sins and…

MS. TIPPETT: About missteps.

DR. ZAJONC: Yeah. And you were always worried about being caught out somehow. But then at some point, that felt impossible. It couldn’t just be about a kind of legislation given by an ecclesiastical hierarchy. There had to be a deeper source. And there also had to be the possibility of ethical conduct. Not necessarily with all of your being but just a foothold, a little space in the deterministic universe.

And so science was an interesting — especially modern science became an interesting place to explore the failure of deterministic thinking. Whether it’s chaos dynamics or quantum mechanics, or what have you, you begin to feel that, well, maybe it’s more porous, at least in principle. And maybe the biological imperatives aren’t complete. Maybe there is a space for freedom. And in that case, maybe there is a question of right action that’s morally grounded and true. But then if you take away all of the imperatives of parents, priests, teacher, peer group, biology — all of which have tremendous force on us — and you create a space, well then what is your moral compass? What is the means by which you live a life?

And for me, that led into this more contemplative orientation. Can I explore that directly? Not sort of hypothetically, but can I begin to feel my way or meditate my way into that space of openness? Is there something which can become the axis for a life? And that’s where this knowing, becoming, love. Is there a way in which I can know that feels morally connected to a center that I can place my life inside of? And so that’s become a lived experience for me. It’s not something which I believe I can convey to others other than just by invitation.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s a presence that you cultivate moment to moment.

DR. ZAJONC: Yeah, yeah. I think…

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, that encounter with that question.

DR. ZAJONC: Exactly.

MS. TIPPETT: But what you are bringing home is that the reality is expansive, that subjectivity is real, it is our friend, that in fact this new science — and I want to ask you to say more about this — that it is a radical reorientation towards life. And in it, we regain the foundations for our moral life.

DR. ZAJONC: Yeah. The argument goes something like this, right, that since the 17th century, mechanism and matter have dominated. Around 1900, we went through — from 1900-1925, physics went through a revolution where we began to realize, well, to a certain approximation, we can neglect the observer. But we can’t neglect the observer if we look carefully, if we do our science carefully. We are always implicated. We are always implicated in quantum mechanics and relativity.

There is a subjective dimension, subjective not in the sense of arbitrary or capricious, but there is an observer, or an imagined observer, everywhere. And the universe requires this. This is not something which you can sort of say, well, it’s a nice way of thinking about things. But in order to make sense of the cosmos, in order to have a cosmos at all, you need that element in there. So there is no objective view from outside the system where you’re looking at the whole thing play out according to some universal story. So it’s always a story to me. So, that’s…

MS. TIPPETT: So — that our experience is the only real thing in some…

DR. ZAJONC: Yes, exactly that. It’s odd, but it throws us back on experience, throws us back on subjectivity, not in the sense of, again, capricious or arbitrary — in the sense of connected to my person. From that standpoint, subjectivity becomes, rather than the enemy, becomes the friend.


DR. ZAJONC: Can you feel how then once you have that, the moral dimensions of life come back in. ‘Cause by sanitizing the world of subjectivity, you basically leave out the moral possibilities.

MS. TIPPETT: And it comes — and the moral dimension of life comes back in because what you do matters ultimately.

DR. ZAJONC: What you do, what you experience is reality.

MS. TIPPETT: It is reality.

DR. ZAJONC: It’s a strange thing, you know, what we experience in life as our real world, the world of children and suffering and getting old and getting born and all the rest of it. That sensual lived world of experience in the old view gets explained away in terms of a whole set of other things. Sometimes I think of this as an idolatry. If you’re pointing at the gods, but you can’t really see the gods, so you create a statue. Same sort of things in physics — you can’t see that far, so you create a model, we call it, right? And then you fall in love with the model, and it becomes a form of idolatry. You end up worshipping the model as opposed to the thing you were trying to understand, which was mainly, like, the human being or the planet or the whole cosmos, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. ZAJONC: So you need to be in an iconoclast, in some sense, to take those down and reanimate your direct experience, your direct epiphanies and insights into that world of pattern. And yet by taking that turn, it also connects back into lived experience in a way that, to me, opens up the moral and ethical dimensions of life once again.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. And, Michael, I think that provides a cosmic context for the work you do, which is about the evolution of morality. I mean, I don’t want to — I want to say this correctly. I mean, one of the — you, in your work, take an evolutionary perspective on moral emotions.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah, because the advances that biology has made has been through the notion that, to the extent that you see order in the living world — it is being driven by mechanism. I mean, it’s an odd place. I think we end up in similar places ethically, but I actually see mechanism as our friend.

MS. TIPPETT: OK. So — but I think a lot of your science is about suggesting that we have power and choices to not just do what seems to be adaptive, but to actually become more moral, both individually and collectively.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. Right. Well, we’re special because we have this ability to guide our behavior by ideas, right, not just the sort of immediate constraints or forces acting on us. And that is something really, really special. But ultimately, the ability to produce these ideas is a mechanism-driven kind of thing. But this ability to produce ideas and then represent them and then broadcast them to other parts of the mind is extraordinary. We have so many of these mechanisms that we’re able to kind of take in broadcasts from this idea-generating system that you can almost think we’re free.

MS. TIPPETT: We’ll come back to that too. The idea of moral progress — I mean, one of the things that you have written is that the barrage of bad news on any given day seems to counter the idea, or in your mind, can obscure the idea that the story of Western civilization, in fact, is a story writ large of moral progress. And an interesting idea that you’ve raised — this is on the Humans and Nature site — was that we have overemphasized moral outrage as a driver of moral progress. I think that’s a really fascinating idea.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that — I call it the “Network” theory of moral progress, which is that people see an injustice and that there’s an emotion there that animates them to make changes in the world. And this is a…

MS. TIPPETT: It’s the, “I’m mad as here and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

DR. MCCULLOUGH: That’s right. That’s right. That’s why I call it the “Network” theory.


DR. MCCULLOUGH: But I think anger is sort of overrated as an engine for moral progress. I think, like many of our emotions, it is — it tends toward the egocentric side. We tend to marshal it for our own strategic ends. It serves us and our kind very well, but we’re — it’s a very rare thing when we can experience it on behalf of someone who’s different from us, who’s not kith and kin.

MS. TIPPETT: And — OK. But — so some of your work — your work on revenge and forgiveness is very interesting because one of the things you’re saying is that, yes, we are hardwired for revenge. And, in fact, it’s made a lot of sense in human society, even sometimes towards the application of justice. But we’re also hardwired for things for virtuous actions, for moral actions that are good for other people, like forgiveness. So I want to ask you, if moral outrage isn’t the trigger that — it’s true, we really, really think of moral outrage — I mean, we are a society of advocates, right?


MS. TIPPETT: Then what? What activates — what has the power to activate the instincts to moral repair, to care for the stranger, that are at the heart of our religious traditions, that actually do manifest again and again in human society and that lead to this kind of moral progress that you talk about?

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. I mean, I’m a friend of empathy and compassion. I think they have a role to play. One of the ways that societies have dealt with these problems is that we start by being able to extend sort of a sense of humanness, that people we call other humans gets larger and larger as society — as education increases, as technology increases, as cosmopolitanism increases. And we’re able to empathize with more and more people. So here’s why I like mechanism too. I mean, to the extent that we’re learning that a brain is a brain is a brain, that a human genome is a human genome is a human genome, and for all the important bits they are the same, the reasons for treating any person differently from any other in a moral sense becomes untenable. You can’t — there’s no good argument for it.

[music: “Ganges Anthem” by Chris Beaty]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in a dialogue with physicist Arthur Zajonc and research psychologist Michael McCullough — on mind and morality.

[music: “Ganges Anthem” by Chris Beaty]

MS. TIPPETT: You know, Arthur, you’re coming from such different places. It’s really fascinating. And I — when you talk about — some language that you’ve used in terms of connecting contemplative practices to education to leadership and, I think, just to human life, seems to me to speak to that a bit in terms of activating empathy. I know you said, “Mindfulness practice includes the primacy of awareness and the quality of one’s attending.”

DR. ZAJONC: Mm-hmm. Yeah. To me, I always feel kind of somersault, Michael. Because on the one hand, mechanism, as you describe it — well, a lot of life — my car runs as a mechanism. I’m glad for that. I know how to fix it. But I also know that there are aspects of life, which, at least as far as I can detect, aren’t mechanistic. And in particular, this, for example, line of argument which says the illusion of the person, illusion of selfhood — right — is very evolutionarily or biologically adaptive. But now, here we all are in this room and we’re talking about it. And now we’ve discovered that it is an illusion and that really we are mechanisms all the way down. So now we’re in a strange situation where we know that it’s a mechanism all the way down. So why bother with the illusion? Why not just, ‘Hey, listen, anything goes?’

So where does the possibility for, you might say, authenticity arise somehow? It seems strange to me that, in some ways, we want to have it both ways. We want to be in the know, and yet we also somehow still practice a moral life and love our children and all the rest of it. It’s just the brain doing its thing. And there happens to be a screen on which we depict it, right? I can make the arguments as well as anybody else can make the arguments. And yet it seems like all kind of a house of cards somehow. In other words, we know in physics that matter is not this, right? This is, you could say, matter as a sense object.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and in that sense from physics, we know that so many of the things we perceive are not what we think we perceive.

DR. ZAJONC: Yeah, but what you end up with is a — again, a world of mathematics, a world of theoretical entities and objects. But what does that mean about my lived experience? Keep coming back to the lived experience. OK. The lived experience is one not of illusions, see, I would say. It’s the only thing we have in science. If those are illusions, then the empirical foundations of science that are based in experience or experiments, which are even in the most attenuated way related to experience, that’s what we have as our foundation. But I’d say that is — trust those sense experiences. Make them carefully. Do them with intersubjective agreements and so forth. But that’s what we have. That’s where we live. That’s real. Don’t keep positing something on the other side of it that’s somehow different. There is nothing on the other side that’s different.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Another way to keep thinking about expanding this idea of what the work of morality is. I mean, I want to read this lovely thing you wrote because you talk a lot about love as something we need to take seriously. “Love allows us gently, respectfully and intimately to slip into the life of another person or animal or even the earth itself and to know it from the inside. In this way, love can become a way of moral knowing that is as reliable as scientific insight.”

DR. ZAJONC: I think he’s right.


MS. TIPPETT: Brilliant.

DR. ZAJONC: You can’t say that — you spend time writing, right?


DR. ZAJONC: What can you say about it live? Now, this is, again, something which, as a scientist, you can’t prove, right? So I’m not trying to convince anybody. I’m trying to, though, speak up for, on behalf of or for those people for whom that’s been — that when they hear that, they go, “You know, I know that place. Doesn’t happen all the time, but I know that place.” And at a certain point — William James talks about this when he’s writing about mystical experience. It’s noetic, it’s completely compelling for the person who has it and doesn’t change anything for the two of you.

But it’s — to me, it’s like teaching. When I’m teaching a class, and I’m up at the blackboard, and I’m having my epiphanic moment in front of some differential equation, and the students are all going — looking at me cross-eyed. But then you can see the one in the back, all of the sudden just got it. Right? And then the one in the front goes, “Oh, I see that too.” In other words, it can be contagious. But each one has to do it on their own. It’s a moment of insight. Knowledge is not something you can just move across the table and the other person has it. It’s an invitation to exploration, to think, to ideate. And then there’s that “aha.”

I think you could say that the moment I’m describing there is a moral analog of that moment. Sometimes it happens at the hand of a teacher, you might say a moral teacher or something like that, or a moral dilemma that you’re in the middle of and you just don’t know — can’t see your way through. And then you make your steps and find that place where, all of the sudden, it gets clear. That doesn’t mean you can’t make mistakes. Somehow, people think because you can make mistakes — to me, if you can make a mistake then you could also not make the mistake. They come with each other.

MS. TIPPETT: And so much of the question here that arises is this question of whether we really have any choice or freedom to make mistakes or to get things right.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. Who are we? Who are we?

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and, I mean, I have to say my head is spinning a little bit ’cause — and I want to say, as a layperson, as a non-scientist who — and I interview a lot of scientists. And I love my conversations with scientists. And I’m always just barely, barely grasping around the edges what we’re talking about, enough to ask a good question. But I’ve had this conversation more recently with physicists who will say that there is really no room in the math, which is the only real thing, for human free will, for human action and choice and decision. So here we have the physicist who’s saying that love and pain and experience are the only real things. And our psychologist, who works in biology, talking about us as mechanisms.

But, I mean — I know that’s not just — I’m reducing it there. But one thing about it, though, as a non-scientist, is this view of the world, of us as not having control and of everything we experience, all this complexity of us, as being illusory. It’s illogical, it’s messy, it’s not elegant, it’s not all of those things that scientists insist on when they look for truth. And it just makes me wonder that it’s so important that we keep having these parallel conversations because, as you say, this experience is the only reality we can work with.

DR. ZAJONC: Yeah. It’s given first and foremost. It’s what we keep coming back to. So can’t we start there? And rather than see it as illusion, see it as a way of invitation to pattern regularity. My feelings, my thoughts, my dreams, that those are also open to inquiry. Because they are also experiential, right? My meditations — so I can boringly try things out for 40 years and occasionally something opens up and then you step in. And then you take that as a place of discovery. So, for me, it opens up science to a much broader perspective, a much broader terrain, a landscape with many domains that can be explored, not just the physical universe, but also the mental universe.

MS. TIPPETT: I think that is an insight from contemplative traditions, from Buddhism, but not just Buddhism. From…

DR. ZAJONC: Yeah, not just Buddhism.

MS. TIPPETT: …that has actually been kind of carried forward in time. What are you thinking, Michael? I want you to jump in.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Well, I mean, to me, I don’t find it at all morally depressing or morally hazardous to imagine that experience is — I mean, the idea that reality is served up to us in a subjective way that suits human life, to me, is very morally encouraging. Because, I mean, it allows me to say, with some degree of certainty, that the things that bother me, that would humiliate me, that would cause me physical pain, I can attribute those to you as well.

So, I think it is one of the things that makes the Golden Rule a truth to be discovered. I can know what’s going to bother you. I can know it, right? So — and I can know it — I mean, even in a world where we hear a story a lot that there are genetic differences among persons, those genetic differences, for the most part, are trivial. They are trivial, trivial, trivial. They are just filigree. In all of the important ways, we are the same genetically. Our brains are largely the same. To me, the notion that experience is driven by matter is a terrific moral encouragement, ethical encouragement. It’s not something I find discouraging or nihilistic. It’s quite the opposite.

MS. TIPPETT: And, Michael, I think that some of the work you’ve been doing recently that’s really interesting to me is some of the work you’re doing with gratitude.


MS. TIPPETT: And you’re also working on the cultivation of generosity and the source of generosity. And some of the gratitude work you’ve been doing is just about people cultivating really basic practices, really simple practices of gratitude, not even, like, every 10 minutes, not even every day, right? But that changing them and, one imagines, changing experiences for others — you can’t study that. But what is the point of that if it’s all in the service of biology?

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Well, I mean, it’s nice to know how we can — what windows we have into people’s lives to help them live better lives — right — to live more fulfilled lives and happier lives. So, to the extent that we understand what the effects of feeling grateful are — I mean, I like to understand what it’s for, why we have this capacity in the first place. That’s of real interest to me, how it evolved. But I also — I’d like for people to be less miserable and more energized and more enthusiastic about their lives and to have better marriages and better relationships with the people they work with.

So, if we can find simple things like getting people to take stock of benefits in their lives that they might have gotten satiated to or jaded to and sort of reactivate those.

[music: “Sanzhi Pod City” by Hauschka]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Michael McCullough and Arthur Zajonc through our website. There, you could also watch our entire 90 minutes on stage at the American Museum of Natural History. That’s at onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Sanzhi Pod City” by Hauschka]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring our evolving understanding of morality. Where does it come from, and how free are we to choose it? Morality is a word thrown around in culture wars, and it’s newly resonant from another direction as we analyze ourselves scientifically as highly sophisticated machines.

I’m with two scientists at the American Museum of Natural History, at a convening of the Center for Humans and Nature. Research psychologist Michael McCullough believes that understanding our brains as mechanistic creates moral possibility. He’s led groundbreaking studies on the evolution and cultivation of moral behaviors such as forgiveness and gratitude. Arthur Zajonc is a physicist and contemplative, and he’s the current president of the Mind and Life Institute, the Dalai Lama’s ongoing gathering of scientists and spiritual thinkers.

MS. TIPPETT: So, to circle back around to this topic of mind and morality— and Michael, I think that with your work as well — and, again, this gets at — we haven’t even talked about a definition of mind. I mean, we’ve kind of touched on it, right? But it seems to me that a shift that has happened, even a scientific shift, but a shift that’s penetrated our culture is that morality and, I don’t know, a good life, in a more expansive sense of that, is not just about willing. It’s not just about thinking. It’s embodied. We are becoming more connected. We are gaining a fuller sense of what it means to be human. And so this kind of movement towards morality is about practices and habits and experience, as well as just about any kind of aspirations or behaviors in an old-fashioned sense.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Right, right. I think that’s true. I think part of it is that it’s so much easier to measure your carbon footprint.


DR. MCCULLOUGH: Or measure where your food comes from, or to see what the economic effects of your choices are. There’s so much less ignorance to hide behind that it makes it uncomfortable to act in ways that could be hurting people, but you’re not really sure with a whole lot of impunity, I think. I mean, I think we’ve lost our moral cover as the world has gotten more connected. We’ve lost our plausible deniability for not thinking about these things deeply.

DR. ZAJONC: You know, and I think also there’s a way in which it’s practical. It’s not a metaphysics. We’re not going to argue about mechanism and mind and so forth. We’re just going to do good things.


DR. ZAJONC: And it’s very embodied, it’s very today. It’s the same sort of thing with meditation. Most meditation that takes place today with — completely outside any spiritual or religious framework.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. And that is just — kind of going back to where we started, that is just a whole new layer of us thinking about what our lives mean, what our behavior means. This — adding this layer, often very much beyond the bounds of traditional religion, places where these things were contained — this layer of reflection — I mean, so the morality is not about a set of moral values or willpower. Right? It’s layered with relationships and practices and habits and reflection.

DR. ZAJONC: Yeah. In Mind and Life, for example, is a very large tent. I’d say the majority of the folks within that scientific and contemplative community are either materialistically oriented or agnostic on the whole question. And there may be a relative handful who have a more active spiritual set of commitments. But that’s fine because we’re not there to adjudicate that particular set of ontological commitments, that high-level stuff. We’re there to do some experiments, do what seems to benefit, come to insights that we have confidence will ultimately benefit folks, reduce suffering, and promote human flourishing. That’s the line. And I think that’s just the way it should be.

By the same token, I think, personally, that the good science, if you will, that’s done also has this sort of agnostic character. And where I get worried is where the mechanism commitments and the materialist commitment is slipped in as if this were the only thing any good scientist could possibly believe.


DR. ZAJONC: Whereas I think that’s just not the case. In fact, I would make the case that simply on the matter of science, from the standpoint of good physics, materialism is very implausible, or you have to reinterpret it in a way which makes it bizarre. So this is not the place to hold out those arguments and so forth. But you don’t need them. I think science doesn’t rely on them. I mean, I don’t see — if this is an illusion, then the brain is an illusion. So, it just feels to me like we’re constantly in this infinite regress.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Seems to me that the term “moral imagination” may be something we’re growing to — growing into, even with our science — that it’s a more generous, spacious kind of language. I mean, Michael, you talk a lot about moral progress. And what I think — one thing you’re interested in and helped chart is how societies evolve morally and the qualities and conditions that we can create that are necessary for that to happen.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Right, right.

MS. TIPPETT: One of the really practical things you said to me when I interviewed you a couple of years ago that I’ve never forgotten was that some things that we might — that might feel boring, you know, not nearly — like the absolute precondition for moral progress is safety, rule of law.


MS. TIPPETT: Well, it’s one of these things, like, you point out that we take so much for granted.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Right. I mean, I think — I really do think if we look at the long arc of history, some of the things that make it so that we’re living in the safest time in history, the most abundant time in history — we are the most fortunate people to have ever lived on the planet. And that’s actually true in most places on the planet. We are living, if you like, blessed existences. Some of the things that are making that possible over the long arc of history are sort of workaday. They’re not mystical.

I think the rule of law has been a critical factor — literacy, contracts. I really do, the more and more I think and read and work on these topics, marvel at how privileged we are to live in cities where you can go somewhere and prove that you own a piece of property. That’s an incredible, incredible benefit to treating your neighbors decently. We just take it for granted. We don’t see it anymore. But there were plenty of times in history, and still in lots of places today, where that privilege is not something that can be taken for granted. And it creates chaos. It creates instability. Lots of these innovations are what we’ve propped our morality on, I think.

MS. TIPPETT: And it’s — I mean, again, it’s so interesting to think about this too that safety, physical safety as well as a mental perception of safety, which may not be exactly the same thing, is a precondition for probably for moral imagination…

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: …in any kind of fullness.

DR. ZAJONC: You know, in classroom, also, teacher after teacher will tell you, “The first thing I try to do is make the children feel safe, and that then they can build trust.” And all the rest of the teaching has to live within that moral context. They can put their head down and do their work without getting whacked and that they feel safe. So, yeah. What’s true for society is true for children, especially.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah, I think the ability to take risks is really encouraged when people are not worried about their safety or where their next meal is going to come from. I mean, there’s a sort of basic — I think, a basic ability to take risks that is encouraged when we know that not everything is on the line. So scarcity seems to be a real problem. So a lot of these things have vicious sorts of feedback loops to them. When we begin to take some of these affordances away or threaten them, some systems may not be resilient enough to have too many of these affordances peeled away before the system becomes fragile.

So, I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about things getting better and better, actually. I think we need to safeguard and sort of buttress what we’ve got and try to not take it for granted, not allow those — these rights we’ve discovered that people have. Well, how strange is that? People have rights. That was a moral discovery.

DR. ZAJONC: And I think one last thing in this regard — this kind of conversation is very precious also, the fact that Michael and I can disagree on certain fundamentals in a safe context. You know, the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum wrote a book, Computer Power and Human Reason. Got him in huge trouble at MIT where he was a prominent scientist. I remember him talking with great bitterness and difficulty about how he was treated by his colleagues for even questioning the possibility of the infinite power of the computer and the possibilities of artificial intelligence and so forth ’cause he was on the inside of all that. First natural language program, he wrote.

It was really rough on him. He had to leave the United States, went to Hamburg where he had a home and so forth in order to let things calm down in difficult time. Or another friend of mine at the Institute for Advanced Studies, same sort of thing. And when I speak about these things, and I raise these questions, it’s been difficult. Our community of scientists is very — it’s got a certain set of ideological commitments.

MS. TIPPETT: Bringing the word “contemplative and physicist” is also not that easy in the world of physics.

DR. ZAJONC: Oh man. No. All this kind of soft language of mine, it’s all hazardous — or raising the question of materialism. Oh man, this is a dogma. I think of it as an assertion. It’s proof by assertion as opposed to by reason. And I want to — nowadays, I’m old enough, I want to call it into question. I never felt that it was adequate with the last 40 years of being in science. But for most of those 40 years I felt like, step out of line at your risk, at your peril. I’ve done it occasionally and more consistently recently, late in life.

But we shouldn’t have illusions about science, even today, welcoming the full discourse. There are certain general commitments. And one has to be — sort of pluck up one’s courage at least to step into the fray. And then, more often than not, I think there’s a positive response. You can get hit a few times. But basically, that’s fine. So, I think we should practice this kind of work more and more, allow for that difference, explore it with real respect and civility and have it be the — what Hannah Arendt might like as our public place of discourse where really the most important ideas can be debated openly. And it doesn’t — we don’t have to come to a single conclusion at the end.


DR. ZAJONC: But we’ve aired them. We’ve done so with respect and care for each other.

[music: “You’re So Very Far Away” by Lifenotes]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today in a dialogue with physicist Arthur Zajonc and research psychologist Michael McCullough — on mind and morality.

[music: “You’re So Very Far Away” by Lifenotes]

MS. TIPPETT: Michael, you’ve used — a couple of times, you’ve used the language of that’s a discovery, that’s a moral discovery. And I kept thinking, when I was getting ready to talk to both of you about a conversation I had years and years ago with a cosmologist named George Ellis, who’s from South Africa, who has this idea that ethics — and I think he might use the word “morality” or “moral life” also the way we’re using it here — is discovered rather than invented in the way people say Einstein discovered the laws of relativity, that the laws of physics are somehow embedded in the fabric of the universe for us to discover.

And George Ellis believes that a moral sensibility, what we call ethics, is also embedded in the fabric of the universe for us to discover. And across history, it’s traditionally been philosophers and theologians who are on that frontier of discovery. I feel like it’s so interesting that we live in a moment now where psychologists and biologists and even physicists are on this — neuroscientists are on this frontier discovering.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah, it’s a strange world where one of the greatest psychological mysteries that we’re trying to tackle right now is why people are mean to each other, why they’re nice to each other, what the bases for these sorts of interactions are. And it is informed by philosophy and psychology and neuroscience and ethics. So it’s one — I think it’s one of the most vigorous areas of social science right now. And it’s intrinsically multidisciplinary. So, in a lot of ways, it’s a great time to be doing it because there’s so much to learn.

MS. TIPPETT: What do you two think of that idea of morality being somehow there for us to discover rather than invent?

DR. ZAJONC: Well for me, I think there are two ways it can be interpreted, right? One is a way in which, in some sense, it’s the biology of evolution, evolutionary psychology, the neurosciences that underlie, you might say, any of our actions. OK? So what you’re discovering is just a fact about history and biology. So it’s like the law of science or the law of physics. But now, in this case, it’s more in your realm, Michael, than my realm. But I think of it differently. See, I think of it as all of that evolution, all that neuroscience, all of that gives biological support to the possibility of ethics. Doesn’t predict ethics. It just gives — it’s, like, necessary but not sufficient. Sure, I need a hand in order to write. Chop off my hand, I’m not going to write very well.

OK. So I need a biological support to hold the pencil. But writing is not explained by that biological support. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. I think the same thing is true for morality and most of what we talk about in terms of evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and all the rest. Sure, there’s an infrastructure. There’s a support for it. But that’s not it. That’s not enough.

DR. MCCULLOUGH: I agree with that. I mean, when I talk about ethical discoveries, I would not want to be getting my ethics from my biology. That’s a — don’t go there. That is not the place to get it from. It’s to be gotten somewhere else. But I think — all I wanted to say when using — and maybe I was being playful in using the term discovery — but I do think that some of what makes those ethical advances possible are recognitions of similarity or universality, which are not always easy to see. They may not even come to the untutored eye without the benefits of science. The universals of human nature may be difficult to see with the naked eye.

So, maybe I’m wrong about that. But, again, to me, what these advances — like the notion that the people have human rights, I don’t think that is written in our biology. That was — call it an invention if you like — but it’s a really good one, it’s a really useful one.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Or is it a piece of reality that we only evolved to be able to articulate? I guess that would be the other idea.

DR. ZAJONC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s the other idea. And the fact is that every individual has that possibility of making that discovery. One of my favorite people on the planet was Marguerite Porete, lived around 1300. And she lived a very — she was a Beguine, and she lived a very kind of proper, Beguine life as a lay monastic kind of person. But she wrote a book called The Annihilation of the Simple Soul. And in that book she describes how she has fallen in love with love. And as a consequence, she has left behind the virtues. She leaves behind the virtues in order to embrace love itself. And then she quotes Augustine, “Love love and do what you will,” that this becomes the moral axis.

So it’s no longer the church telling her what to do. She says, “I leave the little church and now I go into the large church, the great church.” So, she left the little church of the virtues. Because she, I think, discovered the source of the virtues themselves, codified and rigorously enforced. She was burned at the stake as a heretic of the free spirit. That’s the heresy. I think she was 600 years ahead of her time. And we all have that possibility now of making that discovery, stepping out. Most of us have, I think, in this room, probably stepped out of the little church and may be finding our way to the big church. But it’s that way and pathway of discovery that you’re pointing to, not just communally, but individually.

MS. TIPPETT: I think we’ve opened more questions, certainly, than we’ve answered. And that’s OK because I think putting a good question out in the world is a generative, redemptive thing. Thank you so much Michael McCullough and Arthur Zajonc. And thank you for coming.


DR. ZAJONC: Thank you.

MS. TIPPETT: Arthur Zajonc is president of the Mind and Life Institute. He is emeritus professor of physics at Amherst College, where he taught from 1978 to 2012. His books include Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love and The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal.

Michael McCullough is professor of psychology at the University of Miami, where he directs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory. He’s the author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.

[music: “Ruins” by Portico Quartet]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again or share this episode at onbeing.org. You can also watch our 90-minute conversation on stage. And you can stream this on your phone through our iPhone and Android apps or on our fabulous new tablet app.

[music: “CTB” by Dibbs]

On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Nicki Oster, Michelle Keeley, and Selena Carlson.

Special thanks this week to Brooke Hecht, Kate Cummings, and Anja Claus at the Center for Humans and Nature, and the staff of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Our gratitude as always to Argot Studios’ Paul Ruest for engineering our conversation.

Our major funding partners are: the John Templeton Foundation, Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide at Fordfoundation.org.

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