Arthur Zajonc and Michael McCullough —
Mind and Morality: A Dialogue

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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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.

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.

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In the Room with Arthur Zajonc and Michael McCullough

At the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Krista Tippett sat down with Arthur Zajonc and Michael McCullough as part of a symposium organized by the Center for Humans and Nature. Watch the entire, unedited conversation on moral wisdom, determinism, and free will.

Featured Writings

Mind and Morality: Where Do They Meet?

Where does morality come from, and how free are we to choose it? Explore essays and video presentations on mind, mechanism, and morality, and join the ongoing conversation on moral wisdom at the Center for Humans and Nature's website.

by Arthur Zajonc
»"Love as Ethical Insight"
» "Mind and Morality: Where Do They Meet?"

by Michael McCullough
» "The Myth of Moral Outrage"
» "The Hidden Moral Benefits of School"

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Another very nice conversation. Talk of this world being illusion is getting a little out there for this show. I love it.
It seems like the central theme of the parts that caught my attention is that our experience of relationship is what is what life here is all about. I heard, experience is the only thing that is real, the only thing that we can work with. I heard talk of being aware of the little person in the body of those we are with and love helping us slip into another life. These themes resonate with me, because the best explanation I've heard for what our life here is all about is that we are all one entity experiencing life as billions of different people and uncountable other forms of animal, vegetable and mineral. When I am in relationship with another person, that person is me. I am he, as you are he, as you are me and we are all together, so the song goes.
Virtues are like the commandments and mosaic law which Jesus came to save us from by teaching us to tune in to the spirit of Love. Morality will evolve as we get closer and closer to the realization that we are connected by our oneness and what we do to any person, we are doing to our self and everyone else.
Anger and outrage have limited benefit because they come from fear, which comes from the belief that we are separate and vulnerable.

Infinite way, christian science, principles mention.

Thank you for providing timely transcripts for these shows. As a person who's hard of hearing, this accessibility is appreciated.

Heinz von Foerster has published a very elegant contrast of 'ethics' and 'morals' in his paper, "Ethics and Second-order Cybernetics", published online by Stanford Humanities review (easily found from google search). The summary could be to contrast the stances, "I am a part of the universe" (responsibility for actions, ethical behavior) and "I am apart from the universe" (imposing values, moralizing). Von Foerster's also speaks eloquently to what is "invented" versus what is "discovered" by exposing the role of language these activities (see "Order/Disorder: Discovery or Invention?").

I am grateful that this conversation provokes me to a new insight --no, better the glimmer of insight. Something about levels of analysis, levels of reality. This was provoked by what I felt was Krista and Arthur's agenda of pressing Michael for an acknowledgement of times when mechanistic interpretation is inadequate. This is my agenda too, but I found myself saying "Leave Michael alone! At his level, the level he is working at, 'inevitability' or 'high probability' is fine!" For instance, without a baseline of physical safety, other things are not possible. This is a 'law' we properly pay attention to. Stressing indeterminacy at this level of understanding reality is leading away from creating societies that value a baseline of physical safety. Choice and moral imagination (mostly) RISE OUT OF that level, when that level is functioning well. My metaphor is plants that only bloom when conditions are right. This is somehow parallel to Arthur's hand that holds the pencil. We want to foster the basic functioning of the plant and the hand. From that mechanistic lawful fostering come the conditions out of which the bloom of moral imagination and courage MAY arise.

I don't agree that they were picking on Michael McCullough, what he was asserting made no sense at all at a number of points. It was as if he was willfully refusing to acknowledge that a mechanistic view of the mind is fundamentally damaging to the value of any products of such minds, including the science he allegedly does with his. One of the inevitable problems with a mechanistic- materialistic mind is that any thought it produces would inevitably be merely the result of its prior chemical and physical components working themselves out. It would be impossible to say that any of that was wrong in some way, it would preclude any thought from having the transcendent property of truth or anything like objectivity. For a psychologist to not understand what a physicist seems to about the inevitable results of his intellectual stand is rather astonishing, considering that it is a fundamental aspect of the thing he supposedly is an expert about.

Materialism is the only ideology I'm aware of which contains as a product of its assertions the guarantee that it can only be right if it is wrong. Materialism, itself, is just another product of the minds that it necessarily impeaches.

If you can go about your day feeling good about letting others be people, and during a clash backing down with wisdom instead of acting out. Then you're morally sound. But anything beyond that is changing the world territory, which is the same concept but totally different.

What does the photo of the beautiful Asian woman with the odd facial expression have to do with the interview abstract? It's not apparent to me. What was the intent? Thank you.

As a physicist, I found myself more in agreement with McCullough than with Zajonc in this conversation. I think that Zajonc is badly misinterpreting the significance of post-Newtonian physics.

The latter changes the way we learn about reality but much less, I think, about the nature of reality itself. Zajonc seems to take an extreme idealist position: If the observer inevitably interacts with the observed, then, he seems to think, the only reality is the observations. That makes the existence of the universe depend on the existence of observers and, by implication, since we know of no other observers like us, on the existence of humans. That's absurd. The existence of 10 to the power 22 stars and their environments is extremely unlikely to depend in any significant way on the images in the brains of a few billion humans on one planet around one star. I think Zajonc is confusing epistemology with ontology. Unfortunately I also have the impression that his reasoning is biased by his desired conclusions. Those desired conclusions seem to be more motivated by a need for psychological comfort than by a search for verifiable truth.

If space allows I will also comment on the idea that determinism renders morality meaningless, where I interpret morality as rules for interaction between people. This is expressed (often by Krista Tippett) as the statement that if the future is determined and unalterable then 'it doesn't matter what we do'. But a look at human history makes it extremely clear that what individuals do matters enormously in terrestrial terms. Determinism says that what influential humans did was ultimately determined by the laws of physics, but in many cases the proximate cause of what they did was moral reasoning. Therefore I contend that moral reasoning is not futile in a deterministic world.

While we know from the great work of Dr. David Eagleman (Neuro-scientist University of Texas) and Dr. David Pizarro(Psychologist at Cornell and his MOOC course through Yale - "The Strange Politics of Disgust", TED talks etc.) that many elements of "moral choices" are, and remain "unconscious", and "subconscious", and it can be proven (on MRI and PET scans)that 'choices' are made before we are even fully conscious of them (thus in no way meet the traditional requirements as taught in traditional "Moral Theology, I have found one of THE most enlightening writings ever on the subject in the small Part II of the great Jewish Philosopher, Martin Buber's "Good and Evil". He places the origins of traditional "Biblical morality" squarely in it's place of origin ... the ancient Near East's (Babylonian) concept of "chaos and order". The authors of Genesis took it straight from "Tiamet Slays the Dragon of Chaos" myth, which scholars of ancient Near Eastern literature will know well. His (Buber's) exegesis of the "Garden Myth" (Genesis) is phenomenal. I guarantee if you read Buber's explanation of it, you will never see it again in the same light. The amazing thing to me was, when I read Paul Tillich's book on morality, ("The Courage to Be") he agrees 100% with Buber, and that to him also "morality" means "to bring to reality" (making choices) which result in and are consistent with one's authentic self. The problem is, that "self" is mutable, and learned, in some ways. And in that sense, I see no contradictions between modern Neuro-science, and Psychology, and the ancient teachings of the moral texts.

If "morality" is defined as, "principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.", the audience member insistently coughing throughout the program was certainly displayed bad morality because after the first coughing fit they should have quietly excused themselves from the hall. After the second, third or fourth other members of the audience or security should have asked the audience member to leave the hall. As it was, the audience member's behavior showed extremely "bad form".

This was an unusually rich conversation! A few comments:

Dr. McCullough states that, "The universals of human nature may be difficult to see with the naked eye...[such as] the notion that people have human rights[;] I don't think that is written in our biology. Call it an invention if you like - but it's a really good one. A really useful one."

I myself strongly believe that "the notion that people have human rights" is, in fact, written in our very DNA. This is because at various points we have been told we all have “human rights” and, because of that, this notion now subliminally underwrites everything we do. Along with that, a few scientists have figured out that our ingrained patterns of negative thinking and behavior and their ensuing neurochemical states make it virtually impossible to step back and examine our lives. In short, as a species, we have become addicted to the neurotransmitters that course through our bodies and brains and, as a result, are much more likely to act from false beliefs, which results in greed and war.

Ultimately, the idea that "humans have rights" is just an abstract thought (and I'm not saying we don't have rights!). That said, as a concept, it has rarely been examined in sufficient depth and detail. When coupled with defense of territory and wealth, it keeps human beings in bondage. At its lowest, the concept has degenerated into the paradigm of "an eye for an eye".

As for the "universals of human nature," I have discovered two “indispensable” conditions or elements of humanness, that, if not present, CAN be cultivated. The first is sanity. The other is the ability to inquire within to find one's own personal truth. A civilization missing either element is doomed to extinction.

I loved hearing that some people have stepped out of the little church of virtues and have stepped into the virtues of the big church. I love the big church’s virtues. Knowing that all of creation, everything and everyone in it, is holy, helps me look for the Divine Mystery everyday. Knowing that all of creation, everything and everyone in it, is connected, gives me pause to reflect on how my actions affect everything and everyone. I love the freedom to be curious and to question everything. I’ve become comfortable with knowing that answers only raise more questions to be explored. I love the challenge of reflection and looking beyond trouble and hurtfulness. I love knowing I belong to the big church. My thanks to Arthur Zajonc, Michael McCullough and the On-Being team.

I was troubled by the comments about safety being a pre-requisite for moral imagination. Certainly we learn, reason and imagine less stressfully and perhaps more fully when we feel safe; of course we want to provide safe settings for our children, for all of their experiences.

But when is learning or moral reasoning ever a truly safe experience? Don't learning and the changes moral reasoning can lead to always occur in settings of personal and perhaps some situational risk?

This feels like a privileged conversation in a privileged setting; how shall we talk about moral reasoning in a setting like Ferguson, for instance? In the settings people of color and other communities under pressure face, of very real violence from our failings of moral imagination and moral behavior? Perhaps privilege, too, prevents "any kind of fullness" of moral imagination.

As a person exploring and learning about how best to train chaplains, I know our discipline includes giving chaplains-in-training chances to operate at or beyond their/our limits, so as to know they/we can assist persons who are beyond their limits. This is deliberately engaging risk in order to help others in their endangered places. We talk about creating safe(r) spaces to do this work, but it's NOT safe in the sense of being risk-free.

I would argue better language is something like that offered by womanist theologian and ethicist emilie townes, who speaks of creating sacred spaces for learning, in the awareness that learning and growth entail risk and change, with the real possibility of pain.

In these sacred spaces, perhaps we can seek the abundance that will answer what you note is the real problem of scarcity and the vicious feedback loops it creates.

Thank you for the work you do; I am a great fan of the program and speak out of that serious affection.

Courage and grace to you all.


Here in middle America, we forget, sometimes, that the morality play includes the abstract, too; at least I need to say, "thank you," because I find this to be the case for me; because I really do not know what other people go through.

Listening to all this, it strikes me as funny we consider being able to decipher right from wrong as a major cognitive development in children, yet these philosophers spent 51-90 minutes explaining all the complications of such a dichotomy. Then again, they're pointing out that since people essentially invented morals, there can't possibly be a dichotomy and really, anyone can convince themselves of just about long as it doesn't cause harm. Allthough the perception of if we are or are not causing harm can get pretty woolly too.

I really liked the analogy that writing is not explained by the biological support of needing a hand to hold a pencil. I would tend to agree that ethics don't seem to be something discovered in the way that some universal truths are and are in fact invented by the human mind, especially since they don't really seem to exist outside of us. Ethics also seem, at least to some degree, subject to change based of off location and time period in history. We cant have the same attitude towards animals now that we have had in the past for more than just that it may be unfair to the animals, but it also has huge effects on things like the environment.

Do we understand ourselves more, as humans, when we come to understand morality and us individuals being a mechanism?

Mr. Zajonc brings up a great point, that though it might be with our best intentions that we try to look at the world through a non-human lens, it is actually totally impossible to do so. Perhaps it is even cross-purposes. If the world exists through our eyes and is processed by our brains, then it only follows that we should create our morality in a human context.

How long will it take us to discover the innate morality of our biology? Have we discovered any it yet? If so what?