Wright on Spirituality, Purpose, and Consciousness

by Daniel A. Kaufman

The first of three discussions with Robert Wright on his Lecture Series at Union Theological Seminary. Topics include spirituality, purpose, and consciousness.

First aired on The Wright Show, on MeaningofLife.TV, part of the BloggingHeads.TV network. June 11, 2016.

Categories: Video, Videos


  1. Thanks:
    I skipped a little but I found the whole piece an interesting contrast in ways of thinking about spirituality and consciousness. From R.W. there was a certain amount of hand waving. He was comfortable with imprecision. D.K. resorted to the tranquillising definition of terms and the setting out of parameters. R.W. in the latter part of the discussion seemed to be moving towards a monistic materialism a la Galen Strawson – ‘like we don’t even understand what material reality is, sort of’. If we can do all that we really need to do without it why is there such a thing as consciousness anyway? That D.K. found interesting as well he might.

    R.W. connected spirituality to practice. Meditation for him creates the conditions in which wisdom and insight can arise but the spontaneous irruption of insight can occur without any discipline. The big question for me is: how in a causal universe can conversion or an utter change of the context in which you live your life, occur. It seems more than a mere rearrangement of the blocks to spell out something new, it’s a different language.

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  2. Interesting and entertaining discussion. Wittgenstein comes up and important fact about LW is that he was an engineer and approached the philosophical problems as puzzles or trying to figure out how the mind and brain fit together. My take as an engineer is I agree of course with his position and that is evident in a lot of these conversations i.e. the representation debate: consider the earliest type of representation we learn is facial expressions and what the parents’ frown or smile mean. At the bottom of every mind is evolutionary emotion which we have covered over with language etc. Why symbols and language take on meaning in more advanced brains like ours is a big step that barely gets answered by fMRI’s etc. which leave them clueless about the true engineering structures of the brain..


  3. I tried to listen to as much as might be useful but the concepts of morality and reality as expressed are so vague that I could make no sense of them at all. One of the prime concepts that seem to be missing is the nature of abstraction and how that is a fundamental of consciousness. The nervous system, after all, is a mechanism deeloped for survival and sustenance and it contacts what we assume is a mass of external stimulation through a set of limited sense organs which are signals that express patterns.. These patterns are organized through a series of nervous processing units that are designed to reject what is termed useless and passes on what is assumed to be useful. These discriminations are both genetically and experiencially judged which may change over time. The final cortex destinations then construct from these refined impulses what we term reality. It differs somewhat between human individuals since our genetics differ slightly and we have different experiences. Other species have somewhat different sense organs and different genetics and radically different requirements for maintaining their lives so their realities are necessarilly widely different from humans. This is the fundamental quality of reality and it is for all of us living creatures an artificial domain which, with its fragmented bits of our awareness we presume is the universe. Science with its extended instrumentation, gives us hints to a small extent that there is much more going on out there than we are aware of but we do the best we can with our limitations. No doubt, if we do not destroy ourselves with the fierce energies we now control, we shall discover more.


  4. I find it really interesting that when anyone questions the idea that experiences are radically private, Wright gets a bit testy. I’m not accusing him of dishonesty (far from it) but it is interesting that he just can’t seem to see how anyone can deny that.He gets quite exasperated. He did it to Dan Dennett too.

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  5. Robert opens his conversation with the idea of being detached and observing oneself which is reached by meditating daily in order to be in the sub consciousness where your real self is available for question and answers and open to suggestions that raise your quality of life, and here I am not referring to financial gains. Interesting. Thank you both.


  6. Comment on the first twenty-five minutes: the terms “science”, “naturalism” and “supernatural” are used as though there are clear boundaries between these categories. In fact, what Wright terms “spooky” is simply something for which there is currently no theoretical explanation, and so is not susceptible to an engineering discipline. As a Ph.D. particle physicist, I know just how deeply the public purse (not just the ephemeral “mental wallet”) is being drawn upon by scientists that hide behind obscure perceptions of reality – who in fact make the claim “if you only understood group theory, you would see the truth as I do.”

    In spite of Kaufman’s early question on this point, these terms are never clearly illustrated, making it difficult to follow for anyone that believes that there must be a natural explanation for “spooky” phenomena, and that elucidation of the mechanism would help us to engineer better and more moral lives.

    In a recent survey of the history of philosophy, I was amused that much effort involves attempting to re-integrate the practical understanding solidified in the disciplines of study that spawned from the original efforts to understand the operation of the human intellect. The current fashion is of strict materialism, which leads us to conflate the mind and the brain. This is incredibly recent, in intellectual terms, with many scientists prior to 1900 devoting considerable attention to an explanation for spiritual phenomena, rather than denouncing it. If you’re open to a criticism of the modern particle physics that is used to reject spirituality and a possible synthesis of “natural” with “supernatural”, I can point you at the relevant posts on my blog. I have found that not only my philosophy and theology have been enriched by that attempted synthesis, but also my living as well.


  7. brianbalke,

    There is a lot in your comment and I am not sure I got it all but I can assure you that the current trend in philosophy is not toward strict materialism or identity theory (mind=brain). The current trend is towards non reductive materialism (everything is substantiated by matter but not everything is matter) and computationalism mental states are intentional states instantiated on the brain

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  8. Hi Dan, well I am looking forward to the next dialogues (especially on his moral imagination). On this vid, I was impressed you avoided eye-rolling when he brought up Harris and Evo-Psych. Regarding the latter, I just don’t understand why that would be useful or necessary for what he wants to address/advance.

    It was also not clear to me why he wanted to hold onto (by redefinition) spirituality. I don’t have a problem with how he did it, but what is the point? He could have just as easily (and perhaps more accurately) discussed mental clarity or something like that.

    Your challenges to his claimed benefits from meditation were important, and I was glad that he agreed with them. I might add that there is no reason to believe such benefits cannot be had through other means, like taking a good long walk or sleeping. And I guess I will admit that claims to having an “experience of non-being” or “nothingness”, or suggestions there are benefits from such (experiences?), tends to set my eyes rolling.

    I don’t have as much of a problem with consciousness (according to his usage). We are evolved biologicals, not programmed inert materials. There is a reason for sustained feedback of experiences in the former, none in the latter.


  9. I don’t get Bob’s insistence on “necessity” in evolutionary terms, reminds of the sort so PBS Nature narration mistakes that say things like ducks have webbed feet in order to swim, plus all sorts of extra-characteristics get created/passed along that a human engineer would have no inkling to add, no use for. reminds me to see where things stand these days on spandrels and the like.

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