In addition to two academic monographs, a trade book, a full-length annotated translation, and an edited volume, I’ve published over 20 refereed journal articles in a wide variety of fields, including Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Cognitive Science, Ethics, Cognitive Linguistics, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Philosophy East & West, International Studies Quarterly, Religion, Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy, Religion Brain & Behaviour, Journal of Religious Ethics, Human Nature, Numen, Journal of Cognitive Historiography, Cliodynamics, and 中國哲學與文化 [The Journal of Chinese Philosophy and Culture], as well as approximately 25 books chapters and book reviews. My work has been translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian and Dutch, and many of my journal articles have been reprinted in edited volumes or academic handbooks.
Since 1999 I’ve also delivered approximately 150 conference presentations and invited lectures throughout North America and also in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Japan, Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Australia, and New Zealand. These have included the Tang Junyi Lecture (University of Michigan), the Hall Peebles Lecture (Wabash College), the Walter Powell Distinguished Lectures in Philosophy (Linfield College) and the Education as Self-Fashioning Lecture Series (Stanford), as well as invited lectures at Collège de France (Paris), the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Studies, Berlin), Università Ca’Foscari (Venice, Italy), The Vancouver Institute, Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Tokyo University, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Fudan University and Renmin University.
In terms of research dissemination to the general public, my first trade book, Trying Not to Try (2014), has been translated into 4 languages and featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, LA Review of Books, Financial Times, The Guardian, NPR, BBC, CBC and many other newspapers, websites, radio shows and TV spots in the US, Canada, UK, Australia, Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. My research more generally, as well as our work in the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC), has been featured in Science, The National Post, the Vancouver Sun and The Edge website. I also teach a “Massive Open Online Course” (MOOC) on the edX platform called “Chinese Thought: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science” that enrolled 5,000 students in its first offering in Fall 2014, and is now running for the second time.
My current research focuses on several interrelated topics (for relevant publications, please see “Books” and “Articles & Chapters”):
The evolution of religion, morality and prosociality. Why do human beings have religious beliefs and engage in religious behaviors? Are religious beliefs linked in any way to moral judgments, and do they enhance in-group cooperation? Are such links universal cross-culturally? Might the combination of religious beliefs/behaviors and moral judgments have arisen through cultural group selection? Is thorough-going atheism or physicalism really psychologically possible for human beings? These are questions that I am exploring with my colleagues at HECC and other international institutions, in the form of collaborative journal review articles, experimental research projects, large-scale text analyses and through the construction of a massive database of human religious-cultural history (see Norenzayan et al. In Press in my “Articles” for an outline of our basic hypotheses).
These questions are also the focus of a large grant awarded to UBC in 2012 that has established the Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC); see our site for more details: http://www.hecc.ubc.ca/cerc/project-summary/.
Humanities-Natural Science Integration. I have long felt that the humanities has been paralyzed over the past few decades by extreme forms of social constructivism or “postmodernism,” to use a term that no one likes but that I think is quite description and accurately picks out a theoretical stance that is not only very much alive, but still the default position in the fields in which I was trained (religious studies and Asian studies), as well as many other core humanities fields (literature, art history, cultural anthropology, etc.). My last monograph made the case to my fellow humanists for why we need to move beyond postmodernism and embrace “vertical integration” or “consilience” with the natural science; making this theoretical argument, in various forms, has been my central focus for the past few years. I am now turning more toward applications or “proof of concept”—actual applications of cognitive science or evolutionary theory to my areas of study—but am still very much involved in defending and advancing the cause of science-humanities integration at a meta-theoretical level. Our newly established Cultural Evolution of Religion Research Consortium (CERC) is intended as precisely this sort of proof of concept, as it aims to show what can be accomplished when humanities scholars and scientists collaborate intensely on important intellectual problems—in this case, the evolutionary origins of religion and large-scale human sociality.
After my 2008 What Science Offers the Humanities, I have begun to focus more on the other direction: what humanistic expertise has to offer to working scientists. With Mark Collard, I’ve recently argued for a “second wave” of consilience that would get beyond overly narrow emphasis on either nature or nurture and emphasize the bidirectional nature of science-humanities cooperation. Our edited volume, Creating Consilience (2012), offers a variety of case examples of what this second wave might look like.
Theory of Mind and Mind-body folk dualism. Is Theory of Mind (ToM)—the tendency to project agency, intentionality, psychological states onto others—a human cognitive universal? Do we find ToM and mind-body folk dualism in early China, which is often characterized as being “holistic”? Is ToM centrally linked to religious cognition? These questions are the focus of several journal articles and book chapters over the years. A grant from the University of Oxford’s Centre for Religion, Theology and Cognition also allowed me to develop a novel technique for exploring the question of mind-body dualism in early China using large-scale textual corpus sampling and independent coding (Slingerland and Chudek 2011a). The issue of mind-body conceptions in early China is topic of my 2013 article “Body and Mind in Early China,” as well as my latest monograph, currently in progress.
Virtue ethics and cognition science. Is virtue ethics more psychologically realistic than deontology or utilitarianism, the two currently dominant models of ethics in Western philosophy? That is, does the virtue ethics model of moral reasoning and moral education fit better with our current best understanding of human cognition? Does early Confucianism offer a model of what an empirically-plausible virtue ethics might look like? Several of my recent publications explore the connection between cognitive science and virtue ethics, and I am also planning studies with colleagues in psychology and neuroscience that will contribute to the empirical literature on this subject.
Effortless action or wu-wei. This was the focus on my first monograph (2003), and I have since returned to the topic recently armed with new insights gleaned from cognitive science. Effortless action, or unselfconscious spontaneity, is also central to the psychology of virtue ethics, which portrays truly virtuous action as arising in an wu-wei fashion. I have recently become convinced that the link between virtue and spontaneity is centrally related to certain human cooperation problems, such as how to reliably identify genuine cooperators and unmask free-riders. This is the topic of my first popular book, Trying Not to Try (Crown/Random House, March 2014); I am also working on an academic article on the topic and have preliminary plans to explore these issues empirically with colleagues in the cognitive sciences.