Reza Aslan and Rainn Wilson


Reza Aslan and Rainn Wilson’s new podcast “Metaphysical Milkshake” stirs up existential conversation.

By Jessica Weber

What happens after we die? Do we truly have free will? Such mysteries have plagued history’s greatest minds for millennia. Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing and bestselling author; and actor Rainn Wilson, best known for his portrayal of Dwight Schrute in the hit NBC series “The Office”; are gathering some of the world’s foremost thinkers to delve into these and other of life’s biggest questions on their new podcast “Metaphysical Milkshake.” The show, which debuted June 15 from podcast producer Kast Media, sees the scholar and actor tackle weighty topics with contemporary thought leaders, bringing humor and insight to a new subject each week. Here, Aslan and Wilson discuss how they formed what may seem like an unlikely duo, and what drives their unending search for meaning.

Strawberry Milkshake cup
Reza Aslan

Reza Aslan

Can you explain the concept of “Metaphysical Milkshake”?

Reza Aslan (RA): “Metaphysical Milkshake” is a podcast in which Rainn and I get to ask some of life’s biggest, most existential questions like: Why are we here? How many universes are there? We’re kind of armchair philosophers, so these are the kinds of questions that rattle around our heads all the time. So, we talk to each other about it a little bit, but we also recognize that we have limited minds when it comes to some of these bigger questions, but we have access to some of the greatest thinkers that are out there. People like Malcolm Gladwell or Adam Grant or Elizabeth Kolbert or Krista Tippett. They use their expertise to help us make sense of some of these big questions.

Where did the name “Metaphysical Milkshake” come from?

Rainn Wilson (RW): I started a digital media company called SoulPancake that has been around now for over 10 years. The original name for SoulPancake was Metaphysical Milkshake. I just liked the name because I love the idea. I love metaphysical conversations, just like Reza said. And I really liked something that had to do with, like, a food item, mixing something together.

RA: Food and existentialism.

RW: Exactly. I think it’s a memorable name. It’s serious, but also kind of silly at the same time, and that’s just how we want to do this podcast.

What is the format of the podcast?

RW: We try and have a theme to every episode, so we’ll start an episode joking around and talking about our ideas around these themes, then we’ll bring in the guest. We ask the guests — kind of on the spot — life’s big questions. We also love to hear from our listeners, and people will call in with their questions or their thoughts, and sometimes we’ll even bring them on the show.

Reza Aslan

Rainn Wilson

Watch the full interview with Aslan and Wilson.

How did the two of you meet?

RA: Rainn and I have been friends for a while. We’re big fans of each other. We met through an event that was meant to bring attention to the plight of the Baha’i in Iran, which is an almost 200-year-old religion that is essentially illegal in Iran, where the religion was founded. Rainn is a devout Baha’i, so he has taken the plight of the Baha’i in Iran very seriously. The two of us did an event together, and we just kind of hit it off.

What made you decide to do this podcast together?

RA: We just kind of loved to get together and talk about some of these big ideas. We really understood that we very much see the world through the same kind of lens. We’re both spiritual people, but we are both also very rational and scientific people, and we like to break down walls or barriers that often arise between science and religion or faith and reason. And we were having breakfast one day in some dive restaurant when suddenly it occurred to us, we should maybe start recording these conversations. We started sharing that idea with some of our reps, everybody loved the idea, and it just kind of happened from there. 

Is this podcast an extension of the former “Metaphysical Milkshake” web series?

RW: Yes and no. This podcast is its own separate project, and it is also a continuation of that show. I did a short-lived show on SoulPancake called “Metaphysical Milkshake” that took place in the back of my van, where I would interview celebrities and try and touch on life’s big questions. But this was really the show that I’ve been wanting to do the whole time. And this is super exciting for me. This is my dream show. I have a brilliant co-host — a brilliant assistant to the regional podcaster in Dr. Reza Aslan — and at the same time we get to interview some of the greatest minds and thinkers of the century, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and we have a lot of fun along the way.

Where did your interest in life’s biggest questions stem from?

RA: I’ve always been really interested in religion and spirituality, mythology, folklore. I didn’t come from a very religious family, but I was born in Iran, and when we left Iran during the Iranian revolution, I had firsthand experience of the power that religion has to transform societies for good and for bad. It’s just kind of always been a part of my identity. I’ve always thought of myself as a spiritual being inhabiting a material body long before I even understood what that phrase meant. These kinds of questions animate me and have always been a part of how I’ve defined my very sense of self and my place in the world.

RW: As a Baha’i, I’ve always been interested in our spiritual search. Baha’is also believe in the harmony of science and religion, so this idea that science and religion are not separate silos, but they’re both expressions of one reality. And I was always the kid, like at the “Dungeons and Dragons” game, who was like, “Hey, what do you think happens when we die?” I was the kid wanting to talk about God on a first date with a girl, which will clear a room fast. I’ve just always been interested in these questions, and I don’t really understand why more people aren’t.

Given your unique backgrounds, does each of you bring something different to the table?

RW: Reza and I have a shared perspective that we are deeply curious about all of these questions — sociological, psychological, personal, artistic, spiritual, intellectual, scientific — all the different ways one can study reality. We’re in agreement on a lot. There are some things we don’t agree on, but that’s not really the point. It’s about the asking of the questions and the exploration. I think we have slightly different skill sets, but we’re on the same mission, and that’s what’s important. It’s kind of like a marriage, isn’t it Reza?

RA: I do feel like sometimes we are married, yes.

RW: I’m your man and wife.

Metaphysical Milkshake Podcast

New episodes of “Metaphysical Milkshake” are available every Tuesday wherever you get your podcasts. Video recordings of each episode are also available on YouTube.

Have there been any particularly enlightening conversations?

RW: Dr. Gabor Maté is a real hero of mine. He’s a thinker about addiction and has done incredible work over the course of his life. The question there was, “Why are we addicted to everything?” His whole philosophy is that addiction stems from trauma, so when you have trauma, you start to use whatever it is — drugs, alcohol, gambling, eating — to escape the pain of that trauma as a coping mechanism. As we continued along the conversation, we realized that, societally, we’re in trauma, like our culture is in trauma. So what does our culture do to kind of soothe, escape, quell its trauma? Addiction is a compulsive activity that makes your life worse and worse, and this is something our culture is doing. This is something that 300 million Americans are doing. It’s much broader than just on the personal individual level. That was a really eye-opening episode.

A lot of the questions addressed in the podcast are, by nature, unanswerable. What do you think we gain from asking them anyway?

RA: I would say most of them don’t have an answer, but Rainn and I both believe the path is more important than the destination, and the question is more important than the answer. Simply the act of asking the question and pursuing the answer, in and of itself, I think, is enough to really experience the fullness of what life is supposed to be.

RW: These are the universal human questions that have been around since the dawn of time. These are the same questions that our caveman ancestors were thinking about, the questions we were thinking about when we lived in villages, when we were first forming nation states, and then on college campuses. They’re questions that are distinctly human. The question that underlies all of this is, “What does it mean to be a human being?”

Living or dead, who would your dream podcast guest be and why?

RW:  To me, Bob Dylan typifies pure artistry and creativity, and he’s been doing it since 1962. Every decade, he has made great music that seems oddly relevant to the times. It’s not dated and old fashioned. Who better to discuss the artistic process, the imagination, than Robert Zimmerman?

RA: I’m going to say Jesus, just so I can be like, “Hey, how did I do? I do OK?”

What question do you think about most in your own life?

RA: Mine is how to be good — how can I be good?  I think that’s probably my life’s biggest question.

RW: Hand in hand for me, it’s like, how do I know I’m doing the right thing? How do I know I’m going down the right path? How do I know the choices I’m making are the best choices for my God-given talents?

What do you hope listeners come away with from the podcast?

RW: I hope that people come away entertained, but also really thinking about maybe a topic they hadn’t considered on a whole, altogether different level.

RA: It’s a podcast for people who just know deep, deep in their soul that there’s more to the world than just this kind of material experience we have every day. There’s got to be something else out there. There’s got to be a deeper level of experiencing life. It gives you an opportunity to kind of really think about some things that you don’t normally get to think about in your day-to-day life. And we do it in a funny and lighthearted way, so that we make sure you’re having a good time while you’re contemplating the meaning of life.

Reza Aslan and Rainn Wilson

Photos by Dennys IIic