Robert Wright in the NYT: Evolution could have a “higher purpose”

The article I’m writing about today at length—and I apologize to the “TL; DR” crowd—was brought to my attention by more than a dozen readers, which shows how eagerly they wanted a response—and a refutation. But the article is so muddled and philosophically weak that it basically refutes itself. Nevertheless, because it’s a big piece in the New York Times‘s “Stone” (philosophy) section, I feel that I must take up the cudgels. Actually, the laws of physics dictated that I had no choice.

Robert Wright has written several books on evolution and religion, as well as their relationship; these include The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, and The Evolution of God. (He’s a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary and runs, a website set up last year with the help of—you guessed it—the John Templeton Foundation.)

I reviewed Wright’s last book on God (critically) for The New Republic, calling it “creationism for liberals,” since Wright imbued evolution with a sort of teleology that became mixed up with human moral progression, and somehow imputed the latter to numinous rather than secular sources.  (Note: In a letter to The New Republic, Wright responded to my review and I responded to his response.)

This is a quote from The Evolution of God that I reproduced in my review:

The god I’ve been describing is a god in quotation marks, a god that exists in people’s heads…. To the extent that “god” grows, that is evidence–maybe not massive evidence but some evidence–of higher purpose. Which raises this question: If “God” indeed grows, and grows with stubborn persistence, does this mean that we can start thinking about taking the quotation marks off? That is: If the human conception of god features moral growth, and if this reflects corresponding moral growth on the part of humanity itself, and if humanity’s moral growth flows from basic dynamics underlying history, and if we conclude that this growth is therefore evidence of “higher purpose,” does this amount to evidence of an actual god?

….Maybe the growth of “God” signifies the existence of God. That is: if history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, than maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe–conceivably–the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity.

You can see that in that book Wright elided changes in the idea of God (the Abrahamic God envisioned by worshipers has become more moral over time) into the existence of God: an unwarranted conflation of a change in society’s view of mythical being with the existence of that being itself. Wright has done this repeatedly over time, arguing that yes, there can be cultural evolution and biological evolution, but behind both there is some “higher purpose”—perhaps a divine being pushing it all forward. And I believe Wright thinks that being is God, though this is sheer speculation.

Yet Wright, though raised as a Southern Baptist, considers himself an atheist—though he’s repeatedly attacked New Atheists. But he’s an atheist who hasn’t fully abandoned the notion of God, even if that God is some teleological force that doesn’t have a beard or recline on clouds.

And Wright is still at it, holding forth in a new essay in an essay in the New York Times: “Can evolution have a ‘higher purpose'”? It’s a real mess, since Wright, while still not having decided what, exactly, the teleological force is behind evolution and human moral progress, still maintains that there is one.

He begins (and repeatedly returns) to the idea that Earth and our conception of the Universe may all be a gigantic trick played by extraterrestrial beings for their own amusement: a “terrestrial zoo” that is occasionally manipulated by its creators. Wright got that idea from a conversation with the famous evolutionist W. D. Hamilton. Well, Hamilton had some bizarre ideas about evolution (a few of them were right, which is why he became famous), but the alien zoo idea is not one of them.

And neither is the idea, suggested by Wright later in the piece, that we’re all characters in a gigantic simulation, a Matrix, also devised by super-intelligent beings. Both of these hypotheses don’t deserve serious consideration, though many do consider them. For one thing, they are untestable claims and therefore unscientific ones. How would we know that we’re manipulated by aliens, or even part of a simulation? Further, it’s unparsimonious. What reason do we have for thinking that we are a gigantic real or virtual experiment rather than inhabitants of a real Universe? Adding those manipulative aliens just puts another layer on the hypothesis.

But Wright wants to keep his teleology without obviously dragging in our conventional notion about God, and so he tries to dispel what he calls “three great myths about evolution and purpose”. The myths and Wright’s refutations of them (abridged) are indented, and I’ve put Wright’s headings (and a couple other bits) in bold:

Myth number one: To say that there’s in some sense a “higher purpose” means there are “spooky forces” at work.

When I ask scientifically minded people if they think life on earth may have some larger purpose, they typically say no. If I ask them to explain their view, it often turns out that they think that answering yes would mean departing from a scientific worldview — embracing the possibility of supernatural beings or, at the very least, of immaterial factors that lie beyond scientific measurement. But Hamilton’s thought experiment shows that this isn’t necessarily so.

You may consider aliens spooky, but they’re not a spooky force. And they’re not supernatural beings. They’re just physical beings, like us. Their technology is so advanced that their interventions might seem miraculous to us — as various smartphone apps would seem to my great-, great-grandparents — but these interventions would in fact comply with the laws of science.

Wright considers the alien zoo experiment as evincing “purpose” because, he says, the aliens were purposeful in planting simple self-replicating material on earth a few billion years ago, confident that it would lead to something that would keep them entertained (keeping them entertained being, in this scenario, life’s purpose). And they were also purposeful because they’d occasionally enter the zoo and tweak things a bit to their liking.

But of course there’s not the slightest bit of evidence that this is true.  (Note that here he says that the aliens can’t be considered supernatural beings because they’re physical entities residing somewhere else in the Universe.) Yes, I suppose this scenario is a logical possibility, but I don’t see it as probable—not without evidence. You could envision all sorts of logically possible scenarios for evolution besides the above (e.g., fairies making mutations that change evolution and so on), but without evidence, and no way to disprove them, we needn’t take them seriously. Yet as he so often does, Wright thinks that if he gets us to admit that something is logically possible,  then he’s increased its probability.  But that’s simply not true, and it’s the same tactic that the obscurantist theologian Alvin Plantinga uses to defend the existence of God. God’s existence is logically possible, ergo he exists.

Myth number two: To say that evolution has a purpose is to say that it is driven by something other than natural selection.

The correction of this misconception is in some ways just a corollary of the correction of the first misconception, but it’s worth spelling out: Evolution can have a purpose even if it is a wholly mechanical, material process — that is, even if its sole engine is natural selection. After all, clocks have purposes — to keep time, a purpose imparted by clockmakers — and they’re wholly mechanical. Of course, to suggest that evolution involves the unfolding of some purpose is to suggest that evolution has in some sense been heading somewhere — namely, toward the realization of its purpose.

I find this deeply muddled. A blind material process, which acts simply according to the laws of physics, has no being behind it, no “mind” directing it. That, to me, is what indicates a purpose. Now a clock was designed to do something specific—keep time—but, as far as we know,  there’s no such mind behind evolution. The conception of “purpose” for a process or object, if it means anything, means that an intelligence designed it with some outcome in mind. That’s true for a clock, but not for evolution. There’s no evidence that evolution is tweaked by some intelligence to achieve some aim. The refutation of Wright’s clock scenario is the same as Darwin’s refutation of William Paley’s watch scenario.

Wright, however, doesn’t conceive of “purpose” in this way: he says that there’s a purpose simply if a process is “heading somewhere”. But in retrospect every process is heading somewhere, including evolution. It’s been heading toward all existing species, and will keep heading toward future species. Yet that’s simply the result of the undirected processes of genetic drift and natural selection, and there’s no more purpose in that than there is in the formation of a snowflake, in which water molecules are, in retrospect, seen as “heading” toward a complex and lovely crystal.

Myth number three: Evolution couldn’t have a purpose, because it doesn’t have a direction.

The idea that evolution is fundamentally directionless is widespread, in part because one great popularizer of evolution, Stephen Jay Gould, worked hard to leave that impression. As I and others have argued, Gould was at best misleading on this point. And, anyway, even Gould admitted that, yes, on balance evolution tends to create beings of greater and greater complexity. A number of evolutionary biologists would go further and say that evolution was likely, given long enough, to create animals as intelligent as us.

In fact, that idea is implicit in Hamilton’s saying the aliens could have “set up” evolution in such a way that “it would produce these really interesting characters — humans.” This part of Hamilton’s scenario requires no intervention on the part of the aliens, because he believed that evolution by natural selection has a kind of direction in the sense that it is likely, given long enough, to produce very intelligent forms of life. (When speaking more precisely, as he did in other parts of the interview, Hamilton would say that the human species per se wasn’t in the cards — that it wasn’t inevitable that the first intelligent species would look like us.)

Well, my answer to the question, “Was the evolution of intelligent, God-worshiping humans inevitable?” has been “we don’t know, but probably not.” Even as a determinist on the macro level, I see are truly indeterministic factors affecting evolution, including the creation of Earth by the Big Bang and the likely quantum nature of mutational changes, which makes the course of evolution fundamentally unpredictable (see Faith Versus Fact for a discussion of this issue). From the rest of Wright’s article, it’s palpably clear that Wright sees evolution as having a purpose because it a). operates largely by the differential reproduction of genes (therefore, Wright says, the “purpose” of a chicken is to create an egg), and b). it’s led to the evolution of higher intelligence, which now seems inevitable.

As for natural selection, well, it’s not driven by anything external: it reflects the differential reproduction of forms of genes, and that’s all. If you want to say that’s a “purpose”, then fine, but that notion undercuts what every human thinks about what’s “purposeful”, which is that it reflects processes driven by a being with foresight. As for the evolution of humanlike intelligence as inevitable, it arose but once on our planet, and that doesn’t make it seem so inevitable to me. Feathers and elephant trunks also evolved only once, but would we say that the “purpose” of evolution is to create feathers and trunks? No, Wright emphasizes human intelligence for one reason only: he wants the teleology, without his explicitly having to say so, to implicate a God of some sort. After all, intelligent creatures were the explicit purpose of God’s creation.

Finally Wright muddles up his whole essay by adding a confusing scenario and then trying to dispel a fourth myth.

Wright goes on to misuse Lee Smolin’s idea of cosmological natural selection to argue for the existence of intelligent beings. But Smolin’s idea is about explaining the laws of physics, not about explaining intelligent life. First, here’s how Wright (accurately) describes Smolin’s idea, which is credible:

Smolin thinks our universe may itself be a product of a kind of evolution: maybe universes can replicate themselves via black holes, so over time — over a lot of time — you get universes whose physical laws are more and more conducive to replication. (So that’s why our universe is so good at black-hole making!)

This could lead to a Universe that has the laws of physics that we see—if those laws of physics are conducive to producing black holes. And those laws of physics supposedly are most conducive to the appearance of life. (Actually, all they say is that they permitted the appearance of life; see Sean Carroll for more on this.) But Smolin doesn’t make that last claim, since neither he nor anybody else knows whether the laws of physics are best suited to life. To get to that, Wright has to make a far more dubious claim:

In some variants of Smolin’s theory — such as those developed by the late cosmologist Edward Harrison and the mathematician Louis Crane — intelligent beings can play a role in this replication once their technology reaches a point where they can produce black holes. So through cosmological natural selection you’d get universes whose physical properties were more and more conducive to the evolution of intelligent life. This might explain the much-discussed observation that the physical constants of this universe seem “fine-tuned” to permit the emergence of life.

Do I really need to rebut that speculation, which requires the existence of some hyper-intelligent agents able to produce black holes? Isn’t it rather unparsimonious to think that? And if this aliens are already living material beings somewhere in the Universe, or in another Universe, then there’s already some place where intelligent life already exists. Why go to the trouble of making more black holes for making more life when there already is life? Here Wright is adding what Anthony Grayling calls an “arbitrary superfluity” to save his hypothesis that there is some Big Mind behind human evolution.

At the end, Wright notes that although these Fancy Space Aliens might be material beings, they’re also sort-of-supernatural (or at least Goddy)—something he denied in Myth Number One. And so he adds another myth:

Myth number four: If evolution has a purpose, the purpose must have been imbued by an intelligent being.

That said, one interesting feature of current discourse is a growing openness among some scientifically minded people to the possibility that our world has a purpose that was imparted by an intelligent being. I’m referring to “simulation” scenarios, which hold that our seemingly tangible world is actually a kind of projection emanating from some sort of mind-blowingly powerful computer; and the history of our universe, including evolution on this planet, is the unfolding of a computer algorithm whose author must be pretty bright. [JAC: Why is this a myth, then, if it involves an intelligent being?]

 Again, a simulation scenario is an unparsimonious hypothesis that, as far as I can see, is untestable. But Wright sees it as logically possible (which it is), and therefore we should take it seriously. But that’s bogus: there are lots of logical possibilities, like the existence of Santa Claus and the as-yet-unseen Loch Ness Monster, that we don’t take seriously—at least as adults. Further, Wright sees the simulation hypothesis as something corresponding to our idea of God, therefore vindicating his hidden desire for divinity:

When an argument for higher purpose is put this way — that is, when it doesn’t involve the phrase “higher purpose” and, further, is cast more as a technological scenario than a metaphysical one — it is considered intellectually respectable. [JAC: Not to me! And isn’t setting up a specific “tech=nological scenario” accepting a purpose conceived by intelligent beings?] I don’t mean there aren’t plenty of people who dismiss it. I’m talking about how people dismiss it. The Bostrom paper [a paper by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostron claiming there are good reasons to think we’re living in a simulation] drew flack, but a lot of it was from people who thought the chances that we’re living in a simulation are way less than 50 percent, not from people who thought the idea was wholly crazy.

If you walked up to the same people who gave Bostrom a respectful hearing and told them there is a transcendent God, many would dismiss the idea out of hand. Yet the simulation hypothesis is a God hypothesis: An intelligence of awe-inspiring power created our universe for reasons we can speculate about but can’t entirely fathom. And, assuming this intelligence still exists, it is in some sense outside of our reality — beyond the reach of our senses — and yet, presumably, it has the power to intervene in our world. Theology has entered “secular” discourse under another name.

Personally, I’m fine with that. I think discussion of higher purpose should be respectable even in a scientific age. I don’t mean I buy the simulation scenario in particular, or the space alien scenario, or the cosmological natural selection scenario. But I do think there’s reason to suspect that there’s some point to this exercise we Earthlings are engaged in, some purpose imbued by something — and that, even if identifying that something is for now hopeless, there are grounds for speculating about what the point of the exercise is.

No, the simulation hypothesis is not a “God hypothesis,” for if anything, to the vast bulk of believers God represents something supernatural, and Wright’s hypothesis is manifestly not supernatural. And it’s not theology, either, which is the study of a supernatural god or gods. And if Wright wants to posit the existence of something that directs evolution, he has to first show us phenomena that cannot have been produced by evolution itself  without the intervention of some other intelligence.

At the end of his piece, Wright links to his essay on one such phenomenon, which is consciousness. Well, we don’t yet understand its neurological or evolutionary basis, but I have confidence that some day—probably not in my lifetime—we will. After all, materialism has always led to the solution of scientific problems, if they’re solvable, whereas teleological and supernatural views have never led anywhere. Wright’s SOMETHING-of-the-Gaps argument is the reason why I refer to his lucubrations as “creationism for liberals”. It doesn’t materially differ from those Intelligent Design advocates who claim that there are some scientific puzzles (like consciousness or bacterial flagella) that can’t be explained and never will, therefore there’s some “Designer” out there. Like Wright, they, too, don’t name the designer, though we know that IDers really think it’s the Abrahamic God. Wright is either more coy than IDers (and thus won’t drag God into his essay), or—more likely—simply confused, but longing for transcendence. But in the end, the fact that something is logically possible says nothing about its probability.

Wright’s oeuvre over the last few years has been aimed at what he said in his quote at the top: taking the quotation marks away from “God.” Now why on Earth would someone want to do that? I can only speculate, but I do see that Wright describes the Higher Purpose Gambit as a “philosophically liberating upshot.” In other words, it makes him feel good, and makes his religious or “spiritual” readers feel good. And it surely also makes the John Templeton Foundation feel good. Again I say, “Well played, Templeton!”


Could this be Wright’s source of “transcendence”?


  1. Joseph Stans
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I have read or tried to read several of his books. I always create a review card in my index of books. He is filed with the key word “Twit”.

    He is completely enamored with the inconsequential. thus he appeals only to those seeking answers they can tolerate for inconsequential questions. Somehow it makes sense that a foundation seeking ways to make the inconsequential consequential would fund his bafflegab.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      A twit is a pregnant goldfish – that’s far too complimentary! 😀

      Wright is an idiot and it annoys me that he gets paid so much to spew out this crap, and so that so many ingurgitate it like baby birds.

      • Posted December 13, 2016 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

        I’ve never agreed with Wright’s overall message, but he has produced some good interviews. I’ll give him this: he knows enough to be able ask good questions and serve as a decent foil for his interviewee. He gets them to flesh out their ideas in interesting and understandable ways, even if it’s because they’re trying to correct him on something.

  2. George
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Why is Wright taken seriously by anyone? He has somehow attained the status of public intellectual. All the result of “The Moral Animal” which was published in 1994. Steven Pinker gave it a mixed review in the NYT:

    The Times still named it as one of the 12 best books of 1994. And Wright has continued to go further down that rabbit hole ever since. He is, at best annoying. And very thin skinned – as PCC(e) learned.

    • jaxkayaker
      Posted December 14, 2016 at 8:50 am | Permalink

      Wright has it wrong on the science, wrong on semantics, and wrong on philosophy, and yet gets his errors published in the New York Times . Neat hat trick.

      “He begins (and repeatedly returns) to the idea that Earth and our conception of the Universe may all be a gigantic trick played by extraterrestrial beings for their own amusement: a “terrestrial zoo” that is occasionally manipulated by its creators.”

      This idea has been well satirized by Douglas Adams and South Park .

      The impulse to seek meaning, instantiated in Wright’s writing reminds me of the line in Tom Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction : “logic only gives man what he needs; magic gives him what he wants”.

  3. eric
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    That seems like an awful lot of words just to try and argue that we should take the existence of some external purpose seriously.

    if history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, than maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe–conceivably–the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity.

    Well if this is the case, Wright should then recognize that pantheism is a distinct possibility, because there’s going to be as many of his type of divinities as there are sentient species in the universe. After all, we should not expect an alien to share human morality, and he’s claiming our moral development creates some divinity.

    Theology has entered “secular” discourse under another name.

    LOL, I think what he’s arguing is the reverse, and what he’s really done here is try to make a virtue out of necessity. Theology is about supernatural beings. But as higher-educated secular society rejects supernatural beings, Wright wants to find a way to keep theology relevant. So he hatches on the idea of saying alien zoo-keepers and matrix-computers count as theology.

    Meh, we’ve heard this before. Science advances, but finds no evidence of what past generations considered mystical or supernatural truths. Instead of giving those truths up, people just morph them to be consistent with what science found as it advanced.

  4. darrelle
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    I’ve only read the first paragraph so far but it was enough on its own to inspire me to make a comment.

    “But the article is so muddled and philosophically weak that it basically refutes itself.”

    That is a good description of pretty much everything I’ve ever read, listened too or watched by Robert Wright. He has never failed to rub me the wrong way. In addition to what Jerry said (that I quoted above) Wright comes off as a spoiled, ungracious juvenile every time.

    Back to reading the article.

  5. Colin
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    What stands out to me is the staying power of childhood indoctrination. Wright was raised as a Southern Baptist, and those thoughts/ideas/beliefs were (and apparently still are) woven into the neural pathways of his brain, and they just won’t let go.

    As intelligent as he seems to be, it’s a shining example of how gods are the finish-line which are drawn at the start (presupposition).

  6. Posted December 13, 2016 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    I would call him Robert Wrong except for the fact that his silly speculations are “not even wrong.”

  7. Claudia Baker
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Still struggling with his Southern Baptist upbringing, I see. It’s so hard to let go of that last shred of “but maybe”. If he hasn’t done it by now, he never will.

    All the gyrations he goes through just to say “Surely there’s a reason for me being here. After all, I’m so special!”

    Newsflash Bobby: there’s no plan, you’re not special, you’re going to die and in a while, nobody will even remember that you lived.

    And this guy teaches at Princeton? ffs

    • ascanius
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      There are far more deeply irrational and dangerous people teaching at Princeton. Robbie George, for example. Opus Dei, founder of rabidly anti-gay NOM and Witherspoon Institute, exporter of anti-gay political methodology around the world, mastermind behind fraudulent anti-gay-parenting Regnerus “study,” author of Manhattan Declaration…

  8. TJR
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Wright in short:

    Franky Mouse and Benjy Mouse are in fact God.

  9. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    It’s a real mess, since Wright, while still not having decided what, exactly, the teleological force is behind evolution and human moral progress, still maintains that there is one.

    So, is the teleological force carried by particles – teleons? Are there anti-teleons and possible super-teleons? Because if there are no such particles you have to come up with some mechanism for how the ‘teleological force’ interacts with brute matter. Otherwise you are just using posh words for ‘magic’.

    Perhaps teleons really are a particle – a spin value of 1 and comprising of an anti-charm quark and two woo quarks. See, anyone can make stuff up.

    • eric
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Just trying to be charitable, I interpret the material in JAC’s article as proposing the teleological force is an emergent property of sentient beings working on morality.

      That’s still bunk though.

    • Jenny Haniver
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      I’m not a particle physicist, a geneticist, evolutionary biologist, or a theologian, but you’ve got telons and I’d say that the telonic force must be active in teleomeres, which would be the numinous counterpart to telomeres; and if there is sufficient teleomerase (which can be generated by various spiritual exercises and navel-gazing contemplation),it all becomes clear: the teleomeres grow and grow, the “God” inside the head “grows and grows” (like a metastasizing cerebral tumor) and “humanity’s moral growth flows [and flows] from [these] basic dynamics,” blah, blah, “and…we conclude that this growth is therefore evidence of “higher purpose” genetically encoded in our teleomeres.

      One could surely develop an elaborate and self-contained “systematic genetic theology” based on these principles.

  10. Tom
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    As in the case of Intelligennt Design, who designed the designer?
    Who simulated the simulators?
    As for some alien being responsible for the origin of life on this planet, this was explained at great length by Douglas Adams in his magnificent philosophical opus Dirk Gentlys Holistic Detective Agency, which can put Mr Wright right on so many issues including how everything interconnects.

  11. Bob Murray
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Small typo:
    Nevertheless, because it’s a big piece in the New York Times‘s “Stone” (philosophy) section,
    Now fixed:
    Nevertheless, because it’s a big piece in the New York Times‘s “STONED” (philosophy) section,
    You’re welcome!

  12. Sastra
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    You may consider aliens spooky, but they’re not a spooky force. And they’re not supernatural beings.

    Then these hypothetical aliens are no more or less significant than non-hypothetical human parents — and this argument is stumbling over what it means to have “purpose” in a secular sense, and what it means to have “purpose” in a supernatural sense.

    If your mom and dad deliberately conceived you for a purpose — their purpose — so what? Maybe they said to themselves “Let’s make someone in our image who will grow up and become a plumber, for our plumbing, it doth be really bad.” How does this secular creation with a secular goal matter? Why should it matter to you?

    The strictly natural parent-child generative act doesn’t automatically entail that your life has meaning because you were created to be a plumber, and the life of someone whose birth wasn’t planned has no meaning because gosh darn it they have to choose what they will do on their own. It doesn’t even mean you are destined to be a plumber, or would be happy as a plumber.

    And by the same token, highly advanced aliens using technology indistinguishable from magic are in the same relationship with us. There is no reason to give a damn about their goals unless they are also OUR goals. Purposes are not the same as ‘function.’ We create a watch with a function, not a meaning. Meaning doesn’t transfer down from one reasoning, feeling thing to another.

    The supernatural aspect of a Creator-God seeks to avoid the subjective nature of ‘purpose’ by imbuing purpose directly into the fabric of reality. That’s what the supernatural is, a confusion of mind and matter so that the material world is dependent on or descended from mental things like values and purposes and feelings and virtue.

    If a supernatural god created you for the purpose of being a plumber, then there is no way you will ever be happy without your head under a sink and a wrench in your hand — unless you are BAD. Unless you do wrong and go against your purpose, trying to choose for yourself. Do that and you’re supposed to be wrong in a way we can’t be wrong going against our hidden aliens overlords. Supernaturalism introduces a kind of essentialism to the world and its discourse.

    This is the dark side of jabbering on about how it All Has A Meaning. Whose? And to whom? All gods involve “moral growth” — as interpreted by the believers. Wright is trying to use our evolving secular moral reasoning and place it on the pedestal of a Supernatural-like Essential Truth by involving other evolved beings who must have used their own evolving secular reasoning to get where they were when they decided to make babies.

    What’s the point? As Dawkins has argued, all we do is shove the questions back a step — and an unnecessary step, too.

    • eric
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      Some very good points. Without the supernatural spooky aspect and without either intervening in our lives with coercion or rewards,, there is simply no reason to pay attention to what White’s theological force might want. Heck, even with the presence of some minor coercion and rewards, most of us don’t pay much attention to what our parents want us to become. 🙂

    • Posted December 13, 2016 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

      Yes, good points. I never got the “god = purpose/meaning” equation theists seem to think is so obvious.

  13. Posted December 13, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    What’s a British Accent?

    • allenmacneill
      Posted December 14, 2016 at 2:04 am | Permalink

      A British accent (also known as “received pronunciation” or “BBC standard”) is a way of speaking that automatically renders one as being more erudite and learned than someone speaking with, say, a “Murkin” accent. I noticed the same thing when I read this essay. The only reason for mentioning W. D. Hamilton’s “British accent” is to make him sound more intelligent, and therefore more believable. But I’m sure John Templeton spoke with a British accent, and most of what he spouted was pure tosh (a British slang word meaning “crap”).

    • chrism
      Posted December 14, 2016 at 4:07 am | Permalink

      A tiny diacritic visible only to those born in the Blessèd Isles.

      I know it’s a priori reasoning, but it’s useful with pieces like this to ask oneself ‘what would an article written to please the Templeton Foundation look like?’ If, as here, the answer is ‘exactly like this’ one has to believe that remarkable coincidences operate more often in the world than we imagined, or that the poor fellow’s thinking has been, umm, tainted.

    • rickflick
      Posted December 14, 2016 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      The rain in Spain fall mainly in the plain.

  14. GBJames
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink


    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted December 14, 2016 at 3:30 am | Permalink


  15. Posted December 13, 2016 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I expected better from the NYT. I disagree with most of their politics, but I never expected them to publish primitive nonsense like this.

    • eric
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      “The Stone” series of articles is published under the Opinion section.

      • Posted December 13, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        It’s still DREADFUL opinion, drawing conclusions about the divine from science. It should never have been published. Wright’s status as a public interllectual (as someone mentioned upthread) mystifies me.

        • eric
          Posted December 13, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

          IMO it often contains both the best and worst of what the paper has to offer. Journalists actually critique the things they write about there, rather than merely reporting on it without judgment. But not all journalists do good critiques, and the papers tend to want to give you a wide variety of editorial contributions…which inevitably means some idiots. The same is true when they run series’ of editorials around some theme; true, the NYT runs The Stone series, which is miss much more than its hit (IMO). But they also ran Olivia Judson’s great science series (circa 2009, IIRC), in the same section.

  16. Ken Phelps
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Another great Jesus picture! A couple weeks ago it was wimpy millennial Jesus, now it’s really, really stoned hippie Jesus having an “am I the only one who thinks my hands are glowing” moment.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted December 14, 2016 at 3:31 am | Permalink


  17. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    That’s a damn fine essay you wrote for The New Republic in reviewing Wright’s evolution-of-god book, Jerry — tightly reasoned and lyrically written. I’ve read it a time or two before, but I just read it again, and was again duly impressed.

    It stands in contrast to the mushy reasoning and periphrastic prose Wright regularly offers up (including in his new NYT piece).

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Yes; I have nothing to add to PCC(E)’s latest article, but for some reason I had missed his earlier devastating take-down of Wright’s previous canter over the territory. Very many thanks for the link.

  18. garthdaisy
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I can never tell if Robert Wright is mentally disabled or an intellectual genius covert agent of the Templeton agenda.

  19. Kevin
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    What is the point? Wright provides no consistent arguments for purpose or why there needs to be a supernatural being.

    I can give evidence for purpose for my life. I can even provide an example where there could be a supernatural presence in the cosmos. Wright could guess for the next million years what that purpose is and what my conception of a supernatural being is, but he will never answer it correctly.

    Wright’s grade: F

  20. rickflick
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Wright has always given me the creeps. In a “debate” of sorts with Lawrence Krauss on Youtube, he becomes, at some points like a whimpering child, invoking some kind of childish privilege for his silly speculations. I can’t listen to him anymore.

    • Posted December 13, 2016 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

      I mentioned that too, below before reading the other comments. I got really angry watching him constantly cut Krauss off in midsentence.

  21. Carl
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I won’t defend Robert Wright’s teleology. Spinoza eviscerated this idea to my satisfaction long before Darwin. However, some of the piling on here seems excessive when it gets personal.

    I found The Moral Animal quite worthwhile and thought provoking. The Evolution of God has a lot of interesting historical information and speculation about how the gods of certain groups of people evolved (as ideas, not existing entities) into their more familiar versions.

    Lots of smart people have an occasional dumb idea or go off on a weird tangent. What does Isaac Newton’s obsession with Revelation do your opinion of him?

    • Posted December 13, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      I liked The Moral Animal. But Wright’s digression into teleology isn’t an aberration; it’s been an agenda of his for at least a decade. So it’s not just “an occasional dumb idea”, but an ideological viewpoint that he pushes whenever he can.

      • allenmacneill
        Posted December 14, 2016 at 2:07 am | Permalink

        Yes! Non-Zero was his first book-length presentation of his “theory” of evolutionary teleology (otherwise known as intellectual masturbation).

  22. Posted December 13, 2016 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    As the cartoon character Zapp Brannigan put it “if we hit that bullseye, the rest of the dominoes should fall like a house of cards. Checkmate.” He proposes a blend of metaphors, forming a murky picture. How about my eclectic mix?

    When you set your raft into a river, it will carry you some place and it can carry you far. The river exists, has a direction, and even a purpose to the human mind. It swamps the banks of the Nile and nourishes the crops. And yet, where does the river really begin, and where does it end? We cannot mark molecules and divide them betweem river-molecules and non-river-molecules.

    The river has a direction, and it might be appealing to float along, and yet, it’s both a marvel as it is mundane. There is nothing special about directions, and yet the Laws of Nature appear mysterious. Our mind imposes the beautiful order of a map onto a terrain and it is what Robert Wright describes. Life follows a terrain, too, and it seems to have a direction, too, and yet is wholly natural. But the key difference is, of course, a conceptual “god” can’t even wet your feet, or create anything.

    Wright offers only the usual obscurantism, by porching in various gaps, and by preying on where minds tend to trip. He switches models and plays one against the other to astonish the reader. For when the continuum of reality is translated into discrete and idealized models, mental representations that each capture some aspect, can never at once capture it all — for if they did, map and territory would have to be identical.

    I suspect philosophers will never agree for the same reason, for each begins the map in the familiar place, but then ventures into each unique areas (if done well). Of course maps can be accurate, but no map can feature everything. Wright’s is as interesting as a map to Lord of the Rings. Interesting for fans, but no good guide to find your way in the woods. I wonder why such ideas still have currency beyond their literary value. Perhaps it’s like paper money, for others still buy them, thinking they are golden, when they are still just that hundred imaginary thalers in Kant’s pocket.

    • Posted December 14, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Zapp Brannigan at least has semi competent staff sometimes. I am not sure that Wright’s staff (like his editor!) did much to sanity check the piece …

  23. Luke Vogel
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Nicely done. As was your piece on D.S. Wilsons god. However, as you may suspect from me, I think being more direct on particular issues is warranted.

    Such as:

    “How would we know that we’re manipulated by aliens, or even part of a simulation? Further, it’s unparsimonious. What reason do we have for thinking that we are a gigantic real or virtual experiment rather than inhabitants of a real Universe? Adding those manipulative aliens just puts another layer on the hypothesis.”

    This of course is correct. A more direct approach would be along the lines of Shermer’s Last Law essay. I would go further still.


    ” “Was the evolution of intelligent, God-worshiping humans inevitable?” has been “we don’t know, but probably not.” ”

    Like Wilson’s supposed falsification of a supernatural claim (god created the Earth 10 thousand years ago), we have no basis for probibility. Science dismissed the naturalistic clam (ten thousand), reason thus follows, even though there was no reasonsble grounds for the supernatural aspect.

    What grounds then that intelligent beings (though I believe Gould made relatively clear, us) were enevitible even with our single example. If evolution is a universal law (Dennett), and even if there is IET’s… a law does not make and probility is still unwarranted.

  24. Posted December 13, 2016 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    “Wright’s SOMETHING-of-the-Gaps argument”

    That needs to enter the atheist lexicon!

    And why put quotation marks around god? Believers certainly don’t do that. Wright puts them there himself because he has a fetish for taken them off.

    And why is humanity always the “aim of evolution”? Why not some other weirdo creature that will appear only in another 3 billion years, evolved from aardvarks?

    I think that Aristotle said Wright’s kind of argument far more clearly and more persuasively, with all that “final cause” stuff. Or maybe we go a bit further back and latch onto Anaxagoras’s concept of nous organizing everything.

    Spiritual ideas never advance — they just engage in knees bent running about advancing behavior (Python, M., 1973), going in circles for thousands of years. Being unfalsifiable, they inevitably can not advance in any way at all.

    But unlike Anaxagoras and Aristotle, Wright has no respect for or interest in the truth. He’s a sophist in the worst sense of the word. If he thinks it sounds good and the preferred elements of his audience are sitting there with glazed eyes but nodding approvingly he will keep rattling on.

    It is a mystery to me why anyone takes him seriously. (I watched him on You Tube sitting on stage with Laurence Krauss, and all he did was cut Krauss off continually with that whiny slightly hysterical voice of his.)

    • Diane G.
      Posted December 13, 2016 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      ““Wright’s SOMETHING-of-the-Gaps argument”

      That needs to enter the atheist lexicon!”

      I agree–hilarious!

    • allenmacneill
      Posted December 14, 2016 at 2:12 am | Permalink

      When fully AI androids are constructed, I’m sure they will assume that humans were specially evolved in order to create them. There is, of course, no end to this kind of ad infinitum crap, nor is there any way to either falsify or verify it. Again, intellectual masturbation (please note that this is not an ad hominem, it is a literal description of what Wright et al are doing).

      • Wunold
        Posted December 14, 2016 at 5:08 am | Permalink

        When fully AI androids are constructed, I’m sure they will assume that humans were specially evolved in order to create them.

        This episode of DarkMatter2525 delves into another conclusion they might reach.

    • Posted December 14, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Except that Aristotle’s final cause of all of nature is nothing like what most religions think of: he is actually kind of coy as to what he thinks it is, but does say something in Parts of Animals that the goal of nature is to produce beauty.

      And Anaxagoras’ use of nous likely wouldn’t satisfy some of these folks either. Why? Socrates^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^HPlato already complained about why in the Phaedo.

      I agree that even Plato has more respect for the truth and what is known that people who claim that creators of computer simulations would be equivalent to gods of people’s religions, for any number of reasons.

  25. chris moffatt
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    ‘… a god that exists in people’s heads…. To the extent that “god” grows, that is evidence–maybe not massive evidence but some evidence–of higher purpose”

    Well it didn’t in my head. As the evidence for its non-existence piled up and up it just got smaller and smaller until it had just vanished without a trace. I think it may have left by a nostril while I was asleep. It’s never come back either.

  26. Tim Harris
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    A very good criticism. I can’t bear Wright’s writings or his petulant presence.

  27. Robert Wright
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I feel you’ve significantly misrepresented my argument and that you never successfully rebut the argument I actually made. Why don’t you and I debate this on It won’t take much time–we’ll just have a skype chat and I’ll record it and post it. I assume your readers would find this worthwhile. You game?

    • Posted December 14, 2016 at 4:32 am | Permalink

      No thank you; I prefer to have my “debates” in writing, in which each of us have our say, and the readers can judge whether or not I’ve misrepresented what you said. Besides, your “debates,” as with Krauss, consist of you hectoring, interrupting, and verbally assaulting your discussant.

      • Chris G
        Posted December 14, 2016 at 7:10 am | Permalink

        Jerry – I’m sure I’m not the only one amongst the regular readership here who would like to see/hear you discuss this issue with Robert.
        Agreed, written exchange has its advantages, but maybe if Robert could add a further (brief) comment here summarising why he feels misrepresented, that will conclude a written phase. And a subsequent skype conversation could then aim to clarify and resolve the discussion, even if it results, as expected, with an agreement to differ.
        I think a civil conversation, with the to and fro of real-time dialogue, would be genuinely interesting and fruitful – not least because I agree 100% with your (I think very fair) review of Robert’s article, and I’m intrigued that Robert would wish to ‘have it out’ in a conversation with you,
        Chris G.

        • Posted December 14, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

          I must strongly disagree, for exactly the reasons Jerry cites.

          • Chris G
            Posted December 15, 2016 at 7:56 am | Permalink

            Hi Yakaru – clearly we can agree to differ here.
            I understand you too may share Jerry’s preference to debate in writing only, which clearly has benefits. But in cases like this, where written exchange has been concluded, I think face-to-face (including skype) dialogue can be hugely beneficial.
            I personally would like to see Jerry do more of this.
            As for Jerry’s dismissal of Robert’s debating-style as “hectoring, interrupting, and verbally assaulting” that’s not how I see it.
            I watched his discussion with Krauss again last night (from Nov 2015), they interrupted each other equally, was good-natured and very productive. Krauss had ‘debated’ Wright on three previous occasions (2012) via skype on the channel so clearly Lawrence doesn’t have a problem with Robert.
            The discussion on this site following Jerry’s recent piece on the Gad Saad/Nick Cohen podcast, clearly indicates there are strong differences of opinion about who should be given a platform in discussions. I’m concerned too many people under-value talking (literally) to folk we don’t necessarily agree with on all issues.
            Jerry states in a comment above that he likes Robert’s book ‘The Moral Animal’ so clearly there’s some agreement in their views.
            Yet others, such as Heather Hastie, dismiss him in rather uncivil terms: “Wright is an idiot and it annoys me that he gets paid so much to spew out this crap”.
            I’m worried about echo-chambers; we all, sometimes, need to go out of our way to conduct conversations with folk we disagree with,
            Chris G.

            • Vaal
              Posted December 15, 2016 at 10:27 am | Permalink

              I wouldn’t want to push Jerry to do something he doesn’t care to do. But in general, I agree with you Chris G. Talking to the other side vs written debates can have a different dynamic that sometimes can clarify differences or find common ground.
              I’m also very wary of echo-chambers as well.

              • Chris G
                Posted December 15, 2016 at 11:55 am | Permalink

                Hey Vaal. No attempt by me to push Jerry into anything – how could I presume to have that kind of influence. But I would like to encourage Jerry to consider engaging more in real-time conversations like many others of Jerry’s ilk: Lawrence Krauss, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer – although having just watched Shermer’s 55 mins of tedious conversation with The Deepak, I fully acknowledge they don’t always make good choices. (Chopra’s new mohawk is awesome though. Jerry should at least consider THAT change of style!)

              • Vaal
                Posted December 16, 2016 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

                Chris G,

                I wasn’t thinking you were pushing Jerry and didn’t mean to imply it.

            • Posted December 15, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

              Thanks for your reply Chris — we are certainly in agreement about not wanting to escalate such minor beefs into trench warfare, as all too readily happens. For the record though, here is the discussion that I found really out of line from Robert Wright where he continually cut Laurence Krauss off in mid-sentence. He frequently and openly expresses his disgust and anger with what Krauss is trying to say.

              I notice he says below that “it wasn’t typical”, but he didn’t apologise either. I also found his discussion with Christopher Hitchens similarly abrasive, where he kept interrupting him.

              Apart from that, I assume with are all in general agreement with the other 99% of issues.

              • Chris G
                Posted December 15, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

                Yes that’s the discussion I watched too. I think Lawrence interrupted at least as often as Robert did.
                In fact Krauss is clearly a repeat offender: in the three events he did with William Lane Craig in Australia a year or so back, and a radio discussion with John Lennox, Lawrence’s behaviour was dreadful.
                I didn’t detect ‘disgust’ from Robert – lots of frustration yes, and annoyance, but that seemed mutual too. Some discussions are less productive than others, but they’re valuable in the long run, and I feel I learn much about the thinkers I admire, hence my wishing Jerry would do more of them,
                Chris G.

              • Vaal
                Posted December 16, 2016 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

                Yeesh, that was bad.

                That said, that one seems to be an anomaly from what I’ve seen of Robert Wright in a number of other talks/debates. Usually he
                is more…sedate, and the back and forth goes quite smoothly.

      • Robert Wright
        Posted December 15, 2016 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        Jerry, I don’t have time to write the full-scale rebuttal your post warrants. But here is one significant example of your misrepresenting my argument. You write,
        “And if Wright wants to posit the existence of something that directs evolution, he has to first show us phenomena that cannot have been produced by evolution itself without the intervention of some other intelligence.”

        I have been absolutely clear that I don’t think anything “directs evolution”. I wrote in the very piece you link to that I consider natural selection “evolution’s only engine.”
        So, no, I don’t have to show you phenomena that can’t have been produced without the intervention of some other intelligence–because I don’t believe there are any, and my argument doesn’t imply that there are any.
        You have here demonstrated a misunderstanding of my argument at a very, very fundamental level. And you have significantly misled your readers (which isn’t to say you did so intentionally).

        Again, I don’t have time for a full-scale written rebuttal–if I sat down and wrote an essay every time someone misrepresents my work, I’d never get any real work done.

        But I do have time to sit down and have a discussion with you for an hour.

        And please don’t use my Krauss conversation as an excuse. It wasn’t typical–just look at my conversations with Sam Harris or Steve Pinker or Chris Hitchens or Michael Shermer or many others–they’re all online, and all were civil and illuminating. I feel sure a conversation between us would be illuminating, too. So how about we do it?


        • Chris G
          Posted December 15, 2016 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

          Hi Robert – you Tweeted to Steven Pinker that you thought Jerry’s post was an “ad hominem attack”. I don’t see that at all.
          Could you clarify why you’ve made that accusation please?
          Chris G.

          • Robert Wright
            Posted December 15, 2016 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

            That’s peripheral, and not what I want to debate Jerry about, but I was referring to the insinuation that the views I express are influenced by my having gotten Templeton support in the past. (I’m not getting any now, and neither is My 1988 book Three Scientists and Their Gods includes a version of the ideas about evolution, purpose, consciousness, etc., that Jerry criticized, and I hadn’t even heard of Templeton when I wrote that book.

            • Chris G
              Posted December 16, 2016 at 2:00 am | Permalink

              Thanks for taking the time to explain Robert, and for clarifying the current position re. Templeton – you make a good point about your 1988 book.
              However, I really don’t think anything Jerry wrote was ad hominem, and respectively suggest you up your dose of skin-thickening medication; accusations of ‘attack’ are rarely conducive to obtaining a positive response to a request to discuss further in person.
              Which is a shame; I’ve enjoyed a number of the conversations you’ve conducted, most recently the piece with Paul Bloom about his new book ‘Against Empathy’.
              I was pleased to see Steven Pinker state in his tweet that he respects you, and yet thinks your idea of evolutionary purpose is “fatally flawed” – nothing incompatible with those two positions,
              Chris G.

            • Wunold
              Posted December 16, 2016 at 3:22 am | Permalink

              Hello, Robert. I didn’t read your tweet, but I don’t see an ad hominem here since you have been supported by Templeton and your views fit into their narrative (if not, they won’t have supported you).

              That your views are older doesn’t mean they can’t have been strengthened or otherwise influenced by the financial support. Your positions are still connected as are you to Templeton.

              You are free to deny the (extend of) influence – which especially you as the possibly influenced can’t be sure of – but you shouldn’t accuse someone of ad hominem who is pointing out this possibility.

    • Posted December 14, 2016 at 5:16 am | Permalink

      Jerry quoted your words extensively in the above post, and linked to your original pieces. I can’t see anywhere where he has misrepresented you.

  28. Posted December 13, 2016 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    As I recall, when I was a freshman in college, it was great fun late at night after a few beers to discuss things like
    “what if we’re really just an experiment by aliens”, and similar topics. Most of us outgrew the fascination by our senior year, but apparently some people, well paid by the Templeton Foundation, didn’t.

    • allenmacneill
      Posted December 14, 2016 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      Haha, yeah, I had the same thought. We used to have discussions like this when we were all stoned and the RA was out for the evening, but I gave that all up at least 40 years ago.

  29. Posted December 13, 2016 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Wright speaks of evolution as though it is some kind of force: “evolution does this; evolution is likely to produce that; etc.”

    It’s not a force. It’s the word we use to describe the process that is descent with modification plus natural selection. Evolution isn’t a “thing” in the same way that there is no “thing” or force that tells a river what path to take. Do we need to waste university donors’ dollars academically exploring the possibility of purpose and meaning in what shape rivers take?

    • allenmacneill
      Posted December 14, 2016 at 2:14 am | Permalink

      Exactly! Evolution isn’t a “force,” it’s an outcome.

      • Posted December 14, 2016 at 4:02 am | Permalink

        “Do we need to waste university donors’ dollars academically exploring the possibility of purpose and meaning in what shape rivers take?”

        Actually, your example from hydrology was unfortunately about as inapt as it is possible to get.

        Both plan view and profile views of rivers reveal key characteristics of river shapes. The meaning of these shapes is taught at all universities where hydrogeology and geomorphology are part of the science curriculum. The laws of physics are assumed to act deterministically, about as close as one gets to “purpose”.

        • Posted December 14, 2016 at 10:47 am | Permalink

          You’re not using “meaning” or “purpose” in the same sense as Wright. Wright’s talking about deep, personal significance. He’s not using “meaning” as a synonym for “explanation”.

          In fact, your use of “meaning/purpose” is pretty inapt itself, even if we know you’re using “meaning” in the naturalistic sense of “this is why/how hydrological phenomenon X happens”. Would professors really talk to their students about the meaning of phenomena X, Y, or Z, using the word “meaning” I doubt it. They’d simply explain it. “This type of erosion occurs when blah blah”. Not “the meaning of the appearance of the ground here is that erosion has blah blah”.

      • Posted December 14, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

        Concisely put.

  30. Posted December 14, 2016 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    “Was the evolution of intelligent, God-worshiping humans inevitable?”

    Sooner or later the evolution of intelligent organisms like humans was probable, but not necessarily inevitable.

    But once having evolved, it was inevitable that such organisms would great gods in their own image.

    Robert Wright and other deists and theists have got the creation process backwards.

  31. Wunold
    Posted December 14, 2016 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    The title alone is a nonsensical question (alas, a typical one).

    Can evolution have a ‘higher purpose’?

    Can I grow a third arm overnight? I presumably could, but how probable is it?

  32. Sandra Wilde
    Posted December 14, 2016 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    I spoke to him personally about a year ago at one of his seminars at Union Theological Seminary on a specific idea that he thought language would re-emerge if the human race died out. I told him that this was extremely unlikely because the emergence of language was a one time quirk of evolution. He had no reply. I’m not even a scientist. He is a very nice, earnest man.

  33. rickflick
    Posted December 14, 2016 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    “He is a very nice, earnest man”

    I do get the sense sometimes that he is sincere and has integrity. He may see his roll to suggest wild theories – to rock the boat, test the waters, as an intellectual exercise. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be very sensible very often. I’ve not read his books, but I’ve seen him in several talks and debates on the web.

  34. reasonshark
    Posted December 14, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    “Yet as he so often does, Wright thinks that if he gets us to admit that something is logically possible, then he’s increased its probability.”

    He’s hardly alone. Most advocates of woo, conspiracy theories, religious ideas, faith, and so on LOVE this trick.

    Show that something is not immediately dead-by-self-contradiction, or better yet get a skeptic to admit as much, and suddenly they think they’re vindicated. Even the ones who umm and ahh and act like it’s a plausible speculation rather than a fully fledged fact are still guilty of claiming unearned cred.

    The funny thing is that it’s always obviously hypocritical, because they ONLY use it for their pet belief. Either they’re obviously privileging their pet belief over the indefinite number of rivals in the same category, in which case they’re violating their own standard for belief, or they’re going to give the same credibility to ALL the other rivals, in which case they include the ones that contradict their pet belief and will have wasted their advantage.

    The worst variety of this sort of believer, though, is the one who thinks personal preference is perfectly OK in the face of ignorance. They basically scribble dragons on a map of uncharted territory and then claim to be serious cartographers. They want the credibility without the work. It’s wishful thinking at its most weaselly and self-deluding.

    Nothing reveals a biased partisan faster than this empty “it’s possible so it’s credible” argument.

  35. Posted December 14, 2016 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    Re: “How would we know that we’re manipulated by aliens, or even part of a simulation?”

    Fortunately, we have the simulation argument FAQ, to address basic questions such as these. See Q. 9. “Isn’t the simulation-hypothesis untestable?”

    • Wunold
      Posted December 15, 2016 at 1:57 am | Permalink


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