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 MeaningofLife.tv, 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!”