Here we have Michael Shermer and Robert Wright discussing the issue of “purpose” in evolution—something I studiously avoid because it’s not only a useless discussion, but also gives fodder to religion. I’ve written about Wright’s teleology (he might reject the word, but there it is) quite a bit, and it seems to me that—in his recent works—he’s constantly trying to smuggle some form of teleology into a naturalistic process by talking about evolution’s “purpose”. I see nothing to gain from such philosophical discussion. Where is the empirical evidence for “purpose”? If there isn’t any beyond pure naturalism, why persist?
I believe Wright’s motivation is that his religious background keeps him from fully accepting materialism. He may say he’s an agnostic, but he has a vestigial organ of teleology.
Wright’s problem is that he studiously avoids being explicit about what, exactly, is the “force” that he calls “meta-natural selection” that is propelling evolution. He maintains that it isn’t God, and perhaps he doesn’t even know what it is (he skitters from aliens to brains in vats to morality to the evolution of intelligence). But he seems to believe that there is a sign of “purpose” in evolution: a purpose instantiated in the fact that evolution has produced not only a hyperintelligent species (us, of course), but one that has created a “mega brain”: the Internet.
Wright also claims that his notion of “purpose” doesn’t posit an intelligent agent, yet some of his ‘suggestions’ do indeed involve such an agent (aliens, “something that started natural selection,” and so on). He also mentions at one point that human “purpose” involves a “moral calling”, but what can “call” one to morality except for an agent? Why not just say that morality is a combination of evolved sentiments and a cultural overlay? “Calling,” of course, simply oozes notions of religion.
Wright’s failure to pin down what he means by purpose, or even to give evidence that there is any “purpose” (“something larger than us”) behind the appearance of humans, is what keeps getting him in trouble—at least with me. If you watch him equivocate, wiggle around, and avoid specificity as he talks to Shermer, you’ll sense my frustration. I don’t see any reason to try to smuggle the notion of purpose into a purely materialistic process. And his attempt is even quasi-theological in the sense that it points to human exceptionalism (with respect to both intelligence and morality) as pointers to a “purpose”. But there’s no reason to think that our uniquely high intelligence wasn’t simply a result of natural selection (and then accelerated by the interaction of genes with culture)—an evolutionary one-off, like the evolution of feathers or an elephantine trunk.
One thing you can discern from listening to this 75-minute video is that Robert Wright is literally obsessed with me: he mentions me (and not favorably!) over and over again, and even tries to enlist Michael in dissing me (Shermer won’t have it). He even implies that I was a coward for not “debating” him on his videocast. But, as I’ve told Wright, I don’t like his hectoring, bullying, interrupting style with people he dislikes; and, more important, I prefer to write competing takes and let readers sort it out in the quietude of thought. In general, I tend to avoid debates, though I will answer questions or sometimes have “conversations.” Wright says he doesn’t have time for correcting me in writing (though he has). So be it.
There’s also some New Atheist-dissing from time to time, but you can hear that if you have the stamina to make it through this video. Around 55 minutes in, Wright not only exculpates religion from terrorism, but says that we’ll get nowhere by attacking religion per se. Shermer gives him some pushback.
Here is the website’s list of discussion pointers:
1:31 Bob’s NY Times article on evolution and purpose
23:23 Was evolution likely to produce the Internet?
37:52 The counter-entropic role of life
44:32 Is moral progress built into history?
49:56 Social and political dimensions of moral progress
56:34 The psychology of terrorism
65:50 What can we do to fight tribalist impulses?