Michael Shermer and Robert Wright on evolution and “purpose”

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?

h/t: Felipe

67 Comments

  1. Posted January 6, 2017 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    The way you describe Wright’s propositions, they sound a lot like Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point… De Chardin saw evolution striving towards gread “encephalization” (I think that’s the word he used), and proposed that it would generate a Godhead sometime in the future, but then the Godhead would be eternal and… whatever

  2. Posted January 6, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    JAC – “quietude of thought” – something sorely missing in much of today’s world.

  3. Posted January 6, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    In this topic, “evolutionary progress”, Richard Dawkins’ Chapter “Human Chauvinism and Evolutionary Progress: Review of Full House by S. J. Gould” from “a Devil’s Chaplain” might help

  4. Claudia Baker
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Watched the first 30 minutes. That’s all I could stand.

    Three things:

    1) Wright’s arguments boil down to: “I’m special. No way could I be an accident. Therefore: purpose (god?).” He even says, at one point, he can’t rule out a ‘god’. Hubris.

    2) Wright says he’s not going to “harp” on Coyne, then he does.

    3) Wright sounds jealous of Coyne. Which he should be, ’cause Coyne is infinitely cuter. (Just saying)

  5. Zado
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    For someone who focuses on moral convictions as much as Wright does, he doesn’t seem to have any strong ones himself. Perhaps he does and he’s just keeping his “detached phenomenologist” hat on the entire time. But to me, he exemplifies the wishy-washy relativist type that refuses to recognize moral enemies (such as violent Islamists) when he sees them.

  6. sensorrhea
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    As far as I can tell, evolutions purpose is to create a species that is fecund, brilliantly inventive, totally selfish, and with no long term thinking, ie a species that is meant to destroy the planet. I guess this is to stick a finger in the eye of geological forces that have interrupted evolution by destroying the planet from time to time.

    • eric
      Posted January 6, 2017 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

      It did that in the first billion years; anaerobic microorganisms took over the planet. Then they practically wiped themselves out by poising the atmosphere with their own waste – O2.

      I guess everything since then is just evolution’s victory lap.

      • sensorrhea
        Posted January 7, 2017 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        More of a high-budget remake than a victory lap, I fear.

        • Dave
          Posted January 7, 2017 at 8:34 am | Permalink

          A 2009 book by palaeontologist Peter Ward “The Medea Hypothesis: is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?” provides a detailed examination of this idea and is well worth a read.

          • sensorrhea
            Posted January 8, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

            Interesting, thanks! My own belief is that because evolution is inherently competitive it rewards the most vicious competitors. As a result intelligence will always be poisoned by violence and will therefore create and mis-use super-weapons. This is also why I think we’ll never find alien life. It’s all either too primitive to detect or has already destroyed itself.

  7. J.Baldwin
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have time (or inclination) to listen to Wright’s video but I’ve been thinking a lot about criticizing religion. I’ve come to the conclusion that it must be done. Critical assessment of religious ideas remains the best tool we have, but it’s unlikely to work very well. The ideologies are just too closely tied to individual identities in the minds of believers. Giving up religion is a transformation of personal identity…a figurative suicide of self and social life. For many, it is to cut oneself off from their community. The personal gains of staying a believer outweigh the collective gains of joining secular society…it’s eerily reminiscent of what Christianity teaches about becoming a believer; e.g. dying a figurative death, being born again in Christ’s church, burying the “old” you and assuming the “new” you.

    • Carl
      Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      Critical assessment of religious ideas remains the best tool we have, but it’s unlikely to work very well.

      I strongly disagree. In the West – what was formerly known as Christendom – philosophical criticism has worn religion down to a nub of its former self. Criticism, not completely absent before, erupted in the 17th century. There was a strong reaction and push back, but a death blow had been struck. Religion in the West today is nothing like it once was, not in its universal acceptance, its supernaturalism, its scriptural claims, or its political power. Even in America, much of Christianity is really a form of harmless popular deism. The victory is not complete, but well on the way. I may not live to reach the promised land, but I can see it from here.

      Now consider where a tradition of criticism has been weak or absent – where Islam has dominated.

      • J.Baldwin
        Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        I built a wood fence in my backyard this past spring. To achieve a finished height of six feet I had to set 96″ posts 30″ deep into the ground. When I dug the postholes, I found the first 8-12″ of topsoil pretty easy to dig. The last 20′ or so was heavy clay and beast to dig.

        You’re right of course to point out that much of religiosity in the West has been swept away…but in looking at the poll numbers of those who believe in God, gods, or spiritual-but-not-religious in the West the numbers are strikingly similar to those of the Islamic world. We’ve hit the clay, which is to say at the level of identity, the digging gets tougher.

        I’d even go so far as to say that this underlies the reluctance among those on the left to criticize religious belief generally. To do so would be a form of self-criticism too hard for their spiritualist, or Deistic identities can bear.

        • Carl
          Posted January 6, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

          Using your analogy, I’d say in recent years, we’ve punched through the clay and hit soft sand.

          We are in the age of the “New Atheism.” Criticism is is not only in the air, but in the water and the soil. Open atheism is widely proclaimed. Even compared to 40 years ago, progress is evident – then you count on one hand (one finger?) the erudite atheists sharing their views in well written books and almost no one publicly admitted to being an atheist. A potential young atheist today can’t avoid a pile of good books, to say nothing of the what is on line. We can only hope the internet will do for Islam what the printing press did for Christianity.

          • Jbaldwin
            Posted January 6, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

            Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic, jaded by my bible belt surroundings. I hope you’re right.

      • Posted January 7, 2017 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        @sensorrhea: I love your postulation
        —evolutions purpose is to create a species that is fecund, brilliantly inventive, totally selfish, and with no long term thinking, ie a species that is meant to destroy the planet.—

        @Carl:
        …Religion in the West today is nothing like it once was…

        That’s right. But I’m convinced that it is less the result of critical assessment and of believers starting to think for themselves, than of indifference, and laziness to go to church regularly.
        .-

  8. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Since he seems to know that all this has a purpose, he should be able to tell us the phenotype of a world that is purposeless.
    Asking him that is to try to pin him to the wall, but I bet he will just scurry away from answering. They all do.

    • Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Very good point; I suspect that, for Wright, it wouldn’t have humans (i.e. it would be the world about ten million years ago!).

  9. reasonshark
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    What purpose? Because we’re developing so fast globally? Even on the face of it, that’s pretty dubious.

    Most modern human invention – what looks to us like a civilized progressive culmination of all history – in reality is an anomaly. It relies on building debt, and I’m not talking about whatever the banks got up to prior to 2008/9. I’m talking ecological debts. We’re no more exempt from ecological limits than any other species.

    Modern technology is fuelled by energy borrowed from hundreds of millions of years ago, in the form of poisonous fossil fuels. We mine poisonous metals and salts and so on, and mining by definition has a deadline when it takes the geological time of tens, hundreds, and thousands of millennia to replenish those supplies. Even theoretically renewable resources like soil and arable land are being mined at the moment through intensive agricultural practices in aid of the luxury meat and dairy industries.

    The industrial trends of the last few centuries are a freak flash in the pan. The recent explosions in population, technological development, and political expansion are fundamentally the same as the explosions of prey animals right before a population crash. This progress isn’t an endpoint with a purpose. It’s a tired old monster under a shiny new skin.

    • sensorrhea
      Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Yep. A lot of conservative ideology is just superficial and fantastical rationalization of our wasteful and ultimately suicidal practices. Everything from “global warming isn’t happening/anthropogenic” to “Jesus is coming soon so it doesn’t matter.”

      • reasonshark
        Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think it’s fair to indict conservative ideology per se; though I think the more extreme ones are obviously guilty, I think a large portion of the conservative electorate are actually quite moderate and would agree that these are problems (though they might have different ideas on how to solve them). In addition, liberal ideologues also suffer from the same short-sightedness. Can we honestly say, for instance, that the Liberal Democrats likely to get into office this decade or next will accomplish much of significance in this arena?

    • Carl
      Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Prescription for you Malthusian angst: Read The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch and call me in the morning.

      • reasonshark
        Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        What, just like that? To pick an obvious example in climate change, we’ve had three decades, in which the excessive consumption of fossil fuels has, if anything, increased, and the warming trend has shown no sign of stopping. Worse, most projected deadlines for action expire within a decade or two, and the “best case” scenario of 2 degrees of warming – ignoring potential feedbacks that could push it further up anyway – is looking increasingly unrealistic.

        This isn’t theoretical. The trend is real. And it’s just one item on my list. What magic solution do you have in mind that makes you dismiss this as “Malthusiasn angst”?

        • Carl
          Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

          What magic solution do you have in mind that makes you dismiss this as “Malthusiasn angst”?

          Deutsch will thoroughly explain it in the book.

          What makes someone a Malthusian, is that like Malthus himself they recognize a problem and make dire predictions about the future. Malthus has had many successors. Like Malthus, because no solution was evident to them, they assumed such a solution was impossible. Yet every single Malthusian has been proved wrong. Human creativity has solved all the Malthusian crises of the past. I expect that to continue, but of course there are no guarantees.

          • reasonshark
            Posted January 6, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

            “Yet every single Malthusian has been proved wrong.

            Sure… like the IPCC, everybody who’s pointed out the accelerating loss of species and habitat, the non-stop erosion of soil since industrial agriculture kicked in during the second half of the twentieth century, the fact that metal mines and fossil fuel sources are finite (not to be confused with specific dates for any particular deadlines, which is the kindest concession I can make about your wild claim here), and the basic fact that, unless a society switches to renewable resources, non-renewables will, by definition, expire at some point.

            “Some”, maybe, but “every single”? That’s not a realistic claim. Forget the future: that’s flat-out denial of what’s been happening in the last two centuries and of what’s happening right now.

            The escalating hyperconsumption of industrial progress in the last two centuries is not a solution to the problem. It IS the problem. If that book’s the reason for your pollyanna claims here, I’m currently less inclined to read it than before you started.

            • Carl
              Posted January 6, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

              The escalating hyperconsumption of industrial progress in the last two centuries is not a solution to the problem. It IS the problem. If that book’s the reason for your pollyanna claims here, I’m currently less inclined to read it than before you started.

              If you prefer the world of two centuries ago to now, then we have a fundamental conflict of values. Human beings are better off now by almost any measure I care about. Immensely better off.

              • reasonshark
                Posted January 6, 2017 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

                If you prefer the world of two centuries ago to now,

                Interesting way to start your reply. Funnily enough, I don’t recall saying anything of the sort. I wonder how that idea popped into your head, then.

                Had industrial societies switched to renewable resources and sustainable economic practices decades ago, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Since it hasn’t, we’ve got a situation here, and I get the impression you’re dismissing it unreasonably.

                then we have a fundamental conflict of values.

                It’s not a question of values. I don’t deny that medicine, communication technology, etc. have become much more efficient and, especially in the first case, saved a lot of lives that would otherwise have been miserable and short.

                But they don’t pop out of a vacuum. It’s perfectly possible to reconcile renewable resources with continued evolution, whether cultural or biological. Most obviously, an evolving lineage wouldn’t last long if it couldn’t exploit ecological cycles to its advantage.

                That’s antithetical to the non-renewable consumption and wastage of current practices. Even once nature has stabilized (in geological time, most likely), catastrophes are going to be part of that re-stabilization process on current trends. Especially if we just stick our fingers in our ears and convince ourselves we’ll be saved at the last moment by “creativity”.

                Human beings are better off now by almost any measure I care about. Immensely better off.

                I’m not denying the truth of this statement – I have read Pinker’s Better Angels, among other things – but then I don’t need to in order to make my point. This bounty rests on the ecological debts I’ve just described. People regularly take out loans and rack up debts to live successfully. Unless they have a good plan prepared for the day of payment – a plan, mind, not some empty optimism that it’ll just turn out all right because look at what we’ve managed to achieve with debt money already – they’re deluding themselves. Nature is a crafty and miserly bastard, not a gullibly stupid loan company with infinitely deep pockets.

                Besides, which human beings? The ones choking to death in tungsten mines so the rich kids can trade one unfashionable iPod for another next year? The ones getting poisoned by factory farms so obesity epidemics can be fuelled by cheap burgers? The ones getting mercury poisoning from coal mines so that oil barons can fund yet another campaign denying climate change? The ones getting kicked out of their tribal homes to make way for logging companies and hack-and-slash ranchers? Or the ones who’ll be forced to migrate from rising sea levels and shifting disease epidemics, making current immigration and refugee issues look petty by comparison? Given what history is like, saying we’re better off now is not much comfort when we could have done so much better.

                If you’re going to praise the developments of industrial culture, you must also face the dark side of it. That means recognizing a gamble with other people’s lives when you’re making one. Otherwise, you’re being a pollyanna of the worst kind. And I’m still waiting for a good reason to read that book.

              • Carl
                Posted January 6, 2017 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

                OK, I drew a false conclusion from your final paragraph. I stand corrected.

                It isn’t values we disagree on, it’s your vision of how things could have progressed against the way they actually did. I don’t see the point of imagining a utopian past, when in fact things developed as they have.

                Moving to the present, would you agree with me that employing nuclear power is the best thing we can do at present in the energy realm?

              • reasonshark
                Posted January 6, 2017 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

                it’s your vision of how things could have progressed against the way they actually did. I don’t see the point of imagining a utopian past, when in fact things developed as they have.

                I think the past is much worse than what we have now, at least in many respects – healthcare, human rights, animal welfare – so I certainly don’t think it’s utopian. You’re correct that no amount of complaining is going to change the past.

                What I think, though, is that the past offers a cautionary tale we need to take seriously. Progress towards smarter and stronger economic and political reforms were feasible as far back as the sixties, when the early signs of global warming were penetrating public awareness and pollution was becoming a serious issue.

                I’m not sure what went wrong, but I have suspicions. Whether it was mainly the oil crises of the seventies, the rise of Thatcher-Reagan neoliberalism of the eighties, the fat cat corporate exploitationism of the nineties, or a myriad of social (especially corporate) factors that did it in, the result is that the problem has only compounded since.

                I see a significant point in learning from mistakes from the past, because this isn’t a new problem by any means, and progress has to be built on said past.

                Moving to the present, would you agree with me that employing nuclear power is the best thing we can do at present in the energy realm?

                Yes. Not as a long-term solution – renewable energy has to enter the picture eventually – but as a first pragmatic step. From what I can tell, a transfer to a nuclear economy combines the practicality of modern politics with a notable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a compromise, but also the least-worst solution.

                That said, some sort of rationing system is going to have to be introduced at some point too, if only to encourage a sustainable and renewable mindset. In the long term, the economy needs to become more like an ecological network. And less like a linear “mine, consume, discard” dead-end. If nature’s an exemplar, then that’s the only way in the long term to get the best out of a progressive society. That’s why a long-term transfer to renewable infrastructure is crucial.

              • Carl
                Posted January 6, 2017 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

                On reconsideration, I think you would profit from Deutsch’s book. It’s all about learning from past mistakes and how to do better next time. If nothing else, you get the viewpoint from a world renowned theoretical physicist and founder of the quantum information field, written in an accessible style (it’s philosophy, not so much science).

              • reasonshark
                Posted January 6, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

                Interesting. We don’t seem to be disagreeing as strongly as when we started. At least, we’re not contesting each other as much. Usually, in my experience a disagreement goes the other way the longer it progresses.

                With that in mind, I guess it couldn’t hurt to see what the book says… After seeing your more recent posts and checking a few online review comments, it seems my initial impression of its message was inaccurate and even uncharitable.

                I’ve just placed a reservation online at my local library. I can’t guarantee I’ll change my mind, but it sounds like it’ll be worth the time and effort, at the very least. Thank you.

              • Carl
                Posted January 6, 2017 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

                Peace.

    • Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      I can’t watch Wright. I’ve seen too many such “debates” that only make me mad.

      In the most recent issue of Scientific American, Deepak Chopra wrote a letter in response to an article Shermer had in the previous. You might find it interesting also.

      In re the comment by Reasonshark: Yesterday I read an article on the internet about the worst polluters in the U.S. that I found of interest.

      https://www.publicintegrity.org/2016/09/29/20248/america-s-super-polluters

      • reasonshark
        Posted January 6, 2017 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        Sorry for responding so late.

        I think I get what you’re saying in the current context; that these extreme polluters are the result mainly of conservative mindsets? I’m sorry. Maybe as a UK citizen, I’m missing something, but it’s not entirely clear since the “conservative” alignment is only mentioned fleetingly and parenthetically. Is it because it’s big business?

  10. GBJames
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if Wright could let us know what the purpose of evolution’s incredibly stupid design of the human male’s prostate gland is.

    Or any of the bazillion bad implementations evolution has come up with.

  11. Posted January 6, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    The Phocoenidae is the porpoise of evolution.

  12. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I’ll disagree with certain contributors again (see recent comments about free will and compatabilism)and say that ‘purpose’ is a social construct/useful fiction. It is not real, but may have a utility. And once again, using socially familiar words imports social conventions ‘as if they were real’.

    My observation is that ’cause and effect’ implies that there is a causal(!) chain where an Agent works on Universal State1 to make it into State2. I rather think that State2 follows State1 naturally with no agency because I have seen no empirical evidence to the contrary. And by extension there is no ‘contra-causal’ free will because there is no ’cause’ beyond State2 following State1 naturally.

    So there is no ‘purpose’ to evolution, only stuff happening naturally. Typically organisms that fit their environment better leave more copies than organisms that don’t fit so well – because stuff happens, not because it is fore-ordained. The ‘greater complexity’ we imagine we see is just the meanings we paint on events unfolding – and of course there are examples of ‘greater simplicity’ too.

  13. Diana MacPherson
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    People like Wright really have a hard time accepting materialism yet they want the respect of science and thus the squirming. I fail to see why the struggle (okay, I fail to accept what these people seem to struggle with) in that things happen that cause other things to happen. The things that happen have constraints (laws of physics) and these constraints sometimes hinder and sometimes promote the happening of other things. Honestly, it’s very simple.

  14. Colin
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    You have to admit Jerry, that Wright does make a good point near the end about how when two people actually meet and sit down and have a conversation, that it breeds civility more than writing rebuttal letters does. Given that you’re both nice, likable, articulate & reasonable people, I suspect that sitting down for a conversation (as Shermer did here) would be a good thing.

    • Posted January 6, 2017 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

      Well, I sat next to Wright at lunch in Mexico City a few years back, and all he wanted to do was harangue me, despite my best efforts to be polite in the face of disagreement. It was so trying for me that I went over to Dan Dennett after lunch and asked him to hug me! (It was like hugging Santa.) I don’t think a civil conversation would be possible–check out his “civil conversation” with Lawrence Krauss on YouTube. Krauss is much more relaxed than I would be in the face of Wright’s argument style.

      • Colin
        Posted January 6, 2017 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that’s a valid point, but it also might be true that “that was then, and this is now”, and that he has learned to cool his jets and be more reasonable, and a better listener. His own comment about how meeting face to face somehow fosters a less combative exchange, might suggest that he’s grown a little in that area.

        Again, I think that you’re both sophisticated enough to be able to successfully have a dialogue like he had with Shermer (although you might have an edge on him in the intellectual honesty department – LOL), and if a few sparks do fly, then that’s OK too.

        🙂

    • Carl
      Posted January 6, 2017 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

      I finally sat through the Shermer-Wright conversation. Shermer pressed Wright several times on his “purpose” ideas, but I came away unsatisfied. Wright’s view seems to be something along the lines of “we can’t rule out purpose playing some role in the universe, but I don’t know what the agent/agency of that purpose is – here are several guesses …” I can see a conversation with Prof. Coyne being even more frustrating.

      I prefer to live with the good feelings toward Wright that came from reading his Moral Animal. This interview seemed like a waste of effort. Really, time could have been saved my pressing his profession of agnosticism, it’s all of a piece and won’t lead anywhere interesting either.

      • Colin
        Posted January 6, 2017 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

        I’m reminded of something Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day, like a football, and it will be round and full at evening.”

        So as such a discussion is about about ideas & hypotheses, understanding reality and such, there should be no worry about a conversation, and if it turns out that Wright doesn’t have the humility to abandon certain ideas/claims/beliefs, then that will on full display for all to see. After all, it would be easier than having a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness; I know, I have the grey hairs to prove it. LOL

        • Carl
          Posted January 6, 2017 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

          … and if it turns out that Wright doesn’t have the humility to abandon certain ideas/claims/beliefs, then that will on full display for all to see.

          My fear would be another hour of dancing around with no clear idea what the ideas/claims/beliefs are. Maybe I wasn’t perceptive enough, but I only got the vaguest impression of what Wright’s thesis is, and I came in with (and still have) a fairly positive opinion of Robert Wright.

  15. darrelle
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Claiming there is a purpose and then claiming that you are agnostic about an intelligence that is behind it all doesn’t make sense. Purpose is something that only intelligent agents create.

    It seems to me that Wright thinks that it is bleeding obvious that there is something more to it than a strict materialist accounting, but he doesn’t quite know how to articulate what that could be or why it is so obvious. I think he really believes that people like Jerry are just being obtuse. I think Jerry nailed it. Though Wright claims to be agnostic he has not given up on some of the most basic aspects of religious belief. Like the yearning for human exceptionalism to be the result of Purpose.

    • Posted January 7, 2017 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      I don’t agree that purpose only gets created by intelligent agents. The purpose of your heart is to pump blood, but nobody designed your heart. I don’t agree with Wright when he claims that evolution *as a whole* has a purpose, but a blind process like evolution can create purposeful things. It can and did create them *before* it created intelligent agents.

      • rickflick
        Posted January 7, 2017 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

        Well, that’s precisely the equivocation at the center of the discussion. If a fish evolves limbs for the “purpose” of walking on dry land, does that require guidance for some brain in the sky? Purpose exists in nature in terms of form fitting function. But, was there an intelligent designer looking ahead to what that purpose would be or did the function evolve naturally without any forethought – no look-ahead. It seems to me Wright’s entire problem stems from the simple inability to understand evolution. He confuses the purpose of a butterfly wing with the reason someone might create a butterfly wing. In other words a lack of imagination. If I could get that guy for 15 minutes in an office with a table and two chairs…

      • darrelle
        Posted January 7, 2017 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

        We do disagree. A heart pumps blood but it has no purpose. Sure, we use purpose and many other words that entail agency in contexts in which we don’t actually mean agency is involved all the time. But that is not the way Wright is using “purpose” here.

        • Posted January 8, 2017 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

          What *is* the way Wright is using “purpose”? It seems very murky to me. From the part I watched (about 15 minutes) I’d guess it’s also murky to him.

          To my mind “purpose” in the English language is ambiguous/neutral between “function” and “intent/design”. The former doesn’t require an agent; the latter does.

          • Siggy in CR
            Posted January 11, 2017 at 1:51 am | Permalink

            I couldn’t make it very far into the conversation either. But the problem I have with Wright’s mental meanderings is that they are dodgy. Every time Shermer tries to get him to define what he means by purpose he goes back and forth between those 2 common meanings of the word without wanting to settle on one. For a man who constantly responds by saying “Let me be clear”, he’s anything but.

  16. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Wright stricken by the Templeton shilling [both meanings]?

    From the about page of Robert Wright’s MEANING OF LIFE.TV website: “Though in one sense launched in 2015, in another sense MeaningofLife.tv is one of the oldest video sites on the internet. The original version—archived here—was created in 2002 by Robert Wright with the help of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and the technical expertise of Greg Dingle. […] Technological changes since MoLtv’s founding—notably widespread broadband internet access and the pervasive adoption of webcams—made it easy for the new MeaningofLife.tv, launched in July of 2015 with further support from the Templeton Foundation, to escape those limits.”

  17. eric
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    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.

    While I’m not a Popper groupie and I don’t think falsifiability is the end-all, be-all of science, Popper’s concept serves a good purpose here. I’d like to ask Wright what future, reasonably accessible observable would falsify his hypothesis. I.e., what future empirical observation that humans could do would be inconsistent with his notion of a purpose?

    • Posted January 7, 2017 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      I think that there is a pretty obvious reply to that: no Omega. If civilization crashes and stays down for a long time, that would be significant evidence against evolutionary progress beyond this point. That would be especially true if it crashed for some reason that didn’t look like an unlucky fluke event (e.g. a large meteorite strike would be an unlucky, fluke event). Of course this isn’t an observable associated with a small practical experiment – but one should clearly not pin scientific knowledge only on such things in the first place.

  18. Posted January 6, 2017 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    I disagree with the “obsessive” complaint. He identified Jerry as a recent New Atheist who represents views opposite to his. It’s convenient as a pointer as it is intellectually honest to mention whose positions he is addressing, even by example. It allows others whether somebody’s views were represented accurately and helps keeping it accountable. Calling him out on it would also be a doublestandard. New Atheists (too) often carp on a list of Usual Suspects ranging from Reza Aslan to Deepak Chopra to Ken Ham – I don’t see the problem. Of course, fleas exist, but I think it should be hard to put someone into the club of fleas. It is also not puerile name-dropping, since Jerry, and we, take part in the debate. Naming names is generally a good practice, save a few exceptions.

    By my count, he mentions Jerry eight times, Shemer does it two times, and it’s one of the weaknesses of this talk that they can’t quite decide whether they want to have a meta-debate about such debates, or whether they want to discuss the subject itself. Though, it made for a suitable back-and-forth overall. I didn’t get much out of it, though.

    Wright seems quite fair minded and acknowledges the problems of tribalism and that he succumbs to it from time to time as well. I also didn’t hear much New Atheist dissing. He disagrees but is not overly negative, and mentions New Atheists in a positive way a few times.

    Though I still disagree with his views. I believe it’s a vague form of cognitive anthropic principle. Humans see gestalt and direction even in the shapes produced by cellular automata, and there’s no purpose behind spaceships, gliders, guns or oscilators.

    Otherwise, the dualism between entropy and “pushing up against it” (Shermer) is a central motif in Discordianism. The often violent, chaotic interaction is represented by Eris (eponymous “Discordia”), and opposed by the Aneristic Principle of entropy.

    Though once framed like that, and there’s no trick involved, it comes down to “patterns exist”, they have direction as one property, which can be split into “the universe exists” on the side of reality “out there”, and “we have a cognition” on the side of our own minds – and that is a form of cogntive anthropic principle. If there was nothing at all, there would be nothing for evolution to fashion a mind that can detect “gestalt” or “properties”. As a religion of psychologists, pranksters, promenaders and likeminded people, we know that order or chaos, purpose and non-purpose are illusions of the mind imposed onto reality, which is itself meaningless and quite silly. I think the answer is a form of model-dependent realism.

    Shermer’s distinction between gravity and natural selection was also not helpful, as it does not dispel the notion of directionality, and might be a confusion of naming and knowing (map and territory, model and referent). It’s even a treacherous idea. Natural selection is as “real” as is gravity, or rainfall eroding rocks and leaving certain shapes. The shapes are as easily created as they are erased.

    I believe they misunderstood Dawkins, when I recall it correctly. In my recollection, Dawkins discussed the wordgames in “purpose” or “design”. And found it: The Purpose of Purpose by Richard Dawkins

  19. Posted January 7, 2017 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    While not ever wanting to infer that there is anything teleological in Evolution I would suggest that, given metabolism, replication and heritability their exists in evolution certain”selection pressures” that “advantage” certain outcomes, those being:
    1) Complexity is a major advantage in enhancing adaptivity – leading to a selective advantage and increasing complexities
    2. Evitability provides great advantage is survivability – leading to a selection advantage for organisms that have higher functionality in evading .. leading even to cognition
    3. Cooperative behaviour within a species in general leads to significant game theoretic advantages, which is our own species’ advanced cognitive functionality provides an innate basis for a species “moral tendency” – leading to selective advantage

    So some of the claims Wright puts forward could be expressed in a a much milder and more nuanced yet quite scientifically way.

    Just saying…..

  20. Posted January 7, 2017 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Teleonomy seems to be a red herring here. Wright is mostly talking about teleonomy, I think. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was famously a proponent. I think that, so far, de Chardin’s Omega point vision is panning out. However, these are early days. As time passes, we will see if evolutionary teleonomy continues to gain observational support. If the current apparent evolutionary progress continues, everyone will have to start taking Wright’s ideas more seriously.

  21. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted January 7, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    If evolution was teleological, it could look into the future – it would be a physics (relativity) breaking process.

    And “counter-entropic role of life”? Has refrigerators a “counter-entropic” role? No, they expel entropy to the universe even faster, while in some little measure preventing mainly bacteria and mold from doing the same.

    • Posted January 7, 2017 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      Teleological processes should not be though of as violating physics. Brains regularly look into the future, by making predictions and forecasts. Some have questioned whether evolution can do the same thing. Since the evolutionary process involves creatures with brains, there’s a reasonable case to be made that it can. E.g. if humans forecast an asteroid is going to hit the planet, and then they use nuclear bombs to break it up, then their foresight has influenced the course of evolution in their favor. Foresight is not an especially recent development – sexual selection has involved humans choosing dwellings and mates in the expectation of future reproductive success for millions of years.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted January 8, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      There are phycisists in hell, completely baffled by how a refrigerator really works now that they’re being punished for their science.

  22. Ken Pidcock
    Posted January 7, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    The only thing that needs said is that Robert Wright knows his territory.


%d bloggers like this: