by Robert Wright, New York Times, 12/12/16.
I was talking to William D. Hamilton, who was famous for coming up with the theory of “kin selection,” which explains patterns of altruism among close relatives in various species, including ours. This and other seminal ideas had earned Hamilton a place in the pantheon of thinkers who ushered in the modern Darwinian understanding of social behavior…
During the interview, I was trying to steer Hamilton toward philosophical topics, and at one point he went further than I had expected. He said, “I’m also quite open to the view that there is some kind of ultimate good which is of a religious nature — that we just have to look beyond what the evolutionary theory tells us and accept promptings of what ultimate good is, coming from some other source.” That’s an unusual thing for a great evolutionary biologist to say …
So add another item to our listicle:
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.
You may scoff, but in 2003 the philosopher Nick Bostrom of Oxford University published a paper laying out reasons to think that we are pretty likely to be living in a simulation. And the simulation hypothesis has gained influential supporters. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and America’s de facto astronomer laureate, finds it plausible. The visionary tech entrepreneur Elon Musk says there’s almost no chance that we’re living in “base reality.” The New Yorker reported earlier this year that “two tech billionaires” — it didn’t say whether Musk is one of them — “have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.”
I’m guessing that will take awhile, and meanwhile I’d like to note an irony.
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. I don’t mean there aren’t plenty of people who dismiss it. I’m talking about how people dismiss it. The Bostrom paper 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.
I won’t elaborate much on this, since I’ve done that elsewhere, arguing that higher purpose can be framed as a hypothesis, and that evidence for or against the hypothesis can be marshaled. But I will say that the evidence I see for purpose includes not just the direction of biological evolution, but the direction of technological evolution and of the broader social and cultural evolution it drives — the evolution that has carried us from hunter-gatherer bands to the brink of a cohesive global community. And if the purpose involves sustaining this direction — becoming a true global community — then it would seem to include moral progress. In particular, our purpose would involve transcending the psychology of tribalism that can otherwise divide people along ethnic, national, religious and ideological lines. Which would mean — in light of recent political and social developments in the United States and abroad — that our work is cut out for us.
Robert Wright (@robertwrighter) is the author of “The Moral Animal,” “Nonzero” and “The Evolution of God,” and a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary.