Robert Wright, the author of The Moral Animal and a visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary, has written a provocative article recently in the New York Times’ Stone column, entitled “Can evolution have a higher purpose?” His answer is a qualified and rather nuanced yes. Mine, as we shall see, is a decided no. But my no also comes with some qualifications. Our differences might be useful to those who want to think about the nature of science (the subject matter of philosophy of science) and the nature of the world (the subject matter of metaphysics).
The article begins with an extended quote by famed evolutionary biologist William Hamilton, who during an interview was asked by Wright whether he could conceive of evolution having a “transcendental” purpose. He answered: “Yes, yes. There’s one theory of the universe that I rather like — I accept it in an almost joking spirit — and that is that Planet Earth in our solar system is a kind of zoo for extraterrestrial beings who dwell out there somewhere. … Every now and then they see something which doesn’t look quite right — this zoo is going to kill itself off if they let you do this or that. … [so these extraterrestrials] insert a finger and just change some little thing. And maybe those are the miracles which the religious people like to so emphasize. I put it forward in an almost joking spirit. But I think it’s a kind of hypothesis that’s very, very hard to dismiss.”
I don’t know the degree to which Hamilton was indeed joking, but the “hypothesis” is very, very hard to dismiss, on scientific grounds, for the simple reason that it isn’t a (scientific) hypothesis at all. It’s just a poorly formulated logical possibility, and logical possibilities are much broader and more difficult to put to the test than scientific hypotheses. Moreover, the extraterrestrials don’t seem to have paid a lot of attention throughout 2016, or they would have intervened already, since this zoo is indeed going to kill itself off, if they leave it to its own devices.
Wright tells his readers not to focus on the concept of miracles, however, but rather “on the idea of ‘higher purpose’ — the idea that there’s some point to life on earth that emanates from something that is in some sense beyond it.”
If we do that, he suggests, we quickly dispel a number of what he calls myths about evolution. In order:
Myth number one: To say that there’s in some sense a “higher purpose” means there are “spooky forces” at work.
The Hamilton story is supposed to convince us that in order to talk of higher purpose one doesn’t have to talk about gods (the “spooky forces”), since evolution on earth could have been the result of a large scale experiment set up by alien scientists. That’s okay if you are not spooked by alien scientists, of course. But if the Hamiltonian joke turns out to be true it would also mean that we aren’t talking about “evolution” in anything like the sense in which biologists use the word. We would be looking instead at the result of an artificial experiment, which is very different.
Myth number two: To say that evolution has a purpose is to say that it is driven by something other than natural selection.
“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.” Well, yes, but clocks are decidedly not the result of natural selection, but rather of intelligent design. And so would we be, if the Hamiltonian joke actually held in reality.
Myth number three: Evolution couldn’t have a purpose, because it doesn’t have a direction.
Here Wright argues that even the arch-enemy of directionality in evolution, Stephen Jay Gould, had to admit that evolution doesn’t move entirely in a stochastic fashion, since, for instance, it has pushed toward higher and higher complexity. This is correct, as Gould discussed at length in his wonderful Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. But Gould also provided a simple explanation for the increase over time in the complexity of biological organisms: they had to start simple (unless they were placed there by an intelligent designer), so the only way to go was more complex. It’s like a drunk starting a random walk from the exit of the bar. He’s bound to get further and further way from the bar and eventually wander into the street, despite the fact that he doesn’t mean to get there. Moreover, Gould reminded us that by far the most successful living beings on earth are among its simplest: bacteria. Or, as my professor of biophysics in college, Mario Ageno, often said, the goal of a bacterium is not to become a human being; it is to become two bacteria.
Also, if Hamilton’s aliens did set up an experiment on our planet they sure went through a lot of trouble to make it seem entirely natural, and if the point of the experiment was to see what intelligent beings capable of language would do with the “zoo,” then the aliens have a lot more patience than any earth scientist, not to mention that their equivalent of the National Science Foundation apparently doesn’t mind giving out grants that span billions of years…
Myth number four: If evolution has a purpose, the purpose must have been imbued by an intelligent being.
Wright arrives at this by way of physicist Lee Smolin’s idea of cosmological natural selection, an entirely hypothetical mechanism of “reproduction” of universes via black holes, that allegedly shows that natural selection can have a purpose even without any intelligent alien (or whatever) to guide it, the “purpose” being to produced more and more universes. (Please note that this is a meaning of “purpose” that really doesn’t go well with the normally accepted definition.) A variation on Smolin’s theory has been proposed by mathematician Louis Crane, who postulated that intelligent beings could actually interfere with and fine tune the cosmological process envisaged by Smolin, if their technology has developed to the point of producing black holes, at which point purpose would indeed be the right word.
First off, I think Smolin’s (highly speculative, definitely rejected by the majority of the physics community) mechanism has actually little to do with Darwinian natural selection, has I have argued in detail in the past. Second, if the black hole-making aliens did interfere with the process, obviously it wouldn’t be natural selection anymore, would it?
Wright continues: “Some philosophers are comfortable talking about animals having a ‘purpose’ imbued by natural selection (to spread their genes). So if biological evolution is a product of cosmological natural selection, it has a purpose in a defensible sense of that term — and we’re part of that purpose.”
Yes, but this is predicated on an ambiguous use of the word “purpose”: when biologists say that the purpose of an eye is to see, or that the purpose of sex is to spread one’s genes more effectively, they are talking entirely metaphorically, and to take them to mean “purpose” in the ordinary sense of the term is to confuse teleonomy (scientifically acceptable, within the Darwinian theory of evolution) with teleology (which applies scientifically only to human intentions, and to intelligent aliens, if they exist).
Let’s take stock of what we have so far, before we move to an entirely different argument made by Wright in his article.
None of the above seems to me to amount to the conclusion that evolution may have a transcendental purpose. This is not because it isn’t conceivable that an advanced alien civilization has set up our planet as a gigantic petri dish to satisfy their own scientific curiosity. That scenario is indeed conceivable, though there is neither a shred of evidence nor an iota of reason to take it seriously. (I do think Hamilton was joking.) Rather, it is because if the scenario were true we would not have evolution in the sense of a natural process explained by the Darwinian theory. We would be in the presence, instead, of an intelligently designed experiment, our scientific explanation of it would be entirely wrong, and in fact we would be in a position similar to that of an undergraduate student who has been recruited for a psychology experiment of which he is the subject, and the purpose of which has to be obscure to him, on penalty of the experiment itself being hopelessly biased.
Now to the second part of Wright’s article, and his argument that there 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.”
Ah yes, the infamous “simulation hypothesis” put forth by philosopher Nick Bostrom and believed by luminaries of modern metaphysics like David Chalmers. I have explained in the past why I dont’ think this is a reasonable scientific hypothesis or philosophical scenario at all, though apparently none other than “philosophy is a waste of time” Neil deGrasse Tyson, somehow, finds it plausible.
Regardless, I think Wright makes a very good point when he writes: “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. … Yet the simulation hypothesis is a God hypothesis … Theology has entered ‘secular’ discourse under another name.”
That strikes me as exactly right. And I’d like to hear what a number of skeptics and new atheists, who tend to like talking about the simulation hypothesis at cocktail parties as if it were a serious possibility, but react with contempt to any mention of gods and intelligent design, would react to that suggestion.
Would they attempt to draw some kind of metaphysical line between God and the Simulators? But on what grounds? Not only the Simulators would for all effective purposes be gods to us, they also would literally be outside (our) space and time, just like the classic Christian God.
Seems to me that Wright’s argument presents a fundamental dilemma to the secular minded: either accept, as Wright suggests, that theology has entered secular discourse, or relegate the simulation hypothesis to the status of a religion for nerds (similarly to the way I suggested multiple times that the related idea of mind uploading is a secular version of the Rapture). I think the reader knows which way I’m inclined to go without need for me to spell it out.