Can evolution have a higher purpose? No.

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.

229 thoughts on “Can evolution have a higher purpose? No.

  1. synred

    It seems to me that evolution having a purpose is a non-sequitur. A ‘god’ might set up such a cruel system to create us. Perhaps the god is a sadist and who’x purpose is to enjoy the show.

    This is what ‘Durga’ does in my ‘The story of Eddy Puss’, but she is an alien with a time machine passing herself off as a god to the people (Oedipus) trapped her time loop. She’s a sweet heart compared to a god who would create evolution by natural selection.


  2. Daniel Kaufman

    Sherlock wrote:

    Your ‘banter’ about possible fat men and possible gods had an edge to it that brought back unpleasant memories of school playgrounds and the ‘in’ group closing ranks against a perceived interloper. In the words of your president-elect, “not nice”.

    What on earth are you talking about?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. synred

    Robin: You are big on telling me what to say. You can stop that. I will not pay the least attention to it. You can just not read it if you don’t want too.


  4. Robin Herbert

    Hi Dan,

    “Or finally, is the concept of identity simply inapplicable to unactualized possibles?”

    But as I have pointed out, Quine’s intuition is based on the vagueness of his terms. We do not know how many possible fat men for exactly the same reason that we do not know how many fat men there are. There is simply no fact of the matter – there is a range of people who are definitely fat and a range of people who are definitely not fat, but no clear dividing line between these categories and therefore no number. So does this mean that the concept of identity is also inapplicable to actualized possibles?

    The last time you raised this I described a system where there clearly was a fact of the matter about the structure of all the unactualised possibles before any of the possibles were actualised. After some of the possibles were actualised there remained a fact of the matter about the precise structure of all the possibles that were not actualised.

    So it was a clear cut case of the concept of identity applying to unactualsed possibles.


  5. synred

    The fact that I nor anybody else can come up with an argument against BIV’s , etc. is the very reason they are BS.

    BS is a technical term meaning roughly ‘not even false.’


  6. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred,

    Robin: You are big on telling me what to say. You can stop that. I will not pay the least attention to it. You can just not read it if you don’t want too.

    You do realise, don’t you, that you have just told me what to say?

    I won’t pay the least attention to it either, you can just not read it if you don’t want to.

    But I am not aware that I told you what to say. There was a conditional in there. It is like:

    “I don’t want to be cold”
    “If you don’t want to be cold, turn on the heater”
    “Don’t tell me what to do!”


  7. Robin Herbert

    The fact that I nor anybody else can come up with an argument against BIV’s , etc. is the very reason they are BS.

    What on earth do you even mean by “come up with an argument against BIV’s”? These thought experiments are elements in particular arguments. So if you are to address them at all then you need to find the argument that they are part of then address that. If you fail to do that you are calling BS on something that no one has ever said or claimed. Ever.

    Moreover, you appear to think that you have made a point above using a thought experiment about a time travelling alien. I am pretty sure that neither I nor anyone else can come up with an argument.

    Using your argument, the point you made using the thought experiment about a time travelling alien must also be BS. Is it?


  8. Robin Herbert

    Hi Dan,

    “What on earth are you talking about?”

    What he said seemed to be quite clear to me. Your attempts to portray a particular point of view as silly using silly jokes (called the ‘Wookie Defence’ I believe) brought up memories of people at school closing ranks against someone who was not in the ‘in-group’ by using silly banter.

    I don’t say that his feeling was reasonable or not, but it I can’t see what is not to understand about not he said.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. synred

    It’s BS isn’t?

    Sure. It’s fiction. It’s poking fun at time travel. You can’t kill your father, but you could be your father. Hence time-travel Oedipus who not only kills is father, but is his father taking incest to whole new level.

    It’s also a creation myth in which Eddy and his loop appear from nothing but
    Durga’s machine. Hence Durga the creator — a cruel ‘god’. And incidentally I think the cruelty of the gods is much more Sophocles point than Freud’s BS, so I think there is something of the original in ‘Eddy.’

    The possibility of being your own father or other male in your family tree actually makes a prediction, anomalously large genomic correlations! It is still BS and too long.


  10. synred

    Using your argument, the point you made using the thought experiment about a time travelling alien must also be BS. Is it?

    PS. The alien is not time traveling, but causing Oedipus to time travel. The possibility is hinted at that Durga herself may be the product of such a loop, but she is not aware of it, i.e., Turtles all the way down.


  11. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred,

    You don’t appear to have answered the question I asked. Is the point you were making in that post where you mentioned Durga is BS?

    Is any point you make using this story BS?


  12. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred

    And incidentally I think the cruelty of the gods is much more Sophocles point than Freud’s BS, so I think there is something of the original in ‘Eddy.’

    But according to you Sophocles’ point was BS, right?


  13. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred,

    PS. The alien is not time traveling, but causing Oedipus to time travel. The possibility is hinted at that Durga herself may be the product of such a loop, but she is not aware of it, i.e., Turtles all the way down.

    And what you have just said here is – according to you – BS, right?


  14. brodix

    I thought the discussion is whether evolution has a purpose, not whether reality is a simulation.

    I suppose we got the simulation discussion by whether there is some higher order intention, either god or similar creator entity and does it have some purpose in running this program called evolution.

    Without consciousness, whether of biological organisms, or some higher order spiritual entity(s), purpose is meaningless, because it implies some future objective and without consciousness, the future is meaningless. There is simply the intro of the present.

    So we are conscious and we have future goals, even if it would be to commit suicide, because we have no goals, feel too much pain, etc.

    This maze of ‘what ifs’ ignores the source of what purpose is.


  15. synred

    Is the point you make with this story BS?

    Nobody’s ever read it as far as I know. I’m not in a good position to judge. It is the first time I ever completed a story. I have another one (‘Causality — a Tale of Many Worlds’) that is about simulated reality and is similar in it’s kind of meta-point as trying to explain ‘the direction of time.’

    I haven’t proofed it at hardly at all as the prospects of getting readers is so low that it doesn’t seem worth the effort. As you may have noticed I’m very prone to typos and not much good at proofing.

    As I said ‘Eddy’ is making fun of time-travel and I guess that much is not BS, but employs BS. It is I’m afraid pretty tedious.


  16. synred

    But according to you Sophocles’ point was BS, right?

    I don’t think Sophocles considers any indistinguishable hypothesis. He does create characters that don’t exist and incorporate myths. That’s not the same as BS.


  17. synred

    Any argument which makes reference to something that has not observably been actualised is not even true

    No! You total miss the points. Lots of things that aren’t actualize are not BS.

    Hypothesis that explicitly the can’t be distinguished from reality are BS. Suitable for sophomore year beer driven bull sessions.

    I guess I can grant you that such ‘possibilities’ are a reason we can’t prove reality, They are on the less silly hypothesis that build the problem into the conditions of indistinguishably is built in.

    That’s what I call BS and I’m not going to waste time investigating, since by definition there’s no possibility of learning anything.

    BS to physicist.


  18. Robin Herbert

    Hi synred

    I guess I can grant you that such ‘possibilities’ are a reason we can’t prove reality, They are on the less silly hypothesis that build the problem into the conditions of indistinguishably is built in.

    Why are you granting me something that I have never said? That is confusing.

    You are free to ignore the actual argument, but to present something else that is not the argument and has nothing to do with it and then to dismiss your straw man makes no sense.


  19. Robin Herbert


    Still confused about your BS rule. The simulation argument is an argument in which refers to certain indistinguishable possibilities.

    Now is any argument which refers to indistinguishable possibilities BS? Yes or No?

    If yes then consistency demands that you apply the rule to any argument or hypothesis which refers to indistinguishable possibilities and call them BS as well.

    If no,then you cannot say that this argument is BS on that basis. So, if you still want to apply the BS rule then you must clarify that it is some particular way that an argument uses indistinguishable possibilities that makes it BS, that must be clarified.

    But I am not sure how you can know how this particular argument employs this concept if you refuse point-blank to even acknowledge the argument itself on the basis that you somehow already know it is BS.


  20. Robin Herbert

    I think that we know that if the rule is that any argument or hypothesis that refers to indistinguishable possibilities in some way is BS, then that would make Quantum Physics BS and we can agree that QM is not BS.

    So the rule must be that it is some particular way that an argument or hypothesis refers to indistinguishable possibilities that makes it BS. In order to demonstrate this then you would have to be explicit about how an argument or hypothesis makes reference to indistinguishable possibilities that makes it BS, but you must also show that simulation arguments refer to indistinguishable possibilities in this way and in order to do that you would have to make reference to the premises of some actual simulation argument.


  21. Robin Herbert

    And don’t forget, any uncertainty we have about this is not some vague ‘what-if’ scenario, it is an unavoidable consequence of mainstream views of physicists and cosmologists which are, I am told, quickly gaining ground.

    On that basis I can understand the reluctance of physicists to discuss such things but don’t try to convince me it is because of some undefinable aversion to BS.


  22. Daniel Kaufman

    Robin: I didn’t find your response to Quine’s point compelling then and I don’t now, either.

    And sorry, but I find the association of some harmless, stray remark here with childhood bullying to be absurd. Not to mention precious.


  23. Robin Herbert

    Hi Dan,

    I know, I remember that you didn’t find my point, that Quine was forcing a card using absurdly complex and vaguely defined categories and that if we look at categories with actual boundaries and lesser complexity we can give actual examples of unactualised possibllities which have definite structures, compelling.


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