Monday, December 19, 2016

Can evolution have a 'higher purpose'?

I want to point to this essay by Robert Wright, author of "The Moral Animal," who makes the point that arguments that life on earth may have some larger purpose do not necessarily have to depart from a scientific worldview, invoke supernatural beings, or depart from the model of evolution by natural selection. Among these arguments are:
... “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...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. [Neil deGrasse Tyson and Elon Musk find this view plausible.]
Wright quotes from a conversation with William Hamilton, who says:
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. And this is the best, the most interesting experiment they could set up: to set up the evolution on Planet Earth going in such a way that it would produce these really interesting characters — humans who go around doing things — and they watch their experiment, interfering hardly at all so that almost everything we do comes out according to the laws of nature. But 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, he continued, 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.” He reiterated: “I put it forward in an almost joking spirit. But I think it
Another scenario:
...emerges from one version of physicist Lee Smolin’s theory of “cosmological natural selection.” Smolin thinks our universe may itself be a product of a kind of evolution: maybe universes can replicate themselves via black holes, so over time — over a lot of time — you get universes whose physical laws are more and more conducive to replication. (So that’s why our universe is so good at black-hole making!) In some variants of Smolin’s theory — such as those developed by the late cosmologist Edward Harrison and the mathematician Louis Crane — intelligent beings can play a role in this replication once their technology reaches a point where they can produce black holes. So through cosmological natural selection you’d get universes whose physical properties were more and more conducive to the evolution of intelligent life. This might explain the much-discussed observation that the physical constants of this universe seem “fine-tuned” to permit the emergence of life.
Wilson's ending points:
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.

1 comment:

  1. May I suggest Stuart Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe.