NONZERO  THE LOGIC OF HUMAN DESTINY  By  ROBERT WRIGHT
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PART I: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMANKIND

PART II: A BRIEF HISTORY OF ORGANIC LIFE

PART III: FROM HERE TO ETERNITY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty-two

YOU CALL THIS A

GOD?

We don't know what the hell it is, except that it's very large and it has a purpose. —Dr. Heywood Floyd in the movie 2010

 

The original meaning of the word "evolution" was "unfolding" or "unrolling"—as in, the unrolling of an ancient scroll to get to the end of the story. There is something to be said for this long-lost sense of the word. Though neither biological nor cultural evolution is scripted, inexorable in the way that a written narrative is inexorable, both have direction—even, I've argued, a direction suggestive of purpose, of telos. The unfolding of life on this planet may be a story with a point.

Of course, points can be good or bad. And direction plus purpose doesn't necessarily equal goodness. Pol Pot had direction and a strong sense of purpose. Is there any reason to believe that in the case of biological and cultural evolution, the direction is toward the good, the purpose benign? Or, to put the question in common language: Is there evidence not just of design, but of divine design? Any signs of something worthy of the label "God"?

Historically, aficionados of directionality have tended to answer yes in one sense or another. Hegel said his dialectic of history amounted to the manifestation of God. Bergson said the elan vital could be viewed as divine, and that evolution was God's "undertaking to create creators, that He may have, besides Himself, beings worthy of His love." (It's lonely at the top.) To Teilhard de Chardin, Point Omega was the climactic incarnation of God's love.

I can't claim this much confidence in specifying where exactly God fits into the picture or even in asserting that some sort of divine being does fit into the picture. Still, it does seem to me that an appraisal of the state of things from a scientific standpoint yields more evidence of divinity than you might expect. Which is to say: nonzero.

What do I mean by "scientific"? I don't mean using satellite-based sensors to detect divine radio waves. I just mean examining theological scenarios by using evidence that is there for all to see rather than invoking claims of special revelation, or mystical insights reached through meditation or through medication, or whatever. (This empirically based endeavor is sometimes called "natural theology.") Let's accept, if only for the sake of argument, the previous chapter's contention that biological and cultural evolution have some hallmarks of design. Does the design seem to embody the values that people associate with God?

In one sense, the answer has to be no. The kind of God that is hardest to find evidence of is the kind most people seem to believe in: a God that is infinitely powerful and infinitely good. After all, presumably that kind of God wouldn't have let Pol Pot happen—and wouldn't allow the various other forms of cruelty and suffering in the world (including those inherent in organic evolution, and thus in our creation). This is not, of course, some new insight that emerges from this book's vantage point. It is a very old insight—"the problem of evil"—that emerges from the most casual inspection of the everyday world: Why would a benign, almighty God let bad things happen to good people or to people in general?

Some thinkers have solved the problem of evil straightforwardly, by denying its premise. Ancient Zoroastrians said God is not omnipotent, but rather is in pitched battle with an evil spirit, and is doing His best. More often, theologians have finessed the issue: God is good and omnipotent, so all the seemingly bad things He tolerates must have redeeming qualities that make them ultimately good. For example, maybe suffering is a prerequisite for "soul building."

This argument has often drawn the obvious rejoinder: If God is omnipotent, why doesn't He rewire the universe so that suffering isn't necessary for "soul building"? What would be wrong with prefab souls?

Personally, I prefer the Zoroastrian scenario. Or, perhaps, a scenario in which a good God, though not confronting an active, satanic force, is in some other sense of limited power. Maybe in creating the universe, He (She, It) faced metaphysically imposed design constraints.

Anyway, the aim of this chapter is not to describe God or explain God's ways, a task that is above my pay grade. I'm using "God" as convenient shorthand for something vaguer than what the word generally connotes. The point here is just to ask: Are there signs of any divinely imparted meaning in the evidence immediately before us: the history of life on earth? Granted directionality in the sense of growing complexity, is there any directionality along what you might call a spiritual or moral dimension? For that matter. is there anything you might call a spiritual or moral dimension?

A SOURCE OF MEANING

One odd result of material progress has been to increase the tendency of people to find life devoid of meaning. Back in the early Middle Ages, when life expectancy was around thirty and going to bed with a full stomach was a rare treat, people were sure life had meaning. In the late-modern era, as longevity became a virtual birthright in some societies, people began opining that existence is pointless. What's more, adherents of this view tend to think that they're on solid scientific ground—that modern science, by solving mysteries of life that in ages past were given divine explanation, underscores the absence of higher purpose.

What these people need is a good stiff thought experiment!…

[SNIP]

An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. More excerpts are available at www.nonzero.org