Excerpts from Three Scientists and Their Gods

by Robert Wright

Edward Fredkin: "Deus Ex Machina" (p. 69–71)

Around sundown on Fredkin's island, all kinds of insects answer some sort of call to action and start chirping or buzzing or whirring. Meanwhile, the wind chimes hanging just outside the back door are tinkling with methodical randomness. All this music — eerie, vaguely mystical to begin with —is downright disorienting when combined with the extremely odd things Fredkin is starting to say. It is one of those moments, normally reserved for nightmares, when the context you've constructed falls apart and gives way to a new, considerably weirder, one. The old context, in this case, was that Ed Fredkin is an iconoclastic thinker who believes that space and time are discrete, that the laws of the universe are algorithms, and that the universe works according to the same principles as a computer. (In fact, he uses this very phrasing in his more circumspect moments.) The new context is th:u Ed Fredkin is th=is guy who sits around on an island in the Caribbean believing that the universe is very literally a computer — and that, moreover, it is being used by someone, or something, to solve a problem. It sounds like a good-news/bad-news joke: the good news is that our lives have purpose; the bad news is that their purpose is to help some titanic hacker estimate pi to nine jillion decimal places.

Wondering if I have misunderstood. I press Fredkin for clarification. So, I ask, you're saying that the reason we're here is that there's some being who wanted to theorize about reality, and the only way he could test his theories was to create reality? "No, you see, my explanation is much more abstract. I don't imagine there is a being or anything. I'm just using that to talk to you about it. What I'm saying is that there is no way to know what the future is any faster than running this [the universe] to get to that [the future]. Therefore, what I'm assuming is that there is a question and there is an answer, okay? I don't make any assumptions about who has the question, who wants the answer, anything."

Okay, fine. But I still don't get it. If the universe is here because it's the most direct route to the solution of some computational problem, then there must be someone, or something, who, or that, set the thing in motion and is waiting to sec what will happen, or died while waiting, or, after watching us on TV for a few billion years, got bored and went next door to visit the Coneheads, or something. Right? The more we talk, the closer Fredkin comes to the religious undercurrents he's trying to avoid. "Every astrophysical phenomenon that's going on is always assumed to be just accident," he says. "To me this is a fairly arrogant position, in that intelligence, and computation, which includes intelligence in my view, is a much more universal thing than people think. It's hard for me to believe that everything out there is just an accident." This sounds awfully like the position of Pope John Paul II and Billy Graham, and I convey this to Fredkin. he responds, "I guess what I'm saying is: I don't have any religious belief. I don't believe that there is a God. I don't believe in Christianity or Judaism or anything like that, okay? I'm not an atheist … I'm not an agnostic … I'm just in a simple state. I don't know what there is or might be … But on the other hand, what I can say is that it seems likely to me that this particular universe we have is a consequence of something which I would call intelligent." You mean that there's something out there that wanted to get the answer to a question? "Yeah." Something that set up the universe to see what would happen? "In some way, yes."

My conspicuous skepticism still bothers him. Look, he says, suppose you were walking along in a desert and came across a machine with four wheels, an engine, a transmission, a dashboard. and all the rest — somethmg that bore a remarkable resemblance to a car. Wouldn't you be safe in concluding that it was built by people for the purpose of getting from one place to another? Well, suppose you came across a machine that had a sign that said THIS IS A PROBLEM-SOLVING MACHINE and was whirring away. Wouldn't you be safe in assuming that it had been set up to solve some problem and was now doing that?

The universe doesn't come with a sign attached, I reply, stalling for time. And then I come up with a better counter-argument. When I was about four years old, I saved every sharp-edged, triangular rock I came across, confident that they were arrowheads, left over from cowboy-and-Indian days. In one sense, I was right to call them arrowheads; they could have performed that function adequately. But I was ultimately wrong; piercing flesh was never their purpose. They were just rocks, no more the product of design than the dirt beneath them. Similarly, it is true that we have a universe well suited to the function of finding out what the future will be, but that doesn't mean it was created for that purpose.

It is obvious from his expression that Fredkin is not bowled over by this line of reasoning. But I am very proud of it. I am just beginning to imagine future philosophers winning tenure on the basis of their astute analyses of "Wright's famous arrowhead argument" when Fredkin breaks in with his comeback. It's not just that the universe is finding out thc future, he says; it's finding our the future by the only method through which the future can be found out. I don't see what difference that makes, and Fredkin, rather than press the point, resorts{S to the Socratic method. He asks. "What are computers used for in this world?"

"To compute," I say.

"What do you mean, 'To compute'? To compute what?"

This would be a good time to break his momentum with defensive tactics — answering "Asparagus," for example. But I have long had an inexplicable desire to please professors, so instead I say, "Answers to questions."

He is pleased. "Right. Every computer we have is to compute answers to questions. And I'm saying here's the biggest computer that anybody ever saw. I'm saying its purpose is to compute answers to questions."

E.O. Wilson: "God" (p. 190–192)

We talk some more, and then the phone rings. Wilson walks over and answers it. "Are you having a hard time, dear?" he says with heartfelt, almost paternal sympathy. It's his wife. Snow has begun to fall, and she's having trouble driving, or something like that. Anyway, the upshot is that wilson has time for only one more question.

Time to roll out the big one: the meaning of life. In both On Human Nature,and Biophilia, Wilson wrote about a philosophical crisis facing humanity.
The problem, as he sees it, is that people have a deep-seated, genetically based need to get wrapped up in some sort of religious fervor — but science, as luck would have it, is relentlessly undermining religious convictions; evolutionary biology has shown the creation myth to be just that, and Wilson is confident that our moral codes will ultimately be explained in terms of genetic imperatives. Fortunately, he has a straightforward solution: as long as we've got these orphaned religious impulses lying around, we might as well hitch them to a belief system that still has legitimacy — science, for instance. He would like to see people get their epiphanies the way he's gotten his — by becoming engrossed in the "endless unfolding of new mysteries"; by investing their faith not in Genesis but in "the evolutionary epic." We must cultivate a "scientific humanism" that taps the energy of our innate religious drive, says Wilson.

Maybe so, but it strikes me that there is one thing missing from this equation. Religion traditionally has imparted a sense of purpose, a sense that there is some point to living, something we arc here to do. It has thus provided reason to struggle against base impulses and existential despair, to try to live with compassion, restraint, and dignity. The evolutionary epic doesn't seem to help much in this regard. The knowledge that we are all related to bacteria makes it no easier to swallow the harsh facts of hard work, brief retirement, and death. How can scientific materialism give meaning to our lives?

"Yeah, you've touched on the subject that's been my main concern," he says. "And that is purpose pursued with energy and enthusiasm." He concedes that the issue is a tough one, and that he doesn't have the answers. But he knows they will come through rational, empirical analysis — "in somehow understanding the religious impulse as central to human behavior in a way that not only explains it naturalistically but harnesses it." And he knows the answer will depend on building more bridges, further integrating the body of human knowledge. "I think scientists and theologians have a lot more to say to each other in talking about the sources of religious drive and the hunger for religious thought … I'm rather hopeful that liberal theologians are going to see this as an interesting new area of thinking and investigation."

It's happened again; he s gotten on the subject of intellectual unity. "There has to be a reconciliation," he's saying. "What's the ultimate form? I'm not so sure. I don't know whether it could end up with a strengthened. more open-ended form of theology and religious scholarship and thought, or whether it will just further diminish the strength of formal religion." He's just warming lip. Soon the words are coming out in waves that will later defy attempts at punctuation. "I've always felt that maybe the former would be the case, because if you could marry a formal enterprise of religious thought of scholars, thinkers, you know, exceptionally sympathetic people, the kind that are attracted to religion, marry their activity as specialists on central rites of passage, and the central, you know, empathic operation of human society — you know, themes of the majesty of the species, the future of nature and so on — marry that with an open-ended, more scientific-like inquiry &mdashg; the source of moral behavior, in order to make moral reasoning more scientific, more science-like, without, however, going to the obvious extreme of a simplistic form of materialism — you know, man as machine — that religion could come out of this a winner."

In short, religion can survive as a coherent body of information if it is willing to put up with substantial editing.

Like E. O. Wilson, I was brought up a Southern Baptist. Like him, I encountered the theory of evolution as a teenager. Like him, I was bowled over by its power and beauty. Like his religious faith, mine did not survive this encounter with science in good shape. But there is one difference between Wilson and me. He seems to have had no trouble filling the void. I, in contrast, regularly get wistful about the days when the question of purpose was settled once and for all, when I knew for certain why I was here and how I was supposed to behave. And somehow I find it hard to believe that he never does. So I ask him: Doesn't he long for the days when he believed there was a God up there watching Over him? Doesn't he lose any sleep over life after death? He shakes his head firmly. "None," he says finally and proudly. " I don't worry about my own immortality."

Still, a funny thing happened a couple of years ago. Harvard was honoring Martin Luther King, Sr., and Reverend King, as part of the festivities, was preaching at the Harvard Memorial Chapel. Wilson, being a southerner, was invited to the service. There was a large turnout. The reverend preached fervently, and the congregation sang richly, and one of the hymns hit home with Wilson — "one of the good, old-timey ones that I hadn't heard since I was a kid." Partway through it, E. O. Wilson — scientific materialist, detached empiricist, confirmed Darwinian — started crying.

As if in atonement, he has a perfectly rational explanation. "It was tribal," he says. "It was the feeling that I had been a long way away from the tribe."

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is a journalist and scholar whose books include The Moral Animal and The Evolution of God.