Wright starts by quoting from an (unpublished) video interview he made years ago with William Hamilton, the Oxford evolutionary biologist whose theory of kin selection helped make the field so influential. At one point Hamilton mentions casually that he’s open to the idea that evolution might not, after all, be the whole story about moral purpose. Perhaps, he muses, we should be open to the idea that ‘promptings’ about the ‘ultimate good’ might be coming from a different source. He would have left it that, concerned about getting off-topic. But of course Wright was intrigued and pressed him further.
I asked him if he meant that there was some kind of “transcendental purpose” that we humans are generally oblivious to.
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 extra-terrestrial 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 extra-terrestrials “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’s a kind of hypothesis that’s very, very hard to dismiss.”
Most scientists don’t like to think about extra-terrestrials because they think it means departing from the scientific worldview, Wright says. But it doesn’t. An ‘alien’ doesn’t have to be from another dimension, but rather inhabits our own universe – a physical being like ourselves, who in this particular context just happens to have a technological sophistication far beyond our own.
You may consider aliens spooky, but they’re not a spooky force. And they’re not supernatural beings. They’re just physical beings, like us. Their technology is so advanced that their interventions might seem miraculous to us — as various smartphone apps would seem to my great-great-grandparents — but these interventions would in fact comply with the laws of science. More to the point: If you ask how Hamilton’s aliens had initially imparted “purpose” to life, the answer is that they did so in concrete fashion: by planting simple self-replicating material on earth a few billion years ago, confident that it would lead to something that would keep them entertained (keeping them entertained being, in this scenario, life’s purpose).
Wright adds that it’s not intellectually disrespectable to hold that life on Earth is a cosmic computer projection, and that the history of our universe is the unfolding of an algorithm. That’s because it’s based on technology, not on metaphysics or any kind of supernatural conception.
You may scoff, but in 2003 the philosopher Nick Bostrom of Oxford University published a paper laying out reasons to think that we are pretty likely to be living in a simulation. And the simulation hypothesis has gained influential supporters. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and America’s de facto astronomer laureate, finds it plausible. The visionary tech entrepreneur Elon Musk says there’s almost no chance that we’re living in “base reality.” The New Yorker reported earlier this year that “two tech billionaires” — it didn’t say whether Musk is one of them — “have gone so far as to secretly engage scientists to work on breaking us out of the simulation.”
But then, as Wright points out, the cosmic projection hypothesis is a God hypothesis: ‘an intelligence of awe-inspiring power created our universe for reasons we can speculate about but can’t entirely fathom … theology has entered ‘secular’ discourse under another name.
Exactly so. And once you strip away the cultural and historical accretions around religious thinking, and penetrate to the spiritual core teaching, one could construct a religious-type scenario that is close to thinking in the (entirely secular) AI and digital future communities. Here, we could view channelled ‘spirit teachings’ – Seth, Agartha, White Eagle, Silver Birch, The Course of Miracles, and all the rest – as the ‘promptings’, as Hamilton calls them, of those who set up (or who at least manage) the simulation. They’re in the lab, quietly murmuring instructions to us from their distant planet, in a way that emerges fitfully in our active lives in what we call conscience, but which on occasion – and if we properly clear the mind channel of extraneous noise – we can literally make out the words.
(Obviously, Hamilton's scenario requires some kind of mechanism by which the distant ETs can monitor us and communicate, but let’s assume, with their vastly more advanced technological capability, they’ve figured that out.)
But then what about the voices that plague the mentally ill, that taunt them and drive them to commit murder? Are they also distant ET technicians talking to us? In that case, why would they want to send messages calculated to cause harm?
Well, perhaps we could extend the idea in creative ways: the human life experiment is controversial, and perhaps some disaffected individuals on this remote controlling station have broken into the laboratory and are trying to sabotage it. Perhaps one could build an entire theodicy around the idea of extra-terrestrial hackers!
I don’t think in these terms myself, but it seems that growing numbers of people in the technological and gaming communities – people who consider themselves to be atheists – talk in language that lends itself to a sort of secular theology. In its extreme manifestation it’s what Robert Geraci, a religious studies professor, calls ‘apocalyptic AI’, the idea that by transmigrating to more efficient non-organic ‘bodies’ we can eventually attain to blissful eternal life.
The conclusion is that secularists are actually quite comfortable with the whole God thing – or certain aspects of it, as long as it lies within human comprehension. That gets confirmation of a kind from the Uber-Atheist himself, Richard Dawkins:
It could be that at some earlier time, somewhere in the universe, a civilization evolved by probably some kind of Darwinian means to a very, very high level of technology, and designed a form of life that they seeded onto, perhaps, this planet. Now that is a possibility, and an intriguing possibility. And I suppose it's possible that you might find evidence for that if you look at the details of our chemistry, molecular biology, you might find a signature of some sort of designer, and that designer could well be a higher intelligence from elsewhere in the universe. But that higher intelligence would itself have had to have come about by some explicable, or ultimately explicable, process. It couldn't have just jumped into existence spontaneously. That's the point.
So Dawkins gives us permission to believe in a higher intelligence than ours, just so long as we don’t invest it with ‘supernatural’ qualities.
Back to Wright, who calls himself a scientifically-minded agnostic (uncertain, but leaning towards secularism), is actively interested in mindfulness and meditation, and is disparaging of militant atheists like Dawkins and Sam Harris. It’s not the nuts and bolts of creation that interests him, rather the development of morality in humans, which he depicts as purposeful while striving to keep it within the bounds of scientific secularism, as a product of evolution. But flirting with teleology gets him into trouble with fundamentalists like Jerry Coyne, who derides it as ‘creationism for liberals’. For Coyne, ideas like extra-terrestrials running a ‘human zoo’, or of life as a Matrix-style simulation, don’t deserve serious consideration.
For one thing, they are untestable claims and therefore unscientific ones. How would we know that we’re manipulated by aliens, or even part of a simulation? Further, it’s unparsimonious. What reason do we have for thinking that we are a gigantic real or virtual experiment rather than inhabitants of a real Universe? Adding those manipulative aliens just puts another layer on the hypothesis.
One answer, I suppose, is that humans have a powerful subjective sense of something beyond themselves, something significant that seems to demand the kind of explanation that scientific materialism can’t supply. But of course that’s not an issue for strict materialists for whom subjective human experience doesn’t merit consideration.
For his part, Wright shows signs of finding his self-imposed constraints irksome, as in this rejoinder to Coyne:
… some of the properties evinced by the system we’ve been discussing are the kinds of properties associated with “higher purpose” in the more traditional sense of a “divine” purpose. For example, there’s the aforementioned moral progress that has accompanied the expansion of social organization. And there’s the fact that sustaining history’s erratic but discernible drift toward a cohesive global community will almost certainly require more moral progress. Indeed, given the signs of backsliding on this project—given the growing prospect that humankind, having reached the brink of a global community, will dissolve into chaos—you could say that our species is facing an epic moral test. And God knows that kind of thing has traditionally been associated with divine purpose.
I find all this encouraging. It’s good to see a scientifically literate writer, who really knows his way around evolutionary psychology – one of the dominating explanatory paradigms of our age – engaging with a secular audience on matters whose importance that paradigm tends to obscure. A space is opening up, largely thanks to rapidly advancing digital technology, where one can potentially talk about metaphysical issues to secularists without sending them running for the hills. (Incidentally, Wright has a slot on Meaningoflife.tv, where he conducts video conversations with all sorts of interesting folk.)
That said, I also wonder whether one might extend this space, venturing further into metaphysical realms where the secular air is thinner, so to speak, but which is still nominally ‘safe’ in the sense that it remains attached to a secular base.
If we start from ideas of extra-terrestrials running the Earth project, or alternatively a Matrix-type scenario, would it be such a jump to locate these super-beings, not on some remote planet in a neighbouring galaxy, or even in another universe – both unfathomably distant – but in a different dimension altogether? A place, in other words, where we could never get to meet them even if we had suitably powerful spaceships, since their material reality does not interact with ours. Physicists do deal in extra dimensions, after all. Is there any reason why we shouldn’t conceive of them being inhabited by life forms, whose origin we can likewise attribute to impersonal evolutionary forces? How far can we stretch the envelope?
My point is that there’s a continuum here rather than a boundary. You travel from one state (science) towards an apparently antithetical state (religion) in a gradual way, certainly having to negotiate tricky gaps in certain places, but without being forced to step over a red line into a supernatural realm, where all bets are off no explanations are possible, and everything reduces to the idea of ‘God’. How far you’re willing to travel along this continuum depends on your tolerance of religious ideas, or your need to combine spiritual sustenance with loyalty to the scientific paradigm. A Coyne would not start the journey; a Dawkins might go a short distance, under protest. A Robert Wright would travel as far as he can take his audience with him.
Speaking for myself, having reached the boundary I could step over it without feeling personal discomfort. Perhaps that’s because, for better or worse, I seem to lack the need for mechanical explanations, that deep-seated, visceral appetite that drives the scientist. It’s also because I’m sceptical of the whole idea of ultimate explanations. You don’t have to envisage life in distant galaxies and alternative dimensions to bump up against the boundary, we’ve got one right here at home – even some materialists doubt that consciousness can ever be explained.