[This is a piece I wrote four years ago when I lived in Moscow, for a Russian think-tank called Eurasian Home. I had a wonderful editor there, Tanya, who was very tolerant as my subject matters veered ever further away from Russian politics and towards philosophy and well-being. Thanks for being such a great editor, Tanya! I thought of this piece because it discusses the same ideas as my last post – the renewal of purpose and meaning in the Digital Age.]
I think I’ve discovered the meaning of life. You remember how a couple of weeks ago, I was complaining that western society had lost a sense of telos, how we seemed to be meandering aimlessly, simply killing time? The week before that I was singing the praises of the digital age, and how it has transformed our existence. A contradiction? Perhaps so. Well, I’ve just finished a fascinating book that suggests that the meaning of human existence is…the internet! So maybe the Digital Age can save us from our slough of despond. Let’s investigate.
The book is called NonZero, by the writer and scientist Robert Wright. He’s a cultural evolutionist. That means he believes human cultures follow an evolutionary scale from small bands of hunter-gatherers, to larger bands ruled by a big chief, up through city-states with agriculture, domesticated animals and literacy, and on to large-scale states at the centre of international systems of trade.Wright argues, fairly convincingly, that not just human existence but all existence shows an inherent, predisposed tendency to progress towards higher levels of social complexity, interdependence and what he calls nonzero-sumness.
Nonzero is an idea taken from games theory. A zero sum game is a game where there is one winner and one loser. A nonzero sum game is a game where, if both sides cooperate, both sides win.Wright asserts that organisms that develop systems that allow for greater information-sharing, greater interdependence and greater amounts of nonzero-sumness tend to do better, and therefore to get selected by natural evolution. So natural evolution favours nonzero-sumness.He traces the line of human evolution towards systems of increasing social complexity, trying to show at each step, how it made sense for societies to expand their systems of cooperation, to widen their information networks, increase the space for trade, exchange and other nonzero-sumness.
Of course, sometimes these systems collapse. The barbarians attack and bring down empires. But even then, Wright argues, the trend towards systems of greater complexity continues. The barbarians come away with some of the wisdom and techniques of the empire they have destroyed, as German Goths carried away Roman law with them after the sacking of Rome. So the seed is sowed again for progress towards greater social complexity.
And the climax of this process, Wright believes, is the internet, the ultimate system of interdependence, information sharing and nonzero-sumness. Wright starts fantasizing about how humanity could start to act like a single organism, a large giant brain, with the World Wide Web acting as the network of synapses firing information around the system. The book was written in 2000, and it does have the feel of that period, before September 11, when everyone thought the internet was going to save the world and make us all millionaires. The book has a ringing endorsement from Bill Clinton (‘A work of genius!’) which is apt, because Bill was the defining figure of that feel-good, high-tech era. But the book still makes for interesting and optimistic reading now, in these darker days of terrorism and White House stupidity [I wrote this in 2007.]
What I find interesting is that Wright has managed to combine two very different schools of thought – natural theology and Darwinism. Let me explain. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote a book in 1757 called A Dialogue on Natural Religion. I recommend it to everyone, it’s possibly the sexiest book of British philosophy. If it were an item of clothing, it would be a leather jacket.
Anyway, the book is a dialogue between two people, one of whom, Cleanthes, is a theist – he believes the existence of God can be inferred by looking at nature and seeing the wondrous design of it, which suggests some higher intelligence planning out creation. This theory is not so far from Stoicism, a philosophy close to my heart, which likewise asserts that the universe is the creation of a higher intelligence, or providence, which connects everything and guides events so that everything turns out for the good.
The other person in Hume’s dialogue, Philo, is an agnostic sceptic. Philo says, yes, creation does seem to show some signs of design, but couldn’t this design be the product of some blind principle of nature, rather than some higher morally benevolent intelligence?
Hume was writing, we note, at a time when theories of natural evolution were beginning to be suggested by scientists like Erasmus Darwin, and here Hume also seems to suggest that creation is guided by a blind principle like natural selection. Philo says it would be wrong to infer from nature that the entire universe is ordered by some sympathetic deity. In fact, if you look at nature, the design of it seems incredibly messy, and often imperfect. Many species don’t survive. And a lot of creation is miserable. Thus Hume concludes:
[Creation] presents nothing but the idea of a blind Nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children!
It’s a powerful argument, and one that was only strengthened when Darwin published his Origin of Species, which seemed to prove that nature was indeed “blind”, amoral, and rather lacking in “parental care”. So the sceptic / atheist Philo seems to win in his debate with the Deist Cleanthes.
One of the reason’s Wright’s book is so interesting is it offers a possible resolution of the debate between Cleanthes and Philo, or between those who believe in natural selection, and those who want to believe there is some higher purpose to creation.
Wright’s theory suggests that, firstly, the evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins are correct that nature is driven by a blind principle of natural selection. But, secondly, this principle seems to naturally leads to a universe not unlike the one described by Stoics, a universe of ever-increasing complexity and interdependence. The universe which natural evolution created ends up being much like that described by the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius: “All things are implicated in one another, and in sympathy with one another…Everything is interwoven, and the web is holy…All of us are working on the same project, some consciously, others unconsciously…”
So perhaps there really is a purpose – or providence – in nature?
Of course, there are objections we can make to Wright’s argument. OK, human societies might evolve towards levels of higher complexity. But is this really an aim, or merely an outcome? To what extent is higher social complexity and nonzero-sumness a satisfactory purpose for human existence? I love the internet as much as the next person, but is the World Wide Web some higher evolution of human consciousness, or just the global pooling of human ignorance, prejudice and vice?And to what extent is the trend towards higher complexity a trend towards moral improvement?
People before Wright have tried to argue the equation: ‘greater human complexity and interdependence = better morality’. Eighteenth century Scottish philosophers, including David Hume, were particularly beloved of the idea, arguing that greater interdependence, such as international trade, brings people together into nonzero-systems, and this makes them more considerate of other people’s needs, more polite, and therefore better. But it’s not necessarily true. Greater human interdependence leads to better manners, not necessarily better morals. The two are not the same.
Anyway, it’s a very interesting book. And in some ways I agree, the internet is an incredible invention, and one will probably help humanity. We are all talking to each other now, and we can find information incredibly quickly – books, articles, essays, videos, music, phone numbers. Hopefully that will mean that, as Wright believes, we can evolve further, towards higher levels of cooperation and mutual understanding. It is an astonishing age we live in.
If you want to hear more about Robert Wright, here is a talk he gave at TED.