Friday, August 18, 2006

far be it from me to critique what I haven't read, but...

The inimitable Malcolm Pollack has written an interesting review of Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Readers of my blog will recall that Wright has a website containing a collection of hour-long interviews he has had with various sages and brainiacs.

Wright may be an impressive writer, but he's a horrible interviewer. I was particularly disappointed in his interview with Daniel Dennett, which was less interview than grilling session, with each gentleman interrupting the other and no truly substantive points being made, much less supported.

I haven't read Wright's book, but Malcolm's excellent post leads me to wonder whether Wright isn't making a mistake similar to that made by certain process theologians-- people who (1) look at events happening in the "cream of the crop" of the evolutionary tumult and (2) mistakenly conclude that evolution at this top layer somehow represents a universal telos. I think human arrogance tends to suggest the "ladder" paradigm to us when we assess natural phenomena: we can't help seeing ourselves as some sort of culmination of natural (or supernatural) processes. My own view is that life and mind are not representative of any telos at all: they are simply stochastic occurrences. Most of this cosmos, pretty though it be, is not alive.

Closed systems tend toward greater entropy over time. Within those closed systems, regions of anti-entropic activity may arise, but the overarching history of those systems is foreordained to follow the path of the "thermodynamic arrow," as Stephen Hawking calls it. That is why, in a (theoretically) closed system like our universe, tiny pockets of life can form while most of the universe remains (as far as we know) abiotic. Billions or trillions of years hence, all that life will disintegrate as entropy settles more comfortably into its ancient throne. Those tiny pockets of life, then-- those little bits of animated telos-- are no evidence of a larger cosmic end or purpose. They-- we-- are a brief spark in the Nabokovian blackness: here and gone. The pessimist views this state of affairs with rue; the man of religion, by contrast, knows this means that each moment is absolutely precious. Life's finitude and frailty are what give it its value.


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