THREE SCIENTISTS AND THEIR GODS: Looking for Meaning in the Age of Information by Robert Wright

THREE SCIENTISTS AND THEIR GODS: Looking for Meaning in the Age of Information

Email this review


Wright, a senior editor of The Sciences, is a marvelous interlocator, very much a full participant in these interviews with three notables--who, at first glance, seem to have very little in common: Ed Fredkin, the MIT computer maverick, E.O. Wilson, of sociobiology fame, and Kenneth Boulding, the economist. It is clear that Wright has a personal quest in mind: he tips the reader in asides when he's angling to ask the Big Question--What is it all about? What is the meaning and purpose of us? Is there a guiding hand? The answers are startling. For Fredkin, self-made millionaire and owner of a Caribbean island, our purpose is to create artificial intelligence, the next step in evolution. This from someone whose metaphysics comes down to the notion that the universe is a giant computer; that space and time are no more continuous than sand. His ""digital physics"" is based on Fredkin's ingenious designs for ""reversible computers"" (sort of the ability of a computer to retrace its history in generating output), plus the complexity that arises from programming simple rules in ""cellular automata"" (see also Pagels above). Needless to say, many look askance at Fredkin--but continue to look because his track record is considerable. In the meantime, Wilson's studies of caste, class, cooperation and kinship among the social insects laid the basis for his development of sociobiology. Wright describes the evolution of Wilson's thought--and its critical aftermath--in the context of Wilson's upbringing as a strict Southern Baptist. In due course, Wilson postulated a purpose for the religious impulse in man. And in answer to Wright's Big Question argues the need for unity and reconciliation, or in Wright's words, ""religion can survive as a coherent body of information if it is willing to put up with substantial editing."" With Boulding, Wright encounters a Quaker and pacifist who has clearly rejected a reductionist point of view and applied general systems theory to economics. Boulding's spiritual position is somewhere between Teihard de Chardin's teleological evolution and Adam Smith's social interdependence as the basis for economy. None of these generalizations does justice to Wright's wonderful way with words (""Did Teilhard violate the first or second law of teleology?""), his vivid descriptions of person and place, and his own theoretical musings. A surprisingly deep and witty book.

Pub Date: June 24th, 1988
Publisher: Times Books