You Call This a God? (From Here To Eternity)

We don’t know what the hell it is, except that it’s very large and it has a purpose.

—Dr. Heywood Floyd in the movie 2010

The original meaning of the word "evolution" was "unfolding" or "unrolling"—as in, the unrolling of an ancient scroll to get to the end of the story. There is something to be said for this long-lost sense of the word. Though neither biological nor cultural evolution is scripted, inexorable in the way that a written narrative is inexorable, both have direction—even, I’ve argued, a direction suggestive of purpose, of telos. The unfolding of life on this planet may be a story with a point.

Of course, points can be good or bad. And direction plus purpose doesn’t necessarily equal goodness. Pol Pot had direction and a strong sense of purpose. Is there any reason to believe that in the case of biological and cultural evolution, the direction is toward the good, the purpose benign? Or, to put the question in common language: Is there evidence not just of design, but of divine design? Any signs of something worthy of the label "God"?

Historically, aficionados of directionality have tended to answer yes in one sense or another. Hegel said his dialectic of history amounted to the manifestation of God. Bergson said the elan vital could be viewed as divine, and that evolution was God’s "undertaking to create creators, that He may have, besides Himself, beings worthy of His love." (It’s lonely at the top.) To Teilhard de Chardin, Point Omega was the climactic incarnation of God’s love.

I can’t claim this much confidence in specifying where exactly God fits into the picture— or even in asserting that ome sort of divine being does fit into the picture. Still, it does seem to me that an appraisal of the state of things from a scientific standpoint yields more evidence of divinity than you might expect. Which is to say: nonzero.

What do I mean by "scientific"? I don’t mean using satellite-based sensors to detect divine radio waves. I just mean examining theological scenarios by using evidence that is there for all to see—rather than invoking claims of special revelation, or mystical insights reached through meditation or through medication, or whatever. (This empirically based endeavor is sometimes called "natural theology.") Let’s accept, if only for the sake of argument, the previous topic’s contention that biological and cultural evolution have some hallmarks of design. Does the design seem to embody the values that people associate with God?

In one sense, the answer has to be no. The kind of God that is hardest to find evidence of is the kind most people seem to believe in: a God that is infinitely powerful and infinitely good. After all, presumably that kind of God wouldn’t have let Pol Pot happen—and wouldn’t allow the various other forms of cruelty and suffering in the world (including those inherent in organic evolution, and thus in our creation). This is not, of course, some new insight that emerges from this topic’s vantage point. It is a very old insight—"the problem of evil"—that emerges from the most casual inspection of the everyday world: Why would a benign, almighty God let bad things happen to good people—or to people in general?

Some thinker have solved the problem of evil straightforwardly, by denying its premise. Ancient Zoroastrians said God is not omnipotent, but rather is in pitched battle with an evil spirit, and is doing His best. More often, theologians have finessed the issue: God is good and omnipotent, so all the seemingly bad things He tolerates must have redeeming qualities that make them ultimately good. For example, maybe suffering is a prerequisite for "soul building."

This argument has often drawn the obvious rejoinder: If God is omnipotent, why doesn’t He rewire the universe so that suffering isn’t necessary for "soul building"? What would be wrong with prefab souls?

Personally, I prefer the Zoroastrian scenario. Or, perhaps, a scenario in which a good God, though not confronting an active, satanic force, is in some other sense of limited power. Maybe in creating the universe, He (She, It) faced metaphysically imposed design constraints.

Anyway, the aim of this topic is not to describe God or explain God’s ways, a task that is above my pay grade. I’m using "God" as convenient shorthand for something vaguer than what the word generally connotes. The point here is just to ask: Are there signs of any divinely imparted meaning in the evidence immediately before us: the history of life on earth? Granted directionality in the sense of growing complexity, is there any directionality along what you might call a spiritual or moral dimension? For that matter, is there anything you might call a spiritual or moral dimension?


One odd result of material progress has been to increase the tendency of people to find life devoid of meaning. Back in the early Middle Ages, when life expectancy was around thirty and going to bed with a full stomach was a rare treat, people were sure life had meaning. In the late-modern era, as longevity became a virtual birthright in some societies, people began opining that existence is pointless. What’s more, adherents of this view tend to think that they’re on solid scientific ground—that modern science, by solving mysteries of life that in ages past were given divine explanation, underscores the absence of higher purpose.

What these people need is a good stiff thought experiment! Imagine a planet on which life evolves. Little bits of self-replicating material (call them genes) encase themselves (by a process we’ll call natural selection) in protective armor that exhibits behavioral flexibility. One species in particular—a brainy, two-legged organism—exhibits lots of behavioral flexibility. These organisms are capable of great feats: communicating with subtlety, creating art, watching TV.

Sound familiar? Not so fast. These organisms have one other feature: the absence of consciousness—no trace of sentience; it isn’t like anything to be them. Yes, fire burns their hands, so, yes, they’re designed to withdraw their hands from fire, but, no, they don’t feel pain. Or happiness, or anything. These organisms look and act just like human beings; young lover kiss passionately, and new parents beam with pride—except without the passion and the pride. These are just robots with unusually good skin.

Obviously, such a world would lack the kinds of things many people cite as key sources of life’s meaning: such feelings as undying love, devout allegiance, unmitigated triumph, and so on. But there is something else, too. Such a world would lack moral meaning. After all, these so-called organisms are just machines, as devoid of feeling as a computer (or at least, as devoid of feeling as we presume a computer to be). Is there anything immoral about unplugging a computer for good? And if not, then how could there be anything immoral about killing one of these insensate organisms on this emotionally barren planet, where there was never any potential for fulfillment in the first place? This is what a world truly without meaning would look like: it would offer no context in which words such as "right" and "wrong" made sense.

Maybe the strangest thing about life on this imaginary, zombie-inhabited planet is this: it is precisely the kind of life that you would expect to evolve on this planet. Indeed, the fact that life on earth isn’t inhabited by these zombies is a source of great and perhaps eternal perplexity. For, as noted in the previous topic, subjective experience, according to the premises of modern behavioral science, lacks a function; it is redundant, superfluous.

The seeming superfluousness of consciousness has prompted the philosopher David Chalmers to remark, "It seems God could have created the world physically exactly like this one, atom for atom, but with no consciousness at all. And it would have worked just as well. But our universe isn’t like that. Our universe has consciousness." For reasons unknown, God decided "to do more work" in order "to put consciousness in." The key bit of effort, so far as Chalmers can tell, was to draft a law assigning consciousness to some, and perhaps all, types of information processing.

By "God" Chalmers doesn’t mean a guy with a white beard. Most philosophers use the term at least as vaguely as I’m using it: it refer to whoever, whatever—if any being, any process—specified the laws of the universe. Still, the fact that the one feature of human existence that is of mysterious, even inexplicable, origin is also the central source of life’s meaning doesn’t exactly discourage speculation about divine beings and higher purpose. And it renders odd the tendency of people convinced of life’s meaninglessness to cite, as support, science’s having "explained away" the mysteries of life. After all, it isn’t just that science hasn’t managed to solve the mystery of consciousness. In a sense, science created the mystery of consciousness; the mystery emerges from a hard-nosed, scientific view of behavior and causality.


Of course, a law assigning sentience to complex data processing doesn’t do any good unless there’s some complex data processing going on. Conveniently enough—as we saw in part II of this topic—organic evolution ensures as much. Over time, we see more and more complex animals that process information more and more elaborately.

It isn’t just that natural election favor behavioral complexity, and thus deft data processing. Complexity of biological structure itself, from the very beginning, entailed information processing. Forget about your brain and its ability to plan vacations, wondrous though this is. Just think about your lungs or kidneys, about breathing or urinating. These things, too, are data-rich—not just via involvement with the nervous system, but via hormonal control, via all kinds of minor bits of cellular cross-talk. For that matter, a single cell—any one of yours or any one bacterium—has at its heart an information processor of no meager sophistication, DNA.

Granted, when it comes to our most sublime, most meaningful moments—feeling love or empathy, joy or epiphany, even abject but profound remorse—kidneys and bacteria just won’t get the job done. Brains are where the action is. So it’s fortunate that large multicellular animals with great behavioral complexity seem to have been in the cards. My point is just that these brains are a continuous outgrowth of something at life’s very essence: a primordial imperative to process information. Given the apparent connection among information processing, entience, and meaning, it seems fair to ay that evolution by natural selection was from the beginning a veritable machine for making meaning.

As we’ve seen, the logic by which complexity, hence data processing, hence meaning, grows is the logic of non-zero-sumness. The genes along a strand of DNA have a nonzero-sum relationship with one another, as do the organelles within a cell, the cells within a body. In all of these cases, the cause of the non-zero-sumness is shared Darwinian interest—being in the same boat in one sense or another—and the result is transmitted information.

Within any organism, it is these well-played non-zero-sum games, and the flexible coherence they bring, that let life persist in the face of mounting universal entropy; that let life defy the spirit, though not the letter, of the second law of thermodynamics. That games which call for information processing should be on the leading edge of this war against entropy makes perfect sense. As Jacques Monod observed, to arrange matter into an orderly form and keep it there, in the face of the second law’s tendency to mix things up, requires a "discriminative," even "cognitive" capacity. Ever since life’s initial defiance of the spirit of the second law, information processing has risen to higher and higher levels, following the logic of organic coherence, which is to say, the logic of non-zero-sumness.

That biological evolution has an arrow—the invention of more structurally and informationally complex forms of life—and that this arrow points toward meaning, isn’t, of course, proof of the existence of God. But it’s more suggestive of divinity than an alternative world would be: a world in which evolution had no direction, or a world with directional evolution but no consciousness. If more scientists appreciated the weirdness of consciousness—understood that a world without sentience, hence without meaning, is exactly the world that a modern behavioral scientist should expect to exist—then reality might inspire more awe than it does.


The meaning imparted by consciousness, one might argue, isn’t an inherently good thing. After all, sentience brings equally the capacity for joy and for suffering, for good and for bad. It is the existence of sentience, of meaning, that allowed Pol Pot to be a person of consequence. On that imaginary planet of zombies, devoid of meaning, the Pol Pots and Hitler and Stalins of the world would be incapable of evil; however destructive, they could inflict no suffering, prevent no happiness, affront no dignity.

In short, the existence of meaning is morally neutral; it creates the potential for good, but doesn’t, by itself, tip the scales in that direction. In this light we might hope for more from a divine architect than mere meaning, the mere capacity for good things. We might hope for the realization of good things—every now and then, at least, and the more often, the better.

On the other hand, isn’t goodness a slightly naive thing to ask of an architect whose plans included natural selection? At its core, natural selection is cutthroat. It is a zero-sum struggle for finite resources, and there are no rules. How much good could come of that?

More than you might think. As we’ve seen, this dynamic had the paradoxical effect of weaving ever-larger non-zero-sum webs, from a single strand of DNA all the way up to a society of multicellular animals. The point isn’t just the attendant growth in data processing, hence sentience, hence meaning. Eventually, this dynamic brought some semblance of actual good.

Actually, "entailed" is a bit strong. What this impetus clearly entailed wasn’t love per se, but the evolution of altruistic behavior among close kin. This altruistic behavior in turn seems to have entailed—for reasons concealed in the more general mystery of consciousness—the subjective experience of love. (At least, in our species, love is what parents feel when they nurture and protect their off-spring, and there’s no reason to think chimps or dogs are any different.) Anyway, the main point is that with the advent of altruism, animals were doing something other than eat each other; they were helping each other, and feeling good about it to boot.

Intra-family altruism has evolved multiple times, and naturally so. With closely related organisms tending to start out life near each other, commonality of Darwinian interest is thick, just waiting to be harnessed by the logic of kin selection. Though maternal devotion was presumably the original form of kin-directed love (even many insects display maternal altruism), other forms followed: sibling love and—in our species and some others—paternal love.

Altruism, having established a beachhead within the family, eventually branched out beyond close relatives. As we’ve seen, in a number of species, including ours, natural selection invented reciprocal altruism, which, notwithstanding its underlying cold calculation, involves heartfelt obligation, even affection. This tendency of human beings to form bonds beyond the family would become crucial as cultural evolution began the long geographic expansion of non-zero-sumness. Biological evolution, having created goodness by inventing altruism, would now surrender center stage to the second great evolutionary force, with which any hopes for expanding goodness would now lie.

But before we get too rhapsodic about all this bonding, a word is in order about affection’s oft-underplayed downside. Ever hear of the "Texas cheerleader mom"? She was convicted of plotting to murder her daughter’s rival for a high-school cheerleading slot. The good news is that this woman is manifestly not typical of mothers in Texas—or anywhere. The bad news is that he nonetheless illustrates, if in grotesque proportion, a ubiquitous point: love is, by design, an invidious emotion. The problem isn’t just that love gets extended selectively, often coming to a creeching halt at the bounds of family. The problem is that love is often deployed to the active detriment of people beyond the family. It’s a jungle out there, after all, and we want our loved ones to triumph.

This seamy underside of affinity isn’t confined to intra-family affinity. One common purpose of reciprocal altruism in primates is to cement coalitions which then compete with other coalitions, sometimes violently. In general, as the biologist Richard Alexander has observed, the flip side of "within-group amity" is "between-group enmity."

This dour equation seems almost to have been a constant of human history. Lengthened and strengthened bonds have tended to involve deepened fissures. Consider those nostalgic reveries about wartime. Soldier talk about the indelible devotion to their comrades in arms, and civilians recall the sense of brotherhood that suffused a whole nation. Sounds great. But as amity thus reached national scope, the petty enmities of daily life weren’t so much erased a displaced—piled up, sky-high, along the nation’s border: a mass of hatred between peoples. It almost seems as if one of the basic laws of the universe, right next to "conservation of mass" and "conservation of energy," is "conservation of antipathy."

Here again we encounter the problem of evil: you wouldn’t expect a benign and omnipotent God to embed such a law in the universe. Yet the law—or, at least, the "law"—does seem fundamental. It is grounded in the basic paradox of creation: non-zero-sumness, wondrous though it is, was created by, and for, zero-sumness, and is thus naturally prone to malicious use. Kant’s "unsocial sociability" lies in the very logic of natural selection.


This conservation-of-antipathy business threatens to put a damper on some of the celebrating we did earlier in this topic. Remember the brief rhapsody about the expanding circle of moral consideration? How ancient Greeks had come to concede the humanity of Greeks who lived in distant cities? How the moral compass kept growing in tandem with the scope of non-zero-sumness, so that people increasingly recognized that inhabitants of foreign lands, speaker of foreign languages, adherents of foreign faiths, are human beings nonetheless? Obviously, we would have to feel less festive about this progress if it turned out that every iota of advance entailed regression. Is "conservation of antipathy" truly a law of nature—or, at least, a rough tendency so deeply embedded in human affairs as to doom moral progress?

No, for two reasons. First, martial fervor is not the only source of social bonding. If I water my neighbor’s plants while he’s away, and he returns the favor, our mutual amity grows just a bit—without any necessary growth in my dislike of anyone else. And much of the growth of non-zero-sumness over the past few millennia has been of this sort— people being "pulled" together for common gain, not "pushed" together by a common enemy.

One of the main pulling forces, of course, has been economic. Granted, commerce can be a cool affair, and often fails to expand the web of affection, but it does expand the web of tolerance. You don’t have to love your grocer, but you houldn’t assault him. You don’t have to love the people who built your Toyota, but it’s unwise to bomb them—just a it’s unwise to bomb the people overseas who are buying the things you made.

The second reason that the alleged "conservation of antipathy" doesn’t doom moral progress has to do not with these "pulling" forces of economics but with the "pushing" forces, under which people unite to thwart a common threat.At that point, barring extraterrestrial invasion, conquest isn’t the peril that brings people together. Rather, they cooperate to evade such things as terrorism, international crime, environmental calamity, and economic collapse. More than before, non-zero-sumness can thrive without zero-sumness as its ultimate source. To whatever rough extent "conservation of antipathy" has held a a general law of history, it seems to be in the process of being repealed.

Of course, zero-sumness hasn’t vanished. Corporations compete with corporations, politicians compete with politicians, soccer teams compete with soccer teams. What’s more, some of the new sources of common peril—terrorists and international criminals— are playing emphatically zero-sum games: they have interests quite opposed to those of society at large, and will accordingly inspire their share of antipathy. Still, as non-zero-sumness has grown, finally reaching global extent, a particular kind of zero-sum dynamic has begun to weaken. And it is the most pernicious kind: bitter struggle between geographically separate groups, featuring blind hatred of whole peoples. The spatial dimension of zero-sumness, historically its most abhorrent dimension, has begun to fade. In this sense—a limited but far from trivial sense—we can say that non-zero-sumness is on the verge of having "won" in the end.

Obviously, cultural evolution’s movement toward this moral threshold isn’t proof of a benign universal architect, any more than biological evolution’s expansion of meaning or its invention of goodness was. But, like those biological developments, this cultural development is closer to being evidence of divinity than its opposite would be. Once you’ve accepted that evil is, for whatever reason, built into the fabric of human—indeed, organic—experience, the basic trend lines don’t look all that bad.


The prospect of peaceful, even respectful coexistence among the world’s peoples might seem enough to satisfy anyone. But Teilhard de Chardin hoped for more. After all, if peace and tolerance grow only out of non-zero-sum calculation—only out of rational self-interest—then there is something cool and mechanical about it all. And Teilhard preferred warm and fuzzy things. In his musings about humanity’s approach, via globalization, to Point Omega, he wrote: "Humanity, as I have said, is building its composite brain beneath our eyes. May it not be that tomorrow, through the logical and biological deepening of the movement drawing it together, it will find its heart, without which the ultimate wholeness of its power of unification can never be fully achieved?"

As is often the case with Teilhard, his exact meaning is not clear. But at the very least he had in mind the expansion of brotherly love,of Christian charity, to planetary breadth. Is there any hope for such a thing? That would certainly be good news, on a number of grounds.

The new technologies of interdependence do sometimes bring flashes of something richer than mere tolerance. Occasionally, in the e-mails that flit around the globe, true empathy transpires. Occasionally, watching TV and seeing the suffering of foreigners in a superficially alien culture, a viewer is struck by the realization that, fundamentally, all human beings are alike. Certainly charity in the material sense—donation to the needy— has reached unprecedented geographic scope this century.

Of course, it may forever remain true that nothing brings people together, heart to heart, quite like a war. And that sort of bonding, thankfully, is unavailable on a planetary scale. But other common challenges—environmental distress, for example—are not devoid of bonding power.

Indeed, the classic experiment on inter-group solidarity suggests that inanimate threats can be quite unifying. Several decades ago, the psychologist Muzafer Sherif used boys in a summer camp (unbeknownst to them) to study human nature. He divided them into two groups and put them in a series of zero-sum games, with cherished perks going to the winning team. Jingoism blossomed; there was one full-fledged riot, and even after all zero-sum games had ended, contact between the groups brought slur and fistfights. Then Sherif put the groups in a series of non-zero-sum situations, where all boys faced some mutual threat. Sure enough, antagonism was so dampened that some erstwhile enemies became lasting friends. And the mutual threats that did this congealing weren’t invasions from a neighboring camp, but rather such things as the breakdown of the truck all campers depended on, or of the pipeline that brought water into camp.

This doesn’t mean that combatting global warming will lead to a transnational lovefest. But it is evidence that, as global interdependence thickens, long-distance amity can in principle grow even in the absence of external enmity. And it’s something to build on. There is no telling what it could mean a technology keeps advancing; as the World Wide Web goes broad bandwidth, so that any two people anywhere can meet and chat virtually, visually (perhaps someday assisted, where necessary, by accurate automated translation). One can well imagine, as the Internet nurtures more and more communities of interest, true friendships more and more crossing the most dangerous fault lines—boundaries of religion, of nationality, of ethnicity, of culture.

The common interests that support these friendships needn’t be high in gravitas. They can range from stopping ozone depletion to preserving Gaelic folklore to stamp collecting to playing online chess. The main thing is that they be far-flung and cross-cutting. Maybe this is the most ambitious realistic hope for the future expansion of amity—a world in which just about everyone holds allegiance to enough different groups, with enough different kinds of people, so that plain old-fashioned bigotry would entail discomfiting cognitive dissonance. It isn’t that everyone will love everyone, but rather that everyone will like enough different kinds of people to make hating any given type problematic. Maybe Teilhard’s mistake was to always use "noosphere" in the singular, never in the plural. Maybe the world of tomorrow will be a collage of noospheres with enough overlap to vastly complicate the geography of hatred. It wouldn’t be Point Omega, but it would be progress.


One might hope that moral progress will get a boost from the further evolution of the world’s spiritual traditions. Certainly, in the past, religious doctrine has offered an expanding spiritual basis for the technologically driven expansion of non-zero-sumness. The growth of Islam more than a millennium ago not only created a network of Muslim traders who could trust one another.

Judeo-Christian doctrine was similarly pragmatic in its evolution. It is easy to miss the continuity here—to see an abrupt shift between the Old Testament, with its wrathful, tribalistic God, and the New Testament, with its universally loving God. Indeed, in early Christian times, some thinker—such as Marcion, in the second century—used this dichotomy to solve the problem of evil: the God of the Old Testament, the creator of life, was an evil god, and the God of the New Testament, the God of love, had now come to help us make the best of a bad situation. But the truth is that even in the Old Testament, God can be seen turning into a nicer guy. In the millennium before Christ arrived, as commerce drew distant lands into deeper contact (thanks partly to the debut of coins), the scope of God’s sympathy grew. In two topics composed in the second half of the millennium—Jonah and Ruth—God’s love reaches beyond tribal bounds, to gentiles.

God tells Jonah, a Jewish prophet, to go warn the city of Nineveh that its sinful ways will bring devastating divine wrath. Jonah resists. Nineveh, after all, is a despised gentile city. Why give it a heads-up? But, after attempting to flee this charge by ship and finding himself in the belly of a giant fish, Jonah reconsiders. Upon emerging, he grudgingly follows God’s orders. The people of Nineveh, now warned, mend their evil ways, and God spares them, filling Jonah with disappointment. In the closing verse, God asks a sulking Jonah: "Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons?"

Earlier, when God reproves Jonah for being angry at the gentiles’ escape from death, there is an interesting ambiguity of translation. In the King James translation, God asks: "Doest thou well to be angry?" In the New Revised Standard Version God asks: "Is it right for you to be angry?" I have no idea which is truer to the original, but the juxtaposition is profound. For the key to the expanding compassion that the topic of Jonah marks is indeed the link between doing well and doing right. As the realm of non-zero-sumness has grown, material prosperity has entailed acknowledging the humanity of an ever-larger fraction of the human species. Jonah is on the cusp of the trend. In an increasingly interconnected land, he would do well to do right—to mute his anger toward whole groups of people he’s never met.

In effect, as cultural evolution has progressed, the size of society writ large—the number of people with whom one’s fortunes are intertwined, with whom one does well to do right—has grown. And one role of religious doctrine has always been to congeal societies. (The word "religion" comes from the Latin ligare, "to bind.") Emile Durkheim went o far as to say that "the idea of society is the soul of religion." Depending on how it is put, the point can sound a little dispiriting—as when Durkheim wrote: "In the last analysis men have never worshipped anything other than their own society." Still, if worshiping your own society finally, in a global age, involves not denigrating other peoples but, rather, recognizing the moral worth of human beings everywhere, then there is something to be said for worshiping your own society. The equation between doing well and doing right may ound crass, but if, over tens of millennia of cultural evolution, it brings moral enlightenment, then my hat is off to it.


Is it really possible that new, improved religions might help congeal the world? If so, what might their core doctrines be? Oh, the usual—universal brotherhood—except this time with feeling. Also, the admonitions against greed that are scriptural boilerplate could stand to get dusted off and read with an eye to (among other things) slowing the rate at which the planet becomes a giant cauldron of garbage dumps, melting ice caps, and Mercedes-Benz utility vehicles.

Of course, one difficulty with pinning any hopes on religion is its much-discussed ongoing erosion at the hands of science, an erosion that is one alleged source of modern and postmodern nihilism and ennui. But one point of this topic has been to challenge the conventional belief that science really has dispelled deep mystery and all evidence of purpose.

As for the scientific assault on mystery: a truly scientific perspective shows consciousness—the fact that it is like something to be alive—to be a profound and possibly eternal mystery, and a suggestive one to say the least. And divinity isn’t the only thing it suggests; by its nature, the open question of consciousness underscores the continued openness of various other questions, such as free will.

As for the scientific assault on purpose: A strictly empirical analysis of both organic and cultural evolution, I’ve argued, reveals a world with direction—a direction suggestive of purpose, even (faintly) suggestive of benign purpose. Life on earth was, from the beginning, a machine for generating meaning and then deepening it, a machine that created the potential for good and began to fulfill it. And, though the machine also created the potential for bad—and did plenty of fulfilling on that front—it now finally hows signs of raising the ratio of good to bad; or, at the very least, of giving the human species that option, along with powerful incentives to exercise it.

This recent uptick in the moral stock market, coming several billion years after the creation of life, may strike some people as underwhelming. If you really sit and ponder all the suffering that has been caused by—in fact, was built into—biological and cultural evolution, you may find it hard to muster a lot of gratitude toward the universal architect.

Or you can take the opposite tack. Maybe that’s what I’ve done—spent o much time pondering the horror intrinsic in the past that I’m grateful for small things. I gave up so long ago on an omnipotent and benign deity that I’ll take a few wisps of good karma and hope they signify something larger.

But, whether or not I’m straining to find divinity, I don’t think I’m straining to find meaning. The point isn’t just that, for reasons that are exceedingly hard to fathom, we have consciousness, and thus are playing for real moral stakes. The point is that we are playing for the highest stakes in history. More souls are crammed onto this planet than ever, and there is the real prospect of commensurately great peril. At the same time, there is the prospect of building the infrastructure for a planetary first: enduring global concord.

And if we did that—if we laid a foundation for peace and fulfillment around the world— that would counterbalance a lot of past evils, given the number of people now around to enjoy the benefits. It may literally be within the power of our species to wing nature’s moral scales—which for so long tended to equilibrate near dead even, at best—decisively in the direction of good; maybe it is up to us, having inherited only the most ambiguous evidence of divinity, to construct clearer evidence in the future. Maybe history is, as various thinker have suggested, not so much the product of divinity as the realization of divinity—assuming our species is up to the challenge, that is. (One theologian has paraphrased Teilhard as believing that "God must become for us less Alpha than Omega.")

My belief that some workable infrastructure for concord will very likely emerge does nothing to drain the drama from the present, for one plausible route to long-run success is near-term catastrophe. However close to inevitable stable world governance may be in the long run, here and now we are playing for the highest stakes that have ever been played for, and winning will depend in no small part on continued moral growth. Which is to say: winning will depend on not wanting other peoples to lose.

There are many ways to react to all this, but nihilism and ennui don’t seem to me among the more logical.


In the New Testament, the Gospel of John begins, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . In him was life." More than one science writer of a cosmic bent has juxtaposed this verse suggestively with the modern scientific view of organic evolution: in the beginning was, if not a word, at least a sequence of encoded information of some sort.

Fair enough. But if cosmically suggestive juxtaposition is what you’re after, you needn’t stop here, for the biblical word "Word" is richer than it sounds. It is a translation of the Greek logos, which can indeed mean "word" but can also mean many other things, including "reason." And you might ay that, once self-replicating genetic information existed, a line of reasoning, a chain of logic, had been set in motion. A everal-billion-year exercise in game theory had commenced.

Logos also means "argument," and it is tempting to view biological and cultural evolution somewhat as Hegel viewed human history—as a very long argument. Competing ideas about how to organize organic entities clashed. And non-zero-sumness won in the end.

One scholar has rendered logos as the "point," the "purpose"—the end that one has in mind. And, indeed, the religiously inclined might speculate that the spiritual corollary of the triumph of non-zero-sumness—the expansion of humanity’s moral compass—was the purpose of history’s game-theoretical argument all along. In the beginning, you might say, was the end, and the end was a basic truth—the equal moral status of all human beings.

The idea that a kind of logos might be the force guiding a directional history is far from new. In fact, this was the theory of Philo of Alexandria, member of an ancient philosophical school that some scholar believe was the conduit through which logos entered Christian scripture. Permeating human history, Philo said, was a "divine Logos’" a rational principle that was immanent in the world but, at the same time, was part of God’s transcendent mind. And in what direction was Logos moving history, in Philo’s view? "The whole world," he wrote, "may become, as it were, one city and enjoy the best of polities, a democracy." Not bad, as two-thousand-year-old predictions go.

Of course, Philo didn’t have access to game theory, so he couldn’t talk about non-zero-sumness. Then again, game theorists weren’t the first people to recognize the logic of interdependence, and Philo certainly grasped it. Mutual need, he believed, was what wove God’s diverse creatures—people, plants, animals—into a whole.

God "has made none of these particular things complete in itself, so that it should have no need at all of other things," Philo wrote. "Thus through the desire to obtain what it needs, it must perforce approach that which can supply its needs, and this approach must be mutual and reciprocal. Thus through reciprocity and combination, even as a lyre is formed of unlike notes, God meant that they hould come to fellowship and concord and form a single harmony, and that a universal give-and-take should govern them, and lead up to the consummation of the whole world."

Amen to that.

In real life, of course, the story has been more complex than Philo’s story. In a sense, it has been a better story—not better in moral terms, but better in literary terms, in dramatic terms. It has featured, ever since the first bacterium, growing knowledge—and, with the arrival of human beings, growing self-knowledge. It has also featured amity and strife, good and evil—the two forces vying with each other, yet inextricably bound together. And now, in the past century, as knowledge has grown exponentially, so have the stakes of this contest. More than ever, there is the real chance of either good or evil actually prevailing on a global scale. War and other forms of mass slaughter, other manifestations of massive hatred, could be ended—or, on the other hand, they could set new records for death and destruction; they could even, conceivably, end us. And the outcome may hinge on the further pread of knowledge—not just empirical knowledge, but moral knowledge.

Talk about a page turner! Maybe, in the end, this is the best argument for higher purpose: that the history of life on earth is too good a story not to have been written. But, whether or not you believe the story indeed has a cosmic author, one thing seems clear: it is our story. As its lead characters, we can’t escape its implications.

Next post:

Previous post: