Notes from Three Scientists and Their Gods

It took me a long time to track down a copy of Robert Wright’s first book, Three Scientists and Their Gods, but the wait was worth it. Turns out his first book is also the most applicable to my work (the other two were fascinating but a bit less commercially viable). In 3 Scientists, Wright explores the way three different scientists see information, life, and the connections between them.

Ed Fredkin is the most outspoken on the information paradigm, stating that he believes the universe is a giant computer, created to solve some immense problem (such as, “What would a universe look like?”). Edward Wilson, with his background in biology, is concerned with how the brain holds information and how it might hold more. Kenneth Boulding talks a little about everything, but holds fast to his religious convictions and reinforces them by tying (or allowing Wright to tie) religious traditions to evolutionary principles.

The book continues (or starts, I guess–I read his three books out of order) Wright’s simultaneous skepticism of and fascination with religion and universal truth. While I’ve come down on the religious side of the debate, it’s interesting to see Wright take religion to the task without being biased against it. The most important part of any decision process is not allowing your sunk costs to prejudice you against possible change. Henry Ford said, “My advice to young men is to be ready to revise any system, scrap any methods, abandon any theory if the success of the job demands it.” Figuring out your god is a pretty important job.

Ed Fredkin

Ed Fredkin’s theory of digital physics clashes with our tendency to believe in the continuity of space and time. But since we ourselves are made of the same stuff, how could we see beyond it? (25)

Could any informational process sense its ultimate constituents? The point is that the basic units of time and space in Fredkin’s universe don’t just happen to be imperceptibly small. So long as the creatures doing the perceiving are in that universe, the units have to be imperceptibly small.

Concrete? Or elemental?

“I’ve come to the conclusion that the most concrete thing in the world is information. (27)

The danger of knowing too much and doing too little (35):

Fredkin’s focus was intense but undisciplined, and it tended to stray from a problem as soon as he was confident that, in principle, he understood the solution.

Why we try…

Scientists don’t discover in order to know; they know in order to discover – Alfred North Whitehead (37)

The universe as a computer whose program must be run in its entirety to find the answer. (68)

Why does this giant computer of a universe exist? It’s simple, Fredkin explains: “The reason is there is no way to know the answer to some question any faster than what’s going on.”

Just like there’s no shortcut for some design process steps…if the universe is a giant computer, then who made it and why is it running? (68)

“Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that there is this all-powerful God. And he’s thinking of creating this universe…if he’s as all-powerful as you might imagine, he can say to himself, ‘Wait a minute, why waste the time? I can create the whole thing, or I can just think about it for a minute and just realize what’s going to happen so that I don’t have to bother.’ What I say is…I don’t care how powerful God is; he cannot know the answer to the question any faster than doing it…There’s no shortcut.

Information -> Inform-(ation) -> Information (82)

Etymology of “information” (89)

The first definition of inform in the Oxford English Dictionary is “to give form to, put into form or shape.” The OED’s earliest example of the word’s use in that sense comes from 1590, when Edmund Spense wrote in The Faerie Queene about “infinite shapes of creatures…informed in the mud”. Only metaphorically did information come to have anything to do with communication; to “inform” a mind or a belief or a decision was to impose form on it, bring ordered knowledge to it.

Wordplay…but also guidance on what information can and should do.

Information lies not just in form; information lies in formation. (94)

An early definition of “information” (95)

All we can confidently say about real-life information so far is that it has form and is sometimes involved in the creation of form.

Another level in the hierarchy of information (101)

You might…say that the meaning of a message is the behavior it induces, and the truth of a message depends on whether that behavior has consequences beneficial to the behaver.

And about information and meaning (110)

Perhaps the best way to characterize the relationship between DNA and meaning is to say that DNA is the source of meaning. It takes information about the environment and turns it into behavior…

Edward O. Wilson

Work is satisfying for some (142)

“I feel it really is true that work is a central source of meaning for human beings.

A scientist is a “systems builder” (175)

“Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”…(175)

“You have to have something like faith. You have to believe as you go on that in fact there is some major organizing principle that remains to be discovered.”

Wilson published a book in 1985 called The Caveman and the Bomb, “a look at how our genetic endowment bodes for the prospects of averting nuclear war”…?!? (180)

The power of the web: information storage outside the brain. (187)

The size of any one person’s memory is limited by the genes, and the only way to exceed this limit is to store information outside the cranium.

Kenneth Boulding

“The principle of increasingly unfavorable internal structure” – why things can’t grow and keep the same form. (249)

If you took a flea and somehow enlarged its dimensions until it reached the size of a dog, its legs would break under its own weight.

Teilhard de Chardin believed that a “superorganism” of human knowledge would not mean sacrificing the individual, despite historical evidence to the contrary. (267)

“Individualization” and “aggregation,” he said, are not only compatible but in some ways inseparable; we realize our identities most fully when devoted to a greater whole.

“Horizontal transmission” – when something spreads between cultures, friends, cubicles; spreading by emulation, not genetic transmission. (276)

The problem of consciousness.

Why does it feel like something to be a human being? (286)

Wright’s own desire for God seems to sprout from questions about conciousness. (287)

So this is what I find so weird about consciousness: the very thing that gives life a kind of meaning is the thing that the theory of natural selection doesn’t quite explain.

Charles Kingsley (an Anglican clergyman) reacted to Darwin’s Origin positively (291)

“I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development…as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which he himself had made.”

Apparently the word “religion” comes from the same root as “ligament”, ligare: “to bind together”. I feel like I’ve heard that word before…(292)

Conclusions

Wright argues that the same self-preservation tendencies that helped us evolve past the amoeba and gorilla stages transfer to the societal level as well.

Just as genetic self-interest manifested itself in the form of organismic and then social coherence, and human self-interest spawned organizations of much larger scope, including nations, various common threats show signs of translating individual and national self-interest into global order.

And Wright’s religious curiosity gets the best of him.

Now for the bonus question: What does it mean that some fairly reasonable (as these things go) attempts to extract purpose and meaning from evolution bear results remarkably like longstanding doctrine of the world’s great religions?

I think that religion’s God, heaven, and hell may be a lot closer than we think…if “our world” operates a lot like “God’s world” does…

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