November 2, 2005: A moment with...
Robert Wright ’79
Author Robert Wright ’79 has never shied away from big subjects. He tackled evolutionary psychology in The Moral Animal and, in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, used the game-theory notion of nonzero-sum relationships — those that can benefit both parties — to explore the direction of history, all the way from primordial slime to the Internet. In 2001 Wright received a grant from the Templeton Foundation to start meaningoflife.tv, a series of online video interviews with some of the world’s deepest thinkers on subjects like free will, consciousness, “the good,” and what Wright calls “quantum weirdness.” This fall Slate magazine is assuming sponsorship of the project. Wright spoke with Merrell Noden ’78 for PAW.
What led you to start meaningoflife.tv?
I was pretty sure that video was going to be a big thing on the Web, and I was intrigued by the interactive possibilities. So I applied for a grant from the Templeton Foundation because it is interested in exploring some of the subjects I’m interested in exploring.
How did Slate get involved?
It was the [philosopher] Daniel Dennett brouhaha that got their attention. I wrote something for beliefnet.com about what Dennett had said in his meaningoflife.tv interview, and he complained that I had “overinterpreted” him. But I’m standing by my guns: I think he just conceded an analytical point in the interview that, in retrospect, he was uncomfortable with, because it suggested the possibility of some larger purpose unfolding through evolution, and he’s famously atheist. Anyway, the great thing about the Web is that the video evidence is there at www.meaningoflife.tv, so people can watch it and make up their own minds.
Thinkers who straddle two areas — like John Polkinghorne, a physicist who has become an Anglican priest — must be godsends.
Most of the people I interview are straddling something. A lot of them are either scientists attuned to cosmic questions, or religious and spiritual thinkers who are conversant in science — or at least have worked hard to reconcile their worldview with a modern framework.
Did any of your subjects surprise you?
I interviewed a Catholic monsignor and writer named Lorenzo Albacete, who insists that atheists can go to heaven. I didn’t realize that was Catholic doctrine. I knew that increasingly the thought was that, say, a good Buddhist can go to heaven, but I didn’t know atheists could make the cut.
You were raised a Southern Baptist. Has your work caused you or your parents any discomfort?
My parents, when I was in high school, had a minister come over to the house to convince me that evolution hadn’t happened. He was not successful. However, while it’s true that I’m on the side of the Darwinians against the creationists, I wouldn’t say I’m a Darwinian to the exclusion of religion. In fact, I’ve argued that Darwinism is compatible with some kinds of religion and that evolution is even, in some ways, suggestive of an overarching purpose.
Be careful. I wouldn’t want to overinterpret your comments.
This isn’t intelligent design I’m talking about. Like Dennett, I am a nuts-and-bolts, materialist, natural-selection-type Darwinian. Still, if the process of evolution by natural selection exhibits certain directional tendencies, you can at least entertain the possibility that the mechanism of natural selection is itself in some sense the product of design.
Most readers of Nonzero find it an optimistic book. Do you think of yourself as an optimist?
I’m not an optimist by nature. And in that book, though it was before 9-11, I certainly listed terrorism as one of the great threats to world order, and said that the fact that our welfare is correlated with the welfare of people around the world doesn’t mean we’ll respond wisely to that nonzero-sum dynamic and save the world. The world could well go up in flames if we misplay our hand. It’s just that if enlightened self-interest prevails, things will work out OK. That’s the funny thing: All that the salvation of the world requires is enlightened self-interest. This sort of self-interest would entail concern for the welfare of people in faraway lands, but you don’t have to be Mother Teresa about it — you just have to be wise. That’s the moral of that book.
Your next book is going to be called The Evolution of God. What’s it about?
It’s a history of, among other things, the idea of God, starting back in prehistoric times but culminating with the Abrahamic God, as manifested in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. So it’s evolution in the sense of cultural evolution. And it culminates with the question of whether God can benignly adapt to the modern world.