Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Something We Haven't Figured Out

We’ve gotten away from god and science in these parts, but the recent flurry of comments about women and the church has inspired me. Robert Wright continues his "meaning of life" series of interviews on Slate with John Maynard Smith, a leading evolutionary biologist who died in 2004. (The interview took place in 2001.) I really enjoy this series, which is marred only by the fact that, despite useful links to transcripts of the entire interviews, those transcripts aren’t cleaned up, so that verbal tics and inconsistencies make them very difficult/painful to read.

Here’s the link to the brief excerpt of the video that Slate pulled for emphasis. Here’s the whole thing. But since it’s an hour long, you probably won’t watch it. Hell, I didn’t watch it. So below, I’ve polished two longer excerpts that I found entertaining/enlightening/thought-provoking. The second excerpt is found on the shorter video, but I include it anyway. I’m the boss here.

(Watch at least some of the video, because Smith is the prototype of a charming, aged British wonk. To paraphrase an appropriate sentiment, if he didn't exist, Nick Park would have had to create him out of clay.)

John Maynard Smith: Well I remember reading Darwin when I was at school, and I had been raised in the Church of England; not passionately or fundamentally or anything, but it was an accepted part of my life. And I can remember reading Darwin and saying, “Now wait a minute, this is an alternative explanation,” and it was at least in part the kind of philosophical-religious implications that first got me excited...

Wright: Really? Excited in the sense that you were happy that you preferred the new philosophy to your religious world view?

John Maynard Smith: I think it was an enormous relief to escape from religion, yes. Yes.

Wright: And what had been burdensome about religion?

John Maynard Smith: Well I think what had been burdensome was that I didn't feel it allowed me to follow my thought to the end. I would be thinking about something, and then I'd think, "No, but that's sort of dangerous if I think like that, maybe I'll have doubts," and then reading Darwin, the doubts just overwhelmed and I thought, "Right, I don't have to bother anymore. I don't believe it." And I do remember that moment, yes.

Wright: I'm inferring from this that you moved more or less directly into something...either agnosticism or atheism...

John Maynard Smith: Yes, yes. That's right.

Wright: Is there one of those labels that you particularly apply?

Smith: Well, I think I'm sort of torn. I'm an atheist, but I don't like being sure about anything, so I think an agnostic is a better word.

Wright: OK, so you didn't miss the sense that there's some larger purpose in the universe or anything?

Smith: Once I accepted it, I felt very happy about it, yes. But I think it was just sort of like getting into a swim bath -- you're nervous of doing it, but once you're in, it's great.

Wright: Ok.

Smith: And I think it was difficult to give up my faith, but once I gave it up it was marvelous.

Wright: And you don't miss it?

Smith: No. No.


Wright: I think I'm much more inclined than you to look for signs that there's something more out there than the material world. I think I would like more than you to think there is some kind of higher purpose out there. But certainly when I'm in that mode, looking for signs of that, this mystery of consciousness, at least to me, is a big kind of question mark. ... there's definitely something we haven't figured out, something fundamental.

Smith: Yes, I'm inclined to agree with you. I'm quite clear in my mind that I do not understand consciousness, that I have nothing sensible or intelligent to say about it, that I don't even have any good ideas or experiments or investigations that would shed light on it. What I don't know is whether it's possible to have intelligent ideas of how we might investigate it... I mean, if I came back in 50 years time, would somebody take me in to a corner and say, "Look, John, actually it's really quite simple" and explain it and it would be very illuminating? I wonder.

Wright: I guess one reason I find it such an interesting dimension of reality to be so far inexplicable is that it's the part of reality that gives life meaning in a certain sense. I mean, if it didn't feel like something to be you, you wouldn't really care if you lived or died.

Smith: No, just so...

Wright: And you wouldn't really think that moral issues matter. If there were a planet full of robots and they had no sentience, you wouldn't think there'd be anything wrong with killing them.

Smith: That's right.

Wright: So...

Smith: It's really quite a problem.

Wright: And I just find it interesting and suggestive that the thing that infuses life with meaning is the thing that seems at this point at least entirely inexplicable and mysterious. At least to you and me.

Smith: Yes. Sure. No, I agree with all of that...

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