The opening statement of the review is:
To believe the universe is embedded in a teleological matrix -- an overarching design that houses an implicit and eventual end point, with the human race having a transcendental destiny in which shopping is unlikely to play any part -- is widely regarded as a quaint delusion, of relevance only to religious fanatics, pastoralists in retreat from materialism and the mad. And yet here is Robert Wright, who patently falls into none of these categories, arguing that human history is not ''one damn thing after another,'' but has a direction, purpose and, by implication, a goal. To be sure, in his scheme shopping is not necessarily excluded, but ''Nonzero'' remains a book of potentially major significance.
Before you begin, it may be good to take a look at "The Prisoner's Dilemma" if you need a refresher., on that rather famous example of the potential for nonzero interaction ,,, it is one of the foundations of the books arguments.
If there can be communication between the prisoners (not allowed in the classic Prisoners Dilemma), then the "right" solution becomes just staying mum, which benefits both with a lesser sentence. Of course, even with communication, there is always the question of cheating. Which is why at least the "concern" of an all powerful God and ultimate judgement might lower the odds of cheating somewhat ... and thus show why that idea may be temporally adaptive at a minimum, even if it isn't eternally of ultimate import.
This book goes into a lot of discussion on essentially this in the context of biological evolution, and cultural evolution ... either of which, you may or may not believe in, but the ultimate question is "does the universe have a "direction/purpose", therefore meaning? Easy to understand why I slogged through it -- it is another case where meaning might be understood , bur wistfully without with A LOT less discussion of various tribes, slime mold, etc. -- sadly, there was a lot of "slime" in an effort to show how there might just be the illusion of teleology provided by the dogma of natural selection without "being" defining that teleology. (random teleology)
While the author courageously states the thesis of the book up front, he seems intent to obfuscate the obvious as he moves through it. The thesis:
The more closely we examine the drift of biological evolution and, especially, the drift of human history, the more there seems to be a point to it all. Because in neither case is “drift” really the right word. Both of these processes have a direction, an arrow. At least, that is the thesis of this book.
An "arrow" would tend to indicate an "archer" ... one with universal power to create a purpose, a direction for all of biological and human cultural -- "progress". The more we learn, the "comforting" idea that this is all one huge purposeless random accident seems less likely. (see "Purpose and Desire") This comes dangerously close to indicating a "god". The author hedges this bet any way he can ... even the "seeded by a more advanced civilization" ... a classic case of kicking the can down the road. Although post "The Matrix" and Elon Musk theory that "we are living in a simulation" , a technological "kick the can" seems more "high tech". Whose "computer" might the simulated "us" be running on?, and how did the builder(s) of that "computer" come to be? The can of "why" rolls on. Did they have a "random impulse" to seed new life around the universe?
The NY Times puts it thusly:
The central problem is, will we inherit a world worth having and will it have any meaning? Wright has an almost unlimited faith in the power of ''information.'' For him it will be the magic glue to bind all humanity, and the Internet will be the actual realization of Teilhard de Chardin's famous, and famously fuzzy, idea of a global mentality, the noosphere. But how this will happen is equally hazy. It is perhaps ironic that when Wright comes to speculate on consciousness, he declares himself flummoxed; yet, in principle, is the tangle of neurons that makes up our brain any different from the spreading electronic Web? For those wedded to materialism, presumably not, and to refer to ''the mystery of consciousness'' will be dismissed as a monumental evasion. It may be, of course, that a mysterious unfolding will occur whereby on a given date and time every computer in the world simultaneously prints out the electronic equivalent of the Code of Hammurabi. However desirable (or undesirable) such a ''world brain'' might be, the philosophical underpinnings of this adventure seem deeply suspect.
Materialists have an extreme problem with "why"? Why is there anything? Why does there seem to be a "conscious ME, that is asking this question"? Why would I ask if I am just "stuff"? If there is a "me", do I have any free will? Was the fact that I asked this question wired into the Big Bang, and thus determined "forever" at least in the context of our 4 billion or so "old" universe?
It is a bit hard to pull any firm position out of this book ... probably because Mr Wright does not want to be seen to be cosmically wrong and stupid in the today's godless materialist nihilist world.
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 book has been to challenge the conventional belief that science really has dispelled deep mystery and all evidence of purpose
One of the reasons that book spends so much time on primitive cultures is that it wants to make CERTAIN that there is absolutely no connection between the fact of Western civilization seeming to "win" the race to modernity, and the Judaeo/Christian underpinnings of the culture. He does realize that the issue of trust, and dealing with free riders is critical, and an all powerful God knowing all you do can be a restriction to both cheaters/liars and sluggards.
Somehow, this fear of being cheated must be overcome for things to work out well.
Although ignored in this book (other than to claim it is racist/eurocentric), it is hard to miss the idea of an all knowing God that will insure ultimate justice as a goad to establishing something like "thou shalt not bear false witness". Laws are a nice adjunct to that, but it is better to have it built into the "wetware" (the physical brain).
Randomness has increasingly fallen on hard times figuring out how even ONE ordered cell showed up in the primordial soup (and God knows they have tried A LOT of things). In the 1970's, it was assumed that once we could map the Genome, it would be "easy" ... kinda like indistinguishable from human intelligence AI. It turns out that mapping the genome just helped open the truth that randomness in a single universe had mathematical odds of getting to where we are on the order of 10 to the 100th against. Maths way of saying NO!
So materialists have moved to the "many worlds theory" ... perhaps there are 10 to the 100th universes, and we are just EXTREMELY lucky, which would explain why the scientific "near certainty" that the SETI project would observe proof of many intelligent, radio and other emissions indicating we were far from alone in our universe, "soon". Like HAL 9000 level AI, "soon" is a very long time.
"Purpose and Desire" is an easier read, and I think more convincing indication of there being something more than mere matter in operation in our world and universe,