Everything is Pointless

In What is Your Dangerous Idea?, Ed. John Brockman, Harper Perennial

Everything is pointless.

We humans can, and do, make up our own purposes, but ultimately the universe has none. All the wonderfully complex, and beautifully designed things we see around us were built by the same purposeless process – evolution by natural selection. This includes everything from microbes and elephants to skyscrapers and computers, and even our own inner selves. People have (mostly) got used to the idea that living things were designed by natural selection, but they have more trouble accepting that human creativity is just the same process operating on memes instead of genes. It seems, they think, to take away uniqueness, individuality and “true creativity”. Of course it does nothing of the kind; each person is unique even if that uniqueness is explained by their particular combination of genes, memes and environment, rather than by an inner conscious self who is the fount of creativity.

So I think it’s true (but is it dangerous?) to say this – In the ordinary language of persons and reasons I wrote this piece because I had a dangerous idea and you asked me to explain it, but really it was written by the pointless universe.

Also see Review in The Guardian

What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable, edited by John Brockman (Pocket, £8.99)

The “traditional intellectual” is out of a job; scientists now tell us who and what we are, argues John Brockman, the literary agent and founder of the website Edge. Each year Edge poses a question to the leading “thinkers in the empirical world”. In 2006 Steven Pinker suggested “What is your dangerous idea?” – not the secret of a doomsday device, or some fiendish theory, but an idea that is dangerous “because it might be true”. There are more than 100 responses in this volume and they make fascinating and provocative reading. For Charles Seife (author of Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea), “nothing can be more dangerous than nothing”. Equally chilling is psychologist Susan Blackmore’s thought that everything is pointless. Even her contribution to the book is merely the result of “memes competing in the pointless universe”. Richard Dawkins, as ever, is splendidly controversial. He comments that eugenics is notable for its absence and asks “what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons”. It doesn’t get much more dangerous than that.

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