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Book Review : 3 Scientific Mavericks--Warts and All

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Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information by Robert Wright (Times Books: $18.95; 324 pages)

Science tries to explain the universe as it is. Scientists are uncomfortable with questions of why things are as they are, or, worse, how things should be. Meaning and purpose are not the questions of science.

But it’s hard not to ask them, or at least not to wonder about them. The questions of the ultimate origin and purpose of the universe don’t go away just because they are defined as meaningless. Some people, committed to the “scientific” world view, experience a loss and wish things were otherwise.

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A Talented Thinker

Robert Wright, an extremely talented thinker, science writer and chief editorial writer of The New Republic, takes this view in his original and provocative study of controversial scientists, “Three Scientists and Their Gods,” a lucid book about complex ideas.

Wright has been writing thoughtful essays for several years now on computers, information, communication, the nature of knowledge, the nature of reality, the nature of nature and related matters of equal scope. He now brings his considerable skill in writing and depth of thought to bear on these three profiles, which are as good as they come.

The scientists whom Wright puts under the microscope are three mavericks, people whose scientific theories constitute a world view with implications for every facet of science and of life.

They are extraordinary people, creative geniuses obsessed with their ideas, which are far from universally accepted: Edward Fredkin, a self-made, self-taught millionaire and one-time MIT professor who believes that the universe is a giant computer, if only he can figure out the program; Edward O. Wilson, the great man of sociobiology, who believes that our behavior is in our genes, and Kenneth Boulding, economist and grand-system theorist, a bundle of energy and ideas in his 70s, who believes, well, I’m not sure what.

Nor is Wright sure what Boulding believes.

“It occurs to me what an alarming image I’ve happened upon: Kenneth Boulding as charlatan,” Wright writes. “Is that what he is? A mush-minded do-gooder who finessed his way into the academic limelight with his wit and British charm? Is all this stuff about the integrative system just a Christian Trojan horse, a sermon about peace and love dressed up in scientific terminology and wheeled into the citadel of secular humanism?”

His three main characters are all quirky people with intriguing idiosyncrasies of thought and manner, whose odd temperaments may or may not be related to their radical intellectual views.

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Wright writes about them warts and all, and sometimes there are a lot of warts.

“Fredkin,” he says, “doesn’t write for academic journals because he doesn’t know how. His erratic, hybrid education has left him with a mixture of terminology that physicists don’t recognize as their native tongue. Further, he is not schooled in the rules of scientific discourse. . . . The same odd background that allowed Fredkin to see the universe as a computer prevents him from sharing his vision. If he could talk like other physicists, he might see only the things they see.”

Whether describing Fredkin on his private island in the Caribbean or Wilson in his office-library-museum at Harvard or Boulding discussing Teilhard de Chardin, Wright brings to life these people and their ideas.

Broad General Questions

More than that, he uses them and their views as the backbone of his own inquiry into the broad general questions that mark the boundary between science and philosophy, between physics and metaphysics.

“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?” Wright writes at the end of his book. “Is it just a coincidence?

“I don’t know what to think. But I think about it often.”

The thinking has paid off. He writes about it very well.

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