Copyright 1988 The New York Times Company The New York Times

August 7, 1988, Sunday, Late City Final Edition

Section 7; Page 12, Column 1; Book Review Desk



George Johnson is an editor for the Week in Review section of The Times. His most recent book is ''Machinery of the Mind: Inside the New Science of Artificial Intelligence.''


Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information

By Robert Wright.

324 pp. New York: Times Books. $18.95.

The grandest unification theory of them all got its start in 1948, when two remarkable publications appeared. Claude Shannon's paper ''A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits" and Norbert Wiener's book ''Cybernetics'' brought to the world's attention an idea that had been bubbling beneath the surface for years: information, like matter and energy, can be considered a thing in itself -- a fundamental building block of reality. Ever since, there has been a growing effort to explain the brain, the body, civilization and, most recently, the universe itself as information processors.

In 1984, Tommaso Toffoli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described this grandiose vision: ''In a sense,'' he was quoted as saying in an article by Brian Hayes in Scientific American, ''nature has been continually computing the 'next state' of the universe for billions of years; all we have to do -- and actually, all we can do -- is 'hitch a ride' on this huge ongoing computation.'' Tick by tick, the great kaleidoscope unfolds, like a picture on a cosmic computer screen.

All revolutions, even scientific ones, have their mystics and millenarians. Mr. Shannon, an employee of Bell Laboratories, had simply intended information theory to be of interest to electrical engineers seeking better ways to transmit telephone calls. But his suggestion that information is the opposite of entropy -- the principle that can explain why there are islands of order in a universe doomed to increasing randomness by the second law of thermodynamics -- caught the imagination of theologians and philosophers. When Thomas Pynchon wrote ''The Crying of Lot 49,'' he used the notions of information and entropy to explore the human obsession with imposing different kinds of order -- often false ones -- on reality. John Updike took the idea further in ''Roger's Version.'' In the novel Dale Kohler, a fundamentalist studying computer science, gazes at the patterns on a cathode-ray tube, seeking the fingerprints of God.

Into this fray, where mysticism passes as science and a great deal of murky thinking is going on, steps Robert Wright, who is determined to make sense of it all. ''Three Scientists and Their Gods: Looking for Meaning in an Age of Information'' is about Edward Fredkin, Edward O. Wilson and Kenneth Boulding, each of whom has devised a grand theory in which information plays a fundamental role in explaining the orderliness of life. Moreover, the book is about Mr. Wright himself, a science writer fighting off a nasty case of existential dread.

Like the depressed protagonist in a Walker Percy novel, he embarks on a search for meaning. Somewhere in the recesses of science, he hopes, is the answer to the question that is troubling him: what is the purpose of life?

''I have a basically scientific world view,'' he says early in the book, ''and it seems to basically work, but it isn't, by itself, very reassuring. Personally, I don't like the idea that we're mere specks in a universe indifferent to our fates. Any hint that life has some meaning, evolution some purpose, would be refreshing.'' But he has his doubts. The result of all this is what devotees of Hunter S. Thompson might consider gonzo science writing, in which author becomes anti-hero on a mythological quest. But Mr. Wright knows a lot more about science that Mr. Thompson ever did about politics, and he is much more polite. His decision to inject himself into the story -- to write a book about writing a book about science -- is a risk that has paid off.

With the bemused detachment of the skeptical inquirer, he turns his encounters into masterly portraits of three eccentric thinkers: Mr. Fredkin, a brooding computer scientist and self-made millionaire who owns his own island in the Caribbean; Mr. Wilson, the exuberant progenitor of sociobiology ; and Mr. Boulding, a kindly Quaker economist turned sociologist and philosopher. Through Mr. Wright's eyes we see three people so driven by their vision that they come close to crossing the line between science and metaphysics, inventing theories so all-encompassing that they serve as the scientists' own personal gods. Far from content with science's traditional role of describing the universe, they want to know why it works the way it does. They are perfect foils for Mr. Wright in his ''periodic attempts to find evidence that life is not devoid of meaning.'' In between his meetings with these remarkable men, he provides the most incisive, common-sense attack on the meaning of information and the meaning of meaning I have ever seen.

The book begins with a visit to Mr. Fredkin's island refuge, where he runs a resort and can frequently be found contemplating his curious world view. It's easy to see how information can be made from matter (ink marks on paper) or energy (blips of energy or light). But Mr. Fredkin believes matter and energy are made from information, that it is the fundamental stuff. When he was a child, his sister told him reality is a dream that God is having. Now he believes everything is a simulation running on a truly universal machine. But try as he might Mr. Wright finds little solace here. He grows weary of the island. ''I could stay another night,'' he writes, ''but at $130 a pop, I'd just as soon not, even though meals are included.'' I wish he had endured a bit longer. Fredkinism was starting to make sense to me. Sometimes the author seems like the young Woody Allen character in ''Annie Hall.'' He's too depressed to do his homework, because the universe is expanding, so what's the point? But bravely he forges on.

After a few days with the introspective Mr. Fredkin, Edward Wilson's enthusiasms come as a relief. ''Sometimes you get the strange feeling that this fifty-seven-year-old man is the new kid in school and wants to be your best friend,'' Mr. Wright reports. ''It wouldn't shock me if one day his eyes lit up in mid-conversation and he exclaimed, 'Hey, let's build a fort in the woods!' ''

Instead they speculate on the role of information in biology: cells communicate with cells using hormonal signals; generation communicates with generation in the molecular language of DNA. Thus such lofty sentiments as altruism can be understood, Mr. Wilson believes, as a kind of chemical computation.

According to sociobiology, it is genes, not people, that obey the Darwinian dictates. A creature is programmed by evolution to sacrifice itself to save another, but only if the other carries a similar set of genes, copies of the same information. Mother will die for daughter, sister for brother, but cousins once or twice removed are less likely to be so noble. It is the information, not its envelope, that struggles to survive. Does this inbred spirit of cooperation hold out the promise of explaining religion? Mr. Wilson is happy to oblige with some high-flown speculation, but Mr. Wright's angst remains.

His final hope is Kenneth Boulding, the elderly white-haired Quaker (who looks, Mr. Wright can't resist noting, something like the man on the Quaker Oats box). Mr. Boulding believes that the information revolution -- computers, television, electronic banking -- is not only melding us into one great homogenized world culture; it is , as the mystic priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin predicted, weaving us all into a super organism, an intelligence that might someday become smart enough to deserve having its own planet to run. Perhaps this is the sense of purpose Mr. Wright is seeking. But what would be the role of the individual in this transformation? he wonders. If the purpose of life is to become absorbed as a neuron in a vast universal mind, how is that different from totalitarianism?

Communicating by means of molecules called pheromones, ants live such orderly, lock-step lives that sometimes it makes sense to think of the anthill, not the ant, as the organism. Single ants are as dispensable as skin cells. And since the members of a colony hold so much genetic information in common, one will gladly die for the good of the whole. They are as replaceable as standardized parts.

How tightly knit do we, as people, really want to be? How much dissonance, individuality, can we tolerate? How much harmony can we stand? It's impressive, the effortlessness with which Mr. Wright leaps from computers to biology to Teilhardian mysticism, finally coming to light on this, the underlying anxiety of our time.