In the last ten posts I have diverted from the ongoing manuscript presented on this site in order to read and précis Sean Carroll’s luminous book, The Big Picture, where he recasts the physicalist perspective on reality in his expression, poetic naturalism. Today I wish to offer some comments which must be sparse given my heretofore wordiness.
I should start by admitting, as most people who follow the site surely have noticed, that I come closer to the physicalist view than virtually any other perspective, and certainly closer than most forms of theism or religion. Still I think Carroll and I disagree on our key approach to philosophy. I see reality phenomenologically as layered into internal, proximate, social, scientific, and ultimate where he promotes a single physical reality with different ways of talking about it relative to the perspective adopted. While I am no solipsist, it seems to me that the most undeniable reality is the self, followed by the proximate. Scientific descriptions of matter and the universe are far less tangible, certain, or germane than my own existence and the nature of the immediate world around me. Science offers valuable insights into the working of the world and opportunities for its manipulation, but little of use in the conduct of life and its meaning. For example, proving (or granting) human finitude by itself is neither profound nor serviceable.
At times Carroll seems to get caught in classic physicalist traps. On the one hand he argues logic does not permit us to impose a reason for the universe to be the way it is, while on the other, he thinks the universe is amazingly intelligible. He asserts determinism – all states of the universe are entirely explainable based on prior states (an assertion that can never be proven since no one can know any state in its entirety) – but then concedes quantum uncertainty and the unpredictability of emergent features. He admits it is not clear that if we mapped all the neurons of the brain we would have a ‘mind,’ but then works with that assumption as given. He denies we have free will based on flimsy science, but struggles to explain how we make decisions and have responsibility while totally avoiding the fact that free will is readily apparent to everyone, likely even himself. He never takes on whether the construction of an entity with all of the same atoms or elementary particles in the same configuration as a person would create a living duplicate.
There’s more…no explanation of human creativity, no discussion on whether the number 2 is instantiated in reality or is a pure human construct, whether justice is a part of reality or whether there is an absolute meaning of the words good and evil. Like most physicalists, he believes we should not harm innocent animals or torture babies, but can’t accept ethics of this kind as fundamental principles of reality since he cannot explain them scientifically. He never discusses spirituality or mystical experiences. Over the course of the book, the term poetic naturalism begins to feel more and more like a wastebasket response to everything physics and science cannot process.
Carroll’s later chapters deal with philosophical issues, but his points are mostly repetitions of common ethical principles or speculations entirely removed from his ultimate reality, Core Theory. Most if not all of his views require no knowledge of modern physics at all. Like most physicalists, he is an atheist (without ever defining God) and a humanist (without fully considering the negatives of humanism for other living creatures, the Earth, or the cosmos). Nonetheless, I appreciate his clarifications on physics and admire his contribution to the philosophical dialectic. His reformulation of the physicalist perspective is fresh and innovative. The Big Picture is an excellent text for people new to the discussion or who are perplexed by the dichotomy between modern science and philosophy, and offers great reading for all of us.