Carroll gets to the subject of free will by noting the poetic naturalist views “wants” or “beliefs” as fitting the human level of talking about the world, but not that of elementary particles. To the physicist, if one is given a precise quantum state, the next state is entirely predictable; i.e. determinism is instantiated in physical reality. The error of the free will proponent, he argues, is mixing the human level concept of “choice” or ‘volition” with the subatomic level idea of a change in quantum states. The word “choice” (like the word “cause”) makes sense at the human level because of the arrow of time; that is, our lack of knowledge of the future. However, the concept of human agency (free agency?) introduces an element of indeterminacy into the universe which is not compatible with the Core Theory, hence is invalid. He follows this up with several of the classic neuroscientific studies that discourage the credibility that we make decisions before the brain acts. Perhaps inconsistently but understandably, Carroll still feels “blame” and “responsibility” are reasonable at the human level since they fit that level of understanding even if they are incompatible with the quantum or the cellular level of understanding.
The final section called Caring begins with a chapter titled Three Billion Heartbeats (an average human lifespan) where he reiterates our mortality and the limits of the purpose of our existence. The quest for the good life, for meaning, and for a framework of morality are not found in the realm of science, but in ourselves. Poetic naturalism rejects a teleological inclination built into the universe and views “meaning in the same way we view other concepts that human beings invent to talk about the universe.”21 While there is no standard by which we are guided; what can be said is that we evolved to care about the world, that consciousness emerged allowing learning and self-reflection, and that meaning comes from real life.
Carroll then spends three chapters on ethics reminding us science can tells us what is, we can never determine what ought to be from what is. Most of his discussion is a painfully brief summary of the field of ethics. His particular points include:
(1) Ethical arguments invariably use unsound logic to attempt to convert what is to what ought to be.
(2) Nature and the universe do not pass moral judgments: morality is a human construct.
(3) Our system of ethics should be based on improving the well-being of conscious creatures.
(4) Utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics each involve unsolvable problems.
He concludes with the following: “Poetic naturalism doesn’t tell us how to behave, but it warns us away from the false complacency associated with the conviction that our morals are objectively the best. Our lives are changing in unpredictable ways; we need to be able to make judgements with clear eyes and an accurate picture of how the world operates. We don’t need an immovable place to stand; we need to make our peace with a universe that doesn’t care what we do and take pride in the fact that we care anyway.”22
(ninth continuation next post)
21Carroll, Sean, The Big Picture. Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, NY, 2016. ISBN 978-052595- 482-8, page 390.
22Ibid., page 418.