Physicist Sean Carroll presents a strong case for interpreting reality through what he calls "poetic naturalism" in his philosophic work The Big Picture, published earlier this year. I finished reading it just before I went to Swan Cabin but wanted to rethink various parts of the book before blogging about it. In a nutshell, Carroll argues (persuasively, in my opinion) that the best evidence suggests our private experience is a poor way to approach an honest appraisal of our place in the universe. It is better to be skeptical of any and all interpretations of reality, put our personal creeds to the test of facts based in physical reality, and still find meaning in our lives despite the fact that poetic naturalism does not grant humanity any special status in the universe.
Instead of starting out with a belief that human beings are special or important in the cosmic scheme of things, poetic naturalism sees our humanity as "emergent" from the laws of physics. The concept of emergence is fundamental to the work. It shows how human conscious experience is real and yet unrelated to the cosmos as a whole. This rings true of my previous three-part critique of Deepak Chopra, so I found myself in sympathy with much of Carroll's perspective. But Carroll's style is more respectful of the possibilities of contrary opinions than I am, and I learned a lot from his open approach and from his more considerate, articulate manner of communicating in this excellent book.
"Poetic naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility. The raw materials of life are given to us by the natural world, and we must work to understand them and accept the consequences. The move from description to prescription, from saying what happens to passing judgment on what should happen, is a creative one, a fundamentally human act. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things we bring to it." (page 21)
"The world, according to classical physics, is not fundamentally teleological. What happens next is not influenced by any future goals of final causes toward which it might be working. Nor is it fundamentally historical; to know the future - in principle - requires only precise knowledge of the present moment, not any additional knowledge of the past. Indeed, the entirety of both the past and future history are utterly determined by the present. The universe is resolutely focused on the current moment; it matches forward, instant by instant, under the grip of unbreakable physical laws, with no heed paid to its glorious accomplishments or to its hopeful prospects." (page 32)
"Everything interesting and complex about the current state of our universe can be traced directly to conditions near its beginning, the consequences of which we are living out every day. This fact about the universe is absolutely crucial to our understanding of the big picture. We look at the world around us and describe it in terms of causes and effects, reasons why, purposes and goals. None of those concepts exists as part of the fundamental furniture of reality at its deepest. They emerge as we zoom out from the microscopic level to the level of the everyday." (page 54)
"The progress of human knowledge has bequeathed to is a couple of insights that, taken together, suggest a world that is profoundly different from the picture we construct from our everyday experience. There is the conservation of momentum: the universe doesn't need a mover; constant motion is natural and expected....It can simply be. Then there is conservation of information. The universe evolves by marching from one moment to the next in a way that depends only on the present state. It neither aims toward future goals nor relies on its previous history.
"These discoveries indicate that the world operates by itself, free of any external guidance. Together they have dramatically increased our credence in naturalism: there is only one world, the natural world, operating according to the laws of physics. But they also highlight a looming question: Why does the world of our everyday experience seem so different from the world of fundamental physics?" (page 93)
In this subtle way Carroll's book maneuvers a path from the molecular facts of physics to the experience of being human, showing that what you and I seem to be is real yet completely based in physics. While our experience has a life (and seeming importance) of its own, it nevertheless should not become uncoupled from physical reality. There is simply no factual basis for believing that truth transcends the laws of physics. Our conscious experience is real and important at a human level, but it has little to do with "the big picture" of cosmic reality.
"The important takeaway here is that stories can invoke utterly different ideas, and yet accurately describe the same underlying stuff. This will be crucially important down the line. Organisms can be alive even if their constituent atoms are not. Animals can be conscious even if their cells are not. People can make choices even if the very concept of 'choice' doesn't apply to the pieces of which they are made." (page 97)
"Consciousness is not an illusion, even if we think it is 'just' an emergent way of talking about our atoms each individually obeying the laws of physics. If hurricanes are real - and it makes sense to think that they are - even though they are just atoms in motion, there is no why we should treat consciousness any differently. To say consciousness is real isn't to say that it's something over and above the physical world; its emergent, and it's also real, just like almost every other thing we've encountered in our lives" (page 112)
"'You' are not part of our best theory of atoms either; you are an emergent phenomenon, meaning that you are an element in a higher-level ontology that describes the world at a macroscopic level. At the level of description where it is appropriate to talk about 'you,' it's also perfectly appropriate to talk about wants and feelings and desires. You can think of yourself as an individual human being, or you can think of yourself as a collection of atoms. But not both at the same time, at least when it comes to asking how one kind of thing interacts with another one." (page 123)
"The relationship between science and naturalism is not that science presumes naturalism; it's that science has provisionally concluded that naturalism is the best picture of the world we have available. We lay out all of the ontologies we can think of, assign some prior credence so to them, collect as much information we can, and update those credences accordingly. At the end of the process, we find that naturalism gives the best account of the evidence we have, and assign it the highest credence. New evidence could lead to future adjustments in our credences, but right now naturalism is well out ahead of the alternatives." (page 134)
"Given the profound and deeply personal nature of prayer, meditation, and contemplation, it can seem frivolous or diminishing to relate them to psychedelics or the activity of neurons, or even to dispassionate scientific investigation of any sort. But if we want to undertake our journey to the best possible understanding of the world with intellectual honesty it deserves, we always have to question our beliefs, consider alternatives, and compare them with the best evidence we can gather. It may be the case that transcendent experiences arise from a direct connection with a higher level of reality, but the only way we know is to weigh that idea against what we learn from the world by looking at it." (pp. 137-138)
"We lay out our prior credences, determine the likelihood for ge to happen under each competing conception of the world, and then update our credences on the basis of what we observe. That's just as true for the existence of God as it is for the theory of continental drift or the existence of dark matter.
"All we can hope to do is to survey our planets of belief, recognize our biases, and try to correct for them as best we can. Atheists sometimes accuse religious believers of being victims of wishful thinking - believing in a force beyond the physical world, a higher purpose to existence, and especially a reward after death. This is perfectly understandable bias, one we would be wise to recognize and take into consideration." (page 149)
Carroll advocates isolating our belief systems ("our planets of belief") and striving to allow our empirical understanding of reality to "test" the creeds and beliefs that we inherit from our culture and that we develop on our own (imperfect) attempts to give meaning to our experience through traditional philosophic, religious, and linguistic mechanisms. He does not say that physics and science are a complete whole, but he does contend that enough has been proven to understand what is more likely than not the case where human reality is concerned.
"I'm not claiming that we know everything, or anywhere close to it. I'm claiming that we know some things, and that those things are enough to rule out some other things - including bending spoons with the power of your mind. The reason we can say that with confidence relies heavily on the specific form that the laws of physics take. Modern physics not only tells us that certain things are true; it comes with a built-in way of delineating the limits of that knowledge - where our theories cease to be reliable." (page 155)
At bottom, what is known as far as Carroll is concerned is built upon the foundation of what is known in physics as the Core Theory. Again, he tempers the firmness of his conclusions by admitting that we don't know the full implications of the Core Theory. But we have enough information to know that this theory is the most reliable understanding available to us.
"(The Core Theory is) the quantum field theory of the quarks, electrons, neutrinos, all the families of fermions, electromagnetism, gravity, the nuclear forces and the Higgs. The Core Theory is not the most elegant concoction that has ever been dreamed up in the mind of a physicist, but it's been spectacularly successful at accounting for every experiment ever performed in a laboratory here on Earth." (page 176)
"Nobody in their right mind thinks that we have, or are close to having, complete theories of biology or neuroscience or the weather, of for that matter of the flow of electricity through ordinary materials. Those phenomena need to be compatible with the Core Theory, but the phenomena themselves are emergent....finding patterns that allow us to describe simple behaviors out of many underlying moving parts." (pp. 191-192)
"The Core Theory of contemporary physics describes the atoms and forces that constitute our brains and bodies in exquisite detail, in terms of a rigid and unforgiving set of formal equations that leaves no wiggle room for intervention by no material influences. The way we talk about immaterial souls, meanwhile, has not risen to that level of sophistication. To imagine that the soul pushes around the electrons and protons and neutrons in our bodies in a way that we haven't yet detected is certainly conceivable, but it implies that modern physics is profoundly wrong in a way that has so far eluded every controlled experiment ever performed." (page 212)
Taking the verifiable aspects of the Core Theory as fact means coming to grips with some things that might be fundamentally unsettling to most of humanity, but which are nevertheless necessary if we are to mature in our understanding of meaning and reality.
"There is a much more profound implication of accepting the Core Theory as underlying the world of our everyday experience. Namely: there is no life after death. We each have a finite time as living creatures, and when it's over, it's over.
"The reasoning behind such a sweeping claim is even more straightforward than the argument against telekinesis or astrology. If the particles and forces of the Core Theory are what constitute each living being, without any immaterial soul, then the information that makes up 'you' is contained in an arrangement of atoms that makes up your body, including your brain. There is no place for that information to go, or any way for it to be preserved, outside of your body. There are no particles or fields that could store it and take it away. This perspective seems strange, because on the surface there appears to be some kind of 'energy' or 'force' associated with being alive." (page 218)
One of the many profound things Carroll offers for consideration in The Big Picture is that by acknowledging the facts of the Core Theory we are induced to redefine our lives. The book is startling in its revelation of human emergence out of mindless, purposeless molecular processes and constructs.
"The trick is to think of life as a process rather than as a substance. When a candle is burning, there is a flame that clearly carries energy. When we put the candle out, the energy doesn't 'go' anywhere. The candle still contains energy in this atoms and molecules. What happens, instead, is that the process of combustion has ceased. Mile is like that: it's not 'stuff'; it's a set of things happening. When the process stops, life ends." (page 219)
"Our status as parts of the physical universe implies that there is no overarching purpose to human lives, at least not any inherent in the universe beyond ourselves. The very notion of a 'person' is ultimately way of talking about certain aspects of the underlying reality. It's a good way of talking, and we have good reason to take seriously all of the ramifications of that description, including the fact that human beings have individual purposes and can make decisions for themselves. It's when we start imaging powers or behaviors that contradict the laws of physics that we go astray.
"If the world we see in our experiments is just a tiny part of a much bigger reality, the rest of reality must somehow act upon the world we do see; otherwise it doesn't matter very much. And if it does act upon us, that implies a necessary alteration in the laws of physics as we understand them. Not only do we have no strong evidence if favor of such alterations, we don't even have any good proposals for what form they could possibly take.
"The burden for naturalists, meanwhile, is to show that a purely physical universe made of interacting quantum fields is actually able to account for the macroscopic world of our experience." (pp. 220-221)
The random nature of basic molecular structure leads to all sorts of manifestations in the cosmos. One of them, not necessarily more important than any of the others, is the general tendency for physical reality to express itself on its own terms via self-organization. This is the essential path from mindless (but governed) physics into mindful (but ungoverned) humanity.
"The appearance of cell membranes and other kinds of compartments is one example of the more general phenomenon of self-organization. That's what we call it when a large system, consisting of many smaller subsystems, falls into orderly patterns of configuration or behavior, even though the subsystems all behave independently, and with no special goal in mind. This idea of self-organization has been fruitfully applied to phenomena as disparate as the growth of computer networks, the appearance of stripes and spots on animal hides, the spread of cities, and the sudden formation of traffic jams. A classic example is swarming: in flocks of birds or schools of fish, each animal responds only to what its nearest neighbors are doing, but the result is an impressive display of what looks for all the world like highly choreographed behavior." (page 252)
"From the perspective of a poetic naturalist, one of the most interesting features of spontaneous compartmentalization is how it lends itself readily to an emergent description of the system. Without compartments and membranes, we're faced with a soupy mess of compounds, energy sources, and reactions. Once a boundary forms between different kinds of stuff, we can readily talk about the 'object' (inside the boundary) and its environment (everything outside). The boundary - whether it's literally a cell membrane, or a skin or exoskeleton of a multicellular organism - both helps the structure take advantage of the free energy around it and helps us talk about it in useful, computationally efficient ways." (page 257)
"The process of evolution is unplanned and unguided. Whether or not genetic information gets passed on to future generations depends only on the conditions of its immediate environment and random chance, not on any future goals. How can an intrinsically purposeless process lead to the existence of purposes?
"In poetic naturalism, the appearance of 'truly new' concepts as one theory emerges from another is the least surprising thing in the world. As time passes and entropy increases, the configuration of matter in the universe takes on different forms, enabling the emergence of different higher-level ways of talking. The appearance of something like 'purpose' simply comes down to the question 'Is "purpose" a useful concept when developing an effective theory of this part of reality in this particular domain of applicability?'" (page 293)
Once again, we move from the random laws of physics in general and the Core Theory in particular to emergent human experience and consciousness - a by-product of the purposeless laws of physics. Carroll is careful not to diminish the importance of consciousness to our lives on Earth, while keeping it grounded as something that simply appears out of the universe's tendency toward self-organization.
"Consciousness is not a single brain organ or even a single activity; it's a complex interplay of many processes acting on multiple levels. It involves wakefulness, receiving and responding to sensory inputs, imagination, inner experience, and volition. Neuroscience and psychology have learned a great deal about what consciousness is and how it functions, but we are still far away from any sort of complete understanding.
"Consciousness is also a unique and heavy burden. Being able to reflect on ourselves, our past and possible futures, and the state of the world and the cosmos brings great benefits, but it also opens the door to alienation and anxiety." (page 319)
"Life on Earth has undergone a series of dramatic phase transitions. Self-replicating organisms, cell nuclei, multicellular life, climbing onto land, the origin of language - all of these represent important new capacities that changed what life was capable of. The appearance of consciousness is arguably the most interesting phase transition of all, the beginning of a new kind of way for matter to organize itself and behave. Not only can atoms organize themselves into complex, self-sustaining patterns, but those patterns acquire a capacity for self-awareness and the ability to think about their place in the cosmos." (page 348)
"But nothing we do know about consciousness should lead us to doubt the ordinary, naturalist conception of the world that has been so exceptionally successful in other contexts. As of right now, nothing about the mind-body problem should persuade us that the laws of physics need updating, amending, or augmenting.
"Like 'life,' consciousness is less a unified conception and more a collection of related attributes and phenomena. We are aware of ourselves, as distinct from the outside world. We can contemplate alternative futures. We experience sensations. We can reason abstractly and symbolically. We feel emotions. We can call up memories, tell stories, and sometimes lie. The simultaneous working of all these aspects contributes to being conscious, and some aspects are going to be easier to explain in purely physical terms than others." (page 349)
"The idea that our mental experiences or qualia are not actually separate things, but instead are useful parts of certain stories we tell about ordinary physical things, is one that many people find hard to swallow." (page 359)
"A poetic naturalist has no trouble saying that conscious experiences exist. They are not part of the fundamental architecture of reality, but they serve as essential pieces of an emergent effective theory. The best way we have of talking about people and their behaviors makes important reference to their inner mental states; therefore, by the standards of poetic naturalism, those states are real, existing things." (page 361)
Carroll's critique calls attention to a fundamental problem with discussing the relationship of emergent human consciousness to the molecular laws of the cosmos. These are different manifestations, requiring different vocabularies to properly discuss. But the tendency among human beings when discussing "reality" and "meaning" is mix up the different vocabularies which essentially means we are misleading ourselves.
"Rather than acknowledging that there is one way of talking about the world in terms of quantum fields and interactions of the Core Theory, and another way in terms of electromagnetic signals traveling between cells, and yet another way in terms of electrochemical signals traveling between cells, and yet another way in terms of human agents with desires and mental states, we fall into the trap of using multiple vocabularies at the same time. When told that every mental state corresponds to various physical states of one's brain, one wants to complain, 'Do you really think the reason why I'm scratching is only because of some synaptic signaling, and not because I feel an itch?' The complaint is misplaced. You can describe what's happening in terms of electromagnetic signals in your central nervous system, or in terms of your mental states and the actions they cause you to perform; just don't trip up by starting a sentence in one language and attempting to finish it in another one." (page 374)
Another fundamental critique is that poetic naturalism means we are fully responsible for creating our own meaning in our individual lives and our collective culture. The purpose of life is not something inherent to the universe but, rather, it is something we create. Embracing this responsibility is key to the discovery of relevant human meaning.
"The longing for life to continue beyond our natural span of years is part of a deeper human impulse: the hope, and expectation, that our lives mean something, that there is a point to it all....It takes courage to face up to the finite due of our lives, and even more courage to admit the limits of purpose in our existence." (page 388)
"Poetic naturalism offers no such escape from the demands of meeting life in a creative and individual way. It is about you: it's up to you, me, and every other person to create meaning and purpose for ourselves. This can be a scary prospect, not to mention exhausting. We can decide that what we want is to devote ourselves to something larger - but that decision comes from us." (page 390)
Reading The Big Picture is not a bleak adventure. Even though it does not offer any hope for life after death nor for purpose in the cosmos as a whole it nevertheless reveals the relevant basis for meaning in our daily lives. Carroll takes us on a 400+ page journey to get to this point. The book is divided into six parts that work their way from pure physics to existential human reality. Whereas Part One is entitled "Cosmos" Part Six is entitled "Caring." How Carroll arrives from cosmic mechanics to human interaction is probably the most fascinating aspect of the book. Part Six is a tour-de-force on the basis for and importance of human caring and "existential therapy." I will cover this inspiring and densely-packed finale in my next post.