Saturday, August 27, 2016

Reading The Big Picture: Part Two

In part six of The Big Picture physicist Sean Carroll completes his skillful journey from the molecular basis of the cosmos to the inherent possibilities for human caring for each other and for our world.  It turns out that this very real (but emergent) human phenomenon is something built into the mechanics of physics finding diverse expression in animal form.

"In human terms, the dynamic nature of life manifests itself as desire.  There is always something we want, even if what we want is to break free of the bonds of desire.  That's not a sustainable goal; to stay alive, we have to eat, drink, breathe, metabolize, and generally continue to ride the wave of increasing entropy.

"Desire has a bad reputation in certain circles, but that's a bum rap.  Curiosity is a form of desire; so are helpfulness and artistic drive. Desire is an aspect of caring: about ourselves, about other people, about what happens to the world.

"People are not inanimate rocks, accepting what goes on around them with serene indifference. Different people might exhibit different levels of care, and they might care in different ways, but caring itself is ubiquitous.

"When our lives are in good shape, and we are enjoying health and leisure, what do we do?  We play.  Once the basic requirements of food and shelter have been met, we immediately invent games and puzzles and competitions. That's a lighthearted and fun manifestation of a deeper impulse: we enjoy challenging ourselves, accomplishing things, having something to show for our lives.

"We are built from the start to care about the world, to make it better.  Our evolutionary heritage isn't the whole story.  The emergence of consciousness means that what we care about, and how we behave in response to those impulses, can change over time as a result of our learning, our interaction with others, and our own self-reflection. Our instincts and unreflective desires aren't all we have; they're just a starting point for building something significant." (page 392)

Carroll places responsibility for how we choose to live our lives directly upon our shoulders.  This responsibility emerges from the simple fact that we are all going to die one day, there is nothing waiting for us later on, and that makes live more meaningful, not less so.  There is no "creator" outside of humanity itself.  We must create our present and our future. It is an illusion to think any other force in the cosmos will do that for us.

"The finitude of life lends poignancy to our situations. Each of us will have a last word to say, a last book to read, a last time we fall in love.  At each moment, who we are and how we behave is a choice that we as individuals make.  The challenges are real; the opportunities are incredible." (page 393)

"Poetic naturalism has little to say about ethics, other than perhaps for a few inspirational remarks. But it does have something to say about metaphysics, namely; our ethical systems are things that are constructed by us human beings, not discovered out there in the world, and should be evaluated accordingly." (page 405)

Carroll takes us on a remarkable journey from the mechanics of the Core Theory and the emergent nature of reality all the way to how human desires and emotions and creativity can lead to caring as a way of being.  This is a profoundly human destination for a book which is mostly about how physics works in the cosmos.  But Carroll is persuasive that our concern for each other and our planet is real in spite of the fact that it is founded upon aimless, purposeless processes.

In terms of a basis for human caring, poetic naturalism really doesn't offer anything.  What this philosophical approach does do is recognize (and consider just as 'real' as anything) the creative aspects of human existence that make caring possible.  Carroll goes so far as to put down "Ten Considerations" which he rather playfully offers as his version the Ten Commandments.  I will quote his ten considerations and offer a short passage on each from the book.

1. Life Isn't Forever.

"You don't really want to live forever.  Eternity is longer than you think.  Life ends, and that's part of what makes it special. What exists is here, in front of us, what we can see and touch and affect.  Our lives are not dress rehearsals in which we plan and are tested in anticipation of the real show to come. This is it, the only performance were going to get to give, and it is what we make of it." (pp. 420-421)

2. Desire Is Built Into Life.

"Life is characterized by motion and change, and these characteristics manifest themselves in human beings as forms of desire.  From our evolutionary origins we have things that we want, from enjoying a good meal to helping other people to creating an affecting work of art.  It's those desires that shape us, and cause us to care about ourselves and others. But they don't enslave us; we are reflective and self-aware, with the ability to shape what it is we care about.  We can, if we choose, focus our caring on making the world a better place." (page 421)

3. What Matters Is What Matters to People.

One of the things I admire most about this work is how Carroll presents the phenomenon of "mattering."  Human beings create what matters in the universe.  Otherwise, nothing really matters but for the importance we assign to it.

“The universe doesn’t care about us, but we care about the universe.  That’s what makes us special, not any immaterial souls or special purpose in the grand cosmic plan.  Billions of years of evolution have created creatures capable of thinking about the world, forming a picture of it in our minds and holding it up to scrutiny.  We are interested in the world, in its physical manifestations and in our fellow humans and other creatures.  That caring, contained inside us, is the only source of ‘mattering’ in any cosmic sense.  Whenever we ask ourselves whether something matters, the answer has to be found in whether it matters to some person or persons.  We take the world and attach value to it, an achievement of which we can be justly proud.” (page 422)

4. We Can Always Do Better.

“It may seem strange to claim the existence of moral progress when there isn’t even an objective standard of morality, but that’s exactly what we find in human history. Progress comes, not from new discoveries in an imaginary science of morality, but from being more honest and rigorous with ourselves – from uncovering our rationalizations and justifications for behavior that, if we admit it, was pretty reprehensible from the start.  Becoming better people is hard work, but by sifting through our biases and being open to new ideas, our ability to be good advances.” (pp. 422-423)

5. It Pays to Listen. 

“There’s no reason to throw out everything associated with the great thinkers of the past just because we have a more updated and accurate oncology.  Nor is there any reason to stick with ethical commandments that have become unmoored from their original justification.  We can take inspiration from ancient teachings, not to mention from great literature and art, without being bound by them.

“Consciousness gives us an inner model of ourselves.  It also allows us to model other people, opening the door for empathy and ultimately to love.  To not only listen to others but also to imagine ourselves as them, to consider what they care about, is a powerful driver of moral progress. Once we see that mattering comes from inside people, understanding others becomes more important than ever.” (page 423)

6. There Is No Natural Way to Be.

“There is no simplistic, undivided self, no tiny homunculus in the brain steering us around on the basis of unbendable rules.  We are the final product of a cacophony of competing impulses, and so are other people.” (page 423)

7. It Takes All Kinds.

“Much of what has been written about the quest to lead a meaningful life has been produced by people who (1) enjoy thinking deeply and carefully about such things, and (2) enjoy writing down what they have thought about. Consequently, we see certain kinds of virtues celebrated: imagination, variety, passion, artistic expression.  And these are all worth celebrating.  But a fulfilled life might alternatively be characterized by reliability, obedience, honor, contentment.” (page 424)

“Poetic naturalism doesn’t provide much comfort for those who take joy in telling others how to live their lives.  It allows for pluralism in purpose and meaning, a rich ecosystem of virtues and lives well lived.” (page 425)

8.  The Universe Is In Our Hands.

“Our ability to think has given us enormous leverage over the world around us.  We won’t be able to stave off the heat death of the universe, but we can alter bodies, transform our planet, and someday spread life through the galaxy.  It’s up to us to make wise choices and shape the world to be a better place.” (page 425)

9. We Can Do Better Than Happiness.

There are no shortage of books and articles on ways to improve human happiness.  That is admirable as I'd rather feel happy than unhappy.  But happiness is not the summit of human existence.  We tend to forget that in our profound animal need to "feel good" about life.  There are other, more relevant and important ways to Be.

“The mistake we make in putting emphasis on happiness is to forget that life is a process, defined by activity and motion, and to search instead for the one perfect state of being.  There can be no such state, since change is the essence of life. Scholars who study meaning in life distinguish between synchronic meaning and diachronic meaning. Synchronic meaning depends on your state of being at any one moment in time; you are happy because you are out in the sunshine. Diachronic meaning depends on the journey you are on: you are happy because you are making progress toward a college degree.  If we permit ourselves to take inspiration from what we have learned about oncology, it might suggest that we focus more on diachronic meaning at the expense of synchronic. The essence of life is change, and we can aim to make change part of how we find meaning in it.” (page 426)

10. Reality Guides Us.

“The upshot is that getting things right – being honest with ourselves and others, facing up to the world and looking it right in the eyeball – doesn’t just happen.  It requires a bit of effort.  When we want something to be true, when a belief makes us happy – that’s precisely when we should be questioning.  Illusions can be pleasant, but the rewards of truth are enormously greater.” (page 427)

These are Carroll's rather level-headed considerations for finding meaning and purpose in life in spite of the fact that the universe has no inherent intention and that our humanity is completely finite.  He follows these considerations with a chapter on "Existential Therapy" which completes the book's transference from the workings of galaxies and stars to the mechanics of our human needs and emotions.

In light of what I previously posted about mystery and possibility as being the two foundations of a sense of wonder, I find Carroll's cautionary remarks on mystery as a basis for being to be especially pertinent. 

“Many things about our world are mysterious to us, and there is something seductive and exciting about mysteries.  It’s a mistake to start embracing mystery for its own sake, and to take refuge in a conviction that the universe is fundamentally inscrutable.  It would be like buying a big stack of detective novels and reading only the first halves of each of them.  The real attraction of mysteries isn’t that they represent something truly unknowable but that they promise an exciting journey to go figure them out.” (page 430)

“The universe is not a miracle.  It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns of nature with scrupulous regularity.  Over billions of years it has evolved naturally, from a state of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a featureless equilibrium.  We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle; a miracle in that it is wondrous and amazing how such complex, aware, creative, caring creatures could have arisen in perfect accordance with those laws.  Our lives are finite, unpredictable, and immeasurably precious.  Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world.” (page 431)

“Poetic naturalism offers a rich and rewarding way to apprehend the world, but it’s a philosophy that calls for a bit of fortitude, a willingness to discard what isn’t working.  In the enthusiasm of my first public acknowledgement of my atheism, I tended to embrace the idea that science would eventually solve all our problems, including answering questions about why we are here and how we should behave. The more I thought about it, the less sanguine I became about such a possibility; science describes the world, but what we’re going to do with that knowledge is a different matter.” (page 431)

“We are floating in a purposeless cosmos, confronting the inevitability of death, wondering what any of it means.  But we’re only adrift if we choose to be. Humanity is graduating into adulthood, leaving behind the comfortable protocols of its childhood upbringing and being forced to fend for itself. It’s intimidating and wearying, but the victories are all the more sweet.” (pp. 431-432)

“…the fact that the universe is so gloriously knowable is perhaps its most remarkable feature. It’s one of the aspects of reality that helps make our Sisyphean struggles so ultimately rewarding.” (page 432)

“Change and passage are part of life – not just a part we reluctantly accept, but its very essence, enabling our hopeful anticipation of what is to come.  I care about my remembrances of the past, hopes for the future, the state of the wider world, and the life I have now, with a wife I love more than all of the galaxies in the sky and an abiding joy in puzzling out the nature of reality." (page 433)

Sean Carroll has written a superbly relevant book for our times.  There is a great need to look the cosmos squarely in the face, to question the various ways we project our finite human needs and understanding onto this vast, purposeless landscape, and to nevertheless embrace our significance as briefly living beings by accepting responsibility for the impact of our behavior and for creating our own values.  Meaning is not something assigned at birth, even though our cultural and genetic makeup contributes greatly to our belief tendencies.  Instead, meaning is something you and I create.  

There is little comfort in traditional forms of faith and understanding when faced with the concrete facts of cosmic existence.  But that doesn't have to be a downer.  How we relate to these truths, to our short stay in a universe without purpose other than what we ourselves assign to it, is entirely up to us. That being the case, it is better to question all considerations, choose the best assumptions on the basis of facts rather than wishful thinking, and to assume our rightful place in the universe with creativity, caring, and an expansive imagination of human possibilities grounded within the big picture.

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