Early Comments on “The Big Picture” by Sean Carroll

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Sean Carroll has released a new book, “The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself” Penguin Random House 2016. He was interviewed about his book by Clara Moskowitz, Scientific American’s senior editor for space and physics.

I have not yet read Dr. Carroll’s book, but in the process. This little essay is not a critique or review of his book. I’m sure I will get around to that when I have finished reading it. But the over-all point of Dr. Carroll’s book as it is introduced in the Sci. Am. interview titled “Godless Universe: A Physicist Searches for Meaning in Nature” and stated clearly in his prologue is pretty clear. He aims to fortify the not uncommon idea among contemporary scientists and philosophers, that the physical universe is all there is and that the only evidence that really is evidence of anything fundamentally real is physical evidence.

Now I like Dr. Carroll. Never having met the man, I have enjoyed another of his books and numerous of his essays. He is an eloquent writer. He works hard to find room for mind, meaning, and free will in the physical universe which is, to give him credit, something many of his contemporaries merely explain away. In my own books I have tried to show that the physical universe is not enough, not a sufficient cause, to be declared the sole origin of these things. Dr. Carroll is not alone struggling with this “fitting together”, and indeed contemporary metaphysics and epistemology, not to mention popular physics and cosmology, is awash with ideas about how it is that a purposeless physical mechanism coexists in the universe with what appears to be agent directed purpose!

In this little essay my only aim is to comment on Dr. Carroll’s answer to the first question put to him by Ms. Moskowitz, and a short quote from the prologue to his new book reinforcing the intent of that answer. My purpose here is merely to point out that in these very straightforward statements as concerns the naturalistic part of what he calls “poetic naturalism”, he ignores the claims of those, like me, who do not accept that the only evidence of what is real is physical evidence, and instead rails against a straw man version of it.

The first question and answer of the interview goes thus:

Q: Just because we have no evidence of another realm of reality beyond the physical world, how can we conclude it doesn’t exist?

A: It’s not a matter of certainty, ever. I would make the argument that if there were a supernatural element that played a role in our everyday life in some noticeable way, it’s very, very likely we would have noticed it. It just seems weird that this kind of thing would be so crucial and yet so difficult to notice in any controlled scientific way.

In the prologue to the new book, Dr. Carroll reinforces this idea.

“There is much we don’t know about how the world works, but we have extremely good reason to think that the Core Theory is the correct description of nature in its domain of applicability. That domain is wide enough to immediately exclude a number of provocative phenomena: from telekinesis and astrology to survival of the soul after death.”

I want to unpack these statements beginning with the last. The “Core Theory” to which he refers (his capitalization) is quantum field theory and the “standard model”. These, along with General Relativity account for what we know about the physics of the big bang and all of modern physical science, including cosmology, quantum mechanics, chemistry, and biology.

Let’s look at the three “provocative phenomena” he names. Telekinesis is the ability to move physical objects with the mind unassisted by the natural body (as is common) or brain implants and wires that replace damaged nerves — and thus move the body. We can indeed scratch this one off the list because it concerns physical objects whose movement can be measured physically! Astrology is the notion that the physical planets and stars have subtle effects on our bodies and otherwise (in some quasi-deterministic way) influence the course of our lives. Well, we know the moon and sun at least have some gravitational impact on us, but astrology is normally taken to refer to more far-reaching impacts. We can scratch this one off the list too because the planets and stars are, after all, physical things. Their influence on us can be measured, and there isn’t anything there.

The last claim is problematic. Perhaps Dr. Carroll is thinking of the Catholic doctrine that one is resurrected “in body”, certainly a physical thing. We can measure bodies as they decay. We often cremate them! We are justified in ruling this out. But Dr. Carroll surely knows that this is not the only interpretation of “survival of … death.” He specifically refers to “soul” which he does not define but is commonly taken to be something immaterial. So what Dr. Carroll is telling us is merely that there is nothing in physics that supports any sort of physical survival of death, not of a body, and not of a “physical soul” whatever that might look like. But if, as asserted by most faiths, the soul (and like metaphysics and epistemology there are no end of theories among theologians as to just what this might be) is non-material (a quality of common agreement among theologians) then there would be no way to tell, physically, if it survives material death or not. If Dr. Carroll is telling us that there is nothing in physics that supports the notion of an immaterial soul I am sure he is is quite right. But that isn’t at all surprising if it isn’t a physical entity.

In his answer to the interviewer, Dr. Carroll simply declares that no one has noticed the influence of a “supernatural world” on our everyday lives. This claim despite thousands of years of testimony to the contrary; testimony to the impact of “the spirit” on individual lives. Surely he cannot be unaware of these claims? He means “physical influence” of course as he finishes up by saying that he finds it strange that something [purportedly] so crucial to our lives would not be detected by science, that is by physical measurement! Yet it is precisely the contention of all those thousands of years worth of testimony that this influence is not physical! Dr. Carroll is too well educated and has been around too long not to know this! Not to know that his answer addresses nothing but a straw man. He presupposes that the influence of a “supernatural influence” would be a physical influence and says there is no evidence for that!

In both claims, Dr. Carroll begs the question of evidence to get his point across. The hidden assumption in both the prologue and his answer to the interview question is that physical evidence is the only evidence that is evidence of anything! Of course Dr. Carroll is not alone here. He shares this assumption with 98% of the working analytic philosophers and scientists of the present day and indeed the last century. One could say he is doing no more than burnishing his materialist credentials here because, after all, in spite of his matter-only ontology, Dr. Carroll is going to argue that there is nevertheless freedom and meaning to be found in our lives, both phenomena being controversial among that same group of thinkers.

So with apologies to Dr. Carroll for calling out his fundamental assumption based on an interview and his prologue, I enthusiastically plunge into his book. As I said, he writes well, and his thoughts are insightful. I look forward to seeing how he puts meaning and freedom together from within the purposeless cosmos! I will report again when I have finished.

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