The Big Picture

I’m about to head out on vacation to commune with nature in the Pacific Northwest, so there’s likely to be no more blogging here until after May 17th. That’s just one reason I’ll leave comments closed here, another is that I’m sure you can find other, better, places on the internet to discuss the issues raised in this posting.

A little while ago I bought a copy of Sean Carroll’s new book The Big Picture, which is now reaching the bookstores. This posting is not really a review of the substance of the book, but more a reaction to its basic conception. The first point to make is that I mostly agree with what Carroll has to say, to the extent that one reason for not writing a more usual sort of review is that I didn’t bother to do more than skim a lot of the chapters, since the theme seemed both so familiar and so unobjectionable. One exception would be a small number of pages about the multiverse, which he contrasts with religion, ending with (referring to religion)

This is the problem with theories that are not well-defined.

He’s got the problem right, but doesn’t notice that it applies equally well to this particularly dubious bit of “science”.

The largest part of the book (from my rather quick read) is a very conventional argument for science as opposed to religion, of a sort that has existed for centuries, been common since the 19th century, and very common in recent years as part of the “New Atheism”. One reason I can’t focus on this is that I just don’t see any evidence that science needs this sort of defense against religion, it seems to me to be doing extremely well without it. Our culture valorizes science and scientists very highly these days (much more so than ministers or theologians), and I just don’t see what some other people see as a need for books arguing the case for science.

The really striking thing about this particular book though is that Carroll has a much more unusual and ambitious goal than just arguing for science. He wants to promote what he calls “poetic naturalism“, which as far as I can tell is a term of his own invention (“naturalism” by itself is now a conventional term for the “science, not religion” viewpoint). Beyond the “science instead of religion” idea though, “poetic naturalism” seems to me to simultaneously lack any real content, while claiming to address the deepest human questions of meaning and morality. Asked in this interview the question

Your book, The Big Picture, roams far beyond cosmology and physics, into consciousness, philosophy and the meaning of life. What do you hope to achieve?

he answers

Well, this is the book that should accompany the Gideons Bible in all hotel rooms in the world – that would be a nice achievement!

I’m not sure what Carroll might have had to do with this, but poetic naturalism is now listed on Facebook as a possible choice for one’s religion.

Perhaps the strangest thing in the book is a chapter devoted to Carroll’s replacement for the Ten Commandments, which he calls the “Ten Considerations”, since they’re not commandments. They are:

  • Life Isn’t Forever.
  • Desire Is Built Into Life.
  • What Matters Is What Matters To People.
  • We Can Always Do Better.
  • It Pays to Listen.
  • There Is No Natural Way to Be.
  • It Takes All Kinds.
  • The Universe Is in Our Hands.
  • We Can Do Better Than Happiness.
  • Reality Guides Us.

It’s hard to argue with such sentiments, but also hard to understand what they have to do with the author’s expertise as a theoretical physicist.

The last chapter of the book begins with a description of Carroll’s early experiences in the Episcopal church, which he was quite fond of. I also had such experiences (I was an altar boy for several years at an Episcopal church, the American Cathedral in Paris). Unlike Carroll, I was never a believer, but just figured this was one of quite a few mystifying things that adults got up to, and that it seemed I had to go along with it until I got older. Thinking back to those days, I was struck by the realization that I recognized the tone and a lot of the content of Carroll’s writing. It very much sounds like a sermon, one evangelizing the good news not of Jesus, but of science, and is aiming for much the same effect: “I want to shiver with awe and wonder at the universe”.

My own point of view on all of this is that I just don’t think theoretical physicists have anything useful to tell the average person about meaning and morality, other than that it’s a mistake to search for it in our discoveries about physics. I don’t understand why we’re increasingly seeing texts promoting physics as inspiration for how to live (for another recent example among many see here). I’m with Steven Weinberg, and his famous line

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

Given that, the best advice to people who come to physicists looking for the meaning of life seems to me to politely tell them that they’re looking in the wrong place and asking the wrong person.

While I deeply value and respect my many friends and colleagues among physicists and mathematicians, I can’t imagine why anyone would think they have any unusual insight into the great questions of meaning and morality. I’m afraid that to some extent the opposite is true. My background, career and circumstances are quite similar to Carroll’s, and when I think about them my main thought these days is that I lead an extremely lucky and privileged (and not just in the white/Anglo/male/hetero sense) life, well-isolated from many of the challenges that most people have to deal with. There are a lot of beautiful, wonderful, and useful things one can learn from physicists and mathematicians, but our expertise is in something very far-removed from the question of how to live a good life in the face of significant challenges.

It seems likely that one motivation for books with this defensive attitude about science is the current ugly environment of our politics and culture. This ugliness I believe is driven by the economic disaster that has been inflicted on a significant fraction of our citizenry over the last few decades by the privileged and well-educated, both Democrats and Republicans. While Carroll and I were enjoying our respective times at Harvard and similar places, and have ended up turning our upbringing and Ivy League experiences into a very pleasant and cosseted lifestyle in the wealthy enclaves along either coast, things have not been going so well for many others. They’re now in bitter rebellion against what has happened to them, with an anger sadly turned against other racial groups, but even more so against self-satisfied elites. I don’t think a book like this has much hope of speaking to such people, to their view of science or their experience of religion. Scientists who want more respect should stick to what they know, and avoid the temptation of “science-splaining” to the public. In particular they should avoid preaching about meaning, morality, and other issues that they know no more about than anyone else.

Update: Robert Crease has a review of the book in Nature. He also finds odd the “greeting-card-like homilies” that appear in the book.

This entry was posted in Book Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Big Picture

  1. Pingback: Peter Woit, Carroll, science as religion | Uncommon Descent

Comments are closed.