Maybe You’re Not an Atheist–Maybe You’re a Naturalist Like Sean Carroll

May 11, 2016

By Eric Niller

Science and religion have never gotten along very well. But both strive to answer one fundamental question: What does it mean to be human? Are we here thanks to a random sequence of events—just an organized blob of mud—or destined to follow a path laid down for us by a higher power? There is a middle path, though, that borrows elements from both systems of thought—a way of understanding the world that gives our inner lives and the universe meaning without a theistic belief system.

Standing firmly behind this “poetic naturalism” is Sean Carroll, the theoretical physicist who’s taken readers on a journey through time in From Eternity to Here and the hunt for the Higgs-Boson in The Particle At the End of the Universe. Now he’s put together a big sprawling work of philosophy to examine that one big question. Also: whether God exists, and what happens after you die.

In his new book out tomorrow, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself, the 49 year-old Caltech professor assembles a framework to help him find answers to these questions. He borrows freely from great thinkers of the past and his current research in cosmology, all the while dropping in anecdotes about his own mortality on an LA Freeway near-miss, or contemplating the meaning of the transport malfunction in Star Trek’s “The Enemy Within.” WIRED talked with Carroll about what these ideas mean to him as a scientist, a self-described naturalist, and a human.

In The Big Picture, you talk a lot about poetic naturalism. What is that and how is it different than plain old atheism?

Atheism is a reaction against theism. It is purely a rejection of an idea. It’s not a positive substantive idea about how the world is. Naturalism is a counterpart to theism. Theism says there’s the physical world and god. Naturalism says there’s only the natural world. There are no spirits, no deities, or anything else. Poetic naturalism emphasizes that there are many ways of talking about the natural world. The fact that the underlying laws of physics are deterministic and impersonal does not mean that at the human level we can’t talk about ideas about reasons and goals and purposes and free will. So poetic naturalism is one way of reconciling what we are sure about the world at an intuitive level. A world that has children. Reconciling that with all the wonderful counterintuitive things about modern science.

The book draws upon elements of your own life, of popular culture, particle physics, history, philosophy and cosmology. What’s the thread that binds all these themes?

It is a long book [Ed. note: 464 pages]. I cut some of it. There are two threads. One is an apologia for naturalism. I’m saying that despite appearances to the contrary in our everyday life, this world we live in is governed by laws that don’t have goals or purpose that are not sustained by anything outside the world. It is just stuff obeying the laws of physics over and over again. The other thread is that that is OK. The fact that you were not put here for any purpose, that we are collections of atoms that always obey the laws of physics is not reason to despair that life is meaningless.

Naturalism says that we were not put here for any purpose. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t such thing as purpose. It just means that purpose isn’t imposed from outside. We human beings have the creative ability to give our lives purposes and meanings. Just as we have the ability to determine what is right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. That point of view is not only allowed, it is challenging and breathtaking in its scope.

Did you change your mind about anything after writing The Big Picture?

Not very much. I think what I believe now is what I’ve always believed. I think the closest I came to changing my mind is I got a renewed appreciation for the subtlety and persuasiveness of the anti-naturalism argument. It’s always easy to hold in your mind a straw man, a vision of people that disagree with you. These are smart people who disagree with you. I tried my best to give them the benefit of the doubt and put forward the best version. I understand more why people would disagree with me.


Continue reading by clicking the name of the source below.

26 comments on “Maybe You’re Not an Atheist–Maybe You’re a Naturalist Like Sean Carroll

  • I like it as a personal philosophy but would like it more if it had some emphasis on primary actors in this Universe being sentient beings. With intelligence and the ability of an entity to enact their will being the defence against entropy.



    Report abuse

  • 8
    Pinball1970 says:

    That’s a lovely shot of the aurora

    Reading the title I wasn’t sure whether this was about atheists walking round nudist beaches or atheists collecting butterflies in big jars.

    We accept the natural as being all there is when we reject the supernatural don’t we?

    Sounds a bit hippy



    Report abuse

  • @OP- It is a long book [Ed. note: 464 pages]. I cut some of it. There are two threads. One is an apologia for naturalism. I’m saying that despite appearances to the contrary in our everyday life, this world we live in is governed by laws that don’t have goals or purpose that are not sustained by anything outside the world.

    But that should be obvious to anyone whose head is not filled with theological rubbish! There is no need to even try to prove a negative unless trying to educate the deluded!

    It is just stuff obeying the laws of physics over and over again. The other thread is that that is OK. The fact that you were not put here for any purpose, that we are collections of atoms that always obey the laws of physics is not reason to despair that life is meaningless.

    Again, there is only a need to debunk this strawman claim, when debating those who have been filled with theistic nonsense!

    Understanding physics does not lead to despair, regardless of how many ranting preachers may say so to gullible congregations in order to try to maintain delusional supernatural beliefs!
    (Ho sheeples, – You don’t want to reject god’s miracles and become one of those “despairing depressed scientists”, when you can be a happy-clappy Christian – Praise de Lawd and reject doubt!!)



    Report abuse

  • 10
    Cairsley says:

    To David R Allen #4

    I do not wish to tire you with pedantic details, but, just in case you would like to know how you might put that term into Latin, may I suggest the following:

    stercus taureum
    excrementum taureum
    excreta taurea
    faeces taureae

    I have chosen the adjective ‘taureus’ (=of or pertaining to an ox) over ‘taurinus’ (=of or pertaining to a bull), because Romans admired the bull but were less complimentary about the cow or the ox more generally. The noun ‘stercus’ is the closest to English ‘shit’, whereas ‘excrementum’ and ‘excreta’ refer to any matter, solid or liquid or in between, emitted from the body, though generally not urine (urina). The noun ‘faeces’, used in modern medical English to refer to shit, is mediaeval Latin. It is the plural of ‘faex’, which in the singular means ‘dregs, liquid refuse, tartar on wine, brine of pickles, etc’ and was also used to refer to the dregs of society. Whichever suggestion you use, and others could be proposed, take care, for the sake of appearing authentic, that the adjective agrees with the noun in case, number and gender.



    Report abuse

  • Wow. Tough audience!

    I could detect not a hint of Anthropocentric Universe Syndrome.

    The poetry (Attenborough’s or Feynman’s or Dawkin’s or Sagan’s) can be as bleak and windswept as you like. My aesthetic is for bleak and windswept and open…



    Report abuse

  • I’m a bit confused about the initial reactions too?

    I want readers to know that the world is understandable.

    Kind of book I think I would recommend to non(scientific)-believers 😉



    Report abuse

  • 16
    Cairsley says:

    To Quarecuss #15

    scatology abounds

    No surprise there. We are primates after all, and we do verbally what close relatives of ours do physically — throw shit at those they dislike.



    Report abuse

  • Interesting collective reaction from the commentators in this forum. Almost universal rejection. Having read the responses it left me feeling there was a small but common thinking on display from people who’s most likely common denominator is lack of belief in a god. Interesting.

    I read the article and was not impressed. Even though I understood he was not advocating religion, I came away feeling he was trying to substitute a GMO religion. My reaction was that this wasn’t necessary. Atheism has got a measured and rational argument in relation to religion. This smelt a bit like reinsertion of Woo…. And if it sounds like Woo, and it quacks like Woo…



    Report abuse

  • To me David, it was asking the questions but nudging in the right direction of understanding. I might need nudging myself as to where the woo is???



    Report abuse

  • David,

    I realised quite a long while ago that many religious folk are “religious” as an aesthetic reaction to the universe. They are nervous nellies who need to know that like their childhood environment their world is synthetic, pre-tested, de-risked, and comes with a clear set of parental instructions for use.

    This book is not in any way selling the stuff of religion like Sunday Assemblies (spit…a waste of good drinking and talking time) or the creepy Alain De Botton (pandering to our very weaknesses and insecurity with a defensive huddle). This book is to note the aesthetic reaction to the world embodied in the robust poetry of Attenborough, Feynman, Dawkins and Sagan.

    In wanting to see religion gone I want those religious out of habit and nervous nelliedom (those who are atheist over dogma), yet indifferent to Atheism’s active political agenda of secularism etc., be engaged.

    I have two types of argument with the religious, about morality, and about aesthetics (the folk I engage with mostly don’t have a problem with scientific truth, perhaps because of IQ). Carroll’s words as we can discern them here address the second type of argument.

    I find the complaint astonishing. (Mind you I haven’t read the book yet….I could be severely disappointed.)



    Report abuse

  • Phil #19

    I find the complaint astonishing.

    Is that my complaint? Whatever the guy was saying, and apologies if I have missed the finer nuances of his argument, but I was not alone, as you can see by the others who felt similarly to me, and came to the same conclusion.



    Report abuse

  • There isn’t a thing said in this short interview that leads me to conclude that a naturalist can not also be an atheist. If Sean Carroll wants to define atheism as “a reaction against theism. It is purely a rejection of an idea. It’s not a positive substantive idea”, I’m fine with that. But it doesn’t mean that the rejection of theism is the only idea an atheist can hold in his head. Everything else Sean Carroll says here indicates that he rejects supernaturalism – he’s an atheist.

    I wonder if Carroll feels that drawing a distinction between naturalism and atheism is necessary because of the strong insistence of people like Jerry Coyne that determinism must rule out free will? If so, it should be noted that in Coyne’s line of reasoning leading to that conclusion lies an equally strong argument for nihilism (but if you continually point this out to Coyne and do so even a little too pointedly, he’ll ban you from his site).



    Report abuse

  • Tim #22

    I wonder if Carroll feels that drawing a distinction between naturalism and atheism is necessary because of the strong insistence of people like Jerry Coyne that determinism must rule out free will?

    In the USA, the home of the euphemism, where bathrooms contain no baths, Atheist or even atheist is an unappetising word and a most unhelpful identity. The bad reaction from Atheists here is probably the distaste that this may just be a search for a congenial euphemism.

    I think that is surely part of Carrol’s thinking, regrettably so but not an ignoble thing in itself. Much more I think it is genuinely aimed at those who are simply atheist without really realising it or those many more who have a belief in belief only. I think his prospectus is truly about how atheists regard the universe and their governing aesthetics. I think such folk have little concern for Coyne’s view on free will, which is itself answering a non-question, framed as it was originally in a theological context.

    Is your view or answer arrived at by your own free will?

    Who cares except in the legal, moral, judgmental sense? (A clearer question than this is- are you prepared to own your speech and actions?) The pertinent and only question outside of this about your view or answer is…is it correct?

    Please, please, please let Carrol’s book have nothing to do with this fatuous theological question of free will. The only useful writer on the topic is Dan Dennett in “Freedom Evolves”, where he identifies choice of action as freedom.



    Report abuse

  • Tim #22
    May 14, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    There isn’t a thing said in this short interview that leads me to conclude that a naturalist can not also be an atheist.

    I’ll echo Phil’s point on this.

    It is not about naturalists BEING atheists.
    It’s about American naturalists recognising themselves as atheists, or coming out as atheists, in view of the strawman negative images of atheists which are regularly propagated from pulpits and in the media.



    Report abuse

  • I don’t get it. What is he saying that the Brights.net hasn’t been saying for years.

    Can’t we just call it ‘philosophical naturalism’ like we always did?



    Report abuse

  • I was watching some vapid television show — using it as background while I cooked dinner for my family. Anyway, one of the characters uttered a phrase that actually set me into some thought.

    It was a stereotyped detective who was a hardened non believer and had “seen too much”. The pigeon hole he occupied was a never smiling logic machine…. The character opposite set him up for the following line

    “Truth or happiness; but not both…. never both.”

    It got me thinking. The reason that this brooding stereotype persists is the misunderstanding that the person who is arriving at the atheistic standpoint is never happy or always angry or just negative in general. It is a misunderstanding that (IMO) manifests from the observation that the “transition” to non-belief is sometimes very difficult.

    This, in my case, was never because the atheistic worldview is inherently grumpy, but rather I was grumpy because I was coming to grips with the multitude of lies i had been fed my whole life. Lies proliferated, many times for profit, by people that I loved, trusted, were in power and even those that used these qualities to then prey on people both financially and even sometimes sexually.

    This pisses me off. So, Truth or happiness??? I have arrived at happiness because I have arrived at my truth. But the road was rocky because of the land mines and pitfalls purposely installed by “believers” who demonstrate clearly that they do not actually subscribe to what they purport.



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.