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.