PHYSICIST SEAN CARROLL ON POETIC NATURALISM
THE POET THEY SHOULD’VE SENT
I recently visited DARG in Cape Town and was delighted to find they have a second hand bookstore. Perhaps a couple thousand donated books lined two rooms top to bottom, as well as the L-shaped corridor that connects them. There were even enough books to justify a small section on philosophy! (That reminds me: What’s a Dog For?) Given how many Dan Browns I saw scattered around, I concluded that the public must just be too attached to their philosophy books to part with them.
I spied John Brockman’s 1996 book The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution and paid just R10 for it (around $0.68), a serious steal. It begins:
The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meaning of our lives, redefining who and what we are.
Brockman, a New York-based author and founder of Edge.org, a curious curator of an intellectual sort, mentions in his book various philosophers, physicists, biologists, computer scientists and psychologists who have helped raise the temperature on our public discussions by communicating their ideas directly. Exorcising the jarring jargon and possessing a sense of style goes a long way.
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. — Albert Einstein
This third culture is, Brockman argues, the unexpected synthesis of what C.P. Snow anticipated in Two Cultures published in 1959. During the 1930s, “while no one was looking”, literary experts started to dominate the public discourse. Scientists like Edwin Hubble, John von Neumann, Werner Heisenberg and even Albert Einstein were being outplayed by outspoken “men of letters” versed in Freud, Marx and modernism.
I applaud the idea that scientists, and scholars generally, can communicate their original ideas to one another in books that are read by people in other fields. — Richard Dawkins
Thankfully, this trend continues today as more scientists are publishing books for the public, writing blogs, producing documentaries and short online videos, starting their own podcasts, debating in public, and otherwise sharing their research in the collective spirit of this enlightened human enterprise (Richard Dawkins calls this part of the current ‘Wave of Reason’).
9/11, in particular, harrowingly showcased the destructive and deadly power bad ideas can have against the maintenance of human civilisation. It was a terrifying watershed towards the current War of Ideas that resulted in a new wave of science-inspired writers, philosophers and other thought leaders releasing better informed and designed ‘thoughtfish’ (to use Stephen King’s metaphor from The End of Watch) into the meme pool for others to catch and release.
The cosmologist and physicists Sean Carroll is one such public intellectual. In his new book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, Carroll argues for what he calls “poetic naturalism” to help us think through life’s biggest questions and quandaries.
The strategy I’m advocating here can be called poetic naturalism. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it — telling its story — in different ways.
Naturalism comes down to three things:
1. There is only one world, the natural world.
2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature.
3. The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.
Essentially, naturalism is the idea that the world revealed to us by scientific investigation is the one true world. The poetic aspect comes to the fore when we start talking about that world. It can also be summarized in three points:
1. There are many ways of talking about the world.
2. All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
3. Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.
There is nothing controversial in Carroll’s descriptions of either naturalism, or its proposed poetic prefix, but as a model through which to view the world, poetic naturalism offers a powerful and accessible perspective that encapsulates the third culture’s mission to mind the masses for good. (In many ways, the idea is similar to, or at least can be considered alongside, what Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow described as model-dependent realism in The Grand Design.)
To help illustrate his worldview, Carroll asks us to consider the famous thought experiment about the Ship of Theseus to help tease our intuitions about how we can come to know and talk about the material objects over time (instead of jumping straight to Theseus’ ship, Carroll first considers a Star Trek episode, The Enemy Within, and wonders how their transporter machines might actually work; also, see The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence Krauss):
We would now say that Theseus’s ship is made of atoms, all of which are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons — exactly the same kinds of particles that make up every other ship, or for that matter make up you and me. There isn’t some primordial “shipness” of which Theseus’s is one particular example; there are simply arrangements of atoms, gradually changing over time.
That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about ships just because we understand that they are collections of atoms. It would be horrendously inconvenient if, anytime someone asked us a question about something happening in the world, we limited our allowable responses to a listing of a huge set of atoms and how they were arranged. If you listed about one atom per second, it would take more than a trillion times the current age of the universe to describe a ship like Theseus’s. Not really practical.
It just means that the notion of a ship is a derived category in our ontology, not a fundamental one. It is a useful way of talking about certain subsets of the basic stuff of the universe. We invent the concept of a ship because it is useful to us, not because it’s already there at the deepest level of reality. Is it the same ship after we’ve gradually replaced every plank? I don’t know. It’s up to us to decide. The very notion of “ship” is something we created for our own convenience.
That’s okay. The deepest level of reality is very important; but all the different ways we have of talking about that level are important too.
One alternative to Carroll’s perspective on this paradox is what Richard Dawkins has describes as “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind”; in This Idea Must Die, also edited by Brockman, Dawkins nominated “essentialism” to be put to death:
For Plato, a circle, or a right triangle, were ideal forms, definable mathematically but never realized in practice. A circle drawn in the sand was an imperfect approximation to the ideal Platonic circle hanging in some abstract space. That works for geometric shapes like circles, but essentialism has been applied to living things, and Ernst Mayr blamed this for humanity’s late discovery of evolution — as late as the 19th century. If, like Aristotle, you treat all flesh-and-blood rabbits as imperfect approximations to an ideal Platonic rabbit, it won’t occur to you that rabbits might have evolved from a non-rabbit ancestor and might evolve into a non-rabbit descendant. If you think, following the dictionary definition of essentialism, that the essence of rabbitness is “prior to” the existence of rabbits (whatever “prior to” might mean, and that’s a nonsense in itself), evolution is not an idea that will spring readily to your mind, and you may resist when somebody else suggests it.
The poetic naturalist recognises that there are certain ways of talking about the natural world at any given moment that corresponds to our purposes in the present. If you think there is something essential about the ship itself (concerning its identity across time and space) then pinpointing the moment the ship ‘changes’—much like idealising rabbits— will be like surfing fractals somewhere between Achilles and the Tortoise; like the frog slowly being boiled alive who’s trying to figure out the precise moment he can collect his Darwin award.
But the arrow of time still plays, and we must recognise there are more and less useful ways of talking about the natural world closer to what we currently know. The poetic naturalist dead reckons truth using scientific coordinates and suitable stories relevant to our present conditions and desires:
Poetic Naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility. The raw materials of life are given to us by the natural world, and we must work to understand them and accept the consequences. The move from description to prescription, from saying what happens to passing judgment on what should happen, is a creative one, a fundamentally human act. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it.
Consider how Carroll responds to the cosmological argument still championed by the likes of the Christian apologist William Lane Craig (author of ‘Reasonable Faith’). Here’s the syllogism Craig often repeats in defence of a ‘first cause’ (aka the God of Abraham):
1. Whatever begins to exist, has a cause.
2. The Universe begins to exist.
3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.
Carroll agrees that speaking about the world in terms of ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ is psychologically intuitive and useful to a practical point, but it is not the only or best way of explaining—talking about—the underlying interactions of particles in contemporary physics. You’re more likely to hear talk of waves, probabilities and fields from today’s physicists than Aristotelean notions of causes and forces from ancient Greece. Why? Because science makes progress, and we don’t need Wittgenstein to tell us how tricksy language can be: as our understanding evolves so to do our descriptions of the natural world. Craig’s position is, in this instance, outmoded and ineffectual; he’s not a physicist.
While there is one world, there are many ways of talking about it. We refer to these ways as “models” or “theories” or “vocabularies” or “stories”; it doesn’t matter. Aristotle and his contemporaries weren’t just making things up; they told a reasonable story about the world they actually observed. Science has discovered another set of stories, harder to perceive but of greater precision and wider applicability. It’s not good enough that the stories succeed individually; they have to fit together.
One pivotal word enables that reconciliation between all the different stories: emergence. Like many magical words, it’s extremely powerful but also tricky and liable to be misused in the wrong hands. A property of a system is “emergent” if it is not part of a detailed “fundamental” description of the system, but it becomes useful or even inevitable when we look at the system more broadly. A naturalist believes that human behavior emerges from the complex interplay of the atoms and forces that make up individual human beings.
Everything in the natural world may in fact have a cause (bets are off, however, when wave functions collapse), but it does not follow that the universe itself had to have a first cause, especially one that would be, by definition, supernatural (“There is only one world, the natural world”). The same logic should be applied to our understandings of the origins of life, the emergence of consciousness, and maybe even artificial intelligence (see What to Think About Machines That Think: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Age of Machine Intelligence).
By arguing for a supernatural prime mover all that’s happened is the goalposts have been wishfully shifted further back, and in this case, into the unknowable (“The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.”). Who, then, created God? If God is external (conveniently by definition), why not just stop at an eternal universe? Why insert an unnecessary complexity when new data is still coming in and other, better informed, theories and speculations exist? It’s possible that there was a first domino-flicker who got our universe going some 14.5 billion years ago, and earth’s sapiens will get to disproving It right after Russell’s teapot. In any event, whether the universe was created, external, or came from nothing, the truth will be amazing! But that doesn’t mean all the stories we can possibly tell ourselves are equally probable, desirable, or wise.
In the movie Contact (based on the story by Carl Sagan) — to fade out by learning from our cinematic history — Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) travels in an alien machine through space and time and encounters sublime new truths about our universe; her experiences are indistinguishable from magic. The earthly powers that be thought that because she’s a scientist, not to mention the one who actually detected the alien’s signal in the first place, she understands and appreciates the complexities of the universe at a fundamental level, and so is in a better position to communicate with any technologically advanced civilisation that might be encountered. What they didn’t consider was whether or not she would, in turn, be able to convincingly communicate her experiences and knowledge with her fellow sapiens when she returned.
When Dr. Arroway witnesses the wonder of the new worlds the aliens have shown her, she can only confess to herself—to us the viewer—that “They should’ve sent a poet”. Foster’s character is in this very precise way flawed, but perhaps now we can imagine a poetic naturalist making contact instead and coming back with a story, a Big Picture, that we can all tune into.
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