Monday, May 16, 2016

The Big Picture Tour

Last week I saw physicist Sean Carroll again for the first stop on his book tour for The Big Picture: On the origins of life meaning and the universe itself at the Bell House in Brooklyn. His latest book is basically a defense of naturalism from a scientist's perspective on how we should see the "big picture" of existence, life, and meaning, in a way firmly grounded by, and compatible with science—but with lots of philosophy thrown in—which is definitely needed in public discourse of this nature. I've been waiting a long time for a book just like this to come out because I think it's very important for the naturalist to be able to have a coherent explanation of reality fully compatible with human experience and with science. I'm also very grateful that Carroll is not allergic to philosophy like Lawrence Krauss is. Philosophy is absolutely essential to having a coherent worldview and I personally am deeply invested in having a worldview as a naturalist from the most fundamental ontology all the way up to the higher level ontologies like sociology and politics. My goal is to eventually work my way to the higher level philosophies over time and I hope this book can significantly help me with rational thinking on how to tie them all in together.

One of the interesting points Carroll argues early on is that notions like "cause and effect" are nowhere to be found in the fundamental laws of physics, they are just a way of describing reality as we see them from our human perspectives. This is very important, because for one thing, if there is no cause and effect as is commonly understood in our experience, all the "first cause" arguments for the existence of god go out the window. I've been coming to the realization that cause and effect aren't really as they seem on my own through my study of Special Relativity. In a block universe, there are simply just worldtubes in spacetime, and one point on the worldtube doesn't really cause a later point on the worldtube. What causality really is would seem to have to be the relationships of intersecting worldtubes as they precede each other or intertwine with another. For example, asking "why do I exist now?" would be explained by the fact that at an earlier event in spacetime my parents had sex. That was the "cause" that resulted in my birth and existence now – but only in the sense that if you trace my worldtube back in spacetime to its origin it’s preceded by my parent’s worldtubes and thus that establishes the "causal" relationship. This is a profound insight that radically changes our notion of causality. The traditional notion we ascribe to our everyday experiences simply doesn't exist.

The venue was packed and there was a bar right in the theater which I appreciated since I'm a drinker. Carroll summarized his book and the main points in it, notably his notion of poetic naturalism. It's "poetic" in the sense that it uses different languages to describe reality at different levels of ontology. Fundamentally there is no cause and effect, no flow of time, no temperature, no solidity, and no color, and yet these are all ways we experience the world. But just because none of these things exist at the fundamental level, it doesn't necessarily mean they're illusions. They are just ways of describing the universe at different levels. Solidity certainly exists for us at our human level experience, and banging your toe on the leg of a table is certainly a very real experience. Solidity isn't an illusion just because it doesn't exist fundamentally: it's a way reality is at a certain level of description and we need to apply a concept like weak emergentism to understand how all of these different levels of reality fit into one another.

This is a very important notion because there are atheists like Alex Rosenberg who are pushing eliminative materialism very hard. He argues that because notions like consciousness or any of the higher level phenomena do not exist fundamentally, then they are all illusions and we shouldn't think they exist or even use language that implies they exist at all. Even intentional mental states do not exist according to Rosenberg, which would seem to make his whole philosophy self-refuting. When I spoke with him last year he said that this is the logical and inevitable outcome of a naturalistic ontology. I disagreed with him then and I disagree with him now. Carroll's view makes much more sense to me. The only area where I disagree with Carroll from what I've read and heard so far, is on free will. Carroll is a compatibilist, and although I'm a bit sympathetic to compatiblism, I'm not really on board. The incompatibilist/hard determinist view to me makes a bit more sense. I also think that the illusion of free will is one we should fully recognize is an illusion and not pretend is in any way real. And the reason why is because there are very serious ethical and legal consequences to consider that we don't have to consider when entertaining the notion that solidity or temperature doesn't really exist fundamentally.

Anyway, I preordered Carroll's book last Christmas and I've been reading it the past few days. If you are interested in a naturalist's explanation of reality that makes more sense than an eliminative materialist's like Rosenberg's, I highly recommend it.

Buy Carroll's new book for as little as $17.99 by clocking the link below:

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