The Big Picture




READ: 2016-08-05

AUTHOR: Sean Carroll



Pretending to draw a Big Picture could be seen as somehow pretentious. Still, Carroll accomplishes to put together a quite detailed state-of-art of what science can currently tell us about who we are.
Carroll defines his system of thought “poetic naturalism”: a picture of the universe that doesn’t need anything but physics to explain its functioning, and yet comprehensive of multiple levels of understanding as “useful ways of explaining how things work” for different domains.

The author shifts through basic cosmology, theory of evolution and thermodynamics, including the most modern views on the origins of life. He places the foundations of his work on quantum mechanics and the Core Theory, the most successful – until now – physical way of explaining how particles become the matter we see in our lives. Embracing the tool of Bayesian reasoning, the Occam’s Razor and the arrow of time, he proceeds from what physics laws tell us to rule out theism, re-examining the old cartesian dualism.

He then tackles the problem of consciousness and free will – again, poetic naturalism labels these phenomena real, as they are emergent properties of the basic quantum fields that make up everything we see. So “life” and “consciousness” are properties of a particular set of particles. We might never be able to calculate the exact quantum field of that set because of the inaccuracy of the data we would be able to gather, but the theory undoubtedly rules out any supernatural cause.

Given all that, the burdensome concern regards morality and meaning. How could we draw purpose from a universe that is purposeless? Is the very fact of us choosing and feeling and striving and desiring a mere illusion?
Carroll proposes a poetic view on the topic: “The universe doesn’t care about us, but we care about the universe. That’s what makes us special”. Desire becomes a useful way of describing the behaviour of a particular physical set called human being – and it is absolutely real. And if human beings are a special category of matter, then neither morality has any inherent, objective truth. Each of us has her own set of believes and values. This view goes under the name of moral constructivism. “The fact that morals are constructed doesn’t mean that they are arbitrary”, remarks Carroll – that being a strong objection against constructivism. Still, there are no ready-made answers. Morals is much of a conversational process, and progress is mostly made on the foundations of commonly shared values. Poetic naturalism gives no answers, because it is up to us to set the rules of the game.
I find the distinction between objective morality and constructivism fundamental, although resting on such an undefined ground is no less than scaring. We shouldn’t reject a theory because it doesn’t provide emotionally positive answers. Searching for the truth has rewarded us with enormous advantages, and there is no reason to doubt that it will be the same with morality as well.