Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture” Reviewed: Why “Poetic Naturalism” is an Oxymoron — Guest Post by Bob Kurland

Another version of this article first appeared at Kurland’s site.

Scientism, the belief that science can explain everything about the world and ourselves, is a religion, although not formally expressed as such. When I call it a religion, I mean that it is founded on faith, a faith that its proponents say is not faith, but rationality, but which is in fact a faith that denies rational objections to scientism.

There are many scientists who write books justifying their faith that science gives the only answer to the question, “how should we live?” Whether they do this to gather people into the fold or just to make money is a question I can’t answer.

Some—I’m thinking of Richard Dawkins in particular—are so convinced of the righteousness of their belief and the evil of religious faith that they would prohibit the practice of religion. Others—I’m thinking of Sean Carroll—take a more balanced view, conceding there may be legitimate reasons for belief in God, but those reasons aren’t for them. Carroll’s new book, The Big Picture, gives his account of a materialistic ethos that doesn’t need God.

I believe there are serious flaws in Carroll’s arguments used to justify his non-belief, particularly in the two foundation stones for his thesis:

  • “Poetic Naturalism” is a philosophy that will enable one to lead a moral, satisfying life, one that doesn’t need God;
  • Bayesian probability analysis and abductive reasoning demonstrate that it is very unlikely that God exists.

I will also argue against Carroll’s views on the Anthropic Coincidences, Mind and Free Will, and Morality.

Poetic Naturalism

Carroll defines “Poetic Naturalism” as follows (pp 3-4):

Naturalism claims that there is just one world, the natural world…’Poetic’ reminds us that there is more than one way of talking about the world. We find it natural to use a vocabulary of ’causes’ and ‘reasons why’ things happen, but these ideas aren’t part of how nature works at its deepest levels.

Carroll goes on to say that phenomena that I put outside the purview of science—for example, love, morality, beauty—are “emergent”. Let me explain this more fully: often in science when descriptions at a molecular or atomic level become very complicated and collective phenomena are involved, it is easier to describe things in a semi-empirical way. Thus, for viscous flow hydrodynamic equations are set up; or to analyze ferromagnetism a collective description, an Ising model, is used.

For example, when we say “water is wet”, we could (in principle) give a reductionist picture and explain what’s happening in terms of the surface tension of water, and at a deeper level, by an analysis of intermolecular attractive forces. In short, we very often use a different language to explain or describe what could ultimately be explained by fundamental laws of physics (down to the level of subatomic particles and field theory).

I call that view—that it’s only a matter of what descriptive language is used—a cop out, a “scientism of the gaps”. This position is not one that can be easily defended. Indeed, poetry itself, the joint appeal to our sensibilities of Shakespeare, Shelley and Bob Dylan, is not to be parsed by science.
So, as my subtitle suggests: the term “poetic naturalism” is an oxymoron. It does not really explain, it just evades fundamental questions.

Abductive reasoning and Bayes

Carroll uses a combination of abductive reasoning, “Inference to the Best Explanation” (IBE), and Bayesian probability analysis to argue that it is very unlikely that God exists. Here’s one such argument (p 134):

We have two competing propositions: one is that God exists, and that transcendental experiences represent…moments when we are close to divinity; the other is naturalism, which would explain such experiences the same way it would explain dreams or hallucinations…To decide between them, we need to see which one coheres better with other things we believe about the world.

Clearly Carroll believes the second explanation is the best, i.e. naturalism. Others (myself among them) would believe that transcendental experiences cohere better with the existence of God, as does everything else we believe about the world.

Before discussing how Carroll applies Bayesian probability analysis to support naturalism, I’d like to emphasize some general points (taken from Briggs’s post and book). First, all probability is conditional, depends on evidence; such evidence may be facts, or it may be beliefs, beliefs founded on facts or knowledge, or—dare I say it—on Revelation. It’s just a way of working backwards from evidence to infer a probability. Second, probability is quantitative. You assign numerical values to probability based on the evidence; otherwise, there’s no way to judge between probabilities based on different evidence.

One well-known example of Bayesian analysis is the Monte Hall three-door problem. I want to emphasize that Bayesian analysis requires quantification (even if it’s just a best guess), and a definition of an appropriate population (or prior probability) to conform with updated information and evidence. This isn’t what Carroll does.

Carroll argues that if God existed, he would create a world that provided overwhelmingly conclusive evidence for his existence (pp. 147-148, emphasis mine):

Imagine a world in which miracles happened frequently, rather than rarely or not at all. Imagine a world in which all of the religious traditions from around the globe independently came up with the same doctrines and stories about God…Imagine a world in which religious texts consistently provided specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information…Imagine a world in which souls survived after death, and frequently visited and interacted with the world of the living. Imagine a world that was free of random suffering…In any of these worlds, diligent seekers of true ontology would quite rightly take those aspects of reality as evidence for God’s existence. It follows, as the night the day, that the absence of these features is evidence in favor of atheism.

This view is simplistic in the extreme. It does not follow “as the night, the day”, that the absence of these features is conclusive evidence for atheism. Consider just the statement that Scriptures should contain “specific, true, nonintuitive pieces of scientific information”. The Bible is certainly not a science text. It’s about how and why we should live. Would a shepherd on the Judean Hills have made any sense out of Maxwell’s equations, or even Newton’s law of gravitational attraction? Carroll’s argument here simply begs the question, assumes the answer he wishes us to believe.

To say that “God should make it easy to believe” is to support a proposition that ignores theology and philosophy. Jesus said unto him, “Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed,” John 20:29 (KJV).

That quote says it all. I’ve argued there are excellent reasons why God does not make it easy to believe. And there have been hosts of books on the problem of evil, theodicy, that show it is not truly evidence against the existence of God.

Anthropic coincidences

The Anthropic Coincidences are a set of restrictions on physical laws, constants, and geo-astronomical features, fine-tuned, so to speak, to enable the development of carbon-based life. As explained in the post linked above, a probability cannot be assigned to this “fine-tuning”, but it does strongly suggest that some sort of designing intelligence set up a universe in which humans could exist. To quote Fred Hoyle (“The Universe: Past and Present Reflections,” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 20:16, 1982):

A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.

Carroll acknowledges the force of this argument (p 303), “…fine-tuning is probably the most respectable argument for theism.”

Nevertheless, he says fine-tuning is not sufficient evidence for the existence of a designing intelligence. He argues that the universe is what it is, we wouldn’t be here to speculate about the fine-tuning if the universe wasn’t there. He also proposes that “eternal inflation” creates an infinity of universes, a “multiverse”, so that amongst this multitude of universes one or more will be fine-tuned as ours is. Yet belief in a multiverse is as much an article of faith as belief in God. Many eminent physicists (including Roger Penrose and Paul Steinhardt) consider that inflation is not a proven physical theory.

Following David Hume (his favorite philosopher?), Carroll says that talk about causation is empty and fallacious; we can only describe and give correlations, not give causes for the way things are. Consequently we can’t say that the universe was purposely designed for anything. There was no cause for the universe and its fine-tuning doesn’t need an explanation. Thomas Nagel has a fine response to this sort of argument (from Mind and Cosmos):

One doesn’t show that something doesn’t require explanation by pointing out that it is a condition of one’s existence. If I ask for an explanation of the fact that the air pressure in the transcontinental jet is close to that at sea level, it is no answer to point out that if it weren’t, I’d be dead.

It’s worth pointing out that Nagel is an atheist, not a theist, but believes that the universe is indeed purpose-driven.

Mind, Soul & Free Will

Books could be (and have been) written about the problem of mind and soul. Rather than giving a full discussion and rebuttal of Carroll’s views on these issues, I’m going to cite some quotes and then, very briefly, argue against them.

Under naturalism, there isn’t that much difference between a human being and a robot. We are all just complicated collections of matter moving as patterns, obeying impersonal laws of physics…Wants and purposes and desires are the kinds of things that develop naturally along the way. [p 295]

If the world is purely physical, then what we mean by ‘understanding’ is a way of talking about a particular kind of correlation between information located in one system and conditions in the external world. [p 348]

Consciousness isn’t an illusion, but it doesn’t point to any departure from the laws of physics as we currently understand them. [p 351]

One popular definition of free will is ‘the ability to have acted differently’. In a world governed by impersonal laws, one can argue that there is no such ability. [pp 380-381]

I’ll not respond specifically to any one of these, but will only say that were I to believe them, I could see no reason for living. I’ll add that there are philosophers and scientists who disagree strongly with each of these assertions.

Morality

Given that Carroll doesn’t believe in Free Will (or to put it more specifically, says that it’s only a way of talking about how we conduct our affairs), what does he say about morality? How can there be ethical standards or moral values if we are not free to make decisions about our conduct, if they are predetermined by physical laws?

Let’s see what Carroll says about this; first, he acknowledges that without God there is no absolute moral standard (p 495, emphasis mine):

As Abraham learned, having an absolute moral standard such as God can be extraordinarily challenging. But without God, there is no such standard and that is challenging in its own way…Nature alone is no help. as we can’t extract ought from is; the universe doesn’t pass moral judgments.

Then, according to Carroll, morality must be a personal construction (p 412) “We have no objective guidance on how to distinguish right from wrong: not from God, not from nature, not from the pure force of reason itself…Morality exists only insofar as we make it so, and other people might not pass judgments in the same way we do” and “Poetic Naturalism refuses to offer us the consolation of moral certainty…How you should act depends on who you are.”

So, that’s the problem, and I don’t believe Carroll offers a solution, other than that of the doctor in Camus’s The Plague:

‘What on earth prompted you to take a hand in this?’

‘I don’t know. My…my code of morals, perhaps.’

‘Your code of morals. What code, if I may ask?’

‘Comprehension.’

Summary

There it is. Poetic naturalism offers no support for a moral standard, and indeed, for any value system. There is no reason we should take a system based (presumably) on Bayesian probability analysis and abductive reasoning to understand the world, other than that of the doctor in The Plague—it’s comprehensible.

And here I think is where Carroll falls in to the honey-trap of scientism—that which can be explained in a scientific, naturalistic mode is that which is to be believed, and nothing else. There is not a logical reason to follow this; in fact, at the very beginning of The Big Picture Carroll emphasizes that science has nothing to say about the supernatural.

I say Carroll’s The Big Picture” is not that big. It leaves out much of what is important and real for many of us. But even so, reading his book, one gets the impression that Carroll is a thoughtful, learned, humane person. I wish him well and hope he finds a belief system other than Poetic Naturalism.

17 Comments

  1. Good outline of Sean Carroll’s worldview there Mr. Kurland! Looks like Carroll is simply repeating the same old materialist paradigm viz., that the world is composed of absolutely mind-independent material particulars, that people are machines and have no free will, that values and meaning of life is subjective, etc. There is nothing scientific about materialism or naturalism, it’s just metaphysical jargon. There’s no way anyone can scientifically verify or prove that material objects exist as absolute mind-independent particulars – particulars that exist even independent of a Divine Mind. Science simply cannot get at the underlying ultimate explanations of why and how things exist and it certainly cannot verify materialism to be true. Nor is there any proof that a material object can actually produce consciousness. Materialism is just an ideology that’s been packaged as “science” when it’s not.

    I’d say the theist paradigm works better.

  2. The examples about Poetic Naturalism do not lead me to think that it is possible to leading a moral life, or that there is such a thing like morality at all. What on earth has the wetness of water to do with leading a moral life? Does morality dissolve in water? Or is it like salt, and will it stay on your skin after the salt water evaporates?

    The supposed similarity between robots and humans are weird too. The problem with the current crop of robots is that they are clearly not as intelligent as humans, not by orders of magnitude.

    The universe finetuning argument is still from the Era with a Universe made of normal matter instead on dark matter and dark energy. Before I am inclined to believe an argument about finetuning, I would like to know what dark matter is. Finetuning arguments only work if you know what it is you are tuning.

    Regarding morality, tit-for-tat works fine for explaining the existence of morality, if you combine it with the ability for preferences. If people are happier when fed than when hungry, or in general are able to prefer one state of being above the other, and when they are supposedly intelligent, then people are going to try and optimize that situation. Morality is then the set of behaviours that optimizes peoples happiness across a broad range of states of being.

  3. “one gets the impression that Carroll is a thoughtful, learned, humane person”

    That’s very nice. Unfortunately none of that will do him any good on his day of personal judgment. I often wonder if Jesus gets tired of that look of complete shock that suddenly appears on the faces of so many of the departed.

    As for Carroll, harboring an erroneous (and eternally dangerous) view of reality is bad enough. Publishing a book in order to persuade others to it takes it to another level. Humane indeed.

  4. RE: “Scientism, the belief that science can explain everything about the world and ourselves, is a religion,… I mean that it is founded on faith,…”

    What a strange faith that has core tenets that include the identification of things it cannot explain, and, regarding things it has explained is willing to challenge as possibly wrong and correct when the challenge is borne out! When was the last time you saw or even heard about any established religious doctrine being fundamentally changed with the acknowledgment that what was before, but is no more, was wrong all along? True religions, history shows, are quite impervious to admitting fundamental error (though, Jesus did concede such a point when it came to Moses’ allowance for divorce).

    Bob concludes, in part, saying this: “…the honey-trap of scientism—that which can be explained in a scientific, naturalistic mode is that which is to be believed, and nothing else.”

    Presumably believing that which can be explained in a scientific, naturalistic mode is okay (Bob, is after all, a physicist, so we can infer that on many topics his belief regarding some things was predicated on objective proof).

    So the issue really boils down to dis-believing in / an unwillingness to accept that which cannot be explained scientifically. What’s being driven at is the divine source for morality, a moral standard (“Poetic naturalism offers no support for a moral standard, and indeed, for any value system.”).

    Okay. So let’s get to details. No more of the sweeping generalizations that make us feel good without really getting into the things that matter.

    There are numerous irreconcilably contradictory “Christian” theologies/doctrines. All cannot possibly be true, by extension the version of “God” these doctrines depict (a verifiable panteon) likewise cannot all exist. Many/most “Christian” doctrines are false, and, the “God” of many “Christian” theologies/denominations do not exist.

    Bob K., here, misses a profound point; he argues at length why Carroll is wrong, but Carroll IS correct, mostly. The contemporary reality is there is a verifiable pantheon of competing Gods, with adherents asserting theirs exists and the others do not (though they don’t present it this way). Carroll rejects the entirety of the pantheon. If one believes in one True God, Carroll is only off by one (1).

    How does one identify the false doctrines and reject the false “Gods”, and, ferret out the true doctrine and True God?

    That is the contemporary issue.

    The contemporary situation is very comparable to the state of affairs in the 2nd century when Justin Martyr wrote his First Apology. There/then he noted (Chapter XXI, Analogies to the History of Christ), that the basic plot lines of the Jesus story aligned with then contemporary and familiar pagan myths (e.g. both Jesus & the sons of Jupiter were crucified, died and resurrected; etc.). J.M. asserted the Jesus story was true, the comparable pagan myths false. There were a LOT of such myths, and J.M. was rejecting all but one.

    Today, we’ve got a menagerie of diverse gods (with corresponding diversity of doctrines), all asserted to be the one true God; those based on a plethora of doctrines. That simply cannot be; too many heresies abound nowadays.

    The argument against science / “scientism” is rather silly when the real problem is identifying and rejecting heresy. The flip-side of selecting the truth.

    Even if one somehow does disprove the likes of Carroll — and establishes that Carroll is off by one [one God vs zero] — that doesn’t get one an iota closer to discriminating between the true and false doctrines, and by extension, to the True God from among the look-alike myths that nowadays abound.

    And that’s where the rebuttal fails — Bob & Briggs like to “preach to the choir” … but to those outside looking in, it’s not a God-vs-no-God issue, its a which God/doctrine is correct? When a bunch of false doctrines, and false Gods, are readily rejected (e.g. one can find plenty of rebuttals to Joel Osteen’s version of God) it’s a very small step to seeing the remaining God as being just another convenient fabrication. There’s really no way to tell’m apart!

    Contemporary Christian doctrinal diversity creates the essence for endorsing atheism. When all those doctrines and by extension all those Gods all cannot be correct, and they all look so alike, going from rejecting most to rejecting also that very last one is a very small easy step.

    If you are a genuine believer of a supreme deity, and you are acting as a missionary without working to identify and reject the false theological doctrines (as Paul [read his Epistles] as so many others [like Justin Martyr] spent the vast bulk of their effort doing), and instead are chipping away at the likes of Carroll, your inaction on the front where the battle is actually being waged is contributing to the demise of the faith — you are like the “Good Men” who “Do Nothing” Edmund Burke mentioned.

    If you get some to detour from rejecting “God” outright to instead embrace a nonexistent false “God” based on a flawed/heretical look-alike doctrine, what have you really accomplished?

    Missionary work is not for amateurs.

  5. “Scientism, the belief that science can explain everything about the world and ourselves, is a religion, although not formally expressed as such.”

    ‘Scientism’ is a meaningless strawman which you and Mr. Briggs are fond of mentioning but which has no connection to reality. Atheism isn’t a belief system, it’s a lack of belief in any gods due to a lack of any credible evidence.

    *

    “I believe there are serious flaws in Carroll’s arguments used to justify his non-belief, particularly in the two foundation stones for his thesis”

    We atheists don’t need to justify our non-belief with arguments. We just point out that there is no evidence for any gods and it is up to you to provide it.

    *

    (On arguments against free will and the existence of souls) “I’ll not respond specifically to any one of these, but will only say that were I to believe them, I could see no reason for living.”

    Just because you want to believe in these things so badly doesn’t mean they’re true. It does, however, illustrate your lack of objectivity.

    *

    “How can there be ethical standards or moral values if we are not free to make decisions about our conduct, if they are predetermined by physical laws?”

    Because pain still hurts? Seriously, I don’t understand why this is even a thing. Your own position is that people are free to choose to do evil but will then suffer eternal torture – how free a system is that?

    *

    “Carroll […] acknowledges that without God there is no absolute moral standard”

    There isn’t one with god either. Apart from the fact there are many gods, how do you know absolutely what god’s moral position is? There are numerous sets of commandments and moral positions outlined throughout the Bible, often in contradictory and confusing ways and many denominations who disagree with each other.

    But it’s an advantage that there isn’t an absolute moral code. Most people who have ever lived have higher moral standards than those of the God of the Bible, who condones rape, slavery and genocide.

    *

    “And here I think is where Carroll falls in to the honey-trap of scientism—that which can be explained in a scientific, naturalistic mode is that which is to be believed, and nothing else.”

    If you think only believing in things for which there’s credible evidence is a problem, why not believe in the Harry Potter universe or the flying spaghetti monster?

  6. The Noisyfish is still at it. I’d like to argue with Bob but there’s a red herring blaring in the foreground.

    [quote=poolfarts] Atheism isn’t a belief system, it’s a lack of belief in any gods due to a lack of any credible evidence.[/quote]

    Wrong again! Atheism is a belief system based on no credible evidence… credible evidence is automatically dismissed because it does not comply with its primary assumptions.

    Primary Assumptions include (but are not restricted to):
    ###Matter (stuff, and time, and space) generate themselves with no cause or purpose.
    ###Stuff proceeds toward its own physical perfection with no cause or purpose.
    ###Physical perfection is defined by what comes after is better than what was before.

    That’s enough for now. I don’t like the sea and I don’t like blaring noise.

  7. @ oldavid,

    “Atheism is a belief system based on no credible evidence”

    You are mistaken. Lack of belief isn’t a belief, in the same way that ‘no ice cream’ isn’t a flavour of ice cream. Look up ‘burden of proof’.

    The other things you mention have nothing to do with atheism, which I repeat is a lack of belief in any gods due to the lack of any credible evidence. It has nothing to do with evolution or the big bang.

  8. @ oldavid,

    No, I don’t “believe there is no god”, I disbelieve there is a god. These two claims are not the same.

  9. If you can wriggle in your self-imposed straight jacket then you’re not straight-jacketed….. right?

    How much kudos could I win in your academy of silly pretentions if I said “I disbelieve that a First Cause is not necessary” rather than “I believe that a First Cause is necessary”?

    No wonder Jesus lumped Scribes, Pharisees and Lawyers in the same basket of corruption.

  10. @ oldavid,

    “How much kudos could I win in your academy of silly pretentions if I said “I disbelieve that a First Cause is not necessary” rather than “I believe that a First Cause is necessary”?”

    Not much! The burden of proof is on the person making a positive claim – restating a claim as a double negative is just shirking responsibility.

    Think of a number between 1 and 10. That number must be either odd or even. You claim: “My number is odd.” If I reply: “I don’t believe your number is odd”, does that mean I believe your number is even?

  11. @Noisyfish
    “Not much! The burden of proof is on the person making a positive claim – restating a claim as a double negative is just shirking responsibility.”

    Yeeeessss. Now you apply that to your claims. You lot claim that Naturalistic empiricism can (or will) “explain” everything. Please explain how metaphysical concepts such as “proof” can be explained in purely positivist, subjectivist, relativist terms.

    cdquarles, this mob of ideologues care nothing for evidence or even “reasonable justification”. Harassment and sabotage are their ticket to political advancement. It’s a blardy tough job manning the battlements even while you’re being attacked from behind.

  12. @ Noisyfish
    “Think of a number between 1 and 10. That number must be either odd or even. You claim: “My number is odd.” If I reply: “I don’t believe your number is odd”, does that mean I believe your number is even?”

    If my number is odd your belief of anything contrary is irrational. I have never heard any such nonsense except coming from blardy ‘Masons trying to convince me that I would be much smarter if I was their idiot.

  13. @ cdquarles,

    “Well, Swordfish, in that case, where is your evidence that God does not exist, since you’re literally swimming in evidence that He Is.”

    If you mean the existence of the universe is evidence for god, I don’t accept your evidence. The existence of the universe is only evidence that the universe exists. Next.

  14. @ oldavid,

    “You lot claim that Naturalistic empiricism can (or will) “explain” everything. Please explain how metaphysical concepts such as “proof” can be explained in purely positivist, subjectivist, relativist terms.”

    I don’t make any such claim. It’s possible that naturalism may be able to explain everything but I don’t know if it can.

    *

    (Odd even question) “If my number is odd your belief of anything contrary is irrational.”

    I don’t know what your number is, I have only your claim to go on. Disbeliving your claim doesn’t imply anything else.

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