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Why Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture” Is Too Small

BigPicture-Banner

Physicist Sean Carroll has a high reputation in the scientific and atheist communities, and it's well-deserved. He's produced several acclaimed books on the philosophy of time, the Higgs Boson particle, and general relatively.

But none of his past books has been as daring or sweeping as his latest project, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Dutton, 2016). One reviewer for Nature began by stating, "I don't think I have ever read anything with a bigger ambition than The Big Picture." Just look at the subtitle!

Carroll doesn't hide his lofty ambitions. In one interview he suggested "the book should accompany the Gideons Bible in all hotel rooms in the world." In other words, he hopes this book rivals the impact of the most influential book in human history.

In the months before its release, blogs, forums, Facebook pages, and comment boxes buzzed with anticipation. The Big Picture launched as the #1 bestseller in several Amazon categories including Physics and Cosmology, and almost cracked the Top 100 of all books on Amazon.

Even before reading it, some christened it a manifesto for naturalism, the belief, often associated with atheism, that nothing exists beyond the natural world. Many envisioned the book as the definitive, scientific refutation of theism and/or supernaturalism. (In discussions here at Strange Notions, more than one commenter has confidently said, in effect, "....just wait until Sean Carroll's book comes out—he'll address that issue.")

It's easy to see why Carroll, an unbeliever who claims "almost all cosmologists are atheists," has become such an important figure for atheists. He's smart, articulate, funny, and has impressive scientific credentials.

Even as a theist, I like him a lot; he's one of my favorite atheist writers. First, he's irenic. When reading his books and blog, you rarely see the angry, boorish rhetoric found among many New Atheist writers. You sense Carroll is far more interested in facts than insulting people who disagree with him. (He's also one of the few theoretical cosmologists to have appeared on "The Colbert Report.")

Second, he writes with clarity and verve. Most scientific writing is boring, even for specialists. But Carroll's work sparkles with excitement, and he makes even the most difficult problems in theoretical physics graspable for laymen like me.

Third, he respects philosophy. While scientists like Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, and Neil deGrasse Tyson have suggested philosophy is dead, Carroll penned a viral article chiding their "lazy critiques" of philosophy. It's titled "Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy", and he affirms the principle that everyone does philosophy. But while some do it well, others do it badly—and some do it badly without even knowing it (the worst of all.)

Finally, Carroll has no animus against religion. He never suggests that religion is dangerous (ala Hitchens), abusive (ala Dawkins), or a sign of mental illness (ala Sam Harris.) As a naturalist, he thinks people who believe in God are wrong, of course, but he recognizes the positive ways that religion shapes people's lives. (In fact, as of writing this post, Carroll's latest blog entry is one praising the Catholic priest who formulated the Big Bang model. There's a notable absence of any science vs. religion rhetoric.)

Carroll first came on my radar a couple years ago when he debated William Lane Craig during the 2014 Greer Heard Forum. It was a spectacular exchange. The topic was "God and Cosmology: The Existence of God in Light of Contemporary Cosmology", and I thought Carroll handled himself better than any atheist who has ever shared the floor with Craig. (Although, in my view, Craig ably handled Carroll's objections and offered his own solid arguments, which Carroll failed to refute. Watch the debate on YouTube or check out the book based on the event, God and Cosmology: William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll in Dialogue.)

BigPicture-3DWith all that in mind, I was almost as eager as my atheist friends to read Carroll's new book. With a subtitle promising to explore life, meaning, and the universe itself, all from a naturalistic point of view, I was excited to learn about Carroll's "Big Picture."

But after reading the book—two times now—I'm left somewhat disappointed. Why?

The book is too small.

By that, I don't mean physically. At a hefty 470 pages with 50 chapters, it's not suffering for girth. But it's small in the sense of Hamlet's reply to Horatio: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Carroll believes just the opposite. He thinks there are fewer things, or fewer kinds of things, in heaven and earth (or in objective reality) than in most people's beliefs. Carroll is a reductionist.

This is evident from Carroll's master idea throughout the book, something he calls "poetic naturalism." This is the lens through which he views all other topics. In one sense, poetic naturalism is expansive, at least relative to traditional naturalism. It seeks to expand our understanding of the world by refusing to reduce all knowledge to a small set of fundamental stories (typically the stories told by fundamental physics.) On the other hand,  poetic naturalism is still reductive. As a form of naturalism, it precludes any supernatural explanations (or "stories," to use Carroll's language.) Thus, it's a small worldview, albeit a milder reductionism, offering a "small picture" of the world relative to the truly "Big Picture" offered by theism.

With his poetic naturalism framework in mind, Carroll divides The Big Picture into six parts:

  • Part 1 - Cosmos (aka cosmology)
  • Part 2 - Understanding (aka epistemology)
  • Part 3 - Essence (aka ontology)
  • Part 4 - Complexity (aka biology/evolution/teleology)
  • Part 5 - Thinking (aka consciousness)
  • Part 6 - Caring (aka morality)

In the book's Prologue, Carroll notes that he had two goals in writing the book: first to "explain the story of our universe and why we think it's true", second to "offer a bit of existential therapy...to face reality with a smile, and to make our lives into something valuable" (3).

It would take a whole book to fairly engage all the ideas in such a broad-reaching scope, but over the next few weeks I'll review a handful of important sections that should be especially interesting to Strange Notions readers.

Tomorrow we'll begin with Carroll's first chapter on "The Fundamental Nature of Reality" along with a deeper exploration of poetic naturalism. Stay tuned!

(PS. I'm hoping to get Sean here for an #AMA with Strange Notions readers. I know we'd get some great questions and answers. Hopefully we can make that happen!)

BigPicture-Amazon

Brandon Vogt

Written by

Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author, blogger, and speaker. He's also the founder of StrangeNotions.com. Brandon has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. He converted to Catholicism in 2008, and since then has released several books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), and RETURN (Numinous Books, 2015). He works as the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their five children in Central Florida. Follow him at BrandonVogt.com or connect through Twitter at @BrandonVogt.

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  • Doug Shaver

    A good intro, Brandon. Thanks for taking the time to do this. I got the book a couple of weeks ago and I'll be following right along.

    • "A good intro, Brandon. Thanks for taking the time to do this. I got the book a couple of weeks ago and I'll be following right along."

      Excellent, Doug! Can't wait to discuss it with you. Also, if you're interested in writing a full post (or several) on the book from your perspective, we'd be happy to feature it on the site.

      • Doug Shaver

        Thanks for the offer. I'll see how ambitious I'm feeling after getting further into it.

  • A lot of praise here, but there does seem to be a criticism of Carroll's worldview being small and reductionist. If there is a criticism on that basis I do not see what it would be.

    If indeed all reality can be described in terms of matter and energy, is there some problem with that? It is only reduced in that sense that theists reduce all of creation to God. Neither deny the reality of human experience. Indeed this would be the poetic naturalism take. That the cosmos is full of ineffable experience beauty, feeling, meaning, even if these are ultimately a function of natural forces. By the same token theists believe it is all ultimately a function of God.

    The fact that the view is small is a feature not a flaw. It is a metaphysic that seeks to describe reality with only that which is required. Needless to say the big debate is whether any supernatural, deity, or immaterial aspect of reality is required.

    Also, as expect is quite obvious, if the worldview is small and reductionist, this tells us nothing about how accurate it is.

    • "A lot of praise here, but there does seem to be a criticism of Carroll's worldview being small and reductionist. If there is a criticism on that basis I do not see what it would be."

      This is just the intro, as noted in the original post. I have over ten posts on the book scheduled to run over the next few weeks.

      "If indeed all reality can be described in terms of matter and energy, is there some problem with that?"

      Not if you put it that way, but that formulation begs the question. It presumes that all of reality can be described in terms of matter and energy. I doubt that assumption, but it's one that Carroll shares with you.

      "The fact that the view is small is a feature not a flaw."

      I agree with that assuming that the view under consideration adequately explains and accounts for all of reality. This is essentially Occam's Razor--all things being equal, the simplest explanation should be preferred. If several worldviews adequately capture reality, then I would agree that a view's "smallness" would be a feature that lifts it above the alternatives.

      However, smallness isn't always a feature. Sometimes it's a flaw. I think that's the case with "poetic naturalism". I don't think it adequately explains many features of the world (e.g., the existence of a contingent universe, its apparent fine-tuning, human free will, conscious experience, objective moral facts, the intelligibility of the world, etc.). And in this case, its smallness is to blame. It's because naturalism is presumed, and theistic beliefs are precluded, that poetic naturalism comes up short.

      "Needless to say the big debate is whether any supernatural, deity, or immaterial aspect of reality is required."

      I'm not sure that's exactly how I would phrase the central question, because it assumes we all agree on the data that requires explanation. Yet we clearly don't. Thus I would say instead, "The big debate is whether any supernatural, deity, or immaterial aspect of reality exists."

      "Also, as expect is quite obvious, if the worldview is small and reductionist, this tells us nothing about how accurate it is."

      Of course not. But it shows how limiting it is.

      • Essentially I understand your point in this piece as saying that a worldview that excludes the supernatural is limiting and narrow and fails to appreciate the fullness of the world.

        That is fine, if you are correct, you are correct! The converse is true, if naturalism is the case, theists and supernaturalists are employing time and making inferences that are a waste of time at best and cost lives at worst.

        One distinction I hope you recognize going forward is that the naturalist position need not exclude supernatural explanations or refuse to entertain these arguments. It need only be a conclusion that belief in the supernatural is unjustified. It seems from you comments that you assume the metaphysical naturalist is like the methodological naturalist and cannot even entertain the possibility of supernatural explanations.

    • A lot of praise here, but there does seem to be a criticism of Carroll's worldview being small and reductionist. If there is a criticism on that basis I do not see what it would be.

      You've never come across a cogent criticism of reductionism? I'll give you a simple example. There was a lot of fuss about particle trajectories and thermodynamics; why must entropy decrease? This was reductionistic: it was thought that we must think in terms of individual particles and their states. As it turns out, there is a non-reductionistic way to model this, as Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine explains:

          Is this difficulty merely a practical one? Yes, if we consider that trajectories have now become uncomputable. But there is more: Probability distribution permits us to incorporate within the framework of the dynamical description the complex microstructure of the phase space. It therefore contains additional information that is lacking at the level of individual trajectories. As we shall see in Chapter 4, this has fundamental consequences. At the level of distribution functions ρ, we obtain a new dynamical description that permits us to predict the future evolution of the ensemble, including characteristic time scales. (The End of Certainty, 37)

      In other words, there is physical state which is not contained at the reductionistic level of individual trajectories. David Bohm, who probably should have gotten a Nobel Prize for the Aharonov–Bohm effect, talks about how quantum theory eviscerated the mechanical philosophy; here's how that scientific trajectory ended:

          Indeed, when this interpretation is extended to field theories,[7] not only the inter-relationships of the parts, but also their very existence is seen to flow out of the law of the whole. There is therefore nothing left of the classical scheme, in which the whole is derived from pre-existent parts related in pre-determined ways. Rather, what we have is reminiscent of the relationship of whole and parts in an organism, in which each organ grows and sustains itself in a way that depends crucially on the whole. (Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, xi)

      That note about "the whole is derived from pre-existent parts related in pre-determined ways"? That's reductionism. Now, there are local interpretations of QM if one abandons counterfactual definiteness; Bohm is going off of the de Broglie–Bohm theory and later in the book, says that the choice between determinism and lawless randomness is philosophical, not scientific (44).

      Switching from the hard to soft sciences, Charles Taylor's 1971 Interpretation and the Sciences of Man (2100 'citations') can be seen as a criticism of reductionism when it comes to political science. In the twentieth century, and perhaps bleeding into the twenty-first, there has been a temptation to take one of two views: (i) individuals are the only actors in society, with everything else reducing to them; (ii) society is the only actor, with individuals passively following their programming. This is reductionistic, atomistic, and mechanical. It mirrors the idea that there are laws of nature which govern particles, with nothing [active] in between. Taylor makes a compelling case that this is a terrible way to think about social reality. There are intermediate stages which can exhibit upward and downward causation. But Carroll denies downward causation.

      I could quote more about anti-reductionism in the social sciences if you'd like; do you need more convincing that there is a case to be made against reductionism?

      • I think what you have laid out is a great criticism of what I would label methodological reductionism. This would be the idea of wrongfully limiting hypotheses. I agree that this is unreasonable.

        Your post has made me think quite a bit, thanks.

        • You're welcome. Note that a trouble with criticizing a dominant view (such as reductionism) is that usually such views are really good, in some domains. They really do work well. But this working well can all too easily be misconstrued to indicate absolute truth. This is especially the case if the vast majority of resources and human time are put forth to support the dominant view. In that case, the volume and sophistication of alternatives will almost necessarily be weak, in comparison. But this weakness is ambiguous: is it because the alternative is bad, or because it simply doesn't have that much money or human energy behind it?

          What I'd like to do is study more just what reductionism denies—how can it be falsified? All too often, I find that conditions presented for falsification are lame in one way or another. For example, something really far away from human experience is given as a possible falsification. This is entirely opposed to Karl Popper's notion of falsification, where a properly scientific theory makes extraordinarily precise predictions, such that even the smallest of deviation throws the theory into doubt. F = GmM/r^2 would be disproven by showing that F = GmM/r^2.001. Where is the precision in explanation for what reductionism can, and cannot, explain? I just haven't seen it. But I could probably do a better job of looking, or hope someone drops by one of my comment and gives me a leaf, Super Mario Bros III-style. :-)

          P.S. Two more resources are Massimo Pigliucci's Essays on emergence, part I and Robert Rosen's Life Itself. The former is short enough to not need an intro; the latter is a book by a mathematical biologist attempting to quite rigorously identify the mathematical straitjacket which is imposed when we insist on modeling systems via differential and partial differential equations. I'm not yet willing to say that he criticizes reductionism per say, although he most definitely criticizes mechanism as an all-encompassing explanatory tool.

  • G_Macdonald

    Another Thomist has also been reviewing Carroll's book. I think he has three parts so far, beginning here: https://christian-agnostic.blogspot.com/2016/05/a-review-of-sean-carrolls-big-picture.html

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    In one interview he suggested "the book should accompany the Gideons Bible in all hotel rooms in the world." In other words, he hopes this book
    rivals the impact of the most influential book in human history.

    I think, in context, that statement was made as a bit of a joke. He follows it with a more serious and, in his mind, a "better achievement" that is a bit more toned down. From that interview, in context:

    Your book, The Big Picture, roams far beyond cosmology and physics, into consciousness, philosophy and the meaning of life. What do you hope to achieve?
    Well, this is the book that should accompany the Gideons Bible in all
    hotel rooms in the world – that would be a nice achievement!

    Seriously, I think a better achievement would be if it’s read by some
    people who were curious but hadn’t made up their minds about how the
    world works at a fundamental level. They could read a book like this and
    think, “Yes, this picture does kind of hold together, I should think
    about it more deeply and learn more about it”.

  • Sample1

    Finally, Carroll has no animus against religion. He never suggests that
    religion is dangerous (ala Hitchens), abusive (ala Dawkins), or a sign
    of mental illness (ala Sam Harris.)

    In Catholicism there are many flavors: nuns who want certain privileges, laity who want condoms accepted, and on and on. It should be no surprise that within the atheist community there are those of many flavors too. That Vogt found an atheist to his liking is a feature of our movement not a bug, though I'm not sure he's suggesting it is the latter. Still, glad that Vogt found an atheist (Carroll doesn't believe in gods) he seems to like and a SN#AMA would be interesting.

    Mike, faith-free
    Edit finished

    • Peter

      That Vogt found an atheist to his liking is a feature of our movement not a bug

      Atheism a movement? I thought it was just a lack of belief in gods?

      • Atheism itself is a lack of belief in gods (at minimum). There is also an atheist movement, which he references. Obviously they have overlap, though not all atheists are part of the movement.

    • Mike

      Mike, faith-free. Sounds like you don't have faith in anything.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    naturalism, the belief ... that nothing exists beyond the natural world.

    Well, except for mathematics. And universals. (This dog exists in the natural world, and that dog exists in the natural world, but where exactly is dog, as such?) Notice also that we must assume two things:

    a) existence: something that if it could talk could say of itself "I am what is"; and

    b) a natural world: this cannot be shown by natural science because to present "empirical" evidence, we are already assuming the natural world is out there. It is unlear if by "natural" we are to include the "artificial," i.e., things devised by intelligence, such as toaster ovens, hammocks, and the remote control.

    He's also one of the few theoretical cosmologists to have appeared on "The Colbert Report."

    Interestingly enough, Colbert also guested Br. Guy Consomagno, SJ, the Vatican astronomer who first suggested the possibility of an ocean below Europa's ice.

    If indeed all reality can be described in terms of matter and energy, is there some problem with that?

    Just that matter and energy can be reduced to energy, simpliciter, matter being a form of 'frozen' energy. But it is a mistake to assume that all of reality describable by the methods of natural science is the same thing as all of reality, full stop. As Einstein told Heisenberg once, "Theory determines what can be observed," a comment which Heisenberg said changed his life. Heisenberg himself went on to say in Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." Or more pithily among engineers, "If the only tool you permit yourself to use is a hammer, everything will look like a nail."

    It is only reduced in that sense that theists reduce all of creation to God.

    No, that is in a different sense. God is deduced to be that entity whose existence is his essence; that is, he is existence itself. Reducing all of creation to Existence Itself doesn't seem startling, but it is not a "how" sort of explanation; that is, not a material cause.

    this would be the poetic naturalism take. That the cosmos is full of ineffable experience beauty, feeling, meaning

    One of the markers of the Post Modern Age is the gradual replacement of "I feel that..." with "I think that..." People begin to base arguments on their feelings rather than their thoughts; which is to say, they do not present arguments at all.

    This is essentially Occam's Razor--all things being equal, the simplest explanation should be preferred.

    Actually, Aristotle said that. So did Aquinas. (His second objection to the existence of God is:
    "Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God's existence."

    Ockham's gloss on the Principle of Parsimony is that we should keep our explanations of things simple because then we might not understand our own explanations. (In modern lingo: if you have too many terms in your model, you won't be able to understand your model.) The real world, he said, might be as complex as God wills, but we would get lost in our models if we tried to capture all of it. Even in physics we make simplifying assumptions like frictionless surfaces, absolute vacuums, perfectly elastic collisions, and so on. Hence, those dealing with the metric properties of material bodies no more need additional tools than a pastry chef needs Darwin's Theory of Evolution or an auto mechanic needs cosmology.

    The error sometimes committed is to suppose that those aspects of reality that are transparent to one's method of questioning do not then exist at all. That's like limiting your toolkit to metal detectors, and then declaring that wood does not exist.

    Regarding Carroll v. Craig, this is an interesting take:

    https://thomism.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/sean-carrolls-refutation-of-william-lane-craig/

    • GCBill

      Since your comment mixes quotes from BV and BGA, it would help readers if you clarified who is saying what.

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        It is only what is said that matters, not who said it.

        • Doug Shaver

          It is only what is said that matters, not who said it.

          If that were strictly true, plagiarism would be ethically unobjectionable.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Only if one claims to be the author, as Joe Biden back in the day. Or if in an academic journal one requires traceability or argument from authority. Though in fact one who has deeply read in a field may find certain phrases and modes of expression bobbing to the surface of the mind without realizing where they have come from, as happened to a Princeton professor some years ago.
            (This is especially true of cliches and other forms of automatic writing:

            “When a man … swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” -- Numbers 30:2

            “His word is his parchment.” -- Joseph Hall, 1608, characterizing “the honest man”:

            "dictum meum pactum (my word is my bond)" -- motto of the London Stock Exchange, 1801

            “Let it be said of you, ‘Your word is your bond.’ ” -- Admonitory Epistle from a Governess to her Late Pupils, 1842.

            But in an internet comm box? Pfui. I prefer ad argumentum to ad hominem.

          • Doug Shaver

            Only if one claims to be the author, as Joe Biden back in the day.

            I see. So there is nothing wrong with failing to give the author credit, just as long as you don't try to take the credit for yourself?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Like I said, it depends on the context. If someone expresses a thought in an especially clever way, I would mention who said it. I keep a file of such "quotes of the day." But if it's just one more repetition of the same question or misapprehension, why accuse the source of being unoriginal or plagiarizing from Nietzsche (or whomever)? In a general comment as the one I initially made, I will often combine thoughts found in several places rather than post repeatedly. But if responding directly to an individual, I generally will not.

            I've been taken to task on some of these boards for citing authors too often, so go figure. Do we really need to say, "As the Epistle from a Governess put it, 'Your word is your bond'"? Or "As Luther once said, 'Here I stand!" The phrases have become a commonplace. After invading southern Greece and conquering other city-states, Phillip of Macedon sent a message to Sparta saying, "If I invade Laconia, you will be destroyed, never to rise again." The Spartans replied, "If." But surely, we need not write, "As the Spartan ephors once said to Phillip, 'If', every time we use the conditional preposition.

          • Doug Shaver

            I don't know which of your posts Bill was responding to, but I'm getting the feeling now that you're evading the issue he was raising.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Heck, I don't know either. It had to be my original post which commented on several points raised by different people. Someone wanted to know which people stated which thing, and I said it didn't matter because I was commenting on the substance of the statements. I didn't think there was a copyright involved at all.

          • Doug Shaver

            I don't think anybody suggested that you were infringing anyone's copyright.

            You can take a statement off of my website, pair it with another statement out of one of Richard Dawkins' books, and comment on both of them if they're both relevant to some point you're trying to make. There won't be a copyright issue if you make it obvious that they're not your own ideas. And of course our personal identities are irrelevant to the intellectual merits of whatever we say. It's still a fact that I didn't say what he said, and he didn't say what I said, and that fact is not so trivial as to justify your simply ignoring it. I might possibly be flattered by your apparent inability to distinguish between Dawkins and me, but I suspect he wouldn't like it at all.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            a) Then why all the wooling over "plagiarism"?

            b) I don't believe that I suggested that the author of one excerpt was responsible for the thoughts in the other. That's another reason I often ignore the source for these purposes.

          • Doug Shaver

            Then why all the wooling over "plagiarism"?

            My point in mentioning it was merely to note that if actual authorship was always an irrelevancy, then there could be no reason to object to plagiarism.

            I don't believe that I suggested that the author of one excerpt was responsible for the thoughts in the other.

            If that is your defense, then Bill will have to address it himself, if he wishes to.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I don't recall saying "always," either. In fact, the opposite.

          • Doug Shaver

            I don't recall saying "always," either. In fact, the opposite.

            My remark about plagiarism was in response to this statement of yours:

            It is only what is said that matters, not who said it.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Ah, so you confused responding to ephemeral comments in a blog comm box with some sort of actual publishing! Surely, you could gloss the statement to account for the fact that I blockquoted or italicized a statement to show that it was not mine, but that on which I wished to comment, without the tiresome necessity of looking around the box. It's not as if the comments were original in themselves.

            Is there a playbook in which it instructs folks to find some irrelevancy and harp on it as if it were important?

          • Doug Shaver

            Is there a playbook in which it instructs folks to find some irrelevancy and harp on it as if it were important?

            Is there one that makes you the sole arbiter of relevance?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Is there a playbook in which it instructs folks to find some irrelevancy and harp on it as if it were important?

            Is there one that makes you the sole arbiter of relevance?

            Ah. Apparently there is.

            Now we roam even further afield and discuss where I claimed to be the sole anything, and you can explain why the unsourced quote you cited is not "plagiarism."

    • Help me understand-

      "but where exactly is dog"

      If biology can explain why a species* shares features, and neuroscience and psychology can explain how our minds can hold a concept that roughly matches said species, then I don't see a need for what you're proposing.

      *also a concept held in minds as nature doesn't always have rigid demarcations. Even in this dog example, dogs can still interbreed with wolves, is dog/wolf a universal too? I can differentiate a chihuahua from a mastiff, are those universals as well? I only know they're both "dog" because we know so much about their biology, it likely wouldn't be clear in the fossil record that these were an interbreeding species if that's all we had to go by.

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        Of what "matter and energy" is dog made, if every thing is made of mass-energy? Whatever is material exists in some place -- this is one of the properties that Galileo and the other revolutionaries called "objective" and as Buckaroo Banzai said, "everybody got to be somewhere." So where is dog?

        Neuroscience can only explain how a concept makes a footprint in the brain's circuitry -- maybe, but fMRI apparently is less than at first believed -- but concepts as such are still immaterial. What the brain holds is an image (visual, auditory, whatever) and the imagination is always particular. Imagine a bird and (if you are NW European) you will picture a robin or perhaps a sparrow. In any case, the brain is imaging a particular bird and not bird as such. So while the percept may be in the brain (in everybody's brain? How can a physical thing be in more than one place at the same time?) the concept cannot be. One has two options:
        a) there are things in the world that are real but not material or
        b) things like dog or chair are not real.

        But if b), Carroll says that our models are true insofar as they are useful and they are useful insofar as they match reality. But this requires that there be a reality that is not merely a "story." IOW, there really is some reality to which dog "matches." Otherwise, there is only Fido, Rover, Spot, et al. and a science of dog is impossible.
        (Truth→usefulness→'matches reality' is also circular, since a proposition is always 'true to something,' and in natural science that is usually 'true to the facts,' i.e., to reality.)

        Interfertility is a poor criterion for "species" (which are only one kind of universal). It does not apply to most plants or to fungi or to bacteria, etc. And, given "ring species" and spotted owls, is problematic even for animal-centrics.

        Certainly, various breeds are also universals, as are higher order abstractions like wolf-dog or even dogbear, and so on up. But of dog itself is an immaterial entity, how much more so canine?

        • Of what "matter and energy" is dog made...So where is dog

          Brains, the matter that composes brains, of anyone who has learned this concept

          but concepts as such are still immaterial.

          I hold that they are energy patterns in material brains, they wouldn't exist without brains. The concept is a map, the object is the territory. The object would exist without minds, but the map wouldn't.

          the brain is imaging a particular bird and not bird as such

          That's a good hint at how our brains organize ontological concepts, Pascal Boyer's book "Religion Explained" details some interesting research about this subject

          (in everybody's brain? How can a physical thing be in more than one place at the same time?)

          We each have a "copy" and no, they don't always match, as you rightly point out. I would say that severely undermines the fact that they're the same thing- a biologist might have a much richer concept of dog than I do.

          David's question on species is more interesting than anything I could add, forms and essences of living creatures seem to quickly fall apart in the face of evolution.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Of what "matter and energy" is dog made...So where is dog?
            Brains, the matter that composes brains, of anyone who has learned this concept

            So there is something in our brains that is hairy and four-legged with fangs? Methinks you are fudging a bit on "physical." Besides, brains handle percepts, not concepts.

            I hold that they are energy patterns in material brains, they wouldn't exist without brains.

            So they are made of mystical woo-woo stuff? Patterns are also immaterial. (In fact, they are a kind of form.) If I take four apples and arrange them in the pattern of a square, I do not suddenly have five things: apple, apple, apple, apple, and square.

            the brain is imaging a particular bird and not bird as such
            That's a good hint at how our brains organize ontological concepts

            It's also a good hint that the intellect cannot be reduced to the imagination.

            How can a physical thing be in more than one place at the same time?
            We each have a "copy" and no, they don't always match, as you rightly point out. I would say that severely undermines the fact that they're the same thing- a biologist might have a much richer concept of dog than I do.

            He would certainly have a more biological concept of dog. However, we seldom seem to experience problems understanding the same thing, even if we each have different details in understanding. Otherwise, communication would be impossible. But I am curious how these "copies" come about. Where is the original master copy?
            "One and the same grape. The farmer, the connaisseur, the chemist, the poet and the broker all have an exact knowledge of what it is. How would it be desirable, necessary, or even conceivable to know even grapes by a single universal method or system?" -- James Chastek

            forms and essences of living creatures seem to quickly fall apart in the face of evolution.

            Heck, so do scientific definitions. But once you realize that the forms and essences (essences are simply one kind of form) apply to individuals, but are abstracted to universals it is much easier. The form of a biological species or some other kind like dog is an abstraction from the forms of individuals like Fido, Rover, and Spot. Individuals don't evolve. Evolution is nothing more than the transformation of one form of animal into another form of animal, as when dogbears evolved to become dogs at one end of their range and bears at the other. How can you change forms if you have no forms?

          • So there is something in our brains that is hairy and four-legged with fangs?

            Not anymore than the .jpgs from my beach trip are wet

            The form of a biological species or some other kind like dog is an abstraction

            I totally agree, I just don't think it exists "out there".

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            The form of a biological species or some other kind like dog is an abstraction

            I totally agree, I just don't think it exists "out there".

            Then what's it abstracted from? Sean Carroll says that the truth of a theory depends on how closely it matches reality. But if dog is not a feature of the real world, you have just relegated all of biology to the realm of Platonic ideals.

            (Aside: It occurs to me how earthy and manual so many terms about thinking are. We 'grasp' concepts that we have 'abstracted' (that is, 'reached in and pulled out'). We 'touch' on various topics.)

            A statue of a dog is not dog. A photograph of a dog is not dog. A recording of a dog is not dog. But a shifting and inconstant "neural pattern" is dog? I'm not sure I would promote the imagination to quite that high a status. Besides, I am a fan of natural science and idealism of Plato and Berkeley and the rest of the it's-all-in-yer-head crowd always struck me as undermining science.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            It occurs to me how earthy and manual so many terms about thinking are.

            And when we analyze the structure of our language in the most general and abstract terms, we "subjects" speak of "objects" that are "thrown in our way".

            If metaphor isn't our most basic and primary mode of knowledge, I don't know what is.

          • In The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language, Mark Turner argues that a certain kind of story is more basic than language and, I think, metaphor. This would match with what I recently heard Rod Dreher (of the Benedict Option) claim:

            When I was researching my book I found that neuroscientists have discovered now that when subjects are presented with certain propositional truths in the form of non-fiction essay, and then they're presented the same truths in the form of narrative fiction, their brains light up in much different ways when they read it fiction as opposed to non-fiction. In fact, when you're reading about someone walking, for example, and you're reading about it in a story, the part of your brain that lights up when you walk also lights up. So in a real way, art and fiction incarnate these propositions. ("How Dante Can Save Our Lives", 54:36)

            The "all stories are false" movement is pretty ironic if Turner's model is true.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            This isn't apposite to your point, but I have to say I was more than a little disappointed with How Dante Can Save Our Lives. I think could have more appropriately been titled, How the Sort of Whiny and Self-Indulgent Confessions of Rod Dreher Can Save Your Life, Peppered With Occasional Quotes from Dante. I didn't finish it.

            Nonetheless, I agree with him on the point that you excerpted :-)

          • Interesting! Well, the video version was pretty good IMO, but perhaps that is because it was more pamphlet-length than book-length. I think many books ought to be pamphlets. The video made for good watching while I was doing chores, and now I know a lot more about the Divine Comedy than I did before! (I am uncultured swine.)

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            I just watched a few minutes of the video. He seems like a pretty good dude, and his own life really does make for a good story. I think I just came to the book with the wrong expectations, and all because of the title. I should have realized that he is not a Dante scholar, and so it is not surprising that the book should be more about Dreher, and less about the subtleties of Dante's thought and language. Maybe I'll give it another shot sometime.

          • Go ahead, but I'm in no way endorsing the book, as I haven't read it. I only recently found out about Dreher via Leah Libresco, who blogged about the Benedict Option and noted that Dreher had coined the term (but riffing heavily on MacIntyre).

          • Will

            Besides, brains handle percepts, not concepts.

            Why do Alzheimer patients forget concepts? How does a neurological illness of the brain affect concepts if the brain does not handle them?

            Henry Molaison had his hippocampus and other parts of his brain removed to alleviate a neurological disorder. Afterward he was unable to learn, or even come up with new concepts. All that changed was his brain.

            It seems to me that the idea that the brain does not handle concepts is a testable, scientific hypothesis...it tests false.

            You can argue that there is more to the concept than what is encoded in an individual brain, of course, but that gets messy as different minds can understand the concept in different ways. For example, the dogs I have had (particulars) spring to mind when I think of the universal "dog" and I'm fairly certain different particulars and instantiations spring to your mind from the universal. I think Aristotle was right, only the particular instantiations exist, the universal does not.

            In Aristotle's view, universals exist only where they are instantiated; they exist only in things. It is said they exist in re, which means "in things"), never apart from things. Furthermore, Aristotle said that a universal is identical in each of its instances. So all red things are similar in that there irs the same universal, redness, in each thing. There is no Platonic Form of Redness, standing apart from all red things; instead, each red thing has a copy of the same property, redness.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aristotle%27s_theory_of_universals

            I can help but think you are channeling platonic forms here.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            But that is largely because we confuse perception with conception and the imagination with the intellect. Naturally, if you mess with the input/output channels it becomes almost impossible to communicate For example, if you rip out someone's tongue, he can no longer speak; but that does not mean that language resides in the tongue muscles.

            Since every act of the intellect is accompanied by an act of the imagination -- you cannot conceive of dog without mentally picturing a dog of some kind -- and the imagination is seated in the brain, there cannot help but be some effect. In the hylomorphic model, the soma (body, matter) and the psyche (soul, form) are one substance. So what affects one will affect the other.

          • you cannot conceive of dog without mentally picturing a dog of some kind

            Incidentally, this is empirically false. About 2% of the sighted population has no mental imagery whatsoever. The neurological reason is still unknown.

            Equally interesting but not relevant: some congenitally blind people do have mental imagery. (There are differences that you'd expect based on the fact the images are constructed via touch rather than vision. For example, when they imagine objects at a distance, their mental images are not imagined as smaller.)

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Yes, the imagination is not exclusively visual. Sometimes the image is primarily auditory (e.g., the sound of a word) or tactile; though, since it serves the common sense: i.e., it is typically a unification of all the sense impressions: we imagine not just the color of the apple (if we have sensed it) but also the taste of it, the crisp sound it makes when we bite into it, the aroma, the smoothness, etc. And more importantly, the red we see and the smoothness we feel are part of the same thing.* The function of the image-ination is to form some sort of mental thing -- it used to be called the ymago or the phantasm -- so that the mind could deal with it even when the immediate sensations were no longer present. It is related to, but distinct from, the memory. The memory is less precise than the imagination, and the imagination is less precise than sensation. You can demonstrate this by sensing a maple tree, imagining a maple tree, and remembering the last maple tree you saw. The imagination can even combine ymagos and imagine things never seen, such as centaurs, blemyae, and unicorns.

            (*) same thing. Remarkable when you think of it. Not only do these sensations arrive at different regions in the brain, but they do so at different times. Something must unify them, and that is the common sense.

          • Yes, the imagination is not exclusively visual.

            Regarding the people I was referring to with no mental imagery - it's not just a lack of visuals. They cannot imagine sights, sounds, scents, textures, emotions, pains, pleasures, or any mental state that is not immediately present in their senses. You might say they have no imagination, but that suggests wrong things like a lack of creativity. More accurately, they have no qualia except sensation. Their memories are factual, not sensory. They are often excellent at language, strategy, mathematics, and related tasks - but bad at art, poetry, navigation, and related tasks.

            It's kind of a fun thing to talk to other people about. It's a subject in which people are MASSIVELY biased by presuming everyone else has an inner life similar to themselves, but are merely describing it differently or misunderstanding the issue. But really, the research (fMRIs nowadays, but stretching back to surveys by Galton) strongly supports that people are telling the truth about the diversity of types of mental life.

        • David Nickol

          Of what "matter and energy" is dog made, if every thing is made of mass-energy?

          If dog is an immaterial entity, of what is it and other immaterial entities made? Spirit? If immaterial entities exist apart from the minds of men, where and how do they exist?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            If dog is an immaterial entity, of what is it and other immaterial entities made?

            They would appear to have mental existence, but they are abstracted from something real in the perceived world. Asking what material comprises an immaterial entity indicated how deeply immersed we are in 18th century thinking.

          • David Nickol

            The question was what immaterial entities like dog are made of, not what material they are made of. Can an entity exist that is made of nothing? Weren't Platonic forms real (in fact, realer than real)?

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            The material cause of a thing just is what the thing is made of. If you prefer, we can take a delightful phrase from the Underground Grammarian, and speak of a world in which dogs are made of discourse rather than of flesh and bone.

            Plato was an idealist and held that the Forms existed in a world that was neither purely physical nor purely mental. Aristotle had a different, though still realist view of the universals. There is some discussion here:
            http://alexanderpruss.com/papers/Forms.html

          • Concepts can have material substrates but not be reducible to those substrates; see for example multiple realizability. For example, one requirement for digital electronics to work is that the analog features of the substrate be 'quieted', so that they are no longer relevant. This is required for certain causal laws to obtain at an emergent level. We know here that the substrate isn't the defining aspect of features at the emergent level, because there can be different substrates which represent the same feature, or different organizations of a given substrate which represents the same feature. The similarity here simply isn't based on that which is material.

          • David Nickol

            Thank you and Ye Olde Statistician for the links. I would rather, though, get attempted answers (no matter how oversimplified) to my simple (minded?) questions.

          • I gave a basic-level notion of multiple realizability in the text. The point is that what makes a specific configuration of a substrate the concept C is not the specific configuration. That means what makes it concept C would not seem to be material.

          • Will

            Even though some thing is multiply realizable, it doesn't exist without the substrate it is realized in. It is also clear that concepts aren't realized in exactly the same way in different human brains. Surely someone who tries to talk philosophy on the internet knows that fact first hand. One is lucky to even agree on a definition of a concept, much less how to interpret that definition ;)

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            I would rather, though, get attempted answers (no matter how oversimplified) to my simple (minded?) questions.
            I take it you regard the previous answers as insufficient. Yet, "simple" answers to complex questions often create greater confusion, especially so when they assume a background metaphysic that is no longer fashionable. One then reacts to the details omitted by the simplification. For example:

            The question was what immaterial entities like dog are made of

            That is asking what matter a generic form is made of. Suppose we had considered basketballs, soccer balls, baseballs, cannonballs, etc. and said they were all [imperfect] instantiations in matter of the immaterial "sphere". Would it even make sense to ask of what matter "sphere" is made?

            Can an entity exist that is made of nothing?

            I doubt it.

            Weren't Platonic forms real (in fact, realer than real)?

            And Plato made a good argument for them. But Aristotelian forms, as noted in the link previously given are not the same kettle of fish. However, if you are interested in a Platonic approach, there is an excellent explanation of the Allegory of the Cave here:

            https://lastedenblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/28/platos-cave-image-god-and-the-atheist/

        • arensb

          One has two options:
          a) there are things in the world that are real but not material or
          b) things like dog or chair are not real.

          How does software fit into this scheme? Something like GMail or Excel is undoubtedly useful, and "real" in the sense that people get upset when they're not working, and people are willing to spend big money to protect their software against theft, but software isn't made of atoms. Yes, it runs on machines made out of atoms, but the software is more abstract than that.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            Software is a nice model of a vital form. Like all forms, it is embodied in some matter, such as a sheet of programming code or a tape or bits on a disc, et al., just 'dog' can be embodied in Fido, Rover, Spot, et al. As the medievals said, 'There is no white without a white thing.' Too bad the vitalists did not have example handy during the great vitalist-mechanist debates of the last century.

          • arensb

            So which of your options do you choose? Is (a) software real but not material, or (b) dogs and chairs aren't real? I assume (a), but you didn't say.

          • Ye Olde Statistician

            (a)

    • Will

      Ockham's gloss on the Principle of Parsimony is that we should keep our explanations of things simple because then we might not understand our own explanations.

      Here's the equivalent from computer science, just for fun:

      “Everyone knows that debugging is twice as hard as writing a program in the first place. So if you're as clever as you can be when you write it, how will you ever debug it?”
      ― Brian W. Kernighan

    • David Nickol

      And universals. (This dog exists in the natural world, and that dog exists in the natural world, but where exactly is dog, as such?)

      Has "dog" always existed? If not, when did it come into existence? If "dog," "elephant," "spirochete," "amoeba," "dinosaur," and "bird" always existed, is evolution a matter of populating preexisting categories?

      • Ye Olde Statistician

        Probably not. As Aristotle said, "Nothing is in the mind that is not first in the senses." Abstracted entities are abstracted from something. The point is that dog is not a physical entity like Fido or Spot, and there are things in the world that ate not physical.

        OTOH, there are certainly types or kinds that exist regardless whether we know of them (and hence have a name for them) or not. There were horses (and hence the universal horse) even when Choctaw Indians had never seen one. When they did, they immediately recognized it as a distinct kind of animal and gave it a neologism: issoba derived from issi (deer) and holba (is like). They also grasped that horses and deer were related (both are ungulates).

        Something else may indicate you are on to something: convergent evolution. That is, different lineages seem to evolve toward the same forms. For example, something like rodents evolved three separate times, once as a mammal-like reptile (tritylodonts) and twice as orders of mammals (multituberculates and 'true' rodents). Thus, a similar line-up of critters seems to appear even if the specific details like tooth shape differ.

    • neil_pogi

      'energy' always exist, atheists can't prove that energy is a natural phenomenon. when this 'energy' begins to create, it created laws, the universe and life. in essense this energy is actually the 'intelligent energy' that is responsible for all things that exist

  • Will

    Almost by definition, the naturalist thinks the supernaturalist's ontology is too big, and vice versa, so no surprise there. Interested in upcoming posts, thanks for taking the time to review this book (saving disagreements for then).

    • Michael Murray

      Except maybe Feynman who had it the other way. Of course perhaps a stage is not an ontology !

      It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.

      Unfortunately I can't comment on the book as due to the vagaries of Australian parallel importation rules I can't get it until August 22.

      • Will

        Except maybe Feynman who had it the other way. Of course perhaps a stage is not an ontology !

        I agree with Feynman that the reductive picture of science only adds to the holistic narrative of normal experience and aesthetics, but Feynman would probably be with us on keeping gods, angels, ghosts, and demons out of our ontology ;)

        Unfortunately I can't comment on the book as due to the vagaries of Australian parallel importation rules I can't get it until August 22.

        That's annoying. What is there some competing Aussie book they are trying to protect?

        • Michael Murray

          People claim these laws are protecting the local book selling / publishing industry and by extension local authors and readers. At least that is the argument.

      • "Unfortunately I can't comment on the book as due to the vagaries of Australian parallel importation rules I can't get it until August 22."

        Wow! Hadn't heard about those rules before. Bummer! Does that typically apply to all new/bestselling books?

        • Lazarus

          Thankfully not. I could buy Bishop Barron's latest book (on Kindle) a few hours earlier than you guys could. A strange rule.

        • Michael Murray

          Best selling books I guess. They are protecting the local book selling publishing industry. At least that is the argument.

      • Lazarus

        Same here in SA :(

  • Paul Brandon Rimmer

    Interesting start. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of the series.

  • Mary B Moritz

    Good intro. And looking forward for more. Have you read John Farrell's article in the WSJ? Comes to similar conclusion: picture not big enough....

    • David Nickol

      The John Farrell review I think you are referring to is in Forbes.

    • Will

      It wasn't much of an article, but it would have been nice if Carroll touched more on human creativity and ingenuity. Of course, humans are still quite small in the grand scheme of things (though we could become more), so it could surely be debated on how big a part humanity currently plays in the big picture. If you want an atheist historian's take on human creativity and our collective fictions, this book is good:

      https://www.amazon.com/Sapiens-Humankind-Yuval-Noah-Harari/dp/0062316095

  • neil_pogi

    quote: "almost all cosmologists are atheists," - an argument like this doesn't prove that all atheists' theories are proven correct.(e.g. 'argument from authority') i would rather hear, 'argument from scientific proof' is the best argument to be believed.

    atheists rely only on 'after the facts'. for example, the brain controls all the mechanism of the body, the question, 'how about when the brain is not yet developed? 'who' or 'what' controls the developing organism? when the DNA is not yet discovered, atheists have no theory about the origin of life. remember, atheists begin to develop the life's origin when the DNA is discovered ('after the facts').. they say it's the 'SRM' which is responsible for all life.

    • Will

      "almost all cosmologists are atheists," - an argument like this doesn't prove that all atheists' theories are proven correct.(e.g. 'argument from authority') i would rather hear, 'argument from scientific proof' is the best argument to be believed.

      The observation that almost all cosmologists are atheists is just an observation, not an argument.

      • neil_pogi

        so why carroll used that phrase '"almost all cosmologists are atheists,"? what is he trying to prove?

        • Will

          Why do you think he's trying to prove anything? "Almost all preachers are religious". Am I trying to prove something?

          • neil_pogi

            preachers are preachers. preachers can prove their preachings sometimes.

            but a scientist like carroll is using that phrase, as if he is proving that people should believe all cosmologists' claims because "almost all cosmologists are atheists,'... again he is using the 'argument from authority'

  • Lazarus

    I sometimes wonder if the theist worldview really is the bigger view. Even taken on its own terms, and to its logical conclusion, theism tells us that for a few billion years beings live, love, suffer and die, and then there is an afterlife division based on faith, let's use conventional Christian terms and call that heaven and hell. In conventional Christian terms, the entire lifespan of the universe would be an absolutely negligible portion of eternity. After life as we know it the universe ends and the division occurs, which then stays in place for eternity. On current conventional and generous Christian interpretation NO sentient animals and only approximately two out of every seven humans would get to spend a positive and happy afterlife. This is the endgame of creation, of the universe and all that it contained.

    How is this a "bigger picture"? If you are truly compassionate you should wish that the atheist view is actually correct.

    • Luke Meyer

      You're right: to someone who believes in the afterlife, "the entire lifespan of the universe would be an absolutely negligible portion of eternity." But the kind of afterlife we experience may or may not be very stagnant at all: Eastern religions favor the kind that "stay in place for eternity" like you described, but some Christian concepts (like Purgatory) make the afterlife a more dynamic place. Yes, there are certain texts that give some suggestion toward what we might expect from the afterlife, but when it comes down to it, we just don't know. And in cases where humanity just can't know, Christians dogmatically tend toward optimism (evidenced by a stance against pessimistic actions like euthanasia).

      The reductionist view, on the other hand, rejects what it can't know. Since metaphysical concepts like the afterlife are unknowable, the reductionist view is limiting its scope by default.

      • Will

        And in cases where humanity just can't know, Christians dogmatically tend toward optimism (evidenced by a stance against pessimistic actions like euthanasia).

        This is actually fear. Fear that committing euthanasia is murder and thus a mortal sin. Fear that condoning it is also condoning murder. Preventing someone dying horribly and miserably from cancer from ending their own suffering is not optimistic. In animals, we call it mercy...

        • Luke Meyer

          Yes and no. You've got a point when the patient is comatose, because yes, then it's fear of terminating something that we simply can't detect.

          In the case of a conscious cancer patient, though, Christian teaching (especially on the Catholic side) tells that suffering during life isn't necessarily worthless and can affect how you enter the afterlife (since Christians dogma usually teaches that animals get no afterlife, there's no reason not to end their suffering). Not that I necessarily agree with a philosophy that's so living-by-optimistic-faith, but there it is.

        • Mike

          off topic but don't you know that catholic hospitals routinely prescribe loads of pain killers?

          not to quibble but these ppl don't end "their own lives" they force innocent ppl to kill them.

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        As you may be aware, Karl Rahner suggested that a promising direction for dialogue with Eastern religions lay in the correlation of the Christian concept of purgatory with the Eastern concept of reincarnation. While there may (or may not) be some important differences between purgatory and reincarnation, they both are ways of speaking of what happens when a person does not attain ultimate fulfillment (a.k.a. communion with God) in this life. They both speak to our ongoing and interconnected trajectories toward ultimate belonging that somehow continue once this life is over.

        I believe Rahner merely put this forward as a suggestive correlation and stated that "more work needs to be done" to compare and contrast these after-death-but-not-eschatalogical transient states. I'm not sure how much theology has been done in this vein since then.

    • Peter

      only approximately two out of every seven humans would get to spend a positive and happy afterlife

      I'm sure it's much more than that. There's purgatory for a start and then, at the point of death, we may have a choice to accept or reject Jesus.

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      I would want to make a couple distinctions in response to that.

      Accepting for the sake of argument that the conventional Christian view is the one you have described, I think you are right that that conventional view offers a less grand narrative than the one that is on offer from Sean Carroll's poetic naturalism as informed by what we know about deep time, etc.

      However, I think we can distinguish between our current Christian conventions which are often parochial and dated interpretations of our traditions, and the the traditions themselves, as reflected and anchored by our sacred texts. Just to take my favorite eschatological vision as an example, Romans 8:19-23 offers a very expansive view of the redemption of creation (a view with which many adherents of "conventional Christianity" are perhaps unreconciled). It suggests a narrative that (it seems to me) can easily accommodate what we know about deep time, what we know from Darwin, etc. In my mind it is a sort of "poetic naturalism ++".

      I think the vision of Romans 8:19-23 could even be partially salvaged (albeit in lossy format) as a narrative backbone that would be compelling within a worldview of poetic naturalism. But this brings me to another distinction I would want to make. If one's ontology and vocabulary don't allow for the existence of "God", "Satan", and other "spiritual realities", then there are going to be certain stories you just can't tell, and there may even be (per YOS's Heisenberg quote above) certain things that you can't even observe.

      So, in summary, I think conventional Christianity is currently using a more expansive ontology and vocabulary to tell a less exciting narrative, as compared with Sean Carroll's poetic naturalism, which is telling a more exciting story with a less expansive vocabulary. However, there is a much more expansive narrative on offer within the Christian tradition, and that narrative can only be fully told with the expanded ontology of Christianity, and only approximately with the more limited ontology of poetic naturalism.

      • David Nickol

        There is a question in my mind about what—according to Catholicism—happens to the universe after the resurrection of the dead. Although N. T. Wright is not a Catholic, I think he is in accord with Catholic teaching in pointing out that "heaven is not our home." Souls in heaven will eventually be "reunited" with their physical bodies, and humans will all live as physical beings—presumably in the physical universe. Current science tells us that this universe will "die" eventually, although not for a very long time. Still, the prospect seems to be that human beings go on for all eternity as physical beings, but the universe itself comes to an end. Don't physical beings, by their very nature, require a physical environment?

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          I don't have a complete answer, but I think a lot of it hinges on ones understanding of the word "eternal". There are plentiful debates about the Greek and Hebrew concepts and terms that lie underneath the English word, but as I understand it, it is generally best understood as "outside of time", rather than "for an infinite duration of time". On that reading (and honestly I'm not trying to be cheeky - this is how I think about it), every moment is eternal (because the moment that we label "now" has no duration and belongs neither to the past nor future, and thus exists outside of time). Similarly, every person, upon dying, is no longer "in time", but is eternal. Similarly also, the universe, once the lights go out, will necessarily be eternal.

          As to the nature of physicality once time has ended, it beats the hell out of me. Somehow our physicality will be complete, is how I think about it, but this is only a vague notion.

        • Lazarus

          I suppose that a new physical universe, a new Jerusalem, may be a solution to that question?

    • David Nickol

      In the Catholic view of the afterlife, those who suffer do so for all eternity, and evil is not overcome, it is just segregated.

      • Peter

        In the afterlife there is no evil, only perfect goodness. The segregation is between those who accept it and those who don't.

  • Jim (hillclimber)

    Here's what I would like to understand better about Sean Carroll's worldview. From his blog post on poetic naturalism, we have this:

    “Ways of talking” shouldn’t be underestimated; they can otherwise be labeled “theories” or “models” or “vocabularies” or “stories,” and if a particular way of talking turns out to be sufficiently accurate and useful, the elements in its corresponding vocabulary deserve to be called real.

    So far, I am cheering in agreement. But then:

    A poetic naturalist will deny that notions like “right and wrong,” “purpose and duty,” or “beauty and ugliness” are part of the fundamental architecture of the world.

    From the first quote, it seems that he is OK with referring to "right and wrong" as something "real", since "right and wrong" are concepts that are useful in talking about the world. But in the second quote he states that "right and wrong" is not "part of the fundamental architecture of the world". So there is some distinction, in his mind, between what is "real" and what is "part of the fundamental architecture of the world". I honestly don't understand this distinction. Can anyone make it more precise for me?

    He later writes, in the same blog post:

    We just have to admit that judgments come from within ourselves.

    Do we also then have to admit that the concepts of matter and energy come from within ourselves? If not, why not? What is the relevant distinction that elevates "matter and energy" to the status of being "out there", while "right and wrong" are relegated to some internal, less real status? Is it the fact that the former concepts can be mathematized, while the latter cannot? Is it the fact that the former concepts have metrical properties, while the latter do not? If so, why are these relevant distinctions? Or is there some other critical distinction? It seems to me that all of these concepts (matter, energy, right, wrong) are elements in the vocabularies that we use to successfully refer to the world "out there".

    • Mike

      excellent

    • From the first quote, it seems that he is OK with referring to "right and wrong" as something "real", since "right and wrong" are concepts that are useful in talking about the world. But in the second quote he states that "right and wrong" is not "part of the fundamental architecture of the world". So there is some distinction, in his mind, between what is "real" and what is "part of the fundamental architecture of the world". I honestly don't understand this distinction. Can anyone make it more precise for me?

      That which is 'useful' is useful for one or more purposes. What Carroll is claiming is that there are no purposes (no telos) encoded into the structure of reality. Instead, we have the purposes bequeathed to us via evolution and what we invent ourselves. This is a pretty clear denial of Rom 1:19–20, for example. Another way to say this is that while there might be empirical rationality to the world, there is no moral/​ethical rationality to the world. If you try to act righteously even if it'll get you killed because you think that sacrifice will not be erased by the sands of time (1 Cor 15:58), Carroll will say you have no guarantee of it—reality just isn't designed to conserve such righteousness.

      Another way to look at this is to take a possible message of Game of Thrones: might will always make right; there is no other way. If you do what is righteous, you get beheaded or worse. In such a world, one might say that ethics/​morality is unknowable, for there are no conditions which would permit a state of affairs other than "Might makes right." Nietzsche and Foucault were on-board with this. Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that we moderns are largely doomed to this with extant moral philosophy:

      For one way of framing my contention that morality is not what it once was is just to say that to a large degree people now think, talk, and act as if emotivism were true, no matter what their avowed theoretical standpoint might be. Emotivism has become embodied in our culture. (After Virtue, 22)

          What is the key to the social content of emotivism? It is the fact that emotivism entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations. (After Virtue, 23)

      The obliteration of this distinction is the "unknowable" of my previous paragraph. Manipulative social relations are all that exist, according to Foucault and Nietzsche. It's not clear that Sean Carroll has a way to allow for non-manipulative social relations in his metaphysic or epistemology.

      • Lazarus

        Even the so-called objective morals are highly manipulated as far as social relations are concerned. We see this amongst others in the great variety of "objective" answers to moral problems. Being a theist does not preclude us from still having to approach these moral and ethical challenges from a very subjective point of view, where personal decision makers are required. This is now conceded by some very competent Christian theologians and thinkers. So the existence of any meaningful "non-manipulative social relations" is very debatable. The theist here does not have access to anything other than an interpretation of a book, a verse, a tradition, a conscience.

        • If you want to be that exacting, then I'll mount a case for scientific anti-realism: all the results of science tell us are facts about human psychology, not anything solid about a mind-independent reality. Of course there will be push-back, because we think that we really can grapple with objective reality, if only "through a glass, darkly". But I would disallow that kind of push-back, unless I am also allowed to deploy it in the moral domain.

          Don't mistake me as thinking that morality is somehow easy. Only the most naïve can say that, especially with the current state of the world. But it is entirely a different thing to say that there cannot be anything other than "Might makes right." (Which you didn't quite commit to.) If one truly, deeply commits to that view, I think [s]he will start creating a very different world than the one I am trying to create, than I believe Jesus was trying to create.

          As far as I'm concerned, I have three major advantages over the atheist. First, the Holy Spirit is supposed to be helpful, because I'm on the same mission as [s]he is. Second, I can believe that the universe was designed to allow an alternative to "Might makes right." That is, even if the vast majority of randomly chosen configurations wouldn't allow it, I don't need to be enslaved to "the probabilities". Third, I can believe that it is better for me to suffer than for me to force others to suffer, in order to demonstrate a point of morality/​ethics. Some revolutionaries force others to die for their causes, while other revolutionaries are the first to lay down their lives for their causes. Jesus was of the latter kind, and I can believe that his way is not in vain. Of course, if I'm wrong, then I am above all to be pitied. "Might makes right." stomps out people like Jesus and me (to the extent I manage to emulate him).

          • Lazarus

            I'm certainly not advocating a "might is right" approach. If you can, have a look at how Mitch Stokes argues for subjective, personal decision makers in his "How to be an atheist", which by the way he's not.

          • Ok. If all/most of what you are saying is that morality is hard, I am entirely on board with that. :-)

            I see you mentioned Stokes' book before; might you be willing to give a bit more of a teaser?

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          I agree with Luke's response, and would add:

          There is a huge gulf between, on the one hand, those who think (or implicitly assume) that humans determine what is right and what is wrong and, on the other hand, those who think that humans imperfectly recognize what is right and what is wrong. It is true that on either view one has to expect a lot of practical disagreements between humans on this side of the grave, however the two views imply vastly different corrective measures for dealing with those disagreements.

          If you think that humans imperfectly recognize what is right and what is wrong, then the remedy is to identify that which hinders our recognition of the truth (e.g. pride), and try to minimize it. If, on the other hand, you think that humans determine what is right and what is wrong, then the only way to be "wrong" is by being too weak or inept to successfully propagate your views, and the way to avoid this type of wrongness is just to become more socially persuasive, whether through force or cunning (cf. The Donald).

    • So there is some distinction, in his mind, between what is "real" and what is "part of the fundamental architecture of the world". I honestly don't understand this distinction. Can anyone make it more precise for me?

      Reductionism. For example, spleens and tables and memories are real but not fundamental. They are high-level composites made by organizing the fundamental things (quarks, physical fields, complex amplitudes, the spacetime manifold, etc.) into a particular type of structure.

      • Jim (hillclimber)

        That's a good answer, but Sean Carroll seems to be allowing for the simultaneous validity of multiple "ways of talking about the world". Whether A reduces to B or B reduces to A depends on which way one is talking about the world.

        For example,

        * there is a reasonable line of inquiry in which consciousness is supposed to supervene on biology, and biology is supposed to supervene on physics. Whether that mode of thinking is ultimately correct is impossible to say at this point, but it does seem to be one useful way of thinking about things, and in that mode of thinking, consciousness reduces to matter.

        * At the same time, one can adopt the mode of thinking embodied by Max Planck's quote: "I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness." In that mode of thought, matter reduces to consciousness. This also appears to me to be a very useful "way of talking about the world", if for no other reason that it reminds of the ways that are minds may be imposing conceptual distinctions on the world that are not ultimately "out there".

        * In yet another (Christian theistic) "way of speaking", both matter and consciousness are expressions of an intelligible love, so matter and consciousness reduce, ultimately, to love.

        It's not clear to me what, if anything, might privilege any one of these "ways of speaking". They all seem like valid modes of thought, like different two dimensional projections of the same rotating cube. It therefore seems to me that there is no unique "reductionist criteria", and so invoking reductionism does not provide any clues as to which elements in our vocabularies have referents that are more or less real.

  • Mike

    great start Brandon, really looking forward to all the segments. plus saves me time reading the damn thing ;).

  • Here is a decent discussion with Carroll about his book on Rationally Speaking, a pretty amazing podcast.

    http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/show/rs-162-sean-carroll-on-poetic-naturalism.html

  • Craig Roberts

    "...to face reality with a smile, and to make our lives into something valuable."

    This makes no sense from a naturalistic world view. If there are no eternal consequences to our actions and all we have to look forward to is the oblivion of death, then there can be no objective 'value' to anything we do. Whether something is 'valuable' or not requires an objective judgment. But because the naturalist insists that nothing exists beyond the grave, there can be no 'value' to anything after time runs out because there will be no one to judge.

    • Whether something is 'valuable' or not requires an objective judgment.

      If by "objective" you mean "impersonal", then I agree that a naturalistic worldview has no impersonal values.

      For me at least, I mean by "objective" the idea that a proposition is true or false regardless of what people believe about whether it is true or false. For example, I highly value my friendships. That's a fact about what I value. It's an objective fact, because it's true that I highly value my friendships regardless of what anyone believes about whether I highly value my friendships. It's objectively the case that my friendships are valuable to me.

      The "to me" part is where some theists raise an objection. I don't think anything can be valuable to nobody but still valuable -- again that's because naturalism doesn't have a place for impersonal values, and I'm inclined toward naturalism since it is a usually-correct-so-far guide for thought.

      The only other option for a theist, compared to an atheist, is to say that an "objective" value is one that is valuable to a god. It's not at all clear to me why a god valuing a thing means anyone else should care that the god values it.

  • As a form of naturalism, it precludes any supernatural explanations (or "stories," to use Carroll's language.) Thus, it's a small worldview, albeit a milder reductionism, offering a "small picture" of the world relative to the truly "Big Picture" offered by theism.

    The Vedanta Hindus have a much Bigger Picture yet. I'm tempted to imagine this as a Goldilocks situation wherein the Catholics propose: "Our ontology is not too big, not too small, but just right!"

    Yes, yes, I know the disagreement is not really about bigness or smallness. For skeptics it's about the degree to which we are most justified in believing. For believers it's about whether the evidence permits them to believe. For certain types of hard atheists, it's about whether the evidence forces them to believe.

  • Really looking forward to this series, Brandon. I read Carrol's article on philosophy a while back and was very impressed. It's a welcome development to see his sort of respectful engagement of both philosophy and religion phasing out the insubstantial vitriol of the new atheists.

  • Matt

    Might I suggest providing a link between the parts of the review?