The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself by Sean Carroll (New York: Dutton, 2016. 480 pp)

Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology. He has been awarded prizes and fellowships by the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, and the Royal Society of London. His most recent award was a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2015. He is the author of From Eternity to Here and The Particle at the End of the Universe. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Jennifer Ouellette.

On Ontology

We all have a reason for being. For many, that reason sits below the surface of consciousness, chilling on a metaphysical couch, cracking open a beer. This reason operates in the decisions you make, no matter how aware you may be of its existence.

For the philosophers out there, finding reason for being becomes systematized into an ontology, a formalized approach to purpose. Humanity divides itself in many ways. There are red ontologies and blue ontologies (in the United States at least); there are religious ontologies and areligious ontologies. There are consumer ontologies and conservationist ontologies. We’re pretty good at making systems that describe what we do.

If I had to take a self-critical look, I would suggest my ontology orbits a narrative theological approach to life. I believe in the power of story to describe life and to give normative abilities to our daily life. I believe the narrative of Scripture provides an intriguing way of describing long-term generational narratives and purpose around life. It’s a good outline by which we can live, and if we take Pascal’s wager seriously, it’s also a no-brainer.

Because of my ontological approach, I tend to avoid the typical faith-vs.-reason debates that have spotted our cultural map for decades. A culture warrior I am not. Even more so, I don’t even care too much about this relentless fight for truth. I believe in science, as a politician recently noted. I believe that science can unlock important discoveries that will benefit society as a whole. I don’t think a debate about our origins or where our environment might go does much for ontological purposes, especially from a narrative approach.

On Poetic Naturalism

And yet, I’m interested in hearing about ontologies that stray from mine. With The Big Picture, Brian Carroll presents an argument for poetic naturalism, an ontology that finds purpose in life, without relying on supernatural beliefs.

An engaging and enjoyable read, The Big Picture spends little time fighting the culture wars. While I have a handful of small critiques about Carroll’s presentation of theistic views, on the whole I found him charitable to competing views. This book finds little in common with the Richard Dawkins militancy.

“But there are biases on both sides. Many people may be comforted by the idea of a powerful being who cares about their lives, and who determines ultimate standards of right and wrong behavior. Personally, I am not comforted by that at all—I find the idea extremely off-putting. I would rather live in a universe where I am responsible for creating my own values and living up to them the best I can, than in a universe in which God hands them down, and does so in an infuriatingly vague way. This preference might unconsciously bias me against theism. On the other hand, I’m not at all happy that my life will come to an end relatively soon (cosmically speaking), with no hope for continuing on; so that might bias me toward it. Whatever biases I may have, I need to keep them in mind while trying to objectively weigh the evidence. It’s all any of us can hope to do from our tiny perch in the cosmos” (149).

With The Big Picture, Carroll develops his argument for poetic naturalism. He dives deeply into a philosophy of science and epistemology, making the case for why science is the most rational approach to observing what we are able to observe and why the troubles with absolute proof matter little when you live your life based on principles of Bayesian reasoning.

While this line of reasoning covers the “naturalism,” component, the “poetic” component is a little fuzzier. Carroll suggests the many examples of where we use various modes of communication and language to describe the same thing. A person, for example, is a rational being capable of autonomous actions. She is also a collection of molecules, which is itself a collection of sub-atomic particles. Both descriptions of the same thing are equally valid. Therefore, we have a poetic approach to the ways we describe our world.

“Poetic naturalism sits in between: there is only one, unified, physical world, but many useful ways of talking about it, each of which captures an element of reality. Poetic naturalism is at least consistent with its own standards: it tries to provide the most useful way of talking about the world we have” (112).

And yet, as I’m sure Carroll would expect, I remain unconvinced. If there’s one consistent element to humanity, it surely coincides with our ability to hold our beliefs dearly.

On the Limitations of Naturalism

Even though I affirm all of Carroll’s work and find his deep dive into the physical elements of our universe to be fascinating, I find his poetic approach and his naturalistic approach to be lacking.

Of course, naturalism sets itself up to be limited.

When I was taking a class on the history of the New Testament, I sat down with the professor during office hours to discuss the historical significance of the resurrection. Given the burden of proof for historical texts, I assumed the evidence we have points to a pretty strong case for what’s noted in the gospels. We know Paul wrote at least a few of his epistles, including 1 Corinthians and Galatians. These epistles point to a resurrection story and a confirmation of that start, nearly within a handful of years after the event. There’s nothing like it in historical texts.

My professor walked down the line of reasoning with me, affirming me at each point. At the end, we agreed that the resurrection story emerged as early as 9 months after the supposed event. No other story in history can be traced as closely to the event it references.

So did it happen? My professor says, “No.” When I curiously ask for an explanation, his response aligns with naturalism. The resurrection is an event unmeasurable by definition. As a historian, it would be irresponsible to suggest that such an event exists. We can only say that story emerged early. Not that it actually happened.

This story points to my main question about naturalism. It constrains itself, rightly, to the measurement of the physical world. Likewise, by definition, any supernatural element in the natural world is likely immeasurable. Such occurrences would be unique if they happen at all. For this reason, they sit outside the realm of naturalism and many naturalists conclude against their existence.

Let’s Be Poetic

For me, the poetic is an important ontological aspect to reconciling some of these potential elements of life. Simply suggesting that there’s nuance in life and that we make our own meaning, as Carroll does in The Big Picture, falls short for me. But of course, my worldview starts from a position of narrative theology.

On the whole, The Big Picture is a worthwhile read. I enjoyed it and learned much about how naturalism can provide ontology for those who practice it. Recommended.

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