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Sean Carroll’s “Ten Considerations” for Naturalists

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This is the final post in our long series exploring physicist Sean Carroll's new book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Dutton, 2016).

In the book's penultimate chapter, which in my view is the book's strangest, Carroll offers an alternative to the Bible's Ten Commandments, what he calls his "Ten Considerations." They read like a mushy collection of Oprah-isms:

  • Life isn't forever.
  • Desire is built into life.
  • What matters is what matters to people.
  • We can always do better.
  • It pays to listen.
  • There is no natural way to be.
  • It takes all kinds.
  • The universe is in our hands.
  • We can do better than happiness.
  • Reality guides us.

Carroll is clearly a great scientist, but as this section reveals, he's a poor self-help guru. For example, take the strange claim that, "The universe doesn't care about us, but we care about the universe. That's what makes us special, not any immaterial souls or special purpose in the grand cosmic plan" (422).

Read that a couple times. What Carroll apparently believes is that our caring for the universe is what makes us special. Presumably, that implies we can become more special by simply caring more about the universe. Yet why does our significance depend on whether we care about the universe? Carroll offers no reason or support. And what about people who don't care about the universe, such as babies or nihilists or those stuck in despair? Does this mean they aren't special? If Carroll thinks they nevertheless still matter, why? On what basis?

We find similarly strange claims in the "We Can Always Do Better" section. There Carroll says,

"When it comes to valuing, caring, loving, and being good, perfection is even more of a chimera, since there isn't even an objective standard against which to judge our successes. We nevertheless make progress, both at understanding the world and at living within it." (422)

Carroll believes there is no objective standard of success, but he also believe we still make progress. Yet how can that be? How can we progress unless we have a goal or end to which we're progressing? Again, Carroll doesn't say. He just vaguely affirms, "Progress comes, not from new discoveries in an imaginary science of morality, but from being more honest and rigorous with ourselves" (422). That sounds like an objective standard to me. If it's not, then it's just Carroll's personal preference for how humans should behave—a preference that none of use are obliged to accept. Even worse, Carroll offers no guidance on how to determine which actions are more honest and rigorous, or what standards of honesty and rigor he is using. His words may sound nice, but they're ultimately void of substance.

But what's Carroll's purpose here? Why offer these "Ten Considerations"? It seems, here at the end of the book, he's trying to offer some consolation to those who read his previous 48 chapters and developed a sort of existential despair at what poetic naturalism implies. When you stare down a world that is fundamentally devoid of freedom, meaning, morality, and purpose, and you know the only way you can achieve those goods is by constructing them yourself, even when they stand athwart reality, you need some uplifting encouragement just to carry on.

But I'm not sure Carroll, a theoretical physicist, is the best source to provide this. I'm not alone in that assessment. One atheist reviewer, also a scientist, had a similar reaction:

"I just don’t think theoretical physicists have anything useful to tell the average person about meaning and morality, other than that it’s a mistake to search for it in our discoveries about physics....
 
Given that, the best advice to people who come to physicists looking for the meaning of life seems to me to politely tell them that they’re looking in the wrong place and asking the wrong person....[Scientists] should avoid preaching about meaning, morality, and other issues that they know no more about than anyone else."

And that takes us to the book's final chapter. It's a very interesting one because it's the only one in which Carroll gets personal. He shares about his fairly religious upbringing and generally good experiences with God as a child. He confesses, "I loved the mysteries and the doctrine. Going to Sunday school, reading the Bible, trying to figure out what it was all about" (428).

But when his grandmother died unexpectedly when he was ten, the pain shook him. He became a more casual believer. Eventually, once he went off to college at Villanova (a Catholic university) and became an astronomy major, he lost his faith completely.

Interestingly, Carroll says that while his slide from faith to unbelief was gradual, there were two moments that stuck out. The first took place as a young boy. His local Episcopal church made a decision to change small parts of their service. The previous version had too much standing and kneeling, without enough breaks to sit down. So they reduced the up-and-down activity. That confounded the young Carroll:

"I found this to be scandalously heretical. How is it possible that we can just mess around with what happens in the service? Isn't all that decided by God? You mean to tell me that people can just change things around at a whim? I was still a believer, but doubts had been sown."

It's tough to make sense of this. Did the young Carroll really believe that God had divinely ordained when to stand and kneel in his contemporary Episcopal church? I can perhaps understand how a young boy could be confused by this, but wouldn't an older Carroll be able to make simple distinctions between divine revelation and malleable liturgical customs?

The second incident occurred when Carroll heard the song, "The Only Way" from the Emerson, Lake, & Palmer album Tarkus. The song included something Carroll had never heard before: "an unmistakable, in-your-face atheist message" (429). It made him think, for the first time, that it was okay to be a nonbeliever—that it wasn't something he should be ashamed of or keep hidden.

What strikes me about these two events, the most notable experiences in Carroll's journey from God to atheism, is how surprisingly shallow they are. I find it hard to believe that a couple of minor liturgical changes and the lyrics to a progressive rock song were enough to decimate a young man's faith. If that's truly what happened, and I don't doubt it did, then he must have had a very shallow and unsophisticated understanding of God. And he doesn't seem to have moved past that.

As I wrap up this review, I want to emphasize the good points of Carroll's new book. The Big Picture is full of fascinating and invigorating descriptions of how our universe works, from the cosmological down to the sub-atomic. When Carroll stays in his lane and writes on questions of theoretical physics, he's simply masterful.

It's when he veers into theology and philosophy that he runs into problems. Carroll calls to mind the words of a fellow scientist and skeptic, Francis Bacon, who reportedly said, "A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion."

Carroll's big picture is not big enough. It contains too little philosophy—and bad philosophy at that. Would that he be open to more.

Brandon Vogt

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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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