The Big Picture and Poetic Naturalism

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I loved this book. Cosmologist Sean Carroll displays his skill as an educator with a guided tour of modern physics for everyone. He describes our world with straightforward explanations to satisfy scientists and laypeople alike. There’s no patronizing, no condescending, and no meme-ready, shareable quips or analogies that you might hear from other popular science figures. Only assuming high school-level knowledge, Sean manages to treat the reader as an intellectual peer throughout the entire book – even while describing concepts like emergent complexity or the quantum wavefunction.

The Big Picture opens with a description of poetic naturalism, Sean’s personal philosophy of science. I consider this concept the most important achievement of the book; he describes a way to unify, without cognitive dissonance, the many different stories we tell about how the Universe works (such as quantum and classical physics, chemistry, biology, information theory, neuroscience, and psychology). The author builds on the philosophy of naturalism to construct his own narrative structure of the world.

Naturalism entails a viewpoint where only the natural world exists, and the laws of nature govern everything that happens within it. (That means no supernatural forces at all, including God.) This is the standard secular view of the Universe; many scientists and members of the secular population share it, regardless of whether they use the name “naturalism”. Most of us might agree about naturalism in the abstract. But difficulties can arise when trying to decide which view of reality is the appropriate one to use at any given time: if physics can describe all the motions and interactions of every particle in the universe, why do we need a separate discipline, chemistry, to tell us what atoms do when combined? Doesn’t that seem so much more complicated for no good reason? And that’s to say nothing about biology, or other higher-level disciplines that don’t concern themselves with tiny particles at all.

Carroll’s poetic naturalism holds that none of these views are the “right one” – instead, each view is a different way of talking about the world. He describes these various scientific perspectives as “stories”, contends that different stories are applicable in different situations, and explains that their often incompatible vocabularies and relationships (“ontologies”) don’t necessarily make them invalid in relation to each other. Rather, the validity of a “story” relates to how well it describes a particular aspect of the world, its internal consistency, and its usefulness for humans trying to solve problems in a specific domain. Of course, the basic idea is nothing new; no one would seriously say that Newtonian mechanics is “wrong” because it doesn’t talk about quantum fields. But in The Big Picture, Sean points out how errors in thinking can arise by accidentally mixing and matching between ontologies, and shows how the poetic view can resolve long-standing conflicts between disciplines that, essentially, never existed in the first place.

After introducing his philosophy, Carroll spends most of the book giving the reader a hyper-condensed undergrad science education. Though it may serve as a review for the typical pop science reader, I appreciated the author’s clear language and masterful simplifications of otherwise difficult concepts. Following his tour of physics and the emergent behaviors on top of it, he offers his thoughts on the nature of consciousness and describes his position as a materialist in the spirit of Daniel Dennett, Douglas Hofstadter, Melanie Mitchell and friends. Finally, Sean describes his view of morality, which emerges from a humanist perspective. Poetic naturalism underlies the entire story, contributing a seamlessness and lack of contradiction that allows for a satisfying end to the book. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Carroll himself, who did a fantastic job.

As an aside, I also appreciated the way the author talked about religion. In contrast with the cold anti-religiosity of Richard Dawkins and friends, Carroll, as a former Catholic, described his conversion to naturalism in a compassionate way, and treats religious readers with respect instead of scorn and dismissal. As a former militant atheist who softened over the years, I wish more science writers adopted this approach; it introduces the possibility of real, meaningful dialogue between the divide.

Admittedly, the book served to confirm many beliefs I already had, and I’m not sure I disagreed with much the author said. But sometimes you don’t need to shake apart your entire view of the world – sometimes you need to give it some seismic reinforcement. Carroll’s eloquent presentation of his ideas helped to refine my thoughts on many of the subjects he described, and gave structure and body to a number of intuitions floating around inside my head. I feel better equipped to explain my own ideas through the lens of poetic naturalism, and I hope you’ll find the same thing after reading The Big Picture.