Wednesday, March 28, 2018
Review of The Big Picture by Theoretical Physicist Sean Carroll
What a good read--this powerful book on the nature of reality from the perspective of a famous physicist. Professor Sean Carroll writes so well, lucidly, explaining very difficult concepts in astrophysics—so that we non-scientists can gain a basic understanding of cosmology. And his prose is so user-friendly that even a few parts' hardest points, still made a little sense!
Only the book's couple of chapters on computer simulation of physics and evolution were dry, boring. Also, the whole idea of scientists intentionally trying to show how evolution works—especially natural selection—by designing experiments seems odd! Their very intent, their complex efforts, all of that is DESIGNED by them, so how can that really show that evolution, though looking designed, is actually NOT designed?!
The Big Picture is one of the best books on the nature of physics, cosmology, and the nature of reality. I read it avidly. That is until Carroll's negative references to God kept coming up--that God isn't needed, that God can’t be real or true because God violates the nature of physics.
Of course, almost always the "God" Carroll refers to, that can't be true, is the God of fundamentalistic or creedal Christianity. He doesn't deal in depth with more scientific concepts of ultimate reality. On the contrary, he is a committed naturalist, materialist, atheist.
Even worse Carrroll rejects any meaning to this matter-energy reality, rejects human choice, and the reality of ethics. He thinks humans just make morality up:_(
I admit despite such total nihilism, Carroll's striking views need to be seriously considered, even if they are bleak. After all, he is a brilliant genius, a theoretical physicist at Cal Tech, has been award many science prizes and fellowships, and (unlike some controversial 'new atheists),' he is considerate, courteous, and engaging.
Of course, like most humans, even brilliant ones (whether atheists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus), Carroll contradicts himself. He claims all of time/space is already set and unchangeable, that humans are just “complicated collections of matter moving in patterns,” (page 295).
So, despite his efforts to appear positive and hopeful unlike some materialists who seem to glory in negativity, Carroll actually agrees with their claim that existence is bleak, that humans are only matter, that nothing has meaning:-(
But then near the end of the book Carroll tries to end on a positive upbeat note by bridging the chasm of negation with a little hope--he calls his view "poetic." He states that on the human “level” of reality, humans can make choices, only he is quick to emphasize that isn't libertarian choice. It's only in a compatibilistic sense.
Carroll asserts that the laws of physics prohibit human "choice" in the normal dictionary sense of the word--selecting among alternatives--because the “laws of physics” prohibit that.:-(
So then I feel like asking him—why write a book explaining physics since reality is set and can’t be changed in the future or the past?
I suppose he would answer, 'Yes, I am just a "complicated collection of matter moving in pattern" (page295) and part of that determinism is that it was determined that I write this book.' In other words, he would answer, not too dissimilar from how hard Reformed Christians such as Stonewall Jackson answered. As always, determinism is an endless loop, unfalsifiable.
Carroll’s asserts that most cosmologists are atheists and, basically, hold the same view as Einstein and other scientific determinists.
BUT then how do contrary astrophysicists who are theists counter such deterministic, atheistic claims?
Would they disagree about Carroll's "Big Picture" or only show that in their life-stance they are compartmentalizing?
CONSIDER the contrary outlook of famous cosmologist George Ellis who co-wrote wrote The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time with Stephen Hawking. Also, contrary, to Carroll's view that ethics are made up, Ellis strongly supports the view of moral realism. He actively opposed the immoral, unjust system of Apartheid in South Africa.
Professor George Ellis: "Many scientists are strong reductionists who believe that physics alone determines outcomes in the real world, This is demonstrably untrue – for example the computer on which I am writing this could not possibly have come into being through the agency of physics alone."
"The issue is that these scientists are focusing on some strands in the web of causation that actually exist, and ignoring others that are demonstrably there – such as ideas in our minds, or algorithms embodied in computer programs."
"These demonstrably act in a top-down way to cause physical effects in the real world. All these processes and actual outcomes are contextually dependent, and this allows the effectiveness of processes such as adaptive selection that are the key to the emergence of genuine complexity."
"As I stated above, mathematical equations only represent part of reality, and should not be confused with reality. A specific related issue: there is a group of people out there writing papers based on the idea that physics is a computational process. But a physical law is not an algorithm. So who chooses the computational strategy and the algorithms that realise a specific physical law? (Finite elements perhaps?)"
"What language is it written in? (Does Nature use Java or C++? What machine code is used?) Where is the CPU? What is used for memory, and in what way are read and write commands executed? Additionally if it’s a computation, how does Nature avoid the halting problem? It’s all a very bad analogy that does not work."
Interviewer John Horgan: "Einstein, in the following quote, seemed to doubt free will: "If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the Earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was traveling its way of its own accord…. So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will."
Do you believe in free will?"
Ellis: "Yes. Einstein is perpetuating the belief that all causation is bottom up."
"This simply is not the case, as I can demonstrate with many examples from sociology, neuroscience, physiology, epigenetics, engineering, and physics. Furthermore if Einstein did not have free will in some meaningful sense, then he could not have been responsible for the theory of relativity – it would have been a product of lower level processes but not of an intelligent mind choosing between possible options."
"I find it very hard to believe this to be the case – indeed it does not seem to make any sense. Physicists should pay attention to Aristotle’s four forms of causation – if they have the free will to decide what they are doing. If they don’t, then why waste time talking to them? They are then not responsible for what they say."
The Big Picture
John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology. His books include The End of Science and The End of War.
In conclusion, what if Carroll's "deepest" level of reality, atoms, neutrons, etc. is actually the most basic level of reality (as the cosmologist George Ellis counters), and actually the really complex, the most real level of reality is the one of ultimate reality (God), meaning, math, reason, ethics? Then down in the physical world, human consciousness wouldn't be an illusionary tag-a-long at all.
To Be Continued--
In the Light and Hope of Meaning and Choice,