Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the December, 2018 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
Recently I re-read the book The Big Picture: On the Origin of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by Sean Carroll. Frankly, I disagree with Carroll’s assumption that science has just about completed its understanding of the basic rules of the universe – at least enough so that he could take a solid position on ontology. My view is that we know so little about the universe that the Core Model, which includes the Standard Model of particle physics, cannot be accepted as a close-to-final picture regarding what it’s all about.
As I continued to ruminate about Carroll’s presentation, another critique emerged in my mind – he all but ignores the possibility that consciousness is primary rather than an emergent quality of matter. This is important because the major theme of his book is a very compelling case for atheism. Full disclosure: I’m a skeptic (aka agnostic). Spoiler alert: after reading and being thoroughly inspired by his ideas, I’m still a skeptic – and, ironically, he’s pushed me more toward theism than atheism.
Carroll grew up an Episcopalian. He reports that his religious experience was rewarding and an important part of his childhood. However, he was later drawn to science and philosophy to satisfy a quest for understanding reality. That’s what led him to “poetic naturalism” (aka atheism), for which he makes a strong case in this book. My problem is that he refutes theism primarily based on his critique of the dogma of the religious philosophy he’s most familiar with.
Interestingly, as I re-read much of the book, I found that many of his ideas are compatible with pantheism – the philosophy that the universe itself is a conscious entity. The one pivot that would lock the positions together is the definition of consciousness. Consistent with the theory of evolution, Carroll holds strongly that consciousness emerged accidentally from the jostling of particles over billions of years. Just as consistent with evolution as well as pantheism is the idea that universal consciousness came first. That a conscious universe has been “experimenting” with reality. According to science writer Philip Perry: “In quantum mechanics, particles don’t have a definite shape or specific location, until they are observed or measured. Is this a form of proto-consciousness at play? According to the late scientist and philosopher, John Archibald Wheeler, it might. He's famous for coining the term, "black hole." In his view, every piece of matter contains a bit of consciousness, which it absorbs from this proto-consciousness field.”
This is also consistent with the speculation of philosophers from Aristotle to Spinoza. And current particle physics experiments consistently confirm the possibility of its idea.
Carroll also disclaims Cartesian dualism – the idea that the mind and the body are separate entities (“I think therefore I am”). This is based largely on Carroll’s view of emergence. However, much of science as well as philosophy support the notion of duality.
Back to an earlier point – I remain a skeptic. And it’s my contention that a true scientist should also be skeptical, avoiding a hard stand on ontological issues. The universe is just too vast, and our knowledge and experience too slight, to be anything but agnostic. Therefore, I don’t “believe” that the universe is conscious, or that pantheism is the answer to our questions. I just feel that the concept and the science are compelling enough to legitimately earn our attention.
Despite being a self-proclaimed atheist, I admire Sean Carroll. He is an important thinker, and I highly recommend his book. Cognitive scientist David Chalmers is also a self-proclaimed atheist. But as you evaluate his thinking, you’ll likely conclude that he’s really an agnostic. In Chalmers' own words:
“Studying consciousness tells us more about how the world is fundamentally strange. I think we have a few revolutions to go yet before we get to the bottom of it.”
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this page last updated 1 December 2018
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