Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Big Picture I

I'm moving along now in The Big Picture, by Sean Carroll, the theoretical physicist. The subtitle is On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. As it sounds, it is an ambitious book, and he took time off from his regular job at Caltech to write it with the assistance of a Guggenheim Fellowship. This kind of book is increasingly coming into demand, because the cumulative advances made in science are making it harder for laymen to understand it, and specialization even makes it hard for some branches of science to understand other branches. My favorite writer in this field is E.O. Wilson, but his perspective is primarily biological. In recent years, several theoretical physicists – Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene and Steven Weinberg, among others – have written popular books about physics, and Sean Carroll seems to be trying to make a name for himself in this crowded field. What differentiates Carroll from the rest is his interest in the philosophical issues associated with physics, and this produces both the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

As far as I've read, Carroll provides a summary of theoretical physics, including some relatively new concepts such as emergence and questions regarding the reconciliation between events at the atomic level with events at the macroscopic level. The thrust of his argument is that one may adopt different conceptual models to describe the same phenomena, and that there is not necessarily an advantage to adopting a single model. In the language that he uses he proclaims himself a naturalist, which is fine with me, as I consider myself one too, but then he goes on to qualify that by identifying himself as a "poetic naturalist." The gist here is that there are different ways of talking about the world that can capture elements of reality, and that by considering different models rather than striving for a unitary model we may come to a better understanding of the world than we would otherwise. His inspiration for the term "poetic naturalist" is the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who said "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."

Although Carroll's intentions are good, at this stage in my reading of the book I'm a little skeptical of his approach. Partly that is because I don't share his confidence in the ideas that are being served up in philosophy departments these days; though I don't follow them now, my conclusion several years ago was that they are more often than not a complete waste of time. For example, the nature of consciousness is still a major question in philosophy, and I consider it a non-issue, because it is more about semantics than reality. While Wittgenstein was notoriously difficult to pin down in his ideas, I agreed with him the most when he suggested that the primary activity of philosophers was the distortion of the meaning of words from their ordinary usage. "Consciousness" started out as a word for self-awareness in people, and even though science shows that many species besides ours possess some form of it, philosophers have mistakenly elevated it to a mysterious element of the universe that is sorely in need of explanation, particularly if we are to make advances in artificial intelligence. To me, "consciousness" is no more useful to AI research than "aether" was to explain the transmission of light through space. If anything, it is a hindrance to the development of thinking machines.

Another reason for me to be cautious about Carroll is his implicit role as a unifier of the discordant scientific and humanities communities. He has more to offer than most scientists in this regard, because he at least has a solid grounding in the humanities and is less likely than others to make a fool of himself when he refers to them. Many scientists in the public domain are so arrogant about their superiority that they don't even bother to familiarize themselves with the thinking in humanities departments. However, Carroll could easily become, rather than an original thinker, a humanities double agent in scientific terrain who unwittingly opens the door to a flood of humanities nonsense and pseudoscience.

Furthermore, I don't think that theoretical physics is the best starting point for bridging the gap between the reading public and scientists. Whereas every person who ever lived has had daily exposure to events and processes that are biological in nature, nearly all of humanity – in the past and future – never has had and never will have any need to understand theoretical physics. As fascinating as the subatomic and cosmic worlds may be, we perceive them to have little relationship to our basic human needs, and, that being the case, we may feel no compulsion to familiarize ourselves with them. In contrast, biology is close to our hearts, because nearly everything that we care about is here in this tiny corner of the universe, where we can perceive it with our own senses. While there are short steps from the origin of life to evolution to eusociality to morality and the problems that humanity frets about, in the context of theoretical physics human problems become needlessly abstract and unsolvable.

Nevertheless, the book is well-written and informative, and I will reserve final judgment until I've completed it.

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