Physicist Sean Carroll has written The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. It sets out a philosophy or worldview which he labels “poetic naturalism.” Naturalism simply means no supernaturalism. “Poetic” says this is not prosaic. Instead this view of existence can fill us with awe and wonder. Human life arose by natural processes, but it’s nonetheless very special; almost miraculous.
The book’s 433 pages cover a lot of ground. But I will focus on just the penultimate chapter, a kind of summing up.
Carroll notes the popularity of the Ten Commandments – because people “like making lists of ten things, and telling other people how to behave.” Of course, the Ten Commandments were handed down by a deity who never existed, as part of an historical narrative that never happened. But Carroll is down on the idea of commandments altogether, and my libertarian soul shares that antipathy toward people being told what to do. Those who think we need a God to tell us stealing is wrong must have a pretty dim view of our species.
In lieu of commandments, Carroll offers what he calls Ten Considerations: things we (well, some of us) think are true, and that help us shape our approach to life and the universe we inhabit. These ten points amount to a philosophy of life. I was struck by how closely they match the ideas I myself have arrived at over a lifetime of contemplation. Much of this entails recognizing philosophical mistakes that bollix up a lot of folks’ thinking; it contradicts what many people think.
Here are the ten, with my own gloss:
1. Life isn’t forever. Carroll deems this a good thing. “Eternity is longer than you think.” Though couldn’t there be some middle ground between eternity and a mere century? But anyhow, death is final, this life on Earth is all we get. One must live with this crucial understanding; hiding from it is incompatible with living a truly meaningful life.
2. Desire is built into life. Some philosophies see desires as evil, impediments to happiness, that we should strive to banish. That’s wrong, because desires are what give life meaning and purpose, making us care about our lives. If you truly desired nothing, why care about living?
3. What matters is what matters to people. My version: what matters are the feelings of beings that experience feelings. Nothing else can matter. The existence of the universe itself could not matter, absent beings to whom it matters.
4. We can always do better. This reflects the fundamental humanist stance of optimism rather than pessimism about our species and its trajectory. Cynicism on this score is endemic. Carroll acknowledges “[i]t may seem strange to claim the existence of moral progress” (his emphasis), but says “that’s exactly what we find in human history.” I myself have written a whole book making this argument. So has the slightly more famous Steven Pinker (citing mine).
5. It pays to listen. Because all human minds are fallible, one should be open to new information and insights. This has great relevance to today’s U.S. political environment, with confirmation bias running amok, and the nation divided between two camps living in alternate universes.
6. There is no natural way to be. Carroll says that our being part of nature makes it tempting to valorize “being natural.” This has indeed long been a major cultural and philosophical trope. But nature doesn’t in fact guide us in how to live. “Nature is kind of a mess,” often appalling, says Carroll. And nature doesn’t think. We should instead look to our reason for guidance.
7. It takes all kinds. “People are different, so they’re going to create different things. That’s a feature to be celebrated, not an annoyance to be eradicated.” It’s from that variety among people, especially in how they think, that dynamism, progress, and advancement come. A society of people all alike would be stagnant.
8. The universe is in our hands. We are not hapless playthings of an impersonal cosmos, nor subjects of “fate.” Instead our ability to think empowers us to alter our conditions of existence. As indeed we have spectacularly done.
9. We can do better than happiness. The “happiness” question is a perennial philosophical conundrum, exemplified by John Stuart Mill’s query, is it better to be a pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied? Carroll distinguishes between one’s state of being at a given moment and the journey one is on, and suggests focusing more on the latter. It’s the difference between fleeting feelings and the ongoing sense of a life well lived.
10. Reality guides us. Carroll recognizes that certain illusions can make one feel happier, but says, “very few people knowingly seek out false beliefs.” And while illusions can be pleasant, “the rewards of truth are enormously greater.” I have written about my “ideology of reality,” with facts shaping my beliefs rather than allowing beliefs to shape what I think are facts. It’s a matter of self-respect to hew to what is real and true, to live authentically. A life well lived cannot be grounded in falsity.
Class dismissed. Now go have fun.