Reading Time: 3 minutes By NASA, ESA, and C. Robert O’Dell (Vanderbilt University) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 3 minutes

I have just started reading Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itselfwhich is shaping up to be a great book. I would like to just talk about this excerpt (Location 345, Kindle):

The strategy I’m advocating here can be called poetic naturalism. The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it—telling its story—in different ways.

Naturalism comes down to three things:

  1. There is only one world, the natural world.
  2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature.
  3. The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.

Essentially, naturalism is the idea that the world revealed to us by scientific investigation is the one true world. The poetic aspect comes to the fore when we start talking about that world. It can also be summarized in three points:

  1. There are many ways of talking about the world.
  2. All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.
  3. Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.

A poetic naturalist will agree that both Captain Kirk and the Ship of Theseus are simply ways of talking about certain collections of atoms stretching through space and time. The difference is that an eliminativist will say “and therefore they are just illusions,” while the poetic naturalist says “but they are no less real for all of that.”

Philosopher Wilfrid Sellars coined the term manifest image to refer to the folk ontology suggested by our everyday experience, and scientific image for the new, unified view of the world established by science. The manifest image and the scientific image use different concepts and vocabularies, but ultimately they should fit together as compatible ways of talking about the world. Poetic naturalism accepts the usefulness of each way of talking in its appropriate circumstances, and works to show how they can be reconciled with one another.

Within poetic naturalism we can distinguish among three different kinds of stories we can tell about the world. There is the deepest, most fundamental description we can imagine—the whole universe, exactly described in every microscopic detail. Modern science doesn’t know what that description actually is right now, but we presume that there at least is such an underlying reality. Then there are “emergent” or “effective” descriptions, valid within some limited domain. That’s where we talk about ships and people, macroscopic collections of stuff that we group into individual entities as part of this higher-level vocabulary. Finally, there are values: concepts of right and wrong, purpose and duty, or beauty and ugliness. Unlike higher-level scientific descriptions, these are not determined by the scientific goal of fitting the data. We have other goals: we want to be good people, get along with others, and find meaning in our lives. Figuring out the best way to talk about the world is an important part of working toward those goals.

Poetic naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility. The raw materials of life are given to us by the natural world, and we must work to understand them and accept the consequences. The move from description to prescription, from saying what happens to passing judgment on what should happen, is a creative one, a fundamentally human act. The world is just the world, unfolding according to the patterns of nature, free of any judgmental attributes. The world exists; beauty and goodness are things that we bring to it.

Carroll has a very good sense for describing and explaining dry philosophical ideas in an easy-to-understand and almost artistically readable way.

What he is talking about here is ontological realism against (conceptual) nominalism. In other words, what really exists? In one sense, and Carroll accepts this, only atoms and fundamental stuff really exist. This, he calls a “sparse ontology”. All other things, like tables and love and persons, don’t really exist; or, they are conceptual add-ons. This is where my thinking lies. It’s a sort of eliminativism of abstract ideas. Carroll accepts this in a manner of speaking, but goes on to say that a “rich ontology”, where all those other things are a way we have of describing reality (and they are useful), is in a meaningful way of seeing reality. These ideas and abstracts really exist, conceptually, and pragmatically.

I like this term “poetic naturalism”, since it appeals to those anti-reductionists, those humanities people, who hate the idea of stripping away those human (yes, “poetic”) ways of interpreting the sparse ontology of existence.

I look forward to reading more of this book.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...