I've loving a new book by theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, "The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself." After reading just a few chapters, I felt compelled to leave a laudatory Amazon reader review. Here's part of what I said.
I'm an inveterate consumer of both science and philosophy books. Almost always, the scientists lack the ability to talk about philosophy cogently, and almost always the philosophers are clueless about basic scientific understandings. So each frustrate my desire to simultaneously (1) learn about how the world is, and (2) find meaning in the world, given how it is.
Sean Carroll is the sort of writer I adore. The chapters I just read show that he's marvelously capable of talking about findings of modern science in a philosophically productive (and provocative) way. Meaning, he takes dry facts and infuses them with the moist richness of meaning.
For example, I was blown away by his discussion on p. 32 about determinism: "The universe is resolutely focused on the current moment; it marches forward, instant to instant, under the grip of unbreakable physical laws, with no heed paid to its glorious accomplishments or to its hopeful prospects."
That is freakishly great writing. I've never thought of the universe, or reality, this way before. Sure, I've meditated daily for most of my 67 years. I've been exposed to countless mystics, masters, yogis, and such who talk about living in the reality of the present moment. But I've never come across a scientist who said what Carroll did in his easily understandable way: at the deepest level, every happening of any sort is proceeding because of the present moment.
Today I read Carroll's Planets of Belief chapter. He starts off by asking, "How do we construct a comprehensive picture of how things work that is both reliable and consistent with our experience?"
One way is foundationalism.
A foundation keeps a structure firmly rooted in solid ground. Foundationalism is the search for such solid ground, on which to erect the edifice of knowledge.
Religions use this approach when they ask us to have faith in certain assumptions about God, divinity, supernatural realms, and such. That faith supposedly is the foundation on which all else will be revealed.
Likewise, Carroll cites Descartes. From "I think, therefore I am," the base foundation of Descartes' philosophy, he derived a series of beliefs: (1) God, Omnipotent and Omnibenevolent; (2) Evidence of Our Senses; (3) Science.
But Carroll prefers another metaphor than a foundation established in solid ground.
On the scale of a human being, the ground beneath our feet is unquestionably solid and reliable. If we zoom out a bit, however, we see that the ground is simply part of the planet on which we live. And that planet, the Earth, isn't grounded on anything at all; it is moving freely through space, orbiting around the sun.
The individual bits of matter that constitute the Earth aren't embedded in an unmoving structure; they are held together by their mutual gravitational force. All of the planets in the solar system formed gradually, as bits of rock and dust accreted together, each collection growing in influence and pulling together what remaining scraps of matter it could.
Without meaning to, we've discovered a much more accurate metaphor for how systems of belief actually work. Planets don't sit on foundations; they hold themselves together in a self-reinforcing pattern. The same is true for beliefs: they aren't (try as we may) founded on unimpeachable principles that can't be questioned.
Rather, whole systems of belief fit together with one another, in more or less comfortable ways, pulled in by a mutual epistemological force.
This is a diagram that shows the planets of belief for Aristotle, Descartes, and a modern poetic naturalist -- the point of view Carroll takes in his book.
Carroll then goes on to talk more about our planets of belief.
According to this picture, a justified belief is one that belongs to a coherent set of propositions. This coherence plays the role of the gravitational pull that brings together dust and rocks to form real planets. A stable planet of belief will be one where all the individual beliefs are mutually coherent and reinforcing.
Some planets are not stable. People go through life with a very large number of beliefs, some of which may not be compatible with others, even if they don't recognize it. We should think of planets of belief as undergoing gradual but constant churning, bringing different beliefs into contact with one another, just as real planets experience convection in the mantle and plate tectonics near the surface.
When two dramatically incompatible beliefs come into direct contact, it can be like highly reactive chemicals being mixed together, leading to an impressive explosion -- possibly even blowing the entire planet apart, until a new one can be assembled from different parts.
This is a good description of what happened to my own planet of belief (though it was less an abrupt explosion, and more a massive restructuring of the planet).
I was attracted to an Eastern/Indian form of spirituality often referred to as a science of the soul in part because I adored science. However, eventually the conflicts between understandings of modern science and the philosophy of ancient mystics grew too great. For example, I couldn't accept that consciousness was separable from the body when every bit of evidence showed that the physical brain was necessary for someone to be conscious.
So I did what Carroll advises: reconstitute my planet of belief to be more in accord with reality. I've never regretted that decision. Reality is too precious to waste on fantastical beliefs that don't hold together.
Ideally, we should be constantly testing and probing our planets of belief for inconsistencies and structural deficiencies. Precisely because they are floating freely through space, rather than remaining anchored on solid and immovable ground, we should always be willing to improve on our planets' composition and architecture, even to the point of completely jettisoning old beliefs and replacing them with better ones.
Planets don't sit on foundations; they hold themselves together in a self-reinforcing pattern. The same is true for beliefs: they aren't (try as we may) founded on unimpeachable principles that can't be questioned.
But where does this self-reinforcing pattern that holds planets together come from? Well, the laws of physics, which don't seem to change at all over billions of years. Why shouldn't metaphysical beliefs be similar - that what holds them together, or makes them fall apart, are metaphysical laws that can be observed and experienced. And yes, doubted and refined through questioning and experiment and interaction with the world around us. Not quite in the same manner as physical laws of course, in that they are addressing a metaphysical reality. But nonetheless, within their own framework, also operating upon the assumption of a universal underlying pattern of order that can be uncovered through hard work and discipline.
Posted by: A Facebook User | May 16, 2016 at 05:10 AM
could you just stop reading crappy books for a little while?
Brian: " Why would I?"
Me: "Because it confuses you."
Brian: "How...can...knowledge confuse me?"
Me: "Because it's not knowledge. Books do NOT contain knowledge. They contain theorys, facts or storys. It depends on what kind of books you read."
Brian: "I prefer scientific books. Are you saying that scientific books do not contain knowledge?"
Me: "No. But what I am saying is that if you don't know WHO you are in the first place, no book you read contains anything of any value regarding self-knowlege anyway, Brian."
Brian: "Okay, Besserwisser, what do you recommend me to do instead of reading books?"
Me: "Digg a whole to do a nice little pool for fish in your garden, play with your grand-children, plant a new garden, knit a pullover for your dog, massage your wifes feed, play your guitar, sing and STFU for a little while!"
Brian: "Nah...too much hustle."
Posted by: Upsetter | May 17, 2016 at 01:45 PM
Upsetter, why would I want to stop doing something that I enjoy? I read books for about 40 minutes in the morning before I meditate. Then I do other things for the rest of my day.
I walk the dog in nature. I do Tai Chi. I ride my outdoor elliptical bike. I talk with friends. I engage in civic activism. I take care of our 10 rural acres.
Actually, books DO contain knowledge. And I DO know who I am.
I also know enough about myself, and reality, to understand that telling other people how they should live their lives is useless -- like you just spent time doing.
Suggestion: live your own life happily, then maybe you won't feel the need to try to control the lives of other people.
Posted by: Brian Hines | May 17, 2016 at 04:17 PM
I'm curious- was there a particular thinker or argument (or group of thinkers/ arguments) that were pivotal in the process of you becoming a philosophical materialist? Your position surprises me in that many a physicist/ mystic have come to reject materialism on both empirical (broadly construed) and philosophical grounds.
Posted by: Cassiodorus | May 19, 2016 at 08:28 PM
Cassiodorus, it's hard to say what led me to embrace the world view I have now. Lots of things, pretty clearly. I'd call myself more of a "naturalist" than a "physicalist." (A book by physicist Sean Carroll that I'd reading now extols "poetic naturalism," a nice term.
What I reject is supernaturalism that has no evidence behind it. If a newly discovered force has some effect in the natural world, then it should become part of our scientific understanding. But if all we have are ideas, concepts, beliefs, such as a belief in God/soul/spirit, then there is no reason to take it seriously.
Carroll, along with many other scientists, accepts that we don't know everything about the natural world. There may be well be "mysterious" forces we know nothing about at present. And the natural world becomes exceedingly "non-physical" as we enter the quantum realm (and whatever may lie beyond).
So "natural" doesn't really equate to "physical." Hope this clarifies my current viewpoint, which is subject to change, naturally.
Posted by: Brian Hines | May 31, 2016 at 10:58 AM