Existential Therapy from the Universe: Physicist Sean Carroll on How Poetic Naturalism Illuminates Our Human Search for Meaning
“The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it — telling its story — in different ways.”
By Maria Popova
“We are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious,” the poet Mark Strand marveled in his beautiful meditation on the artist’s task to bear witness to existence, adding: “We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself… It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.” Susan Sontag, at the end of her fully lived and intensely meaningful life, articulated the same idea in considering what it means to be a good human being: “To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.”
Scientists are rightfully reluctant to ascribe a purpose or meaning to the universe itself but, as physicist Lisa Randall has pointed out, “an unconcerned universe is not a bad thing — or a good one for that matter.” Where poets and scientists converge is the idea that while the universe itself isn’t inherently imbued with meaning, it is in this self-conscious human act of paying attention that meaning arises.
Physicist Sean Carroll terms this view poetic naturalism and examines its rewards in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (public library) — a nuanced inquiry into “how our desire to matter fits in with the nature of reality at its deepest levels,” in which Carroll offers an assuring dose of what he calls “existential therapy” reconciling the various and often seemingly contradictory dimensions of our experience.
With an eye to his life’s work of studying the nature of the universe — an expanse of space and time against the incomprehensibly enormous backdrop of which the dramas of a single human life claim no more than a photon of the spotlight — Carroll offers a counterpoint to our intuitive cowering before such magnitudes of matter and mattering:
I like to think that our lives do matter, even if the universe would trundle along without us.
I want to argue that, though we are part of a universe that runs according to impersonal underlying laws, we nevertheless matter. This isn’t a scientific question — there isn’t data we can collect by doing experiments that could possibly measure the extent to which a life matters. It’s at heart a philosophical problem, one that demands that we discard the way that we’ve been thinking about our lives and their meaning for thousands of years. By the old way of thinking, human life couldn’t possibly be meaningful if we are “just” collections of atoms moving around in accordance with the laws of physics. That’s exactly what we are, but it’s not the only way of thinking about what we are. We are collections of atoms, operating independently of any immaterial spirits or influences, and we are thinking and feeling people who bring meaning into existence by the way we live our lives.
Carroll’s captivating term poetic naturalism builds on a worldview that has been around for centuries, dating back at least to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. It fuses naturalism — the idea that the reality of the natural world is the only reality, that it operates according to consistent patterns, and that those patterns can be studied — with the poetic notion that there are multiple ways of talking about the world and of framing the questions that arise from nature’s elemental laws.
We have to be willing to accept uncertainty and incomplete knowledge, and always be ready to update our beliefs as new evidence comes in… Our best approach to describing the universe is not a single, unified story but an interconnected series of models appropriate at different levels. Each model has a domain in which it is applicable, and the ideas that appear as essential parts of each story have every right to be thought of as “real.” Our task is to assemble an interlocking set of descriptions, based on some fundamental ideas, that fit together to form a stable planet of belief.
Carroll considers how poetic naturalism addresses the great paradox of the necessarily self-referential experience of selfhood unfolding within our creaturely materiality:
The most difficult problem is a philosophical one: how is it even possible that inner experience, the uniquely experiential aboutness of our lives inside our heads, can be reduced to mere matter in motion? Poetic naturalism suggests that we should think of “inner experiences” as part of a way of talking about what is happening in our brains. But ways of talking can be very real, even when it comes to our ability to make free choices as rational beings.
Poetic naturalism strikes a middle ground, accepting that values are human constructs, but denying that they are therefore illusory or meaningless.
In a sentiment that calls Strand’s poetic premise to mind, Carroll adds:
Life is a process, not a substance, and it is necessarily temporary. We are not the reason for the existence of the universe, but our ability for self-awareness and reflection makes us special within it.
Purpose and meaning in life arise through fundamentally human acts of creation, rather than being derived from anything outside ourselves.
Carroll argues that naturalism — “a philosophy of unity and patterns, describing all of reality as a seamless web” — is the organic byproduct of our expanding knowledge, advancing us toward simpler and more unified models of how the world works. (Stephen Hawking’s search for a theory of everything is perhaps the most famous culmination of that impulse.) Carroll peers toward the end point of this knowledge-trajectory:
How far will this process of unification and simplification go? It’s impossible to say for sure. But we have a reasonable guess, based on our progress thus far: it will go all the way. We will ultimately understand the world as a single, unified reality, not caused or sustained or influenced by anything outside itself. That’s a big deal.
And yet, in a passage reminiscent of physicist and novelist Alan Lightman’s beautiful account of a transcendent experience, Carroll juxtaposes the central proposition of naturalism with some of the most familiar and universal intensities of being human:
Naturalism presents a hugely grandiose claim, and we have every right to be skeptical. When we look into the eyes of another person, it doesn’t seem like what we’re seeing is simply a collection of atoms, some sort of immensely complicated chemical reaction. We often feel connected to the universe in some way that transcends the merely physical, whether it’s a sense of awe when we contemplate the sea or sky, a trancelike reverie during meditation or prayer, or the feeling of love when we’re close to someone we care about. The difference between a living being and an inanimate object seems much more profound than the way certain molecules are arranged. Just looking around, the idea that everything we see and feel can somehow be explained by impersonal laws governing the motion of matter and energy seems preposterous.
Although naturalism has furnished our present understanding of how the world works, such skepticism of its completeness is reasonably grounded in its as-yet unfilled gaps. “This is the greatest damn thing about the universe,” Henry Miller exclaimed in contemplating the mystery of the universe and the meaning of existence at the end of his long life, “that we can know so much, recognize so much, dissect, do everything, and we can’t grasp it.” Generations later, Carroll writes:
We don’t know how the universe began, or if it’s the only universe. We don’t know the ultimate, complete laws of physics. We don’t know how life began, or how consciousness arose. And we certainly haven’t agreed on the best way to live in the world as good human beings.
Yet even so, Carroll is quick to remind, naturalism is “still by far the most likely framework” — of how the world works, that is, but it does little in the way of helping us discern how the world should work. That’s the domain of practical moral wisdom, which is where poetic naturalism can help. Carroll writes:
In some number of years I will be dead; some memory of my time here on Earth may linger, but I won’t be around to savor it. With that in mind, what kind of life is worth living? How should we balance family and career, fortune and pleasure, action and contemplation? The universe is large, and I am a tiny part of it, constructed of the same particles and forces as everything else: by itself, that tells us precisely nothing about how to answer such questions. We’re going to have to be both smart and courageous as we work to get this right.
The craftsmanship of meaning amid the unfeeling laws of nature invariably calls on us to use human tools like ethics and art to answer questions of what is right and beautiful. Saul Bellow captured this memorably in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.” Indeed, Carroll argues that the meaning with which imbue reality — the personal, subjective reality of our human experience of life and self, not the universal reality of energy and matter — is largely contingent upon how we receive and articulate its signals. That reality, he argues, is shaped by how we talk about it:
Our fundamental ontology, the best way we have of talking about the world at the deepest level, is extremely sparse. But many concepts that are part of non-fundamental ways we have of talking about the world — useful ideas describing higher-level, macroscopic reality — deserve to be called “real.”
The key word there is “useful.” There are certainly non-useful ways of talking about the world. In scientific contexts, we refer to such non-useful ways as “wrong” or “false.” A way of talking isn’t just a list of concepts; it will generally include a set of rules for using them, and relationships among them. Every scientific theory is a way of talking about the world.
The world is what exists and what happens, but we gain enormous insight by talking about it — telling its story — in different ways.
Carroll’s poetic naturalism is braided of three storytelling strands — the description of the deepest, most fundamental nature of physical reality, accounting for even the most microscopic detail, which science is yet to fully discern; emergent descriptions that fully explain a narrow realm of reality; and higher-order values that offer a framework for concepts of right and wrong, shape our ideas about things like beauty and love, and address questions of existential purpose. He writes:
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.
All of this, of course, brings up the inescapable question of free will. I’m reminded of Hannah Arendt’s exquisite treatise on the subject, in which she cautioned: “Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on, we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration.” Carroll considers this vitalizing role of willingness, or desire, in our freedom to find meaning amid a universe of fixed laws:
In human terms, the dynamic nature of life manifests itself as desire. There is always something we want, even if what we want is to break free of the bonds of desire… Curiosity is a form of desire.
Our instincts and unreflective desires aren’t all we have; they’re just a starting point for building something significant.
Human beings are not blank slates at birth, and our slates become increasingly rich and multidimensional as we grow and learn. We are bubbling cauldrons of preferences, wants, sentiments, aspirations, likes, feelings, attitudes, predilections, values, and devotions. We aren’t slaves to our desires; we have the capacity to reflect on them and strive to change them. But they make us who we are. It is from these inclinations within ourselves that we are able to construct purpose and meaning for our lives.
The personal desires and cares that we start with may be simple and self-regarding. But we can build on them to create values that look beyond ourselves, to the wider world. It’s our choice, and the choice we make can be to expand our horizons, to find meaning in something larger than ourselves.
Reflecting on his own path from his childhood in a family of “regular churchgoers” to a thoroughly unreligious adult life as a scientist, Carroll considers what that “something larger” might be:
Everything we’ve experienced about the universe suggests that it is intelligible: if we try hard enough we can come to understand it. There is so much we still don’t know about how reality works, but at the same time there’s a great deal that we have figured out. Mysteries abound, but there’s no reason to worry (or hope) that any of them are unsolvable.
The important distinction is not between theists and naturalists; it’s between people who care enough about the universe to make a good-faith effort to understand it, and those who fit it into a predetermined box or simply take it for granted. The universe is much bigger than you or me, and the quest to figure it out unites people with a spectrum of substantive beliefs. It’s us against the mysteries of the universe; if we care about understanding, we’re on the same side.
Although I tend to prefer Henry Beston’s notion of whimsicality, for it dances with the language of fairy tales rather than that of religion, I appreciate Carroll’s endeavor to reclaim the notion of miraculousness from its antiscientific connotations:
The universe is not a miracle. It simply is, unguided and unsustained, manifesting the patterns of nature with scrupulous regularity. Over billions of years it has evolved naturally, from a state of low entropy toward increasing complexity, and it will eventually wind down to a featureless equilibrium. We are the miracle, we human beings. Not a break-the-laws-of-physics kind of miracle… It is wondrous and amazing how such complex, aware, creative, caring creatures could have arisen in perfect accordance with those laws. Our lives are finite, unpredictable, and immeasurably precious. Our emergence has brought meaning and mattering into the world.
With an urgent eye to the fact that the average human heart will beat three billion times over the course of a lifetime — a fact rooted in our biological materiality — Carroll encourages us to see this physical exigency as a mobilizing force for our metaphysical synthesis of meaning:
All lives are different, and some face hardships that others will never know. But we all share the same universe, the same laws of nature, and the same fundamental task of creating meaning and of mattering for ourselves and those around us in the brief amount of time we have in the world.
Three billion heartbeats. The clock is ticking.
In the remainder of The Big Picture, Carroll goes on to explore such centralities and subtleties of poetic naturalism as the perplexity of death, the wild possibilities of the quantum realm, and how the crucial difference between awe and wonder illuminates our relationship to mystery. Complement it with Oliver Sacks’s lived testament to poetic naturalism as a gateway to meaning and legendary psychiatrist Irving D. Yalom on uncertainty and our search for meaning, then revisit this comparative inquiry into how art, science, and religion explain the universe.