On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
A Review of Sean Carroll’s Book
I’ve seen Caroll’s name pop up here and there, but never read or heard anything until I stumbled upon a clip of his in Joe Rogan explaining Laplacian Determinism, and I really enjoyed it. I liked his personality and I found his way of explaining engaging. I listened to the whole episode afterwards, and at some point, he mentioned he had a book on the meaning of life, where he tried to bridge many disciplines together. That was music to my ears given I find that’s always where the most value comes from if you do it properly. He also seemed to take philosophy seriously, which gave me some confidence that he might have something worth saying.
The whole book is based on what he calls poetic naturalism. Which tries to be the bridge between a sort of reductivist nihilistic materialism and everyday life. What is ultimately real is the quantum world. Our everyday world is purely a human construct (chairs, love, nations), but a useful construct that we are right in regarding as real.
A decent portion of the book is sort of a pop-science and pop-philosophy introduction. Although I don’t mean that necessarily in a wrong way. It makes it pretty accessible and tries to provide a foundation for what he tries to argue later. A lot of it is to justify a naturalistic worldview, with a supernatural or religious worldview as the antagonist. I find this usually done very poorly. However, I found his approach a lot more humble and grounded than many famous new atheists like Dawkins or Sam Harris. Which I attribute to his above-average philosophical literacy compared to most in that community. Although Dennet is quite an accomplished philosopher, so maybe good dosing of humility is also required.
His Bayesian approach was particularly well-argued. Although not in such technical terms, that was always what drew me towards a naturalistic worldview when I was younger. It shows, to the extent possible, why that worldview is “rational” (or at least why it has some reasoning). I think it provided the best foundation for it out of anything that I have seen. It is mostly based on Hume and with a fancier repackaging and aided by modern statistics and scientific advancements, but he does credit Hume and his presentation of it was well done. The chapter on biology and the emergence of life was also incredibly fascinating and I learned a lot of new things.
Nevertheless, despite many positives, I disliked certain things. For one, while I understand and value his approach to naturalism, I do think it ends up being a bit reductionist at times. And while I found him much humbler than most in his position, nevertheless there were a few cases where I thought he overstepped and could have handled the topic better. His understanding of religion is also not the greatest and often misinterprets what it's trying to achieve and its role in understanding the role. Often trying to impose a materialistic worldview into a religious one, much like many on the opposite side trying to impose a religious worldview into a materialistic one. Neither works. This was particularly odd to me because he constantly emphasizes the point of that any model is useful for any given context. From Newtonian mechanics to Einstein’s relativity, quantum fields, and even our everyday life, with things like relationships. Everything works in its own domain, but if you try to bring one language into another field, it breaks down. Yet he repeatedly mixed a religious and materialistic worldview.
In addition, I disliked almost everything he wrote on consciousness. I understand where he comes from, and I think he argues his side well enough, but to be brutally honest I just think he is wrong. He tries to make it as if the problems that we have in consciousness aren’t problems at all and that’s why they have been unsolvable. I didn’t quite buy it. And unfortunately, consciousness permeates a fair bit of the book, since it’s rather important to retain a coherent naturalistic philosophy.
Overall, I quite enjoyed it. I think he did a brilliant job of combining several fields together, exactly what I hoped for. His writing is very good, and I found the structure of the book well organized. Presents science at its best and the appeal and reasoning of a naturalistic worldview against a supernatural one. I disagreed with some topics, but that’s mostly disagreeing with his position more than anything else. But I think he argued well for his side. Especially for those new to these types of topics like philosophy and religion and who want to dip their toes, I think this is a brilliant book.
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