Sean Carroll: The Meaning of Life

I was checking out Sean Carroll’s blog today, and saw this post with a YouTube excerpt of comments he made during a debate with Michael Shermer, Dinesh D’Souza, and Ian Hutchinson. Can’t resist quoting extensively, since he summarizes much of my own thinking, and the themes of this blog.

…Religion and science have gone their separate ways over the years. 500 years ago this debate would not have been held; there was no demarcation between what we would now call science and what we call religion, there was just attempts to understand the world.

And what happened is that science came about by developing techniques, methodologies for gaining reliable knowledge about the world, and the reliable knowledge that we got was incompatible with some of the presuppositions of religious belief.

The basic thing that we learned by doing science for 400 years is something called naturalism — the idea that there is only one reality, there are not separate planes of the natural and the supernatural, there is only one material existence and we are part of the universe, we do not stand outside it in any way.

And the way that science got there is through basically realizing that human beings are not that smart. We’re not perfectly logical; we as human beings are subject to all sorts of biases and cognitive shortcomings. We tend to be wishful thinkers and to see patterns where they’re not there, and so forth. And in response to this science developed techniques for giving ourselves reality checks, for not letting us believe things that the evidence does not stand up to.

One technique is simply skepticism, which you may have heard of. Scientists are taught that we should be our own theories’ harshest critics. Scientists spend all their time trying to disprove all their favorite ideas. It is a remarkable way of doing things; it’s a little bit counter-intuitive, but helps us resist the lure of wishful thinking.

The other technique is empiricism. We realize that we are not smart enough to get true knowledge about the world just by thinking about it. We have to go out there and look at the world. And what we’ve done by this for the last 400 years is realize that human beings are not separate, that the world is one thing, the natural world, and it can be understood.

This is very counter-intuitive; it is not at all obvious, this naturalism claim. When you talk to a person, they have thoughts and feelings and responses. When you talk to a dead person, a corpse — hate to be morbid here — but, you don’t get those same responses, those same thoughts and feelings. It’s very natural, very common-sensical to think that a living person possesses something that a corpse does not. Some sort of spirit, some sort of animating soul or life force.

But this idea as it turns out does not stand up to closer scrutiny. You are made of atoms. You’re made of cells which are made of molecules which are made of atoms, and as physicists, we know how atoms behave. The laws of physics governing atoms are completely understood. If you put an atom in a certain set of circumstances and you tell me what those circumstances are, as a physicist, I will tell you what the atom will do.

If you believe that the atoms in your brain and your body act differently because they are in a living person than if they’re in a rock or a crystal, then what you’re saying is that the laws of physics are wrong. That they need to be altered because of the influence of a spirit or a soul or something like that.

That may be true — science can’t disprove that — but there is no evidence for it. And you get a much stronger explanatory framework by assuming that it’s just atoms obeying the laws of physics. That kind of reasoning is a big step toward naturalism.

The argument is finished; the debate is over. We’ve come to a conclusion. Naturalism has won. If you go to any university physics department, listen to the talks they give or the papers that they write, go to any biology department, go to any neuroscience department, any philosophy department, people whose professional job it is to explain the world and come up with explanatory frameworks that match what we see — no one mentions God. There’s never an appeal to a supernatural realm by people whose job it is to explain what happens in the world; everyone knows that the naturalist explanations are the ones that work.

And yet — here we are. We’re having a debate. Why are we having a debate? Because, clearly, religion speaks to people for reasons other than explaining what happens in the world…. People turn to religious belief because it provides them with purpose and meaning in their lives, with a sense of right and wrong, with a community, with hope.

So if you want to say that science has refuted religion, you need to say that science has something to say about those issues. And on that I have good news and bad news for you.

The bad news is that the universe does not care about you. The universe is made of elementary particles that don’t have intelligence, don’t pass judgment, do not have a sense of right and wrong. And the fear is, the existential anxiety is, that if that purpose and meaningfulness is not given to me by the universe, then it cannot exist.

The good news is that that fear is a mistake. That there’s another option. We create purpose and meaning in the world. If you love somebody, it is not because that love is put into you by something outside; it is because you created that from inside yourself. If you act good to somebody, it’s not because you’re given instructions to do so, it’s that’s the choice that you made.

This is a very scary world. You should be affected at a very deep level by the thought that the universe doesn’t care, does not pass judgment on you. But it’s also challenging and liberating that we can create lives that are worth living.

I’ve never met God; I’ve never met any spirits or angels. But I’ve met human beings, and many of them are amazing people. And I truly believe that if we accept the universe for what it is, if we approach reality with an open mind and an open heart, that we can create lives that are very much worth living.

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