Blinkered Reality

Sean Carroll is a physicist who sometimes dabbles uncomprehendingly in philosophy, as in his entrée into the New Atheist genre, The Big Picture. In it, Carroll repeatedly and exasperatingly assumes his conclusion (there is no supernatural reality, therefore there is no supernatural reality), adopts a materialism-of-the-gaps outlook (any gap in our understanding of physical things will eventually be filled with a purely naturalist explanation), and has the tail wagging the dog (naturalism explains all of reality, so an inquiry into what constitutes reality leads us to – surprise – naturalism).

Or maybe these are all just the same thing; different ways of describing the completely circular logic Carroll and other New Atheist writers relentlessly employ.  One thing Carroll does better than, say, Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, is adopt a reasonable tone in his writing style. After reading a passage, it takes a moment for the circularity of his reasoning to kick in, like stepping partway into the kitchen and having a delay before the screen door hits you in the butt. He’s probably a brilliant physicist, but he should stick to his day job.

Carroll blogs, from time to time.  Usually his posts are about physics. Sometimes he reaches outside his area of competence, as in his post Why is There Something Rather than Nothing?  He at turns distinguishes, and then conflates, the words “how” and “why,” in service to his conclusion that we shouldn’t be asking these questions, and the answer anyway is going to be that physical reality is all there is, so shut up and reject God already.

In his post and in his book, Carroll is purportedly talking about reality, but then asserts or assumes that reality is only physical. This is an instance either of fraud or sloppy thinking. It’s fraud if he knows perfectly well he’s monkeying with definitions to eliminate the competing point of view before the race is run. It’s sloppy thinking if he doesn’t realize that reality should be the largest all-inclusive word, so if he’s wrong and God exists, then reality includes the supernatural, and not just the natural, as Carroll believes. Repeatedly, he uses the word “reality” expecting you the reader to accept by definition that it is comprised only of physical reality.

That is just one example of corrupted New Atheist thinking. Here’s another. Carroll tells us “The right question to ask isn’t ‘Why did this happen?’, but ‘Could this have happened in accordance with the laws of physics?'” Why is he telling us to abandon our question and ask another that comports with his materialism-of-the-gaps worldview? Doesn’t this give the game away? It’s a legitimate question: why is there something rather than nothing? Carroll takes up the question only to tell us to stop asking it.  And get off his lawn.

Even if the question is shifted from “why” to “how,” a questionin seemingly appropriate for a cosmologist, we’re told to go stand in the corner and stop all the questioning. Carroll’s answer is that all of “reality,” (by which he means all physical things, remember, not actual reality), is the effect of a prior cause, and that cause was the effect of a prior cause, which would seem to rather obviously mean that we could in theory trace this chain back link by link to its beginning: a first cause that was not itself caused. That first uncaused cause is logically necessary, because all the other links necessarily follow. But hold on there, cowboy, not so fast. “Nothing exists necessarily,” Carroll says, with no further explanation.

Carroll further invites us to stop asking the obvious question because ultimately we’re just going to be stuck with the fact that that’s just the way it is, and there can be no explanation:

any attempt to account for the existence of something rather than nothing must ultimately bottom out in a set of brute facts; the universe simply is, without ultimate cause or explanation. 

If we’re to see the universe as a vastly complicated system of causes and effects, why aren’t we allowed to ask what the first cause was, if there is no God? Why are we not allowed to ask how it could be that there was nothing, and then there was something? It seems like a pretty reasonable question to ask of atheists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *