Dutton (May 10, 2016)
Among the scientific disciplines, physics is unique: Concerned with the most fundamental entities, its laws must be respected in all other areas of science. While there are many emergent laws which are interesting in their own right – from neurobiology to sociology – there is no doubt they all have to be compatible with energy conservation. And the second law of thermodynamics. And quantum mechanics. And the standard model better be consistent with whatever you think are the neurological processes that make you “you.” There’s no avoiding physics.In his new book, The Big Picture Sean explains just why you can’t ignore physics when you talk about extrasensory perception, consciousness, god, afterlife, free will, or morals. In the first part, Sean lays out what, to our best current knowledge, the fundamental laws of nature are, and what their relevance is for all other emergent laws. In the later parts he then goes through the consequences that follow from this.
On the way from quantum field theory to morals, he covers what science has to say about complexity, the arrow of time, and the origin of life. (If you attended the 2011 FQXi conference, parts will sound very familiar.) Then, towards the end of the book, he derives advice from his physics-based philosophy – which he calls “poetic naturalism” – for finding “meaning” in life and finding a “good” way to organize our living together (scare quotes because these words might not mean what you think they mean). His arguments rely heavily on Bayesian reasoning, so you better be prepared to update your belief system while reading.
The Big Picture is, above everything, a courageous book – and an overdue one. I have had many arguments about exactly the issues that Sean addresses in his book – from “qualia” to “downwards causation” – but I neither have the patience nor the interest to talk people out of their cherished delusions. I’m an atheist primarily because I think religion would be wasting my time, time that I’d rather spend on something more insightful. Trying to convince people that their beliefs are inconsistent would also be wasting my time, hence I don’t. But if I did, I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to remain as infallibly polite as Sean.
So, I am super happy about this book. Because now, whenever someone brings up Mary The Confused Color Scientist who can’t tell sensory perception from knowledge about that perception, I’ll just – politely – tell them to read Sean’s book. The best thing I learned from The Big Picture is that apparently Franck Jackson, the philosopher who came up with The Color Scientist, eventually conceded himself that the argument was wrong. The world of philosophy indeed sometimes moves! Time then, to stop talking about qualia.
I really wish I had found something to disagree with in Sean’s book, but the only quibble I have (you won’t be surprised to hear) is that I think what Sean-The-Compatibilist calls “free will” doesn’t deserve being called “free will.” Using the adjective “free” strongly suggests an independence from the underlying microscopic laws, and hence a case of “strong emergence” – which is an idea that should go into the same bin as qualia. I also agree with Sean however that fighting about the use of words is moot.
(The other thing I’m happy about is that, leaving aside the standard model and general relativity, Sean’s book has almost zero overlap with the book I’m writing. *wipes_sweat_off_forehead*. Could you all please stop writing books until I’m done, it makes me nervous.)
In any case, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I agree so wholeheartedly with Sean because I think everybody who open-mindedly looks at the evidence – ie all we currently know about the laws of nature – must come to the same conclusions. The main obstacle in conveying this message is that most people without training in particle physics don’t understand effective field theory, and consequently don’t see what this implies for the emergence of higher level laws. Sean does a great job overcoming this obstacle.
I wish I could make myself believe that after the publication of Sean’s book I’ll never again have to endure someone insisting there must be something about their experience that can’t be described by a handful of elementary particles. But I’m not very good at making myself believe in exceedingly unlikely scenarios, whether that’s the existence of an omniscient god or the ability of humans to agree on how unlikely this existence is. At the very least however, The Big Picture should make clear that physicists aren’t just arrogant when they say their work reveals insights that reach far beyond the boundaries of their discipline. Physics indeed has an exceptional status among the sciences.
[Disclaimer: Free review copy.]