In a somewhat unusual break with tradition, this series of Gifford Lectures from physicist Sean Carroll takes the form of a popular science book. Given the Gifford tradition of eminent scientists, there have been few who have given the lectures from such an explicit view of popularising science. (Carroll had written the book just before receiving the invite from the Gifford Committee, somewhat explaining his choice of topic). The aim of the book is twofold and hugely ambitious, trying to communicate an understanding of quantum theory (avoiding mathematics for the most part) whilst still arguing for things such as morality, aesthetics and imaginative experience. Such things might not seem compatible with the sparse ontology that he proposes, but Carroll’s argument is both thought-provoking and accessible. Beginning from what he terms ‘poetic naturalism’, he makes the argument for materialism, but he is in no way an eliminationist. Whilst certain ideas may not contain truth content, strictly speaking, that does not mean they contain no use or value. Beginning with thermodynamics and the movement of time, Carroll goes on to discuss time, memory and doubt, before settling on a philosophical realism to the external world. The latter half of the book is devoted to many of the philosophical implications of the earlier discussions of physics – after all, if humanity is ‘ephemeral patterns of complexity, riding a wave of increasing entropy from simple beginnings to a simple end,’ (236) where does this leave theories of mind and, perhaps even more pressingly, ethics in general? Life, especially in complex forms, becomes the natural end result of the processes outlined in the earlier section, illustrated with frequent analogies (Carroll seems particularly fond of adding cream to his coffee) as well as reference to physics and cellular biology.
Yet, the deterministic naturalism raises questions of contingency (addressed by way of reference to fine tuning arguments in favour of theism). Carroll finds theism ultimately unconvincing as it’s conclusions about the world no longer seem compatible with the observations of the world from scientists. (I can’t help but think the theological climate that Carroll has experienced makes this claim what it is.) The final section of the book is also excellent covering consciousness, proto-consciousness (in a way that seems close to panpsychism) before concluding with a discussion of morality and ethics. Here, after establishing the universe as deterministic and without transcendence, Carroll offers “Ten Considerations” – these are perhaps the weakest section of the book, dangerously close to banal platitudes. This is not a surprise given the market for the book, but given Carroll’s sophistication and the depth of argument contained in much else of the volume, the challenge of the ethical implications of what he claims could have been followed through with a little more force.