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“Poetic Naturalism” as a Religion

poetic naturalism

Paul Nelson reviews the recent book The Big Picture, by physicist Sean Carroll, in Dr. Nelson’s characteristically charming and insightful way. Nelson writes in the Christian Research Journal. You’ll need to subscribe (and you should) to read the whole thing.

This we did not know: Dr. Carroll’s “poetic naturalism” is avowedly a religious stance, albeit an atheistic one.

Sean Carroll is hard to dislike. A theoretical physicist at Caltech with a winning persona who contributes to the public understanding of physics and cosmology through his lectures, blogs, and popular books, Carroll gives a humane and kindly face to abstruse science. He also gives a friendly face to naturalism, which is not science, of course, but the ancient philosophical worldview that physical nature – the particles, fields, and the void – constitutes ultimate reality. No gods, no spirits, nothing transcendent. Carroll tucks the adjective “poetic” in front of “naturalism,” a naming strategy of more than passing significance, especially because, if you are so inclined, you can declare “poetic naturalism” on Facebook as your religion.

Seriously: Carroll himself announces this “poetic naturalism as religion” Facebook option on his webpage, without a trace of irony. If we think of religion as the sphere of one’s deepest values – i.e., those bedrock truths and commitments for which we would willingly offer ourselves, and by which we try to order our daily lives – then it is clear that “poetic naturalism” means far more to Carroll than a clever atheistic philosophy with debating tricks to throw naïve theists off-balance. He intends for poetic naturalism to provide a trustworthy guide for living, and his most recent book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself,…is a six-part, 467-page treatise to that end, complete with “Ten Considerations” to replace the traditional Ten Commandments.

What exactly does the descriptor “poetic” mean in this context?

“Poetic” is tucked in front of “naturalism” as a modifier to remind us “that there is more than one way of talking about the world” (4). But don’t kid yourself, Carroll would add – gently, but with total conviction – that our different ways of talking correspond to reality. Ultimate reality is physics, and only physics.

From one critical perspective, we could say that “poetic” is thus pastel-colored bubble wrap surrounding the icy and brutal truth of naturalism. Eventually the bubble wrap must come off, as it did for Matthew Arnold in the last stanza of his heartbreaking poem “Dover Beach” (1867)…

Richard Dawkins strips away the Victorian elegance of Arnold’s poem while keeping its bleak message. “The universe we observe,” he writes, “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

Which of course is simply chilling. You can call it “poetic” if you want.

Photo: Dover Beach, facing the English Channel, by Jennifer Boyer via Flickr.